Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas in St. Lucia

Our overnight sail from Grenada to St. Lucia a week ago took us past the Grenadine Islands of Bequia, Mustique, Union Island, and Palm Island, home of Desperate Voyage author John Caldwell. Early in our sailing research a few years ago we had read Caldwell’s harrowing account of his post WWII sail from Panama to Sidney, Australia. He had never sailed before and his story is full of drama we trust we will never face. I highly recommend it. The Grenadine chain is a popular sailing destination and we galloped past it on our quest to get as far north as possible with the short weather window Chris Parker had told us about. He warned those of us needing to reach destinations for Christmas to leave by Tuesday to avoid being caught in the middle of a disturbance later in the week. Tuesday afternoon, we passed St. Lucia’s famous Pitons, volcanic peaks that are designated a World Heritage site, and tucked into the Rodney Bay marina in the northwest part of the island. Chris was right and the wind howled for four days, gusting up to 40 knots and bringing rare whitecaps into an otherwise calm lagoon. Other than closing and opening our hatches a dozen times a day as we followed downpour schedules, we were comfortable and safe.

We visited the busy metropolis of Castries and found a market that rivalled Trinidad’s. Our guide was Susan from Andromeda and she and her husband, Andrew, had arrived a couple of weeks before us. They were just around the corner from us in the Trinidad boat yard and had sailed the Atlantic last year as part of the ARC, the Atlantic Rally Crossing. This group of over 200 boats arrives each year from Europe and fills the Rodney Bay marina for a couple of weeks before scattering around the Caribbean for the winter. Susan and Andrew joined us for Christmas turkey dinner across the dock at Ptarmigan. In usual cruising fashion her owners, Cheryl and Jim, had asked us to share Christmas dinner before we had our dock lines tied. They have been sailing for thirty years and we enjoyed an evening of around-the-world stories.

The closest we got to anything else Christmas was our virtual Christmas tree and a few unorthodox gifts (nylons and elastic bands for Craig’s MacGyver projects; rubber gloves for my next maintenance job). We are heeding Chris Parker’s advice to take advantage of another weather window beginning tomorrow, with our next destination the French Island of Guadeloupe. I hear that bakeries will deliver the croissants right to your boat, first thing in the morning. My French for Cruisers book is ready to go and I can already taste the cappuccino I’m going to have with my pastries.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Whether the Weather

It seems to me that weather is the earth’s perpetual quest for balance. Take any of gravity, heat, moisture, and air alone and things would be pretty quiet. Put them together into a rotating salad spinner and they feed off of each other like kids at a birthday party. The earth tries to calm things down, diverting and releasing pressure when she sees the party getting carried away but her pursuit is futile. While there can be patterns on a global scale, any of the party goers can change their minds on a whim by tossing firecrackers into the bunch and sending the party into a frenzy. 
Reading weather is a literacy I didn’t pay much attention to at home. In Alberta, we are bothered by weather with icy roads or short summers. We talk about it incessantly but it’s more of a nuisance than a decision breaker. It is never what we want it to be but we can stay home when we need to. There, our “weather parties” tend to come from west to east with a bit of north thrown in. On a boat, weather is everything and ocean weather (actually all weather is ocean weather) is a completely different phenomenon to a prairie girl. I remember kayaking at the west coast of Canada and watching a thunderstorm cell approach from the west. I hunkered down on shore as it roared by with vicious winds, thunder, and lightening and I smugly returned to paddling after it passed. My experience with storms told me it was on its way east. While back in the middle of the bay, I watched in horror as it made a big circle and came back at me again. This time I was not prepared and fought my way back to shore through white caps and horizontal winds.
I am fascinated and awed by the complexity of the balance quest and am at the pre-primer level (teacher term for before first grade) in weather school. Technology today gives me lots of help but weather gurus insist that I still use my closest tools; my eyes, ears, nose, and skin. We watch the clouds as every one tells a story of when and where it is going to storm or whether we are going to have good winds. Subtleties in the colours and movements in the sea also help us catch currents or chase the puffs of wind we need on calm days. I am beginning to recognize slight quivers and ridges in the water that let me know to be patient with our sail choices for the time being. I listen for the wind and find my face is the best sensor to determine its strength and direction. Sitting at the helm, I can feel breezes shift and change speed and am beginning to look at my electronic wind indicator for confirmation rather than giving it all of the power.
The back-to-nature method is important but we are also realistic and rely on many sources for short and long-term information. We would need a PhD in meteorology to claim competence in interpreting the mounds of weather data dumped onto the internet everyday. Thankfully , there are weather gurus who sit in their basements all over the world and feed crazy sailors the latest data that dictates where we go and when. Our meteorologist is Chris Parker ( ) who gathers and analyzes all of the information he can find and, as he states in his philosophy, only promises to try to make sure we are not surprised by inclement weather. We get his daily forecasts through the internet and our SSB (single side band) radio. We can also call him using our satellite telephone or radio for a private consult and we do that when we have a longer passage. When Chris says to leave at 10:00 Tuesday, that’s what we do. We also do our own tracking through software such as WindGuru, Passage Weather and Clearpoint If you are following us on SPOT, you can also track the weather we’re having with any of these websites. Wave direction, swell and frequency (6 second wave intervals are not fun), wind speed and direction, and precipitation are all pieces of the puzzle that help us stay safe and sail well. I laughed when I saw we had signed up for sea ice data on ClearPoint. I’ll know to turn around when we need that one.
What Chris can’t tell us is when a squall is going to hit us. All we get from him is “squally conditions”. The origin of the word squall is Nordic for squeal or cry out, translated to mean, Oh my god, look at that $%^&^% storm!” This is an apt description for the angst brought on by these sudden, localized storms. For Canadian west coasters, another word for squall is squamish. Weather “squeals” are best tracked by sight and our radar, and we can often see the wall of cumulonimbus clouds miles away. Racers go looking for them like Kansas storm chasers but we aren’t as fond of them. For us, sudden high winds and precipitation make for uncomfortable rides and damage to our sails if we don’t get them reefed in or furled by the time they hit us. They can be short lived but are common in the area we’re sailing in now so we are always on the lookout and ready to squeal on this naughty nautical trickster.
In the Caribbean, we see weather phenomena that are new to us like consistent morning rainbows and moonbows (moon set underneath a full arc). 

