A storm in the Bermuda Triangle in February 2013

A tall ship lists to starboard during a storm in the Bermuda Triangle

A tall ship lists to starboard during a storm in the Bermuda Triangle

It would have been almost impossible to sail in the Atlantic in February without encountering some bad weather and we had to deal with our first storm on the 17/18th February, as we passed through the Bermuda Triangle.

After a couple of weeks sailing around the islands of the southern Caribbean it was time to start the long journey back to the UK. At first we remained with the calm we were used to and could be on deck at four in the morning in shorts and t-shirts, so benign was the weather.

But this couldn’t last. Heading north, especially at this time of year (it was the middle of February and that’s still the winter in the northern hemisphere) we were bound to hit something different. And on the 17th we did. We had been motoring along, getting no assistance from the wind, when we bumped into a gale, the bottom end of a system that had been dumping a lot of snow along the eastern seaboard of the United States and creating havoc in the seas to the north.

It was the first storm of the journey (we were to have 4 or 5 more before the end) so for those of us not used to sailing it was the first opportunity to see what the sea can do when it’s angry.

One thing I was to learn very quickly was that it’s difficult to capture, either with video or still camera, the sensation of a storm on a boat. The vessel responds to the waves in the way that it has been designed to do, which is amazingly well. The swell might be mountainous but the dance that the ship does to keep itself afloat seems to mitigate the storm’s force.

If you think about it, all the images you might have seen in films (which in themselves are a false reality) of storms, that make you wonder how the ship can survive, are taken off and away from the vessel itself. The small ship gets dwarfed by the huge, killer waves, but you only get that perspective from a distance which is impossible to capture if you are on board. In the middle of the Atlantic there’s no one out there to take pictures of your progress. The element of threat and danger in a film is created on board by someone throwing buckets of water at the cast, trying to give the impression that the sea wants to invade the man-made environment. But I learnt during the storm of the 17th – 18th February that the reality is somewhat different.

And recent technology goes against you when you want to capture the ominous colour of the water. I now know that digital cameras like blue and those black, threatening waves take on a less threatening aspect through a camera lens.

If you want to get a very short (only 30 seconds of a 30 hour storm) impression of what it was like click here for a link to a video I posted on YouTube.

Main Watch during the Bermuda Triangle storm in March 2013

Main Watch during the Bermuda Triangle storm in March 2013

FORECAST

Shipping Forecast issued at 06.00 UCT, 17th February 2013

General Synopsis: Bad news

Sea Area: Bermuda Triangle

Wind Direction: All the wrong way

Wind Speed: 35 knots, gusting to 50, Gale Force 8 to 9

Visibility: 8 miles – though nothing to see but sea

Precipitation: Nil – we hope

Chances of Mysterious Disappearance: Low to non-existent

Barry Manilow: Severe

The port side of a tall ship during a storm in the Bermuda Triangle

The port side of a tall ship during a storm in the Bermuda Triangle

SOUND

ventilators’ whistle and hum drowned by the ominous wind’s howl

foaming and fizzing sea, impassive still, uncaring, truly the cruel sea

breaking waves splash on deck, buckets of seawater elicit curses from the drenched

flapping, snapping, cracking sails indicate the wrong sort of wind

squeaking, straining ropes on clunking pulleys fight against the elements

grating of the bearings on the helm tell of the effort needed this day

no talking, gales kill the art of conversation, apart from nervous banter

ship’s bell, tolling for us all, so no need to ask

thump of the ship’s bow into sea and the clank of the loose anchor against the ship’s side

radio transmission of May Day calls, one Canadian fishing vessel lost a thousand miles away

below galley utensils play an impromptu symphony

plastic cups clatter in their purpose made niches trying to escape

in cabins restless tossing and turning replaces snoring

prayers being said in muted tones, atheists finding faith too late

The bow crashes into the waves

The bow crashes into the waves

LIGHT

ship’s lights, white, red and green, tell others what and where we are

grey turns to red on the heading indicator, hypnotising the helm after half an hour

lights in the wheelhouse, white for the log, red for the night

below decks portholes illuminate the foam

red lamp for port reflects momentarily on the spray, indicating danger?

the eerie green on the starboard side reminds us of the unworldly nature of the journey

high white mast light says we’re a vessel under power, sad admission for a sailing ship

moonlight, young first quarter, weak, red, low, short duration, shrouded in clouds – sometimes

pools of stars amongst the clouds, faint, their serenity belies the storm below

beyond the rails the dark abyss of the deep

torch to read temperature, hourly ritual unaffected by the storm

red flashing warning light, but it’s a false alarm, only the bilge

dark apparitions, reminiscent of Carpenter’s Fog, with their slow, unnatural gait, indicate the end is near

 

time for bed, to sleep, perchance to dream (or lie in the cold, wet arms of a nightmare)

 

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The start of the day on a tall ship?

Cabin 10 en suite bathroom

Cabin 10 en suite bathroom

Everyday activities that we take for granted take on a different dimension when attempted on a tall ship. The mundane becomes a major task, needing care, thought, consideration, and a very great deal of luck and good fortune to be able to leave the cabin and carry out whatever activities are called for on a normal working day.

