From the road to the writing desk

On Wednesday, May 27th at 7pm I’ll be taking part in my first Facebook Live event. My publisher, Signature Editions, has pulled together a panel of writers to talk about our very different approaches to writing about travel. Genni Gunn, Denise Roig and I will talk about why we travel in the first place, how we go about deciding what to use and what to discard, and how we choose the best genre for our stories. Fiction? Personal essays? Memoir?

Plus you’ll get to watch my brand-new book trailer!

I do hope you’ll join us. Here’s the link to the event:

From the road to the writing desk

Hang on!

A clump of dirt? A rock? A piece of tree branch?

“Stop!”

Chris jams on the brakes.

“What?”

Then he sees it too.

“It’s a bird,” he says.

“A woodcock?” I say, hesitantly. Yes, definitely a woodcock. A squat, plump bird, long beak, no neck to speak of. “What’s he doing in the middle of the laneway?”

We’ve never seen one in the daytime, only in the meadow at dusk, and then only as a silhouette against the darkening sky. They crouch in the long grass, you can’t see them, but there’s no mistaking their loud, plaintive “bzeep, bzeep, bzeep.” Suddenly one will burst from cover, fly straight up in the air, almost out of sight. Silence. Wait for it. Wait for it. A soft chippering and twittering, faint as first, then louder and louder as the bird plummets to the ground. Silence for a minute. Then “bzeep, bzeep.”

But this one crouches silently in the middle of the laneway. Slowly I get out of the car, walk towards him. He hunches down, trying to hide.

“You need to move,” I say softly, but he doesn’t. Closer, closer than I would have thought possible. Is he hurt? Finally he gets up, stumbles to the shoulder of the road on his stubby legs, clambers over a couple of twigs, nestles down in the snow. That’s as far as he’s going.

 

It’s been six weeks now since we left the boat. We were expecting to come back to some cool weather—I was looking forward to watching spring unfold in the meadow. But it’s not happening. Day after day we wake to gray skies, the ground covered with frost or even snow. That is, if it’s not raining steadily. Most nights it goes below freezing, Chris gets up every couple of hours to feed the fire. We spend our days splitting and hauling wood.

But we’re happy enough. Sailing in Cuba was good practice for social isolation, moving from one remote anchorage to the next. We’d often go a couple of weeks without seeing another person. And we’re well used to provisioning for long periods of time. Two weeks is nothing!

But it’s different being close to people you love and not being able to see them. In fact, not seeing people at all makes us more fearful when we do go out. And not knowing what’s ahead also takes a toll. Will we get through the pandemic unscathed? Will our friends and family? Will we ever be able to get back to the boat?

The isolation is a little easier to take now that spring migration is in full swing. We’ve put out feeders and each morning we’re visited by flocks of goldfinches, chickadees, blue jays, sparrows, so many kinds of sparrows. The chipping sparrows that nest in the small pine tree just outside our window are back. Will they never learn? They’ve yet to successfully fledge a brood. Or even a single chick. Some predator has its eye on them.

The birds who come to the feeder seem to be doing okay, but I’m a little worried about the other birds. Yesterday I watched a pair of thrashers rummaging through the leaf litter at the edge of the laneway, looking for little bugs and not having much luck, near as I could tell. The bluebirds sit on the top of the workshop all day, looking for flying insects to nab, but seldom leave their perch. It’s too cold for bugs. The robins peck at the hard ground in vain, where are the worms?

I don’t know what to do about the woodcock. Where is he this morning? He’ll be cold and weak and probably very hungry. A woodcock will eat its weight in earthworms in a day. If he can find them. Maybe he’ll eat birdseed in a pinch.

I put on my boots and winter coat, my hat and mitts, go outside and shake a handful of seed out of the feeder, walk down the lane spread it on a low rock near where we saw him.

Hang on buddy, I murmur. We’re all tired of this.  It won’t be long now.

 

The long way home

This morning we watched a pair of mergansers trace a line across the perfectly still water of McCormick Lake. Chris was thinking—well, who ever knows what Chris is thinking. He may have been calculating the square root of a snowsuit. But as the morning sun warmed my face, I was thinking how good it was to be home, flooded with gratitude and relief that we were finally here.

