Paradise, Loose Pants, and Party Crashing

The secretary pointed at a corridor to her right. “First door on your left is customs”, she said. I had just arrived in to St. John’s Antigua and was preparing to clear in to the country. I thanked her and made my way to a door that was slightly ajar. Through the crack in the door, I saw a woman in a blue uniform with her head on a desk, snoring lightly. I knocked, then took a step back to give her time to compose herself. After a “come in” wafted through the crack, I pushed the door open and entered. The woman, who introduced herself as Sage, was sitting up and blinking. She motioned me to sit in front of her desk, and pushed over a stack of forms. As I started filling them out, I saw Sage stand up to fetch something from the other side of the room. Amusingly, she had unbuttoned and unbelted her tight pants while she was sleeping. Completely unfazed, Sage held them together with one hand while she walked across the room to grab a stamp. Not bothering to rebutton, she returned to her chair. Her composure was so impressive that I was convinced this was a normal routine for her.
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Antigua customs officials turned out to be just as friendly as all the other Carribbean countries I’d visited. Sage was a motherly woman, concerned about my well-being and sanity for sailing alone. She gave me her number and said she wanted to put me up for the night in her house. She couldn’t envision that I was getting good rest on the Geck. I thanked her profusely but explained that my boat was my home, and I didn’t want to leave her for the night. I also wasn’t happy with the place I’d anchored and was planning on leaving once I was cleared in. We bid farewell, and I returned to Gecko.
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The next three nights I spend in Five Islands Bay, halfway down the western side of Antigua. Five islands is a magical location. It’s a huge bay, surrounded by green hills. Most of the land around the bay is national park, so there were almost no houses in sight. Right in the middle of the bay is an island called Maiden Island. I anchored in the lee of Maiden, and didn’t see another person come within a mile of my boat for the next three days. The water was clear and beautiful, the air sweet, and the nights full of bright stars. I set up the sailing rig on my dinghy and explored the shallow head of the bay. It was lined with deserted white sand beaches and tangly luscious undergrowth. I had finally found paradise.
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I ran out of freshies on day four. Since I don’t have refrigeration, it’s hard to keep fresh vegetables for very long, and I hadn’t provisioned for more than a few days anyway. I also needed to top up my water tanks and make a hardware store run. It was time for civilization.
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Jolly Harbor is just around the corner, and the perfect place to resupply. I arrived early in the morning and completed my errands by the afternoon. Like a hopeless addict, I upped anchor and returned to Five Islands for the night, telling myself that I had to leave for good the next morning. My plan was to sail to Falmouth, which is located on the southern side of Antigua. However, I hadn’t factored in the strong headwinds, and after a full day of sailing, and two hours spent trying to get around the southwestern corner of the island, I gave up and headed in to Carlisle Bay.
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Carlisle is a tiny bay with a little beach resort and not much else. I wasn’t crazy about the location, but it would be a fine place to stop for the night. I had just finished putting away my sails for the evening when two kayaks approached my boat. They were paddled by three jolly British vacationers. We chatted and I invited them onto my boat It turns out that they were three of one hundred and fifty pharmaceutical reps who were on a work retreat. They informed me that this was their last night and they were having a big party at the resort to celebrate. “It’s an open bar. You should sneak in”. I didn’t need to be told twice.
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That night, as the sun set, I heard the beginnings of the party. There was a live band, and the colorful lights twinkled all the way out to my boat. I heard what sounded like speeches and clapping. When the chatter was replaced by music, I decided to make my move. Easing into my dinghy, I rowed silently towards the beach and tied up on a small dock at the far right. Once my feet touched the sand, I straightened up confidently, and strode down the beach. The key to sneaking is looking like you belong. As the dance floor came into view, I paused and scanned for the friends I’d met earlier. Perhaps they weren’t there. Should I just go back to my boat? Suddenly a flamingo shirt caught my eye and I spied three familiar faces by the bar. My friends loudly introduced me around as the American on the boat, and quickly realized that my initial caution was unnecessary. Everyone was friendly, and nobody seemed to care that I was crashing their party. They were a lively bunch, and the rum flowed freely. Literally. Their company was going to need a crane to pick up the tab we must have left behind. We danced and chatted until the wee hours of the morning when we all parted ways. I waved to my friends as they retired to their hotel rooms. As I got back into my dinghy and rowed home, I decided Carlisle Bay wasn’t so bad afterall.
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Croissants and Wine

The anchorage in St. Martin smelled like cigarettes and cologne. I arrived with the sunset, running into the anchorage at 6 knots on a stiff breeze. I wanted to drop the hook before the sun set, and right as I finished coiling the last line, darkness closed in. I was anchored in Marigot Bay, which is one of the main ports of entry into the St. Martin.

