Hello from Marion and Marty Owen, residents of Kodiak Island, Alaska. We are guest-blogging at the invitation of Riitta and Pekka. It all began when they sent us their email announcing they had crossed the Arctic Circle (hooray!), thereby officially completing the Northwest Passage. “Meet us in the Caribbean!” they said.
That was last September, and with our dinner cruise season winding down, the onions and carrots pulled from the garden, and an Alaska winter staring us in the face, we joyfully accepted. We agreed to rendezvous in Saint Lucia, the largest of the English speaking Windward isles, a sub-group of islands within the West Indies.
So on Tuesday, February 21, 2011 we landed at the main airport at the isle's southern end near Veiux Port. Stepping off the jet, we felt like two snowflakes touching hot pavement. Trust me, there is no way you can fully prepare for such a radical change in environment.
Little did we know, Riitta and Pekka thought our flight had landed on the north end of the island and were travelling by cab as fast as the driver dared go along dark, winding roads to meet up with us. Meanwhile, after several unsuccessful attempts to contact them by cell phone, a local tour guide stepped up to offer assistance. Do you suppose our long pants, socks and shoes gave us away?
“My name is Chris. I will buy some minutes for my mobile. You can make an international call then.” Pulling a St. Lucia phone book from his car, Chris, a husky, gentle giant of a guy, located the country code for Finland, dialed the number. In seconds Marty was talking with Pekka. This was the first of many examples of warm, Caribbean hospitality...
We continued driving north and then west around the island, toward Rodney Bay, where their sailing vessel, Sarema, is anchored. Rodney Bay is over a mile long. At the northern end, a causeway connects Pigeon Island to the mainland (St. Lucia). The bay provides protection of vessels of all shapes and sizes from around the world. As one sailor's guide described the area: “In the old days, when Europeans used to entertain themselves by sailing around in wooden boats taking pot-shots at each other, Pigeon Island was the main base for the British Navy.”
These days, Rodney Bay Marina is a busy place, a juxtaposition of coconut palms and large, private homes, shops, boatyards, defunct and prosperous restaurants, bars, steel drum music, lively cafes and colorful storefronts.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
The morning dawned partly cloudy and breezy. Aboard Sarema, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast of cheeses, sliced meats, hard-boiled eggs, pineapple juice and coffee. We double-checked our list of pre-sailing priorities which included laundry, groceries, a Wi-Fi internet connection, and the customs office, and then piled into the dingy to buzz into town. As Pekka and Marty set off to the customs office to check out and get passports stamped, Riitta and I, with her laptop loaded in the backpack, sauntered over to Jambe de Bois, a combination bar, boutique and cyber-coffee shop.
We also stocked up at the local supermarket, where we found ourselves in the land of giant carrots, earthy-brown yams, and freezer cases full of frozen chicken. Seafood and chicken are the proteins of choice.
While navigating our way to the checkout stand, we received an unexpected lesson in St. Lucia history: A tall shelving unit displayed an eclectic assortment of goods: bottles of hot sauce and syrups, coconuts, bottled water, bananas, spices and Piton Beer (more on that later). Two national flags flanked a yellow poster at the top proudly declaring, “Happy Independence: Local Made Items.”
February 22 marked the 30-year anniversary of St. Lucia's independence from Britain, after a tug-of-war between two colonial powers: Changing hands 14 times between French and British rule.
Here is a quick look at St. Lucia:
Motto: “The Land, The People, The Light”
Area: 238 square miles
Population (2009): 173,765
Back at Sarema, Latte, the loyal boat dog, greeted us warmly and together we waited for the Sparkle Laundry skiff (boat) to deliver freshly-washed and (hopefully) folded clothes.
Sparkle Laundry however, was proceeded by another delivery.
“Ah, there is Mango Man!” said Riitta. Just then, a yellow motorboat, decked out with dozens of national flags waving in the breeze, approached Sarema. There were so many flags, banners and pennants, it looked like a giant decorator crab. Rolling and pitching, the skiff approached the port side. Baskets, cardboard boxes and milk crates packed with bananas, tomatoes, mangoes—a rainbow of fruits and vegetables—came into view, followed by the skipper. Marty handed him $20 EC's (Eastern Caribbean dollars) in exchange for an assortment of fresh, tropical produce—the likes of which we never experience in our grocery stores back home.
