7th May

(from Steve again)

Lilly puts out to sea again from Cartagena, Colombia.

The plan (as ever subject to modification on the way!) is for a single long passage to the Azores (some 5,000 miles away).  The first 900 nm or so will be heading a bit E of N and aiming to pass between Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, thread through the Turks and Caicos Island, keep heading roughly NE until they pick up the more favourable winds with a bit of W in them to carry them towards the Azores.

For this first part of the passage the prevailing winds are the NE trades so they can expect to be fairly close hauled most of the way. But they set out with the wind a more favourable Easterly of around 15 kts – a much more comfortable direction. As ‘they’ say, you can choose the weather you depart in, but can only accept whatever follows.

Passing close to the islands, though they don’t plan to stop, they may get enough of a signal to send a message. Otherwise it may be 6 weeks (or so …) before we get news of their passage …

They crew sound entirely happy and positive as they settle into what has become the familiar routine of life at sea.

Guna Yala – A Sinking Paradise

By Nick

Visiting the Guna Yala (San Blas) has been a profound experience. The Guna Yala is a largely autonomous province of Panama stretching for 230 miles of the Caribbean coast until the border with Colombia where we spent two and a half months. It was a privilege to be amongst these indigenous people (‘The Guna’) who’s values towards nature and one another are rooted in a spirit of harmony, peace and co-operation. Attitudes towards community, sharing of resources and ‘work’ that are revolutionary to the western ear are second nature to the Guna.

It’s impossible not to constantly draw comparisons between The Guna and life at home. A commute for a Guna might involve a leisurely sail or paddle to the mainland in a dugout ‘Ulu’ in order to tend to vegetables or collect fire wood for a few hours. A world away from the archetypal frenzied rush to get to work involving packed trains that was the norm for me in my London days.

The Guna people live in an abundance of the important elements of life. Their natural environment (for now) is bountiful and they are able to self-sustain themselves well; but most strikingly the Guna are rich in time. Time for their family, time for community and time for just existing slowly. This is not to sugarcoat or fetishise their lives, they of course have problems and they are not perfect but there is something at the core of their culture that suggests powerfully that these are the type of people that our extractivist culture must learn from if we are to mitigate or slow the effects of the catastrophic climate breakdown we face.

It is the subject of dramatic climate change, specifically sea level rise, that ultimately landed the biggest emotional impact in relation to the Guna. As weeks passed and a love of the islands grew so did feelings of anger and sadness as the reality began to land that soon all the Guna will have to leave their islands for good. All but a small handful of the 300 odd low lying sandy islands are doomed (around 50 are inhabited often densely). Doomed because most of the rest of the world hasn’t shared their respect of nature. A global system that has exploited this planet under guiding principles of greed and accumulation has committed the Guna’s islands to watery graves due to sea level rise. Within a generation this paradisaical archipelago will be gone, vanished, washed away. Even knowing this it takes a while for the facts to sink in. Personally it felt like there was a cognitive reluctance to accept that, for example, my newly born niece will not be able to visit the Guna islands if she waits till she’s my age because they simply won’t exist. There is denial even within some of the Guna communities about their sinking islands. It’s possible that this new hyper impermanence of the natural world is just too hard to accept even if you are watching your islands shrink before your eyes.

The abuse of the Guna by the outside world is not a new phenomenon. After the country of Panama was created by America 100 years ago the Guna’s existence and territory was immediately under direct threat. For America the stealing of the land we now recognise as Panama from Colombia was a natural step in their explicitly racist imperialist project. In 1912 President William H Taft declared “the day is not distant when three stars and stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory: one at the North Pole, one at the Panama Canal and the third at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, is already ours morally”.

America’s interest in Panama of course centred around The Canal control of which represented power over a large proportion of global trade. It was however not just shipping but banking that was set to prosper. It has been described that “in 1903 the administration of Theodore Roosevelt created the country after bullying Colombia into handing over what was then the province of Panama. Roosevelt acted at the behest of various banking groups, particularly JP Morgan & Co, which was appointed the country’s ‘fiscal agent’.” Immediately the new country was used as a tax haven and to this day the trend has continued. Due to secretive banking laws the exact scale of sleaze and thievery hidden in Panamanian bank accounts remains a matter of speculation but it is known to be ‘one of the filthiest money laundering sinks in the world’.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner Roosevelt’s Panamanian project became a direct threat to the indigenous people’s way of life. The Gunas’ land and culture were set to disappear as a process of ‘westernisation’ was initiated. Whether through schooling, clothing, policing or land enclosures the Guna were oppressed as subjugation was attempted. This forced assimilation partly came through legislation. In 1919 Panamanian President Porras banned the Guna women from wearing traditional dress, nose rings and leg and arm bindings. There is an incredibly strong link between the Guna traditional dress and their culture. The Gunas rebelled in kind with an even greater number of Guna women than before the ban adopting the traditional dress.

Organised matriarchally, one aspect of Guna resistance took the form of lullabies. Sung exclusively by the women the lullabies were used to educate the children on behaviour and the importance of common sharing. This one just one of the tools along with a rich oral history that was used to educate and empower the youngest generation of Guna’s to resist the cultural assimilation programme.

In February 1925 the Guna Revolution began involving attacks on Guna islands that were under the control of the Panamanian government and police. The revolt lasted just four days but was formidable enough to force the Panamanian government into negotiations and by 4th March an historic peace agreement was signed followed by a treaty in 1938. The first indigenous people in Latin America to have their rights formally recognised, the Guna Yala was enshrined as a reserve. The fight however by no means ended and attempts to encroach on their land and their way of life have continued ever since. In the last 30 years tourism has presented new battles to fight for example in the form of foreign developers wanting to build hotels and also the more the subtle cultural threat that is presented by increased exposure to ‘westerners’. This has recently been exacerbated by the proliferation by mobile phones although some of the islands (they have a high level of autonomy) have approached this threat head on with bans on television and phones.

The fight for cultural integrity and health is an ongoing process and one fought on many fronts. Nono met up with Signora Antonia, a Guna feminist activist who had been the Guna representative at COP26 recently and discussed, amongst a range of topics, the experience of Guna women that birth in hospital in Panama City. The women are not allowed to be accompanied by traditional midwives, family or partners so they find themselves in an alien environment where the only language spoken is Spanish meaning that those who only speak Guna are completely unable to communicate and therefore disempowered. This is just one example but it’s representative of the second class citizen status they are subjected to by much of the wider Panamanian society.

Given the smiley, calm and humble disposition of almost all the Gunas we met it’s not always obvious at first glance the struggles that they face but some aspects are totally unignorable. One of these elements is the ubiquity of rubbish. This is not a problem of rubbish of their own creation but mountains of plastic that has washed up on their beaches or in their mangroves. It’s visceral to experience the juxtapose of idyllic islands littered with polluting rubbish that has been carelessly sent to the Gunas by winds and currents. As with sea level rise the plastic pollution is emblematic of a global system that cares not about the consequences of its actions. A system that, unlike indigenous beliefs, doesn’t consider it a duty to protect the environment for generations to come.

One thing for the Gunas that is sure is that the future will involve huge changes. They will leave their islands and return to their mountain roots. In this regards they are more fortunate than other vulnerable populations around the world. The Gunas have land, they have the ability and the knowledge to be self sufficient as they have been before but this will surely not diminish from the loss they will feel when they lose their islands. On a personal level it has made a strong impression and will provide easy access to a memory that demonstrates unequivocally the need for immediate radical change. Sometimes the urgency of addressing climate change can be diminished as it’s something that will effect other people first but having met some of those ‘other people’ and looked them in the eye and shared a smile it’s impossible to feel any emotional distance.

To the Gunas I would say simply thank you, we will take you in our hearts always.

Panama and the Guna Yala

Panama and the Guna Yala

By Kieran

We were all pretty excited to come to Panama, a place where none of us had been before, a country we didn’t know much about apart from it having a ruddy big canal, and that the San Blas region covered most the Caribbean coast, east of the canal.

We soon learnt that the San Blas was the Spanish name, the local indigenous name is the Guna Yala – land of the Indigenous Guna people.

Our first port of call was Linton Bay, an anchorage sheltered behind a jungle covered island, a small marina and boatyard and a small village with a shop and a couple of restaurants, half a mile away.

Here we were able to check in with immigration and the ‘port captain’ (all offices being converted containers!) and receive instructions that we were to get to Colon to apply for a cruising permit which could be collected a week later in return for 200 dollars, the US dollar is used when in note form, coins are Panamanian.

Linton Bay itself was a pretty nice place, a family of inquisitive spider monkeys lived on the nearby island and howler monkeys could be heard at dawn and dusk, in the jungle that fell down from the mountains behind, right to the coastal road. The sailing fraternity felt a bit more gruff than in the West Indies where there were lot of catamarans, and white plastic, here there were a few boats in various states of sinking, a couple of masts poking out the water, and a few boats that looked like they hadn’t moved for a while but often still inhabited! It was nice.

