Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

Atlantic crossing Journals.

July13

PART 1

 

Greetings from a land where the sea water is the colour of an overpriced Caribbean cocktail, the locals all talk like Bob Marley and the humidity has the ability to test the resolve of the most tenacious of Durbanites.

As I write, a tropical squall is pelting the boat and at long last the heat has been momentarily quelled.  It’s during such tempests that one has to ensure that they have “battened down the hatches!”

You see I’m learning tons out here, most of all how to yell melodramatic sea-fearing phrases—which I thought only existed in Pirate movies–with a straight face!  I’m currently honing my ‘Land ahoy!” and “All hands on deck.”

 

I write from Nanny Cay, a port set amidst steamy Virgin Island jungles and rolling Caribbean hills. We’ve been here for the past two days polishing the boat and provisioning for the big trip ahead. This will be our last taste of land and civilization before heading off later today on the open sea.

 

It’s surreal to trace our journey on a map of the world, finger sliding across that vast tract of blue that exists between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Sea. I can only describe the anticipation as part delight and part terror.

 

I must admit, that upon arrival I felt a bit like James Bond stepping off a chartered flight from Puerto Rico and following our captain a few meters from the airport exit to a rickety jetty where we bundled into a dinghy that whisked us over the waves and into salty night. A good twenty minutes later and we set our sights on new home….. Sailboat SLIM but i’ll get to her in a moment.

 

Our crew consists of Dyl, whom you are well acquainted with, his brother Travis, a born leader and athlete and the Captain of the boat.  Travis’s wife Ana, the first mate: a feisty, hilarious Argentinian who also happens to be an accomplished Vegan chef.  I should add that we are setting sail with enough vegetable matter on board to survive for months, in fact should we be shipwrecked, I might well be able cling for dear life to an over-sized plantain to stay alive.

 

Dave Denton is the other crew member and is in possession of the sort of matinee idol looks that would make your mom go weak at the knees.  Dave is a warm and seasoned sailor, his eyes constantly fixed on some distant horizon.

 

Lola is the boat dog, who looks remarkably similar to Snowy from Tin-Tin. The only difference is that Lola, over her short time on the planet, has more cross continental adventures stamped into her passport (she really does have a passport) then Snowy might dream of ever boasting.

 

Lola follows in the fated paw prints of Anna and Travis’s previous intrepid pooch named Pickles, who after many wondrous journeys’ upon the high seas, was tragically devoured by a Komodo dragon in Java. Honestly the Hardy Boys couldn’t have dreamt these sorts of things up!

 

So I’ve been trying to get acquire my sea legs. Having been anchored out at sea for the past week, I have grown accustomed to the horizon line resembling a spirit level that refuses to settle. It seems the constant swaying motion of the boat is quickly absorbed into one’s muscle memory.

 

The other day we visited Road Town, a stoner Caribbean village where shop owners still haven’t gotten round to taking down their Seasons Greetings Christmas decorations from earlier in the year.

 

It was the longest I’d been on land for some time. I wondered the town’s grocery stores woozy, embarrassing fellow crew members -and perturbing shoppers– by veering left and right into product displays, attempting to get my footing and generally looking like a first year Varsity bro at his inaugural drinking initiation.

 

Now to SLIM. She really is one of a kind. A gorgeous svelte 66 foot gunboat as sleek and pristine as the latest Apple Mac product. Hell, even the waves appear to be hurling themselves in lovesick- adoration at her indifferent sides. And when the attention gets too much—which it often does– she simply concertinas open her mighty sail, which rises like a Chinese fan to conceal her blush from randy sailors and red faced gentleman callers, whom cat call to her from passing decks. There are many mornings, when docked in a cay, that one crawls out of bed bleary eyed and into the kitchen area only to find a paparazzi of fans and camera’s surrounding the boat.

 

SLIM, it must be said, while sexy as sin, is minimal and modest in comparison to some of the other floating condo’s out here. Some have constantly changing LED lighting glowing across their decks causing them to resemble a Las Vegas strip club or what I’ve subsequently dubbed as UFO’s (Unidentified Floating Objects). 

