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I did it. I got older. I’m 39 now.
It’s quite hard to believe. I don’t feel like an adult let alone one barreling towards middle age. By the time my parents were my age they had a 17-year-old and a 10-year-old, a large house, and a growing publishing business. I have a boat and a husband, that’s about it.
I have a weird relationship with birthdays. It’s like I think if people really love me they’ll show it on my birthday, then I forget that other people have lives and it’s not about me me me. I dread people not showing up to my party as it were.
Last year’s lockdown birthday was a revelation. Because no physical event could take place, I was sent little cards and gifts from all over which was a real surprise, and had a big Zoom party. It was, in its way, perfect.
This year I was afraid. My first birthday away from friends and family, with people unable even to send a card. I expected it to be lonely and sad. It was far from it.
The grand plan
We decided weeks ago that, taking advantage of the bank holiday weekend in the UK, my birthday weekend would be our first “holiday” on Mirounga. The plan was to sail away from Bequia and not work for a few days and do some fun stuff.
We’d originally planned to visit Mustique for 3 nights, but with the island essentially closed to visitors, it ceased to be an option. We also learned that Firefly, where I’d dreamed of having a birthday meal, recently closed down.
I decided that the one thing I wanted, over anything else, was a proper shower. Don’t get me wrong, for a boat Mirounga has an excellent shower, with a separate cubicle. We even get hot water for the best part of a day after motoring. But I won’t wash my hair indoors for fear of clogs, and just missed standing under the water instead of going through the wet-soap-rinse routine.
We knew exactly the place to go. The Sandy Lane Yacht Club on Canouan has wonderful air-conditioned showers, as well as a whole host of other amenities. It’s not cheap at US$2 per foot, but I had some money gifted by my former colleagues waiting for such a treat, and some birthday money from family. We’d stayed for one night on a bareboat charter in 2018, and had always wanted to go back.
After 2 nights at the Yacht Club, we would sail down for 2 days of peace and nature at the Tobago Cays National Park.
Here’s how it went…
Thursday 27 May
We set off after lunch.
Sailing down the Grenadines is bliss. The wind usually gives you an excellent broad or beam reach, which makes for comfortable fast sailing on a catamaran. We enjoyed a smooth passage without mishap – I’m now wearing sailing gloves at every opportunity after my rope burn incident the other week! We were there in barely over 3.5 hours.
This was our first time coming alongside and berthing Mirounga. I had carefully tidied up the fender locker and checked our supply of mooring lines in advance. We took the sails in as we reached the south of Canouan, and I crept forward to tie on fenders. ALL of the fenders. I wasn’t taking any chances.
As the pilot boat came out to greet us I got our mooring lines ready, proud of myself for remembering to pull them out and back over the top of the lifelines. It’s been years…
Davidson, onboard the pilot boat, guided us in. As he did so, he said he was sure he knew us. We thought he couldn’t possibly remember the frazzled newbies that limped in three years ago on a heap of a charter boat with a broken engine. It took two run-ups to the dock for Colin to feel comfortable, and as he maneuvered Davidson and I shout-chatted. I asked if he’d lost a phone as we were leaving the last time. He had. He DID remember us!
Colin got us close in on the second attempt, and my thrown coiled lines reached Davidson and his colleague easily. We were tied on. For the first time, we could just step off Mirounga onto land.
Are we… are we on fire?
We couldn’t quite step onto land.
Smoke was coming from our starboard engine bay. Foolishly or not, Colin lifted the hatch for a quick peek. It was full of smoke. He closed the hatch, afraid of giving a potential fire oxygen. We could see smoke hanging in the air in the saloon. While I opened the hatches to air out the smoke, Colin stood over the engine bay hatch with a heat gun, checking for temperature changes. We’d had some smoke coming out of the water exhaust on recent sails but assumed it was related to the age of the engine – it’s the older of the two.
When it was clear we weren’t on fire, Colin could look in the engine bay. The water-muffler had melted right off, and exhaust had been pumping straight into the bay. There was little we could do on the spot, so we spoke to Davidson about getting a local mechanic to take a look.
THEN we could step onto land.
Our first stop? The shower block. Just to visit the loos and feel that cool blast of air conditioning. It was everything I remembered. And we were the only marina guests so we knew we had it all to ourselves.
We were soon on our way to check-in. On the way, as is often the case at Sandy Lane, a staff member in a golf cart asked us if we wanted a lift – we did!
