The low morning sun is streaming across calm water in the pass as we arrive at Suwarrow, six days out from Bora Bora. I´ve been wanting to come here for years.

Suwarrow is an uninhabited South Pacific atoll far from anywhere. Its isolation and the promise of pristine coral reefs and motus are part of the appeal, but it´s also a bit of a personal pilgrimage, closing a circle opened in 2006.

Anchorage Island, Suwarrow

Tucked into a biography of legendary French sailor Bernard Moitessier was a story of his passage to Suwarrow to meet with Tom Neale, a New Zealander living alone on the atoll. Neale had written a book about his time on the island, titled appropriately An Island to Oneself. I decided I had to find a copy.

Getting hold of the book wasn´t easy back in 2006. It was out of print, and wasn´t on any online book sites, but eventually I did find it in an eBay auction. I devoured the book during a single Eurostar train journey from Brussels to London.

Tom Neale was a strange character. I now know that the book tells a partial version of his life. In it he muses about his need for solitude, and wonders whether it might be worthwhile to ´take a woman´ along but decides not to, as he dislikes the idea of her being on the island if she became ´disagreeable´ to him. In fact, he was married and had a son, but he never mentions them, and obviously didn´t bring them to Suwarrow. Both are still alive and living on Palmerston Atoll. The book is ghost written, quite skilfully, but between the lines Neale comes across as difficult, a world class misanthrope with contempt for almost everyone, especially for women.

His personal failings apart, Neale did do something extraordinary on Suwarrow. His two multiyear periods on the island between 1952 and 1977 represent a kind of last stand of someone choosing to live according to their own rules on (more or less) unclaimed land. Neale’s life on the island was simple and pure, and more than a little difficult, but he found a peace and serenity in living alone with nature. The small memorial to him outside his hut on Anchorage Island is well deserved.

He was inspired to go there by American writer Robert Frisbee. Frisbee lived for a short time on Suwarrow with his wife and children, and weathered a cyclone on the island, tying his children to palm trees to stop them being blown away. His book Island of Desire is another south seas classic.

A half hour later we´re anchored safely inside the atoll with four other boats. It is a special place. The sublime beauty of the lagoon and the motus, the sea and the sky, the fish and sharks and crabs, the green of the trees and the white sand beaches merge together with the human history of Suwarrow to form a special energy. One feels unquestionably part of earth (there’s no feeling of being ‘at the end of the earth’), yet one is a long way away from ‘civilisation’.

Frisbee and Neale both describe arriving at Suwarrow as an extraordinary experience, full of multicoloured corals and alive with legions of fish. No longer.

Typical bleached coral, dead, with algae growing on it. This photo is from Raiatea, French Polynesia, but it could be from almost anywhere in the South Pacific.

All across the Pacific we´ve seen graveyards of skeletal grey coral instead of vibrant reefs full of colour. This is coral bleaching. It feels like snorkelling in a post-capitalist dystopia, a post apocalyptic “nuclear winter” of the reefs. It´s heartbreaking.

While there are occasional exceptions, in general the state of coral in the South Pacific is dreadfully bad. Most of these places are so remote that direct pollution (e.g. agricultural run off, sunscreen) is not the reason for the bleaching. It is the change in the temperature and acidity of seawater, a direct consequence of anthropogenic climate change.

A mix of healthy and dead coral at Suwarrow

Already I feel privileged to see any coral that is not dead. The best coral I´ve seen in the 7,500 miles we´ve sailed this year was in Nomuka-iti, Tonga last month. It felt truly exciting to see the beauty of live coral, with some colours and interesting shapes. Later, though, I reflected on the “moving baseline” effect- How does what I saw it compare to my memory of El Garrafon, off Isla Mujeres, Mexico, on my first dive back in 1995? And I wonder how El Garrafon in 1995 compared to Suwarrow in the 1950s.

Mostly healthy coral, Nomuka-iti, Tonga

Of course It could be that Frisbee and Neale were overly gushing in their descriptions. It could be that my memory of El Garrafon is exaggerated. But … no one could write extravagant prose or build technicolour memories from the wasteland of coral reefs of today.

Bit by bit the ideology of neoliberalism is dismantling our natural world. In Island of Desire the boat captain who delivers Frisbee to Suwarrow muses about his plans to create a luxury hotel on the atoll. The idea continues to this day. It is only the Cook Islands Government designating Suwarrow a national park that keeps exploitation at bay.

As a national park there are severe restrictions on activities. The only island that one can land on is Anchorage Island – all other motus are reserved for bird life and native animals.

On Anchorage Island, animals may not be brought ashore (Emma remained on Otra Vida the whole time of our visit), the same for plants and seeds, and yachts are asked to ensure that shoes, etc, are cleaned of any soil prior to landing. Trash cannot be taken ashore, nor (obviously) thrown into the water. Cleaning of the underwater hull of the boat is forbidden, to stop any non-native sea plants or animals being introduced into the lagoon.

In practice to visit Suwarrow it is necessary to arrive in one’s own sailboat and to sleep on board. There are no facilities on Anchorage island beyond a small hut for the two caretakers, no possibilities for accommodation. Camping is prohibited.

Otra Vida at Tetiaroa (thanks to James and Kim for the drone shot)

So in practice there is a huge barrier to experiencing Suwarrow. It is different to the purely economic barrier to visiting Tetiaroa, a fairly pristine atoll a day sail to the north of Tahiti, where a week’s stay at the Brando Resort runs to more than the median annual income in most countries of the world.

