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Monday, March 31, 2008

A day in the life - on the move - Part I

It's been a while since we did one of our 'day in the life' series and since we get a good reaction to them, here's another. This time, I've picked an action packed day when we made the passage from St Kitts to St Barts. It's a fifty mile trip, a long one for us - well, for those of us who didn't do a nearly three thousand mile atlantic crossing - and it was a trip with lots of interesting happenings - read on. When we get to wifi, I'll add some pictures so check back.

We like to set off early for these trips, it means that even if we have problems we can still arrive in daylight. Gesa and I had said six o'clock, I thought that was wake up, she took it as departure so the alarm goes at oh-five-thirty (what does the oh stand for, oh-my-god-its-early) I stagger out of bed, realising that the sun isn't up but we might as prepare anyway. There's a little left over washing up from the night before but first things first, I put the kettle on for coffee. Do the washing up, dry, put away because it'll just fall on the floor if we don't stow it well. Make that coffee and check engine oil, turn on instruments, write the passage details in the logbook and we are pretty much ready to leave. Gesa stows the last few loose items, gets our lifejackets from the kids room and goes on deck. I start the engine, turn on the anchor windlass and follow. As we prepare, Max appears, wondering what's going on and wanting to help. He's great like this, always helps with the anchor and other things, whilst Issie stays firmly in her bunk. We send Max to get a t-shirt, then put his lifejacket on and he goes up front with us.

We hoist the mailsail, tying in two reefs (only using 70% of the sail) because we know we'll have to motor into a brisk breeze soon. Anchor up. Max presses the button whilst Gesa signals direct to me and I use rudder and throttle to move the boat up to the anchor. Gesa ties the anchor to the bow of the boat as I set a course for the bottom of St Kitts. We are still in the shelter of the island so we have a pleasant half hour to start with in flat water with a gentle breeze. We take the opportunity to have a bit of breakfast, although Max isn't keen on his, he gets a bit seasick so that's probably a good thing. Max and I take the fishing line out of the locker and drop the lure in the water, letting the line unwind until we are trailing forty metres of line behind us. So now Max has helped set the line and anything we catch is claimed as his and mine!

There's a narrow gap between Nevis and St Kitts called, oddly enough, The Narrows. It's not really that narrow, a couple of miles wide, but it does funnel wind and current through from east to west. Sadly, we have to go the other way, so it's an hour of slow and bumpy motoring in steep, shallow seas. The good news is that this is the hard bit, once through we turn away and romp northwards with a fair breeze.

As we get to the deeper water, we breathe a sigh of relief and turn away, setting the jib and turning off the engine. At that moment, the fishing line jumps and stretches - we have a fish. Checking that the boat is heading in the right direction and all set up well, I haul in the line only to find that it's another darn barracuda. Not quite so huge as the last one (picture shows the last one) and he's not swallowed the hook as far, so it's a fairly easy job to set him free again. The line goes back in the water and we hope for something more edible.

Max has succumbed to sea-sickness and is lying in the saloon bunk feeling and looking sorry for himself. I dig out the big plastic bowl and leave it beside him just in case. Issie has set herself up in the aft cabin with a few books and is happily reading away, munching breakfast and occasionally claiming to be 'a bit seasick, Daddy' between bites of her marmite sandwich. That girl's got my cast iron stomach.

The radio lights up. "PAN PAN, PAN PAN, PAN PAN, All stations, this is US Coast Guard aircraft. We have received reports of a person in the water on the east coast of St Kitts and request all vessels to keep a sharp lookout." Interesting. Wait, we're on the east coast of St Kitts and I can't see another vessel anywhere. Perhaps we should find out more. I call the coast guard, and they give us the position they are searching, which is just two miles away but closer inshore. We could be there in fifteen minutes. I tell them this but remind them we are a big sailing yacht and not best suited to a search and rescue. They thank us but we can carry on unless they call us back. We see the aircraft, a fast jet, making repeated passes across the sea nearer the coast. After an hour he breaks off, flies low past us and heads off in the direction of the Virgin Islands, where we guess he is based. We'll have to look up the local paper on the web when we can and see if anything is mentioned.

By now, Gesa has succumbed to sea-sickness too. I have already helped Max, who has been sick twice into the bowl, but Gesa looks after herself, leaning over the side for a minute or two then disappearing below to lie down and sort of sleep. Max is a disconsolate ball curled up in his bunk. Gesa will get up if I really need her but otherwise stays firmly in her bunk. At times like this, I am reminded just how tough some bits of this trip are for Gesa, and how wonderful she is to be here, doing this despite the discomforts and challenges.

