A Travellerspoint blog

Waiting for the Wind

Stuck in St. John's

overcast 16 °C

Today is grey and misty and the waves slap gently against the hull of Taniwha. Today the winds are fair and we will hoist our sails. Today we depart St John's.

You might be forgiven for thinking we'd already left. After my race across Canada to get here for the 5th August, I hoped that with a fast turnaround and swift passage we could be in Falmouth for my birthday. But instead we depart on it's eve, stymied by an interminable wait for a delivery of high-strength low-stretch rope. That, and for the winds to come round to the south and bear us fair away on a great circle for the Southwest.

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This is not my first brush with waiting. For ten days I sat in my hotel room in Real de Catorce in Mexico casting longing glances across the plaza at the ATM. I was waiting for the men who replenished the machine to free my card. Their schedule is random for security reasons and I felt like a rat in an experiment conditioned to constant hope by the arbitrary release of treats. Eventually, exhausted by this endless peering, I abandoned my card and put myself at the mercy of Western Union and the goodwill of family and friends in the U.K.

Here in St. John's I haven't the luxury of walking away. There's nowhere to walk to. Newfoundland is the end of Canada and I'm at the end of my trip – this waiting is the wait for my passage home. And so over the two weeks I've been here St. John's has turned from a charming seaport dotted with colourful clapboard houses to a grimy, industrial purgatory.

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Maybe the day I met the crew of Taniwha should have been an indication all would not be easy? And therein lies a story.

My great couchsurfing host, Cory, dropped me at the dock where the boat bobbed at its mooring. I was sleep deprived and hungover - not in the best state to make that initial good impression. Luckily I am old enough to have rote learned the right noises to make at an introduction so passed first muster, my fears of being immediately rejected as unfit to be the fourth member of crew assuaged. We are to be five in total. Nick is the skipper, a tall, manly New Zealander with lots of racing experience and, doubtless, a firm hand on the tiller. He and his partner Michelle are sailing home over the course of a year. Mark is another Englishman on a no-flights round the world trip, and is also homeward bound. And we have just acquired Nathan, a twenty year old local lad who is basically running away to sea.

Back on board I was mucking in, becoming a team member, drilling holes and connecting electronics as we went about installing a new self-steering system. As we worked another sailing boat came into the harbour. Crewmate Mark was trapped below decks, squeezed into an impossible space wielding all sorts of spanners. Please read Mark's excellent blog here for his great subterranean version of the following incident, and the lowdown on St. John's and Taniwha.

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Nick sent me over to the other jetty to help the new boat with their lines as they pulled up to dock. They came in steeply and I fended off the bow to avoid a dink, while three crew, each holding a line, were stationed aft, amidships and forward ready to handle lines and make the boat fast. As the 45ft aluminium hull began to come alongside its mooring, distance closing all the time, the rather portly crew member amidships decided to try and step down and across the gap onto the pontoon with his line. Perhaps he went a little early. Maybe it was just that he missed his footing. But what happened was definitive – he fell and was momentarily wedged between the boat and the pier before plunging down into the water. There was a moment of stunned silence, almost amazement at what was happening. Then his wife started screaming, I was frantically fending off the vessel from crushing him, pushing with everything I could against the hull as it inched closer and closer. I had a vision of it reaching him, his head opening up like a squashed watermelon as he floundered in the water.

Somehow the boat stopped moving. Within thirty seconds a couple of bystanders were hauling him from the water, wet and a little bloody but fundamentally intact. Adrenaline pumping, the moment went from being that of a disaster, a tragedy, to a near miss, to smiles and nervous laughter. I was so pumped that when, a couple of minutes later, there was a whirl of frantic shouting and a man was staggering round on the hard by us I took almost no notice, assuming it was some unnecessary palaver or aftermath to the incident I knew to be over.

I was wrong. Bloody spots are still smattered all over the pier there where, just 30 feet from Taniwha, a mentally unstable man had randomly stabbed a sightseer in the neck. Despite bleeding prolifically, the stabbed man gave chase some 400 yards. Before we knew it police were sealing off the whole area with tape, asking us for statements and a local news crew were at the scene.

Nick said “Welcome aboard, Matt.”

St. John's is not without its charm. Walking out to the headlands of Signal Hill or Fort Amherst you get a spectacular view down this beautiful coast. Long, languorous waves come from the horizon. They appear there docile and gentle with an even roll so when, with incredible force, they burst against the brown rocks sending spray shooting high into the air, creating a turmoil of white water, it is a timely reminder of the power in this sea.

This journey is going to be different to the gentle trade wind crossing onboard Casanova. Up in the North Atlantic weather systems aren't so reliable – we're likely to be run over by a couple of depressions before we're across and see some real wind and rain. There are few icebergs at this time of year, but plenty of fog across the banks and a couple of oilrigs to dodge. The boat, too, is very different. Not the luxury of a charter catamaran this time! I have a simple bunk with Mark below me and Nathan next to me. The head is concealed behind a curtain which handily enables you to chat to whoever is cooking while on the loo. There are no bulkheads, just one space below, and not much space at that. The boat is a racer built only with speed in mind, priorities all different to the cushy comfort of the cat.

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But I am excited for this different experience, for this final chapter in the adventure. And excited that in little more than 1800 miles I will be home! With this crossing, my journey comes full circle. My arrival was on St John in the Virgin Islands, my departure is from St John's in Newfoundland. Well, he must have been popular back in the naming days.

Posted by matthinc 05:00 Archived in Canada Tagged sailing waiting newfoundland st._john's atlantic_crossing Comments (0)

C-Bomb and K-Unit Do America

Adventures in New England

Camille and I met up in New York, swanned around the East Village and sauntered through Brooklyn. We went to some museums, sat in some cafes. We lived the good life. We got plump. We took it easy.

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Slowly, through the haze of coffee and cocktails, a realisation came to dawn on us. New York is an island, unique and distinct. New York is New York, but it ain't America. Beyond the city limits, there's a whole country to get to grips with. Out there, they ain't even heard of the Big Apple.

The Appalachian Trail runs over 2000 miles up the eastern side of the United States, stretching from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the imposing Mount Katahdin in Maine. It's the oldest hiking trail in the States and the most renowned. Where better to start our American adventure? So we cherry-pick one of its finest stretches. We decide to spend five days in the forest coated valleys and mountains of Vermont. Yes Bill Bryson, we're going for our own walk in the woods.

We're going to explore New England - drink a cup of Joe and eat a slice of pie from the country store, go to a drive-in movie and dive into a crisp mountain lake. We'll conquer Mount Washington, cross ourselves a covered bridge, and marvel at the colonial gambrel-roofed clapboard houses, all with Old Glory fluttering outside.

We are definitely going to watch out for bears.

We are going to 'do' America.

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We depart Brooklyn far far too late in the afternoon. Muggy New York City has got into our blood and our preparations for the adventure can't be spurred to urgency. We get on the subway heading in the wrong direction, Grand Central slipping further to the west. We cop strange looks from the other passengers as we clutch our huge packs covered in camping paraphernalia, burrowing deeper into the city.

Finally we get out to the suburbs and, pizza box sign in hand, stand at the on-ramp to the I-95 ready to chance our arm On The Road. And what an arm it is! After my travails as a solo hitcher in this country, our boy/girl charm has stirred some magic in the drivers passing us. They can't stop stopping. Two quick lifts carry us to the edge of New Haven in Connecticut where in the dusk a stream of concerned New Englanders pull over and we turn down five (yes, five) offers of a lift to Boston. We're waiting on someone heading more directly north. Soon a trucker waves us into his cab and we're heading for Massachusetts.

Ray is hard to understand; I translate for Camille who hasn't had as much time to adapt to the drawl. He directs all his conversation to her as though I'm not there. We pass a tourist attraction called Dinosaur World. Camille asks what it is, and Ray tells us that dinosaurs are creatures from the olden days like alligators, but he thinks they don't exist any more – they don't have any living ones there at the park, anyway.

He takes us, or Camille at least, under his wing. When he parks up for the night near his home we transfer from cab to car. Ray tells his wife about the 'pretty girl' he picked up and refers to us as 'her'. They drive her miles out of their way, refusing to leave her in the dark near Hartford for fear of what would happen to her in that scary urban jungle. Finally dropped in the safety of a small town, we spend the night 30 miles south of the Vermont border. The sound of motorway traffic washes us to sleep.

The next day more easy hitching and quick lifts. Camille leaves her hat and purse in one car; money, cards and all. We only realise as we clamber into the next one, a moment of angst and panic. The previous driver, having taken a shine to us, had thrust his card at Camille as we alighted and half an hour later is back. We had managed to buy him a present as a thank you and he, in turn, implores us to spend the weekend with him exploring the local battlegrounds of the war of independence. Affronted, we refuse.

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It's an open top Buick '65 that takes us to the trailhead, wind whipping our hair around us as the petrol guzzling monster glides round the curves and up over the hills of southern Vermont. We clamber over the side of our ride and, in the bright sunshine of an early afternoon, our Appalachian adventure begins.

The trail's steep climbs give way to gentle meanders along undulating ridges. We dip down into valleys where streams have been reduced to a trickle this dry summer. We walk under the trees, thankfully shaded from the burning sun. Visibility is restricted to that point where the green leaves and grey bark merge into a flat curtain of colour, a wall that moves closer as the undergrowth thickens and recedes where the trees grow larger. The odd lookout reveals the hills fading away in the haze, each a paler form than the one before, all softened by the unbroken forest that stretches to the horizon. It is unlike anything it's possible to see in Britain.

We get to the top of Glastenbury Mountain on our second day. It is the first mountain Camille has ever climbed and we celebrate by eating lunch up the fire watchtower on its peak. A blessed breeze and 360 degree views are a wonderful reward, fresh cold spring water in our bottles.

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As we go the odd through hiker overtakes us, people going end to end, toughened by months of walking and accustomed to travelling up to 30 miles a day. We are not the fastest walkers on the trail, but we are, perhaps, the people with the heaviest packs. At the shelter we camp by on our second night another hiker exclaims “Are those fresh vegetables?” in amazement, and an older walker patiently explains to him “They ain't doin it how we do it” pauses, and then adds “I like that.” Thanks old man.

We're carrying almost 4 litres of water each, fresh food for 4 days and scraped together camping equipment; a normal sauce pan, cheap tent, heavy mat. In all, my pack weighs over 45 pounds. The through hikers packs are half that; sometimes less. They eat dried food, fill water at every stream to cut down on weight and spend each night in a shelter where you only need a sleeping bag. We are taught the mantra 'every ounce counts' as they marvel at our loads.

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We'd planned to hitch into a town and re-provision on day three. The map clearly shows a road that intersects the trail 23 miles from where we'd joined it, the first sign of human life this stretch of the trail acknowledges. It had been beautiful and rewarding, but the walking hadn't been easy - there were blisters, sore shoulders and uncomfortable bruises – the aches and pains of bodies not accustomed to whole days in the woods putting foot in front of foot. So, in light rain, we pushed on for the road, putting aside the tenderness of our heels and fantasising aloud about getting a pizza and grabbing a shower. This trip into a town became a motivator, a goal, and a fixation.