Just over a month ago, we were in the Cayman Islands, planning to spend a few weeks there before starting the long journey home. Chris had gone into the customs office to clear us in and I was waiting for him on the front steps.

He came out of the office looking concerned.

“What’s wrong?”

“We’re in, no problem. But I heard from the customs officer that they just turned away a cruise ship because there was Covoid-19 on board.”

The busy main street of Georgetown in Grand Cayman.

We eyed the tourists crowding the narrow, crumbling sidewalks of Georgetown, dodging chickens and men selling coconuts from shopping carts as they elbowed each other out of the way to get to the diamond stores. Everything looked normal. But with access to news of the world we didn’t have in Cuba, it didn’t take us long to realize that nothing was normal any more. We’d better get home, and fast.

Now fast in a sailboat, at least in Monark, isn’t very fast at all. We set off for the western tip of Cuba, with the wind on our stern, not our most comfortable point of sail. We wallowed along, rolling from gunwale to gunwale. By our third day at sea, I was covered with bruises from being flung against things, and Chris was a little worse for the wear—he’d had to change the fuel filter while we were underway. We were both relieved when we rounded Cabo de San Vincent and tucked into a mangrove swamp to wait out what promised to be the worst norther of the season.

Our anchorage in the mangroves in the calm before the storm.

And it was. Our anchor was firmly buried in mud, but the boat danced around as the wind clocked. We could see waves breaking across the mouth of the entrance of the little channel we were in. It took five days for things to settle down enough for us to resume our journey—straight into the wind, of course. Remember the augmented diurnal trade winds?? We had to move east right into them to get a good angle to cross the Gulf Stream to the United States. Remember the Gulf Stream? That big river out in the ocean? We didn’t want to mess with it.

But we had little choice. Rumours had reached us that the U.S. would be closing its borders, and if we couldn’t clear in there, we’d be in trouble. Hurricane season was coming, we needed to get the boat safely to the boatyard in Titusville. So we set out across the Gulf Stream, even though the wind was against the current. It was light enough, we thought, that it wouldn’t be too bad.

The dreaded Gulf Stream. There’s no avoiding it on the passage between Cuba and the Florida Keys.

Boy, were we wrong. Chris doesn’t agree with me, but I think these were the worst seas we’ve ever seen, even in the gales on our North Atlantic crossing. The current was pushing the water relentlessly east, the wind was blowing relentlessly toward the west The result was big, steep waves. Three to six feet, with the occasional nine-foot wave thrown in just to keep us awake.

We’ve never taken so much sea over the bow, never had so much water in the cockpit. We found ourselves in the strongest current in the middle of the night. I was standing the first night watch—sitting, actually, on one of the side benches in the cockpit, with my harness on, clipped in—when suddenly I was drenched with water. It was like a scene from a low-budget movie, like someone had thrown a bucket of water into the cockpit. I actually laughed as it dribbled off my hat. (Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.)

Tacking all the way. The zig-zag line is our track.

But we were just out for one night. You can stand anything for one night. The next morning we were out of the worst of the current—but 50 miles west of where we wanted to be. We tacked all day against the wind and current along the south shore of the Keys, made it into Key West just before dark, dropped the anchor, and fell into bed completely exhausted.

We woke up in the morning ready for the next challenge. Would the U.S. actually let us in? As it turned out, we were able to clear in using their online app (this should worry all of us.) All that remained was to go to shore and try to get a cruising license which would allow us to travel in the States.

By this time, going to shore was more frightening than crossing the Gulf Stream. Helpful friends and family were telling us that the virus was out of control in Florida, we were on a suicide mission, trying to drive home. Gas stations in the U.S. were going to shut down any day, the Canada-U.S. border was about to be closed. We weren’t sure what kind of chaos we’d find in Key West. But we had no choice.We needed that license. And we needed groceries—we were running out of food.

I was the only one in the grocery store in Key West wearing gloves.

