Sometimes, when an island rises fro
m the sea, palm fronds first, or when watching for a green flash, the sun lowering slowly into the sea, you feel the world is round, wet and immense. Under a bowl of stars in the night or while snorkeling, looking up at the rain striking the surface of the sea, I really feel we are inhabiting only the slimmest layer at the surface of this great globe. Islanders cannot sustain an illusion of permanence, predictability and invulnerability as they are regularly subjected to earthquake, mud slides, volcanic eruption and hurricane. Island people live closely with these events and do not seem to maintain the same sense of invulnerability we do. I think this may account for the importance placed on self reliance, an easy-come-easy-go attitude and trust in serendipity to make connections rather than watches. You probably haven't heard of this year's flooding in Guyana or the earthquake in Dominica and have moved on from the stories of the hurricane in Grenada to the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Or maybe there is some political crisis that has pushed the tidal wave off the news. You probably have an appointment scheduled for tomorrow and every expectation that all parties will show up within a few minutes of the appointed time. You probably throw a light switch and expect the lights to go on. We live on our own tiny island, we are protected by a centimeter of fiberglass and balsa - housing not much more substantial than many West Indians - but still think of ourselves as secure and expect the world to be predictable. This is not a practical attitude and will eventually drive out people who cling to it.
For example, some German friends have an aluminum Dufour which had fallen off the stands during hurricane Ivan and lost a mast, much of the lifelines and bashed one side of the hull. An aluminum boat requires very special preparation for every aspect of repairs due to the possibility of rapid galvanic corrosion should other metals be brought in contact with the hull. Special paints were being brought in from Germany and plans were made for a retractable covering for the companionway hatch. While two and three men faired, primed and painted the hull (in 10-20 kt winds), the machinist split a mast in half lengthwise and used the slots intended for the sails to hold slides for a retracting canvas cover. That, plus other scraps of aluminum were welded, ground, faired and finished while our German friends fretted and worried that no micrometers, lasers or paint tents were being used. Plus, the job was not finished on time. A spectacular result, but one accomplished at all hours, with materials at hand, in fits and starts and with irregular adherence to schedule. Much mutual incomprehension.
Part of settling in here is developing a bit of island attitude, a sense of humor, patience and somewhat lowered expectations of the predictability of life. During much of the last month, all of these qualities have been tried and tested. Yes, this will be a "fixing-your-boat- island-style missive". Susie tells me she has already told many of these stories so feel free to skip the slow parts. It all began while tacking up into Admiralty Bay into Bequia. On port tack, all is well; on starboard, no instruments or power. Lean to the right - lights on; lean to the left - lights out. I was able to determine that amid all the crashing and banging, our house batteries had broken their wooden cage and torn out the battery cable. As they slid back due to the tilt on the opposite tack, the circuit was remade and the lights came on. I was unable to do much during the crashing and banging and, truth be told, was not enthusiastic about even putting my fingers in amongst the very heavy, dancing batteries and so, we spent the evening in the dark. In the morning, I removed the cable and dinghied ashore in search of materials for repairs. This is the kind of thing that happens all the time and so the hardware store had a new terminal for the cable. I had no crimper for such a large cable so we went off in search of a workshop out "behind the New York bar". For a few Eastern Caribbean dollars (about $2 US), an outboard mechanic crimped the terminal on the connector and sent us on to a wood worker. The owner of the wood shop, idled by a load of woodworking machinery which arrived rusted and missing parts, was happy to sell us a handful of scraps for the cost of a beer. Back to the hardware store for screws and then on to the boat to install the cable and rebuild a sturdier cage for the batteries. We spent all day wandering around, had a good time and met a number of interesting characters and got the lights turned back on.
We were hurrying north, onward through St. Vincent when we discovered that all the engine gauges were reading semi-random, and very alarming values. Having determined that the engine was not on fire, that we did, in fact, have fuel, we anchored in a spectacularly beautiful anchorage at the north end of St. Vincent and opened up the console and began rooting among the cables trying to find the problem. Susie would glance up at the vine and palm covered cliff behind us and, captivated by the sight, fail in her duty to report the behavior of gauges as the cables where jiggled. We stopped for the night.
The next jump took us up to St. Lucia where we were to pick up Sarah and Quincy at the airport in Vieux Fort at the southern end of the island. Underway, we discovered that the net effect of the previous evenings labors was to cause the GPS and knotlog to stop working. Coming in to the harbor in the dark, we discovered the running lights as well as the steaming lights were no longer working and their traditional jiggle would not restore them. We came in proudly showing our anchor light though a little underway jiggling did restore the GPS
In the morning, we walked around the runway to pick up Sarah and Quincy. They had been a little worried about how we would find them at the airport. No problem, mon. When you walk across the tarmac from the plane, we will see you from the waving deck and move around to the exit from customs and take you back to the boat. More snorkeling, swimming in paradise followed by spectacular sunset and meal from Eaux Vives's one burner kitchen. Deciding that driving around in the dark without lights was tempting fate, Susie went up the mast to fix the steaming light. The first attempt resulted in the wires falling down inside the mast. Time for more swimming, snorkeling and sailing in paradise. More sunsets, more meals. Try to be in the anchorages before dark. We sail up to Rodney Bay, at the north end of St. Lucia to seek out the calm waters of the inner lagoon to pursue our electrical Gremlin. We sent Sarah and Quincy off in the dinghy to visit the fort on Pigeon Island while we worked on the boat. Liberal applications of penetrating oil freed the stubborn screw and we were able to fashion replacements for the part dropped into the sea and luckily caught the vital pieces and a new fixture was in place. We managed to fish the wires back up the mast and back out the hole at the fixture and Susie even heroically caught the now slippery wires in her teeth before they disappeared a second time down the mast. Success! Progress! We have steaming lights again.
