The Spanish used to call Lignumvitae Key ‘Cayo De Leńa’ - firewood key. I was a sea pilgrim, enchanted by its name and the fact it was home to these mythical hardwoods. We never quite made it there. The day was grey and flat when we set sail and I could smell the island from a distance over the usual sea smell. It didn’t smell of America. It smelled of old magic, like turkish delight, cedar furniture and the tobacconists on Terrace Road - with an arid pepperiness that now reminds me of hot pavements in Santa Marta. It lies at the north end of the Conch Republic, with its skeleton railroad, languishing African Queen and sudden squalls that could blow you off this end of the earth. A squall blew up, and the bluegreen promise of the island and our planned mooring ball disappeared in a fierce white-out of sea spray, horizontal rain and our spat shouting as we bumped and scraped along slippery decks to douse sails. We were swept away and had to continue on - not to set foot. I feel banished like an apple eater.
Boat yard life is hard. A non changeable flight and limited budget means we are racing the clock from the moment we arrive. The boat has stayed in an overgrown backlot on the hard since we returned from Mexico 6 years ago and has developed her own ecosystem of mud daubers and mahogany melting mould. We turn feral, scrubbing, sanding and grinding her hull and decks back to life. We don't have a working kitchen or fridge so head out to eat one junk meal a day when it gets dark, like hungry wolves and sustain ourselves with uht milk tea from dawn til dusk. Water's sneaked into the ferro cement in places so precious days are lost researching and then sourcing the best epoxy system to make repairs - the one we had used a decade ago has since been banned by the FDA and is only available in Australia.
We are under the trees and it's brain boilingly hot and humid. Blase after acclimatising to living without aircon in Uganda we hadn’t realised it was going to be this unworkably hot. The heat builds over days into a crescendo of day-dark thunderstorms. We get on, and get on - laughing at ourselves in this joined-at-the-hip, every waking hour, mad-dog mission but over boil into screaming fights about whose body hurts the most and who's worked the hardest, usually on a day when our hurtling pace has been stymied by a newly discovered piece of rot - a new problem to overcome within our dwindling timetable.
On some days I set a timer for every hour and a half so that we remember to pause our power tools, peel off our Darth Vader masks and glug some water from a gallon bottle. Sweat quickly runs off any repellent and mosquitos gleefully bite every patch of exposed skin - I am dotted in toothpaste at night to quell the itching. Despite wearing masks and surgical gloves the chemical cocktail of mineral spirits, bottom paint and acetone builds up and leaves a metallic taste in my mouth and an ache in my kidneys. My hands and feet are black with ingrained yard grime and chin spotty with general lack of wholesomeness . But the heat and the work makes me feel stretched out, lean and in action. Between the grime and discomfort, the simplest pleasures are vivid and precious. Clean t-shirt - cold beer - post powertool peace.
Wild life gives slipped glimpses of why we are bothering. A garter snake slithers by, and one morning the door is covered in a squirming mass of catalpa caterpillars. The trees which laughingly shake their leaves onto freshly painted decks make gentle shade and waltzing, bowing shadows. Tea drank outside in the expectant and slow moving still of the morning sees squirrels and red breast birds and groundhogs scampering, hopping and bumbling around.
Other boat owners who are working on their boats are warm, supportive and fraternal, they drop by and tell us technical and gritty tales of working the shrimp boats in Louisiana and a contract to scrub the government steam tunnels in DC. Sometimes a rolling, laughing conversation is tumbleweeded by a wide chasm in political and cultural accord and I put on breathy podcasts about love and progressive politics as a kind of softpower phone speaker whispering campaign, but power tools are loud and we're running low on data.
I look up from sanding the decks or the hull and catch shimmering moments of things I want to get down on paper. I have an itching inventory of scenes, the neighbouring pilot house rotting without its hull that looks like it’s bottom half is in the underworld - complete with shiny sad fog horns, the ‘what is he building in there’ near-blind block building with the unravelling ribbon gates and spools of video tape in its front yard, the Dundalk community allotment under the pylons with its defiant swaying giant sunflowers.
We grab some good time away from the yard, an afternoon with Tiel and Meredith sailing their boat that was recently resurrected from the same yard. A quaker meeting with its yellow wild flower centrepiece and beardy solemn-smiled impeachment campaigners. The hour before closing gulping in the Matisses at the art museum. A couple of weekends down at Matthew’s red house haven on the Eastern shore, me drawing all day and sprawling like cats in front of a night screening of The Big Blue.
Back to the yard and our fraying schedule. We put on our overalls and they quickly turn black as we smack-brush the copper heavy antifoul onto the hull. We lie on our backs to reach her underside and disturb the finger sized crickets that are hiding in the cool underboat shade. I think about not thinking about the necrotic brown recluses when my hand is reaching up into the cobwebby drop keel.
There’s a lot of groaning and creaking as with days to spare she’s slung up and away from her stands in the boat lift and it seems as thought the trees in the backlot won’t let her go. They’ve grown around her during our long absence and she brings a snapped branch of leaves in her rigging to the the water’s edge. We stay in the slings of the travel lift but afloat in the water while we check the thru hulls are watertight and bilges are dry. There’s an alarming sweary moment when Rupert realises we should have tightened the prop bellows down harder as Chesapeake water trickles in but he soon tightens it and slings released, Sandpiper is splashed. Back in her element. I wake up early to sit out on deck with my tea, to marvel at how different she feels now she’s back in the water.
