Lightning Strikes and Looking for Santa in Trinidad

The last four months have again been hectic. Aside from writing a book and preparing a 35tonne boat for an ocean crossing (criss-crossing) of 6000nautical miles we have had time for little else. The indulgence of working in the riverine environment of the Orinoco, with her laconic natural chorus and gentle lapping wavelets was left well and truly behind us as we returned to what lay in store in Trinidad – a nation of only 1.5million people but somehow they make their presence felt to the tune of 10million. Trinis, like all Caribbean nationals, are terrified of the quiet and have innumerable ways of preventing it from ever happening. Newly emerged jungle dwellers and seabird surveyors (aka Kath and Dave) don’t much like noise. Not a match made in heaven…..

the anti-orinoco. . .

no match for our kayak

Trinidad was as frustrating as we thought it may be. It’s a complex place wherein, like many developing countries on the cusp of developed status, a two tier society is highly evident. The yachting community arrived, decided they’d like to stay a while because it was blustery outside (i.e. north of Trinidad islands can be effected by Hurricanes – Trindad south of 12 degrees N is seen as safe), spent lots of money on nice shiny things, but didn’t trust that the Trini selling them to him gave him the right change. On the other hand the Trinis didn’t actually really invite the yachtie, they were much more interested in the promiscuous girl from the oil industry who had seen the world and didn’t require dinner under candle light to be coaxed into bed. That’s unfortunate because they could have got on well if everybody had been invited in. Unfortunately though only a few of the Trinis really wanted the yachts there because they would spend silly amount of money. Only 2 miles away the locals seem to have missed out on the trickle down of cash and all they see are very rich people with very big frowns on there faces in Taxis. So they rob them on occasion which is rather bad sport but they dislike them so much that its justifiable to them. The yachtie, in response (or in preparation?), digs a deeper furrow in his forehead, clutches his bag a little closer and sends out a highly toxic vibe to all and sundry.

friendly chat in chag.

Lista nesstled with the vultures, so to speak

So Trinidad has a little problem with yachts. On the other hand when one sheds the boaty cloak and heads to the interior a very different place exists. Parrots fly overhead, maxi taxi drivers yelp and honk their horns, loafing youths do what loafing youths do do, sexy mommas shoe horn every available bit of glistening black flesh into strips of lycra, old ladies cuss the weather and open up into toothless, gaping smiles, a burgeoning middle class look impeccable on their daily merry-go-round and complain about the heat (which I still find bizarre), and no-where else in the world have I found a people more willing to smile, cheesy but genuinely true. And then there is the multicultural mix.

The scene is a chinese takeaway. The Indian shouts “hey Chini, I wan reeeess wi dat” to the Chinese man running his take-away, who shouts “hey black man, yah chaaawn mein, he don”. The black man shouts “hey white man, why you no say nuthin?”, the white man realizes that the black man wasn’t really that pissed off at all at him and smiles widely, but still feels very inhibited about shouting “hey, black man” back – but does so anyway and it feels ok. Everybody shouts. A hefty fellow walks in, “Hey, fat man, you ha too mush already!!!”, and woe betide you should arrive with any physical affliction, or have been generous with you eating lately. It will be noticed, and regurgitated verbally, loudly, for all to hear. The Trini, of any creed, says what he sees.

last outreach session in our floating classroom

Up against it.

The Atlas rolled on, as did our deadline to leave Trinidad and start to prepare for a South Pacific voyage to the roaring forties, an area of ocean bestowed with some reputation in history for mountainous waves and howling Westerly gales. A friend of my parents’, Jeremy Burnett, words sat heavily on my mind “There must be no question about the boat”. She has to be strong. We did have questions and so entered yet another maintenance phase to see if we could build confidence in her old timbers.

Lightning strikes On the self imposed deadline for completing the Atlas, Lista hummed with electrical and creative energy – Kath in the Saloon taking the whole table with a gazillion books to reference and cross-check, I was wedged into the study creating digital maps of the seabird locations. The weather is typically the same in the Trinidad. Nice quiet mornings, building to thundery showers in the afternoon, replaced by calm evenings.

