Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Acklins Island, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: SE-S 10 knots

Our adventures ashore have been one of the best parts of our trip so far, and today was no exception. We decided to go ashore to see the island today, taking a long sandy walk along the curve of powdered sand, and then deciding to venture further along an abandoned road that led out from the harbor. We had seen it on our electronic Explorer chart, a little road that dead-ends at the water, with a little icon marked “ruins” right beside it. We found the road and a little abandoned cottage, and began walking. We had been warned that civilization was a good three miles from the anchorage by our Bahamian friends we met on Samana, but we are good walkers, after all. We brought our good hiking shoes, plenty of water, and the leftover protein bars we still have from our hiking adventures.

Six miles is a long walk, but both of us were anxious to stretch our legs. It felt really good to be walking again, using our bodies in a different way than they’re ever used on the boat. I was told when I finished the Appalachian Trail by a fellow ex-hiker that she felt, even now, that she could jaunt off into the woods for a twenty-mile day whenever she felt like it. At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that way, but now I do. Six miles is a quarter of a trail day--nothing to break a sweat over.

It ended up being a fantastic walk. A mysterious-looking “blue hole” was also marked along our route, and we found a little side trail leading off to a vast and empty cave. It was low tide when we came through, so there was no water in it, but we could see giant land crabs skittering around in the darkness and hear the bats sleeping deep in the cave’s recesses. We found a couple of other side trails to explore as we walked too, a handful that led off to beautiful Bahamian beaches off lagoons that we could never bring Secret into.

It couldn’t have been more than a mile and a half before we started seeing buildings. We didn’t know where we were going--the chart only said “road to Chester’s.” We had no idea what Chester’s was: a resort, restaurant, store, bar, or even someone’s house? We didn’t have a clue. All we knew is we were going to Chester’s to see what we could find there. The buildings looked fairly fancy, and we were expecting a remote Bahamian village, so we began to be a little worried that Chester’s might be an exclusive resort with celebrities sunbathing all over the place.

Eventually we came to the main road, and discovered that the fancy buildings were still being built, part of the epidemic of construction that seems to be going on in the Bahamas right now. We asked the first lady we saw for directions to Chester’s, and she said, “you’re here!” It turns out Chester’s is the name of a town--a possibility that had not occurred to us. It boasted a little store and watering hole, and we ended up playing dominoes with the locals all afternoon, in one of our most fun excursions yet. The first person we saw was Gator, one of our fisherman friends from Samana, and two or three others drifted in and out through the course of the afternoon. Helen, the proprietress, prevailed upon us to leave our mark in marker on the wall, one of about ten crews who’ve made it that far out in the last ten years. Not to be egotistical, but I ended up cleaning up pretty well at dominoes (it may have had something to do with the inebriated condition of one of my competitors), and Helen inscribed by my name on the wall, “Dominoes champ!” I’m rather proud of that--dominoes champ is not something to be taken lightly in the Bahamas.

When Helen found out we were hungry, she made us some ramen noodles and sausage, even though she didn’t serve food, and wouldn’t take any money for the food. It felt just like home. There was a gospel concert going on that night, the beginning of the Acklins Island homecoming festivities, and Cox, one of our other friends from Samana, invited us to stay and offered to give us a ride back to the harbor, but we decided we were tired and to head back to the boat. The walk back, talking in the dark, with the full moon glowing up above and dragonflies buzzing along the road, keeping the mosquitoes away, was maybe the best part of the day. Back on the Appalachian Trail, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of my journals from those faraway days, I used to complain incessantly about night-hiking. Now, though, it’s another of those difficult past experiences that makes the present more enjoyable. I have no fear of walking any trail, especially not a clear, well-marked road, at any hour. In fact, it reminds me of those far-off good old days when I was miserable.

I practiced my rowing as we headed the mile back to the boat against the wind, annoying Karl with my zigzag route, but enjoying the pull of the muscles in my back and arms. I always wonder why I don’t row more often when I do--I do like it, and there’s no reason to make Karl do it all the time. It’s just about making an effort, I suppose.

Tonight is another of those calm, dark nights on the water, alone at anchor, with the yellow moon glowing through the portholes at the end of a full day. On nights like these, my heart fills up like the moon. It seems too much for life to be this good, to be this content, this much at peace.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Samana Cay to Acklins Island, Bahamas

27.3 knots
Wind: E 5 knots, dying to calm
Latitude: 22°43.25’N
Longitude: 073°52.80’W
Maximum speed: 4.4 knots
Maximum speed under sail: 3.7 knots
Average speed: 1.9 knots

Karl was right, I guess. Secret needs a break. Now our sails and our engine is defunct, and we still have 300 miles to beat to windward if we want to make Hispaniola, including what is supposed to be a hellacious offshore passage. So the Bahamas it is for a while, unless we can figure out one or both of our problems.

Today was another of those recovery days from the exhausting ordeal of yesterday. Last night, the wind died when we were two miles offshore. It made the whole day even worse--Karl was on watch, and there was absolutely nothing we could do. The boat was just drifting, and we had no means of propulsion. The shore was two miles away, but it might as well have been 200. When I woke up, Karl had started pumping the tiller to try to row us to shore, but even then we were barely going a knot. I always worry, though, when he does that, that we’ll wear out our rudder and tiller connection. It seems to put too much stress on everything.

Anyway, finally, Karl bled the engine one more time, and we motored the two miles into shore. We decided not to risk the coral-strewn entrance at one o’clock in the morning, so just pulled up to the thirty-foot line and anchored in clear sand. There was no wind, so there was really nothing to worry about. Then, when I woke up to do the weather at 5:45, Karl woke up to and we motored, bleary-eyed, into the harbor under the rising sun. We collapsed gratefully back into our berths until about noon, only rising when the afternoon sun started beating down through the forward hatch.

It feels good just to be here. It’s a perfect harbor, even if the Gentleman’s Guide, calls it a “death trap” in northerlies. We’ll just get out if the wind threatens to move to the north. We’re protected from all directions except the north, and the whole anchorage is ringed with white beach and scrub, not a house in sight. Karl started playing around the roller furler today, but I didn’t have energy for anything. We’re both sunburned from yesterday, too. So we’ll see what we can do with our sails and our engine tomorrow, and maybe we can limp out of here to somewhere where we can get some parts.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

En route from Samana Cay, Bahamas

Wind: E 5 knots
Seas: One-two foot chop on the beam

Today was our worst day of sailing, bar none. It was unutterably miserable. It’s a good thing we made up, because there’s no way we would have made it through today fighting. We’ve had engine problems, off and on, since the Chesapeake, but nothing really to worry seriously about. Based on the research we’ve done and advice we’ve gathered, we’re fairly sure that the problem is just dirty fuel, but we’ve never relied on our engine or even wanted to use it much, so we haven’t really worried about it, or actually done anything about it. Every time the engine hiccoughs, we use it as an excuse to sail, and those sails--when we choose to actually tack upwind, or beat in light airs, or double-reef--have been among our best. Somehow, having an engine makes us lazy, and we forget that Secret is a sailboat, designed to sail, and she can barely motor dead upwind, into heavy seas, at two knots.

Still, being off here at the edge of the wild and woolly Atlantic has made us aware that a back-up propulsion system is pretty important. So when Sea Hunter offered us some spare fuel filters (we had none) we jumped at them. We ended up having to change our entire filter housing, in order to accommodate the new filters, but the new housing seems to be more standard, enabling us to find replacement fuel filters more easily. (We’d already been offered spare Racor filters a couple of times by other boats, but they didn’t fit with our fancy system.)

We had no problems coming out of the tricky Propeller Cay anchorage, me at the bow and Karl at the helm. It was the scariest entrance or exit we’ve done yet, but we obeyed our charts and our eyes, even though I nearly choked when I saw the jagged teeth of coral sticking up not fifty feet off our starboard bow. We didn’t hoist sail before we upped anchor, worrying that if our engine went, the trades would push us on the reef. About a mile from the island, the engine began to cough. No worries, right? Just hoist sail and angle off towards Acklins on a glorious light beam reach.

No. One of the things I neglected to mention in my shock after completing our passage to Samana is that our roller-furling isn’t exactly working correctly. Karl and his dad fixed it before we left Massachusetts, by freeing up some bearings and buying replacements for others, but on coming out of San Salvador it seemed to freeze up. Karl eventually got it free, and the event had completely slipped my mind. Today, though, the roller-furling wouldn’t unfurl at all. We were left with full main, no engine, no jib, 25 miles to go, and the wind barely blowing.

I took the helm and Karl began the slow process of bleeding diesel through the filter, and then through the whole system, again, and again, and again. Each time he bled it, the engine would run feebly for about twenty minutes, pushing us along at about 2.5 knots, until it would begin to hiccup and stutter and die again. Then we’d drift backwards as I tried desperately to get the main to move us forward, which it couldn’t do, and Karl would empty out the cockpit locker, get into it, and try to bleed the fuel through the filter yet again.

It was so, so miserable. I’ve never really worried about losing our engine, but losing our sails? That’s a whole different story. Eventually, I figured out a way to get the Master to hold the tiller in a hove-to position, stopping our feeble drift a little when the engine would die. Still, though, sometimes we’d only be able to get back to where the engine had died the last time before the engine would die again.

I wanted to cry, but didn’t. Eventually, we had the brilliant idea of raising the staysail. We should have tried it hours before, instead of messing repeatedly with the diesel in the brutal heat, but we’ve never flown it before, and both of us were a little intimidated. I’ve suggested flying it a bunch of times, but I always have outlandish ideas for enhancing our sail plan that involve vast amounts of work for Karl none for me, so I generally don’t get listened to. Today, I hadn’t even been brave enough to suggest it, knowing that Karl had his hands full already. So when he suggested it, I breathed a sigh of relief. It went effortlessly--I hoisted the sail with the built-in stay from the cockpit winch, and it went up like a charm.

