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Day 1, 6:55 PM June 16, 2007
Its almost 7 o clock and I am tired and feeling a bit queasy. I guess its to be expected, and sitting in front of the computer doesn’t help as the boat rises and falls against the ocean. We are under diesel power so the engine is rumbling away and I have retreated to my cabin in the front of the ship to get some sleep before my night-watch . There was good weather today, but no wind. Tomorrow there are supposed to be 20 ft seas and a raging wind (blowing the wrong direction for us) hitting Cape Town for four days, so rather than delay our departure until after it, we opted to onload extra diesal to take us the 200 or so kilometers north up the coast where good winds should be possible. We hope to reach there tomorrow and then turn left off to St Helena with a strong southeast wind at our backs. It was a gorgeous mid-day depature, marred only by the spring tide which conspired to drop the water level so low in the Granger Bay Marina that we actually ran hard aground for 30 miutes or so before the tide lifted us up off of it. No harm done, according the Andre, so once we were free of the muddy bottom we were on our way. A couple of whales and dolphins were near the exit of the Marina and it pained me not to be able to take pictures, but in the rush to get the sail up and the boat moving there was no time. It felt like we were getting a nice welcome into the ocean, and that’s always good. I am excited about the project, but strangely unhappy too. Partly it was the stress of the days leading up to the departure, and partly the stress of the project. It may also have something to do with my slightly nauseous feeling too… but no fully-fledged sea sickness yet, so crossing my fingers. We have seen large skuas and other ocean birds at sunset, and every so often the lazy flap of a seal or two when they hold their flippers up out of the water as if hailing the boat. I am painfully aware of my inexperience in sailing, but figure that with only three of us to run the whole thing its inevitable that even a blonde like me will learn a thing or two by the end of the voyage. That seems so far away, like the rest of my life will only happen within the confines of this curved hull. Going to sleep now before the time gets away from me and its my turn for a two hour watch. Tomorrow we may hit the trade winds, and by next week we will be in St Helena, a place I have always dreamed of visiting.
Day 2, June 17, 2007
Did my first assisted watch last night from 12 to 2am. The Milky Way was shining so brightly in the sky and Deon an chatted about may thing to a backdrop of shooting stars. One particulary bright one lit up part pf the sky and left a smoke trail as it blazed down. Dawn came late this far south, around 7 30am, and we have been in the same seas all day, only about 130 nautical miles from Cape Town and motor sailing our way up to the trade winds that should start sometime soon. These winds take us strait to St Helena, unlike the winds are in now, from seem to be doing everything but that. The swell is strong, and since its best that we don’t go strait into the waves we are taking an oblique approach which results in a very dizzy circular and bouncing motion that every so often brings down the front of the boat with a violent and disturbing crack. Since my bed is in the front of the boat, I write this from a prone position on a bed that is rising and falling about 3 meters every two seconds. Like unrelenting air turbulence, it gets more alarming the longer it lasts…and we are now one day into it with who knows how many more to go. The day was long, and I am itching to upload the video I have been shooting, but every time I open my computer below, I get very seasick. Otherwise its fine, and I feel much better today. I did manage to get about a third of my editing of the pictures and film done. Maybe more tomorrow! We have seen many frigate birds and petrels but alas, no sign of the great Auk yet. I am waiting for him. Deon and Andre are doing well, but both are showing signs of stress from very little sleep. I cannot stand watch yet in such violent seas, being such a neophyte sailor, so one of them has had to be on the deck every moment for the last 31 hours. Once things calm down, I will be able to assist and things will run much easier I hope. We haven’t been able to cook much, with the boat canted over at about 30 degrees it possible still with our swing oven but very uncomfortable. Instead we have been pies, bagels and cream cheese and some fruit. I am a big eater, but I have to admit- to the amazement of my friends reading this, that I have lost my appetite for the moment. Another lurch…its like swinging in a very large swing, very very high. It was gorgeous to be out here today, even with the rain squalls there was also sun and a brilliant moon set just after the sun went down. Deon is on deck right now, the wind is howling like you cant believe through the rigging and it looks like its going to get uglier before it gets any better.
