Sunday, December 27, 2009

American in St. Bart's

All you need is a few days in St. Bart's (St. Barth) to understand why they call it the French Riviera of the Caribbean. It is an island I never heard much about, perhaps because they have chased many an outsider away with their prices and attitudes. But if you can stomach it just long enough to find your way out of Port Gustavia, you will find gorgeous, secluded beaches, very charming villages and people. The French native to the island are extremely patient and hospitable. At the patisserie (pastery shop) a girl broke out the French-English dictionary in an attempt to understand us, and a waiter at a restaurant serving local cuisine brought us a complimentary flask of house rum following dinner.
As soon as we dropped anchor in the harbor of Port Gustavia, we were hit with the realization that we were in very different cruising grounds than we were used to. We were sailing with the big dogs now, bigger boats, bigger pockets and bigger egos. So big, there's very little room left for little boats and people like us to fit in, literally. You must be very good at the helm and quick to drop an anchor to negotiate the very tight spaces left in busy ports like these.
It was only the beginning of the winter, and already the outer harbor was filled with vessels donning flags from all over Europe. With so many languages spoken, the universal mode of communication is body language. A local man who spoke English was kind enough to offer us his mooring ball to get closer to shore. As soon as we tied on the mooring lines, it was apparent our boat was swinging too close to a French trimaran (three hulls). The man aboard, who didn't speak English was technically supposed to move his boat at anchor. A firm stance with arms crossed over his chest exuded the more stereotypical French arrogance and inflexibility. We didn't feel like arguing with that. Three hulls trumped our monohull.

As we took our dinghy into port, we were greeted by rows of megayachts berthed all along the promenade. I had never seen poweryachts so big. The one above has a garage in the back end. If you look closely, you'll notice that it's open and there's a fishing boat inside. Only a few minutes ashore taught us that unlike Bermuda, friendliness was not expected but actually frowned upon. My hellos and good afternoons were either ignored or received dirty looks. Alrighty then! I must place a disclaimer on this, however. It seemed I typically encountered this behavior close to centers frequented by the megayachters.

It was interesting to get a glimpse into this strange new world, where the streets bustled with young men and women wearing matching shorts, skirts and polos that featured the name of the yacht they worked on. Crews of people swarmed around the yachts and luxury dinghies (dingies with steering wheel consoles), endlessly buffing and waxing hulls, answering their walkie talkies and reporting back to captains at the other end of the boat through their headsets. Virtually anything you needed could be obtained by pushing a button.

A breakfast along the waterfront, confirmed that we were no longer bystanders to this world of extravagance, as omelets were 10 Euros or more ($15 US) not including the ingredients like tomato, pepper, cheese...which was 1 Euro extra. There were additional charges for splitting plates and each tiny cup of coffee (all espresso) was another 2 Euros. We had lunch ashore on our first day after anchoring, too tired after a night of being up on watch followed by a morning of boat chores and taking care of general business like reporting to customs. I chose wisely, unbeknownst to me by ordering an Amstel Light. Stephen and John were tricked by the cheaper Heineken. It seemed too good to be true until the little pony bottles arrived. Stephen now refuses to drink another Heineken out of sheer principle.

A few streets back, or I should say "up" from the waterfront - they are very steep, we discovered cheap eats at a patisserie that bakes all the pasteries for the other restaurants. Chocolate and almond croissants, strawberry tartines and coconut custard, all for less than $3. Baguettes were abundant and $1 each. The thing to do is drop by the bakery in the morning and load your shopping bag with baguettes. Throughout the morning, it seemed that everyone you passed on the street was carrying at least one. When in Rome, do as the Romans do...with tons of baguettes, we had to figure out what to do with them. You can only have them with so much cheese and wine before that gets old. Stephen had the brilliant idea of using them as rolls for turkey and breakfast sandwiches. Regular bread will never be the same.
While the French may be generous with their pasteries, they are stingy when it comes to coffee. When you order a "large" they fill the little cup the whole way instead of only half way to the top. This frustrated the hell out of me and John, longing for a normal sized coffee. Each morning we ended up buying two cups - there are no free refills. I like a strong coffee, so espresso was fine with me. It put an extra spring in my step, but also waged war my stomach after one too many. So that's why they make them so small!! John was not down with the super strong coffee and longed for a cup of Starbucks or any old-fashioned cup of American coffee. Contrary to popular belief, Starbucks is not as global as you think.
We headed out of Gustavia to Anse de Colombier, in search of quiet beaches and anchorages. Atop the island sat a home once owned by the Rockefellers. This part of the island is so remote, you can only get there by boat or by hiking the trail in. We dinghied less than 100 feet to shore to watch the sunset, but happened upon a scene far more entertaining.
A group that chartered a catamaran was having trouble getting their guests back to the boat. Unable to manuever the engine of their dinghy so that they could pull up to the beach, women were wading fully clothed up to their shoulders in the water and then struggling to hoist themselves into the dinghy. One almost made it, head into the dinghy and ass suspended in air, she lowered herself back in the water probably realizing we were enjoying the show! Our laughter was unleashed when they gave up on trying to get her back into the dinghy and tossed her a line to tow her all the way back to the boat. "That's just ridiculous!" Stephen managed to catch his breath long enough to speak.