 

The other evening, I watched the worst of the First-World play out aboard one of these luminous eye-sores. House music pumping as a young ‘Trustafarian’ popped a bottle of champagne and doused a kneeling and squealing bikini-clad beauty in its contents. The bottle then slipped out of grip, cracked the deck of the boat and tumbled into the sea amidst shrieks of laughter.

                                                                               

But I digress, the purpose of our crossing is to deliver SLIM to The Spanish Island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean.

 

I consider myself extremely blessed to be on board. I’m aware that seeing the world in this way is an extraordinary privilege. That to cross entire oceans is an opportunity that does not visit one very often. I’m trying my best to pay full attention. To soak it all up like a veritable sea sponge.

It’s not that my novice status, and occasional delusions of grandeur, go unchallenged. Upon arrival in the B.V.I our bags were delayed in Puerto Rico for two days, so we lived on the boat dressed in the official SLIM crew uniform of baggies and T-shirt branded with the logo.

 

I felt pretty hardcore dressed in ‘slim’ fitting white T and steel grey swimming baggies.  The sailing fraternity in these parts shows an obvious reverence for SLIM when she anchors beside them and these uniforms’ instantly associate one with to the coolest gun-boat this side of the Caribbean. 

 

One evening we stepped into a fancy Cay side restaurant for a crew meal, wearing the gear and were treated like celebrities. Heads turned as we passed, people whispering behind menus. A young guy trying to impress a gaggle of blondes summoned me over to his table.

 

“You guys with Slim?”

 

“Ya….ya that’s us” 

 

I reply nonchalantly, hoping that’s where he’ll leave the conversation but he persists, launching into an epic appraisal of her beauty followed by an equally epic list of questions. I attempt to field them with casual shrugs, playing it cool till the questioning gets technical and I’m forced to contemplate inventing things about boat engines, sailing knots and the like.

 

Eventually I fall silent. My rock n’ roll status rubbished when I admit to just tagging along for the ride, cleaning toilets and not knowing how to correctly tie my own shoe lace let alone a sailing knot of any repute.

 

Dyl and I were lying on the trampoline net of the boat the other night. Stars scattered across the night sky above, Caribbean breeze cooling sunburnt skin, the gentle motion of the boat lulling us to sleep. We’d spent a majority of the day snorkeling, pursuing psychedelic parrot fish through a network of underwater canyons and caves and then later that afternoon, a trail run around a privately owned island that rises up from the sea to offer some picturesque views of the B.V.I archipelagos.

 

From this vantage point, one sets eyes on a series of mythical islands: Deadman’s Bay, named after a bunch of rum-soaked pirates who were marooned on a neighboring island and drowned whilst trying to swim across to the opposite shore.


Another of these islands is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island.  It’s not often one gets to say they sailed past Treasure Island!

 

One of my greatest pleasures in traveling is when fiction and reality intersect in this fashion. When one is afforded the chance to make real, with one’s own eyes and senses, an island that has ostensibly been inhabited and populated by the minds and imaginations of millions of children around the world.

 

The weather man predicts smooth sailing. Better unbatten the hatches then. I have always been happiest when near the ocean and I suppose such a prolonged and intimate engagement, should see me at my most serene and contemplative……….. or green and seasick. whatever happens I’m looking forward to having all that room to think and hurl. 

 

PART 2

B.V.I to AZORES

 

Greetings from a windswept volcanic mass somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, where the men look like potatoes with facial hair, antique church bells toll on the hour and the sloshing phonetic sounds of Portuguese fill the air.

 

We touched down in the Azores a few days ago, after 12 wondrous, awe-inspiring days at sea. It was a journey that saw us cross 2300 nautical miles from the torpid climes of the British Virgin Islands to the chillier ones of the Azores.

 

We set sail now on the second leg of the journey which will see us move though the Gibraltar Straits to the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean. That’s four oceans in the space of month, if you include the farewell skinny-dip I took in the Durban Indian Ocean before I left.

 

At sea, time evaporates, one drifts in and out of days not quite knowing how the last one ended and when the next began. There are no landmarks to assist and the only form of routine revolves around meal and watch-times. Geographically, transitions are marked by the fluctuating states of the sea, subtle shifts in light and the slow choreography of cloud formations.