Colon was an eye opener – as is everything after much time out getting zen with the sea and the elements. It doesn’t feel right to be too rude about anyone’s home, but it kinda lived up to its name – we later learnt that the government wanted to pretty much rebuild the central part of town and had therefore neglected to give any investment towards its upkeep for what looked like the past 30 years, it was crumbling, the poverty was blatant, rubbish everywhere, and no sign of any rebuilding so far!

Mission accomplished however and pineapples were 50 cents! Plus the buses were a hoot – they’re the old yellow American school buses, brightly repainted and pimped to the max, dripping with chrome and tassels, belching out clouds of black smoke out of the huge twin chrome exhausts which run up the buses back end skyward. And blaring out poppy Salsa-ish djs mixes.

Next on our to do list was to apply for a new passport for Morla. Failing to understand anything concrete over the phone, Nono and I decided that to visit the embassy in Panama city would be prudent. So the two of us headed off for a city break, the girls happy to spend a few days with Nick, Rowena and Jean-Marc. Twas a treat, nice Hostel, complete conversations, cold beers, Halloumi burgers… though no luck with the embassy, we returned to Lilly in a hire car laden with canvas to remake all the sail covers and sun awnings, PVC to make a rain catcher, and merchandise from some of the biggest supermarkets I’ve ever seen! And a cruising permit.

Rowena, Nick and JM, keen to see some more of this diverse and varied country returned the hire car to Panama city, via a couple of nights as close to the jungle as was easily accessible, before we stocked up, fueled and watered and made ready to make the 40 miles West to The Guna Yala.

The Guna Yala we had heard a fair bit about – all good, and it was exciting to clap our eyes on the first palm covered, sandy, tropical island, but we had a smorgasbord from which to choose, an area of about 30 miles West to East and 15 miles North to South of 100’s of tropical islands, coral barrier reef, and an an indigenous culture autonomous from Panama, where to begin?

Coastal navigation on board is done using a chunky old toughbook laptop, on which we have files of the worlds charts in moderate detail – better in well trodden areas, not so good in more remote, we read that these charts were not good at all in the San Blas, similar story with a system called Navionics which Nick has on his phone, uncharted coral heads are a scary prospect! A cruiser, Eric Bauhaus however has devoted a number of years to accurately charting all of Panama, using techy GPS gear and writing a cruising guide, full of drone images of anchorages. With his digital charts on the computer, a GPS connected showing our exact position on said charts and the cruising guide book, navigating around the numerous reefs, islands and shallows becomes relatively easy. But, while on the topic – therein lie negatives too. As it’s easy, anyone can do it and I’m sure the Guna Yala is becoming more and more popular with sailors and charterers. On a more personal level, having such a good cruising guide means one tends to stick to the suggested anchorages, along with everyone else, like having a lonely planet guide, which certainly makes the planet a lot less lonely, but it becomes harder to think of going into the ‘unknown’ which so often can be more rewarding, but a little more challenging. Lastly on the topic is a point about technology on the whole – With the passing of time come more and more gadgets which make, what was once a hazardous and challenging thing to do, relatively easy, Engines on board, GPS, Autohelms, Electric winches which roll sails up around a stay or inside the mast. We spoke to some folk on a palatial Catamaran (complete with watermakers, freezers, washing machine etc.) who described how they would input a route on the computer system (waypoint to waypoint) and press go on the autohelm (electric steering) which would simply take the boat to their destination – like a driverless car without any safety features like sensors for other boats for example. To a far lesser degree, we are also victim to this modernisation, though Lilly is very traditional in her rig and we proudly do without the majority of gadgets, (she’d be an old landrover of the motoring world) we still rely on our motor and GPS which means we wind through tricky reef passages where we wouldn’t otherwise go, and maybe in less than ideal light conditions, (sun high and from behind). So it’s a fine balance – using the tools we have to explore beautiful anchorages but retaining our senses, keeping a keen look-out from up the mast where shallows are most easily seen from.

So it was that we spent the next 7 weeks hopping from bays to islands, winding through clusters of jewel like islands, perched in turquoise lagoons, sheltered behind expansive fringing coral reefs.

Snorkeling, dinghy sailing, beachtime, reading, spearfishing, pottering on boat jobs was the order of the day. The coral here was in great condition which was nice to see after previous experiences in the Pacific and Indian Oceans which even 10 years ago was seriously suffering, with bleaching and mass dieback; and so it was that snorkeling was fantastic especially with the girls, seeing sharks, rays, and every kind of reef fish… For the rest of us it was usually with a speargun, which more often than not put fish on the menu. Most common would be the Jacks – classic silver fish that would cruise the reefs to feed on the shoals of sardines, similar were rainbow runners or spanish mackerel, your best chance with these was to dive down and hang on to a rock in the hope they’d pass, Horse eye jacks seemed more territorial and favoured the deeper patches at 10 to 20 metres, 10 is comfortable, 20 is pushing the limits… Hunting snapper is different, they have a definite territory and a cave system and are shy, you get to know where they live then try and creep up on the cave entrance or dive down hiding behind a coral head and wait for them to emerge… you can spend an hour stalking one of these… Nick, JM and Rowena would sail off in Plumbob and be gone for 7 hours sometimes… you can get utterly immersed in this underwater wonderland.

Plumbob must of done hundreds of sea miles by now – sometimes Lilly would go on to the next anchorage and a couple of folk would do the trip in Plumbob… other times we’d go off and explore neighboring islands with a picnic, she’s become a much loved runabout!

There are blemishes to this paradise – on any visit to the beach one was confronted by a mass of rubbish; plastic bottles, shoes, nappies etc. The winds and currents carry the vast majority of this detritus from anywhere East – Colombia, the West Indies, Europe… it was obviously hard to ignore, so a beach walk was mixed with emotions of anger, frustration and helplessness, ‘When are we gonna stop producing all this sh*te?’ and what are the locals supposed to do with it?

Another more subtle worry was that of sea level rise, these islands are barely above sea level. One Island we anchored behind was shown in the cruising guide (and on the front cover in fact) to be covered in a forest of coconut palms but now had only 5 trees left, when we asked the fisherman, they spoke of a particularly big tide…. its not just the literal rise in sea level but also the waves – with slightly deeper water over the protective fringing reefs, the destructive waves are carving away the sandy islands – a lot of the windward shores were a tangle of fallen palm trees and water lapped over the beach to form pools on the island… Plans are now afoot for a couple of the village islands to relocate back to the mainland. Its interesting to note that climate change is not a clearcut phenomenon to the Guna – some that we spoke to saw it as a western fabricated notion… they wouldn’t or couldn’t believe that their mother nature would fail them!

It really felt like the front line of sea level rise, and results of our wasteful culture, and seeing the victims of that being amongst some of the least deserving… grrrrrr!!! I did some wee videos to document these points, not sure if I’ll publish them here or on faceache or something…

We were regularly visited by the locals in their ‘Ulu’s’ – dugout canoes – either to sell fish or lobsters, or Mola’s: these are their local handicraft – incredibly intricately sewn designs which the women sew onto their blouses, the traditional designs originate from bodypaints when they were forest people and needed less clothing. Its only in the last few hundred years that they moved out to the islands where they found life to be better – less insects, snakes, predators. I’m sure there are other reasons, like the fresh air, fishing, flat land, coconuts which is one of their biggest exports even today. Their permanent homes are on densely populated village islands closer to the mainland, the men will then spend the mornings tending to crops on the mainland, sometimes hours of walking from the coast or up beautiful rivers, others may go out fishing. Out on the tropical islands where our favoured anchorages were, there would often be families who would be staying days or weeks to harvest the coconuts – collecting and de-husking them ready to travel… or to be used at home of course, as they are a staple part of their diet (and ours!) Some of these island huts under the palm trees, simple palm thatched shelters with space for a fireplace and room to hang a few hammocks, were eye-wateringly idyllic.

The festive season was mildly ceremonious but barely Christmassy, the girls were heartwarmingly delighted and excited and appreciative of our efforts however, confirming our beliefs that we don’t need ‘stuff’ to have a special time.

After a lot of boring phone calls, scanned letters, a few tears, Morlas passport was sent to the Embassy in Panama early January. So it was that we made our way to Carti, which lay at the end of the only road into the Guna Yala; here was where all the supplies came through – gas, petrol, and tourists. Everything by 4WD, as was necessary for the windy broken, once paved, road to Panama. It was in a slight state of bewilderment at all the activity and vehicles, that we family jumped into the back of a 4WD, early one morning and made the 3 hour drive to Panama City once more. The jungle drive, being with Seren and Morla as they viewed their first massive skyscrapers and experienced a large city for the first time, with all its modernity, noise, traffic, variety of people, from desperately poor to overly rich, shopping malls bigger than the villages we had recently visited in Guna Yala, was a privilege and of course striking in its contrast. It was also enough distraction to barely give a thought that Lilly was off navigating for one of a very few times without me – Nick, JM and Rowena took charge, I imagine 3 days peace felt too short for them!