The last time we visited, the Italianate row of buildings designed to be reminiscent of Positano was incomplete. Now they were finished, with a beautiful plaza and fountain out front. We went straight to the reception, where Rebekah signed us in quickly. Then we popped next door to the supermarket.
Shower, supermarket and Shenannigans
Oh, the supermarket. It was glorious. Caribbean supermarkets aren’t inferior to European ones, just different. You get used to different produce and checking the dates on things. But there’s often a limited choice, especially on fresh items. This was a beautiful small supermarket that felt more like home – the lighting, the cool air, and the great range. It was a treat. We stocked up on non-perishables and planned to return for fresh goods on our departure day. The highlights included some of our favourite products – McVittie’s caramel digestive, Lindt extra creamy milk chocolate, Triscuits, queso, Allinson’s strong white bread flour, and my personal favourite, Smucker’s concord grape jelly.
We walked back with our goodies, and speed-showered. We wanted to have dinner at Scruffy’s, the more informal bar on site. It was a LONG walk. And when we arrived, Scruffy’s wasn’t serving food – something we failed to check. We continued on to Shenanigans, the main restaurant.
Despite being almost across from our mooring, Shenanigans is actually around a mile away – you have to go the length of the marina, and back down the other side. I was so relieved when a lift on a golf cart was offered as I hobbled along in unfamiliar flip flops.
Knowing we were having dinner at Shenanigans the next night, we opted to sit in the beach bar area for a more casual feel. Ordering was a no-brainer. There was a spicy tuna sushi roll appetiser, and we remembered how amazing the pizzas were from last time so ordered a pepperoni. The food, and cocktails we had with them, were sublime.
We had the sense to ask for a car to take us back to Mirounga, and for me a second shower. Because I could.
We had a treat waiting for us – a livestream. Lucky Boys Confusion has been a staple on our playlists for nearly two decades, and we’re lucky to call at least a couple of the band members friends. We’re close with the lead singer Stubhy and have had some very happy evenings fixing the world over shots. We’ve even nipped away from holidays with our American ‘family’ to spend New Year in Chicago watching the band play.
The boys were premiering a new documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of their album Throwing the Game, followed by an interactive livestream. It was fantastic. We had a great night watching, even though it was close to midnight when things wrapped up, by far the latest night we’ve had since moving.
Friday 28 May
My birthday! We had planned a long sleep, but the squeaking of our mooring line meant we’d had a patchy one.
By 8am I’d cracked into my birthday present, a case of passionfruit La Croix from Doris’s grocery store on Bequia, and we were on our way to find breakfast. On the way, we stopped for a chat with Davidson and the marina manager, and we confirmed that we’d like the mechanic to come out that afternoon.
Breakfast in Italy
I’ve spoken before about missing aspects of Europe. The architecture and food come at the top of that. To wander along a street which could be in Italy or France, and step into a sweet-smelling bakery to buy fresh pain au chocolat and quiche, was amazing. All that was missing the people to watch as we ate outside Foxy Jack’s.
We nipped back to the boat for a quick video chat with my dad, where he opened up birthday cards from family. Then we smartened up and met our taxi for an island tour.
The island tour itself was brief, as there isn’t much to Canouan. It’s not a small island, but the “open” areas really don’t cover much more than one main road. The rest is given over to private land with rather posh hotels and villas.
We were to get a flavour of one of these posh hotels…
The Mandarin Oriental
We had taken PCR tests for the privilege of a tour of the Mandarin Oriental, and what a privilege it was. I’ll write separately about it in more detail…
We were given a fantastic tour by Gideon, who was a pleasure to spend time with. We chatted as we wandered deserted halls of Italian marble. From what we could tell, the hotel had all of one family staying, but it meant we could have a thorough tour.
Gideon showed us the empty restaurants, and the beach being cleared of the daily piles of sargassum deposited by the sea. Then he showed us two different rooms. We were blown away – these were small palaces. Our favourite feature was the mirror, which was also a TV, which was also a door.
After a drive around in a golf cart, he showed us one of the villas available to rent – wow. We’re talking Euromillions money to stay, but it was incredible to see them. I geeked out repeatedly about the design aspects, details, and flooring. It was like a fairytale.
After the tour we couldn’t resist having a glass of champagne by the pool, taking in the surroundings. Sure, it cost us £90 for two classes of Laurent Perrier and a bottle of San Pelligrino, but when else were we going to have a drink at the Mandarin Oriental? (thanks colleagues for that goodbye whip-round, you made magic happen).