It feels sad that these enormous barriers are necessary to maintain a natural state on a few spots on the planet. Bit by bit the last remaining holdouts of pure nature are being transformed into money. Money – a set of electronic records in a computer system. And literally we transform the earth into this … one time destruction, vandalism almost, of natural bounty in order to change some numbers in a computer.

So I support the Suwarrow national park. And, with heavy heart and a not entirely good taste in my mouth, I support the extremely elitist operation at Tetiaroa as better than a more accessible alternative. Because at this late stage anything that stands in the way of development/destruction is to be welcomed.


Occluded Threads

I recently read a biography of Pablo Neruda, and who should have entered the scene but the irrepressible and largely forgotten Nancy Cunard. She is one of two people who pop into my reading time and again, threading through the lives of multiple interesting people. The other is Neal Cassady.

Both are somewhat unsung heroes, catalysts, crucial exothermic components in movements that changed how we view expression and philosophy, exploring new bounds of consciousness, ethics and humanity.

Nancy Cunard, heiress of the Cunard shipping fortune, was disinherited by her snobbish and racist mother when she went to live with a black man in Harlem in the 1920s. In France she founded the Hours Press at her home, pushing contemporary limits by publishing Negro, her anthology of black culture, long before it became fashionable. She published Samuel Beckett for the first time, and hung out with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and many others of the Lost Generation. Hemingway based the unforgettable Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises on her. She was active in the intellectual and literary resistance to Franco´s usurpation of democracy and freedom in the Spanish Civil War, which is where she crossed paths for a time with Pablo Neruda. Beautiful, charming, intelligent, free spirited, she pushed every limit of her time, celebrating free love, consciousness expansion, egalitarianism and anti-racism. The constant excoriation by the mainstream took its toll and she died destitute on the streets of Paris. As I found out a few summers ago, her phenomenally wealthy family could only be bothered to fund her resting place at Pere Lachaise cemetery for 10 years.

Neal Cassady came from as different a social background as one could imagine. He was a force of nature, permanently moving, a bundle of energy often enhanced with Benzedrine. There´s a wonderful video clip of him during his Merry Prankster period, driving the legendary bus then dancing outside it, his energy crackling like static. He never stops moving, rarely stops talking … the charisma, the infectious vitality … all of it is there. Even the aged black and white cine camera film cannot dim his beacon.

He was the “secret hero” of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, that seminal poem which helped blow apart boring 1950s conformist complacency in America. He was Dean Moriaty in Kerouac’s On The Road and a character in several other Kerouac novels, and his gifts to Kerouac didn’t stop there – Kerouac credited his own writing style to Cassady, and some passages in On The Road are almost verbatim copies of letters Cassady sent to Kerouac. He somehow got into the office of Timothy Leary at Harvard and connected Leary and 1950s hip/beat culture, leading to Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky dancing naked on their first LSD trip in Leary´s home. Leary, in his barely disguised biographical novel What Does Woman Want, describes his first meeting with Cassady at Harvard – it is hilarious, with the then dry academic Leary earnestly trying to understand the language of the uber-cool hipster Cassady. As already mentioned Cassady went on to drive Ken Kesey´s Merry Prankster bus across America, immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”. Kesey based several characters on Cassady, including in part the character of McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo´s Nest. He hung out with Lou Reed, was there when Reed and Bob Dylan met in the East Village, and was part of the cross pollination between Dylan, Reed and the Beats. He became a small part of the scene at Warhol´s Factory, and spent time together with Neil Young and David Crosby at the Grateful Dead house. Like Nancy Cunard he died destitute, in his case next to a railway line in Mexico.

Neither of these people are household names, indeed they are all but forgotten. Yet, it is fair to say that the lives of each had substantive and lasting impact on the course of literary and cultural development in the English speaking world in the 20th century. They went well beyond the social and cultural norms of their day, pushing limits, exploring possibilities, inspiring others.

Bertrand Russell, writing to his confidant and lover Ottoline Morrell about the ending of a short affair with Irene Cooper Willis, summed up his feelings: “I have a real and great affection for her, but I do like people to be willing to shoot Niagara”.

Without a doubt Nancy Cunard and Neal Cassady shot Niagara. Time and time and time again.

I write blog posts only when I feel I have something to say, so this blog is updated infrequently.   In addition, you can find longer format writing in the Essays section.

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Of rachas and chestnuts …

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I lie in bed before dawn listening to waves lapping against the side of the boat.  This should not be happening.  My whole being groans at the implication: the wind is now coming from a direction that, theoretically, is impossible. 

Patagonia.  Again.

The two lines we set up yesterday to hold Otra Vida close to shore, protecting us from the forecast northerlies, are now worse than useless – they are holding the boat sideways on to the wind and waves, increasing tension on the anchor.  The forecast tells of stronger winds in the coming hours.  This is not going to be pleasant.

Estero Arboles Espectrales is a deep inlet that lies WNW-ESE.  Somehow the northerly wind in the main channel turns and blows straight up the estero as ESE/SE rachas.  Rachas – the Spanish word for gust that in Patagonia means something more: very strong gusts.  It makes no sense that the wind should behave this way, but the mystery is less important than the reality.

