Adventures of s/v WILD HAIR


Our land life took on form, solidity, routine. We had mastery of a limited set of skills. We had habitual expectations of others and ourselves. Going sailing, we let go of our attachments to our roles, views, and rituals. We persist because we are growing in this shapeless and dynamic world.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Our Last Night in Grenada

We hear spring has arrived in Madison: 82 degrees, greening grass, and budding bushes. Here, we are melting. It is greater than 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade below decks. The humidity exceeds 70%. We live in our swim trunks/bikinis. (Poor kitten Dinghy in her fur coat). She moves very slowly in the heat of the day. I sometimes check her pulse. But, she specializes in sleeping in the smallest, coolest places aboard WILD HAIR--like on top of the freezer lid or in the shady spot beneath the forward breezy hatch. When the sun retreats in the evenings, the night turns delicious. The cool air settles upon us. It is heavenly.

It is the end of the sailing season for us. I am exhausted by the last four days spent decommissioning the boat. I used a tank of oxygen to scrape barnacles from the hull.
The boat looks disturbingly naked as Dave and I removed the sails from the mast and forward stay. We polished every inch of the vessel—inside and out. Memories of a bag of onions forgotten at the end of one season haunted me as I scoured the boat removing perishables. Anticipating hurricane force winds, we removed from the deck every line, fender, and cushion that could conceivably take flight. Stowing these items below erased the livable space available to us.

Now, the boat sits on a frame ashore; heavy-duty straps attached to screws nestled deeply into the soil, pull the hull down onto the frame. In this configuration, we live on land 15 feet in the air. The boat feels oddly like a tree house. At one point, a Brit borrows our latter for his own use and we are stranded. A damsel in distress, I “you-hoo” a Grenadian boatyard worker for assistance.

It’s time to go home to Madison, Wisconsin.

Nearing the End

It is April 25, 2011. We are nearing the end of our fourth year living on the boat. Looking back, I reflect on this extraordinary sailing season. Dave, Dinghy and I journeyed well over 2,000 nautical miles—sailing from northern Florida to within throwing distance of Venezuela—without major mishap. Perhaps, I gloat on this glorious day, skill and experience give one control. Maybe we can shape our destiny after all.

This morning, we leave our anchorage in the Tobago Cays and make our way to Union Island to clear customs. We anchor, dinghy ashore, and walk several blocks to the airport. There, Dave and I meet our first customs agent turned philosopher. In the historical reality in which I live, I can’t make the man stop talking.

Sweat pours down my face in the tropical furnace that is the airport and Mr. A. T. waxes poetically about a conglomeration of topics: God, fidelity, doctors that want to kill him, and his plans to change careers. He will not proceed with the check out until Dave guesses how old he is (answer: 52). A. takes delight in discovering via a review of our passports that he and Dave have the "same birthday"--Dave's is September 9th while A’s is September 15th. Then we consider together all of the qualities of people born in September and how no one really likes September people. “Have we noticed?” Finally, with the definitive thud of a rubber stamp, the monologue ends.

The town of Clifton on Union Island at 11:00 this Easter Monday morning is a drunken street party. Dancing in the islands is often risqué, but couples here stop traffic by lying in the street and rhythmically, graphically humping each other to the beat of blaring music. Nothing is left to the imagination. Dave and I casually head the opposite direction to buy tomatoes.

The vegetable market is teeming with more loud music, bare-chested men and
lusty, cussing young women. S of S's Produce is exhausted by it all. When I question her delicately about the origin of the street festival, she corrects, "This is no festival. This is our most holy holiday and how people celebrate. They have partied like this since Good Friday.” With emphasis she adds, “I go TO CHURCH.” Beautiful S is made weary by her lack of influence. She is disappointed in her culture. More than she will ever know, we are sisters in her pain. We purchase our tomatoes and wish her well.

To keep sailing skills developing equally, Dave and I alternate captain and crew responsibilities each day. I am especially cheerful now because it is my turn to be captain and the conditions are extraordinary. Sixteen knots of wind blows at a right angle across the port rails, filling sails into voluptuous pillow shapes. The seas are calm so I will not grow seasick. Boat and sun are unobstructed. Tomorrow, as Dave captains us to the island of Grenada, the wind will scream with squalls at 30 knots. He and I will enjoy having our hands full. But for now, I take pleasure in giving my boat full rein, allowing her to lead me, show me what she can do. Her grace and willingness steal my breath.

Christopher Columbus sailed these same waters. His journal entries for this stretch of sea capture his puzzlement over frustrating, invisible currents. Without warning, my compass and electronics conspire and confuse me. My destination is Ronde Island. But the inflowing current and falling tide push the boat sideways at 3 knots—that means we go 3 miles west for every 5 miles south we travel. To drive “straight” I need to crab the boat 60 degrees east on the compass from where I want to head. It is a weird sensation. Our progress is ridiculously slow. I feel unsure. The constantly flowing river of my emotions turns grumpy. I miss the way things were. As captain I can assign duties, so—rather than continuing with something that is making me irritable—I ask Dave to take us in. He is more than happy for the job.