 

It’s as if one is ploughing steadily through a vast and mercurial desert. By the fourth day, you get a thrill from any new visual stimuli. These manifest in the form of flying fish suspended above the water like a silver hummingbird, a Portuguese man of war (monstrous jelly fish not a hairy hostile sailor in case you wondering) or an albatross fishing in the boats wake.

 

By far the most exhilarating is that of a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins. One can almost hear ‘The flight of the Valkyries” orchestrating their arrival. The person on watch cries “Dolphins” and the crew drop what they are doing and scramble to the deck, Lola the boat pooch yapping as up to thirty or so of these torpedo into view and like fighter-planes celebrating a recent victory, dart and weave through one another with breath-taking precision. After a few death defying leaps, they form a uniform V at the bow before vanishing from whence they came.  These aquatic acrobats understand that to make a lasting impression, one must leave their audience wanting. No matter how much applause is granted, they must retain an air of mystery by resisting an encore.

 

Sighting another boat or airplane is less thrilling. Such glimpses arouse conflicting emotions. The sign of other human beings can be encouraging in the sense that such sights have the ability to salvage one from vanishing entirely up their own existential arsehole or you can feel put-out at having come so far into the middle of nowhere only to bump into signs of fellow homo sapiens.

 

 “Come on” you yell, “It’s a big Godamn sea. Leave me to my own sweet blue oblivion.”

 

I suppose in some ways been on a boat is not unlike travelling by aeroplane, the only difference is that a flight seldom takes 12 days (unless you got to wrong end of a SAA off-season special to Uzbekistan), and a metallic capsule used in commercial flight tends to seal one off entirely from the element they are traversing. A plane is designed to make one forget that they are dangling several hundred kilometers in the air while a boat cannot help but remind you of the elements you are now at the mercy of and what a crazy ass thing you are doing.

 

The first night or two, I must admit to wondering what I had gotten myself into.  The seas were rough and the boat crashing through the surf caused the vessel to become an orchestra of ominous creeks and groans. Anyone who has flown with me in the past will know how the slightest fart of aeroplane turbulence sends me crawling back to a God I renounced eons ago.

 

Let’s be honest boats and floating objects built to transport humans don’t have the best of reputations in newspaper headlines or popular films. Think White SquallMoby DickTitanic, Hitchcock’s Life Boat, Poseidon, The Perfect Storm. The recent harrowing Robert Redford one, when you could see he was just wishing the whole time he had stayed put with Meryl on that farm in Aaaaaaafrica.

 

In the above mentioned narratives no one ever boards their vessel of choice and makes it to their tropical destination it time for a Pina Colada and the sunset. Boat movies generally degenerate into protagonists eating each other on a rapidly deflating lilo while fending off sharks with a frying pan. Admittedly I’ve watched way too many of these in my time and so have the worst possible frame of reference to accurately (as opposed to imaginatively) interpret sounds and motions as either life-affirming or threatening.

 

I considered popping a tranquilizer to take the edge of things for the first night or two but was terrified that should an emergency occur I would be too goofed and ‘Inshallah baby” to leave the vessel (Muster) with the required speed.

 

Over the first night or two the boat motion was so frenzied that it felt as if I was locked in a cabin haunted by some petulant poltergeist. Just as would fall asleep, I would be flung across the room like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

 

 I’ve had much time to lie in bed and learn the different sleep states and sensations and so far these are the predominant three.

 

1.)The maternal calm seas: here one feel like a babe cradled in their mother’s arms….. in this state one is lulled into the most sublime of dreaming states.

 

2.) The belly of a whale: An experience akin to lying in the groaning stomach of a ginormous sea beast who happens to be experiencing severe digestive problems. A torpedo sized Rennies is in order.

 

3.) The Exorcist:   Hellish demon possession which I have already described above.

 

One prays for state 1 but quickly learns how to adjust to more common 2 and 3.

 

On the boat, every crew member has to participate in a 2 hour watch which runs and alternates for the full 24 hours. Over this period one is expected to scan the horizon and ensure the boat is not going to collide with another vessel or object. The maximum speed we are reaching is 21 knots which means unexpected obstacles can creep up within a short period.

 

At the moment, running into (and over) whales have been one of the biggest and most legitimate concerns as the passage to and from the Azores is teeming with breeding pods at his this time of year.  A head-on collision with a creature the size of a several school busses or a tanker for that matter is not ideal and so no matter how ADHD I am, I’ve had to learn how to rein my fluctuating attention span in and concentrate on the little bleeping radar (more submarine movie fantasies playing out here).

