Wednesday, July 30, 2014


I have a new job and it’s in Paris, so I’m taking the family and heading off to work – by boat.

Our third Atlantic crossing in 12 months proves again that at sea nothing is ever the same and nothing new. Philosophers tell us that such is the way of the world – in history, love, war, ambition.  At least I can say this is true of the sea.

Choosing the fast northern route from New York to Ireland, we dip south initially to 41 degrees north latitude, making sure to avoid icebergs coming off the Grand Banks. And so for a few days we find ourselves navigating the outer fringes of the Sargasso Sea that lured me into this voyage exactly a year ago.

We may not be in the Sargasso proper, but the route takes us back in the influence of the Gulf Stream and therefore the Sargasso neighborhood. There’s a sense of homecoming. Again the water turns diamond-clear blue. Again, the surface is mottled with golden patches of sargassum weed, those floating islands that drift over the mid-Atlantic abyssal plains. We shake out weed caught in a net, rousting its perfectly camouflaged inhabitants, and a monstrous gang they are, identical to the vicious little shrimps, crabs and other beasties we’ve found camped on weed islands all across the central Atlantic. What uniformity in nature, yet also what powers of invention!

Why do these creatures exist, what is their purpose, these miniature sailors, these crews on rootless weed fronds hitched to the currents of the North Atlantic Gyre? Just pitch the idea to yourself: a golden crab lords it over a branch of floating seaweed a thousand miles from any shore, his cozy little weed house lost on an ocean of terrifying vastness. The story’s crazy. What is that crab: master or prisoner, traveler or castaway? What a journey. How pointless; how glorious!

With the iceberg zone cleared, we bend northeast, the water getting colder, dark green now. The last ragged bunches of sargassum have a dull, sickly color and ride low in the water. In the Sargasso Sea, the fronds reproduce perpetually. The healthy branches break off, starting new islands and leaving old branches to decay and sink. But there’s no chance of renewal for any weed islands that drifted as far up as we are now. These are the lost ones, doomed to sink miles down into the ocean night.


The north Atlantic is moody. On some days in heavy wind, waves swamp the gunwales, running down past the cabin, gushing through the scuppers. Once, a wave rises over the cockpit, our little haven in the maelstrom, and, instead of slipping by like a thousand others, breaks and pours right in. At other times, there’s no more wetness on deck than the dew of a dead calm.

Of our three Atlantic crossings, this is the most crowded in sealife. Pilot whales, matt black, their noses as blunt as wooden clogs, come whooshing past, 50, 60, at a time. They don’t have the gleeful aspect of the dolphins, but their bulk and effortless speed, all wrapped up in wetsuit-like skin, is a thing of awe. Then a large shark fin slices our wake, the fish’s movements filled with athletic insolence. Inevitably, I think: Imagine if you fell in now.

Man overboard, or MOB, is the base fear of all sailors, the one they don’t discuss much, because there’s no sense, and yet which haunts them all. After all, sailing is a strange occupation, both safe and dangerous simultaneously, rather like sitting down for dinner at the edge of a cliff.

The man in the water can, obviously, expect to drown. Yet I’m reminded in that fin that a sailor could also be eaten – possibly alive. The idea sounds outlandish, like a story from long ago times when humans actually paid for wandering into places where they shouldn't go.

I feel wild gladness as I look over “Moon River’s” low railings. Over the course of more than 10,000 miles in the last year we’ve seen so many signs of devastation inflicted by the fishing industry: the abandoned plastic nets floating forever at sea; the huge trawlers coming from as far as Asia to scour West Africa’s shallows; the scarcity of really big fish on Caribbean coral reefs; the thousands upon thousands of dried shark carcasses that we saw being stacked up in Senegal…

I’m glad to see the beast down there, where it belongs, doing what it does, probably not even aware of the world’s war against the world.


On passage, Adele and I each get four hours of unbroken sleep each night. Days are divided between short naps, reading, tending to the boat, cooking, doing repairs, teaching Zephyr and Looli school.

Life is slow, yet there’s no urge to speed up. The hours pass lightly in a kind of animal existence where I may do nothing in particular, yet remain permanently alert. Even in my sleep I’m aware. I watch and listen, taking in the horizon and tiny details of the boat’s equipment almost at the same time. Often I wake in my bunk because of a slight change in movement or a new noise. Everything means something in the wild: nothing is superfluous.