Uninhabited Ronde Island is remote. This rolling 2,000 acre paradise was listed for sale in 2007 for $100,000,000, making the real estate the most expensive island property in the world. It is, however, four nautical miles from an active underwater volcano named Kick-em-Jenny (thought to be named after the odd currents in the area). In 1939, Kick-em-Jenny blew her top sending steam and debris 900 feet into the air and spawning several small tsunamis. Since then, Jenny has raged at least 12 more times making our plans to anchor within the evacuation zone disquieting.

“Don’t worry,” Dave reassures. “The heat won’t kill us, the gas will.”

Anchoring along the protected windward shore, the Delta doesn’t want to catch. I comment on Dave’s fishing gear trailing behind the boat and he says, “O.K. Yeah, I’ll get it.” We both promptly forget about it.

With the boat seemingly attached to the earth, Dave swims to the anchor and dives to check its hold. He reports the light colored bottom is mostly solid rock. But, there is a layer of sand covered with floating vegetation. He dives again to help burry the plow by hand.

“Oh my God—I almost died just now” he claims while swimming back to the boat. He is shaken. “An underwater Sea Snake shot out when I jammed my hand through the vegetation. We missed each other by six inches. I would have been dead before you could get me to help.”

On board, I scan my husband from top to bottom. He is safe and whole. Catching his eye, I raise my eyebrows in question. A smile cracks his lips as he shrugs. There is nothing to do but return to the job at hand.

Together, we back and circle the boat in three lengthy attempts to get the anchor to catch. Dave losses his snorkel mask overboard in the activity. The fishing line wraps the prop during our maneuvers, causing us to lose the lure. After a bit I notice we left the fenders hanging off the toe rail all day. They bounced for 20 miles atop waves. One line is nearly chafed through rendering it useless until replaced.

Dave dives under the boat to cut the fishing line from the prop. I watch his bubbles. He doesn’t come up. Time passes. Panicked that he is stuck, I grab my mask and jump in to save him. He is gone, no where to be seen. I crawl back aboard and scan surrounding waters. At a distance, I spy him checking the anchor’s hold one last time. I make plans to throttle him for scaring me. But before I can fuss, Dinghy-the-Sailor Cat balances like an elephant on a drum atop the stainless bow rail. She jumps down to the deck and acts oh-so-casual when I holler her name.

What is happening? We don't drop things overboard. We don't stick our hands in dangerous places, leave fishing line trailing behind the boat, or dangle our fenders underway. Kitty doesn't climb the bow pulpit. And we certainly don’t lose each other on a 45 foot boat. Have we learned nothing in our time at sea? But then I remember, Yes. I’ve learned I do not rule my dominion. I welcome chaos, relax, and enjoy the show.

It is now late. I know we have a good hold on the bottom; we’re prepared for the high winds to come. I spread my feet, grip the starboard wire shroud, and arch back in the darkness to explore the galaxy with eyes and soul. There are more stars tonight than I think possible. I scour the bright stars half believing they are pinpricks in the shroud of my delusion revealing light from the ultimate dimension lying just beyond comprehension. Perhaps Kick-em-Jenny will sleep tonight, perhaps not. Relishing the mystery of it all, I resign myself to wait and see.

Tobago Cays

Wild Hair is floating on anchor in 8 feet of crystal water off the remote Tobago Cays. We are just 13 degrees north of the equator. We have an uninterrupted view east into the Atlantic Ocean. But, we are tucked sleepily behind a submerged reef so there is hardly a ripple in our azure sea.

Upon our arrival tonight, a local fisherman dashed over in his handmade bright orange boat and sold us a fresh 5 lbs lobster. We tossed it into a large bucket filled with salt water, and then swam for a long time in the spa-like ocean, melting away the day's heat and tired sailing muscles. After sundowners, we broke the lobster in half and cooked it in 2 pots. It was delicious and fed us all in grand style.

We decided the lobster was our early Easter Dinner.

Tomorrow, we will swim to the local turtle hatchery and snorkel miles of pristine reef.

Monday, we sail to Grenada, our final destination for this sailing season. We have about a week's worth of work to do on the boat before we can leave it on land, hoisted on stilts, for 6 months. We fly to Jacksonville, Florida on May 4th and then drive our car (stored at the boat yard of our cruising season's origin) back to Madison. I hope we remember how to drive. We should be home to Madison by Mother's Day.

I haven't taken an indoor shower in 7 months. Likewise, I haven't watched TV once during that same period. There has been no heat or air conditioning in our life; we are never separate from the climate of our surroundings. In 7 months, I have not moved faster than about 6 miles per hour. We have not had access to internet for nearly 2 months. In many respects, Dave and I feel ill-prepared, perhaps overwhelmed, by the thought of flying home.

Although we have not grown tired of each other's company, we are nearly giddy at the thought of seeing our Wisconsin friends. At the same time we are bewildered that this sailing season is nearly over. To where did the time slip?

Also, how could we have sailed so far? We never move very fast and yet we traveled two thousand miles. I was here the whole time and I find it a genuine mystery.

But then I don't know how I ended up being 51 with 2 capable and grown children.

Life baffles.

The Pirates of St Vincent

One day we were stalked by “pirates.”