Day 3, 18 of June 2007
Stood a clear but cold 12 to 2:30 am watch last night while the exhausted guys snoozed a bit. The motor was still on, but by 7 am we had hit the trade winds and were able to turn it off. Today I was finally able to edit the video of the project, and get something done. That felt great. I was a bit woozy for the 6 hours that it has taken to get it all together, but it is done now, thank goodness. Now all we have to do is find a stretch of sea calm enough to upload the video through the Bgan connection (it stands for Global Area Network B).
Day 4, 19 of June 2007
Since I am online and the comp seems to be dry, will fill you in on the current state of affairs. Its our fourth day out here, and the first where I could sit on deck with my little computer and upload video and get in touch with the outside world. We just escaped from a violent storm the pulled into Cape Town the night of the day we left. It was brutal out here, with waves bearing down on us from the very first night. We were headed directly into the wind, and had relentless tacking and powering along with both sails and the motor. Diesel spilled ithe he cabin, no one slept for more than a couple of hours at a time, and the whole boat pitched and rolled violently for three days. Yesterday we hit the trade winds, that blow across the Atlantic towards St Helena, our first destination. The swells and rolling waves from the storm are even now pitching us about but the sky is clear and an albatross has been following us for the last few hours. We are about 160 miles off the Skeleton coast of Namibia, and now running a dircet line for ST Helena with a stiff 17-knot winds on our left rear quarter. There are fluffy white clouds in the most pastel blue sky, you can imagine. What a pleasure. All our rain gear is scattered about the top deck drying off. I am going to get something to eat, now that I seemed to have acclimated to the boat and dont feel like throwing up every time i go below. I am hungry. We arent making great time because of the variable winds. But maybe tomorrow they will get a bit better. I think we are still feeling the cold. I am looking forward to covering some of the science from St Helena and meeting the folks from airport project there. Regards from the South Atlantic!
Day 4 June 19, 2007 7:06 pm
‘I am curled up in my bed at the front of the boat. It was a good day today. As you can see from my post erlier in the day, there was enough good weather to get the satellite system out and connect to the internet. Thanks goes to inus in helping me to set up my inbox with a filter on it! I am about to snooze a bit before my watch at 10. We have really just started this trip and now it is beginning to sink in on all of us how far it truly is in a sail a boat. Andre the captain is talking about meeting his wife and child in Fernando when we get there and then letting us carry on to the Azores and meeting us there. It is far, and its still early days. I have a feeling we will get so used to this that it will just become our reality. It is already. The weather has improved, I can use my computer without having to hold it down, but its still very cold at night, and very windy. Even now I can here it humming through the rigging. The wind changes a lot, requiring constant attention, and Deon and Andre really need to assist e when things get complicated. Deon managed to sleep today for about three hours. I think its his longest sleep in the past days. He looked happier for it. Better snooze now. If its good weather we might fish a bit tomorrow. I am looking forward to being on St Helena. I think the best way to not get too stressed about the journey is to just take each day and each destination at a time. This will all be a memory someday, as long as we don’t end up at the bottom of the sea! - and I I want to enjoy the challenge while its here.
