Blue everywhere & Antarctica Ocean’s I’M WATCHING campaign

The Blue Ocean Film Festival is just around the corner, only a week away! Today the winner for the “How Do I See the Ocean” Google contest was announced. The chosen video is from Ben and Teresa of “Sailing Simplicity & the Pursuit of Happiness“.  The timing could have not been more perfect for them as they will also celebrate their honeymoon, after tying the knot last August.

On another note, besides being published on the EPIC blog, my posts from reporting live during the festival will appear on the SeaMonster Blog and the Speak Up for the Blue website. Make sure to follow my twitter handle EPIConservation for live updates.

Finally, for Antarctica Ocean Alliance‘s campaign, I’M WATCHING, I will be teaming up with AOA’s Communication Director Blair Palese to photograph the festival’s attendees and make them “Watchers”. The campaign is an attempt to influence the anticipated and much debated CCAMLR meeting which will decide on some crucial conservation issues for Antarctica and its surrounding ocean.

The campaign is fantastic in the way that it goes beyond the simple and outdated process of a petition. Teaming up with Instagram, and using our society’s best friend, the smart phone, people all over the world are invited to snap a photo of themselves either with a pair of binoculars or making a circle over the eye. The message is simple – telling the parties involved with CCAMRL that the world is watching. Make sure to join the watch! (#JoinTheWatch)

Blue Ocean Film Festival

Nothing better to kick off the return to work than attending the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monterey, coming up on September 24th. As previously done with the International Polar Year 2012, I will be reporting and keeping you in the loop as the festival goes on. This year will certainly be incredible with an amazing long list of “Ocean Stars” – Prince Albert of Monaco, James Cameron, Bob Talbot, Doug Allan, Robert Ballard, Andy Brandy Casagrande IV, Celine Cousteau, Fabien Cousteau, Jean Michel Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, Don Walsh and so many others. Make sure to tune in as tweets, photos and daily updates will be featured on this blog.

In the meantime, watch below my video statement done specifically for the festival “How do you see the ocean” contest.

Tlingit

The Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers are gathered outside in the hall of the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, dressed in their regalia. Their drums, made with a moose hide and painted with motifs whose century-old designs, quiver with hypnotizing resonance every time the padded stick hits them. Their moose leather moccasins, embroidered with thousands of multicolored beads – all sewed by hand, one by one, are adorned with fluffy hare fur that whoosh with each move. From their cedar hats, several small snow ermine pelts hang loose and create a bright white streak when moved rapidly. Around their knees and at the bottom of their robes or button blankets, long fringes dance like the leaves on a Peking Willow, shoved around by a fierce wind, giving a whirlwind optic illusion. Singing in their native tongue, they announce to the waiting crowd that the ceremony is about to begin and beat their drums like the stomping hooves of a herd of caribou. In a long crescendo, the rumble grows louder and louder, like an approaching storm. The percussions turn into the roar of thunder pounding its way through. Their singing cracks through the atmosphere like lightning. The walls might be vibrating and the ground might be shaking, but the crowd of First Nation people waiting inside the great hall knows this is no regular storm; it is a storm of change, the return of a long lost tradition. This is their cultural phoenix reclaiming its legacy, its place, as the pillar of their ancestral identity. The crowd is ecstatic. It is time to celebrate!

A Fortunate Encounter 
I met Marilyn Jensen, the leader of the dance group last May in Montreal, during the International Polar Year Conference. They had just performed, leaving me mesmerized and with so many questions that I had to meet them and find out more. Although we talked at length about their performance and today’s struggles and challenges for the indigenous communities of Canada, called First Nations, it was our mutual love of folkloric art and my fascination for Native mythology that bonded us.

Marilyn Jensen (right) & members of the Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers

Marilyn Jensen (right) & members of the Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers

From the Inland Tlingit and Tagish Nations, Marilyn was born in Whitehorse, Yukon, in Northern Canada. Her village, Carcross, whose name stands for Caribou Crossing, is known for its 4,500-year-old aboriginal artifacts that were found some years ago. Her clan, the Dakl’ aweidi, an ancestral name that means “People of the Black Sands”, belongs to the Wolf/Eagle moiety (one of two groups within a culture). The Dakla’weidi crest is the Killerwhale. With a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Alaska and a Masters in Indigenous Governance from the University of Victoria in Canada, Marilyn worked for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Council for Yukon First Nations. Today, beside teaching Indigenous Governance at the Yukon College, she dances, manages and is the group leader for the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers.

Her mother, Doris McClain is the matriarch of her lineage and former Chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. It is no surprise that Marilyn is a key player in her community’s cultural revival. Her mother started a dance group back in the 1970‘s, where her own children danced. For several decades, she was extremely active and vocal on the necessity for her people to preserve, honor and recapture their ancestral heritage. Now it is Marilyn who is carrying on her mother’s work, fulfilling a dream that has been in the works for many years. To say that courage, strength, and dedication runs within the family is an understatement. These women are empowered with an energy that defies any norms, as if through them, their ancestors were channeling their powers and making them heralds for the return of the lost Inland Tlingit identity.

A couple of weeks after our encounter, she contacted me telling me that there was to be a very special and historical event coming up in Whitehorse. Trust me she said, “You definitely don’t want to miss it!” The event in question was the re-raising of the Dakl’ aweidi Keét Hít (Killerwhale House), which had been burned by the Anglicans over one hundred years ago. It was to be a milestone in the revitalization of the Inland Tlingit/Tagish community, something almost unheard of. The occasion was so unique that several Tlingit chiefs from the Alaska coast were traveling to attend it, reigniting a long-lost tribal custom. In the old days, traveling long distances to visit other clans was not only common but necessary for maintaining good relationships and trade deals. But when the territorial border between Canada and the United States of America along the pacific northwest coast of America was created, the Tlingit territory was literally cut in two, making any communication or movement between the Inland and Coastal Tlingit a challenge.

To be invited at a historical cultural ceremony was not to be taken lightly, so it was important for me to find out more about Marilyn’s past, her clan, about the Tlingit and why this event was so special.

Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancer

To Be Conquered 
Famous anthropologist Wade Davis once said: “Cultural survival is not about preservation, sequestering indigenous peoples in enclaves like some sort of zoological specimens. Change itself does note destroy a culture. All societies are constantly evolving. Indeed a culture survives when it has enough confidence in its past and enough say in its future to maintain its spirit and essence through all the changes it will inevitably undergo.” 

