I had crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the Caribbean. How did it feel? Even as I saw the first lights of Martinique, even as the sun rose on that dense and tropical island, even though I was filled with excitement and elation, a part of me resented this intrusion into my self-contained little psychological ecosystem. I had settled into a constant routine in which everything I did was perfectly in sync with my vessel and necessary for my survival. Even though I had to navigate and make decisions every day, very little conscious thought was necessary, and the idea of having to deal with all those things which assault us in everyday shore life – from catching a bus to deciding on a career, from making friends in a pub to doing a tax return – the idea of dealing with all those things which seem so important and yet so madly irrelevant scared me a little. I can see why long distance single handed sailors end up feeling more comfortable on a crossing, and why Mortessier abandoned the race to be the first person to sail alone around the world, leaving his competitor Knox-Johnson the fame that could have been his, just because he didn’t want to stop sailing at Falmouth. Ultimately, though, I think it is a cowardly kind of bravery that pushes people to stay at sea alone. It is easy to make life and death decisions at sea, because there is always a correct choice, and only bad luck or ignorance will stop you taking it. Moral dilemmas seem only to be found with human relationships, and struggle to follow a lone sailor on his voyage away from land.
Having said all that, I had long since run out of beer, and hadn’t had a cold one for twenty days, so my apprehension went out the porthole and I pressed the boat hard to arrive in good time.
Having actually arrived, the sense of achievement and the novelty of being ashore was tempered by anti-climax. I was gobsmaked, amazed, incredulous, to be in the Caribbean, but where were the parties, the rum, the palm trees?! All I could see were open drains and macdonalds. Arriving in this place had been my most important goal for a long time, and having done it, there I was, in a dirty port with no friends, no direction, no idea where to go or what to do with the next part of my life.
The answer came quickly – my tax return was late, so the next part to my life was spent in the aforementioned fast food establishment taking advantage of the only wifi in the city and giving lots of money to the inland revenue.
Amongst all the uninspiring boats in the anchorage at Fort de France (forgive my unfounded scepticism), a toothless old git named Rob came to the rescue. He sailed a little red falmouth working-boat, had some incredible stories of shipwrecking and subterfuge, and shared with me a sense of bitterness and a quart of rum, as well as some friends back home. We sailed in convoy to St.Pierre, a small town which used to be the bustling ‘Paris of the Caribbean’, until the nearby volcano erupted, killing everyone except, amazingly, one inmate of the local prison. The volcano decided to stay dormant while we anchored off the picturesque beach, but a boat-load of Ukrainians made up for its tranquility with an eruption of loud noise. And lethal rum. Again. I was beginning to suspect a pattern emerging.
I had a long-awaited day reading and devouring coconuts in a hammock on a beach, and then headed off towards Dominica, the next island north.
As I left the shelter of Martinique, I hit the full force of the Atlantic sea again, and the weather was bloody miserable. I helmed by hand through monstrous seas and howling wind, with three reefs in the main and several more in my bowels. I was soaked through by constant waves and the boat was overpowered. I lost sight of Rob’s little red gaffer and learnt later that he had turned back. A ketch that overtook me recorded an average of 38kn with gusts of up to 48kn apparent (that’s a lot of wind). Approaching Dominica, one small but malicious wave made Lorema lurch particularly unnaturally and a second later I saw something fall into the water beside me. It was my ensign, still attached to my backstay, which had broken at the mast head. For a moment I was sure I was about to lose the mast (again), but with 3 reefs in, the whole sail was below the lower shrouds and relatively stable, so I was able to hove too and rig the topping lift as a backstay for the rest of the journey.
Dominica restored my faith in the Caribbean. In fact, it felt like I had just arrived. Martinique seems positively European in comparison – in Dominica the colours are bright and the music is turned up, the roads suck and the smell of ganja mixes with the smell of raw unadulterated life. The language on the island is english, but you wouldn’t know it – the accent is as thick as the rum is strong.
I visited a couple of places on the island, soaked up a little fire, and bumped into Xavier, the mad Frenchman who I met in Spain and Portugal, on his equally mad homemade boat, with 3 rudders and a bowsprit that puts most tall-ships to shame.
The weather was still very fierce, and the next journey to Guadeloupe was another unpleasant one, with rain so dense that the visibly was down to 50m and the sea was beaten flat, is spite of the gale force winds.
I arrived without mishap in the south of Guadeloupe and met Elin, who flew in that day from the Dominican Republic. After a few days we sailed north and found a particularly pleasant deserted anchorage somewhere in a national park.
Onwards again to another bay, friendly Swedes and a generous Englishman who gave us G&Ts and an Adz (a traditional boatbuilding tool that is quite hard to find) even though I had been stupid and rude to him when he arrived. A lesson learnt about judgement.
From Guadeloupe, a very wet sail to Falmouth Harbour in Antigua, which we very nearly made in one tack.
Having arrived, and dropped the anchor off Pigeon beach, I snorkelled to check the holding. On the way back I picked up a glass bottle from the sea-floor to put in a bin, only to find that it was an unopened bottle of rosé wine from Waitrose, of all places! I emerged triumphantly to a surprised Elin and we set about demolishing it. The Swedes sometimes say “god punishes some people straight away”, but apparently it works the other way around too.