Day 5, June 20th, 2007 8:14pm
Last night was a tough watch. I was cold, tired, and just could not keep my eyes open! We are set up on watches of two hours each, starting at 8pm and going to 8am the next day. If I do the 8pm to 10pm watch, then I sleep for four hours and do the 2 to 4am watch. That way every guy gets about 8 hours of sleep a night. Sitting there, alone on the dark deck is perhaps the most introspective I have ever been. The world is made up on only sea and sky, and yet I am struck how stuck in my head I am. Worried about seemingly small things, like sleep, and food and where we are going, and the project and all that stuff which will take care of itself just fine in good time. There is magic out here. Last night the phosphorescence in the water shined green light like swirling stars passing by the boat. This light is caused by (as I understand it) a type of algae that lights up in the friction of water molecules rubbing against each other. The moon has been waxing from a sliver our first night to a fine sight for about 2 hours after sunset. Tonight I am going on watch at midnight to 2am, then again at 6am to 8am. In fact though, Deon probably does more staying awake than any of us, he always seems to wake up when there is a hint of course change or trouble. He seems to do ok with it, and we are lucky to have him on the boat. Andre is more technical and very exact. Thank goodness, since he has built a very fine and well made boat that we all have our lives depending on. Gorgeous day today. It started out a bit grey, but we clowned around, took pictures, worked on the boat a bit and listened to music. Deon put his fishing rod out today and hopefully we will get a fish in the next few days. Would be nice to have some tuna. We eveb brought ginger and wasabi mustard for sushi! Maybe I mentioned that in an earlier posting, but that just goes to show you that like on any expedition, food looms large in the minds of the crew. Around 2 in the afternoon I was out on deck and saw what looked like a large brown plastic bag in the water. It was a huge turtle, paddling along like he was just out for an afternoon stroll among the hedgerows. It looked like a Leatherback, which I have taken pictures of in the Indian Ocean, but the glimpse was so quick and we were making such good time that I cant say for certain. They do travel through this area though and many are hatched on Fernando De Naronha, where we are going in a few weeks. I hope to catch up with some of the researchers there and find out how they are doing here in the Atlantic.
Day 6 8:45pm 21st of June, 2007
Wednesday I think.
Incredibly enough I have been sitting in front of a computer all day! I spend most days taking pictures, making food, learning to sail and shooting video, then every two or three days (so twice in the last 6 days) I sit down for a whole day and edit the images and video to send out to my good buddy and colleague Jurgen. He is a computer fundi who is a specialist in the equipment, in particular the software, that people use to shoot and edit video. He teaches video editing at AFDA, the film school of South Africa, but he is originally from Holland. He came up with the special encryption program that I am using to get my video out to the rest of the world in a highly compressed format that nevertheless looks good when you view it. Hopefully. I mention all this cause its on my mind as I sit here on the deck, where its not really warm but certainly a lot warmer than recently. The is a feeling out here of grand expansiveness. The sea is calm and a soft wind mixes with the thrum of the diesel. I am sad to say that we are motoring again. The wind s just enough to flutter the sail rather forlornly, so we are cruising along with the asymentrical sail up and it rattles a bit behind me. It’s the first time I dared to bring my computer on deck furing a watch. Watch has not been the kindest way to spend a freezing cold wet evening, getting lashed by rain and ready to call Deon or Andre at the slightest hint of trouble. So we are going very very slowly on our way to St Helena. The newspaper there is meeting us at the dock when we get in. I think the radio too. News of any sort is clearly a very rare event on that isolated island, because of our modest press release about our project, the newspaper seems to have cottened on the idea that we are news. I usually try to search out the news myself, so to actually be it will be a bit different. Before you think I have gotten all high and mighty though, keep in mind that I will remember the little people who have gotten me here. Har har. I am practicing my pirate speak. I think I will need something to fall back on when my celebrity fades. So we pass beneath this huge sky, slipping between 4000 meters of water and …. infinity I guess. Its there above us….I am remended that the bushmen of one area of the Kalahari believe that the stars actually sing their light down on to the earth. That’s a much more pleasant thought than thinking of a one way trip to the bottom of this sea with a large stone. That’s a a very chilly thought indeed. I jumped into the sea today, as we were sailing along. There was a drag rope attached to the back and I grabbed it after I jumped in. Just before I got in the boat again, I looked under it, with my eyes open in the salt water. It shocked me. The water was so clear and blue and there was our little tiny boat…hanging there all alone in this big..DEEP -blue sea. Below it was that colour of the upper atmosphere from a plane window or in photos of Everest: Dark blue fading to black. What an amazing place.
