19 May 2011


Today we shall finally cast off our lines—first heading west into the Baltic Sea, following the setting sun towards Denmark. Then through the Kiel-Canal and into the grey North Sea, the cold English Channel, the Bay of Biscay, the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Portugal and Galicia and so on until we reach the warm reaches of the Mediterranean, this new boat's summer home.

It will be a three weeks' passage, and the most challenging one we will have done together. The enforced delays—necessary modifications, tardily delivered paperwork—have made us chafe at the bit, we want so badly to set sail.

I think this passage actually began nearly two months ago, anchored off a small island in the Caribbean on a sunny morning. Or perhaps it began three years (or is it four years now? I forget) earlier in a small town in France, when we packed up our belongings to fly to the Virgin Islands.

But the Captain thinks it began on the 5th of April when we cast off our lines from the marina dock that had been a home—of sorts—for three years, and raised our sails, heading south to deliver our former boat to the Windward Islands for her last charter with us as crew.

That was a rough 50-odd hours. We watched as the swell grew into deep rolling troughs, shielding our eyes against the needle-sharp spray as the bow reared up like a distressed animal and came crashing down again, foamy white sea shooting up and past us. The force snapped many of the plastic fastenings to which the trampolines were rigged, and soon enough, the ragged edges of this corner or that were blowing in the wind. The spray forced open a corner of one of the portside UV screens; later on the second night, the screen blew off altogether. But the wind itself was fitful, gusting up uncertainly only to die again, leaving our sails limp and dispirited. Starting the engines gave us little better headway—earlier in the season, the three-blade propellers had been replaced with slower two-blade ones. This meant a loss of speed of half a knot per hour, which seems negligible until you multiply that over the course of a day—then another—and another.

Though the winds did not favour us, the open sea was generous with her gifts: one day we saw whales breaching; the next, we were treated to the joyous larking about of dolphins at the bow. They were so close we could hear their snorting huff as first one then another leapt and dived before our eyes. We saw the lights of Guadeloupe in the distance, and passed the long flank of lovely Martinique. Later, we sighted St Lucia's Pitons, their twin fangs wreathed with cloud; then the rich green peaks and deep valleys of volcanic St Vincent.

We tied off safety barriers in the cockpit at night, and took turns doing our watches. Mugs of hot tea warmed and woke us; we shared a ceremonious cold drink together every sundown. We slept very little. The night sky was very beautiful.

At the end of the third day, quiet little Admiralty Bay in the island of Bequia welcomed us at last. We arrived just after sunset, the orange light catching and reflecting off the salt crystals drying on the boat. When I turned to smile at the Captain, I felt the fine film of salt crack on my cheeks. I licked my dry lips, and tasted the sea.

18 May 2011

New boat

Ten days ago—

The boat is beautiful. Her glossy white topsides catch the light, and the vivid red of the genoa cover and the gennaker, the bimini and the sailbag, look cheery even under cloud. The light teak of the cockpit harmonises with the blonde wood and dark accent panels of the saloon and galley, giving the interior a pleasantly warm, airy look. Only ten days ago, she looked so different—bubblewrap and protective foam layers everywhere, cardboard sheets underfoot and the ceiling and walls gaping uncovered, bristling  with neatly tied bundles of wire and cable. 

We are so impressed with workmanship of the boat—quality materials through and through, and the attention to detail is very pleasing to observe: even the backs of the wall and ceiling panels (which no one but us crew or the occasional technician will ever see) are neatly finished. She has been so well-designed to make sure that maintenance of all her systems (plumbing, electrical, hydraulic) are easily accessible—which makes the 'invisible' part of our job as crew, the behind-the-scenes work that keep a charter running smoothly, much easier.

We can't wait to start welcoming our first charter guests aboard—she is a stunning boat, and will be a real joy to work on.

