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Pacific Crossing, Part I: Just three days

Sunday

10am Sunday morning, and we wave goodbye to the Galapagos.

I’m glad to be on the way. Santa Cruz recedes slowly into the background as we putt-putt out into the ocean, and I try to avoid thinking too much about the month-long sail ahead of us. Seabirds follow us out to sea, and…

Dolphins! Dolphinsdolphinsdolphinsdolphins…

Axel and I strain our eyes to make out a pod of dolphins in the distance. They jump two, maybe three meters out of the water! Higher than I thought dolphins could jump. My heart leaps, and I am full of excitement.

We’re going to cross the Pacific!

******

We motor until 4pm, when there is enough wind to put the sails up.

At 8pm, Axel goes below to sleep before his long night watch. I sit and look around the dark cockpit. There is always this absence when Axel goes down below; like one of my arms is missing.

The waves woosh by on either side. The sails – tall and white, stretch tight against the wind. The night is a hazy black, and…what’s that!? Ghostly white figures weave a strange pattern in the air off the side of the boat, and it takes me a few seconds to realize that it’s just a few seabirds.

I read a little, then turn on my Beginner French audio lessons, downloaded in preparation for our arrival in French Polynesia – Lesson 1.1. Ça va? Ça va bien merci! The optimistic voices occupy me for a while, but it’s not long before my brain is stretched too tight, trying to wrap itself around all the new sounds (ou, oooo, rrrr!).

The stars are out at least.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? I don’t like the dark. I never have.

Imagine, Liz. Think of all your cruiser friends, sitting happily in their cockpits, reading or listening to audio books. Enjoying the solitude and silence of the sea…

And I can do it too! I breathe a sigh of happiness to be out in the cool night air. I wonder at the luminescence of the sea. I enjoy the swish of the waves, and look, dreamily at the stars peeking through the clouds. Beautiful, isn’t it? And look, there is Axel, right there, sleeping below, not three meters away. There is no reason to feel alone, or exposed, or jostled…

I try to read my book again, but the gloom of the night presses on me, disturbing my concentration. So I listen to Lesson 1.4 – At the restaurant, as the darkness creeps cooly over the horizon and seeps into my bones.

One, two, three hours later, and each minute moves just that much more slowly than the last. I should stay on watch until 12am, really, to give Axel times to sleep; but at 11pm it starts to rain, and when Axel comes up to ask if he should take watch, I nod my head in agreement and scuttle down below to lie breathless in the pilot berth, where I calm myself to sleep.

******

At 6am, I wake, barely rested, and crawl into the cockpit. The sun has returned and the world looks familiar again. Axel has a haggard look in his eyes as he tells me about the night squalls and his frustration with the changing winds. Soon, he goes downstairs to sleep it off, and I sit happily in the cockpit, staring out to sea.

Then the rolling starts.

My favorite tactic in this case, is to stay horizontal. If I sit up, the world is a terrible place. Woozy, sick, unhappy. So, horizontal it is.

We lay wooden boards across the cockpit to use as a makeshift bed while underway, and I lie sideways with my head braced against on side of the cockpit and my legs up against the other. I’m the perfect length. I watch Axel sliding back and forth, grasping at handholds as the waves push us this way and that, and experience one of those rare moments when I’m glad to be short.

******
I lie here. That is what I do. I lie here in the cockpit, groaning; watching the bananas and pineapples swinging back and forth in their net.

Axel sets the sails, and decides on the course, and cooks the meals, and does the dishes. Me? I just lie here…

The wind has picked up and is blowing, blowing us forward. Every now and then, listless, I put in my headphones to learn some French –  Lesson 2.2: On a Tour. Est-ce que le guide parle anglais? – and seem to be making progress, until I drop off to sleep, and wake an indeterminate time later with muddled French in my ears.

Apparently, my seasickness should go away after three days. The first few days are always the worst, they say, then you settle into a rhythm and everything is much, much better.

Yes. Just three days! Just three weeks. Just 3000 miles.