 

There are horror stories of people, during their night watch, falling off overboard while taking a pee off the back of the vessel.  It’s a terrifying thought, vanishing into that expanse long before fellow crew member’s cotton on to the fact that you’re missing in action. This plays on my mind plenty and I’ve never dared to attempt it ….as much as I love a pee under the open skies, drifting like Sandra B in Gravity off into a turbulent vaccum made has made me settle somewhat religiously for the sterile safety of the boat cubicle.

 

The immensity of the ocean, hit home again when we slowed the boat down and jumped off the back for a swim.  Here we took an empty beer bottle, filled it with water, slipped on a pair of goggles and watched it sink. The feeling could only be described as… awe. The bottle steadily sinking for what felt like a good ten minutes before vanishing from view. Travis, the captain, reckons it would have only touched the ground a few hours after us having let it go.

 

As serious as these ‘Watches’ are, they are also a beautiful opportunity to grapple with what it means to be utterly alone, lost and drifting out across this pale dot of ours.  Like that beer bottle one learns to simply surrender and sink deeper into the mysteries of the big blue beyond.

 

At night when everyone is sleeping and the ocean roars all around, when the constellations are splashed across the night sky, and the boats churns up phosphorescence as it sails onwards. In these moments it really feels like we are satelliting in a little space ship, ploughing through the cosmos, and leaving a trail of luminous stars in our wake.  

 

 

PART 3

AZORES TO MALLORCA

 

It’s been nearly a month since Dyl and I left SLIM in Mallorca, which will be her new home over the next season.

 

In the end we spent 21 days at sea and crossed 4200 nautical miles. To say one’s life is profoundly enriched by such a journey would be an understatement. The final part of our crossing was colored by extraordinary sights such as SLIM’S Spinnaker sail unfurling like a giant butterfly wing from out of its chrysalis sheath. I will never forget the moment we set eyes on the Gibraltar straites — that mythical point where two continents brush shoulders– and growing teary at the sight of the Africa…. my home yet so very far from the southern tip of it.

 

And on our final afternoon at sea, chasing a transcendent sunset, our Dolphin cheerleaders appearing to pay their final playful respects.

 

Spending time out at sea, one’s senses, particularly smell, are sharpened and I’ll never forget the pungent whiff of cigarette smoke and designer fragrances that accosted my nostrils as we set sights on the ancient port city of Palma in Mallorca.

 

Dylan and I re-watched Japanese animator Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Howls Moving Castle while aboard the boat and the whimsical concept employed in the film has I many ways come to characterize our own journey aboard SLIM.

 

In the film, a group of characters’ travel in a mobile castle through a variety of alternate realities. In the entrance hall of the eponymous castle, there is a magical dial. Howl simply turns the dial and is able to step out the front-door of his home into a magical universe of his choosing.

 

In many ways SLIM felt like this itinerant (in our case ‘buoyant’) castle. Our bedroom and the interior of the boat was the only constant.  Every time we stepped onto land, it was to find ourselves somewhere new and breathtaking: a continent or island utterly transformed and unrecognizable from the last.

 

Such magic is only possible through the devotion of Captain Travis and Ana who run a tight and immaculate ship. To watch these sailors’ manage this glorious gun-boat with the love, professionalism and devotion they do, is a humbling thing.

 

SLIM, as with all man-made modes of transportation, has her demands, her temperaments and occasional malfunctions and there really is nothing that Trav and Ana can’t fix or tend to in an instant….even while out at sea, several hundred kilometers away from the nearest sign of civilization not to mention spare parts.

 

It’s been a month back on land and I find SLIM’S rhythms and rituals still linger within me.  At night I often wake to think I can still feel the rocking motion of the boat or hear the rippling her sail, the persistent swooshing sound of the sea outside.

 

I miss the SLIM family, the many routines one establishes on a boat over a month together at sea, the sight of Lola poking her fluffy head through our cabin window each morning to call us to breakfast.

 

I’ll forever yearn for those deep and vivid sea dreams infused, as they were, with stars and phosphorescence.

posted under musings, travel

Email will not be published

Website example

Your Comment: