Posted on November 25, 2022
On Bonaire’s western shore, Maggie May floats upon aquamarine glass over what is known as the Bonaire House Reef. It’s a coral reef that extends the length of the town of Kralendijk, the main city center of the island. Though this reef has been more impacted by human development and enterprise than many other areas of Bonaire’s coral community, it is still healthier than 95 percent of the reefs we’ve visited in the Caribbean, which have been devastated by overfishing, climate change, hurricanes and disease.
In the shallows of this house reef is a vast sandy area, speckled with coral heads. Some are living, vibrant coral islands, others are dead and little more than rock. Also in the shallow sands people have dumped tires, old engines, pipes, construction waste and other detritus of unknown origin. The waste speaks poorly of the human species. It is however a tribute to the ingenuity of the natural world, the members of which have repurposed the rubble. Trumpet fish shelter in heaps of dingy rope, eels hide in old pipes, blennies perch like tiny ornate seals on engine parts colonized by spreading corals.
Bill and I regularly hop off the boat and venture out to observe the day’s dramatic underwater turns.
Recently in the giant rock pile that forms a marina break wall, we found a green moray eel, the first we had ever seen in the shallows, where mostly the smaller eels dwell. It was down about 20 feet, under the overhang of a large boulder. I swam down to get a closer look and found the eel was lying on its side, his mouth closed, looking very lethargic. I don’t know if eels lay down to sleep, but I hoped this was the case. I had seen many lethargic eels in the past days, following big rainstorms that washed pollution through culverts and over streets and into the ocean, diminishing the normally 70-100 foot visibility to a couple of murky brown inches. The water cleared when the tide went out, as it generally does, but many animals are highly vulnerable to these pollutants. I hoped the eel was just resting.
We swam on. Our route followed a short ledge of rock paralleling the coastline, in about 3 feet of water. I almost always end my snorkels and freedives here and almost always something unexpected occurs. This particular late afternoon, near the ledge, I came upon an area of small rock at the base of a towering luxury apartment building. The rock itself, a mixture of hundreds of thousands of staghorn and brain coral skeletons, bleached white by the sun and smoothed by the constant grinding swell, became beautiful in the angled light. But within it I saw something out of place. Legs. Too many legs. Eight of them. Attached to a textured orange rock. Cupid! Draw back your booooow. Zing! Mon amour, the octopus.
I called Bill over and we sat audience as it charismatically did almost nothing and moved almost not at all. Just a slight opening and closing of one watchful eye. We were casually assessed and deemed not an immediate threat.
As we were hovering, suddenly the octopus flashed white-blue and red and reared up on its legs. Like a hissing arched-back tom cat. We looked around to see what caused this prickly show and saw a chainlink eel esssssing through the rocks between us and the octopus. The eel was small and seemed utterly uninterested in any of us, including the freaked out octopus. When the eel had passed by, the octopus oozed back down into repose. Bill looked at me quizzically. I shrugged my shoulders. Bill watched the octopus a while longer and then headed home to the boat while I stayed to gawp.
The octopus started to shuffle around, foraging, probing. At a casual glance, this space seems just a jumble of inanimate objects, some are natural, some are dumped. Closer inspection shows every space has some sort of living thing upon or within or nearby. The octopuses busy arms, each serving as an auxiliary brain, probed the seascape’s every hidden secret.
When the octopus was barely visible in the dusky light, I returned to the boat. Full heart, empty belly.
The following day I ran my snorkeling circuit again. Stopping first at the overhang where we had found the green moray. There were other freedivers clustered around the boulder. Obviously the eel was still there. When they backed away, I dove down. He looked worse than the day before. His mouth had opened, but he was lying completely on his side and barely breathing. His tail was flat, covered in pale sand.
“He looks sick,” one of the divers said when I surfaced. I nodded in agreement. Then told them about an eel who had reportedly been swimming in the street during the last major stormwater flooding. I have seen gasoline spreading a toxic rainbow over the marina waters, and when big rains add the silt and sewage of ditches, roadways and the ever expanding construction sites, it all ends up in the gills of fish, the bellies of turtles and octopuses. Nothing could live if the ocean didn’t carry much of it away every twelve hours.
I stayed with the eel for a while as the others swam away. Quite sure that he was dying.
I continued on my same path, hoping to see the octopus again. In the shallows I did come across an octopus, but not the same one. This was a much smaller creature in a different location, and right beyond her, under the shallow ledge, a huge green moray eel. A healthy one, tucked almost entirely under the ledge, with an attendant juvenile angelfish. These juvenile fish often serve as cleaners for predators like eels. The little fish get something to eat and the predator gets a grooming. Proximity to great scary eel offers the little fish some protection from its own predators.
I spent most of the rest of daylight with this group, watching the octopus float along and plant itself here and there, in perfect camouflage with her surroundings. The weird buddies, eel and baby angelfish never leaving their ledge space. Peacock flounders came and went, fluttering by and melting into the sand. Trumpetfish, tangs, surgeonfish and parrotfish passed us by.
When it was near dark I went to the spot where I had seen the larger octopus the day before, but it was not there. I was just about to turn back to Maggie May when I saw, in a pile of rubble, three spotted moray eels, brilliant against the dark mound in early evening light. They were all pointed toward a single large rock, their bodies taut with interest and anticipation. The scene sparked with electricity. Had I known the cause, I may have turned away.
One of the eels, the largest, was fully out and nosing into a small crevice beneath the rock. A second, slightly smaller eel was nearly out of its crevice on the heels of the other. The third was watching closely, but waiting in safety for an opportunity to present itself. Suddenly, the largest eel plunged toward the bottom of the rock. Its head disappeared then bam! it stopped abruptly, the rest of its body too thick to cram inside the hole. It jerked itself out, paused for a disgruntled moment and then swam around the rock and disappeared into a pile of rubble behind it. The second eel seemed to be considering its options. I think it was wary of me, but driven by hunger. There was food under that rock. The eel ventured out a bit from its hole, then slunk back in. Came out a bit more, then slunk back in. After a few wavering minutes it ventured all the way out and swam toward the bottom of the rock. One moment passed, uncertainty, hesitation, then resolve. It jammed itself into the small hole. Like the first eel its head disappeared but then it stuck hard, its flesh ballooning out with pressure. But rather than retreat, it heaved violently inward, forcing itself into the hole. In my mind there must have been a scraping of hard rock on soft skin. A tearing injury. I had only a blink to ponder this harm because in fractions of seconds, in a tumult, in a thrashing blink of a moment, there appeared in the near dark a tip of an eel’s tail, then a ball of what looked like an eel torn in two and tied in knots. Thrashing, confusion, then finally clarity. The eel was in a ball, but it was not ripped, it had ripped an octopus from that hole, wrapped itself in a ball to extract and hold the struggling creature, then, after a breath of time, swallowed the octopus. For one brief second, two of the octopus’ legs held desperately to the rock. Grasping, one… last… moment… of life. And then the end. It was gone. No more than a bulge in the throat of the eel.
I swam slowly away from this carnage, my heart racing, my mind reeling with an understanding that this was probably the same octopus I had spent time with the evening before. My photos are likely some of the last visual evidence of its beautiful life. I returned to Maggie May in the dark.
The following day, again I swam my circuit. The green moray under the boulder lay still, utterly and forever still. His once smooth, leaf green body was mottled, discolored with dark patches, and almost completely covered in a fine layer of silt. I swam down, saw the finality of his situation, then floated quietly above for some time. Nearby a lizardfish and trumpetfish had a brief, non-violent exchange. The the lizardfish skulked away. The trumpetfish ghosted above the eel’s body. I could hear the munching of parrotfish teeth on rock. Of waves crashing against the jetty. A spotted drum peeked out from a hidden place.
Life moves forward on the reef and under rocks and over the sand. The hard coral will be spawning soon. The sergeant majors will tend their eggs.
I said some words in my mind for the eel and the octopus. I understand something of how it feels to have your world end amid the indifferent hum and thrust of the ever-living world. I know it not from the point of one dying or dead, but from one who has watched death take hold while I mounted a raging feeble protest, was ignored and defeated, and sat watching the world rush by as it ever will.
I didn’t find any octopuses that day.
I recently read, The Soul of an Octopus, an interesting book that I was put off by because, while the author detailed the intelligence and beauty of these creatures, she also seemed to support the keeping of octopuses in captivity. She made the usual excuses people make about captivity: they are well fed and cared for, they live longer lives. This is true. Common octopuses only live a year or two in the wild, and after my recent experience I have to believe much of that time is spent in fear. But that is the grand bargain of life isn’t it? Taking the fear and want and joy and adventure as it comes, or striving for a life of safe captivity.
Yesterday I walked to downtown Kralendijk as a cruise ship was disembarking its masses. They walked past me on the shoreline sidewalk, chatting and gazing around at the newness of the place to their eyes. A woman with a British accent stopped me. She looked hot, tired as she asked, a bit skeptically, “Is there anything that way?” She pointed north, toward the mooring field, the shoreline ledge and rock jetty beneath the aquamarine bay. I looked out over the water as I puzzled out how to answer that question. Yes, there is everything that way. Beauty like you’ve never seen, love and death and nightmares, weird stuff, and also hunger and despair. There is transformation. There is grief. There is connection. Beginnings and endings. Ignominy. Pain. There is everything.
But I surmised that wasn’t really what she was asking, so I looked back at her and said, “There are no restaurants or shops. It’s pretty much what you see here.”
She grabbed her husband by the elbow and they turned back toward the cruise ship towering above downtown Kralendijk.
Posted on October 3, 2022
I have tried to write a blog many times telling the story of the past few months, but always I would get a bunch of words on paper and then quit. So I will move ahead, to what is happening now. I apologize for the gap in the story of the voyages of the SV Maggie May. It may be jarring for some who know me. But it cannot be helped.
For the first time in almost three months, I plunge into Bonaire’s turquoise waters. Bill and I returned a week ago, ending a long and uncertain absence from the Maggie May, but despite the oppressive heat, this was the first time I felt like going to the trouble of getting my snorkeling gear out and riding the dinghy to the reef. In truth, I don’t really feel like it still, but I have some hope that a plunge, and a quest, can shake the disconsolate haze that has clung to me since our return.
My quest, an octopus.
Back in June, before Bill found out that he had cancer, I was snorkeling this same reef off the northwest coastline and another snorkeler pointed out an octopus peeking from a small hole in a mound of mostly dead coral. I stayed watching the octopus for a long time, making note of how to find the den again. Every time I went diving or snorkeling in that area, which was often because it is one of the few reefs our electric dinghy can reach, I went back to check and see if the octopus was still there. She always was. And always she was tucked into the hole, just an eye peering out. The den is about 12-15 feet deep, and sometimes I would swim down to get a closer look, which often caused the octopus to change color in frustration. Mostly I would hover at a distance and just observe.
So much has changed since the last time I visited her. I am different. Bill is different. This voyage is different. Even Maggie May is different, having weathered almost three months alone, closed up, under the scorching tropical sun.
I jump out of the dinghy and into the deeps beneath the buoy where I have tethered Dingy (the dinghy has her own name, not flattering, but well earned.) I swim along the shelf, passing coral heads and piles of steel and concrete dumped by humans. I know these things as landmarks on the way to my octopus den. But when I arrive at the place where the den should be, I cannot find it. It is easy to get disoriented in the water, and much time has passed since my last visit. I swim on, appreciating the feel of the water on my skin; the sight of the late afternoon sun shattering into beams piercing the blue, blue waters of the deep; the company of sergeant majors schooling around me, the angled sunlight golden upon them.