As it turned out, the streets were pretty much empty first thing in the morning. Getting a cruising license was no problem, though the customs officer did ask us if we were feeling okay. Next stop: the grocery store. They were disinfecting cart handles at the front entrance, but not much else. We wore gloves. We stayed away from people as much as possible. We grabbed what we could from the almost-empty shelves and scurried back to the boat, disinfected everything before bringing it aboard, hoped for the best.

For the first time in as long as we could remember, the winds were in our favour when we set out from Key West—gentle south winds for our sail east along the Keys, a gentle west wind for our sail north. We sailed on the Gulf side of the Keys as far as we could, over calm blue waters, then punched out into the ocean at Marathon and began the big push. We would sail day and night until we got to Titusville.

The next day, Miami appeared in the distance—an unmistakable cluster of highrise buildings. We were ready to run the gauntlet of boats that normally stream in and out of the harbour … but there were none. Not a single boat. Not a freighter, not a cruise ship, nothing. We did see a tugboat pulling a barge full of garbage, but he was way off on the horizon, certainly not coming into Miami. There were four cruise ships at anchor outside the harbour, ships in quarantine perhaps? More likely just empty ships that had come to their home port to find no room for them. As we sailed past Miami, I was astonished to see that the long beach was completely empty. Clearly it had been closed. And people were actually complying.

The skyline north of Miami.

Moving day and night in the ocean, motoring from before dawn to after dark in the intracoastal waterway (we were forced to go inside at Fort Pierce because the Canaveral barge canal was closed), we finally made it to Titusville in time for our scheduled lift. Within 24 hours, the boat was on the hard, closed up tight and covered, the car was packed, and we were on the road.

I felt safe in our familiar little bubble—yes, driving with the car packed to the roof is normal for us. We had food, we had water, we had a bucket… (don’t think about that too much.) We were good. My shoulders lifted a little as we crossed the border from Florida to Georgia.

But we now had easy access to the CBC and BBC, sources we trust, and what we were hearing wasn’t good. We decided not to listen, but dire warnings kept coming in from concerned friends and family. Trump is closing the State of New York. He’s calling out the army.

Honestly, the hardest part of this journey wasn’t the physical exertion, it was trying to manage the fear. Until now, we’d done a pretty good job of staying calm, feeling positive—okay fine: Chris is always calm and positive. I guess I’m talking about me. I couldn’t help but feel that everything was working against us.

The further north we travelled, the emptier the roads.

We had planned to drive all night, sleep beside the road if we got too tired, but then, as we were driving through the mountains of some state—they all run together in my mind—stormclouds began to form in the distance, then quickly grew into a frightening thunderstorm, bolts of lightning streaking straight down, heavy rain. This was too much. We made the difficult decision to stop at a hotel, and it’s a good thing we did. Next up—flash flood warnings. It’s hard to take action to get out of the way of a flash flood when you have no idea where the creeks and rivers are.

We checked into a hotel—there were maybe three cars in the parking lot, and one nervous young woman at the front desk, keeping her distance. We let ourselves into our ground floor room (no elevators to negotiate) and began wiping down all the surfaces.

“Just like Jason Bourne,” Chris said with a grin.

I wasn’t grinning. Too tired. Too freaked out. Chris stood in the middle of the room eating some pasta-tuna salad right out of the container while I re-wiped all surfaces, just to be sure. We fell into bed exhausted.

The next day, one last push. The Canadian border was eight hours away. We were crossing at Buffalo so the last part of our journey would be through the State of New York. No army at the border. Hardly any other traffic, in fact. The roads were empty. We pulled up to a toll booth and found it closed. Puzzled, we just drove through. When we reached the toll booth at the other end of the road, a gloved woman in a mask asked us to pull ahead so she could record our license plate then waved us on. No contact. Perhaps no toll?

It was Sunday morning, so as we drove, we listened to The Sunday Edition on the CBC. There was a conversation with an expert on Covoid-19’s possible impact on geopolitical hotspots, we found that interesting. But the next guest was a conflict doctor predicting terrifying times due to lack of resources to fight Covoid-19. We decided not to listen, but just as we were switching the radio off, we heard him give an example that struck too close to home. Doctors were going to have to make some hard decisions in the days ahead. People over 60 or with chronic conditions such as diabetes might not be given ventilators.