St Vincent has a reputation among sailors as the island to miss. Violent crime and boat theft are common. The police are part of the problem; if you are boarded or robbed, don’t expect justice. Nearly all cruising sailors bypass the island, traveling instead directly from St Lucia to Bequia. This is how we found ourselves nervous and alone, five miles off the Atlantic coast of St Vincent on April 21, 2011.

There was no wind that morning. Worse, a current pushed against the boat’s nose at two to four knots, slowing our forward progress. Knowing we had many miles to travel, we motored at an aggressive 2800 RPMs. Even so, our boat speed was a measly three knots.

At 08:30, three fishermen fell into pace alongside our starboard hull about 100 yards off. Their colorful wooden fishing vessel sported an enormous outboard motor; they easily out-powered us and could do anything they wanted to do. After five minutes, they zoomed off out of sight, only to return again about 20 minutes later. This time, they paced us for what seemed like an eternity. I went below to retrieve the pepper spray and flare gun for Dave at the helm. For myself, I hid a couple knives in handy locations and packed away the rest. I readied the fire extinguishers to blast into the pirate’s faces and cripple knee caps. I locked one of two doors in the aft stateroom, hoping I could barricade myself—if necessary--inside.

The fishermen inched slowly toward WILD HAIR. Dave lifted the VHF radio microphone and pretended to speak into it while visually surveying the details of the wooden boat and fishermen. With that, our three pirates took off, motoring at a high speed 50 feet in front of WILD HAIR’s bow, disappearing into the morning mist.

The only scenario to these happenings we can imagine is that we were being targeted. In the vast space of the ocean, these fishermen were practically on top of us. There is no conceivable storyline as to why they were also traveling at three knots, other than they were plotting against us. They were not fishing; they were inching along by our side like stalkers. They were up to no good.

Cruising St Lucia

We had a whirlwind tour of St Lucia today.

Last night we anchored off a beach called Anse Cochon with hundreds of swimming tourists, a day cruise destination for the local Sandal's Resort (and others). Dave jumped in to check the set of our anchor and was surrounded by a flock of 4"stinging jelly fish. This was a first for us. He climbed out quickly and unscathed. Surrounded by vendors in various floating contraptions, we purchased a conch shell (from a man in a kayak) that had the tip cut off to make it a ready-made "trumpet." Now, we can blow our horn at sundown to celebrate the end of the day, a long-standing island tradition in which we had not participated because--sadly--we had no instrument. By the end of the day, all the day cruisers and local vendors left and we had a quiet anchorage almost to ourselves.

Knowing this was a terrific place to snorkel, and watching all the swimmers swim without incident, I felt like a weeny for being afraid of jelly fish. So this morning, with the tourists coming back in force, Dave and I hopped in.

There were no big jelly fish around. Phew. But, after a few minutes I realized I was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of baby jellies about 1/4 inch in diameter. It was like swimming through a jello mold peppered with nasty nuts. They were that thick. They felt like needles. It was very uncomfortable with some stings being significantly worse than others. Then, the cups in my bikini top started acting like a net. Oh my. Unmentionables were suddenly on fire! This was not funny.

I had to get out as soon as I could. Making my way back to our boat, a fellow on a day cruiser asked if the jelly fish were bad where I was too. YES! It seems they were bad everywhere in this bay. This begs the question: Why would all of the day tours bring visitors to a jelly fish incubator? Judging from my pain, I thought I would find an entire jellyfish dinner in my swimsuit top. But no, no jelly fish were harmed during this event.

As has been the case for the past week, we continue to suffer from no wind. So, today we motored down St Lucia’s shore to Soufriere, a very pretty town at the base of the Pitons (three oddly shaped mountain peaks rising dramatically 2800 feet out of the sea). Again, we were flooded by boat vendors that wanted to do odd jobs for us and sell us things. After driving in circles and looking at the amazing scenery, we moved south along the shore again.

Thinking we would spend the night, we anchored off a tiny fishing village called Laborie. It was a place known for charm and no tourists. Indeed, we were the only cruising boat there. We dinghied to shore and enjoyed a walk about town, stopping at the local bakery to buy bread. Farther down the street we noticed a sign for creole bread and a man coming up the side walk of the house. He encouraged us to go into the back yard and ask for bread. There we found a garage-type building with a very large concrete wood burning oven, and a wife selling lovely rolls baked by her husband. They made the bread early in the morning but the oven was still very hot! She charged us .25 EC each, or about 10 US cents per roll. They were supper delicious at our evening supper!

Motoring back to our boat about 3 pm we decided to leave Laborie altogether. The route into the harbor was tricky as it twisted awkwardly around coral reefs. Plus, the route was littered with floats and lines attached to submerged fish pots. Tomorrow morning we intend to depart early to sail to Bequia, the northern-most island in the Grenadines. The thought of trying to navigate the exit from the harbor in the dark gave us the willies. So, we hoisted anchor and drove out of there, following our "bread crumbs" on our electronic navigation charts. SCRRRAAAAAPE--we hit the coral reef. Knowing that coral is alive and that it takes years to grow we found the sound sickening. But, WILD HAIR did not get stuck aground nor did we wrap a fish pot line around our prop. We were safely on our way again.

Our day's final destination was Vieux Fort--the southern-most town on St Lucia. The guide book describes this location as a community without a single tourism bone. It is quite industrial and we are anchored under the flood lights of the shipping dock. But, it is quiet, safe, and we're secure.

