A Dog Riding a Tricycle

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. But my time with flesh and blood crew was coming to an end and I needed to strike out alone. I did my first single-handed sail, and found a cabin boy made of plastic to join me in my adventures.

I sold my car. I was starting to feel restless and getting rid of the car was the last step in being ready to leave. Symbolically, it represented my liberty on the island (since life without a car in Martinique is tough, or if tough is too strong a word, at least logistically inconvenient) and if I intended to be away a long time, I wouldn’t need it. The latest representative from the Swedish Boat Mafia, Captain Salsa, was due to be arriving in Sainte Anne soon, and so going to hang out there was my initial goal. The first stage of leaving home. As far as anchorages go, Trois Ilets where I was based was very much the locals’ region. Most of the people keeping their boats there had jobs on the island that didn’t rely on being in the hub of Marin, and were mainly French. It was like a nice little boating village. Marin is the Big City – with its enormous marinas and charter businesses and every boat service you could dream of. Sainte Anne, just round the corner from Marin (and accessible from it by dinghy) is the sprawling international suburb. Most cruisers, when they come to Martinique, make for either of these two towns first. Many don’t even realise there are other places in Martinique.

Since I was now a bona fide solo sailor, I had the freedom to just pick up my anchor and leave. But when I told a couple of friends I was off sailing for the day, they wanted to come too. I’m running out of female pirates to name my friends after, but let’s call them Ching Shih and Rachel Wall. Rachel had been out on the boat a couple of times already but as far as I’m aware Mme Ching hadn’t been sailing before. Neither of them was the participatory kind of sailor – they were just along for the ride. They thought I was very hardcore with everything I was doing. The girls were fantastic strong women talented in their own fields, but while they liked being on boats, they weren’t necessarily into actually sailing in them. This was OK though, because they were my guests and – did I mention? – I could do this singlehanded now.

As we headed out of the bay under motor, I decided to try out the autopilot to see if I had any more luck getting it to work. The last time I’d tested it had been with Tinder Guy on the delivery from Guadeloupe and we’d gone round in circles for half an hour with no success. Since I thought he was an idiot, I optimistically had another go. But no, calibrating the thing was beyond me and this felt like a waste of time. I accepted that my cruising adventure was probably going to take place entirely at the helm. With the wind behind us, I chickened out of using both sails because doing so would have involved a lot of gybing – a manoeuvre I still found quite stressful, and not something I wanted to try with two friends getting in the way. I realised that as well as dealing with what I needed to do, I was obliged to concentrate on what they were up to all the time. It was exhausting.

The going was slow, but when we rounded Cap Salomon the direction of the wind changed so I was able to get both sails out properly. Unfortunately, the wind and tide were now both against us and it felt like we were inching along at a snail’s pace. So slow. So very very slow. I ended up weaving about with some enormous tacks towards the Rocher du Diamant, but no matter how far we sailed the rock never seemed to get any closer. It was like some horrible kind of torture, and what was worse, the girls were seasick and very unhappy when we heeled (which we were doing all the time due to the direction of the wind). I tried to get them involved with the steering so that I could go below a second to find seasickness foods, but the helmswoman panicked and managed to land the fridge on my head, emptying beers all over the cabin and exploding a couple.

I jumped back into the cockpit and regained control – the girls didn’t want the responsibility of steering after all.  But then everything started to go wrong. The mainsail was a horrible shape and wasn’t efficient at all, no matter how I tried to trim it. It seemed that since my last trip out, a reef hadn’t been taken out properly and there were now loose ropes flapping dangerously about. The boat hook then flew overboard because I hadn’t secured it properly and to make matters worse, it was getting late and we still weren’t making any progress. I’d planned for a short quick trip (Ste Anne really wasn’t far), but sailing like that was making it impossible. Seeing how miserable the girls were getting, I gave up on trying to be a good sailor (because let’s face it, I wasn’t succeeding) and put the engine on. We motored a little more directly like that, but it was still taking ages. Then the engine coughed and conveniently died. The sun was getting low – I really didn’t want to be coming into this anchorage in the dark. Captain Salsa had already started sending messages wondering where we were.