Chartering a boat with or without a captain is an excellent way to see the islands in a way you'll never get to if you're on a cruise ship or staying at a resort close to port. We highly recommend it, since we had the trip of a lifetime chartering in the San Blas, Panama. When we chartered, we were very new to sailing and would have had a rough time figuring out the anchorages, how to barter, where to fish, etc. That's why chartering a boat with a captain was the way to go. When boats are chartered independently by people with limited sailing experience, it can be a less than relaxing vacation for its crew and everyone anchored around them. There are islands like Anguilla that we probably won't sail to just because charter boats are abundant and there's a good chance you might get bumped into. The road less traveled is well worth it in the end.

The next morning we hiked the trail to the top of the island and over the hillside to other beaches. Every part of this hike was beautiful, filled with iguanas, butterlies, and tons of wild flowers and plants like type of cactus with two red blooms that form a pair of eyes (or a pair of something else depending on your imagination). The islands of St. Bart's surprised us with their landscapes that reminded us of the southwestern U.S., covered with all kinds of cactus and red rocks similar to Sedona, AZ.

The trail led along the edge of steep cliffs overlooking the shoreline and powerful waves crashing into rocks below. As I walked this path, I was grabbing for the side at times to be sure I wasn't going to step out into nothing and take a tumble to an unpleasant fate below. I kept stopping every few feet to take another picture, probably annoying Stephen and John. I felt like I was entering an enchanted garden as the path became more closed in by overgrowth and natural archways formed by rock or vines and low hanging trees.

We followed the trail until we descended upon the town at Flammand's Beach. Unlike the beach on the lee side at Colombier, this one produced waves big enough to knock Stephen and John around and wear them out. For those of you who know either one of them, that takes a lot. I felt like a Mom keeping an amused but protective eye on them as they disappeared and tumbled beneath the waves like little boys. A few seconds would lapse as I waited for them to reappear. They always emerged cheering and laughing until they could barely walk to shore.

Back at the boat, the beach along Colombier was filling up with sunbathers and more hikers. The anchorage had more sailboats, charter cats and French fishing boats with topless sunbathers. Stephen and John set out on the dinghy in search of snorkeling while I set up a chair at the bow of the boat and cracked open a Red Stripe. Chilling in the Caribbean sunshine on my own sailboat in the middle of December, I finally felt like I had arrived to the place I had dreamed of and prepared for, for 3 years. I enjoyed watching the scenery, including those that gazed over at our boat, maybe wondering how we found ourselves here, the whole way from Baltimore, MD.

We cast off from Colombier later that afternoon and motored the short distance back to Gustavia for sunset at Shell Beach, very popular among the locals. I felt very American, bogged down by all my beach accessories: beach blanket, chairs, cooler, wine carrier. Everyone else seemed to be traveling light, even wearing less clothing. I think John and Stephen probably enjoyed this one. We had never seen so many many shells or topless women on a beach before. Unlike Jamaica, where the only people on the nude beach are the ones you don't want to see naked, almost everyone in St. Bart's was gorgeous.

It was interesting to see how natural it was for them to hang out in groups, engaging in conversation fully exposed. It's even common for the tourism guides to feature nudity. These are guides that you can pick up just about anywhere. Naked women from cover to cover advertising anything from jewelry to IBM laptops. I thought for a minute about taking my top off on my own boat while Stephen and John were away, but even then I couldn't bring myself to do it. I guess I spent too many years in Catholic School to free myself of Puritan ideals. Parents with small children allowed them to run on the beaches clothing free. It becomes like second nature to them so they aren't plagued with the self-consciousness that we are. While many of the French are Christian, it's like they skipped over the story of creation. You know, that part where Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and they finally notice that they're naked. These people aren't aware they left the Garden of Eden. With palm trees and white sand never more than a few blocks away, it's easy to see why.

The next day we rented a car and toured the rest of St. Bart's. It seemed pretty easy to negotiate on the price. As the man at the rental place said to John, "For you, I give the special" - a PT Cruiser convertible for around 50 Euro. With top down, we felt very chic driving around the island. This was the best way to see the panoramic views around every corner. We drove from beach to beach, snorkeling at Anse de Cayes and stopping at Saline (featured in first photo) for another wine and cheese-filled sunset. With baguettes of course!! This was my favorite beach for swimming. The water was the temperature of a lukewarm bath and the water was clear to the bottom with just enough current to keep you afloat and carry you in to shore. It was at this beach that we experienced the trade offs that come with public nudity. There's something about a dude emerging from the water totally in the buff that is shocking, and maybe disturbing according to the pained expressions on John and Stephen's faces. We were also reminded that some of the French prefer not to shave.

Driving around the island was thrilling and a little scary. Everyone drove fast despite the crazy blind turns and steep drop-offs. As narrow as they were, the roads were actually wider than Bermuda. The port of Gustavia was the busiest with traffic, and the French are like Americans in that they love to lay on the horn. This is partly because people think nothing of leaving their car running in the middle of a busy street while they run into a store to pick something up. And parking the car was the scariest of all! When we got back to Gustavia, the only spaces available were on inclines so steep you weren't sure that the emergency brake would work. Poor John was on edge paralell parking as the PT Cruiser drifted within inches of the car behind us. Way to work the brake John!

