You need a man(nequin)

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, but made it back for new repairs and the recruitment of a couple of awesome Cabin Boys.

Late 2018/early 2019

Christmas was on its way and for the first time ever, I had friends from Scotland visiting me. This was a big deal – no-one back home quite understood my new boat life in the Caribbean, or even believed it was real. I wanted to show off a bit about how far I’d come. I’d promised a lovely Christmas cruise to St Lucia, which sounded much nicer than it actually would be. I had to tag on a caveat – it was going to be like glorified camping. Glorified, dangerous camping.

This visit would also mark the end of my cushy life on the dock, and the end of my employed land-tied existence. The new year beckoned my voluntary expulsion from the marina and I’d quit my jobs in order to have the time to dedicate to my cruising adventure. Taking two non-sailing friends on an international voyage across the water felt like a big weight of responsibility. Not only had they shelled out a lot of money to come and see me (so we needed to have a good time), but I also had to make sure I didn’t kill them. This was the scariest thing about skippering a boat – the lives of others in your hands. Going solo would bring a few more physical and logistical challenges, but at least I only risked my own death. But I’d done this channel crossing many times now, so was feeling reasonably confident. It would be a good test of my solo sailing abilities, as well as challenging me to communicate well as a skipper with novice crew.

Everything went pretty well actually. We made it to spend Christmas in Marigot Bay, eating disappointing pizzas in an over-priced bar. But my friends were in the Caribbean and there were beers and sunshine so no-one was complaining. I got thoroughly patronised by a 20-something-year-old embryo (First Mate on a big private yacht) who told me he was impressed by me as a woman trying to do a man’s job. I spluttered incoherently in annoyance rather than articulating that it was a job traditionally dominated by men, not a man’s job. But anyway, maybe one day I would become a professional skipper and show him mwahahahahaha. Everything was pretty great until the return journey, and we were approaching Grande Anse back in Martinique.

It was the end of a very long sailing day and the sun was showing signs of calling it quits for the afternoon. One of my friends had booked in to do some diving the next morning, so we were going to spend the last night of our trip at anchor. Grande Anse is one of my favourite bays – a beautiful view of the hills from the anchorage, a nice big beach with some cool bars, and turtles; but this meant that it was usually pretty crowded, especially now that the season was underway. I went to turn on the engine so I could get my sails in and prepare to anchor. No can do, said the engine, for the batteries are completely flat. Remember when I’d drained the boat’s batteries with the fridge the first time I went to St Lucia with Mary? It appears that I don’t learn from my mistakes.

One of my friends was below, feeling a bit seasick and resting, the other was available on deck and felt just about confident on the helm. I kept calm, and ran through my options. I could hope that the last dwindling rays of sunlight would charge the batteries enough to spark the engine. I didn’t fancy this option because I had no idea if we had enough time for that. I could try and anchor under sail. Didn’t really fancy that either because I’d never done it before and the anchorage was very busy, but it might realistically be my only option. Then I remembered my solution from last time and the spare battery. I couldn’t remember if it was charged, but it was probably my best bet right now. There was a fair bit of wind and we were on a good heel. We were sailing close-hauled and were nearing the boat trap danger zone around the coast. I explained the problem to my friend and gave him the tiller, telling him to keep us on the same course while I changed the batteries. So far, so calm. My brain was definitely having an ‘oh shit we’re all going to die’ moment, but they didn’t need to know that.

Getting at the batteries meant emptying all the crap out of the pilot berths and filling up the cabin with Chaos. By the time I’d finished that part of the process, I was already feeling seasick and the boat was moving very strangely. I poked my head into the cockpit and realised we were unintentionally tacking. I hadn’t explained to my friend that you couldn’t cross a certain point in the wind and he was now much more nervous that he had been. Land looked uncomfortably close. We eventually managed to turn full circle and back onto the right tack, but I too was more jumpy now. Back in the cabin, the seasickness returned and I surveyed my sorry excuse for a battery bank. I was really nervous to get in there amongst all of that electricity and we were still on an uncomfortable heel, plus all the bouncing. Deep breath. I disconnected the one I thought was the engine battery and lifted it gingerly out of its compartment. Then I jostled the new battery into its place. I couldn’t remember which terminal was which, and felt really insecure about connecting it up. The seasickness wasn’t helping me keep a clear head either. I nervously approached the first terminal with a connector and sent angry sparks flying. Wrong one. Shit. I turned the battery around. Sparks, smoke and flame. Shit!