Before stowing the fruity gems however, Pekka carefully washed each one. “You don’t want to bring any cockroach eggs on board. That’s why we take our shoes off, too.” Thus began 10 days of “feet freedom.” Later on in the trip, Marty declared, “I’ve seen more of my feet in the past few days than I’ve seen in years!”
Back to our trip...the basic sailing plan was to island-hop our way south to Tobago Cays (pronounced like ”keys”) where excellent snorkelling awaited us.
After our exchange with Mango Man, Sparkle Laundry finally delivered two bags of clothes. Riitta smiled as we brought them aboard because they sometimes have a tough time keeping track of whose laundry belongs to whom.
Chores completed, we weighed anchor and departed Rodney Bay, turning SSW after passing Barrel of Reef, a low-lying rock and the southern entrance to the bay. Thankfully, the sea breeze tempered the 85-degree air. Shorts and bathing suits had long since replaced our jeans, sweatshirts and random thoughts of blizzards.
Three hours later we tied up to a mooring buoy at the base of steep-to cliffs near the town of Souffriere.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
In the morning we woke up to gentle rolling and voices coming from other vessels. No anchoring is allowed in this area, according to the Soufriere Marine Management Area, or SMMA (http:www.smma.org.lc) which oversees the extensive underwater diving and snorkelling region. Needless to say, all we had to do was don a mask, snorkel and fins and step off the stern platform to discover a beautiful underwater park of waving fan corals, brain corals, and a kaleidoscope of tropical fish.
A marine sanctuary below, there was a sanctuary of sorts above as well. A few hundred yards away, a narrow slit in the rocks was home to thousands of fruit bats. “I take you to a buoy not too close to the bat cave. The smell is like rotten eggs,” said Chili, the young “boat boy” who escorted us to our mooring buoy in his boat called the “Feel Good.”
Tuesday night we had made arrangements with Chili to hire a guide to take us around the sites around Soufriere and the Pitons, two volcanic “plugs” [mountains] that rise abruptly from the sea. St. Lucia's biggest tourist attraction, Soufriere, is a special place, and it turned out to be one of our favorites. We later learned that Oprah calls the area “one of the five must-see places in the world.” Its natural features of sandy beaches, mountains, friendly people, rainforest and waterfalls has been the backdrop of many movies. In 2004, the area was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Our guide met us at the dock. “Call me Porgie, as in 'Georgie, Porgie, Puddin' in Pie'.” We hopped into the well-used, but very functional van and drove off, with Porgie calling out points of interest. We wound our way up the mountainside, driving on the left side of the road, enroute to the sulphur springs. (The name 'Soufriere' is a French term meaning “sulphur in the air”.)
We asked Porgie about the landslides, fallen trees and potholes in the road. “Hurricane Tomas [October 29, 2010] did a lot of damage,” he said. “Not the wind, but lots of rain.” During our second visit to Soufriere, another guide shared his account of what happened during the hurricane:”
“I was standing in my house, holding my 2-year old son. Water up to my knees and rushing outside like a river. I thought it was my last day on earth. I lost my car, everything but my house. But all is good; once I have the breath of life when I wake up in the morning. To be honest, I believe in God.”
At the sulphur springs “pools” Marty and I dipped into the mineralized water while Riitta talked with Porgie.
Later, she shared some of Porgie's hopes and dreams. “He wants to own his own boat, get married someday, but he also wants to go to university and specialize in the visitor industry,” she said. “He's good with people and has a pleasant personality... maybe he'll achieve his goal.”
Porgie was the ultimate guide, helping us locate local fruits and vegetables such as dasheen, a potato-like root crop, and locally-grown yams. To find the goodies, Porgie led us around town on foot, in and out of back alleys to visit farmers tending a table or booth.
“Do you know everybody in this town?” We asked Porgie.
“Oh, yes,” he smiled. And with that, he escorted us back to the beach to meet up with Chili, who took us back to Sarema.