At sundown, we took great delight in tooting our conch horn for no one other than ourselves. Plus, I'm pretty sure I finally saw the famous "green flash," a phenomenon of the atmosphere that happens when conditions are just so as the sun dips below the horizon.

I'm exhausted. I'm going to bed since we're getting up at 05:00 to head to Bequia for more adventures.

Martinique Work Boat Regatta

Anchored off St Pierre on the island of Martinique, this collection of native work boats assembled in the early morning hours for a race. Dave and I had never seen this rocking technique before. Crews dashed port to starboard to manufacture wind on an otherwise windless day.


We have successfully navigated to Trois Islet on the French island of Martinique and the hometown of Napoleon’s Josephine. Our harbor is so quiet I had to check our depth last night to make certain we weren't sitting on the bottom. The town is sleepy, charming, silent. The only sounds last evening were roosters, dogs, and crickets (deafening like in Wisconsin on a hot July night). Morning brought the sounds of song birds--something you don't hear much on the ocean.

Journeying through the French islands we have purchased warm baguettes in each town. I can tell these French islands are giving me a bit of extra padding around the middle. Plus, produce at the markets has been so fresh and tender--like a home garden.

The French in France know so much more English than they do in the islands. In all our travels, we've never been THIS clumsy. We have no translation dictionary or internet. I know just a handful of French words and 10 of them are counting numbers from 1-10. Three of the remaining words are "parle vous Anglaise?" Then of course there is fromage (cheese), jambon (ham), baguette, croissant, pain (bread), and poisson (fish). I can't spell it in French, but I know the sound "ooo-ey" means "where is." To tell the deli counter lady how many slices of salami we want, I have to say "dis avec dis" (or "10 with 10," meaning 20 slices). When she says "blah blah blah?" I nod. It usually works out.

When the bread man took our order for a morning croissant delivery, I had sudden recall of my high school French class and boldly asked "at what time in the morning?" but what I really said was "what time is it now?" Forget about knowing how many euros to pay for an item. We have to read what is written down or hold out a fist full of money for them to take the right amount. There is a lot of eye rolling. Some people are kind and will go out of their way to escort us where we need to go. Some people are simply not amused.

Yesterday, we bought a bag of super tender butter lettuce. However, the bag was enormous and most would have spoiled in our fridge. So this morning, I created 2 small bags of lettuce to give to our boat neighbors. Of course, they spoke no English. Dave and I drove our dinghy up to the stranger’s boats, babbling some nonsense (English), and then chucked the bags of lettuce onto their deck. Have we crossed some line as the crazy people in the harbor?

Today we took the boat into Martinique’s capital town for refueling, Fort-de-France. Arriving to the fuel dock, we couldn’t find fuel pumps or parking slips. Spotting some capable-looking folks I hollered to shore.

“Ooo-eh le diesel?” I bellowed. Imagine the stares. I repeated with greater annunciation, “ooo-eh le diesel?” Then, a chorus of gibberish sounding words spewed from the mouths of the Frenchmen. I shook my head and held up my hands in the universal symbol of “I don’t get it.”

Finally, a bold fellow shouted, “No diesel. All gone, one hour.”
My next question was unreasonably complicated, “When diesel arrives, where will… ooo-eh it be?”

My new friends turned against me, giving me the universal gesture of “forget you.” and resumed their private conversations.

Tomorrow we'll be heading from Martinique to St Lucia. It should be pretty straight forward. But, it is a long day so we'll raise anchor at 07:30. Our problem lately has been not enough wind so we've needed the assistance of the motor. Good old motor. It is helping us get to Grenada on time so we can make our flight home to Madison. More wind is due into the eastern Caribbean early next week. The legendary trade winds will return.

The French Fishing Village of Les Saints

Oh, have we been in a fun place: Le Saints--tiny French islands off the coast of Guadeloupe. This is an authentic tropical fishing village in an early tourism phase. No one comes close to speaking English here. It is unspoiled. Quaint, quaint, quaint. It's so lovely, we didn't even mind walking for hours in the warm rain, hand in hand. Can you believe Dave and I actually slept off our lunch on a picnic table at a remote beach?! Dave slept on the table. I slept on the bench. What a couple of lazy-heads! Luckily, the feral goats left us alone while we were unconscious.

Unless we're doing something fancy sailing-wise--I'll probably check my emails every other day. We just bought a bunch of satellite phone minutes that should last us through the end of the sailing season. But, the other day when it was important to let family know that our overnight crossing was a success, the "bars" of satellite reception kept dropping my email/call. It took 27 tries to send 1 email. That one email took hours to send and cost us $62.10. If our minutes are going to last until the end of our voyage, I'll have to go on a communication diet. But if we're doing anything risky, I'll keep family posted in a timely way.

Tomorrow we have an 18 nautical mile sail in calm seas to Dominica. It'll take only about 4 1/2 hours. They say this is to be the most tropical and most laid back island of all. It is known for its dramatic rain forests, tropical agriculture, and 7 potentially active volcanoes (most Caribbean islands only have one potentially active volcano). Because we're moving relatively quickly, however, we're going to have to save most of our sightseeing for next cruising season. This will be just a tease!

