Life Aboard LULU

September 24, 2006 (Where were we?)
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Where were we?

Old friends, new friends on—mostly—old islands.

Let’s see—where were we? It seems I allowed this seven-year-old log to dribble off around November, way back in the Virgin Islands. Constipation—otherwise known as writer’s block—may have set in because we were plying familiar old terrain, sailing the first six months in islands like Antigua, St Barth, St Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Domenica, St Lucia and Grenada.

Gary likes the familiarity of returning to the Eastern Caribbean islands, checking out the old and scouting out the new, while I prefer the more remote, uncrowded anchorages of the Western Caribbean.Not until June did we touch my own best-loved shores of Venezuela and Bonaire. There’s also the Friendly Factor. Once past the Isles of Attitude (see above) we more regularly encounter people who smile, say “Good afternoon” or “Buenos Dias” —and wait for you return the courtesy—rather than flipping you a “No Problem,” which somehow always sounds like that’s exactly what it is.

This is not to say nothing new, interesting or special crossed our wake.

Nor does a little nitpicking imply that I don’t still treasure this sailing life. And recognize the fact that we’re not only still here—as, on the planet—but also here—as close as it gets to paradise on earth. We’re free, footloose and shoeless. Tousled by the wind and tickled pink by the sun. Rarely rained on, dusted by sand but absolutely never by snow. Chill pays its visits only in the form of frosty wine bottles and icy beer cans.


What's not to love about scenery like this bit of Shirley Heights, Antigua?

It’s true that knee pains, muscle aches and swollen joints are also paying ever more frequent visits of late. If these tetchy guests aren’t reminder enough that our cruising time is finite and that even blemished days are meant to be cherished, there was the death of my best friend of 45 years, Susan Nodiff, after a too-long (though blessedly painless) bout with a brain tumor. She died peacefully and we were fortunate to be with her at the end. I feel as complete as I’ve ever felt about someone I’ve loved so much and hated so much to lose. I like thinking she deliberately chose the morning of Halloween to leave us—as if to say she’ll be flying around in white robes grinning and dropping goodies on those of us willing to get out there and play.

Willing to play—that’s us. Perhaps our defining attribute, frivolous as that may sound. Occasionally I find myself regretting that I’m not doing any socially responsible work. Reading books like “Mountains Beyond Mountains” makes me want to sail off to Haiti and a life of useful good deeds. But neither the prevailing winds nor the prevailing skipper, Guilt-free Gary, will take me there. But, notwithstanding sporadic Mother Theresa twinges, we’ve spent these last months pretty much partying and playing, noshing and sloshing with some good old friends and a small armada of new ones.

Aside from play, the theme of our retired life is Quest—for the necessary boat widget, for an anchorage where we can pick up wireless internet, for the clump of bean sprouts needed to make Pork Egg Foo Young, for the eternally elusive good hamburger, not to mention the ongoing search for the yummy.

One thing we never have to look for is people. We meet surprising new people almost every time some new next-door neighbor drops anchor. Sometimes it takes a day or two, or a beach party or so, to ferret out the interesting nuggets, but, hey, that must be why I went to Journalism school.

And so what follows is a potpourri: some highlights and memories of these recent months.

Who are we?

We’re hanging around with an informal assortment of some eight or nine boats we met on the Caribbean 1500. We meet, socialize, then move on to other anchorages alone or in smaller groups.

‘We’ are a hodgepodge of ages and nationalities. Not to mention occupations. We are—or in most cases, were— cops and judges, docs and auctioneers, potters and professors; headhunters and headshrinkers, yoga teachers and commodities traders, Reiki masseuses and data massagers, engineers and dirt farmers, lady lawyers and pissed-off Enron pensioners, undercover FBI agents and probably some under-wraps Witness Protection Program fugitives.

We include bouncy Michele, blonde, shiny-eyed and beautiful, with an adventurous spirit and an unstoppable capacity for fun. In a former life Michele had pluck enough to headhunt construction workers; she uses that fortitude now to rear two little kids—one-year and two-years—on a 40-foot catamaran. They’re already swimming. Michele is 30—I can’t believe we’re hanging out regularly with people younger than our kids.