A hairlike substance brushes my fingers and before I can even feel the harsh sting, I know its a jellyfish. The sting lingers as I tuck my arms tight against my body and continue searching. I dive into the middle depths to admire unusual corals, my ears struggling to adjust again to the pressure of 15-20 feet. A motor whines somewhere in the water. There is always a motor whining or growling in this world. I round back toward Dingy, a little shallower, then turn again a little shallower and finally I see it, the cluster of corals I know to be the home of the octopus. She won’t be there anymore, it’s been too long. I prepare for disappointment. But on approach, I see with relief that I am wrong, she is there, poised at the opening of her den, venturing out further than I have ever seen her. She is quite small, smaller than I imagined. But just as beautiful.
I hover, hoping she will come out fully but ready to be happy just to have seen her, right there where she was before everything.
A small black fish, a cocoa damselfish, loiters nearby. I have seen these fish attacking octopus before, possibly as earned retribution for something, or possibly to defend fishing territory. The octopus flashes white and shifts her skin so that she appears to have spikes on her head. Then she shifts back to a drab brown dress and climbs fully out of the den and up onto the top of the coral structure. The fish follows closely. A single coil of arm reaches out from under the octopus’s body and unravels to a single finger probing toward a nearby coral. The fish swims closer and then THWAP! the arm whips out toward the fish, which darts a safe distance away. The octopus flashes a few wild shades and patterns, then makes itself a black and white striped torpedo and shoots 15 feet away. The fish, undaunted, follows closely behind. I follow at a distance.
I watch these two and this pattern as the sun sinks toward the horizon. The octopus is now flat against a rock, matching exactly the same color of brown as its rocky shield. I would have passed within a few feet and not seen her had I not known she was there. The fish waits nearby. Occasionally the octopus reaches out an arm or two and probes in holes, trying to flush out small crustaceans and other prey. The fish, I am sure at this point, hopes to partake in this bounty should it emerge. They will continue this dance. I turn back to Dingy and head back to Bill and Maggie May, both resting in the marina.
As I secure Dingy and board the boat, I feel lighter. Lighter, but not free of the weighty shadow. It may always be here now, maybe smaller and smaller each day as Bill heals from treatment, as we take each unusual day as it comes on board Maggie May.
In truth, I don’t want that shadow to leave me entirely.
My mind returns often to an experience I had while back home in Washington DC this summer. Throughout Bill’s treatment we relied much on the love and kindness of friends, and one of those friends, Dave, we stayed with for several months. He was at that time doing a head start program for monarch caterpillars. Keeping them safe and enclosed while they grew into butterflies. I watched these monarchs closely, from the mothers who were drawn to Dave’s backyard by the work he and his partner Lindsay have done planting and tending native plants; to the eggs, just tiny bumps on milkweed leaves; to voracious caterpillars; to the moment they peeled back their skin to reveal the jeweled chrysalides within.
I watched those chrysalides with a sort of hunger, a gnawing need to experience what came next. I watched for weeks as Bill lay in Dave’s basement, resting and mending.
Outside the jade chrysalis, utter stillness. Inside, there was a riot of pain and self harm. The caterpillar devouring itself. At this stage the creature—or creatures more aptly—are a biological bridge between the caterpillar and the butterfly. They are goop in a gilded sack, largely made up of what’s known as imaginal cells. They had been there all along waiting inside the caterpillar. But the caterpillar had to die in order for them to take charge, to grow and organize, to lay out their blueprints and work together to create the world’s most exquisite flying machine.
I watched as the packages hanging in the enclosure paled and thinned and then ripped apart; as wings unfolded and life aglow took its first tremulous flight.
Afterward I would look out onto Dave’s back yard and see a blood stain dripping down the white mesh of the empty monarch enclosure under the towering maple.
Not really blood. It was meconium, a reddish liquid made up of all the materials that the monarch didn’t need for its transfiguration.
This gruesome smear dripping down and the lingering image of it in my mind now, back in Bonaire, offer a reminder of what happened there, in Mount Rainier, Maryland. The excruciating pain, the unbearable beauty. It’s the color of change left behind by a new life that has already flown away. It’s the color of melancholy.
Bill’s treatment was successful. We came back to Maggie May carrying our gratitude, immense relief, a quiet, fearful joy. Carrying also a shadow of concern that will perhaps always be with us now. A stain, red, melancholic. I can hold this red shadow in my hand. Mourn it. Cherish it. Close my fingers around it and keep it safe for the reminder it is of things we have learned. Or relearned and should not forget. The trembling frailty of life, the buoyancy of love. The uncertain nature of all our voyages in life.
The need to find constancy where it may be found, rather than where we want to find it.
I will go again soon to search for my octopus.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, beauty, bonaire, butterfly, cancer, grief, imaginal cells, journey, krista schlyer, Maggie May, monarch, nature, ocean, octopus, photography, sailing, sv maggie may, washington dc, wildlife
Posted on June 8, 2022
Tyrell Bay, Carriacou. 3:16 am
This would have been a night to get some sleep.
The past few days blur in heat and exhaustion, long dusty uncomfortable days trying to get everything ready for a 400-mile sail to Bonaire but not knowing if the weather will shape up to make the passage feasible. As of 3 am it looks good. The wind forecast is between 10-20 knots and waves 4-6 feet, down from 6-8 at one point. Yesterday we picked up our laundry, scoured the town for veggies and fruits, found a few sad potatoes and cucumbers and a small cabbage. We hauled about 360 pounds of water to the boat in 5 gallon jugs, spent hours scraping barnacles from the hull, got Covid tests, checked out with Grenada customs and immigration. Precooked some meals, set up the sails, mapped our route on the charts. We were ready.
In these sleepless hours I recheck the weather and go over our route. I watch the moon light the sky, as it will light the darkest hours of the coming days. I listen to fretful birds nesting nearby, and to our rigging singing along with the gusty wind in a high pitched whine.
I think about that moment when our depth sounder goes from 290 feet to – – –. That’s somewhere beyond 300 feet, how much beyond is practically irrelevant. This passage the depth will fall to almost 10,000 feet. The sounder will read – – –, off soundings.
We put so much trust in this boat, a few centimeters of fiberglass carrying us over water 10,000 feet deep. I didn’t realize how important that trust was two years ago when we left. How it would need to be built passage by passage. How trust in general would shape so much of our experience on this voyage.
Our wake-up alarms clamor. I shut them down quickly so Bill and others in this anchorage can sleep a bit longer. About 4:15am I feel my way through boat shadows to the aft cabin where Bill is sleeping under a ray of moonlight streaming through the deck hatch. I put a hand on his shoulder and he slowly opens his eyes. He remembers where he is, rises with effort. We check the weather one last time. Wind 15-20 knots, waves 4-6 feet. We go.
There are just a few final items on our Anchors Up list: sunscreen, nausea medication, secure compartments below decks, check the bilge. We raise the anchor and drive out beyond the sleeping sailboats to raise the sails in the calm seas of Tyrell Bay. A yellow glow hangs thinly on the eastern horizon.
The downwind sail set-up is new to Maggie May and crew. It’s more complicated than our usual sail plan, the one we’ve used for most of the thousands of upwind miles we’ve traveled, a main sail and genoa. But now, at last we are traveling with the wind. We won’t be using the main sail at all, and will have two sails flying on opposite sides of the bow. This double headsail set-up requires a matrix of lines to keep it in check. The genoa sheet on the starboard side runs through the end of a gib pole affixed to the mast, which is held up parallel to the water by a topping lift line and tensioned forward with a guy line that runs to the bow and then back to the midship cleat where we can adjust it without having to stray too far from the safety of the cockpit. The web of lines crisscrossing the deck looks like a laser alarm system in Mission Impossible. With the genoa thus unfurled on the starboard side we begin setting up a second sail on the port (left) side of the bow, on a wire solent stay just about a foot aft of the genoa. This sail’s sheet is run through the end of the boom, which we have pushed out as far to port as it will go and secured with a line to prevent it from swinging wildly around in a wind shift or big wave.
Bill hauls the second sail up and we trim both sails, then pull the kill switch on the engine, returning quiet to the dawn. An engine extinguished, the world sighs in relief. Light wind pushes gently from the stern, ghosting us out of the bay on a course of 280 degrees, almost due west and dead downwind.
At 3 miles offshore, the sounder falls to infinity —.
Soon the wind picks up and the waves double in size. We are leaving the protection of land behind. But the Atlantic does not quickly forget the abrupt interruption of Carriacou and its mountains upon the water’s westward march. Waves continue arguing over which direction they ought to travel. Pushing and shoving ensues. Their chaos makes for an unpleasant ride on Maggie May, who is attempting to make her way through this unruly crowd. Every wave hits from a slightly different direction and sets Maggie May into a wobbly, jerky roll. Human bodies do not adapt to this ever changing motion. We wedge ourselves tightly against the boat and brace when the bigger waves hit. Bill and I are both wearing a prescription scopolamine patch for seasickness and have taken a ginger pill as well, hopefully it will be enough.
I take first watch, 6 to 9 am. Bill will take over 9-12pm, then me at 12-3, Bill 3-6 and the cycle starts again and rolls on for the next 50 hours or so. The first watch will be easy. Just now the sun becomes visible beyond the mountains of Carriacou behind a thick veil of mist. So dense is this shroud of haze that the sun appears as a yellow wafer in a muted yellow sky above the charcoal outlines of Grenada’s jagged mountain peaks. A painterly sky, emotive and grandiose. A sky under which it feels just fine to be small and filled with awe. To be a brushstroke on a great canvas too immense to behold.
Through my watch, as I fuss the sails and watch the horizon, land recedes into indistinct haze where the lines between sea and sky blur.
I pull the genoa flatter than a downwind course generally wants, hoping to minimize the jerking and loud snapping of the sail when waves disrupt the angle of the wind on the stern. This seems to help. It requires trimming the genoa in, then easing the guy line on the midship starboard cleat so the tension is not too great on the three lines and pole connected to the forward sail. There is much trial and error. If the guy is too tight, it fairly screams with tension. If too loose, the pole bangs against the rigging. Each time I adjust the guy line, I have to clip my inflatable vest harness to a line that runs along the side deck, so that if the boat moves unexpectedly and I lose my balance, I’ll stay attached. Bill is asleep. It’s my job to keep myself on board.
The complicated nature of the double head sail makes me wary of squalls. There is no changing these sails quickly and the setup won’t work if the wind is anywhere but behind us. A squall with shifty wind would require turning off course to find downwind wherever the storm might put it.
I don’t worry overly, a storm seems unlikely. The haze that has subdued the sky for days is very likely a huge cloud of desert dust blown across the Atlantic from the Sahara. This tends to discourage squalls. Around 7:30am clouds begin to gather and darken and I watch for changing weather, but the darkness disbands after dropping a light sprinkling of rain. And throughout my first watch the wind stays almost due east.
At 9:00 Bill climbs into the cockpit to relieve me. I sit with him for a while and then go down below to record my watch log: where we are, how far we traveled, at what speed and in what conditions. It is a log of our journey and the boat’s performance under certain circumstances, but more importantly it’s a trail of breadcrumbs so we can find ourselves upon the globe if ever our instruments fail.
I lay down in the sea berth we have prepared in the main salon. The boat is equipped with lee boards for both of the settees (couches) in the main salon. These boards slot in to notches along the outside of the settees, making a snug little crib for staying put in a rolling sea. But just because you don’t fall out doesn’t mean you can sleep. Every few seconds waves push the boat to starboard, then to port, then starboard, and sometimes hard. The sails loudly protest the ocean’s treatment. This is not an environment I’ll sleep in until I’m good and tired, there will be no banking of sleep for the midnight to 3 am watch. Still it is restful, a time for the body to relax from the constant energy required for staying upright. I lay and let my mind wander for an hour before rejoining Bill in the cockpit.