But what if you’re both? It was too much for me. I lost it. I was driving and we had to pull into a deserted rest centre because I was crying so hard. Don’t I matter? I got out of the car and walked into a grove of trees behind the parking lot, looked up at the bare branches. Then I heard a robin singing. I haven’t heard a robin in a long time. The birds will be back when we get home, I thought. Just think about that.

There was no traffic on the Peace Bridge.

I will admit that when we crossed the border into Canada I wept openly, tears of relief this time, not despair. And now we’re at Meadowlark, and the bluebirds were here to greet us, they’re fighting with a pair of grackles for the best bird box right now. And the sandhill cranes are back, three of them, flying awkwardly overhead, calling loudly to each other. I guess one of the two young ones who hatched last year made it through the winter.

May we all of us make it through this time. Let’s be kind to each other—from a safe distance—take care of each other as best we can, and try to just watch the beauty of spring as it unfolds around us.

Surely spring is just around the corner.

Enough already!

So far our time in Cuba has been an exercise in patience, first waiting almost three weeks in Cayo Levisa for the “augmented trades” to settle down a little, then cautiously making our way in short hops to Cabo de San Antonio at the westernmost tip of the island, looking forward to cruising east along the sheltered south coast for the rest of the season.

Help! We want to “give” you some lobster!

We enjoyed some nice sailing once we finally left Cayo Levisa, encountered our first lobster fishermen—actually, we thought the tiny open boat a good mile offshore was in some kind of trouble. There was a man in the water, and two men on the boat were waving their arms at us. We dutifully dropped our sails and motored over to them only to discover that all they wanted was to “give” us some lobster. The man in the water was a diver. He was tethered to the boat with a length of rope and pulled the boat behind him as he worked his way along the coral heads. I can’t imagine it was easy going—the two men in the boat were quite substantial and there was a heavy-looking one-cylinder diesel engine sitting in the bottom of the boat. But whatever they were doing, it worked: they had plenty of lobster.

Chris loves lobster…

They offered us two, which we gladly accepted, offering them a bottle of rum in return. Big smiles. Then they asked if we had any spare rope. Chris, who is very attached to his rope collection, wistfully parted with a length of old halyard. So it was lobster dinner that night, in a completely secluded anchorage. Until a rowboat entered the bay, two men from the local fish station with five lobsters. These “cost” us two shirts, a bottle of rum, and a can of Pringles. Cheap at twice the price.

The next morning, I made lobster-salad sandwiches before we pulled anchor—we were expecting a lively sail across a 25-mile bay between the reef and the mainland and I knew it would be too rough to go below and make lunch. I congratulated myself on my forethought as we unwrapped our sandwiches while rollicking along at seven knots—an amazing speed for us.

I soon wished I had gone with the usual crackers and cheese. Not long after lunch, Chris’s lips started to tingle. Then swell. Then he started having trouble breathing. Then he began having difficulty swallowing. We managed to get a Reactine tablet in him before his throat closed up, but his lips and face—and we have to assume his airway—continued to swell. He had to lie flat in order to breathe.

May I never have to attempt this.

In all the years we’ve been sailing, this is the most frightening situation we’ve ever encountered. I was trying to decide whether I would have the courage to do an emergency tracheotomy if things got worse, never mind have the strength to reduce sail—we were now galloping along wildly with way too much sail up—when slowly his breathing started to improve. Before long, he was able to sit up again.

…but lobster is not Chris’s friend.

“What are you doing woman?” he slurred with a lopsided grin. “You’ve got way too much thail up.”

It took until evening for the swelling in his face to go down. It took me a lot longer to get over what might have happened. I will admit that once we were safely anchored and knew he was out of danger, I turned into a sniveling mess. It was definitely a Kijiji moment. I think if we had had internet access, this boat would have been for sale.

So friends and family take note: Chis seems to have suddenly developed a serious shellfish allergy. No lobster, no shrimp, no scallops, no mussels, no clams—nothing like that, okay? At least until we can figure out what else he might be allergic to besides lobster. In the meantime, we’ve acquired an Epipen and we don’t go anywhere without it.