Michele, St Martin

Chris, a former mergers and acquisitions guy in bull and bear markets, now specializes in bar bullshit and bear hugs. I can count in Chris and his wife Marsha for any eating expedition.

Then there’s Pam, a once-up-on-a-time Las Vegas casino drinks and cigarette girl who could make Dolly Parton look like a Girl Scout.Pam stuffs her substantial set of God-given globes into tight tank tops and wears tiny bikinis with utter glee and abandon. God’s gotta be tickled pink with such self assuredness. Probably with the belly ring too.


Pam in Anegada

Pam’s husband, Chuck, is a former air traffic controller who grumbles he wishes he knew how to control his wife and grown-up kids with such ease.Chuck can be counted on for hilarious good ol’ boy yarns, spun in pure Texas twang.

And there’s Dietmar. We play island tag with Dietmar all winter. He’s a boundlessly friendly, bearded German giant who found his own way out of postwar Germany and went on to found a series of successful engineering-related businesses.

Dietmar is endlessly self deprecating—"Pleeze forgiff my rotten Eeengleeish—" but can talk his way in and out of any sticky situation—in any one of four languages (including Eeengleesh)—except the ongoing one with his petite, chalk-skinned Porcelain Doll wife, Mary Lou, an interior designer whose versant in Georgian mansions and pillow shams but completely averse to sailing boats and any kind life at sea. Dietmar “schleppens das boat” alone from island to island while Mary Lou flies into and out of them like they’re subway stops.Mary Lou doesn’t like crossings between islands and wants her air conditioning at night (and who are we, the Blue Water Brats, to quibble?) but Dietmar—despite his engineering background and know-how—can’t—even with help from numerous shore experts— to get the defective new Onan generator to work. So they’re consigned to marina after marina and warrantee disputes with Onan. And somewhat literally turf battles with each other. As in, where will they live?

“Mary Lou, are we getting a dee-worce” or not this month?” Dietmar jokes, but there’s clearly a major stress factor, or fracture, here. Faulty generators, malfunctioning refrigeration, broken watermakers boats and different comfort levels entirely frequently break up cruising couples. This life demands similar priorities and commitment. Two to tango, plus occasional cooperation from the boat.


Dietmar, Mary Lou, Gary, St Barth

On between-island overnights Dietmar buddy boats with his friend Guy, a tall, handsome, black Vietnam vet who after the war rose high in the General Motors corporate structure. I’d been told that Guy’s been sailing solo for more than 10 years despite the loss of a right hand in ‘Nam When we first dinghied over to meet Guy, the unfortunate salutation that fell out of my mouth was, “Hi, I hear you’ve been single-handing for years.”At the same time I stuck out my hand and got met with a stump. Slick, huh?

St John

We spend the Christmas holidays in New York and return to the Virgins shortly after New Year’s. Whereupon my other friend Susan—Susan Geffen, a pal only a mere 42 years—makes her annual trek to St John bringing her irrepressible good spirits and unforgettable quips. This Susan once told me she didn’t have stretch marks any more because she’d filled them out again. Since she’s not the kind of person “who wears dresses that stand up by themselves,” (as in starched pinafores and ornate ball gowns) she was thrilled to don faded tees and funky straw hats and, she said, to finally get “a good feel for life aboard the Mother Ship.”

Susan aboard LULU

Susan rents a multi-viewed St John house with an entourage of six friends, who, besides being good-hearted, smart, wickedly funny people, were always up for a good feed-fest. We are anchored in the nearby bay and spend the next week laughing together, drinking together, cooking together and, on one unsurpassably perfect day, sailing together on LULU.

Our first dinner at the “beach house” sitting so high over Great Cruz Bay the scenery below appears utterly inert, not to mention, soundless. Nine normally chatty people are so transfixed speech becomes entirely irrelevant for a very, very long time. With the exception of the occasional twinkling light over on >St Thomas, the US Virgins lay scattered about far, far below like a family of slumbering brown animals. A cluster of sailboats in the harbor beneath looks like myriad white spikes on a crumpled blue-black paper. Completing the scene is an anchored windjammer, its masts outlined in white lights. Then suddenly—we can’t even be quite sure in all the stillness and silence—it begins ever so slowly moving off, a phantom bound for wherever.