In some ways, it’s a disappointment. We’ve always held on to the idea of the staysail as a heavy-weather sail, and in fact it’s nearly as big as our lapper. It’s got to be a 100-percent foresail. Today, though, it’s a boon. As of seven, we were finally tricking along at above two knots in the light air, hitting threes occasionally as the sun went down, and Karl could finally take a break from getting his hands dirty and we could eat something. We’ve taken the Pardeys’ advice of always starting watches at 8:00, no matter what, so I put Karl down into the lee berth and took the first watch. Now our wind’s slowly dying as we drift towards Acklins, but at least we’re closer to Acklins than Samana now. We may even get there before dawn. Who knew a little twenty-mile sail could be so miserable? That’s what we get for taking anything, anything, for granted.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Samana Cay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: ESE 10 knots, squall with lightning and heavy rain at dawn

We got into a big fight today. It doesn’t happen that often to us, but sometimes it does. I feel weird writing about it because it seems private, but what else is this bizarre medium for, if not for self-congratulatory self-exposure? As I get more and more distant from the internet, I get accustomed to the idea that no one’s actually going to read these words, or if they do, it’ll be at such a remove of time and space that anything I say won’t matter. Which enables me to tell the truth much more thoroughly.

So: we got into a big fight today. I’m not even sure what about, anymore--I think it had to do with me wanting to take a shower in the cockpit and being unable to lift the shower bag filled with five gallons of water over my head to hang it from the boom. I hate, hate, hate having to ask for help, and on the boat I have to do it all the time. I’m not strong enough to lift our jerry cans to fill our water tank, I’m not strong enough to unfurl the jib, I’m barely strong enough to trim the sheets. It drives me crazy sometimes. It makes me feel immensely inadequate to be so dependent on Karl, and at the same time it makes me frustrated and angry with him for not doing the things that I can’t do, or at least not making it a priority to make those things easier for me to do. My favorite Lin Pardey-ism is: “If it’s too hard, you’re doing it wrong.” That seems to be the one Pardey adage that has utterly escaped Karl’s notice: lube the winches? Why should we when we have muscles? Simply because he is so strong, he thinks that he can overpower any system on the boat instead of just making an effort to make it easy enough for a child to do it, so that we can both participate thoroughly in all activities on the boat without exhausting ourselves. He often tightens things--jar lids, water-bottle caps, the soy-sauce container--so tightly that I can’t even open them again without his help. This is a sign of either preternatural superhuman strength on his part, or mammoth baby-like weakness on mine.

To get away from the debacle on the boat, where we were engaged in a battle of silence interspersed with brutal, cutting comments, I decided to swim across to the main island, about a half-mile. Swimming with fins and a mask and snorkel is a breeze. I don’t even have to move my arms, just power across with my legs, spotting conch and fish and mysterious strands of seaweed and coral the whole time. Swimming with a mask and snorkel takes away all sense of time. The bottom drifts by, distant and hazy through the blue water and dense with weed, fish dart by at the edge of vision, and masses of black coral loom out of nowhere, like spaceships landing on an alien planet. If I let my mind drift, I can get spooked easily, even though swimming is one of my favorite things in the world: I imagine monster fish or sharks swimming behind me, just out of the range of my occluded peripheral vision, or finding horror-movie shipwrecks scattered among the rocks, bloody bodies, or the skeletons of ancient ships. Even giant rotted anchor lines, snagged by the coral and draped with decades of algae, take on a spooky and surreal aspect.

Today’s swim, so long and so far away from the boat, having not told Karl where I was going, and in my negative frame of mind, was spookier than most. Just as I was approaching the far shore, a giant barracuda, at least four feet long, darted forward at me, making my heart clench with fear. I’m generally fearless when I’m snorkeling, at least of fish and sharks, but this one was watching me closely and had probably been following me for a while, hoping to get a fish or two. I had nothing to do but keep kicking, trying not to disturb the water too much, leaving it behind and hoping it didn’t follow. I didn’t turn around.

Then, out of nowhere, a dark, jagged reef jutted twenty feet up out of the sand, right at the edge of the reef. It seemed impenetrable, and the surf was carrying me forward towards its sharp edges, its colors washed out by its closeness to the sun, and fish that seemed menacing swimming into its caverns. I spotted a monster parrotfish, easily three times as big as the biggest fish I’ve seen on the reef, its body blue and swollen, a parody of a fish. It ran away, but its sheer scale, and the scale of the reef, made everything seemed alien and foreign, like something from Mars. As I swam closer and closer to the reef, a gap finally appeared and I squeezed through it, manipulating myself closer to the shore, swimming over the pitted, rocky shallows now, the purple tips of the fan coral grazing my belly. I swam until I thought I could walk, and then blundered ashore, my fins making me waddle and stumble on the rocks in the surf.

The beach, of course, was covered with trash, the plastic detritus that thousands of ships throw overboard--water bottles, battered nylon rope, half-melted plastic crates, plastic bags--even the rusted-out hulks of old washing machines and refrigerators. The sand was coarse and pebbly, and immediately stuck to my body, and flies buzzed everywhere. It was far from the peaceful, idyllic place of retreat I had imagined. Still, my plan at the time was to spend the night over there, so I looked around and found a flat sun-warmed rock, a fair ways from all the trash, took off my bathing suit, and stretched out.

The sun, my instant Prozac, immediately went to work. I forgot about the flies, the trash, the barracuda, the fight. There was nothing but me, the sun casting red light through my warm eyelids, and the waves murmuring ashore. The incoming tide occasionally brushed my toes with water. (I probably wouldn’t have been as much at peace if I had known what the Bahamian fishermen told Karl: that strange, unknown people live on the island, that when the fishermen come back to their camp they find things moved, odd markers, paths into the trees. But I didn’t know that.)

After a while, I sat up, and began to realize I was surrounded by snails. Little ones, called periwinkles. We’ve seen them before, gathered on the trunks of trees and in rocks, but I’ve never seen so many. They were buried in the sand in heaps, gathered together in hollows in the water-beaten rock, and piled on top of each other in shady spots. As I watched, I realized some of them were moving, slowly, sliding gently towards me and away from the incoming tide on little pillows of ooze. I must have watched them for hours, entranced. They were an utter mystery. Why were some of them running away from the water, when I could see others being bashed by the waves not ten feet away? Did they prefer the sun or the shade, and why did some of them choose the shade and others the sun? What goes on in their heads? Why did they press so persistently forward, crossing chasms that must have been vast to their little antennae?

It sounds silly, but it really put things into perspective. How much does my life matter, the little decisions I make, the petty fights? No more than a snail’s. I’m sure, for each one of those little crustaceans, each moment crawling across the hard stone was fraught with importance and difficulty. But I could crush them, unintentionally, with a careless shoeless step. What did Jesus say? “Consider the lilies of the field.” Well, I considered the snails.

When I got back to the boat, after a long swim keeping a close watch for my barracuda friend, I apologized to Karl, sincerely and truly. He was cooking a big pot of doctored-up canned clam chowder--New England comfort food--and had been worried about me. We were quiet and shy for a little while, prayed together at dinner, and then slowly made up as we timidly told each other stories about our day. Life is good with this man I love.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Samana Cay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: SE 10 knots, showers and squalls at dawn

For the last couple of days, we’ve been accompanied in our little protected anchorage by a rickety Bahamian fishing boat, it’s entire deck covered in tier after tier of fish traps. We didn’t actually meet them, but they were friends of Junior, off of Sea Hunter, and evidently hail from Long Island (in the Bahamas, that is). This morning, after getting out of bed groggily, and starting the kettle for French-press coffee, I peeked out of the companionway to discover that our silent friend, the fishing trawler, had departed. It’s a little freaky to be here now, a little lonely--just us and an uninhabited island. What I’ve always wanted.

I know it’s cliched, but I am beginning to envy the Bahamians the vividness of their community. We’ve been in awe of it since we got here--the first time I listened to Bahamian radio and heard the caller tell the talk-show host that she hadn’t met him but was good friends with his mother, or heard the elaborate listings of the obituaries, where family members in all of the various islands are listed in detail, down to grandnieces and nephews. Everyone knows everyone, and not just figuratively. When we told the crew on Sea Hunter who we hung out with on Farmer’s Cay, they knew just who we were talking about, and probably who his mother was. There’s no crime here, because when people commit crimes in Nassau and run to the outer islands, the locals immediately identify them as outsiders and turn them in. “Who’s that guy? What’s he doing here? Must be that guy the Radio Bahamas was talking about.” Next thing you know he’s shipped back to Nassau.

It’s bizarre to my alienated American sensibility that a boat could pull into an isolated harbor on an empty island, and Junior would immediately know who they are, who their cousins are, where they’re from, and zip over to say hi. That would never happen in the States. The Bahamian Islands are called the Family Islands, and we’ve been trying to figure that out ever since we first heard it. At first we thought just the Exumas were the Family Islands. Then someone told us that no, all the Bahamian islands are Family Islands. They’re called the Family Islands because everyone knows everyone else, everyone’s family.

I know it is a cliché, and not necessarily a healthy one: Westerners have always thought of people from other, more primitive cultures as “noble savages,” and imagine them as having idealized communities and lifestyles. In fact, most of the cultures we think of as “noble” are inhabited by people who live hard, hard-scrabble existence, eking their lives out of the dirt. Still, there is a truth to the cliché. These people have something that we’ve lost, with our lawns and our commutes and our cable television.

Here in the Bahamas, though, in the Family Islands, they seem to have the best of both worlds. They have a lot of wealth, compared to many of the countries I’ve visited--they have crazy natural resources, and their government is really smart about them. They could be making a killing by overfishing their conch and selling it to Miami. Instead, Bahamian conch is only allowed to be sold within the Bahamas, which not only preserves the conch nurseries, but also forces tourists to come here to have Bahamian conch. I told the guys off Sea Hunter that in fifty years they’ll be the Saudi Arabian sheiks of conch. Everyone else will have fished them into oblivion, and the Bahamian stock will still be thriving.

It is here, that’s for sure. Today I pulled up a conch as big around as our five-gallon bucket. It was one of about 100 I could’ve pulled up. We threw it back--Karl didn’t feel like wrestling it out of its shell and I know there’s plenty more where it came from. We could live here forever on just conch and rice.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Samana Cay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: ESE 10 knots

On the radio at five this morning, the mechanized voice gave a bizarre overview for the entire Caribbean and tropical region, and no individualized forecast at all. I was terrified and lay trembling in my berth for hours afterwards. They’ve been warning for a month now that they might cut “high-frequency radio transmission” and I’ve been unable to get internet access to scream NOOOOOOO!!!!!

