Thursday, December 15, 2011

THE BLOODY CARIBBEAN Me Hearties! Or, A Wet Bum and a Bottle of Rum

We’re doing over 6 beautiful knots of tropical sailing as we pass the legendary volcano of Monseraat. I’m in my underpants as I type, on our way to Antigua under clear skies of light blue. It’s 9:30 in the morning and the sun is wicked. As if all this wasn’t brilliant enough, there’s a new destination waiting to be plundered dead ahead. What adventures lay in wait…? Today we pass from the French Caribbean (Guadelopue) to the British Caribbean (Antigua). Fascinated to see how they differ. A few days in Antigua and I’ll fly to JAMAICA!  Unbelievable.

The availability and cost of airfares meant that I couldn’t swing Cuba. Damn. Next time!

As no doubt you all know, all the islands in this area are known as the Lesser Antilles. The islands are more or less lined up in a row (everyone got their charts out?) and as we sailed between them a day or two ago we could see Martinique, Dominica, Marie Galante, Le Saintes and Guadeoloupe all at once, lined up into the distance.

The view of the town of Grand Bourg from the Napoleonic lookout on Terre de Haut, showing Guadeloupe and Mari Galante in the distance. Guadeloupe was given to the French by the English in return for...Canada.  Seriously!

We spent our 7 first  post-Atlantic evenings in the fishing village of Grand Bourg on the island of Terre de Haut in Le Saintes group of islands. Caribbean colours, with their trademark in-your-face beauty, decorate colonial style houses and vintage fishing dingies, to a backdrop of steep hills of the richest green you can imagine. Flowers blossom all along the immaculately swept streets that run more or less parallel to the lukewarm tideline that laps the white sand, gently for the most part. One of my first impressions of the Caribbean (second actually, after a resoundingly impressed fucken wow!) is that the sea is teeming with life. Fish, squid, turtles, diving pelicans, big frigate birds, terns, boobies (the bird!) etc. etc….it’s amazing to live this close to wildlife again after so many years in a jungle of the urban variety (equally as amazing, for different reasons all together). Terre de Haut is small enough to cover in a couple of hours on a bike. There is an awesomely maintained Napoleanic fort on one hill, and a lookout way up on the hill opposite. I made the split second decision to climb it one day, pushing a bike. Suffice to say that I probably wouldn’t have done had I known how long and bloody steep it was, the view from the top will stay with me for the rest of my life. Luckily for you all I have photo evidence.

Grand Bourg. A French sensitivity to aesthetic combined with a Creoley, jungley, fishing villagy feel and a long history of Naval and no doubt piratical activity.

Grand Bourg is a beautiful and tranquil fishing village, we did however rock out at the Saturday-nightly Dance Party on the balcony of rum punch bar La Crique that fronts on to the water looking out over the boats at anchor, and whose coconut punch should be illegal, only for the fact that the black market trade in such a case would be impressive no doubt. The only 3 white dudes there, we didn’t hesitate to let fly with some of our more snazzy moves on the floor. A couple of Le Santoise (Saintes locals) chicks started shaking their not inconsiderable behinds as only Caribbean chicks can, no doubt in a show of gratitude at witnessing me cutting the floor up. The after party involving just us whiteys went down in the boat, and Dusty’s present to Herve of a bottle of Chivas Reagle (the details of which could fill a book on their own) got a punishing, before the inaugural Le Saintes Naked Midnight Bombing Grand Prix was held on (or should I say off) the aft deck. The water is so warm that we could’ve easily stayed in there all night. And we nearly bloody did.  Eventually Dusty took honors in the competition with his “horsies” that defied the very fabric of naked midnight divebombing in their sheer tenacity. We bonded as only men who have shared an amazing journey, and have seen each other drunk and naked, can bond. I have memories of trying to set Herve’s spectacular belly on fire with Chivas and a lighter – all in good fun of course.

French Caribbean tradmarks, accras (deep fried codballs) and Boutaine (??) sausage @ Chez Lulu, Deshaies.

