Hey guys, what’s crackalacking?
So I’ve had my adventures on Tobago and Trinidad and now am on a new journey. I wrote a fun story about the twin island republic in the south Caribbean and all the cheeky shit I got up to there, but unfortunately, that story has been claimed by the sea. The old sailors say that whenever you sail on the sea, she’ll take a tax; a payment for the passage. Well, this time I paid the toll with my phone, which had the only draft of the Trinidad and Tobago tales saved on its internal memory. So yeah, that story has been stowed in Davy Jones’ locker. If you wanna hear that yarn, well, you’ll just have to invite me around for a beer.
Anyways, this wild journey just keeps getting better and better, so let’s move on and find out where the currents of life take me on my latest boat hitching venture.
This chapter comes together with the alliance of three young adventurers and the new crew of Beverlyann: a 28-foot sailing boat and recent acquisition of French rambler Fabian. ‘Captain Fromage’, as he would later be nicked, just bought the old sloop and offered me a place on his crew, along with Russian globetrotter Niki ‘360’, for his maiden voyage on Beverly and his first time sailing as captain.
The proposed journey was simple. We would sail north from Trinidad to Grenada, then island hop through the Grenadines to Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia and on to Martinique, where Captain Fromage planned to fill his new home with cheese, baguettes and cigarettes. 360 was heading north, so he signed up for the trip and Martinique appealed to me too, as I was feeling a little weary from my past months of street hustle and saw the European island as an opportunity to catch my breath for a while: get a regular job, live in a house with a kitchen, grow some basil, date some French girls and just try to be normal for a few months. Yeah I know, sounds fucking boring but hey, I’m getting old… and slowly coming around to the idea of having some comforts in my life… and so the crew of Beverlyann was formed and a course for Martinique was set.
Captain Fromage was a ‘sail first ask questions later’ kind of guy, so as soon as we were able to clear through customs we were on the water pulling the sails out… without giving too much thought to the wind, weather and currents. It was only a hundred miles to Grenada… what could possibly go wrong? Ohhh the sweet innocence. We set sail early afternoon so that most of the passage would be under the cover of darkness — to minimize the chance of meeting pirates on the way out of Trinidad, and so that we would arrive in Grenada at a reasonable hour the next day. The sail out of Chaguaramas anchorage was sweet and smooth. Being on the leeward side, and in the island’s ‘shadow’, the winds were moderate and the currents were favourable: perfect conditions for a leisurely afternoon sail. The excitement didn’t kick off until we passed through the Dragon’s Mouth: the gateway from the Gulf of Paria into the open sea.
The southern Caribbean Sea is known for its strong currents and turbulent waters. Just upstream you have 3000-odd miles of unobstructed open ocean — so the swell coming across from Europe has weeks to take form and gain momentum before it collides with the continent of South America. The Dragon’s Mouth is first in line and cops the brunt of this trans-Atlantic current, funneling its relentless surging through the narrow passage between Trinidad and continental Venezuela. As soon as we came out of the shadow of Trinidad and confronted the full force of the ocean’s power, we knew about it. The winds kicked up, the currents increased and the reflection of the swell as it rebounded off the steep shore lines had waves bashing our little boat from 2, 3 or more angles at once.
“Ummm I think we better put a reef in, Skip,” I suggested to my captain. “We’re heeling at 40 degrees and there are waves breaking into the pit!”
“Yeah, I think you’re right buddy!” the skipper agreed as the spray from a breaking wave soaked his clothes. “Let’s put in second reef.”
Reducing the sail when over-powered is easiest done with two people. I went up to the mast while Fabian stayed in the cockpit, his one hand on the tiller turning into the wind, other hand releasing the jammer for the main halyard. Once the jammer was open, I was able to feed the line through the winch on the mast to bring the sail down. Typically, a mainsail has 3 ‘reefs’ (large eyelets) running up the leading and trailing edges that can be attached to the boom, giving the sail 4 settings of operation. No reef = full sail; first reef = 3/4 sail; second reef =1/2 sail; and third reef =1/4 sail. I pulled the sail down the mast until the second reef eyelets were in line with the boom, where I could fasten them with a shackle, then I signaled the captain, telling him that the reef was in, and to re-engage the line jammer. Next was just a matter of reshaping the sail by pulling up the halyard and pulling down on the kicker.
Now back on course with the sail trimmed, the ride was a lot more comfortable, but still no Sunday arvo mosey. We were sailing as close to upwind as we could, fighting the current’s unyielding assault; each time climbing up the waves, rocking over the crest then plunging into the trough. Poor little Niki 360 fucking copped it… got sick as a dog, but bloody handled it like a soldier. One hand on the tiller, keeping us on course (apart from a few full circles, hence the name 360), the other hand holding back his hair while he barked at the waves that lapped up the side of the boat. Yep, it was going to be a long night, but the thought of Grenada coming over the horizon with the morning sun kept us all determined.
First light was at 6 am, with the sun peaking over the horizon around 6:30. I was up with the first rays to start my shift on the tiller and give Captain Fromage some down time. I climbed out of the cabin, into the pit, and scanned the horizon — but no sign of Grenada. “Oi skip, where are we? I thought we’d be able to see it by now.” The question hung in the air for a moment… “Yeah… I thought we’d be able to see it too.”