So, today, in case I later forget, I’m going to request that any and all readers of these words, at any future date, please go forthwith to this website: http://dmnsf.gov.images/101/466958.pdf, or send an e-mail to ftpmnl@weather.noaa.gov, and plead with them to retain their high-frequency radio broadcasts of weather. They’ll kill us otherwise. I can’t believe they’re talking about it so cavalierly, at this, the onset of genuine, hardcore hurricane season. It must have to do with budget cuts. I can think of no other reason. But why now?

I’m actually not even sure that those are the correct e-mail or web addresses. I can barely hear them as they’re recited by the NOAA computer voice. I swear, though, if we die at sea without weather, it will be solely the fault of the US government. Well, that, and the guidebook that told us that we could rely on the SSB weather forecasts out of the National Weather Service’s headquarters in Norfolk.

It’s ironic, really, in some ways. Here we are, trying to get away from America’s problems, and we keep running up against them. The only conceivable reason I can think of for theoretical NOAA budget cuts is the billions of dollars my government is spending on the war in Iraq. I should have known all that money would come home to roost, or, more aptly, take flight, and I should have guessed that it would be siphoned from little, esoteric government programs like weather forecasting and shortwave radio broadcasts. Really, in this day and age, who needs weather radio? Really, who cares about mariners? Any mariners worth their salt these days will have satellite phones and internet and professional weather routers and radar. No one cares about poor, little mariners like us, trying to do it with just “dragnets and rope,” as Bob Dylan says of his grandfather, on his album “Love & Theft:”

My grandfather was a duck trapper,
he could do it with just dragnet and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes
I had them once, though, I suppose...

I know we should be trying to do it with barometer and clouds. We don’t have a barometer, but I’m studying clouds like crazy. Aghast, you may gasp: no barometer? Heck. If you want to mail us one, we’ll take it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Samana Cay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E 10-15 knots

I’m sitting in my usual position, stationed in front of the computer on the table. Over the last few anchored days, the boat’s grown progressively filthy around me, as usual. I don’t know what it is about not going anywhere, but it really makes me not want to clean. It’s exactly when I should be cleaning, sewing new sails, sanding down wood, doing all that industrious Pardey crap. It’s when I feel the least like it. I’m playing a lot of solitaire and trying to convince Karl to play cribbage. At the very least, I should be writing, if not fiction, then trying to drum up the motivation to write some scintillating how-to-fiberglass articles for Lats & Atts. As usual, my motivation is nowhere to be found.

Karl’s out diving. I went for a long dive today in the exquisite coral gardens, swimming from one end of the cay to the other, but I didn’t even bring the spear, a decision at which Karl looked with much skepticism. Evidently it’s no longer cool to just go enjoy the coral and fish. I feel a little of that pressure, too--to not be a tourist, one must take every opportunity among the fish to hunt. Oh well. Karl’s out with dinghy and spear right now. Maybe he’ll bring something home.

Home. What a bizarre concept. I do think of Secret as home, maybe my first real home ever. She’s the first home I’ve ever owned myself. Is it any wonder I’m falling into depression at the prospect of throwing her out, like so much garbage? I can’t think of Maine or Massachusetts as home, the way they are to Karl. I don’t belong in New England any more than a sea anemone does. I call Massachusetts home here, because that’s what’s stuck on the transom, but people who really know know it’s not. Sea Hunter, for instance. They dropped their Rs. Mine stick around persistently, like the good midwest consonants they are.

So where is home? I find my thoughts drifting more and more to Thailand, my real and only home, and the home that will never really be mine, if I can ever even get back there. Maybe that’s what’s bothering me about our lost ambition. My real ambition was to get to Thailand on Secret--it seemed the best of all possible worlds. Carrying my own house with me, slowly taking her home, like a snail gliding back to its warm and cozy hole. Now I know Karl can’t deal with the climate. Can I deal with his climate? I don’t know.

He’s just come back, proud hunter, bearing a parrotfish on his spear. He’s been obsessed with parrotfish for the last week, whether or not we can eat them, how big they are, their fishing habits. They’ve never looked very appetizing to me, with their brilliant parrot-colored skin and human-like herbivore teeth for chomping algae off rocks. Karl claims he’s heard from numerous Bahamians that they’re delicious and safe, but then why don’t they shoot them? This one’s vermillion-colored scaled skin is really making me wonder. Still, we’ll eat it for dinner and I’m sure it will be delicious, and it’s almost certain it won’t kill us. I’m very proud of Karl for having caught our first eating fish. I’m sure it bodes well for long fish-eating days to come.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Samana Cay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E 10-15 knots

Our breakfast this morning was delicious: whole silver fish pan-fried by Karl in oil, with nothing added except a little hot sauce and some lime. I felt like Jesus as I gnawed on the fins and dug for the cheek meat--he’s always feeding his disciples fish for breakfast. There’s little better, and there’s little else we can expect for the next couple of months. Maybe we’ll start experiencing the fountain of youth effect enjoyed by the Bahamians.

I’m having a hard time getting used to having nowhere to go. The wind’s been beautiful for us to get down to the Plana Cays for the last three days, but we’re not going to the Plana Cays. We’re not going anywhere. There’s no reason for us to leave here, not for months. It’s a hard adjustment.

I’m baking flaxseed bread again today. We haven’t even gone through all our supplies, though the tomatoes are really low, and a little soft. I used three of the last of them for a tomato salad for dinner. I suppose we don’t have much to occupy us but food and the act of getting it. I keep wanting to go spend a thoroughgoing beach-combing day over on the island, but it feels a little too touristy.

The hard time I’ve been having with not leaving was expected, I suppose. I do find myself thinking about the farm in Maine, thinking about my family and friends, thinking about graduate school programs or learning to snowshoe or hiking trails or kayaking. Karl’s been talking about building wooden kayaks or sailing dinghies or felling cypress on his land to build a new boat for us, when he’s not perusing the boats for sale in the back of Cruising World. All of this still gives me a twinge. I feel like I’m betraying Secret, and I’m having a hard time being happy about it. I knew this, though. There’s nothing to be done about it.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Samana Cay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E-SE 10 knots

Karl speared his first fish today, a pretty blue one shaped like an angelfish. There are countless of them down there, and they look impossibly easy to spear, but Gregory told me not to bother with them. I don’t know if it’s because they’re poisonous or just not good to eat. Karl’s going to use this one for bait, since we still have heaps of fish in our icebox, but I’m proud of him for bringing home something. We could eat them if we had to.

The diving’s a blast. I haven’t really been brave enough to go out with my spear by myself yet, what with barracudas and rays and sharks and all that, but I know I will. The worst thing about it isn’t even so much diving with the spear, but diving attached to the dinghy. It’s so unwieldy. You do need some place to put your fish that are vibrating in the throes of death, though. Otherwise you’re sure to draw the sharks.

Last night a group of the crew and fishermen came over to hang out on our boat, which was a blast. Sometimes it’s just nice to be around other people. They were telling us about the crazy dives the people on Sea Hunter do, diving to 200 feet with tanks. The mate in charge of the dive boat was telling me that he’s dove every day for the last two months. I don’t remember much from my PADI classes, but from what I remember, I don’t think that’s very smart. Still, if Peter does it and he’s lived to be 78, it can’t be that bad.

I feel that same way about all the Bahamians. We’ve heard crazy stories--people free-diving daily to seventy feet, people spending four hours below the surface if they’re lucky enough to have tanks. Karl was told a story by his friend Elvis in San Salvador, who said that he and his brother used to dive so deep that coming up their masks would fill up with blood. That can’t be wise.

Diving is a strange occupation. It’s so enthralling that I can see how you can get sucked into it. If I was on a dive boat and everyone was diving to 200 feet four times a day, I probably would to. Especially here in the Bahamas, the divers are the rich ones. You can tell by all their bling--their fancy watches, their nice earrings. Diving equipment is Bahamian gold. The ones who have scuba gear can probably make thousands of dollars a week. They don’t need to dive that deep and for that long to make a good living, though, and that’s what’s bizarre about it. Most Bahamians are pretty well off, definitely not in the depths of poverty, unlike the Nigerian divers I read about today in my New Yorker. Divers in Lagos, Nigeria, go down forty feet to pull up buckets of sand from the bottom of polluted reservoirs. I can’t imagine: diving blind, in murky black water filled with industrial sludge, to pull up sand to earn seven cents a bucket. I wonder how often their masks fill up with blood. It’s beyond my comprehension, the kind of thing that makes me ill to think about. One of those statistics about our diseased global economy that we can’t quite look straight at. We can only look at them out of the corners of our eyes as we eat our KFC with a plastic fork as we drive our SUV to the gym.

It reminds me of the Nicaraguan lobster divers Erica (my sister) met in the Corn Islands. She’s an anthropologist, and met another anthropology grad student who was studying their diving habits there. As an anthropologist, you’re not supposed to influence the culture you study--you’re only supposed to record it. But she, and the grad student, both knew that the divers were going too deep for too long. How can you not say something, even if you’re not listened to? And how can you argue with their poverty? Even if they die at forty (which happens regularly to divers who go too deep), at least they’ve provided well for their families.

I always try to talk to the Bahamians I meet about irresponsible diving, but I’m rarely listened to. I don’t have hard evidence anyway, and can really say little other than, “Isn’t that dangerous?” I’ve seen photographs and obituaries posted already, at Kaye’s on Rum Cay, of divers who died in their thirties. The pictures show them young and hale, in wet suits with regulators. It’s dangerous, but oh, so seductive. Both wealth and the beauty of the deep.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Samana Cay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E-SE 10 knots

We finally dove with a Bahamian this morning. I woke up to Karl yelling through the hatch to get up, that I was finally going to get my Bahamian fishing lesson. Sea Hunter, the big fishing trawler we’re anchored next to, gave us two spare spears yesterday, one new one, one bent, and we finally have spear-fishing apparatus. It’s exciting, but also a bit nerve-wracking. I don’t know if I can actually become an accomplished spear fisher-woman.