Bypassing Nevis and Montserrat

It is 03:47 as I sail past the island nation of Nevis. I am alone in the cockpit. Without warning I am engulfed in the smell of a pig roast. Someone had a special party on shore and I can practically hear sizzling, dripping pig fat and see scent waves undulating toward me through the dark. I am now hungry.

Dave sleeps below to ready himself for his shift at the helm. Our sail from St Kitts to Guadeloupe is 78 nautical miles. Traveling non-stop at five knots the trip will take us more than 15 hours. We want to arrive at our destination in daylight so we left St Kitts at 02:30. The wind blows a kindly 12-14 knots and the water slides past our hull in four foot waves. I tend to the boat’s needs. My mind wanders. Another hour passes.

Suddenly, I am overwhelmed by the smell of baking cinnamon and butter. I look up to see the lights of a new town on Nevis Island. It is nearly 05:00 on Sunday morning. The baker is at work. I breathe heavily and wish I could thank her for her familiar smells of home.

Mid-day Sunday, after my nap, I am back at the helm and sailing off the shore of Montserrat. In 1632, anti-catholic violence erupted in the British Island of Nevis, forcing the Irish population—many brought to Nevis as indentured servants—to flee to Montserrat. The island followed the economic development of the times, becoming a hub for a sugar industry built on the backs of slaves. When slavery was abolished and sugar production ended, island people looked next to tourism. That worked until Hurricane Hugo came for a visit in 1989 bringing 140 mph winds and damaging 90% of the island’s structures. Just about the time island residents regained their economic footing, the Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted in July of 1995, burying the capital city and forcing two-thirds of the population to flee. The volcano erupts even today so half of the island remains off limits to all and a new capital city is undergoing construction.

I sail WILD HAIR outside the volcano’s exclusion zone. Still, ash carried by the breeze settles onto the deck. Steam emerges from the caldera; clouds stack up in the moist air as the easterly trade winds approach. Miles offshore, a sweaty-earth smell finds its way to me, bringing to my mind the harshly sour sulfur springs of Yellowstone National Park.

The Sharks of St. Barts

At present, we are tied to a mooring ball here in St Bart's in a French national marine park. We will not be visiting the shore as we're moving quickly now to get the boat south. No need to bother about customs. Tomorrow (Friday) we'll depart early for St. Kitts. Then we'll sail overnight Saturday/Sunday to Guadeloupe.

When we departed St Martin today we first had to take our dinghy into town to clear out of customs. After waiting about 5 minutes for the office to open, I investigated around the corner. The ferry dock people said that no one from customs showed up to work today. The office was closed. So, we had to visit a local mega-yacht marina office and talk them into letting us clear out using their computer system for a $22 service charge.

Such is island life.

Tonight's unusual food experiment incorporating new-to-us items from the St Martin market includes: Catofine--a large, pear-shapped, Kermit-the-frog green vegetable that I will slice in half longways, boil in salt water, scoop out, mix with spiced meat, and restuff into the skin to bake. Plus, I'll cook a giant white yam and serve all with a tossed salad. Tonight's special cocktail will be a repeat of last night's: a guavaberry rum white wine spritzer.

But now it is time to snorkel this unique marine park!

Yikes. I took a quick snorkel and visibility wasn’t great so I hopped out and showered. Dave did laps in the water for exercise only to start thrashing oddly. First, he tried to climb up the anchor chain to the bow. Then, he made a dash to the boarding ladder. It seems a very large bull head shark spotted him and turned to approach. Eerily, when Dave tried to escape the water up the anchor chain, he lost sight of the beast. He felt lucky to get out of the water alive given the fact that the creatures jaw was wider than Dave’s shoulders.

There is something natural and unnatural about being part of the food chain.

The French Island of St Martin

From our anchorage under the “Witches Tit” (a hillside shapped guessed it), we take the dinghy to shore for a visit to the Wednesday market in French St Martin. Here, the Dominican Farmers come a sell their produce and fish. I am determined to buy at least one of every food that is foreign to me and learn from the vendor how to cook it. I take photos, draw pictures, and take notes. So, tonight's dinner is:

 Trigger Fish
 Cow Fish
 Dasheen
 and salad with island cucumber and tomatoes.

The trigger fish was "cleaned" when we bought it (no guts, no skin). But it looked hardly appetizing, reminiscent of my brother’s childhood educational model of a human without skin. The eyes were in place on the head and the meat and fins were all present. It wasn't exactly "restaurant ready." I broiled it with butter. It had a good flavor but it was very tough. Cooked through we could hardly get it off the bone. But, kitty was happy to help clean up the remains. My conclusion: I like my trigger fish better on the reef when I'm snorkeling. They are VERY PRETTY and VERY COLORFUL when alive. I couldn't help but feel that I had done something terribly wrong to transform such beauty into...that!

The cow fish was odd. Another wonderful fish to watch on the reef (Maggie will remember it's unique triangular shape and pointy eyebrows), the cow fish on my plate was less than satisfying. The locals call them "shell fish" because of their tough outter casing. When broiled, it smelled like lobster. Cooked, the shell easily crumbled away to reveal...actually...almost nothing. There was perhaps 4 tablespoons of meat inside the entire shell. And, what meat there was had an unpleasant bitter flavor. Kitty rejected this fish outright. Strike two.