No problem. No problem at all!

******

“What am I going to do with my time?” I ask Axel that afternoon, after waking from another nap. The days ahead stretch out before me, and I feel overwhelmed by their length and number.

Because…what can I do, really? I have nowhere to go! I can’t walk to a café in the morning to have a coffee and write. I can’t go window shopping, or chat to our neighbors, or watch YouTube videos, or meet a friend for a beer or a chocolate cake.

I sit and ponder this difficult question for a while, before getting horizontal again and closing my eyes to take a nap.

******

Evening falls. The air is cool enough that we have to rummage around the bottom of the clothes lockers and pull out our long pants and socks. During my evening watch, the squalls start, so we pull on wet weather gear as well.

Axel, who is supposed to be sleeping, comes up every 45 minutes or so to adjust the sails, and see what the weather is up to.

“Do you think we should reef?” he asks.
“Do you think that squall is going to hit us?”
I look at the black mass gathering in the distance, and try to consider thes questions seriously, but there is nothing happening in my brain. It is just static, mush; so I stare at him and say, “I don’t know,” before getting horizontal again.

I nap, or listen to my overly friendly French tutor tell me how easy it is to learn a new language – all it takes practice, repetition, and a little determination! I stare at our fruit net. The bananas are ripening nicely, but the pineapples are looking a bit too juicy already.

We should eat those before they go bad, I think as I lie.

******

Our days are set up like this: Axel is on night watch from 12am to sunrise. I take the morning watch while he sleeps, then both of us are awake throughout the day. After dinner, Axel sleeps and I watch, then the whole cycle starts again.

And when I say I watch, what I really mean, is that I sleep.

I sleep that evening. Every twenty minutes my watch gives a little alarm to tell me that I should look around, which I do. But there is nothing. Not here in the Pacific – there’s no lights, no ships, no nothing. I float, dream-like, somewhere between waking and sleeping, until Axel comes to relieve me at 1am.

I admore Axels constitution as I lie in the pilots berth in the moments before sleep. I’ve always envied Axel, and his ability to function on very little sleep. In rough weather he can get by on thirty minute increments, and as little as four or five hours a day. In regular life he needs only six hours sleep, while I need eight, sometimes more.

That’s just cruel, when you really think about it. I calculated it one time. Two hours extra every day is 730 hours per year, which adds up to thirty days in total. Imagine that, an entire month extra per year…

Tuesday

On day three we have muesli with fruit for breakfast. We sit quietly together, digesting. And I look carefully at Axel whose tired eyes reflect another sleepless night dodging squalls.

Suddenly, he jumps up and leaps backwards towards the companionway.
“What?” I ask.
“Get the cockroach spray!” yells Axel.
My eyes get very wide. Argh! Rally the troops! Batten the hatches! Man the missiles! WE HAVE A VISITOR!!

Axel jumps downstairs to get the bug spray, which we keep handy, and returns to prowl the cockpit, can at the ready.

“Are you sure it was a cockroach?” I ask, remembering an episode last week when he’d reacted similarly to a piece of onion skin that had fallen down while cooking.

But no, he’s adamant, “Yes, it was a cockroach. A BIG one,” and I shudder, because I dislike cockroaches only slightly less than Axel does.

Five minutes later, after we’ve upended everything in the cockpit, we manage to flush the poor creature out from behind the gas canister. Axel is deadly accurate with the spray, and I watch, torn; my buddhist cringing at the death of an innocent little insect, while another, less impressive part of me is yelling: Die you sneaky, scuttly, nasty animal, you. DIE, DIE, DIE!

“I can’t believe we lived for three days on the boat with a cockroach,” Axel keeps muttering as we continue about our day.

Just a few hours later, I have trouble containing my disappointment as the sunny morning gives way to gray skies. The boat, which had been relatively calm when I woke, starts rolling again, along with my stomach.

Axel calls it “old seas” – when the waves from yesterdays wind are coming from one direction, while the current wind is trying to push everything somewhere else.

