In Praise of Cabin Boys

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 and made it across the channel to a whole new country: St Lucia. After nearly sinking my boat, I was obliged to quit Martinique for the summer, nervous that once again it was hurricane season and my engine was left immobilised.

Thanks to the guardianship of the Archaeologist, who had been living aboard over the summer, the bateau wasn’t the mouldy hellhole that it had been when I’d returned last year. But my arrival in Martinique still brought a weight to my shoulders: namely, the burst shaft seal immobilising my engine (during the most dangerous period of the year). It was lucky my marina was known for being the safest on the island. To take my mind off things and to remember what it was like out on the water, I accepted an invitation to go out for the day with Moustache and some of his regular crew on his swish racing boat. Jeanne and M. Escalade were out with Païe Olive, and <swoon> their new rescued puppy that was being taught about water by being floated around on a small body-board. So now they had a reluctant sailing cat and an insane doglet, both on a boat it turned out they were suddenly trying to sell.

Whilst waiting for my forever delayed repair, I went out quite a few times with the new Moustache Sunday Sailing club – either with Moustache himself or once with Jeanne on Païe Olive (where she nearly capsized us with an accidental gybe and then electrocuted me at the bow while anchoring as it turned out the boat’s entire frame was live). I was feeling really good about the small sailing community we’d formed in the marina. Moustache was full of encouragement for us more novice sailors, never belittling us but respecting us as fellow boat-owners, and always pushing us to leave our comfort zones by taking our boats out for group daytrips. I really wanted Annie B to be ready to go out again and join in the fun. But there was a storm coming, and so the promised repair day evaporated as all hands were needed to prep the unattended boats in the marina.

I knew the hurricane was a big deal and the New Mechanic unavoidably occupied, but the delay of the work was making me more and more anxious. Every week he had another excuse, and the only way I could get the repair done without an unfeasible haul-out was to rely on his joint diving and mechanic skills. This was all taking me back to a place I didn’t want to be: once again relying on the help of one particular person who I couldn’t replace when they were unavailable. I tried to keep my zen and spent lots of time with Jeanne and the puppy (looking after him while she was at work, pretending he was my own boat dog). We liked our pontoon Alliance Feminine. M. Escalade was away so we’d bring our dinner round to each other’s boats and keep each other company, trying to work out how to train the dog to not be so racist (he was really racist, it was embarrassing to take him anywhere). The manic hurricane preparations turned out to be for nothing, as the storm never showed up. But that was a theme that year.

Finally the repair day arrived, and while the operation appeared to have been a success, the process left me with a little well of anger. When I’d met him, the New Mechanic had been a sunbeam of friendliness, and I’d thought, great: I love it when it’s easy to work with the professionals I rely on. He did make me feel like he was working as a particular favour to me, but I was just happy I wasn’t going to need to do a haul-out. I mean, this was an arrangement where he was doing his job and I was paying him, right? And he was older than my dad and a bit goblin-like, so he wasn’t going to be propositioning me: I could risk being friendly back… because that’s normal and polite, you know? But in the run-up to the work, his friendliness started to verge on overboard. He would offer me private diving trips with him, tell me I was going to come and eat glorious dinners at his house (not even invite me, just tell me), offer hurricane shelter at his place, etc etc. That’s very kind, but… well I felt like I was being emotionally manipulated and was running out of ways to say no. He would force me to do the French bise on both cheeks every time we said goodbye, and use it to find ways to touch me. One time he actually patted me on the head after patronising me for 20 minutes over something. He was very fond of being condescending towards me. He would come onto my boat and give me a long stare, asserting that he was going to educate me on something. He would clamber onto my deck uninvited and yank ropes from my hands unasked to show me how I should actually be doing things. This constant encroachment on my personal space felt like an unpleasant power game where I was supposed to be the (really stupid) damsel in distress who very much needed his help, and should therefore be gratefully accepting his invitations.

It was really getting to me, so that when he told me he was going to show up at 6am to start the job, I was convinced it was a move designed to catch me in my pyjamas. When he did eventually get installing the part, he slithered into the engine access space in just a pair of small pants, and I had to hastily escape the cabin because his balls were hanging out at me, and it didn’t feel accidental. But OK, fine, he was a star because the job was tough and he eventually succeeded in making my engine and propeller work, even if in the process he also succeeded in making me feel slightly uncomfortable. My well of anger came, though, when I asked him (for the billionth time) to send me an invoice and to tell me how much I owed him. He just replied with a really weird look which I imagine he didn’t think was creepy and said ‘ça va te coûter cher, ma cherie’ (it’ll cost you dearly). To this day I’m not quite sure what he was insinuating because I avoided ever running into him again, and sent him and email requesting an invoice that I never received. But I felt violated and once again my good faith in the men around was crushed.

