Shoeless and clueless

lizardFirst of all: if you were wondering if we still exist: yes, we do. Why we haven’t updated the blog? What we’re up to these days? Where we are? Well … we’re currently in Prickly Bay, Grenada, after having spent quite some time in Carriacou: a small island belonging to Grenada. We’ve been busy, and then again, also lazy. We’re excited by the beauty of the Caribbean all around us, and then again … also a little tired of it all. The tourists, the touts, the heat and the hassle … oh yes, I am very aware that many of you would give a lot to swap with us right away, and don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m all that keen on sitting in an office again, goodness, no.

But after nearly two years of constant travelling from one extreme of the world pufferfish(cruising through icebergs) to the other (up to 30°C hot tropical water over colourful coral reefs) our tough old sailboat is slowly starting to show her age. Small things have been falling apart for a while, most of them easy enough to fix. But now some bigger things are also starting to break, most recent of them the rigging of the roller furling, which of course is crucial if you want to keep sailing. Our funds are starting to dwindle, and our morals are threatening to follow suit. We’re now at a point where we’re seriously considering calling an end to the adventure. Selling the boat and taking the easy way home (i.e. by plane) suddenly sounds sweetly tempting.

hummingbirdHowever, one way or another (i.e. whether we’re traveling on or selling the boat) we need to fix the boat up first. Fortunately enough we found a marina with second hand furlers for sale, but before tackling this big job, we decided that Widdershins definitely needs a new coat of paint. While sitting for over six months in the mangroves of The Gambia evil rust has made an appearance and slowly started to paint ugly orange streaks on the deck. So the last couple of weeks have seen the two of us bent over the deck, tackling the rust with grinder, sandpaper, primer and paint.

waterfallDespite having occasionally low morals we are also trying to enjoy ourselves. Just the other day we decided to explore some of the beautiful waterfalls of Grenada. Well, one cramped bus-ride with a suicidal driver later (wheels: smooth as a baby’s bum. Speed limit: to be ignored. Blind corners: who cares. Seat belts: hanging unused behind the seat … you get the picture) we found ourselves hiking up some steep hills through banana nutmegplantations, past houses on high stilts and trees bearing the national fruit of Grenada, the nutmeg. The first (and most commonly visited) waterfall was a bit of a disappointment, surrounded by tourist traps and touts, but we decided to follow the river further upstream, where apparently some more spectacular waterfalls were hidden in the rainforest.

It soon became quite clear that some preparation would not have gone astray – the path became more and more overgrown by the jungle and of course we didn’t bring a map. And the fact that we were entering the proper rainforest meant, well, that everything got a little wet. And muddy. Very muddy. Not good for flip flops, I can tell you that. But far from being beaten that easily I decided to eelkeep going barefoot, and soon enough our efforts were successful! The second waterfall! A much more impressive gush of water tumbled down a high, moss and creeper covered cliff, into a clear pool of cool water – a perfect spot to cool down after the heat of the ascent! Luckily we found the eerie eels half hidden under some overhanging rocks only after we got out, or I probably wouldn’t have touched that water with my big toe.

After this refreshing break we kept on climbing and skidding up the slippery slopes that only got muddier, along a path that got ever harder to find, through the forest that seemed to grow ever denser and darker and quieter – a fantastic adventure! Unfortunately it also got later and later, and being close to the equator dusk doesn’t last long, so being barefoot I wasn’t all that keen on clambering through the mud using a torch. Yes, surprisingly we did bring a torch. Then again, we also brought a tent, so we were not completely helpless. Once it became clear that we wouldn’t get out of the forest before night fell we started to look for a flat place (easier said than done in this jungle) where we swiftly set up our small tent, devoured our meagre dinner and promptly collapsed on our rather uncomfortable inflatable mattresses.

campingThe next morning we woke up to a spooky, silent forest, with mist creeping around the trees and our tent and every branch dripping from the night’s rain. Not a chance to get the tent dry, so we stuffed the wet material in the backpack and went off again. After yesterday’s mammoth struggle through the unending jungle, a mere ten minutes stroll brought us to the end of the forest, and soon afterwards we found the first small road. Another hour later we sat once again in a cramped bus, survived the suicidal ride (this time the driver actually took the time to change three of the tires, although the new ones didn’t really have more profile) and soon sat down to a decadent lunch of real Italian ravioli – admittedly one of the advantages of a tourist island.