I can't figure out how it managed to leave all that beauty.

St Martin/St Maarten

Maybe, like us, it was bound for St Martin­—yet another take on Paradise, this one specializing in good French bistro food…and ripe Camemberts and runny Bries, and case after case of pates even in the humblest of supermarkets. And crunchy baguettes to slather them on.   And let’s not forget reasonable French wines.

It’s a bashing 12-hour passage but by 4PM we’re rocking gently in Marigot Bay. It turns out to be the last weather window out of the Virgins for almost a month. Within 24 hours the harbor is a maelstrom, the winds are up to 30 knots and even the hundred-plus footers are bobbing about like bath toys. Every last one makes a run for the final, 5PM, drawbridge opening into ample and usually calm Simpson Bay, on the Dutch side. It’s choppy even there; for the next three weeks the wind blows steadily in the 30s.

Radio chat is rife with complaints about marooned boats, rolly anchorages and jettisoned cruising plans. Fortunately regularly scheduled jets continue to arrive with mussels from new Zealand, foie gras from the Dordogne…and the local steak tartare is never overcooked. The boulangeries and patisseries presumably expand production to meet increased demand from stuck-here cruisers who are by and large not unhappy at all.

We’d tempted friends, two different working couples, into leaving the Virgins and joining us for a respite between charter commitments. Rick and Terri on SOPHISTICATED LADY and French Canadians Michel and Michelle on BLEU TURQUOISE are in their first year of chartering. They’re all justifiably worried about getting back in time to provision and greet guests. Finally they take their best-shot day and make a run for it.

We—deciding to take best advantage of the weather—head for the windiest point on the island: the airport.We bus to the Sunset Beach Bar, which sits precisely between the western tip of the international runway and a narrow beach where the madly invigorated winds are whipping up great scallops of wild surf. Every few minutes while we , along with the 200 other revelers, munch cheeseburgers and gulp beers, massive airplanes come roaring into the landing strip. They're flying just about 50 feet over our heads. Almost close enough to reach up and snatch one out of the sky. Signs in English and French warn not to come too close to the fence lest the jet blasts affect you in some spectacular but menacingly unspecified way. No one pays any attention at all.

Whenever one of these super babies comes in, the blast from its jets whips the surf into a spectacular frenzy of froth and fury--and the crowd goes nuts, which includes cheering, leaping and baring of tits.

Pure fun and escapist hedonism—a most exciting way to pass an afternoon—though the hamburger—touted as a triple-cheese wonder—almost brings down the curtain on Gary’s unpromising quest for the best Caribbean cheeseburger. Of course I keep telling him those three words should never appear together in the same sentence, much less the same phrase, but he just won’t listen. Dazzled by sizzle, he’s content to have one more bar right here in Dutch St Martin to check out.

St Barth

Turns out the Buccaneer Beach Bar burger is yet another dud and, finally, the weather gremlins relent and allow a move to St Barth. After just two days I can't wait to leave.It's our third time around and the island just doesn't have that much to offer. Lovely beaches, yes, but one needs a car. It's small and outrageously overpriced, both the stores and the restaurants.

Once we get over the sticker-shock we realize prices are in Euros and then must add another 25%. Most of the quirky local stores we once ambled through have turned into Hermes & Bulgari & Dior & Louis Vuitton & Tod & & & ... A Fredericks of Hollywood would be refreshing.

And despite the fact that I'm sick to distraction of my same-old, same-old boat duds, it's almost impossible to buy new because everything is sleeveless, strapless or braless and even a size Large is skin-tight. Should something actually fit it's so encrusted with sequins and embroidery and lacing and macramé one could wear it to a ball. For which I have no invitations.

Yet this new Haut Encrustation style is daytime street-wear now—diametrically opposed to the severe-black sheaths the leetle Frenchwomen wore to the supermarché four years ago. And about as tight, but with the added dimension of exposed flatbellies and concomitant rings and dangles.