Once we had our fill of the main island, we checked out of customs before stopping at Isle de Forchue, a desolate island that is a nature marine park, belonging to St. Bart's. Immigration on St. Bart's gives bureaucracy a whole new meaning. When we checked in, they gave Stephen a hard time about not bringing his own pen. This was an entirely different experience than checking into Bermuda, where the customs officers were very accomodating. We had a minor squall sailing over to Isle de Forchue, with winds gusting up to 30 knots. It was a short but intense sail as the winds blew strong and kicked up the seas a little. The winds pushed us over there in no time (less than an hour), and approaching this anchorage was breathtaking.

There were very few boats moored and we had the entire island to ourselves the whole time we were here. The island was inhabited only by goats for years, and they pulled the last of the remaining goats off the island after they had managed to eat every ounce of vegetation until it was practically barren. Less than 10 years ago, they began replanting trees in the gulley. Now it is picture perfect, with all the colors of the rainbow: red rockfaces and cactus blooms, orange clay and mud, yellow grasses and butterflies, green cactus and shrubs, blue sky and ocean, purple flowers, and pink and lavender sunsets.

The morning after we arrived, Stephen cooked us brunch while John went for a swim around the boat, discovering a huge fish hanging out by our keel that resembled a baracuda. John had definitely spotted a baracuda, also by the keel, at the anchorage over in Gustavia. This one may have been a wahoo, but John didn't want to get too close to find out and jumped back on the boat. I commend him for sticking around long enough to have a good look and ponder this. Suddenly the area around our boat became a live aquarium with big fish and small silvery fish with blue and yellow-green fins. They practically leaped out of the water as we fed them scraps of bread and fat from our ham. Then Stephen decided to take the opportunity to cast his line out. I had forgotten about the strict regulations prohibiting fishing of any kind on the nature reserve. Fortunately, he didn't catch anything.

The island had over 4 peaks for good climbing and amazing views of St. Bart's and St. Martin. Stephen and I climbed two of them. The second one made my heart race and tested my fear of heights. I have climbed several peaks in NY's Adirondacks, including Mt. Marcy, the highest in NY state and never had the butterflies like I did on this one. I almost stopped halfway up the rock but pushed myself to get to the top. It amazes me how Stephen and John practically run up the sides of these things like they're billy goats. They made me nervous a few times over the course of this whole trip, balancing themselves on rocks suspended on the edge of bluffs where it would only take a strong breeze or a few sliding rocks to make you lose your footing.

We hiked to the top with our video camera and took video to try to share the experience - check out the video link on the side of the blog. Unsure of how I was going to get down, Stephen scouted the best path to traverse to a grove of trees where we hung out in the shade and looked down onto Synchronicity (see spec in lower left corner of photo above). John managed to hike two more peaks and discovered a blow hole at the end of the island - an opening that went straight through to the ocean where water rose up with every wave that crashed on shore.

Despite what our friends and loved ones might think, time doesn't slow down in paradise - at least it hasn't yet for us. Saturday came quickly, and it was time to get John over to St. Maarten (Dutch side) where he would catch his flight home. Hours of leisure are interrupted by petty frustrations that come with the logistics of living a lifestyle "free" of many technologies and conveniences. All the things that make life easier and more comfortable while also enslaving us to the modern world. And now I will quote the very silly movie made by the makers of South Park, "Freedom isn't free, there's a hefty f*&%in fee, freedom costs a buck 'o 5." - Team America. Do not mistake this for complaining. I consider every single day on this journey a blessing and will gladly trade instant gratification for life's hard earned pauses. I feel so fortunate that we are able to do this for whatever time we are allowed. I see every sunset with a fresh set of eyes, and savor every last drop of wine while feeling the difference between textures of sand against my toes. I spend less time thinking about the past or the future, and much more time focusesd in the present.
Spending a week of sunsets in different anchorages throughout St. Bart's wasn't a bad way to start life in the Caribbean. After St. Maarten/St. Martin, we hope to be heading to islands less developed. Time may not slow down, but we'll keep sailing until we get far enough away so that time is less encumbered by modern civilization's many distractions.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Smooth Sailing to the Caribbean

We arrived safely to St. Bart’s on Monday, Dec. 18th after an 8 night passage from Bermuda. Our friend John from Baltimore came along for the passage, bringing pounds of cherry Twizzlers, Snyder’s pretzel bites and tons of Snickers for night watches. He also helped us out a lot by bringing boat parts from the U.S., saving us a bundle and a lot of time on shipping.

John learned to sail with Stephen, coming along on cruises in the bay since we owned the Tartan. Now she belongs to John and I couldn't think of a better owner for her. He was a nice addition to the crew because of his knowledge, passion and aptitude for sailing. He never panicked when conditions stepped up, and was proactive when it came to trimming sail and other maneuvers.

This was his first major passage and watching him go through the motions of adjusting to life underway was like watching a filmstrip of myself on the last passage. We compared notes on the sounds inside the cabin that would keep you awake at night. We both agreed it was like sleeping inside an industrial sized washing machine that sometimes spun out of control to the point she was going to break!