Everything OK? My friend asked me from the bunk. Fine fine, I was just being a total electrical idiot. My hands were shaking. I realised I should disconnect the batteries from the system before trying to set them up. When I turned it all back on, the terminals melted because positive and negative were still mismatched. What the hell was I doing?

My friends were blissfully unaware of how close I was to burning the boat down and killing us all at sea, but finally I managed to get the right terminals connected with the right wires (having to really work to get the clamps over the destroyed terminals), and now just had to hope this would be enough for the engine. My head was spinning with nausea and I really just wanted to die at this point, but I was amazingly still relatively calm. Back in the cockpit I could see we far too close to the coast, and I knew that if the engine still didn’t work I was going to need to use sailing skills I didn’t have yet and anchor under sail. I turned the key in the ignition. A long irritating bleep was music to my ears, because that meant there was power, which meant it would start. My friend looked relieved to give the helm back, and helped me with the sails as we motored towards the bay to try and find a spot. One thing I knew for certain: I was never going to risk using the fridge without shore power again.

With the advent of my new cruising adventure, I was also going to have to say goodbye to my charming two Cabin Boys. They had their own commitments and wouldn’t have time to come with me (and I also knew I wanted to try and do this alone). A chance passing-by the bins whilst walking the dog with Jeanne one day, however, introduced me to a new love. He was handsome, métis, with pouty lips and perfectly sculpted cheekbones. He had a six-pack to put any gym-bunny to shame, and he clearly wasn’t much of a talker. The moment I saw him I knew I couldn’t sail without him. It started off as a joke that I’d take him home, but the idea seemed really sensible the more I thought about it. Sure, he didn’t have any arms or legs, but he didn’t need to actually sail. Being hard and made of plastic didn’t really provide much comfort as a cuddle-companion, but would be ideal as my new security officer. Jeanne and I spirited him back to Annie B and hosed him down on the dock. She came up with the perfect name for him, an exact mashup of Labrador Eyebrows and the Poet’s real names: Flavien, or Flav for short. We took some excellent photos. My neighbours all thought I was bonkers to keep a mannequin. Most people thought he was real until they did a double take and realised he was just a torso. Was it creepy? Perhaps. I’m British so I like to think of it as wilfully eccentric.

So it was that Flav the Cabin Boy and I began our new life together on Anne Bonny. My friends flew away, back to the Glasgow rain, and Moustache and M. Escalade came to help me out of the marina and get me settled at anchor. Glorious as Flav was, he wasn’t really capable of pushing boats out of the way for me whilst I was manoeuvring. We toasted the sunset and the boys wished me luck. They left me to bob around in the swell, feeling distinctly seasick. Then about twenty small motor boats came and had a very rowdy party off my bow and I thought – is this what anchor life is? I wasn’t sure if I could ever get used to it. Since the continued debacles with the fridge draining my batteries, I was also now committed to a life sans refrigeration. This was sort of fun, and I researched a load of techniques for preserving foods, using dried ingredients, learning which things that didn’t need to be kept chilled (mayonnaise!), discovering tinned cheese, and making my gastronomy a bit more minimalist.

I also no longer had access to the free and accessible water that had been available to me on the dock, and my boat’s tank was very small. The deal with this I washed in the sea, rinsing off the salt with a fine mist from a weed-sprayer I’d bought especially. Dishes were done using a similar method (taught to me by Zen Master): buckets of sea water, and a light rinse of fresh to remove the all-corrosive salt. Every so often I went ashore and sneaked into the shower block at the marina, for which I’d ‘forgotten’ to return the key (shhhh). Here I could have a proper naked shower, and commit what I liked to call Grand Theft Water (filling up large bottles and hiding them in my backpack). Then I would sit in my cockpit with Flav in the evenings, enjoying my sundowner rum (cruiser’s essential) and watching for the green flash as we all did. I was lonely because I hadn’t had the courage to go and introduce myself to any of the other boats yet, but that would come.