In the first light of day I look outside and assess our situation.  Not good.  We´re 20m from the shore, the lines that last night were straight behind us are now at a 45 degree angle, and the GPS tells me we have moved 30m due to the immense strain on the anchor.  I let go the shorelines and we swing free.  I check the depth.  Otra Vida is floating in just 2.5m of water, and it´s high tide.  Staying in this position won´t work.

Rachas … a fact of sailing life in Patagonia.  This photo is from on board in our secure anchorage in Caleta Mousse, near Puerto Natales, where we sat out a typical Patagonian low pressure system.  The spray indicates the gusts are at least 50kts.


So, we raise the anchor.  At the same time the wind increases, as forecast, and I can see rachas coming down the estero like white brushstrokes on a dark canvas, ripping water from the surface – meaning these gusts are at least 50kts.    Otra Vida´s engine pushes us into the wind and we anchor again, letting out all our chain, testing the anchor, and waiting.
A procession of rachas hit us one after another.  Otra Vida swings at anchor, tracing a banana shaped arc on the GPS.  Good.  The anchor is holding.   This is not comfortable, but it is safe.
The wind increases still further.  A particularly strong racha hits us, registering 55kts at the masthead, certainly more at deck level.  We start to drag.  Damn.  Not a surprise, but I was hopeful.  After over a year down here I should know better than to be hopeful.  Hopeful isn´t a good strategy in Patagonia.  So, on with the engine. Lison and Jérémie work on the foredeck in stinging spray and howling wind bringing up the anchor, a process made more challenging by Otra Vida´s gyrations as one racha after another pummels us.   Powering as best we can against the rachas we inch our way out to the main channel, where the wind is indeed coming from the north as expected.  There are a few possible anchorages nearby, but they are all unknown to me and in areas without detail on our Chilean charts, so we decide to be cautious and head 15nm south to a well charted anchorage that will be easy to enter in these conditions and is certain to be secure.  The winds in the channel are now approaching 50kts from the north, we have a tiny amount of foresail out, and we are making 7-8kts.  It´s noisy from the wind, the rain is relentless, the waves are jostling us, but it´s not dangerous anymore.   We head south.  Fast forward a couple of hours and we´re safely anchored in Caleta Canal, sheltered from the worst of the wind by a friendly forest.
I realise that I´ve let my guard down a little since arriving north of Golfo de Penas.  In southern Patagonia I had learned to be diligent about considering all weather possibilities, however unlikely they seemed, a diligence – almost a paranoia – born of hard won experience.  North of Penas the weather is better.  That´s true.  But this was a reminder that Otra Vida is still in Patagonia, even if it´s northern Patagonia.


Caleta Valverde
Almost everyone you meet here has similar stories.  It´s a counterpoint to the stories of heart-stoppingly beautiful mountain vistas, untouched wilderness, and abundant sea life.  We share our stories and try and learn from each other.  People who sail here for years become ever more conservative in their navigation and anchoring practices, and I more and more understand why.  I remember Larry and Mary Anne saying that they sleep comfortably in Patagonia only when their boat is secured with at least four shorelines from four different directions.  This from a couple who have sailed Antarctica, the Arctic, and the Northwest Passage, and who cross oceans like others cross a street…


A few days later.  The wind is less than 7kts and is on the beam.  The sun is shining.  We are making 2 knots with full sail, pretty islands to each side, a glacier capped volcano on the horizon.  Jérémie and Lison are peeling chestnuts, ingredients for a French regional dish they are cooking.  Patty is reading, happy, smiling.  Emma Goldman, our new canine crew member, stands guard on the bow and enjoys the light breeze in her nostrils.
Lunch is ready.  We drift along, calmness and beauty providing a sunny backdrop, cuisine grand-mere and good conversation filling the cockpit.  Our French crewmates´ food is sublime.  Time stops …


Moonrise over Caleta Valverde
We pull into Caleta Valverde and drop the anchor.  Patty and I swim briefly in the chilly Patagonia water while Jérémie and Lison explore ashore.  They collect a pile of driftwood and after dark we sit around a fire on shore, Emma running back and forth along the beach, happy as only a city dog in the wilderness for the first time can be.  We pop our last bottle of Chilean champagne under the full moon and toast life.

Patagonia.  Again.

Southern Patagonia

Estero Fouque

I´m lying in the hammock on a perfect blue sky day in Estero Fouque, a long hockey-stick shaped fjord on the north side of Isla Hoste in southern Patagonia.  The air is still and cold, and wrapped in fleece there is just enough warmth from the bright winter sun to remain outside and appreciate the surroundings – on one side cascading glaciers, on the other a view along the fjord to a pyramidal mountain and the snowfield I skied down yesterday.

 Seno Pia, Western Arm
My mind drifts back to trade wind sailing in the tropics last year.  The wind blew from the North East at 15-25kts, 28C during the day and 22C at night, and passages were planned and plans followed with rare exceptions. On reaching our destination we´d drop the anchor, put up the hammocks, and enjoy a celebratory drink on deck.

Sailing in southern Patagonia is different.
Horizontal snow, 46kt wind, safe anchorage

From Puerto Williams, where Otra Vida has been based for the last five months, most destinations of interest are to the west.  The prevailing winds are NW-W-SW, 15-45kts in strength, southern ocean low pressure systems carrying snow, sleet or rain.  Heading west means making a dash between safe anchorages on those occasional days without much wind. Days with winds from the east, while not unknown, are rare. Sailing back to Puerto Williams is somewhat easier, but one quickly learns that easier is relative in southern Patagonia.