We weighed anchor around noon. About an hour later, under sail, the Pitons came into view. We toasted the magnificent peaks and our new friends in Soufriere with a round of Piton beer.
Next stop: Cumberland Bay on the island of St. Vincent, known for its 3,000 foot volcanoes and Botanical Gardens, the oldest in the western hemisphere. We’re told it was here that Captain Bligh brought the breadfruit tree after the mutiny on the Bounty fiasco.
At 7 p.m. we arrived in Cumberland Bay, halfway down the west side of St. Vincent, “an island of towering mountains, craggy peaks and dramatic precipices,” says one sailing guide. I for one was glad to be in calm water, having learned after years of working aboard research ships and ocean-going tugs, that I am a much better outdoor sailor than an indoor one. We didn't see a lot of the passing landscape either, since the sky was leaden with dark clouds and rain (“It’s a rainforest,” reminds Pekka), and at 13 degrees north latitude, sunset occurs around 6 o'clock.
While writing these notes a couple days later, I happened to glance down at my feet. In the tropical heat and high humidity they are so puffy I barely recognize them as my own. “My toes look like little sausages,” I groaned. Soon we were all comparing appendages, like pregnant women showing off their bellies.
Though we were escorted into the bay by a “boat boy”, Pekka and Riitta had been in Cumberland Bay before (the last time was about five years ago) and knew the routine for tying up. Kenny, the boat boy, shouted instructions to Pekka, at the helm, and Riitta, at the anchor. With our stern to the beach, Kenny told Riitta to let the anchor go. Pekka then handed Kenny a line from the stern and off he went to secure us to the beach.
After a few adjustments, Pekka shut down the engine and we were soon dining on grilled turkey sausages, yams, salad and wine. The constellation Orion smiled at us from the heavens while a chorus of tree frogs and steel drum music serenaded us from shore. The acrid-sweet smell of charcoal fires added to the evening's ambience.
Orion the Hunter is one of my favorite constellations, featuring the three stars of Orion's belt, plus Rigel, Bellatrix and Betelgeuse, the red star.
Do you know how to find the brightest star in the sky? First of all, the brightest star is Sirius, which is twice the size of our own sun. To find Sirius, locate the three stars in Orion’s belt, then follow them downward to Sirius. You can’t miss it.
Ursa Major, the Big Dipper which points to the North Star, is another favorite. These are my celestial navigation friends. When I worked on research ships as a licensed Third Mate I was very fortunate to work with quartermasters and mates who had sailed during WWII and were willing to pass along many of the old ways of navigating. To scribe a tiny triangle on a chart, the result of reducing a sight from three different stars, was like learning one of the wonders of the world. People who rely solely on GPS don't know what they are missing...
One more thing...I recently learned something very interesting about astronomy. The scientific knowledge of the ancient rishis (in India) was very great and the Hindus were far advanced in astronomy. An article in East-West (Feb.1934) said that as early as 3100 B.C. they already knew about the movement of planetary bodies in our solar system, the earth's spherical form, the law of gravitation and even the reflected light of the moon—facts that did not dawn in the Western world until the time of Copernicus and Newton.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Breakfast under sunny skies, consisted of cheeses, bread, zucchini slices, lettuce, mustard and coffee. And to think that two weeks ago, I was in Anchorage, Alaska, photographing snowflakes under a microscope. Air temperature: 15 degrees F.
A small boat pulled up alongside. “Fresh tuna! You like fresh tuna?” Riitta leaned over the rail to negotiate and for $50 EC we had ourselves a beautiful tuna fish, which passed Latte’s canine inspection.
Just as we settled down to another cup of coffee, a young man paddling a surfboard appeared. “My name is Tyrone. I can clean your fish for you.” Though usually very willing to support the local economy, Pekka declined, preferring to clean his own fish.
That wasn’t the end of it though. Pekka and Riitta are quite understanding and generous, and didn’t wish for him to leave empty handed. Riitta gave Tyrone a couple t-shirts and a length of mosquito netting.
Later, another skiff appeared. This time it was an older man named Joseph who stopped by Sarema for a visit with old friends.
