Stompin' on the Terra

"And he said, 'Stomp upon the Terra.'" – Lord Buckley (via Hunter Thompson)

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Location: Plum Island, Massachusetts

28 February 2013

Shoreside Fun on St. Maarten

It's a thin strip of sand wedged in between the teal Caribbean Sea on one side and a narrow road, fence and the end of a runway on the other. And conditions are perfect -- for a lot of things. The weather is the finest it's been in a week: hot sun in a cloudless sky and just enough breeze to lull you off your guard and make you think that you are, in fact, not getting scorched. As are many hundreds of others, drawn out by the proximity of sun, sand, beach bars and commercial aviation.

Among the throngs are an enormous percentage of Europeans, and that's both good and bad. Good, given the miniscule (and often topless) bikinis worn by the females of the species; bad, given the European lack of familiarity with the notion of individual space: while sitting on the beach reading, I was surrounded -- literally -- by an extended family of French folks. One, seemingly the elder statesman of the bunch, just put his towel ON my foot before slidiing it three inches to my left and then settling in with a cigarette and a puddle of suntan lotion. If I understood French better, I could easily be adopted by the family, and one of the beach vendors just told me about the deal on gems and jewelry in Phillipsburg I could put to use for my lovely women. Whatever.

The Euros also bring with them their unique fashion sense. In addition to the aforementioned and much-appreciated tiny bikinis (sue me), there's also the comedy of a man in designer denim-and-leather cut-off shorts (I am not making this up), Jackie O sunglasss and a tramp stamp. There are, of course, far too many men with large paunches hanging over their tiny Speedo-type suits, and even one guy who's 300 pounds if he's an ounce bodysurfing in gym shorts. Some of the finest people-watching in the world here.

And then there are the airliners. As they come in for landing on the adjacent runway, they pass by at maybe 30 to 50 feet overhead. It's amazing to watch something that big actually flying. Thus far we've seen Cessna Caravans and DeHavilland Twin Otters, along with 737s, 757s and Airbuses, but here comes the big boy: Air France's four-engine jumbo. Wow! WAY impressive, even if you're not an airplane nerd like I am.

On take off, the real fun ensues. Jets taxi into position and bring their engines up to full power on the displaced threshold, perhaps a plane length and change from the fence beside the road. As the jets spool up, the wash throws everything behind them -- pebbles and trash on the runway, sand on the beach, water on the surface of the sea and even tourists holding on to the fence for dear life -- into the ocean. It's equal parts comedy and, quite often, tragedy. There are undoubtedly some Darwin Award winners in the group holding on to the fence; search YouTube for "St. Martin airport" and see what you find.

And before you ask: yes, this Darwin Award winner went out there in the wash behind an American Airlines 757. Hey...when in Rome, right?

25 February 2013

And at the Other End of the Spectrum...

...was our wonderful motorsail from Antigua to St. Maarten. What was so surprising is that given my condition for the trip -- slightly hungover following a wee bit of indulgence at the post-race party for the Caribbean 600 -- I should have been miserable and hanging over the rail. Instead, the trip was so glorious that I was once again ready to chuck everything and sail for the horizon once and for all.

We left Falmouth Bay around 11:45am Saturday morning. Montserrat lay to the southwest, its volcano shrouded in a cap cloud. We changed course at the southwest corner of Antigua and made for the northwest. The sun set around 6:15pm (Marlies and Boogie claimed to see the green flash; I missed it) and I stayed on deck for a couple-of-hour watch.

And what a watch it was. Jupiter appeared atop our mast moments after the sun sank below the horizon. And as the sky darkened, more and more stars appeared in the clear sky from horizon to horizon, 360 degrees around the boat: Orion, Aldebaran, Polaris, the Big Dipper. Scorpio dangled above the southeast horizon, looking more like its namesake than any other constellation in the sky. And over time, the Milky Way glowed brighter, like a joyful flag dancing in a light breeze. The almost-full moon glowed in the sky and on the water off our starboard quarter, climbing slowly over our stern as we made our way north.

Below the heavens, the lights of St. Kitts, Statia and Saba crawled past on the western edge, while the lights of St. Barth climbed higher on our starboard bow. And by the time I woke Boogie at 9pm for the final hour-plus run into St. Maarten, we were in the calm waters of the lee of St. Barth, cruising along past dark hills serrating the glowing sky.

