19 May 2011

Passages

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.

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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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