We sit watching water, endless water. Land is by this point no longer in sight and the waves have begun to agree on a direction of travel, so Maggie May is taking a bit less of a random pounding. Many seabirds, mostly boobys, terns, tropicbirds and gulls, fly near the boat heading north. I wonder if they are headed to the far north for nesting, or just to some good fishing grounds they’ve heard of. The nearest land to the north is Montserrat, 250 miles away.
Isolation sets in as they fly past. There is only silver-blue ocean, thousands of feet deep, and blue-white sky unfathomable. I have to remind myself where I am. Often this is the case when I wake in the morning, having traveled afar in dreams and forgetfulness in the night. In waking life I can usually place myself. But in this scene we could be anywhere, in any ocean where the trade winds harry the sea westward.
During Bill’s 3-6 pm watch the winds accelerate, 15-18 knots. This helps Maggie May move better through the uneven terrain. I make us some bowls of premade potato and pasta salad and we sit with our dinner as the sun sets on our first day.
After I eat, I go below to gather my watch items ( headlamp, first aid kit, nausea medicine, sunscreen, glasses, crackers, etc). Bill calls out “Come up here!” I poke my head up and he points to the ocean. “Look at that huge mat of sargassum! It’s so beautiful in the sunset light.” A copper sheen is on the water under a yellow-orange sky and this island-sized raft of sargassum is undulating upon the shimmering sea. The blur between water and sky offers the eye an illusion, hard to shake: we on this boat, that undulating carpet of sea plant, we are floating weightless, aimless and utterly alone upon an unbroken sunset sky.
We are not truly alone. A universe of life hums beneath this living, breathing carpet. Fish and jellyfish, eggs and larva, millions of bacteria, baby octopuses, schools of small fish, perhaps some hunters following from the darkness below. We humans often make the mistake of believing the illusion, of understanding the world to be the known world, the visible. What we see and understand. It is perhaps more comfortable to believe this pretty lie. But also much lonelier.
I take up watch as the sun slips beyond the horizon and darkness creeps across the sky, making of the seas a churning leaden plain. Gradually, pale stars appear behind the haze. As darkness deepens, the greatest source of light appears in our wake as Maggie May cuts through steely water, creating mounds of white froth filled with thousands of green sparks, bioluminescent bacteria. Fireflies winking on and off, disturbed by the passage of the boat. Stars in the sky, stars in the sea. Those invisible souls you will never see by daylight, though they are always there. Darkness is their time.
Before leaving Carriacou we had decided not to use our running lights and to switch off our AIS transmitter (which normally sends out information about Maggie May to other boats in the vicinity) in order to avoid the attention of pirates. There are several isolated locations in the Caribbean where attacks have occurred, and the north coast of Venezuela is one of those places sailors often avoid. We are more than 70 miles off the mainland coast. An attack is highly unlikely. But before our departure I read a disquieting account of some unusual vessel behavior sailors encountered along this route. As a precaution, we travel in darkness.
At 9:00 pm Bill takes over. I write my watch log and then manage to sleep a bit despite the continuing erratic rocking motion of the boat. When I enter the cockpit at midnight, the world has been brightened by a waning gibbous moon now high in the eastern sky. Stars and bioluminescence have faded under a river of moonlight spreading across the sea. Over the next few hours the river broadens as the moon hikes the sky.
In the north the lights of a ship appear. I find an AIS icon for it on our chart plotter and check its information– a 200-foot vessel headed on a coarse of 135 degrees that will pass within 5 miles of us in 20 minutes. A pirate vessel would not likely be on AIS or so well lit as this ship, not a clever pirate anyway. Still, I keep a close eye on it to make sure it doesn’t change course in our direction. When it has passed on its way southeast I return to watching the moonlight on the water, on the white sails glowing brightly on the dark sea. And I feel suddenly very conspicuous in the moonlight. The same light that had been a comfort for what it allowed my eyes to see is now a concern for what it allows other boats to see. I scan every horizon near and far for the dark outlines of boats. I consider how I would react if another boat did appear. And I breathe deeply to find some calm. So much of the past few years have been geared toward this mastery of self, of fear and anxiety. Sorting out what fears are real, what dangers are actually present, and which are not. The first year on the boat we lived in a perpetual state of hypervigilence, both Bill and I in our own ways always anticipating the next challenge. Gradually that has shifted, with much effort. With many deep breaths.
The fact that we are still on the boat, sailing to Venezuelan islands, the fact that I didn’t wake Bill upon seeing that ship, all of this is testimony to how much we have learned. When Bill comes on watch at 3am I let him know about the ship and then go to log and berth. This time I am tired enough to fully immerse in dreams for most of my time off-watch. When I wake near dawn the wind has increased again, averaging 20 knots and the waves have grown accordingly. The equatorial current pushes us along, adding about a knot of speed. And we are often surfing down the face of waves at 9 knots or more, a giddy speed for a girthy girl like Maggie May.
This is a nice change from clawing our way into the face of the wind over the past few years, but it is speeding our trip so much that we are now ahead of our scheduled landfall in Gran Roque, and will be arriving in the dark hours of the following morning. We make it a rule never to arrive at night if we can avoid it, so we roll up the genoa several turns to slow our speed. This helps but we are are still averaging 7+ knots on my afternoon watch and creating enough of a bow wake that a pod of dolphins takes notice of our swift big-bellied Maggie May and starts weaving back and forth across the front of the boat. They swim with us for 10 minutes before disappearing into the blue.
As wind and waves increase throughout the day and night we reef the genoa more and more until it is little more than a picnic blanket in size. On my midnight watch the moon is bright enough I can see waves rise above the solar panels on the stern, some 7-9 feet above the trough and 3-4 feet above my own head. When we rise onto a wave crest I look down onto the solar panels and the horizon beyond. At times the stern kicks out to the side as we surf down wave faces. I reach the beginning of concern, but we never go near full broadside to the next wave as Maggie May quickly rights herself square with the seas. She has earned much trust over these years.
When Bill comes on watch we discuss the building seas. We are nearing the place where thousands of feet of rolling water hit the shelf of shallow ocean surrounding Los Roques. This is likely to agitate the the already lively seas. We both make a mental note to be prepared, and I go to sleep for a bit. When I return to the cockpit Bill is hand steering to keep the boat squared off with the sea, a somewhat grim look on his face. I recall at once that it is his birthday today, but think maybe now is not the time for cake.
We can see the summit of Gran Roque rising from the water in the near distance, and soon we will reach the more protected waters on the leeward side of the island. But to get there we need to turn southward, and our downwind sail setup won’t work with the wind any further forward. But we also don’t want to go to the bow to untangle the sheets and guy lines and pole while the sea is so rough. So Bill carefully steers along the edge of the sails’ comfort. When they start to complain loudly, thrashing and snapping in their confusion, he turns westward and downwind to appease them. Then he tries to sneak upwind and southward for a bit before being forced to turn downwind again. In this way we sneak into the calmer lee of Gran Roque where we roll up the genoa fully, haul the boom back onto the centerline and then Bill goes forward to wrestle down the second sail and lash it to the deck as the bow bucks up and down and side to side. When he returns to the cockpit he sighs, “That was intense.”
“Happy Birthday!” I say. He smiles tiredly.
We motor the final mile or two in the shadow of of the Great Rock that rises hundreds of feet out of the endless horizon of the Caribbean Sea. Pelicans, terns, gulls and frigate birds patrol the waters, following close behind fishing skiffs on their morning runs. A bold line of turquoise marks the boundary between sandy shallows and the deep. We get our anchor down in the sand and the boat settled and then we both lay down and fall asleep for half an hour. When we wake, it is approaching 9 am and time to check in with Venezuelan customs and immigration. We had planned to stay in the Venezuelan islands for two weeks, the maximum stay allowed by visiting boats. After that we would travel on to Bonaire from the far western Venezuelan island, Sotavento in the island chain of Los Aves. But after a disheartening morning running from office to office and back again, we come to understand that alone among all countries visiting this nation, United States citizens must have a visa. We do not. We will need to pull up anchor and continue on to Bonaire.
This was something we should have known ahead of time. But for the past two years the politics of the United States has been distant, a poison left on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Here in some of the most remote islands in the Caribbean it catches up to us. Trump. Some words to the effect of: I might invade Venezuela. Sanctions. Threats. Posturing. In 2020 a boatful of US men and guns landed on the Venezuelan coast (almost directly south of where we are now), planning to foment an overthrow of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. Trump denied official involvement.
We are officially not welcome here and our own government does not want us coming here.
Sadly, it is also one of the loveliest places we have been. A place unique in all our travels. The town of Gran Roque is small, just a few sand streets criss cross a town of brightly painted houses, shops, and restaurants along the coast of a small aquamarine bay. Almost everyone we meet is kind and welcoming, apologetic about the policy that will require our swift departure. We stop for lunch at a seaside restaurant. Bill is glum. “Great birthday,” he mutters. We order some lemonade and a veggie burger and vegan taco, surprised to find these items on the menu. When they arrive I take a bite of the veggie burger and smile big at Bill. “Your birthday is looking up.” I hand it to him, he takes a bite and the same smile spreads across his face. “Impossible.” We have seen very few Impossible burgers in our travels and this is a good if improbable time for one to pop up. The restaurant also has a chocolate torte to round out Bill’s birthday lunch.
After lunch we walk back to the Port Authority to tell one of our new friends Jose that we will be leaving right away by order of customs and immigration. To this he says: “No, that’s not right. You have 72 hours to rest and relax. You cannot travel around the islands but you can provision and rest.” He makes some phone calls, confirms that all the officials are on the same page, and helps us with our paperwork. He tells us he’s sorry we can’t stay, that it is politics, but in his mind, “todos somos hermanos.” We are all brothers.
This makes all the difference. Over the next 24 hours Jose arranges for us to be able to make a rest stop at one of the most beautiful islands in the Los Roques chain, which will aid us on our travel to Bonaire and let us see some of what we came to see.
We go through all the inspections, health checks and paperwork we need, then pull up anchor in Gran Roque with 48 hours left to go on our transit visa, and sail toward Cayo de Agua. This small spit of land is about 15 miles west of Gran Roque and lies on the far western edge of the Los Roques island chain. As we travel we have to pass by many great anchorages we had marked on our charts, including one Bill has dubbed “the greatest anchorage in the Caribbean.” There is a sadness in passing them by unvisited, understanding that this is likely our once-in-a-lifetime sail to Los Roques. We discuss the idea of returning after several months in Bonaire, if we could get the United States to issue a visa, if we could find a perfect weather window where the wind shifted north or south without a major storm. Both highly improbable.
We are drawn by the remoteness, the quiet, the impossible beauty of these waters. Bill says, “I’m glad we learned to read the water in the Bahamas, or this would have been terrifying.” It’s true, we had to go through a process of sailing over water that appeared to be 3-4 feet deep to understand that it was actually 8-10 feet and we could tell by the color. Charts are not reliable in remote places like this, you have to trust your eyes and what you have learned. But beyond the skills we have learned, our comfort and well-being is a matter of perception.
Any adventure is a process of seeing something out ahead of you, something you yearn toward. But inherent in the adventure is uncertainty, a shroud of mystery that prompts fear and anxiety beyond the challenge of the thing itself. The only way you can move forward toward that thing you want, is to take steps toward self-doubt, to walk through the veil of the unknown. To see that —, where depth falls to infinity, where you have no solid footing, and to feel your heart flicker and threaten to fail, yet still to take that next decisive step. It is of course better to do that after you have some foundational skills, but some skills you cannot acquire without first finding the courage to walk blind into the mystery.