Antigua & Domenica

Weather finally permits, and we set sail for Antigua. A boisterous 10-hour crossing puts us in Jolly Harbour, which, despite glorious magazine ad photography and copywriter ballyhoo about luxury condos, fabulous boat facilities and new megayacht marinas, is pretty much the same dinky place of four years ago. The restaurants are exactly the same: a bar, a pretend Italian and the perfectly awful Peter's BBQ, where I am served the worst ribs I've ever eaten—AND there are only four of them. (As Gary's mother used to say, "The food was awful…and there wasn't enough of it.")

So that’s Jolly—not very jolly at all.Except our funny, funny, funny friends Glen and Ann, full time crew on SEPTEMBER MORNING, are there and we manage to lure them up to Falmouth with us.


Glen & Ann, Green Island, Antigua

Falmouth is both the same and very different. We find hardly any boats in the marina; most of the megayachts and gigayachts seem to have relocated to Simpson Bay, St Maartin marinas.

Instead we see rowboats. A far cry from mega- and gigayachts. We soon learn there is yet another way of crossing the Atlantic, this one taking about as long as an 18th century square rigger. By rowboat. Though plastered with an array of corporate logos and capped by tiny enclosures comfy enough for, maybe, your average Dalmation, they more resemble Indy 500 racecars. Minus the speed factor, of course.

We—who would consider crossing the Atlantic by popping LULU onto a ferry and hopping a 747 ourselves—felt in the presence of genuine madness.

Though it seems the sport called ocean rowing has been around since 1896—when Norwegians George Harboe and Gabriel Samuelson took off from New York bound for the Scilly (pronounced silly, draw your own conclusions) Isles. Nearly 110 years later, on November 30, 2005, twenty-six almost wholly open craft—some rowed solo, some by two and several by teams of four—left the Canary Islands competing in the now-annual Atlantic Rowing Race. Depending on the course they chose and the assorted storms that had other destinations in mind, the various teams rowed somewhere between 1800 and 2550 nautical miles before ALL RELATIVE crossed the finish line in Antigua on January 8. ALL RELATIVE made it in 39 days, 3 hours, 32 minutes and 47 seconds and I’d bet they were counting every second. (Considering the boat name and the very idea of such a race one has to wonder if they were first cousins.)

Twenty boats finished. Six retired following capsizes. The only solo female competitor came in March 13, after 103 days, 5 hours and 45 minutes at sea entirely without company, enduring broken oars, faulty equipment and multiple capsizes amid far too many low-pressure systems. I thought her name entirely apt: Roz Savage. .

Waiting for service at the Shirley Heights bar on our first Sunday night, I begin talking to a delicate-featured young person so lean and muscular, so smooth-cheeked yet with a head so shorn I have doubts about what sex I’m dealing with. Turns out to be one of the rowers. Kathy Tracey, of Guernsey, was part of a team of four women who finished ninth, turning in the creditable performance of 67 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes. After congratulating her, I ask why she’d done it: “To see if I could,” she says, just about as matter of fact as if she’d tackled pizza crust successfully.


Ocean-crossing rowboat--notice how roomy for four?

On this, about our sixth visit to Falmouth, there’s the sense of homecoming .It’s feels good to stumble on (and be remembered by) a raft of people in various trades whom we befriended years ago and to find that many have moved on and up in their careers, expanding, growing and buying businesses. And other plucky souls—notably Mavis the laundress and Lindy Hunt, the water taxi driver—are still cheerfully occupying their 25-year-old posts.

Similarly, when we reach Domenica, we hail Martin, our tour-guide friend and he arrives an hour later, looking exactly as he did five years ago—except he says he has a sunburn . Hard to see on skin so dark.

Martin on LULU

What a joy to look at this magnificent man—magnificent inside and out—and know he’s still himself. Though this cuts both ways, in the sense that he’s still struggling to raise his family. Later in the season a small bunch of us cruisers collect enough money to buy him a chainsaw, so that he can find work in the off-season doing construction.