There is some truth in “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailor’s warning” (see The best weather readers are salty old sailors who claim that although they can make reasonable predictions, weather still remains elusive. We heed their humility and leave our electronic arrogance parked at the companionway when Squamish shows up.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My Kinda Cookin

Breadfruit. I wasn’t sure whether to cook it or wash the deck with it. It is a popular food with an ominous history, imported from the Pacific to the Caribbean by Captain Bligh as cheap food for slaves. The story goes that it arrived late because of the mutiny. It has a short shelf life that turns to a smelly mess almost overnight. The fresh texture is spongey and tough; cooked, it tastes like overly starched potatoes and sticks to the roof of your mouth. It was tasty in our curry dish but I wanted to learn more about spicing it up, so eagerly signed up for a Grenada cooking class through the cruiser’s net.
The cooking class began on the bus on the way to the cooking class. I was Shademan’s only passenger for the first few miles on the winding road through the lush green hills. He perked up when I asked him what to do with the banana-like produce I had bought at St. George’s market. This large central market caters to both locals and the 3000-4000 people who swarm in every second day from cruise ships. Their overloaded tour bathtub boats sputter by Alberta Crewed every so often. It is hard to convince market vendors that I am sort of a local and when I do, prices come down.  They are generous and kind, and full of stories about their island and its cuisine. Inevitably, I get advice on how to cook my new produce along with extra peppers or roots thrown in, no charge. 

I brought home the looks-like-a-banana-but-isn’t thing as a freebee so asked Shademan about it. I heard it as “bobo” from the vendor but knew I wouldn’t say it in a comprehensible way. “Ah, Blaugers!”, Shademan finally exclaimed. Chris Doyle’s cruising guide calls them Bluggoes. “Cook dem wit cod fish. Cook da cod fish in boiling water den soak in cold water. Squeeze it, squeeze it to get da salt out. Peel da fish inta looonnnnggg strips and mix it wit da steamed blaugers. Mix wit peppers, onions, and hot sauce.”  His words are poetry.  While driving, Shademan animates the squeezing and stripping with his hands. Recipe #1 under my belt. 