“We have met Joseph several times between 2003 and 2005,” Riitta said. “He lives in a small house and has a restaurant, Joseph's Bar and Restaurant, located right on the beach. He comes to our boat to ask if we would like to have dinner. We usually say yes so he knows he has at least two customers. Then he goes fishing, or sends someone else out to catch the fish. We usually have rice, fish and vegetables. Very basic, but very good.”
We watched Joseph row back to shore in his 8-foot, double-ender wooden skiff. You could tell the vessel had been customized to suit his needs: Wooden pegs served as oarlocks and between the pegs, on each side, the sole from a rubber sandal was tacked on to the wood, preventing the back and forth action of the oar from wearing into the wood rail.
After dishes, Riitta announced, “Let's hike to the village.” So, Marty, Riitta and I climbed into the dingy and hand-over-handed our way along the stern line to the beach. We walked along the shoreline, waved to Joseph and turned to follow a well-worn footpath which took us inland and up into a green valley. We passed gardens of tobacco, eggplant, pumpkin and corn.
I liked Cumberland Bay. Coconut trees lined the shore and the hillsides surrounding the bay were dappled with fields of banana, papaya and pineapple, plus a sprinkling of modest homes. It felt friendly and appeared unspoiled by tourism, though you could tell that “the times they are a changin’” as the community shifts from a subsistence-based economy to a cash-based one. I'm sure many people would say the locals are unsophisticated, even poor. And the town may appear that way on the outside, but the residents seemed rich in many ways, as we would soon learn.
After wading across a stream of crystal clear water we met up with Tyrone, who was also on his way to the village. We asked him lots of questions about local plants, the hydro-electric power plant, the weather, you name it.
The path soon turned into a paved road. Official-looking trucks and small vans sped by as we strolled through a tight collection of brightly-colored homes with fenced-in yards and gardens, a health clinic and a school. In a roadside bar, men and women watched a cricket game on TV.
We crossed a steel bridge and started down a dirt road which paralleled a wood-stave water pipe. “I bet it leads to the power station,” said Marty. Marty refilled his water bottle from a small jet of water gushing from the pipe. How fortunate that the community has hydro power and doesn't depend on deliveries of diesel fuel.
A woman carrying leafy greens and a bucket of potatoes caught up with us. “Is this the way back to the beach?” we asked her.
“Yes, yes, no problem. When you reach the fence, go right and follow that path around the hydro station.” The hydro station was nestled in a lovely valley setting of pineapple fields, coconut palms, bananas, wildflowers...
We stopped for a few moments as the woman checked on her pigs, penned up in a covered enclosure. She owned property up the road, complete with goats, chickens and an extensive garden. I had a feeling she was well off.
“My son is working in Canada, building furniture and cabinets,” she said. “But it is too cold, so he is coming home soon. He lives right there, pointing to an unfinished concrete block house. “He will finish it when he gets back.”
She smiled and lifted the bucket onto her head with a quick, arching movement of her arm and took leave of us.
Further down the path, we met another woman balancing a sack of cabbages on her head and a carrying a bucket of green tomatoes. She wore a bright green shirt and a red and black plaid skirt. She graciously allowed me to take her picture. I felt honored and humbled at the same time, and sent her a silent blessing as we continued on our way.
We re-crossed the river and picked up the original footpath, passing goats and cows along the way. We found Joseph near the beach and asked him if he'd mind letting our line go when it was time to get underway.
“No problem. Just yell for me when time. And when you come back, I will make a package [dinner] for you.” We walked along the beach, laughing as we saw the sign for wireless internet service painted on a small, concrete jetty.
When it came time to leave, we signalled Joseph to let our line go. As I watched him slowly and haltingly make his way down the sandy beach, I understood why he spent so much time each day in his little boat. I felt a little sad, yet quite enriched for having crossed the gentle man's path.
We departed Cumberland Bay around 11 A.M. and sailed south for 15 miles, arriving in Admiralty Bay on the west side of Bequia Island, part of the country of St. Vincent-Grenadines. Flying fish skipped along the wave tops. Riitta was hoping to spot a humpback whale, but no luck. Speaking of whales, Bequia used to be an active whaling station, though thankfully, the tradition is dying out.