Axel manages break his brand new kindle with his ass, by sitting on it while struggling with the parasailor (our light wind sail), and I’m reminded of the time that Mark from the boat Irie said, “You could never be my girlfriend Axel. We’d fight, because you have no respect for material goods.”

And I guess it is true, in a way. His head is always somewhere else.

******

Axel stands, straddle-legged in the galley as he cooks potato curry, while I cheer him on from the relative comfort of the cockpit. Only a small amount of swearing and frustration later, we eat dinner as the sun sets spectacularly behind a herd of dark, low rain clouds.

I’ve been eating very little the last days, and surprise myself by wolfing down the hot meal and even having seconds.

Perhaps the worst is over? Perhaps I’ll be feeling better tomorrow?

But not yet. The night watch is wet with rain. I lie there in my wet weather gear, the happiness of my full belly slowly seeping away with the fading light.

Axel watches me sadly as I lie there looking morose.

“The first week is always the hardest,” he says, “It will get better.”

And I nod as watch the fruit hanging in the net. Yup, the pineapples are definitely going bad…

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Update

Hello! Just a quick update: we arrived in Hiva Oa in the Marquesas on Tuesday, and have spent the last few days exploring the island and resting up after the 24 day passage to get here.

I still haven’t managed to pull together my notes from the passage to create a blog entry. The anchorage here is so rolly at the moment, I almost feel like we are still underway and it’s almost impossible to write. Watch this spot, however, it might be 1-2 weeks before we have internet again, but by then I should be able to post all the gory details of life on the boat during the crossing…

with love,
– Liz

Sailing again!

Hey there all,

Just to let you know, we are leaving Santa Marta (northern Colombia) tomorrow morning to sail to the San Blas islands. It will take us 2 days to sail there, and we will be there for 1-2 weeks, during which time we will have no internet. Afterwards we will sail to Panama where we will haul out the boat for a few weeks and do the final repairs/fitting ready for the sail across the pacific.

If you need to contact us while we are in the San Blas for any reason, send an email of no more than 120 characters to the email address: 881631634938 at msg.iridium dot com

You can also call the satellite phone if you like, but it’s not so cheap: +8816 31634938.

While we are sailing Axel will post a message at 12pm each day (our time) on his blog: http://www.gudrunv.net

Lots of love,
Elizabeth

SY Gudrun V
Call-sign: DF5903
Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI): 211415850
Web: http://www.gudrunv.net/

New York, New York

We’ve been in New York for a few weeks now. It is a beautiful city – always something to see and to do. We rented an apartment in the east village, and even bought some bicycles so that it is easier to get around.

Axel has been busy with his photography, and I have been trying to write each day (but not always suceeding). I’m also taking a beginners sewing course, which is a lot of fun.

We went down to the occupy wall street protests a few times this week and last. Every time we go it’s different – different signs, different people – almost as if it is a different protest. The atmosphere is always happy though, with a lot of people smiling, handing out fliers, and willing to talk.

We will be staying in the city until the end of November, and then back to the boat in Colombia.

Hope everyone is well!

– Liz

Six days in Belgrade

View from Kalemegdan fort in Belgrade

We have left Belgrade now, but barely six days was all that was needed to infuse us with the sweet nostalgia characteristic of our Serbian hosts. We sit here in Zagreb, a mere 400km away and look back fondly on the lazy days and warm nights spent in the Serbian capital.

Jovana and Nebosja on their wedding day

The reason for our trip to Belgrade was to attend the wedding of Jovana and Nebosja – old friends from university. Perhaps it was the presence of good friends and the wedding itself which has left such a pleasant sentiment in my mind, but I still feel that there was something else about the city that left it’s mark on me. Let me explain what I mean…

Walking the streets of Belgrade leaves you with the sensation of visiting a provincial town rather than  a city of 1.2 million. The ease with which locals saunter through the streets, their relaxed manner as they serve you coffee or food, and the unprepossessing nature of the buildings and architecture all lull you into a kind of a sway; there is a softness to the city which encourages you to take a seat somewhere next to a friend, to order a drink and to chat together as you watch the world go by.