look at all those tall masts

So we were not at all alarmed as the skies built around our churring aqua-office. Neither were we alarmed at the sound of distant thunder. Lista Light has a mast of 48 feet, made of wood, and we were surrounded by 100 other boats, a mix of plastic and steel vessels with masts reaching to the stars, shrouded by tall hills on three side, all much better grounding points for lightning than little old us. Then a loud crack got our attention – but only briefly. There was electricity in this thunderstorm. No drama, just a cursory look to the anchor to check we were not being pulled about by the gusts. As we settled once more BANG. Ears ringing, a flash arc’ed over the saloon, then nothing. I knew from that instant we had, against all odds, taking the hit. My left ear was ringed loudly and was to give a clue to where the strike had hit us. Quickly Kath made a check of the floor sections to ascertain we weren’t leaking and I ran to the engine room to investigate the smoke and smell. The scene was not dramatic in the least. A bit of a whiff and some light grey smoke. Kath came back to confirm we at least hadn’t blown a hole through a skin-fitting, but with some bits of plastic on the floor asking where they were from. It turned out the lightning had struck us and travelled inboard through the point where the bowsprit “whisker” stays connect to the side of the hull. It had earthed down to the sea leaving a scotch mark on the outside of the hull, but also, and unfortunately, popped into the cabin via the lighting circuit and blown all the fittings on the starboard side clean off the wall.

sheer force burned our electrics completely

I like the way Katharine describes the aftermath best. She said “ It’s like somebody has been in our house with us”. And it’s true. The phenomenon is like having another worldly being in with you. A destructive beast. The electrical and static energy in the atmosphere was felt by people 300m away at the shore who knew a boat must have be struck. I made a quick inventory of which of the boats electrical systems had been effected.

force of impact/current exploded the wall fitting

This blog is no place for such an inventory suffice to say anything electrical and expensive was destroyed. Total bill? c.£3000 for a DIY fix it job. ow. We could have done without the extra work but I suppose it’s a terrific experience to have encountered first hand.

A little respite from boat was called for, so we called for Farah and James. Farah is a Trini who Kath met outside of the boat world and outside the seabird world, a real friend! We had hooked up last year very briefly but too briefly. This year we all needed a break from our various toils (us Atlas/Boat, Farah getting ready to emigrate and closing out her job, and James writing a book on Brian Lara) and sought refuge in each other.

charming couple

Farah is stunning girl, cheerful and bright (and showed us how to eat termites), only vices seem to be too much cleaning of dishes and too much looking after people (rather than planet – surely her calling). James is “our man in…..” Trinidad, a life in the BBC World Service beckons. He is instantly accommodating and can drink a decent pace, his vice being cricket (and not helping Farah enough with domestic toils, tut tut James).

vital r and r at chez farah n james, in the rain

We decided to be silly and irresponsible and drink too much and dance oddly. It was absolutely fantastic. We all flew. The music was full and furious, the drinks flowing and my head…. Spinning. Odd feeling. Oh dear. Drink for the guys and an extra drink for the bar (me) routine no longer working. The scene in the morning was rather morbid. James and Farah who live in a rather proper gated complex had a 6’4” reprobate determined to lie out on the front lawn much to their grave embarrassment and shame of the neighbours. I had been ill too (much as a 16yr old would be). I was mortified. This could have served as the great awaking as to life post booze – a great night but at too great a cost in terms of time lost. I haven’t drunk in excess since- truly!

how not to lift a wooden boat

Back to the boat. We hauled her out once more – it really went quite badly as the weight of the boat was shuffled between two straps. She is a sea creature and this process isn’t kind. This time the yard had determined they should lift her on crossed straps which effectively put 15 tonnes onto each of the two points. That’s an awful thing to do to a 75yr old boat. We would normally use at least 4 separate straps. They did it without us knowing, as the straps were under the water as we floated on against a strong side current. The effect, plus multiple lift and drops to get the positions right (on one occasion at a 20deg tilt!!!) was that she cracked quite a few seams and added significantly to the workload.

a great man and friend

We had some big aspirations as to the work, and worked furiously amongst a slightly eccentric crowd. There was Bob – a lovely but complex man who could easily be misunderstood. He has a great mind and is highly spiritual, but unfortunately has had to struggle with health issues of both body and mind – as with all the great people in life. He seems well though – and we enjoyed his company immensely – and he ours, so we shared fresh oatcakes during our breakfast meetings and he shared his thoughts.

he didnt get this big on fruit juice alone . . .

There was the fisherman next door who often presented only his burgeoning buttocks over his side rail. Industry was slow on that ship probably due to the slightly aromatic nature of his daily “cigarette” but he was a warm man, generous too. He provided me drill bits, Kath provided him a healthy fruit shake which I’m not too sure what he made of. Certainly he didn’t reach his proportions on a diet of fruitshakes.


wonderful Sarah who smiled us through it all

Then there was Chuck – a stoic, bi-polar yard manager who warned me he would cause us a delay and charge extra well before we hauled out. He said all the yards would but only he would tell us he was going to in advance. We went to him because I appreciated his honesty. There was a glint in his eye too and I though he would enjoy our project. I told him, “yes chuck, and you will initially scorn us, then realise after a week we might just have a clue and admire our effort at very minimum, then by the time we go you’ll have grown to really like us and offer us a huge discount”. It’s happened at the last two yards so I felt confident. I was wrong!!! Not much interest – Trinis of any creed don’t have much warmth towards old fashioned things, but certainly friendship. No discount – Trinis only ever take 10% off if they have put 20% on before.

guardian angels, dennis and gill

Finally, but best of all, Tea-bag. Te Bheag, I mean. Of all the places to meet kindred outdoor fell-running spirits one would not expect a dusty boatyard in the Caribbean. But it was so. Gill and Dennis were our sort of people and we quickly spent every available moment with them – cooking, deliberating, watching films in the Lista Light home cinema, mostly hours of chatting, running. We adored them, vital people. They were truly generous too in our time of need so we leave indebted to them.