The problem is the road isn't a road. More of a gravelled logging track. With a distinct lack of traffic.

The point at which the trail crossed the track was the site for what became known as 'The Big One'. The first and only moment of cross words between us. I will be frank: things were said that shouldn't have been said. Things that might take a little time to be forgotten. Some of the words used, to give you a sense of the occasion, were 'idiot', 'stupid map', 'Into the Wild', 'over-reaction', 'Machiavellian', 'poisonous berries', and 'don't blame me'.

As the rain set in more intently, it became obvious we were going to have to cross Stratton Mountain and go another 17 miles before we would find solace and comfort outside what we carried on us, outside what we had in our packs and in our hearts.

In the rain splashed forest, the tent surpassed our expectations. We woke to see a blue sky and find our bags had stayed dry. Hardened by three days on the trail we pulled on our boots, resolute in our decision to continue. We ascended Stratton Mountain, almost a thousand feet taller than Glastenbury Mountain, before lunch. We washed our clothes and bodies in a stream, swam in a pristine lake and clocked our longest days hiking at about 12 miles.

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And that night, we got our trail names. For a while it had been confusing me that people signed the guestbooks in each shelter with names like 'Lazer' and 'Caveman' rather than Sarah or Jim. When we settled down for the night at the William B Douglas shelter along with three other hikers, it was explained to us that on starting the trail you take a name that stays with you the whole route. Other walkers come to know you by it; it is your hiking identity.

We were invited to choose our names. My initial suggestion of 'Killer' didn't quite get the laugh I was hoping. It went down like a lead balloon out here in the middle of nowhere with people we hardly knew. So instead we became C-Bomb and K-Unit. Yes, you heard it here first. We rocked it. What was amazing was that the others started to call us by them straight away, although I didn't always remember to respond.

The next day was our last on the trail. We sloped the few miles down the hill towards Manchester, caught a ride into town and almost before we knew it were back in civilisation.

Fed, watered and restored, we took stock. We decided to expand our horizons, to hire a car. We went on a road trip. That's about as American as you can get, innit?

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From the Green Mountains of Vermont we headed to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, wasting no opportunity en route to stop at a diner. Beautiful lakes dot the hills and crisp streams tumble over little falls. We stopped and swam often, the water sharp but not too cold, the air perfect for drying off. As you climb, the deciduous trees give way to evergreens and finally on the high Presidential range the trees cede to rocky outcrops, moss and grasses.

We cooked over a campfire. They have a law, posted up around trailheads and car parks, that makes it illegal to leave any food outside a locked vehicle to try and deter bears from scavenging round human habitations. Campers are obliged to hang supplies at least ten feet above the ground and 4 feet along a tree branch that could not support the weight of a bear.

By day we drove through villages with English place names, churches and a general store huddled round a cross roads. We went on a few day hikes down gorges and up hills. At night we camped by the side of remote roads in thick pine forests sloping up from the valley bottoms. It was all a bit Twin Peaks, and a pilgrimmage would have been in order if only Twede's was not 2000 miles away in Oregon. In the dark, with the silence and mist, I got to thinking the owls were not what they seem. Once we woke in the middle of the night, scared that 'it was happening again.' In tense silence we listened to the footfalls of a creature outside the tent, but each time I turned on the torch and peered out, nothing was there.

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As we packed up our camp in the morning a dishevelled man, around thirty, cycled into the little clearing on a battered mountain bike. Camille said good morning to him. He turned and stared right through her. We packed fast, and he continued to watch us while fiddling with something in his backpack. I asked him “How's it going?” and again the stare, unblinking, penetrating, and no words. The skin on the back of my neck crawled; I felt a malignant energy as though from a coiled snake, cold and lidless. Both of us unsettled, we bundled the last things into the car. Just as we shut the door he suddenly turned his attention to us, fixed a broad false toothfilled smile on his previously blank face and, starting towards us, made a mechanical gesture with his right thumb as though asking for a lighter. Did he mutter “Fire walk with me”?

We fled. The sense of physical disquiet he stirred was unlike anything I've felt before, and over the course of the day we kept coming back to the incident, trying to unpick what had been so unsettling, to rationalise it away. By the evening there was only one answer that made sense. It was Bob.

We put a hundred miles between us and camped near the base of Mount Washington, the highest peak on the eastern seaboard. In the morning we scaled its heights via the auto-trail. This is, ultimately, a fancy name for a road. There's a cog railway to the summit too, but it was a bit steep. Over sixty dollars each for a ticket. Incredible views of the mountains around us were marred only by the massive car park and numerous gift shops. Undeterred, we joined the surreal scramble to get a photo snapped at the summit, surrounded by our fellow drivers.

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I'd been eulogising the drive-in movie theatre, that quintessential American experience. So many people we talked to said they had all closed down, land sold to Walmart or put out of business by the year-round multiplexes. Well not in Fairlee, Vermont. We navigated our way there and I loved it that the show simply started 'at dusk'. We got into position early, pulling into a sloped slot with a cabled speaker you could hang over the window. Other vehicles started to arrive, people setting up comfy beds on the back of their trucks or lying on their bonnets. Friends chatted through car windows and kids ran excitedly round and round. As it got dark the projector whirled to life and The Dark Night Rises sprang onto the huge screen. We were only slightly worried about copycat murders following the shootings in Colorado. Sat in the front seats of the car watching the movie through the windscreen transported me to the 60s, to Danny getting fresh with Sandy, to all those images of this American car culture phenomenon we never have replicated in old Europe. As we flicked the headlights on at midnight and headed to find a spot to camp, I felt like I was in a coming of age movie, kids with petrol to burn but nowhere to go.

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Each State has a slogan on it's license plate that range from the obtuse to the ridiculous. While Vermont's is the gentle 'Green Mountain State' New Hampshire has opted for 'Live Free or Die' which made us laugh every time we read it.

And so we drove back past distinctive farmhouses with their old wooden barns and horses grazing in fields, past country stores down snaking mountain roads. We passed a thousand American flags fluttering from porches, on poles in the garden, on lampposts in small towns. So our roadtrip drew to a close.

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Thumbs out again, we were borne smoothly as far as Connecticut. The people of Vermont and New Hampshire had been unfailingly kind, hospitable and trusting; warm and ready in their help and advice and so quick to stop and give us a ride. It was on the outskirts of the dreaded Hartford we finally came up against the hitchhiking wall. We waited four hours but people only stopped to try and give us money, astonished at the idea we might need a ride rather than cash. One woman walked across the car park to inform us we were in 'Bumfuck Nowheresville' and stood as much chance of getting out of there as we did getting to the moon. As darkness fell we finally got a ride into the city with a tea party activist and his wife. She refused to make eye contact and, completely audibly, kept saying “They could kill us, they could kill us, what are you doing? What are you doing?” to her husband as he ushered us into their four by four. Camille and I were thankful for patriarchy as he calmly overruled or entirely disregarded her concerns. I offered reassurances we weren't scheming killers and soon they were talking Tea Party, anti-abortionism and anarcho-capitalism. As we left the car wifey suggested we might have been angels sent to test her faith or her charity.

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We bought our bus tickets for NYC and then emerged from the station to look for food. The various dire warnings we'd had about Hartford were contradicted as we sat in the park opposite eating yummy tofu curry and taking in the cities huge free jazz festival surrounded by families with picnics and foldout chairs.

The bus bore us back to Manhattan, to the end of our time together. In the morning I headed for Montreal, Camille for London. America barely knew we'd been there. We, however, had had a good ole glimpse at one tiny bit of this huge country, and got a taste of life in the woods.

Posted by matthinc 05:00 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip vermont new_hampshire bears hitchhiking appalachian_trail Comments (0)

Mexico, Te Amo

You're stealing my heart away

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I've been here a week and I keep getting that joyful, open, swelling feeling in my chest. For so many reasons! The people smile at my terrible attempts at Spanish, and laugh easily. Food is everywhere; cheap, tasty and vegetarian. The towns are a palette of lemon yellows, lime greens, deep terracotta reds and pastel pinks; of cobbled streets and narrow alleys; crumbling colonial architecture, roof terraces, a jumble of life. And always music in the plazas and bars. People don't leave home without an instrument. Buses are comfy, reasonable and head for everywhere at all times of day and night. And, crowning it all, the countryside! Today I walked along a mountain ridge three thousand metres above sea level, the cactus and desert flowers blooming in their steep, arid, rocky landscape, and I felt deeply happy and alive.

Eulogy over. Lets get down to the cold hard storytelling business of facts. In present tense, to make it that much more exciting.

I arrive at the border where Laredo, Texas becomes Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in the middle of the afternoon. The wall of heat that strikes me as I descend from the bus punctures my daze. It's a stark contrast to the ice on the troughs at Grey Rock Farm in upstate New York where I was a few days before.

A sluggish brown river crossed by a utilitarian bridge divides the two countries, concrete customs posts on either side hang limp flags. I think I can see Josh Brolin wearing his hospital gown in No Country for Old Men staggering along by the high fenced rail, but that could be the effect of two days straight riding the 'hound, definitely the worst bus line I've ever encountered. A grim official stamps my passport and I exchange my few remaining dollars for pesos.

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And I am straight out of the badlands of the border to Monterrey, Mexico's third largest city, where at dusk the bustling bus station is a small world of its own. I don't have enough money for another ticket, and want to take another step south to Zacatecas, one of Mexico's silver cities nestled two thousand metres up on the highlands. Down here in Monterrey it's 10pm and still 30 degrees. But I suddenly feel vulnerable and trepidatious. Tired, burdened with my big bag, unable to speak Spanish, on the unglamorous outskirts of a large city, I must venture into poorly lit streets to find a cash point.

Context: when I've mentioned to Americans that I'm planning on going to Mexico, almost everyone has pulled a long face, regaled me with horror-stories, and told me not to. Their media reports on the cartels, the murders, the human trafficking and the corruption daily. It is described as a war, the border a war zone. To hear people talk you'd think the country was on the edge of a social and political breakdown, only a step away from chaos.

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Now, I know that the media do not give us a balanced, rounded picture of situations around the world, tending only to show the worst. And I know that humans, wherever they're from, are normally kind, trustworthy and helpful - society can only function if that's the case. But the unknown intimidates me, and while I marvel at this primitive instinct and try to rationalise it away, I cannot completely shift my cautiousness. I'm angry with myself that the stories have affected me and that I feel nervous as I take my first steps from the well lit bus station.

It was fine, obviously. Back at the bus station, the number of bus companies and destinations is daunting. Finally I approach a winsome woman representing Autobuses Expreso Futura; the time travelling potential their name offers singles them out. With pointing at the map, use of the 'I want an earlier bus than that' mime, much smiling and a bit of laughing, I get the ticket I want. And I remember that travelling in countries where you don't speak the language is easy as long as you don't get embarrassed, I rediscover that kind people are everywhere (about 5 help me find said bus), and I know everything is going to be just fine.

