BITS and PIECES # 53

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October 8, 2014 by palamow

BITS and Pieces # 53

Hello again from Luquillo,

I hope you all are doing well – as promised, here is Part II of my PARANORMAL INTERMEZZO ‘series’. It quickly evolved into a series when I discovered that I wasn’t close to telling the entire story properly, and I had already ‘used-up’ over six thousand words (my essays normally run from thirteen to fifteen hundred words or less…

So I solved this quandary by dividing it up – first into two halves, and then when that didn’t work, into thirds…

The nice thing about this system? It builds suspense…

I hope you like that aspect – and if you don’t, I pray that you’ll forgive me this once…

So please hang on as the adventure heats up!

n.b.: when this story is done, I promise to stick to shorter essays in future posts – for the moment anyway…

PARANORMAL INTERMEZZO – PART II – THE LEAVING OF LIVERPOOL

Enlisting John Scott and Peter Parker to help sail two recently recovered Baltic 39 sailing yachts from the company’s ill fated St. Lucia charter fleet (BITS and PIECES # 52) to the Virgin Islands turned-out to be easier than expected. Scotty and Peter were eager to make the short 500 mile passage across the Caribbean Sea from Saint Lucia in the southern Windward Islands, to St. Thomas in the northern Leeward Islands…

Scotty and I would team up to navigate boat number one – Peter would sail boat number two accompanied by his good friend Bob Beaumont, if Bob could arrange a short furlough from the Boston firm where he was employed as an account manager…

Scotty, who had been working diligently (if sporadically) on a dissertation that would eventually earn him a PhD in folklore from the University of Maine (and later still, a position as associate professor of marine folklore at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy) was ready for a break from academia. It was our mutual interest in capstan shanties and maritime lore that would unwittingly involve us in a bizarre sailing event…

Peter held a 100 ton ‘sail and steam’ masters ticket and was an expert yachtsman, skilled in boat commissioning, maintenance and myriad other marine-related talents. He had served in Viet Nam with the Marine Corps, and was a direct descendant of Captain John Parker, the storied leader of the Lexington Minutemen, a militia made-up of local farmers and shopkeepers that stood up to the British regulars at Lexington Green in 1776…

Peter and Scotty were accomplished offshore sailors, and, as luck would have it, both had strong ties to Bill Gorwood and Baltic USA…

We quickly took stock of what marine supplies we would need to bring with us; a mainsail (boat number one’s had ‘mysteriously’ gone missing); an anchor, rode and chain (ditto); two heavy-duty 8D marine storage batteries (AWOL from both boats) and a short list of wire and cordage needed to replace a few absent stays, sheets and halyards. As Nelson, my Barbadian taxi driver friend had sagely observed during my prior St. Lucia trip “There’s a whole lotta ‘teefin’ (thieving) goin on here, Mon”…

We were able to borrow a spare mainsail and a lightweight aluminum anchor from Bill Gorwood’s yacht, ‘Krispi’, a similarly rigged Baltic 39, and we cobbled together a few small spools of various types of cordage that we could splice and rig as necessary. Since the two 8D batteries we required were far too heavy, awkward and dangerous to consider as hold baggage, we opted to purchase them from a local chandlery in St. Lucia. With that final decision made, we prepared to depart on Monday of the following week…

Scotty and I left first; Peter and Bob would follow a few days later. We departed Boston early Monday morning, lugging the heavy bagged mainsail and anchor along with our sea bags, boarding a United Air Lines DC-8, bound for Sint Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport, arrived in Sint Maarten shortly before noon. Since our connecting flight to St. Lucia wouldn’t depart until late that evening, we hired a taxi to drive us over the mountain separating ‘Dutch’ Sint Maarten from ‘French’ Saint Martin. Curiously, the usual border control delay was missing — as we crossed from one ‘country’ to the next, the boundary was delineated by a diminutive stone marker, inscribed with the words Netherlands and France, with arrows pointing west and east — surely among the most casual and peaceful borders extant in our increasingly hostile and, bureaucratic world…

We stopped at the tiny fishing village of Grand Case, where we strolled along the bay until we stumbled upon a comfortable seaside bistro where we enjoyed an exceptional crayfish and oyster meal complemented nicely with a bottle of very pleasant Chablis…

Late that afternoon we boarded a LIAT DHC-6 Twin Otter which ‘island hopped’ us via Antiqua and Guadeloupe to St. Lucia’s Hewanorra airport…

As soon as we had deplaned and cleared immigration, I found a telephone in the terminal and rang up my new friend and St. Lucia ‘transportation manager’, Nelson the taxi man. We were in luck – I caught him at home eating his dinner. He quickly agreed to pick us up promptly. Promptly worked out to be just over an hour, but, hey, we were on island time now, Mon…

We crammed anchor and cordage into Nelson’s trunk and then lashed the mainsail bag to the baggage rack on the taxi’s roof. Scotty squeezed into the back seat with our sea bags while I joined Nelson in the front passenger seat, and we were soon rebounding over the now familiar rutted road leading to Marigot Bay. I had made reservations at the Capella Marigot Resort and Marina – I figured it would take us at least a week to re-rig the boats and prepare for the journey. We might as well live comfortably in the meantime…

