Eight AM. The phone rang.
It was Kevin, a friend of mine, calling from the British Virgin Islands. He and his wife, Pat, had just finished overseeing refurbishment of a yacht, were about to take it out for a test cruise, and wanted to know if I would like to come down and help with "beta test". I thought as quickly as I could on five hours of sleep, told him I'd look into it, and we agreed that he'd call Friday morning at 8 AM.
I talked to my client du jour and determine that if I worked like a banshee all weekend, I could wrap up their immediate needs. (It helped that was a sailor himself.) So I arranged all that, bought a plane ticket, canceled my dates, and sat by the phone Friday morning.
By this time I was getting nervous. I had work to do, things to take care of if I was going to take off on Monday! So I finally left a message on my answering machine: "Hi, this is Kate Sherwood. I'm not in at the moment, so please leave me a message. If this is the BVI shipping company, we are expecting delivery at 3 PM on Monday."
I came home later to find a message saying, " Uh. Right. Um, I guess that means you are coming." :-) Yay, it wasn't a dream! It turned out that Pat had sprained her ankle jumping off the dock, and they were off getting ex-rays when they were supposed to be calling me. He also gave me directions on how to find him in BVI.
Then I waited around for an hour, then missed the connecting flight to San Juan just because I dorked.
Then off to San Juan, Puerto Rico (which looked really pretty from the plane, have to go back), and from there to Beef Island, BVI on a tiny little plane which also bounced around a lot.
When the plane landed, we walked over to this small building which happened to be the airport - one of the smallest I have been in years. I think the airport in Chippewa Falls, WI was bigger.
Kevin had told me to take a taxi to the hotel, and I was thinking "large yellow American-made car". Instead, what I found was a vehicle with about ten bench seats and a little awning, sort of like the parking lot shuttles at DisneyLand. I got in the back, and the rest of the vehicle was filled with four 20-something couples down from Colorado.
As we pulled into the hotel's drive, I spotted Kevin walking by the side of the road. "Hey good-looking!" I yelled. "Where ya been all my life???" At which point the front three couples turned to stare at the woman of the couple in front of me. They thought she was being awfullly forward, yelling at some stranger!
(I almost got Kevin killed, by the way. This being the British Virgin Island, the cars drive on the left. While he had been down there for a while, he grew up in the States, and his unbridled joy at seeing me must have caused temporary amnesia. He looked the wrong way, and almost got flattened!)
Kevin was happy to see me, as was the First Mate, Pat. (And as she tells her husband, The Captain, "That better be ONLY Mate!") I was happy to see them, too, so it worked out. :-)
They took me to dinner at a restaurant with marvelous food. Fortunately, I had come from a colder clime and had decent clothes (i.e. non-shorts) for going out. It isn't that the restaurant was so posh, but that the BVI residents are somewhat prudish about skin. (They are, after all, British.) This surprised me, as I had heard from Kevin's talk before that the BVI folk are relatively casual about time. I had always assumed that time and skin casualness went together.
The air temperature is high, as is the humidity, but there is usually a breeze to take the sting off. But this means that if you shut up your dwellings completely, you will bake, poach, steam, whatever. The hotel that I stayed in the first night had "vanity windows"(?) - louvered slats - and there was grillwork on the outside. This meant that the breeze could flow right through, while still affording some privacy. This meant that I spent the night with a strong, warm breeze blowing over my naked body. It was like getting a gentle caress from a kind lover all night long. (When can I go back????)
The next day, I joined Kevin and Pat at the dock, where we had some breakfast. I got to feeling queasy on board while tied to the dock while eating breakfast. This was NOT a good sign.
Kevin and Pat rented a car and took me on a tour of Tortola, the biggest island of the BVIs. I noted a number of things:
The vast majority of residents were of African descent. Slaves were imported to work the plantations. When slavery was abolished, the sugar cane industry collapsed and the white folks went home.
Yeah, the houses were a little shabby, but the quality of a house doesn't seem so critical to me when you are living in a place where you can be outdoors 365 days per year. My friend Jason Winters, who has spent a lot of time down there, says that all the solid materials have to be imported, so that there would be concrete for columns and so on, but the in-between stuff would be just rubble - shells, rocks, old concrete, dirt.
I actually took that as a sign of wealth. In California, you can't just leave wrecked cars in a grassy area because that is your park, your only one for miles around! And we don't have cans lying around because our urban carrion eaters collect them for the money.