That was then, this is now – as I write we have left the area most trodden and the 30 mile stretch previously mentioned, and started down the coast of the Darien peninsular, still Guna Yala, towards the border with Colombia, due to the lay of the land and the predominant winds, it is not so suited to Island ambling, so there are no yachts here – The Island village we have been at the past days said we were the 3rd sailing boat this season. It makes for a whole different feeling – rewarding exploration, welcoming locals, a deeper immersion in the country. Having said that, the nature of this travel – being so self contained in our comfortable cocoon means our immersion is limited, days might pass without going ashore and our focus is life onboard. A few islands have waved us away – or asked us to stay in the dinghy while they shop for our provisions – that’s about the extent that Covid has affected us so far.

The past days anchored off the village island of Mamitupu have been a highlight, here we were warmly welcomed. A dugout was being built or rather sculpted under the palms, a gaggle of children for Seren and Morla to play with, a coconut press setup making coconut oil run by a gent who spoke English and we were able to quiz on some of the Guna customs. It is a matrilineal society, the women control the money and the husbands move into the women’s family compound. Its been noticeable as visitors that the women have a healthy degree of authority in the household and a general confidence. Its also noticeable that the men seem very humble, respectful, smiley, and there isn’t that chin up, chest thumping, bravado so prevalent in our society, or sexual attention towards the women which became nauseating, intimidating and rude for the women amongst us in the West Indies, but of course exists in varying degrees in so much of the world. Whether that’s due to the matriarchal nature of the Guna society or just the lack of exposure to the patriarchal and male dominated, sexualized nature of so much of our media, I can’t say but its refreshing and warming to be around.

Each Island seems pretty autonomous and unique, with their own ‘Saila’ or Chiefs making up the Congresso, who meet at least weekly to discuss the communities affairs, often attendance from the whole village is compulsory, It seems that it will be dependant on these Chiefs as to the degree of tradition that is adhered to, some ban television for example. Other villages are more westernised – more tin and concrete, and denim and leggings replace the traditional beaded legs, sarongs, molas and red headscarfs Then villages are grouped into six and the chiefs from each village will meet monthly. Once a year all Sailas from the 49 communities meet to discuss more national affairs. Alternatives to our top heavy, financially driven, self benefiting, egotistical, political systems are out there, if we were only interested to look and demand!

These photos are from a mothers day celebration we were invited to, generally the Guna aren’t keen on being photographed but were very happy on this occasion, so they are the only few we have of the people. The day was hilarious – sack races, climb the greasy pole to win the pigs head at the top, Ulu races, thread the needle races etc.

Though part of Panama, the lovely Guna Yala is a world away, I hope it stays that way – they have so much to show us, to inspire and teach; as seeing their beautiful way of life, its minimal consumption, its connection to the natural world around them, their clear healthiness both physical and mental, makes the lunacy and destruction of so much of our ‘developed’ consumer world, all the more glaringly obvious.

St Vincent to Panama: Diary of a passage

This is slightly old news now. It’s scribblings from our 1,050 mile 12 Day passage from St Vincent and the Grenadines to Puerto Lindon, Panama. We arrived in Panama 1st November 2021. by Nick

Day 2

It’s 2pm scorching hot and we are cruising along at a steady 5 knots plus a knot or two of current. We have been sailing for two days now and the ocean swell is growing as we put more distance between us and land. A lolloping 3 metre swell creeps up the stern lifting Lilly from behind and we surf down the waves as the water overtakes us. It’s generally pretty comfortable until the odd wave hits us at a funny angle sending the boat into a big lazy pitch and roll.

I’m on watch for the next couple of hours which, in conditions like this, means plenty of time for reading and writing. A scan of the horizon every few minutes to check for boats and half an eye on the compass to check that the wind vane self-steering is keeping on course is the extent of responsibilities for now.
We caught two Mahi Mahi this morning, our first fish of the passage. They are beautiful fish that mate for life so we were happy to catch both the male and female. They are creatures from a fantasy, iridescent greens and blues continually changing until sadly the colour drains out of them and they turn grey within half an hour of being caught. They make for incredible eating. We flash fried the fillets which are tender beyond belief andmade a broth with the bones and head plus bread fruit and cooking bananas (staples of the Caribbean).
On the subject of wildlife we have a stowaway in the form of a Blackpoll Warbler (like a tit) that found sanctuary on Lilly when we were about 30 miles West of St Vincent. It seemed lost offshore but over the last two days she has become entirely comfortable with the boat and us. She’s currently sat 1 foot away from me sat on the compass looking for more scraps of avocado. The children (Seren and Morla) have been hunting spiders which has served to befriend the bird so much that she will come and sit on our shoulders making us looking like camp pirates.

Day 4 (4pm)

We have had 3 beautiful moon-bathed nights so far and only one squall to interrupt the consistent wind and sea state. Another fish this morning, this time a beautiful chunky Albacore Tuna around 8kg. Too much meat for us in one day (we have no fridge) so with the pressure cooker we have seasoned and jarred a load of meat. It should be good for months like that, even improving as time passes.
The only real disturbance today was coming closer than is comfortable to a 150 metre long LPG tanker. As it got closer it appeared we were close to being on a collision course and it was only after finally reaching them on the radio did they change course but still passed 0.3 mile across our bow. Far closer than you want to be with these roaring behemoths. It was never a real stress being as it was in daylight and good conditions but we will see more traffic now as shipping funnels into towards the Panama Canal. It’s an entirely different experience when you see these ships at night. Distances are very hard to judge in the dark and it’s an art to get a good sighting squinting through binoculars with the boat moving always under your feet. Tonight my watches are 7-10pm and 4-7am. The sunrise watch is normally a joy.
Experiencing the first signs of dawn on the horizon and relishing the slow transition to daylight with its change in atmosphere is engaging and time flies subduing fatigue. This is also the moment to set the fishing lines so there’s the added interest of a potential dawn catch. I’m on watch in two hours so time for my bunk and hopefully a couple of hours valuable rest

Day 5

Exhausted today after not sleeping well last night. I had stayed on after my first watch to hang out with Kieran and extraordinarily, for the third time in 24 hours, we had a massive ship heading towards us. Again we radioed to request a change of course as it was not obvious that they’d seen us despite us putting on our bright deck lights. We sat and watched all 250 metres of container ship pass 0.5 miles ahead. Their silhouette looks incredibly menacing at night. Hopefully we have had our share of close interactions like this, it’s far more normal to see ships sighted passing miles away on the horizon.
My second watch at 4am started with a splash. I arrived on deck bleary eyed with my cup of tea to be promptly drenched by a sloppy wave that slapped the side of Lilly. Back down below to put dry clothes on and start again. These moments are far more manageable here in the warm waters of the tropics than they are, say, in The Irish Sea when it’s a much sterner test of your sense of humour.
After that it was much more steady sailing with a firm wind from behind and manageable sea state. Interactions with wildlife are especially treasured off shore as there are less and less birds around so it made my night when a Petrel (about the size of a pigeon but infinitely more athletic) landed right next to my head on the life line. They seem to like human contact because the night before one landed on Kieran’s head and started fluffing his hair. Curious beasts!
Update on our stowaway Warbler is that she is now firmly part of the crew, always around us and now sleeping next to the chart table despite nearly breaking her back when a jar rolled on top of her yesterday. It’s possible her name is Daffodil but the girls debate it regularly so this is subject to updates.
Again caught two Mahi today and we will eat most for dinner, salting the excess to eat another day. Just finished reading my book (The Art of Joy by Sapienza, recommend highly!) and moved onto a non-fiction account of a family that had to abandon their boatin the Pacific and drifted for over 30 days in their life raft and dinghy before rescue. It’s slightly morbid but also important for us to discuss and plan, as we did last night, what we would do in case of a similar emergency. Hitting a sleeping whale or semi-submerged shipping container could be possible causes. I’ve put 40 Marlboro Reds in the grab bag so feeling relaxed about our prospects.
We are approaching half way in terms of distance, heading now more SW as we have passed the Venezuelan/Colombian border. We have sailed mostly in the middle of Caribbean Sea so far to avoid potential bad weather off the Colombian Peninsular , which has a reputation, but also to be far from the Venezuelan coast to eliminate the slim chance of piracy.
We picked up a weather fax last night and nothing to worry about for now. The slight concern is that we will have not enough wind as get a few hundred miles from Panama which could make for a teasingly slow and drawn out end to the passage. My guess is itwill take us 12 days in total.

Day 7

It’s late morning and for now we still have plenty of wind. Yesterday we even had to start reducing sail area as the wind increased and we are now running down impressive ocean swell. Generally comfortable save for one wave every half an hour that drenches those that are sat on deck on the windward side.
I was having a shower this morning and it’s worth a few words to describe this comedy process when it’s rough. Generally an undignified scene, you grab a bucket of limited fresh water and head to the foredeck where the movement of boat is most exaggerated. Then, legs apart for balance, the game is to not face plant while the bow lurches up and down waves. It can be similarly exhilarating taking a shit which is also rudimentary (bucket and water on the foredeck) but the stakes are that much higher if you fall over!
While writing this there was a shout of ‘Dolphins!’ from on deck and I paused to spend 15 minutes captivated with the pleasure of watching a large pod play around the bow of the boat. The most energetically performing dolphins we have seen since leaving Wales they acted like surfers waiting for the biggest waves to then leap clean out of the water.
Sometimes executing elegant arcs but often, and more entertainingly, shooting vertically out of the water and landing with a phenomenal belly flop. Speaking of their bellies they had pink undersides adding to the richness of the scene.
We’ve had a nice morning for wildlife with a huge Osprey at dawn coming to view us just above the masts. Took a day off fishing yesterday but back to it this morning but only had a small Barracuda on the line which we sniffed at and put back. With the superior meats of Tuna and Mahi around we felt justified in being picky.
Time for a strong coffee and to take the bread out of the oven. I’m on watch this afternoon and we have seen a few big logs float passed today so we have to be extra vigilant. Not a nice thought that we could crash into one of these at speed.
Update on our stowaway Daffodil is that she’s has abandoned us after making an ambitious bolt for land flapping furiously in the direction of Colombia. We hope she makes it.