I am still uncertain of myself. But I am no longer drowning in self-doubt.
A small pod of dolphins approaches the boat. Many of them are little ones but there is one very large dolphin that comes to the side of the bow and surfaces, then lifts its tail and smacks it hard on the water surface. It does this twice, and the pod swims quickly off.
When we arrive at Cayo de Agua, we decide to anchor on the windward side of the island, tucked behind another small island called Cayo Elbert, which we think will afford us more protection from strong gusty winds. The water shifts quickly from dark royal blue to aquamarine to green-blue, shallower and shallower, we watch the depth sounder obsessively as we ease in as close as we can get to the sandy strip of land. I put the anchor down in 7 feet and when we are snugged up we look around upon a paradise of sunlight caught in white sand and blue green glass. Hundreds of pelicans, boobys, terns, frigate birds and wading birds wander the sand and stone of Cayo Elbert. We lower the dinghy from its stowage place beneath the solar panels and head in toward shore where the birds are congregated. There are the usual seabirds but also black noddy and even a great blue heron. And there are masses of them, fishing in the shallows, resting on the rocks, flying about. Through clear water we watch baby sea turtles darting here and there and fish swimming about the dinghy, schooling away from the pursuit of birds and other fish.
We watch the urgency of it all as the sun goes down and then we open a couple of Venezuelan beers, lounge in the dinghy and float back to the Maggie May. We take our baths in the cockpit as night falls, have some dinner and are asleep by 9pm.
In the morning we discuss our next move. I would like to stay here but we only have 24 hours left on our transit visa. We are supposed to leave the country by tomorrow, May 24. But we don’t have a slip or mooring in Bonaire until June 1 and anchoring is prohibited there. So we might get there and have to continue on to Curacao if we can’t get a space in the marina. We remember two things: 1.) The main halyard (line that hauls up the main sail) is wrapped around the radar reflector near the top of the mast. We have to get up there to unwind it before it rips the reflector off. 2) There is a tropical wave approaching, possibly bringing some foul weather with it. We decide to stay and wait out the weather and fix the halyard.
I haul Bill up the 50-foot-mast and he frees the halyard then we rest from that exertion by lounging about the boat. We do some snorkeling and then spend an hour cleaning the bottom of the boat. The wind stays strong and gusty throughout the day, but no storms arrive. During the night Bill goes on deck and sees lightening in the distance and the following morning dark clouds roll in along the southern horizon. Our transit visa is up today, we need to get to the Coast Guard station at the far western edge of the Venezuelan islands of Los Aves, some 40 miles away and a full day’s sail. But we are wary of leaving under this sky. We watch the clouds for an hour. They are rolling along to the south, along the mainland coast, but don’t seem to be threatening our path westward to Los Aves. We pull up anchor and get sailing toward Sotavento.
The wind is 20-25 knots and we’re making fast miles. After a few hours a ship appears from the east. It’s not on AIS. It is the only boat we’ve seen for more than 24 hours and looks to be a fishing vessel. It is getting nearer, but very gradually. “Why is it going so slow?” I wonder aloud. We watch as it moves closer and closer, three-quarters of a mile, half a mile, one-quarter, on an overtaking course just to port of our stern. Then it points directly to our stern and gradually slightly to starboard. It crosses over behind us, maybe 1000 feet away. Bill and I have been watching it closely, quietly.
“Where is the flare gun?” Bill says. I go to our emergency kit and get the flares and gun, then stop at the navigation table and grab some bear spray I have on board. (Just in case there are bears.) I am sitting there with the spray, Bill is holding the flare gun, when the boat passes behind us and begins to pull slowly ahead. I say, “Well, it looks like they were just changing course to go around us.” Bill responds, “Yes, maybe to be upwind of us, easier to overtake us.” It is odd to travel so close to another boat when there is so much ocean out here. And they were matching our speed, when surely the power boat is capable of a lot faster speeds than a boat sailing 7 knots. Still, the idea of boarding another boat in these rough seas seems crazy, as both boats would be damaged badly.
Our friend Jose in Gran Roque spent 20 years in the navy and he told us that piracy was only an issue along northeastern Venezuela coast, in the seas between Venezuela and Trinidad. The rest of the coast, he told us, is too well patrolled by the coast guard and navy, which are a combined force in Venezuela. This made a lot of sense to me. The reality of piracy in a very limited location has been inflated by stories passing from sailboat to sailboat, (sailors can tell some stories) creating a culture of fear around the entire 500+ miles of the Venezuelan coast and 100 miles offshore. It happens easily. We are vulnerable on so many levels out here. Fears take flight and actions of other boats are interpreted through this lens.
The boat stays a fixture on our starboard side for about 20 minutes and then moves slowly ahead of us toward Barlovento in Los Aves.
“A fishing boat most likely,” Bill says. We put our makeshift arsenal away and continue on.
It is a torture to pass Barlovento, a dream island for us. A bird island, home to thousands according to what we have read. Fish and reefs and birds and nothing else, the surrounding water a blue flame of liquid sunlight. We discuss stopping, but know we need to respect the directions of the Venezuelan authorities.
As we sail onward, a large flock of boobys descends upon the boat. This bird is a strange one. Every time one flies near the cockpit where we are sitting, it peers in, eyes locked in on us for several seconds before continuing on its aerial circuit. Many of them do this, staring at us so intently. What is it they look for? Are they just curious, or trying to ascertain something about us that would be to their advantage. Their faces don’t express curiosity. They have a face something like the plague masks of the 17th century. Not sinister, just blank and probing.
They accompany the boat for 20 minutes, following us west. When they aren’t circling around us they skim along the water surface, sometimes so low their wingtips slice through the churned up sea. This entourage of plague-masked busy bodies gave me joy. Even though we can’t visit Barlovento, some of Barlovento visits us.
By the time we reach Sotavento the sun is deep in the west. The wind bends around the coast and accelerates, whipping the water into a choppy chaos. This anchorage will not be peaceful, but if the coast guard lets us stay, it will be better than continuing on to Bonaire or even Curacao overnight. The coast guard station is a small outpost on a remote strip of sand. Just a few towers and small buildings. We anchor as close to the station as depth will allow, and as it turns out, right behind the only other boat in the anchorage, our pirate pursuers, who have also stopped here for the night.
I hail the coast guard on the VHF and in my best bad Spanish ask if we can stay. I can barely hear the response but understand that they are coming out to inspect us. In a few minutes five men in full military attire circle the Maggie May in their boat, then hand us their lines to tie on our starboard cleats. When they are secured, they wait an awkward moment, then ask if they can come aboard. I think in that moment I was supposed to invite them but I missed this cue while trying to think of useful Spanish words. The Comandante of the base speaks English well, though I do my best to speak Spanish back to him. I’m not sure if this is a kindness given how I butcher the language, but he seems to understand me and it feels important to make the effort. One of the officers comes below with Bill and I and gives Maggie May a thorough search inside and out, picking up cushions and opening storage compartments, enough to be certain we are not smuggling anything. Both he and the Comandante are polite, professional and efficient. Much of my recent life experience with law enforcement has been with US Border Patrol, so I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of aggressiveness.
The Comandante gives us leave to spend the night. We are grateful for this reprieve from the rough waters and strong wind. After they leave, we eat some leftovers and go to sleep.
At first light we are anchors up and on our way.
The final 30 miles to Bonaire goes by quickly. When the towers on the southern lowlands of the island become visible, an exhausted euphoria begins to set in. It is still setting in. I had no hope we would reach this island a year ago. Bill had been ready to go home, too exhausted by disappointment after disappointment early on in the trip. I wanted, needed, to continue. I said to him, “Please, just get to Bonaire with me.”
It took us another year, but we made it.
Posted on March 3, 2022
About midway down the western edge of Guadeloupe there is a small bay where the town of Bouillante nestles within the foothills of towering green peaks. Here most of the population speaks French, the air smells strongly of sulfur, and every day, for most of the daylight hours and long into the night, the community gathers in water that pours first out of the mountain in boiling fits, then through a geothermal plant, and finally out of a channel into this bay on the ocean.
It is a lovely scene, the islanders at their ease with neighbors and friends and a few tourists as the sun comes up and passes in and out of the clouds that gather always over these volcanic peaks, and finally settles down over the Caribbean Sea at day’s end. I have felt something here I haven’t felt since the Dominican Republic, a feeling of community, a feeling of home. I am just a bystander, but I feel it in my bones and my mind goes wandering back to Mount Rainier, MD.
Bill and I arrived here just a few days ago after a several months of restless movement, never quite at ease because something important needed doing. When we were back in the Dominican Republic, in October, a leak we had been chasing for years had finally revealed its source. If you have ever had a leaky boat, or even a leaky roof, you know this feeling. Water is coming in. You address one suspect, water is still coming in. Then another and another until you are pretty much ready to just accept the unacceptable fact that you have a leaky boat.
When we finally found the culprit, it was not the worst of all possibilities but it wasn’t good. We had overlooked that the previous owners of Maggie May (then named Vilkas) had done some less-than-stellar work on a thru-hull for one of the cockpit drains. ( A thru-hull is a hole in your boat where water is meant to go out, in the case of drains, or in through a closed circuit and then out again.) The fitting had no backing plate, just a goopy mess of sealant. How had we not noticed this before? By the time we did, the thru-hull moved easily in its bed when we shook the hose, and more water would seep in. If the fiberglass had been compromised, we didn’t know how long the fixture would endure the flexing of a boat pounding to windward for months on end.
From then on Bill would lay awake nights imagining the thru-hull failing altogether and Maggie May sinking to the bottom of wherever we happened to be. Fixing the leak moved from somewhere in the middle of our list of tasks to number 1. But that wouldn’t be so easy because we needed to get the boat out of the water to fix it properly, and we could not do that until at least Puerto Rico. We talked this problem over with several recent sailor acquaintances in Samana, DR, a few of whom who told us, with the bravado of one referring to another person’s boat, “Just go ahead and fix it in the water! All you have to do is back the thru-hull out and jam a bung in there…”
This may have worked. It could also have sunk the boat.
We resolved to get the boat out of the water as soon as that was an option, and came up with an emergency plan in case the thru-hull failed in the interim. There were no travel lifts for sailboats anywhere near where we were, or where were going in the Dominican Republic. So we kept a close eye on the leak and made plans to move on as soon as hurricane season was over. We made passage in late November to Puerto Rico, where we found a travel lift on the southern coast, but boat yard owners there and elsewhere told us they were essentially closed for the holidays from November through February. (This is my kind of country, but that was not very helpful in our situation).
By the time we got to the US Virgin Islands, the leak had not worsened and we didn’t find a good place to haul out, so we waited. Finally in Sint Maarten, we got Maggie May pulled from the water where we could refashion the thru-hull, repaint the bottom and fix some other items that very much wanted fixing. When she was splashed a couple of weeks ago, I felt better about SV Maggie May than I had for some 18-months, since we realized our costly hull repair had utterly failed, then we fouled our prop on a fishing net and a squirrel ate our mainsail.
The past weeks since then have been a journey south past St. Barts, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat to Guadeloupe, where we are now anchored in one of the loveliest parts of the sailing world. Many of these islands in the eastern Caribbean are dormant or active to semi-active volcanoes. Montserrat is the most clearly active so far, with sulfuric steam pouring from a cone that erupted just a few years ago.