No, the weather is not the reason to be down here.  Everything else is. 

Perfect reflection in Estero Coloane
The scenery … well, I´ll be frugal with words and mostly let the pictures carry their own descriptive load.  We don’t have a thesaurus on board Otra Vida.  If we did, it would have been well thumbed by now, searching for new superlatives each day to describe the experiences of southern Patagonia.  After a few days on board it seems everyone ends up saying “Wow!”, “Oh my!”, “Holy shit!” or some other fairly meaningless exclamation.  Words simply aren´t up to the task of processing what our eyes are seeing.
Lovely still anchorage in Seno Pia, ice from the glacier floating past outside

When the sun shines and the sky is blue these places are magical on a level that is qualitatively different to the tropics.  The feeling of space and peace is huge, elemental, humbling.  Southern Patagonia remains almost untouched*, nature in a near pristine state, and you encounter situations that are difficult to fit into any normal definition of sailing or travel.  The experience can be transformative, sometimes other-worldly.

The same anchorage, rather more challenging conditions
Then there are the sailors you meet.  I first heard of the Micalvi Yacht Club, legendary bolthole for every sailboat down here, from an experienced Antarctic sailor almost a decade ago, and I was hooked.  He summed it up: “No one arrives there by chance, and everyone is interesting”.  It´s certainly high on the list of contenders for Best Yachtie Hangout in the World.

Evening beach fire, Caleta Olla
Seno Pia
However, there´s complexity in my feelings about Patagonia.  It is a place of genuine danger – not glamourised danger, like extreme sports, but tangible real danger of loss of boat and loss of life.  Cold, hard, wet, uncomfortable danger.  This is not hyperbole.  These situations are not theoretical.  In 2017 already there has been one occasion where loss of life for a person ashore was a probable outcome (that the person is alive today is a testament to the professionalism and air rescue equipment of the Chilean Armada), and three occasions where boat loss was a real possibility, one of which resulted in damage to the hull below water line.   To put this in context, in 40,000 miles of sailing over the last eight years, including five major ocean passages and well over a thousand nights at anchor, I cannot recall any situation where I felt even a slight risk of losing my boat.

The view skiing down, Otra Vida just visible to the left in the distance
And this sharp awareness of the contingent nature of life here is mixed with sublime appreciation for the inescapable beauty of Patagonia explored with a sailboat.  The glaciers, the hikes, the tranquil anchorages. Evening beach fires with driftwood.  Whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, guanacos.  Condors wheeling high above in an azure sky.  Hiking to a rock for chilly sunset beers overlooking glacial lakes, crenelated mountains, perfect fjords, sandy shorelines, windswept trees, spindly waterfalls.  Occasional solo hikes and dinghy trips, too.  These form a treasure trove of moments that I will carry with me forever, emotions so intense that tears easily rise up in my eyes.  These are times you don´t forget, ever.

There are many amazing places on this beautiful planet of ours.  I´ve been fortunate to experience some of them, and for sure there are many more still to experience.  But in quiet moments of late I´ve found myself asking a question over and over again, a question without an answer, a question that seems increasingly rhetorical: Where does one go after here?

Estero Fouque

* There´s a more nuanced discussion to be had on this subject, and I am not engaging in erasure or whitewashing.  For the record: yet again colonial westerners destroyed thriving indigenous peoples and cultures; the pursuit of profit by early fur traders resulted in non native animals being introduced, particularly beavers, damaging the ecosystem; the consequences of global warming including glacier shrinkage and changes in seasonal weather patterns are stark and unmistakeable.  Still, compared to the abuse we´ve inflicted on much of the planet, southern Patagonia remains relatively untouched.

Many thanks to Bodo Will for some of these photos.

It doesn´t always rain

Canal Chacabuco

It was a dark and stormy night… it often is in Patagonia.  The days too.  Except when they aren´t.  Then you´re transported to an Edenic paradise with forests of timeless green, peaky mountains harbouring eternal snows far above, serene water nourished by sourmilk cascades tracing down cliffs and gullies, all sheathed in a sonic backcloth of bird calls on which to paint contemplation or activity.

