Push the boat out (FFS)

Catch-up: early 2017 I’d bought a boat in Martinique where I worked, left it in Guadeloupe for hurricane season with a friend, become trapped there without a working engine, had faced 2 major hurricanes, had floundered around needing help from everyone, and eventually escaped my marina prison to finally get to a place where I could haul her out and do the work I needed to get back to Martinique. After ill-advisedly recruiting my delivery crew using Tinder, a slightly traumatic passage had me arriving in my new home, ready to start my new life.

December 2017

After the disasters and misery of Guadeloupe, I finally started to settle into my new life aboard Annie B at Pointe du Bout and was feeling pretty positive about everything. It was a tiny hot marina with little ventilation to discourage the mosquitoes, but it was argued to be the most protected from hurricanes in Martinique. It was packed full of rotting abandoned boats, a load of day trippers large and small, and a tiny community of liveaboards. I was very lucky to get in – usually it’s fully booked, with no spaces for new long-term residents. My nearest neighbours were a couple in their 70s who had sailed in 45 years ago en route to the Pacific, but had stayed and raised a family instead. They didn’t believe in being registered in the The System so he still had to work: setting up his stall on the pontoon every day and doing stainless steel projects for clients. He didn’t believe I could speak French or do boat work, so would cheerfully practise his English on me and insist on helping me with projects (when his wife wasn’t looking). It was frustrating, but he was good company and a good friend.

The shower block was around the other side of the marina, so each morning I would have to run the gauntlet of excursion promoters waving flyers at me, until they learnt that I lived there and started hitting on me instead. The only water available was cold, but it was unlimited and there was a lockable door (so relatively luxurious). I worked at my schools four days a week and if I wasn’t working I’d go to swim at the paradise postcard beach round the corner, prepare classes or drink rum with my friends. Life was so relaxed and, well, nice, that I was getting too comfortable. I started to feel guilty that I was essentially living a normal land life on my boat, and wasn’t doing any actual sailing or progressing in my boat work projects. But going out sailing wasn’t that simple. Like I say, it was a very small marina and it hadn’t been easy manoeuvring into the space. I had no idea how I would get out again. And I still hadn’t solved the problem of my non-existent DIY skills.

Enter a new French boyfriend and the Swedish Boat Mafia (this is a pun on music act Swedish House Mafia, in case you didn’t get it Mum). The boyfriend worked as a pharmacist but what he really wanted to do was woodwork, especially on boats. In fact he later admitted that this was his main interest in me… my boat. Whilst my nickname for him was The Pharmacist, apparently he referred to me as ‘La petite anglaise sur son bateau’ – clearly summing up all my defining characteristics and all any French guy needs to know about me. Really, when you have a boat you don’t even need to try in the dating game. You just become a checklist of desirable attributes and your actual personality is quite irrelevant.

The upside of this situation was that The Pharmacist was very keen on advancing my boat DIY to-do list, and wanted us to go sailing. But I didn’t feel ready for the sailing part. I needed to be able to get out of my berth and back in again first. After all I was surrounded by all these expensive (ok, many were abandoned floating junk) boats that I really didn’t want to damage, and my inexperience manoeuvring in tight quarters didn’t give me any confidence.

I went to Marin to visit the Swedish Boat Mafia (a group of charming older Swedish men who had adopted me due to my friendship with Captain Shiraz – he who I’d met the day I bought Annie B). They said that if I came and picked them up they’d give me some parking lessons. So there we were, reversing round a (marina) corner, trying to go slowly enough not to cause any damage, but quickly enough to maintain manoeuvrability. It was terrifying to start with, but they made me do it three or four times and eventually when I felt like I was getting the hang of it, we went to the bay round the corner and did some anchoring for good measure. It was an exhausting day, but afterwards I felt like I could go out with a novice crew unsupervised, and was one step further towards actually sailing my boat unaided.

Then they started talking about Christmas. Apparently all of Sweden (the Caribbean wing thereof) descends en masse to Bequia further south in the Grenadines to do a proper Swedish Christmas. I was invited. Captain Imagine was going and Captain Shiraz was going to be there. It would be a festive mini-adventure and excellent for some sailing practise. How could I say no? I had no lobster BBQ on the beach invitations this year. The Pharmacist didn’t look particularly pleased about the plan, but he was working over the whole festive period so had no say. Imagine would take me there, and Shiraz could bring me back before his next charter. It was going to be great.

As we motored out of Sainte Anne a week or so later, Captain Imagine got the sails up, set a course and casually flicked on the autopilot. What was this witchcraft? We could just chill and drink a beer? Is this what sailing was like for other people? So far all my experiences had revolved around exchanging endless hours at the helm.

Bequia was another world: the bay at Port Elizabeth was packed (despite the Christmas Winds that trouble the anchorage at that time of year) and a good 50% of the boats there bore enormous Swedish flags. They do like to show off their national pride. The only boats I’ve seen with larger flags are the Danes. Anyway by the time Shiraz arrived a few days later, Captain Imagine and I were bickering like an old couple (he was nearing 70 so realistic on his part) and I was happy to jump ship once we’d helped anchor. Shiraz was a 75ft beast and the captain had just singlehanded her from Grenada a few hundred miles away. Without autopilot, it turned out. No wonder he was knackered.