I assumed the problem with the engine was lack of fuel because of all the motoring we’d been doing, but luckily I’d already thought of a contingency plan for refuelling. The jerry can would be way too heavy to handle while we were moving like that (bouncing around in all those waves, don’t forget, and the refill hole out of the cockpit at the stern), so I had Rachel and Mme Ching clean out a bucket and help me pour some of the diesel into that. It was very important not to get any water or dirt into the tank. We managed to get some more fuel into the tank using the bucket and funnel and that seemed to be effective. Great. And well done, team. The girls were already joking about this ride from hell, and I was gritting my teeth willing us forward, hoping the boat would get us to the other side. Except that half an hour later the engine started to make the same telltale spluttering and groaning noises. Hadn’t we put enough in? We topped it up again. And again twice more (months later, I realised that low fuel probably hadn’t been the issue – my engine had an entirely different problem that would leave me in dire straits when sailing alone down the line. But anyway).

The inevitable moment came and it was dark, and we still weren’t there. Captain Salsa sent more messages. What were we playing at? Luckily most of my nav lights were working but we were now in the boat trap danger zone. I sent Mme Ching on deck with a torch to look out for them and gave the helm to Rachel while I got the sails in. The depth gets very shallow quite far out from the anchorage, and there are boat traps (little invisible bottles tied to lobster traps on the sea bed) literally everywhere. In the dark you lose all sense of depth perception and pilotage you might have done easily during the daylight by just looking at the shape of the land and knowing where you are (when you’re familiar with the area) becomes much more challenging. The anchorage at Ste Anne was like a galaxy of mast-head stars and I tried to get my bearings in relationship to them and the various shore lights. I’d seen a row of pink lights far ahead and had guessed they were a bar in Ste Anne I knew well. I messaged Captain Salsa:

  • Those pink lights up ahead of me, is that La Dunette or Club Med?
  • Don’t know, sounds gay.
  • Yes but seriously, I’m trying to navigate. Are they La Dunette or Club Med?
  • Gay
  • But
  • Gay

From then on, the only response to my messages was ‘gay’ and with all the things I needed to do suddenly and all at once, I didn’t have time to go below and check the GPS position on the chart. I told Rachel to aim for them as I dropped the mainsail, my mind mostly occupied with worrying about the boat traps, of which Mme Ching had already spotted quite a few. Suddenly there was a big crunch and a shriek from Rachel. The whole boat lurched. We’d hit the coral reef because those lights weren’t, in fact, those of La Dunette; it was Club Med and I’d completely forgotten about all the dangerous shallows and reefs I’d known there were in this area. I swore, but in that moment I was in the midst of lifting the boom and if I let go I’d drop it on Rachel’s head. Reverse! Quick! I shouted at Rachel. But she didn’t know how. I left the boom and hopped back to the cockpit, put us into reverse, then went to finish with the boom because leaving it as it was seemed dangerous. But Rachel couldn’t control the boat and was freaking out. I jumped back and took over, getting us off whatever we’d grounded on. Shit shit shit. This was not good. I couldn’t believe I’d just grated my hull along the reef. I backed out the way we’d come very carefully, Mme Ching shining the torch all around on the clear, reef-filled water.