At the True Blue Bay resort, I joined 25 other cruisers gathered under a shade, eager to learn more about Grenada cuisine from chefs Esther and Omega. Our teachers handed out sheets with the recipes (Pan Seared Mahi Mahi with Sweet ‘n Sour Passion Fruit Sauce and Cucumber Sambal served with Sorrel Punch) while we sipped on rum punches. Here is what the sheet said for Cucumber Sambal:
1 cup thin slice seeded cucumber
1 tsp salt
1/4 diced bell pepper
2 piece lemongrass
2 sprig cilantro chopped
1/2 Lemon Juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp tamarind paste or tamarind nectar
1/2 tsp chili sauce, Asian
Mix cucumber and let stand minimum 4 hours. Rinse and drain well. Add balance of ingredients, let blend 2 hours. Remove lemongrass and lime rind before serving. 
Here is what Esther said as she prepared it:
I don have no lemongrass an no cilantro and I don wanna wait 4 hours! Why wait 4 hours? Sometimes you hafta stray from de recipe.
Stray she did. She moved on to the Mahi Mahi which was really sword fish and explained how the fillets had been marinating for awhile. Marinating in what, we asked. “Oh, jus some local herbs.” We asked her a few times for the mystery herbs and kept getting, “ya know, da local herbs!” She dipped the fillets in flour, fried them well in hot oil, and presented them on the passion fruit sauce she had already prepared. I later asked Shademan about passion fruit because I hadn’t seen any at the market. “Ya haf ta ask for dem. Dey don jus give em to nobody.” I wonder if I will be worthy. 

While I didn’t get much information on Grenada spices, I met 25 new friends and learned I should have kept my Sorrel pulp for jam. We all sampled the food and I plan to try the entire menu tonight with real Mahi Mahi that Cindy and Dan from Sitatunga are bringing over. They can be my guinea pigs but I ain soakin dat salad for 4 hours. 
With Alberta Crewed ready to go, we are waiting for a weather window that is supposed to be favourable by Sunday afternoon. We’ll aim for Bequia, possibly as far as St. Lucia, to wait out the “big mess” that our weather service provider, Chris Parker, predicts for late next week. Christmas in St. Lucia - good name for a pan drum Christmas Carol.
Follow us on SPOT, password Laurie:

Friday, December 9, 2011

It's Always Something

I wonder if Stephen King has written any stories about sailboats. The plot could be how a fleet of sailboats, rocking innocently at an anchorage, come to life and conspire to psychologically torment their owners. It would begin small. Boat gets bored during a passage and decides to mess with helmsman’s mind. Snickering, boat turns off the GPS at the helm. Helmsman looks puzzled, restarts the instrument, pulls out the manual in the dark and tries to find the “trouble shoot” section. Such section does not seem to exist. Helmsman wakes up mate who flips through the manual again, finding directions in German. Mate refers to backup ipad chart for navigation. IPad battery is dead (boat thinking ahead, had turned off inverter while ipad was charging earlier in the day). Mate defers to compass and paper chart. Storm sets in, mate has to read chart but gets violently sea sick, running to transom. Doesn’t make it. “Ewwww”, thinks boat with messy deck. Turns GPS back on while helmsman is still madly pushing buttons. Helmsman straightens up, puzzled but somewhat smug that she may have fixed it. Nagging doubt remains however and she wonders if she can ever trust GPS again. Boat plots next event - turn a bilge pump on and leave it running, even with no water to pump out. Perfect. 
Mysterious mechanical things happen on boats, and boatyards and marinas are filled with sailors trudging around trying to solve them. “It’s always something”, we recite to one another. At home, conversations begin with complaints about the weather. In the sailing community, it’s all about what we are trying to fix. Last week, we ran into our friend Jim who complained about all of his hull woes before he relaxed and told us about his month in an apartment in Paris last summer. “When I retire, that’s what I’d like to do.” Since he was already collecting a pension, he was envisioning retiring from retirement. 
Living on a boat is not a relaxing endeavour. If a boat senses that the to-do list is dwindling, it quickly sticks it to the owner by loosening a hose clamp so the fresh water pump loses its prime, or puts a vapour lock in the refrigerant line so the fridge doesn’t work. There goes the day at the beach while the owner tries to track down the mystery and the required parts which are never found at the first marine store if they are found at all. Installation of the part, when found, usually requires a trip back to the store for a new tool or an exchange because it’s the wrong one. It’s always something. That’s not a bad boat name. 
We are alone again after hosting Antares University and future Antares owners for the weekend. I must say that this boat attracts great people. At all stages from two years away to just-about-to-launch, it was fun to experience the nervous excitement that our co-cruisers are going through. We happily fielded questions about options to consider (anchor type, chart cabinet, to teak or not to teak), South American sail plans, and how to pack up one’s life. I appreciated participating and going through the boat again with Jeff and Rob. Our guests came from as far away as Malaysia and took advantage of our location with sight seeing and scuba diving. They are fascinating, courageous and generous, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with everyone. We learned, ate well, and laughed heartily. I really look forward to meeting them at sea. Check out facebook, Antares Yachts, for more photos.

