We woke to the sound of a rifle shot at 6:29 this morning. Deer-hunting season opens today and hunting is permitted from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset. The sun rises here at 7am.
I watched the sun slip above the trees on the far side of the meadow. It washed the sky in red for a brief moment before disappearing behind the low grey cloud ceiling. It’s minus six here this morning and there is a blanket of thick, wet snow on the ground. The juncos are cold and hungry, fluttering erratically as they search for seeds on the ground below the bird feeder. Ah, the bluejays have just arrived, they will scatter lots of seed for the juncos as they dig for sunflower seeds. Oh, and a cardinal now. And a little flock of chickadees. A woodpecker flies in and clears everyone out. All the regulars have made it through the long, cold night.
We will be wearing our bright orange fleecies whenever we go outside this week and Chris will be wearing his orange toque for good measure. I hope our next-door neighbour has his deer already and will not be hunting around the edges of our property today. Last year he shot a big stag in the field opposite the guest cabin—his field.
“Before I even opened my thermos of coffee,” he complained with a big grin on his face.
I can’t imagine what butchering a deer must be like. Surely some field dressing must be done. All that blood on the fresh snow.
Lentils. Have these hunters never heard of lentils?
I think of Ed at this time of year, as the winter weather closes in. He’s the man who built the log cabin by the lake here, from trees cut down on this property, with his own two hands. He didn’t have a car, so no worries about getting snowed in for him. In fact, the trek to the neighbour’s to borrow a car to go to town was probably easier over the frozen ground around the lake. Maybe he even went across the lake. We found both skies and snowshoes in the cabin.
We didn’t expect to be here during deer-hunting season again, but everything is different this year. Our sailboat is on the hard in a boatyard in Florida and we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we won’t be sailing somewhere warm this winter. Instead, we’re going to stay here on Meadowlark until the end of December then move to a schoolhouse we’ve rented in Grey Highlands for the cruelest months of winter. We’ll be about 20 minutes from Blue Mountain. Chris already has his ski pass.
If you had enough firewood, lots of food, and access to a well, it wouldn’t be bad staying here on the property for the winter, though it’s a long trek out to the road—a couple of kilometres—if anything goes wrong. Ed stayed here year round. Did he hunt? Probably. We know he allowed hunting on the property. The neighbours weren’t very happy when we arrived and spread the word that we didn’t want hunting on our land. Somehow, the deer seem to know they’re safe here. This morning there was a parade of tracks in the freshly fallen snow heading into our woods.
How did Ed keep cabin fever at bay, that’s what I want to know. Reading, for sure. We found a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf along one wall of the cabin, filled with well-worn volumes of military history and shelves and shelves of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I’m sure he would have had a battery-operated radio. Maybe he ran his generator in the evenings so he could watch a little TV.
We know for sure that he kept himself busy cutting firewood. He kept a journal, noting among other things which trees he cut down each year. I can picture him out in the bush, wielding an axe. He’s wearing a green canvas coat, a fur hat pulled low over his forehead, raccoon maybe, or coyote. Did he make it himself? I imagine him with a bushy grey beard, only his eyes are exposed to the cold. He’s wearing worn leather mittens, and a pair of beat-up work boots. I do hope they’re insulated.
I guess I’m not made of as stern stuff as Ed was. I’ll admit that I have been struggling with the isolation as winter sets in and visitors to the property dwindle. I keep myself busy—we go for walks each morning, I work on my book, I read, I write in my journal. And there’s always more firewood to split. But there’s a layer of anxiety and uncertainty underlying everything that makes me feel sad and hopeless sometimes, makes me second-guess our choices, worry about our future.
I’m sure I’m not very easy to live with these days. And it’s not that easy living with a man who experiences little doubt and almost no fear, who copes with uncertainty by mastering the physical environment around him. We have cords and cords of firewood now, stacked in neat rows. And he’s built a really nice new shower house.
Another rifle report, this one sounds close. How far can a bullet travel, I wonder? How long can a pandemic last?
I’m thinking of carrying bags of lentils in my coat pockets, approaching hunters and suggesting that there are other great food sources for the winter. Chris thinks this is a really bad idea.
Exactly a year ago today I woke up in a hotel room in Winnipeg, which isn’t as sordid as it sounds. I was there to take part in the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, which I’d attended before as a reader, but this was my first time as a writer. I showered and put on my writer’s outfit—a new white blouse with pearls on it, a pair of jeans, my trusty Frye boots, my blue leather jacket—and headed out the door.
Then had to go back for my name tag.
Which said “Writer” on it.
I was lucky to take part in five writers festivals last fall, talking about my memoir Sea Over Bow. How much the literary landscape has changed in just one year. Perhaps for the better. Festivals have had to re-think how they deliver their programming. Which means you have a smorgasbord of choices to enjoy from the comfort (and safety) of your home.
The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival was one of the first out of the gate. Normally, the festival offers outdoor events in their pretty little village just outside of Guelph, Ontario. In May 2020, they announced a free, accessible online festival which runs well into October. I helped myself to an interview with Emma Donoghue, whose new book Pull of the Stars is a very timely novel. It’s set in a Dublin maternity hospital in 1918 during the height of a flu pandemic. If that sounds bleak, it isn’t. As always, Donoghue finds light in the darkness.
There are still a handful of events left in the series, including one I’ve signed up for, Wild World, a panel discussion featuring three writers whose books of nonfiction will take you far beyond your four walls. Which you are probably mighty tired of by now.
