Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass September 2009

Chartering - from a Crew's Point of View

by Arlene Walrond

I don't think I'll ever overcome my fear of the sea, but I do have a healthy respect for it. By some magical twist of fate (while working at a marina in Trinidad I met the man who was to become my husband; he and a friend started a small charter venture) I've spent a lot of time on the sea over the past few years. The longest stretch at one time so far has been five months. From October to February 2003, my fiancé and I sailed the Eastern Caribbean, visiting most of the islands.

In those five months we experienced all kinds of weather. One time it was so bad we had to abort a trip from Grenada to Carriacou, which meant we had to leave Grenada before dawn the following day to reach Union Island in time to pick up our charter guests so they wouldn't be stranded. Sometimes when it's rolly it's a battle to keep food down, much less cook it, but when the waters are calm it's like being in a cradle and then there are occasions when it is so still it's like being on dry land.

Spending much time on a boat one learns to do without a lot of things or learns to appreciate using lesser quantities than one is accustomed to. Unless you're on a mega-yacht that has a watermaker, fresh water becomes a most precious commodity, to be rationed and doled out at times. Some guests could not comprehend the need for this and would leave faucets running or partly turned off, adding to my job of chief cook and bottle washer that of water police. I'd go around (discreetly of course) after people, especially kids, making sure that the taps were properly turned off, and when in doubt I'd switch off the water pump. It is not a nice thing to run out of water in the middle of a charter - we learned that the hard way once and try not to have a recurrence. Water problems aside, life on the sea can be a very pleasant experience.

Chartering is a great cultural exchange. Apart from the diving, snorkelling and other water-based activities, the charter passengers, or guests as they're generally called, learn about and experience what the Caribbean has to offer in terms of food, entertainment and geographical attractions. Likewise they impart to us tidbits about their home country and way of life. For instance, I was amazed to learn from a Finnish couple that their country experiences only six weeks of warm weather per year. They couldn't get enough sun when they were here in the Caribbean. I also learned that crime in Finland is so minimal that people only lock their doors if they're going on a long trip, which reminded me of the old days in Trinidad. On a night sail from Bequia to Mayreau this couple could not contain their joy at the experience - being able to sail at night, with moonlight, warm weather and calm sea - it was an unusual combination for them.
Chartering is hard work but one of the upsides for me is that it gives me an opportunity to exercise my culinary skills. It's a good feeling when guests appreciate our local dishes. Another upside is when the charter party includes kids. We had a five-year-old from France one time who had a passion for drawing and he was very good at it. His favourite subjects were pistols and boats. The design of the boats varied from day to day but, as I recall, they all had a "Capitaine Will" at the helm.

Chartering is also a great way for Caribbean people to get to know our own region. People come from all over the world to play in the Caribbean Sea. But how many of my fellow West Indians, I wonder, have actually visited places like Tobago Cays, for example, where the water is so clear you can see the sandy bottom and where marine life is plentiful and visible without artificial aid? I count myself very privileged to have experienced this and I think the people of the Grenadines are lucky to have such a lovely playground right in their own backyard.
Our last sail in the Grenadines, in November 2007, was a short one, a little over two weeks. There wasn't much free time for exploring since we had two charters back to back, but I did get a chance to visit some places I hadn't been to my first time there. Five years ago we had anchored in Salt Whistle Bay on many occasions, but I never got the opportunity to go ashore on Mayreau. This time around, however, I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon exploring the beautiful little island. I almost stepped on a snake while walking up the steep hill to the village but that didn't deter me from continuing on. I didn't get the chance to see all there was to see on this island, but the people I met were nice and friendly.

Another first for me was visiting Happy Island in the daytime. This is a tiny island in Clifton Harbour on Union Island, just big enough for a bar. The story of how this island came into being never fails to amaze me (the proprietor, Janti, created it by piling discarded conch shells and other material on a shoal), and to actually chat with the person who created it was such a thrill. Janti is a very affable person and warmly welcomed us to his personal domain. He is one individual who can truly say: "I am Monarch of all I survey, my rights there are none to dispute." I asked if I could take some photos, explaining that my previous visits were at night. He said it was okay and we spent a pleasant half hour doing just that. I would have liked to chat some more but he said it was the off-season and he was preparing for a trip to Europe.

Our last stop was Bequia, where fate determined that I spend barely an hour, much to my regret. We deposited our guests and left Bequia bound for Trinidad, where we were to have the boat hauled at the owner's request before making our way to Venezuela and Los Roques.
On the way from Bequia we made a brief stop in Grenada to do a little shopping and send some e-mails before moving on. After our last sojourn in the Grenadines we had flown from St. Lucia to Trinidad so sailing from Grenada to Trinidad was yet another first-time experience for me. We had strong winds and rough seas. Even in good conditions sailing can be hard work but the Captain didn't complain and I managed to remain vertical long enough to keep two watches during the night.

One experiences many things on a sea passage - a cloudburst when you least expect one, a sudden squall that sends sails flapping or stretched to their limits, and then there are moments when you wish that time would stop for just a while so you could enjoy a beautiful rainbow or a cloud with a silver lining. The high point of this passage was that sometime between midnight and 2:00 AM a feathered hitchhiker snuck on board and perched on the stern rail for the rest of the night and for several hours into the morning. He just stood there like a guardian angel, his talons clamped tightly around the stainless steel rail, not moving or making a sound, and then left as quietly as he came.

And to crown what was an enjoyable passage, when we finally got to Trinidad I had a most memorable encounter with one of our most venerable female citizens. We were both waiting our turn in the office at Coral Cove marina, Chaguaramas. After saying hello, I did a double take and said excitedly, "You're Kwailan La Borde!" She and her husband, Harold, were the first Trinidadians to ever circumnavigate the world by yacht, a feat they accomplished in 1969 in their home-built Hummingbird II. If she was ruffled by my inelegant outburst she didn't show it. We had a nice chat and she was very approachable but I felt awed in her presence. Much has been written about her and husband Harold's sailing exploits, but I am sure she still has many more stories to relate about her sailing life.
My sailing experiences are not like hers, but crewing on a charter yacht has given me some stories to tell, too!

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