The Dasheen is a potato-like root vegetable that looks like a larger version of something you'd remove in a dried clump from the bottom of your boot. I was told to peel it and boil it. I was to treat it like a potato so I simply buttered and salted it to serve. Actually, it was moist and very tasty--a sweet and mellow potato flavor--but extremely filling. It seemed to grow mysteriously in volume once swallowed. I could only eat about half of my usual potato equivalent.

The salad was delicious.

Dinner was accompanied by a Guavaberry Rum cocktail that I bought on the Dutch side of St Martin yesterday. This sipping rum has floating guavaberries in it (native to the island) and the heady spices remind me of Swedish glug. Yet, the rum has caramel overtones. For a cocktail, you add a shot of Guavaberry Rum to a glass of white wine.

While in town today we stopped at the real French Bakery and bought a baguette, two almond croissants for breakfast tomorrow, and a strawberry tart that I (breaking all healthy-eating rules) consumed for lunch. Who knew that my absolute favorite custard would lurk just below the strawberries? I believe today's strawberry tart was even better than the 3 chocolate dessert I consumed at the same bakery two days ago.

My tart lunch was followed by the biggest, ripest mango I've ever eaten. Filling a dinner plate, the fruit sent juices cascading uncontrollably down my chin. Can you say bliss?

It will be sad to say "adieu" to the French Bakery tomorrow. Our plan is to depart St Martin and head toward St Eustatius Island (Isn't that the patron saint of the inner ear?) We will likely hop from there to Nevis and then do an overnight sail to Guadeloupe. We don't want to stop in Montserrat along the way because the active volcano makes quite a spew; we will give it a wide berth so it won't trash our boat's deck! Our goal is to be in Guadeloupe (the half way mark to Grenada) by April 11. It looks like we will have cooperative weather over the next 4 days to make some tracks.

The good news is that Guadeloupe is another French Island. The eating continues!

Flamingo Beach Playground

Flamingo Beach on Culebra Island in the Spanish Virgins is rated (by someone) as the "Second Best Beach in the World" (for some reason). Dave and I liked the soft powder sand. The waves were playful, strong, and perfect for body surfing. The water was crystal clear and warm. The scenery (both human and landscape) was entertaining, beautiful. The park that surrounded the enormous crescent beach was filled with food vendors, campsites, and happy people. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans ferried to Culebra Island for a weekend holiday, joining Dave and I for our Sunday visit to Flamingo Beach. A note on scale: this photo captures only a small section of the whole.

A Hole in the Roof

I have six holes in the roof of my house, but my favorite is the one over my bed. The hole is low, sitting just 30 inches above my mattress. More than two feet square, the opening is large enough for breezes to penetrate and take liberties. As I lay resting in the heat of the day, I grow intoxicated as tropical winds swirl the minute hairs on my skin and playfully caress my exposed self.

Rain falls every night through the hole startling Dave and me into a rush to close the gaps. I spin from my pillow, drop the screen, and undo braces supporting the hole’s watertight lid. There is always a moment of revelation during this drill when I find my head through to the outside, intimate with the foreign night. Disoriented, I suffer bites from icy bugs on shoulders, face, and arms before I realize I am baptized by the rain. Stumbling upon the uncensored world while vulnerable is a holly nightly sacrament. Personal boundaries melt as I awaken and absorb the world as it is. I find union between the untamed night and my unguarded interior. For a moment, we evolve together.

I live on a sailboat in the Caribbean Sea. Over time I have developed histories with every part of my vessel, but it is the hatch over my bed that breaches my shell provoking an altered point of view. Sometimes, it can be a portal toward peace in a state of uncertainty.

On New Year’s Eve in the Bahamas several years ago, our vessel was disabled in a storm. Anchors would not grab to keep us safe even though we had tossed three at various angles and distances. As the wind drove, the jagged shoreline possessed gravity, drawing the boat toward sharp rocks and certain doom. My husband sat on guard; I was assigned to rest. As the boat tossed, I lay on my back looking through the opening watching the light atop our mast scratch rhythmically against Orion’s belt. The motion was hypnotic. The immensity of the universe penetrated my awareness, fears melted, and I grew calm. I saw danger and safety as two sides of the same moment. The crisis would resolve.

I cannot always be made porous; sometimes, it is necessary to seal myself from the world. Years back, my hatch leaked miserably in a seemingly endless drizzle soaking Annapolis, prompting us to sleep among pans and under a plastic cloth. Every morning I awoke delighted I hadn’t suffocated in the improvised bedding. It took time to invent an opportunity to learn how to re-bed the hatch without splintering fiberglass and bending stainless. After many drip-filled months, we mastered the task under the tutelage of a salty Floridian; he revealed the secrets of rubber mallets, wedges, mahogany sticks, mineral spirits, and silicone.

It is the interruption in the cocoon of the hull that breaks old habits, shifts my viewpoint, and dares me to embrace new relationships with creation.