In Guadeloupe, there are no brooding cones to see yet the lie of an Earth at stasis is ever laid bare. When Bill and I jumped into the water to check the anchor upon our arrival, it was some 10 degrees warmer than the bay we had swam in the day before. We snorkeled to shore where the community of Bouillante (boiling in French) seems always to be gathered and soaking in the minerals pouring forth from their mountain. But it isn’t just the humans of this community who are drawn to this wonder. Also gathered are hundreds of fish, sergeant majors, blue tangs, trumpet fish and many more. I wouldn’t expect them to be able to survive the heat and the concentrated salinity of the water pouring out of the mountain. But in truth, water of the bay, and indeed of the ocean, is complex. The hottest water forms a surface layer of surprising current and a dreamy obscurity, but when you dive down to the bottom a colder layer is crystal clear and nearly still. Between them a brief middle ground forms a barrier between the two extremes where the temperatures diverge, and I imagine the chemical make-up also differentiates.
I have been reading lately of the global currents that govern much of Earth’s climate. How the Gulf Stream, a warm water current, rides swiftly above a colder water current that runs in places at a different speed and even in the opposite direction of the Gulf Stream! There is so much going on under the surface of things and all around us. Here in Bouillante one can feel the power of that unseen and unimaginable energy circulating through air, water and earth. And also get a really damn good baguette.
Many many thanks to all those of you who have supported this journey and blog.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, almost anywhere, animals, beauty, biodiversity, boat, Caribbean, circumnavigation, contemplation, Dominican Republic, dream, ecosystem, environment, environmental, geology, geothermal, Guadeloupe, history, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, nature, ocean, philosophy, photography, sailboat, sailing, sv maggie may, underwater, volcano, wild, wildlife, Writing
Posted on January 17, 2022
I woke this morning at first light and climbed the four steep companionway stairs into the cockpit. I have climbed these stairs 1000 times in the past 18 months.
The boat interior was dark but the sun, still below the mountains to the east, cast a pale light on the clouds in the western sky. Presently it began to rain, a light sprinkle only, and a rainbow appeared, arcing with one foot in the puffy green mounts of St. John, US Virgin Islands, and the other in Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
A narrow channel separates these two island nations, and some 15 years ago Bill and I got in a dinghy in Tortola and motored through its swift currents so we could snorkel in the national park waters of St. John (where we are moored right now), in Waterlemon Bay. This strikes me now as unwise, both because the current can run four knots through here and also because it wasn’t strictly legal.
That trip 15 years ago was a beginning, the spark that set us planning over so many years to save money, buy a boat, learn how to sail and navigate and care for her, and so many other steps that have brought us to this place at this time.
That trip was taken with five other friends on a charter sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. One of those friends, Jeff, we had sailed with for many years on the Chesapeake Bay. Jeff was the first friend I made when I moved to Washington DC more than 20 years ago. Friendship came easy with Jeff, but an added appeal to this friendship was that his dog Cody was the only dog that my dog Maggie respected. I won’t say liked, because she didn’t like dogs. But Cody she respected. And Cody tolerated Maggie. And we had ourselves a friend family.
Many years later when we headed off to the BVIs, it was a dream trip for Jeff and Bill and I, and there was a moment, somewhere between the islands of Virgin Gorda and Anegada, when a new dream took root, the one I find myself living now. We were all sitting in the cockpit and the boat was sailing so beautifully toward the northeast where the shallow passages between islands ended and the Atlantic Ocean began. One of us, Jeff I think, said “Let’s just keep going.” And we all smiled and nodded and agreed that that was where our hearts would go.
We didn’t own that boat. And none of the other friends aboard would have shared our enthusiasm for the wide open Atlantic, not in the least. But for Bill and I, that experience marked the germination of a seed with dogged roots that clung to a dream for all the years between then and now as I sit writing in the small bay we illegally visited in the charter dinghy so long ago.
We are here legally this time.
This morning, during ‘morning time’ (an unspecified amount of time usually before 11am when Bill and I sit in different parts of the boat and read or write or think quietly) I began reading a book I’ve been holding onto for years. Not because I didn’t want to read it. But because I wanted to read it so much that I was saving it for the most perfect time and place. I wanted to be a certain me when I read it. The me that could understand and appreciate it most. Maybe I am that me now because I opened it this morning while sleep still clung to me and the sound of the ocean rustled against the rocky shores of Waterlemon Cay.
Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us was first published in 1951. Today she is known better for Silent Spring, but it was this book that first brought international attention to her work and ideas, which have since altered the neural pathways of the human species.
I just began the first chapter, which is about beginnings. The beginnings of Earth, the moon and of the sea. In a way it is about the concept of time itself, a phenomenon so hard to grasp for such short-lived creatures as ourselves. We wring our hands about so many details of our lives. About this action we or someone else did or didn’t do. About getting to this and that on time, meeting deadlines, making grades, finding purpose, having an impact. Saving the world. But we are so very small. A stardust mote floating through space time. So small we can’t even really understand time, any more than we can understand how a butterfly sees the world.
I think about everything that went into getting Bill and I to this little bay with its clear waters and thousands upon thousands of creatures living their lives beneath the surface. It is nothing in the scale of time. It is everything to us.
Yesterday I spent one long infinity of a moment with an octopus while snorkeling. I myself was utterly changed forever by this vision of a creature so wondrous, so improbable, built cell by cell through an alchemy of ages and ages of Earth. This living, shimmering, thinking, feeling, water-made-flesh flowing through the shallow sea.
The beautiful octopus has perhaps forgotten me already.
I can feel the symmetry of this day of octopus thoughts to that day so long ago with Jeff, so long ago but in the same space on Earth, when we decided we wanted to be…here. Despite so many events, excitements, heartbreaks and stumbles in the intervening years, we have come full circle in a universe of spinning circles hundreds of thousands of millions of years old, embers sparking and glowing and flaming and dying.
Every moment matters so little and so much.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, beauty, blog, boat, book, British, Caribbean, environment, island, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, nature, ocean, octopus, photography, Rachel Carson, sailboat, sailing, St. John, sv maggie may, The Sea Around Us, united states, US, Virgin Islands, wildlife, Writing
Posted on November 11, 2021
I wake, check the clock, 4:00 am. Through the open hatch above, stars pulse their brilliance through a dark inconceivable distance as a gentle breeze wanders over me. I toss the crumpled sheet that sleeps beside me over half my body and wonder, why don’t houses have hatches so the stars are always present when one wakes at 4:00 am?
This has become a habit of late. Wake, and begin thinking random thoughts until the flycatchers’ dawn chitterchatter commences.
This particular morning when the random thoughts have coalesced around a topic, I am pondering the sheet that now covers me and how this curious, somewhat, slightly cool breeze is something new under the Dominican sun. Is this autumn?
I’ve spent much of my life marking time as work would have me do it, by deadlines, projects started and projects finished. And by dates on the calendar, new years, birthdays, anniversaries. And by cycles of the clock to some extent. But always in the background there is that more enduring measurement of time, the one that connects us to the motion of a tilted Earth around the sun and the accompanying seasons of cold and heat, of flowers blooming and leaves budding. Of the sprouting season and the oppressive wet hot air when dog days seem to slow the world into a dreamy haze. Of goldenrod alive with the haste and bumble of September bees frantic to find every ounce of life’s nectar before summer’s end sends their bodies into the earth. Of cool mist on warm waters and red leaves fluttering through crisp blue skies which fade to gray and snow and ice under an absent sun.
4:00 am is a time for nostalgia. I have been seeing some photos lately of dear friends in sweaters with leaves changing in the trees above their smiling faces. The fall, my favorite season at 38 degrees north latitude, has come home to Maryland, USA, and I am not there. And where I am the meaning of the word autumn is quite different, if it has any meaning at all.
At 19 degrees north latitude, I don’t know the land well enough to know what autumn means. I know that this moment under the hatch before dawn is the coolest part of a day that will have me hiding from the sun wherever I can. But over the past night, November 1, a subtle change appeared. A soft wind along the north coast of the Bahia de Samana pressed a handful of cool breezes through the hatch, and for once in a very long time I was glad to have that crumpled sheet at hand. The season is changing.
Our season is also changing, my partner Bill’s and mine and SV Maggie May’s. The season we live by here and now, far from our temperate home on land is not marked by the color of leaves or great shifts in temperature, but by the likelihood of a catastrophic tropical storm. There are only two seasons for us on the boat in the tropics, we order our lives around them: the hurricane season, and the not-hurricane season.
We have stayed in the Dominican Republic for almost 6 months in deference to this season of storms, which comes to an official end November 15. Very soon we will be moving on eastward.
Hurricanes, or tropical storms, can occur any month of the year. But they are most likely July through mid-November when water and air are at their warmest and most energetic. Many of these storms are born off the west coast of Africa before they charge westward across the Atlantic. All my life I have lived in the temperate climates where tornadoes, blizzards and thunderstorms are a real threat and hurricanes are a distant peculiarity, as distant as those stars through the boat hatch. But since moving onto our sailboat in May 2020, hurricanes have become a looming presence in my life and mind.
And so it turns out that fall is my favorite season in the Caribbean tropics as well. It marks the ending of the season of ocean turmoil and rage, the kind of ocean that can conjure a storm, where, if we are caught in it, our only recourse is to accept what the fates decide for us. The ocean can rage year round, but we have better odds against the short tantrums that come with random squalls and so we begin to have a certain kind of freedom of movement and freedom from a certain set of fears. Weather still remains our chief concern on the journey forward, but we can stand a little taller and peak our heads out of our hurricane holes and travel on southward.
We are again migratory. As the birds are prompted by the coming winter, and the humpback whales are traveling south to warmer waters, we are released and allowed to roam by the drawing down of the tropical storm season.
This time in the Dominican Republic has been a serendipitous pause in our journey, a gift, but it’s time to face the Mona Passage and what lies beyond…Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia…
Through the hatch I hear the stolid flycatchers making the first noises of the dawn, chorusing with one another through the dark. It is time to get up.
I rise, make a cup of coffee and go on deck where a pelican is pacing on the marina dock, trying to defend fishing grounds from the perceived threat of two killdeer who, minding their own business, don’t seem to know what the pelican’s problem is. They turn their backs on the strange agitated bird, and orient their bodies to the rising sun. Both the pelican and I watch them. I don’t know what the pelican perceives, but this is what I see: The first light of a new day striking the white breasts of a pair of killdeer.
An image etches itself in memory like a photo etched on a glass plate. I look down at my coffee and see for the first time in six months, steam coming off of it. Steam! The morning is, as usual, warm, but the breeze coming along every so often is just cool enough to condense the hot air rising from my coffee. Fall has floated in with little fanfare. No red, orange and yellow leaf pageantry; no frost or even fog, no blue jays calling, no blustery cool wind to pull the last brown leaves from naked branches. Just a bit of steam rising from a coffee cup, born away on a gentle wind. The killdeer must feel it too because as the sun breaks the horizon they stand utterly motionless while a warm rose-tinted glow lights the white feathers of their breasts and the white ring around their necks. I can almost feel what it means to be them in this moment, the grace of the sun upon them.
The pelican flies off in a huff.
I myself for the first time in a tropical-hot long time am fully contented to have a warm cup in my hands as I sway on the SV Maggie May and watch the softest light of day break across the softest breasts of two small silent birds.
Given that my mind has been on changing seasons, for my annual holiday print sale in collaboration with the International League of Conservation Photographers, I put together a special set of photo prints that represent autumn to me now–the nostalgic autumn of my home, and the autumn of tropical boat life at the ending of hurricane season.