Entering Estero Clemente
Puerto Millabú, a comforting slash in the rocky southern shore of Isla Clemente, was our home for a couple of days, anchored by the river beach at the head of the valley.   The Cascada Salmón beckoned, drawing us to beach then river, through an enchanted Hans Cristian Andersen-esque forest where pixies might have been hiding behind every fallen log, along ledges under small cliffs, and across barenaked rock smoothed by abundantly present rain and wind.   What we optimistically referred to as the trail would have carried stern warnings in a tourist guidebook – myriad routefinding difficulties, easy to lose the trail once you´ve found it, dense and slippery vegetation, steep slopes, exposed steps on a moss-covered tree root between a near vertical bank of loose vegetation and a cliff to cross a stream several metres below, rapidly changeable weather, risk of mist descending, no possibility of assistance.  Wonderful stuff – our sort of hike.  We left temporary markers at critical points that were especially obscure – a ribbon, a hat, a bottle of sunscreen –  and they served us well during the descent.  Lunch found us perched on flat rocks munching granola bars and sipping stream water, pensive and silent, basking in a panoramic view of the upper waterfalls of the Cascada.  Far below Otra Vida swung to her anchor in the bay, dark tendrils of river snaking towards her through grey-green water covered sand.
Cascada Salmón lower part
The following afternoon I downloaded the latest weather forecast : not promising.  We needed a 36 hour window of settled weather to reach and cross the notorious Golfo de Penas, 60 miles of water wide open to the Pacific and therefore to the substantial groundswell radiating from storms that relentlessly pummel the southern ocean between Cape Horn and Antarctica.  As if that was not enough, add in a rapidly shelving bottom amplifying those swells, tidal currents pushing north and south, and intense and frequently changing weather.  It´s a recipe for dangerous wave conditions with anything more than modest winds, and one of our pilot books warns that “even large ships do not cross the gulf in bad weather”.  Finding a 36 hour weather window in Patagonia, we are discovering, is as likely as Donald Trump improving life for ordinary Americans, and rather less likely than finding a herd of pink unicorns.   So, acceding to metrological reality, we replanned our crossing into sections and looked again at the forecast.  Our choice was to leave immediately or wait about a week.  Up with the anchor, quick stowage of loose items below, and on our way within minutes.   Emerging from the protection of Estero Clemente the ocean swell greeted us as we followed a course dodging small islands and shoals through the mist and light rain.  The VHF burst out “Embarcación Otra Vida” summoning Allie to a friendly chat with the captain of a research vessel closing with us through a pass.  “You are very brave” he told Allie, hearing our plans to sail to Puerto Williams.
Belated Valentine´s Day celebration lunch
The islands behind us and conditions fairly benign, we discussed options, and jointly decided to continue overnight to Caleta Suarez, a safe and secure anchorage just shy of Cabo Raper at the northern limit of Golfo de Penas.   It was Léa´s first passage in the open ocean on a sailboat, ever, and Allie´s first overnight passage.  Straightforward, chilly, wet … we all had pleasant watches, and even more pleasant slumbers in the warm passage berths, lee cloths holding us in.   Cosily huddled behind the spray hood in the dark, I was reminded how much I enjoy night watches … the tranquillity brought back lovely emotions of those nights at sea between Ecuador and Chile in the last months.
The boat sign tree at Caleta Suarez
We arrived a little after dawn, our mooring plan for Caleta Suarez at the ready.  Another boat in such a small caleta could add complications, but cruising boats here are as rare as the aforementioned pink unicorns.  As we rounded the corner we noticed the five commercial fishing boats rafted together.  Undeterred, we stuck with our plan, dropping the anchor, launching the dinghy, and tying shore lines to trees.  One of the fishing boats left, manoeuvring around us.  We were almost done, eagerly anticipating a warm drink below, when a fishermen pointed out that our lines would block all movement, including the boats returning later, and invited us to tie up alongside.  Sounds pretty straightforward, but with our anchor down, their anchors down, our lines ashore, their lines ashore, other lines floating on the water … it took an hour or two to sort it all out.  In the rain, of course.  Allie, dressed provocatively in black oilskins and rubber boots while retrieving our shorelines, attracted plenty of interest from the young fishermen.
The captain of the fishing boat we tied to gave us two perfectly filleted fish, and we were gifted more fish and seafood later, eventually refusing some as there is only so much fish two women can eat.  Léa reminded us we had bypassed Valentine´s Day so a quick ceviche was rustled up (and a chickpea rice salad for me) while Allie prepared the table with a candle and a white silk rose. We enjoyed a celebratory Valentine´s Day lunch just two days late – who´s counting the days here anyway?
After a few days at anchor waiting for weather, including an attempt to reach a natural hot springs aborted due to too much of the wrong type of wind, Allie and Léa painted a sign to go alongside those of other yachts on a tree ashore.  Otra Vida´s longstanding philosophy, “no rules, no limits”, has evolved, and the sign reflects this: “no rules, no limits, no conspiracy theories.”  Yes, there is a story there … several, actually … but they are for another time, perhaps with a lovely Chilean artisanal beer in hand.
When we fixed the sign to the tree it wasn´t raining.  I take that as a good omen.

It doesn´t always rain


Saturday morning, 7th January 2017.  I´m at anchor in Puerto Ingles, a small lagoon at the northern end of Isla de Chiloe, now as quiet as a millpond, sun shining, birds crying, a seal playing in the water, two dogs running along the shoreline. I arrived yesterday morning in Chile after 19 days at sea from Easter Island looking for shelter ahead of an overnight storm.  It´s an excellent anchorage. 

Saturday morning.  A feeling I remember well from the days when I worked in a regular job, waking in the morning light with energy and anticipation.  Sometimes there was a glow from some achievement in the work week … a breakthrough on a project, a milestone achieved, a promotion gained, a political battle won, a contract signed – as often as not, something as insubstantial as a change in a number in a spreadsheet.
Saturday morning.  Most of all the feeling was one of precious freedom.  I could do anything I wanted on Saturday, could truly be myself, with the sure knowledge that the following day, Sunday, I didn’t have to put on the mask of management consultant or corporate manager.  I could live fully on Saturdays – take myself to that liminal space where sleep is a necessity rather than a duty.  A hard ski ascent, thighs burning, smiling so much that my cheeks ache, body caressed by sunburn and sweat and endorphins.  The calm of the last kilometres of a long run, in a trance from the drumbeat of feet connecting with earth, wondering if my iPod battery will last till I get to the end.  Diving deeply into a novel or an essay or a poem or a travel story and not needing to stop.  The intensity of the last hours before dinner party guests arrive, focused on cooking and setting the table and selecting music and tidying up and setting the mood with lights and preparing drinks and polishing glasses and anticipating conversation and smiling and … everything!