It seems that ashore we cram information, always convinced we need more. Saturated, we’re often barely aware of what’s truly new and what’s regurgitated, what’s important, what’s a lie, what’s beautiful and what’s simply there to dazzle. At sea we have little information. We have no access to news, unless through an email from a friend. We have no satellite phone, no Internet, and most days pass without sighting a distant ship, let alone a human being. The Single Side Band radio, which can receive simple emails and weather forecasts, picks up the BBC World Service in a way so patchy that we quickly give up bothering. Even attempts to listen for results of the World Cup in Brazil are abandoned. After all, what does it matter?

Given so much time and space, I find my thoughts sorting themselves out in a way that would be impossible on land. Fresh ideas float and the unneeded worries sink like rotting sargassum.

Mostly my thoughts are on the friends we saw in New York before this passage and the friends we’ll see in Europe when we start our new life.

New York! My home of five years before his voyage was crazier than I ever remembered. We haven’t had a phone or television for a year so during our two week stay I wandered dazed through the crowds of smartphone addicts staring at their screens in every doorway, sidewalk, café, bus, and park. That posture people have as they walk and browse on the screen gives the impression that they literally are following their devices through the streets, which, in the case of Google maps, they really might be. I thought a visiting Martian might have examined the scene in concern: had a rival, rectangular-shaped space creature beat already invaded the Big Apple and hypnotized the humanoids into submission?

The Big Apple disappointed me at first. It seemed smaller than I remembered; the great skyscraper canyons looked nothing like as dramatic as the ocean swells I’d just seen; the buzz of adventure I always felt walking the streets of Manhattan paled next to the experience of a simple night watch, “Moon River” raging down waves that seemed to touch the stars.

But the city was patient with me and after a week or so I began to rediscover what New York really means: not the canyons and lights and noise, but the people you find crammed together in that sparkling ship of eight million souls. What kindness and generosity old shoremates showed us. We’ve lived so much in self-sufficiency at sea that we’ve forgotten what it means to be part of a great community. New Yorker friends treated us like a bedraggled and unshaven royalty when in fact they were the nobler ones. If they read this, they’ll know whom I mean. We will always remember them as a part of this voyage.

Zephyr and Looli, turning 11 and nine, hit the city very much like the child versions of the sailor on shore leave: not a pizza joint left standing. Adele the acrobat, who flits seamlessly between splendid loneliness at sea and the social whirligig of the city, dived back into action, with an agenda that would not have disgraced a visiting prime minister.

“Moon River” needed a repairs and preparation ahead of the next test, so I spent days in the boatyard at City Island where I had originally outfitted ahead of our voyage. Here in the grittier – refreshingly smartphone free – surrounds of the Bronx I reconnected with Andy, Karl and my old boatyard friends, or not boatyard friends, but just the very best kind of friends. People who have helped me so much in putting together “Moon River” that I feel their presence in the boat.


By now, the sea called, and the hurricane season rumbled, so I dragged my shipmates from the parties and back aboard. In Buzzard’s Bay, near Nantucket, we sat with fellow sailors and friends watching Hurricane Arthur blow by and for a final time enjoying the simple warmth of friendship. As sea people, Jeff, Mege, Orly and Asa understood where we were going and why. The moment Arthur passed, we said farewell to the United States, left all behind, and plunged into the watery frontier.

Land people think the ocean empty, a featureless wasteland, and yet we passed landmark upon landmark, even if mostly hidden: the foggy offshore sandbanks, the plunging continental shelf, the route of the freezing Labrador current, the Suhm Abyssal Plain, and just south of the Tail of the Bank the resting place of the “Titanic.” Longitude now, not time, measured our progress toward old Europe, and each meridian ticked off was a small triumph.

Even in boats we are only dimly aware of the world we are visiting at sea. Dolphins frequently rush up to “Moon River,” escorting us down waves like posses of California surfers. They seem friendly yet we have no idea why they come – or how they decide so suddenly to leave, or where they go. One day we see the high spouts of a large whale, too far away to identify, but one of the leviathans, these most mysterious and gentle giants of the deep that have been slaughtered to the brink of extinction. At night along much of our route the phosphorescence is so rich that “Moon River” travels in a green cloud, with a thick, sparkling tail of bioluminescence streaming astern. Swift emerald trails underwater reveal otherwise invisible dolphins. Even flushing the sea toilet sucks in phosphorescent water, the humble porcelain bowl appearing to swirl with diamonds.

Indecipherable borders mark the skies. In one patch of ocean the elegant Cory’s shearwater rules, those long, severe wings slicing in and out of the waves with barely a beat. In another, it’s the podgy, no-nonsense fulmar, or the delicate tern. Storm petrels are said to herald rough weather and indeed we have them crowding “Moon River” at night, swooping and darting, bat-like, just as strong winds set in. We don’t see the petrels in calms. Where do they go?