All images in this collection are printed on environmentally-friendly Hahnemühle Hemp paper, a beautiful paper that minimizes our carbon footprint. Every effort is made to reduce waste in packaging. Forty percent of profits will support the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The sale ends December 2.
You can see the prints here and order at: https://www.conservationphotographers.org/print-sales-schlyer
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, autumn, beauty, Caribbean, christmas, Dominican Republic, environment, fine art, gift idea, holiday, holiday gift, ilcp, international league of conservation photographers, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, nature, ocean, prints, sailing, sale, sv maggie may, wildlife
Posted on November 5, 2021
Many early religions had the sun at the pinnacle of their pantheons. The reason for this becomes more apparent with every minute passed under the direct stare of the tropical sun.
This thought comes to me as we are cleaning Maggie May’s decks in the Dominican Republic. The yellow face is pressing down upon my cranium with its orange-hot thumb, causing my knees to buckle in supplication. After a mere 20 minutes my thoughts grow hazy and my skin begins to sting, I scramble for shade and crouch low, shaking my feeble fist at the yellow face. Just leave me be! Por favor.
It’s not just me. The most important person on earth, the most powerful, the most beautiful, graceful, the strongest will bend and weep in the face of the unrelenting sun, this central cog in the nature machine, which gives and takes everything we have, right down to our very own bodies. You would think we humans would have more humility in the face of this blinding force, but that is not our way.
I myself never gave much thought to the sun before this voyage. Sure, I luxuriated in the warmth of a sunny spring day after the enduring chill of a frigid winter. I strategized about where to plant my tomatoes so they would have the most sunlight. I schmeared on sunscreen for protection. But I didn’t really think much about the sun as a power responsible for, well, my whole world. I now think on it every day as my life has become much more obviously wound up in the cycles of the sun.
From the sun comes everything. The golden fruit of a mango, the wind in our sails, sunburn and heat exhaustion, the tides to some extent, hurricanes, cabbage, the shifting patterns of rain, drought, dehydration, warmth. Coffee.
I am pouring myself some just now. I heated the water for it by plugging into our boat electrical system, a bank of Firefly batteries connected by wires to 5 solar panels which are at this very moment collecting solar energy like leaves on a tree from the Sun Almighty.
These leaves power the fan that is blowing on me, the rice I’ll have for lunch, the batteries in my camera, the blender for making Bill’s signature banana coladas, the lights, the automatic pilot, the VHF, the freshwater pump, the emergency bilge pump, the electronic charts, all of it, everything electrical that we have used for a year and a half has been powered almost entirely by solar energy, with some assist from the wind— though in reality that is also solar power since the sun makes the wind.
THE ENERGY PLAN
Several years before we moved onto the boat, Bill began devising an energy strategy that would allow us to be as free from fossil fuel use as we possibly could be. We’ve had some challenges over the course of this sailing dream, things that in our lowest moments we have grieved as personal failures (or at times a cruel joke of Poseidon), but we’ve also had successes beyond expectation. In the arena of energy independence, I don’t think even Bill anticipated how successful we would be.
The first step of the strategy was to build in efficiency and conservation everywhere, to minimize energy needs before even thinking about how to meet that need. Often in energy policy this comes as an afterthought, we think first of securing enough energy for the current need, rather than reducing energy demand through efficiency and conservation so we don’t need to supply so much. (If you’ve already secured the energy for current need, why conserve? Aside from some pesky distant future worry like climate change, which Homo sapiens can’t get their heads around enough to afford it the deadly seriousness it deserves.)
On the Maggie May the first practical step we took was to get rid of the air conditioning and the generator that came on the boat. This wasn’t too hard a decision as neither of them worked properly, but we could have chosen to repair them or replace them. This would have meant carrying more fuel on board and using fossil fuels to keep ourselves cool in a world that is warming due to excessive use of fossil fuels. We decided we could do without it and simplify the boat and our lives, while learning to live the way most of the world’s humans, and all of its non-human animals, live.
Bill also took the important step of changing out every light bulb on the boat, most of which were either incandescent or halogen, and replacing them with more energy efficient LED lights. There are a lot of lights on a boat, even small boats like ours with only a few hundred square feet of living space. We needed about 35 new light bulbs. Some of these lights are linked to safety and survival, and they run from bow to stern and up to the top of our 50-foot mast. Having long-lasting, low energy lights not only significantly cut our electrical demand (the demand from lighting is now about a fifth of what it was), it increased safety by increasing brightness of navigation lights and decreasing the number of times we’d need to climb the mast to replace bulbs.
The lack of air conditioning would obviously mean much warmer temperatures on the boat. Bill bought foil-faced recycled denim insulation to insulate every nook and cranny he could find on the SV Maggie May. The insulation reflects radiant heat and cools the boat, so we are slightly more comfortable on the hottest days (currently that is every day) but more importantly we require less energy to run our fridge—the biggest energy hog on the boat—and have less need for fans to keep ourselves coolish. I also made some raggedy white shades for our boat hatches and ports which helps keep the temperature inside the boat down and wards off pirates who think our boat looks too trashy to be worth their time.
We minimized electronics as much as possible. We’ve seen boats out here with washers and dryers, big screen TVs, huge freezers and everything else you can imagine to make life on the water exactly like a life of comfort on land. But it all requires energy and there is only so much space on a boat for solar and wind. So many people have generators or use their diesel engines frequently to charge their batteries.
When we had tightened our energy consumption belts as much as possible, we bought five solar panels and a Rutland wind generator. Bill had calculated that the solar panels, with a 428 watt total output, would meet most of our needs and that the wind generator — capable of 500 watts —would serve as a backup on cloudy, windy days.
At the same time Bill upgraded the electrical system and, as a back-up for the back-up of the wind generator, added a new more powerful alternator on our Yanmar diesel inboard (more on this diesel engine in a bit). The alternator can be used to charge the battery bank when the diesel engine is running. The new alternator would have the ability to charge the batteries faster, thus requiring less diesel fuel.
But everything depended on the battery bank. Our lead acid batteries that came on the boat when we bought her were struggling to hold a charge. They were essentially old-school car batteries. If we were going to gain some distance from fossil fuels, we needed better batteries. Bill researched our options and we considered whether to replace the batteries with the same kind of cheap battery, to buy new expensive lithium ion batteries, or go the middle ground with some type of absorbed glass mat (AGM) battery. Bill found a relatively new kind of AGM battery called Firefly that uses carbon foam in its internal structure. They function somewhat like a lithium ion battery in terms of capacity, but the price is closer to the standard AGM. Being a new and somewhat untested technology, the choice of Firefly batteries was a bit of a risk, but they have performed very well for us over the past year and a half.
When we bought our 30-year-old boat 8 years ago, she came with a gasoline outboard for her dinghy, which of course died shortly before we were about to leave on this voyage. We decided to replace it with an Electric Paddle, a light electric engine I can carry in one hand. This has its downsides (see below) but the greatest upside was that we would not need to bring any gasoline on board the boat.
ENERGY STRATEGY RESULTS
For 18 months we have lived on sun power. Once or twice we have been under extended cloudy skies and the wind generator has stepped in to save the the day. But we have never once needed to start the diesel engine to charge the batteries. The solar panels have kept up with our needs even on partly cloudy days. The feeling this engenders for me is a sort of weightlessness, I am unburdened of the undercurrent of guilt I feel on a daily basis at home, where most of our energy comes from the dirty electric grid. We purchase through a wind power supplier, but it is industrial wind. (I feel better about wind than coal, but it is still infrastructure and it disrupts and degrades the land and poses dangers for wildlife.) We could put solar panels on our house, but it would require cutting down a large walnut tree that provides shade for the house and almost everything for a suite of animals who live in it.
On the boat it’s simple: we collect sun energy as though foraging for mushrooms or collecting rainwater.
There are two caveats. The Yanmar diesel inboard engine on Maggie May, and the propane stove.
Budget is always a factor. Had we unlimited resources we could have transitioned to an electric engine. But that was not a viable option. The cost of replacement would have been at least $20,000. We didn’t have it. But we are primarily a wind and sail driven vessel. And we use our engine as little as possible, to get in and out of marinas and tight anchorages, and to get to our destinations safely when the wind shifts or dies. It is primarily a safety device rather than a means of propulsion. We buy on average about 40 gallons of fuel every 4 months and that may decrease once we start heading a better angle on the trade winds (ie, south or west; going east can require some motor sailing because the angle on the wind is at times not conducive to safely making our destination).
To minimize our use of propane we bought small electric appliances that could run off of our battery bank, including a cute two-cup rice cooker and a small super-efficient hot water pot. Many days we get by with just these appliances which keeps our fossil fuel use down and keeps the heat from cooking at a minimum. We refill a small propane tank about once every six months.
Lessons and Challenges
Choosing not to have air conditioning was no great loss. But one thing has made it much harder, the fact that humans have polluted most of our waters. Cooling off would be as simple and enjoyable as jumping in the water. But the majority of the past year and a half we have been traveling through unhealthy waters–along much of the United States East Coast and most of the Dominican Republic—essentially everywhere except the Bahamas. The fact of this state of affairs is nothing short of tragic. But we stay cool by finding trees to sit under during the hottest part of the day, pouring cups of drinking water on our heads, creating boat shade however we can, keeping our daytime activity levels low and cooking only at night. Not having AC also means we have to be more vigilant about mold growth without the dehumidifying effect of climate control. We spray down the boat often with vinegar+water+tea tree oil.
We are both very glad we opted not to have a generator. The comforts and luxuries afforded by these machines are those we can do without, along with the noise, smell and carbon footprint of a generator. The one thing we miss is the ability to fill scuba tanks, and we may want to remedy this at some point.
Our electric dinghy engine is quiet, doesn’t smell of fuel or pollute the water, requires no maintenance and is super light and easy to get on and off the boat. It is slow, but this to me is a benefit as we are more likely to see wildlife and notice cool things that are happening around us. There are situations where speed can be helpful, say when you are chased by a thunderstorm. But this happens rarely if we are being careful. The other drawback for us is the distance our motor can go, only about 5 miles and that is only at half speed. Other electric motors have a bigger battery capacity, but they also are heavier and bulkier. Trade offs.
The solar has performed so well, and we minimized our energy needs so well, that Bill is often heard mourning the purchase of the wind generator and the new alternator. To which I say, “You never know, they may save our lives one day.” But it may also turn out that they were a huge waste of embodied carbon and money.
Which brings me to embodied carbon.
I was not going to put this blog out there without some discussion of embodied energy consumption. My partner is Bill Updike after all. This is a phrase I would not be aware of if not for him. Every single thing we buy new or construct has a cost in embodied energy and carbon. The energy required to mine the raw materials, the energy required to fabricate and transport the materials to be sold. Every item of clothing, bite of food, tool, pillow, cup of coffee, battery, engine, road, wall, bridge. We rarely count these costs when making policy decisions or governing our own lives. But choosing not to buy or construct is the greatest rebellion against our dark role in the breakdown of global biodiversity and our climate system.
In our lives and on the boat we try not to buy, or we buy local or used as much as possible. We didn’t buy a new dinghy, even though ours is 20+ years old and falling apart (and we have named it Dingy), because if we can make it through the trip without buying one, Dingy will have a longer, more fulfilled life and the world will have a little bit less toxic vinyl to have to contend with. But we did buy an inflatable kayak so we could have some independence of each other (this is a serious safety factor) and a backup for Dingy. It may turn out we didn’t need the wind generator and the new alternator. There is embodied carbon in our emergency life raft and we may, (hopefully), never need it. But we may. There are always these choices and while we have tried to make the best choices we could by conserving and building in efficiencies, and installing solar and wind power, I know we will find places where we have not made the best decisions.