Day 7, Friday the 22nd of July, 2007
Here I am back in my rodeo cabin after a long day. They call it the rodeo cabin because it goes up and down a lot. Its in the front of boat, and I can hear the water rushing past the hull on both sides of me. We still have no wind, now for the third day. Let me correct that. We have wind but its blowing directly from the place where we need to go. Today it started blowing harder. So we are driving, at a fast walking speed, to St Helena. Th engine is a verye connimocal diesel and the boat is fast and light, so we sip fuel and move at about 5.5 miles per hour (roughly 9 km/hour) I walk at about that speed. It seems we should be in St Helena at around … next Friday? Maybe Wednesday? Its ok with me, I have nowhere else to be. I keep my schedule clear for work, and work in South Africa lately has been slow. Being a freelance photographer is not for people who like long term, or even short-term planning. Today was about the fastest day I have ever had. I don’t say this lightly. I guess I got up a bit late, around 9:30, but still the day flashed by. The sea was like a large swimming pool this morning, so we pitched a tent on deck, dragged the carpets up there and lazed around for 20 minutes before Andre got bored and decided to launch the rubber duck (a zodiac) off the back of the boat. So off we went, blasting around the boat on the zodiac taking pictures and shooting film and whooping it up. I spent the afternoon editing video and putting together the next chapters of the film for the viewing public out there in the big wide world. We really enjoy connecting to the net, and getting email from fans and friends and most importantly our loved ones. Hopefully we will get the web-site organized and running nicely in the next few days. We need another crew-member and asked an old friend of mine from Holland who is a sailor to join us. She is very outgoing and always good company. It will be nice to have her on board, not only because we are three men alone and its good to have variety in the mix, but because she can pull an extra watch at night and we can all get a decent night’s sleep. Hopefully she will join us on Fernando. I just heard the chaps drop the sail, must have been slowing us down. Now we are on power alone and the sea is picking up. When we were in the calm waters today we saw hundreds of jellyfish. The fisherman from Namibia who work these waters have seen the collapse of their fishery, supposedly due to over-fishing from unregulated foreign vessels. Instead they have been hauling huge nets full of jellyfish from the sea. WE haven’t caought a fish for three days of trying, so I have to assume there is something to their argument. Sad to think that there is more life on the skeleton coast than here in the sea.
Day 8, Saturday 23rd of July 2007
I am bone tired. We have been beating into the wind all day and all night, and finally started cruising under sail only (turned the motor off) about 3 hours ago. I had been fairly upbeat until a few hours ago, but everything hit me at once. Seont about 3 hours last night sleeping, the rest getting hammered by waves and swell so badly! What a rodeo ride. This morning, after Andre and Deon both stayed up clear through the night, I went to the mast and helped set down the sail is a blasting squall. I knew what to do, held on tight and got it done. I even got some good footage an hour later once the sun kind of rose. I say kind of because it was still dark with heavy heavy storm clouds! So nice to be back in my bouncy bunk and know we are finally moving in the right direction under some slightly more decent wind. The clomp clomp of the swell whacking the boat is still with me but I think it will just lull me to sleep. Its 8:22 pm and I have to get up at 11pm to do watch. No rest for the wicked. Someday soon I will sleep the whole night through. That will be the best thing about being in St Helena. Pretty colours for photos with the storm clouds this morning. Even saw a rainbow.
Day 9, June 23, 2007 Sunday
Another day beating into the wind. In hopes of good news, when I did email today, I downloaded the latest Atlantic weather image. Bad idea. If you are ingnorant, there is always hope, but now we know. This wind system is set for a at least a week. The wind is coming directly from St. Helena and it’s a total ocean system, being fed by huge storms in the south Atlantic. We crossed into the tropics today but it’s still cold. Its like the southern winter is reaching up to keep us in its icy grip, and not even pushing us away with winds but hooking up against South America, turning right and blasting down from the northwest strait into us. Wow. Could be global warming, could be just a freak event, but according to our up to date wind charts it is not at all normal for this time of year. The system feeding it looks like one that developed two years ago into the first ever hurricane in the South Atlantic. Its far to the south with little chance of coming this way, but its effects are being felt throughout the sea south of the Equator. So my bunk has stopped being the rodeo ride that it was and and has become the sideways ride, as we slip into the eye of the wind, blowing down at us at 15 knots. This ship that Andre built can sail very very close to the wind. What that means is that if the wind is coming from the northwest, we can actually sail within 20-30 degrees of northwest (keeping in mind there is 360 degrees in the compass). We are opting for north-northwest and letting our leeway slip us along. With this strong wind we are able to make about 7 knots, which for a sailing ship is very good going indeed. The effect though is striking. The wall has almost become the floor. I am propped up in the cave of a pile of gear and pillows I have scrounged from the boat, effectively nested in the L between the wall and the bed. I still sleep well, since I am so tired. I sent my second edit of video and photos out today. I have been working 5 hours a day for the last 4 days on it. Hope you all get to see it soon. Today we caught our first ever fish! It was a very small Skip-Jack Tuna, very salty and very undersized so we sent him back to the deep. Who knows it may be a harbinger of better luck to come. At least we know there are regular fish as well as jellyfish still at large in the sea, albeit only a very small one. The wind howls in the sails above me. By our original plan, before the wind turned against us, we had hoped to be in St Helena today, now it looks much more like 4 or 5 days more at least. I have nowhere to be, but it would be nice to get there. I hear its beautiful, and I have some appointments to keep with some biologists who are working there.