Diving with Gregory, our new Bahamian fisherman friend, this morning was a blast. The coral gardens here are extraordinary--I thought the ones in San Salvador were beautiful, but these are exquisite: a full mile of reef built on rock in all colors, with countless fish swimming through channels and brilliantly lit and colored caverns. Karl spent all morning out there, diving on the reef. I’m always trying to convince him to go spend time with the coral, and he rarely does, so I’m thrilled that he spent from dawn until about ten snorkeling and trying to spear-hunt.

Some things Gregory does in the water are unbelievable. I was taught, when snorkeling as a child, never to touch coral, not only because it can hurt you but also because a single touch, allegedly, kills the microorganism. That must be an exaggeration. Gregory dives down, not even that deep, and grabs hold of the stuff, swinging himself around into tiny little between-coral crevices to get a good angle on the fish hiding in the shadows. He perches on it with his fins to get a breather, and chases fish over insane shallows that I’ve always been too afraid to go anywhere near. Today I found myself swimming in a scant foot of water, elegant fan corals grazing my belly as I swam over their tendrils waving in the swell.

Although I’ve been relentlessly practicing my diving and can now go almost effortlessly to the bottom of the reef, I don’t think that will be my main obstacle as a spear-woman. Gregory was diving with a sea kayak tied to his waist. Eventually I followed suit and tied our dinghy painter around my waist, too, which made swimming much easier but diving much harder, if only psychologically. Gregory rarely goes below five feet, though. In fact, he tended towards the shallows. The hard part, I think, will be chasing the fish, especially the big, fast, silver ones that zip around in schools. That, and having any kind of aim while diving and swimming while dragging a dinghy behind myself, banging into coral all the way.

I’m not worried. All it requires is lots and lots of practice, lots of time spent in the water with fish and spear. Gregory today got five fast silver fish and one giant grouper (a hiding fish), and gave them all to us! I tried to hand some off to him, but he said they have more than enough. Considering the way he fishes, I can only imagine. I took a couple of shots, but none of them really came off.

So now we have fish enough for three days, easily. Especially because Sea Hunter is bestowing on us massive quantities of good ice. Sea Hunter is a pretty crazy boat. We were given the grand tour when we went over the other day. It’s an 83’ steel trawler, the kind used by those crazy folk on “Deadliest Catch.” But it’s owned and outfitted by a 78-year-old orange plantation owner, who takes his entire family out with him to the Bahamas every summer. When we visited, there were 22 people and three dogs aboard, including seven crew, and not counting us the four Bahamian fishermen (Gregory being one) they’d given a ride over from Acklins so they could catch conch and go barking on the island. Collecting this specific bark is one of the income sources around here--the Bahamas is one of the only places it grows, and it’s necessary for the Italian liqueur called Campari. They pay seven dollars a pound for it. Karl and I are thinking of going bark-collecting.

Peter is a pretty amazing guy, though. At 78, he scuba dives every day. They have a 28-foot dive-boat tender, and go on three or four dives a day, based on how many times they zip in and out of the harbor. He’s obviously a multimillionaire (the boat alone is worth at least a million dollars), but he’s so generous that he lets Bahamians hitch rides with him, and gives poor sail-boaters hundreds of dollars worth of equipment. The spears he gave us alone are worth thirty dollars a piece, not to mention the $200 fuel-filter assembly his captain Zyndall helped Karl install this afternoon. The Bahamian crew gets to keep and sell all the grouper and conch they collect (they have about ten giant house-size deep freezes on their decks), in addition to their generous salaries. The American crew gets to live an unbelievably Edenic existence, more in line with what you would expect of the guests than crew, diving and fishing and eating with the family, having what more or less amounts to a paid vacation. As Micah, one of the crew said, “every day’s the crew’s day off.”

They’re having a position as maid open up, and Karl and I are thinking of applying. I’m not sure exactly how it would work with our boat, but it’s worth a shot. Even their dive leader only has his basic PADI certificate, what I have. I can think of few better jobs than being in charge of diving on that boat. I would pay to do it. I keep hinting that I’d like to get taken on a dive, but I think the equipment’s at a premium, even though they have ten sets. They’ll be leaving tomorrow, but messing around Acklins and Crooked Islands all summer, so we’ll probably see them again.

They do seem like an answer to prayer. Possible employment, a fix to our engine problems, and self-sufficiency, by giving us the spears we need to feed ourselves. They’ve probably doubled our remaining budget, just in food sources alone. What does it mean, though? Should we keep going? I don’t think so. I’m trying to let my heart rest in answer to that question. We can stay here, diving this reef, all summer if we want to. Boats have survived direct hits from hurricanes in this anchorage, and we have all the fish we need 100 yards from our boat. And now we have the means to get them.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Samana Cay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E-SE 10-15 knots

In the morning today, eating plump salted almonds for breakfast out of a full gallon-size name-brand Ziploc given to us by Sea Hunter last night, we came to some difficult conclusions. After Karl’s outburst yesterday, we had to. He has always been an introverted person, but it is incredible to me that I really had no idea how he really felt about all this, or that I didn’t know how strongly he felt. It’s been weighing on his mind for some time, and I wasn’t listening well enough.

He told me yesterday that he was done: done cruising, done sailing, done, somehow, with the stress this lifestyle entails. I didn’t know then what he meant, but I do now--he’s not done with cruising necessarily, but done with the pushing we’ve been doing, done with having to move from place to place endlessly, done with feeling pressure to be somewhere at some specific point.

So we’ve given at all up. No, we’re not going to abandon the boat off Samana Cay, hitch a ride on an eighteen-foot Boston whaler the thirty miles across to the one-runway airport at Acklins Island, and fly home. But we’ve given up the Gentleman’s Guide, given up making it to the Dominican Republic by hurricane season (or by August, when the hurricanes get bad), given up making it past the Bahamas, even given up my cardinal rule, which was never turn around. We may just turn around. Our new plan is mainly to not have a plan, to cruise around the Bahamas all summer if we feel like it, to sail back to the States if we feel like it, to leave the boat here or in Florida if we want to. Mainly we’ve given up on the idea of going farther (or circumnavigating, which was always, and maybe too much, on our minds) in this boat.

What it boils down to is that I love Karl more than I love Secret. I told him yesterday that it will break my heart to sell this boat, and it will. It will break my heart more than it’s ever been broken in the past, more than it was broken by all those careless boys. Karl can’t live long-term on this boat. He can’t stand up straight on her. He can’t stretch out in any of the bunks or on the settee. He’s 6’3”, maybe taller, which is maybe a quarter of an inch too tall for a Ranger 33’s standing head room.

Secret’s a racer. She sails like a witch, but she heels over too much for us non-sailors. Her head is falling to pieces. On our passage, we had human waste sloshing around on the cabin sole, escaped from the leaky, nonfunctional salt-water pump as we heeled over at forty degrees. The sails are too big for us, the mast is too big. We don’t have triple-reef points, and our mainsail double-reefed is bigger than most cruisers’ full main. All our foresails, retrofitted in another decade for roller-furling, don’t reef successfully at all--when we have to reduce headsail, we know they’ll flog endlessly and barely carry us to windward. We don’t have any storm gear: not a trysail, not a sea anchor, not a life raft, nothing. We need latches on all of our lockers so we can heel without them falling open and spilling cans all over the boat and killing us with tomato sauce to the skull, we need hatches that lock down, we need bigger cockpit drains, more reliable batteries and electricity for our bilge pump and navigation, we need backup paper charts and backup wind generators for our electrical systems. Our standing rigging is old and saggy, our sails at least ten years old. Our autopilot works only half the time, especially in any kind of rough weather. Secret’s fin-keeled, with a spade rudder. Her side decks aren’t wide enough for us to walk up and down. Karl thinks we need to recore the foredeck, the parts he missed when he recored the deck in Massachusetts. He’s not even sure the recoring he did was good enough (I am, but I’m not in charge.)

As Karl said (and I agree), we can’t live in a sewer. It’ll cost us about $1000 to put in a head that we won’t need to replace again in a year, about $3000 to replace our standing rigging, far more than that for new sails. Then there’s all the money we would need to put in to make the boat more livable for us, salt-water pumps in the galley and the head sink, more water tankage, more usable space under the vee-berth.

Secret’s a great boat for going back and forth to the Vineyard. She’s a great boat for coastal cruising in New England. But she was designed for the light winds off the Pacific coast, not the heavy trade winds of the Caribbean, as much as I hate to admit it. I love her so, so much. I love her more than I thought it was possible for a human being to love a boat. I’ve fallen completely for her, and I know she wants to go. She wants to race around the world, she wants us to take her places, on adventures. I can feel it. She’s so happy now, with us living in her and taking care of her, resting at anchor in these beautiful places that she’s never seen. I even thought for a while that if Karl decided he didn’t want to cruise that the two of us, Secret and me, could carry on without him. I’d love to try single-handing. It’d give me a chance to make all the mistakes and do all the learning that Karl’s been doing this whole time without me. It’d give me a chance to captain my own boat. I might die trying to make it to the Turks and Caicos, but I’d die happy.

I love her so much that I think she’s worth all the time and money that we’d need to put into her to make her a circumnavigator. I stress that: it’s not that she’s not a well-designed boat. She’s a fantastic boat, a brilliant sailor, a beautiful, elegant, classic boat with gorgeous lines that would make your heart break. She could circumnavigate with her eyes closed. But she needs brilliant sailors to crew her, too, people who can handle a racer’s squirrelly ways, who can manage her sails and her whims, who can hold on tight to her tiller when she shows her bottom-sides to the sky. She needs someone to pour money into her to equip her the way she needs to be equipped. She needs someone other than us. One of the things we read recently about heavy weather said “a well-designed, well-equipped boat can take you anywhere.” Secret’s well-designed, but she’s far, far from well-equipped. We spent barely six months outfitting her, and we didn’t know half the things we needed.

I now realize that I can’t choose the boat over Karl, and I can’t continue to make him miserable. He said, yesterday: “Your job is to do the dishes, bake bread, and clean the floor. My job is to keep us alive.” It’s the truest thing he’s said about the whole situation, and the stress of that weighing on him, with an elderly boat that’s falling apart, is what’s really caused this whole change of plans.

