Light Work, Hard Play

Quest: home and floating, flapping car. She is everything to us. She is magic maker of water, solar soaker of energy. Working kitchen, office. Schoolroom and cabins. Movie nights. Dive centre too. It was time to give back. Our afternoons were spent shutting down individual parts. Putting dive gear away, Lu’s room became our storage space. Lu bunked with Delph. The girls did school, then hung at the playground with Laura in the afternoons under the mango tree. Jack and I sorted through things. We flushed fresh water through the heads. Accidentally broke a toilet valve and spent another another afternoon fixing it. Cleaned out the shower box. Took the awnings down. Lowered the anchor chain and laid it out on a metal stand so it won’t turn into a ball of rust. We polished metal. Cleaned out cupboards. Pickled Quest’s water maker to stop the membranes drying and degrading. To do this, you need a bucket, pickling solution, un-chlorinated water and some moving of valves in the bilges. All done. Phew across the forehead.

The rigging company Superb Sails came to help us take Quest’s sails down. Superb Sails is a family business. Mackenzie and her dad, Shawn come out to work on the boats. Mum Lenora works the machines in the sail loft. Even though they are dad and daughter, I’ve never seen Shawn show an ounce of irritation towards his young daughter. Like other dads might. Never heard him shout or say, ‘You stand there and let me do it.’ How do you think Mackenzie is with this?

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Inspiring, no? You can talk about female empowerment but when you see it, it’s pretty awesome.

‘I want my girls to work with me too like this,’ Jack says sighing whenever Shawn and Mackenzie have come to Quest. We laugh and make fun of him a little. And cross our fingers. As well as our sails, Superb Sails took Evil Edna with them too to fix her cover. It was damaged this season in Bridgetown’s inner basin. Swell + tides + concrete = slightly battered Edna. Plus Mackenzie’s little brother, five year-old Charles likes to sit in her.

We had a whole lot of last minute meetings. Goodwin the Raymarine dealer came to look at our electronics. A new Harry Plotter and a new brain for George next season? We talked lightly and furiously added everything up after he left. Without any big shocks, it’d be a good possibility. Breathes were held. Then Shiva the engineer came to install extra external filters on our inlet pipes. Why? The sail from Barbados to Trinidad was two hundred and fifty miles of sargassum weed.

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We didn’t mind catching it on the end of our line instead of our monster fish.. but that was only the beginning. Since 2011, sargassum has filled the Atlantic Ocean like bubbles in a hot tub. This season it’s been everywhere. Sargassum weed had piled up on Caribbean beaches in unprecedented quantities. Sailing in open seas, you can absolutely see why. It forms long brown lines as though it’s rope, going on for endless miles. Sailing this time, we began to stare at it with a whole new concern. Would Quest be ok with the engine on? Flushing the toilet? Anything that needed to suck water into Quest would be potentially dicey for blockage. We discovered that another boat had arrived in Peakes a few days after us, its engine intake so clogged with weed that it had conked out completely.

Ecologically, experts are still reluctant to predict what the effects of these sargassum blooms will be. Let alone explain where it’s come from. At first, people thought that perhaps the sargassum was an overproduced offshoot from the Sargasso Sea. Located to the east of the North American continent, the Sargasso Sea is in effect a huge, two million square mile gyre of sargassum weed. Is the increase down here due to offshoots of this gyre? No, it was recently confirmed unlikely. This is because huge amounts of this brown weed are being produced here, near the equator. This is an entirely new breeding ground.

A huge change is happening in the surface waters of the Atlantic. What will happen? On the one hand, it’s recognised that this extensive layer of weed floating on the ocean’s surface provides a nursery for many species of fish and sea creatures. They lay their eggs in it, hide underneath it, sometimes even feed on the algal fronds. On the other hand, these huge blooms are not natural. They’ve only been seen in the Caribbean region on this level since 2011. There are reports of dead fish, trapped turtles, huge piles of decomposing weed on Caribbean beaches. There have been attempts by the not small number of ingenious Caribbean people to turn it into useful products. Fertiliser is a key candidate. However, it also been recently discovered that sargassum has a high level of arsenic. Maybe not so good for putting on your pineapples. Right now the jury’s out.

For Quest right now, we decided it has to be filters. For this, Shiva came. Tall and skinny, with a hairdo wonderfully reminiscent of Coming to America’s ‘so-glow’, Shiva is one cool cat. He immediately invited us to his family’s barbecue on the weekend. And to stay in his house near Maracas. We smiled through a slightly embarrassed thanks, since there was no way we’d be able to with our schedule. He was so disarmingly nice though, it was hard to see properly for a little while.