I'm not saying there aren't problems here. The Guardian today reports on a mass grave found just outside Monterrey, and last week there were four journalists murdered in Verecruz where they'd been asking too many questions about gangs and corruption. There's a visible armed presence on the streets and regular military checkpoints control the highways. Even in small towns processions of 4x4s with machine-gun wielding balaclava'd police patrol, or put on a show of force. Where the conflict touches it is brutal and tragic, and the exploitation by the people smugglers is horrific. But perspective, please. Life for most Mexicans, in most of Mexico, is the same as it is the world over. And certainly as a traveller here, the chances of contact with any of this violence are tiny.

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The mountains around Zacatecas once produced twenty percent of the New World's silver, after the Spanish had completed the gruesome task of enslaving the resilient local population and forcing them to work. As many as five labourers a day died here. There is not much mining now, but the hills are dotted with the gaping maws of old pits, black dots pinned to the rocky hillsides. The town is beautiful, it's grim heritage behind it. A fine pink sandstone cathedral and an incredible number of museums showcasing modern and traditional art are amongst the narrow streets that wind up and down the hillsides. A Victorian style arcade, reminiscent of Buxton or Bath sits in the centre, and an old aqueduct runs towards the hills. A cable car is strung across the valley, crossing the old town and swaying in the wind.

It's the first time I've been in a backpackers hostel in years. My last memory of this global phenomenon was when Andy and I arrived in Budapest and were looking for an apartment. How similar they are whether it's Thailand, Turkey or Mexico. I'm shown into a small dorm room and meet Eldad, a dreadlocked Israeli who I warm to immediately and invites me for brunch. We sit at a counter in the market and I get a huge plate of beans, rice, enchiladas and salad for one pound fifty. Yum and yum. Eldad shares vege eating tips for Mexico and we talk about meditation and the art of living, of travel. It's a pleasure to meet someone I share a lot with having only just arrived.

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I'd forgotten that when you're on the Lonely Planet trail, each place you go has a ready made social group you can opt into. Hostel life has a transient communality to it; drinking in the evening up on the terrace, cooking together in the shared kitchen, a thousand of the same questions to ask each other. “Where are you from?” “where have you been?” “what drugs do you do?” and endless, sometimes tedious cultural comparison. The other travellers are really friendly and welcoming, and I participate, but I suddenly feel a bit older and realise I'm not so interested in sitting round and shooting the shit for the sake of it. Eldad keeps himself to himself and I understand that; I want to find a more sincere, meaningful connection or keep following my own path, not just get swept along in the current. Much of the company is good though; I go drinking with Andolie, and we visit a museum and ride the cable car, and despite the quest for space I've been on – space to write, to think, to feel comfortable alone and be content in myself, I can't deny that mammals like company and that communication is fun. Nonetheless, my next step is off the trail, to the beautiful pueblo magico of Jerez, where I am alone with my thoughts again and entirely captivated by its simple charm.

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Jerez, the town with a thousand wandering musicians, a beautiful plaza, stunning old streets, and lots of sombrero shops. It would be very easy to live here. Cowboys ride through the centre and leave their horses outside the saloons which genuinely do have half sized, slated swing doors. Shops simply paint above the door what they sell; there's little garish advertising. I find a wonderful cheap hotel with the two crucial (and so often absent) necessities: a bedside light and a writing desk. I don't come across any other gringos in the town as I wander through its streets. I head out to a bar one evening, hoping to get chatting to some locals but no-one speaks English and after I've asked someone's name and how they are, my Spanish comes to an end. I listen to some of the music in the square, then return to the hotel and curl up with a book.

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My Spanish is improving slowly, with the help of homemade flashcards and an mp3 course I downloaded. Unfortunately, while it's enabling me to communicate my needs, I have absolutely no comprehension of any responses people give me. Gesture is still an essential tool.

After soaking up the gentle beauty of Jerez for a few days, I decide to go somewhere even more remote. I head to the Sierra de Catorce high on the Mexican plateau. A 27 kilometre cobbled road leaves the highway that crosses the plain, and steepens and winds round the contours of the mountains. We pass through tiny dusty hamlets before being deposited at the mouth of a 2.3 kilometre tunnel blasted through the rock. I transfer to a smaller bus (that can actually fit into the tunnel) and a few minutes later it sets me down on the other side of the mountain, in the 'ghost town' of Real.

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Real de Catorce also has its history in precious metals, once boasting a bull ring, a mint, and fifteen thousand inhabitants. Then in 1905 the price of silver plummeted and Real was deserted, its fine buildings abandoned and gone to ruin, no livelihood to be made. The population fell to just a few hundred. There are ruins everywhere, from houses to huge workings, the extent of which offer a window into the past. One hundred years ago the town was a place of real substance, an incredible contrast to now.

In the last twenty years Real has undergone a kind of revival with tourism at the centre. There's an annual pilgrimage in September when one hundred and fifty thousand people flood the streets to visit the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, which regularly delivers miracles that many can attest to. A couple of western style cafes have opened, and there's an almost cosmopolitan atmosphere as cheap living and inspiring scenery combine to draw artists here. The stalls selling plastic catholic iconography, indigenous art and hippy jewellery create a Totnes vibe that feels artificial juxtaposed against the ruins and the hillsides, but its shabby enough not to be too off-putting.

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The valley of Catorce is a sacred spot for the indigenous Huichol who travel here from hundreds of miles around to collect peyote and leave religious offerings. There's a small stream of western tourists who come for the 'spiritual energy', which I guess is an excuse to get toasted in the desert. While I've never understood the impulse to try and buy into the spiritual practices of a society I necessarily can't know or truly relate to, I do understand the beauty of the town and it's stark environs, the joy of inhaling the cool air and being in the silence of this remote spot.

For me, the allure is the mountains. The gulleys and peaks fold like a cupped, misshapen downturned hand, high knuckles stretching above deep ravines that run down to the desert plain below. I find myself chortling “there's gold in them thar hills” and doing my best Bogart impression quite unconsciously. Walking up the steep slopes it's quick to leave the town behind and be in a wilderness of cactus, little desert flowers, and a low, heathery plant that gives off a beautiful aromatic smell. I think even at this height the air is a little thinner, and have to gulp it down after a climb. Yesterday I walked up the highest mountain of the range, getting an incredible panoramic view with the desert stretching off below me to the west, distant mountain ranges showing on the horizon, and surrounded by all the peaks and troughs of the Sierra de Catorce.

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So, in my simple hotel I can write while looking out at an incredible view, I can walk out easily in the morning or evening, meditate a little up on the roof terrace and live quite happily on a diet of bananas and avocados.

I can't believe how much of this country there is, such a range of ecologies and breadth of history. A year would hardly be sufficient to take it in, and I've only a month! I'll hide out a few more days here, walking and writing, before heading south to explore tropical Mexico and the ancient ruins of those incredible bloodthirsty Mesoamerican civilisations.

Or at least I hope that's what I'll do. Yesterday the tiny standalone bank machine ate my card, and I'm optimistically hoping the men who come to fill the machine will give it back. For security reasons, no one can tell me when they come - “about once a week” - so it's basically a stake out, an ambush. Luckily the plaza is visible from my balcony. I knew I was going to get all wild west at some point.

Posted by matthinc 14:26 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains food colour mexico real_de_catorce pueblo_mágico Comments (4)

Matt goes on a Vipassana retreat

I got a bit distracted, so haven't written for a few months. Here though is an account of an experience I just had. And more to come. Even some backdating will probably go on, filling you in on all that has past.

Matt goes on a Vipassana retreat

After five months on the road I needed some rest, a pause to reflect. Some quiet time alone to relax and do a bit of thinking outside the bustle of the busy backpacking lifestyle. I jumped on the bandwagon and decided to go on a ten day Vipassana retreat.

It was like prison, only with excellent vegan food.

Somewhere in my mind I knew that we had to be silent for ten days, that we would meditate for 11 hours a day, that we weren't allowed books, diaries, phones or laptops. I knew men and women would be segregated. Somewhere in my mind, if I'd really thought about it, I'd have realised that I was going to be alone with myself for ten days with no escape.

And if I'd thought about that a little longer, I'd have realised it was going to be really really hard, and not like a holiday at all.

The South East Vipassana Centre is nestled on 30 acres of Georgia's extensive pine forests, ten miles from the town to Jesop. Secluded, peaceful, the day is punctuated by the sound of trains passing along a distant track, announcing their presence with a mournful wail. The centre has a meeting room, a meditation hall for about 60 people, dorms for men and women and male and female dining rooms. Signs, labelled 'Course Boundary' take the place of the normal fences of a prison and signify the boundaries between the male and female areas and delineate where the centre ends and the outside world begins.

Course Boundary

Course Boundary

Over the course of ten days we were taught the technique of Vipassana, mainly through video tutorials given by a chap called S. N Goenka. I affectionately came to call him a Goenkaface in my inner monologue. He is a Burmese Vipassana student turned teacher who has managed to populise the technique, bringing it to India and the west from his native Burma. He is charismatic and insightful and gives off a warm glow, although has a tendency to go on a bit. His teaching is supplemented by two assistant teachers on hand to field questions and offer more detailed explanations at a designated time of day.

Vipassana has its roots in Buddhism but they're keen to stress it's non-denominational; a technique to help give insight into the mind, to come to a clearer understanding of one's emotional world and learn to deal with life's ups and downs with equanimity.

The course basically broke down into two parts. In the first three days we practiced Anapana meditation, focusing on our breath where it leaves the nose. Gradually fixating on a smaller and smaller area around the tips of the nostrils and on the upper lip, you try to pick out the sensations you can notice and bring your mind back to the exercise every time you notice it's wandered. We were working to develop our concentration, practicing letting our minds clear and wind down from the busy outside world, sharpening them to be able to become aware of the tiny details of sensation that our conscious mind doesn't normally attend to.

Then on day four we were ready to start the technique of Vipassana. Minds quieter, the process of institutionalisation had begun, inmates now used to rising at 4am and eating just two meals a day, minds stilled and focussed on the task at hand. In Vipassana, you focus on the sensations all over your body, one part at a time. Top of head, back of head, face, neck, throat, left shoulder, right shoulder and on, pausing at each until you pick up a tremor of feeling, or moving gently on after a minute or so if you don't. As you get more accustomed to it, the areas you focus on get smaller and smaller, until your sensing a square inch here, a square inch here, on and on. The flow of sensation becomes easier, and you can pass your mind over each area and feel the creep of an almost electric glow across your skin. There are blank areas, and different feelings too, sometimes pleasant, sometimes uncomfortable or painful. (In the sittings of strong determination we had to sit crosslegged for an hour without unbending our legs, unclasping our hands or opening our eyes.)

But what you feel isn't as important as how you relate to those feelings. The whole technique exists to help you develop equanimity and awareness in equal measure. These are the skills we most need to free ourselves from the misery created by our aversion to pain or uncomfortable things, and our attachment and craving for pleasurable things (which makes us unhappy when we don't get things how we want, dontyouknow).