Before going any further it might be useful to set the scene. When a tall ship is in motion, except on the flattest of seas and in the most favourable of circumstances, it will be listing to either port (left) or starboard (right). Under sail that tends to be more gentle and easier to deal with than when under power. Then the movement of the vessel becomes much more erratic and more difficult to predict.

Another matter it is difficult to image, until you experience it for any length of time, is how heavy the most common, every day pieces of furniture, becomes. A door that swings effortlessly on an even keel seems to weigh a ton when at an angle of 20 degrees or more. Drawers that open and close with no problem can either shoot out of their runners on their own accord or need the strength of Superman to open.

OK. So we will take a ‘typical’ day and try to do what is automatic at the start of the day in a land based environment and see what happens at sea, on a bucking bronco of a tall ship.

The human body, even after millions of years of evolution, does not fully use all that is taken in in the way of food and drink. Waste products are created and have to be expelled on a regular basis if the body is to function at any reasonable level of efficiency. Most people will go through this process first thing in the morning without any thought whatsoever. Not on a tall ship.

Assuming you have evacuated your bunk and arrived at the bathroom door without being bounced against every surface on the way (everything seems much harder on a ship) your first problem is the door to the bathroom. (In this scenario I am using the luxury cabin situation, i.e., one with an en suite bathroom.)

Depending on its positioning it will either weigh a ton and need all your strength to open or will close so quickly you are in danger of crushing either fingers and/or ankles/legs. But for the sake of brevity we will assume that entrance has been gained without major mishap.

Men might piss standing up, gentlemen do so sitting down. Homo sapiens is the only mammal that doesn’t mark its territory with its scent, but that’s exactly what you would do if you attempted a pee standing up. At the same time, if you were able to stand long enough without crashing painfully into the metal wall, you would be able to see graphically the effects of gravity as the normally straight stream of liquid gets distorted depending upon the relevant listing of the ship.

The use of toilet paper also has to be thought about. Standing up in the normal manner is not recommended, you don’t know how well fixed to the wall the tiny basin might be, as that’s all you really have for support. To add to the difficulties related to the ship’s movement the toilet system itself is quite delicate and excessive solids can have the impact of breaking the vacuum and then disabling the whole toilet system on the boat. Not a way to make friends and influence people.

Next to a shave. (This section could be relevant to both genders.)

Standing in front of a mirror to lather up is not really feasible. (In fact, the more experience I have on this ship the more I realise that sitting is preferable to standing in most circumstances.) The use of two hands to carry out an action is just not possible. All the techniques you might have learnt about keeping your legs wide apart and flexing the knees in response to the movement of the vessel will only be effective for a few seconds. Having already broken an ankle as I was getting undressed for bed I don’t want to add to that the breaking of a leg that had been trapped between a toilet bowl and my own momentum, a thought that has crossed my mind not a few times.

However, sitting down on the edge of the bath tub means looking at the mirror at an angle of 90º, which is not easy. A fish would have less problems but evolution having put both our eyes at the front of our face we have to make the best of a bad deal. As to the sitting I’ve found that naked skin is definitely de rigour, as this provides friction which would be lacking if clothed. This is easier in the first class, en suite cabins as streaking along the corridor of the cabin deck would probably be frowned upon.

As to the actual shaving that becomes an acquired skill, either that or you only do so in the calmest of conditions or wait until the ship is tied up in port. After attempting to shave you realise why sailors in the past were predominantly bearded – before the invention of the safety razor the cut throat would have lived up to its name.

Now to the shower. Easy, no? No!

The small bath tub is designed for sit down use and unless tied to a dock that’s the best policy. Again, on land too many assumptions are made, things are done without any thought as they have been carried out so many times before. Those assumptions are positively dangerous on board a tall ship.

Handrails exist but too much dependence upon then whilst standing could lead to the most dire of consequences. Yes, it seems strange sitting whilst having a shower, especially when the water is on a push button timer, but it does make sense. Think of it. Whilst showering there are times when you are effectively blind, either by soap or shampoo. In an environment that is moving it’s very easy to lose your orientation and the next thing you know you are clutching at thin air rather than the handrail you thought was there.

But your problems aren’t over yet. Now you have to get dry. By now you are used to doing things much slower and in a more considered manner so getting rid of most of the water shouldn’t be that difficult. But what happens when you want to get out of the bath tub? You know that non-slip flooring that is common in showers nowadays? Effective, isn’t. Yes, but also no. Not when it gets wet and then you tip it up on its end. I would challenge any manufacturer of such surfaces to prove that they had tested their products under such circumstances.

So, a final warning. DON’T let the floor get wet. Bare feet and a slippery surface don’t mix and when the ship is really moving about that broken leg is just waiting to happen.

I hope from the above that there is now no need to describe the difficulties associated with dressing, they are much the same as already written about.

So a process that is carried out without any thought in the comfort of your own home takes more than twice as long on a tossing tall ship on the high seas with the added threat of imminent personal injury at virtually every stage.