It wasn’t until we arrived in Zagreb that I realized what set Belgrade apart in my mind. I have difficulty finding words to describe it, but an idea that keeps coming back to me is the word humble.  Humble, simple, strong.

The people in Belgrade dress simply. This is not to say that they do not dress up. Serbian women walk the streets in ornamented and precariously high heels, short skirts, sparkling necklaces and bejeweled earrings. They dress well and pay attention to their appearance, so much so that my sister Elaine and I felt a little embarrassed to be wondering around in our casual, dirt-covered flip-flops.

I leave Belgrade with a feeling of simple beauty and style, and a refusal to cover up natural beauty with too much make-up, too many accessories, or too much complexity. As we drove out of the city to drop Elaine of at the airport we saw teenagers hanging out on the side of the road wearing jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers; a far cry from the over-labelled and over-dressed look of the kids in Zagreb (or Havana, or New Jersey, or London, or…) who seem to be struggling to express themselves, searching for their identity in elaborate hair-dos, artisan bags, and reams of cheap jewelry. Whether this simplicity is due to choice or necessity, I find myself hoping that this aspect of life in the White City will not change.

Belgrade is not made for tourists. It does not offer helpful signposts, flashy storefronts or showy signs which are soothing and alluring to the tourists eye.  They have yet to place a deli/coffee-to-go joint on each corner where hungry travelers can gulf down their one-stop meals before running off to visit various museums and churches.

And yet, every shopkeeper you meet will speak to you in friendly and well-versed english. The straight-faced waiters will politely answer your questions and help you choose a meal from the confusing array of grilled meats, even as they smile behind their notebooks or let out little guffaws of disbelief as you order your tea with milk, or ask for a pork escalope in the middle of the day without ordering a salad or a soup.

The people of Belgrade seem to be amused by western tourists and our clumsy bumbling about the city’s soft pavements. They are happy we are here,  but not yet ready to compromise their city in order to cater to our whims and sensibilities.

Fountain in the city center

Elaine and I spent a lazy afternoon sitting next to a communal fountain, a remnant of the cities socialist past. Clear water streams from the fountains many taps, providing a sense of abundance. As we sit, munching on popcorn from a street vender, women come to fill their water bottles or lift a child to the tap,  men wash their hands and faces, and even the local dogs and pigeons come to drink in peace.

Later, walking about the city, we hear 90’s dance music drifting out from the shops and restaurants, harking back to a simpler time. Now and then we see a face or hear a tune that smacks of the east, but rather than seeming foreign or out of place as they would in the west, these impressions of the orient feel comfortable, meaningful, part of the fabric of life.

Shots of Slivovitz (Serbian brandy) on Skadarska Street

Our first night we discovered Skadarska, a restaurant-lined street in the old bohemian quarter that was revived by poets and writers in the 20th century. Skadarska street is pure romance. The street glistens with light from lanterns and restaurant-fronts, tasteful graffiti decorates the walkway, and any night of the week will find the street full of locals enjoying themselves, cocooned in the warmth of the stone walls around them. Turkish cobble roads, a remnant of one of the many occupations in Serbia’s troubled past, add to the romance and provide a treacherous gauntlet for tipsy women in heels trying to pick their way back home.

It is summer and everyone sits outside on the terraces, but a trip inside your chosen restaurant to the bathroom will reveal walls covered with ornaments, dated black-and white-photos, gold and floral decorations, and staff members sitting comfortably at tables enjoying a breather.

Musician and performer at the restaurant

Every restaurant has a band of musicians playing ballads, waltzes, and gypsy songs. They step up to your table and play just loud enough so that you are not sure when you slip them a few bank notes whether you are paying them to play or to leave you alone.

Skadarska is a place to fall in love, and indeed, I think I may have fallen in love there: with my friends, with the musicians playing slightly out of key, with our haughty helpful servers, and with Belgrade itself.

