It’s five years this year that we’ve had Quest. Always we wonder what we’re going to do with her. Big bulky girl that she is. Sucker of money and resources, floater of dreams. Now that Lu is getting closer to starting her two-year GCSE programme in September next year, we are thinking ahead. To be honest, the Captain is always thinking ahead. Perhaps this is his response to being tied to the bottom of the bay.
Portugal. Long term it’s always been Portugal. Bla, bla, bla. Sorry, that last part is me. The truth is I don’t mind if we go to Portugal, I just don’t want to talk about it while watching the sunset in Barbados. If we do decide to sail across the Atlantic again, this means we will leave in just over a year. We have one more sailing season in the Caribbean. One more season.
Carving out happiness is a mixed bag of surprising sweets. For us, we’ve spent about two years so far travelling the Lesser Antilles. This means our kids don’t have the normal routines and certainties that most other kids have. When we’re here, they don’t have swim club on Tuesday, hanging out with friends in our home town, Aberystwyth on Wednesday. What is it about children and routines? Sorry kids.
Still, some things have come unexpected. Our kids have become Caribbeanised. Not a word, Word tells me. ‘Whatever,’ I say to its red line. I know what I mean. This is because I’ve been noticing it. When music comes on, everyone is happiest when there’s Soca in the room. Who would have thought? ‘Why do they blast it out on the buses?’ Lulu had bemoaned for a hurricane season in Grenada, ‘It just hurts your ears.’ Now, everyone’s shoulders drop when the bass kicks in. It’s a fantastically familiar sound. It goes with this sunshine. Then there’s the swimming. Delph didn’t swim when we first got here. Not in the sea or in any water where our toes didn’t find the bottom. ‘Delph,’ we said, ‘you’re in the Caribbean. If you can’t swim in 27°C water, then we’re going home.’ Twice a day, we had to force Delphine to swim from Quest. Now, you can’t get her out of it. She’s even starting to believe she’s the daughter of Poseidon. Because of course she is.
This season, we came out with three objectives. Dance, surf, dive. Barbados offered all three of these activities on paper back home. The reality is the dancing has been the least successful. In Wales it’s much easier. You drive to the Arts Centre and they dance. Bish, bosh, boom. Here we joined one dance school, then found another much more convenient using public transport. As soon as we joined, the dance school took over a month-long break. They were very nice about it. They explained they were taking a dance trip to Cuba over Easter and then had dance exams. We agreed to wait. We got it. Dancing is for the long-term. We know it at home but now that we’re here in Barbados for only a little while longer, this time the long-term hasn’t been our friend.
This brings us to activity two: surfing. Potentially the most hotly-anticipated of the three. After learning to surf in the BVIs last year, this time Jack bought two surfboards on his way through Florida and had them shipped to Trinidad. They arrived in Port of Spain’s shipping port three weeks later and in perfect condition. We strapped the boards to Quest’s stantions and headed off to the Caribbean surfing mecca; Barbados. Hmm. We’ve discovered that surfing here requires dedication. Often transportation. While constant trade winds do blow through this, most easterly Caribbean island, the sea swell tends to vary. This means that some beaches around the island go flat while others decide to rip. The general rule here is that the west is best in the winter, southern-facing beaches are good when the west side calms down and the hallowed, hard core east side of Barbados finally opens up when conditions go hurricane season flat. At least for beginners.
At first, we were sorted. Our friends from S/Y Sago, Geoff and Silke who had also just arrived, had their own car through Geoff’s work. We struck a sweet deal. Their daughter Annika came to Quest under my supervision to hang with Delphine while Lulu and Jack took two available spaces in their car. For a few, wonderful expeditions, they drove down to one of the best surfing beaches, Freight’s Bay at the tip of the south coast. They came back to Quest in the evenings for dinner and told us about the long rides. The surfing turtles. We even celebrated the fish festival together in Oistins in a shady bus-stop style. It was awesome, friends together in Barbados.
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But then just after Easter, Sago found they needed to go back to Grenada. We were sad to see them go, but we decided that no, surfing-wise we wouldn’t be deterred by this. The following Saturday, we headed into the Fairfield Street Bus Terminal with two surfboards. I asked the lady at the counter which bus we needed. ‘Number 12 bus to Freight’s Bay,’ she told me. ‘Surfboards?’ I asked. She nodded sagely. Result! We got in the bus’s long queue.
‘I don’t think you will fit that board on,’ a lady said behind us. Another carrying bags from the market agreed. We smiled back sheepishly. Everyone began to laugh. We shuffled forward and got on. The bus driver shook his head but he got up and helped us position our boards. It was working! The bus may have been getting busier and busier with people returning home from Saturday shopping but I couldn’t stop smiling. We were going surfing on the bus! And then, about two kilometres away from the beach, the bus came to a halt.
‘You need to get off now,’ the same lady from the queue said.
We looked at her in surprise. ‘But the beach isn’t here.’
Everyone shook their heads at us now. There was some Bajan bemusement going on. ‘This is as far as the bus goes.’