So, when the agony of sitting crosslegged without moving is overcoming you, you must not generate an aversion to this pain but simply study it, be aware of it in the course of your body scan, neither magnifying it with your mind or dismissing it. And equally, when the pleasant sensations creep up your body or down your arms, this is nothing to desire or be proud about, but simply sensations to observe, to practice remaining equanimous to, to study closely and explore but not to discourage or encourage. The idea is that when we venture back out into the big wide world we can stay balanced despite the ups and downs of life, in the face of change and impermanence, life and death, pleasure and pain, anger and tears, because we have managed this insight that all things arise and all things pass, that we can have control over our reactions to our feelings, we can remove ourselves from the ego and it's wills. Not a bad idea, huh? Thanks Gautama.

So, that's the technique. That's the goal. That's what all forty of us there were trying to do.

On Day 5, my roommate ran away. Just vanished. The morning before he'd laughed manically for thirty seconds while I crouched on the top bunk, scared to descend in the middle of his episode.

On Day 6, I tried to run away. I was thwarted by the fact I'd handed in all my travel documents as illicit reading matter on Day 1, and was worried I wouldn't make it far before they hunted me down and brought me back.

I just didn't know my mind was so... so... well, so mad. It was in the afternoon of Day 6 when, with a sudden jolt of awareness, I found myself focussing on the sensations in my right calf while picturing myself as a pair of disembodied eyes looking out over a mountain ridge, riding on a dog (very like Weston) higher and higher into the clouds, in unison with the vague electric glowing feelings that were creeping north up my body. And, all the while this visualisation of my feeling was going on, in another part of my mind I was wondering whether Arsenal's strong end to the season might be emphasised by developing a better attacking option down the left. And, to compound this, the jolt had come when a lithe female warrior, grey, purple and green, on dragon back had swept across a whole separate visual plane inhabiting the a space I felt resided somewhere down in my lap. And I don't even consider myself 'into' fantasy!

Suddenly, after all the crazy thoughts and feelings that had emerged over the preceding days, all the replays of past situations where I finally managed to deliver that elusive witty retort, all the hopes for the future, all the fractured memories past and present, all the daydreams coming so fast, pell mell, erupting, overwhelming my mind like a quick cutting inner nightmare, this was too much. I stood up and went to my room, paced up and down, mind racing, hurting, and just wanting to stop.

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Thankfully thoughts arise and thoughts pass. An afternoon of turmoil contrasts with an evening of peace and focus. An hour of agony leads onto an hour of calm and insight. And so it went with me. By the seventh day I was getting used to the sitting. I'd found a posture that suited me and an hour had become tolerable, even two hours without unbending. When the meditation was good with silence across all forty of us in the hall, my mind could spend an hour without being distracted. I could scan with real awareness, focussing on staying equanimous to this, not craving or commending it but simply observing. And sometimes this inner silence felt blissful, and joyous, and clear like staring to the bottom of a deep still mountain lake. And then, when I nodded off at some point in the next hour I didn't feel so bad. I knew that was just a stage I would come through too, making earnest efforts to return to the meditation without getting annoyed with myself. I counted down the last few days with less intent that I had the previous ones. And so I got used to the technique, and made some interesting discoveries.

My mind is crammed, crammed full of confusion and ideas. But, with time, I can train it to focus. I've noticed since the retreat my concentration when writing has been much better, and hitchhiking is the perfect hobby for developing equanimity. As I stood by the side of the road the morning we were discharged, I practiced remaining unmoved as each of those arseholes heading my way refused to pick me up.

I learnt about perseverance and the importance of earnest effort. When things are hard, keep going, because your faith in the goal is right and its just the lazy parts of you that want to give in. This was a battle, and I'm stuffed with lazy bits, but I learnt where my limit was and that was really interesting.

I really took a lot away from the video lectures each evening. The simple morality discussed was affirming. I agree that by living a life where we try to be considerate and compassionate, to be aware of our motivations and actions, we do make our world a better place. I was so interested in the Buddhist ideas about how we relate to our emotions, reacting without thought to so many stimulations beyond our control. We get angry, feel hurt, feel happy and smug and all without reflection. We give such importance to 'I' and all the layers of ego we surround it with. Our emotional responses to events are within our control. Whatever we suffer or experience, we can choose how we respond. Overall, the emphasis of the course was wrong for me; I'd want something stripped back even further from Buddhist teachings and updated for my western mind, without any references to karma or reincarnation. But by committing to the course, and to try my hardest for the ten days, I tried not to allow this dissonance to inhibit my meditation practice. I tried to listen and take what I could from it, and to withhold from judgement.

And then almost as soon as it had started it was over. And we could talk!! And how I did talk. And listened, too! I was being very self aware. I'd tried to think of some clever first words but nothing came so I settled for 'sorry for all the farting' to the poor guy I'd been sat next to. And then finally, finally we got to unpick and explore the experience we'd just been through together. I felt so connected to these people around me who I felt I knew despite never having exchanged a word. It was such a pleasure to be able to relate each others experiences, to wonder over them, and to release the pressure of accumulated thoughts through conversation. To find out that they were or weren't like I'd imagined, and to return to a more normal way of relating. When eating and living silently together we had each come to inhabit our own bubble such that these people we were around sometimes felt like simulacra and not fellow humans at all.

So, would I do it again? If you'd asked me on day 6 I'd have said absolutely not. Now I'm not so sure. It's a commitment, a tough experience, but one full of insight and such a test to go through, completing it feels liberating. I'd say it ended Matt 1 – 1 Vipassana. A score draw, great for the remaining pools players amongst you, and perhaps demands a rematch? Maybe, but certainly not for a little while.

Posted by matthinc 14:32 Archived in USA Tagged meditation georgia retreat vipassana Comments (0)

Interlude: St. John

Life on land

sunny -26 °C

As I start to write time has already faded those first weeks on land. The Virgin Islands, the first place I set foot in the Caribbean after sailing across the ocean, seem long ago and far away. With this note I am back-dating, filling in the gaps. I find primary sources amongst my possessions – a ferry ticket, my old diary, photos stored on my hard drive. And then there is the least reliable primary source of all: my mind. But I am about documenting my journey. Through the dusty carpet of time and the rotten floorboards of memory I will try to pull the nails of recollection onto the paper here.

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St. John is the smallest of the U.S Virgin Islands and seventy five percent national park. Eight miles long and at its widest three miles across, the island is a jigsaw piece of bays and promontories, isthmuses and inlets. Bordeaux mountain rises 1277ft above the sea swathed in the tropical forest that has reclaimed St. John since the bad old days of the plantations when most of the land was cleared for sugar cane. Its charm and relative affluence set it apart from the other islands of the archipelago which have the dubious pleasure of boasting the highest murder rate per capita of any U.S state or territory by quite some margin.

I slipped into life on St. John so easily it was as though the island was inviting me to stay. Within three days I had a house, a job and a nascent group of friends.

Crewmember Jake had moved out of his shack in the woods, finally frustrated by the never ending repairs and the somewhat rudimentary standard of living it offered. Incredibly kindly he offered it to me for free. Fresh off the boat, nothing could have been more perfect.

It stands amongst the tropical forest down a steep narrow path off a dirt track. A single room perhaps 15 foot square with a sink, cooker and a fridge, some battered old furniture and a bed draped with a mosquito net. No walls, but screened in on all sides, and it has been at one stage jauntily painted and hung with odd nautical paraphernalia. I didn't mind the encroaching termites, slowly devouring the door and gnawing away above the bed. The rats were much less of a presence as long as I cleaned up immediately after I'd cooked. The dilapidated mesh was dotted with holes, but the many lizards I shared the space with helped keep the mosquito population at least a little lower than outside.

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I settled into shack-life quickly, reading and writing to my heart's content, doing a little meditation in the mornings and reacclimatising to shoes by pottering around the island discovering trails and beaches. Many footpaths intersect the steep rocky hillsides, cut through the dense forest with machetes by the park rangers. It is such alien vegetation to me, these low trees and creepers, mangroves and cactus suited to this hot, rocky climate and deeply unlike the temperate trees we have in the U.K. Often while walking I stumbled across old plantations, poked around the ruins of abandoned sugar mills that gave testament to three hundred years of slavery. Incredible butterflies winged past me, a blur of colour and many of a size we don't see so often in Europe. The ones I came to know were the ubiquitous zebra longwing, the delicate tropical chequered skipper, the bold Antillean white.

I was entranced by the hummingbirds that hover, wings ablur, by the flowers they suck nectar from and stood watching them for hours. A yellow breasted bananaquit would hop around the shack door just feet from where I worked, oblivous to my movements. This puzzled me for a while until I realised there are no real predators here; an island this size simply can't support them, making all the wildlife oddly approachable.

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Lazy iguanas stalk the saltponds while pelicans and boobies plunge dramatically from high into the shallows after small fish. Sadly the pelicans do so with there eyes open and often die from starvation, having blinded themselves through this continual impact. It's an irony of existence (doubtless lost on our equally blind, uncomprehending universe) to have evolved a hunting technique that allows you to live long enough to procreate but shortly after leads to a miserable, desperate death; that ebbing of strength, vitality and energy, a slow demise through hunger and fear, cramps and contortions into uneasy oblivion.

Aside from walking, hitching is the only way to get around the island, and locals almost always stop to pick you up. Tourists whizz by in their rented 4x4s, not aware of this island custom. Walking down the steep hill from the shack I stuck my arm out and was collected by a man who promptly offered me 20 dollars an hour to help him clean and ready a couple of holiday villas. It seemed churlish to turn down such easy money and John was an interesting character. Tall, grizzly looking, very masculine, he had been a commercial fisherman for years based in Martha's Vineyard before getting into trouble for his part in some drug dealing. In prison he found god, went through detox and now works as a carpenter in the Caribbean during the winter and Massachusetts in the summer, a lynchpin of the local AA group in each place. He was brusque, straightforward, kindly; honest about his past and the new path he was on. Like so many of the older American men I met in the Caribbean, he had a strong libertarian attitude expressed through a powerful contempt for taxes, big business, central government, red tape and bureaucracy. It is a tangled set of values with religion playing an interesting corollary part. As we talked about these views there were some aspects I found deeply problematic and others I could agree with wholeheartedly.

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For a week one of the large villas I had to clean was unoccupied. John installed me there with instructions to 'clean it in your own time, and use whatever you want' and left me his laptop and internet dongle to boot. My new kingdom included a pick of beautiful bedrooms, a pool, clothes washing facilities and all the food left by the previous guests, not to mention an incredible view over Coral Bay. Getting to stay in a place that rented at over two thousand dollars a week was a definite perk capped by the $200 I earnt for cleaning the place. One evening John showed me the poetry he'd written whilst in prison that he wanted to be able to share with his family and friends. I built him a simple website for it as a thank you for everything he'd done for me on top of 20 bucks an hour. It felt good to be part of the gift economy which, lets face it, had mainly flowing the other way. I could get used to this: free trips across the Atlantic, free villas on arrival.

In the evenings I would find Jake, Adam and a small group of the younger Coral Bay expats drinking at Skinny Legs down by the shore. I was welcomed with wonderful hospitality. We played darts, horseshoes, smoked the local weed and imbibed the incredibly cheap alcohol the islands sell to further encourage tourists to visit.