The depth sounder said 1 metre. I had been very certain (from previous investigations) that it was calibrated to read depth below the keel not actual depth of water (we drew 1.62m). We’re fine, I reassured them. We have depth – just. But then there was another crunch. It was a nightmare, we seemed to be right in the middle of a bunch of coral heads and I had no idea which way we could go without destroying my keel. My heart raced as I tried to navigate us away from danger, watching the depth reading creeping slowly up. The girls were tense and quiet as I silently berated myself. Stupid, so stupid. Why hadn’t I planned my navigation better? Why hadn’t I checked the charts or at least remembered the big reef I knew was here? (I know why – because I’d assumed I’d be doing the whole trip in daylight and was relying on pilotage by sight. I hadn’t factored the currents that would be against us and how ridiculous it was to try and sail all the way there at my slow pace in the time I’d allotted. All learning points, mistakes I hoped I’d never make again. Apparently normal people don’t actually do this route under sail. They whack on the motor and hug the coastline. If you want to sail from Trois Ilets to Sainte Anne, it’s actually quicker to go via St Lucia.)

In the meantime, I was still getting messages from Captain Salsa demanding what was going on. My nerves were frazzled. He asked if we wanted some assistance and I said yes please, because I’d never anchored in the dark and the stress of managing the girls as well as judging the manoeuvre was too much for me at that point. I was still a learner and I wasn’t too proud to accept help. He gave us instructions as to where to aim for, and came to find us in his dinghy with his crew. As they approached I knew my face was scarlet with mortal embarrassment, but it was so nice to see some friendly faces. They tied the dinghy on and jumped aboard, guiding me to a spot near where they were parked. The girls were shaken and when we were reliably hooked in, we gratefully accepted the offer of alcoholic refreshment aboard Salsa. Then like an angel he loaded my friends into his dinghy and ran them over to Marin (a 20 minute ride away) so they could find their way home. The girls always laugh about how traumatised they were by this adventure (although I think they enjoy it in hindsight), and I swore to myself that it was absolutely the last time I went sailing with people who couldn’t take an active part, at least for the moment while I was still learning myself. It was too much responsibility. The Cabin Boys were great crew, but in situations like this I would have been safer on my own.

The next day Captain Salsa came over and dived under my hull. I’d already done the same, but I wanted an expert opinion. Hitting the keel can be pretty dire if it’s serious. You’ve got to make sure nothing’s cracked and that it’s still securely fixed on. But my keel was a lovely tough solid moulded keel – built into the main structure of the hull and not bolted on like some others. He reassured me that it was just scratched and nothing looked structurally damaged. Well that was something. I spent a few days chilling out in Sainte Anne with Flav, licking my wounds, and getting used to this new cosmopolitan anchorage. A new cruiser’s world.

I hung around for nearly a week before I felt courageous enough to get on with my solo cruising adventure. My confidence had taken a bit of a knock with Rachel and Mme Ching, but Captain Salsa was taking some charter guests to St Lucia, and invited me to buddy with them. I pulled myself together and made a plan to leave the next morning. I was all set and ready to go, when Captain Salsa showed up in his dinghy and asked if I could quickly come and help him take his boat to the fuel dock before his clients arrived. They were delayed and he didn’t want to take his beautiful beast there on his own (or that was the excuse anyway). I was nervous about leaving anyway, so took the opportunity to waste time. It was still early in the morning and I’d still have time to cross the channel after helping him refuel. He did rescue me in the middle of the night, after all. If I could be helpful in any way, I would. As we slid out of the anchorage and headed towards the shipping channel, he mocked me for being stupid enough to crash into the reef. I mean, who does that? Everyone knows it’s there.

But Captain, what about…?

Don’t worry, it’s just a shortcut, he reassured me as we nipped across the shallows. Within minutes there was an almighty crunch as Salsa grounded on the very same reef. There are no safe shortcuts when leaving the anchorage at Ste Anne towards Marin. I allowed myself a smug moment to gloat. It made me feel a whole lot better about my spectacular fuck-up the week before, and even though the refuelling took forever and I ended up missing my departure window, I didn’t mind.