A chilled out afternoon
We couldn’t stay forever, so we left the luxury hotel and went back to the luxury yacht club. After a quick change, we dinghied across to Shenanigans – a much faster route! Lunch was slightly interrupted by Colin needing to go back to see the mechanic, but it made my smoked salmon tartine no less delicious. Gazimo the mechanic was able to jury rig a repair to the engine, and replace the broken impeller with one of our spares. It came to US$280, and will probably need more work.
Mechanics aside, our afternoon was spent lounging by the pool or sitting in it to keep cool. Getting a much-needed video chat with our besties in Cambridge whilst drinking an Aperol Spritz was just what I needed. It was perfect.
A private beach dinner
We only had a couple of hours by the pool before heading back to the showers of dreams. We had a 5:45 golf cart pickup to take us back to Shenanigans.
This time, we ate at a table that had been set up on the beach to make the most of the sunset. I call it private, but anywhere would have been – it was deserted again. We had full intentions of having a refined three-course meal. We ended up eating sushi and pizza again. It was just too good. At least this time the sushi was different (crab), and we went with a veggie pizza (most of which we saved for the next day).
The service, cocktails, setting, food – all so good. There were even candles and a little happy birthday note on the chocolate mousse cake we shared for dessert. It was a memorable birthday where I felt excited, happy, and loved all day.
Saturday 29 May
We’d had another pants sleep. We wore earplugs, but I could still hear the squeak of those mooring lines. Next time I’ll know to soap them first…
We ate breakfast at Foxy Jack’s, sitting in this time instead of using the bakery. The eggs benedict was spot on, and I loved having a proper cappuccino so much I had two. Then we went on another little adventure.
The Sandy Lane Residences
We enjoyed our tour of the Mandarin Oriental so much that before breakfast we’d popped into reception to ask if we could have one of the residences at the yacht club. Kareem, one of the reception staff, was only too happy to oblige and took us for a tour.
We visited a two-bedroom apartment and one of the larger villas and had a full tour around the grounds. The apartments were beautiful, and I had a special level of appreciation for the choice of art – nude women of all shapes and sizes, a full celebration of the female form. A lot of construction work is ongoing, when the villas with private pools are complete they will be incredible.
After our tour, we had a second visit to the supermarket, this time to pick up fresh produce, and to the bakery to buy bread. Then we checked out and had one last visit to those amazing showers.
Unlike on our last visit to the marina, no dock staff were around when we left, and it was clear that it was more normal to do this alone. Unhooking a line and quickly stepping onto an untethered boat is always nerve-wracking, but I did it and got all the fenders and lines stowed before we passed out of the marina gates.
An afternoon at Tobago Cays
Tobago Cays is under an hour away from Sandy Lane. It’s is one of the most beautiful marine parks imaginable, protected by a huge reef and with small islands to explore. It’s famous for its wildlife both above and below the water. We were soon creeping past the spot where our friends, SV Por Que No, were anchored behind the horseshoe reef. As Colin started to drop the anchor I had to tell him to be careful – a turtle was right beneath it!
We secured ourselves, and Colin was soon in the water checking the anchor. He didn’t want to come out – he saw a ray almost instantly, and then lots of turtles. I passed him the underwater camera but didn’t want to go in knowing we’d have a full day ahead. My hair hates the sea so I pick and choose my moments. I was perfectly content sitting on the bow seat watching the turtles surface around us.
At sunset Antonia and Daniel, the Swiss-German couple from Por Que No (“Why not?”) came across to us for the world’s smallest potluck dinner, and what would be our first evening with guests. We drank their excellent Bajan rum punch and spent the evening chatting about anything and everything. The pillow-soft focaccia from Foxy Jack’s Bakery went beautifully with the fresh veg and salad we’d bought and my homemade hummus, and our friends came with sweet sticky fried plantain and a fantastic coleslaw. We noted that the swell was growing – apparently, it was a daily occurrence, for a few hours at night and in the morning.
Even though Colin gave himself a deep cut on the foot as he took in the wind scoops, when we went to bed that night we were tired and happy, and excited for the next day exploring the cays.
Sunday 30 May
It was sometime around 4am that my world turned upside down. Literally.
The world turned upside down
I had been vaguely awake, turning on to my left side amidst heavy swell. As I closed my eyes, all Hell broke loose. The boat was being tipped upside down, and moving so violently it felt like being inside a washing machine. Nothing could feel like this except maybe being sucked into a water spout.
I screamed and grabbed Colin, convinced we were about to die. I woke him into a state of panic, with him peering out the portholes into the darkness to see what could be happening.