It is hard to imagine what assimilation means when you stand on the side of the perpetrator, when your people are the ones who conquered and took over new worlds. What is it like to loose your cultural identity? To be forbidden to practice and honor rituals that were passed down through many generations. What does it do to your spirit when you find yourself stripped of all liberties and possessions and outlawed to live the way you lived only yesterday?

How would we, dear modern citizens of this world, react if what we took for granted, what we called “Our World” and “Our Rights”, were taken away from us? Surely we would fight. Surely we would defend ourselves. Confronting this new and challenging situation we might even find added value and turn it all around, giving it a positive twist. God knows that this nation of builders and fighters has what it takes to do so. Our optimism, and Hollywood, love to believe that our ability to overcome the impossible ultimately always triumphs – aren’t we a society of winners? In reality, history has many more losers than winners and in the end, against a force that is simply too great to resist, would we accept assimilation for the sake of survival? Or would we go down in blazing glory and take our pride to the grave?

Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, Whitehorse, Canada

In America, for thousands of years, indigenous societies lived in a relatively constant environment. Life was of course not easy – survival is a strenuous task and nature is unforgiving, but overall, their world was a stable reality in which one only needed to find a safe way to eat and a safe place to sleep. When the Europeans arrived, and officially terminating what anthropologists refer to as the Pre-Columbian Era, everything changed.

Colonization is a positive term that explains the process of a group of individuals taking possession of a new place. Although our semantic and politically correct system indicates otherwise, the truth is that when that place is already occupied by a different group, colonization turns into conquest. Our righteousness with history is so deeply rooted that on Wikipedia, the word “Conquest” is mainly associated with military subjugation, with no mention of the assimilation of the indigenous North Americans. In fact, when talking about “Conquering America” we allude to the Spanish invasion and the disappearance of the Aztec-, Inca- and Mayan empires. But when we talk about the Apache, the Navajo, the Tlingit, the Iroquois, the Cherokee, the Cree, the Inuit, the Sioux, the Blackfeet, or the Comanche, we then choose to refer to the colonization of North America. Our literature might fool us into thinking that what happened was for the good of everyone, but the truth remains, for the Native Americans, the Europeans conquered their territories and forced them to assimilate by taking away their culture, livelihood, and self determination. Over the course of the several hundred of years, the indigenous peoples saw their numbers decimated by wars and diseases and their land possessions dwindle to a fraction of what they were, while their culture became outlawed and gradually disappeared.

Blanket

300-year old Chilkat blanket

In Canada, this process culminated with the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869. These bills made it mandatory for indigenous people to fall in line with the system. The bills came to be known as the “Enfranchisement of the Indians”. To be enfranchised, any “Indian” over twenty-one years of age, had to speak, read and write either English or French, be well educated, of good moral character and free of debt if they were to receive “a piece of land not exceeding fifty acres out of the lands reserved or set apart for the use of his tribe, as allotted by the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, and a sum of money equal to the principal of his share of the annuities and other yearly revenues receivable by or for the use of such tribe”. Incredible since under such rules, half of the Europeans would have not even qualify for anything!

All enfranchised “Canadians” were required to choose a new surname that needed to be approved by appointed commissioners, by which they would become legally known. The wife and descendants of the enfranchised man would also be enfranchised, and would no longer be considered members of the former tribe. Finally, in 1876, the Federal Government of Canada passed the Indian Act, stripping the indigenous people of any rights over how to handle their lives and giving Canada exclusive authority to legislate in relation to “Indians and Land Reserved for Indians”. 

The assault on the First Nations’ cultural heritage didn’t stop there. In a letter to the Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald on the 27th of October 1879, Indian Reserve Commissioner Gilbert Malcolm Sproat reported that the potlatch, an indigenous cultural ceremony, was:

“… the parent of numerous vices, which eat out the heart of the people. It produces indigence, thriftlessness, and habits of roaming about which prevent home association and is inconsistent with all progress. The potlatch directly causes a large amount of prostitution common among the Coastal Tribes and is directly opposed to the inculcation of industriousness or moral habits.” 

“River Corridor”, Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse

In 1885, six years after Sproat’s condemning letter, and after much pressure from Missionaries, always with the intent to “civilize” the “Natives”, an amendment was added to the Indian Act prohibiting cultural events, such as “potlatches”. Pushing even further, in 1895, the Act was again amended so that all dances, ceremonies and festivals that involved the giving away of money or goods, were to be outlawed.

Much has changed since – the Potlatch ban was repealed in 1951, but the Indian Act remains to this day the basic foundation for the relationship between the First Nations and the Federal Government.

Despite the tragic and disastrous effect the arrival of the European had on the indigenous communities’ cultural identity some centuries ago, it seems that remnants of their heritage survived. Against all odds, a strong movement, both in the United States of America and in Canada, has been active in reviving their culture, bringing back long forgotten ceremonies and the practice of traditional art – for a much awaited revitalization of their ancestral identity.

Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancer

The Tlingit, a Powerful People 
The Tlingit, a name that translates into “People of the Tides”, were once powerful hunter-gatherers with a structured and complex society. Established on the pacific northwest coast of America, their origin is directly linked to the “First Americans” whom migrated from Asia over the Bering Strait, some 15,000 years ago. Unfortunately, being a society that transmitted knowledge through oral traditions, much of their millennial existence has been lost through the assimilation process and what we know today of their history, culture, customs, and lifestyle comes from accounts written after the arrival of the Russians and Europeans, circa 1740. However to the Tlingit themselves, all of their history is remembered through their oral traditions, at.oow (clan owned possessions) and within the collective memories of their elders and Ancestors.

Benefiting from a rich and bountiful world, where salmon and seals abounded, these coastal people were important traders. Although wealth was valued in some ways, it was the ability to share and good ethics that made social status. Of matriarchal lineage and aristocratic, kinship was fundamental not only for internal governance but also for keeping good relations with other tribes and forging trade alliances. One of the most comprehensive studies of the Tlingit people was done by Lieutenant George Emmons of the United States Navy, who was stationed in Alaska in the 1880s and 1890s. After he passed away, the American Museum of Natural History commissioned American anthropologist and former professor emeritus of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, Frederica de Laguna to take over Emmons’ work and complete his unfinished encyclopedia. The results were finally published in 1991 in a 530-page book titled “The Tlingit Indians”. Today, it is considered by many to be a very important resource available on the Tlingit people.

at.oow (clan owned possessions)

The HÍt (clan lineage house) was the most important unit within the social structure. Part cultural center, part political arena and part spiritual retreat, the clan house was also where all the clan’s possessions were stored, under the care of a hít s’aatí (caretaker). It was where trade issues were discussed, where kinship matters were dealt with, where marriages were held and where births and deaths were celebrated and mourned. The houses were laboriously decorated with carvings and ornaments, representing their clan association, moiety and history. Today, just a few authentic HÍt can be found on the coast of Alaska, in Saxman, near Ketchikan, Haines, Klukwan, and Angoon. One of the most important, the Chief Shakes Tribal House, located on Wrangell Island, was destroyed in 1869 by the US Navy. An exact replica of the 19th century building was built in 1940 and today, the house is undergoing extensive conservation work financed by the Rasmuson Foundation. The clan house in Sitka, built in 1997 is a modern rendition but has successfully kept its historical integrity.