Day 10, June 25, 2007 8:45 pm
Squalls, scattered clouds, wind on the port rear with very confused seas. Finally the wind changed direction, and sits where would we would like it the most. However the swell, which is about 4 to 6 meters, is running about 40 points off of our course. What this means is that we are careening down one side of these huge rollers, about 50 meters between crests, and then up the other side at an angle and then on the next one at the opposite angle. So we lurch drunkenly, bleeding speed as we sway deeply to one side and then the other. If you could imagine a drunk driver in 3D you might get my drift. The sea has been grey black and I spent the whole day on the top deck. They say that the sea colour is just a reflection of the sky. Today I believe it. Grey skies and grey sea…waves like the dunes of the Namibian desert stretching out forever. At one point about an hour ago, just before sun set, we were on top of this big wave and I looked down about 10 meters (30 feet) into the hole in the swell where we were next headed. It is alarming until you do this thousands of times, and you realize that (hopefully, gulp) you just get set back up the elevator to the next wave crest. On and on and on. The sea is so big, and with global warming and the possibility of having more of it, this trip is making me keenly aware that we should take very careful care of the little dry land we have on this planet. Unfortunately, we are all in agreeance on this boat, there are very few signs that this is happening. But I digress slightly. It struck me today as I just looked at all this water, it’s amazing that I am dry. That we have not through some force of size and osmosis become just as wet as the miles of ocean around us. Maybe the wave action is getting to me. Fortunately it doesn’t make me queasy any more. Thank the sea gods for that. We did not get a chance in this strong wave action to use email. That is always a spirit lifter, and with almost no sleep for anyone last night due to the weather, we could all use a bit of spirit lifting! We heard through the Satellite telephone that Cape Town has been smashed by a truly huge storm. Boats are being called in to port and a yacht was de-masted yesterday near Robben Island. We are way way past the point of no return to the Cape, and this huge swell hitting us is probably the vanguard of that low pressure front reaching up. We all have a feeling that more dirty weather could well be on the way. Much dirtier. We are still about 400 Miles from St Helena, when we should have been there yesterday or today according to the wind charts. At the 7 knots we are doing, that will put us there in about 60 hours, or 3 days. We could all do with some shore time after the wild ride we have been on. Even the other guys, both veterans of many crossings, are getting tired of the all night watches and changing weather conditions. They expected this to be the easy part of the trip. I saw one of the most perfect rainbows of my life this morning, I had time to see it and photo it just before we were almost knocked flat by a screaming squall.