Which leads to the darker, more sobering story of St. John.

The islands are reliant on tourism for everything. Almost all food and even water has to be imported; there is no manufacturing and surprisingly little farming and fishing. Without the visitors 21st century living would not be sustainable, and it isn't cheap as it is. So rich tourists, almost exclusively white, come to charter yachts, go diving and snorkelling, sun themselves on the pristine beaches and admire the incredible mountains. To serve them come bright young things from the States escaping the cold and commitment of regular 9 to 5. And with the perfect weather, incredible natural beauty and gentler approach to life come the retirees, the boaters, the adventurers looking for a place in the sun out from under the scrutiny of the man.

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Once you're here, actually living here, there's really not so much to do. A little surfing, the walking of course (but it's a lot of effort), some sailing perhaps, and partying. And drinking. The Virgin Islands are famous for drinking. With the sole industry, the sole purpose of the island being that of leisure there's a weird suspension of normal life here. St. John feels like Neverland. The washed up sailors and escapist hippies leaning on the bars from 9am were once chasing a dream of beauty and freedom that for many has ended in the bottle. They are the strange lost boys and there's no Wendy to look after them.

And then there's the stark contrast between the wealth of the U.S owned resorts and the poverty of the West Indian population. While the West Indians are in charge of the administration of the islands and work in the service industries, they rarely equitably benefit from the incredible wealth the tourists bring. There is little crossover between the American expat community working and drinking in the tourist bars and the West Indian community drinking right next door. It can feel like a throwback to segregation but with a unique island dynamic.

Hitchhiking is a good example of this divide. Black drivers picked up black hitchhikers, white drivers white hitchhikers. Not exclusively, I had rides with both, but it was certainly the trend. Casual racism was common in both directions; I never felt like it was near a boiling point but frequent generalisations about 'lazy locals' were loaded statements, made with raised eyebrows, a short hand for saying so much more. And I felt the black community suffered the white one as an economic necessity, but with some resentment. This most often manifested itself in preferential treatment for fellow West Indians in a shop or at the customs office; small indications that the colour of your skin counts for a lot here. Of course there are plenty of exceptions to this – lots of working relationships and genuine friendships bridge the divide and there is definite cross cultural community in some quarters.

But still I sensed something sinister under the island's perfect beaches and laid back tranquillity. It all gets to feeling a little J.G Ballard.

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Nonetheless St. John lulled me, and the days slipped into weeks. Adam and Jake joked the island had me in its grip, said no-one they knew had ever landed on their feet there as easily as I had. I went surfing (which, incidentally, is absolutely amazing), we took Adam's beautiful ketch out for a day, and went shark fishing. Yes, that's right, shark fishing. At night.

I could have stayed months, so in the end my departure was somewhat arbitrary. I woke one Friday in mid January and decided I'd leave the next day. Everything was a bit too comfortable, too sedate. Another quick decision, another madness. That moment in which we chose one route and not the other, take a step towards our unknown future, cut off some options and open up others for better or worse.

I said my goodbyes, packed my things and Jake drove me to the ferry.

So the next afternoon I found myself stood on the public dinghy dock in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas asking everyone who came by if they happened to be heading for Puerto Rico. Or St Martin. Or anywhere. And, shortly, I see a battered old homemade rowing boat pulling for the pontoon. In it, an old couple, colourfully dressed, and alone in not having an outboard. As they pull up I introduce myself and with almost no ceremony Ted says “Puerto Rico. We're heading that way tomorrow. Meet you here at 10am sharp.”

Posted by matthinc 11:00 Archived in US Virgin Islands Tagged mountains beaches birds boats sailing st_john Comments (0)

Transatlantic: Part 2

Part Two of the Transatlantic saga, for your delectation.

Part Two: Onward to Tortola

The short version:

I made it. I'm sat here now on St. John in the US Virgin Islands surrounded by tropical greenery and muggy, sweaty, hot hot hot weather. And all manner of creepycrawlies. We arrived on Christmas eve after a rollicking last few days of high NE winds. I loved it, but after 18 days at sea I'm happy to be on solid land; cabin fever was setting in. I'm going to poke my nose round the Caribbean, then try and find a boat heading... anywhere. The States, Panama, further south, just... anywhere. I'll let you know where I wind up.

The long version:

750 miles from Road Town, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, we were becalmed. The wind dropped completely and we could do nothing but motor with our sails down. This is very boring, and people become fractious. And weird. The sea is like a mirror, not a ripple breaking the surface tension. Chris and Jake are actually quite big drinkers, and the two beer-a-day limit has been grating. At the beginning of the day, Chris puts six beers in the fridge, and anything left over at midnight is removed. Invariably it's only ever mine that are removed, and normally the other four are gone by mid afternoon.

I wake on day two of the calm to find Chris and Jake cleaning manically, sipping a disturbing mixture of 'fishkill' vodka and knock-off energy drink. They have invented a 'partymix' only really worthy of a rave, but cleaning is the current excuse to drink it, a reward for toil. I'm immediately offered one despite it being 10am and having just woken up. Peer pressure alone influences me to join them. Yep, that's right.

By 2 p.m the two skippers have talked and declare a mid-atlantic party. Leopard and Casanova hove-to 30 yards apart, fenders out in case of a collision, and the excitement of being so close to the other boat and getting to speak to some different people, plus the vodka, makes for a great party mood. The other boat is 'dry' so apart from a package of beers we threw overboard for them to collect the day before haven't had any alcohol since Las Palmas. I suspect this is because Peter is a bit of a boozehound and knows the only way to control himself is to take none with him.

We swim across, are greeted kindly, and exchange freshly baked bread for more alcohol. We dive from the boats into the blue blue water and there is music pumping from both sound systems. In this dead calm, drink becomes the order of the afternoon. The captains visit each others boats, looking round, comparing equipment. It is very surreal all this is happening quite so far from land. And that the sea is a swimming pool, glassy and calm with incredible visibility. Only it's 3 miles deep, and without lifeguards.

I stay sober but in an impressively short amount of time the 8 euro litre of cheap vodka is demolished by the two captains. The restraint of the previous two weeks is far too much for them. We'll have to kill any more fish we catch the traditional way.

Swimming so far from land felt amazing, vertiginous, and I spent ages in the water. I've a vague fear of sharks so kept my eye out don't spot any. After a couple of hours the party is called to an end, final provisions are traded and we start to get underway. I take the helm as the only person not too inebriated, and put the engines into gear. At just this moment a whale appears right between the boats in this perfect clear water. Beautiful, it's the best sighting we've had so far. Just five minutes before I was swimming from one boat to the other and I can't imagine how scared I would have been seeing it coming towards me.

From this point on, drinking regulations seemed to be relaxed. Suddenly there's scotch in the evening, an extra beer to celebrate 'a good day', a scotch to celebrate 'an average day' and it turns out there's still a fair bit of wine left over from Greece. The grappa is back on the menu. I vaguely worry we could be heading for a drunken mid-atlantic disaster, but with the calm winds it doesn't feel as though much can go wrong.

A few days later the wind veers round and picks up. We're back in business. The end is in sight, just 5 days to go. We'll be arriving on Christmas eve. Great, because we've made plans to spend a couple of days on St Marten for Christmas where Peter has friends before dropping the boats to Tortola. This is a bit naughty as the boats are on delivery and we're meant not to stop, but the plan is to say we were delayed at sea.

Relationships on board are good. As we've got to know each other things have felt easier, and now the end is in sight there's a feeling of relaxation, of almost having made it. However, with this comes a loosening of tongues and we're less likely to hide our feelings. Chris is rude to me and I snap at him quite angrily telling him its not acceptable to talk to me like that; he apologises, and I feel so much better for it.

A day out from St Marten, just as it's getting dark, one of the rudders on Leopard stops responding to the helm and winds are fast; we're in a force 7 or near gale conditions with over 16 feet of swell. They manage to lash it forward using an emergency tiller but their autopilot won't work so it's oldschool hand steering the rest of the way. We're thankful to be sailing catamarans which have two rudders. We standby close to them to try and help should anything go wrong, but despite a long night at dawn St Marten is in sight. Our first landfall for 18 days. It feels really exciting.

When we get into mobile phone range we find out our boats are late for delivery. The owner of our one is planning on coming aboard with his family on Christmas day, in Tortola. This is all relayed via Peter, as I managed to drop my phone in a bucket of seawater after a few weeks at sea. At the time it gave me quite a turn. I wondered whether it was prophetic of a drowning that would happen, a nasty prescient of things to come. Then I came to view it as a sacrifice, my phone to save my life. Luckily, it seems to have worked, at least for now.

Leopard does get to stop in St Marten, to 'make repairs'. And spend Christmas there. It seems a very fortuitous coincidence, the damage happening just before we find out we really can't stop. Lucky for some. We of Casanova carve on towards Tortola where we have to deposit the boat posthaste.

We arrive in the middle of the night on Christmas eve, and anchor in the harbour, pop open a celebratory bottle of champagne saved for this precise moment and spend until 5 a.m chatting and celebrating our crossing. It feels brilliant, there's lots of jokes, Chris and Jake feel like good friends. But in the morning there's the stress of customs, docking, handing over the boat and having it checked out. Tempers are frayed, and Chris is so disorganised it feels like we'll never get away.

We try to rush back to St. John where Chris and Jake live in time for Christmas day. We're burdened with 7 crates of leftover supplies from the crossing. Chris is completely skint so needs all the food while he works repairing his own boat that was badly damaged in a storm earlier in the year. We get a cab and make it in time for the last ferry. St. John is in the U.S Virgin Islands which is a U.S protectorate, grabbed in their attempt to build an empire at the beginning of the 20th Century while that sort of thing was still, just, in fashion. At customs it turns out some of our food won't be allowed in. U.S protectionism safeguards their agribusiness while forcing other countries to open their borders via the IMF. Shit, it turns out I'm not allowed in either. Panic! I've not registered for some scheme and should have got a visa. I'd vaguely worried about this, but felt it would all come right somehow. Arse. Marooned at 4pm on Christmas eve, alone and with no-where to go.

Thank god for 'island time' and the laidback goodwill of the West Indian customs men. The boat is twenty minutes late, and I'm told there's an online registration I can do if only I can find an internet connection. It's down at the ticket booth, but they let me into the hallowed ground of the Customs Office, behind the counter, and I'm told that as long as I know how to work the site, I can have a go at registering. Jake and Chris are waiting anxiously, and everyone else has already gone through to the dock ready to board. I hastily find the site, get halfway through the registration and then, rushing, hit back. All the fields go blank, meaning I have to reenter all my data over again. In triplicate. A procedure I'd assumed was only necessary in the era of paper forms, but it turns out the U.S Immigration Authority thinks differently. The boats arrived now, too. I skim past tickboxes, scanning just enough to ascertain whether they need to be ticked or left blank in order to please 'the man'. I assure them I've never been “arrested even if not convicted” (how on earth can they justify that?) and have no intentions to overthrow their government. Fingerprints, an iris scan, and then I'm in. No such luck for the food. It gets shoved in the bin.