Food glorious food!

Finally, any description of Belgrade could not be complete without a discussion of the food. The food, like the people, is both simple and strong, a joyous mix of  Balkan, Mediterranean, Turkish, Austrian, and Hungarian cuisine. A meal will start with a plate of cheese, buttery spread, and cold-cut meat, all served with a generous portions of rich, fluffy farmers bread. Cheese strudel, clear soup, and salads filled with bright red tomatoes tasting of farmland and earth can also be added to the beginning of the meal and supposedly help to expand the stomach in preparation for the main dish.

For a main meal you can choose from a dazzling variety of grilled meats: lamb, chicken kebabs, spicy sausages, or minced meat patties stuffed with onions, each served with a healthy side of potatoes. I cannot say much about the desserts, since we were always too full to manage anything else, and I guess that is reason enough for me to promise to go back and visit again.

So there it is. Liz falls in love with Belgrade. Of course, this is probably the kind of love that blossoms and grows from a distance. Serbian friends living in the UK or the US talk about the crumbling infrastructure in Belgrade, the backwards habits of the provincial locals, and the lack of basic comforts and civilized conventions that we have come to rely on in our respective countries of residence.

They too visit Serbia only for vacation – to visit old friends, to taste the food, to enjoy the atmosphere, to reminisce , and at the end of the week return to their new lives with the happy memories of a place that feels like it will never change.

Good bye Belgrade! Thank you for the good times. Thank you my friends for being your amazing selves! You are now part of my new-found nostalgia…

Cheers!

(jiggy jiggy jiggy)

Plan B

So, plans change.

We had so little wind at the beginning of the week that we had to motor most of the way along the northern coast of Puerto Rico. After 2 days motoring, we discovered that the engine was leaking water/oil, so instead of being in Cuba by now as planned, we are still in the west coast of PR, in a beautiful seaside town called Aguadilla.

Props to Captian Axel, who managed to get the engine fixed over the last days using his BARE HANDS, copious amounts of sweat, and a significant amount of cursing. Bonus help came from the ueber-friendly local fisherman, and his engine-expert brother back in Germany who was on call-a-friend duty for a few days.

But…after all that, the engine is fixed :-D. We will overcome!

In the meantime we have been enjoying Aguadilla.  It has been my favorite spot on the island so far – a glimpse of the real Puerto Rico. Walking down the streets I feel like I´m back in the 50´s. Life is slow. The shops are smaller, the cars are older. People sit around on the beach, or on benches, or on the hoods of their cars just talking or listening to music.

The girls don´t just dress up, they put on a show.  They strut about in beautiful dresses and matching heels, and get beeped at by passing cars. People live out on the street, and it´s beautiful.

We were lucky enough to meet Luis and Nancy, a couple who were interested in the boat and who invited us back to their brothers beach house to join their family reunion. As a result we have spent the last 3 nights enjoying music, dancing, laughter, and a little too much food and drink with a bunch of friendly, fun-loving Puerto Ricans.

The girls have been showing me how to shake my ass. I used to think that my ass-shaking was pretty good, but oh how I was wrong. After witnessing some authentic gyrating, shimmying, undulating Puerto Rican bootie I have to hang my head in shame.  I got a lot of practicing to do.

Our new plan: leave tomorrow, but no longer for Cuba. It´s getting late in the season and we´re worried that we´ll have more problems with the boat and get stuck in a danger area during hurricane season. Instead, we will sail directly to Cartagena, Columbia, which is safe and where we can put the boat on the dry for repairs. We will then fly to Cuba by plane.

But hey, which of our well-laid plans have we managed to stick to so far?

Watch this space.  I´ll keep you updated on how things progress…

Barcamp

Barcamp Munich was last weekend –  an “unconference” where a bunch of IT professionals get together and share ideas. I ran a User Experience session IN GERMAN, which went surprisingly well :-). It was kind of surreal talking to a German audience – they tend to be a lot more earnest than Americans or Canadians.

Someone gave away bananas. It was a good day.