John flew into Bermuda on Saturday, Dec. 5th, the night before departure. A night of rowdiness began with Christmas parades and festivities in St. George’s square. Then we hopped a bus to the Swizzle Inn where you “swagger out.” We got our fill of drinking, dancing to a blues band in between gorging on ribs and chicken. It's popular for bars in the islands to do BBQ on the weekends. They found us quite entertaining, and even gave the microphone to Stephen to sing along. He surprised us all with his own version of scat that included animal noises. As the the sax player said, "You guys livened up the place!" We were able to give John a quick tour of St. George’s parish before casting off, leaving just enough time for a major front to blow through.

We followed the tailwinds of this system out of Bermuda. The seas were still choppy with waves of up to 12 ft. for the first 36 hours out of Bermuda. The biggest John had ever seen, and I prayed the biggest he would have to see. The skies stayed gray and dark until sunrise Tuesday morning while both Stephen and John were on watch. They witnessed one of the most beautiful sunrises at sea, lighting up the skies with vibrant shades of pink, lavender, red, orange and blue. Almost the whole spectrum of the rainbow, like the one they passed through.

As they watched the sun rise, they could see squalls passing through in the distance. The dawn brought the biggest rainbow, signaling the end of gray skies and foul weather. As Synchronicity passed directly under its arch, it was like we had entered the gateway to paradise. Almost the rest of the trip was filled with sunshine, rainbows, shooting stars at night and even dolphins that came to swim alongside our bow. It was like my first grade sticker book come to life. The three dolphins criss-crossed around each other as they rode our wake. They spiraled through the water, revealing their eyes and underbellies just before leaping out of the water.

Other discoveries of the slimy type included a squid hurled on deck early on in the trip by a churned up sea. He reminded me of one of those sticky rubber toys in the prize window at the roller skating rink. He was clear all the way through so you could see his insides and his head and eyes were elongated like an alien’s. His bright blue eyes were the only spec of color.

Then there were the flying fish that would visit during our night watches. Many of them flying through the water would accidentally land on deck. Sometimes they would fly right into you. When they landed they would flop around all over the deck. I’m sure I woke up John one night when I shrieked as one came out of nowhere. Even though it freaked me out to try to grab it, I figured I would want someone to try to save me had I found myself in some unexpected situation, gasping for air as I fought for my life. He was a slippery little sucker, so I had to grab a paper towel to grip him before chucking him overboard.

Then there was the huge Mahi that Stephen hooked on his line using the silver spoon – later lost in the mouth of a teethy, gnarly-looking thing while trolling on our way to St. Maarten. This Mahi weighed about 25 lbs. and wouldn’t die easily. Still trying to figure out the best way to end it quickly for them, Stephen gaffed it and then asked John to bop it on the head with something – a winch handle! He did so reluctantly as we all winced with each thud. These fish are so pretty – iridescent blues, yellows and greens that are so bright until the life runs out of the Mahi. We also read somewhere that they travel in pairs – with their lifelong mates. Every time you catch one you wonder if you are leaving behind a very lonely partner.

Still, once it was caught, it had to be put out of its misery. And we were growing tired of food out of a box or a can. Stephen was an awesome cook underway, making us meals everynight through every type of condition. Sometimes cursing at the rolling pots and at Gretchen who wants to get right up in the food that she’s smelling. It seems this is the only thing she has to look forward to on these passages, where she settles in to places for hours – sometimes days on end.

For several days we had calm seas and breezes of 8 – 12 knots – just enough to keep the sails filled and keep us moving along at over 4 knots. This made for very nice night watches where you could relax enough to watch the stars. Thanks to Dad Toman, our Sirius Satellite radio which we had been without since the last big storm, was now reconnected and we had tunes to keep us going through the night.

One morning the breezes let up completely and Synchronicity was becalmed in one of the deepest parts of the ocean, second the the Puerto Rico Trench. Of course John and Stephen saw this as the perfect time to "go for a swim." Apprehensive about what might be lurking below in this blue abyss of 20,000 + feet or 5 miles to the bottom, I decided to keep watch for "unfriendly sea creatures," that might see John and Steve as the catch of lifetime. Dangling from the line of the back in snorkel gear they did look like the perfect bait for Jaws. They finally convinced me to jump in long enough to go below with my mask and see the swirls of sunlight that spiral hundreds of feet into the deep blue below. It can be disorienting, for at the same time the light separates into perfect symmetrical beams that seem to reach up towards you in "a thousand points of light."

My favorite night watch was to the tunes of Christmas music on the Forties station. I had forgotten all about Christmas until then and cuddled up with a blanket under the stars as I thought about Christmas memories from childhood – Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner at Mom & Dad’s, Aunt Lynn’s rice crispie treats, always trying to make the Santa Claus parade in downtown Hanover with Uncle Jim & Aunt Jane. I don’t think we ever made it in time, but at least we always made it to the Famous Hot Weiner on Black Friday after Christmas. I will miss them and even miss the hot dogs and chili maybe more than the turkey itself.