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A pinch of pride

dead-flying-fishSeventeen days at sea is, to be honest, a little more pleasant to contemplate once safely ensconced in a beach side bar with a good meal and a few rum punches under your belt. To be even more honest, there were times over the past two weeks when both Leonie and I had cause to seriously question our sanity. Why exactly do we do these things? One view would be that the trip consisted of endless days of four hour watches spent gripping the tiller or wheel while spray flings across the cockpit and a progression of broken equipment proceeds to clatter, gurgle, clang, beep or persists in moody silence while you bang, tap, dismember or re-wire it in a vain attempt to produce a crackle of static.

grenada-flagExamples of various misadventures suffered during our voyage include: parted genoa sheet (the thing that holds the front sail on snapped resulting in an alarming fluttering and flapping from the front (kind of like a Nasgul flapping with the fury of the dark lord and trying to drag you to Mordor); an unpredictable starboard winch that decides at random whether to happily retrieve rope or to suddenly spin uncontrollably in the wrong direction while repeatedly bashing Patrick’s knuckles with the still attached winch handle; a broken bilge pump (the thing that is supposed to pump out the water that is not supposed to be in the bottom of the boat but still persists in flooding in despite your conviction that it should not be there); another broken genoa sheet (return of the demented Nasgul); the companion way fell off its hinges (the bit that lets you into the relative comfort of the yachts interior suddenly decided that all the waves coming over the boat should also get a chance of shelter); a broken genoa pole (the thing that holds the sail out to catch the wind breaks resulting in a third round of bloody Nasgul attack) .. well the list goes on to be honest …

hillsborough-street-2But then again there were moments where the sheer splendour of crossing an ocean washes away the hardship. There were some magic times on the passage that defy description. The days melt together and you mind roams on the long watches. You get a chance to contemplate the past, the present and the future in ways that you never seem to make space for in the real world. When you do raise your head from reverie you may be treated to a spectacular sunrise chasing you across the Atlantic, or a school of flying fish darting over the curled crests of the waves. Perhaps a low cloud will be racing you across the waves or a shooting star will blaze across the heavens pointing towards your destination. It seems that the highlights of the trip are condensed into instants of elation and exhilaration that more than make up for the intervening hours of blank effort to steer a straight course.

And now as I contemplate another rum punch there is another hillsborough-beachgrowing feeling that is threatening to swamp both the good and the bad reflections of the voyage – a feeling of pride. We two, poor sojourners and our dog have limped slowly across the face of the planet, chased the sunset and overtook her, swapped the cobalt blue ocean for the turquoise coral seas of the Caribbean and have learned a lot about ourselves in the process. We are also intimately acquainted with the bowel movements of our dog so perhaps we shouldn’t get carried away, but at the end of the day we are two very happy people with a pinch of pride that will stay with us for a long time (and a dog who is happy to be back on the beach).

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One third of the way across the pond!

Day five of our passage across the Atlantic and all is settling into a comfortable rhythm. We have smooth seas and following waves and are cutting through the cobalt seas at a bracing six to seven knots. The sun is shining and all is good!

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Ready to leave

Finally, after over a month in the Cape Verdes, it seems we’re about ready to leave. The new satellite phone that was delivered with UPS express (“max 4 days delivery time”) finally arrived after four weeks, and we only had to pay a small fortune to get it released from customs. I guess sometimes we keep forgetting that we’re still, after all, in Africa, and some things just work on a different pace here.

But not for much longer! All that’s left now is to restock on perishable goods like eggs and veggies, refill our diesel and water tanks, and get everything on board shipshape so it doesn’t fly around as soon as we hit a big wave. Then we’re ready for the biggest crossing of our journey yet: two to three weeks open sea without any place to duck in if anything should go wrong. But the weather forecast looks very promising, stable winds and waves not exceeding 4 m, although personally I would prefer a smaller swell. Ah well, at least the fish won’t go hungry

Anyway, if all goes well, we should arrive in the Caribbean mid-February! We’ll try to upload some blogs whilst we’re under way, but that depends on so many factors to work in synchrony that we can’t promise it. But we’re definitely going to let everybody know when we’ve finally arrived!