From all these issues I’d been having with men and my boat (eg here and here), you might wonder why I didn’t just give up on guys completely and exclude them from my sailing and boatwork adventures. Clearly most of them were either sexpests or trying to undermine my confidence in some way (except the wonderful mentors I had in Moustache, Zen Master and Captain Shiraz). After the repair I did manage to go out sailing with some girlfriends (Mary had heartbreakingly gone back to the States, so I was missing my excellent First Mate). We had a nice picnic anchored at Anse Noire and it was a triumphant moment because I was finally back in control of my boating destiny. But then for some reason, a good while after the role had been invented by The Pharmacist, I spontaneously invited a new Cabin Boy into my life. I use the term jokingly and I know the Cabin Boys resent it a bit, but I’ve assured them that it’s the highest status position on Anne Bonny. Cabin Boys are great, and have managed to restore my confidence in the awesomeness of mankind (mankind as opposed to womankind).

My first Cabin Boy was a dreamy poetic type who I’d met at a party because he was replacing me as a Language Assistant in my old schools. He was about 24 and bouncy and enthusiastic like a human puppy. He’d told me he wanted to learn to build boats, so I’d invited him out with me on the next Moustache Sunday Sailing day (I’d invited a lot of people I’d met that night, but he was the only one to reply). He’d only ever sailed Hobie Cats before but was keen to learn and not at all bossy like The Pharmacist had been. Whilst my girly crews had often been a bit freaked out whenever we heeled, he loved it and this made the whole experience far less stressful for me. I started to enjoy the sportiness of my boat for the first time, and after a couple more outings began considering using the Poet as crew on more challenging trips.

We both had school holidays coming up and he’d been complaining to Moustache that he really wanted to find a way to go to the Grenadines. But you have a friend with a boat, I told him. A friend who wants to sail to the Grenadines. We made plans. This was going to be a step up from my first trip with Mary to St Lucia, and with two weeks of holidays it was going to be enough time for a good long adventure. A day or so before we were due to leave, a new group of girlfriends I’d made when I met the Poet wanted to go out in the boat, so we did a practise voyage to a nice little spot not far away. This was great. This was more of the ‘being able to take your friends on daytrips’ perk of having a boat. I noticed a weird clunk noise when I lifted the tiller at one point, but didn’t think anything of it. It seemed like something might be broken, but it would probably be OK.

My next diary entry starts like this… I am not in the Grenadines. In fact it’s Monday night and I’m alone on the boat drinking rum with jam in it.

Like I say, I hadn’t given too much thought to the weird clunk the tiller had made on the daytrip, to the extent that the Poet and I did all our shopping for the voyage and went and bought an expensive paper chart for the Grenadines. We even went so far as to try and check out (luckily the Capitainerie was closed) but then Moustache turned up, took one look at the tiller, and said we couldn’t sail like that. The bronze piece that joined the tiller to the rudder had an enormous crack in it, and when we wobbled it experimentally it broke in two. If the piece had broken at sea, we risked losing control of the rudder (or losing the rudder entirely), which is pretty much one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a sailing boat. Lucky I’d taken the girls out on that daytrip, eh? On top of that, I couldn’t make my nav lights work and the fridge appeared to be broken. Great start to a big voyage. The Poet wasn’t deterred and hung around being supportive, helping haul me up the mast to install a new Windex and even went swimming in the bay to find a floating metal workshop we’d heard rumours about (no luck).

We needed some way to get the bronze piece repaired, and fast, if we still wanted to go sailing that holiday. Unfortunately my welder neighbour was away for hurricane season, but Moustache had a few suggestions for people we could try in Marin. The next morning we made our pilgrimage to the Big City, and though someone eventually agreed to look at my problem, they couldn’t do anything before Monday. Our hopes for the Grenadines were gone. What was worse, a bronze repair (or even a new piece in bronze) was out of the question. I had to resort to ordering something in stainless steel, which was significantly softer as a metal and more difficult/expensive to work in a solid lump like we needed. We picked ourselves up, and planned to go camping in the north instead. (We optimistically set out on an epic 6-hour hike, but it rained so much that most of the route was flooded, and when we were trying to ford a river with water up to our waists, were forced to agree that perhaps it wasn’t that safe. We turned back and slept on the beach.)