I called Peter and he said that he and Bob were scheduled to arrive the next afternoon, so I arranged with Nelson to pick them up and bring them to Marigot Bay…

Their flight had been delayed so they arrived in Nelson’s rattling taxi around midnight, waking us with a lot of noise and a nice surprise – Ramsey Scott had opted to join the crew for a few days, so she could spend some ‘quality beach time’ with her husband, before we departed for St. Thomas…

We spent the next week alternating between the beach, the sights of Castries and the important task of re-rigging the boats for the passage. We ran into our first snag right away – the mainsail we had laboriously lugged down from Marblehead didn’t fit – it was a ‘bolt rope’ sail, with a line sewn into the edges of luff and foot. A boltrope slides through a groove in the mast, and boom for hoisting the sail or moving the foot back along the boom. I silently cursed myself for failing to notice that the mast and boom on this boat had no grooves in the mast and boom; instead it had been fitted with tracks and slides, so a ‘boltrope’ sail was basically unworkable. Accordingly, we re-bagged the useless mainsail and stowed it in a cockpit locker…

Since our passage would be almost exclusively down wind, with the easterly trades at our back, we opted to sail under the headsail (a genoa jib) alone, employing the yacht’s Volvo Penta auxiliary diesel engine if by chance we were becalmed along the way. I purchased heavy-duty 8D marine batteries for both vessels at a chandlery in Castries (at an exorbitant price), only to determine much to my chagrin, that the engine on ‘our’ boat had been scavenged. When I dived on the hull to scrape-off accumulated barnacles and sea grass, I discovered that the propeller had been removed from its skeg-mounted shaft. Further inspection revealed that the thief (or thieves) had also removed the Volvo’s cranking motor and alternator, all of which I soon discovered were not to be found in any chandlery on the island. Since we were pressed for time, planning to leave in a day or so. we couldn’t wait for parts to be ordered and shipped from the mainland. So, we made the best of a bad situation, and got ready to stand to sea…

Fortunately, Peter and Bob had fared better with boat number two – they had a full complement of sails and an auxiliary engine that functioned properly after a little coaxing, so, they set sail the next morning, after we enjoyed a ‘Bon Voyage’ feast’ at the hotel restaurant, and bade farewell to Ramsey who was flying back to Boston…

Two days later Nelson drove me into Castries to pick-up some provisions for the voyage. I purchased a small, freshly baked shoulder of ham, a wedge of hard cheese, a few assorted tins of beans and sausages, three hard-crusted loaves of local bread, and six one gallon jugs of fresh water. A veritable feast for two persons on a trip we had estimated would take under four days with calm seas and prevailing easterly winds…

When we arrived back at Marigot Bay, I shook Nelson’s hand, paid him off (including a healthy gratuity) and thanked him profusely for his unflagging service. He waved dejectedly from the quay, saddened to see his main source of income sailing away, as the tug I had hired towed us out of the bay. When we had proceeded far enough from the lee shore to catch the wind, we dropped the tow line, hauled-up the headsail and were on our way…

I suddenly remembered that I had failed to contact the meteorological service at Hewanorra airport to get a long-range weather forecast – a slip-up that I would soon regret – as we learned at our journey’s end, an area of low pressure near the Cape Verde islands had swiftly develop into a tropical depression and then a tropical storm in the eastern Atlantic – it would eventually become Hurricane Gabrielle which barely missed the Virgin Islands! Unknown to us, this storm was rapidly coming our way and would parallel our track for a day or so, a little less than a degree of latitude to the south of our position…

I had placed the shoulder of baked ham in the galley sink to secure it from rolling around in the seaway. That afternoon, with the sail properly trimmed and everything settled down we were ready for lunch. Scotty manned the helm and tended the sheets, while I hurried below to make sandwiches – peering into the sink in the dim sunlight that seeped through a tiny porthole, I was surprised to see that the ham had turned from a healthy reddish-pink color to a shiny black, and it seemed to be pulsating as if it were alive! When my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I realized to my utter disgust that it was totally encrusted with ravenous black cockroaches…

Reaching in the pocket of my sun-bleached khaki shorts, I grabbed my rigging knife, quickly unfolded the hooked blade and speared the ham dead center. Darting up the companionway ladder to the cockpit, I pitched the awful carrion and its odious cargo of feasting predators into the sea…

Scotty’s eyebrows shot up in disbelief – he hadn’t noticed the miserable state of our comestibles. When I brought him up to date, he enquired why I hadn’t just tied a line around our ham and hung it over the side until its grisly passengers had abandoned ship, and then brought it back aboard. He had a point, but when I suggested that we couldn’t be confident that all the little monsters had departed aboard our jettisoned protein source, he was satisfied that I had made the correct choice…

Mentally cursing my stupidity for not having arranged to have both boats fumigated while I was gone, I went below again and swiftly salvaged what remained of our provisions. When I had determined that they were free of ‘boarders’, I brought them up into the sunlight where they would be safe from harm — or so I thought…