The Koo.éex (Potlatch) was and remains at the core of the Tlingit culture and economic system. The word Potlatch is believed to originate from the Chinook jargon, a mix of indigenous languages with European words. While Koo.éex, which translates to “giving”, is defined in the modern dictionary “as an opulent ceremonial feast at which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige”, in reality, it is far more than that. While the HÍt is the physical location where all affairs are conducted, Koo.éex represents the structure and process, the spirit with which these matters are orchestrated. In some ways, it could be said that simply it is a form of ceremonial syntax, to be applied to any ceremony or meeting held in the clan house. More than a mere “feast” the Koo.éex embodies the Tlingit’s values and code of ethics. And it is precisely for this reason that it was seen as a direct threat to the mission to assimilate and convert the indigenous tribes.

Split Raven chief from Alaska dancing at the Potlatch

While dancing, singing, speech making, conducting protocols and gifting are the manners in which Koo.éex is executed, its structure is based around the principles of sharing and reciprocity. Originally, it was also often used as a tool to gain social status. Culturally, the social status of a clan or individual was based not on possessions, but on the capacity to give away and share. This principle was important for the redistribution and reciprocity of wealth, a strategy crucial for keeping good trading relationships with other clans. This aspect was contrary to, and totally clashed with the European Christian capitalist system. It was impossible for the colonists to comprehend how people could work so hard and then give everything away, almost bankrupting themselves in the process. This misunderstanding only reinforced their loathing of the indigenous culture. Today, although the grandeur of the Koo.éex has decreased, it is still an important ceremony and practiced amongst the First Nations of the Northwest Coast communities.

Rising From The Ashes 
Tagish is a short drive east of Carcross, on Road 8, passed Chootla and Crag Lake. Sitting on the banks of the Six Mile River, the small community, whose name means “fish trap” in Athapaskan, was an important First Nation trading settlement, serving as a middle point between the coastal and inland peoples. Today, besides being a fishing heaven for Lake Trout, Arctic Grayling and Northern Pike, it is mostly known as, along with Carcross, one of the villages of Skookum Jim, Patsy Henderson and Dawson Charlie, all credited to having discovered the gold that led to the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1800’s.

Chilkat Blanket “Frog Coming Out of the Den” belonging to the Kiks.adi clan of Sitka

Right after the Tagish River bridge, to the right, near the campground, is where, about one hundred years ago, the Dakl’ aweidi HÍt was turned to ashes. There are no ruins or remnants of any structure that could give clues as to its exact location, only rumors and memories. Besides the knowledge passed down from the great great parents, a very few accounts point to the existence of the building – “As mentioned, the nineteenth century Daql’awedi house at Tagish was called either kit hit or gotc Hit.” (McClellan, My Old People Say, 453.)

The Tagish clan house was burned down in a final and desperate attempt by the Anglicans to crush the Tlingit’s fighting spirit. On the premise that if you destroyed the “Indian’s Temple”, the “Natives” would be forced to let go, convert, and embrace a new god. But the spirit of these Kwáan (people/nation) that has lived for thousands of years managed to survived this last century. The walls of their clan house might have been reduced to dust, washed away by the rain and returned to the ground, but their identity, their Haa latseení (people’s strength – body, mind & spirit) never truly disappeared. Just like a dormant seed, waiting for the right time, nurtured by the soil and surrounding elements, gathering its forces before it re-flourished. Just like a dormant volcano, seemingly quiet and subdued, buried forever in a prison of rock, but when ready, will explode and no forces on earth will be able to stop it.

Members of the Deisheetaan Clan, Raven Moiety.

On a large patch of tall grass, surrounded by pines, through which the river can be seen flowing, two groups are facing each other. On one side, the Dakl’ aweidi clan, from the Wolf/Eagle moiety, and on the other, chiefs and representatives from the Raven moiety. The gentle breeze and warm northern summer sun are good omen an elder confines to me, “The Ancestors are here” she concludes. Everybody is dressed in full regalia. Some of the outfits have literally been taken out of museums especially for the occasion. One of them worn by a Raven Chief, is a 300-year old Chilkat blanket that is normally on display at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. Another precious artifact, brought by a Killerwhale Chief in Juneau, is a Tlingit dagger. From around 1650 to 1700, the dagger was forged out of a meteorite by a man of the Dakl’ aweidi named Kucheesh (Dark Wolf). The display of priceless at.oow (a clan’s most prized collectively owned possession), more than a million US dollars in value, is a reminder to all of us present just how unique and important this event is.

Tlingit dagger from the 16th century

The ceremony is a series of exchanges and acknowledgements between the two moieties. The beauty and richness of the moment is not really about what is being said, but rather about what transpires. Everything revolves around the notions of respect, cooperation, honor, the care for the clan and the value put into the wisdom given by the Elders. The way they talk and address each other embodies these beliefs. As one of the Chiefs explained to me, whether by telling stories, or addressing the clan, talking is an act of reciprocity. There is an art to it. There is a rhythm, there are pauses and silences. There is a time to talk and a time to listen. There are times to ask and times to wait for an answer. You need to let your audience acknowledge what you are saying and let them participate. He confesses to me that this art is one of the most difficult ones to teach today and he is conscious on how hard it is for the younger generations who live in an exponentially fast world that is focused on the individual. He finds it hard to convince the young ones to emphasize the value of the clan and of the family while the society around them glamorizes self-indulgence, fame, and short-term gains. Right now however, to see these Elders, these Chiefs, conducting the ceremony and addressing each other with such respect is a treat. If only our own legislators and politicians did the same, I am sure that our world would certainly be in a better place…

Raven Chiefs

Chiefs from the Raven moiety in Alaska at the Dakl’ aweidi HÍt (clan house) raising ceremony

As the sun disappears past the tip of the trees, two Dakl’ aweidi matriarchs take a shovel and break the ground, turning the sacred soil around several times. A chief comes and kneels, rumbling his finger through the dirt. He thanks the Ancestors, the ones who have lived, prospered and died on this land for several thousands of years. Then taking a handful of the earth, he stands up and goes around giving some to everyone. This is a moment of utmost importance, by binding the past with the future, with what was and what will be, and by uniting the dead with the living, a legacy is created.