How many times I’ve flown across this same stretch of Atlantic between Europe and the US, looking down from tiny airliner windows at what resembles a black, frozen surface, and wondering how it would be down there. The sight is so savage, so lonely from a plane. Now that I’m here, though, the picture is quite different. Wilderness surrounds us but in the middle is “Moon River,” a 40 foot cocoon of life and love. The open ocean can feel unexpectedly intimate – a private backyard of endless horizons.

Compared to the ocean dwellers we are primitive pretenders, yet on human terms “Moon River” is a masterful boat, an example of the best American naval architecture, and we ourselves are no longer such clumsy mariners. Riding under scraps of sailcloth, we bend the heavens and seas to our will, or at least try, always steering east.

Distances mean little to us nowadays. In terms of our reserves of stamina and patience, 1,000 miles today has the feel of the old 100 miles. Indeed, were it not for the challenge of carrying enough food and water, we could sail on almost indefinitely.

At the start of our voyage, seasickness was a frequent companion for my three shipmates, but no more.  “Moon River’s” old puke buckets, those warhorses of many mal de mer sessions, sit idle, probably boring younger, untested buckets in the locker with tales of when it was tough.

Zephyr and Looli spend their ocean days in games that involve ever growing numbers of dolls, stuffed animals, miniature dolls, homemade clothes and props, expanding into every corner of “Moon River’s” cabin. The games are so complex that planning them and negotiating the roles of each character takes half a day in itself.

With that childish talent for mixing genres and moments, they move blithely from fantasies to schoolwork to chess marathons to arguing and crying to making up and laughing to rushing on deck to watch dolphins to nestling behind lee cloths with Kindles to listening, keen-eyed, as I read aloud from Sherlock Holmes, to falling asleep again as night falls, oblivious to waves pounding against the hull barely an inch thick.

Then there’s Adele, magical Adele, as one of our friends who came aboard for a visit in Madeira once called her.

 A year ago, Adele embarked from an almost sleepless existence in New York and was knocked flat by the exertions of the sea. Now – and never more than on this 2,800 mile 
crossing, she has become a true salt, as happy on the water as a bird in a tree. Living at sea can require physical strength – brute force comes in handy sometimes – but the demands are mostly on the spirit. And the daintiest seashell can be extremely tough.

Celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary over an Atlantic area with the ominous name Faraday Fracture Zone, I thought then, as I suspect I always will, how strange and brilliant the currents were that brought me and Adele together on a quite different sea of life over a decade ago – currents as strange and unpredictable and yet as strong, and in the end logical, as the intricate patterns that bind the oceans together.

Me, I suppose I’m become the old seadog I always had in me. The tip of my seatime beard has turned white, a gale force white. To Adele’s chagrin, my pre-existing barbaric tendencies, like eating directly from a cooking pot, have been dangerously reinforced. 

But it’s a fact: I’m happy at sea. I do well here. I like the directness, the authenticity. I like the poetry. And I like the fact that you have to be on your guard. The sea makes you dream, but with a hard edge to keep you honest. Bullshit, that great, numbing presence overshadowing existence ashore, doesn’t float.


After 21 days we make landfall. The cliffs of southwest Ireland rise imperiously from the horizon. I do a double take. For an instant I’m not sure what I’m looking at. Not a ship, not a whale, not a wave. Land. Land Ho! We all holler and whoop. Already I can smell the cut hay on the hills. The storied lighthouse on Fastnet Rock falls away to starboard. I furl the sails, fire up the engine, and edge gingerly past several small islands into the darkened harbor of Schull. Dropping anchor, we can hear drunken laughter from pubs in the village. We catch a deep whiff of cow dung. Ireland.

Our voyage is rapidly ending. Here in Schull, we will have a pint with one of our oldest and best of friends, then sail to England to catch up with more old shipmates, and finally to France. There “Moon River” will go up on land for a rest and I will put on shoes and return to work.

I know that days will come when all we have seen together as a family, as sailors, may seem worthless. The survival instinct developed over thousands of miles in the wild won’t be of much use behind a desk in Paris. What good the mastering of a sextant in this world of apps and instant results?  And when everyone and everything is rushing and jabbering, what good the ability to sit in silence, reading the sky and sea? Unwelcome questions will impose themselves.

Zephyr and Looli will soon rush back into their planet of urban childhood. Before long their carefree days of sleeping in bunks and playing on deck will feel passé, maybe even uncool. Adele and I will reenter the journalism culture, where what happened a second ago is all that matters.

