Reading time: 30 minutes
I know, I know. It’s so soon after the last one.
My expectations for this week were low. We’d just had a week of chilling out, exploring Anegada, and a couple of dinner dates with Mark and Livio before they flew home. Our last day together involved a visit to a rum distillery and a couple of farewell painkillers in Cane Garden Bay.
Our passport stamps for the British Virgin Islands were about to expire. We’d been planning a straight sail from Tortola to Guadeloupe on the day they expired, the 24th, but the weather just wasn’t on our side.
Instead, we’d decided to head over to Virgin Gorda. We’d renew our stamps, then go up to the quiet anchorages in the north until a weather window appeared. We might, if we were lucky, get to see some friends who were planning to head over before we left.
The week could not have gone more differently.
I’m so happy though, It may to be the most thrilling week. It may not deserve a blog. But it’s genuinely been, socialisation and visitors aside, my best week onboard.
It was the week we became sailors.
Sunday 23 January
I’m awake at 8:40 and poking my phone when Colin asks if I want the kettle on for tea. This means he’s ready to move – he’s already taken up our stern anchor. It’s time to leave beautiful Cane Garden Bay.
I eat a bowl of cereal and put my tea in the cockpit cubby to cool as we take up the anchor. We’ll be travelling against the wind today so motoring. As we trundle along the south of Tortola we discuss our passage options to get to Guadeloupe. Colin mentioned the idea of going back to St Martin last night, so we went to bed with that possibility in mind if a window to go straight Guadeloupe doesn’t come up.
I send our friend Debby a message about it and she agrees it’s a good idea. Going to St Martin would put us in a good place to provision and get Colin a new phone, and means our course to Guadeloupe would be less into the wind. Debby passes on a weather forecast from a subscription service she uses. This shows we have a good window to leave today, then not again for at least a few days. We’ll spend a couple of nights in St Martin, then head south from there.
A quick change of course
We jump into action. It’s 10:20. Colin calls customs in Spanish Town to check we can clear out today. They close at 12 officially but if we can get there by 12:15 they’ll see us. Our ETA is 12:15 – Colin puts the engines to full revs. I call the fuel dock to make sure they’ll also be open this afternoon. We check our paperwork and get it into a grab bag ready for Colin to take.
I put air in the dinghy (not easy under way!) and we agree that as soon as I’ve got one mooring line secure Colin can get Dog down and race to customs. I’ll start on lunch and boat prep in the meantime. I even check what shoes Colin can run to customs in and swap the shoes in the dinghy.
It’s 12:00 when we approach the mooring field in Spanish Town, the engines did us proud. Thankfully it’s an easy mooring ball to pick up. Within 3 minutes of making the approach to the ball I’m securing the second line and Colin has Dog in the water and is speeding into the dock. We made an informed decision and worked perfectly as a team under a lot of pressure. I let out a Hugh sign of relief.
I take off the external sun shades on our windows, and prepare the forecabin for sleep. Then I heat bread, tidy up, put our heavy waterproofs in an accessible place, and lay out warm overnight clothes. Colin returns having cleared out (hooray!), and we eat lunch, then I quickly wash my hair while Col puts fenders out for fuelling up. Then we’re on the move again.
As we pull into the fuel dock we hear a friendly call – it’s a man on a Prout! We get tied on top the dock and I go over to chat while Colin fills up our diesel tanks. David and Vanessa from Nova Scotia have just got back onboard after 18 months of having the boat stored on land. Their 38ft Prout is just a year younger than Mirounga. They are currently in the process of cleaning up the boat to sail for a few months, including figuring out how to fix their broken swim ladder. They love that we’re from Scotland – Vanessa went to school in Comely Bank!
We’re pulled away from our chat when someone else wants to get onto the dock but it was a lovely interlude. I’m also proud of myself for running over and having a conversation with total strangers, I would have struggled so much with that before boat life.