As each holds in his or her hands a piece of that legacy, a dance begins. Gently bending their knees and bringing their robes and blankets to their faces, the dancers hide their bodies and force the audience to focus on the visual display produced by their regalia. On their heads are “naa s’aaxhwu”, clan hats made of woods and featuring intricate carvings of their clan and history. Dakl’ aweidi “naa s’aaxhwu” all bear the iconic killer whale dorsal fin and by slowly rocking their heads from side to side, with an upward then downward motion, they transform themselves into a pod of killer whales swimming the sounds of the northern pacific coast.

Elders from the Dakl’ aweidi clan distributing the sacred soil

While the “killer whales” swim in a circle, on the very same ground where the clan house will be built, the rest of the group, one by one, sprinkles back the earth they had hold in their hands onto the Dakl’ aweidi dancers, this way connecting their ancestral coastal origins with their inland future.

As the ceremony comes to an end, final congratulations are made, handshakes are exchanged, and embraces are shared. Even though the sun has disappeared behind the mountains – the northern summer sky rarely gets dark before midnight, it has been a very long day and we are all starving. As if on cue, Marilyn announces that we are all to reconvene at her place for a real Tlingit feast!

Tobacco sprinkled on Killerwhale “naa s’aaxhwu”, (clan hats) to brings good luck.

A Time To Celebrate 
Sitting on the banks of the Yukon River, in Whitehorse, the recently built Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, is one of four First Nations cultural centers in Yukon. Designed to honor the river and its people, the building is made up of a series of rooms linked together by a very long hallway, called the “River Corridor”. The front of the building is curved to illustrate the river’s sinuous flow while the off-white rock emulates the natural clay bluffs that are prominent throughout the river valley. Inside are several event rooms, conference rooms, cultural exhibits, an elder room and a spiritual sacred room. It is in the main room that today’s potlatch, a celebration for yesterday’s raising of the clan house, is being held.

Only 60 years ago, the ban on Potlatch was lifted. The Second World War had ended in 1945, yet the First Nations were still forbidden to celebrate their cultural heritage. In 1951, while the Americans and Canadians were busy watching Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn on the big screen, the First Nations celebrated the ratification of the Indian Act, making “attempts to pursue land claims and the use of religious ceremonies (such as potlatches) no longer prohibited by law”. For Marilyn’s mother, having grown up in an era of “prohibition”, these past couple of days have been like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. After years of repression, years of subdued existence and much effort spent keeping a dying culture alive, her people are finally coming together once again, just like in the old days.

Members of the Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers dancing at the Potlach

From two in the afternoon until midnight, and repeating the same manners witnessed yesterday, speeches are made, stories are sung, dances are performed, gifts are given, and clan names are appointed. Much like their people have done for thousands of years, these Inland Tlingit and Tagish are celebrating their cultural heritage and through it, acquiring the confidence needed to maintain its spirit and historical essence and assure its future.

Walking up to Marilyn, who is catching her breath after such a powerful entrance, I ask her if she ever thought it would come to this, as I point to the crowd, the dancers, the building, the chiefs from Alaska, her daughter who is dancing and her mother who is sitting still, overwhelmed by emotion. Trying to take everything in, she turns to me and I can see a tear lingering on the corner of her eyes. On her face, pride is radiating. This is not personal pride but rather the pride of a people that has finally found its promised land after such a long and treacherous journey.

“Thank you” she says to me. “I am really happy that you were here to see my family and learn more about our culture. It was an honor for us to have you with us.” Her modesty takes me by surprise and I insist that the honor is mine. I ask her if she thinks her grandmother would have been proud of this moment, and of her granddaughter. “She is, don’t worry. Very much so. She is here, along with our Ancestors. And they are really happy and proud of us!”

Goonaxcheesh!

Four generations of Tlingit First Nation

The Crossing

We were anchored in the Bay of Chaguaramas, just on the other side of St-Peters Bay, in Trinidad. Around us, the surface of the water was oily and with a metallic shimmer. The wind wandered around slowly and in all directions, and every time it came our way, it brought with it a diesel smell whose origin I couldn’t pinpoint. Maybe it was the exposed shipyard on the shore, where they were grinding metal all day, letting the iron dust fly and land on decks all around, turning into rust in just a few hours. Maybe it was from one of those beat-up boats that decided to empty its bilge in the water to avoid paying the legal fee and doing it the professional way. Who knows? Looking around the bay, I didn’t have enough fingers to count the possibilities where the leak could come from. Garbage kept floating by, pushed by the strong current, heading somewhere around the bay and out of sight. Trinidad was really not what I expected! During the taxi ride the day before, from the airport of Port of Spain, the island had looked like many other Caribbean places that struggle with too much growth and not enough structure. Everybody was driving a car, alone, and there were shops everywhere where one could buy any piece of plastic imaginable. Sadly, the whole place was looking rickety and dirty. Staring through the back seat window, I had wondered if this was really the promised land of economic growth?

I had flown there to join John, a friend of my girlfriend Jas, who owns a sailboat and with whom we were sailing across the Atlantic, to the Azores. Although we were to pick her up in St-Maarten, along with another guest, I had offered the captain to fly in a little earlier and help him sail from Trinidad. As I sat in the wheel-house and looked around at this dump, I was not sure anymore it had been such a good idea! The reason why we were down there, since the boat had been already in St-Maarten last week, was because of fuel. The captain had a connection, someone at a commercial station who would let him fill up his boat at the discounted price for locals, saving him more than half of the regular price. If you were ready to spend the day going back and forth in a little dinghy, carrying loads of heavy canisters of fuel and becoming all soiled with diesel, then you would be rewarded with savings in the thousands. Fortunately, this chore had been done before I arrived and to be honest, I don’t think I would have participated in something that in Trinidad & Tobago could result in jail time. John had told me that the plan was to spend another day or two here before heading back north to the Dutch Antilles. Looking over to the series of grungy marinas, I couldn’t say that I was thrilled of spending a night there, even less at the prospect of spending a couple of days, so I went down below into my cabin, put my headphones on and started dreaming of the Atlantic.

