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 quarrentine 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 particularBequia!

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 roly 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

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 stoppover 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 oppertunity 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 forrested, 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 lifes simple routines, and to prolong that a little isn’t so bad, plus it provided an oppertunity 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 squeeks 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 icecream 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 dissapearing 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 naturaljakoozy 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 cockeral 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 cockerals, Wilmers indoor/outdoor kitchen/washroom/dining room/verandah, was a buzz of activity – childrens 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 porridgy, 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 alot 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 impecably dressed schoolmates, and fascinating for Seren and Morla to the witness the more common school kids morning routine, they must be intrueged by this school place! But show no desire to venture any closer than the gates.

 Back in Wilmers 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 makeing , 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 tumeric.

 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 seperate as 3 of Wilmers 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 alot 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 handfull 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, prodictivity, profit, exploitation etc., maybe swinging in a hamoc 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 devision of smokers and non smokers noticeable in the population, moderation being a rare attribute, it was refreshing to stay with Wilmers 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 bacame 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 entrepeneurial 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 couldnt 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 home sick.

We were still at anchor city-side for New Years 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 Gomeran’s are proud if. It’s not clear, and we didn’t meet enough Gomeran’s 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 Gomeran’s 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

Westward Ho!

We have a lot to write and many beautiful pictures to show of our stay in the Canaries, but I look forward to putting that together during the coming weeks when we will be crossing the Atlantic from ElHierro, first taking a SouWesterly course to find the more reliable Easterly trade winds and setting a course for the West Indies… our exact destination still undecided, either St. Vincent or Dominica. We’ve been stocking up with masses of tins, fruit,veg., coffee, olive oil, avocados, squash, lots of free bananas and pineapples, flour, pasta, eggs, wine and beer, Lilly lockers have never been so stuffed! We’ll have 800litres of fresh water – which if the passage were to take upto 40 days would be 20 litres per day between 9 of us. With diesel tanks also full with 350 litres (having used about 250litres of Bruces central heating oil so far) we will be able to motor for about 100 hours, or 400 miles at 4 knots. The hope is of course that we wont use any so its carried more for the reason of misshap – should we have a problem with the rig for example.

We as crew are getting on great and very excited about this time at sea; sunrises and sets, the moon waxing and waning, the cosmos rising behind us and setting ahead.

Hasta luego, from Kieran, Nono, Seren, Morla, Amber, Jean-Marc, Amanda, Rowena and Nick.

Thursday 18th March – another departure

(A note from Steve, just to pass on the current news…)

Today Lilly and crew cast off from the Canaries and head towards the Caribbean, either Dominica or St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It’s a distance of about 3,000 miles in a straight line – which they won’t be trying to follow. The traditional route is to head a bit south until picking up the NE trade winds which should then carry them all the way.

If they’ve made slower progress than originally planned it’s at least partly because they’ve re-discovered the joys of just being somewhere, of meeting people and getting involved in local life: if the urge to move has faded then the compensations have been more than enough!

We can expect to hear from them again – in, maybe, a month, or so …

Portugal to The Canaries

After two false starts we stowed Lilly ready for our longest passage so far, 600 odd miles to The Canaries. Heading South adjacent to The Moroccan coast felt like the first step towards lands truly exotic. The prospect of sailing to a volcanic archipelago far away where bananas, mangoes and avocados grow aplenty struck a romantic internal chord. What will it feel like to not see land for five days plus? Portugal had begun to feel cold as Autumnal weather had turned wintery for the third stopover of the trip.

The forecast wasn’t ideal but with light winds expected rather than anything too strong so thoughts were towards whether it might be a long frustrating passage as opposed to an uncomfortable or overly boisterous one.

As it was, Lilly did well to slowly move us roughly in the right direction most of the time. With different auxiliary sail arrangements Lilly was most fabulously decorated with the square sail, up for the first time since leaving Wales. She was a picture gently tickling down wind climbing and descending majestic, massive slow swell from the north west; distant echoes from a storm at that moment thumping UK shores.

One hiccup from the gods were some headwinds for an afternoon that pushed us onto a bad course such that a ferry bound for The Canaries crossed our course at a perfect 90 degree angle. Time to heave to and have tea.

The sparse passing wildlife was evidence of warmer waters with turtles and flying fish the latest to delight the crew lucky enough to be on deck at the time. Dolphins remain regular visitors, most enchantingly at night when leaving a trail of phosphorescent sparkles behind them as they dart round the boat. Who screams louder on these occasions, Rowena or the girls?

Twice we were completely becalmed. No wind, no movement in any direction just magic. Beautiful oily contoured water undulating and pitting in the swell. Nothing to do but appreciate the beauty, then swim, then chat and laugh and eat. The tranquility changes only when a breath of wind returns and Lilly begins to glide again. On both occasions it felt too early to leave this suspended reality where thoughts of reaching our destination or moving towards the ‘goal’ dissolve. Concerns of a long passage don’t exist in this state and all the meditative qualities of sailing are present just without the need to actually sail. Truly memorable moments.

No wind provides a rare opportunity to view Lilly from afar under sail on the kayak….with 4,000 metres of water below

On the fifth day, when becalmed, we no longer had a long range wind forecast. so we entered a different mode. One where the barometer is scrutinised more carefully and senses are heightened towards changes in the winds and clouds. An interesting mental exercise in letting go of expectations and allowing things to unfold as they will. A tiny insight into the more fatalistic experience of sailing before the days of accessible forecasts and passageweather.com!

As it was that evening, 100 miles from Graciosa, an increasingly firm wind had us heading 7 knots in the right direction by sunrise. All was well until the wind strengthened and we begun to get headed. Momentary concern. Would we be prevented from making landfall a teasing 30 miles off shore? Fortunately not and Lilly, well heeled, thrust us in to the lee of Lanzarote where we anchored and dived into the noticeably warmer waters. Time to start processing arriving in this humbling dramatic landscape. The hypnotic spell of the 3 hours on and 6 hours off watch rota broken.

Seren guiding us all towards the gap between Lanzarote and Graciosa
Our first Canarian sunset, hazed by Saharan dust blown in by the Easterly winds