We dropped the hook in Simpson Bay and I turned in for the night. A slightly rolly evening gave way to another tropical morning and we entered Simpson Bay Lagoon with the 9:30am bridge opening on Sunday morning. Now we're in the Simpson Bay Marina, which is fast filling up with race boats -- many of whom we saw in Antigua -- arriving for this weekend's Heineken Regatta. I raced in last year's event on the boat Boogie and Marlies were operating then; this year's boat is here for some work and does not race. I'm hoping to get on with another boat for the races and then it's back to the States come Sunday. The strangely up-and-down time away, currently up, continues.

22 February 2013

Worlds Rarely Seen

Antigua is a small island. And despite the fact that you can drive around the entirety of the island in a couple of hours, it actually holds entire worlds that many people likely don't realize exist.

For instance, there's the world of yachties. Blond-coiffed and tan, typically young and sporting baggy shorts and flip-flops, they're easily mistaken for surfers. But they tend not to congregate in places known for having big waves. Rather, they can be found around marinas and bays, congregating among themselves and speaking a language known only to initiates, a language that includes words and phrases from the English language but having completely different meanings...words such as "Cowes" and "Race Week" and "crossing" and "Med" and all sorts of arcane navigation and racing terms. It's a unique and homogenous subculture, entry to which requires either youth and energy or age and money. Like many subcultures, yachties are entertaining but somewhat closed off to the general public, and their social mores appear to be a cross between prim, upper-crust behavior combined with periodic binges into rugby parties. Given its small size, however, it's unlikely that any real sociological research into yachties will ever take place. And that's probably a good thing.

And if you have any doubts about how the one percent have fared in the recent economic downturn, come to Antigua and wander around the docks. You will be, to put it quite simply, stunned. Stupified, even.

Antigua is the Monaco of the Caribbean for the sailing set (the luxury powerboat set tends to congregate in nearby St. Maarten) and here you will find several dozen behemoths in the hundred-foot-plus range, including famous vessels such as The Maltese Falcon and Athena. And they're only two of the superyachts currently on the dock here in Antigua. It's a bit surreal to pull up in an extravagant, ornate 70-foot yacht and feel like you're an ugly stepchild. Or to walk the docks and realize there are three dozen superyachts who have components -- small things like a cleat, a line or a gangplank that likely cost more than what one would consider a "normal" yacht, let alone bigger items such as a sail, a mast or an engine that cost more than an upper-class family's home. So if you're not in the world of the one percent, you can rest easy: they're doing just fine.

These are just two of the oh-so-foreign worlds on display in Antigua. There are other worlds here, of course, ranging from small country villages inhabited by families with kids running around barefoot to resorts for well-to-do North Americans and Euros, but you're likely familiar with them already. It's those other, far-out worlds hiding away in places like Antigua that are eye-popping scenes for normal Earthlings. It has been an experience.

21 February 2013

Be Careful What You Wish For

So, once again I've taken to the ship. Perhaps not too quietly, but quietly enough. In recent months, I've definitely been grim about the mouth, and have been closer to stepping into traffic or pushing off people's hats or following close after funerals, so perhaps it's allowable that I wasn't quite as silent as I might have been. My buddy, Ishmael, would allow me that luxury, I suspect.

What's been surprising is that taking to the ship hasn't been the balm it's always been in the past. Granted, it's only been four-plus days but I was hopeful of an almost immediate transformation. And what I've found has been a bit more like, well, finding out that the red Corvette convertible and the bimbette don't really solve the mid-life crisis.

I arrived in Barbados Saturday afternoon, a week or two short of 25 years since I last set foot on that island along with nine other college friends on what was an insane and wild spring-break week. It was interesting to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak (to be honest: it was a lot tamer than we like to admit to ourselves) even if only for a few hours. And it was only for a few hours because I was bound for Union Island in the nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines a day later. I couldn't make the connection in one day, hence the layover.

Union was my destination because my Dutch friends, Boogie and Marlies, with whom I've sailed many thousands of miles both north and south, were there, and they had invited me to get away from winter, from despair, from what has been a 24/7 job of caring for my father for many months. Dad has progressed in recent weeks to near-independence, enabling me to take my friends up on their very kind offer and escape to the Caribbean.

Union is very Third World, an on-the-cusp-of-tourism-influx place in stark constrast to the smooth operation of Barbados. It's the gateway to the diving mecca of the Tobago Cays and is a burgeoning kiteboarding destination. And in the middle of it all were my friends, skipper and mate on an obscenely opulent 70-foot aluminum sailing yacht. Boogie and Marlies work for the pair of owners and have shepherded the boat throughout the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic and up and down the Caribbean chain. The owners were going to be back in Europe for a bit, enabling me to join my friends as they took the boat north to St. Maarten in advance of the owners' return.