The first time I crossed the Atlantic was back in 2001 onboard M/Y Talithat-G, the Getty family’s private yacht. We had left London and were heading to St-Maarten when a gale forced us to take refuge in the protective bay of Corunna, in Spain. We sheltered there for a few days, waiting for the storm to pass, and once the forecast showed promising days ahead, we carried on and the rest of our 14-day crossing was smooth and flawless. My second crossing was again on a motor yacht, M/Y Leander, belonging to a friend of the Queen, Sir Donald Gosling. That time though, I headed east from St-Barth’s to Antibes in the Mediterranean. This third crossing was to be my first sailing trip across the Atlantic and it was something I was really looking forward to. The owner of the boat was an old friend of Jas’ with whom she had sailed through Magellan Strait and the Beagle Channel, around the island of Tierra Del Fuego, Patagonia, many years ago. His boat was a 54ft full keel sloop, custom made in Asia. Even though she showed signs of age, her new teak deck managed to shave years off her appearance, and gave her a much needed rejuvenated look. Overall she appeared to be in good shape.

While I lay in my bunk reading the first pages of a book I had chosen for the voyage, called “Seventh Journey” by Earl de Blonville on his expedition to Greenland, a nice aromatic smell of jasmine rice told me that dinner was being prepared. I took the cue and headed to the aft deck to set the table when a small dinghy appeared from the shadows and drove right up to us. Tying his little inflatable to our port side, the driver, without asking permission, hoisted himself onboard, then lit the cigarette that was hanging half wet, off his lips. After a long and almost endless drag, he finally exhaled a huge cloud of smoke that literally made his entire face disappear. The man wore only shorts, which were dirty of engine grease and scattered with holes made from, I could only assume, the burning ash of falling cigarettes. His belly, inappropriately disproportionate to the rest of his body, was the result of many decades of heavy beer drinking. His head was shaven and the light from the salon sparkled on his seemingly polished skull. His nose was not big, but edgy and pointy. Without a beard or mustache, his smoke-colored teeth blended with his dark,tanned skin. Slapping his abdomen with strength and pride, like a keg full of beer, he let out a blaring burp that resonated all the way down to the galley and announced his arrival. The captain peeked his head outside of the entrance and looked at the man who was now again lighting up his wet cigarette. “Hooyyyt!” the man said in a strong coarse Australian accent. John nodded slightly and disappeared to attend more important matters – like making sure that the rice didn’t burn! Taking another long cigarette drag, he looked at me and, his words chasing the smoke away said: “Hoyt! Did’ ya tell him?” “Tell him what?” the captain answered from inside the boat. “ ‘Bout thy Gold!”

Billy was an old sailing pal of the captain, the kind of friend you keep bumping into around the Caribbean anchorages. He and his family had been living on a 50ft boat for years. His last child, a boy, had been born on his boat, his wife giving birth on the kitchen table. “Me son’s strong wit broad shoulders lik’ mine, and you know why? Cause am th’ one who, sticking me fingers under his teeny arms, pull’d him out!” Although I gave him credit for his achievement, I had difficulties chasing this troubling image out of my head. While he constantly cursed, smoked like a chimney and had the manner of a pirate, his children were “home schooled” because, as he said: “thy system’s shite mate!” Not only didn’t he trust the system but he also disapproved of the values inculcated in school. Their sailboat was fitted with several flatscreen tv’s on which the children keep watching movies and playing video games. The several generators onboard kept breaking and were a constant source of endless stories on how the new repairs would boost superpowers which would make them so “cool”! Like a child who had just finished his first lego project and was full of pride, he told us that the freezer he had been working on lately would be able to go as low as minus 17 degree Celsius! I was not too sure why such freezing cold temperature was that important, but for Billy, it sure seemed to be. Deep down though, Billy has a big heart and will do anything for any stranded soul in need of assistance.

As he sat at the table, puffing one cigarette after another, flicking the butts overboard, Billy went on to tell me that I needed to convince the captain of going gold hunting off the coast of Guiana. Apparently he knew of a secret spot, that he had learned of from a drunk man in a bar, and kept the treasure location and coordinates locked in his boat. It sits at 60 meters, and is where a Spanish ship sunk hundreds of years ago, taking along with it several dozen bars of gold. When I told him that the story sounded a bit too much like an old fairy tale told amongst pirates, he rose up to his feet, slapped his big round belly and pointed the finger at me. While staring me straight in the eyes, he told me: “I knew tha’ old man. When he took hy knif’ out in thy bar and point it in me face telling me ain’t nothing more sacred than thy sailor’s word, I knew in me heart he was no shit’in me!” Realizing this conversation was going nowhere, I told Billy that unfortunately, we had guests waiting for us in St-Maarten and a work assignment in the Azores, and sadly, although we would have loved to buy a $10,000 sonar and comb through miles and miles of ocean for weeks, we would have to take a rain check and perhaps partake in the next gold rush. Since I was not going to help him in his sacred quest, he got up and took his pack of cigarettes out. When he found none, and realized it was empty, he scratched his head then said: “Argh! Bunch of wussies! Don’t come crawling to meself when I have all me gold!” And with those last words, he jumped into his dinghy and disappeared in the dark.

Sunset over the Caribbean

The next day we were ready to leave. The forecast showed good weather all the way to the Dutch Antilles and after motoring past Scotland Bay, we left behind Billy and the Bay of Chaguaramas (the two went really well together!) – hoisted the main sail and got our bearing north. Our next stop was St-Maarten!

For the crossing, besides the captain, Jas and myself, our fourth crew member was Liz – a girl from the UK in her early thirties, who several years ago worked as a stewardess with the captain while chartering the boat. She now owned a little vintage boutique in the Portobello district of London. All of us were seaworthy, at different levels. John had over thirty years of sailing experience around the world, from Antarctica to the South China seas. Along with my two crossings, I was what you can call an amateur sailor – someone who knows his way around without knowing much! I tremendously enjoyed sailing and didn’t have trouble with sea sickness. Jas had sailed the Raging Forties and Furious Fifties around infamous Cape Horn and LeMaire Strait, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet and the conditions are some of the worst in the world. But that was over a decade ago and she hadn’t set foot on a sailboat since. Liz’s experience was more with holiday sailing in the Caribbean, but having worked with the captain, she knew her way around the boat.