And so, bit by bit, all that great language we learned, the language of the sea and boat and of the elemental forces governing all, will start to fade. I know. This is life.

On the other hand, the sea will always be there and “Moon River,” our very own rogue island, will wait for the call, and I know now that as soon as we are afloat we will always be free.

There's no doubt: old friends – the ones you can go back to, with no questions asked – they're always the best.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Seafaring friends everywhere. Photo credit: Adele "master photographer afloat" Smith. (As with all pictures on this blog, except the clunky ones.)

So the poor, shipwrecked blog is back, hauled from the deep, and for a while set safely ashore.

Even I can hardly believe the last entry dates to the deserted Roques islands off Venezuela. Since then, “Moon River” has taken us to Cartagena in Colombia, to the San Blas islands of Panama, up through the waters of the old Spanish Main and to Mexico, then the USA. We’ve swum with rays, drunk from coconut shells and failed to teach my father’s parrot in Mexico to say “pieces of eight.” We’ve eaten raw bonito, gazed at every star between the Southern Cross and Polaris, and when we got to Florida I went on alone, sailing 1,000 miles solo to New York, while Adele and the girls flew up to get some extra days of the high life in Manhattan.

But none of this makes the blog.

What will come up soon is a new entry on our crossing of the Atlantic from New York to Ireland, the final of three transatlantics in the last year. From Ireland, we’re heading around the corner to France, and there the adventure ends, or a new one begins – meaning me getting a pair of shoes and a tie and rejoining the working stiffs.

The rest will just have to live in blogger’s no man’s land. One day I will write more about this voyage, much more. I’ll write about all the things that there was no way to find out without having crossed an ocean, then crossed again and again. But, for now, this is it.

Sometimes you need to live before you write.

However, the best friends are the old ones and this blog is one of them – for me at least. I’ll be back soon with a good ‘un.

Watch this space…

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


It’s a funny thing, but the places where we’ve been most lost – technically lost – have also been where we’ve felt most at home.

This is what I mean by technically lost.

Entrance to River Casamance, Senegal

Nautical charts look incredibly accurate and in places like Europe and the United States they are. Surprisingly large areas of the world, however, are covered by charts surveyed at best 50 years ago, sometimes much further back, and no one has bothered to update or check them since – there just isn’t the money in it.

That picture is a shot of an electronic chart we used to enter the River Casamance, a major waterway in Senegal, West Africa. Electronic charts may look even more convincing than the old fashioned paper ones, but they’re based on the same information gathered decades or even a century ago by chaps with sextants and lead and lines.

On this screen grab, the brown bits are supposed to be land and blue the water. But check the red line dipping down – that's an actual route taken by a boat, recorded on the GPS, and passed on to us to help us enter. That's the route you, we, have to follow.  In other words, you have to cross what is meant to be land in order not to hit land (and as we found out there’s an awful lot of land in the entrance to the River Casamance, much of it in shipwreck mode two or three feet under muddy water.)

Keep following that red line down and you'll notice it enters an area neither blue nor brown, but grey -- grey as in not charted, although in reality a wonderful stretch of African river lined by palm trees and small thatched-roof settlements.

Of course, we also had a paper chart for the Casamance, a splendid British Admiralty production. But this turned out to contain chunks of fiction, the kind of stuff that might have been collated by a malaria-wracked explorer.

Actually, here you can just see a square overlay where an Admiralty chart agent has devotedly tried to update the previously false chart by gluing a corrected snippet in place. Inevitably, even the correction was totally wrong in certain spots.

It’s a similar story for Los Roques, the fragile and bewitching islands where we have just come from on our way between Venezuela and Colombia.

This is a chart based on a survey by the U.S.S. Hannibal in 1939 and 1940 and that big blank white area in the middle is, well, a big blank area. It’s hard to read in the picture (the chart got a lot of use in the sun and salt), but what the chart says, honestly enough, is: “Unsurveyed – numerous coral heads and submerged reefs.”

That white patch covers the majority of the Roques archipelago. Tabula rasa. I love it!

Obviously, you just avoid those mysterious white areas when you have a keel boat. But even to thread through the reefs surrounding the relatively well-surveyed island of Tres Palmeras, where we swam with turtles and dove for conch, we had to follow distinctly old world instructions: line up the island’s palm trees with your compass at 60 degrees and hold this course until reaching deep water.

There are only two palm trees on the island, despite the name Tres Palmeras. What happened to the third member of this spindly trinity is not clear. To confuse matters more, the nautical chart asserts with almost comical assurance: “lone palm.”