This doesn’t mean, oh ye few faithful blog readers, that I’m giving up on the website. In fact, it probably means months and months of blissful Bahamian entries. As soon as we took the pressure of this grand Caribbean voyage off this morning, Karl visibly relaxed. We pored over all the charts of the places we’ve never thought we could take the time to visit: Acklins and Crooked Islands, the Ragged Cays and the Jumentoes, the east coast of Long Island, Cat Island and Eleuthera, even the Abacos, if we get back that far up. We talked about farming in Maine, about building wooden kayaks, about building a steel boat that will have everything that we need on it. All of these plans would mean more stability, more community, a settling down of sorts. Selling Secret (oh, how it hurts to type those words!) and buying a different boat would take us at least three years, and that means hard, hard work. Building a boat would take five years at the minimum, and much harder work.

I’ll probably agonize about this decision a lot over the next several weeks. But tonight I’m content. I can keep Secret for a little while longer. I can even take her back to Maine with me and turn her into a coastal cruiser again. We can spend a year, or two, in the Bahamas if we feel like. We can even keep going farther south if we decide that we, and the boat, can handle it. I can breathe a sigh of relief, though. We’re not going any further unless we choose to. We’re not racing to the Dominican Republic. Most of all, Karl’s finally happy.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Long Bay to Samana Cay, Bahamas

82.9 nm
Wind: E-ESE 15 knots, dying to around 10 on Friday morning
Seas: 6-8 feet, dying to around 3 off Samana
Latitude: 23°03.83’N
Longitude: 073°44.67’W
Maximum speed: 5.6 knots (under sail, running past San Salvador)
Average speed: 3.5 knots (perhaps against current?)

I’m reeling right now. Karl’s just breathed those worst of all words: “I’m finished.” He’s sick of this, he says, sick of sailing. His night last night didn’t have the incandescent beauty that mine did, or he didn’t experience the euphoria tinged with fear that I felt as we galloped over the green and heaving water. Instead, he felt only exhaustion. He’s sick of Secret, sick of worrying about our standing rigging, sick of living tilted over at forty degrees, sick of getting no sleep.

Even though the sun’s flecking off perfect blue water speckled with dots of coral reef, and the breeze blowing through the boat is drying my sweat, and there’s a perfect uninhabited island through the companionway, I feel like I’m in hell. Not go on? How can we not go on? Where can we go? What about Secret? I’m desperate, angry, frustrated. We’ve poured so much into this boat, into this journey, into this new life together. What is he talking about?

This is so out of the blue. I had no idea it was coming. He seems surprised that I don’t feel the same way, that last night wasn’t as stressful and devastating to me as it was to him.

After I wrote these paragraphs, we prayed. What else could we do? I cried. Then we were visited by two Bahamian fishermen in a little skiff who told us to hail a boat named Sea Hunter located inside the reef, that we shouldn’t stay anchored where we were, barely protected and outside the reef. Sea Hunter, a giant dive boat, had already hailed us and offered to pilot us into the anchorage, but we had turned them down, thinking the entrance looked too sketchy. But coming as it did, it seemed an answer to prayer.

The fishermen asked for some water and we gave them half a gallon jug full. “Just a cup of water in my name...” The anchorage does seem to be an answer to prayer so far. It’s calm and deserted, and Sea Hunter has offered to give us fuel filters to replace our clogged one, as well as some extra spears they have for fishing, and has invited us over for dinner. At least it’s a brief respite. We can straighten things out here, have a heart-to-heart. If nothing else, if Karl doesn’t want to go on, maybe we can just move here. The island is uninhabited, after all.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

En route from Long Bay, San Salvador, Bahamas

Wind: E 15 knots, gusting higher
Seas: 6-8 feet, higher over coastal shelf

Today we left the haven of Columbus’s anchorage at San Salvador, heading out into the wild and woolly Atlantic. I’m writing in secret (in Secret--ha!) as Karl sleeps like a baby on the lower lee berth, curled up in a sheet stained by his own sweat. We’re under sail, almost full sail, a reefed main and full lapper. It may even be my first time to have an actual watch over night where we’re sailing with jib and main. I’ve sailed under main alone on our first passage, when we should have reefed the main and carried some jib, but other than that it’s been motoring or motor-sailing, if I recall correctly. It’s a glorious feeling.

We had a scare coming out of harbor, though. First, coming through the coral was brutal. We put it off too long, scared, and we didn’t leave until three o’clock in the afternoon. By then the giant cumulus clouds off land had moved in and blanketed the coral heads. Coming out past the reef nearly did my nerves in. I stood on the bow and shouted desperate ports and starboards while Karl steered. I’m not sure we were ever in much danger because the water was more than twenty feet deep the whole time, but I’ve seen heads that high or higher, so I was still afraid.

We ran out past the lee of the island, which is when the seas really picked up. As usual, the Master wasn’t working, so I manned the helm while Karl adjusted the sails. It was scary. The seas were easily ten feet high, huge crests and huge troughs, and we raced up one side and down the other. Looking back, all I could see was towering walls of green.

It’s so hard to judge, though. The wind felt a lot stronger than fifteen knots, but we were close reaching, so how do I know? The seas looked bigger than any we’ve seen, but how can I be sure? They certainly felt bigger than the 3-5 predicted by the shortwave radio, but I can’t even be sure of that. I don’t even know how they measure waves. Is it the biggest distance from crest to trough, or the distance from the middle of the wave to the crest? And do you measure the biggest wave or the average wave? I have no idea. I’ve never been sure, and though Karl keeps insisting that we’ve been in big seas, I’m never quite convinced. How do we know that these aren’t little baby waves that experienced cruisers would scoff at? We don’t. We never know.

Karl would have turned around, I think, but as usual, I wanted to press on. I refused to admit to myself or to him that the waves were actually bigger than five feet. I hate turning around. Hate it.

As it turned out, I’m glad we didn’t. After an hour at the helm I was angry enough at the Master’s lack of functioning and our own negligence in refusing to learn sheet-to-tiller self-steering or build a wind vane that I turned the tiller over to Karl and went below to get some sleep. After he actually had to take the helm and fight with it, he figured out a way to get the Master to work. He always does.

So by the time my watch rolled around, even though I had slept very little, the Master was working, we unfurled the full jib, and the seas had calmed down. In retrospect, I just think they were built up from coming over the coastal shelving off of San Salvador. I’m glad we went tonight. It’s a beautiful night. I feel like we’re finally getting the hang off these offshore passages--we know how to stow things below deck so things won’t fall all around, we know how to rig and use the lee berth, we can both sleep better and keep watch better, we both know enough about sail trim to adjust the sheets. (I haven’t actually been brave enough to adjust the jib sheet yet, but I’ve been adjusting the main to steer a better course.)

I adore these silent overnight runs. I love the numinous beauty of the moonlit night, the phosphorescence sparkling in our bow wave. As I duck back and forth into the cockpit to check our course and check our navigation, I’m watching the crescent moon slowly sink into the clouds. Sunsets are good, but moonsets are far, far better. Tonight I watched the evening star turn yellow, flat, and mellow as it withdrew below the horizon. How many people have ever done that? How many people have even done this? Controlled a big boat, on a rough night, as it crossed eighty miles of open Atlantic... It makes me feel independent, skilled, and that edge of fear that hones all my senses.

My mind always drifts into unreal places on these passages, hearing voices sometimes. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep or the solitude. Tonight I keep thinking I hear the waves, still big enough to be a little scary, talking back to me. I know they’re not, but I still think maybe they have individual personalities, just like people. Does God name each of them like he does us? We’re told he knows every sparrow that falls, but what about every wave?

I could die happy tonight. Not that I want to tempt fate. Just feeling one of a select few, one of the ancient mariners or explorers, someone who watches the constellations wheel as she steers her small bark over the seas. I feel so confident, and each voyage increases my confidence, my knowledge of what Secret and I can handle together.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E 15-20 knots

Our decision to not leave yet turns out to have been a good one. After Monday’s brief interlude of less windiness, the wind picked up yesterday and has stayed consistently windy today. Maybe tomorrow, again, as we say every day. Maybe tomorrow we’ll finally make some progress towards our ultimate destination, finally begin to get away from these dang hurricanes. My big accomplishment for the day was a twenty-foot dive.

Twenty feet! A month ago I could barely get to five! Now I can set the anchor by hand and I can stay at the bottom for about five times as long as I could when we first got to the Bahamas. The occasion for the dive was the loss of a towel, my favorite fluffy yellow towel that we accidentally stole from Danny and Sam in Daytona.

We’ve been draping the towel over the gigantic barbecue to stifle the blinding, refracting light that refracts off it during the heat of the day, and we had neglected to secure it when we went to town yesterday. When we got back to the boat, Karl noticed its loss, and it was with a heavy heart that I wrote it off. Karl went for a swim, though, and spotted it, not fifty yards from the boat, and thought that he could hook it and reel it in with one of our fishing lines, if I guided the process from the water. Since the weather forecast looks good for leaving tomorrow, we had to do it today.

I put on my fins and my mask, and swam out in the choppy and stirred-up water to check out the situation. It didn’t look so far away, crumpled like an empty shroud on the sand. I took a couple of deep breaths and dove. I didn’t tell Karl what I was doing, I didn’t even tell myself, but I knew that my first dive of the day is always the deepest and best. I’m the most energized and relaxed. I can equalize effortlessly, and let the pressure build up in my lungs without getting that desperate, soul-sucking feeling when I can’t breathe.

So I dove, slowly, propelling myself downward with long, strokes of my fins, and pushing myself farther than I’ve ever gone, until I could just reach the sandy yellow mass of the towel with my finger tips. I carried it to the surface triumphantly and waved the soggy heap above my head like a trophy. Karl, still working with the fishing lines on the boat, permitted me a smile and a “very good.” He’s been my diving champion all along, but he’s a coach who works much more by remonstrance than by encouragement. Still, I knew all along that he knew that I could do it, even if I didn’t believe that I could. I never believe I can actually work up and get better at things, that repetition and practice actually leads to skill in the physical realm. I always think that I’m good at the things that I’m good at it (reading, writing, arithmetic, and book-learning), and bad at the things I’m bad at (fence-jumping, acrobatics, diving, etc.), and that there’s nothing to be done about it. What a tremendous feeling of accomplishment to actually get better at something that I’ve always thought I’m bad at!