Day 7

It’s incredible how sailing can feel so different in such a short space of time when the weather changes like it has in the last hours. Late afternoon yesterday I was dozing on a dinghy on deck in the calmest conditions of the passage so far then nightfall brought with it brilliant flashes of lightning from a big weather system in the direction of Colombia. We gybed to sail further offshore partly to improve our course also to move away from the weather which might be associated with the land.
The sea state was beginning to pick up as was the wind. By 10 pm there was distant lightning on the horizon all around us but still we stayed dry and I went to bed wondering how conditions would be when I got up again at 4am.
Jean-Marc and I began our early morning vigil and the drama was cranking up and soon we were in a theatre of lightning storms all around us, closer than before. Every few seconds the sky, the sea and the boat were momentarily and brilliantly illuminated with repetitive flashes. Fork lightning was beginning to be a regular feature of the show, some staying in the sky and reaching from cloud to cloud and others crashing down and connecting with the horizon. Its gets the heart going but counting the seconds to the booming thunder we guessed the storms were between 15 to 25 miles away and not getting much closer so it was easy to sit back and absorb the drama without anxiety. There is a part of me that really wants to experience being in an electrical storm at sea but
equally I don’t want to wish it up on us so no problem if it doesn’t arrive!!!
12:10pm: It arrived!! I’m writing this in the middle of a phenomenal electrical storm with fork lightning FAR too close for comfort with thunder shuddering what seems like a split second later. It’s windier now and we have taken down more sail area, racing down the waves with just a reefed foresail and headsails. You feel like such an obvious target for a lightning strike with two great masts sticking 15 metres up towards the weather. We have put the handheld GPS, VHF and mobile phones in the oven as a precaution. I’ve no idea why it works but apparently it can protect them from an electrical surge if we do get hit and they would be vital if we lost our other instruments.
It’s very hard to describe this atmosphere. It’s so intense, so powerful being in the middle of all this. Utterly exhilarating! Amusingly the kids are here down below playing with their toys, completely chilled and unfazed as if it’s just another day. Where’s the fuss?

Day 8

Over the late afternoon yesterday and through the night the clouds cleared, the wind dropped and the swell calmed steadily until now where we enter a different paradigm.  We are becalmed and it’s bliss. Mainsail down, sunshade up and time for swimming. We are 160 miles from Panama and there is a small low pressure ahead which we anticipate will not move so soon we will decide whether to use the engine a bit to help our onward progress. It’s a real shame to consider using diesel but we could be here over a week trying to pass a hundred miles if we are to be purists about it. For now we are just enjoying the tranquility.
This morning we had a very special moment. We were sailing very slowly and over 20 dolphins came to visit Jean-Marc and Seren who were hanging off the bobstay under the bowsprit to have a dip. We ‘hove to’ (stopped the boat), put snorkel masks on and jumped in to swim with them. We were incredibly lucky because they were not spooked, instead they swam underneath us to watch us with interest at a safe distance. I was unprepared for how emotional it would be to swim with these incredible animals. The visibility was almost perfect and diving down towards them listening to their distinctive clicking and squeaking provoked an instant lump in the throat.
We came crashing back to reality moments later however when one of Jean-Marc’s swim fins was dropped overboard and neither Kieran or I could dive quickly enough to grab it as it rapidly sank. We are bloody clowns compared to the dolphins! An extra point of interest is that dolphins mainly seem to visit us when we have loud music on. Party animals.

Day 9

We decided to motor through the night to clock off a few miles and after a snooze I came on deck to meet our latest and most eccentric stowaway to date. Clumsily perched on the hatch above the companionway was a massive heron. At least a foot and a half tall it was described to have the air of an undertaker about it with its hunched stance, gangly limbs and long pointed beak. Every time you went down below you would find yourself at eye level with our funereal friend less than a metre away. It added a totally surreal aspect to the nights trundlings.
It’s the afternoon now and only 80 miles to go. We motored again this morning and then stopped for lunch and a swim before a squall sent us charging at 7 knots in the right direction. Feels good to sail again and landfall will be possible in the next couple of days.

Day 10

Confronted by a headwind last night we scrapped the idea of trying to push to arrive today and we are just sailing the best course we can. This morning we got our first glimpse of Panama 35 miles away and can at times smell the forest. Morla (5) literally jumping for joy!
The night time breeze has dissipated so we are becalmed again but the sea is flat and this situation has provided for some more beautiful moments. I put fins on and went swimming an hour ago. Free diving off shore is very special. The colour of the water and perfect visibility makes the experience utterly expansive. When in the water there was a cry of ‘fish!’ from on deck and Jean-Marc and I swam over to meet an excitable school of small tuna. I dived on them to get closer but I found not just tuna but also a bloody shark below them! Annoyingly I didn’t fight my instinct to get sharply out of the water but I did fulfill an ambition to shout ‘SHARK!’. Jean-Marc stayed to look on until we saw there was more than one shark and he found his comfort limit there.
We were back in the water shortly after hoping to see them again as the tuna continued to school not far from the boat but they never came close enough again. It was back to simply enjoying the mesmerising experiencing of free diving in incredibly deep water. It elicits an infantile joy, trying to push boundaries and diving deeper and longer as you relax more into it.
It’s a very nice moment of the passage to be slow after mostly brisk sailing. No rush to get there and a time to unwind before land which will be overstimulating after being at sea.

Day 11

I had a preconceived image of arriving in Panama in lush sunshine but it was much more like a typical Welsh wet day. Completely grey skies and rain intensity rising and falling.  We were soaked through when we dropped anchor but the setting is staggering. Surrounded by lush jungle and waters visibly busy with fish. That afternoon as we unwound and drank rum we watched eagles soaring overhead, spotted spider monkeys on the beach and at dusk listened to distant howler monkeys noisily moving through the jungle. It’s a very promising start to watch promises to be an incredible part of the world to explore.

Getting Greasy in the Grenadines

Sailing Plumbob in the Tobago Cays

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is made up of the main island of St Vincent and a cluster of islands trailing off to the South – the Grenadines, including amongst others, Bequia, Mustique, Balicaux, Canouan, Union and the marine reserve of the Tobago Cays. These islands are a variety of lushly forested volcanic mountains, sandy cays, turquoise lagoons, and picture perfect beaches, Its a bit of a sailors paradise.

We left Dominica at the beginning of June, laden with friendly Rasta produce, cocoa beans, plantain by the hundreds… and having received our negative covid test results, we spent just one day sailing down to the most northerly bay of Martinique, a nights rest with our yellow quarantine flag flying, then an early start to sail south down the coast, a wee channel hop to be in the lee of St Lucia for a night sail, arriving at dawn under the still smoking, recently erupted volcano of St Vincent. Our destination was at the south end of the island near the capital Kingston, where, once we had managed to make contact with anyone interested in our presence (not easy without a working mobile these days), we were cleared in and free to roam.

After burying our anchor for so long in Dominica it was a treat to have plenty of islands and anchorages to explore. In the three and a half months there we’ve visited most of the islands, returned to our favourite spots at least once and got to know a couple of spots well – in particular Bequia!

Our first island was Balicaux, rarely visited, and we were alone, it’s uninhabited by humans but has a healthy population of Tortoise! It felt a kind of edgy place, maybe the rolly anchorage, the occasional gunfire of visiting goat hunters, and we learnt of a rather morbid history as it was also a prison island where thousands of Carib Indians were left marooned, and perished. The torrid history of the Caribbean and European’s vulgar impact, was often referred to in our observations of its culture, our conclusions only naive guess work of course…

A short sail took us to Petit Nevis, where we found 3 boats already anchored – all with young children on board, Hallelujah! This fact was to determine our movements for the coming weeks. From there to Bequia, to Tobago Cays, to Chatham Bay on Union, kids came and went, beach fires, snorkeling trips, play dates, beach days, and even sleep overs. The kids made lovely friends from Canada, France, and even NZ/Wales!

Happiness is Pasta with friends!

It was now hurricane season, which meant Jean-Marc and Nick kept a close eye on internet weather sites, a blip in the pressure would show up over western Africa and then over the following week or so it would track Westward over the Atlantic towards us, then it was a matter of watching to what degree and at what rate it would develop and then where it would go… more often that not they would veer off to to the North and fizzle out in the North Atlantic, some would clip the Northern Caribbean Islands – Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti… others would pass over the West Indies and develop later, maybe hitting America, and some of course developed faster and stayed South; generally speaking the further South one was the less likely you were to get nailed. So it was when Storm Elsa approached, it was forecast to pass over the Grenadines, so 3 days before, we sailed with friends on ‘Rajac’ South, through rainy squally conditions to a cosy little bay on the South coast of Grenada. A slightly legal grey area we felt we were hiding from officials as well as the weather! A couple of very wet days on board later we scuttled back North, back to our tropical playground.