We booked a table for Christmas Eve at one of the two bars on the island offering a traditional Swedish party, and the place was packed out. Some already knew each other from previous years, others had just arrived from the big crossing from Europe with the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). Everyone had stories, and everyone wanted to chat to everyone else. There was a boat of seven young lads who were Pacific-bound, looking like a boy band. I reckoned if you wanted to order a Swedish boy from a catalogue, this was the selection you’d be given. All slightly different, but variations on a similar theme. The Catalogue Boys charmed everyone, and with the older folks they gave us an evening of raucous Swedish drinking songs. There were games, presents (mostly lumps of coal – Swedes are weird), great food and lots of booze. I don’t know how we made it back to the boats in one piece, or how we made it to visit a friend I’d met once in Scotland the next day. She was on a grand expedition with her husband and kids (also heading for the Pacific), and they had also fallen in love with the Swedes. I couldn’t admire enough the bravery of taking three kids out of school to live in a small space on a catamaran for over a year. We didn’t really know each other beforehand, but I ended up spending a fair amount of time with them that season – Team La Cigale, I love you.

Since it was Christmas Day the party wasn’t over for the anglophones, so we gatecrashed a classic American potluck Christmas lunch at another local bar. We hadn’t brought anything and didn’t know anyone there, but cruisers are a special breed of people. They welcome everyone and always have an interesting story to tell. They also love to party. This was my first real experience of the cruiser’s lifestyle – a world away from the piratey French liveaboards snorting cocaine in the marinas in Guadeloupe and Pointe du Bout. These guys were actually going to places. It got me itching to take Annie B out and join the club. I just needed the confidence and experience to get out of my hole and go sailing.

On Boxing Day Captains Imagine and Shiraz took me to Immigration to hand me over from one boat to the other, and that night we left for Martinique. Captain S prefers sailing at night, but this time it came with a complication – no autopilot. It was going to be an exhausting night and we still hadn’t really recovered from all the Christmas partying. We settled into the passage. It started well and I took the helm for the first shift steering. It was rough and sometimes scary, with winds up to 30kts and the boat rocking and diving all over the place. He gallantly let me have the lion’s share of the sleep, but by dawn I had the helm again. Later that morning as we crossed the channel between St Lucia and Martinique, Captain S woke me to say there was something in the water – a drifting dinghy. It must have come loose from a travelling or anchored boat, we assumed. We turned to capture it and found it was complete with motor and man sized flipflops, like someone had taken it out to drown themselves. A morbid thought and after that we referred to the dead man’s shoes in ill-fated jest. Captain S was dedicated to finding the owner, but at the time it seemed like a gift from the sea. Like the gods knew the misfortunes creeping up on the horizon, and that he’d soon be in need of a cash-injection (and this isn’t even taking into consideration that the night had ripped a sail to shreds).

Arriving in Marin at first seemed nothing more than a bit stressful due to it being so crowded and us being so large (and the crew severely sleep-deprived). But as we anchored I seemed incapable of operating the windlass (that useful bit of equipment that hauls the anchor up and down for you) in a way that would let us hook in securely. Things got tense as we found ourselves on the fifth attempt at anchoring in the same spot. I was banished to the helm before it became clear that we were dragging. Captain S went to haul up the anchor yet again, but disaster – the windlass was, in fact, broken. And now nothing would make it turn at all. (This is not an anchor you can haul up by hand, incidentally – not at that size.) We were, to put it bluntly, somewhat fucked. We were a huge yacht drifting dangerously towards reefs and a busy shipping channel. And we were so tired. VHF calls for help didn’t yield any response from the coastguard and the harbourmaster didn’t want to know. In the meantime Captain S was having to work constantly with engine and bow thrusters to keep us out of the channel.

After what felt like hours on the VHF, the Police showed up in a RIB and sent us some local fishermen to help, who immediately boarded and made lots of ill-advised decisions Captain S didn’t agree with and was powerless to stop. One guy nearly broke the steering cables doing something stupid and I thought – maybe we should just let nature take its course and wreck ourselves on the reef so he could claim insurance and put an end to the misery. Too quickly a decision was made and before anyone could stop them, the fishermen had jettisoned the anchor, along with all its chain. Though they’d attached a giant fender as a marker, it sank along with the chain with a depressing plop. I forget the weight of it all – something like 40kg or 60kg for the anchor and 600ft of thick chain. At any rate it was a lot of very heavy and expensive metal that had just sunk to the sea bed, and of course our ‘rescuers’ were going to demand a big fat payment for instigating the loss. Captain S hit a GPS marker to give us a fighting chance of finding it all again and we were helped onto a mooring buoy.

The fishermen had proposed to free-dive to reclaim the anchor, but of course in all the mud and mirk of the busy channel it was invisible, nor could they dive deep enough. Captain S seemed about ready to end himself and I spent a day calling round the local dive schools to see if there was anyone who could help. I was nearing the end of my options when one said they would help ‘exceptionellement’ (which meant they were doing us a Big favour), but although we had so much hope for the expedition, all they found were genuine archaeological artefacts buried in the mud. Shiraz was forced to leave for her next charter with nothing but the backup anchor (which was also nearly lost, incidentally).