My Spanish Turtle

Off the coast of Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands, I slide from the dinghy into the dim, blue scenery. I am at a place divers call “The Wall,” an uninterrupted expanse of coral that breaks the surface only to drop dramatically to a depth of 40 feet. The coral structures are gigantic, pristine. I cannot see an end to the reef. Dave and I stop swimming only when we are too cold to continue, leaving much of the reef unexplored. Heading back to the dinghy, I spy an endangered turtle. Not especially large, her shell is about 18 inches top to bottom. Despite the cold, I make her my pace car and for 20 minutes she and I circle coral clusters and pause for breaths of air at the surface. She sports a numbered tag on the trailing edge of her forward, portside fin. The tag makes me feel fortunate that she and I live in a world where some people nurture the whole of existence.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Buck Island Coral Reef National Monument

Slithering from known to unknown through the chop of Caribbean waters, I drop into the action of an underwater world. Friend or foe, I cannot guess in advance who is poised to greet in snorkeling’s first moments. Today, only sunbeams dash below the surface with the random grace of elbowed adolescents. Staying alert for sharks, I glide toward the marked underwater trail off Buck Island—a lump of land adjacent to St. Croix in the US Virgins. I am here to visit a new friend, the legendary stretch of massive Elkhorn Coral that surrounds the place. But, I register something wrong. Everywhere, horns of coral are snapped from their base. Like the day-after carnage of a civil war battlefield, broken coral bodies rest in unnatural postures—bone white, dead. Suddenly, I am consumed in a crowd of Blue Tang. Hundreds of dark, 10-inch creatures swarm too close, riding a gust of nothing on a mission. The ghostly effect reminds me that life once teemed. I feel accused.

Points of Sail

WILD HAIR is like a magnificent animal and it gives me immediate feedback when I ask it to perform. Stronger than the human frame, the boat will do as I bid. But, if I am careless, headstrong, or too eager in my bidding, the boat will comply but I will pay a price.

Everything related to comfort as we sail depends on the direction and strength of the wind in relation to my course heading. If a day is exceptionally mild with winds less than six knots and seas rippling at less than one foot, I can motor smoothly and confidently straight into the wind. If the wind blows in a strong breeze of 27 knots and the seas kick up to 13 feet, I can still sail peacefully, but I must sail away from the wind to be comfortable in these conditions. Were I to turn 90 degrees and sail across or into the 27 knot winds and 13 foot seas instead of away from them, the motion of the boat would be nauseating, equipment would be strained, and progress would be slow.

As a general rule, if my destination is 30 degrees off the wind, I can motor-sail comfortably into 10 knots of wind; if I’m headed 60 degrees off the wind, I can sail into 16 knot winds; if I’m aimed 90 degrees off the wind, I can sail happily in 21 knots of wind; and if I’m pointed 120 degrees or more from the wind, I can sail smoothly in up to 27 knots of wind.

Each day in my life as a sailor, I analyze the wind and seas in relation to my rhumb line. Some days, the heavens smile upon me and give me ideal conditions to reach my goal. More often than not, I have a choice to make: wait days or weeks for winds to subside or pick a new destination. Choices are confounded when my course circles around a point or an island causing me to experience a variety of angles to the wind. Then, I must gage the length and degree of discomfort I am willing to accept. Wild Hair’s log book is filled with miserable accounts of days we failed to heed common sense.

I believe Dave and I have been slow to consistently evaluate our level of comfort based upon the wind’s direction, adjusting the timing or tactic of our departure, for two reasons. First, we thought of ourselves as optimistic, enthusiastic, go-anyplace sailors. Put another way, we were naïve and hadn’t been spanked enough. Second, we were hard workers with a stubborn and pride-filled puritan ethic; we thought we could or should tough it out. Time and experience have proven that this is a dangerous attitude on a sailboat that quickly transforms a lifestyle of play into one of work—hard, uncomfortable, exhausting, dangerous work.

So, Dave and I are doing our best to learn this lesson deep in our bones. Alternating as captains, whoever is in charge on a given day must describe for the other the compatibility of the day’s heading to wind and sea conditions. Whoever is crew for the day has the right to eject the captain’s plan.

Coming to Zero

If the water would dry up and stop its runoff down the hills, if the rain would cease for just a day or two more, then the soup-green two-acre pond hidden behind beach and mangrove would turn—overnight—into a bed of salt, pure white crystals two feet thick. This is what the locals tell me about the phenomenon that happens annually around this time. But each day the squalls come. The defiant sun gleams even as clouds burst over and around us, releasing their freight into the small watershed. Rain events take only seconds, but moments of deluge dampen my hopes of harvesting salt by the shovel full.

These are the things that captivate my imagination as I sit at anchor on our sailboat in Salt Pond Bay, St John’s—one of the US Virgin Islands. As my plan for a half-day snorkel at this anchorage is revised into a week-long stay, I realize that this time was years in the making. Since taking early retirements four years ago, Dave and I have done our best to downshift out of the fast lane, let go of all schedules, shed most of our responsibilities, and experience what life is like when we stop the frenzy and come to zero miles per hour.

I told a few friends about our intention to “come to zero.” A beautiful place to dwell, the idea of stopping to absolute zero emerged as an outgrowth of my Buddhist meditation practice. I described zero to my friends as a state of just being, witnessing the present moment without a nervous need to fill my time. Zero is a sustained place of peace where my mind, my body and the words coming out of my mouth are connected, authentic. At zero, nothing arbitrarily happens; actions emerge by informed choice. Stopped, I participate in the world, but I don’t do more than my spirit can process.

