Friday, April 21, 2017

Picking up the Thread of a Safari Jema – Fifty Days at Sea

Picking up the Thread
Safari Jema – Fifty Days at Sea

“What’s the most stern sail on the boat?”
“You mean the sail located most aft?” I asked.
“Not exactly. Stern as in meanest, most cruel. Or to put it another way, the sail most liked by many Brits?”
I thought a minute. There are sixteen sails on the ship, five square sails and a number of jibs plus some fisherman. They all seemed very friendly to me... and not at all kinky.
“I give up. What is the meanest or most British sail on the ship?”
“The Spanker!” said my witty sailor, my Mr Sky, Yachty Scotty.

It’s Day 31 of 50 continuous days under sail. We are aboard the Star Flyer, a four-masted, 366-foot long, barquentine clipper ship. In two days, we'll enter the Straits of Gibraltar and transition from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. This morning after a lengthy emergency drill for crew only where water tight doors slammed shut automatically and violently, the captain called all the passengers to the Tropical Bar. Not to offer a sacrificial drink to Poseidon, but to explain why we would enter the Gibraltar Strait one day early. Fifty knot winds (damn strong winds) were expected in the channel between Africa and Europe so the captain ordered the crew, "Batten down the hatches and full speed ahead!" in hopes we will avoid the brunt of the ferocious gusts that swoop down from the Pillars of Hercules. This is A-OK with us because now we will cross through the strait around 4 P.M. instead of 4 A.M. so we will get a glimpse of our beloved Africa in daylight.
The first two weeks of this Sea Safari were aboard a different sailboat, the Windjammer Mandalay, a 160-foot, three-mast, bare bones beauty of a ship built in 1929 by EF Hutton as a gift to his wife. Many moons later, it is a rustic 58 passenger barefoot vessel sailing the waters of the Caribbean.
There were only 26 passengers aboard (half full) so there was plenty of room to move about, which came in handy after Swizzle Time, a spirited happy hour consisting of all the rum punch sundowners we could drink.

The passenger mix was a convivial crowd of mostly Americans (many of which came from California) and a surprising number of pilots. All but two passengers were repeat customers. Most were serial sailors loyal to Windjammer and the barefoot boat concept. Some took their first Windjammer cruise back in the 60’s or 70’s. We heard wild tales about the “good old days” when cruises were often singles only, and clothing was sometimes optional.
The first day aboard, Scott and I searched for a spot out of the sun to read and settled on well-worn blue mats on top of the wheelhouse. It only took a few minutes before one of the old-timers let us know, with a large degree of hope and enthusiasm, that the deck we were occupying was reserved for nude bathing.  We didn’t yet know our fellow passengers as well as we would come to know them but as we surveyed our shipmates from atop the wheelhouse we guessed that no one would be taking their clothes off any time soon and, save a few moonings directed towards monstrous 4000 passenger cruise ships that occasionally ruined our view, no one ever got completely naked.
Her loyal fans dearly love the Mandalay but she rarely operates at full capacity. The web site leaves much to be desired and advertising is next to nil. Without capital to fuel investment, she’s like the Velveteen Rabbit; dearly cherished, but much worn around the edges. Our first impulse upon boarding was to start a crowd-fund campaign to help replace the loose teak decking, the faded oft-repaired sails, and the torn carpeting below decks.
Why would we pay good money to go on such a ship? We too sailed the Windjammer in “the good old days”. In 1979 we took a week long trip aboard the Yankee Trader and had fond memories of riding the bowsprit, lounging in the nets, and dancing on deck after Swizzle Time. Back then, before air conditioning, most people slept on deck and only retreated to humid cramped cabins with the nightly 3 A.M. rain shower. These days, cabins are spacious and air-conditioned.
Our shipmates were some of the most interesting, fun people we have met anywhere on land or sea. The food was basic but tasty, the owner/captain capable and the crew energetic and delightful.
Every morning before dawn, after the anchor was raised, we helped hoist sails to the tune of Amazing Grace. We never missed a sunrise. The entire experience was incredibly moving, calming, and healing. I wished my entire family, especially Sean and Ann and Selina, were here with me.

            Soon there was an easy rhythm to the days. We sailed through lunch then anchored in a sheltered bay of one or another beautiful island for snorkeling, swimming, or hiking. There was usually a beach bar and palm trees to sit at or under. Throughout the day, many catamarans and yachts also came to anchor. Before long, tenders full of boaters headed ashore for dinner and dancing in the sand.