As Sarema entered Admiralty Bay we passed a cruise ship while inter-island ferries and coastal cargo ships busied the harbor, filled with a hundred or more yachts. Small tenders [boats] offering all kinds of services to yachters such as water, diesel, ice, groceries and laundry services buzzed around the bay. Hmmm, I didn't have the same warm and enchanted feeling as I did in Cumberland Bay, though the sign hanging in the customs office shined a positive light on my attitude.
Our visit was not a touristy-leisurely one since we had things to do. Our list consisted of checking in with the customs office, buying some produce, and locating a WiFi-friendly cafe. Oh, and we had a special task: Find some rum-raisin ice cream. Mission accomplished on all counts, we motored back to Sarema, just before darkness fell.
Friday, February 25, 2011
We departed right after breakfast in order to make the 30-mile trip to our southernmost destination, the Tobago Cays, before dark. It was a wonderful sail: a strong Nor'easterly and sunny skies. I could see why people enjoy the sailing life. We made good time, anchoring up in daylight.
Tobago Cays is a collection of coral reefs in the southern Grenadines. The approach is quite tricky though, and not something you want to attempt at night. The water was clear and turquoise blue, like blue of a glacier. Several hawksbill turtles surfaced to breathe near the boat. The wind was too strong to venture out to the main reef though. Pekka was not to be detoured however. Pekka, Marty and I (Riitta had the sniffles) grabbed snorkel gear and skiffed to a nearby island. Lucky us--even in shallow water, we came across more turtles, schools of fish and a couple sting rays.
We went to bed early, hoping for a change in the weather.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Winds of 25 to 35 knots with driving rain buffeted Sarema all night. The clothes we’d hung out to dry last night were wetter than before. It was too nasty for snorkelling so we spent the day on board, reading, grazing on good food, napping, and blogging. After lunch, Pekka grated fresh coconut, or copra, into a bowl using a metal scraper that looked like a giant spoon on one end. The spoon end was serrated all the way around... perfect for shredding pulp from a coconut half.
Then he packed a clean towel with the copra and squeezed it until milk trickled into a bowl. Later we dined on coconut-curry chicken—the real thing. When we first came on board Sarema, Riitta said, “It will be like camping.” Marty declared later, “It's more like 'gourmet' camping!”
Sunday, February 27, 2011
We departed Tobago Cays at 9 A.M. arriving at 5 P.M. at Admiralty Bay - eight hours of tacking back and forth into a 30 to 35-knot headwind. Now I understand why some people might NOT enjoy sailing. Still, we made the best of it. Besides, it's not what life dishes out to you so much as how you react to it. (On the grand scheme of being at sea, the weather wasn’t THAT rough--the largest seas I've ever experienced was during a typhoon which generatede 50 to 60 foot waves). We enjoyed the sunshine, dabbed on more suntan lotion, watched for Tropicbirds and whales, nibbled on homemade banana bread (delivered in Tobago Cays), napped and told stories. Latte wore her favorite life jacket.
During the trip I developed a healthy respect and appreciation for products, such as suntan lotion, that are made especially for children. “They have less chemicals,” explained Riitta. Good to remember.
We went ashore to find the pizzeria that Pekka and Riitta remembered as the one that served a wonderful lobster pizza...
Monday, February 28, 2011
This morning we enjoyed coffee and leftover pizza for breakfast. Marty politely avoided the anchovy slices. We took on some fuel and purchased bottled water, wooden clothespins, rum, and fruit juice from a boat boy. Then we went ashore to check emails (Riitta and Pekka smiled at photos of their grandkids), buy fresh wheat bread, bananas and pineapple and--you guessed it--ice cream.
With engine work to do, Pekka returned to Sarema while Riitta, Marty and I hired a taxi-guide to show us around the island of Bequia for a couple hours. Our favorite spot was the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary. There we met Orton G. King who has spent most of each day since August 1995 tending his precious and endangered hawksbill turtles which are raised from infancy and re-released into the wild.
In addition to a cash donation, we bought t-shirts to further support the sanctuary.