For now, the handiwork of those American naval surveyors remains the main source of information for Los Roques. When I asked a local skipper about the accuracy of my chart, which like all charts of a certain vintage gives depths in fathoms rather than meters or feet, he laughed.

“We call them phantoms, not fathoms. Rely on what you see, not what’s written here." Often the best advice.

Of course nothing beats the Sargasso Sea for sheer off-the-mapness. “This area of weed has given rise to many stories of ships trapped in it and unable to make their way out, a belief prevalent among many seamen of older days but finally disproved,” notes the “Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea.”

Here is a sea with no land around it. The border – and there is one – is invisible, a question of water salinity and temperature, as well as the ever shifting presence of those floating weed patches. No one owns the Sargasso, no one fully understands its secrets, and ultimately no one can stay there for very long. It’s a destination with no destination.

But what these three places have in common, other than wavering coordinates, is they have all so far escaped mankind’s worst depredations and in all of them we found unexpected grace –glimpses, perhaps, of the world as it was meant to be.

In Los Roques, where pre-Colombian shamans once came for secret ceremonies of fire, tobacco, conch, and worship, we were like time travelers.

Above water we were surrounded by inhabited islands. The sky filled with frigate birds and boobies. Below water, a wonderworld awaited. Adele, Zephyr and Looli were Alices, totally foreign, yet invited in. OK, so I was an Alice too, a cross-dressing subaqua Alice paddling from coral chess game to parrot fish tea party.

We continued our lazy, lonely voyage in nearby islands called Los Aves which also belong to Venezuela and are even wilder. For days we saw no one. Sometimes the silence, or rather the lack of human noise, was so intense that we ourselves were hushed. When we swam we felt half-fish and when we slept we dreamed of underwater gardens. The day we sailed away I felt the wrench in my heart of having to leave one I loved.

These are the places where I want to be. These are the places we spend most energy reaching. But they’re also the places, in one way or another, where we know even before arriving that we will soon have to leave. Sargasso, Africa, Aves – these are unmapped, floating figments, will o’wisps. They’re for us and not for us. Always drifting off the map. Arriving, leaving. Lost and found.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


I’ve always been fascinated by that phrase ‘lost at sea,’ the opening line on so many memorial stones in old seafaring communities. Lost is just a synonym for died, but evokes so much more. It doesn’t say you’ve been crushed, burned, shot, drowned, or had a heart attack. Any of those things may have happened. But what matters is that you disappeared, all traces erased.

In a world of hard drives, online histories, YouTube re-runs and surgical inventions to cheat ageing, the very concept of disappearing seems incredible, the stuff of science (or children’s) fiction.

Yet here in the jungle-covered island of Dominica a great disappearance, a mass vanishing act, is taking place under our very eyes.

When Christopher Columbus stumbled across the Caribbean half a millennium ago, Dominica and the other coral-bound islands were inhabited not by Indians or Japanese, as he and other Europeans insisted. The people living here were largely Kalinagos and Arawaks, seafaring relatives of the tribes living along the rivers of the South American mainland.

Columbus and those in his wake set about saving these “Indian” souls and, in a historical blink of the eye, wiped them out. Steel, bullets, enslavement, and diseases like smallpox felled otherwise hardy people; the tender mercies of civilization and education ground down the survivors.

Almost no Kalinagos (whom the colonizers called Caribs) or Arawaks remain in the Caribbean today. Their genes, mixed with others, persist in many individuals. Their Latin American branch still thrives. But as Caribbean peoples, the natives whose forefathers conquered these rough waters in open boats and witnessed that first arrival of Columbus’ caravels have gone. Obliterated. Lost at sea.

The final community of Kalinagos, some 3,000 people, clings on in Dominica -- crumpled, waterfall-fed, jungle-tangled Dominica, where we secured “Moon River” to a mooring on the tiny shallow shelf between the coast and plunging, volcanic sea.

Chief of a lost people

The road to the Carib Territory writhes across the island’s steep hills, passing village upon village of the descendants of African slaves who by accident of history have come to inherit and rule the Caribbean. The startling sight of people with Asian, indeed sometimes almost Japanese, features is the first clue that you have arrived in the reserve – and the fact there are so few of them an immediate indication of the tragedy that has taken place.

Meeting us in a quiet (rather too quiet) office, Chief Garnett Joseph was unable to hide his foreboding.

The Kalinago language has effectively died out, the reserve’s 3,782 acres are too small to be anything more than a territorial afterthought, and with intermarriage and cultural assimilation apparently unstoppable, the core of Kalinagoness has faded to deathly grey.