The next fact to determine our movements, or rather non-movements was that one day having just weighed anchor the engine puttered to a halt… returning, under sail to our anchorage, we found the engine to have no oil, and on closer inspection that the culprit was the pipe leading to the pressure gauge had broken! So it slowly dawned that this was a major problem, (as are most problems on a Fordson Major!!!), and would involve removing the engine and dismantling to inspect its big end – bearings and crankshaft…

We chose Bequia to get greasy: it’s a good secure anchorage, has good boating and mechanical facilities, chandleries, a nice beach, plenty of potential for social interaction and is the main base for ferries both between the Grenadines and even to Trinidad where we ended up sending the crankshaft to be reground.

Bequia

We got to really like Bequia; Rowena volunteered at a local sail loft run by Alec and his son, I believe Rowena will expand on this experience in her post… Alec and his family became good friends, one highlight was getting out sailing and even racing in his ‘Two Bow’ a 28′ wooden open sailing boat, based on the traditional whaling boats of the island – Bequia is still licensed to catch a handful of whales by traditional methods – it seems a little more acceptable when the risks are so much higher – a small open sailing boat, a hand harpoon, but it sounds like an element of the tradition and ceremony are under threat from greed and selfishness and a catch can create a furore of whale hungry locals after a cut…

Bequia’s inhabitants come from a broad palette of backgrounds – those of black African descent make up the majority, but there is also Carib Indian blood and a number of fair skinned locals of mostly Scottish descent and all the tones in between, It felt our whitey tourist status was a little less obvious…

After about a month with the engine on deck, it was rebuilt, repainted along with the gearbox and replaced into a clean and painted bilge, along with a few bells, whistles and improvements and we were once again able to move with ease. We do endeavour to do as much maneuvering as possible under sail as it is great fun (and we like to think impresses any onlookers!) but having the engine on call is a great added security and permits risks one wouldn’t otherwise take, like tacking through a busy anchorage and dropping anchor. Amanda, keen to get on to Central America, found another boat heading West and we waved her off during this period in Bequia.

Though all ship shape again, we did not make a dash for the Western horizon, though we could have. We hadn’t planned to stay this long in the West Indies; indeed our original plan was to pass straight through and head to Colombia and Panama. But it became hard to leave – the familiarity, the good anchorages, the easy inter island trade-wind sailing, snorkeling, spearfishing even a couple of days windsurfing with a great French guys kit. We met a handful of really nice folk, mostly with kids, on other boats, the excuses to stay just a little longer were always easy to find.

Back in Wales on rainy days it was largely this that I longed for – to muck about with the girls on the beach, collect coconuts, snorkel with amazing wildlife like turtles, eagle rays and abundant tropical fish, and they seemed to love it – learning to dive off Lilly, sail alone in the Dinghy, Seren can pick up star fish from 5 metres depth! Go to shore in search of fresh mangoes, passionfruit or maybe a fresh local juice…

And time to discuss and to write – there’s something liberating about the detachment we have from media and social influence… Any news we read is what Nick and Jean–Marc read and share from independent news sources so it feels like views and opinions come from a relatively uncorrupted, heartfelt perspective. If you read The Times every day or watch the BBC news then surely it becomes hard not to see the world through that lens…discuss…!!

Despite this paradise, there are questions: where next? What’s the purpose? Missing family, timing… and what’s the state of the rest of the world – do we need to get busy doing something more productive to save it? Is it a good time to travel? Which countries are open…? The days where I felt I was just hanging around in the exhausting heat were frustrating – In Wales I would chop wood on those days (though to keep off the chill not trying to search it out)

As I write most of the Pacific countries are closed; French Polynesia though open is experiencing a backlog of yachties with nowhere to go and the relationship between locals and yachties sounds to be getting a little fractious in places, and currently New Zealand our ultimate destination is not accepting visitors.

So some big questions: we are now approaching Panama and excited to visit the indigenous people of the Kuna Yala or San Blas islands; in the next months we will have to decide whether to continue through the canal to the Pacific or head North and East back towards Europe.

Dominica: An island craving progress

by Nick

Seven weeks in Dominica left much to reflect on.  A beautiful and inspiring island in so many ways but nonetheless a tainted paradise with a worrying future.  Dominica is known as ‘The Nature Island’ and appears at least largely unspoiled.  Its dense forest and steep mountains meant it was less fought over during initial colonisation by Europeans.  The land lent itself less well to large scale plantations and was easier to defend by native Carib tribes.  It even became a stronghold for escaped slaves until a massive hurricane in 1813 stripped the forest revealing the hideouts to European invaders.

The lack of suitability for monoculture farming has been a blessing and a culture of subsistence farming has prevailed albeit this way of life is increasingly challenged by evolving tastes and habits.  A big dietary favourite on the island, for example, is chicken which almost exclusively comes in the form of tortured, chemically polluted poultry from America.

Using any financial metrics Dominica is a poor country but it’s natural wealth is hard to beat.  It has hundreds of stunning rivers and this abundance of water combined with incredibly fertile volcanic top soil means food is found everywhere.  No one goes hungry.  From mangoes, papayas and bananas to all manner of ground vegetables, everything grows and grows well.  Discard your passion fruit in your garden and a year later more than likely you’ll have an abundant vine dripping in fruit.  It is demonstrably possible for those living on and from the land to have a very high quality of life in Dominica with little money and the traditional diet has provided for long lives as well. The island boasted the most centenarians relative to population size anyway in the world. Whilst food is plentiful in Dominica it would be wrong to suggest that life is easy for all. Many people live financially precarious existences and support from the government is patchy and contingent on voting habits. Access to land is also a big issue. Whilst squatting rights are relatively sympathetic the option of owning land is out of reach to most and common land is virtually non existent.

The island is under pressure culturally and economically as a shrinking minority of inhabitants are seeking to continue to live within the islands bountiful means.  The majority of rhetoric we encountered about Dominica’s future centred around wanting ‘progress’, seeking development and economic growth.  The lack of an international airport has protected Dominica from Covid but more broadly it has prevented the island from being spoiled by overdevelopment for the sake of tourism.  Look at a satellite image of St Martin to see how devastating this kind of ‘progress’ can be for a tropical paradise.

A regular theme in conversations with Dominicans was that they felt the island and its people needed to make more money and grow its economy, whether it be from larger scale agriculture, exploiting natural resources or the attraction of more tourists.  It’s always interesting to ask in these instances why they feel they need to make more money because often the strength of the mantra of wanting more is not mirrored with a thoughtful understanding of why.  The need for money is clearly understandable when one’s basic needs are unaffordable but this is very rarely the case in Dominica.

Whilst not entirely polluted by consumerism the trend towards this on Dominica, particularly with the young, is strong and surely accelerated with mobile phone proliferation.  On the subject to phones it was a shame that we missed out on meeting so many young people because in the moment their screen took priority.  None of these observations are of course unique to Dominica but there’s something about a tropical garden of Eden setting that makes them harder to stomach!  Being relatively more financially secure it might be perceived as an uncomfortable position to take; challenging those that have less on why they should want more, but it feels an important question to interrogate given the great costs that more ‘progress’ and money will inevitably bring. It’s easy for us to point to examples of this at home of course.

Most Dominicans live in very simple self-built houses with family close by but the government is building more and more modern housing developments.  These developments are the result of cosy deals with foreign investors, often Chinese, that line the pockets of the elite of The Island.  Foreign Aid and investment deals have helped the Prime Minister of Dominica become the richest leader in the Caribbean whilst residing over one of the poorest islands.  These bland housing developments consist of tedious concrete boxes that in the words of one resident ‘just make people more selfish’, the inevitable effect of atomising a population and breaking up community living patterns.  These projects are also entirely without the flair and character that the old organically created villages hold and represents an attempt to flatten and tame the culture.  No music allowed after 8pm and magnolia walls feel like they do a disservice to the vibrancy of the place and its people.

With our interest in food and growing we became friends with and encountered a range of farmers from Cocoa, the rasta living in a shack growing just more than he needs, through to the business motivated farmers like Jeffrey who was a man so busy it was incredibly hard to spend as much time with him as we would have liked.  Jeffrey had lived abroad (New York & Sweden) and fully embraced the idea of work like crazy now to build a relaxing future.  It’s unclear if that future will ever arrive for him however given the scale of his ambitions and propensity to take on goals by himself and for himself.  Inspite of a work dominated lifestyle we were able to share some very nice moments with Jeffrey and he was incredibly generous for which we were extremely grateful.  The fact we liked him so much made it all the more frustrating to see him existing in such a stressed and pre-occupied mode.

Cocoa however retains a more humble and slower approach.  What Cocoa has less of in terms of things he makes up for with time in the present.  He has the time to welcome new friends whole heartedly without distraction and to appreciate intimately his garden and be connected to the natural environment around him.

