It was a horrid crossing. I set off from the Cape Verde Islands, just me and my cat, she mewling plaintively and me, well, wondering what the hell I was doing, crossing the Atlantic at my age, 68, alone, in a 33 year old boat whose engine’s chief characteristic was a habit of dying. Worse, I had a time-schedule to meet. My friend, Virginia, was flying out from the UK to meet me, to spend Christmas with me in Trinidad.
First, there was no wind and progress was nail-bitingly slow. Also, I was fearful I might run down a lone rower, who had set off a day or two before me. Then, when there was wind, exhaustion was the name of the game. I fought endless battles with my cruising chute and the pole. At one time the chute wound itself around me and panic was beginning to grip me. I thought I would arrive on some Caribbean shore, mummified inside the chute. Of course, my knife wasn’t in my pocket. You know the one, that knife every sailor always, but always, carries?
Then there were the squalls and the thunderstorms. They varied from alarming to terrifying, especially at night.
Worst was the rolling. I would lie on my bunk with the lee-cloth up, hanging onto that with my left hand and clinging onto a rope I had rigged above the bunk with my right hand. Inside my skin, I could feel my skeleton rolling. When my cat, Alicia, lay on my chest, I could feel her skeleton rolling inside her skin too, so I knew I wasn’t imagining it and going mad.
And as for my ability to catch fish: non-existent. Not quite true, actually: the one I did catch she wouldn’t eat, it was something gelatinous and she dragged it into her litter tray!
Christmas grew nearer, faster than Trinidad did, and Virginia was due in on the 23rd. I wore my poor little brain to a frazzle, doing endless sums, trying to work out if I would, if I could, make it.
Then, just as I turned south into the Boca, knowing with a fierce joy I had made it, my engine died. I was used to this scenario, and in the swirly, fierce Boca currents, I emptied the quarter berth and crammed myself into the engine space to do battle with the beastly thing. Finally, it fired up: I arrived in Chaguaramas exhausted and definitely slimmer, drenched in a sudden downpour, but just in time to greet Virginia. The race against time was won.
And, I got a prize for my race. The colours, the vivid life, the flowers, the scents, the sounds, the jungle, the butterflies, the kiskadee calling birds. I’ll stop here, but, truly, I could fill pages. I was overwhelmed by the tropics.
To celebrate, we three – Virginia, Alicia the cat, and I – took ourselves off to the beautiful bay of Chacachacare. Dropped the hook, uncorked the champagne, and sitting on the coach roof in the dark, we were shocked into silence. At first we did not know what we were seeing. A huge display of tiny, incessant, twinkling lights. Ah, the penny dropped. I remembered I’d read about fireflies, and there they were, shooting off their sparks, especially for us, two old ladies from The Grey Country (Britain!), where such a display is unknown. Pure magic: the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end!
Or rather, at the end of The Race against Time.