In the meantime, The Pharmacist turned out to be jealous of my Christmas adventure (or something) and promptly broke up with me. No matter, he still seemed to want to finish my outstanding DIY jobs with me and go sailing. So it was win-win really. He was quite pushy about taking Annie B out. I suppose he’d built up a vested interest, and his frustration at my reluctance to leave the comfort of the marina was obvious. This was definitely for my own good. He turned up one Saturday morning on a day that was due to be horrible and rainy and we prepped the boat. Emotionally I didn’t feel ready, but the day before he’d forced me to tidy up a bit inside and declared that I didn’t deserve to have a boat because I was too messy. There were no more excuses, it was time. I gave a thorough safety and departure briefing, studied the map, then fired the engine up. Phew, it still worked. My neighbour came to wave us off, probably relieved that I was being properly supervised by a Man. I inched us forward, The Pharmacist in the bow under strict orders to immediately leap to the defence of the other boats and push them out of the way if we got too close. To make things more complicated, I decided to practise turning and coming back in again before we actually left, just to be sure I could still do it. Then we were gently chugging out of the port, The Pharmacist dutifully recuperating the fenders and my face a mask of extreme concentration. This was it, my first outing as skipper, with a crew that knew even less about sailing than I did.

We were mostly motoring on this trip, and the biggest battle was to stop The Pharmacist trying to take over. It rained, and was a bit cold and miserable (as far as the Caribbean can be), but after we’d arrived at a bay along the coast and anchored successfully, the sun peeked out and we were amongst the cruisers and the holiday vibe. It wasn’t a big voyage, but for me it was historic and gave me the push I needed to be the captain of my own boat and to make my first tentative steps into this world I’d dreamed about – the world of the cruiser lifestyle. Despite his controlling attitude towards my boat I was very grateful to The Pharmacist for giving me this much-needed shove.

A few weeks later Captain Shiraz returned to the island and gave me some sailing lessons on Anne Bonny for my birthday. He also brought news that the divers were going to have another go at looking for his anchor. He’d scoured the region for a replacement, but nowhere stocked one in his size. The downside of having an enormous vessel. I kept my fingers crossed but I didn’t want him to get his hopes too high for this new anchor rescue. They’d searched so hard before and the seabed around there was so unreadable. The call came that they thought they’d seen something, and we could hardly believe it. It wasn’t where they’d been looking originally at all, and by chance… Anyway, a couple of days later we were out in the channel in the dive boat with the owner of the company and his divers looking quietly confident. ‘We’ll just haul it up, ticktickticktick’ he declared. As if it could really be that simple..? They had all these floats, and a plan, and a vague idea of how to do it. It was exciting.

It felt like the divers were out in the water for hours, while we stayed aboard biting our nails. Suddenly there was commotion and waving from the water and Captain S sped over in the dinghy to check it out. They were fighting to haul up what looked like a segment of chain. They actually had it. We headed over in the dive boat and three or four strong men struggled to heave the chain aboard bit by bit, the elusive anchor following like a treasure from the depths. ‘Ticktickticktick, eh?’ Captain S slapped the dive school boss on the back. To say we were elated would be a profound understatement, and the dinghy felt like it would sink under the weight of it all as we shipped it back to Shiraz. We joked that maybe it was overkill for tender tackle.

Despite searching, Captain S had never managed to find the owner of the dead man’s shoes or his dinghy. In the end it did turn out to be a good luck token from the sea, although I don’t think he tried to sell it (I would have done). I even spotted one of his guests wandering around in the flipflops, which seemed like a big red flag waved in front of Fate. Anyway. The Pharmacist lingered in my life a little bit longer, apparently feeling responsible for my boat projects. One day we decided to get the dinghy in the water with the idea that my maiden voyage in charge of my own boat wouldn’t be a one-off. He tinkered with the outboard himself because (in his words) ‘you don’t know shit about engines’. I protested that I thought the problem was… oh right, no, he was going to do it. Half an hour later he gave up and declared the outboard Broken. I went to the shop a few days later, bought the spare part I was sure needed changing, cleaned out the carburettor, fiddled about, and got the engine working (during siesta time because otherwise my neighbour would come and do it for me). I was pleased with myself, and realised time was up for The Pharmacist’s involvement with Anne Bonny. It was clear he saw me as a useless person who couldn’t do her own boat work and needed to be helped out all the time. This had been true in Guadeloupe, but I didn’t want this to be me now. I was ready to start taking control of my projects. He did, however, manage to invent the role of ‘Cabin boy’ aboard, one to which I would have a ready supply of recruits. This was much better than ‘I’m going to come and skipper your boat for you while you watch’, or the more paternalistic mentor role. While mentors were beyond helpful for teaching me, the ‘cabin boy’ approach let me have a man on board if I wanted to, but with power balance I needed to allow me to learn to take command.

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