We departed Admiralty Bay at 9 P.M. after a savory dinner of grilled chicken, onions, red peppers and potatoes. The plan was to sail all night and arrive in Piton Bay and anchor up between the two prominent peaks, sometime in the late morning. As luck would have it, we were greeted by more headwinds which made for a long night of tacking. I was impressed with Riitta and Pekka’s skills and agility as they adjusted sails and made their way around a slippery deck. It was like watching a choreographed dance...
After a brief nap braced against the galley table, I climbed the ladderway into the cockpit where I found Riitta on watch. “You should have a look,” she said. “The Alaska stars are out.”
I poked my head through the blue canvas awning and there, dead ahead, was the Big Dipper, upside down, as if spilling her “contents” into the ocean. It was a moonless night, so the sky was awash with layer upon layer of stars. So, so beautiful. Even in Kodiak, Alaska, which is fairly free of light pollution, you can't see so many stars. Perhaps I'll return someday with my big camera and tripod, to do some night photography. (Just before leaving on this trip I spent a couple hours in the boatyard photographing fishing vessels under a star-studded sky).
Before retreating back into the cabin I happened to glance down at the waves churning against the hull.
“Wow, stars in the water!” I thought.
Phosphorescence sparkles lit up the water a la green and white. I thought of the time years ago, while standing in the bow observation chamber on the NOAA Ship Oceanographer. It was night time, and we were steaming from Hawaii south to the equator to deploy deep-sea moorings. In the chamber, some two fathoms below the surface and fitted with viewing ports, we watched in awe as dolphins dipped and darted around the bow of the ship, the outlines of their bodies lit up by green phosphorescence. Every so often, the ship's bow would lift up in a swell to reveal the night sky filled with stars. I’ll never forget that night...
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
We finally tied up to a mooring in Piton Bay at 11:30 in the morning. We were all pretty tired, but Riitta had her sights set on cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast. (In case you think the meal excessively protein, we had nibbled on fresh papaya and mangoes during the night cruise). Then, a nap, which found Marty snoring within minutes...
Nothing like a good snorkelling session to follow a nap, right?
Pekka whipped up a fine dinner of pasta, salad and pineapple. Would that be red wine or white? Cold beer or coffee?
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Since Marty and I were scheduled to leave on Thursday, I was grateful to wake to blue skies. After breakfast we took the skiff around the base of Piton mountain back to Soufriere. We tracked down Chili to arrange for tomorrow’s ride to the airport, checked out with the authorities, bought a few groceries and celebrated with a round of ice cream. Lunch followed in a waterfront restaurant where we ordered “Rotis”, a sort of Caribbean wrap. I made a mental note to develop a similar signature dish for our dinner cruises.
The docks were buzzing with activity as boats-for-hire offloaded scores of passengers from nearby hotels and motels. As we skiffed back to Sarema, the beachfront neighbourhoods passed by. It was a kaleidoscope for the senses: colorful clothes hanging out to dry, red, yellow and blue-hulled boats bobbing in the waves, dogs barking, cars beeping, kids running around... I tried to take it all in.
Back at the boat, we prepped for one last dip underwater: Another layer of suntan lotion. Check. Mask, snorkel and fins. Check. Underwater camera. Check. The four of us then hopped into the dingy to snorkel among the boulders and rocks at the base of Piton mountain. We saw barrel-like sponges, the size of 55-gallon drums, and parrotfish.
Before returning to Sarema, I had one last project to complete: To draw a snow crystal (or a sand-flake, as Riitta called it) in the sand.
Later on, an afternoon shower developed into a rainbow - a perfect accent to a lovely day.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
As Chili’s boat, the Feel Good, pulled away from Sarema with Marty and I on board, we waved to Pekka, Riitta and Latte. We looked back again and blew kisses. How could we ever express our heartfelt appreciation and love for sharing their world with us, except to say that we look forward to crossing paths with them again...perhaps in Alaska.
We boarded an American Airlines jet to begin the journey back to Kodiak: Marty to resume his job as harbormaster and me to plant a garden and teach photography classes at Kodiak College; and for both of us to prepare for a busy B&B and dinner cruise season.
Thanks for visiting this blog. To you, the reader, we extend the invitation, “Meet us in Alaska!”
Cheers and blessings to you,
Marion and Marty Owen
1223 W Kouskov
Kodiak, AK 99615