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, living a new life of lying around on beaches, drinking rum and occasionally going to work. After a bit of a push, I finally got it together to start taking command of the Anne Bonny myself instead of inviting experienced sailors along to show me how.
I think it’s about time we remembered who Anne Bonny was and why I’d named my boat after a notorious female pirate. Because of the nature of hashtag boatlife, most of my sailing-themed encounters up until this point were with men. Good old Annie, however, was quite badass for a woman of her time and got down and dirty with all the murdering and the plundering that’s expected of oceanic robbery. And she wasn’t the only woman on the team, she also had Mary Read. Both dressed as men on Calico Jack Rackham’s pirate crew and they were reputed (according to reliable sources like Wikipedia) to be kinda better than the guys at pirating. While Anne was there thanks to her partner Calico Jack, Mary had spent most of her life dressed as a bloke and made it into the profession in her own right. Anne didn’t even realise she was a woman until she felt it necessary to break the sexual tension between them. Or so the stories go. At any rate Anne’s name was there to serve as a reminder to me that women on the sea were a force to be reckoned with, and luckily I had my own Mary Read up to the challenge of joining me (as well as a few other awesome ladies along the way).
For a while Captain S had been encouraging me to progress with my sorties bateau. He’d given me those lessons for my birthday and he reckoned I was ready. He thought the best thing for me to do was to take the boat out on my own and just mess around. But I didn’t think I was quite there yet, and neither did anyone else. My neighbour mostly raised his eyebrows in amusement and The Pharmacist hadn’t been very encouraging about my competence, despite our previous trip being fairly untraumatic. I remember my friend’s husband openly snorting about the idea of me sailing my boat – Charlotte? She has a boat? Does she know how to sail it? We all know what my experience was at that point (see previous blog entries), but who was he to assume I didn’t know what I was doing? If I was a guy I bet he wouldn’t have even thought to make that comment. But anyway. At that time we were going through quite a windy period, and so I kept finding excuses not to go out.
Despite this, I made a tentative plan with a friend to go for a sail. When the day came however she dropped out and laziness and fear made me chicken out completely. I wasn’t ready to try taking Annie B out of the marina on my own. Instead I met up with Gringo Ben (who starred in a previous post featuring his survival tactics during Hurricane Irma) and took him to a friend’s birthday party on the beach at Diamant. He’d been around the area a long time and told me about a woman he’d boat buddied with for a while. She’d been in a similar position to me when she’d started out – a previous boyfriend hadn’t believed she could amount to much in the world of boats, and she’d used it as motivation to buy her own and just do it. She now sailed solo and was pretty competent about it. They’d visited all sorts of places together and had some had some cool adventures. I still didn’t know much about the other islands, but the more stories he told me, the more I knew I just had to get out there. Later Ben took me salvaging at the marina bins and I formulated a whole load of realistic-seeming plans to improve the boat. Things I knew I could do myself, or at least learn to do. This was the first time I started thinking seriously about taking some time off work to go on an extended cruise, on my own no less. But I needed to start getting myself ready for that sort of thing. I needed practise, which meant regular excursions out of the marina.
I had two American friends who were prepared to put their lives in my hands – let’s call them Mary Read and Grace O’Malley. We made another plan, and this time we found a Saturday and made it happen. Mary’s boyfriend was a local fisherman and along with Mary, he’d been one of the first people I’d met when I arrived in Martinique back in 2016. He was keen to teach us all to spearfish (Mary went fishing with him any time she wasn’t working, and was already a pro) so he came too. Apart from the weekend with The Pharmacist, I hadn’t taken non-sailors out on the boat before, so I was really nervous about it. I gave them all strict instructions for the departure and was extremely tense as we inched away from the dock. Having so many inexperienced crew on the boat was really stressful – they didn’t know where to put themselves and I wasn’t sure how to manage them so I wasn’t doing it all by myself (and so they didn’t fall overboard when I wasn’t looking). They were patient with me though (despite being really excited about the outing) and I managed to delegate jobs calmly and relatively clearly. I was nervous about being over-powered in so much wind (it was still gusty out), so we decided to take it easy, one sail at a time. We had a short trip across to the other side of the bay where I knew there was a good anchorage, and managed to anchor fairly successfully.