This is not to say that Cocoa represented a flawless model for agriculture.  Even on his small farm there was an area that had been treated with Glyphosate, the deadly cancer causing herbicide.  The use of chemical herbicides and pesticides was one of the hidden dark sides of Dominica.  Bottles of Paraquat, a herbicide banned in the EU that is so deadly that 3 undiluted drops will kill a human, can be found littering banana fields.  This poison is big business for the government which openly dismisses organic farming as being unviable whilst monopolising the import of Paraquat and other agri-chemical imports.  An inspiring couple called Aubrey and Lulu with a permaculture farm (who we were sad to meet so late during our visit) told us that tomatoes from Dominica sent to America for testing were found to contain hundreds of times over the typical legal limit of certain chemicals.  Whilst the market in Portsmouth was a feast of stunning fruit and vegetables it’s heartbreaking to consider that much of it is poisonous and not only that it’s poisonous because the government encourages it to be that way for example by promoting Paraquat.

The people of Dominica invited us so warmly into their stunning island that we left having made some incredibly positive memories and feeling enriched. The hope is that the type of progress that is sought in the future is one that breaks away from the exploitative global norm and instead puts a primacy on respect for the natural environment and providing for all the people. On an island as bountiful as Dominica it seems so evident that if this natural wealth was treated under a different paradigm, where the resources are treated as common and there to be used and not abused, it would be very possible for all to live extremely well in a long term sustainable way.

Luscious Dominica

Luscious Dominica

by Kieran

 With the arrival of June we left Dominica, Covid tests done, we checked out with customs and immigration, bid our farewells and then with a 1 night stopover at anchor in a Martinique bay followed by a 24 hour jump south, we picked up a mooring at the Southern end of St Vincent. Now, awaiting entry instructions, which it seems, with no phone credit, is a tad tricky, there is an opportunity to pause and reflect on our lovely 7 weeks on the nature isle.

 Its hard to put our experiences of Dominica in a nutshell, we met many people from across the island from many walks of life.

 It is financially the second poorest country in the Caribbean after Haiti, but we were told has the richest Prime minister, it is mountainous, the highest peak being over 1400m, largely forested, and claims a river for every day of the year, there is plenty of evidence of its volcanic activity with boiling lakes, sulphur vents and hot springs. Its rugged landscape meant it largely escaped the colonialists sugar plantations and their enslaved labour force, and the resilience of the native Caribs saw off many of the violent invaders. It lacks the picture postcard white beaches which has largely kept away the sprawl of tourist hotels so all in all has remained one of the least spoilt of the West Indies.

Portsmouth harbour

 Day 1 (out of quarantine)

 You may think after 24 days at sea, that another 7 stuck on board would be torture – it wasn’t! During a long passage like that, providing all has gone smoothly, one finds a very cool, calm, peaceful state of mind with life’s simple routines, and to prolong that a little isn’t so bad, plus it provided an opportunity to give Lilly some love and acclimatize to our new surroundings.

 However, our first day of freedom ashore was a great one, with our newly decluttered senses on full alert, we ambled through Portsmouth, soaking up all the new sounds, smells and sights of this colourful wee Caribbean town, we were on a mission! Seren and Morla having not stepped foot on dry land for over a month, deserved a wish, their top request was for an ice-cream! This meant a 10 minute ride in a bus – usually a Toyota Hi-ace or similar and could be anything from a clapped out bonerattler with its squeaks and crunches, to a swish new leather upholstered beast, more often that not, pimped to the max with wide alloys, tinted windows, basebins blaring; Morla asked one day – “Why is it always a banging party in the buses here?”

 Satisfied with ice cream we now went in search of a cool, fresh dip and found it on a short walk to the Picard river, a spot we remembered from previous visits. On the track we met Coco who Nono had met years before and he accompanied us to a perfect spot with tumbling waterfalls, deep pools and shaded by lush jungle, Coco was happy to stay and chat, lighting a little fire to roast some plantain, then disapearing only to reappear with Papaya for dessert, along with armfuls of leaves – of glory cedar, basil, and papaya leaf. These with help from Seren and Morla he mashed up on a rock and threw into a washing up bowl – this was our bathwater squeezing out the juices over our heads and bodies was heavenly, after so much sun, sea, salt, wind and blue, to be rubbing this subtly sweet fresh greenery into our bodies then rinsing in a cool bubbling natural jacuzzi was the perfect antidote and celebration of arrival to this lush isle.

 Fully cleansed and refreshed, we went with Coco back to his simple dwelling where we helped to water his garden before grinding up some cacoa beans he’d grown and dried; on a later occasion we gave him some of our palm syrup from La Gomera which he mixed with the cocoa powder – you can guess the sweet chewy result…

 Coco remained one of the nicest people we met in Dominica, a laid back, content rasta with plenty of garden, his son and family living next door, a vast knowledge of medicinal plants, a simple and beautiful home, with little but the essentials (including a drum kit someone had given him) an outdoor kitchen with just an open fire and the river tumbling by. He was happy to have our company and asked for nothing, which of course gave us the feeling to want to help – Nono had had the foresight to bring seeds from home and we were happy to plant out plenty at Coco’s.

 Day 32

 We; Nono, Seren, Morla and I woke before 6 with the very inconsiderate cockerel just outside the window, we’d been sleeping on the hard wooden floor of Wilmers newly built, mostly fresh painted, relatively plush chapel. (shed agreed to have it on her land if she could keep the building after they moved on in a year or so)  We weren’t the first awake though, as well as the villages large population of cockerels, Wilmers indoor/outdoor kitchen/washroom/dining room/verandah, was a buzz of activity – children’s hair being brushed, plantain being both roasted and fried on the open fire, chickens pecking over the washing up, water butts being refilled, toddlers being scrubbed behind the washroom curtain and then mugs of porridgey, sweet slightly spicy, delicious gruel.

Wilmers living area

 We were staying with a family in the Carib or Karlinago territory, a region of Dominica reserved for the last few thousand native Caribbeans. A culture originating from S. America and more specifically, Venezuela, that inhabited all these islands before Europeans with their murderous ways  and the slaves they brought with them, arrived. Sometimes I think it very kind and gracious that we Europeans with any links to our colonial past (like by being white for example) aren’t spat on in the streets, we sure have a lot to answer for round abouts!

 It was great fun to walk the kids down the hill to their schools and buses with ‘Sister’ (funny name as we met only her children and her mother, Wilmer)and see all their impeccably dressed schoolmates, and fascinating for Seren and Morla to the witness the more common school kids morning routine, they must be intrigued by this school place! But show no desire to venture any closer than the gates.

 Back in Wilmer’s garden we were commenting on how every tree and plant had a use and was usually edible, mango trees, avocado’s, papaya, breadfruit, passionfruit, sugarcane, kalalu, herbs, coconuts, bamboo, castor, cacoa, and in case we thought any plants were weeds Wilmer told us the masses of plants with medicinal qualities. The Karlinago people are known for their basket making , and the reeds used grew in abundance in the garden. I asked Wilmer about how they were made so she proceeded to show us and the next few hours, instead of finding a bus as planned, were spent making a beautiful basket. There was always someone doing something towards the baskets whether it was stripping the reeds into an even thickness, putting them out to try or dying them in huge vats of turmeric.

 We were late trying to catch a bus and a couple of hours on the roadside was unfruitful so turned into a social round, visiting neighbours, only to return with a bag of gifts – passionfruit, plantain, calabash bowls…

 A lovely aspect of this place and people was the community and family, which were hard to separate as 3 of Wilmer’s sisters and 2 brothers lived within a stones throw, not to mention cousins, nephews and nieces etc. Care for children, the elderly and each other was clearly shared, as was a lot else, whether it was time, help with day to day jobs, or garden produce, most meals we’d meet a new family member, just passing, often with a bag of something, one cousin brought us a handful of jelly coconuts just cos he’d heard we were staying! We were made to feel very welcome here and left with bags of herbs, fruit, a basket, clothes for the kids and  warm hearts.

 The smoking of Cannabis in Dominica is pretty prevalent, primarily amongst the rastas of course, to some degree, maybe its harmless, even positive, what could be wrong with a calm reflective, chillaxed, happy state of mind? Don’t many of the worlds problems come from an over zealous focus on efficiency, productivity, profit, exploitation etc., maybe swinging in a hammock with a joint is a healthy antidote to this… However, the quantity did seem excessive and a justification that the more stoned one was the closer you were to ‘Jah’ I found worrying, and whenever we raised the matter there seemed to be very little acknowledgement of its negative effects or the implications of a teenager smoking unlimited amounts, I found the division of smokers and non smokers noticeable in the population, moderation being a rare attribute, it was refreshing to stay with Wilmer’s family – she was aware of its negative sides and embraced good mind and body health.

 Any account of Dominica wouldn’t be complete without mention of Kish, cafe/bar owner, minibus driver, sassy, funny Kish; she helped us heaps with transport, covid appointments, her bar became a base, she took us around the island with blaring music, introduced us to her family, took us night land crab hunting, took us to her fruit laden trees and was all in all a great laugh, she will remember us for the ‘Puckit’ board we made her!