You see, before leaving Trinidad, we agreed not to use the GPS and to only navigate by compass and stars, which we all considered to be pretty fecken bad ass, but what we failed to consider was how strong the current would be, and how much it would alter our course. We had been sailing as close to the north-easterly winds as we could, but without seeing our position on the GPS, we had no way of knowing that the currents were so strong pushing on our little boat that our true heading was somewhere closer to north-west. The GPS got switched on and connected with the overhead satellites, like magic revealing our position on the chart and showing us that we had undershot Grenada by about 30 nautical miles… shit! We were now directly downwind from Grenada, but still too far out to be in the safety of the island’s shadow, which put us in a little predicament…
Skippa was old school. He didn’t want to use the engine unless it was an emergency, which left our only option to sail against the current, tacking back and forth to zigzag our way upwind, which we did all bloody day but to nearly no avail. Even though the compass showed our tack angle to be around 60 degrees — 30 degrees either side of the wind — the GPS showed us that it was more like 160 degrees, taking into consideration the drift from the currents. It was going to take 6 months to reach Grenada at this rate… and we only had two more days’ worth of food. Finally, Skippa Cheese reluctantly gave in to the situation and told me to start the engine.
‘THUMP THUMP THUMP.’ The single pot iron donkey fired into life and began to churn the water beneath our stern. Slowly I increased the RPM, pushing harder into the current until our true heading matched our desired course. At last… our boat was going in the same direction it was pointing. I locked off the throttle and sat down with the tiller. We weren’t going fast, but we were going the right way… give it 10 hours and we’d be on dry land. “Yo Nikki Three Six!” I called down into the galley “Must be time for a coffee ay? Chucka brew on for us mate?”
The next half hour was awesome. We all sat in the pit sipping coffee and cracking jokes without a worry in the world, while the engine did all the hard work for us. The past 24 hours had been long and tiring, so it was nice to believe that we were nearly home… Ohhh the sweet sweet beautiful innocence…. Our half hour of happy time came to an abrupt and depressing end as the engine spluttered to a halt and stopped dead in the arse. Shit! I turned the key, the engine tumbled — but it didn’t fire. Fuck! Turns out some sea water had found its way into the diesel tank and contaminated the whole fuel system… CUNT! Grenada just got a lot further away…
The sun sat low amongst the clouds as another day drew to an end. Morale was low amongst the crew as the realisation set in that we would not be arriving in Grenada as planned. Little Beverlyann was just in no condition to prevail against these unforgiving currents. 360 and I looked to the captain for a plan, but we knew there was only one viable option. The strong easterlies were pushing us towards the heart of the Caribbean Sea, which ruled out any of the windward islands. The limited food and water on board didn’t give us the range to cross the sea, which ruled out any of the islands in the north, or lands to the west… doubling back and heading south to Trinidad where we could repair the fuel system and wait for a window of calmer seas and lower currents to attempt the passage again was our best bet.
“Set a course for Chaguaramas,” ordered the captain. I caught a hint of regret in his voice. The poor cunt, nobody likes to admit defeat to the sea, but she be a worthy adversary — as old and experienced as the earth itself, with many hard lessons to teach her students.
It would be another long, dark night. Clouds hid the moon’s face and denied its reflection on the waves that rolled beneath our boat. We sailed with the navigation lights switched off to avoid any unwanted attention from pirates on our return to Trinidad. The only company for the single-person nightwatch was the wind in the sails and the dimly lit compass which guided us through the troubled waters. As the night progressed, the winds picked up and the currents increased until by morning, when I awoke to start the early shift, they were the strongest we had seen the whole trip.
“How we looking skip?” I queried the captain as he studied the GPS display.
“It’s not looking good buddy,” he admitted. “Come see for yourself.”
He was right, it wasn’t looking good. The increased currents had pushed us downwind of the Dragon’s Mouth — the only way in and out of the bay of Paria when approaching from the north. Being downstream from that passage without an operational engine meant we were a little bit fucked… because, you see, the only thing downstream from Trinidad is fucking Venezuela: a land of corruption, poverty, starvation and pirates.
The Captain called Niki Three Six to join us in the pit, where were could discuss our situation and consider the options. Our dwindling provisions meant that we had to reach land soon and the only land downwind and within range was Venezuela… but where would we arrive? We checked the charts for any ports or harbour towns that could work for us, which is when we noticed the small island archipelago of Los Testigos, just off the continent and only 50 miles from us. Our chart didn’t show if there were any villages or infrastructure on the islands, but it was the closest shore — and perhaps safer than the mainland. Or was it a pirate haven? Would we be sailing directly into the lion’s den? Or even if the islands were safe, would there be any food or water?
After some discussion, the decision was unanimous. We would try our luck at Los Testigos and hope at least for some coconut trees, at best a village with some fresh fish and rainwater. As for the chance of pirates, well, we were three men on board with nothing valuable to steal, and we convinced ourselves that we were no likely target… Anyways… regardless of the odds, it seemed that the islands would be our best bet… but we knew that only time would tell…
“Yeah fuck ‘em mate! What are they gunna steal? The packet of dry pasta and our can of condensed milk?”
— Wilby, talking about pirates