75% injury rate – Para Olympics. We completed some big jobs during that 3 weeks, before Lista insisted she see the water again before she would crack up completely in the fierce sun. The biggest job was adding a metal keel to her, a project to prevent the voracious Toredo navalis ship worm from making any ingress. It involved a lot of work we hadn’t tried before involving manually lifting the whole boat (– it can be done, promise!) and some welding. Proper boy jobs, I was delighted.

getting the hang of things

new protective keel bedded in with gunk

Kath on the eco-gas run

Then our luck changed – I was careless and put a significant portion of my left digit into the Makita Planer. That really hurts – its meant for shaving down Oak, it made small change of quite a bit of skin and nerve, thankfully no bone or ligaments. The upshot was that after a day in the hospital (wonderful, wonderful folk there, and another story entirely involving Kath being called into action to swab a mans gun-shot wound in the operating theatre we were sharing) and two nights in agony we were delayed. Kath worked busily to fill the gap until, in haste, she dropped a 100kg plank on her hand and it inflated to the size of the proverbial balloon. Careless times two.

tweedle dum and tweedle dee

Not to worry, two young guys who wanted a ride to Bonaire pitched up to help us get going, and but some strange coincidence, the girl too had lost the use of one arm to a broken wrist a week before. So we were to be three-quarters disable on the crew of this next sailing leg.

when we ask for a mand - we got … a hand

Looking for Santa.

At this festive time, and in relatively dire straits there is only one course of action for a one-armed team trying to re-caulk a big boat – we looked for Santa. The bizarre nature of the task coupled with the Trinis latent light heartedness made this a comic interlude to our dry labouring days. Talking to anyone with an eye on the wooden boat scene to find somebody to help us change planks and get lista going, only one name consistently can up, and it was that of a gentleman named “Santa”. I really needed Santa. Santa was reputed to be the best wood worker in Trinidad and perhaps the only man able to perform big wood projects. Through his slow conjugations (he was renowned for being very slow and but equally as thorough) he had managed to sprout a tremendous beard, and through his years the beard had turned white and so he became famed as Santa. There was no talk of reindeers or sleighs, though no doubt that would be a simple task for a man of his credibility, but we needed him, and his little elves, fast as our boat baked in the Trini sunshine.

Off I went looking for Santa. I asked first of all in the woodshops, amongst the dust and shavings – this would surely be the place. In November, the run up to Christmas, the conversations I was having to track down the fellow became increasingly abstract.

“Hi, good morning”
“gd morning”
“I need to find a man called Santa, do you know him?”
“yes, a man called Santa, big beard, no sleigh”.
“You lookin for Santa, noooo, you a month too early, he don com til december!!!!!” smirk.
“yes, yes, But I heard he was here, one of the guys at the yard referred me to you”…..
“well, have you been a good boy this year??”
Ok ok ok. Lets get to business.
“I have. And the only thing on my Chrstmas list is Santa and a bloody big caulking hammer. Have you seen him”
More giggles. I’m not getting to far. “Aaaah, dat Santa, de boss may know where he is”….
Ring ring – the questions gets asked. I wait trying to glean from the heavy trini accents whether we are in luck. “oooh….uh-oh, ooo, uuh-huh, o”. phone down. “De ting is, Santa gone loco. We no know where he be, tink Grenada, but he gone loco, quite crazy, having some problems”. Bugger.

Alas after two days trying to track him down there was a certain relief to knowing the parameters of our little problem, we would have to just set-to ourselves. A slightly deranged but very strong man going through some mental crisis wielding a large hammer was probably not going to improve our chances or returning to the water as quickly as we’d like. With Santa no longer on my Christmas list we got back to business with a new resolve. “Rest by Work” as the saying goes. Some days later, with the archangels from Te Bheag coming to our rescue, Lista plopped back into the water and pointed her nose towards Bonaire to meet a man about a parrot.

Dennis at work

Tales of parrots in Bonaire and transitting the legendary Panama canal to follow. We have 3 months of food to stow for our big voyage in the South Pacific and the real Santa is due tomorrow . . .