The day we left Barbados, I went snorkelling. I never get over how the underwater realm is a parallel world, a completely different existence. As the sun went in and out of the clouds, I began to wonder what underwater creatures think of the sun? When it shines through the water and then goes cloudy, what do they make of it? Oh, that’s the light going off? Oh yeah, it’s come back on again. Crazy lightbulb. After all, they don’t spend time looking the sky. With thoughts like this taking up space in my head, my brain tends to plague me. I think a lot about our own lives too, especially as we are setting off back to Trinidad to store Quest again in the boatyard and fly back home to Wales for the Caribbean’s hurricane season. Nothing like a mix of transience to cook you a bowl full of questions.
People tell us we are living the dream. No life is a dream though. It doesn’t feel like it when we’re living it. You can be in the most stunning location, but on a boat you’re always thinking logistics. Dinner. Schoolwork. Boat stuff. Finding fuel for Evil Edna, our dinghy. Making enough water in the water-maker for showers. And when my brain especially likes to harass me, I wonder if we’re doing the right thing being here. Not many people live on boats with their kids. Sure, some people do but it’s not exactly the norm in the cruising world and especially not when the kids hit their teenage years. Kids on boats tend to be younger, from the ages of very small to about 12-years old. After that, they seem to fade away back to a ‘normal’ life. I’m always hearing that teenagers need stability. But when it comes to this issue, I can’t help feeling like a deer caught in headlights. What’s better, small-town life in Wales or seeing the world and meeting new cultures?
I don’t know. Hence the writing. I paid 30 squid for this WordPress blog last year. This means I can offload all my worries in one handy location. Some live-aboard people crave advertising and ‘buy-us-a-beer’ type sponsorship. I just want to have a good moan. Could you be sponsored for moaning? Surely this is dream come true stuff. My blog, my moan suckers! Oops. There goes my last reader.
Oh well. Back to Questie. Floating, white attention seeker. After the fish left us with all our 1km of line and an exploded reel (still, thank goodness we didn’t have to land this fishy goliath) the sea became a rolling bed of three metres. Quest went quiet then. The wind powered her like silent fuel. We got the harnesses out and clipped the girls to the A-frame. They didn’t even moan too much about it. The waves were coming at our beam side. Quest was happily spitting them out. For lunch, I filled pot noodles with boiling water and placed them in the sink for protection while they cooked. For me, this is the measure of how rough conditions are. When we started sailing, we were helped to get the hang of Quest by a guy called a super guy called Ian. No longer with us. He gave me advice about cooking while underway, including using the sink for hot liquids. He told me that once, when he was on a rough passage on another sailing boat, he’d asked an inexperienced crew member to make tea in the sink. Ian checked up on him a little while later and saw that, rather than cups in the sink filled with tea, there was a sink full of light brown liquid. Oh yeah! It was a sink full of tea!
This always makes me giggle. It would be so tempting to re-create. For the first hours, I thought about Ian and his lovely laugh while I braced myself, made food, did stuff down below and then came up to breathe. All the while, the Captain was sitting at the helm, watching the conditions and how George was handling them. Unfortunately, George has become something of an unpredictable auto-pilot. He becomes overwhelmed in this kind of sea. How? Well, if a big burst of wind hits us or we veer off too far to the side down a wave, George holds up his robotic ghost hands and gives up. God dammit George! We have to run to the helm and stop Quest gybing into the wind. She comes up on her ear when this happens. This extreme angle is not good for breakages but excellent for constipation problems. Thanks, George. Who would have thought your job would be to keep us so regular?
In anticipation before we left Barbados, we tied our preventer to our boom to prevent damage if we did gybe. Now we have to stay vigilant, always sitting near George’s controls when we sail. Plotting his demise. Sorry George but your robot days are numbered (mua-ha-ha!). Don’t you get arsey with me! Hold on.. am I talking to the auto-pilot again? After personifying him? Uh-oh. I might need to buy the premium version of WordPress. For 48 quid, this will stop yourself from going bananas.
As George steered us from side to side, the girls took up their usual positions. I watched them. We hadn’t been in a sea this big for a long time.
‘Can we listen to Percy Jackson?’ Delphine asked. On cue, she pulled out our old iPod and a portable speaker. Aha. It wasn’t really a question. I put it on. Percy Jackson is the story of Greek myths re-imagined in modern times. Some humans are half-bloods – children whose one parent is a Greek God. We listened away. Despite the potentially complicated narrative, Rick Riordan writes in a deliberately slow and friendly way. While white, foamy wave crests licked the side of the cockpit, we took in that one of the defining characteristics of half-blood children is that they usually have attention-deficit-disorder. This is because their bodies are hard-wired for the quick reflexes needed for life as a demi-god. Percy Jackson himself is very dyslexic too. This last fact tickles Delphine no end. When he read a prophecy out loud and said ‘dogs’ instead of ‘gods’, Delphine’s face lit up. Not just Delphine struggling to read? A dyslexic demi-god also? Genius, Rick Riordan, genius.
So, with the audiobook as supreme distraction, Quest rode the ocean waves. I found myself thinking again. There’s something about staying in a place for a while. How you get to know it. We’d heard the ex-colonial Big Ben chimes from Bridgetown’s Parliament building ring out across the anchorage every 15 minutes. That thing didn’t stop chiming. We felt the limestone bricks with the palm of our hands, the dead coral polyp skeletons warm in the sun.