I know any Bahamian, even an infant, could do that dive with their eyes closed. Bahamians dive to forty feet and then lie down on the sand and wait for grouper. But for me, it was a crowning achievement. Maybe I can even start catching us some fish one of these days.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E 15-20 knots

Karl dragged me to shore today for our next mission imperative: water. We bought two new five gallon water jugs (marked “kerosene” on their exterior) in Georgetown, so we still have more aboard than we usually do, but we’ve learned the hard way that it’s always better to have too much than not enough. He’s made friends with a grizzled elderly gentleman named Herman who has a well about 300 yards from the beach--he’s the one who’s been freezing water for us. So we filled up our onboard water tank and carted all our empty jugs to shore, at least thirty gallons worth.

I hadn’t been to Herman’s house yet, and the walk there was a pleasant stroll under blossoming, brilliant flame trees, past the little Mission Baptist church whose steeple we can see from the boat, and down the road to the well. I always feel like I’m stepping back into the past when we go for water, like a woman in an ancient African village. I know, of course, that running water is one of the first measures of man’s progress, and I don’t mean to romanticize the Biblical-type poverty that forces people to draw their water at wells, but it really doesn’t seem so bad to me. We get good exercise, we meet interesting people, we impress people with our completely nonwestern sense of industry. I do love running water. I even love it on the boat. It drives me crazy when our tank runs empty and we have to draw our water from our unwieldy jugs. I always end up spilling half of it.

We met Herman’s wife and a couple of grandchildren, one an adorable little waif named Shadnay who kept telling us we were spilling our water. We talked about the benefits of well water to reverse-osmosis water. I prefer well water, water filtered by the earth than that filtered by electricity, in general, but Herman’s wife insisted that the town water was better. Then we began the slow process of dragging full jugs up the hill. Karl had the worst of it. He had filled his trail backpack with about ten gallons of water, and was carrying a five-gallon jug by hand. I, always one to bite off more than I can chew, took a five-gallon jug in each hand and began the slow struggle back to the dinghy.

I hadn’t noticed that we were going downhill on the way there, but it became increasingly obvious that every step was uphill on the way back. I lugged and lugged and struggled and put down my jugs and panted and rested (when out of sight of the house). Thank God for Herman, who effortlessly carted a single jug, and then came back and helped me with mine. The man is 75 years old if he’s a day, and he’s stronger than most men half his age. I guess I’m not yet up to the standards of African villagers. When I can balance my jug on my head, then we’ll talk.

We got back to the boat and took a sip of our nice, cold, refreshing water, only to discover--it’s brackish. Just slightly, just enough salt in it that you can taste it, but enough that it’s pretty far from refreshing. No wonder our ice has been melting so fast. Water with salt in it won’t freeze completely. Still, we’ll drink it. Brackish water will hydrate you, if slightly less than real fresh water. Some dude even crossed the Atlantic drinking nothing but salt water, just to prove it could be done, though it’s said he supplemented with an awful lot of fish moisture. We’re turning into real sea people now. We even drink salt.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E 10-15 knots, seas forecast as 2-4 feet offshore

Wordsworth said:

...Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled on a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lee,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
And hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

I’m not generally a big fan of old Will, (oh, daffodils! Daffodils! and all that) but that one does ring true out here. We’re in a pleasant lee today, and I wish I could have a glimpse of old Proteus and Triton. It’s another of those days when I try to convince Karl to leave our pleasant lee anchorage and head out to the open sea. The forecast is brilliant and open today, with no bad weather forecast on the horizon. Still, though, he is oppressed by the giant cumulus clouds billowing above us, the clouds that bring with them wind, rain, and squalls. It’s so hard to judge what open ocean conditions would be from harbor. I know the land can both quell and amplify the wind, and I know that thunderclouds are made by the moisture rising from land. Our anchorage behind the land could be making us think that the wind is worse than it actually is, but it could also be making us think it’s better.

He is captain, so I reconciled myself to another day at anchor, and consoled myself with domestic witchcraft. I whipped up a dough from a Joy of Cooking recipe, using milk, eggs, and shortening, attempting to simulate the refrigerated crescent rolls you buy in your grocer’s freezer section. We still have vast quantities of hot dogs to contend with, a legacy from the Club Med binge. A friend on shore has bestowed on us some frozen gallons of water to assist with preservation, and I’ve also doused them liberally with vinegar to keep the bacteria at bay. So I thought the best thing to do, since we have no bread left on the boat, would be to make gourmet pigs-in-a-blanket.

They turned out beautifully--flaky and crisp on the outside, moist inside. There’s very little better than hunks of meat enveloped in pastry. It could also be our continued love affair with high-quality Club Med flesh. These hot dogs seem to be the best I’ve ever tasted, bigger than any I’ve seen, without any of those troubling morsels of bone or cartilage that always seem to find their way into sausages, especially those of the low-end generic combination-pork-chicken-and-beef variety that we always end up buying. Maybe I should call my European hot dogs frankfurters.

It’s a good thing we have stacks of them, because fish don’t seem to be interested in biting our chewy and over-charred lobster tails. My other entertainment for the day was going and visiting the fish below our boat and practicing my diving. I stalked some around the coral today, chasing them at top speed and then hovering above them to watch, unobserved. I saw some amazing things, two fish they call blue runners with a long blue stripe and elegant, wing-like fins engaging in an elaborate dance with a stingray scavenging below our boat for rotten egg fragments. Every ray I’ve seen comes with a fish of some kind hovering above it, for what reason I know not, but these two swam in such a way that can only be called dancing, seeming to predict the other’s every move in a paired and swirling pas de deux. They even used their fins as one, keeping the one pressed to their bodies while the other angled out and fluttered in the water, until they split apart and unfurled their second fin, folding it as effortlessly inward again when they came together to rejoin the dance.

They led me to a giant grouper hidden under a rock, who eyed me with an old and wary eye. I’m practicing my hunting, even though I have no weapon as of yet, and a great method has been to use the smaller fish to lead me to the hidey holes for the big, good-eating fish. This one retreated into the shadows as soon as he saw me. He was wise enough to know me as a threat. Most of the big fish do--they’re smart enough to recognize other, bigger fish (me) as predators. The little fish ignore me. He kept hidden under his coral head home as I made a slow, lazy circuit of the thing. Then I lost him and thought he had escaped. I dove down deep to peer into the recesses of his cave and saw him back there, hiding in his corner. In my astonishment, I forgot that I couldn’t breathe and lay against the sand, staring eye to eye with him, until finally I burst, gasping, back to the surface.

A barracuda tracked me for a while, thinking I was going to throw him a tasty tidbit or two, but soon lost interest. It reminds me of the lobster I saw at Conception, who kept looking up at me as he went about his scavenging, or even my old beta Finnegan, a pet at college. I swear fish do have consciousness, at least the big ones. They’re at least aware enough to know that they’re in the same class that I am, that they can threaten me, and I can threaten them. Finnegan, as an isolated fish in a fish bowl, would hover motionlessly in his bowl for hours, leading me and my roommates to believe him dead. Eventually he would rouse himself, and my conclusion (informed by my study of History of Philosophy at the time) was that was suffering from mordant existentialist angst as a result of having achieved self-consciousness. Wouldn’t you, after all, if you discovered you were living in a fish bowl?

Poor Finnegan. The fish out here have much better lives, even if they do risk being shot. In my newfound synthesis with nature, I’m well aware that it’s eat or be eaten out here. Kill or be killed, man. It’s the law of Proteus’s Pagan wild.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
E-SE 10-15 knots, gusting to 20

We’re living in such close proximity to nature out here that I forget that there’s any other way to live. It’s what I meant to get to yesterday, when I was distracted by history and the role of the audience for an artist. The topic of the essays I’ve been reading is “Nature and Civilization,” and they make me aware of exactly how different our life is, and has been, from that of most human beings in our age. I’ve been thinking a lot about nature--the moon, the stars, the fish, the ocean. Those words mean little to the average 21st century citizen, other than an abstract ideal of beauty, perhaps, but they don’t even mean that to us anymore. I know, without thinking very hard about it, what phase the moon is currently in. I guessed yesterday, to Karl, that it was about time for the new moon, only to discover that my guess was precisely right--yesterday was the new moon.

I didn’t even discover that by looking it up, but by looking at the thin sliver of moon that’s up today, the first moon after the new moon, the moon that sets an hour after sunset. I remember the shock of learning, through my mother’s astronomy class, that the different phases of the moon actually rise and set at different times, and that only the full moon rises at dark and sets at dawn. I knew, of course, that sometimes the moon was up at the same time as the sun, but in my citified life, it have never crossed my mind that there must be a reason for that, an order inherent in it. In a life lived under the glow of an orange nighttime sky, lit with thousands of menacing skyscrapers, there’s no reason to think about it.

Out here, of course, there is. I pay attention to the moon, because of the tides--I know when the moon is full or new we’ll have deeper tides and stronger currents, and most days, without stopping to think very hard, I can say what the tide will do. I remember the first day, a couple of weeks ago, that I was able, with a thrill of pleasure, to calculate the time of high and low tide, based only on what phase the moon was in. At places near the open ocean, high tide is always at eight o’clock on the morning of the full moon.

The stars are our entertainment, most nights. We look up and find constellations (generally we just make up our own. Karl’s favorite is a giant anime crab off on the eastern horizon) or the milky way. I figured out how to find the North Star for the first time recently, and now I can do it effortlessly. We have nothing else to look at it, nothing else to do, and it makes me feel like ancient man, looking up and telling each other stories about the pictures in the stars. As we get farther and farther out, the stars get more and more brilliant, more like those that ancient man would have seen as he crouched in front of his painted cave.

The closer we get to nature, though, the more dangerous we realize it is. Maybe it’s why modern man stays so distant from it. The weather controls our lives on the boat. One storm could wipe us on to the reef, with careless innocence. I listen to the weather at least three times a day, if not four. I wake up at 5:30 in the morning to mess around with the dials on the shortwave radio until it beams in clear from the ionosphere. I track the troughs and ridges, the cold fronts and the warm fronts, the low and high pressure systems, and scariest of all, the tropical waves and depressions, about which I knew nothing until two months ago.