At noon the fishing line jumps again. It's a heavy one this time and I put the line around a winch to help as I pull it in. The noise of the winch brings Gesa on deck just as I get the fish alongside the boat. It's a dophin. Now, before our postbag fills up with indignant emails about us murdering Flipper, this is not your cute, jumping in the bow wave mammal - round here dolphin is also the name for mahi-mahi, which has a reputation as a good sport fish with fabulous taste. It's living up to the first part, as it fights against the line. It's body is irridescent green and blue, flashing and changing as it struggles. In the final heave on the line, I pull the fish out of the water and swing it forward in an arc so it loops over the guardrails and lands on the sidedecks. This is the most lively catch we've had, as it flaps hard on the deck. Even a shot of the strongest rum only quells it a fraction and it is sad to watch such a beautiful animal gasping it's last. Some fish, like mackerel, just lie down and die once they are out of the water, but this one has a lot more determination. I prefer to put them out of their misery, and a winch handle is useful here. Almost half an hour after taking the hook, we have a handsome, three foot long fish in the cockpit. I put away the fishing line, we won't need that for a few days.

I settle down and read some more of my book. I'm re-reading The Life of Pi and enjoying it thoroughly. Boy is shipwrecked and stranded in a lifeboat for 277 days with a Bengal Tiger for company. Boy shows tiger who is boss and survives. Sailor is stranded on yacht for eighteen months with only wife and kids for company. Sailor is taught who's boss. Might survive, watch this space.

In part II, we meet a racing fleet, arrive in St Barts, give away some of our fish and have a nice dinner and sunset.....

The family photo from White House Bay, St Kitts.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Eight legged visitors

Gesa goes into the bathroom to wash her hands.

"eek, Nick, there's a spider or something just gone down the sink"
"oh, really"
"just come and deal with it"

I go and peer down the plughole and there he is, a little crab peering back at me. He's pretty cute, and I coax him out and try to persuade the family to take a picture. OK, OK, but get up on deck first and don't drop him...

Another of those delights that we didn't get in Cambridge.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Downtime in Antigua

The recent heavy swells kept us in English Harbour and Falmouth for a week, which was a good choice as we were very calm whilst many others suffered uncomfortable or even dangerous conditions in other anchorages. Having spent about a month in Antigua around Christmas, the place was familiar and easy to fit back into, we knew where things were, how it worked and were able to stay still, do a bit of exploring of places we missed the first time, and catch up on school, maintenance and so forth. We made a couple of new friends and caught up with some old ones from our last visit.

We also realise that, without fresh stimulus or purpose, we tire of these places fairly quickly. We aren't cut out for living on a boat in the way that some do, resting for many weeks or even months in the same island, even the same anchorage. We travel, we explore and we visit, but our itchiness to move on means that we don't truly discover and understand. As a young family, the focus is inevitably internal, making sure the kids are cared for and having fun rather than the more adventurous encounters we might have sought out before they came along.

Added to that, the occasional local frustration encourages us to head off to pastures new. I had fun in the little Falmouth supermarket the other day. After buying some fifty quids worth of groceries, I get back to the boat to realise that I've been charged twice for an item. It's only six dollars (about one pound twenty) but before christmas the same cashier in the same store charged me twice for a bottle of rum and we didn't go back because we sailed to Guadeloupe early the next morning. Now, the cashier had been distracted, she was talking on the phone while serving me, other customers came over to give her money they owed or something, and I can believe she made an honest mistake. Others suggest it's a regular trick in some stores. Either way, it should be easy to rectify.

I pick up a few items we need and go to the cash with my receipt, clearly showing two charges for exactly 1.71 pounds of cucumbers, highly unlikely I'd have bought two identically sized bags of those. The response from the cashier is interesting.

Me: Erm, I'm sorry but last time I was here I'm afraid I was charged twice for something.
She: (taking the receipt) Well, maybe you was hurrying me, hassling me.
Me: Err, no but that doesn't matter anyway, right?
She: Well, you should have come straight back, why didn't you?
Me: I bought them on Thursday, yesterday was Good Friday, it's Saturday morning
She: We was open yesterday afternoon
Me: Err, that still doesn't matter, right?
She: (giving me the money) You should check your receipt more carefully next time
Me: (getting a bit hacked off) I think you should charge me the right amount next time
She: Well now you're just being rude, mister

Now I'm a bit exasperated and the other customers in the queue, many of them other sailors, are looking at their shoes and smiling to themselves. I decide I'm not shopping here again (easy to say when you're leaving the island) and go for a final parting shot.