The morning before our grand departure, we all went grocery shopping. The captain was to buy the basics and most of the food, and we would only have to buy particular things we would want to snack on during the trip. Simple enough you would think! Crossing the Atlantic in a sailing boat takes anywhere between 14 and 30 days, depending on the wind and if you chose to motor or not. As a basic rule, you always want to have more than enough food, fuel, and water. So if you are planing for 17 days, you need to have adequate supplies for at least 21 days. Without asking the others if anyone had any dietary requirements or preferences, John took off and came back much later with his own interpretation of “adequate supplies”: enough rice, pasta and flour for at least 2 months, 6 liters of water (!!!), just enough veggies for a week (no frozen vegetables), a couple of loaves of bread and a pretty big bunch of things we were not allowed to touch. The “Caribes” beer was to be given away in the Azores, not really a problem since the crossing was dry. The cheese was for himself, as was the chocolate, the couple of french baguettes, the cereals, and the yogurts. The sausages were not for us but for a friend. We did have a freezer full of fresh fish: tuna, wahoo, and dorado, caught the week before, but to imagine that we would only eat white bread and fish with rice or pasta for two weeks was not really our idea of a pleasant trip. As we soon found out, this was only the beginning of a long and disagreeable voyage.

As captain and host, there were two things we were expecting from John: to keep us safe and make our trip enjoyable. Everybody onboard believed that these requests were far from being too demanding. Of course this was no luxurious cruise, like the previous two I had been on, but neither was it a boot camp! We were only four people on a 54ft boat and there was no reason why we should not be like a small family, sharing everything – chores included, dining together, laughing, and playing games. God were we wrong!

By mid-afternoon, it was obvious there were two sides, theirs and ours. I was not sure if it was because the captain had had a crush on Jas 15 years ago or something else, but he was really getting annoying and plainly rude. He was in his mid 60’s and from the United Kingdom. Both Liz and Jas remembered him being a gentlemen, a wonderful person to travel with, a man of class and a great host. But over the limited amount of conversation he and I had had between Trinidad and St Maarten, I had come to understand that life had not really turned out the way he had wished. The chartering business hadn’t been too good these past couple of years. As boats constantly demand maintenance and are very expensive to keep, his savings had over time disappeared. Now he was caught in a vicious circle of having to scrape together what he could from chartering just to keep himself afloat. His idea of retiring and enjoying sailing had unfortunately disappeared along with his good humor and manners. This season, he had originally wanted to dry dock the boat in Trinidad and make some repairs, but didn’t have the funds to do so. So he was left with no choice but to cross to the Azores and stay in Horta where rates were much cheaper, saving himself a return airfare and the cost of hauling the boat out during hurricane season.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Liz, Jas and I had all made special arrangements to accompany the captain on his trip to the Portuguese islands. Of course this was something we all wanted to do, but it was rather the idea of spending time amongst friends and doing something exceptional together, that convinced us of taking part in this adventure. We knew John could do the crossing on his own, but were sure that he would appreciate having a little company! Now in hindsight, I think we would have been better off staying home watching Chevy Chase’s “National Lampoon Vacation”. At least we would have laughed!

After doing our own proper groceries and buying toilet paper, since there was certainly not enough for both women onboard, (it is really incredible the amount of toilet paper women use compared to men!) we expected the captain to convene the group and go over the safety protocol, to refresh our memory on seamanship and lay out the ground rules. It was in the end his boat, and it would have been normal procedure for him to tell us where everything was, what we could and couldn’t do, and how we should handle an emergency at sea. Instead, as he made himself a sandwich, he simply said: “Watches will be 2 hours. You guys eat whenever you want. I eat whenever I want! If you are not happy, then get off my boat!” We all stood there in shock as he went up to the wheel-house. We hadn’t even left the port and already we were threatened to leave! Zen my man! I don’t care what personal issues you have and to be honest, I am not interested in finding out the bugs you have twitching up your rear, but you can’t simply treat people who have flown in from three continents and travelled over a day to be with you like this! Even more so when you are the captain and host!

Without a safety brief, without being shown where the life vests were, without being told what bearing to take, without being told what to do if someone fell overboard – his answer to this question was: “You only have five percent survival anyway, so what’s the point?” – without pretty much anything other than his bad manners and ill temper, we set sail for the Azores. We could have indeed left the boat on the spot, but it would have meant a lot of trouble and to be honest, we all wanted to believe that his bad mood was only temporary. Most likely, this was the case of a really bad night’s sleep and, in a couple of days, this would all be over and turn into a happy and pleasurable cruise.

Alas, our hopes and wishes were never to be granted. Not long after leaving the island behind, the wind started to increase. Within an hour or two, the ride became really bumpy and the girls were soon lying down by the wheel-house and seasick. Being sick on board is always to be expected when you spend most of your life on land. For the majority of people, after a couple of days, their bodies become accustomed and the nausea goes away. Aware that both Liz and Jas had known worse conditions than this, their state was not really of concern, but I was mindful that perhaps John and I would have to split the watches until the girls got better. When I suggested to John that, for the first night or two, and for the safety of everyone, we should let the girls recover and share their watch, he waved his hand at me and bawled that my “princess” had to work like everybody else! Looking at Liz who was throwing up over the rail, I felt bad for her knowing that her night watch was coming up soon. As to my “princess”, I told her to take a pill and go to sleep, I would cover her sailing duties.

As expected, by the next day the women were back in shape and everyone had their routine down. But the captain hadn’t mellowed at all and the atmosphere onboard was now officially toxic. Everything was calculated, every word was measured and it was clear that our every move was being watched and judged. Jas and I ate together, while Liz – who hadn’t bought her own food – was forced to eat what John was willing to share. Everyone kept to themselves and secretive conversations amongst the divided group became focused on the drama at play.

Dead Calm

I have always found the ocean vast yet teeming with life. There is always something happening. Terns, gulls and shearwaters keep you company, dolphins ride the bow-wake, whales spout and then disappear, startled flying fish glide unbelievable distances away from you. Civilization is never far away with tankers the size of football fields rushing to their delivery and plastic “works of art” floating past endlessly on their destination to nowhere. This time though, the ocean felt like a giant desert and was irritably silent. Days into our crossing, we had yet to see a dolphin, or a turtle. We hadn’t seen a bird for days and our fishing lines had been idle from the beginning. Was this silence a reflection of what was happening onboard, a mirror to our own tiny, egotistical and secluded world? Everything was so surreal that I couldn’t stop imagining we were acting in a scene of Kevin Costner’s apocalyptic fiasco “Waterworld”. Much effort was being made in trying to change the mood, but we all had to come to terms with the unwanted truth, that this crossing was going to be long and painful. Loneliness was going to be the theme of the voyage! Come to think of it, getting off the boat in St-Maarten would not have been such a bad idea after all!