It was a low energy Christmas day, desultory, emotionally bleak. I wanted to get in touch with family and friends but without my phone I have no numbers. The only phonebox on the island is out of order. We eat a bad meal at a bar and I can tell Jake would rather be with his real friends, Chris is ready to make a start fixing his boat. Conversation is sparse. Now we're off the boat our reasons for spending time together, our camaraderie is evaporating. Christmas without family and in a hot country is weird, hardly like Christmas at all. I look around me at the old sailors perched on bar stools, alone, adrift; more lost souls. The odd bits of tinsel stretched here and there are depressingly out of place, underlining just how removed we are from genuine festivities. The beach bar is serving a Christmas menu of ribs and burgers; somehow it doesn't feel management are taking the celebrations very seriously.

In the evening Jake finds us a sort of party and it's great to see him so animated as he catches up with friends he's not seen for months. Chris and I chat in a corner and when we head back up to Jake's shack it doesn't feel like it's been such a bad day.

In the morning we say our farewells, and it's with genuine gratitude I shake Chris's hand and thank him for taking me on and captaining us across the ocean. It's a month since I first stepped aboard in Gibraltar and we've travelled 3300 miles since then. I feel a bit stunned. I'm going to regroup, take a pause. I'll explore this archipelago, take some time out in the sun before I turn to the next chapter of the trip. Already I've seen some amazing looking butterflies and birds, interesting trees and mountains to stomp up. Before the next boat, I'd like to get under the skin here a little bit.

Lots of love to everyone. I hope new year will be awesome and Christmas has been great. Thanks so much to everyone whose emailed; it's so good to hear news and stay in touch. Keep them coming.

Right, let's find out what the Caribbean has to offer!

Matt xxx

P.S. Sorry, there is one postscript. I'd just like to thank everyone who expressed sentiments such as 'what happens at sea stays at sea' and ‘three salty sea dogs all cooped up huh?’. I have to credit Stevie with passing on the Churchill quotation: "Don't talk to me about the proud seafaring tradition... It's nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash!” and thank Peter Barkas for the joke ' Ho ho! There's homosexuality on board this ship, Captain! The cook's penis tastes of shit.'

FYI, sailors don't tell.

Posted by matthinc 13:49 Archived in US Virgin Islands Tagged sailing Comments (0)

Transatlantic: Part 1

Hello,

Merry Xmas! This is part one of of the bumper Christmas special posts; one letter I wrote on the ocean and one now that my feet are on solid ground. So get a glass of port, some blue cheese and crackers, or a can of Kronenberg, Doritos and salsa dip (depending on preference/class background) and settle in for a decent-sized update.

The journey so far

The short version:

I'm still alive, still far from land. No murder on board, no accidents either. We should make landfall around Christmas day. But the winds have just become variable, and we're at their mercy. The days slip by punctuated by squalls, sail changes and the ever present ticking clock of the watch rota. Since we turned west, we've seen two boats. In 10 days. There's a lot of space out here. Time zones slip by. There are moments of exhilaration, fear, and boredom. And not home and dry yet.

The long version:

20°20' North, 47° 39' West
17/12/2011

Well, I'm on the high seas. I am writing this, live, while still over 900 miles from land. None of that recollection stuff, this is coming at you while the adventure is actually happening. How does that feel, huh? Pretty raw, fresh? Or undermined by the fact I can only send it out when I actually arrive? Stale, then. Don't be downheartened. It will fade for me, too. One day the words I've written here will be all I have to remember this by, more real than brown fractured memories.

All goes well. It is day 11 out from Las Palmas; 11 days since I last saw land. We have passed the halfway point; it is now quicker to go on than to turn back. Winds have on the whole been favourable. We headed southwest from Gran Canaria toward the Cape Verdes, then headed due west once we were confident we'd picked up the trade winds. For a glorious week they drove us forward at well over 7 knots. I coined a new term, 'Christmas Speed', which we give to any speed that gets us to St Marten, where we plan to make landfall, before Christmas day. For the last week 'Christmas Speed' has been steadily falling, so just yesterday we only needed to average 6.1 knots to arrive before the 25th. However, in the last 24 hours things have changed. The wind has veered round to come right out of the west. We're motoring into a headwind, and only a little over 3 knots. At this rate, 900 miles seems a very long way. It ain't Christmas speed, that's for sure.

There are positives though. The skies have broken up into a myriad of patterns, types, and colours. No longer the blanket blue of our first week, or the grey screen of the last few days; suddenly the sky is a living canvas. And there is so much sky out here. Norfolk would be jealous. Gaps in the moody low blanket stratus astern allow glimpses of fluffy sun-drenched cumulus above, and thin, razorblade slices of pale blue punctuate it too. Ahead, wispy cirrus and fluffy popcorn altocumulus scrape the stratosphere but below them, where the blue sky fades in a haze to white, an ominous rolling line of nimbostratus cuts across from the north. Now in the late afternoon the colours are fantastic. A squally dark grey bleeds into the softest most implausible baby blue. The grey is bordered on its other side by a yellow it doesn't seem could have come from the same palette, Turner meets Cezanne; an implausible amalgam of styles. I have never studied the sky this much or taken such pleasure in it, and incidentally I do have a 'cloud guide' by me as I write this.

Yes, I am learning all about weather.

The swell has dropped with the wind so we're not being thrown about quite so much. However, now we're heading into the waves, not moving with them. It's a choppier motion as the bow crashes down after being lifted up sharp. My cabin is all the way forward so I'm raised 6ft in the air, then a moment of weightlessness before plunging downward where the boat hits the wave with a thunderous shudder. I've got used to this remarkably quickly and it amazes me I can fall asleep quite so easily.

Before we left Las Palmas, we had to provision, fuel, water, get weather updates, clean, prepare the boat for sea. I found out that Chris the skipper takes a somewhat haphazard approach to the necessary tasks; not in a dangerous way, just, well... not very organised. Provisioning was probably the most fun. We made a vague list, over breakfast, of things we might want. I started to try and map out how much food we might need for the expected time we're at sea, then build in a safety margin. When Chris saw me doing this, he sort of shook his head. 'I don't really do it like that'. So, we left the list we had made on the table in the boat and all trooped off to the Saturday market. Chris sent us in to 'make a start' while he rushed off to buy a winch handle from a chandlery. We'd just realised almost everything shut by lunchtime on Saturday and we were due to leave early Monday morning.

Jake and I walked round the market, feeling a little unsure just what we should buy. Finally we got into the swing of it, made some judicious choices, and filled three big boxes with vegetables. Then Chris turned up, saw what we'd got, shook his head and said 'that's enough for about a week. Five more at least. Just get a lot of stuff. Different stuff.' And so we did - more and more boxes of fruit and veg; avocados, mangos, sweet potatoes, five types of tomato, different stalls, different varieties, and each time I came back to our stash it had grown by another box. Finally we've 8 boxes stacked by a stall, and the nice man lets us use his trolley to get it down to street level and into a taxi (things on our knees) back towards the marina.

Jake is panicking about reading matter. There is lots of time on the boat with not that much to do. These guys have been onboard for over a month already and books are a lifeline. In pidgin Spanish Chris manages to divert us via a bookshop with an English section. It's just closed, but Chris knocks on the door until the reluctant sales woman reopens. We buy 9 books, hastily chosen. It's an odd assortment to pick from: 50% English Lit course reading list (Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Chinua Achebe, Doris Lessing) and 50% holiday pulp fiction.

The supermarket visit is even more fun. It reminds me of supermarket sweep; we turn up not long before closing, grab two trolleys and rush round pulling a crazy assortment of items from the shelves. Trying to come up with any strategy is entirely frowned upon. 'Just get stuff you like' says Chris. 'If you like it, get a lot of it'. I swear we have enough cheese to last 6 months. But only 3 loaves of bread. The bill comes to 486 euros. I can now say, with only a week or so left to go, we have got far far too much food. Were we ever going to eat 5 kilos of pasta as well as all those potatoes? And 60 eggs? Oddly, a lot of the vegetables are still left over, slowly wrinkling up and rotting, while the 10 packets of biscuits and 1.5kg of crisps have run out.

One of the more interesting jobs in Las Palmas was diving on the propellers. While moored in the harbour we snorkelled down to scrub barnacles and weed from them and the boat's waterline. I was surprised how encrusted it all was given boat's short life so far. The particles of shell drifted down through the water as we worked, and I got a shock when I looked down and round my feet was a shoal of fish feeding on all the debris.

Waiting for us in Las Palmas was another catamaran, Leopard, being delivered for the same company with a hearty dutch skipper, Peter, in command. Peter and Chris's agent had arranged that we were to make the crossing in convoy, only without informing Chris of this in advance. He is not best pleased.

Chris is a funny character, who fundamentally I really like. But! He's not easy to work for at all and full of contradictions. He gripes over and over again to us about having to travel in convoy but makes no effort to talk to Peter to resolve the issues he sees with it. In fact, they get drunk together and exchange sailing stories all afternoon, while we miss opportunities to complete jobs on the boat Chris has talked, frequently but vaguely, about wanting to do.

He doesn't want to be the 'boss' so refuses to give us clear jobs or a work schedule of any sort. He also doesn't like to give detailed initial instructions, but once you are working on a task he comes and watches, then starts to man manage every detail. He is constantly taking things out of your hands, giving 'advice' in a slightly pissy voice that feels like criticism even when he hasn't explained how he wanted it done in the first place. It's completely disempowering, and pretty patronising. Jake, who knows him from the Virgin Islands, will snap every so often and tell him off, and for a while he is less overbearing. I really want to stay on the boat so don't dare say anything before we're safely at sea in case he has a mind to trade me for a less objectionable crew member. A risky strategy?

When we're sat having a beer he's a completely different character. There's lots in common between us and he doesn't shy away from debating ideas and politics. He's got an intelligent inquisitive mind and had a varied life full of boats and building projects, DIY style. Anyway, I'm in prime 'getting along with everyone' mode but it could be an interesting relationship!

We head SW from Las Palmas toward the Cape Verde Islands to pick up the trade winds that should take us west. It's a fairly busy shipping route, and at 4am I'm on watch when I see the steaming lights of a freighter off our bow. I keep tabs on them for twenty minutes as they approach and their bearing doesn't change, only the lights get clearer. And they're dead ahead. Chris has oft repeated the mantra 'same bearing, decreasing range is a collision course' and although it's hard to be certain, I think this is a collision course. We're only small, with our green and blue nav lights just 5 feet above the water and hard to pick out from the bridge of one of those big motor vessels that chug along at 18 knots. I don't want to unnecessarily wake the skipper but I haven't used the VHF radio to communicate with other shipping yet and I'm not entirely confident starting now.

