Stuck in St. John's
20.08.2012 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.