But the best decision can at times be unclear or just out of reach. So at best we reach for the decision that is informed by facts and leans toward a healthier world for everything under the Sun Almighty.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, boat, carbon footprint, climate change, conservation, cop26, efficiency, energy, environment, fossil fuels, independent, krista schlyer, Maggie May, nature, off-grid, sailing, solar, sustainability, sv maggie may, wildlife, wind
Posted on September 6, 2021
Had the Atlantic trade winds been westerly, we would be living in a very different world. These relentless winds blowing ever from the east facilitated the conquest and colonization of the Western Hemisphere; they made and unmade kings.
And they make beggars of all who choose to sail against them. We become thieves in the night.
It was a moonless night when we stole away from Luperon. Despite our best intentions. Our plan had been to find a window of time under a gibbous moon when the trade winds were disrupted by an intervening weather feature—a trough, a stalled front, a tropical cyclone that had already passed us by. But this did not come to pass.
As the third-quarter moon began to wane, we had decided to settle back in and wait until the September moon began to wax toward full. But then chance brought us something we’d never hoped for: a solid 3-day forecast of 5 knot winds for most of the Southwest North Atlantic. 5 knots! This might turn into 10 knots along the north coast of Hispaniola, and if so, we could sail by day and motor-sail (hybrid of sailing-motoring) through the night. It was too good to be true, we had to take it.
For months, Bill and I had sketched out our departure from Luperon on the Dominican Republic’s north coast. If we had been headed west or north, we could have planned our next sail over a few days time. But sailing east to Samana Bay meant that we would either be zigzagging for 40+ hours, clawing our way against 25-30 knot East winds and their associated wave patterns; or we would be motoring and motor-sailing at night with almost no wind, and hiding out during the daylight hours—when the trade winds gang up with sea breezes and coastal acceleration to create one of the thorniest passages along the Thorny Path from the Bahamas to the Lesser Antilles. Bill and I calculated that over the first year of our adventure we sailed against the wind about 90 percent of the time. It was hard on the boat, hard on us. And there was really no end in sight until we reached the Virgin Islands and could turn southward.
We opted for the light-wind night passage. Upon our arrival in the Dominican Republic, we purchased the bible for this route, The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward, by Bruce Van Sant. Van Sant spent 20 years sailing the route between Florida and the north coast of South America, via the eastern Caribbean. Over that time he became one of the crustiest salts in the sailing world, a fellow who hates “No Smoking” and “No Fishing” signs almost as much as he dislikes sailing to windward. He is also likely the most knowledgeable person out there about how to safely sneak east against the trade winds.
The Gentleman’s Guide has a title that sounds like it was published in the 1950s, rather than 2012, but still, when the derivation is explained by Van Sant, it strikes me as jolly good fun,( despite the years of jolly annoyance I’ve had over sexism in the sailing world). There was an old sailing adage, something to the effect of, “A gentleman never sails to windward.” Thus a gentleman would never voyage from the United States East Coast to the Caribbean, because it cannot be done without doing some of the least gentlemanly sailing in the world. Sailing to windward is a sometimes brutal sport, sailing off the wind is a genteel pastime.
I myself, prefer genteel pastimes and while I enjoy an hour or two of beating into the wind, I am apparently a bit of a gentleman. So I was keen to learn all Van Sant had to teach. I read and reread the book, as did Bill, while we were moored in Luperon hiding out from the epic progression of tropical storms that 2021 has been.
When this rare window of calm appeared, we began to ready ourselves, scraping the barnacles off all of our bottoms; weaving through the beauraucracy regulating travel by boat within the Dominican Republic; checking, rechecking, re-rechecking the weather forecasts. Finally, at midnight, the last Monday in August, when the wind had eased for the day and we expected a meager waning moon to soon crest the eastern hilltop, Bill climbed up on the mast, hooked on the mainsail halyard, and I prepared to cast us off the mooring by the light of a spotlight.
As I walked the lines aft and made sure they were clear of our propeller, I noticed why we hadn’t yet seen the tardy moonrise–the moon was already up, but obscured by a thick fog, the mist of which rushed through the spotlight beam like a billion tiny insects. I couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of us. Had Luperon harbor had more of a strait forward entrance this would not have been a problem, but this bay’s entrance is shaped by shallow rocks and muddy shoals that make for a narrow channel that resembles a dogleg, broken and mended badly several times. There are markers, but they are not lighted and give little hint as to their colors in the dark. I went to the bow and tried to serve as eyes for Bill as he steered and consulted the chart.
“Ok, you’ve got a green to starboard and red to port. Then there’s a…I think that’s green, god, its really hard to say.” Bill replied through the dark, “Chart says it should be green.” (For those unfamiliar with boating aids to navigation, green marks the rightmost extent of the channel, often a shoal-line, when leaving a port. You don’t want to mistake red for green.)
And so it went as we groped along in the thick dark mist at 2 knots, figuring if we hit anything, we wouldn’t hit too hard. I could see fish swimming and leaping in the beam of the spotlight, an octopus legged languidly past the bow, headed toward Luperon, barely giving us a second glance, though its hard to tell with octopi. Occasionally the light would fall on a float for a fishing net and I’d alert Bill, or cliff face some 50 feet away. Then all would fade from view as I scanned the dark for clues to the deeper water.
After 15 tense minutes and 8 bouys passed, I couldn’t see any more channel markers. Standing on the bow I also couldn’t see the chart so I asked Bill, “Are we out?”
“We’re out,” he said.
I gave the water a few more scans for fishing floats, then went back to help Bill raise the mainsail.
As Maggie May made her way through the dark world we took turns at the helm, keeping the boat on coarse and watching the lights of Puerto Plata, Sosua and Cabarete fall behind us. The winds were light, so light that there was almost no wave action aside from an easterly swell—the ocean’s long memory of a wind somewhere, sometime. But we were able to keep the mainsail filled to take some strain off the engine and save a little fuel.
I hadn’t slept well for days before our departure, so Bill took first watch while I lay in the cockpit with my head near his lap, him stroking my hair, me looking up at the moon which was now clear of mist and accompanied by Orion striding purposefully toward the southeast. At 4:00am I took over the helm, just as Canus Major was following Orion into the sky. Bill rested beside me while I watched the dark horizon, only a pale reflection of moonlight and starlight ruffling the cloak of night.
I generally have no trouble staying awake on these passages, but before long, a powerful fatigue overtook me. My eyes began to cross, exhausted from the effort of holding their lids open. I pulled at my hair to stay alert. Ate some M&Ms one…by…one. Stuck my face out of the cockpit to get some air. It was then I noticed a dark line on the horizon in front of us, drawing ever nearer. Could be a trick of light, a huge trick of light. There is no land out here…is there? A rogue wave, the size impossible to tell in the darkness? How close is it? I didn’t want to wake Bill, but didn’t trust myself to decipher danger from hallucination, “Bill, uh Bill, there’s something on the horizon.” He jumped up like a piece of toast shot out of a toaster. “Wha! Whas going on?!”
“Do you see that?” He turned and then scrambled behind the wheel and flipped the boat around faster than I have ever seen it done.
Now facing the opposite direction, we both stared at the dark line, which began to resolve itself in the water.
“I don’t think it’s anything,” Bill said slowly, not entirely sure. “It must be just a giant matte of sargassum catching the moonlight in a weird way,” he said, turning the boat back the way we were going.
“Could be the garbage belt,” I said, referring to the line of garbage that follows currents around islands, 2-5 miles offshore. The garbage can come from all over the Atlantic. And it can destroy boats.
“Yeah, could be. Let’s head closer in toward shore.”
Back at the wheel, I steered us closer to the coast and Bill sat back down and began to nestle in to his pillow. He stopped and said “Are you ok? Do you feel sharp?”
“No,” just being honest. “But the sun will be up soon. I’ll be fine.” He went back to sleep. I didn’t tell him until later that I had been hearing music in the engine noise, first violins, then an angelic choir, then death metal.
A dusty pink dawn perked me up for a while, and I watched the coast roll by, along with patch after patch of sunrise-rose tinged sargassum. I shook my fist at it for making a fool of me.
The presence of this brown floating seaweed has been increasing over the past decade, significantly. Many places in the Caribbean, so dependent on tourism dollars, have named it a public enemy and much effort now goes toward controlling it, or desperately trying. Scientists are not yet certain what is causing the expansion of the plant’s range. It is almost certainly something humans have set in motion, either through climate change or increasing nutrients in the ocean from agricultural runoff. Sargassum provides important habitat for fish, sea turtles and other ocean organisms. But it can also be a hazard when it stacks up meters thick and miles wide and animals become trapped in it. But it is a force all its own, one of those immense mysteries we have yet to unravel, but you can be sure that when we do, we ourselves will be at the bottom of it.
I mused on this idea for a while as I watched flying fish dart by the dozens in front of the boat, etching 30-foot-long criss-crossed trails of disturbance in the glassy ocean. An hour later I woke Bill, handed over the wheel, and then crashed upon the couch belowdecks.
We spent the day making good, easy progress east, while passing by some of the most notorious locations on the coast of the Dominican Republic, including Puerto Malo (bad port), Punta Mala (bad point), and Cabo Cabron, or Cape Asshole, where we would snuggle in and anchor for the night. We had thought to keep going straight to Samana, uncertain whether we could trust the weather forecast. But the ocean was so placid, and I told Bill about my hearing music in the engine’s drone, and we really wanted to see the anchorage at El Valle, reported to be gorgeous.
In truth it was one of the most breathtaking anchorages Maggie May has ever, or perhaps will ever, visit. We dropped the anchor in late afternoon in the small nook where Cape Asshole meets the Dominican Republic’s mainland coast. The cape and mainland rise 1000 feet in mounded hills and sheer cliff walls where palm trees by the thousands cling improbably and birds soar on thermals flowing off the hillsides.
Once we were secure, I sat in the shade and watched a pelican dive for fish along the rugged coast. He wasn’t very good at it, but was fun to watch. The bird kept at it, over and over until he got some dinner, which gave me a sense of satisfaction for him. Bill had jumped in the water to cool off and check the propeller and engine water intake, which as suspected were partially clogged and crusted with barnys and other stowaways. When he climbed out a jellyfish tried to come along on his forearm and left some nasty tentacles behind. He brushed them off, but not before they left a nasty mark, as if someone had dribbled acid along his arm.
We made some dinner, watched the sun settle beyond the western wall of our anchorage, then lay down, hoping to get a few hours sleep before a late night departure. My alarm went off at 3:00am and we set about prepping the boat as tree frogs sang through the deep darkness all around. I pulled up the anchor and Bill drove us northward in the night stillness along the coast of Cabo Cabron.
The Van Sant method of transiting this coast uses what is known as the night lee to creep eastward. The night lee only works well when the trade winds are relatively light, 10-15 knots, and blowing from south of east, which happens somewhat infrequently. When it does, the sea breeze that accelerates the trades in the daytime, reverses to a gentle land breeze flowing off the mountains. This land breeze blows in opposition to the trades, gentling them and even changing their angle from east to southeast or even south. To take advantage of this, one has to follow the coastline closely, sometimes frighteningly close, within a few hundred yards, where a sudden strong shift in the wind or waves to northward could prove disastrous. Because Bill and I found a window where the daytime wind was going to so very, strangely light, less than 5 knots, we didn’t need to follow Van Sant’s method precisely, and could gain some distance from the rocky coast. But because we had the luxury of calm seas, we stayed close enough to Hispaniola that we could feel the power of this land and seascape.