 There were others we met – having our large crew group, different people would go off on adventures and return with new stories, friends and contacts, and as visitors we came with no or at least pretty mild preconceived cultural judgements, so one day we’d be helping a group of rastas deconstruct a mashed up tin hanger, the next we’d be replanting 1500 cacoa pods for an entrepreneurial business minded farmer, (who also became a good friend and showered us with fruit and veg and whose lovely mountain farm we camped on) and then another day wondering around a permaculture plot of a young American, Dominican couple.

 We couldn’t help but observe, analyze and ponder this culture, I’m sure Nick will expand on our deductions and how we saw their socio-economic aspects and aspirations, but for now I hope you’ve enjoyed this little window into Dominica.  

A Taste of Passage

The diary of a day at sea

Taking advantage of being becalmed in the Ocean Blue

Somehow, at sea, the passing of time seems to be experienced differently to that in other episodes of life to date… Possibly due to the random hours of wakefulness dictated by the watch rota and the practicalities that preoccupy you – the wind, the sails, the omnipresent yet unpredictable roll, water consumption and bananas, to name a few – so it seems somewhat of a challenge to clarify exactly what distinguishes one day from the next. And yet, each day does have a distinct flavour. Bon appetit.

“Arrrrp!” A short, sharp sudden intake of breath as the flash of a red headtorch light hits my retinas.

“Shhhhhhh, shhhhhhh, it’s ok. It’s your watch. The kettles on. Take your time.”

The grogginess of sleep slowly ebbs as I reach for the clothes I stashed a few hours ago in order to be ready and I stumble into the legs of my salopettes praying not to: a) bang my head; b) land accidentally in someone else’s bunk or; c) dislodge any of the multitude of banana hands from their strung stash in the aft cabin. I’d say we’re on an 80% success rate…

We’ve generally been surrounded by clouds reminiscent of what you’d envisage listening to the Orb’s Fluffy Little Clouds track (this cloud formation is quite typical throughout trade wind zones) but the moment when you first glimpse the vast expanse of the starry night sky, or, as on this night, a resplendent full moon is also always a magnificent treat and I need to catch my breath. It’s all the more appreciated after the drizzly squalls of yesterday. It’s funny to think of us being top to toe in wet weather gear after crossing the Tropic of Cancer.

In hushed tones, huddled around the bright orb of the compass, information is relaid to me about how the wind and course have been over the last three hours of watch (we have been exploring whether three or four hours of rolling watch are preferable and trying to ensure we do actually get to spend time with everyone on board) and if any changes in sail are needed while there are more people on deck. Fortunately, things are pretty steady (the trusty self-steering system, fondly known as Henrietta as she is an invaluable crew member, is still at the helm) and there’s not much to report aside from the best place to cast my gaze for shooting stars as I scan the horizon for boats. We’ve seen a grand total of two boats in as many weeks.

“Did you see more phosphorescent dolphins last night? Sounded like a there was quite a lot of excitement from my bunk?!”

“Huh?”… “Ahhhhh, no, I was sat right here against the lifelines and BOOM, it really sounded and felt like something had snapped right next to me.”

“Had it?”

“No, silly that it took me a moment to figure out but it was the stench made me realise as I was looking around: a flying fish had bounced off the canvas right here, less than twenty centimetres from my head. Bam. A perfect circle! Poor fish. And then, when Nono came up on watch and I was relaying this to her, another landed on deck right at the exact moment in the story the fish hit! So we scrabbled round on deck to rescue it and got it back into the sea!” (The girls have taken to playing ‘find the flying fish’ on deck every so often now).

A flying midnight visitor who we only found in the morning

After this chat and the rest of the last watch’s philosophical discussions have come to a gentle close, a flurry of “Bon Nuit” and “Nos Da” follow a descent down the companionway.

The sun beginning to peek out for another day at sea

Dawn gently creeps across the sky and I notice that it’s time to twiddle – somewhat desperately – with the knobs on the SSB radio in the eternal hope of receiving a crisp signal and clear faxed forecast. There seems to be an addictive quality to searching for the buzzes and beeps that denote potential success. A sleepy yet wide-eyed Morla stumbles blearily over with outstretched arms to help listen in on the vintage black telephone receiver so we don’t wake the other sleeping crew.

Nada. Just hazy fuzz. At least I enjoyed some fabulous cuddly company in the process. We try to creep up the hatch quietly. “Maybe, can I have a cracker with butter and jam?” Morla inquires innocently as she snuggles into a bean bag on the deck. With her hunger satiated temporarily and after another cup of tea is savoured, it is time to swap myself out of watch. Kieran, Seren and Morla then go for their VERY gripping daily swim from the bowsprit net.

Ren holding on tight for her morning dip!

This didn’t turn out to be the day we caught a Mahi Mahi (Dolphinfish) longer than Ren is tall, or the day when we were less than 20 feet from gliding over a pilot whale, nor was it Nono’s birthday; nor was it a day when the girls received a story written especially for them from a crew member (the number of talented authors on board make it fully intimidating to write); or when Kieran gave us a recital of Under Milk Wood; nor was it one on which we were becalmed and swam in the great blue ocean, counting the pilot fish accompanying us. Neither was it the day we needed to swap jib sails and discovered a rip that needed quick repair, nor was it the day Ama shaved her head, nor did we catch sight of phosphorescent bullets of dolphins at night.

However, I roused myself from daytime slumber to pop my head out of the hatch and – having somehow dislocated myself from the environment in the increasing heat haze of each day – was once again stunned by just how much blue we’re surrounded by above, below (can it really be 4000m deep?!) and on a complete 360o circumference. I’ve woken up in time to place my guess for the midday distance game. A genuine ripple of excitement can be felt in anticipation of who will be closest given our estimates and comparisons to the preceding days. Nick calculates and Ama gets it bang on with 121 nautical miles. Nice one!

Everyone continues with their chats and projects – Amber can be heard playing the penny whistle up on the foredeck and I read a little more of Jack London’s Le Loup Des Mers in French with Jean-Marc.

It doesn’t feel like long until Nono announces lunch. She has whipped up a delicious lunch of fried rice and veggie wraps, completely ensuring our dominance in the race against ripening vegetables. Funny how delectable it is to normalise daily compulsory guacamole – surely these days won’t last forever?!i We’re definitely more in danger of gout than scurvy on Lilly.

“Watch out! The mayo!”

“The OIIIILLL!!!”

The beauty of wraps seems partially to be the reduction in washing up requirements and that not everything will be spread across the deck if a wave arrives unannounced, however, there is always a slight tension to meal times as we don’t know what may be sacrificed in the juggle and dive to protect a bowl or jar as irregular swell hits and we always sit half ready for this. We hope Poseidon and Neptune enjoy the pasta and coleslaw we have unexpectedly donated to them. At times it seems they demand more as a wave sweeps away an offering from an unintentionally upturned plate on deck.

“Pencil Bum!” (Lilly’s common name for the Tropic Bird due to their easily distinguishable tail) and our attention is quickly taken aloft. I need to be reminded that if I squeal excitedly about how close she seems to landing on Lilly, it’s never going to happen…ii

And so we transition into late afternoon. Although travelling through time zones, I’m not totally sure whether we taken to eating lunch at half four because of the challenge of cooking when nothing (including you) is at a reliable angle except the gimbled stove top or because our stomachs align better with daylight hours than the watches and clocks we’ve decided not to change.

Nick taking on the coffee preparation challenge

A full belly and the soporific effect of waves gently sloshing the side of Lilly and that hiss of bubbles or Sargasso seaweed make summoning energy for any great project an insurmountable task. We do manage to have a quick round of “Go Fish!” (Nick remodelled the traditional Battleships game to be more fitting for our existence). Every so often I lean over the life lines to remind myself JUST HOW BLUE the sea is (the nightly equivalent is that there really is mind boggling phosphorescence right there next to us…).

Then it is time to do my bit for the Banana Conservation Society. We set sail from El Hierro with at least 650 free bananas stashed as mobiles, in calabashes, in nets or on shelves. We have created quite an imaginative repertoire so far – although it has been quite intense and with a little fibre and potassium overload perhaps:

Banana on muesli; dried bananas; banana beer; banana smoothie; banana porridge; banana cake, banana bread; banana curry; curry with banana; banana chocolate spread; banana jam; good old plain banana; banana flapjack; banana bannocks; banana pancakes; banana tart and not forgetting the Magic Banana of course.iii So, my contribution today: banana brownies with left over porridge.

Before embarking on a cooking project aboard I have discovered it essential to: 1) assess my current Zen level and 2) drastically scale down whichever grand plans of achievement I have. I will be following more of an idea of a recipe and memory of a texture than anything as there are no scales that function on this kind of loll and we’ve got approximately half the required ingredients. I make my plan and adopt the baking position – a wide stance, slightly braced but as relaxed as possible. I need to be ready to lurch for bowls and ingredients scooting unannounced across the galley top as if I’m in some kind of haunted western. As the chocolate melts on the stove, I mull over with Kieran and Amber how a cooking show at sea would work and that it would probably be quite an entertaining winner (no chance for retakes really though). Fortunately for me, the only calamity was wrestling the cupboard door shut when retrieving the baking tray and not quite timing the snatch and grab correctly. All the ingredients made it into the tray. Phew.