Now, the food. Oh my god. Caribbean creole cooking is debatably even better than the Portugese variety we got in the Verdes. And now I am firmly hooked on Ti-punch, basically a massive shot of local white rum (50%) with a big teaspoon of cane sugar and a squeeze of lime. If surroundings count for how good a drink tastes then I could’ve sat happily at (any of) the (many) bar(s) with a bucket of diesel, seriously though, I feel the dire need for you all to understand the sheer genius of this drink. But I guess you’ll just have to see for yourselves. I am currently amassing an arsenal of rum punch recipes to unleash in a double strike on a cold and unsuspecting Christmas Tokyo and a summer Christmas in Tassie. Look out.
It’s not the season at the moment, but there are mango trees, bananas, star fruit, and breadfruit. French bread and wine also grow on trees. In the water there are lots of fish. I jumped off the boat and found a little shark directly below me, probably wondering what the bloody noise was. There are turtles and pelicans that divebomb fish in the sea right in front of you. Massive frigate birds circle over head, waiting to hassle other birds with a less-than-secure grip on the fish in their mouth. There are literally thousands of massive conch shells discarded on the seabed, on the beach, decorating people’s gardens, polished and sold in stores. The conch is the coral vacuum cleaner. They eat the algae that would otherwise suffocate the corals. The people have taken too many conches and now the reefs are basically dying. Each conch take somewhere around 500 years to get to full size. The human race’s inherent talent for fucking the earth up is pretty astounding sometimes. But good luck trying to tell someone to stop doing something they’ve been doing for generations. Any whale fan living in Japan knows what I mean.

Deshaies anchorage, northwest corner of Guadelope. Le petit Jesu!
Adagio is at centre, of course.

The view of a Le Saintes evening swim, and the site of the official
Le Saintes Naked Midnight Bombing Grand Prix.

Friday, December 9th, 2011
Le Saintes – Guadeloupe - Antigua

Moving from Le Saintes to Guadeloupe, we pulled into Deshaies (“day-ay”) another gorgeous little fishing town. The first bar we walked into on the first night ended up becoming our base of operations in Deshaies. Ti-punchs, tapas and pizzas. Cool staff. We also met Eric there. Eric is a friendly French local dude who matched us drink for drink and then some. Later in the night he mentioned some interesting stuff about how it isn’t always easy living here and dealing with the locals, with the occasional runaround being given out. Hmmm, trouble in paradise? But I guess nowhere is perfect.

Many a rum later, and with all four of the staff from the bar following in a separate car, Eric and I drove around the headland (Dusty had probably wisely made his tactical withdrawal right as things started to fire up) to another beach where there was an amazing bar, the Green Cafe. 

150% percent Caribbean, with three dudes belting out some wicked French Caribbean Reggae, the proudly dreadlocked vocalist introducing himself to me as Thee Lion of Thee Caribi-an mon! Sunburnt people much like myself sweated it up on the floor and quenched thirst with rum and tequila and all kinds of fruity mixers. I ended up at Eric’s place somewhere in the hills for a jam session afterwards, damn good guitarist!
After five rums, two beers and four tequilas, and before he remembered that he had to teach in 4 hours we had promised to meet at the pizza n rum bar the next night and have a jam. He didn’t show. I know exactly why.

I woke up still very pissed. Nevertheless, despite basically being told that we were crazy by a couple of locals, we acted on a rumour of a secret waterfall a km or 2 up a river on a hill. Sounded like a pretty decent hangover cure. We found it. Try and imagine a secret waterfall behind a boulder at the back of a cave-like ravine holding a cool pool of water. That picture in your mind right now, we were there! It was straight out of a movie on how awesome the tropics are, perhaps enhanced just a little by my hospital-grade painkiller-induced sense of tranquility.

The cavern...

Those aren't white undies

The view out. gollum!

The funny thing was,  hardly any locals even seemed to know it was there.
This rumble in the jungle was nicely topped of with a chicken Colombo and a beer at Creole mecca Chez Lulu, then later it was back to the bar for more rums, pizza and tapas. I couldn’t but notice the staff were noticeably slower that night, refusing every my every offer of more rum. But that’s OK, this is the Caribbean. Nothing happens quickly.

We will be in Antigua in 4 hours. Next!

The view from Chez Lulu. Pelican divebombing fish left right and center.

Riding the breath of the gods to new lands! Kind of. Somewhere near Monseraat. (spelling?)

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Rum-soaked greeting from the Caribbean! The Story So Far...

Well, we bloody did it!  We got across the Atlantic on a yacht. Here's how...