The journey begins
It’s just after 2pm when we cast of the mooring lines from the fuel dock and officially start our passage to St Martin. Half an hour in, once we’re through round rock passage and officially leaving the BVI, we start Hamilton. We’ve passed many journeys, by car and sea, this way.
I lounge and listen with my eyes shut in cockpit while Colin sits on roof. He occasionally rolls onto his tummy to adjust our course. We’ve moved on to Taylor Swift’s Folklore as the sun sets at 18:05, a beautiful clear horizon sunset. We then take turns to shower and change into our warmer night sail clothes. The outline of the BVI is still clear behind us when it gets dark. Dinner is pot noodles, accompanied by Dire Straits, the ultimate journey music. It reminds me of long car rides as a kid. After dinner, we agree same watch pattern as on our last overnight passage – to ten-hour watches followed by two-three hour watches starting at 8pm, with me taking first watch.
On my first watch I listen to Pink Floyd (Dark Side then Wish You Were Here), drinking tea, and squinting to spot lights. Listening to Wish You Were Here on AirPods when you’re on a boat, alone, under stars, is pretty trippy.
I can see the glow of St Martin ahead. There’s no moon again. It’s definitely not a new moon, like our last overnight, so I assume it’s coming eventually. I can see bioluminescence in our wake. There are splashes in the water ahead of our port bow that can’t be caused by us, like something jumping forward and away from us. It’s always strange knowing you have company but not being able to see it.
I don’t fully sleep on my first rest in the fore cabin, I’m always aware of boat despite being as far from the engines as possible. I have some weird dreams though so must have dozed.
The moon has appeared when I step out onto the deck at 12:05. I resume my Pink Floyd retrospective with The Wall and Final Cut. Having learned my lesson on our last night sail, I only take small sips of water, and wait for my stomach to wake up. Half way through, I nibble on a nut bar. The swell picks up, and sitting in the helm seat is almost like riding a horse at times. I treat each movement as a stretch.
At 2:20 I start to see what might be the lights of St Martin 29 nautical miles away. The air turns cold and the wind picks up to 20kts on nose 20 mins before my watch ends. It’s not raining, but there are clouds ahead. When Colin wakes up to take over I warn him so he can get into oilies before coming out into the cold.
I decide on our cabin for my second sleep. It’s 60+ decibels with the engine on but I fish out some ear plugs and sleep amazingly soundly.
Monday 24 January
I could definitely have slept longer. I emerge in time to watch a slow dawn over St Martin. It’s just after 8am when we arrive in Marigot, on the French side of St Martin. Our passage has taken 18 hours, an hour lest than the journey over. That’s not bad given this time we weren’t using wind to help us move.
Our new water feature
Our plan had been to go straight to bed. Unfortunately, Colin can’t help but investigate why our water pumps are misbehaving (they started refusing to work in the middle of the night). Beneath the guest cabin bunk he finds an engine bay filled with an entire tank’s worth of hot water. The cabin instantly feels like a sauna. We’re relieved at least that the water stops short of the alternator, but it’s frustrating that half our fresh water is gone.
We can’t ignore this. We take it in turns to pump out the water. At one point Colin has me work one of the pumps in the cockpit but it fails, so we rely on the roving pump. It turns out he was directing me to the bilge pump, not the engine bay pump. Thanks honey. But we get it all out, and see the problem is an easy fix. A hose has come off, exactly the same issue we had the day we moved onboard. We shower and crawl into our bunk by 10am, with a noon alarm.
As we went to sleep, Colin said he didn’t think he’d be able to fall asleep. He’s wrong, we’ve both been out cold for two hours. We rouse ourselves slowly and eat filled baguettes for lunch, tidying up as much as we have energy for.
We dinghy into Marigot at 13:40, dropping off our laundry at Shrimpy’s on the way. Island Water World is closed for lunch so we can’t clear in so we head off to cover our other errands first. On almost any other island we wouldn’t do this – you really ought to clear in before doing anything else. But this is a French island, and such rules are arbitrary.