Me: (loudly enough for the queue to hear) Madam, where I come from if a store makes a mistake they just say sorry and give me my money back. That's all I ask. Goodbye.

I don't know if there was a response, I'd left. Hurumph. Probably reinforces the prejudice of stroppy rich sailors patronising the natives but sometimes, what the hell. Bad service is bad service wherever you are.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

In Nevis

So, at last we have made it to Nevis, having what I would call a fabulous sail here, it has been our longest trip as a family so far, and the crew say that it felt like it too! 55 miles, downwind and rolling a bit but fast, we covered the distance in a little over eight hours.

We hooked three fish, one got away as I began to pull it in (it was 'this' big, honest), one was a three foot, evil barracuda which we released and finally a big seven pound jack that will do well for dinner, breakfast, lunch, dinner again and perhaps another breakfast and lunch....

It's windy here in Nevis, gusting over 30 knots at times but we're safely on a mooring bouy and will do customs in the morning. They don't allow anchoring here any more, you have to take a mooring, so we'll look at the weather forecast and decide how long we want to stay before moving on to St Kitts and beyond.

It's three thirty, Gesa has just served up hot buttered popcorn and I've got a fish to cook. Adios.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Back in Antigua

Here we are, somewhat unexpectedly, back in English Harbour, Antigua. The plan had been to go to Nevis and onwards this week but the weather forecast changed our minds. The winds are nothing unusual, but a hurricane force storm in the north Atlantic has generated some huge waves that are slowly rolling down towards us to create what is known as a 'swell event'.

It won't be that 'swell' to be caught in an exposed anchorage when this arrives, as the waves are forecast to peak at over ten feet today and decline slowly over the weekend. The weather forecasters are including phrases like 'this is the biggest swell event we can remember' and advising boats to be in sheltered harbours so here we are.

Antigua is very familiar, having spent so much time here around Christmas, so we are relaxing, running regular school for a week, catching up on maintenance and have even bumped into some friends we made here last time so it's nice to socialise a bit.

We'll probably move on on Sunday with a forty-five mile trip across to Nevis and new islands for the kids to explore.


We've had a bit of a 'fish drought' of late, fruitlessly towing the line behind us and reeling it back in again before we anchor. It's been getting a bit tedious.

Then I changed the lure. We'd bought a set of six lures, basically colourful bits of plastic hiding a vicious hook, and I've been trying them all out. This was the most brightly coloured one and suddenly hit gold. In four trips, we've hooked four fish. First up was a nice skipjack, a small tuna type fish that made excellent sushi for me and steaks for the others.

Next, I caught what we think is a small bonito, the one I'm holding there as my prize for the day. He was delicious, and the kids now love watching me clean and cut up the fish, they ask to play with the leftover bits which is fine as long as we remember to empty that bucket before nightfall, it's a bit smelly by the morning!

Now the kids have taken to 'helping' us to fish, so the next trip they enjoyed dropping the lure over the side and letting the line run out, securing it well and then wathcing it intently. For about two minutes. After that, it was declared boring and they went below to do whatever they do on passage.

It's not long before I see a splashing at the end of the line - 'fish on the line!' At this, eveyone is on deck and the kids help to pull in the line, with another beautiful bonito on the end. This one is despatched quickly and turns out to be a little bigger than the last, and we still have half of that in the fridge.

Once anchored, we spot a boat we've chatted to before, so we offer them half of our latest catch, which they accept happily so everyone is content.

A few days later we set out again, across from Guadeloupe to Deshaies. Out goes the line and all is quiet for a few hours until the line suddenly jerks, and goes drum tight, dragging the reel hard up against the cleat to which it is secured. I grab the line and feel a terrific pull on it then nothing, it goes slack. We pull in the line to find that the connection between line and lure has pulled apart. Darn. Whatever that was , it was big, probably too big for us to handle let alone eat, and now the poor thing has our best lure, which we'd like back. Sadly, it's gone and we put out the next lure in our pack. No luck with that one yet, but we live in hope. The kids are fairly happy, though, to now have something other than fish for dinner....
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Issie turns six - part two

The main event of Issie's birthday was a trip to the Guadeloupe animal park, a lovely set of gardens and forest where they breed and keep a nice collection of local wildlife, particularly the endangered species. We all enjoyed walking around, seeing parrots, monkeys, racoons, mongesse, turtles and tortioses, butterflies and birds. It was very good fun and really well done.