I felt better the next morning—and so did Chris—so that evening we set off as planned to sail around Cabo de San Antonio. You want to make this passage at dusk, when the wind is light, because once you’re around the point, you’ll be heading straight into… wait for it… the augmented trades.

We made it around without incident, except for some confused seas right at the point where several strong currents meet. Then before long we were sailing steadily into the wind, tacking back and forth all night—but under an incredibly beautiful star-filled sky.

Our friends David and Jacqui at anchor on the south coast, the only other boat we’ve seen in days.

The south coast is as pristine and remote as we had hoped, clear blue water, white sand beaches, never another boat in sight except our friends Jacqui and David. We’ve made our way along this coast slowly, in easy day hops, when the wind allows, no overnight passages. Because we’ve learned a new term here: diurnal trades. Not instead of augmented trades—as well as them. What this means is that in the winter months, the “normal” trades pick up in the middle of the night, reaching 20- to 25-knots before settling down sometime the following morning.

Waiting patiently at Cayo Largo.

As I write this, last night’s 20-knot winds have just begun to ease a little. The seas outside the reef here will be huge—we know that because we’ve tried twice to set out mid-morning to make the run east to Cienfuegos. The first time we turned back when, in addition to having the wind on the nose, we found ourselves pounding into six-foot seas. The second time, we persisted a little longer, hoping the seas would drop as the wind abated. But if anything, the seas continued to build. When they reached nine feet, we turned back again.

The winds will be back tonight. And the night after. And every night in the foreseeable future. But we don’t care now. We’ve given up on the idea of moving east and are heading to the Cayman Islands in the morning. They are due south of us, so we’ll have the wind on the beam—and the waves too, unfortunately. It’s going to be a rolly ride.

But enough already. It’s time to go.

Waiting for weather

There are worse places to be pinned down.

We are making our way along the north coast of Cuba—at least we were until two weeks ago when the winds picked up sharply, kicking up the seas in the Straits of Florida. “Augmented trades,” Chris Parker, the weather god, calls them, and there’s little place to shelter from east winds along this stretch of coast.

Except for Cayo Levisa.

There is nothing on shore here except that rarest of things: a beautiful resort that actually welcomes sailors. When we went to shore to clear in with the Guarda Frontera, we were greeted by a young man who quickly became our best friend. He offered us pineapples, guava, papayas… and made it clear that he could get us anything else we needed.

Huevos? A slight frown. Maybe tomorrow.

But he’s a resourceful young man, and the next day he produced a flat of eggs, as well as half a dozen beautiful tomatoes and a handful of cucumbers. During our stay here, we have been provided with a steady stream of tropical fruit including the tiniest, sweetest bananas we’ve ever tasted. Chris makes himself banana pancakes for breakfast, I prefer a freshly sliced pineapple. The guava and papaya, I’m sorry to say, we politely decline. No me gusta. Whoever is offering it usually admits that they no gusta either.

In addition to an abundance of fresh provisions, we are welcome to relax in the cool lobby of the resort, use their wifi, dash back an espresso or sip a cold beer—or both. There are miles of beaches to walk, and a beautiful spot for an evening campfire while we watch the sun set.

 

One calm day, we took the ferry to shore with a nice couple from England, Jacqui and David, who are also waiting here to make the trip around the cape to the south shore. The four of us hired a taxi for the day—a great treat. We normally only see the coast of the countries we visit.

The interior of Cuba, with its oddly shaped limestone mountains, sculptured caves, pretty villages, and red-dirt farms was endlessly fascinating. We saw tobacco growing, bananas, pineapples, sugar cane. Most people travel on horseback, or in horse-drawn carts. The fields are worked with teams of oxen. If you avoid the tourist attractions, including an “indian” who will let you take your picture with him, you get a feel for another Cuba, so different from Havana.

Sure, there are a few other places further along this coast we could squeeze into, but why would we, unless, as the guidebook suggests, we were fascinated by cement works and the dust they spread. Or not troubled by large acid plants, which blanket parts of the coast in eye-watering exhaust. As exciting as finding the occasional beach defended by anti landing-craft devices sounds, I think we’ll stay here for now.

Chris Parker says surely by next week the weather will settle. No sense rushing off, I say.