We walk to the market first to check that a car will be available with A&J Rentals tomorrow – it will be. Then we go to Sun Pharmacy. We were vaccinated in St Vincent and boosted in St Martin. We knew last time we were here that we could have our vaccine passes consolidated so we just needed to use the French certificate, but didn’t have time. This time the pharmacist can make the conversion as we wait, €72 well spent. We also pick up a couple of boxed of lateral flow tests so we have them handy.
On the hunt
Next, we wander around looking in phone shops. Colin’s iPhone 11pro got a soaking when we had trouble getting our dinghy off a beach in Anegada. In their it’s waterproof phone, but it’s close to 2.5 years old and the salt water was too much. We even walk to the small mall near Super U, but everything is a silly price. He doesn’t want a higher end model as he’ll get the latest iPhone when it comes out in autumn, so we give up for the day. On our walk back, we pop into Cadiz Market to buy dinner.
We finally find ourselves at Island Water World again to clear in, and while we’re there we buy a new SUP paddle after losing one a month ago. We check with shrimpy on the way back to Mirounga and get one of our three bags of laundry back. It’s all we need – I can make our bed. After a shower I curls up in the nice clean sheets and watch Sex and the City. We both take a lateral flow test since we’ve socialised a lot lately – all clear.
Dinner is nems (spring rolls) and samosas. The late-morning nap means we’re not sleepy too early, so we watch The Morning Show and The Rookie before an episode of Inside Job in bed.
Tuesday 25 January
I’m awake from around 5 with a very sore back. I pulled some muscles when I fell on the wet deck just over a week ago and the pain is always worse overnight. I decamp to the saloon and watch the first Sex and the City movie. Then, once Colin is up and we’ve had breakfast, we can head ashore for the day. On the dinghy ride in I spot a familiar boat – 2 Can is South African flagged and we’ve seen her in Bequia, St Vincent, Martinique, Guadeloupe and now here. Her owner helped us get onto a tricky mooring ball back in October and it’s always lovely seeing a familiar hull.
Colin collects the car while I take some rubbish to the bins, and we’re ready to get on our way by 9:30. Our first stop is Philipsburg, where we park on the outskirts and walk in to find Colin a phone. We get lucky at the third store we try and he gets a 2020 iPhone XS at a reasonable price. All the walking has my feet being rubbed by my shoes. We’re close, so we go to the Crocs shop. I can’t quite believe it but I’m not inspired. I love Crocs but nothing is calling for me. I’m considering a pair of lilac classics when Colin suggests I get the trainers I’d been eyeing up in Guadeloupe months ago. I out them on immediately.
Within 2 blocks the trainers have rubbed the skin off my feet. I’m furious. It’s a side effect of never wearing shoes, but I’m annoyed that I feel I’ve wasted €60. I should have just got the lilac clogs… I switch back to my sandals and we limp to the car. At our next stop, Cost U Less, we buy lots of cans of Diet Coke and La Croix, and I get some $4.89 flip flops.
Lagoonies and beyond
We drive over to Cole Bay to Lagoonies for lunch. It was our favourite place when we were on the Dutch side and we can’t resist. I have a very good duck tataki, and Colin has mahi ceviche. It’s very strange not arriving by dinghy. Lunch doesn’t take too long but we’re very aware of the time when leaving. We pay a quick visit to Island Waterworld, then its back to Philipsburg.
We’ve been told the Carrefour in Philipsburg is the best supermarket, so it feels worth the slow journey in bad traffic. It turns out that the supermarket is so poorly stocked we can’t get much of what we came for, including lactose free milk. We’re bot dairy free, but lactose free milk keeps fresh for weeks. We quickly jump back in the car and drive over to the Cole Bay branch we know well. We get most of what we need, but there’s still a big shortage of fresh items, and no lactaid.