Not long after moving to the anchorage I knew it was time to try my first solo sail. I hadn’t doneso before now because of the difficulty of getting out of the marina on my own, but now I was at anchor things were as simple as picking up the hook and just going. Moustache organised something he called a Regatta Saucisson, to help push me over the precipice. The morning of the race I was anxious and excited. It took me an age to haul my dinghy and motor on board without any help, but I managed it. As I was finishing up, Moustache and his crew came sailing into the anchorage on a fly-by to tell me they were ready whenever I was. There were five other boats joining in to herald my first solo sail and were all waiting for me to signal the start (the signal being me crossing the line). I was profoundly moved by this show of support. I took my time, keeping two reefs in to feel safe and proceeding gently. I actually missed the official start point and someone had to come back and tell me I was going the wrong way.

As I got into the swing of things I started to relax at the helm. My sails were set, and adequately trimmed, and I was moving forward without any difficulties or sense of danger. I actually felt so emotional I cried. I was just so damned proud of myself. I remembered back to my Atlantic crossing over a year ago and the words of the captain when I told him my plans for my boat – ‘you’ll never be able to sail solo,’ he’d said, as part of a general mission to bully me and crush my confidence. ‘You’re not autonomous enough.’ It was true this was just a little trip round the bay, but in symbolic terms, as well as a catalyst for my future missions, it was historic. Now I could do this, I felt like I could really become a sailor.

I did some tacking and gybing, and found everything was much easier than having non-sailors with me, worring what instructions to give or if they were going to get in the way or feel seasick. We anchored in a wee group in Grande Anse and had lunch together (saucisson, of course). They cheered and congratulated me as I swam over to Moustache’s boat and I felt so fortunate to have such a supportive and encouraging group of people around me. I was on top of the world. I took a crew for the way back which was great because I was knackered (and Moustache’s crew always know what they’re doing). He took out my reefs and noted my hesitance when the wind picked up, reassuring me to not be afraid of heeling. I have a great boat and she won’t capsize, I have to trust her. It was true I had a really difficult time trusting my boat. I always had the feeling she would fall apart at any minute. It was this guy who asked me if I was afraid of the wind, and I reflected back on my lifelong phobia of kites – he was right. The sea and waves didn’t particularly faze me, but the wind did. It came back to my naturally controlling nature (as discussed with Zen Master way back when) and the fact that the wind is so wild and unpredictable. Maybe if I could learn to appreciate the wind and relax and read it rather than freak out that it’s out of my control, sailing would be less of a stress.

So now I was officially a solo female sailor – something I’d been striving for since that Transatlantic captain had told me I couldn’t do it. Hurray! But the thing that many people asked me was, was this safe? Not just the act of sailing alone (because with me in charge, it probably definitely wasn’t), but the fact of being a girl alone and vulnerable on a boat, in an area of the world that wasn’t famous for being a haven of security for women. I mean, it was probably fine, but I was still haunted by the story Gringo Ben had told me about this solo female boat buddy of his… They’d all been in St Vincent ashore at a bar or a party or something. A man had been pestering her all evening, and though they’d made it clear she was part of Ben’s crew, the man clearly hadn’t believed them. After they’d all returned to the boats, the man had stolen a kayak and come and boarded her boat. She’d done a panicked call to Ben on the VHF and he’d come over and rescued her. The experience had left them all shaken up, and listening to it made me very wary and definitely feeling like I should avoid St Vincent at all costs. But despite this incident, the heroine of this story told me she’s never felt particularly unsafe in her solo adventuring, nor had many other women I’d spoken to.

