Da way we do tings

Da way we do tings

February 2011

I met Joe and George at the departure gate at the airport in Boston. We had met once, briefly, at the Boston Sailing Center. We shook hands with a knowledge that by the end of a week of unknown adventures we would know each other a lot better. We did.

Captain Norman Martin met us in the airport in St Martin. There was a genuine “happy to see you” look on his face that was every bit as welcoming as the 85 degree Caribbean sunshine.

We caught a bus and arrived at the boat about a half hour later. “Ti Zeff” is a 44 foot sloop with 4 cabins, two bathrooms, a kitchen/sitting area down below and a generous cockpit covered by a large blue sun-shade. My cabin was toward the back of the boat and consisted of a queen size mattress and a small place to stand. About half of the mattress had enough headroom that I could sit up. There were a few small cubbies and compartments where some of my stuff could be stowed. Small ports and hatches could be opened for air. My overstuffed duffel bag just barely fit through the doorway.

Next to the sleeping compartment was the bathroom. It’s called the “head” by sailors because it contained neither a bath nor much room. Just a toilet (which required explanations to use properly) and a small sink with a removable faucet that could be held over one’s head to take a makeshift shower.

We went to a beach restaurant for dinner. Joe and I tried, unsuccessfully, to connect his cell and my iPad to the internet at the restaurant, but reception was too poor.

When we got back to the boat, Joe, George, and I looked for the outlets needed to charge our various devices. To our surprise, there were none, just a single 12 volt cigarette lighter outlet. I was a little disappointed. That’s the kind of thing, I thought, they should have told us in advance. Fortunately, Joe had a 12 to 120 volt converter which we used constantly to charge cellphones, iPads, my electric shaver, water-pik, and a few flashlights. Although nobody except Norm actually had cellphone service, we needed to keep our electronics charged for email, browsing, and occasional attempts at using a smartphone’s GPS.

Looking out over a marina at night, you would see a peaceful scene; tall masts rocking gently in a warm breeze, silent sunsets over calm water. Inside the boats at dock, though, there is a cacophony of creaking masts, waves lapping noisily, splashing, and dripping, and lines and couplings ringing out as they toll on the masts. Between the noise and rolling, there was no sleep to be found. Norman explained in the morning, “nobody sleeps the first night.”

Norm made coffee; the best possible cure for a sleepless night (that, and a nap). He explained that the wind was strong, 20 to 30 knots and decided that we would stay in the well-protected bay for the first part of the day, motoring around, getting a ‘feel’ for the boat.

The super-yachts we looked at were awe-inspiring. The level of extravagance required to spend millions per month to maintain a mansion on the water is beyond me.

Motoring around the bay was pretty boring, but Norm kept us busy learning how to drive the boat as he was, no doubt, learning how to operate his crew. We poked around the bay, occasionally going lightly aground – always moving into shallower water from leeward so the wind would blow off the sandy bottom. Joe, steering around a boat named “CEOH” discovered and underwater wreck with the keel of our boat. CRUNCH! From time to time we would pass by a super-yacht and notice there was wireless internet available, but usually not long or strong enough to get online. I was a little bit concerned that the weather might be too bad for us to do anything other than motor around in the sound and that my cruising course vacation might be a bust. I was very wrong. At 4:30, when the drawbridge opened, we motored out into the harbor and sailed around to the French side of the island to Marigot Bay to anchor for the night. We wanted to be there early Monday morning so we could have a minor repair done first thing in the morning.

Sunday night Joe, George and I took the dinghy into town, walked around a bit… everything was closed except a bar where we ordered some beers and, finally, got connected; me with my ipad and they with their smartphones. I checked my mail and got instant messaged by about a dozen friends. When we were done we headed back to the boat.

Sleep was elusive. After several hours of laying in my bunk waiting for the gentle rocking to feel soothing (it didn’t), I think I fell asleep for a while, woke up to more rocking, lay there for several more hours, finally drifted off to sleep again. I awoke in the morning, still exhausted, to the welcome sound of coffee being made.


While the maintenance crew worked on the boat we walked around town enjoying the local color and bought food and supplies. We were ready to go around noon. Our enthusiastic boat shot out into the open water, ready, we supposed, for whatever the Caribbean sea was to toss at us.

Indeed, we were tossed.

20 to 30 mph winds threw 10 – 15 foot waves in our path, crashing over the bow, driving us this way and that while Norm, with complete calm and a smile, suggested tacks, sail positions, and headings. We were thrown, dashed, sprayed, and soaked by some of the roughest seas that Norm had seen in the area.