Once we’d arrived the girls mobilised themselves to help me clean the hull (always got to keep on top of that one) and the Fisherman went out with a speargun to look for lunch. We were all sunbathing when he eventually returned empty-handed, so Mary took my smaller gun to try her luck, and he tried to teach me how to fire the big one. I couldn’t even find the strength to arm it in the water and couldn’t see how I’d ever manage it, but I knew this was something I wanted to be able to do. Mary came back triumphantly waving the spear around: there was a little lionfish skewered on the end. Lionfish are invasive and are destroying the coral so we had no guilt about killing such a small one. They’re extremely venomous, but the Fisherman showed us how to snip off the spines and prepare it to make it safe. He whipped up the most delicious tiny morsel of ceviche while Mary complained about how crap and rusty my gun was. She’d fired it at the fish and it had literally bounced off its body. But lionfish are so cocky it had just glanced at the bolt and ignored it, unperturbed. She’d swum right up to it and stabbed it with the loose spear.
On the way back I relaxed enough to give the helm to Grace, and admired my bateau as she cut through the water. Getting back into the berth was a headache – I gave the crew their instructions to be ready on each side to push us away from other boats if we got too near, and demanded ‘OK just shut up now, nobody talk to me’. I was distracted trying to give the Fisherman his instructions and completely messed the manoeuvre up. The crew got nervous as I went out and back in again for a second go. It was only once we’d chaotically moored that I realised we’d trailed a fishing line through the whole marina as we came in. We were very lucky we hadn’t got it caught in anything, not least my propeller. Bad form, skipper. And you need to work on your communication with the crew.
The next weekend I thought I might feel brave enough to try a solo trip, but Grace and Mary (clearly not put off by our last adventure) wanted a proper girl’s outing this time. There wasn’t much wind so I told them I was going to practise single-handing with them on board. All they needed to do was push the boats out of the way in the marina, then just chill with their beers. I took it slowly, using both sails at once this time and making sure I had time to run from the helm and back when hoisting sails and the anchoring manoeuvre. It was far from perfect, but the girls were happy and relaxed, and that gave me the encouragement I needed. We chilled out in the shelter of a small island, snorkelling and fishing. It was so satisfying to be able to take my friends out sailing for the day, and they said I was a good, calm skipper (I’m going to be optimistic and assume they weren’t just placating me so I’d let them off the boat alive).
I don’t remember how the idea came up, but all of a sudden Mary and I were throwing around the idea of going to St Lucia for the Easter weekend. She had the time off, and I had a boat. If she hadn’t been demanding it I might not have had the drive to go; I was still feeling a bit timid. St Lucia was another country and the channel has a reputation for being rough. But now that the plan was in the air, I was pumped for it and I knew I could trust Mary to keep a calm head. My neighbour twiddled his imaginary beard and wanted to be reassured that I was taking experienced crew. I pointed out that I had a Man. The Fisherman was keen to join us, and though he couldn’t sail he was a confirmed Man of the Ocean. The wind was due to be light and it wasn’t really all that far – a seven hour sail from where we were. It would be a breeze (pun intended). The idea that just across there was another country, and I could go there without public transport, was very exciting. We were doing it.
Mary was late in arriving on departure day and I had everything pretty much ready when she tipped up laden with sunglasses and baguettes. She was noticeably down one Fisherman, and looked a bit stressed and guilty. He’s not coming, she told me. Actually, not stressed and guilty, fuming. He didn’t have a passport, but we’d found that the Martiniquais just needed their ID cards to go to St Lucia so what was the problem? His ID card had expired a while back and he hadn’t got round to renewing it. That boy really didn’t leave the island ever. I was mildly crestfallen as I’d been relying on the idea of doing it as 3, and I didn’t like my plans to change at the last minute. But actually, upon reflection, this would be fine. Better, even. It would be a real girl’s trip (and three in my boat was a squeeze at the best of times). Taking the Fisherman along anyway without functioning ID would come with risks of people trafficking accusations that I didn’t want to have to take responsibility for. Anyway with Mary it was going to be a blast. She proved to be a fantastic sailing partner: fun, fearless, easy-going and good at taking instructions.
We got ourselves out of the marina, hoisted the mainsail and were off. I’d checked the chart and route thoroughly in advance, but St Lucia really shouldn’t be hard to find. We were just going to Rodney Bay across the other side. It was a matter of leaving the Bay of Fort-de-France, heading towards les Anses d’Arlet and turning right at approximately the level of le Rocher du Diamant and pointing at the island we should already be able to see by that point. Our navigation technique wasn’t much more sophisticated than that.