For the last couple of days, once we made it to about the 19th parallel, we picked up the trades and the boat started flying again. Hull speed increased to 6 knots, even going above 7 for a few hours at a time. Wind speed was now anywhere from 12 – 20, gusts to 22 and increasing with every passing squall. Once we hit the trades there was line of squalls coming from the East.

We called ourselves the “squall patrol,” on the Sunday just before approaching St. Bart’s. We tried to dodge as many as we could, or at least dodge the worst of the rains and wind. Just sailing under a poled-out headsail alone, we would furl it in almost as quickly as we had furled it out. The winds always seem to drop to almost nothing just on the edge of a squall or right in the center of it when you would also get poured on. Sometimes the boat would pick up speed in a matter of seconds going into one but then lose all speed with sails luffing as soon as it passed over. The most it gusted was up to 35 knots and this was pretty short-lived. As the squalls kept coming, I started to think back to our last leg into Bermuda when conditions only seemed to get worse. I thought to myself, “It figures.”

I learned on this passage to always keep your thoughts about what mother nature may or may not do to yourself, as it seems she is always listening and wants to keep you in your place. I considered the irrational nature of this belief until it was confirmed. We had managed to avoid one nasty looking squall – three clusters of dark storm clouds that had merged into one. The clouds had just missed us when they stalled mid-air as if they realized we had gotten away.

We began to revel in our success, Stephen commenting, “Ahh, we’re in calmer seas now.” He began to sit down to take a break when he quickly stood up as if he sensed the consequences of his words. Seconds after he moved from his spot, a random wave came spilling over the side in the very place where he sat, filling up the cockpit with a few inches of water. We both looked at each other completely spooked. It was like the squall has sent the wave to mess with us.

Fortunately, Mother Nature was kind to us, settling down for the evening although I think John still had some increased winds and boat speed to ride out like the Comet at Hershey Park. The seas were still swelly from all the squalls. During the height of them John did get to see even bigger waves – mostly 15 feet with a couple of 20 foot rollers here and there. By the time I had settled in to my very last night watch, things were evening out, the waves were settling and there was an insane lightshow going on above, with shooting stars streaking the sky in every direction.

I woke Stephen up almost half way through my watch, thinking we might have to alter course to avoid a huge ship first detected on radar and now visible on the horizon. The ship ended up running parallel until it was miles ahead of us before crossing our bow, but you can never be too vigilant even in this vast ocean. In the middle of our trip, a huge freighter crossed our path after we hadn’t seen a boat for days. In this vast ocean, the chances of crossing paths with another vessel seem small – but then you turn around 20 minutes after scanning the horizon to see one appearing out of nowhere. This one was westbound, probably for the U.S.

Ready to retire below again, another stray wave ended up dousing Stephen awake, so he joined me for the planetarium show. We later learned that we had seen a meteor shower. We kept an all night vigil, the lights from Anguilla, then St. Maarten glowing brighter as the islands drew nearer. Then we finally saw a faint glow from St. Bart’s up ahead. John joined us in the cockpit just before dawn, which brought with it more squalls. We weren’t getting off that easy. We could start to make out lights and even building structures on St. Bart’s when the winds and seas began to pick up and Stephen disengaged the wind vane to do some heavy handsteering in towards shore.

The moon was rising about an hour later each night over the course of the passage, and this morning she didn’t pop up until right before sunrise. As the first color started to appear in the sky, we tacked away from land just to move out of the way of a squall and to avoid running out of lee shore. Just like our last moments into Bermuda, Synchronicity was moving downwind, coasting gently along, rolling down the waves like little puffs of air were blowing her in.

I could make out land better then Steve and John’s faces still covered in shadows. It was quiet and peaceful and these islands were already some of the most beautiful I had ever seen. White house with red tiled roofs dotted steep hillsides that were covered in green. There were many small islands or outcroppings of rocks surrounding St. Bart’s. You could see the island of Saba, rising 3,000 feet up out of the ocean in the distance – it’s peak enshrouded by clouds.

As we made our way through the cuts and the channel into Gustavia, John enjoyed the view from up at the bow, ready to drop anchor. It was a smooth ride in, this time with a fully operational engine. Once we dropped hook and were secured, we all gave hugs and high fives, raised the quarantine flag, then poured ourselves some bloody marys. Bonjour, St. Bart’s.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Thanksgiving in Bermuda

Twenty-one days of living off the hook in St. George’s Harbor, and we finally have a dry mattress and departure date of 12/6. Oh, how I will miss our morning ritual of folding the tempurpedic like a taco, stuffing it through the companionway and dragging it through the rigging to the bow without falling overboard.

In 21 days, Stephen continued to amaze me while he poured over the guts of various systems on the boat, one by one bringing corroded and shorted pieces of machinery back to life. As I assisted him, I enjoyed watching the process so evident on his face. He would talk through scenarios with me as realizations flooded his mind faster than I could keep up with. As if I knew what he was talking about – he could have been speaking another language. “Sure, sounds logical to me.”