A big highlight was the forest canopy walk. This is a set of high suspension bridges strung betwwen the tall trees, up to twenty-five meters above the ground. You wear a climbing harness and clip onto a safety wire as you go around.

Issie was delighted to find that she is one centimetre above the minimum height so she can go. Max has to stay behind but there is a lower, netted version for the little ones so he's actually pretty happy. Issie and I really enjoy being so high up in the forest, and she has no fear at all. Gesa stays with Max until we get back, then she goes off on her own to enjoy the experience.

All in all, we had a lovely day out and even managed to fit in a visit to the big supermarket, always a must-do when we have a hire car, so there were special goodies for tea that night too.

Issie turns six!

Here we are already, March the thirteenth is here and it's another birthday for Issie. The years just fly by! Issie, of course, sees it differently and the days preceeding her birthday have taken a long time to pass, and asking 'how many day's is it to my birthday?' every ten minutes hasn't made it arrive any sooner. At least we've used it as a god excuse for maths - she can now subtract things from thirteen very well.

The big day arrives in the end, of course, and as usualy Gesa and I (thought mostly Gesa) have been awake half the night preparing. There is a mermaid cake, streamers, party hats and a few gifts thoughtfully left behind by Nana and Grandpa back in December.

Max enjoys all the excitement too, and the present opening is filled with oohs and ahhs from both of them. Issie is delighted with all her gifts, especially a charm bracelet from Nana and Grandpa.

For the longest time, she has wanted a 'ballet dress' and, in a cheap and cheerful 'dollar store' in Martinique, Gesa found a dress-up tutu which is very popular. We finish our breakfast of cake with extra cake, then we put up the birthday flags. We only have one of each letter, so can't spell out Issie but do her initials instead, so here we are hoisting 'IKW6' up the mast for the world to puzzle over.

We have deliberately made sure we are in Deshaies, Guadeloupe because we know we can rent a car here and there is an animal park we can take the kids too, so as soon as we are ready, off we go on our adventure.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Not really a Maxism, just him surprising us with how much he picks up. This morning he asked where the next island is, which way are we going? We need to motor out of the anchorage then turn north for 40 miles, but I give him the simple answer.

'North', I say. 'Which way is north?'. I'm a bit busy so I just say 'Look at the compass' and off he goes.

He returns and says 'No daddy, you can't go north because you'll hit the mountains. You have to go west first then turn north.' Spot on Max, nice navigation.

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It was Issie's sixth birthday on Thursday. She woke up and was all excited about it. At one point, Max says 'Issie, are you taller?'. 'Yes, I'm way taller now - because I'm six'

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Little Darlings

One of the big things about this trip is the chance to spend a lot of time together as a family. Of course, being together 24/7 with the kids isn't always the idyllic picnic of ones dreams, even on a Caribbean island paradise.

The other day was a case in point. It generally went pretty well, nice breakfast, decent couple of school lessons, ten minutes motoring to a different anchorage ("I don't want to go sailing, Daddy" "But we're not, we're just moving to a great beach with good snorkeling" "I don't want to go to a beach" "You always say that and then you love it" "No I don't") And so on.

But move we do, without much additional complaint and we have head off to the beach. Gesa and Issie swim from the boat, a long but interesting snorkel trip, whilst Max and I go in the dinghy. As usual, the kids love being on the beach and the earlier trauma of having to stop whatever interesting thing they were doing is quickly forgotten. But now they are really having fun and all too aware that returning to the boat means dinner, stories, bed. Much less fun.

We tell them that they have five more minutes before we leave. Issie, turning six tomorrow, can deal with this a bit better then Max. They are getting a little fractious, and Max is goading Issie by repeatedly stepping where she is trying to dig. It escalates rapidly but Issie displays surprising maturity by merely stomping off to sit on the dockside and calm down. Max is angry that he doesn't have Issie to tease and when Gesa reminds him that he only has five minutes he flips; shouts, screams and starts to hit her. OK, if that's the way it is then we're leaving now.