‘I’m from the bad part of Port of Spain,’ he said grinning, ‘so it’s nice to be able to share what I have with people I like.’

From Laventville no less, we discovered. Spend more than five minutes in Trinidad and you find out about Laventville. It’s one of the most infamous neighbourhoods in Trinidad. Twelve-year old Laura knows a song about the boys from Laventville. She sang it to us. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there are a lot of warnings in the lyrics. Just outside Port of Spain’s city centre, the major highway goes alongside Laventville. We’d been warned from day one never to stop there. If your car broke down on this stretch of road, we were told that police would be immediately on hand. If not, there’d be a good chance that hooded men would strip you and your car faster than a parade of leaf-cutter ants. From then on, we stared intently out of the windows when passing Laventville. At the same time slouching towards the rental car’s floor.

But it’s also just a neighbourhood. It’s got houses like anywhere. Streets, schools, little shops on the corners. Through gaps in the highway fence, we caught glimpses of colourful washing hanging out on lines. Women talking across their washing lines. Men walking down the street.

We had to do one last thing before we left. It had to do with hummingbirds. Hummingbirds you say? Not more boat things like propellers? Or anchors? Oh yes; hummingbirds. I’m slightly obsessed with them. Catching a glimpse of one flitting around a purple flower or zooming off the edge of a cliff in the Caribbean, it’s the feels like the opposite of a curse. It’s a blessing. We’ve always caught one somewhere on our travels; flitting in and out of purple flowers in Jolly Harbour in Antigua, on remote beaches in the BVI. We even spotted a tiny nest in St. Lucia. Eggs like blue tic-tacs. Alas, no luck this season in Barbados. Now I’d read that Trinidad was once known as ‘Iere’. This means ‘Land of the Hummingbird’. I discovered that the hummingbird was once the Amerindians’, the indigenous people of Trinidad’s sacred animal. They believed that the little acrobatic birds carried the souls of their ancestors.

Perfect. I looked for a place to see them. Turns out that a world-class sanctuary exists in Trinidad, but it’s a long drive through the mountains. Hmm. I looked somewhere closer. In the top ten list of things to do in Trinidad, right near the top was hanging out in Theo and Gloria’s garden, Yerette. Literally. This is the back garden of two retired people who live high up in the Maracas Valley. Past Laventille, up, up and next to the huge silk cotton tree. The Amerindians’ sacred tree. In the Maracas valley which was the Amerindian’s sacred valley. Petroglyphs, Amerindian ancient rock carvings are found here. Hold on. Sacred bird. Sacred tree. Sacred valley. Was this just a coincidence?

Not by the look in Theo and Gloria’s eyes. Theo and Gloria opened up their garden for everyone to see. As well as planting flowers to attract hummingbirds, feeder after tree-hanging feeder was filled with sugar cane-diluted nectar solution. Theo took us aside at the start. ‘It’s nectar solution,’ he said seriously. ‘We never call it sugar water.’ Since I was standing in his garden, I nodded. But what was wrong with calling it sugar water I wondered? The hummingbirds didn’t seem to mind them. They ducked in and out of the gardens in their hundreds.

These tiny, long-beaked acrobats hovered at the feeders, drank their nectar solution and fought with each other. A lot. As we gaped at them, Theo chuckled at us. ‘They get pretty hungry.’ He rolled some facts our way to explain. Hummingbirds have the fastest wing speed of any bird at 20 to 200 beats per second. A resting heart rate of a staggering 500 beats per minute, rising to 1,250 when on the move. A metabolism that burns 160,000 calories a day. Wings that beat as a figure of eight instead of just the normal up and down, making them the only bird that can also move forwards and back and side to side. Like feathered, iridescent, hangry helicopters.

Theo revealed his plan for us. We were to become hummingbird ambassadors. This was because, he explained, along with bees, hummingbirds are the significant pollinators of plants in the tropical Americas. No hummingbirds, no pollination. At 345 species strong they are the second largest family of birds in the world. 18 species alone were to be found in Theo and Gloria’s garden. Including the White-Necked Jacobin, the Green-Throated Mango and the astonishingly beautiful Ruby Topaz. As Theo spoke, these evolutionary specialists buzzed around us.

To be honest, watching hummingbird wings beat 200 times a second made us hungry too. In the the sacred valley by the sacred tree, watching the sacred birds, we ate Gloria’s creamy soup and coconut bread and wondered.. It was the question you wonder when you’ve been somewhere too long to be a visitor anymore. How could we leave Trinidad? How would we go? Theo shrugged and went for a nap.

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