The new tiller piece was crap. It barely fitted, and was way too loose. But it functioned just enough and if we wanted to leave, it was now or never. I would get the guy to re-do it when I got back, and hope we didn’t die before then. Since we now only had an extended weekend left of the holidays, we decided to go to Marigot Bay in St Lucia. Not as adventurous as going all the way to the Grenadines, but at least I’d never been there before and it was meant to be beautiful. It was all a bit stressful to start with because the wind was stronger than I was used to, but we got into our rhythm and got across the channel. We had to anchor three times because the space was so tight and I was insecure about how close we were to the other boats. But then the Poet swam off and caught an urchin which we ate as the sun went down, rums in hand. It was a perfect moment after a really stressful adventure so far.

The next morning I woke up to find that the kayak we were using as a dinghy had disappeared. For a moment I thought someone had been and stolen it, but then I saw the wooden boat next door had it. Apparently it had come loose in the night and he’d rescued it (I wasn’t so sure because my knot had been good, but anyway…). I invited him for coffee and he took us to shore and showed us a good place for a proper Lucian breakfast. When it came to time to leave the following morning, we dawdled over breakfast, unwilling to get a move on. So it was getting late when we had everything ready to go, motor running, and then realised that the lantern I’d hauled up the mast as an improvised anchor light wouldn’t come down. A stupid mistake – I hadn’t attached a rope to the other end, and I’d hauled it up using the mainsail halyard. This meant that there was a cheap bit of plastic clattering about at the top of the mast and no way to hoist the mainsail. I was so annoyed with myself. In the end we had to call our neighbour over for help and I went up the mast yet again to fix things (did I mention how much I hate going up the mast?).

The weather for the way back was sunny and much calmer that on the way. The Poet was confident at the helm, and at this point decided he’d prefer to sail naked*. He liked to feel the sun on his skin, but most importantly, on all of his skin. And since we were in the middle of the channel and there were no other boats around to see him, he wanted to make the most of his ultimate freedom. Fair enough. I wasn’t going to join in though.

* Not in an unpleasant ‘here’s my balls’ way as with the New Mechanic, because we were friends. Big difference.

Not long after this trip, the Poet and I started discussing the idea of going to Dominica. We didn’t have any more holidays coming up, but if we went overnight we could still make a weekend of it. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was desperate to get to know Dominica better, and an overnight sail seemed like a good challenge as skipper. Definitely something to banish the ghosts of the previous nocturnal nightmares on Anne Bonny. I’d fixed my nav lights by this time, so we could do it safely, and we had a second volunteer Cabin Boy who wanted to come. He was 21, French, and actually had sailing experience (so he argued that he should be Senior Cabin Boy). He lived with the Poet, and since said Poet had once drunkenly referred to him as Labrador Eyebrows, that’s what I’ll call him here.

So off we went one warm dark evening: me, the Poet, and Labrador Eyebrows (Moustache coming to wave us off and wish us luck). It was a hairy start* because as we left the marina and got the mainsail ready to hoist, I realised the halyard was caught on the steaming light. This made it impossible to lift the sail. We spent about fifteen minutes trying everything to flick it free, being tossed around at the port entrance, before the Poet succeeded by fluke (this happened a lot during my time with Annie B, and I wasted a lot of time with this flick method until I realised all I needed to do was turn the boat in a circle and the wind would blow it out of danger).

*I’ve just realised I wrote that after mentioning eyebrows and moustache – not intentional but hey, I’ll leave it in.

The night was beautiful, with a big lantern moon and all the stars. It was so nice to have two crew who vaguely knew what they were doing, were up for adventure, and had more stamina than me in terms of sleep deprivation. I managed to have a few snoozes in the easy part as we passed the island which was all very chill. When we were approaching the channel, the Poet went for his sleep and we started the shifts. The channel was intimidating because of the dark and the tiredness, and the waves were big and rolly. The wind was up to around 30kts but we were well-reefed so I felt confident. It was just tiring steering, and not very comfortable. If only we had a working autopilot… but anyway, the boys were happy at the helm without me needing to supervise them. For me it was more an endurance, but the boys loved this tiring sporty bit the best.

It felt like this tough bit in the channel in the dark went on forever, but breaking the night up for two-hour sleeps each helped the end come quicker. Then dawn happened, which was beautiful with simultaneous sunrise and moonset. And eventually we left the channel and the seas were calmer. As the sun came to greet us, fingers stretching out over Dominica’s incredible mountains, the Poet stood in the rigging mostly naked trying to photosynthesise (he told us). It was so beautiful he tried to persuade me to turn round and go back a bit so we could benefit from the full sunrise on the edge of the island, but I really, really wanted to rest. We puttered into the bay at Roseau and were greeted by a guy in a skiff who told us we couldn’t anchor and must pay for a mooring. I decided to go with it so I could be more confident with leaving the boat unattended while we explored. The Poet did his usual locals-charming trick by asking lots of questions (like where could we find some good local fruits – just go into the hills, we were told, there’s fruit everywhere and no-one about). Then we snoozed before braving check-in.