We were a surprisingly good team. Norm, with over 50 years of sailing, knew exactly what was needed and was able to explain every nuance with clarity and patience. The three of us, although far from capable of handling this alone, knew enough to understand what was required. We reacted quickly and competently. I think Norm was impressed.

We motored into Grand Cove, where there was to be some sort of festival the following night. Three of us went ashore to look around. I found a small Internet cafe where they did not have the wireless necessary for me to connect my iPad so I got on to their computer to check my mail. Immediately I saw the message I had been most afraid of; my web server was down meaning that my site, as well as several hundred others I am responsible for were all out of commission. Before I had time to panic though, I saw a message sent a few hours later saying that Susan and Angela had solved the problem and everything was fine. I kept looking for an email explaining what had happened and how it was fixed, found none, and realized that, perhaps, I didn’t really need to know.

After dinner, we sat on deck and chatted a while then went to bed at about 8:30. The rocking was difficult to relax to, but I think I drifted off to sleep fairly quickly.

Then just a few short hours later…

“EVERYBODY DANCE NOW!!!” THUMP, BOOM, THUMP-THUMP BOOM! The disco on the nearby shore began to fill the cove with the spastic sounds of synthesized rhythms, bone-jarring bass, and the over amplified ravings of of a madman DJ.

Norm, apparently able to sleep through anything, remained undisturbed. Joe, George, and I, with earplugs, pillows, and renewed resolve to sleep, fooled ourselves into thinking we could sleep through it, or it would end soon. Neither was the case.


Sunrise. We sat on deck, three of us groggy, me sipping what was still my only relief for a sleepless night; Norm’s wonderful, and always-ready coffee.

Have I mentioned the weather yet? Yes, it was windy, but it was windy-warm. It rained frequently, both at sea and in the harbor, but the rain was warm and the sun that followed it dried everything quickly. I jumped off the boat into the water – Caribbean Blue. if there were an environment perfectly suited to being human, it was here.

Soon we were refreshed and ready. We looked at Norm expectantly.

“So guys, would you like to sail around St Martin?”

Start the engine.
Secure the dinghy to the bow.
Hoist the anchor.
Seal the hatches, ’cause it’s gonna get wet out there!
Turn the halyard around the winch and raise the mainsail, but only to the third reef. Any higher and we risk being blown over.
Just a little jib with the forestays full forward.
… And we’re back at sea!

The sail was exhilarating! To the windward side of the island the waves were still as strong, but the seaspray was warm and we all laughed as we were drenched by the waves again and again. Norm kept saying “this is the best sail ever!” as we all worked together to learn how to handle the craft in heavy weather. As we rounded the island the wind died a little and we pulled into a cove in nearby Ile Tintamarre for lunch and a swim.

We made it back to Grand Cove for the festival. We ate barbecue, watched dancing girls in a parade, sifted through tourist trash looking for island gems. Based on our experience with the (so called) music of the night before, we had agreed to a short night sail around the corner of the island back to Marigot bay for the night.

I hadn’t gotten on to the Internet that day and was too tired to head for shore. Sleep was definitely better but the high winds made the rocking a bit more severe then I would have liked.


We woke up to exciting news. We were headed out to open sea for an all day sail in very heavy weather. We were going to an island called Statia, short for Saint Eustatius, and would be required to chart a course, follow it, and navigate across open water. This was real Sailing. This is what we had come for.

Seven hours later, drenched, sore, exhausted, and exhilarated, we anchored off the coast of an island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. We could just make out the outlines of a Volcano. I thought about the sailors who might have come upon this island for the first time hundreds of years ago in search of treasure. I checked my phone to see if there might be open wireless here. It said just “Searching…”

I went to my cabin and pushed aside some of the wrinkled, damp clothes on my bed. Everything gets wet. Change your clothes, come up on deck, and within an hour they are wet with seawater and sweat. Clean clothes are an anomaly. Most of us wore the same shorts and tee shirts for several days. Deodorant was a waste of time. My shaver, having depleted its charge, was useless and I was unwilling to ask Joe for yet another space on his adapter.

The boat rolled on the waves all night long. Perhaps eventually, I thought, I would learn to sleep in this.


Each of the islands in the Caribbean are more than islands, they are countries, and each has their own Customs and Immigration departments that require identification, mundane details, declarations, fees, and passports. Some of the most annoying times of the adventure were spent standing in line waiting for bored government workers to look up from their highly important tasks to point out the mistakes we had made in filling in details. Statia was the worst.