Then there were people we’d never have dreamed of meeting. A number of men line narrow Swan Street in central Bridgetown hustling different items. Perfumes, music, movies are the noticeable things for sale. DVDs like Black Panther, Coco, The Greatest Showman. Good movies, bad movies, it was no matter when we discovered these movies are the cheapest thing you can buy in Barbados at the bargain equivalent of 80p each.
One day we didn’t see our regular guy and a man called Jason approached us instead. We asked him if he know where our guy was.
‘Did his movies have Chinese subtitles?’ he asked us.
We nodded enthusiastically.
‘That’s not good enough quality,’ he said disdainfully. We shook our head in surprise. He gave us his phone to browse his titles.
‘Have you got Game Night?’ Lulu asked him, flicking through the titles on his phone.
Jason shook his head firmly. ‘It’s not good enough quality yet either.’ He seemed to take the quality issue seriously. He began giving us run-downs on the movies. ‘Looting and shooting in this one,’ he said, glancing at the title. ‘That one’s plenty teary,’ he said of another. After this, Jason was our man. Lulu in particular enjoyed his mini-synopses. Every time, she came away with a pile of movies in her hand, grinning. ‘I can’t wait to check this one out. Jason said it had weight and a certain respect.’
Saying good-bye to him was more emotional than we expected. He hugged us all tight. ‘I’m going to miss you guys.’
It was the same with Ellen, the lady outside the supermarket who sold fish cake rolls. I’ll explain. Fish cake rolls are deep-fried balls of batter and salt fish. The fish cake part is one carb in its own right. Then you put it in a bread roll and they become two carbs. Add pepper sauce, ketchup, mayo. A quid each. Not exactly diet food but perfect elevenses on the way from the beach to the library.
My only bug-bear was that Ellen always gave extra fish cakes to Lulu and Jack. Never to me and Delph. ‘How’s your husband?’ she’d say to me, winking. ‘The kids too?’ Good thing you’re hiding behind that religious apron, Ellen I thought. And that you have a fantastically cheeky smile. She hugged us too as we said good-bye.
The simple act of hanging out somewhere for a while. You meet people. But of everyone in Barbados, Henry had the strongest effect on me. Wait. We didn’t know his name was Henry. The truth is that I called him Henry after I gave him an Oh Henry chocolate bar. He always sat on the bench near our dinghy dock in Bridgetown’s inner basin. He had swollen feet. Sometimes listened to a wireless radio, but always stared forwards as if he were somewhere else. When I gave him the Oh Henry bar, he moved his head and stared down at it. The next time, I saw him, I waved. To my surprise, he waved back. From then on, it was always, ‘What do we have?’ on the way back from the supermarket. Gum, fruit, once half of Delphine’s snow cone.
‘Can we give him this?’ I asked, holding up a cup half-filled with pink-coloured ice. ‘Well, I suppose he can always refuse.’ Poor Henry. He was probably chucking stuff straight in the bin as soon as we left.
Then we saw Henry one day somewhere different. He was on the other side of the bridge in the Independence Square park. It was 5pm and the park was buzzing with people. Henry stood on his own planted there like one of the trees, watching everyone. When he saw us, his face changed. For the first time ever, he gave us a beaming smile and raised up his hand, palm forward. We passed him in a line, high-fiving him as we went past. That night, we dinghied down the Careenage feeling like Bajan kings. Good-bye Henry.
I thought about this during the long night sailing to Trinidad. All the while, Barbados was getting further away. At three in the morning we were becoming aligned with Grenada instead. Trini lay still over a hundred miles to our south, past its sister island, Tobago. The moon rose up from the horizon, a waning gibbous. This was our only light. The girls had gone downstairs to sleep. Their dreams must have been centred around washing machines, I thought, sucking in the salty air. As usual, Jack and I took two-hour shifts and when it was time to sleep, both of us opted to fall face-down on the cockpit bench that leaned closer to the sea. It was our rocking cradle. A few times, the sky became dark and sprinkled with rain. I pulled the blanket over my head, feeling lucky to be sleeping al fresco in the tropics.
The most surprising part of this season hadn’t been the beauty of Barbados. Though beauty had been everywhere. It wasn’t the amazing fact that Quest made us so much water, we didn’t need to dock once to fill our water tanks. It wasn’t the excellent 3G coverage that made life so much easier to do work and school. It wasn’t even the proliferation of hawksbill sea turtles or the presence of antique bottles just waiting to be discovered underneath us.
It was, I thought, as I hugged myself to stay awake, the natural happiness of our girls. They’ve glowed this season. Jack and I have watched them quietly but haven’t wanted to chew it over too much. In case their happiness mysteriously fell overboard. Like Goldie Hawn without the happy ending. The thing is, I thought, I don’t know the answer to the question of teenagers and stability. I don’t know how much longer we’re going to sail for or where we’ll end up. Compared to the advantages of being on land, I don’t even know if Quest is enough. Then life comes along. People like Jason, Ellen and beautiful Henry. As the moon reflected off the huge waves, I gulped and remembered the girls kayaking to the beach on their own every day after school. Lulu’s grin when she came up from each of her dives. Delphine’s almost enthusiastic reading before delighting in Barbados’ warm waves, well. I’m hoping my brain will consider a vacation. Just for a little while.