I couldn’t do it without my expensive piece of electronics, just like we couldn’t be out here without our little boat made of plastic, or our sails and lines made out of nylon. I couldn’t be writing (or no one could be reading what I write) if it wasn’t for the wonder of computers, and the even greater wonder of finding wireless internet access in the remote corners of the world, however infrequently. We need both, I suppose, nature and civilization.

We’re not attuned enough yet to the bacteria living on our boat, however. We had to throw away our last four lobster tails tonight, thanks to the un-iced icebox and our own lackadaisical attitude (cue here the sound of rending of garments and shrieking wails of misery). Throwing away lobster tails!! Oh, the torture! The humanity! It’s the first foodstuff, since the bacon debacle, that we’ve both thought smelt off enough that we couldn’t bear to eat them. We tried, though. Karl grilled them dutifully, though we both thought they smelt bad and wouldn’t tell each other, and then we both took tiny bites and tried to choke them down. Then I recalled that day of filling the boat with my own vomit, and I decided that the torture of throwing away lobster was better than the torture of food poisoning.

The lobster didn’t actually get thrown away, so you can breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, it went into our stinky bait bag. Half a tail is skewered on a hook off our stern right now, and I hope one of nature’s little delicious morsels will come impale herself on ir. Nature, while red in tooth and claw, is also quite delicious.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E-SE 10-15 knots, gusting to 20 at midday

On our little plastic boat today, we settled down into our infamous waiting game. The weather forecast is just a tad more windy than we like, so we’ll sit it out, wait for a dead calm day or close to it. Our next goal is an overnight passage, our first since the Gulf Stream, so there’s no reason to rush it. We fall into laziness a little bit when we’re anchored and waiting: I let the dishes sit for longer than I should, books and magazines litter the cabin, and the interior slowly falls into chaos

It’s all right, though. I continue to remind myself that I’m in paradise, the bright light glittering off the aquamarine water and the white beach, the gentle lapping of waves against the dinghy’s stern, the tangy smell of salt water as I sit outside under our shady awning, the brilliant, liquid heat against my darkening skin as I sip our too strong coffee in the mornings.

I’m reading a great book called The Dolphin Reader, which actually appears to be an English composition college textbook. It’s one of those books I’ve been carting around with me forever and hoping to read, but never have had a chance. I always believe that I’ll read them at the right moment in time, that my awareness and the book’s art will intersect each other at the perfect moment, the fated moment, when I’m ready to here what the book has to say. That’s why I cart them around with me, from state to state, country to country, continent to continent.

This one’s particularly good, a collection of essays from throughout the twentieth century arranged topically. Combined with my continued New Yorker reading, I’m blinded by great prose. Essays are a particularly interesting art form. For one thing, many of them originate as something else: a letter, speech, column, chapter of a book, or (dare I suggest?) a blog entry. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a “person of letters” in the old-fashioned sense, someone like Carlyle, Keats, Samuel Johnson, or Leonard Woolf. These people thought and lived brilliantly, and then they wrote it down in letters to their friends and family, private journals, newspaper articles, memoirs, and essays. They’re the people no one reads anymore and everyone should--we’re entranced instead by novels and poetry, if we can find any time in our digital age to read at all.

I want to be one of them. I’ve always envisioned vast volumes of my posthumously published epistolary prose (hasn’t everyone?), but they seem to be something else that computers have done away with. Sure, I’ll pick up a copy of the collected letters that Simone de Beauvoir wrote to Jean-Paul Sartre, but the “Complete Emails of Melissa A. Jenks”? Come on. Let alone “Distinguished Web Journals of the Early 21st Century.”

Still, though, one must aspire to greatness. As usual, as my contact with civilization recedes into the far past, and I think of my month-old emails being deleted silently, without protest, by AOL, I feel more and more isolated in my writing. Even if I write it, will anyone read it? Who can afford the time to spare? I know that there’s enough material published every day to keep one reading for the rest of one’s life. That’s an immensely discouraging statistic for an aspiring writer. How can my few jots and tittles, no matter how carefully wrought, stand up to that? Especially if I keep writing and hoarding 700 words a day, only to offload them in one giant month-long dump.

Karl keeps insisting (as my muse) that I must have faith. As Kevin Costner so famously said (but has anyone really seen this movie? Not me), “If you build it, they will come.” I keep writing my prose in the face of the darkness and the silence. Maybe someone will read it, and keep reading, and know how it feels to be out here in the sun and the wind, to feel the tingling of starshine against their skin as they dive into the limpid nighttime water.

Even if no one does, at least I had an insane surf and turf for dinner tonight: a giant steak as tender as filet mignon, two grilled lobster tails, mashed potatoes with basil, and coleslaw with two-month-old cabbage. Maybe it’s God’s way of rewarding my effort. “Here,” he says. “No one else might think you’re doing a good job, but I do.”

Friday, July 13, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E-SE 10-15 knots, gusting to 20 (???) at midday

Do you know how much the uber-hip French vacationers pay per person for a week at Club Med Columbus Isle? $3500. That’s $7000 for two. I have a tendency to be too frank about our financial situation (I see no logic behind the American reticence about finances), but I will say that that is enough to fund our lifestyle for a full year. Believe it or not.

Still, we manage to live like Club Med vacationers. We’ve always shaken our heads in disbelief about it. Back on the trail days, we used to say our motto was, “Our life is your vacation,” and it holds true. Somehow, living out of a tarp, carrying around our belongings on our backs, and eating Liptons and ramen for months on end allowed us to afford a gourmet dinner at a miniscule French bistro we discovered in the heart of the high desert on the Pacific Crest Trail, with a jazz pianist tinkling the keys in the corner and a steak so good Karl called it “meat candy.” When we were biking, camping in the briars and human feces off of roadside rest stops, we discovered that we could wander into deluxe Napa Valley wineries and taste the best artisanal wines the US has to offer. When we needed to shower, we were given ridiculously low rates at a oceanfront Mendocino County resort, with in-room champagne, cheese, and an ocean view hot tub.

It’s ridiculous. We’re paupers. We shouldn’t be able to do what we do, but still we do. Today, for instance: Karl thought he spotted our friend Jason, the Club Med chef, on the beach, so he decided to row over to the San Salvador pavilion. I took a long swim, exploring the vast gardens of fan coral on the reef and stalking giant grouper in their shady holes. I ended up swimming all the way to shore (600 yards!) to meet Karl and the gang of Club Med folk on the beach, cooking up a storm on the day off. Jason wasn’t there, but we met another crew of people from the kitchen, who had brought out a case of lobster tails, probably twenty pounds of steak, and foie gras. These were guys who spend ten hours a day cooking the best food money can buy for French people, and here they were, cooking a feast for themselves on a giant charcoal grill, beach-side.

They invited us to join them, astounding us, and served us an unbelievable repast: jumbo shrimp charred on the grill with garlic and lime, steak as tender and rare as any I’ve eaten, grilled tomatoes, lobster tails grilled with olive oil and fresh tarragon, and Bahamian lobster salad with hot peppers and about a dozen limes. It was as good a meal as I’ve eaten ever, relished on the perfect white beach with the sun going down. We were enjoying better than what the Club Med folk do without having paid a cent. Better than Club Med--even they don’t get a private feast, prepared oceanside by three gourmet chefs.

They told us that they didn’t want to take any food back to the resort and that we could have whatever was left, so I thought that we might end up with the loaf of bread they had sitting there and some hot dogs. Instead, they gave us the half of the case of lobsters that were left, about eight pounds of steak, and untouched box of about 100 gourmet hot dogs. It was far, far too much food for us, especially without ice, so we gave half of it away to our Bahamian friend David, who had joined the party after dark. Still, though, in our icebox right now we have more steak than we’ve ever had on the boat, about fifteen lobster tails, and more hot dogs than we’re going to be able to eat.

It’s like a gift from God. I wondered when the next time was that we were even going to be able to afford fresh meat, and here it is, a gift. We must be doing something right.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E-SE 10-15 knots, gusting to 20 (or higher???) at midday

I’m in agonizing indecision today. Today was our day to head south, farther on to the next island, to press on to our nonexistent but tyrannical ultimate destination. Of course we didn’t leave. And why? The wind, always the wind.

Everyone speaks of the agony of defeat, but I firmly believe that indecision is far, far worse. Neither of us are any good at all at decision-making, and it is our fatal flaw as aspiring professional adventurers. It may, ultimately, lead to our downfall, especially if we get trapped by a malicious but seasonable hurricane. I keep rehashing all the details of our recent white-knuckled sail, the vagaries of the mechanized weather report, the entrancing welcome of this community, the whims of our budget and the possibility of employment, and I can’t quite decide whether or not we made the right decision. I can’t figure it out.

Karl hates how I do this. He procrastinates indefinitely on decisions too, but when he decides, he does something--like that Appalachian Trail. He had talked about hiking it, planned, bought equipment, and then didn’t do it. For five years. Five years later, in March, two weeks before his aunt drove down to Georgia, he decided to hitch a ride with her and go do it. On the other hand, I spent five years in planning and soul-searching, with a 2004 D-day of March 1 written in my day-planner years ahead of time.

So all day today I’ve been hashing and rehashing all the variables and complexity, whereas Karl had the simple thought: “It’s too windy. We shouldn’t go.” And then had nary another worry. This is why Healer, our tai chi master from the Pacific Crest Trail, told him he had a “quiet mind.”

I have the opposite of a quiet mind. I have a very, very loud mind. I have a loud enough mind for the both of us. That’s why I write and he doesn’t. If he had to hear me talk about all the stuff I write about, he’d go crazy. He doesn’t even like reading what I write sometimes. He hates to hear all my complaining, all my talk about the chaos and work of boat life, all my agonizing and soul-searching. He likes the entries where I settle into contentment, where I decide all our effort has been worth it, that we are in the right place, doing the right thing.