Engineering would have been the perfect field of study for him. It was actually a little bit scary at times, reminiscent of scenes from “A Beautiful Mind,” as his thoughts seemed to race with equations. What is truly scary though, are his trips up the mast. That mathematical mind of his figured that our rig must be slightly off-center, accounting for the slight speed differences on each tack. This and concern that our jib halyard was chafing led him to the top with me hoisting and lowering him from the deck (see speck on deck in photo above).

While 75% of these days were filled with boat projects, repairs, and hours of cursing at the engine, it our mission to explore Bermuda. Sometimes this meant braving the elements like wet dinghy rides and a turbulent start to a Sea Taxi commute to Hamilton. This managed to bring uneasy glances and laughter out of the most stoic of Brits. As we headed through the pass out of St. George’s Harbor and straight into 20 knot winds, the ferry went full throttle, pounding down on the waves, creating walls of sea spray as high as the double decker ferry. Steve and I laughed at the large amounts of seaweed flying through the air. This only lasted 5 minutes, until we rounded up the coast. It still seemed scarier than braving the waters on our own boat. It was something about being at the hands of another captain –and without sail or the ability for the boat to right itself in the event of a takedown. No power yacht cruises for me.

Hamilton, the capital, is a surprisingly busy city that I would never want to drive through during rush hour. Front Street that runs along the water, was congested for miles. And as for the roundabouts…good luck. I spotted an elderly lady behind the wheel and said a prayer for her. As in England, they drive on the left side of the road which is disorienting when getting used to crossing the street. Narrow and steep winding roads with few sidewalks (with the exception of downtown Hamilton) make for vigilant pedestrians.

I noticed right away how economical and low key most of the cars are on the island were. Occasionally you’d spot the one that added some bling. Imagine my old Geo Metro with tinted windows and rims. But even the most expensive looking homes had modest cars in the driveway. We were told the average home value is over a million. A nice one bedroom apartment can rent for $2,200 or more. Few Bermudians are able to have cars, so just the privilege of owning one seems to denote status. Gasoline costs $6 a gallon.
Scooters are abundant and by law, everyone must wear a helmet for damn good reason. There is plenty of parking for scooters everywhere and it’s cool to see women dressed up in suits, high heels and helmets driving their scooters to work. What I don’t get is why cel phone use while operating a scooter hasn’t been banned. Fortunately, I only saw one guy doing this. But I saw countless others smoking while riding.
Since tourists couldn't rent cars and scooters were both seemingly dangerous and hella expensive, we took the bus everywhere. As many things in Bermuda, including the sand itself, the buses are pink and abundant. It was no problem to find a stop no matter where you were on the island – just look for the double arched shelters along the side of the road. On average, they run about every 15 minutes, up until 11:45 PM, and don’t let the color pink fool you – you better hang on to your seat. During daylight, bus rides were pretty pleasant with lots of ocean views. Around quitting time, the buses usually became rowdy with locals and drivers engaging in shouting matches over the rules of the bus which were part-serious in tone, usually at the start. Complaints soon developed into teasing which seemed harsh but apparently playful, only because everyone was smiling and laughing together. Stephen and I remained quiet bystanders, taking it all in.

One custom that just wouldn’t grow on me, no matter how many times I tried to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes was the odd business style of shirt & tie with shorts and dark knee socks. I saw it on older and younger men with all kinds of shirt & short color combos. I still couldn’t stop giggling while taking undercover photos. Maybe it was the images I conjured up of every man in my life sporting this look: Stephen, Tony, Daddy, Dad Toman, Raj & Greg!

I still find it hilarious. I had read in a tourism guide that Bermuda’s dress was very conservative. That we weren’t to even think about going out in public without covering up – many women in skirts and shorts below the knees and shirts with some kind of sleeve or a sweater overlay. To get into some clubs and restaurants, men were required to wear collared shirts and dress slacks with the suggestion of a suit jacket and tie. I realized quickly that I had made a mistake in allowing my bathing suit to show through my top when I asked a man seated next to me a question about uploading files, while using free internet at the phone company. He looked me up and down in a disapproving sort of way and was short in his reply. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you. You be careful now, you hear?” Be careful? I felt like I was mistaken for a prostitute, who used the code lingo of “uploading files” to solicit customers.

I had a flashback from high school, overcome with the same feeling of defiance as when Mrs. Theic wanted to measure my skirt. Suddenly, the Bermuda shorts thing made sense. It’s just like Delone Catholic High School’s “Dress Down Day” with limitations. Theic’s voice over the PA system boomed through the deepest caverns of my repressed memories….”You can wear sneakers but NO JEANS!” This will be enforced with detention. “Please people,” said my favorite philosophy teacher, Mr. Franko, “Queen Maureen (his nickname for the principal) has no fashion sense. You’ll all be walking around here looking like dorks.”
Here I was in Bermuda, with a new Queen – one you didn’t want to mess with – the Queen of England, arriving at the Anglican Church of the “Most Holy Trinity” on this very day to commemorate Bermuda’s 400th anniversary. “Dress Down Day” for Bermuda was permitting it’s citizenry to show a little leg at the high price of compromising good fashion sense. Fashion aside, I began to button up and attempt to hide my bikini straps, afraid that if spotted by the Queen, I may have to serve detention in the Magistrates Court downtown.