The whole beach is observing our outstanding parenting example as the screaming and violent Max is manhandled into the dinghy and told to put his lifejacket on. Refusing, he is zipped and clipped into it and sits in the bottom of the dinghy lashing out at anyone within reach and screaming that he doesn't need his lifejacket. He's also still full of beach sand as our normal trick of waggling our legs in the sea before getting in the dinghy has been bypassed in the rush to get him away.

At this point, as Max is by far the loudest sound in the entire anchorage and my shins are suffering from repeated blows, I'm pretty tempted to just launch him over the side of the dinghy. But I restrain myself. I bring the dinghy alongside the boat, cut the engine and hear a big splash. Gesa has launched him over the side. A spluttering and shocked Max is bobbing alongside us and she hauls him back out. She has, at a stroke, proven that the lifejacket is a good idea, stopped the screaming and hitting and, for bonus points, cleaned off all the beach sand. Max is stunned into silence.

Washed down, toweled off and in nice dry clothes, Max is given a time-out to calm down, after which he does apologise and then says, in a faint, plaintive voice 'but you didn't have to throw me in the water Mummy'. Well, maybe not but it certainly worked didn't it.

Issie has different and similarly effective ways of winding us up. Right now, talking back is a favourite. It's hard to give an instruction, request or point of discipline without getting a smartass response, or about as smart as a six year old can get. She reached a new peak recently when Max had been driving us half crazy anyway, Gesa was frazzled and Issie is spinning out bedtime. She must have been asked to brush her teeth or choose a story or something, and picks a particularly poor time to come back with 'yeah, but Max did...' or something like that. Gesa snaps and says 'can you not just learn to keep your freaking mouth shut sometimes'. We don't swear much, and almost never in front of the kids, so even this version of the 'f' word silences Issie for a bit.

Yet it all goes in, doesn't it. A couple of days later, we're relaxing, the kids are playing and Max keeps pressing a button on an electronic toy bus of his. It gets a bit annoying at the seventeenth repetition but we are trying to ignore it when Issie just says "Max, can you not keep that freaking bus quiet." I suppress a chuckle and pause from my book to see how Gesa deals with this one. Not bad, the proper explanation of how sometimes we use words we shouldn't and they are not to be repeated. She knows this - two years ago in Cambridge I remember her saying 'but why did you say 'shit' mummy?' after Gesa had dropped something on her toe. Now, however, the six year old brain is a little more sophisticated so she wants to know what 'freaking' means. I hear Gesa, to her credit, explaining how it's a version of another word that is used to describe sex, where a man and a women make love. Issie knows that bit of 'where a baby comes from' so says 'but isn't that a good thing, Mummy?'. Oh, the complex world of language and social acceptability.

It's only now that we realise just how much time our kids spent in the care of someone else. School, playdates, weekend classes, baby-sitters. Back in Cambridge, we spent a great deal of time not being with our kids, and that's important for one's sanity. Here, there's very few times when we're not together as all four of us, and we make a special effort to sometimes let one adult have an hour or two of quiet. I usually get that in the evenings, staying up later than Gesa, then try to take the kids away for a bit during the daytime. Still, it's very different and has much sharper peaks and troughs of mood and experience. We all benefit from doing some amazing things and being together so much, but we suffer from it too at times. On balance? Ask me in ten years time.

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Stop, or I'll shoot.

In Basterre, capital of Guadeloupe, I went ashore to clear customs and get some shopping, leaving the others on the boat. On these occasions, I take our handheld radio so that I can call back to the boat. We choose a little used channel, usually 72, and put both sets on that. I'm in the dinghy, which we call 'Badger' so this time the conversation goes a bit like this.

'Ty Dewi, Ty Dewi this is Badger, Over.' There is a pause whilst Gesa gets to the radio to reply.
'Badger. Ty Dewi. Go ahead. Over.'
'Yep, cleared customs, now in the supermarket but they've only got diet coke with lime, should I get that? Over'
'Yes, that's fine. Over'
'Good, I'll be back soon. Badger out'
'Ty Dewi listening 72'

As you can tell, we use the radios for serious issues. When I get back to the boat, we usually switch back to channel 16, the international calling and distress channel, so that we hear anything important. This time we forget and the radio sits on channel 72.