Marigot Bay

The next morning, Q-flag fluttering from the spreaders, I rowed into the dock to go clear in. Clearing in could be accomplished somewhere called Island Waterworld. This sounded hilariously like knock-off of Disneyworld, and I pictured my passport being stamped by a weird French Snow White. Disappointingly, Island Waterworld turned out to be a marine hardware store. There was a computer in the back where mariners were to put in their boat and passport information. When the little printer above the computer spit out the completed form, the hardware store clerk stamped and initialed it. I was cleared in!

The long row in to shore

Marigot Bay is a large, crowded anchorage. I dropped hook at the very outer edge of the field of boats. This meant that I had over a half-mile row to get in to shore, but it was worth it for the breeze and the privacy. A huge sense of relief settled upon me on arrival. I had finally finished the worst of the easting, and I was getting further away from the more developed North Caribbean. The distinct French flavor of St. Martin was exciting. The cheese and pastries were amazing, the wine was cheap and delicious.

View from the fort

I made friends with a young woman who had boat-hitchiked across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands. She was currently working on a big yacht to save money so that she could keep sailing around the Caribbean. Paula showed me around Marigot and introduced me to her giant friend group. Because of this, I stayed in St. Martin almost a week longer than I had originally anticipated. The pressing need to push quickly through the islands was fading. I was finally relaxing into the salty stupor of an untethered sailor.

Paula and the captain of her yacht

Finally, there was no putting off departure any longer. I bid farewell to my friends and set sail for Antigua. The sail took two days and a night and was the best passage I’ve had to date. A soft breeze filled my headsail, and the gentle waves swelled demurely under Gecko. There was no headlong crashing into breakers, no rail in the water. Instead, the shy stars poked their heads out on a cool night breeze as the smooth black water slipped under my keel.

While underway, I figured out how to rig up a sunshade using my old (and super cool) Whinnie the Pooh blanket. Lying in the shade in the cockpit, listening to Harry Potter on audio book, and watching the sun twinkling on the waves, I melted into a happy puddle of bliss. Perhaps this was the mass appeal of sailing, I mused. It certainly was relaxing.

The afternoon slunk in on day two, just as I saw Antigua raise her shoulders out of the sea. Realizing I wasn’t going to make it in before the customs office closed, I changed course slightly. Next to the capitol city of St. John’s lies a small anchorage. Spending the night in the busy commercial port held no appeal. Instead, Geck nosed her way into Deep Water Bay and I dropped the hook for the night. I’d deal with civilization tomorrow.

 

Pickles for Breakfast

To clear out of St John’s, I hitchhiked from Coral Bay to Cruz Bay. It’s only about half an hour by road, but the sail would have set me back by a whole day since Cruz Bay is to the west, and the prevailing winds are easterlies. St. John’s was the easiest hitchhiking I’ve ever done. The first car I got in reeked of epoxy resin, so I felt right at home. A local man named Chris was driving, and he took me most of the way to Cruz Bay. On the drive, he told me about his experience with Hurricane Irma. He and his wife decided not to evacuate the island, since the house they were living in had withstood several previous ‘canes. He said what they didn’t realize was that Irma would funnel right up between St. John’s and Jost VanDyke in the BVIs. Apparently hurricanes don’t pay attention to international borders.

Top of St. John’s

The top wind speed recorded was 300 miles an hour. Chris and his wife were lying in bed when their porch was blown 30 feet up into the air and then sent soaring off down the mountain. Throughout the night, the rest of their house slowly started blowing away. They heard the kitchen get torn off and flung into the sky. Then the roof blew off. The two lay in bed with the rain pouring on their faces, watching bits of their house circle in the air above them. Finally, they decided they should leave the house. Chris stood up, and a metal wall slammed into him, knocking him back onto the bed. He and his wife picked their way through the wreckage of the road to try to make it to the fire house in Coral Bay. “Everything over 12 feet was gone, man. The wind didn’t care how big around it was. It was just gone. Every telephone pole was knocked over. There were wires everywhere. It took us four hours to go only a few miles.” When Chris dropped me off, my head was reeling with his descriptions. It was hard to believe that the sleepy little island had been through so much trauma.