Kevin has a different take on it. He thinks that a society has to have basic needs like food and shelter met, then the not-so-basic needs (infrastructure, education, lesiure time), before one can start worrying about the ecology; sort of a Maslow's heierarchy as applied to societies.
At one point I saw a young man loitering down by the docks, down by all the boats with expensive gear on them. He was still hanging around 30 minutes later, and I pointed him out to Kevin and Pat, thinking he might have mischeif on his mind to be watching and waiting for so long. "No", they said, "he's just liming about." Liming about, or hanging out, was just part of The Way Things Work down there. Watching the waves was about as big a thrill as he was going to find on that island.
Sunday morning I was listening to the radio, and heard a woman reciting the births, deaths, and church services times and sermon topics for about a half an hour. This was obviously a regular feature. I guess every day is a slow news day down there.
Kevin told me of a picture on the front page of the newspaper down there, with a BIG banner headline: Horse Wanders Into Laundromat, Requires Three Men To Remove.
From other points on the ridge, we had a great view of Roadtown, the capital of BVI, and the huge cruise ship that was just coming in to port. Kevin and Pat said that it was good that we'd gotten to Sky World when we did, or it might have been jammed with tourists doing the twenty-seven-islands-in-six-days cruise.
Well, when I woke up the next morning, I understood how it worked. It just destroyed my sense of balance completely so that I couldn't TELL if things were moving around! I was able to walk and move around ok, but it FELT like I was staggering. (I think if I had tried to move with my eyes closed, I would have fallen flat on my face.) I also had the worst case of cottonmouth I've ever had. I didn't care if it COULD help seasickness, I'd prefer seasickness to feeling like that. I decided I'd take my chances with Dramamine and ripped the patch off.
Kevin said that he'd never seen anyone react to it that way before. He said that the dry mouth is a common side effect, as is blurry vision (I couldn't tell; things are always blurry before I put my contact in), and there was one other, less common effect, now what was it? Oh yeah - memory loss.
We wandered around for a little bit, then went to anchor at Norman Island at a place called Benure's Bay. I was a little surprised; I thought it odd that we put in so early. Of course, I thought that when you wanted to stop, you just threw the anchor over the side and that was that.
But no! There is a fine art to not getting yourself killed in a boat! One of the best ways to not get killed is to make sure that your boat is well and truly anchored, lest you go wandering off against a reef whilst you sleep. The anchor weighs about 50 lbs. The boat weighs about 21 tons. The anchor is NOT going to hold the boat just by virtue of its immense mass.
It is important to get the anchor well dug into sand. This is accomplished by dropping the anchor, then letting out 4:1 scope, i.e. four times as much anchor chain as the water is deep. The high scope is to keep the pull on the anchor roughly parallel to the bottom instead of straight up. Then, pull gently back on the anchor, using just the wind until the anchor has "bit", then with the engine more and more until you are well and truly sure that it is stuck. Snorkeling down to the bottom and actually LOOKING at the anchor is also a good idea, and you'd best drop a second anchor if you even think that there might be a chance of dragging anchor. In addition, having a second anchor down reduces your "swing". This makes it less likely that you will smack into another boat, and gives you somewhat less rocking around at night.
Unfortunately, I can really get into books. After about fifty pages, I threw the book across the room, and then spent the rest of the night convinced that someone was going to clone dinosaurs, let them loose in the Caribbean, where they were going to swim a third of a mile out to our boat, and eat ME. Kevin and Pat gave me quite a bit of ribbing about that!
When it was time to go to bed, I left the book I had been reading, my hat, and sunglasses on the table. After all, I was going to be wanting them tomorrow. Kevin and Pat went through, however, and put EVERYTHING away. This rather surprised me, since I had never thought of them as neat freaks.
What an amazing abundance of fish! Colors to knock your eyes out! But what most amazed me was the noise underwater. I had grown up with Jaques Cousteau documentaries, and his undersea world is silent. Duh! It is hard to make microphones waterproof! Duh! Sound actually travels exceptionally well through water.
Because the speed of sound is so much higher through water than it is through air, it is impossible to triangulate. There is not enough separation in time between when the sound reaches the two ears. So it was hard for me to tell where the noise was coming from, but Kevin tells me that the noises are mostly made by the crustaceans (shrimp and barnacles) and to some extent the fish.
I was getting tired snorkling, and Kevin finally took me aside and told me I was doing it all wrong. When I would tread water, I would use the same motion as one would use with no fins on, a "bicycle" stroke. He pointed out that I could keep my legs straight and just casually move them back and forth in sort of a vertical flutter kick.