Thin Air, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, has just launched its 2020 season, an impressive mix of come-as-you-will and explore-as-you-go online content, as well as many real-time events. I’ve just started poking through what’s on offer and already I’ve signed up for two of the festival’s 16 writing craft workshops. John Gould’s workshop on the “unlimits” of flash fiction will provide inspiration as I put the finishing touches on a new collection of very short stories. And the timing couldn’t be better for Cordelia Strube’s workshop on building narrative. I’ve embarked on my first novel, which I thought would be easier than writing a memoir. I was wrong. I’m looking forward to her insight into how character and incidence can spin a narrative into motion.
True to its roots, the Whistler Writers Festival, which was launched nearly two decades ago in someone’s living room, is offering a digital festival centered around intimacy, connection, and thoughtful conversation. I’ve signed up for an event called The Domestic Thriller (can you guess the genre of my new novel?) which sounds like a lot of fun. Three award-winning authors are hosting a digital murder mystery session that will introduce you to a series of suspicious characters before asking you to guess which of them committed an imaginary crime.
From the west coast to the east, where the Cabot Trail Writers’ Festival is offering events on-line, on air, and outdoors. All their events are free, and many have a physical component—a welcome innovation for those of us who are suffering from Zoom fatigue—from yoga intermissions to a downloadable podcast of poetry and music that explores our relationship to the land. Participants are invited to enjoy a shared experience with people across the country—around the world, perhaps—by listening to this recording while taking a walk outside. I am definitely doing that!
This is just a sampling of the literary events available to you this fall. Go ahead. Fill your plate. You’ll come away from this feast of festivals with a reading list that will get you through what could be a long winter.
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?
“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.
Running out of things to read? Here’s a great idea. I’ve just learned that for today only, you can download a free e-copy of my book Sea Over Bow: A North Atlantic Crossing from my publisher’s website. Just click the link below and when you check out, use the promo code STUCKATHOME.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Saturday is market day Jaimanitas, a little village about eight miles west of Havana and right beside Marina Hemmingway, where we’re spending Christmas. Chris and I shoulder our backpacks and set out before the day gets too hot—but we’re already too late. We’re drenched in sweat by the time we reach the market square, which is crowded with people and cars and horse-drawn farm wagons. There’s a long line-up at the main produce stall, but we decide to see what’s on offer at the smaller stalls before taking our place in the queue.
It’s pretty much the same from stall to stall—carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, suspicious-looking potatoes, shaped like a sweet potato but pink on the outside and white on the inside. Lots of fruit, bananas, pineapples, papaya which you must not call papaya because in Spanish it means something else altogether, something rather rude. Bomba, you must say. We buy a bomba, then take our place in line for some vegetables.
“Ultimo?” a woman asks me. It’s the system here, and it works pretty well. When you approach a line, you ask who is last in line, and then you are ultimo. But I have forgotten to do this so I have no idea if I am ultimo or not so I shrug. She looks at her friend and rolls her eyes. In time, the man behind the table takes pity on me and serves me. I gather up a big handful of tomatoes, some cucumbers, point to the huge pile of gorgeous carrots, red dirt still clinging to them. I signal to Chris to grab a couple of eggplants. We walk away from the market with all the produce we can eat in a week. For less than $10 Canadian. Unbelievable.
We wander through the little village, follow the sound of music to the park, then follow our noses to a bakery down one of the sidestreets. Bread is all they sell, and there’s lots of it. We buy half a dozen soft rolls. Down another sidestreet we come across a man selling meat from a wheelbarrow. He slices pieces off a fresh, bloody carcass covered with flies. I see us becoming increasingly vegetarian on this trip.
The truth is, I’m suffering from culture shock. The houses in the village are nothing more than a jumble of crumbling concrete and tumbled-down stone. At first it didn’t seem possible to me that people lived in them. Then I saw laundry hanging in one of the tiny dirt yards and strung across a rooftop. I watched a woman turn onto a dirt path into what looked to me like an abandoned warehouse complex, struggling with her heavy market purchases and a sack of rice from the co-op. A mangy dog ran out to greet her.
The dogs. I can’t get used to the dogs. They are everywhere, running free, wandering onto the road, jumping out of the way of cars at the very last minute. Some aren’t fast enough. We see many dogs with broken legs. Cats who can barely walk, so skinny and sick that surely they should be put out of their misery. If only I had a magic wand.
We head back to the market—we decide to get a pineapple after all—and there we meet friends from the marina. David says something funny, and the four of us laugh, and I notice that people are looking at us. Then I realize that we haven’t heard laughter all morning. The villagers are quiet as they stand in line, resigned, it feels like. I’m embarrassed at our backpacks, our arms laden with purchases, our happiness. We have put some pesos in the pockets of a few farmers, too few pesos for what we were given. Why didn’t we offer more?
I wonder if I will get used to the real Cuba, so different from the resorts in Varadero, my only experience of the country before this trip. I know we will have given away all our money before we head home, and any supplies we have left, and the laundry basked full of gifts we brought with us—clothing, coffee, soap. Possibly the laundry basked itself. But is it enough.
I don’t know how the people of Jaimanitas will celebrate Christmas. Until recently, Christmas was banned in Cuba and it remains a pretty low-key celebration. Ours will be quiet as well. We won’t be wandering far from the boat, which is tied in a sort of cat’s cradle of lines in the narrow canal here at the marina. Big northwest winds are predicted, and in those conditions a surge big enough to lift boats over the concrete wall rolls up the river and into the marina. So far the winds are just giving the palm trees a comb-over, not bending them in half as they will soon. We’ll be keeping our eyes on our lines and having a quiet dinner as we wait out the weather—seafood risotto and a glass of prosecco—and thinking of all of you at home.