After about half an hour, it bursts into life with a conversation something like:
'Patrol Boat this is Warship blah. I demand that you leave your anchorage and return to Point a Pitre immediately or I will be forced to use my weapons'

What was that?

He repeats his demand, and in the face of no response from the other side, he issues an ultimatum - five minutes to move or a warning shot across the bows.

The patrol boat responds claiming engine trouble and is again ordered to move.

By this time we've worked out that, as this is happening on an obscure channel, it's probably a training exercise. Sure enough, after a few more minutes another voice cuts in and tells the patrol boat he's out of the game, sunk, thanks for his help and he is free to move on now.

So we have, by chance, chosen the same VHF channel out of about fifteen we could use, and whilst we discussed the finer points of diet coke with or without lime, some of France's finest were deciding whether to blow each other out of the water.

A little later, the patrol boat is calling the warship, agreeing to tie alongside and join them for lunch for a couple of hours. We imagine the scenario 'Er, oui, we were supposed to fight again at 2:30pm but you see the red wine was very good and Henri brought a fine bottle of Cognac....And did you hear, ze Engliish are having diet coke avec lime'

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Touring with the children

One of the great things about this cruising life is that we visit so many amazing places. One of the downsides is that the kids think this is normal. Occasionally we rent a car, as we did in Dominica the other day.

Now, car travel can be pretty boring for young kids, and the age old challenge of driving whilst the children wage war behind you has been largely solved by the development of portable DVD players. These god-sends (look, if you're a parent you know exactly what I mean, even if you don't want to admit it, they're great), these god-sends distract two small people who would otherwise be trying to beat the heck out of each other or kick their way through the front seats just as you swing round the hairpin bend meeting the cement truck coming downhill the other way.

So when we tour these islands, Gesa and I are gaping out of the window at the unfolding vistas whilst the children are gaping at a 7 inch flatscreen. We try, we really do. Hey kids, look out Issie's window, there's some goats. "Oh, yeah". Hey, we're driving through a volcanic crater, look how the mountains are all around us. "Oh, yeah". See how high we are, the road just drops away to nothing for, err, a hundred metres, gulp. "Oh, yeah".

To give them credit, "Oh, yeah" is a pretty versatile phrase. We have begun to rate views and scenes on a scale from bored, tired "Oh, yeah" said in a voice that is almost a yawn, through to "Oh! Yeah!" which is fully engaged, sat straight up, fascinated by whatever it is. Usually it takes an amazing double rainbow or a sheer cliff face crawling with lizards to get this reaction.

Dominica must be spectacular because, rounding the last corner in the rainforest path to the Emerald Falls, Max stops on the bridge when he sees the waterfall and pool below and says, not 'Oh Yeah' but 'Oh, WOW'. That's pretty much top of the tree, don't get no better than this, blown away by it all stuff. It helps that once out of the car and walking they aren't distracted by Toy Story, Little Mermaid or whatever is favourite of the week but even so, we get 'Oh WOW' very rarely.

I have dim memories (my parents will have much more vivid and probably painful ones) of my sister and I being dragged around the historic castles and Roman remains of Nothumberland when we were little. Without the benefit of in-car DVD we were probably either beating each other up or buried in our books and unwilling to get out and look at the next lump of old rocks in a muddy field. Yet, that experience, or something, has left me with a deep and lasting fondness and fascination with the history, geology and environment that makes these places so special.

So thanks, Mum and Dad, once again we only really begin to understand what we put you through when we have to deal with the same. And we can only hope that, in years to come, Issie and Max find themselves with a similar desire to explore and understand the world around them.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Rental car round Dominica

Some photos from our tour round Dominica
- The main road. Very leafy, green, steep and twisting, with all manner of homes along the way, from mansion to tin shack
- The wild East Coast, pounded by the Atlantic
- Emerald Pool, a beautiful rainforest waterfall
- Rain, in the rainforest. How unexpected. Issie is not amused.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

So what is normal?

"I guess it's back to normal tomorrow."

We were at the top of Jack's Walk, a wonderful half hour climb up steep steps above the Roseau Botanical Gardens, in Dominica. The fabulous view of the town was all the better for the exertion required to get there unless, like almost all the other people looking down towards the ocean, you had come up the back road in a taxi with your tour guide, who had met you as you stepped off the cruise ship.