        “Why do I climb for hours for a handful of turns in untracked snow? Why do I grin and dance
          afterward?  Why is fun such an anemic answer to the questions above?  Powder snow skiing
          is not fun.  It´s life, fully lived, lived in a blaze of reality.”  –  Dolores LaChapelle

Csikszentmihalyi called this Flow, Sartre described it as being engaged with life … whatever words one employs, and this is right at the edge of language, for me it is that feeling of being, not consciously being with that little commentator in your head describing it, but rather beingas a state, without a separate awareness of the state.  Being completely in the moment, completely in the flow.  Saturdays.

          “The more you consume, the less you live” – Guy Debord

It´s an indictment of our western model that Saturdays are, for many, the only day of the week when this is possible.  From his perch in Soho in the mid 19thcentury Marx foresaw a key consequence of capitalism – alienation from life – and refused to lie still and accept it.  Have we progressed in the 150 years since he was writing?  Yes, a little – we do have that one precious day out of seven, although for 1.9 billion people on the planet existing on less than $2 a day Saturday effectively doesn´t exist.  Being, Saturday morning, is, for the most part, a western privilege.

And living on a sailboat, where it feels to me that Saturday mornings are much more frequent, where floating at anchor and sharing the beauty of Patagonia with interesting companions is what life will consist of for months ahead … what does that say about my privilege?   I sometimes feel a need to justify it by explaining that living on a sailboat involves a lot of work, a relic of my upbringing in a western society.  But doesn’t such an explanation reinforce the very model that leads to work dominating life?
Ah, perhaps there´s no escape from the circular logic.  It´s enough to make you want to run off with a sailboat to Patagonia …

Easter Island

“… on this island the Wind God inhabits
the only church living and true:
our lives come and go, dying, making love:
here on Easter Island where everything is altar,
where everything is a workroom for the unknown,
a woman nurses her newborn
upon the same steps that her gods tread.

Here, they live! But do we?
We transients, followers of the wrong star,
were shipwrecked on this island as in a lagoon,
like in a lake in which all distances end,
on a motionless journey, so difficult for men.”

Men IX, La Rosa Separada, Pablo Neruda

We arrived at Easter Island after a lovely 23 day trade wind passage from Ecuador, port tack all the way, barely adjusting our sails, life lived at a 20 degree angle.   Rashly ignoring nautical tradition, we left on a Friday and had a woman aboard so probably we should have sunk.  As you are reading this obviously we didn’t.  Another small nail in the coffins of patriarchy and superstition.
During the passage I read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive”.  I chose it because it sounded interesting, and it was a surprise to find Easter Island as one of his case studies.  To précis the book: he examines historical and contemporary societies that have thrived or failed, and teases out five substantive themes: environmental damage; climate change; hostile neighbours; friendly trade partners; and the society’s response to environmental challenges.

Easter Island was occupied by Polynesians from island groups to the West in about 900AD.  The population is estimated to have grown to about 15,000, and then declined to about 3,000 by the time the first Europeans sighted it in 1722.  By then it was already an ecological disaster, with no significant trees left standing, and its population was barely surviving  The iconic moai (stone head statues) were there in profusion, extravagantly contrasting with the poverty of the islanders.

What had happened? Diamond meticulously brings together strands of scholarship, describing how the Polynesians developed a two class society, with aristocrats living in large houses in prime locations, and peasants farming the land.  Over time the felling of trees, used for house construction, cooking, elaborate cremation rituals, and for moving the large stone statues from the quarry to their final sites, denuded the island.  The response of the aristocrats appears to have been to erect ever greater monuments as power struggles developed between rival chiefs.  What had been an island capable of supporting its population became an ecological wasteland driven by the vanities and egos of the ruling elite and their ever more elaborate traditions.  Unsurprisingly, following the immiseration of much of the population, the aristocracy was overthrown, but it was too late – the forests had gone.  Soil erosion accelerated without trees to moderate the effects of rain and wind.  Heating and cooking was only possible by burning grass.  Game animals died out with the forests, cutting off that food source.  Lacking large trees, large canoes could no longer be built, limiting fishing to what could be caught in sheltered waters very close to the coast.  Chickens and rats became the main sources of protein.

Of course, while the Polynesians destroyed the forests and reduced the population by 80% from its peak, western imperialism takes second place to no one in these matters.  By 1877 the population had been reduced a further 96% to a mere 111 inhabitants through a combination of disease deposited by Christian missionaries, slave raids by Peruvians, and profiteering by the European chancers that imperialism regularly excreted into occupied lands.  Every Easter Island Polynesian today is descended from one of the 36 survivors who had children.

Given the history one might expect the Polynesians to be unwelcoming to those of us from western nations still carrying an imperial stain. Not a bit of it.  Warm, friendly, sharing, willing to help … the culture of the island seems grounded in welcoming hospitality and mutual support.   Going into Hanga Roa by dinghy the first evening we were swamped by several breaking waves.  Local fishermen hoisted our dinghy onto the dock and gave us a hand up from the water, then put glasses of whisky-cola in our hands and invited us to share their barbequed fish while they got to work saving the drowned outboard motor.   As the evening continued we were invited to stay in one of their houses rather than return to the boat in our wet clothes.