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We were regailing Sarah and Quincy about Susie's heroic 2 hour stint on the mast, her acrobatic rescue of oil covered wires and dexterous refastening of the light fixture that clearly was never meant to be worked on while the mast was upright and in the boat, when Quincy reported a little problem. The outboard on the dinghy seemed to be slipping its transmission when they were coming back from Pigeon Island. On to Martinique. Distracted by the spectacular food, the incredibly tidy and organized French island, we ignored our contest with the Gremlin and enjoyed. As Sarah said "how do they do it?" A truly rich and civilized life in the tropics. If you are going to be a colony, go with the French
An exploding head pump made for a really shitty start to one day, but all was put right by a replacement from the chandlery which went in with the speed derived from practice. We were even able to get it to stop leaking after a few days. Putting Sarah and Quincy ashore at the Ferry bound back for St. Lucia and their flight home, we had a few days to clean and repair the boat. Our guidebook indicated that there was a Swedish Volvo mechanic in Case Pilote, who "spoke the engine's language" at least when the guide was printed and so we sailed up their to see if he could figure out the gauge problem. We stayed in the next bay up from his shop in a cove so small it could hold only one boat. The water was so clear it induced vertigo and its depths held turtles, corals and even a coral encrusted cannon half embedded in the sand. The cliffs along the southern side were draped by hanging branches and roots looking much like a Chinese painting. At sunset, hundreds of snow white miniature egrets whirled around the cove and settled in for the night on the cliff side.
The dinghy would move, if you just went slowly, so we motored around the egret cliff to the mechanic's dock the next morning. He showed us where we could tie the boat up and pointed out where the breakwater had collapsed into the harbor entrance and how we could get in. We tied up and went back to get him and he brought his meter and rooted around in the console and engine for an hour or so and came up smiling. Try it now! Gauges fixed! A well hidden breaker on the ground side just needed resetting. He seemed as happy as we were. We all agreed that the ground breaker probably partially tripped when the house batteries broke loose, although we are less clear on why the engine is attached to the house batteries. We walked into town looking for money to pay him (as the joke goes: pressing the breaker reset, 1 Euro; knowing where to find the breaker reset: 49 Euro) when we came upon two middle aged men struggling to push a boat and trailer up hill through the loose sand at the beach. Susie and I lent a hand and got the boat stabilized on the beach. As a reward for our efforts, one man offered us coconuts from the tree outside his shop. As he used his knife to open the green coconuts, we realized that the rest of the area shaded by the palm was covered in Yamaha outboard engines in various states of disrepair. By gestures, we indicated that we had a non-functioning Yamaha outboard and could he work on it. Ne pas problem. Turning down his offer of whiskey to go with the coconut juice, we walked back around to the boat, nursed the dinghy back to his beach and dragged it ashore.
Eventually, he came down the beach and I explained the problem: "Vroooom vroom" (indicating the engine) "pas du problem". Then (with furrowed brow) "non" (pushing motion with palms up arms moving forward) Dressed only in shorts, he came back across the beach with wrenches and hammer and took off the propeller. Of all the words coming from him, the only one I caught was "grillee" while indicating the propeller. I knew this is not good as this is what the menu says has been done to the fish before you eat it. Our Swedish buddy was able to translate for us. The hub of the propeller has been burned up and there is a guy in Ste. Pierre who rebuilds props. Leave the prop here on this crate and sail up to Ste. Pierre. Have a good time. In a couple of days, you call this number and he will bring it down to the dock as good as new. Our beach-side yamaha mechanic didn't want to be paid. Wondering whether we would ever see the prop again, we took a short sail north, explored that beautiful but sad town and sure enough we now have an outboard prop good as new. Somewhere in here, we started feeling like we had the little gremlin on the run so we strung new wires from the panel all the way up to the bow and fixed the running lights. We have lights (mostly) and gauges (mostly) and have gotten to know some wonderful Martiniquans. We have eaten well and seen beautiful sights.
Sailing back down to Fort de France, we felt well prepared to pick up Chris and Frances at the inter-island Ferry docks. Sarah and Quincy had taken this ferry down to St. Lucia and had emailed the complete ferry schedule to Chris and Francis. They flew to Castries, St. Lucia and overnighted there. Checking out in the morning, they went down to the Ferry dock to buy a ticket for the 90 minute ride to Martinique. The unscheduled 7:30 ferry had gone and the small 10:30 ferry was full. The scheduled, 1:00 ferry was inexplicably absent and the 4:00 ferry inexplicably did not leave until after 5:00. We dinghied around the fort to the interisland terminal and Susie wandered around until she found someone who helpfully told her there was no 1:00 ferry and that the 5:00 ferry was not going back to St. Lucia. No reasons given, none needed. We resumed our ferry lookout from the cockpit of the boat. When they rounded the point, we were able to get in contact with them by VHF and while we dinghied back around to the ferry dock, they spotted us from the deck. They seemed to have had a good time and met a number of interesting characters while basically waiting all day for the ferry. Now, we have sailed and snorkeled with Chris and Francis. We were in Fort de France for Mardi Gras (as well as a number of other Gras days - it has been overcast)). At then end of their trip, we sailed south to put them on the afternoon ferry to St. Lucia. As our boat sailed itself into the harbor under fair skies and on placid seas, we seated ourselves at the cockpit table and dined on poulet fume sandwiches made on fresh baguettes with blue cheese salad and fresh pineapple for desert - all on real dishes with cloth napkins. We could only exclaim as does Sarah, "How do they do it?" Chris and Francis did catch some ferry, because we saw it steaming south around the point towards sunset and they haven't showed up since. Pictures will follow, but we can't really show you a picture of island attitude adjustment or let you smell those pineapples. Life is short, precarious and grand.