His kids, of course, remind us how much time has passed. Gary and I both held Nicky, an infant, when we were last here. Now she’s in kindergarten. Nicole, the older, is going into high school, wears a size 11 shoe .

If on the one hand I find the islands themselves either not as charming or too expensive or know that we can’t capture what was, on the other hand, coming back to the people brings a real sense of return, of connection and connections renewed.


Of cristophines and curries

On our one night in Domenica, I make Gary meat loaf. After which I find him hunched over the computer. Writing to the kids. This:

“Tonight, in this beautiful harbor, my Lulu is making her famous meatloaf, one of my all time favorites. Life is good. Very good. The vegetable I am served by my beautiful wife on my beautiful boat in this beautiful harbor with my beautiful meatloaf is christophines.

Now, why have you never heard of christophines? You've heard of all kinds of potatoes, peas, beans, corn, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and beets—even eggplant and squash, but not christophines, I'll bet. It's because cristophines suck.

They are an island favorite, like dasheen, chitlins and pigs' feet. They even eat chicken feet with their christophines. You can get goat knuckles with your christophines. Christophines can be served boiled, fried, baked, even o-gratin with cheese. But, they always suck.

But, hey, what do I know?”

Hmmn…What he doesn't know about christophines is that I'm the one who knows nothing about them. Or what to do with them. They appear on our meatloaf plates because in small produce-challenged islands like The Saintes, our last port of call ,they're the only fresh thing I could find to keep the meat loaf company.

When even the onion bins are empty you can always find a hillock of christophines. Who cares what they taste like as long as the meat loaf doesn't quiver nakedly on an island of white china? Christophines are straw yellow, wrinkly and lightly stubbled in a one-day-growth of tiny whiskers, making them look like a litter of newborn mice.

Now de local ladies do know what to do with christophines and, though we mostly prefer almost any sort of food to island cooking, we have had christophines that we—both of us—thought quite yummy. I suspect those were mixed with vats of butter (or worse even lard), plus honey, cane syrup, an assortment of artery-choking cheeses, doubtless finished off with hot pepper sauce and a dash--or more likely a dollop--of curry.

You can't read a menu board around here without finding it dominated by curry--chicken curry, pork curry, goat curry, mutton curry, fish curry, shrimp curry, conch curry, octopus curry. In the French islands they fool you by calling it "colombo." Colombo du poulet, colombo du porc, colombo de cabra, colombo de carnero, colombo du poisson, colombo de oassusses, colombo de lambis, colombo de pulpos. Colombos come to the table looking universally alike—lumpy, yellowy glops resembling infant diarrrhea. Colombo was likely named for the ubiquitous Christopher Columbus, who was the first (European) to plant a footprint on almost every Caribbean island. In fact, if you think about it, christophines were probably named after him too. Christophines may even in fact be spelled christophenes, but there's no way to check because you'll never find them in any (European) dictionary. You'll find christophines only in island groceries amid dusty piles of gnarly, dark brown island root vegetables with tree-bark skins and long, stringy grandfather beards—which are almost all called "yams." But don't buy them, de-hair them and peel them (at great cost to your own skin) and expect anything sweet. They'll taste like steamed styrofoam . Island cooks must know what to do with them. Just like christophines.

Similarly, in February our friends Joan and David make their annual visit—this year to Martinique, new for them—and we have ten unsurpassably perfect days. With the exception of the French food.

You get instead Creole food, which means the familiar Caribbean standbys—conch, cod fritters and curries, dressed in more exotic names: colombos, crabe farci, accras du morou, assiette de porc. On I go ordering lambi—conch—and expecting rack of lamb. The problem is not French food; it’s the lack of French food.

In the food department, Europe definitely beckons. But we’re just so spoiled by the ease, the exquisite water and the mostly usable winds of the Caribbean. Europe means squashy marinas, dirty water, no wind or monsoon-winds.

For now we have no cruising plans after the summer in Bonaire. Maybe we'll wake up one day and have made a decision. Still, I'm aware not making a decision is making a decision.

It's hard to leave the palm trees




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