 

 

So far from the Clyde

A speck just off the shore slowly resolves itself into a massive, rusting steel hulk as we thread our way through the narrow channel into Bahia Honda.

“What’s that?” I ask Chris.

“I don’t know. There are supposed to be a couple fishing weirs at the entrance to the bay.”

I pick up the binoculars, study it closely.

“That’s not a fishing weir.”

We’ve finally left Havana and are making our way slowly west along the north coast of Cuba. A shoreline studded with smokestacks and the smell of heavy industry has slowly given way to mangroves lining the shore, a mountain range rising behind them. We sailed past the first two “pocket bays” along the coast, heading for the unspoiled beauty of Bahia Honda. But it’s not completely unspoiled. We can see cranes inside the bay. And what is this thing we’re looking at?

“A ship gone aground?” I ask Chris.

“It’s certainly as big as a ship, but I’ve never seen one that looked quite like that.”

It doesn’t have a pilot house, just a series of little shacks along the deck. And the bow. There’s something not right about the bow. As we draw closer, we realize that the vessel, if that’s what it is, has two hulls. With only a skeleton of rusted steel holding them together.

“I think it’s a dry dock,” Chris says. He’s right. The guide book confirms that it’s an old floating dry dock, run aground at the mouth of the bay. Bahia Honda’s main industry is a large metal scrap yard that strips and tears apart old ships. We pass a huge barge run aground on the shore, slanting sharply into the water. Several ships in various stages of decay, many of them aground. Tangles of rusted steel jut out of the water, the bow of a ship, the remains of a stern, something entirely unrecognizable.

“This place looks like a ship graveyard,” I say to Chris, as we pass more rusted boats, long stripped clean of anything of value and slowly being claimed by the sea. They’re beautiful in the late afternoon sun, in a sad kind of way. We come as close as we dare to a ship that looks like it could still be floating. I try not to think of what its last journey might have been like. Most probably it was towed here, but maybe it came in under its own steam.

We had our last supper the day of the beaching
She’s a dead ship sailing, skeleton crew
The galley is empty, the stove pots are cooling,
With what’s left of the stew.

I think Mark Knopfler’s song “So far from the Clyde” is the saddest song I know. It’s a poignant ballad about a ship from Scotland making its final journey to be beached in some third-world country, then stripped down and cut apart for scrap.

She lifts to a wave from her bows to her rudder
Bravely she rises to meet with the land
Under their feet they all feel her keel shudder
The shallow sea washes their hands

I can’t bear to think of what Monark’s fate will be. I have come to love this boat more than I ever thought possible. It happened gradually, I think, as we sailed cautiously through miles of thunderstorms off Antigua, pounded into the seas as we headed from Bermuda to the Azores, were pummeled by not one but two gales just before making landfall at Flores. Monark gallops through the roughest seas, slices through the waves, the sea breaking over the bow, water streaming out through the scuppers. In cross seas the boat rolls, rights itself, rolls rights itself. This is nothing, I can handle this. Bring it on.

I accept all of our boat’s quirks—the ever-leaking forehatch that regularly drenches the V-berth in salt water, the fragile drive train that can’t handle much more than 1800 rpm, the rust, oh the rust, that weeps constantly from under the cap rail, from the anchor locker, from many of the deck fittings. It’s a full-time job trying to stay ahead of it. But that’s just part of having a steel boat.

We have lovingly scraped and painted the bottom in boat yards around the world—in Canada, more times than we can count, in the Azores, in southern Portugal. We know every inch of the hull, feel grateful as we fair the occasional dent, apply a fresh coat of bottom paint. We’ve thought of other boats, lighter boats, faster boats, boats that require less maintenance. But we wouldn’t trade our sturdy steel boat for the world.

Who among us ever really knows when we’re on our last journey. Chris and I know we can’t sail forever. You may be surprised to learn that we’re not actually getting any younger. Neither is Monark, but I like to think that with loving care, the boat will go on forever, will never be just a stain on the sand somewhere.

Stripped of her pillars, her stays, and her stanchions
When there’s only her bones on the wet poisoned land
Steel ropes will drag her with winches and engines
Till there’s only a stain on the sand.