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Repairs and relaxing in Mindelo

greedy-spiderWhile we have been cooling our heels in Mindelo we have at times been a little impatient to receive all the various items currently delayed in customs and tied up in the seemingly snail-paced progress of express courier delivery in this part of the world – but more often than not we have surrendered to the laid-back island sao-vicentelife-style. Jazz tunes whisper down the street and tumble onto the beach chased by the breeze from the trade winds, countless dogs amble down the cobbled streets or laze in the shade, and often we find ourselves lazing along with them with a good book and a glass of Strela beer.

mount-verdeNot that we have been completely lazy though! A few days ago the three of us took a long hike up to the highest point on St Vincent Island – Mont Verde. Standing at roughly 700m above sea level the mount is named for the unusually lush growth than clings to the steep slopes. The generally arid landscape of the island is here replaced by thickets of pine and casuarina punctuated by the spear-like leaves and towering floral spikes that cling to the highest heights. The green is sources from the light rains harnessed from the clouds that skim over the island and this rain was once an important agricultural boost to the otherwise impoverished island. leonie-and-greensThe evidence of long lost labourers are everywhere here with intricate networks of terraces lining the slopes and the crumbling remains of rock buildings facing out to the tremendous vista of the Atlantic Ocean. Though a few farmers still scrape a living sparrow-on-the-topfrom the soil, the slopes these days seem abandoned with the only sign of human activity being restricted to the military base that claims the summit. Meanwhile however, the ravens and falcons dip and soar in the breeze and sparrows and other small birds flit through the undergrowth and the ruins of the buildings.

The view from the top is stunning and as we gazed down to the cramped twisting streets of Mindelo we have to wonder why anyone would abandon the clean air and endless views of the mountain in favour of a cramped flat amidst the throngs. I know where I’d choose to live!

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Happy New Year

dreikoenigskuecheOnce again we are spending far longer in one place than we ever anticipated. Christmas passed with a food frenzy, the new year arrived with yet more good food and fireworks on the beach, Dreikönig (three-New-yearkings-day) saw some home-made three-kings-cake (well, it’s really a bread, but cake sounds better), and now we’re already well and truly into January.

You may wonder what’s keeping us in this place for so long? Alas, it’s once again the age of our boat. There are thousand things to repair (amongst them fixing the salt water and bilge pimple-fingerpump, the stove, the air ventilation of the water tanks, the boom runner, the anchor storage, the pole fitting, pat-sparrowremoval of the eternal rust, sealing of small leaks in the windows, etc etc etc – some of them with undesirable side effects, e.g. an infected splinter in Pat’s finger) or, when they cannot be fixed, new parts must be ordered in. Of course over Christmas and New Years ordering things in is a little tricky, and we only now just managed to buy a new satellite phone (which of course is still in the process of being delivered), and will still have to look for a new EPIRB in case we should need rescuing. Bloody expensive stuff, but you don’t really want to cross the Atlantic without the bare minimum of safety equipment.

leonie-sparrowWell, nobody ever said that cruising around on an old steel boat would be easy. But sometimes, just sometimes, we are dreaming of living in a spacious, nice, clean, functioning house, where we could employ somebody to do all the cleaning for us, and where our dog could run free in the big garden. Oh, and don’t forget the nice, big supermarket and other shops in the neighbourhood, where you could just buy anything you needed, where you wouldn’t have to run around for two days stuttering in a foreign language to just buy a plug for your sink (the old one the %&”*#± dog must have hidden somewhere on the boat – one of her favourite tricks, after chewing socks of course)… no, no, we’re not really sick of sailing just yet, but sometimes … it can become a little frustrating.

sao-vicentegrasshopperAnd then again there are days where we just take it easy, sleep in, go for a walk in the beautiful hills surrounding the stunning bay, and all the hardship is forgotten. And then, sometimes, I think of my former life where I had to sit in my office day in, day out, struggling with things that seemed so important back then, and that just don’t have any relevance here anymore. I’m still proud of my PhD, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t regret for a minute that I’ve sold most of my belongings back home and put my career in science on hold for this experience. Here, I simply feel alive.

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Christmas in the Cap Verdes

Mindelo-bayIt’s been more than a week now that we’ve arrived after a straining passage in the lovely bay of Mindelo on the island Sao Vincente, Cape Verde. Here the cobbled streets are crowded with a cheerful crowd of locals mixed with a bunch of often slightly forlorn looking tourists, most of them sailors. The weather is much more benign than in The Gambia, temperatures seldom exceeding 30 degrees, and the eternal trade winds blowing constantly from North-East make even the higher temperatures very comfortable. Here we also find quite well-Christmas-starstocked super markets, wireless internet in the marina, bakeries with yummy pastries for breakfast and busy fish-markets with a variety of fresh local fish – in short, it all feels very civilized and laid back.