There´s a happy and relaxed feeling to the island.  People have enough to live on, and there seems to be neither obvious poverty nor ostentatious displays of wealth.   People have time to talk and want to get to know you.  Within hours I felt I had friends on the island.

Was our reception coloured by our arrival by sailboat?  Of course, to some extent.  Significant numbers of tourists fly into the island for a few days vacation, apparently 5000 a week in peak season. Travelling here by sailboat takes a bit more effort, and Otra Vida was only the 23rdsailboat to arrive at the island in the previous year.  Compared to the volume of boats at the average Caribbean island that is a rounding error, sure.  Then again, an average of two sailboats a month means that sailboat crew are not so unusual on Easter Island.

The model underlying western capitalism, the model of rational economic man, says that our nature as people is to be competitive, to maximise our own self interest, if necessary using violence.  It says that these dark base instincts need to be controlled by strong social rules and norms, backed up by the threat of state-applied force.  Altruism is a fantasy, according to this model, and all interactions are calculated (perhaps imperfectly) in terms of the benefit to each party.

I´ve found it noteworthy that cities do indeed seem to bring out that version of human “nature”, but that smaller more remote places seem to operate quite happily against “nature”.  Or could it be that our more fundamental nature (let´s forget my skirting dangerously close to essentialism here) is to be cooperative and generous, to support each other in community, and that our “natural” competitiveness is socially constructed?   Looking out at Otra Vida at anchor in the distance, the maoi to the north proudly staring inland, after a day of getting provisions for the boat with my fisherman friend Juan, it certainly feels that way.  And that feels right, feels good, feels like something I can hold on to.

696 Songs

Otra Vida’s bow slices through a seascape of uncomplicated purity.  The water foams and sprays either side, during the day cresting white on perfect Yves Klein blue, while at night sparking with the glitter of bioluminescence.  We’re well over half way through our passage from Ecuador to Easter Island, 14 days at sea so far, another 8-10 days to go.

A few days earlier I decided to create the mother of all playlists, going through every piece of music on my computer and selecting the songs that I liked.  696 songs was the final count.  Of course there are songs I like that are not on my computer, and some songs that I decided not to include but which held some resonance for me at some point in the past but no longer.  But overall those 696 songs cover a lot of my life.

What captures my attention as I start playing the list is the vivacity of the memories.  So intensely felt, even more so in this pristine part of the planet, more lived hallucinations than mere recollections.

Ah, those memories.  I noticed a few themes.  Women featured a lot, not surprisingly, both lovers and friends. Mountains and sailing.  Alcohol, in the form of parties, meals, or occasionally hangovers.  And travel, of course travel.

Barcelona (Freddie Mercury and Monserrat Caballe) finds me driving into Barcelona for the first time on a grey morning before Christmas 1989, not especially liking the city.  No inkling of how crucial Barcelona would become to me … and that years later, living there and loving it, Hey Man! (Nelly Furtado) accompanies me jogging along Barceloneta´s beachfront before meeting Rufus and Cris for a memorable Sunday lunch.

Comedy Waltz (Fairground Attraction) and Please Forgive Me (David Gray) catapults me back to three crazy months in Covent Garden in 2001, newly single and free and very much enjoying it.

La Vie en Rose (Edith Piaf) recalls a hungover day shared with Anett after a typically decadent dinner party with good friends in my Budapest apartment in 2009.  Reni dancing round and round to She’s Electric (Oasis) whenever and wherever it was played. Born Slippy (Underworld) as the seminal anthem of Sziget festival in 2005.  Budapest memories …

The Tide is Turning (Roger Waters) is etched in my soul as the final song of his Wall concert at Potsdamer Platz in mid 1990, a welling up of optimism and hope and freedom animating the still-communist night air, under a Berlin sky once again painted with searchlights, searchlights for peace this time.

Muscle Cars (Mylo) takes me to Carneval in Maastricht in 2007, tiny glass of Dutch beer in very cold hand, dressed in a clown costume, standing outside a bar with work colleagues and friends watching the parade, boere music playing, Limburgs dialect temporarily replacing Dutch as the lingua franca.

Massivan´s version of Refazenda recalls passion fuelled days anchored off Platja Migjorn, Formentera – white sand, turquoise water, beautiful lovers.

And Jimmy Buffett, unsophisticated sophisticate of Caribbean beach music, triggers avalanches of Colorado mountain memories.  Driving up the Roaring Fork Valley, sunburn blisters on my face from the previous day´s abortive attempt on Mt Elbert cut short by a terrifying lightning storm, for the first time really hearing the lyrics of Changes in Latitudes.  Sharing local beers with friends each May at our Beach party at Arapahoe Basin, buzzing from skiing Pallavicini in shorts, Volcano playing from someone´s pickup truck, smoke from the grill obscuring the inflatable palm trees against a backdrop of sun and snow.

I could go on.  The memories rise up – I taste and smell them, feel them as if they are happening again, here in this blue on blue world of Pacific sailing. Yes, these pellucid reveries are another magical aspect of beautiful long ocean passages.  Who needs TV?