Besides, he pointed out, the water is salty, so one is more bouyant. "Watch", he said, as he ceased moving altogether. He sunk in the water until the water was at about the level of his eyes (which were behind a mask), then just hung in the water, breathing through his snorkel. "Ok, now you try it." I relaxed and let the water level rise to my chin, my nose, my eyes, my hairline... "Oh", he said. "I guess you aren't very bouyant."
Near the Cow's Mouth, there was a rock formation/cave/tube that made a low howl as the waves pushed air in and out. It sounded just like one of the dinosaurs that had tried to eat me earlier in the week.
The other thing that you don't have to worry about when driving is wind direction. There is really a skill to keeping the boat pointed in just the right direction and all the sails at the right tension such that they provide power (analogous to "lift" on an airplane) instead of just going whap whap whap in the breeze. It can safely be said that I am not particularly good at sailing.
Here we went snorkling. Kevin pointed out a barracuda for me. I waved. He and Pat also pointed out a large number of other fish, but as they weren't food for me and I wasn't food for them, the incentive to remember their names was low. (Kevin tells me that the fish in/around BVI are not good eating fish. I thought that was awfully impolite of them.)
While we were in Cam Bay, Pat made us a scrumptious Thanksgiving Dinner. We think it was turkey, but we aren't sure. The bird that we found at the grocery store was simply labeled "Fowl". Whatever it was, Pat did a wizardly job on it, and it was excellent. :-)
I now understood why my hosts were such incredible neat freaks. If it isn't tied down, it might go flying across the room. It was sort of like permanently in an earthquake.
The boat, which was quite pleasant in nice weather, became quite hot and uncomfortable in the rain. In nice weather, all the ports and vents were open, and a nice breeze ran through. In a storm, all the portholes were closed, and it got hot and stuffy. We passed a hot, swaying night underneath great flashes of lightning. Kevin says that he had never seen so much lightning in three years down there!
Kevin says that he was worried about not having a functional engine for safety reasons, in case we needed to get out of Cam Bay in a hurry. I was hard pressed to think of some reason we might need to move the boat out of the bay, given that we were sheltered from the elements better there than almost anywhere else we could go. Swarms of giant killer mosquitoes, perhaps?
Meanwhile, the boat was just rocking and rolling, it was hot downstairs, and I was out of Dramamine. I had surpisingly not had any trouble with seasickness; I think perhaps I wasn't seasick at that breakfast at the dock as much as I had been queasy from the diesel fumes. So I did the only sensible thing: I put on my bathing suit and a rain poncho, cranked The English Beat on the boat's (waterproof) speakers, and boogied down on deck in the rainstorm. It was a lot of fun, but let me tell you that yachts make lousy dancing partners - no sense of rhythm at all!
Right when Kevin returned, the storm trebled its efforts. As I watched Kevin motor over, around, and through, the waves, all I could think of were the mechanical bulls that were popular when I was but a mere slip of a girl. How rough were the seas? Well, Pat had been quiet during this time because SHE was feeling queasy!
In addition to braving the angry elements, Kevin had had to hitchhike into town, take the assembly to three different shops, and hitchhike back to the dock. This was not like strolling down to the 7-11 to pick up a six-pack of soda.
With my expert help (I held the flashlight), Kevin reinstalled the assembly, and we were back in business. We were still stapled to Cam Bay by the weather, but at least we did have a functional air conditioner!
By this time I had been on the boat for five days straight. Not only had I gained an admirable set of sea legs, I had completely lost my land legs! I felt woozy on solid ground.
We dined that night at a restaurant called Prusser's Landing at Leverick Bay. I don't drink, but that evening I was sorely tempted, in the hopes that it would make the room spin and re-equilibrate my inner ear. I ended up swaying and rocking back and forth all through dinner; I am certain that the other patrons of that fine establishment thought I was autistic.
Kevin, Pat, and I had some drinks at a bar called De Loose Mongoose, relaxing while the wind attempted to rip the door off its hinges and the screens off the windows. I sat there, rocking, with my orange juice, trying to visualize being on a rough sea.
The worst part of the trip was not the seasickness, was not the landsickness, was not the rain, was not the weather, was not the equipment malfunctions. These things happen. I could deal with that.
Losing three times out of three to Kevin and Pat at Scrabble, however, was almost more than I could bear! ;-)