As for Christmas: the plan was to have lots and lots of prawns with other snacks for Christmas lunch, and then a big roast for dinner. As it turned out, they only had a two kg pack of frozen green prawns for sale. Surprisingly lots and lots and LOTS of prawns for lunch was too much for the two of us – even though Patrick kept insisting that once he ate 1.8 kg of steaks all by himself. Well, Christmas lunch was extended to Christmas-LunchChristmas dinner: prawns fried in garlic butter are yummy too! And Boxing Day saw a brilliant roast à la Lewis, delicious!

Although we had to rest for a couple of days afterwards to digest all these goodies, we’re now busy getting ready for the Atlantic crossing. prawn-plethoraThere are a lot of smaller repairs and some big ones to be done, entry requirements for the Caribbean to be checked (having a dog on board does not make things any easier), and of course the island wants to be explored too! We didn’t get much of a chance yet to explore the barren hills around Mindelo, but hopefully we’ll go for an end-of-the-year hike soon to celebrate the completion of one of the most eventful years either of us has ever seen.

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Last night I got hit in the head by a flying fish ….

As I sit to write this entry the clutter and hustle of The Gambia has fallen in our wake. The rattle of donkey carts, the call to prayer resounding from the mosques and the constant shout of “toubab” (white person) from the street urchins has been replaced by the gentler cadence of a different nation. Here in Mindelo in the Cape Verde Islands the streets are redolent with the swing of salsa music emanating from the colonial buildings clustered of a pristine blue bay surrounded by hazy barren slopes. The cobbled streets are immaculately clean and the populace seems charged with an energy that seemed to be lost amidst the poverty and dirt of West Africa. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the time we spent in the Gambia – but then again the change of pace and scenery has been a balm to our souls.

Not that getting here was exactly easy though!

first landAfter throwing down the anchor in Lamin Lodge I guess we cast away our sea legs and thus getting prepared for the five-day passage to Cape Verde was a little stressful, especially considering the constant entropy involved in keeping a steel boat tied up in a tropical estuary. Preparation involved righting a plethora of small wrongs and when we finally pulled up the anchor (along with a few kilos of black mud that are still ingrained under my fingernails) we were a little nervous as the sea-swell started to roll under our hull once again.

not-happy-dogAnd it didn’t help that the gentle swell in the mouth of the estuary rapidly picked up to constant near gale conditions with an occasional gale force squall of rain! None-the-less Widdershins bravely took to the Atlantic Ocean and was soon sliding over the wind-whipped waves with a grace that was somewhat absent from the three intrepid explorers staggering around on deck! Leonie was a little green for the first day and Captain Sparrow was trying hard to develop a facial expression that conveyed disappointment, bewilderment and exasperation as she staggered around the heaving deck. As for me I was simply holding tightly to the helm as regular waves smashed over the cockpit and the occasional flying fish clattered on the deck or in one instance smacked solidly into the side of my head!

The passage was not without the expected contingent of equipment breaking after a long layover. In addition to small breakages, leaks and electric malfunctions, I was somewhat startled to see a red strobe light flashing down below decks in the early hours of one morning. After a few panicked calls to the sleeping Leonie about “what the ^”&*is that!” it became apparent that our EPIRB had decided on its own that near gale force winds was simply too much like hard work. In an effort to escape the situation it had decided to alert the world that we were in imminent danger and required immediate rescue! Whilst Leonie and I were a little wet and tired, we disagreed …. So after various curses, a consultation to the instruction manual (helpfully in Norwegian) we resolved the situation by disconnecting the battery of the EPIRB and trying to call Norway to cancel the distress signal – except that of course our satellite phone decided that this was a good time to break down. Well, all we could do was radioing through every half hour to inform the world that all was safe and well. We received absolutely no response from any ship as it happens, but as no SAR helicopters descended on us we figured all we could do was keep going.