Fortunately, the crowds poured out into the street in huge numbers, blocking me from getting a good glimpse of her. I managed to photograph the back of her head, donned in a turquoise blue bonnet, while Stephen got the greatest shot of her in her motorcade (Look through the windshield of the range rover in the slideshow's motorcade pics).

I had also read in the tourism guide that Bermuda was “big on manners” – more like hypervigilant. The paradox being that pleasantries were sometimes enforced and debased with a defensive rudeness which seemed to result from misperception. Fortunately, countless others counteracted this sentiment with exceptional friendliness and authenticity. As we learned more about Bermuda’s history, economic, and social issues from its residents, I gained insight into the tough exterior, with a new understanding and appreciation for an outspoken, yet loyal and fun-loving breed akin to my Wagner heritage.

Looking at Bermuda from a geographical perspective also sheds light on the nature of its people. Jagged cliffs and boulders form tumultuous shores and sea states. But inside its borders lies a peaceful, hilly green island with small farms and pastures, vegetable and flower gardens and other diverse trees and vegetation. Formed from lava and volcanic rock, smack dab in the middle of the ocean, it is far enough from any other land mass to feel somewhat “cut off” from ease of access to both resources and opportunity.

As anywhere, there are two sides to every story. Some local business owners will tell you that they have tried to recruit Bermudians to learn their trade amidst a shortage of workers, but were received with lack of interest. Others tell a story of years of hard work and dedication without promise of being promoted within. They have accepted entry-level positions, some despite experience and education received abroad, and grow frustrated as foreign workers get hired for the positions they had aspired to.

Wherever the problems lie, the resulting gap in income and opportunity are becoming visible. To remedy the unemployment rate among native Bermudians, foreign workers are beginning to experience longer delays with applications for work permits/visas. But Bermudians are still taking whatever work they can get, often piece meal through temp agencies and part-time work. And the prices after steep “duties,” will make you wonder how they make ends meet, until you spot signs of their resourcefulness, such as stepping roofs in order to collect their own rain water. We were told these roof designs have won awards in the architectural communitiy.

A five minute walk through the grocery store left me with sticker shock and a half-filled basket. I realized why the chickens and roosters that roam the island run like hell when they see you coming. If I lived here, I think I’d start hunting my own. Six bucks for a loaf of bread or a box of cereal (not the organic kind). Over $2 for a single tomato, $3 for a head of lettuce and $4 for a HALF gallon of milk. Even pumpkin, a local staple, was expensive. And snack foods…forget about it. They were outrageously priced. A bag of Snyder’s of Hanover (flavored pretzel bites) was not within reach of my budget as it was nearly $7. Ferrero rochere chocolates, which we could get in the States for less than $2 were $6 here.

We rarely ate out, 'cause even when we made it a point to order the least expensive items on the menu we were still dropping a wad of cash. We split a “Bermuda blooming onion” and one cheeseburger with fries at the White Horse Pub. Add two pints of beer and tip, and we said goodbye to a fifty. A Pizza/Chinese restaurant called “The Upper Crust,” charged $34 for a 14 inch pie. “Where’s the lower crust?” asked Stephen. “We want to eat there.” We would only go to the pub when we were really craving a good pint of beer. The Frog & Onion featured above was a traditional English pub located at the Naval Dockyard, and the only place we found serving local brews.

We found out about Goslings Black Seal Rum very early in our trip. This delicious, caramel-tasting syrupy sweet rum made it easy to stay away from the bars. A bottle of Goslings and a bottle of Ginger Beer and you're set with “Dark n’ Stormies” – a popular Bermuda drink for the week. Another popular one is the “Rum Swizzle.” I read that it is made Goslings, club soda, lime juice and sugar cane, but everytime I’ve ordered it, it’s pink like a rum runner. One too many of these at a Birthday party we walked right into at "Club Ovation," and I had a severe case of the Sunday flu.

We became great at hunting for the best deals on everything. It became like a game, devising creative meals around the cheapest foods. One Sunday we took the day off to make our own Bermudian brunch, instead of paying no less than $30 a head elsewhere. The traditional style brunch includes salted codfish and boiled potatoes in tomato sauce with hardboiled eggs, bananas and avocado.'s a meal with a lot of texture, but yummy!

While cooking and eating local foods is one of the things I love about cruising, I love days at the beach the most. We made it to Horshoe Bay, Bermuda’s most popular with sand that appears pink in the right lighting from all the tiny pebbles of red coral deposited from the tide. We talked to two men harvesting seaweed that grew in piles along the shore. Fall is the season for seaweed and while the government tries to appease tourists by hauling it away, these two farmers taught us about its importance to maintaining stability in the ecosystem and its usefulness as a natural fertilizer for crops.
After Lover’s cove (“kiddie pool” by day), had finally cleared out, we climbed the rocks despite "Keep Off the Rocks" signs. Hey man, the other kids were doing it. You've gotta try for the best view. The ocean from up there looked so vast beyond Bermuda. We spotted some other lagoons and happened upon “Andy” who was really interested in talking about Bermuda’s nudist population and how we should "really try it out," - sunbathing naked while in Bermuda, that is. No thanks, Andy. Not after I felt ashamed about showing my bikini straps in the city. But have yourself a blast out there. “Will you mind taking our picture?”