Day 11, June 26, 2007 9:30 pm
Squalls, party sunny, wind at the rear blowing between 10 and 25 knots. Its been a great day for sailing. Finally we reached some good wind, (for now) and its blowing us strait to St Helena. We are about two days away, trusting the wind keep us at full steam ahead. There is a large following swell, big enough to rock the bridge of a truly massive Liquid Pressurized Gas (LPG) carrier we saw just before sunset coming up on our stern. These things are huge, with rounded carrying tanks, and are deemed enough of an explosion risk that they are barred from the major canals like the Suez and the Panama, or so I hear. It was probably coming from the Gulf of Cabinda on its way to the USA, or so we figure by its course. Cabinda is a nominal enclave of Angola, and mostly controlled by US and French oil companies, which are busy exploiting Angola’s vast offshore oil and gas reserves. Only 200 miles or so from here there are oil rigs spouting towering flares big enough to create their own weather systems. Angola is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and its standard of living is amongst the worst, according to the
World Bank, yet Uncle Sam and the US car drivers hand the Angolan government millions of dollars a month in the return for their oil. This is also a country that kills, intimidates and imprisons journalists regularly and has no political opposition or elections. They are not a member of OPEC, which makes their chummy relationship with Washington all that more important. I once spent a month on one of those oil platforms, just near the mouth of the Congo River. This might sound like a wild place in the public imagination, but in fact it is a land of fire, pollution, and outright greed. On any given night I counted 28 gas flares burning in the sky there, all around the drilling platforms which sprouting like black daisies from the ocean from the window of the helicopter when I flew in. I was there taking pictures, and when the rig I was on found oil, we spouted our own pillar of fire and the clouds that formed above this gout of flame created a rainstorm that dropped black rain back down on us. I cried. Most countries in the world outlawed flaring, but Angola is not one of them. It became clear to me then that it wasn’t the oil companies or the governments doing this, they are just making something to sell and everyone knows most politicians are greedy and in the bed with them. The only people who can stop them is us, the consumers. Buy your petrol from BP, they insisted on financial transparency from the Angolan government before they pumped their oil. They lost their contracts, but they made a very clear point. Don’t buy your oil from Chevron. They litter their compounds with landmines and operate at the very edge of decency and would do worse if they weren’t so afraid of getting caught. But I digress from my trip. The rain hammered us a bit today but the wind has finally sent us on our way. Everyone’s spirits are much higher, and outside the water is blasting by the hull (the very very thin hull). We are in a racing boat and she is showing us once again what she can do, even though loaded down for the trip. Its late now for the ocean and I am already in bed. Have to wake up for my midnight watch in a bit.
Day 12, June 27, 2007 11:34 pm
Squalls, mild wind from the southeast to south. Its Channel Day today. The night before hitting landfall. I suppose it comes from the old English navy expression, marking the night before getting to Portsmouth after entering the English Channel. We are far from Portsmouth, and heading instead for a tiny little rock in the Atlantic, deemed far enough in the middle of nowhere to be the perfect place to exile one of the most respected and feared men in Europe. Even there, though, someone saw fit to poison Napoleon with arsenic. I am looking forward to being there. We have gotten so used to being here, living in these few square meters, that to be on solid ground with a whole island to explore sounds like paradise. The people of St Helena are called saints, more proof that I will not be the most welcome person there. I guess I will be watching what I eat. Hopefully our weather will improve for the leg to Fernando, but we aren’t going to hold our breath! Moral is good and the guys are sitting on the back of the boat under the rain tarp chatting about islands, what it will take to buy one or own one or just have a little spot on one. I like islands, and ever since reading David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, a book about the nature of biodiversity, I like them even more. They are the creators of the odd, the gargantuan, the colourful. I wonder what that means for the people who live on them, could we say the same of the people who inhabit these far0flung places? I guess we will see. The hospitality of the Saints is legendary, and already Mike, from the local radio station, is coming down to the boat when we get in to welcome us. Winter still has us in its icy grip, even this far into the tropics. A huge storn has blown up from Cape Town with 75 mile an hour winds. Hope we get to St Helena before it hits us!