mindeloIn fact it wasn’t until two days later when we sailed into port and checked our emails that we found out that the authorities were actually aware of the distress signal …. but as it was only active for a short while they figured it wasn’t too important. Hmmmm. Not sure whether to be relieved that we didn’t trigger a whole scale rescue effort or to be a little miffed that our alert signal was rather hairyignored. Actually it turns out that the Norwegian authorities had actually consulted our website and contacted my parents (who spent a few days in agony over our fate) but the available information wasn’t sufficient to launch an international rescue effort. I guess it was pretty lucky in the long run as otherwise we probably would have had to foot the rescue bill!

mindelo-streetAnyway our days are now filled with the beat of Latin music. The north east trade winds are stirring the flags on the waterfront and my grilled shrimp have just arrived in accompaniment with a cold beer.  Christmas promises to be a relaxed affair with the warm sun lulling us into a pleasant contemplation of the journey ahead of us. There’s still a lot to do before we tackle the Atlantic again, but for now it’s time to soak up some sun and enjoy a different pace of life for a few days. The hard work can wait until after Christmas!

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Back on board

It’s been a few days now that we’re back on good old Widdershins. It’s great to be back – the slow rocking of the boat whenever there’s a slight breeze, the wind in the rigging, the quiet mornings between the mangroves … and not least the food! Admittedly it has been quite nice to be served every meal up at the chimp project, but daily doses of rice with either red or green sauce (we disdainfully called it red or green monkey poo) just gets old really quickly. Hamburgers, steak or even porridge on the other hand … as I said, it’s good to be back.

solar panelHowever, it’s a lot of work, too. Since we’ve come back we’ve done a major clean up trying to streamline our belongings (any read books or watched DVDs must go, any cloths for less than 20°C were put in storage, and any food that didn’t look like it’s up for an Atlantic crossing was chucked out). Of course a few things have also broken in the time we were gone – the stove keeps playing up (then again that thing must have been carried over from medieval times), the alternator that charges the batteries from the engine has broken, and the solar panel never actually worked … so, we scraped our leftover dalasis together, and purchased a new generator, a new solar panel and a new alternator. However, however … this is still The Gambia. Of course the new generator broke after half an hour of use. So, back into town, to get an upgrade. The screws of the regulator of the solar panel broke off during installation, rendering the whole thing useless and making a furious Patrick ride once again back into town to get yet another upgrade. We haven’t gotten a chance to install the new alternator yet, but knowing our luck … ah well, T.I.A., this is Africa.

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Back to the Blue

colobus-massageDuring a job interview I once answered the question about where I would see myself in three years time quite truthfully (but of course also very naively) with “oh, I have no idea. I stopped making plans that far ahead, cause they never turn out as planned anyway.” Surprisingly, I didn’t get that job … but I still believe that there’s something to my answer. We had so many plans for this journey, hell, Patrick spent the better time of two years trying to find the best route for a two years journey from pole to pole. But then the autumn gales hit early in Iceland, our engine broke down, and after fixing Widdershins up it would have been close to suicide to battle the countless low-pressure systems roaring mercilessly over from Greenland. So, what to do? Of course a change of plan was the answer. Forget Canada, forget the USA, Europe, here we come! Oh, and Africa, too.

After another few unexpected twists and turns we found ourselves managing over one hundred chimpanzees in the middle of the River Gambia, having signed a contract that would potentially keep us in the green jungle for one and a half years. However, however … well. To cut a long story short: we had a fantastic time, learned a lot, made many new friends and will never forget this time in The Gambia. But in the end our views of the project differed significantly from the views of our director, and under the scenario she envisaged we were simply not prepared to stay on.

So … what to do? After carefully considering our options we decided to hop onto our tiny Chinese motorbike, pack our few belongings and the dog in the backpack, and slowly make our way back to the coast. Camping along steep river cliffs, crossing the River Gambia on dodgy little ferries, marvelling at the iron age stone circles at Wassu that are mirroring their cousins from further north, admiring the wildlife and of course enjoying a not-so-fast ride past dubious trucks, donkey carts and TOUBAB screaming kids was a really good way to slowly say good bye to this country that was our home for more than half a year. Finally, after three days on the road, we got back to Lamin Lodge, where a very, very faithful Widdershins had battled all the rain, wind and thunderstorms of the past months by herself and was still happily afloat. Now we need to fix up a few things on the boat, and then we’ll be sailing once more into the blue! Next stop: Cape Verde Islands.

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