Day 23:  On the road again

Back out on the open ocean. A constant slow speed roller coaster powered by the wind through 360 degrees of ocean and sky and perpetual motion. It’s a man’s prerogative, especially in outdoor adventure-type situations such as this, to find awesome places to have a piss. I have noticed the view standing on the bottom step of the stern (men’s outdoor toilet) staring at the middle of the Atlantic from sea level as we hurtle through the sea is pretty impressive, particularly with member in hand.
A different kind of exhilaration than stepping on to a new island, out here it’s more a passive experience.  You just have to sit on deck and you can’t help but be mesmerised by the massive energy and different forces at work, of which we happen to be skimming the mere surface. As your body gradually learns the location of anything grab-holdable (members aside) and to readjust itself at a second’s notice on a whole variety of angles coming one after the other, so your brain attunes itself to the more primeval concept of time measured in terms of light/dark/light/dark /sleepy/hungry/sleepy/hungry etc. etc. Your conscious brain, freed from the lack of interruptions and distractions that make up every day, uses the respite to catch up on thinking. Contemplation. A timeout. If the Atlantic I’ve experienced so far was music, it’d be stoner rock – powerful rhythms you can chill out to. It’s a much simpler way to live. I feel like I’m disposing of a decade of Tokyo Lifestyle Fatigue (TLF), generally brought on by way Too Much Fun (TMF). I find it easier to snooze in the bucking cockpit under the tropical sun, 3 feet from the surging ocean, than I do on a Sunday afternoon at home. Is that weird?

From Mindelo harbor, just next to all the old dudes playing rummy and gambling. The boat in the center is Adagio.

We were basically ejected westward out the other side of the gap between Sao Vicente and Sao Antao, the winds squeezing through the passage and shooting us out the bottom at 8 to 10 knots, getting us 175 miles from Mindelo in 24 hours of wind spraying water and, at night, flying fish everywhere in the dark.  Dusty swears that on another voyage he had a flying fish fly in the window, hit him in the head and land in the bloody frying pan (Yes!!) Flying fish fly like they’ve been shot out of an underwater cannon, oversized wings seem to be tried out for the first time like a new toy, rather than evolved. The take off (getting the hell away from whatever is swimming up behind it) is obviously of a way higher priority than the landing.
The fact that I just dedicated whole paragraph to flying (frying?) fish demonstrates how much free time I have on my hands, and it’s made me realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve slowed down enough (have I ever in Tokyo?) to really look at something in detail. There is life going on all over this blue expanse, if you just let yourself become aware of it.

Day 25: Kamikaze Fish

One sure-fire way to become aware of the nature out here is if it hits you in the head, as it did Herve last night. A 30 cm flying fish came out of nowhere and divebombed him straight in the side of the head in the middle of his night watch. Classic! I TOLD you flying fish were crazy.
A waylaid flying fish. Note the crazed expression.
In the evening I had the lines out even though we were going too fast to fish. That didn’t stop some monster of the deep (OK, I exaggerate, but a big bloody fish) giving the line a good yank for a while before pissing off. The next one will be mine!

A late night drop in. Note the crazed expression...

G'day. Where's your frypan?
Awesome wings for a fish!

Got me a barra! Went down fantastic with another little mahi mahi on the bbq.  La petit jesu!

Gday, where's your wasabi? 
Starting to get the hang of catching decent fish now...

Did I mention how fantastic our time was in the town of Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente in the Cape Verdes? It’s in the middle of nowhere, which is why I firmly recommend it to anyone. Interesting episode just before departure when we decided to get rid of the left over escudos (Portugese currency) by giving cash to random people in the street. The lady selling bananas on the corner, the old dude in the dark and musty bar near the street market, Sydney from the fish market and the dude who sold me a sharktooth necklace the day before. It was a bit weird , but big smiles were made bigger with cash. Many a “Bon Voyage!” and “God Bless You My Friend!” later, the 20 hours we spent in Mindelo are already in line to be filed in the did that really happen? box of wicked experiences.

Mindelo street market. Got some napalm chillies here.

Sharktooth necklace dude. Solid people for the most part. I like.

Vive la revolucion! Back of a potato truck. The Verdes.

Day 28: Escalator Across the Pond
We are now sailing under spinnaker, a sail made for these trade winds. Big, handsome and fast even in light winds. Basically it just tows us down wind in the direction of Guadaloupe, which is due west. Makes for tough sailor photos too.

That glorious sail the spinnaker. Silently towed us downwind for three days and nights. 

Sailors come in all shapes and sizes. Guess which one is the chef...