While I didn't get to experience the Tobago Cays (they remain on my to-do list, for sure), I did get in a morning of kiteboarding -- the first time I'd done so since I spent three days in Cape Hatteras the first week of November 2011 learning how. And I had a great time and was much more proficient than I expected I'd be. That was gratifying. And just plain fun. The dinner we had the night before we departed -- grilled lobster with assorted local sides all prepared by a local guy named Michael and served on the beach between passing rain squalls was nothing short of exquisite. A return to Union is in the cards.

We hoisted anchor and motored out around the reef at midday on Tuesday. We were bound for Antigua: 266 miles almost due north. We planned to run along the west, leeward side of St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Martinique, Dominica and Guadaloupe, and finish up at Falmouth Bay on the south coast of Antigua. Our ETA was about 30 hours later: late in the evening on Wednesday.

We hit our ETA but it sure felt a lot longer than that, and that's where the feeling of midlife realization came in. I hadn't been aboard a boat in 51 weeks -- since I'd crewed for Boogie and Marlies in the 2012 Heineken Regatta in St. Maarten -- and while I expected to be a bit queasy (par for the course the first night out when I return to sea), I never expected this. I felt like shit from Tuesday evening until we arrived in Antigua, with a wonderful break in the lee of Guadaloupe. It was never really bad -- a lot like a low-grade wine hangover -- but I never really felt as blissful and carefree and, well, FREE as I usually feel when I'm at sea. And it's not like the location in this case sucked: at night I had Polaris on the bow and the Southern Cross on the stern and several shooting stars all aroud; there was the deep, royal blue of the Caribbean Sea, a color that calls you to look into it in search of anything and everything you might be seeking; the wind was a raucous and steady 20 to 25 knots, powering our 55-ton vessel as she was made to be moved; and perhaps most importantly, I wasn't cleaning commodes or administering medicine or washing soiled laundry or living from call to call and need to need, the first time I'd really had that freedom in almost four months. It was not only escape, it was escape in the dreamland of escapes.

And yet, I felt like shit. Again, not puke-my-guts-out shitty but just blah. Exhausted. Worn out. Tired behind the eyes. And I couldn't find the cure. Robert Frost pointed out that the best way out is through, and since I had no alternative, that's what I did: I kept on. I stayed topside when I could, savored the sailing and the Caribbean when I could, and I slept when I could.

There was the fabulous several-hour respite in the lee of Guadaloupe. As we approached, the seas that we'd been bashing into and the wind that had us almost close-hauled -- two factors that in all likelihooed created my crappy feeling -- waned. The sea flattened and the wind shifted to the west. You could smell the land -- plants, activity, LIFE -- and even the sun that had been scorching seemed more benign. Dolphins cavorted in the bow wave adding to the majesty. I can't speak for Guadaloupe itself but I adore the waters off its west coast. 

We emerged from the northern point of Guadaloupe back into the close-hauled winds for the 40-mile run to Antigua. But the seas weren't quite as jarring and the fact that the finish line loomed undoubtedly helped. The run into Falmouth Bay went nicely, although there was still a tinge of discomfort within: I was saddened to have the sailing not be the escape it's always been.

But we made it. And so we're in Antigua now. Last night was mellow: a barbecue dinner at a restaurant owned by a friend of Boogie and Marlies (they know EVERYONE in the Caribbean it seems, especially among the yachtie contingent) and to bed early. Today it was a few boat chores and then off for another round of kiteboarding -- my progress continues and considering I'd kited once in 15 months since I'd learned, I'm way psyched with the outcome. We're kiting again tomorrow morning and I hope to really make a jump in my ability.

It's ironic that the kiteboarding has been the biggest escape thus far on the trip. What was originally going to be a nice plus has turned out to be the pinnacle of the far. We'll be here another couple of days and then head downwind to St. Maarten and I'm hopeful that this final sailing leg will rejuvenate my sailing jones. I'll try to find a crewing gig for next weekend's Heineken Regatta (our boat will not be racing) and I'll turn 47 (the second straight year I've spent my birthday in the islands) and we'll see how it goes. And I'm sure I'll continue to ponder more. Too much, in all likelihood. But I'll report back with my findings.

Thanks for indulging me in this bit of navel-gazing. Greetings from Antigua!