My birthday fell on the day we were at St Barts, a territory of France. St Barts is different than her nearest Caribbean neighbors. The vibe, with its main street of beautiful shops for beautiful people such as Prada and Tiffany’s, felt more French Riviera than Caribbean. To say that the yachts in harbor or anchored out were luxurious would be an understatement. On some of the larger yachts, the stern came equipped with enormous cargo doors for the tender that would be parked inside the yacht.
After 14 days aboard the Windjammer we arrived at St. Maarten. We did a heap of laundry and ate barbecue ribs at a beach bar. Then Scott had his hair cut at a small shop on a neighborhood street. This is always a great thing to do anywhere in the world because no one can inform you about the local sites like a barber. While Scott waited his turn, we watched a small boy getting tortured with his first hair cut. He squirmed and winced and worried until his father handed him a large roll of packing tape that the boy gripped tightly in both hands without moving a muscle for the duration of his cut. The TV was on so the barber and his regulars Monday Morning Quarterbacked the news of the day—standard barbershop talk the world over.
We met my niece Teresa (Treese to me) who, to our utter delight, decided to join us on the next legs of our sailing journey, a 20-day Atlantic Ocean crossing and a 14-day sail around the Med on a completely different type of sailing passenger vessel, the Star Flyer. With her bright new sails, polished brass, and warm teak decks she was a cut above the Mandalay in features and fixtures but could not hold a candle to the Mandalay’s special charms. I can’t say the Clipper ship was "better" than the Windjammer, just different.  We don't help raise any of the sails (most are raised mechanically anyway) on the Star flyer, but we are allowed to climb the mast to the crow’s nest—a horribly exciting activity I will never forget. Before I took hold of the first rung I asked a crew member, “Has anyone ever spewed while doing this?” She laughed and said "no" but I really don’t believe that to be true because I was one exhale away from letting my breakfast of hard boiled egg and toast rain down on the bystanders who watched with their eyes wide and mouths open from the deck below. There were so many butterflies in my stomach and so much adrenaline coursing through my body, that it took all I had to make my legs and arms move up the rope ladder, especially when a sudden gust of wind caused me to freeze and hang on for dear life halfway up the mast. I nearly backed down but a now or never feeling suddenly washed over me and my knees were able to work again. The view from the crow’s nest was worth the spent feeling I had for the rest of the day.

Treese also climbed the mast, eagerly and seemingly without fear. I am so proud of her. Born when I was ten, she was the first baby I ever took care of and we grew up together.
The three of us also climbed over the gunwale and onto the net that hangs from the bowsprit. The job of the netting is to keep crew that change the jib sails from falling into the ocean. So relaxing, I could have fallen asleep out there.

Some on board feel there is “…nothing to do, nowhere to go”. Ocean crossings aren’t for everyone. They are made for introverts. Readers. Writers. Nappers. Lovers of peace and quiet. Lovers.
I am made for an ocean journey. I treasure silence. But I also love meeting new and interesting people. If I want to converse, there are 68 other passengers from 13 nations, plus as many crew from as many nations, around for chatting. So far each person has a great story to tell. If I sit on one of the couches in the Piano Bar I can be guaranteed of an engaging conversation with a shipmate. But I can also go to the library and browse the books and read or do a crossword puzzle. I have time to do the things I love. What a gift! And we’ve made some truly good friends. Marcie and Keith from Santa Cruz and Phil, Tom and John from Kentucky (known on board as the Bourbon Boys) will be life-long friends I’m sure, and that is a gift as well.

Treese brought back issues of the Sunday NY Times crosswords for us to conquer together, a ritual that we do most Sundays when at home. (Treese owns a house a few blocks from ours and usually strolls over most Sundays with a batch of home made bread or jam.) She, Scott and I usually participate in the daily trivia on board ship. It’s fun and “interactive” because the winning passengers make up the questions for the next quiz. With our collective knowledge of literature, geography, and science we have won a few rounds so have had to prepare questions for the next quiz. Team 21, a wonderfully nerdy and enthusiastic group of German men, usually won.

Other than the daily trivia, Treese and I play Bananagrams or do crosswords or read so there is a misconception on board that we, team TNT, (Teresa and Teresa) are somewhat brainy. Team 21, the German engineers on board (Nerd Alert, Nerd Alert!) like us lots and are always impressed when we answer their random or obscure questions, (What is the altitude of low earth orbit?)  My niece is very smart. And Scott remembers everything he ever read and is of course my favorite nerd. As I told Mom, I married Mr. Right. Mr. Always Right.

Even without Swizzle Time, it’s difficult at times to stay upright while crossing the Atlantic Ocean at the wrong time of the year. We are a little boat in a big ocean. Trying to sail against the trade winds is no easy task. The swells can be huge. Rocking and rolling is the norm. Mealtimes are a challenge. There have been a few nights when plates, glassware, chairs and people have gone flying. One man’s head broke a chair leg as he flew off his seat when the boat suddenly lurched violently. Other than bruising, he was not hurt. Speaking of bruising, Belinda, the masseuse on board, told me I win the prize for most bruises. “You have them everywhere!” Those who know me know that doorjambs and table edges like to bash into my hips and shoulders. And knees and arms and….
We did have one port of call during the crossing, on Day 14, at Ponta Delgada in the Azores where I managed to collect a few more bruises while walking with sea legs on land. We swayed while sitting or standing still, a very weird sensation. But it felt so good to walk and walk and walk. The weather was perfect, we had a great picnic in a pristine park, and we even found a cat to pet.
So while some aboard are climbing the walls with boredom and eager to disembark for good, we are happy as can be. Almost. If there were a cat or dog on board (or bunny, or duck, or otter, or child...) it would be perfect.