For many, to think of sailing is to think of adventure, with the wind in your hair, the sun high above, or in the company of friends racing in the Hampton’s or at Cowes. Perhaps for you it is pure relaxation, to be anchored in the crystal clear waters of a secluded bay with white sandy beaches and palm trees sipping a Mai-Thai. Or the exhilarating thrills of exploring the unknown. But in reality, and above all else, sailing is about mastering the passing of time. Whether with wind or without, whether in the most beautiful place on earth, or the worst, one must learn how to be comfortable with – well – doing nothing! Unless you are ready to motor whenever there is no wind, you will spend a great deal of time waiting. Waiting for the wind to come or waiting for the gale to go. Sometimes you will wait for days, even weeks until the right forecast finally comes. Sometimes the ocean will rage with fury, and with no end in sight, you will pray to the gods for calmer days. Sometimes the ocean will be still like a mummy. Days will pass, blending into another seamlessly and the total calm will drive you to such insanity that you would kill for a little breeze. Just think of what the mariner’s of yesteryear must have suffered in the “doldrums”! These long moments might be easier to handle when you hop from one island to another, but while crossing from one continent to another, they become tremendous exercises of meditation. And if, for some unfortunate reason, you are caught on a boat where the crew doesn’t get along, then be prepared to delve into your most powerful mantras.

Plankton bloom from the boat

It was two in the morning one night when I climbed the stairs to the wheel-house to relieve Jas from her watch. Usually, she was ready to go to sleep by the time I arrived. But that night, she was still, sitting on deck looking out over the water, seemingly mesmerized. When she saw me she smiled and gestured that I come quickly. The plankton was in full bloom, and the wake of the boat was creating a wonderful luminous spectacle over the black ocean surface. The incredible light display reminded me of the day when during my youth in Quebec I first saw the Northern Lights dancing in the sky during a silent winter night. As the hull cut through the dark liquid, the water displaced and ruffled, activating these bioluminescent wonders that wove together light blue trails that slowly rippled away – ephemeral manifestations of the invisible world. Like a comet that travels the infinite space, burning itself to its ultimate death while leaving behind a fleeting trail of its existence, so were we.

As if trying to avoid our platitude, the group found a common interest and focused on coming up with theories that would explain the lack of ocean activity. We all knew the seas were overfished and that many species were disappearing rapidly, but there was something else to the mystery. It is only when looking at the log and entries from previous crossings did the explanation come to reveal itself. Seven days into our voyage and a thousands of miles away from the Caribbean, right in the middle of the Gulf Stream, the ocean was still warmer than a city swimming-pool. Three degrees more than the average of years before (according to the captain’s log), meant that the tuna, dolphins and others had most likely traveled north in search of more productive, colder waters, bringing along with them the birds. By the tenth day, we started to see a gently but significant dip in the water temperature. As if to confirm our global warming explanation, late in the afternoon, a small pod of spotted dolphins came and greeted us as the sun went down over a colder Atlantic.

Small pod of spotted solphins

Now that the mystery had been solved, the team spirit rapidly dissolved again and the crew fell right back into its divided and individualistic mode. Our only source of joy now were these little daily visits from the dolphins, sometime in the morning but always around sunset.

One day, shortly after lunch, about five hundred miles from our final destination, the tell-tale spout of a sperm whale appeared on our starboard side. This was something we had all been waiting for. These magnificent toothed whales are year-round residents of the Azores and known to hunt for giant squid along the volcanic ridges that surround these islands. As we were slowly closing the distance to the islands, we were anxiously calculating the days when we would have our first whale sighting. The whale was floating immobile not far away, and judging from its size it appeared to be a single, lonely calf, which was quite unusual. Calves and juveniles are cared for by the females for more than a decade, and when the adults go hunting into the deep abyss the nursery pod is left behind as a group. An abandoned calf would be the perfect meal for a passing pod of Orcas, Pilot Whales or False Killer Whales. So either the rest of the group was nearby, or something bad had happened.

Swimming in the middle of the ocean

The ocean was flat calm, with barely a ripple. The sun was high and the wind almost non-existent. The conditions were perfect to go for a swim and investigate. The problem was that I had never been a big fan of swimming in the middle of nowhere. I grew up watching “Jaws” on the big screen, and am part of that generation that suffered from the “Jaws Syndrome”. I could be swimming in a lake and still would feel afraid of what lurks beneath the surface. Scuba-diving is different, because seeing below the surface automatically eliminates my fears. But for now, the idea of snorkeling my way towards an animal of several tons, that I had never encountered before, with thousands of miles of ocean in all directions demanded a giant leap of faith. Grabbing my snorkel and GoPro, I looked at Jas and told her to keep an eye on me. She had absolutely no idea how frantic panic was spreading through my body! Nevertheless, I summoned all my courage, sat on the diving platform, took a deep breath and jumped!

As I swam in the direction where I thought the whale was, I tried with all my might to stay calm and breathe. The combination of seeing endless blue everywhere, with the borrowed snorkel that was leaking badly and made me sniff salt water, certainly didn’t help me relax. I tried to stay focused, but it was really hard. I didn’t know where to look. Below, to check again that no pre-historical sea creature might suddenly appear from the depths and engulf me. Above and ahead, to see where I was going, but while doing so, I would abandoned my watch of the “under”. Or towards the boat, which seemed to get smaller and smaller. What an ordeal! Alas, the whale finally came into sight. But every time my head was under, salt water went up my nostrils. This was pathetic, I was pathetic! How many people have the chance to swim with whales in the wild, and here I was hardly able to keep my senses together! So much for an explorer! What a lamentable performance!

the dot on the right is me!

In the end, I did manage to control my breathing, and filmed a little, before the calf twisted sideways to look me over and finally swam away. But when I found myself alone again, my delusional feeling of being powerless “live bait” returned, and I swam for life, turning my fins into a small engine! As I returned, I saw Jas on the deck making big signs, like one of those airport ground controllers who direct the planes. What was I to make of her primitive attempts of communication? Was I being followed by a shark? Was there something else coming? Did the captain suddenly decide to leave me behind? All this was not making me feel any better! Grabbing the ladder, I quickly pulled myself up, only to have the exhaust bluster into my face! How pleasant! Jas came to greet me and decoded what she had been waving about. The rest of the whale-nursery was right off the bow! I was not really ready for another round of torture, but those were four more calves. So I exchanged snorkels and quickly jumped back in. This time however, as if on purpose, the captain drove the bow of the boat right into the middle of the pod of calves. Great! Of course, by the time I had swum within sight of the whales the boat had scared them off.