I was chatting to a few cruise ship passengers who had struck out on their own and walked up this delightful path. We noted that there were four huge ships in the harbour below and another just up the coast at Portsmouth. "How many on your ship?" I asked him. "Seventeen hundred passengers." So nearly seven thousand people have stepped onto Dominican soil today, that's ten percent of the islands native population of seventy thousand. Unsurprisingly, the souvenir vendors and taxi drivers were out in force and as white faces we were just another dollar laden target, as we always are in such places. The people I was chatting to, a very pleasant English couple from somewhere in the Midlands, noted the enormous amount of commercial attention that surrounds their arrival and made the remark with which I began this posting.

Yet it won't be 'back to normal' tomorrow, because this is what passes for normal now. Five ships appears to be a little exceptional, but most days see at least two or more of these immense floating cities arriving. They travel at night, saving their guests from the tedium of voyaging and tying up to their host cities in the early hours of the morning. Come seven or eight o'clock, after the restaurants have served whatever wonderful breakfasts they provide, the doors open onto the quayside and pale faced, culture shocked visitors step out into the waiting arms of thousands of locals. This provides tremendous income and employment; most of these islands derive the majority of their overseas revenue from tourism and the cruise ships are a big part of this. Huge docks are built to make it easy to stroll right into the heart of old world Creole Caribbean. Here in Roseau, the main waterfront street is filled with a market, beautiful shops and a very nice visitor centre and museum and a very sizable taxi rank. It is also barricaded at each end, patrolled by police officers and off limits to any locals not holding a suitable ID badge or reason for being there.

There is no doubt that this tourism brings enormous benefits to these islands and few would want Dominica, for example, to remain locked in a sad cycle of declining agriculture and trade disputes over banana subsidies. But it is also living proof of the fact that you can't observe something without changing it. The unspoilt beauty of the island is clearly being changed forever by the influx of visitors and, more importantly, so is the approach and attitude of those who live here. Like the British view of the American tourist, any white face near a cruise ship dock fits the stereotype of the cash rich day tripper out to 'do' as many sights as possible in minimum time.

On the larger scale, the carbon impact of these holidays must be enormous. Whilst Europeans cruise for two weeks, Americans typically only have a week or even three days. There are long flights at each end of this, as well as a huge amount of fuel oil required to push a small town through the water fast enough to be at the next stop by morning.

I also wonder what the cruise experience is like, why does it appeal so much? In this, we are perhaps closer than I would care to admit to these passengers. Whilst our fuel consumption is mercifully lower, we too flit from island to island, rarely staying longer than a week and only getting the briefest glimpse into the life of these places. We never get the time to break far through the barriers of culture and experience and get close to the people who live here. Many people who take a two week holiday in a hotel will probably see more of any given island than we do, and may even get more time to pause and explore in some detail. In six months here, we will only get a taste and cannot really claim to be anything more than tourists. But I hope we see and experience more than those who drop in for one short day before sailing off again.

The cruise seems perfect for 'box ticking'. Been there, and there, oh yes, there too, it was OK. On the delightful, sensuous walk up from the botanical gardens, we met a lady slowly making her way up the path. She commented that her companions had wanted to run up it, so they were off ahead. Why would you travel halfway around the world and choose to run up a path through tropical rainforest, iguanas, birdlife and other marvels? Oh, Roseau, yes, went there - good view from the top of the hill, got up there in seven minutes forty three, you know.

Perhaps it comes back to the 'normal' question. When daily life at home and work is so fast paced, so busy and crammed with things and experiences, a holiday that provides new soundbites and snapshots each day avoids the uncomfortable challenge of having to deal with sitting still with not much to do. The cruise is perfect for avoiding contemplation and confrontation. Don't like the place you are, wait till tomorrow, it's a new island. On our extended cruise, we have a little more time for contemplation and occasionally have to confront a few truths as well, but we too can run away from a port we don't like, change our outlook and setting at will, and fill the next week with something different. So perhaps we really do have more in common with cruise ship passengers, maybe I have to be more careful in my haughty disdain of the brief visitor and sometimes we do envy those who can return to their ship for a long hot shower, a swim in the pool and dinner in the penthouse restaurant.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Anyone like chocolate?

Chocolate. What does that word mean to you? It's something so everyday, so easy to buy and yet still evocative, precious and special. As for us, we really like the stuff - I'm a fan of your regular cadbury's bar whilst Gesa prefers the higher echelons of the conoisseaur brands - and has pretty much single handedly supported 'Hotel Chocolat' over the past few years.