There was a trail heading out of Horeshoe that went both over and around the bluffs to adjacent and very deserted beaches. The latter could only be walked during low tide. I wouldn’t want to be caught in waves pounding against rock once it starts coming back in. My favorite part of exploring Bermuda’s beaches was discovering the wildlife, like live conchs in craters that have formed permanent pools of water and birds like the cranes and the Kiskadee, (photo above) which is native to Bermuda. These yellow birds seem to travel in pairs and chirp the sounds “Kis-ka-dee.” Stephen seemed most enamored by these alien-looking pods that contain some kind of clam or conch-like creature that embed themselves into rock and water with a suction that Stephen could not pry loose, although he was determined to. “Man! These are tenacious little suckers!” he kept repeating. We have yet to find out what they were.

Horeshoe was the most popular, but Elbow Beach was my favorite. It sat below a huge bluff with stairs carved out of the side, winding up to some resort. Since it’s off-season, it was very secluded. Stephen and I parked our chairs in our own little cove and philosophized about the world’s problems over meatloaf sandwiches and a bottle of wine. I think we concluded that it’s all Wal-mart’s fault. An empire that can manage to make a cynic out of Daddy must be pure evil.

Twenty-one days of putting ourselves back together helped us appreciate the finer points of life like sunsets, cold milk thanks to fixed refrigeration, a dry place to sleep, Doritos, and remembering that you can still watch DVDs on your computer. By the time Thanksgiving Day came, we missed our families and the prospect of eating Michele’s bacon wrapped turkey and her “corn thing” dish. Still, our hearts were filled more with gratitude than longing, and we looked for weeks for the best meal in town, narrowing it down to “The Chapel of Ease” dinner at the church or the R.A.A. Club’s “All You Can Eat” buffet. Stephen was interested in mass quantities of food, I had one request, “I don’t care where we eat, they’ve gotta have stuffing.”

The day before Thanksgiving, desperate to find an Internet cafĂ© that would actually let me get on my blog, we wondered into Carol Richard’s store. Now at the top of our list of things to be thankful for: the kindness and generosity of strangers like Carol (wearing pink in the photo) and her clan, a Bermudian family who quickly made us one of their own. Since the regular computers for customers would limit access to the blog, Carol let me use her main frame to finally share our story about the passage. As I clicked away, she and Stephen had much to talk about, including roots in New York. It turned out Carol grew up in the same part of Queens as Mom Toman. Despite our mission to finish the blog and head to the beach, we enjoyed talking with her so much - she's a well-traveled lady. The time evaporated and suddenly we were being invited to her home for Thanksgiving Dinner.

This unforseen option, was the best of all. Not only was there stuffing, but we were introduced to new local dishes like cassava pie (chicken baked between two layers of cassava dough), fried turkey, beets and a pumpkin dish mashed like potatoes. As first time guests in her and Bryant Sr.’s home, we were made to feel extremely special. Each time we offered to help, we were told to “just relax” and were granted first dibs on the food. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of how formal or casual this dinner would be.

Feeling pressed for time after working on the boat all day, we were convinced we were running late and just had enough time to grab wine and dessert before catching a bus. Carol lives under Gibb’s Lighthouse on one of the highest points of the island in Southampton Parish. Her home was big and beautiful with large, open rooms and tons of skylights and windows for natural lighting. She picked us up at the bus stop against a gorgeous sunset over the beach and gave us a quick tour of her neighborhood. To our relief, Carol’s family was super laid back and for once in our life we were early. “We Bermudians are always late,” informed her niece, Jill.

We got to spend time with Carol, Bryant Sr., and Jill while Carol’s 7-year-old niece did her homework – an essay on what she was thankful for. Bryant gave us a tour of their home that has grown substantially over the years, becoming their own community of both family and tenants -soon to become part of the family. Both people and food started pouring in quickly as we were introduced to sons Duane, Bryant Jr. and countless friends and relatives from virtually all over the world: Nikki & her husband Flavio from Italy, Becca from Canada, Kevin and Annie from the Dominican Republic.
And then there was Robert, introduced to us as "WAbert", Carol’s nephew from Singapore who we got to know better hanging out in St. George's Parish. Robert is one of those guys who is as witty as he is charming. A genuine guy that invited us to hang out with his group of friends on his birthday after only knowing us for a day. Robert talked fondly of “Auntie Carol,” as he told us about all the relatives who didn’t make it. They were back in New York with the Tomans. Robert first came to visit his aunts in Bermuda over 20 years ago, and stayed. While Singapore is still home, he spends 6 months out of every year in Bermuda.
As we joined hands with Carol’s family before dinner, I gave thanks for rare and precious people like her, and experiences like these. The kind that happen while traveling that you can’t plan for but remind you that at any given moment you are part of something greater than the plan itself. I am thankful for the discovery of a family that shares similar personalities, viewpoints and values as my own. I thank my Mom and Dad for teaching me the importance of being inclusive of others - for welcoming friends, co-workers, neighbors as well as family to our table on many occasions. I thank Auntie Carol for reminding me of this, and for being my family away from home.