Living space for two months

Living space for two months

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Religion in the Windward Islands

The Madonna Crushing the Devil

The Madonna Crushing the Devil

 

I hadn’t been in the Caribbean for more than an hour before I was introduced to the importance of religion, more especially Christianity, on the small islands that make up the Windward islands in the West Indies.

The short (and expensive) taxi ride from Piarco airport in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to the OK but severely overpriced hotel close to the airport was one accompanied by religious music. It was a Sunday and though over the top, in a way, understandable. This was the same for the programmes on the tele in the hotel room. Not a great choice of channels but every other one was of some preacher of some sect ‘selling’ their wares.

But the relevance of religion to Caribbean societies was to be reinforced as I travelled to some of the other islands in the archipelago.

In the village of La Pompe, on the Atlantic coast of the island of Bequia, there is a small Ephesian Tabernacle, up some steep steps off the main road in the centre of the village. What makes the location interesting is that at the bottom of the steps, right beside the main road, is the local rum shack and village store. Whilst the righteous are praising god up the steps the damned are knocking back quarter bottles of the local 84% proof double strength white rum.

Ephesian Tabernacle, La Pompe, Bequia

Ephesian Tabernacle, La Pompe, Bequia

On a Sunday this little, one room, church hall has a service from 10.00 until 13.00 and all the time, with the assistance of amplification, not only the faithful are treated to sermons – whose sole basis seems to be of the imminence of hell and damnation – but so are the rest of the village and anyone who passes by. When I first went passed the rum shack I didn’t realise the chapel was further up the steps (it just looked like a normal house) and thought, with a sense of shock, that the rum shack doubled as a church on a Sunday.

The churches are also one of the few places where you are able to observe the colonial history of the different islands. For much of the 17th and 18th centuries the islands were in dispute between the French and the British. This colonial history is represented by the architecture of the churches and cathedrals as well as the division between the Catholics and the Protestants.

Many of the Catholic cathedrals were built by the French and this can be seen in their architectural style as well as the interior decoration, including memorials, in French, to the rich and powerful at the time of that country’s dominance. This has produced some really quirky, not to say bizarre, structures, such as the Catholic Cathedral in Kingstown, St Vincent. This seems to encompass virtually every architectural style known at the time of its construction and seems more fitting for a Disney theme park than a small port town in the Caribbean.

Kingstown, St Vincent, Catholic Cathedral

Kingstown, St Vincent, Catholic Cathedral

The other significant French influenced Catholic Cathedral I was able to visit was that in Castries, the capital town of the island of St Lucia. As with all the older religious buildings on the islands there is the architectural influence from Europe but built with the limitations set by the materials to hand in the islands. As in other colonial countries throughout the world the local indigenous artists create images that are a fusion of their own, pre-colonial, culture with that of the foreign, European invader.

What I always find interesting in such situations is how the black indigenous culture adapts, some might even say subvert, the predominantly white Christian iconography. Since the Renaissance there’s been a reversal in the trend that had developed over the early centuries of Christian dominance in Europe. Romanesque images of Christ depict a dark-skinned, dark-haired male, after all he was supposed to be a Jew living in Palestine. That morphed until by the 20th century Christ became a blond, blue-eyed Aryan beloved by the Nazis.

A ‘fight-back’, if you like, can be seen in the relatively new stained glass window in Castries Cathedral. Here both the Mary and Christ figures are definitely of a darker skin. Also in that cathedral the crib that had been constructed for Christmas (and which was still there at the end of January, as the imagery remains until the end of January or early February in some parts of the world) has a black child’s doll as the baby Jesus figure, which is of a hugely disproportionate size to the adult figures surrounding it. And in the background there’s a carved wooded figure of an indigenous female figure, again disproportionate in its dimensions.

Castries Nativity Crib, 2012

Castries Nativity Crib, 2012

The church at Gros Islet, the local village next to the huge and full of very, very expensive yachting marina of Rodney Bay is another good example of the influence of Christianity on the islands. Just by chance, on the two occasions I visited the place there was a funeral taking place in the big, town centre church. On both occasions the church was full with people in their ‘Sunday Best.’ Although the predominant influence in the interior decoration was white European a relatively new, life-size, wooden crucifix over the altar had very definite African influences.

Crucifix Gros Islet Church, St Lucia

Crucifix Gros Islet Church, St Lucia

Whilst in the Catholic churches it was very easy to see the roots in the European design of the time the Anglican churches, built under British influence, are very different. They are as austere as the Catholic are over the top. This is particularly evident in Kingstown, St Vincent, where the two cathedrals are right next to each other, seemingly in competition to define their particular faith through architecture.

Other Anglican churches wouldn’t be out of place in the English countryside. They haven’t allowed the indigenous cultures to influence their design in any way and the British naval officers and their wives would have had no culture shock in going to a Sunday service if they went to a church in Castries or Canterbury.

Castreis Anglican Church, St Lucia

Castreis Anglican Church, St Lucia

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