As we rounded Cabo Cabron light began to glow on water and sky, giving a pale silhouette to Cabo Samana, the last cape would would pass before heading south and then west into the bay of Samana. Here the water was filled with sargassum, in places it flowed with unseen currents, elsewhere it lounged about as immense islands, hundreds of feet across. Some we tried to avoid, but others we motored through. Looking back behind us, I could see a clear water trail where the boat had passed through the sea vegetation.
But as we approached Cabo Samana a few hours later, our speed inexplicably decreased by several knots. At first we figured it was a counter current that would ease when we rounded the cape, but it only got worse. When we were down to 3.8 knots Bill got worried. We tried tacking back and forth on sail alone for an hour, but we were getting nowhere because what wind there was, came directly from our destination. So we crept along under engine power until we could round Punta Balandra, enter Samana bay and anchor behind Cayo Levantado. Once anchored I dove down and found the prop entwined in pieces of sargassum. I cleaned it off, hopped back on board, and we got underway the last few miles to the Puerto Bahia marina, having regained most of our speed.
As we tied up at the marina, the first marina we have visited for six months, we looked forward to some real rest and the first real showers we had had in a month. We’ll stay at this marina while we sort out our Dominican Republic boat permits and do a few repairs, then will head out to one of our long awaited adventures, a trip to Los Haitises National Park!
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, animals, beauty, biodiversity, boat, Caribbean, Dominican Republic, dream, environment, environmental, fauna, flora, international league of conservation photographers, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, national parks, nature, ocean, passage, photography, sailboat, sailing, samana, sargassum, sv maggie may, wild, wildlife, Writing
Posted on August 24, 2021
Guest blog by Bill Updike, El Capitan of the SV Maggie May.
Krista and I have witnessed many examples of magic out here on the seas of our little blue planet. We spent our nights at anchor in Warderick Wells (Bahamas) marveling at the bioluminescent laser light show of hundreds of Bermuda fireworms floating, dancing, glowing and mating along the current rip flowing by our boat. Seriously, google these littleguys—it’s a crazy wildlife spectacle. And seeing other bioluminescent creatures, like the microscopic dinoflagellates that sparkle along the hulls of boats and sometimes dangling-feet in Atlantic and Caribbean waters.
We paddled a kayak through crystal clear mangrove “creeks” abounding in baby and juvenile sea turtles—it turns out that, unlike their massive parents, the little ones move like lightning. When diving, we’ve seen myriads of underwater marvels—giant sea worms, silkily moving sharks, the bird-like motions of mantas and spotted eagle rays, a “cleaning station” set up by a small shrimp where a fish would come to have their scales and gills cleaned by the shrimp, only to depart and let the next fish have their turn. Imagine paying for a car wash with nothing but bacteria.
These moments with nature’s magic have led me to think a lot about the idea of human-made mediated magic, and of its presence, or rather omnipresence, in our modern world. Krista and I recently finished listening to the Harry Potter series on audiobook. It brought us a lot of joy to listen to the entertaining books while floating around in the sea. There’s nothing quite like hearing Dumbledore and Harry amidst breaking waves outside Voldemort’s evil horcrux-holding cave, while sailing on a boat hearing the crashing of real ocean waves on rocks.
But I have also been pondering the crazy popularity of the series, and how it speaks greatly to our modern need for magic. A part of me sees beauty in that longing, but another worries about what it portends. Beautiful because it reveals our human capacity for imagination, for thinking outside of the curse of endless explainability, from our info-transfused Wikipedia-ified world. What happens to imagination when you can get an immediate answer to basically any question you ever have? Our longing for magic may also reveal our ability for stepping outside of ourselves, and hopefully for a potential to accept otherness, something we desperately need in this historical moment.
But our current obsession with magic has I think, like many things, a shadow side. It seems like we are moving towards a culture, at least in the United States, where the only movies made by Hollywood are those full of Marvel or DC superheroes. We have drifted to a culture where our basic (base?) humanness is no longer enough to satisfy the big screen. Perhaps, the mundanity of our conspicuous consumer-ness has left us with a void that demands filling from the outside, from outrageously superheroic acts of heroism impossible for us clumsy humans to achieve. It has left me feeling that we need to relearn how to marvel at our humanness and our natural world, rather than marvel only at our Marvel superheroes.
We’ve been filling that void left by our conspicuous consumption (at least those of us with the means to be conspicuous in our consumption in the world) by consuming more and more narratives of magic, but I think it may ultimately be a negative, and not just a zero sum game. Our insatiable consumption creates an arms race against ourselves, and has left much of the U.S., and other places in the world, in a self-inflicted war of indebtedness and buried in piles of plastics.
Beyond just regular folks fighting debt and consuming things we don’t need sold by companies that don’t care about us, there’s an even larger and environmentally damaging arms race of consumption happening among the elites. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the multitude of megayachts we have witnessed along our travels, in particular along the coasts of the small islands in the Bahamas. These sea giants, sometimes 300-400 feet long, rivaling cruise ships and costing 100s of millions of dollars, show up at a previously quiet anchorage towing another 50-foot-long powerboat (their “play boat”), and then quickly disgorge even more small boats, jet skis, and other machinery from their stern garages. They tie the offal behind the behemoths in a row so that it looks like a mother goose with her goslings, except with polluting and noisy machines, so not as cute. These 300-400 foot long yachts generally have more serving staff on them than passengers, similar to those 20,000 square foot McMansions with only two residents and rooms never used or seen.
The passengers then proceed to tear around the anchorages as if they owned the world, which I guess in a sense they do (in fact, some whole islands in the Bahamas are owned by one person). These “dei in machinas” create massive amounts of noise, pollution and waves, all the while missing the (formerly) quiet beauty of the magical and multihued Bahamian islands. After blazing around the anchorage, they then quickly leave to find a “better” beach even though pretty much all beaches in the Bahamas are the very definition of perfection. I even heard one of the megayachties complain on one beach that the sand was not “fine” enough—oh nooooooo, what will happen to one’s perfectly pedicured and silky soft feet! The horror!
In my less kind moments (after a wave from a jet ski has nearly swamped us rowing our little kayak), I would say that the size of the megayachts are inversely proportional to the depths of owners’ souls. But really I think that the size of the megayachts, and the total number of spewing toys, is more directly proportional to their fear of the void.
Which leads me back to magic. The megayachties magic is in money and machines. And in their conjurations of machines from the bellies of their beasts, I think they miss out on the greatest opportunity that life on the world’s oceans has to offer—the time to live outside of what most would call a “normal life,” the immense gift that silence has to offer for free and with no debt attached, and the opportunity to use that silence to explore deep inside ourselves and wrestle with the void and try to come to peace with it. Essentially to create our own magic out of mundanity.
In our obsession with mediated magic, and its offer of a temporary break from thoughts of the void and of our fear of silence, I think we miss perhaps the greatest gift that our little blue planet offers us. Not food and water (though those are pretty damn important too), but the magic that is literally all around us, and the unmediated awe that descends gratis when we slow down, step into the silence, and look again like children do at the fantasy world in which we live.
One ubiquitous example of nature’s magic comes in one of its smallest packages—the diminutive but powerful pistol shrimp. Only around 1.5 inches in length and less than an ounce in weight, the pistol shrimp moves its claws at more than 60 miles/hour. For this small creature in a small space, the speed is so fast that it creates a vacuum bubble that has such a low pressure that a water pulse emerges with a noise of almost 220 decibels—louder than a bullet, hence the shrimp’s name.
Perhaps more astoundingly, the snap creates a resultant temperature of around 4800 degrees Celcius (around 8600 degrees Fahrenheit)—similar to the surface temp of the sun! It’s all just crazy times infinity. The enormous pressure also creates a visible plasma arc which causes another compression and a flash of light from the sound itself—in a process known by the weighty word sonoluminescence (similar to how lightning and thunder interact). We humans think we have a monopoly on magic in all our Harry Potters and Marvels, but the teeny tiny pistol shrimp begs to differ, or really doesn’t care I guess. It’s just down there in the sea making its magic every day without a care in the world (except for getting eaten).
When we are silent, Krista and I hear the snapping sounds of the shrimp under our boat every night and are chock full with wonder. Hollywood has nothing to do with it. And although I love a good superhero movie as much as the next nerd, for me I will take the humble pistol shrimp over the $300 million Marvel movie any night of the week. And when I struggle with stepping into the void, I try to think of the little pistol shrimp snapping away as a constant reminder of the magic all around us all the damn time. And it helps.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, animals, Bahamas, beauty, bill updike, boat, Caribbean, contemplation, Dominican Republic, environment, Harry Potter, Maggie May, magic, memoir, nature, ocean, philosophy, sailboat, sailing, superhero, sv maggie may, wildlife
Posted on August 7, 2021
Here’s a strange thought. SV Maggie May arrived in Luperon on the north coast of the Dominican Republic on May 17. Our almost three-month stay here constitutes the longest time either Bill or I have lived anywhere other than the Washington DC metro area since 1998.
A strange thought. Especially considering this is not a place we meant to come.
We came to the Dominican Republic because the trade winds had worn us down. Because a pandemic had created too many obstacles, and worn us down. Because transitioning to a life on fluid ground exacted and extracted so much more of us than we had imagined it would. Because the hurricane season was looming and we needed a hidey hole.
But in Luperon, quite unexpectedly we found rest, safety, time to learn, heal, acclimate, explore.
In a week or so, when the moon begins to wax gibbous, we will begin looking for a weather window to make our next passage.
This passage will not be easy. We are heading to Samana Bay, also in the DR, where we hope to wait out the rest of the hurricane season. This requires a trip of about 100 miles due east before we round the northeastern edge of Hispaniola. A hundred miles is not a long distance. But 100 miles in a boat whose max speed is 7.5 knots, directly against 15-20 knots of trade winds, which accelerate to 25-30 knots along this mountainous coast, is an infinity of hard time stuffed into a compactor and spit out as about 24 hours of shallow-breath, white-knuckle sailing. The consistency of the trade winds is a wondrous thing, a thing that has shaped the course of natural history and within it, the small but weighty mass of human history. These winds have been the delight of sailors for thousands of years. They have also been the bane of sailors who try to oppose them for just as long.
Luckily, there are islands and weather systems that disrupt the trades at times and these disruptions constitute narrow windows for making passage. And there are sailors who have studied how this works and passed their knowledge forward so that newbies like us can get east when prevailing wind patterns are dead set against it. I’ll go into the strategy in a future blog. It is enough to say that Bill and I will be better prepared for this next leg of the adventure than we have been for any passage since we began in May 2020. And we are excited to face the challenge ahead. That is saying a lot given how we felt when we limped into Luperon back in May.
So much life has happened here, and I have focused on living it, rather than writing about the experience of living it. I want to share some of what we have seen here, but there is too much to recount so I’m going to make this a photo blog. Hopefully each thousand-word photo will convey something important about our life in the Dominican Republic.
SCUBA! For the first time on this SV Maggie May voyage, which was supposed to be all about diving, we were able to scuba dive. We saw seahorses, rays, eels, so many fishes, turtles and superbly strange sea creatures. We saw coral reefs, thriving, dying and dead.
We got to spend time relaxing, learning about and enjoying Punta Cana with our friends Gabby and Rick.
Sometimes, perhaps even often, the thing unsought is the thing you need, an offering of time and space to stash away as an immortal treasure, ever impactful even if only rarely remembered. Such was our unplanned arrival in the Dominican Republic. And who knows what comes next.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, beauty, Caribbean, conservation, Dominican Republic, environment, history, krista schlyer, luperon, Maggie May, national park, nature, photo, photography, sailing, sv maggie may, wildlife