On St Lucia, we visited a plantation, Morne Coubaril, which was great fun, and one of the things they showed us there was the Cacoa trees, the source of chocolate beans. They explained how the beans are processed before being exported for use in making chocolate.

A science experiment was taking shape in my mind.....

I asked if we could have a couple of cacoa pods, and, no problem, we were able to leave with two pods in our bag. We could make our own, exclusive, St Lucia chocolate.

So in the next science lesson, we write down what we can remember of the chocolate making process. In short, we:

1 - Open the pods and take out the beans
2 - Wash the beans and place in a bowl
3 - Cover and leave to ferment for 3 days
4 - Dry in the sun for 5 days
5 - Roast the beans for about half an hour
6 - Take off the thin shells
7 - Grind the roasted beans to a fine paste

At this point we have to depart from the proper process. We should continue grinding and press with a 25 tonne press to seperate the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. Then you mix extra cocoa butter to help the cocolate to stay solid at room temperature. We don't have a 25 tonne press handy.

So we go on to the next steps:

8 - Mix over a low heat with condensed milk, brown sugar and vanilla essence
9 - Place in a mould and cool.

Because we didn't have the cocoa butter to mix in, the chocolate is still soft in the fridge, and we haven't ground the beans into a really fine paste so there are still nutty, bitter pieces of cocoa bean but, after nearly two weeks, we have made about 100 grammes of finest, handmade St Lucia chocolate! We all, apart from a doubtful Max, think it tastes really good even if we have to eat it with a spoon. And most of all, we all have a much better understanding of what it takes to get that bar of chocolate to your local shop!
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World's biggest sandcastle

The kids have a book that refers to 'The World's Biggest Sandcastle' and I've been under a little pressure to deliver a version of the same. Here on Portsmouth beach, Dominica, we planned and built if not the world's biggest, then our personal best! Everybody got busy with spades, buckets and eggboxes (to make the battlements) and we've created a masterpiece! The kids decorated it with forests of leaves. The adults rewarded themselves with one of the Purple Turtle's evil rum punches.
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Monday, March 03, 2008

Back to Dominica

After a few enjoyable days in Martinique, we headed north again to Dominica, and are now in Roseau, the capital, where we will spend a couple of days before going up to Portsmouth and doing some inland exploring of this lovely island.

Our trip here was a tough one for the crew, for the sailors - it was close hauled in a force 5/6 with 6 foot seas and some lengthy squalls. For the landlubbers, that means quite windy, bouncy and leany overy with occasional extra windy and rainy too. It took about five hours, during which the others went into hibernation. I actually enjoyed it, proper sailing and getting the most out of the boat even if it's the first time I've worn my heavy weather rain jacket since we left England.

Roseau is to just the capital, it's also where the cruise ships tie up, and the waterfront has suffered / benefited from the regular influx of cash. We're sitting in a very smart coffee shop with wireless internet, looking very like a Starbucks, but the prices are about half of those at home. Outside, walking up and down the street, we are regularly approached for a dollar from the local beggars who must get lucky enough with the thousand or so cruise ship passengers to make it worth asking every white guy who walks past.

Tomorrow we will head to the local museum, the botanical gardens, and find out more about things to see inland. There are also, I believe, five cruise ships expected, so we'll have to get up early to beat the crowds!
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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Photos from Anse Noir, Martinique

Some photos from Martinique, being:
- Sunset over the bay
- Max and Issie swing on the ropes over the forehatch - what happens next?
- Traditional fishing boats on the beach
- Issie and Max were fascinated by the flying fish we bought for lunch

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Amazing snorkeling experience

After Issie's brush with the evil stinging thingy of Martinique, we were pleased to get her back in the water the next day with little problem. We went to the other side of the bay and swam along the shoreline to be greeted by an astounding sight.

At first, there were a few fish, about four inches long, sardine like and swimming together in a school, gliding here and there. Following them, there are more, and then more and more, a school of fish so big and so thick that you couldn't see the reef below. There must have been hundreds of thousands of fish, moving in that elegant, swooping movement reminiscent of a huge flock of starlings wheeling above a city. If we dived into the school, as Issie did constantly, they parted and swam around us, we could float back to the surface in a bubble of fish.

Gesa noted that it felt like being in a Jacques Cousteau film. I half expected David Attenborough to materialise as some informative voice-over. Sadly, no pictures, but an unforgettable experience.

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