The dinghy tie-up in Coral Bay

Once I got to Cruz Bay, clearing out was straightforward. The customs officers were surprised that I was sailing by myself, and we had the typical conversation where they said I was brave, and I said it was probably due to a shortage of brain cells. I took advantage of being in a larger town to go shopping at a ‘real’ grocery store. The prices of food on St. John make me a little weak at the knees. The locals say that if you want to do a big provisioning that you should take the ferry to St. Thomas, but I was just looking for a few freshies.

Exploring Marigot by foot

Even with a loaded shopping bag, hitching back was equally easy, and I was soon back on my boat and prepping to leave the following morning. I’ve been dreading the passage from St. John’s to St. Martin for two weeks. It’s due east, right against the trades. The wind had been blowing 15-20 for the past week with no signs of taming. I came up with a multitude of excuses to stay in Coral Bay. I told myself that the less I wanted to leave, the more it meant I had to go. With that rousing pep talk, I upped anchor and took off.

Traveler after I took the load off but before I repaired it

 

Half an hour after leaving, I tacked for the first time and noticed that the entire starboard side of my traveler was coming off. There was a good three-inch gap between it and the cabintop. Ah! Here was my excuse! Ironically, I didn’t want to stop now that I’d started, but if I sailed with the traveler like that, I’d destroy it. I dropped hook in an outer bay and did a quick fix on the traveler. The two outboard screws had stripped out of the cabin top and were free-turning. I gobbed some 4000 caulk on everything and tightened it down. Not beautiful, but it would get me to the next port. Throughout the passage, I kept the main carefully centerlined on the traveler so that it woldn’t pull unevenly on either side.

View from the fort in St. Martin

As soon as I upped anchor for the second time and rounded the headland, the full force of the weather hit me. It was snotty. Gecko was plunging into the waves, and the spray soaked me every time we dived into a fresh one. I have yet to get seasick on my boat, but the motion had me feeling a bit queasy. Again, the thought of turning back crossed my mind, but I pushed it away. This passage was going to suck, but it was short and it would be over soon. Tired of getting sprayed by every wave, I went below to lay down. That whole night, heat lightning flicked across the sky above me. At first, I turned off my battery breakers and sailed totally blacked out. Eventually, I decided that the more immediate danger was of getting hit by another boat, so I turned everything back on.

Surveying Marigot town, St. Martin

It was so rough, I was unable to do much. The first day out, I ate most of a jar of pickles for dinner. It was hot and stuffy in my cabin with all the hatches closed. I wet a pareo and laid it over my bare skin so that the evaporation would cool me off. Somehow, I slept.

The next morning was still rough, so I ate the rest of the pickles for breakfast while I checked my course. I was going to get in some time around sunset that evening. That thought cheered me up, and I went into the cockpit to tweak the sails. I was still getting soaked by every wave, and I soon became encrusted in salt. I would wash this off with buckets of saltwater. Sounds weird, but it works.

Beautiful sunset in Marigot Bay

Finally, just as the sun was getting ready to disappear, I arrived in Marigot Bay, St. Martin. It’s a long approach, and I was urging Gecko forward as though she was a race-horse. The bay is packed with boats, and I didn’t want to try to find a spot to anchor among them in the dark. The wind was strong, and I was zooming in under full sail at 6.5 knots. At the last minute, I rounded up and dropped everything, then motored to the edge of the anchorage where I dropped the hook. I had just finished stowing everything when the light disappeared.

The next morning, I rowed ashore to go clear in. There were some local islanders hanging out by the dock, and one of them came up to me as I was stepping onto the pier. “Man, I thought you was a dude out there rowing!”, he said. This is the second time I’ve been mistaken for a dude while doing something on my boat. I think it’s pretty funny because I don’t exactly have a boyish figure. That day, I was wearing short shorts and had my hair in two braids. People just see what they are expecting, I guess. Since we were already chatting, I asked my new friend where Island Water World is. This is a local marine hardware store that will also clear you in somehow. “I’ll take you there, man”, I was told. We had a pleasant walk. I leaned his name was Rodrigo and that he was from Anguilla. His girlfriend lives in St. Martin, so he comes over on his boat to visit her. Rodrigo dropped me off at Island Water World and waved goodbye.