Day 30: Fisherman’s Tales
An important prerequisite for qualifying this voyage a success was fulfilled last night. I got a fish. A fish bigger than most of the kids I teach. It took an hour and a half, about half a kilometre of line and a can of beer, fed to me at intervals by the fantastic support staff. 25-30 kgs of Spanish mackerel. Several times larger than all the other fish I’ve caught on the trip so far put together and the biggest fish I’ve ever seen pulled on to a boat. I feel more relaxed now that my alcohol-fueled promises to friends back in Japan (who love a good fish!) have been kept. Massive f**kin’ fish – check!
Mackerel steaks as thick as your calf for lunch… gotta hurry up and eat it so we can bag a BIGGER one! Firmly from the Mary O’Doherty school of fishing.

One of the highlights of the day is finding out how much distance we’ve come in the previous 24 hours from noon to noon, and how much distance/time remains until tropical paradise in the Caribbean. All this is worked out using the log, which we make an entry into every two hours, and the onboard navigation system. Our record is 188 miles in a day. We average about 165. Not too shabby! As of writing this we are pretty much exactly half way between The Verdes and The Leeward Islands of the Caribbean. 1047 sun-drenched miles to go. I’m running out of body parts to sunburn.

The log

Day35: Converging on the Caribbean
A few hundred miles off the Leeward islands of the Caribbean, the northern trades run into the southern trades sometimes forming what’s called a convergence zone. The air is forced upwards as the winds collide, taking heaps of water with it, which is then dumped in short sharp bursts of rain-filled bedlam, known as squalls. 

Squalls. The grandkids of cyclones (or typhoons for all you in Japan)

These little bundles of blackness, can create their own little weather systems which means the wind can go through 360 degrees in not long at all, as I found out when Dusty woke me to help change sails, while we went in the opposite direction back towards Africa (bugger that!). We were playing bumper cars without about three at once at one stage, sometimes dodging between them, sometimes running straight into them. It reminded me of the time I went to see the Japan national schoolboys team play the All Blacks retired allstars. It was even more fun and games as night settled into one big sideways-rain infused blow, which we later learned over the radio was a tropical depression (can I call it a storm? Storm sounds much tougher, but I'd be lying). I had an amazing time steering on my watch that night, to save wear and tear on the autopilot. Belting through the blackness, thinking about getting the snorkel out while copping the odd wave in the face, the whole wild wavescape briefly illuminated every few seconds with a lightning lightshow to rival a Muse concert. All the while the idea was to keep the wind behind us while still aiming as close the palm trees and rum as possible. Even the flying fish were getting amongst the action, getting blown way up in the air and dropping straight out of the friggin sky! As they plummeted back toward the earth, I wonder if they knew what was waiting as they leapt out of the water.
Nature, mother to us all, giving us a little to think about after the gifts she’s given us so far on the trip.

Fancy dress party

Japanese goodluck charms. All the protection we need. Worked a treat!

Occasionally a little bird would drop in and hang out for a few hours, no doubt catching it's breath for a while during a journey that is no doubt much much longer than ours. We guess that this little sparrow was on his way south from Russia for the summer...respect little guy.
The Iles de Saintes (The Saints), a tiny group of islands off the coast of Guadaloupe have been chosen as the first landfall.  I’m told they have great snorkelling and cold beer. I’m in!

Dolphins often appeared after a blow. Checking we're OK perhaps?

Day 36: Last Day at Sea

The sun rises for the final time during our crossing, over the tropical depression that provided the fun and games over the last two days.

I’m sitting outside in the cockpit typing, as the final sunrise of our Atlantic crossing explodes in yet another indescribable display.  As kids we get told that the sky is blue and the ocean is blue and clouds are white. That just doesn’t cut it. Almost every hour there is a subtle shift in tone or color or shadow that casts a different ambience on everything. Barring major catastrophe we will reach The Saints tonight, and the crossing will be over. There is not quite enough wind to sail, in complete opposition to yesterday. Hang on a sec, what’s this!!? A pod of whales just went past! Seriously, while I sit here and type these words I just saw some whales for the first time! Much larger and slower, cruising more majestically along the surface than the jumping and twisting dolphins, and blowing air; three of them including a baby. Herve will be pissed. His only gripe of the trip was that he hadn’t seen any. The sun’s been up for ten minutes and it’s already getting warm. It’s 7:00 in the morning.
13 hours later…
Whiskeys on deck under the moonlight at the mo…to a soundtrack of that wicked and suitably Caribbean dub group Mute Beat. Heading past Guapeloupe now, the lights of The Saintes shining in the distance. This is the best thing I’ve ever done…

Sitting in one of the most beautiful anchorages I've ever seen right now. To be continued...