On the two orcas passing by

Later that afternoon, a couple of orcas, in their black and white “tuxedos” dove right underneath the boat. They passed so close, and the ocean was so clear that we felt like looking through the glass of a big aquarium. These were the predators the calves we left behind would have to fear and I was glad they were not alone. Sadly, the orcas had no further interest in us, and quickly dove away.

There are advantages to having days with no wind; albeit not for sailing. For one, you can perfectly see whatever is swimming or floating at the surface. For sailing though, it is horrible. No wind equals no speed and no speed equals motoring. But today with a flat ocean, it wast the perfect day for reconnaissance. The water seemed to be filled with jellyfish and standing at the bow, looking down, I could see in all directions and to great depths, countless of brown jelly fish of medium size, with yellowish, fluffy tentacles gently puffing their way around. Turtles feed on them and so it was no surprise of seeing them in large numbers. I looked up to see if there would be any turtle big enough to justify going back into the open ocean. Since the sperm whale episode, I had had several swims in the ocean and was now way more relaxed. In fact, I was desperately waiting for any opportunity that would request my presence off board! Suddenly, I noticed a strange big fin flapping about just ahead, one that resembled way too much to the fin of a shark. Our bearing was directly towards whatever it was, and unless one of us was to move, we were going to hit it. So I shouted: “Sharks, sharks, stop the boat!”

As we drifted towards the fin, the mystery was revealed – it was a Mola! Molas are pelagic fish that can reach up to 13ft in length and weigh as much as 3,300lbs. The English call it Sunfish while the French have named it the “Poisson Lune” (moonfish). They drift sideways close to the surface, pecked at by a regiment of small cleaning fish, and feed on jellyfish, explaining its appearance here today. A Mola was precisely what I had waited for. This time I was ready; and quickly and inconspicuously slipped into the water. The bizarre looking fish first dove to about 30ft before coming back up and allowing me to stay with him for a while. Looking at the bulgy eyes and roundness of the body, I could definitely see why the French had opted for the moon. Which left wandering, how on earth the English could find any resemblance to the sun in this weird looking flat oval shaped sea creature? My bet was that they had named it this way just to annoy their European neighbors in the usual anglo-french competition!

The mystery is revealed – a Mola!

For 15 minutes, the “Sun/Moonfish” and I eyed each other with mutual curiosity, and then it probably decided it was time to carry on with the task that had brought him here: to gorge itself on stingy, juicy jellyfish. Reluctantly I paddled back to yet another rice and fish meal aboard the “loveboat”.

On the seventeenth day, the Azores appeared. Our ordeal was about to end. Pico island’s black volcanic peak rose into the sky, piercing the clouds like a giant beacon, guiding the desperate seafarers seeking land. Although we could have tacked our way in, slowly and gently, no one onboard was in the mood of stretching our lamentable and suffocating team assignment even by an hour or two. All Jas, Liz, and myself wanted to do, was to get there and head straight to Pete’s bar for a cold and refreshing pint so that we could finally, and in unison, let the steam out. But this was not the end of it: The captain had yet another surprise in store for us.

Back in St-Maarten we had agreed to share the expenses such as the cost of fuel. John had done the crossing many times before and had a good idea of how much it would cost. Obviously, he had been quick to remind us that depending on how much we would motor, the price would go up or down, which made sense to all of us. But at no time during the trip did he let us know how much we were racking up. Instead, he watched the hours on the engine accumulate, without saying a word. Docked at the fuel station in Horta, the pump finally clicked, indicating that the tank was full, and John came to us, gloating, with the arrogant look of a taxman who had finally cornered his quarry. With a big smile on his face and no apologies, as if this was the most normal thing to ask, he told us that the bill was now twice his pre-departure estimate.

Paying our dues, the three of us got off the boat and walked away wondering in silence what had happened to this man to become so bitter. As if on cue, and as if life didn’t want us to ponder on the insignificant, just then, out from his kiosk came the legendary Norberto Serpa. This little man with his iconic red bandana, long auburn hair and beard bleached by the sun and salt is the famous whale watching guide “ocean guru” who takes out National Geographic, the BBC and all of the world’s most famous underwater photographers. And, lucky for as he was also an old friend of Jas! With a huge grin he hugged Jas and greeted us like his own family. “Jasssssssmiiine! It has been so long! Come quick, all of you, come for lunch at my house on Pico, right now, you will adore!” What he had forgotten was to tell us that we were going whale-watching first with a group of tourists, then to his home and that lunch would be more like dinner. So within 10 minutes off the boat after 17 days we were on a boat again. But without our cameras and dressed for land – not for the sea! Liz had put on her best “going out dress” a vintage crochet thing that barely covered the necessary above her skimpy little bikini and she soon found herself shivering like crazy. But that afternoon, and to the privilege of our eyes only, we saw sperm-whales breaching again and again, while dolphins kept us company, riding on each side of our boat, all the way up to Norberto’s “Adega” a little stone house made of volcanic rock on the flank of the Pico volcano overlooking the ocean. That evening, we left behind all our bad memories and feasted on local delicacies and fresh tuna grilled to perfection by the most warm-hearted, smiling, and generous host.

On the way to Noberto’s house on Pico

Common Dolphins coming along!

Pages and pages could be written on the things that were done and said during the crossing, how appalling John’s behavior evolved and how his neglect of safety would be worthy of a lawsuit. But, in the end, thankfully, the crossing passed without any major incidents. I prefer not to think what could have or would have happened, had a major storm hit the boat, or any other predictable event that can happen during such a long voyage at sea. In retrospect, this trip was a great occasion for my partner Jas and I to test our capacity, as a couple and as a team to deal with situations like being stuck on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, with a madman as a captain. Although we would certainly not repeat this trip, we are glad that we did it. Life can be lived resenting these mishaps and misfortunes, and wishing we had the power to foresee and avoid them. But I prefer to focus on the positive and the opportunities for growth that such unwanted events bring along. As Shakespeare wrote:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”

Our itinerary

Atlantic Crossing 2012 from Daniel Fox on Vimeo.