Nothing was happening. It was just me. Everything stopped churning, and as I stepped out of bed I could feel that we were safe. It was perhaps a bad dream?
As Colin was walking out of the room to head to the bathroom I went to lie down again. Suddenly I was being violently thrown from the mattress and had to grab on for dear life, screaming in terror again. Colin was watching this time. It was clear that something was very wrong in my head. I felt fine sitting or standing, but as soon as I tried to lay down it was like cartoons of a bad LSD trip.
I fought off a panic attack and rationally worked out that something was wrong with my left inner ear. The motion of the swell in our cross bunk clearly made it worse. I didn’t want to keep Colin awake, so I spent the night alternating between the cockpit and the saloon couch and could get short bursts of sleep if I laid on my right, bow to stern.
The morning after
I dozed on and off, and we at least saw a magnificent sunrise. The sun finally found me curled up on the cockpit sole, and I had to face the day. I still felt disoriented, and Mirounga was still pitching and rolling in the swell. After a few hours, and breakfast, it was still just as rolly. We weren’t seasick, but it was a struggle just to move around the cabin. The thought of getting into the choppy water to swim was not appealing.
Thanks to Dr. Google, I established that what I’d suffered was positional vertigo or BPPV. It was probably caused by the orientation of our bunk combined with the swell moving the calcium crystals in my left ear. Despite some people’s assertions, it’s not about not having my sea legs yet – it can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of experience.
With Colin’s help, I did something called the Epley manouvure, which helps recalibrate the brain. It was even scarier inducing vertigo with my eyes open, but afterward, I could lie down more comfortably and nap. I now know what to do if it happens again, but also to use the bow to stern forepeak cabin if we’re in heavy swell.
Then, once I was feeling better, we pulled up the anchor and headed to Salt Whistle Bay.
Salt Whistle Bay
We were back in one of our favourite anchorages (pooping birds aside), and it was so peaceful. It was less peaceful when it took us four attempts to anchor. Eventually, Steve on SV Groovy told us to come in alongside him and we found good holding with a perfect breeze.
We got settled, then spotted that Dog the Dinghy had taken himself for a walk and was quite far away. Colin was soon be-finned and swimming, fully clothed, to retrieve it. Thankfully Antonia and Daniel on Porky hadn’t been far behind us in moving, and were literally behind us in the bay, so they could help Colin reach our runaway in their better-trained dinghy. Colin has since altered the dinghy painter so he stops clipping it onto thin air.
The day was a lazy one, reading books both on the deck and on the beach in our hammock and air lounger. There was a party vibe and an invite to one of the beach restaurants, but we just wanted a calm day and quiet night after the excitement of the last few days.
Monday 31 May
We slept for 10 hours. Ten. Whole. Hours. We clearly needed it.
After a very slow start, reading and slowly making Mirounga ready, we got ready to head “home” to Bequia. After evicting a small bird from the saloon, we popped over to Porky to say goodbye to Antonia and Daniel – hopefully, we’ll see them soon in Carriacou or Grenada. Then we set sail.
Sailing back north is never as fun as south, and we had wind creeping to northerly which didn’t help, but we still had a good sail. We got 7kts under sail alone which we wouldn’t have expected, and it wasn’t until halfway between Canouan and Bequia that we had to turn the motor back on. Some erratic wind meant we couldn’t furl the sails neatly, but it was otherwise a nice trip.
When we got back, we of course promptly spent an hour unjamming the mainsail so we could furl it back in more neatly, and refurling the genoa. Both of us sustained more injuries in the process. Such is boat life.
Back to reality
Our first holiday on Mirounga was so wonderful, in so many ways. It wasn’t like a normal holiday, where you leave your home, car, and troubles behind and sleep in an excitingly unfamiliar bed, but it had a lot of what a holiday needs.
Just having a couple of days where all we did on the boat was sleep felt like a real break. The architecture and design of both the yacht club and Mandarin Oriental satisfied a need in me for the familiar, the European. We ate lots of great food and drank some very good cocktails. We had a really lovely social evening, and some peaceful time just relaxing and reading. We had 7 air-conditioned showers between us and lots of chocolate digestives. We switched off.
The reality of living on a boat is that things break, things go wrong, you get sick, and you get used to cuts and bruises. It’s a reality every sailor has to pass through and settle into as they choose to continue their life onboard.
It’s a challenge. But it’s a challenge many of us live with for the sheer joy of watching a turtle swim under our bow as we anchor our own home in paradise.