Half an hour later I discover, however, that despite the brownies swinging in the self-balancing oven, the brownies managed to end up lop-sided. Not to worry. It feels really good to have prepared a freshly baked midnight treat for everyone on their night watches.

The sun begins to hang low and heads towards the horizon, completing its Lilly leap frog for the day as we tuck into Amber’s adventurous banana curry and Nick’s latest sour dough loaf. Scrumptious. We top this off with a few folk song renditions in the twilight and then decide to drop the fisherman’s sail (the only sail change of the day which gently reminds us that we are indeed sailing this magnificent magic carpet) as the following wind has increased. After tugging the sail onto the deck and stowing it in Pink Turtle, people start drifting off to brush their teeth and head off to rest.

“Nos Da”

“Faites des beau reves”

And the day ends but the cycles and rhythms of life in perpetual floating motion continue.iv

Happily Cruising!

iThey don’t. The last was eaten over two weeks in to the crossing however and two tomatoes lasted a complete month! So impressed by the local producers on El Heirro. Hope they’d be happy to hear how well stocked they made us. Additionally, as an update from a previous post – we were still also enjoying our Galician pumpkins on the trip!

iiA bird did actually land on Lilly on our last evening on the ocean. So lovely to give a little respite to the little fellow. I managed to stay quiet.

iiiLilly recipe book to follow…

ivIf you think this took a long time to read, try crossing an ocean.

Reflections on The Canaries

I had expected to be greeted by a lush vegetated archipelago but instead we arrived at the dry volcanic north face of Lanzarote and the similarly arid, adjacent but quieter island of Graciosa. These stark and dramatic landscapes draw your minds eye to the past with clear scale-able volcanic craters providing a narrative of these islands creation.

Two days after arriving, the anchorage at Graciosa was our setting for a memorable Xmas with songs, food and a late night rave on deck. Santa made it down the hatch. Phew.

Non prevailing winds pushed us on earlier than anticipated so we were soon anchored off Las Palmas on Gran Canaria where Amber had a home in a squat. I experienced Las Palmas as a small, uninspiring city but for all it was a sensory overload (it was the biggest City the girls have ever seen “is this what London’s like?”). It was a reminder of some of the elements of everyday life we appreciate being away from on this trip. Headspace can be hard to find amongst all the people, and cars, and inspiration is not always forthcoming in the predictably homogenized consumerist City Centre. Funny that seeing a Marks & Spencers can make you feel sick of home rather than homesick.

We were still at anchor city-side for New Year’s Eve and after failing to make new friends by midnight the Lilly crew were ready for bed before being brought out of our soporific states by a completely over the top harbour fireworks display. We joined in by shooting a flare towards the oil tankers and had another dance party on deck. Turns out Morla loves dubstep!

We sailed on to La Gomera enthused by the prospect of a return to a more unspoiled environment and the more diverse and unique flora and fauna that the westerly Canary Islands offer on account of their wetter climates.

Our first walk on La Gomera was up the awe inspiring Hermigua Valley, a huge fertile barranco dominated with banana plantations but with fincas nestled on ancient stone terracing. Changes in wind and swell meant we were on the move every few days to find sheltered anchorages until coming to rest at Valle Gran Rey, a small fishing village that has swelled with the influx of transient and permanent German tourists. We had no plan to stay here much more than a week but a month and a half later we were still there. The longer we stayed the richer our experience became as we embedded ourselves in the boat and beach social scene. Especially timely for the girls who joined a multi-national band of beach kids.

The subject of time comes up regularly as we discuss among the crew how long to stay in each place. The benefits of pausing can never be predicted but always seem to be forthcoming. At Valle Gran Rey it began with making friends with two other families on boats; Dave & Georgie on Content and Giovanni & Francesca on La Vent do Alba plus their five little sailors. To borrow Giovanni’s fixed mot du jour, the welcome they gave us was ‘fantastico!’. Them came Maria and Tato with their kids. The wise beyond her years Xiomara(10), the ever twinkling Nur(7) and finally the 2 year old Moi, part laughing buddha part wannabe car mechanic. It’s curious how a child who’s upbringing has been an immersion in nature can develop a side passion in catalytic convertors.

Maria and Tato’s respective primary passions in traditional birthing and sustainable agriculture indicated a commonality in interests and world views but we couldn’t have anticipated forming such strong bonds and there were tears when we ultimately had to say goodbye. Our connection with the family was deepened when they all jumped aboard for a week’s hiatus from Valle Gran Rey when we sailed to La Palma to explore a new island. Our experience there was mixed however.

We were forced to go into a marina to see out some bad weather and if marinas are stuffy environments at the best of times then this one was particularly posh and polished. We stuck out a as a slightly rag tag group on a traditional boat and were soon at the rough end of snotty prejudice from the marina office who tried to kick us out with after only two nights. Maria’s calmness in the face of officialdom idiocy assured we were finally allowed to stay. It seems we were guilty by association with a particularly bohemian boat that we had befriended before entering the marina. This boat was skippered by a strong Romanian woman called Julietta and onboard was her dreadlocked son Anton, her partner and other jean ripped friends. They were deemed beyond the pale by the marina and turned away with a myriad of nonsense excuses. Much discussion prompted on Lilly regarding image. Should you amend your appearance in order to expect fair treatment? Are there acceptable limits on personal expression? Should you adapt to fit in with a society you might deem sick and how much value is there in making snap judgements based on appearance? All questions we explored for hours and quite timely because as I write this (during The Atlantic crossing) various crew members this afternoon put henna Tattoo’s on their faces. How will this impact our reception in the Caribbean? Depends on the taste of the people or officials we meet I suppose, as always beauty and appropriateness will be in the eye of the beholder.

Returning to our time in Valle Gran Rey it was our base from which to explore inland on La Gomera. It is a sensationally beautiful and varied island such that any bus or hire car journey is jaw dropping. It can be other worldly at times when walking and camping in the cloud forest or down by the coast. Truly a slice of paradise at times and this combined with the people we met made Gomera a very difficult island to leave. It became a running joke on the beach that Lilly was perpetually planning to leave ‘in the next few days’.

If there was one element of our interactions in La Gomera that left me feeling a bit cold it was our limited exposure to the local people and culture. Their history is depressingly familiar, violently colonised and ultimately forced to exist under the homogenising influence of modern capitalism. The Gomeran whistling language (of which there are 2,000 different words that can be whistled to communicate across wind swept valleys) was nearly lost if it hadn’t been for a concerted effort to preserve it. There is a huge monument built to celebrate the language for tourists to take photos next to and the same symbol can be bought in the form of trinkets and carvings in gift shops. It’s an uncomfortable juxtapose that the influx of visitors responsible for a culture’s submission can now buy tokens of appreciation in the form of a key ring. On the other hand it might be a reasonable way to celebrate something the Gomerans are proud if. It’s not clear, and we didn’t meet enough Gomerans to get an idea of their perspective.

It was described to us that there are roughly three groups of people on the island. The Gomerans, the Germans and the tourists. A reputation for being insular and protective of their communities, it felt that many of the Gomerans were tucked away inland out of reach of the traveler. A much longer stay would have been needed to start getting exposure to their ways.

There is a tension that we will have to address regularly as we travel further to more varied cultures. The appetite to meet, learn and make connections with people living in different, hopefully more traditional ways balanced with a sensitivity to not want to pollute or disrupt their way of life. How does a belief that everyone should be able to move freely round the world get balanced with the observation that so many communities and cultures have been used and abused with this freedom? Particularly pertinent to us is the effect of tourism. Whilst we might not be contributing to the high end tourism that steals locals rights to access their own beaches (which is the case on some Caribbean islands) our desire to see distant lands is not impact free and the question for us is how to do this sensitively and aim to have a positive impact? We will have to feel this out as we go.

As a reflection on the time on Gomera I found the nature to be immersive and inspiring but amid concerns of a planet being driven willfully over a cliff it was the friendships and time spent with amazing people that reinvigorated the potential beauty of the human spirit. To the friends we made in Gomera, thanks for this gift. Hasta luego y besos

Pictures above include a 300kg Tuna brought in by fishermen in El Hiero, fabulous wild camping, carrying a huge piece of scrap bronze out of a barranco, 16litres of beautiful palm syrup, an inspired piece of scrimshaw by Nono and mountain biking round volcanoes.

Adi and James became friends and also potential future seafarers (we hope to see you on the water one day!). Plus Nono sewing a new lee cloth, a good haul from spear fishing, Rowena helming us towards La Palma, free factory reject bananas, a blow hole rainbow, a friends sympathetic illegal dwelling in the hills of Gomera plus a lovely interaction with a farmer in La Palma that insisted on giving us free produce.

Lucia and Simon became close friends during our time at Valle Gran Rey. Talented linguists but unfortunately due to Simon’s stomach not new candidates for a life at sea! One afternoon on Lilly at anchor confirmed this so we will have to seek you out on land one day in the future!! Some other of the other pics were taking by a talented photographer that we hung out with and another is a snap of a tortilla party at Maria and Tato’s!

Nick