I can’t always be like that, though. As today: the wind, according to our guidebook, is perfect for sailing. Perfect. The forecast today is for ten knots out of the east, which would give us an ideal overnight close reach down to Samana Cay. The seas are supposed to be 3-5 feet, manageable and mild. The wind’s supposed to stay this calm until Monday, giving us plenty of time to make the safe harbor of Abraham Bay in Mayaguana, the last stop before the Turks and Caicos. So why didn’t we leave? The wind feels much, much stronger. It feels like 20-25 knots. We can hear it in the rigging, and it’s whipping the tarp around, swinging the boat right and left at anchor, pulling on our anchor chain. The trees ashore seem to be rushing about in a frenzy totally unlike that of ten knots of wind.

What are we to do? The forecast says one thing, but our gut says another. We have no windmeter, so there’s no way to verify externally our intuitive perception. I hate that--I like numbers and instruments and proof. I hate trusting my gut, which seems to me intrinsically untrustworthy. Are these winds just normal summer pre-Caribbean trades? If so, how in the world are we ever going to make it to the Turks and Caicos, let alone the Dominican Republic? Have we been made chary and chicken by our experience the other day? Was that sail even as bad as we thought it was, or is our inexperience rearing its ugly head? We’re not racers, we’re not even cruisers, for heaven’s sake. Did we come out with a boat that has more pep and vigor than we as sailors do? Worse yet, did we come out with the wrong boat? Or is it merely the call of land that’s causing our reluctance? Should we listen to our subconscious impulses and settle down and find work? Participate in a community for a little while? If we can’t get out of here on a ten-knot day, how will we ever leave?

God only knows.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E-SE 10 knots

Yesterday’s festivities have delayed our departure yet again, something that should come as no surprise to the regular reader of this journal. When have we not been delayed by festivities? The tragic part is the beauty of the wind yesterday and today, the wind that lulls us into believing it will stay calm and beautiful forever, and whisk us gently south with its breath. It’s forecast to stay relatively calm and sailable through Friday, but we know from hard experience that that can change at any instant. The Gentleman’s Guide says “take the leading edge of the front and don’t delay,” and there’s always an uncertainty that nibbles at the end of my consciousness when we don’t do that. The end of this calm period could crumble into heavy, serious trades again, and we could be left here for another two weeks.

Still, though, we did nothing today, aside from sit and recuperate in the shade of our tarp, swim a little, fish a little, do exactly what anyone would do in a tropical paradise. I keep remembering my first visit to the Bahamas, when I was fourteen, on a mission trip. (For those not in the evangelical Christian subculture, a “mission trip” is a bizarre amalgam of tour group, socioeconomical development project, and evangelistic outreach.) Bahamians have asked me repeatedly if this visit is my first to their islands, and I answer that I was here once before, in Eleuthera. I wanted very much to visit Eleuthera during our cruise here, but it was not to be. People are impressed when I tell them that, though--many of them haven’t been to Eleuthera, famed as one of the most beautiful of the Bahamian isles.

Especially fascinating was meeting a young Bahamian diver named Nat who happened to be from Eleuthera. I rapidly did the math and guessed that we could have been in Eleuthera at the same time, that Nat could have been one of the primary students that my youth choir had presented with Christian concerts and puppet shows. Nat, however, was much older than he looked, as many Bahamians end up being. We’re forever meeting spry-looking Bahamians who look in their late thirties and turn out to be 78. It’s enough to make one believe that David Copperfield and Ponce de Leon were onto something with their Fountain of Youth crap, although my firm belief is that the Bahamian Fountain of Youth is a steady diet of barracuda and conch, coupled with vast quantities of sunlight, heat, and salt water.

It was a brush with my past, with weird echoes of the present, to think that I could actually meet someone I could have met back then. I’ve always had fond memories of that trip, though to me the culture shock was less the experience of the Bahamas than being surrounded by other American teenagers without my parents around. I was well acquainted with the tropics, with the vagaries of developing-world cities, and with being the wrong color in a foreign country. The Bahamas, though, had things that Thailand didn’t: the pink sand, for one. I didn’t believe it was really pink until on one of our beach excursions on the mission trip, where we took a day off and had a motorboat ride to an abandoned stretch of sand, complete with a huge pallet bonfire and a picnic. Our mission-trip leader picked up a handful of sand and showed me the little pink specks of coral hidden inside.

The pink gives the beaches here a luminous glow that even the beaches in Thailand don’t have (though far be it from me to malign Thai beaches, which I will go to my grave calling the most beautiful in the world. Still, the sand there, though a perfect white at the best beaches, has more of an ivory hue.) An acquaintance here in San Salvador said that the microorganisms of the coral in the sand are still alive, and that’s why it’s pink. If it was dead, it would lose its pinkness.

I love the sand, though. I love its color, I love how it feels against my feet, I love looking at it and touching it, even at dusk when sand fleas end up biting my ankles into a rash of welts. Karl is not as enchanted as am I, as usual, but he’s coming around.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
E-SE 10 knots

Our leaving has been delayed again, today by Bahamian Independence. And it was worth it, even though the weather forecast has changed and today the wind was beautiful, from the right direction, and not too strong. Still, I’ve never been known to turn down a cultural celebration. By the time we rowed over, there was already a huge crowd of people gathered at the yellow open-air pavilion that’s directly across from our boat. They had set up a tent for drinks, and the ladies of the community were hard at work in the kitchen.

We wandered down the road to the nearest convenience store, which ended up being a two-mile, rather miserable walk in the sunlight. There was a whole cabal of rather intimidating looking Rasta-type men gathered in the pavilion outside, and they all stared at us as we walked by, but inside, again, everyone was unfailingly kind. They invited us again to the celebration down the road, and we walked back down to participate in the festivities. It was everything that I remember from childhood Fourth of July celebrations--fried chicken, macaroni-and-cheese, three-legged races, egg-and-spoon races, and at the end, fireworks.

We opted for the whole fried red snapper rather than the fried chicken, though it was a tough call, and we sat on a beach-side rock and devoured the whole fish. Karl was thrilled, as usual, to be able to gnaw on a fish head, and all the Bahamians cast sideways glances at the white kids enjoying fish head. There were other white people there, though, and at first we were as mystified by them as they seemed to be by us, until one of them finally introduced himself to us. It turned out that he was the head chef at the nearby Club Med (Club Med Columbus Isle, in case you were wondering.) We’d heard about Club Med from some of the Bahamians already, as the resort seems to employ most of the people on the island. Jason, as his name turned out to be, invited us back to the Club Med for a tour.

We weren’t really allowed to be there. You need a green armband or an ID card just to get on the grounds, but Jason snuck us around. The vast majority of staff and guests at the resort are French, so I figured I could get by the front desk with a cheery “Bonjour.” Evidently my French accent was not quite up to par, or maybe all the holes in our clothing and our shaggy hair gave us away, but the prissy French desk girls sent an apologetic Frenchman after us. Jason had just wanted us to peek around the corner anyway, to get a look at the inner workings of the resort complex, so we made a beeline to his car and a fast getaway. He did give us a full tour of the restaurants and the living quarters, though.

He also said that he could refer us for jobs there, a very tempting possibility. He’s in charge of the restaurants, so he could get Karl a job in the kitchen and me a job as wait staff. Another option, a better one, is that we could both work as sailing instructors. They provide full room and board there, and they have a full gym available, and all amenities are open to employees as well as guests. My French is really rusty, but it would have to be a selling point. Even Jason said he has a hard time advancing in the company because he lacks French. In some ways, the whole encounter seems to be extremely fortuitous--a job falling in our laps, right when we need it most.

Still, though... The weather has just changed for the better. We can head on farther south, to mountains and mangroves and, most importantly, hurricane holes. The locals have assured us that we can get into the mangroves here (on a very high tide) but I’m really not sure that an island on the edge of the Atlantic is where I want Secret to be during all of hurricane season. It’s a painfully hard decision. Do we take the wind that’s supposed to blow fair tomorrow? Or do we stay and pursue jobs that may fall through anyway, and push us into the dangerous month of August? Most of all, is working at a mega-resort what I really want?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Long Bay, Bahamas

0 nm
Wind: E-SE 15-20 knots

Karl is becoming quite enchanted with San Salvador Island, as am I. Yesterday, after I journaled, I went decided to move the boat closer to shore. As of now, the weather’s forecast to stay a little heavier than we would like through this Friday, so we figured we’d better get to shore, make some phone calls, and find a place to fill up our water. Even though we’re not that low right now, we will be by the end of the week.

We uneventfully dodged coral heads to get within 500 yards of the beach, and then I went for a dive, my first in San Salvador. My 1981 guidebook says that the only real reason to come to San Salvador is the diving, and I can see why. The reef here is, by far, the best reef I’ve seen in the Bahamas. There are huge coral heads, rising up twenty feet above the ocean floor, so high that when I swim over them I fear my belly will graze their tops. So far I’ve seen skipjack tuna, giant 20-pound grouper, stingrays, and countless brilliant electric-blue fish that look like little specks of sky swimming in the water. There are whole huge yellow heads that are at least ten feet wide, and vast fan-coral gardens with exquisite fans of green-yellow and bright purple.

I could get entranced just by the diving around here, but the island itself is a fairly amazing place. It has everything that I’m always looking for in an island paradise--blinding white sunlight that reflects off the white sand and roads, palm trees (yes!), shady pine trees, miles and miles of powdered-sugar pink-sand beach that is perfectly untouched and unbuilt upon, and amazing people. We took the requisite photos where Columbus allegedly landed, and then wandered up to the local Fish Fry, which seems to be more of a hangout, because they don’t actually sell fish, fried or otherwise.

As soon as we got there, though, we were invited (as outsiders) to a girl’s birthday party that was happening that night. “Free food,” they said, which is really all anyone needs to tell me. It was one of the best experiences we’ve had so far in the Bahamas. As soon as we walked through the door, the girl’s mom laded us with platters of Bahamian food--fried spicy chicken, barbecued ribs, pasta salad, corn. Considering we haven’t even seen meat in about two months, we were pretty ecstatic. There was a deejay playing reggae, and everyone was extremely friendly, even though we couldn’t really hear what anyone had to say. What we did hear was another invitation, to the Bahamian Independence Day celebration on Tuesday. Evidently the government provides more free food, so I’m there.

All in all, I feel more welcomed in this place than I have on any Bahamian island. It’s another enchanting place, a place that I could be convinced to stay in for a long, long time. We may just be able to, too, if the weather stays like this.