“We’ve got to reserve some trends,” the chief said. “Otherwise, we’re going to be swept away in a tide of nothingness.”

The meaning of what it is to be a Kalinago was never terribly clear to their European enslavers or, sometimes, their dominating Afro-Caribbean neighbors.

They left no buildings of note, wrote no books, and traditionally wore few clothes. The appalled white man felt little compunction in treating the inhabitants of his newly collected islands as at best a commodity. He renamed them Caribs, from which the word cannibal derives, and when the Kalinagos resisted, as they sometimes fiercely did, their extermination seemed no more immoral than the blasting of natural obstacles impeding new settlements.

Kalinago richness was beyond the understanding of the conquerors. For Kalinagos, their great universities were the tropical forests, where every leaf, branch and root was a book, a story, a solution. Their churches were the trees, stones and waves. Their souls struggled and soared just as any white or African soul, yet they struggled and soared in tobacco-wreathed shamanic rituals that no foreigner – too busy creating his “new” world – had time to comprehend.

A little of the old wisdom survives in Alina, an alert and bright-eyed 73-year-old Kalinago woman we met. She lives with her aged husband in a compound that featured a tiny two-room house and a hut with a kitchen, yet where the garden is the real focus. Here, high on a hill over the churning ocean, Alina grows coconut, taro, dashin, yam, mango, passion fruit, cocoa, coffee, calabash, banana, sugar cane…

All the produce of your supermarket fruit aisle grows within hand's reach around Alina, yet even greater rewards are found in the discreet roots, leaves and weeds of herbal medicine. The vinegary smell from a pot on the fire when we arrived was the result of boiling ginger, carpenter grass, bay leaf, yams and other ingredients from the jungle: a potion to cure stomachache afflicting Alina’s sister.

Alina's husband makes medicine

A cure, but not for their real problems

Knowledge of the forest’s secrets is the lore that has bound Kalinagos for centuries. Chief Joseph suggested that such knowledge could be the foundation for his people’s rebirth in the modern world, turning the reserve into a “center for health and wellbeing.” He wants the Kalinago basket weaving business – their main source of tourist dollars – to produce “not just souvenirs but to develop things that have practical use in the home.”

In other words, Chief Joseph wants the Kalinagos to matter to the outside world.

The problem is that the outside world has already drowned out his cry.

Kimberly Daroux, 23, is one of the Kalinago youths staying behind in the territory to help her old folk, rather than emigrating. But the battle is already lost, she said.

“Young people are not really interested in the traditional things, traditional crafts. They want fast things,” she said, holding her Afro-Carib toddler daughter on her knee. “The Carib chiefs didn’t want the races mixing, but our population is very small so I don’t think that’s possible. You’d have incest.”

“The only thing that keeps us Kalinago is our grandparents’ generation,” she said.

Children of the earth, air and sea, Kalinago elders like Alina are remarkably spry. Her mother lived to 104.

But the terrible sickness of history is claiming the last of them now. And there’s no medicine man to call for that.

The Kalinagos' future -- but there aren't many

Monday, February 3, 2014


I’m in English Harbor, Antigua, after our Atlantic crossing, and mindful of ghosts: under the palm trees, along the wooden balconies of colonial buildings, between the mangroves.

The tourist guides say English Harbor is the world’s only working naval port from the Georgian era, preserved as it was during Britain’s long conflict with France. And it’s true, the buildings where Horatio Nelson and thousands of his countrymen were stationed remain intact – even if put to rather different uses.

Where the great ships' sails were repaired, you now drink pricey rum; there's a beauty salon and wine bar in the cramped officers' quarters. What hasn't changed at all is that your anchor digs right into the same mud where tree sized anchors of the Royal Navy once dropped. Indeed, modern anchors not infrequently become entangled with remnants of chains and other artifacts from those days of maritime empire.

English Harbour looks quaint now, at times elegant, at times like a film set. Yet this port was originally built for war, a stern place and in the 18th century so ridden with malaria and other tropical diseases that sailors sent here from across the Atlantic died often without setting eyes on the enemy. But even cannons eventually become picturesque. Imagine the tourists crawling over an American base (Guantanamo or Okinawa might be the closest matches) in 200 years? The ghosts could already be gathering.

Tying “Moon River” to the old stone quay here was to tie also into history of my own that I had almost forgotten, or not forgotten, but put away, unloved, yet preserved all the same.

Sometimes it seems that we live several lives, moving on, reinventing, and yet at the same time never really outrunning ourselves. We shed much, but, voluntarily or not, carry bits of what happened, even if only a shadow -- perhaps the reason why we're rarely as much in control as we like to pretend. "I am a part of all that I have met," Tennyson wrote.