But anyway. Flav the Cabin Boy may have started as a bizarre joke that only I really got, but he was also an essential feature of my security system. As I mentioned before, on first glance many people thought he was a real person, and so he was the perfect decoy. An ideal fake boyfriend. A friend had given me an old hammock and I set it up in the cockpit, fashioning Flav some legs out of cushion foam and some old pyjamas. I gave him a cap and some sunglasses, wrapping him in a pareo to preserve his dignity (legs). I rowed away from the boat and surveyed him from afar. It kind of did look like there was someone else aboard. Maybe this could work. And plus, he was good for conversation as he always listened well and never disagreed with me.

I canvassed a Facebook group for some other tips on safety for women alone on boats, and here’s what people came up with:

  • Number one rule: avoid advertising the fact that you’re alone on your boat, and if anyone approaches you, pretend there’s someone on the boat waiting for you. Use the word ‘we’ whenever you’re talking about you and the boat; people will automatically assume you have crew with you. It’s really hard to give up your coolness points as a kickass solo lady adventurer, but it needs to be done.
  • Don’t let people you don’t know learn the location of your boat. I personally had a weird issue when I was using Tinder that guys would want to know where my boat was – I don’t think they realised what a security issue this was for me and were often shocked when I refused to tell them. (The Pharmacist had a habit of stopping by the marina to try and find out where my boat was before we were officially acquainted, and was again shocked when I was upset about it. He thought it was cool to try and work out which was my boat. I pointed out that it was like trying to find the house of a girl you’d met once, and peering in through the bedroom window at her things. Kinda stalkerish, in fact.) Eventually I avoided letting people know I was on a boat unless I knew I trusted them or if it was unavoidable (often I just lied). If I was worried someone was following me, I would find a reason not to go back to the boat until they were out of the way.
  • Make sure you get on with your neighbours – boating communities are tight-knit and there should always be someone you can call up quickly if there’s a problem. In the marina I also made friends with the night watchman. He was aware I was alone and I’m sure he kept an eye out for problems chez moi when he made his rounds.
  • If boarded, have a fire extinguisher to hand, flare gun, or speargun. Wasp spray is apparently almost as effective as pepper spray, and an airhorn or your boat’s fog horn might make a loud enough noise to scare them off. (I’ve never heard of anyone actually putting this into practice!)
  • Get a dog. Failing that, a recording of a dog (motion-activated?)
  • Install an inside deadbolt (it was always a problem for me that my boat didn’t lock from the inside)
  • Carry yourself with confidence and like you won’t take shit from anybody
  • Boat buddy – this is when you sail your own boat alone, but you travel in a group with other boats
  • Don’t make yourself a target – my friend wrote that she rowed a crap dinghy with no outboard and didn’t leave stuff out on deck. Don’t tempt thieves, in short.
  • Get stainless steel bars that can attach to bar access through your fore deck hatch and cockpit door (and use them)
  • Never leave your transom ladder down in the water (if you’re lucky enough to have a transom ladder! Gah, luxuries.)
  • Leave your VHF on to contact someone quickly in an emergency, and make sure your friends nearby are tuned in
  • Try Joshua Slocum’s classic technique of scattering thumb tacks (drawing pins) on deck and in the cockpit
  • For paranoia against serious stalkers – don’t blog or post about where you are until you’re not there anymore, so you aren’t advertising that you are alone and where to find you (that must be why I’m still two years behind on this blog…)

S/V Soggy Paws also directed me to their own page on the topic about security tips for boat people in general: Catamarans / Monohulls.

It turns out people can be quite imaginative about their personal safety on board as a solo boat lady. To be honest, Flav was still my favourite answer to this tricky question, and we had some great adventures together. As time wore on he developed his own personality, which turned out to be that of a bitter gay man who hated me, hated boats, and really resented being my prisoner. I was OK with him being gay (I mean, heartbroken, but it was understandable). The kick in the teeth came when he sent me photos of the affair he’d started with a female friend of mine who was babysitting the boat over the summer. But that’s skipping ahead.

Go back and read the blog from the start