Once we were out in the open channel things felt a bit more real. The land started to fall away behind us and the waves buffeted steadily from one side, as did the wind. Mary looked concerned for a while as we heeled suddenly, but then we were away and in the swing of things. I fiddled around trimming the sails for the angle of the wind, using the steady direction and strength to get to grips with the idea. We had a competition as to who could get us to go the fastest, and I think we made it to 7kts at one point, which was like lightning by my bateau’s standards. We chatted, ate, listened to music, got sunburnt. It was all pretty nice until it started to seem like the voyage was taking longer than planned, and where were we actually? I checked the Navionics chart on the tablet. We were way off course, which served us right for not being more careful with the navigation. We seemed to be trying to go to Marigot Bay which was miles further round the coast.
We adjusted our heading and started approaching the task with more focus. Nearer the island things got gustier, squalls threatened and we needed to pay more attention to the sails and where we might be trying to go. Looking at the coast and trying to match it up with what was on the chart wasn’t as straightforward as I assumed. I was used to sailing in a landscape I knew well. Now I needed to get my seamanship act together.
We were tired and grumpy, sunburnt and getting cold with the coming of the evening. After a bit of tacking to get us back towards our destination, we got the engine started and put the sails away. We picked an anchor spot based on its proximity to where all the other boats were parked and did a pretty convincing effort of hooking in. We were maybe unnecessarily close to our neighbours (considering the anchorage wasn’t particularly packed), who came out and did the standard cruisers’ ‘I don’t trust you to do this right’ arms folded long stare. But we didn’t care. We were novice sailors who’d just done our first international sailing mission. We high-fived and Mary dived to check on the anchor. All good. We were officially awesome.
We had a ti punch to celebrate. And maybe a few others. Anyway it wasn’t long before we were kinda wasted and thought it would be a great idea to go ashore and check the bars out. Technically we weren’t allowed to touch land until we’d done our customs and immigration clearance, but we told ourselves we’d be discreet. It was just to get the lay of the land. We wouldn’t go to the marina, just by the little jetty over there. We were anchored opposite the village of Gros Ilet, where’s there’s a regionally infamous street party every Friday night. The only exception was Good Friday, which was tomorrow. Oh well, we’d come for the sailing challenge first and foremost, we could make our own party. The jetty was rotten and difficult to tie up to, not to mention the paranoia of dinghy theft that we’d heard so much about. We were fiddling around trying to make the dinghy as secure as possible, when we were hailed by a crowd of guys. Most of the rest of the evening was a blur, but it involved karaoke and too many different bars. Although we felt badass, we didn’t want to give the impression that we were vulnerable or our bateau unguarded. When asked, we swore blind we’d come with Mary’s boyfriend (a Martiniquais, don’t you know?) and he was ill back aboard. This made much more sense to everyone than us two coming there by ourselves. It felt like a betrayal of our achievement.
The next morning I woke up to find that I’d managed to throw up neatly in some plastic tubs and put them politely outside the hatch on deck. I groaned at what a terrible influence Mary was, and we spent the morning trying to get ourselves lively enough to try and check in. I groaned again as I realised yesterday’s sunburn had donated me a big weeping blister on my lip, and I stank of rum. No amount of sea water shock therapy was going to help. I pulled together a folder of our passports and necessary boat documents and we slid into the dinghy. As I climbed in, a jagged metal strut tore the arse off my ripped half-jeans. Christ. We pushed on – the marina was a 20 minute dinghy ride away past some nice posh houses and into the heartland of beautifully kept yachts. After we’d faffed around tying up, I realised I didn’t have any shoes with me. Great.
So picture us walking into Customs and Immigration, she a 22-year-old Louisianan belle looking amazingly fresh-faced (bitch) and me – visibly at death’s door, unwashed, puss-stained lip, stinking of rum, jeans ripped to shreds, arse hanging out, and no shoes. Captain S had always told me he kept a nice shirt to visit immigration in because smartness matters. This was certainly not the best way to present yourself to the officials of a new country. Too much pirate. All eyebrows were raised as we joined the queue.
I filled in the appropriate forms, feeling like a super cool skipper triumphant after her first successful international voyage. We were subjected to a mini-interrogation at the desk. Who’s the captain? They asked. I raised my hand. I didn’t say ‘this is my first time! Aren’t we awesome?’, but I wanted to. Just you two? The official looked us up and down sceptically.
– By yourselves?
– No men on board?
– You’re not hiding one somewhere? (I didn’t know if he was being serious so I was relieved in that moment that we hadn’t decided to traffic the Fisherman.)
– Just us, I repeated
– Are you sure?
I nodded, a bit frustrated. Someone else behind the desk barely hid a snigger.
– And you’re going back by yourselves? You’re not picking someone up?