Eventually we freed ourselves from the clutches of the bureaucracy, rented a clown car (as a kid at the circus, I used to love the bit where where the tiny little room-for-one car drives up and a dozen clowns get out of it), and wandered around an island of about 2000 people. we climbed to the top of the volcano where we were greeted by a wild chicken who came running at the sound of candy-wrappers to beg a piece of cracker or granola bar. The hike was calf-burning but the view from the top was spectacular. Somehow we managed to get lost on an island with approximately one road. we stopped a few times to ask directions from groups of locals who are probably, at this moment, telling their friends about “deese four whiite boys, dey pull up stuffed in dere tiny car axeing where de resteraant…” We found some open wireless that allowed a spotty connection if we stood in a certain corner of the parking lot. A few emails trickled through, all junk, and I was able to say “Hi” to my office. Several friends were online and all wanted to know how my trip was going. It would have taken too long to answer each one. The connection died and solved my problem.

We visited the Botanical Gardens and rushed back into town so we could get back to customs before they closed. Had we missed that window, we would have unable to leave the island until the next day and causing us to miss our plane. They didn’t care. “dats jus da whey we do tings here.”

We got back to the boat after dinner but nobody was thinking about sleep. Our plan tonight was to night-sail back to St Martin.

Night sailing is very different from sailing during the day. Night sailing in rough seas with howling winds is typically avoided. Norm had trained us well, though, and knew we could do it. We tethered ourselves to the boat with body harnesses and jack lines so that even if we were to be thrown off the boat we would not be lost at sea. Norm required that the tethers be hooked to the boat whenever we were on deck.

Leaving the harbor at night is careful work. It requires a keen awareness of what each of the lights mean on the horizon. Is it a ship at anchor? A channel buoy? A danger buoy? A boat crossing our path, heading toward or away from us? Requiring right of way? We skirted anchored tankers and unidentified vessels and made it into a thrashing, only slightly moonlit, open sea.

Joe took first watch at the helm while George and I tried to sleep. we would need to rotate watches, one hour on, two hours off. Norm pointed out the Big Dipper and explained that it turned at about fifteen degrees per hour and was an easy way to tell the time. Norm intended to sleep if not needed. The ability to sleep underway is a skill that must be mastered by nighttime sailors. George was successful. I was not.

I was to be second watch. I went down to my cabin. From what I am told, the wind hit almost 40 knots at one point, tossing the boat around like a cat in a clothes dryer. More accurately, the boat was being skillfully sailed… I was being tossed around in my cabin like the unlucky cat. Unable to sleep and with a hint of nausea, I came up on deck about 15 minutes before my shift began and sailed the next hour in only slightly calmer winds.

Because of the strength of the wind, we got back to St Martin a few hours earlier than expected and anchored in Simpson Bay. Perhaps because I finally beginning to adapt, or maybe because I was completely exhausted, I was able to sleep for what was left of the night.


Friday morning belonged to the bureaucrats again as we checked ourselves off the boat, onto the island, then off the island to the airport. Customs at the docks required that they see a copy of my airline ticket off the island. I explained that I didn’t have a printed copy because I was E-Ticketed and would get the ticket at the airport. “dere’s Internet cross da street. Go dere, print choor ticket, an’ coom back here. Dats da whey we do tings here.”

Joe and I walked to the business center a few blocks away to print out our tickets. I thought about checking email, but didn’t bother. I didn’t feel like I really needed to.

We cleared our stuff out of the boat and got it ready for the next crew that would be sailing with Norm. I wondered about the next person who would sleep, or try to sleep, in my cabin. I felt a twinge of ‘mine’ about the boat and knew I would be thinking about Ti Zeff in the coming days. Norm told us a lot of stories about his past cruises. I wondered what parts of our adventures would be remembered and retold.

We said our “goodbyes” to what have become very familiar faces. We’ll be getting together in Boston in a week or so and I’m looking forward to it.


It’s 10 AM. I’m sitting on my couch drinking coffee that’s not quite as good as Norm’s, looking out at the freezing snow that was so far away just a few days ago. My bed was still and I slept well. The ever present slapping of the halyard on the mast has been replaced by the soft ticking of my grandfather clock. My calves are a nicely sore from the hike up the volcano. I haven’t checked my email yet this morning and may not for a little while.

I don’t feel like I need to.