We happened to have four doctors aboard, two of whom were around when Jeff stepped on a sea urchin that lodged a few quills into his foot. It looked and sounded like complicated surgery as Maite and Ed extracted the stinging barbs using a magnifying glass and tweezers. 

We continue to enjoy Grenada’s beauty and hospitality. Our neighbour stopped by last night asking us to dinner. He had picked up a fresh tuna from a fishing boat and we enjoyed tender steaks and stories of Atlantic passages. Not once did we talk about boat repairs. I hope our boats don’t think we’re ignoring them.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Feelin Atomic

“Fresh off the tree, a nutmeg is an absolutely gorgeous thing. Nature’s interpretation of a Faberge egg.”
From “An Embarrassment of Mangoes” by Ann Vanderhoof

I had read about the spice island of Grenada in “An Embarassment of Mangoes”, written by Torontonian Ann Vanderhoof. It was a popular book I recommended to family and friends before we took up this sailing life, and subsequently passed it along to Antares U* participants as they anticipated visiting Grenada. It is a wonderful account of sailing life and Grenada’s charms in particular. Salwa brought her copy from home and we were both delighted when we realized that the author is none other than the “Ann” I had met with Devi when we went to the market in Trinidad last week (see blog entry Nov. 27). Her boat Receta was just down the dock from us and Ann graciously signed Salwa’s copy. “I haven’t finished reading it so don’t tell me the ending,” Salwa joked. Ann laughed when she replied, “Since I’m here, I guess you can see we made it!” 

We were therefore excited about following Ann’s paths as we set sail for Grenada Monday at sunset. We heard all kinds of warnings of a strong current in a narrow passage aptly named Dragon’s Mouth just outside of Trinidad’s Chaguaramas harbour. This daunting force turned out to be more of an imp’s hiccough as we motor sailed right through without a stutter. We arrived in the luxurious Port Louis Marina in St. George’s, Grenada just after 09:00 Tuesday morning. Our overnight passage with short watches and good naps gave us a gorgeous sunrise and several squally storms that we watched from afar but managed to avoid.

Yesterday, Salwa, Jeff, Rob, Craig, and I set out for the 7-Sisters waterfalls in the south central part of the island. There is something about 7 and sisters. We have 7-Sisters mountain ranges all over British Columbia and Alberta. While I appreciate the splendor of mountain peaks and valleys, I prefer tropical waterfalls. There isn’t any snow. Our Antares crew had one day of sight-seeing before Antares-U and decided on a trip to these streaming siblings. It was a fine choice if one had only a day in Grenada. After a short ride on public transit (a 12-person van one waves down at the side of the road) we hiked for half an hour along a muddy clay jungled trail to a two-tiered water fall, the first two of the sisters. Swimming at the base of tropical waterfalls was something I had envisioned doing when we bought the boat and it has taken only a year to get here. It had become our Ithica. It was worth the wait and the glorious journey in-between. 

As most good destinations are, it was the getting there and coming home that were just as enchanting. The bus, driven by a former Indy 500 driver I’m sure, took us through winding jungled hills past villages of brightly painted concrete block bungalows clinging to steep road-side cliffs. It was best not to look down as we swerved precariously over the banks. We were dropped off at an unmarked path and told to walk, which as good Canadians we did. We came to a shack where we paid a few dollars to a friendly young woman and entered a plantation estate where we headed down a trail. We passed a Sorrel grove, infamous Granada nutmeg trees, pineapple plants, and rows of Callaloo, leafy greens used in popular southern Caribbean soups and stews. A Trini market vendor told me that when you eat Callaloo, you will always come back to Trinidad. I wondered if Grenada vegetables would cast the same spell.
The silky water cooled us off as we took turns trying to swim into the foaming base of the falls. Its 30 foot drop provided formidable spray and currents and we thrashed around enjoying the surges and flow.
We were delighted while waiting for the bus home late at the end of the day and a young cliff diver joined us, affirming the Grenadian enchantment Ann had written about. He was wearing a coveted spice necklace and explained each spice to us, as well as the ailments and conditions they could cure. With a huge smile, he finished his story by saying, “When I wear it, I put my head down every once in awhile to catch the aroma. It makes me feel atomic!” Just as Ann’s book did, our Atomic man challenged us to go slowly and find the good vibrations and sensations of Grenada. We continue our quest for more Atomic moments.
*Antares University is a two-day orientation to the Antares Catamaran provided by Antares Yachts for future and present owners. We hosted one last year in Buenos Aires and are delighted to do so again for the next four days here in Grenada. We know many of the participants and I learn more about our boat every time. I am a lifetime student.