Certainly I've come to Antigua on my terms: as a father in my own boat, thousands of miles into a voyage construed from my own dreams, financed with my pennies, made with the woman I love, who is my fate, and with two children who are to us what rain is to the cloud. My world might appear well defined.

Yet another boat and very different me once moored at this same stone dock.

I was 16. I was on holiday from school in England and joining my father on his yacht, far bigger than “Moon River,” which he based in Antigua. I’d already been several times to the boat, either here or in other ports, each time showing up with my latest poor school reports, well-hidden cigarettes and ocean of teenage rage.

But this time, something was different. We had a guest on board: my sister.

Natasha and I hadn't seen each other since we were small children. We hadn't talked to each other, written to each other. We hadn't lived in the same country. Now, after a decade, in this Caribbean paradise, aboard this beautiful boat, we were being reunited.

Whatever extraordinary emotions, whatever tumbling of internal walls or awakening of dreams that may have occurred in those days, everything was filtered and obscured, as ever, through the deadening fog of my teenage mind.

I’d very much like to say, or at least think, that this meeting with Natasha was magical, or moving, or life-changing. You know, one of those Hollywood scenes with the swelling music.

Yet I didn’t feel this. Or didn’t want to. Or didn’t let myself.

What I felt more than anything was something like surprise: that this grown up girl – she had just turned 21 – really was my sister. The last time we'd been together she'd been about 11 and I about six (way back in another of those previous lives). So now she seemed unreal, yet real, already something like a particularly vivid ghost.

Uncertain what to do, I made sure I didn't appear to care. I suspect her approach was about the same. We simply existed in the moment. We went to a beach together. We walked about the shops. The crew on my dad’s beautiful boat took us snorkeling and so on.

For sure, we never talked about the past, never raised the subject. Most of that time in Antigua she was an abstraction to me, a person I might find on any boat in the Caribbean: that girl in the bikini, the girl in the hammock, the girl enjoying paradise. Not my lost sister.

Natasha was beautiful. She was tanned and smooth. A raging, boys-school teenager, I genuinely enjoyed the glamour of walking around with a girl – a real, proper girl. Really, that was probably the principal emotion I had, or let myself have: a self-congratulatory realization that my sister was beautiful.

I hardly remember anything we said to each other. We definitely never had that talk. I know that. But I also know there were moments when we caught each other’s eyes, Natasha and I, and that then we didn't speak because we couldn’t speak. Then we weren’t in paradise at all. We weren’t in one of those gaudy bars that the sailors went to; we weren’t on the dazzling beach; we weren’t on the sunbaked deck of our father’s beautiful boat. We were in some kind of abyss then, too far under to know which way was up, which down. Not an easy place, perhaps, but real and rare. I never realized how lucky I was.

Natasha’s visit to the Caribbean lasted a week or two, just like any ordinary holiday. It seems the reunion wasn’t a success. She flew back to our mother. I never saw her alive again.

Thirty years later, returning to English Harbour, I found myself looking for Natasha's ghost -- whether out of fear (a nervous look over my shoulder) or curiosity, I wasn't sure.

My quarry was elusive. Fact is, there’s literally only one place in English Harbour – an undistinguished stretch of road outside the gates – where I can remember precisely that I was with her.

Hard as I try, I can't even recall the spot where we'd said goodbye. She must have taken a taxi for the airport when she left. Had we gone with her? Did I kiss her on the cheek? Did we hug? Did we promise to write? Did we cry, smile, joke? Where exactly did I see her for the last time? I have absolutely no idea.

Frustrated, I searched for clues online (where else does the modern ghost hunter go?), discovering against all expectations that the professional skipper of my dad’s boat in those days is still around on the island. He’s become a painter. Plucking up courage, I went to see him, rowing "Moon River's" dinghy to the end of a mangrove-lined cove, and working my way to the road. Up the hot hill I walked. What would we even talk about? Would that summer with Natasha come up, or would it be just pleasantries? I found the place. But his neighbors told me he'd left, gone to England for several weeks -- far beyond the time I could spend waiting in Antigua. My heart pounded. What was the Greek god of anticlimax?

Despite all the heritage preservation, English Harbour has changed dramatically in the last three decades. Superyachts the likes of which were barely contemplated in the 1980s lie crammed into the old haven like rows of cars. Falmouth Harbour, once the down-at-heel extension of English Harbour, is even flashier. It was here that I now took my search.