Otra Vida´s anchor lies snugly in the white sand of French Harbour, Roatan, waiting patiently for a few days of atypical weather to make the journey east to the corner of Nicaragua, then south to Providencia and eventually Panama.   The reef protects us from swell and waves and presents a pallete of blues and turquoises either side of a sharp white line of foam crashing in the middle distance.  The constant trade winds soften the fire of the tropical sun toasting us from a mostly cloudless lapis lazuli sky.
The reef protecting French Harbour
We read, talk, think in the hammock, do a little boat work, swim, cook.  Sunrises and sunsets frame our days, accompanied sometimes by a masterful education in contemporary electronic music from Icelandic crew member Gusty.
It´s not hard to spend time on this island.
French Harbour´s version of breakfast TV is the daily cruisers´ net, a VHF radio discussion between yachties about upcoming weather, social plans, trips to the grocery store, the local iguana farm and needed or offered spare parts.  At the end of the net each day the yacht “Mermaid” chimes in with a trivia question. Erudite and thoughtful, these questions involve history, literature, sailing lore, mythology … an injection of a fragment of magic from a fine mind into the everyday cruising business of propane refills and potluck dinners.
Sometimes at sunset you´ll find the crew of Otra Vida at the supremely casual Tiki Palapa enjoying inexpensive cold beers and easy conversation with other yachties and a few stray adventurers seeking escape from the nearby hotel.   One evening we join a table including a fit, slender, tanned American guy talking politics, lamenting the likely choice of Trump as Republican nominee.   He holds forth with passion and wit and obvious intelligence.
Breakfast with John in the cabin of Mermaid of Carriacou
This is my first face to face encounter with John A. Smith, captain of “Mermaid of Carriacou”.  I introduce myself, strike up a conversation, comment on his interesting trivia questions, and the following day invite him to join us on board Otra Vida for dinner.  He arrives in his sea kayak with a freshly baked loaf from Mermaid´s galley.  Within minutes it is evident that John is someone cut from a different cloth, and we are in for a special time.  It turns into a late evening of stories and memories, fuelled by beer and rum and grilled vegetables.  
John´s a wonderful raconteur, full of colourful stories, engaging, interesting.  But there is more.  His lifestyle, indeed his very existence, is a challenge to consumerism, to accumulation, to striving.  By the standards of the mainstream John Smith cannot exist, and in practical terms for them he more or less does not exist.  No bank account, no “fixed abode”, no “job”.  He sails a traditional wooden cargo boat built on a Carriacou beach, a boat with plenty of history.  He rescued and painstakingly restored the partially sunken Mermaid by hand, after a previous shipwreck in the 70s saw him bivouacking for a few months in the Swedish cemetery on St Barths. 

The Eastern Caribbean back then must have been a remarkable place.  Along with John Smith you would have found Don Street, Jimmy Buffett, Fatty Goodlander, Bob Dylan, Herman Wouk and a cast of other unique individuals living a life of freedom on and around boats.  That has all gone now – the relentless march of neoliberal consumer capitalism and disneyfication has rendered those islands into a theme park servicing first world tourists with a contrived pastiche of Caribbean life.  As John puts it, the Eastern Caribbean today is “embarrassing”.
The legend and the person fluidly intermingle.  He is the “chum with a bottle of rum” that Buffett ends up “drinking all night” with in “Changes in Latitudes”, the “hobo sailor” of Dylan´s “115th Dream”.  The legend and the person are both fascinating.  A life demonstrating that truth is relative, that facts are perceptions, his very existence holding a mirror to your eyes, bringing you face to face with the impossibility of objective truth.
Where does truth end and legend begin?   Postmodernism showed us that truth is temporal and relative (unimaginative conservatives and religious literalists can please go and wail somewhere else).  So what matters more?  The illusion of objective truth that would turn an evening into something akin to reading the stock prices from the Wall Street Journal, or an evening of magic realism flowing like a silver stream from the lips of someone the mainstream could accept only as a fictional character in a novel?
We go aboard his lovely engineless wooden sailboat for breakfast the following morning, nursing modest hangovers, faces smiling with memories of the night before.  He makes good strong coffee and we sit on deck chatting, photographing parts of a no longer published sailing guide to these islands, and listening to John tell stories.  He reaches for a tattered copy of Ovid and reads a few lines to us, then recites a Shakespeare sonnet from memory.
Mermaid of Carriacou with John on deck blowing a conch shell
Later that day, I watch him swim the half mile to shore from Mermaid, towing his sea kayak behind him, playfully flipping on his back to admire the emerging stars at dusk. Here is a man at home in the moment, revelling in the now, drinking in the wonders of the planet and the universe that pass many of us by.  I sit on the dock, cold beer in hand, having arrived in my rowing dinghy powered by a small outboard motor, a rather modest set up by yachtie standards, and feel sharply how much further there is to go in simplifying life and appreciating the wonderful pleasures of the planet.  John´s an inspiration, a man living a purely free life.  I hope I get there one day.
The atypical weather we have been waiting for finally arrives.  We weigh anchor and head towards Guanaja.  Leaving the anchorage we motor towards John´s engineless boat held securely by three anchors, pipping the electronic horn on Otra Vida as a salute to him and the good times we shared.  John springs up from his cabin, joy in his muscles, a big smile on his face, conch shell in hand, and blows us a traditional salute in return.  The sound of his conch echoes across eons of seafaring.  As to my oh-so-convenient push-button electronic horn … well, what can I say?  There is still so far to go.  I hope I get there one day.