I winced. Uh-oh. Would the Ormerods see the funny side of having to walk two kilometres up a hill with our surf equipment? You guessed right. Happily, before anyone got seriously hurt by complaining too much or having a banana stuck down their throat, we made it up to Freight’s Bay. We looked longingly for a moment at the spot under the tree where Geoff and Silke had parked their car. Then we cleared our minds of the memory. After all, it was relatively quiet for a Saturday afternoon and the waves below looked stunning.
Jack dug into Lulu’s surf bag. ‘Where’s your leash?’
She looked blank. ‘I don’t know.’ They had taken it to a paddle-board shop earlier in the week to fix a ding on its side. ‘Did you put the leash in your bag?’
I found myself approaching a group of men at the entrance to the surf beach. They were all hanging around a four-wheel drive stacked full of surfboards. I asked if there was a spare leash about.
‘I don’t rent leashes,’ one guy said. His aviator Ray Bans flashed in the sun. ‘But you can buy one.’
I dug my heels in. ‘We came on the bus from Bridgetown and walked up the hill.’
He shrugged. I shrugged back. The crowd of surfers went quiet.
‘All right,’ he relented. ‘I can rent a leash to you. Twenty.’
He shook his head. ‘US.’
My eyes narrowed. ‘I’ll let you know.’
Back under our makeshift camp of a tree, Jack lay on top of his board bag. ‘I’m not paying 20.’
I nodded. ‘I know.’
My mind flashed back to Josiah’s Bay in Tortola in the BVIs. Here, on this amazing beach you could help yourself to surfer Steve’s rashies, boards, leashes and on one occasion even his spare shorts. ‘She always forgets my stuff,’ Jack’s voice whined the background while he put Steve’s striped shorts on. You could borrow any of Steve’s stuff as long as you smiled and made a joke that started a running repartee. That was Steve’s favourite currency. You know you look a little like Jesus, right? Or is it Grizzly Adams? Where are you now Steve? Instead we were getting Ray Bans with his 20 US dollar rentals.
We stared out to sea. Instead of the usual tropical turquoise, the surf was breaking in a reddish-brown line onto the sand. This was the continuation of the sargassum weed invasion in this part of the Caribbean. We’d been watching it all so season so far. Some mornings, we’d been waking up to blankets of brown weed floating past. This meant no diving or swimming or putting the water maker on in case we got a blockage in the inlet pipe. A sargassum blockage wouldn’t be for the first time. This morning, our bus ride along the south coast had revealed a whole coastline breaking onto the brown seaweed.
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‘It isn’t so bad,’ a voice said from behind us. We turned around. A man with long dreadlocks stood behind our make-shift camp also looking out. He smiled at us. ‘Last year the sargassum was so bad, it went out as far as you could see. You couldn’t swim. Neither could the turtles. They were forever getting stuck in it.’ He shook his head. Surfing turtles were suddenly stuck turtles. ‘I work for Zed’s, the oldest surfing school on the island. I heard you need a leash.’
We nodded and he called to a man also with dreadlocks standing a little way down the path ‘My friend will have one. Andre, you got a spare leash?’
At the sound of his name, the man looked over. ‘I’ve got a bunch in the car,’ he called back. ‘I’ll grab one.’ Two minutes later, he came over holding a leash. He had a good-natured face.
Jack stood up and took it from him. ‘I’m happy to rent it from you.’
Andre smiled bashfully. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
Jack and Lulu promptly got ready and went off down the narrow path. Soon they were out paddling to the waves. I watched them join a small crowd of surfers. Lu went for a wave. She missed it. Jack went for the next. With his much longer board he caught it easily enough. Even from up on this bluff, I swore I could see Lu’s eyes narrow. She paddled visibly harder for the next wave and caught it too.
I sat down next to Delphine and examined her right knee. It was scraped and raw-looking. She’d tripped on the curb earlier while helping Lulu to carry her board. Luckily for me, I’d anticipated adventure and packed a few first aid supplies. I got them out and began cleaning Delph’s knee with iodine. Delph winced she didn’t say a word. With all her falls, the kid is good at being brave.
‘So, you guys came on the bus?’ Andre asked. He was still standing quietly and staring out to sea. For sure, the view was mesmerising. We could see for miles, all the way down the south coast to the Hilton at the tip of our bay. Beyond the strip of sargassum brown, the blue water was as bright as the sky.
I nodded and he smiled. It was a nice, unassuming smile. ‘I started surfing when I was 16,’ he told us. ‘It used to keep me out of trouble. My mum used to say you couldn’t find me, I was always gone. I spent a lot of time getting to the beach. Walking and walking. When I realised I wasn’t getting there fast enough, I got a skateboard to take me. Then I could get there faster.’
‘Did you ever take the bus?’
Andre nodded. ‘When I got good enough to surf the East coast. The Soup Bowl.’ He chuckled. ‘People here can get funny but they don’t mind really.’
I smiled too and remembered how our bus had stopped abruptly. Everyone telling us to get off. ‘Yeah. Tell me about it.’