On a hot, squally afternoon, I walked along the bay, uselessly trying to conjure the wilder 1980s, when I'd take out my rage on a windsurfer every day, tearing back and forth across the tropical water, hour after hour. Now superyachts swamp the landscape, enormous, opulent machines designed largely to make rich, old men happy. There's no room for a lonely kid on a board today.

But I remembered a rasta fisherman who used to operate from Falmouth back in the day. He'd had a shack by the roadside with a handpainted sign outside that said: "POWER, FISH, ICE."

My dad and I always loved that sign. The rasta was a big, fit man, impressive on his own terms. But the sign, crudely drawn, lent him an elemental quality in our eyes. On an island with an economy dedicated to doling out luxury and frivolity, the rasta (we decided) was a wilderness philosopher, a kind of tropical demi-god who mastered wild things in the sea, who combated the sun with ice, and in some Delphic way wielded power -- not just because he had a generator or stocks of car batteries in that shack.

Memory of the sign and its dreadlocked master became my totem now. The rasta was my link to the past. Not just to the past of Antigua, but to that other life of mine, and of my small family.

Still, the simple huts once lining Falmouth have been upgraded and yet again my search seemed doomed. Certainly I was never going to find that old sign. Back and forth I walked, remembering conversations with my dad, the crafty cigarettes I had in the bushes, the crackling Caribbean stars so different to what I knew in England, and the constant gnawing feeling of having been brought to a place where everything was perfect, but where what I really wanted would never be possible.

Suddenly between a small wooden house and a small food shop I recognized the spot. The shack was gone. The sign too. But the shape of the land, the rim of the road, maybe even the angle of the afternoon sun, merged, laser-like, so that I was sure immediately, beyond doubt. And on that spot stood a rasta – not young; about the right age in fact. He was washing a car.

The moment the rasta turned I knew he wasn’t the same man, but that did not matter. The past rushed in. "Power, fish, ice," I said. "Know what I mean? There was a sign with just those words on it. Another rasta, a fisherman... Big fellow..."

The passwords: Power. Fish. Ice.

The rasta began to mumble and it was only then I realized he had a speech defect and clearly other ailments, a man in suffering. Power. Fish. Ice. I kept repeating my question in slightly different forms until his answers stitched themselves together.

"Yes it was here," the rasta said. “That was my brother. He’s gone.”

“Gone where?”

“Gone, gone. Disappeared in the sea.”

I said I was sorry. The rasta put his hand out to shake.



Maybe I understood him, maybe not entirely. Can you ever understand ghosts?

About 15 years after Natasha came to see us in Antigua, I was at work in London when I got an email saying she had died. She drowned in the swimming pool at the end of my mother’s garden in South Africa.

I didn't know how to mourn for someone who had already vanished long before. I learned. Then I took the plane to my mother’s distant home for the funeral.

When it was time, I was the one who went to collect the ashes. The drive took me into a treeless, gritty Cape Town neighborhood far from the verdant garden (and fatal swimming pool) of my mother’s heavily guarded house. In a dim room, the undertaker gave me a box. To my horror – but also, I have to admit, my perverse interest – he hadn’t closed the lid properly and a light, yet distinct puff of my sister's ashes wafted up onto my hands: our first connection, you could say, in many years.

All my life the childhood ghost of Natasha had haunted me, the one from before we were separated, the ghost of my older sister in pigtails and riding clothes. Among the ashes, I met another, this wraith in a box.

And now that I am back in Antigua, typing this under a mango tree, I realize at last that I have found the third, a ghost to complete the puzzle, a ghost I can call up in the blackest tropical night -- the ghost of Natasha at 21, Natasha when she was right here with me, the numbskull, raging teenager. Natasha who vanished, who was reunited with me, vanished again, and now in some sense has returned.

I became angry (angrier!) in the wake of those unhappy holidays. Angry that I'd let everything precious slide from my hands. That I'd had no idea. Clueless. That I'd barely risen above that single thought: “Wow, she’s beautiful.”  No big chat, no rebuilding, or building, or any sort of construction whatsoever. Not even an exchange of mementos when we said farewell. Just rage and through the rage my banal, vain delight that this mysterious sibling was beautiful.

That anger's over now. Watching another rum punch sunset fade to nothing, watching ten and eight-year old Zephyr and Looli scamper around English Harbour, creating their own lives, I realize I can't change what happened 30 years ago. Besides, beating yourself up is, by definition, a battle you'll lose.

I've learned a lesson in coming back to Antigua. Learned that you can't argue with ghosts. You really can't. That you have to take them as they are. So I will.

Yes, let me say it.

Natasha: you were beautiful.