– You’ve not got a man to go back with you? No plans to?
– Do you want to take this one?
He jerked a thumb at the young guy at the computer behind him. They all chuckled. We laughed nervously with them.
– Any alcohol on board?
We’d filled in the ship’s stores section as ‘a bit of wine, a bit of rum’. Well, we don’t any more, I thought.
– Want someone to come help you finish it?
Was the Customs guy hitting on us? He eventually let us go with a big grin.
Mary and I slinked off to buy something green and full of vitamins to drink. Later that day we took the dinghy out to the reef and Mary spear-fished us something for dinner, to prove we didn’t need a man to be adventurers (woops, we didn’t realise it was illegal). We barbequed it in the cockpit that night and watched a film, feeling reasonably kickass.
Now, despite the fact that I thought I’d been quite careful with the fridge and turning it off from time to time to conserve power, we woke up the next morning and found the boat batteries were completely flat. I tried the engine in the vain hope that there might be just a little juice to kickstart it so we could charge them, but no. Dead. Completely dead. And we were due to leave the next day. Before you start, I know the engine battery should be separate from the service battery, but none of the electrics worked if I did that. No worries, I had solar panels, this was their job. But this was the first day in forever that the sun was acting shy. The sky was overcast and the weather wasn’t due to change during the day. Accompany that with the thought that nothing ashore would be open because it was Easter, and things looked pretty grim. We opted to go spend the day ashore exploring and I worked on a plan B. Would the panels get a bit of charge despite the gloomy weather? I decided no to worry about it until later.
Later arrived and still no charge in the batteries. There must be a way to solve this without asking for help. We couldn’t let ourselves be stranded there for such a stupid mistake… Mary reminded me that she had to be back for work. Fuck. And then I remembered with embarrassment that Captain S had given me a spare battery. I hadn’t considered it because it was buried somewhere awkward and inaccessible, but it was now our only option. I turned the boat upside-down while Mary went to look for more fish. (Did I mention we’d nearly killed the outboard on the last fishing trip by wrapping a trailing line in the propeller? Great display of competence I was showing.) I heaved the dead engine battery out of its crumbly compartment and replaced it with the gift from Captain S. Hallelujah and praise be, the engine coughed into life. St Lucia would see the back of us. Its fish stocks were safe. Mary came back empty-handed for a shower and we found we were out of water. Joys. But if nothing else, this was a useful lesson in how the bateau’s resources would fare on a simple weekend cruise. In short, needed to be more careful.
The next day saw us heaving the dinghy back on deck and getting the hell out of there. There wasn’t much wind, so the going was slow and we needed to rely on the engine a lot. About halfway across the channel Mary poked her head out through the companionway and asked if I could smell burning. We’d noticed some kind of weird smell on the way over, but hadn’t found the source so forgotten about it. That it was back didn’t fill me with reassurance. I checked the engine. It was black with dust. The alternator belt was in a bad way. Bugger. We gave the engine a rest, but it would start getting dark before we arrived if we weren’t careful and the rain had shown up like we were in Scotland. As we approached the coast the darkness was creeping up on us and there were invisible boat traps everywhere (fisherman’s traps which murder your boat if you get a line caught in your propeller – it’s like a minefield in these areas). We fired up the engine for a bit of speed and I made back-up anchoring plans if the thing packed in. The burning smell was getting worse. At least we were nearly there.
The evening was tense and I was silent with concentration, as though my thoughts could sustain the engine for that last little bit. We were cold and wet, and morale was low – this wasn’t the end to our triumphant international expedition I’d hoped for. Mary scrambled around getting the fenders out as we approached the marina, darkness nearly on us, and I hit the mast on a tree. Wonderful. I was shaken and not on best form, but I needed everything I had to reverse us safely into the narrow space. It was really stressful, and though there were people on the dock, they just stood around staring rather than offer to take the lines. But – did I mention? – Mary was a 1st class 1st Mate and before long we were tied up and packing away.
A few minutes later my neighbours returned from a day trip with friends and were impressed/surprised to see us back in one piece. Mary had to leave but they invited me over for drinks and I felt like I was being inducted into the ‘real sailors’ club. I knew I had a lot to learn still, but this small achievement was beyond satisfying. Tinder Guy and The Pharmacist had done a lot of damage to my self confidence, but with this trip I’d managed something, and the command was all on me. I’d defied a lot of people (including myself) who didn’t think I could do it, and that felt GOOD. More than anything though, I was grateful to my Girl’s Club, and especially my own Mary Read, for trusting me enough to take them out and help me learn.