The next morning Captain Salsa and his guests were having a relaxed time of it, since it would only take them a few hours to hop across the channel. I, on the other hand, had no such luxury. We agreed a rendez-vous in Rodney Bay and I bid them farewell. I was a bit stressed because this was my first solo international voyage, but also excited. I took my time leaving, making sure I had my 2 cautious reefs tied in securely and that everything was set up so that I wouldn’t need to leave the helm for the whole voyage if that was going to prove tricky. This involved stowing all my water, sandwiches and snacks in a bag in the cockpit, plastering myself in thick sun cream, leaving the navigation tablet and rain jacket within arm’s reach, and thoroughly planning my route in advance. Because I was alone, I also needed to strap myself into a life jacket and harness. Falling overboard is unfeasible if you’re by yourself. Your boat will just keep on going and no-one is going to come back and get you. Things would be so much simpler if I had a working autopilot, I thought to myself. I wouldn’t need to sail with so many reefs in for a start, because I’d be able to leave the helm to reduce the sail if I needed to. But this was too advanced for me, and I was still taking baby steps.

I took it easy leaving Ste Anne so I could avoid the boat traps. Once I felt sure we were out of the way of the traps and I had a heading, I got a little bit of genoa out and we were away. Slowly at first, but as I got more confidence I let out more genoa and managed a steady 4-5kts. It was easy! It was pleasant (although my eyes felt tired and painful because I had sun cream in them). Sometimes other boats passed and I felt a great sense of pride as I waved, knowing they could see that I was badass doing this all by myself. The crossing went quite quickly and was at no point scary because I’d kept my sails small. I made Rodney Bay and took my time getting the sail down and anchor ready (this involved pointing in a direction, running forwards to untie the anchor and push it over the edge of the pulpit, then running back to put us back on course before we hit anything). I scouted around with an eye on the depth sounder, found a place to anchor, and crept up on it face-au-vent until I was practically stationary, before running up to the bow to release the anchor. Then with a bit of drifting and reversing it was nicely set and not one person giving me the ‘too close’ scowl. Fuck, I did it! I went for a snooze whilst I waited for Captain Salsa to arrive, and once he had disposed of his charter guests we went out to celebrate.

This felt even better than when I’d arrived in Rodney Bay way back when with Mary, and this time I remembered my shoes to visit Customs and Immigration. I got a few raised eyebrows when I told them I was here on my own, but no outright questions about whether I needed a man to help me like last time. But there were a few smirks there nonetheless, as though seeing a female skipper was a bit like seeing a dog riding a tricycle.

A few days later I sailed back from St Lucia to Martinique, but not without drama at the start. I didn’t hoist the mainsail before picking up the anchor (which is the easiest way to leave when you’re singlehanded) because it was so windy. But when I motored out into a good spot and turned into the wind to get her up, I found with horror that the halyard was caught on the steaming lamp again. Alone and moving with other boats all over the place, I didn’t feel like I had time to attempt to flick the rope free. I tried a couple of times bit it was impossible, and the boat wasn’t easy to control in all that wind. I phoned Captain Salsa in a panic but he wasn’t picking up. I was stuck and my sail was now flapping around like crazy. I debated whether to go find Salsa or to try the crossing with just genoa, but I was already late leaving and that would take forever. It seemed like the lazy way out of my situation. Alternatively, I could re-anchor, but I felt exhausted just thinking about that idea. In the end I went to see Salsa for a rescue. He looked puzzled, but directed me to tie up alongside him with the help of his guests. I explained the situation, thinking we’d probably just spend a while flicking the rope free. I felt really silly having to be rescued by him for something so minor (yet again). He thought for a bit, then jumped aboard and shimmied up my mast like a monkey (no harness, no bosun’s chair, no nothing). Once there he unhooked the offending rope, making it look so easy. That’s how to rescue a damsel in distress. It was very impressive. Anyway after that I got on my way, and it was rough but not scary. When I arrived I found I had a nice new hole in the mainsail and had lost a baton en route. More things to fix before I could go on another adventure. But I tried not to feel down. After all, I had just sailed to and from St Lucia all by my very self, and for me this was a huge achievement.

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