I spent my childhood in an old 17th century Welsh farmhouse. The house name translated as 'the little gap of the woods' and it was thick walled with big fat beamed ceilings, spindly sash windows and river-cool, night-sky-coloured slate floors.
It was in the country and in the eighties. Weekends, after schools and holidays were spent with my friends fearlessly clambering over barbed wire fences and the country-code ends of gates roaming the rumpled patchwork quilt of fields that surrounded our home. We were free-range, mud splattered and feral. Our only boundaries being 'to be back for supper' and to avoid straying into bulls, vicious dogs or red-faced, shouting farmers. Since most of the farmers were friendly sheep farmers we were pretty boundless.
Our roaming territory expanded as we got older and we would come across long-abandoned houses. Wandering into their musty hallways we'd scare ourselves and any sheep that had wondered in to take shelter. Owls would clatter out of the roof-eaves in a big white heart-stopping flurry of fright.
I became fascinated by the flotsam that was left in these places. We'd find yellowing, oft-thumbed pictures of fifties lingerie models blocking the draughts in the ty bach (outhouse) of old bachelor farmer's houses and false teeth left on dressing tables. The undisturbed blanket of dust, ceiling rubble and mouse-bone filled owl scat breaking the momentary illusion that someone might still be living there. Garments on the backs of bedroom doors and lumpen unmade beds would hold the shape of the person who had worn them and had lain there.
Nature would be creeping in through the smashed windows and storm rampaged roofs but no matter how ransacked, long un-lived-in and unloved these places were, they never felt completely empty. Our high pitched, self conscious teenage voices would hush to a low, respectful murmur as we trod through the peeling apart rooms and climbed the stairs, careful to stand on the joists so as not to put a foot through a rotten stair tread.
Our parents had come to Wales in the seventies to live a Thoreau inspired idyllic life. They'd rent dank near-ruins that the local farmers had happily left for the practical, sensible comfort of ugly but warm modern housing. With dripping noses and rosy cheeks the hippy families would sweep chimneys and dig out the back of these crumbling old houses and little objects would be found - too cleverly hidden to be domestic detritus. These objects would be carefully left in place by the newcomers, somehow aware of their power and the stories and spirits of this place they were only just discovering. The enduring power of talismanic objects that protect the home.
I wrote this two summers ago upon returning from a sailing voyage to Cuba and Mexico
Keeping watch, I'm hand-helming because our auto helm doesn't like this swell. Skipper Rupert is down below making the ever bolstering tea, or snoozing on deck, off-watch... a blanket over his head to block out the scalding hot-bath heat of the Caribbean sun. Dew settles on us at dusk and our nearly-naked boat clothing gets hastily swapped for warm neck hugging boat jackets and dungarees. Things are out of proportion at sea, or is it that they are in perspective? I'm never quite sure, certainly the effect of no longer having land in sight does something to the psyche. The expanse, and the quiet is a better, more relevant version of a frankincense shadowed church, it makes me muse over and pray for the people in my life, obscure domestic memories suddenly rolling in like a set of waves.
A grey shadow puppet of a great freighter on the port beam horizon shatters this meditation as we try to work out if we are going to hit or miss them. They come from any direction on the horizon, their massive churning engines propelling them and their boxy cargo through the fast lanes of the sea, I look around every ten minutes for them. If they come close, and it's daylight then they're beautiful in a fat aunty kind of way, flagged out of some weird foreign port to avoid insurance, or is it taxes? The containers they carry look as innocent as lego in the distance, and then they're gone, as quickly as they came, soon only transparent shadows against the horizon again. At night it is harder because they are only pinpricks of light, international maritime codes signalling their size, course and position, once you've squinted long enough to establish what light is where and what colour it is with your watch-tired eyes.
It's not these metal monsters of commerce but rather the power of rare sightings of nature on this indigo two mile deep sea that stop it from being lonely. Passage making between two countries our path is crossed in the late afternoon by a pair of the purest white birds, they fly between the mizzen and the main mast as though they are dodging traffic and carry on their migration northwards, they dazzle me with their determined course and I feel like cheering. The next morning, startling splashes, like hot fat in a frying pan, surprise the oily swell as with triumphant punches muscular, long fish avoid their pursuers by bending into the light for a moment. Flying fish confuse me at first, I think they are birds, they are more delicate and shimmering than the sea splashers, they skim over the waves more out of the water than in, such beautiful fish. Each sighting is like a gift from this big sea that I am so very, a-little-bit scared of. I feel like offering a lift to the labouring tiny paper-cut out of a swallow that flies with us for a little but our course is slightly different so soon it is gone. The bluebottle jellyfish purses that skim past us are hideously clever masterpieces of natural, almost extra-terrestrial design.
Closer to land we have to look out for man-made obstacles and the tell tale boat-breaking, breaking waves on reefs. On the North coast of Cuba, nets and pots are marked by the fishermen by tiny little plastic drinking bottles and could easily get caught in a prop as we tend to motor-sail in and out of the reef passes. As we were leaving Bahia Honda, the oddest and loveliest bird of prey came to scope us out. He alighted on one of the starboard main shrouds for a little. He was tawny brown with indescribable detail, and a London boxer's flat face, flat beaked and big eyed, almost like an owl, but definitely a day time hunter. Yes, passage making is a special and unique experience, I already choose to forget the harder bits.