We sailed a south-westerly heading for the next couple of days, determined to stay well to the south of Isla Aves, a tiny speck of sand in the east Caribbean Sea, barely large enough and high enough to support a small patch of grass and its sole inhabitants – lots of seabirds and a few sea turtles – we didn’t want to come upon it unawares in the middle of the night. We had plotted Isla Aves’ coordinates on our chart, but in those pre-satellite navigation/GPS days, we determined our location by a combination of dead reckoning and noon sun sights taken with Scotty’s venerable brass sextant and well-thumbed sight-reduction tables…

The easterly wind was fluky – turning north and blowing at near gale force for an hour or so, whipping-up the sea to a frost of whitecaps, only to suddenly die away to a dead calm with flat seas (we were unknowingly experiencing the wind field of the aforementioned tropical storm Gabrielle as its center passed to our south) As a result our forward progress was sporadic. Driven solely by our single sail, we were averaging a mere 3 to 5 knots between noon sights. At this rate of speed, considering the frequent episodes of little or no wind, we estimated that our 500 mile voyage would take six or seven days to complete…

On the third night, when we were reasonably sure we had successfully avoided Isla Aves, we turned northwest and headed for the Virgins. It was around then that strange things began to happen…

First, a violent gust of wind immediately followed by an equally vehement line squall caught us unawares. Before we could take in our headsail, we found ourselves heeling precariously. Our remaining stores now lashed down in the cockpit to avoid cockroaches were drenched and two precious jugs of fresh water were swept overboard. I was steering the boat at the time. With an imprecise, but efficacious display of gymnastics, I was able to snatch a couple of soggy loaves of bread and a small chunk of cheese as the boat slowly came erect once again…

That evening, when the squall had passed and a semblance of order was restored, we back winded the headsail, put the helm over, lashed the wheel down and hove-to for a few hours to lick our wounds and catnap. Around dawn a southerly chop began to pitch the boat around once again. It was enough to wake me from where I was dozing at the helm, and to rouse Scotty from his slumbers below. Another passing squall soaked us both and caused Scotty to slip on the companionway ladder, smacking his forehead hard enough on the bridge-deck sill to cause it to bleed. I broke out a first aid kit we had thoughtfully brought along, and together, we managed to bandage the wound properly, heaving-to once more…

By midday it was clear that Scotty had suffered a mild concussion – his vision was blurred, he was extremely lightheaded and he had a ringing in his ears, all of which conspired to confine him to his berth below until he regained his senses…

After he was settled, I took stock of our increasingly meager rations – to my annoyance I discovered that the remaining loaves of bread were limp and parts had dissolved into shapeless mounds of limp dough. A few small chunks of hard cheese still appeared to be edible, having survived both the intense tropical heat and the soaking squall. That left us with the bits of cheese, one tin of baked beans, a small tin of sausage, and two gallon jugs of water – meager stores indeed for the three or four days and nights we estimated to complete our passage in the intense tropical heat…

That evening, the indefatigable Mr. Scott was feeling chipper and determined to take his watch at the wheel, The wind was blowing from the east and the sea had flattened somewhat, so we reset the jib and came back around on the correct heading once more. As we sat in the cockpit munching soggy bread and tiny bits of cheese, washed down with equally miniscule sips from our dwindling water stock, we kept ourselves awake, and our spirits up by singing sea shanties – we began with a tune we both knew well — a mid-18th century capstan shanty entitled ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’:

I have signed on a Yankee Clipper ship Davy Crockett is her name And Burgess is the Captain of her and they say she’s a floating Hell

So fare thee well, my own true love When I return united we will be It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that’s grieving me But my darling when I think of thee

We had just finished two verses, intermingling the chorus after each one, when we paused briefly to catch our breaths and search our memories for the remaining lyrics. We soon agreed that if the song had another verse, we were unaware of it, and had lapsed into a comfortable silence, idly listening to the murmur of the ocean as it softly slipped by the boat…

Suddenly, a quavering ghostly voice that seemed to be coming from below decks, sang out, breaking the stillness of the night:

Oh the sun is on the harbor, love and I wish I could remain for I know it will be a long, long time Till I see you again

As suddenly as it had begun, the disembodied voice died away, and quiet reigned once again. We peered cautiously at each other, searching in vain for any indication of a practical joke. Finding none we were rendered speechless for a time as we dazedly considered the possibilities…

In general, Scotty and I were lucid problem solvers – he had a sharp analytical mind and as a trained engineer, I tended toward reasoned thinking as well. In short, we were skeptical – was this phenomenon the result of our shared exhaustion, we reasoned, or perhaps the initial signs of dehydration? Since we were convinced that we had both heard the ghostly singing, was this simply a manifestation of collective hysteria?

Read the exciting conclusion to this bizarre nautical adventure tale in BITS and PIECES # 54 — A PARANORMAL INTERMEZZO, PART III – THE DOUBLE BLIND TEST…

© 2014 – Alan Mowbray Jr.

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