After clearing in, I wandered around town. St. Martin is French-owned, and their food is amazing. I’ve been eating so much cheese and bread and good cheap wine that I’m worried about the freeboard on my dinghy. I’ve found everyone I meet to be extremely friendly- both the local islanders and the French. I had a religious moment at the giant grocery store- the SuperU. I hadn’t been in a grocery store this nice since leaving the Statees over a month ago. The prices were reasonable, and the produce so beautiful it made me want to curl up with it on a blanket and watch the sun set. I’m planning on staying here until the end of the week, and then my next stop is going to be Antigua! The adventure never dies.

Oriental and Away

My last two weeks run to Oriental were blissful compared to the cold windy slog I made from Maine to Virginia. I ducked into the intracoastal waterway after Portsmouth and motored through the Dismal Swamp. In order to make it between two of the locks at either end, I had to crank up Geck’s little engine to 5 knots, the fastest it’s ever gone.

My first lock! It was pouring rain, but I enjoyed every minute of it!

This was the absolute slowest I could go between the locks and make the next timed opening. To accomplish it, I had Geck’s 10-horse at full throttle. Funny smells wafted out of the cabin as all the carbon burned out of the twists in the engine piping. Luckily there was no wind or current against me, and I obsessively checked engine temp and the sea strainer to make sure I wasn’t going to overheat. I barely made the second lock, and then breathed a sigh in relief as a throttled back to a happy 3.5 knots.

First sunny day in the intracoastal. I’m down to only one layer of clothing!

I sailed down the Alligator river and anchored at one of the bends in the bottom that night. When I arrived well after dark, I saw the anchor lights of at least 10 other boats scattered throughout the two large bends that served as a protected anchorage. I had finally caught up with a fleet! The next morning I woke up with the sun and left before anyone else. Since there was no wind and I was motoring again, I was slowly passed by every boat within the first few hours. They all waved cheerily, and I felt as though I was really getting somewhere (except for the part where everyone else was getting there faster. Wherever THERE was).

Dewey mornings south of Alligator River

I actually allowed myself to take a weather day in Belhaven (it was raining). I was ahead of schedule at that point, and I realized that I didn’t have to stand in the pouring rain all day if I didn’t want to. So I stayed below and made cookies, only venturing out for a walk during a lull in the weather. I even went for a swim in the disgusting brown water when the sun came out later.

Downwind run to make an anchorage before dark. Spoiler: I made it two hours after dark

After spending two nights in Belhaven, I sailed an easy 30-mile day and ended up anchored out in a small deserted bay halfway to Oriental. That night was the first time it was warm enough to sit in the cockpit and watch the sun set. I brought out a book and my down jacket, and felt an immense happiness settle over me. The night was whisper calm with a full moon. The water was glowing in the starlight, and I did a crazy moon dance around the deck, whooping and singing loudly at the empty night. At least I think it was empty. If anyone was trying to sleep near Bonner Bay on November 20th, I’m accepting tips for the show.

My first sunset in the cockpit of the trip

I arrived in Oriental on Novermber 21st, the day before Thanksgiving. My initial plan was to make my way into Whittaker Creek, where I would eventually be leaving my boat for the winter. However, I ran aground a couple of times in the channel so I gave up and went around to anchor by the bridge. I later found out that you have to stick close enough to the reds that you can high-five each one as you pass it. If it’s still looking sketchy, you can go outside them. And if you still can’t get in, wait for the wind direction to change and it’ll blow more water into the creek.

Almost to Oriental and finally not wearing pants

I spend a lovely Thanksgiving in Oriental with some old family friends, and then successfully (this time) made my way into a slip at Whittaker Creek Marina. Nine days after arriving in Oriental, I said goodbye to Gecko and got on a plane to fly back down to work. While it wasn’t the most relaxing sail, I had pushed Gecko hard and fast and made it from Maine to Oriental in 25 days. The only times I used my engine were for stretches of the intracoastal, and the occasional push if the wind died. The average wind speed I experienced was 20-25 knots, with temperatures averaging in the high thirties. Leaving the Geck to return to work was much harder than I’d anticipated. I had another work list of projects that had to be completed before I left for the Caribbean, but I hadn’t had time to start any before I took off. I patted Gecko on her stupid leaky bow and told her that I’d be back soon.

Back in Punta Arenas in the canopy of a tree