The immigration lady was friendly by island standards and she was pleased to see a female skipper (a marked change from the reception Mary and I had had in St Lucia). The Poet led us around town on a hunt for real ginger beer and we ended up in an Ital place talking to some Rastas, where someone gave us a recipe. The Poet was quite dominant and knew what he wanted to do with his weekend there, so we let him be Land Captain. Dominica was markedly more vibrant and confident than when I was there at Easter, with everyone you got into conversation with (or even passing in the street) saying ‘welcome! And how do you like our lovely island?’ If we made the mistake of mentioning Maria, though, their eyes would well up with tears and the conversation would shut down. It had been over a year, but people were still dealing with the trauma.

We ended up taking a bus and getting lost in the hills, meandering up a road which seemed overgrown and unmaintained since the hurricane. The jungle was slowly creeping back though, and the trees, though markedly bare, showing the unstoppableness of tropical life. At the end of the road suddenly there was a house, nestled against a stunning view of the mountains. We nearly turned round but the unrepaired roof hinted that the place was abandoned. We moved in cautiously but there was no-one about and no signs of any habitation. There was an empty swimming pool which led into the house, and a dried up jacuzzi. I bet it was an amazing business when it was running.

The Poet went and scavenged some grapefruits and we settled on the porch overlooking the view. It was a perfect moment, tranquille. Then we headed back down the hill and explored off the road until we found a large river, water shallow, pure and clear. (Dominica is known for its 365 rivers and excellent water). It didn’t take long for the Poet to get naked and jump in, while Labrador Eyebrows wandered further up the bank. I considered my options for a minute. It was humid and I was sweaty from the hike. I didn’t have a swimsuit with me, but the water seemed so enticing. (If you’re Scandinavian, don’t laugh at me. We British are still a bit prudish and I felt self-conscious and out of shape compared to my companions.) I embraced the Poet’s nudist tendencies and followed suit. There wasn’t evidence of anyone else for miles. It felt like the whole jungle was completely empty except for us. Soon Labrador Eyebrows stripped off and joined us. As a group, we seemed to have broken some kind of barrier – but I suppose that’s what team bonding on an overnight sail does for you. We could have stayed there all day if we didn’t have other places to explore (like those magical hot springs I’d visited last time).

Next morning was a tough 4am and despite best intentions we didn’t get going until well after dawn (ahem, hangovers). We moved away from land as the sun climbed higher, and hoisted the sails. It was hot and the Poet predictably was already naked. We were now a nudist collective, apparently. Labrador Eyebrows joined him, but as we approached the last bit of land and the channel beckoned, there was a horrible clunk. What was that? I was at the helm, and Labrador Eyebrows went to check. The anchor! He was fiddling about at the bow. This was really dangerous. I gave the Poet the tiller and slid along the deck to help, holding on nervously. I was still clothed at this point, but Labrador Eyebrows was fully in the buff and leaning over the front, arse and balls displayed to the world (or more accurately, in my face). Someone hadn’t secured the anchor properly as we’d been leaving, and the hatch to the compartment had flipped up and knocked it over one side. It was dangling off the starboard bow and whacking the side of the boat. Labrador Eyebrows was struggling to recover it. He wasn’t clipped on with a harness; in fact he wasn’t even wearing a life-jacket. I gripped his legs while he inched forwards to try and haul up the marauding anchor. It was really tough, and possibly not the easiest when you’re nude and have loose appendages that don’t want to get caught in thick metal chain. He got the anchor back in place after much grunting and swearing (hero) and secured it properly so we wouldn’t have this problem again.

The rest of the sail was pure joy – a lovely day and cheery spirits despite the lack of sleep. I embraced the boat’s new nudist policy, and have never been so sunburnt in places that don’t normally see the sun in my life. The boys didn’t seem to have this problem at all, and laughed at me because I was peeling and in pain for weeks after. We arrived in the bay of Fort-de-France at sunset, and the stars twinkled delicately in the clear night sky as we drew closer to home, tunes blasting out from a little speaker in the cockpit. It was magical and such a nice moment to spend with friends. I had other Cabin Boys on a few other occasions, but this moment with these two lads was the pinnacle. And once again, their enthusiasm for adventure and trust in my boat and my leadership gave me the courage to take each new step, until eventually I was doing this trip single-handed. But that comes later.

Go back and read the blog from the start