Technically we have right of way as a sailing vessel and other shipping is meant to give us a mile of sea room. Practically, a collision wouldn't even dent their ship, while ours would be absolutely decimated, which means it ends up as a bit of a compromise. I wake Chris and as it becomes apparent they're not altering course we make contact. “Motor vessel motor vessel, this is sailing vessel Casanova off your bow. What is your intention? Do you see us, over?” They hadn't seen us, but pretend they had as they slew round 45 degrees to pass port side to port side. As they approach through the dark the tall mass of their boat is apparent, ominous just 500 yards away and the lights of Leopard ahead are hidden by their baulk. I know this situation was always under control but nonetheless the tension created just by the potential for a mistake raised my heartrate. The stakes are high when help is so far away. Were anything to go wrong we are so completely surrounded by water, such deep water, and it really isn't our natural element.

We're 400 miles off shore sailing west when I notice the boat is taking on a pink brown hue. To begin with its almost imperceptible, just an off-white that could be a trick of the light, but after three days we're definitely pink. The prevailing winds are coming from the east, blowing from Africa. This warm wind carries a fine dust hundreds of miles that coats the deck, rigging, sails, everything. For a week we sail in our new pink boat until we hit a squall and are washed deliciously clean. Little pockets of dark red earth collect, deposited by rivulets of rain water which eventually bear them away into the sea.

The moon, that had been such a fine sliver coming from Gibraltar, is now rising later and putting on weight. From a night full of stars we now move to nights drenched in moon light. It rises in the east, directly astern. Huge and yellow, it catches the clouds and waves almost bright enough to read by. Full, it's the ghost of the sun, following its footsteps east to west. It lights up the boat with silver blue shadowy low definition and brings no warmth, a hollow mimicry.

Life on board has settled into a rhythm. I've cooked a communal vegetarian meal every day barring today, when Jake took over proceedings. The rest of the time it's fend for yourself, so snacks rein supreme. Chris is yet to offer me anything but popcorn (his speciality, spiced with cumin) and biscuits from the latest tube he has excavated from one of the dry goods lockers. “Try these. They're really quite good”. Being the vegetarian onboard is much less of a trial than I'd thought. Chris and Jake like my food and aren't always fussing about having meat. Jake cooks himself hotdogs a couple of times a day (the pink ones, in cheap white baps, pretty grim) and I see Chris eating sliced turkey straight from the packet, but there's no great division.

They both smoke, too, and with so little to do a cigarette is always on the go. I worried this might be a bit of a challenge, but I've not been tempted at all which has surprised me. I think the strict drinking regime on board has helped of just two small beers a day.

Almost every day we still see birds even when we're over 1000 miles from land in any direction. It's the same species most of the time. Black, with a flash of white on the rump and a pale V running from the tail across their wings. Not so large, about the size of a common gull but with long, narrow wings that almost clip the waves it darts in between. They're not simply soaring over the waves but often fast wing flaps punctuate their flight as they scan the ever shifting ocean from just a few feet. I can't believe their energy when I'm sure they never alight, just pick food from the sea when they see it.

The trade winds are blowing consistently, hour after hour, at over 20 knots. The swell picks up and soon the waves are about 15 feet tall. This is higher than the cockpit and it seems miraculous when they sweep under the boat rather than swamping us. The boat surfs down them, picking up speed, sometimes as high as 14 knots. At the bottom there's the fear it will slew round, out of control, and we'll be side on to the next swell which can feel pretty precarious. When this happens it feels like losing the back end of a car on a roundabout your taking a bit too fast. If the boat were to jibe it could be a real issue. As the wind rises further we drop the main sail and continue under the jib to stop this happening. The wind picks up to 30 knots, and the waves get bigger. It gusts higher than this and we put two reefs in the jib. The boat careers with the waves, and during my night watch it is genuinely scary looking out into the blackness. I am so glad of my harness clipping me in at the helm.

Contemplating what would happen if you went overboard is like standing on a clifftop, peeking down. We throw a paper bag out filled with organic waste, made into a shape the size of a head. In twenty seconds it's out of sight, hidden by the waves. At this speed and with this sail, it'd take at least 5 minutes to turn. At least. And that's over half a mile. In these seas without a life jacket I've no idea how long I could stay afloat. Not long. And even once the boat had turned I've no idea how anyone could ever find you, GPS or no GPS. At night? Forget it. And of course that's if someone else even knew you'd slipped. Normally, with the autopilot, the boat could continue until the wind changed or someone came up for their watch, potentially hours later. Four feet from where I sit alone for four hours every night is certain death. It makes my insides contract looking down there and thinking about it. The boat is so small, and this ocean is so, so vast. There's no-one else out here; there's no radio chatter anymore, no boats on the horizon. Our size relative to the ocean is dizzying. It feels like being balanced on a pinhead, teetering. I'm thankful for the absolute. A solid 46 feet of floating boat, creak, shudder and jolt as it does.

Dolphins appear again on a couple of occasions. They love the waves, jumping right out of the front of them which looks absolutely spectacular and accompanying us for twenty minutes at a time. And, after 10 days, I finally see a whale. And not just away in the distance, about 20 metres from the boat. First it curved out in front of us and for a panicked moment I worried there was a school and we might hit one as we rocketed along, but then it circled round and came alongside, checking us out, visible under the water as a huge shadow then it's back arcing out of the water, a shiny black expanse with a surprising small dorsal fin on top. It was breathtaking, and I yelled for the others to come and see but by the time they were on deck it was gone.

And so things continue, and if all is well a landfall before Christmas. I feel happy, content. My days are full of reading and writing aside from the sail changes that need us all on deck, and the cooking, cleaning and minor repairs. The boats motion has become normal. When I'm on watch during the day by myself, there are moments when I feel elated, and can't believe how perfect this is.

Jake and I have learnt to be in companionable silence, although Chris is talker. Jake is a really laid back guy, very considerate and kind. We swap music and talk about books, and I do everything I can to avoid those inevitable conversations about differences between the U.K and U.S. Our only disagreements are when I want to tweak the sails, make a tack for a better course or shake out a reef and he's reluctant to unless sanctioned by Chris.

Sail trimming is one of my pleasures. Whenever I first get on watch I always tinker about trying to get an extra half knot of speed out of the boat. My small amount of experience racing baby sailing boats is actually really valuable as seeing the changes and reading the telltales that flutter from the sails is a constant and necessary task when racing them. Out here it's not nearly so important so often I come up and the sails are the same as when I finished my last watch, even if the wind has veered or backed (moved clockwise or counter-clockwise). Where on a small boat these changes are constant and quick as you respond to the wind moment by moment, here it involves winches and cleats and each sail takes minutes to adjust.

One time when altering the position of the boom I accidentally open a jam before I've made fast the sheet round a winch. Immediately the rope tears through my hands and the whole boom crashes over. I let go just in time but I still have the burns on my palm and wrist to show for it. The power of the wind in these huge sails is incredible, and can be really dangerous even in gentle conditions. If I'd wrapped that rope round my hand to get a better grip (something I've been cautioned against but sometimes absentmindedly do) my hand would have been torn apart as it crashed into the block and was crushed by rope and steel. I won't ever do that now!

So, all is well here. There's not so far to go and before long I'll be sending this out on the information superhighway. Love to everyone. Matt xxx

Posted by matthinc 13:44 Archived in British Virgin Islands Tagged sailing Comments (0)

Adventures, Pt. 1: All at Sea

Hi,

So, I'm fresh off the boat after completing the first leg of this trip, and here is missive no.1 chronicling my transatlantic adventure. I'm brimming with excitement and enthusiasm, and as such I'm aware I might be prone to offering a somewhat lengthy and detailed account of what has, in all honesty, not been a very long trip so far. As such, for those under time pressure I offer a short version here:

I made it to the Canaries, on a sailing boat! Overcoming doubts and fears, the plan I put very little time into actually preparing (although managed to talk about a lot) somehow came good. I took a bus to Gibraltar, walked round the docks talking to a load of sailors, and eventually someone said I could come with them. It took us 6 days to make it to Las Palmas, and in three days m'crew and me leave for the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. It's over 2000 miles and takes between 20 - 30 days to get there, give or take. I'm a bit trepidatious, but ultimately SO excited. Woop!

And now, the long version:

Part 1 – Leaving Britain and Finding a Boat

Last January, struggling a little bit to find my feet in London and craving an adventure, I came up with the idea of sailing across the Atlantic. I imagined battling the elements with 360' of watery horizon, seeing the Americas, visiting Chiapas, jumping a freight train and generally going all Alexander Supertramp. The trouble was by the time I got round to planning the trip in May it turned out the hurricane season was descending and no boats were doing the crossing. Slightly shamefaced, I postponed. They all leave in November, I read. Great, so I'll go then.

Despite the autumn being roughly fixed for my departure, this in no way translated to me taking any affirmative action toward leaving. I took a location scouting job for the first weeks of November and on returning to London realised I was no clearer about what I was doing with my life, or this trip, than I had been 11 months before. But I had managed to tell a load of people I was going off to sea.

Suddenly feeling the time pressure and motivated 50% by embarrassment, 30% by confusion, and only 20% by wanderlust I booked a bus ticket to Gibraltar leaving 4 days later. Then I set about, admittedly with little obvious urgency, laying a paltry few bits of skirting board to try and placate my somewhat long suffering mum/landlady. And, finally, reading about the transatlantic crossing and finding out exactly how much organising I could, maybe should already have done.

The coach journey, at 39 hours is the longest I've ever done. Victoria, a grey dawn, drizzly and cold. The coach station contained all the waifs and strays of Europe; the homeless, the helpless, and belligerent staff shouting in English at confused, uncomprehending foreign faces. It really felt like the Tories are running the country, and not such a bad moment to be leaving. Then into that hazy half-life of coach travel; fitful sleep during the day, waking for stops at odd French service stations in the middle of the night, free toilets, paying toilets (go in a bush), a shared orange with the kind lady next to me, an early morning hurried bus change all bags and ticket-waving and laconic drivers pointing. Then the endless, dry flat Spain of rocky plains, crisscrossed with pylons and odd industrial architecture, mountains always, always shadowy in the distance. Finally as we approach Almeria there are hills, then mountains with olives everywhere, clinging to mountainsides, surely unpickable? and crags with impossibly balanced rocks, and finally the coast.

I was deposited in Algeciras, a modern port boasting huge stacks of containers and giant freighters docked by floodlit derricks. I took a bus round the bay to Gibraltar the next morning. Deposited a few hundred yards from the border I rummaged for my passport only to be waved through along with many local Spaniards crossing to take advantage of the duty free cigarettes. You have to walk across a broad runway to enter the colony which immediately creates the impression you're on a military base, and the squat, ugly barrack-like apartment blocks that flank the airport make for quite a grim introduction to this odd, unprepossessing flashback to an old empire. The expensive cars of tax exiles mingle with the Spanish lorries coming to fill up on duty free diesel, and fumes are everywhere. On Main St, the cruise liners have deposited thousands of pensioners to eat the 'Real Britsh Fish and Chips' offered by all the 'Traditional British Pubs' but it reminds me, most of all, of Bulwell High St – a run down pedestrianised shopping street full of jaded British chain stores. Outside this strip, further up the hill, I catch a glimpse of an older, quainter Gibraltar, but the huge Morrisons built amid towering apartment blocks on the land reclaimed from the sea pulls focus, especially as it's there I have to head to find the marinas.