By then, the Zed’s surf instructor with long dreads had joined Andre. He pointed out to the waves. ‘Here it’s sand and then reef further out. On the east side, it’s the other way around. Sand and reef at the shore. You have to be careful there. It can get tricky.’ He turned to Andre. ‘How are your boys doing?’
Andre chuckled again and nodded towards the group of surfers. ‘I can’t get them out.’
I followed their gaze. Two children had positioned themselves on the outer edge of the set. They were catching waves seemingly effortlessly. From up here, they looked like tiny, nimble surfing leprechauns.
‘They’re 9 and 7,’ Andre said to me and Delph. ‘We come most Saturdays.’
What a life for those kids, I thought. Delph and I shook our heads. ‘They’re amazing.’
Andre smiled his gentle smile again. ‘It keeps them out of trouble.’
After Lu and Jack had gotten out, there was no one left in the water except Andre’s boys. Jack returned the lead and thanked him, Andre picked up his boogie board. He said good-bye to us and made his way down the path to join his boys. We looked at our watches. 4pm. The sun was just starting to go soft. It set every evening in Barbados just after 6. No variation. We gathered our stuff and headed down the hill. This time though, we ambled, passing the beach at the bottom, Enterprise Beach. True to its word, it had a van on the beach selling food and drinks. It looked so good, we put our boards down, grabbed ice lollies from the van and sucked on them under the casuarina trees. A group of well-dressed, cool-looking Bajans took up the next bench. They were fawning over a tiny puppy. Delph and Lu looked on at the group interestedly.
‘We’d better go,’ Jack said, standing. I glimpsed the boards and the big bag I’d been carrying and tried not to sigh. We made our way through a beachside complex and emerged out at the bus stop in Oistins. At least a dozen people were waiting in the bus stop. My heart began to sink. Before we could put our boards down, a big blue bus came around the corner with the word Bridgetown written on the front. I looked back at the crowd. They hadn’t moved from their shady bus stop.
One of them caught my eye. ‘We’re going to Speightstown,’ she said in explanation. I nodded back quickly and she smiled. From here, I followed Jack on the bus with Lu’s board. The bus was almost full except for two seats at the back Jack had found with Lu. He propped his long board easily down in the aisle. I noticed the last two remaining seats at the front. I sat down with Delphine, our board fitting perfectly in the aisle. Everyone looked pleasantly at us. It was almost like the seats had been saved for us. With this, we went home.
Back to Bridgetown, a man with a homemade bamboo raft was gliding around in the inner basin. We’d seen him that morning, a crane lifting his raft high up in the air. What was going on, we’d wondered? Was there a race, a flotilla maybe?
‘I’m getting engaged,’ he explained. We congratulated him and he smiled as if his clothes were slightly too tight. Now, just before sunset, he and his fiancée bobbed around the inner basin. Both had orange lifejackets on. A crowd of smartly-dressed people, including a priest, stood at the edge of the water. The newly engaged couple came back to the ladder and everyone got on a larger tourist boat. We passed them on Edna on the way out of the Careenage and waved. Just after sunset, they approached the beach. A large wave passed through the boat. The party both shrieked and laughed.
So, for the next days we mused. We could take a taxi next time we went surfing. At least one way and then we’d catch a bus back. If this was our only hobby, our only activity, we definitely would have. But for one thing. We’d discovered the underwater view.
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Again, like the surfing, our third planned activity in Barbados – diving, is something of a segregated sport at the moment. It’s really Jack and Lulu’s thing. Delphine is still a little young and despite her enthusiastic swimming, not quite ready. While I do dive, until last season I was mostly doing it to clean Quest’s blue bottom. Now this season she is freshly copper-coated and sports a dark red derriere. She doesn’t need the underwater maintenance. Like me and my cloth.
Nope, in the diving department, I’m happy to take a step back. I have a hunch that maybe next season we’ll all be diving together. Until then it’s the Lulu and Jack show and it’s awesome. I should explain that Jack once worked as a diving instructor and still keeps his PADI teaching status. Before we crossed the Atlantic on Quest, we also made a last-minute purchase of a dive compressor in Las Palmas. It’s like the little yellow engine that can and sits neatly under one of our cockpit seats. With Jack’s teaching status and our compressor, we pretty much function as a floating dive company. It is very much working right now.
Lulu has just completed her PADI Junior Open Water Advanced Diver – a mouthful to write, I’ve discovered. Using the manual and completing her knowledge reviews, together she and Jack did boat dive, wreck dive, navigation dive, deep dive and the last – night dive. Over the last four weeks in Carlisle Bay, they’ve touched turtles, found old bottles under Quest, including an example of a 19th century glass bottle from the Royal German Spa bottling company once based in Brighton, Sussex. They swam down staircases, found large, spotted morays writhing in and out of sunken Carlisle Bay Marine Park boats in the darkness and discovered another shipwreck on the starboard side of Quest full of cunning crayfish. They navigated with dive compasses both underwater and around Bridgetown’s Independence Square.
‘That was embarrassing,’ was Lulu’s conclusion on that matter. Thank you, Barbados.