My friends’ responses told me how odd this idea of coming to zero was in modern western society. Thinking the benefits to be self-evident, I was stunned when one person said, “So, is it a good thing to come to zero? Why would you want to do that?” Another person said, “Don’t worry. Something new will emerge in your life, soon.” Both parties failed to grasp my intention to return my life to zero miles per hour again and again from now into the future. This is my preferred state of being.

Sometime during our stay at Salt Pond, Dave and I finally came to zero. Day after day our bodies were filled with energy inspiring us to hike the surrounding hillsides and swim with turtles and trunk fish in the area’s reefs. I worked the length of the boat underwater, scraping barnacles and other growth from the hull. I wrote stories to clarify and share my travel experience. Dave and I enjoyed an active social life, sharing sundowners with local cruising families and cheering our Green Bay Packer’s to their Super Bowl XLV win at a rented seaside villa with six other Wisconsinites. Dave and I dined with a reggae band leader—a fellow named Grasshopper—after his closing set. From a place of deep listening, I was able to hear the artist’s pride at touching people’s lives through music, his personal heart-break about the full spectrum of human suffering, and his hope for happiness for people in all walks of life. Were I not at zero, I would have felt too shy to talk meaningfully with Grasshopper, a man from a world so different from my own.

It was while hiking in the hills above Salt Pond during our time at zero that Dave and I met Clause, a man from Denmark, stealing a few moments away from the group of 24 Danish young people for which he was responsible. In a venture newly launched, he and his business partner guide groups of 20- to 30-year-olds on three-month trips abroad so they might experience ecologically responsible travel, local community volunteer work, and personal growth training. Dave and I were mutually smitten by the program and the man. Although the idea is somewhat foreign in the United States, many cultures encourage young people to give back and grow through a set-aside period of community service after college. Dave and I—former professionals in medicine and business, each with histories of leadership in community nonprofits, and parents of two happy twenty-something adults—would be excellent partners in such a venture. Plus, we have the added know-how of managing a sailing vessel, a ready-made eco-friendly mode of travel. Perhaps we could swap our boat for a larger model and launch our own variation on the Dutch program.


I need to practice staying at zero for I am too new at this peace to be skillful. I need to memorize my way back to zero when life speeds me up. Although everything about this program makes sense, Dave and I have agreed to take this intentional retreat from lives marked by linear tasks and measured productivity. Ours is a spiritual promise to each other. I know I have not yet learned what I came to this point to learn. I know myself. Were I to start a new venture now, I would be swept into old ways. The gas pedal in my life is still familiar and hot; if I don’t ground myself at zero, I will find myself back in the fast lane for no reason other than habit. While I want always to give something back to the world and a program like this may be the right next step, I am not ready to divide my time into scheduled segments for a seductive cause.

So, I concern myself again with the mystery of sea salt. I write. I watch turtle heads break the surface every ten minutes or so for their requisite two breaths of air before diving to graze again on the sandy algae plains of the ocean floor. I smile as barnacles find a new toe-hold on my hull. I close hatches to the latest downpour of rain to prevent our bedding from becoming soaked. I am busy being present.

The Plan is No Plan

Nothing is the same after our two-week offshore journey from Jacksonville to St Thomas. Before, we rushed headlong into life’s pounding surf for fear of missing something. Up and down the east coast we hurried. Across the Gulf Stream and through the Bahamas we pushed, collecting experiences and stories like figurines for the mantel, to be enjoyed in the quiet, inevitable days of infirmary ahead. What caused us to rush?

Twenty years of hard work and habit had its grip on us like a drooling monster that refused to be shaken lose. We had years of sleep shortages, late arrivals, middle of the night worries, going to work and coming home in the dark. Peppered into the chaos was church—a time of scheduled group reflection necessitating cleanliness and organization on Sunday mornings. Also, the stuff of life pressed down: paying bills, cleaning house, buying groceries, managing finances, shuttling kids to piano and saxophone lessons, soccer and football practices, scouts, and shopping for school supplies and well-fitting clothes for fast-growing kids.

Without so much as a pause for a breath of air, we took this frenzied spirit aboard WILD HAIR. Thrust into the unknown we scrambled to learn faster than the mishaps could descend. There was fear in what I did not know. Suddenly, in this strange new big world, my fragile life was in my own hands. We left the safety of land and civilization. Our nerves sparked disagreements. Everything we did was to ease our insecurities: we hired captain/teachers, collected safety gear, upgraded hardware. We worked and worked on the boat with our old dogged determination and hardly a day off. We binged on improvements so we could binge big gulps of sailing. There was no equanimity in us.

But now—after our offshore journey—I am unexpectedly at peace. We are in a beautiful place, the destination of years of effort and planning. The boat is sound. Our skills are tested. I hardly care what is around the corner. My husband’s query as to the intended shape of our cruising destinations over the next six weeks earned my response: “There is too much to see so I’m not going to try to see anything. The plan is no plan.” To my delight, he saw wisdom in these words and quickly agreed.