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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

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