Without much of a plan for how to go about finding a boat, and still lugging my pack, I get dispirited pretty fast. Finding anyone to talk to is hard, and I'm pretty uncertain just where to look. The few people I do speak to are moored for the winter, and all tell the same story: “I don't know anyone making the trip. You're two weeks too late. Everyone going has left already. Maybe if you fly down the Canaries you'll pick up some stragglers there.” Frustrated by the place, my bag, my aching feet and lack of response I head for the one hostel Gibraltar boasts.

Not much of a boast. 17 quid, no communal area, no cooking, dorm room for 6 and when I enter the curtains are drawn so it's nearly dark. The only inhabitant about is a young Czech guy who doesn't look up or answer my greeting. He's sat on his bunk with his laptop. As I unpack, I realise he is watching porn.

I head to an internet cafe and make a little resume for myself. '28 year old guy looking to crew on a boat across the Atlantic for free. Completely inexperienced. Can cook, but not meat. I might have some relevant skills, but not sure what.'

Suddenly, I wonder if I'm going to be back in the UK sooner than I thought.

Without my heavy bag and armed with the prop of a CV, I get into gear and start putting myself about. I walk the quays hailing people on board their boats with more conviction; visit the marina receptions and ask about what boats are coming and going; poke my nose round the door of chandlers to see if they can advise me of where to find a boat. But, unfortunately, no-one can help. Everywhere the story is the same – most people have left. There might be a few late departures, but few and far between and there's no guarantee they're looking for crew. Plus, people have been paying 25 euros a day for the privilege of crossing. It's been competitive. Old hands delight in telling me 'It ain't how it used to be.' One gleefully tells me 'You've missed the boat.' And all the noticeboards are full of resumes of other hopefuls that say things like 'Have 5000 miles sailing experience' and 'Spent two years aboard a …. circumnavigating the globe.' When I can, I cover those over with mine, and wish I'd printed a4 not a5.

Late on, I do get one steer. There's another marina over in La Linea on the Spanish side of the border and it would be worth trying there. But it's getting dark, so I leave that for the morning and head back to join the wanky Czech, the quiet, sweet Japanese guy and moody American in the dorm. When I ask when people want to turn the light out, no-one answers but I persist until I'm curtly told 'whenever you want'. I take this at face value and read, belligerently, until midnight.

I get up before 8 and head back across the border to this other marina. A lovely Spanish woman at the reception is just shaking her head and saying sorry when she remembers a boat came in the night before and they were asking about crew. She points it out to me, but councils me to be quick as they've been delayed so are looking to leave shortly. A flutter of hope. Getting onto the jetty is another problem though. The receptionist isn't allowed to let me through the gate, and it's only by befriending a tall local who manages to precariously reach round to the handle that I make it to the boat at all. They invite me on board for an interview. I'm nervous, and just chatting about my travel plans and interests, not selling myself (after all, what have I got to sell?). They don't seem overly impressed, but have to get going and need an extra hand so things are looking really good.

Then disaster strikes. I'd left the gate open! Literally. Some other chancer, but older, weathered looking and wearing a lycra top and sunglasses (could be special sailing gear? Much more appropriate than my jeans and hoody) has wandered in, is suddenly there. And he's asking if they need crew. And they're shaking my hand, saying thanks, come back in an hour for their answer, they'll just quickly chat to this guy too. SHIT! He is blatantly the real deal. Fucked it. Why didn't I talk about when I sailed dinghies? Or knock on about the high calibre of veggie cooking? Should I have bigged up my toilet cleaning work while doing locations?

Walking back to Gibraltar, I swear a lot. Blown it! Just should have pushed the gate shut. That guy would never have climbed over. No chance now. Might as well get a ticket home. And on my return an hour later Jake spots me from the boat and walks down the quay towards me. It's less awkward to tell me I'm not coming with them if I don't actually come aboard. But then what he actually says is "If you're coming with us, you definitely need foul weather gear. That's a deal breaker." And my heart leaps!


Part 2 – Life on board

The boat is a 46 foot catamaran called... Casanova. And once they're named, it sticks, sadly. It's two years old and is kitted out as a charter vessel, currently 'on delivery' to its new owners in the Caribbean. This means we've got to be super careful not to fuck anything up, and there is p-lenty of expensive trim and chrome to take care of. But it also means this trip is, for me, all expenses paid, though I don't earn anything for helping out. I just landed on my feet!

The boat is very plush. There are four separate cabins with loads of storage space, double beds and each cabin with its own shower and head (which is what seagoing types call a toilet). Linen, towels etc are matching and provided. The galley has a well equipped kitchen and seats 8, all white leather upholstery. There's a great sound system, widescreen TV, chart table and on deck are more tables and seating, too. The cockpit is raised giving a good view all round and it's from here much of the sailing actually happens, with all the winches for controlling the two sails and lines fed back via cars, pulleys and cleats. I wouldn't say this boat is primarily designed to be efficient through the water though. Comfort definitely comes before utility. It can be yours for $6000 a week, apparently.

We slipped anchor at 6am on Saturday 26th Nov and left Gibraltar behind us, dodging through tankers in the harbour until at dawn we came out into the Straights. Each day is divided into different watches, and we take one 4 hour day watch and two 2 hour night watches each. Despite my lack of experience we went straight into this system. I felt daunted at first but while nothing is going wrong, there isn't too much to it. The autopilot is pretty sophisticated so most of the time I'm just childminding a computer, and watching out for ships. I get to trim the sails, tweak our heading as needs be and if anything goes wrong, I wake up the skipper, Chris. I can steer manually using an override button, so I sometimes do this secretly when no-one is looking. I'm still a bit heavy on the wheel meaning our GPS snail trail gets a certain wobbly look if I'm at it for too long.

My day watch, 1400-1800, is wonderful. Blue skies every day so far, a warm breeze, sun. As we sail south, the days are getting longer. It's as though the year has gone into reverse. With the extra light and warmer weather I and my body feel almost surprised, and I've realised I'd just started to hunker down for winter.

The night watches are harder, and getting used to disjointed sleep was a battle at first. I'm on 2200-0000 and 0400-0600. The sliver of a moon has been setting just after the sun this week, and over 100 miles off shore there is almost no light pollution. It's black as black, horizon hard to pick out, and the stars have been beautiful. I've enjoyed picking out the constellations I know, and coming on for my second watch I can see how they've all spun, rotating round the North Star, and the Big Dipper has risen.

I have been worried about getting sea sick but have, somehow, managed to avoid it. The seas were calmer when we started out, and I think I've now acclimatised so the choppy last few days have been fine. Sitting in the cockpit yesterday, I realised the side to side motion reminded me of cantering, but on a really shit horse; one with different sized legs, moving arhythmically, all trying to go in different directions.

On the third day over 80 miles from the Moroccan coast we were suddenly surrounded by dolphins. A pod of maybe twenty came all round the boat, playing in the bow waves, zooming up and around us and each other, curving right out of the water. It was absolutely magical, and I rushed forward and watched them until ten minutes later they slipped off as quickly as they arrived. Then, the day after we spotted Orcas off the starboard beam. Puffs of spray in the air and dorsal fins protruding shark-like and the humps of their backs breaking through the waves. Then a whole shoal of a small fish skittering across the surface, leaping as one, again and again, perhaps trying to escape some lurking predator. There have been larger fish jumping clean out of the water in front of the boat too. Maybe scared of the noise of our hull cutting through or slapping the waves? The odd sea bird comes past, sometimes circling to check out our sail, other times passing straight by low over the waves. They must spend so much of their lives out of sight of land, cruising just above the swell. One was a Gannet, but the others I've not recognised and it's been frustrating not to have a bird book. I find it amazing that on the ocean, so far from land, there is so much life.

Chris and Jake have a fishing line that we trawl behind us, and yesterday as we neared the Canaries we caught and murdered a number of Spanish mackerel. They have a beautiful blue iridescence when they're just out of the water that fades quickly after death, and sharp spikes just above their tail. It turns out you can dispatch them by opening their gills and pouring alcohol onto them which takes the oxygen quickly from their brains. It seems quite a fast kill. For this we have a cheap Greek Ouzo everyone is fed up of drinking. I wasn't certain of this method though so when I landed and killed one I opted to break its neck too, as I hate to see them flopping around, suffocating in the bucket. The crunch was pretty final, and I felt quite ambiguous about it, in some ways unmoved, practical, but also a real disquiet. I gutted it straight away. I hadn't done this in years, slitting the belly and pulling out all the insides. It reminded me of my Dad coming home after a days fishing when I was little and watching, fascinated, as the entrails were pulled out and fish turned from creature to food. The line went a few more times when it was my watch and Chris and Jake were below. I unhooked them and, unobserved, slipped those lucky two back into the water. Hopefully they'll live on happily although I don't actually know how well they cope with having been hauled out of the sea with a hook through their faces. Is that a trauma bad enough to give up or are they hardier than that? Or is it a disadvantage enough to be picked off easily by something bigger and less mangled?

Free time on the boat passes fast. I've been really enjoying cooking, and writing (can you tell?) and I've just started to read now I'm confident of my sea-tummy. I've been studying charts and learning about weather, currents and the like. And we have to do cleaning. About an hour a day, more before we arrive in a port. This is basically a pristine floating house constantly being messed up by spray, sea salt, us, fish viscera etc, so scrubbing decks, polishing fixings and cleaning bilges is now part of my skillset.

The crew, Chris and Jake, are both Americans who live in the U.S Virgin Islands tucked away on a little place called St. John which has a population of just 600. Chris, the skipper, is an architect turned sea wanderer in his early 50s. He is funny, quite vague and with a potential for crabbiness if things aren't quite how he wants them. He is a bit reluctant to say just how he does want them, so I've had to do a bit of second guessing to try and keep on the right side of him. Basically, more cleaning seems to make him happier.

Jake is my age, very relaxed and good fun, and we've been getting on really well. I'm confident that in the 25 or so days more I'm on what is on one level is a beautiful sailing boat, and another level a 15 metre long offshore prison, we will all just manage to keep from killing each other. It is quite strange to be living so intensively with two almost complete strangers, but has so far been pretty stress free. Let's hope it stays that way. They're liberal, escaping-society types, smokers and talkers, and rub along well.

We leave on Monday morning. And then, up to a month on the Atlantic! It looks likely Christmas will be on the sea.

So, lots of watery Christmas love to everyone. I'm sad to be missing festive parties and family cheer. I hope everyone gets good stockings. I´m suddenly aware I´ll be out of contact for almost a month, not hearing anything from anyone or being able to communicate, and not being able to follow the news or hear what´s happening around the world. I will be so excited to check emails when I land, so please do reply! Also, thinking of this, I wish solidarity and strength to those courageous activists and revolutionaries in the middle east; what good news it would be to read that Syria's government has collapsed and been replaced by a people's democracy, and that the Egyptians have risen up again when I step off the boat into a Caribbean sun.

And congratulations if you've made it to the end here! I don't quite know where all this came from. Doubtless more, and hopefully pithier updates to follow in the next months, but for now,

Love,

Matt xxxxxx

Posted by matthinc 21:14 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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