In the end we’re glad to have had to visit both supermarkets as we get to see Bear and Ray in the supermarket car park. They’ve having just as busy a day as we are before sailing to BVI tomorrow, so we hadn’t hoped to see them for more than a wave from the dinghy. This is at least an opportunity for a short chat and hug goodbye. After 7 months of overlapping and hanging out, this may well be the last time we see them for a long time.
The final push
Our next stop is Super U, which feels our favourite long life half-baked baguettes. I run in while Colin puts fuel in the car. I run in to get long life bread while Colin fuels up. We’ve got the car returned, Dog loaded, and are dinghying back by 4pm. Our hectic day isn’t over, we have a lot to accomplish in the next hour. We had told ourselves that if we didn’t get everything done we could stay in St Martin another day but the weather really does favour going tomorrow.
We somehow get our provisions onboard, and simultaneously secured everything and get ready for fuelling. This means tying on mooring lines and fenders and uncovering the fuel tanks in the lockers. The fuel dock closes at 5pm, so we can’t spare a minute. We get on to the fuel dock easily, and I run into Ile Marine to clear us out. It’s slow going as I’m unfamiliar with the forms and I help a couple who are trying to figure out BVI entry protocols. I’m sad not to have time to pet a very pretty cat. By the time I’m done Colin has had to move along the dock to allow another boat in.
We get back onto anchor, and Colin is on the move straight away, getting Dog down to collect the remaining laundry. I continue stowing and tidying, and when he turns we work together to get the boat in a sailable state.
The last supper
We’re finished by 6pm so we have time to shower before our evening plans. We meet Debby and Fraser at the town dinghy dock at 6:30. Like Bear and Ray, we really don’t know when or if we’ll see them again, all part of sailing life. We walk to the lagoon dockside to check out restaurants before realising we all want pizza, so we walk back to the waterfront to La Terrazza. They serve good Neapolitan style pizza, with good service and a relaxing atmosphere. We like the pizza enough that we order a Margherita to go for tomorrow.
Our little group walks back to the dinghy dock, and it’s 21:30 by the time we’re back onboard. We should definitely be having an earlier night, but we still watch an episode of Inside Job before sleep to wind down.
Wednesday 26 January
Colin closes our bedroom door at 4:25, trying not to wake me up, which wakes me up. I might as well get up so we can go. We get the mainsail ready, and the anchor is up by 4:45, meaning we’re setting off about half an hour earlier than planned. As we’re moving through a busy area I stand on the bow with a torch. I’m used to watching fish jump in my torchlight from the dinghy, not from the big boat!
Sailing past 5 countries
We motor around the south-weatern point of the island until the wind picks up then we take out the foresail and stay sail in the dark. It feels quite new to do so, but not uncomfortable. We watch the sun rise over St Barth, and then find ourselves running the engines for a couple of hours as we’ve lost the wind.
The wind reappears at 7am and we can turn the engines off, so I head down for a 1 hour nap. Colin does the same after me. Every so often, we eat a slice of cold pizza. I end up watching Sex and the City 2 to pass the time. It’s one of those days where it’s chilly unless you’re in direct sunlight, so we both have jumpers and trousers on. The wind which was supposed to be decent today is too low to be much use, so we motor most of the afternoon.
At one point, we can see 5 island nations around us St Martin, St Barth, Saba, St Eustatius, and St Kitts & Nevis.
Dinner is served
I’m watching an episode of And Just Like That (why I’ve watched all of Sex and the City) when the fishing line Colin put out spools for a second time. The first time was seaweed. This is a big angry barracuda. It puts up a fight but Colin ends it as fast as possible. His usual technique of a spike to the brain is proving slow, so he resorts to pouring tequila over its head. I’m a little wary of ciguatera poisoning in larger fish so we check the size just in case. It’s 33”, and around 6lb, so safe to eat.
As we sail down the lee of St Kitts I listen to a podcast my cousin Anna took part in (Stacey Dooley’s Fresh Starts, give it a listen). We finally make it to Whitehouse Bay quite literally as the sun sets at 18:00. It dips into the horizon as the anchor goes down. The journey took 13 hrs 15 mins. Had we waited for our alarm to wake us up we would have been anchoring in twilight.