17 May 2011

Poland: Stocznia Gdańsk

cranes near our dock

The day is overcast; against the flat grey sky, the articulated skeletal limbs of cranes move slowly, as if numbed with cold. The weather suits the place, which on superficial inspection appears to be a great heaped junkyard—a grave of robot bones, vast warehouses filled with little more than dusty light and populated only by crumbling piles of plastic refuse, remnants of hoses like dead snakes on the floor, walls patched with fading posters of women with glossy open mouths. Layered traces of old grafitti emerge from the peeling shreds of newer ones. There is every shade of drab, from oxidized ferrous russet to mossy copper viridian to soot-stained lead. It is as if the clean outlines of a Charles Sheeler painting had been filled in with the raucous visual textures of Robert Rauschenberg. A pair of incongruous white swans glide as gracefully upon the dull green canal as if it were a pristine lake.

This is Stocznia Gdańsk, the historic shipyard built on a sluggish canal of the river Martwa Visla (the aptly named "dead Vistula") which empties into the Baltic Sea. To this day, perhaps precisely because its modern industry lives both on the surface of and in-between the undemolished relics of its former life, a ramshackle grandeur suffuses even the disused tram tracks burrowing into the chipped and sprouted cobblestones, and lends a sort of apocalyptic glamour to the rusting abandoned pipe systems that rear abruptly against the sky like mechanized robots from a 1950s science fiction film. Their great welded joins must once have safeguarded the passage of oil and gas through the labyrinth of pipes that fed the industrial beast of old. Now, many of them carry only echoing wind and history.

But on the rare sunny day, the working cranes can look almost festive against a surprisingly blue sky, as they come alive with explosive insectile creakings. A row of dwarfish metal blowers guards the front lines of a troop of of taller machines—a squat robot army with large blank heads standing sentry over their discarded former demesne. The machines have not won, after all; humans now occupy the day. Unusually, there seem to be as many women as men here, all clad in an Orwellian uniform of dull overalls, swarming purposefully over the hulks and shells of pleasure-boats in the making.

Walking in the shipyard, each step kicks up a small puff of storied dust that settles back into the ground or on the strewn debris, powdering them with a protective sprinkling of drab. And yet in shaded corners and on the ragged periphery, the trees—tender of leaf and sweet of bud—are reminders that this is Maytime. Cheerful weeds like the bright yellow dandelions—pisse-en-lit, as the French call them—push determinedly between cracks in the paving. They grow so lush that one morning, we arrive at the shipyard and see them being mown down. The air is faintly peppery with the smell of their dismemberment.

I like being here in the spring, imagining (probably inaccurately) that some of these walks take me through the very grounds where the thousands of workers of the Solidarność movement also walked; I like thinking that from here, the dominoes began to fall, and the oppressive former regimes of Eastern Europe began to crumble away—a giddy thought. It makes me think of the other side of the world, of the other spring of liberty awakening, albeit more painfully, in countries as isolated from hope as this one may once have been. So it all changes.

Omnia mutantur nos et mutamur in illis
. Everything changes, and we change with them. Here in Poland, with cold yellow clouds above me, surrounded by the sweet steely fumes of solvents and the urgent whispered conversations of shipwrights and electricians, our former Caribbean life shrinks into the distance. Yet it was only forty-seven days ago when the Captain and I were crouched over the laptop in our cabin, while our charter guests were off snorkeling the gentle blue waters nearby. A stray patch of sunshine fell across the computer screen. The email we were re-reading offered us a job on a new 70' catamaran chartering the Mediterranean in the summer months followed by a transatlantic voyage and the winter months chartering the Caribbean. We looked at each other one more time, a silent question, asking,  Are you sure? Are we sure? He nodded. A drop of sweat trickled down my arm as I moved the keyboard towards me. I typed out our answer and clicked the "Send" button with a smart nervous flourish.  

Yes, I had written, yes we will, yes.

old pipe systems

disused cranes in front of the office

a robot army
another view

about this blog

Occasional vignettes from the life of a charter chef who loves simply messing about on boats.

"I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brains and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world."
MFK Fisher


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