I clean up the fish mess in kitchen while Colin processes the beast and cleans up outside, then I make a Virgin Mary to enjoy in the last of the sunset. I cook lime and coriander rice and Colin cooks the fish on the BBQ. There’s far too much to eat, and even though he doesn’t even serve half of what we have I can’t finish my plate. I have a sensory switch that just flips when I eat too much fish or meat. It’s surprisingly late by the time we finish eating. We clean up, shower, and watch How I Met Your Father. After an episode of Inside Job in bed we’re asleep by 9:30
Thursday 27 January
Our alarm goes off at 7, and by 10 past we’re pulling up the anchor. Only once we’re moving do I brush my teeth, put in my contact lenses and get dressed. I put away the clean dishes from last night and tidy the galley as kettle boils. We get the sails up, then I can drink my coffee and do today’s Wordle. While we’re still in the lee of Nevis I apply an Olaplex treatment to my hair, which is badly in need of some intensive attention.
One thing that’s changed through doing night sails is that I take a turn at the helm more often, which I do for a while today. Otherwise, I watch And Just Like That on my iPad curled up in the cockpit. Rain clouds gather at noon, so we get into our waterproofs. I even pull on the awful old trousers as I’m feeling so cold. Squalls hit us on and off for an hour but it’s not too bad.
I’m very tired today. I think the week is finally catching up with me. I doze a little then its time to take the sails in. We arrive into Little Bay in Montserrat at 14:30, having made good time. We had hoped to anchor at Rendezvous but the port authority denied it. I research some potential flights for family to visit (alas, nothing will work), and somehow end up in a rabbit hole of looking at remote fixer-uppers in Scotland. Colin makes barracuda fritters, which we eat for lunch. I retreat to the cabin to watch Below deck and more And Just Like That, coming out in time for sunset.
Dinner is more barracuda fritters, with TV (Resident Alien, Snowpiercer, and Inside Job). As I brush my teeth for bed I note that I can just about hear the singing tree frogs on land. These are something I associate with the Caribbean but for some reason they haven’t been around in any of the islands north of Montserrat.
Friday 28 January
Our alam goes off at 8, and the anchor is up by 8:15. Rain falls lightly, and the island is shrouded in mist. We pass closer to exclusion zone than we did when we sailed north in November, having read that it’s safe to do so. I didn’t get round to rinsing our the Olaplex from my hair yesterday so I wet it and coat it in conditioner. This hair is no joke.
As we pass Plymouth, the former capital city and port, we realise how green it’s become since we first visited Montserrat 10 years ago. It’s a reassuring sign, but the strong smell of sulphur brings the reality home. This is still an active volcano, and it will take more than one generation for people to settle in the south of Montserrat again.
A very boring wild journey
This southern end of the island throws 29kt gusts and rain at us, and it’s far from the most pleasant sail. We look back after a while and can’t even see Montserrat. We’re both wrapped up in trousers and waterproofs. It’s so loud we can’t talk and I need a distraction from all the noise so I stick my headphones in and watch four more episodes off And Just Like That. I make us pot noodles for lunch at 2pm. It’s pretty scary pouring hot water and carrying the pots outside on such a bouncy journey.
Back in Deshaies
We take the sails in at around 15:30 as we’re head to wind. It doesn’t ease the bouncing. I’m relived when we can see Deshaies. At 16:30 we drop anchor in our “old” spot just outside Le Madras, and work together to set a stern anchor as we’re in very shallow water near the beach. It goes a little like this. I pump up the dinghy and splash it while Colin gets the anchor out and ready, then he gets in the dinghy and I hand the anchor and chain to him. Once he’s moved a little away from Mirounga he drops the anchor in the water and I pull in the line until it’s taught while he gets back onboard. Yet another neat piece of teamwork.
Colin goes to clear in while I clear up. The water around us is so still we can look down as turtles as they swim by, it’s like sitting on a tank. There’s rain at sunset, so I scrub the salt water off the deck in the of last of light. I enjoy a good hot shower to warm up, but its too late to rinse out my hair as it won’t dry. I plait it, it can be a job for tomorrow. Now its dark I can properly hear the frogs; I’m delighted.
After a meal of pasta with The Morning Show and Dear White People I’m delighted to go to bed knowing we’re not moving again for a few days.
Saturday 29 January
We have both slept SO HARD. We needed it.
The plan for today is to relax and do as little as we feel like. I’m fully on board with this as my back is completely locked from the solid sleep. It’s so bad that the first hour or so of being awake I can’t breathe properly, it’s like a corset around my mid-back.
I’m about to find some cereal when I realise we’re back in a town with an excellent boulingerie, so I send Colin ashore to get breakfast. He returns with croissants, pain au chocolate, and a fresh baguette.
I finally finish the process of washing my hair, with a moisturising mask. Yep, it’s taken 48 hours and 3 treatments for me to sort my hair out. This is all because I was in the water a whopping three times in a week in the BVI. Any you wonder why I don’t swim?
All the nothing
We spend the day lazing, watching TV, reading and generally relaxing. Every so often we sit on deck to watch the turtles, which are everywhere here. Colin swims, and find that we have rather a lot of rope around both props. It explains why one wasn’t getting to full revs yesterday and we weren’t moving too quickly.
We do go ashore for a walk, and to book a table at Le Madras for dinner tomorrow night. Mid-afternoon, we take the paddleboards out, with Colin standing on his and me sitting and using a kayak paddle to spare my back.
The sunset is beautiful, and Colin even climbs the mast to get a better view. We’re eating Nems and rice on deck when a fly apocalypse occurs. It happens every so often if we’re close to shore and the wind is low – they appear, and die all over our boat. We retreat inside for some TV and a low key end to a low key day.
A glowing sense of achievement
Like I said, it’s not the most thrilling week to read about. Long sails, provisioning and recovering aren’t that interesting.
But this week means so much more. We covered over 250 nautical miles – it took us our three months onboard to cover that much distance last year. Our anchor held Mirounga safe in five countries (BVI, St Martin, St Kitts, Montserrat and Guadeloupe), and had eyes on five more (USVI, St Barth, Saba, St Eustatia, and Antigua).
We made snap decisions and jumped into an overnight sail without days to prep, and it went well. It wasn’t stressful. We completed our second night sail, and whilst we agree we prefer to make overnight stops en route, we got through it fine.
We had plenty of busy, tense and challenging moments, including a flooded engine bay, and we took it all in our stride. There wasn’t a single argument, not even a cross word. And we worked so well together in those moments where nothing but teamwork would achieve our aims. This week has really showed what a good partnership we have.
And, although I didn’t really write about it here, I found some space for creativity. On passages, with no internet to distract me and plenty of thinking to do, I’ve started to make short compositions. Little bits of writing and poetry. Capturing moments, thoughts and emotions. People seem to like them. It’s the first time I’ve written creatively since my teens and it feels pretty nice to get good feedback.
The next few weeks
I may give you a break from snapshots for a few weeks, who knows. The plan is to have our friend Laurie onboard for a few days next week and sail down to Iles Les Saintes. From there, once she’s left us, we’ll sail back to Martinique via an overnight in Dominica. In Martinique we’ll have one last visit to the excellent chandleries there, and a raid on the cheese supplies.
Then? It’s back to Bequia, for a couple of months.
All of these are passages and places I’ve taken you before. So unless we’re doing something thrilling or life looks much different, I’m going to ease up on the diarising. This week has made me feel so complete, so fulfilled, that I’m not sure there’s more to tell about the process of becoming liveaboards. Because we are.
I’m hoping to write more creatively. I’m also planning on going back to work for a month or so from mid-February. And there are big plans afoot.
I can feel us entering a new chapter on Mirounga. I hope you’ll read to the end of the book…