Day 13, Thursday June 27, 2007 11:34 pm (same time as last night)
Landfall. St Helena sits off the starboard beam. Mike Ohlsen, from the newspaper here, invited me to the dock for a chat. It was amazing to stand on dry land. It kept moving. There is no place to dock here. We are laying anchor in the bay, using the zodiac to go ashore. To do this we take a leap from the little rubber boat, grab hold of a line hanging from a pole and pull ourselves onto the stone pier. The ropes hang in a line like a hangman’s nooses. There are about 10 f them there, hanging. That is the only way on or off the island. No beaches, no docks, just step over the gunwale of the boat and onto the dock, with a rope in your hand. It makes this island seem like another ship in the sea. It is certainly all alone out here. It rises from 4000 meters of sea depth within only a couple of kilometers and is surrounded by shear cliffs. There aren’t even any stone beaches because if this steep rise. Mike and his wife are very friendly, very open, and have invited me around in the morning to visit and offered to assist in getting around. That would be great. There are cars here, and from our position in the bay we can see strait up the famous 666 steps of Jacobs ladder. Its a strait stairway up the hillside with a line of lights. I think there are more lights on the ladder that in the hwole town put together. It really feels like the bottom of nowhere here. It’s a good feeling. I like it already and I haven’t even seen it in daylight! No watches tonight, just relaxing and sleeping. What a pleasure. Have a big day tomorrow. I finished the third edit of images and video. I hope I can upload it here! It’s a large one, but after watching I thought it was more negative than positive, which disturbs me a bit since we also had our fun too…though when I think about the last week and a half have been pretty hard. So I suppose they reflect reality. But sometimes adventures are hard, and those hard times make the good times dtand out and be appreciated. Like any good exercise, no pain no gain. Sitting here in the harbour it feels like I have gained a lot on this trip already.
Day 14 Friday, June 28th, 2007 10:05pm
It was a very busy day for me, running around filming, meeting new people and organizing the next few days of work here in St Helena. What a place! The people are very friendly, by the far the friendliest people I have ever met anywhere in the world. From the moment we stepped onto the dock we were greeted by the local fishermen, working on their boat. That welcome carried on all day, all over town and seemed natural and not forced in any way. The people are a curious mixture of European, African, Malaysian, and Mauritian (from Mauritius not Mars). Isabel Peters at the Government Environmental Office was very helpful, and she did a fantastic interview. She helped arrange lots of interviews with NGO and Government workers for the next few days, including a trip to see the Wirebird, endemic to St Helena and with only 340 specimens, one of the most critically endangered birds in the world. She also organized a trip over the weekend to see the airport project site with Sharon Wainwright, the manager of the project, and I went down to the docks in the afternoon to work with Emma Bennet, who is studying the ear bones of groupers trying to discover their distribution and affects of fishing. It was a bit yucky watching here take the bones out by sawing their heads open, but very very interesting listening to her explain how the fish grow and how their ages are recording like tree rings on the ear bones. She gave us a big grouper for supper, which I just had with the guys cooked with rice on our swinging gas stove on the boat. Very tasty fish! I have a date with the governor for Sunday morning, which Mike Ohlsen organized. We are already in his debt for all the help with the Internet and contacts.
Day 15, Saturday, June 29th 8:45pm
St Helena is truly one of the friendliest places I have ever been. Today we woke up with a shock. The Tender, our little boat on the back of the ycht, custom made at great expense by Andre, was gone. As could be expected we were shocked, and Andre lost it of course. This is a very serious blow to the project since in most places, like St Helena, we have no other ride to shore. It was our photo platform, our adventure platform and a way to track sea turtles with marine biologists and also a back up in case we sink. Andre tied it last night behind the boat very well after coming back from town around 9:30pm, but obviously not well enough. Its pretty rough here and the constant rocking must have untied his knot. There is very little chance it was stolen here, since there is almost no crime and no other similar boat or engine on the whole island. There is only one harbour, and one boat landing, so anyone who may want to take something like that has literally no where else to put it. Andre and Deon went looking out in the open sea, where the wind must have blown it, but alas. It was not found. The reaction of the St Helena people has been amazing. Mike Ohlsen put it out on the radio, the police and search and rescue went looking, even the water taxi service guys used their boat for a few hours to assist. Mike and I then called all over Cape Town to try and get another one, and an all vessel bulletin went out to all fishing vessels in the area. Everyone on the island seemed to know and commiserate. This sort of thing is common. Two weeks ago the harbour master’s boat drifted off the same way. It was also never seen again. We are rolling with the punch. We could not find another suitable boat in Cape Town on such short notice (the ship that would bring it up is leaving tomorrow). So we will depart tomorrow evening or Monday morning for Ascension first thing, without our little Tintannic. It had an aluminum bottom and inflatable sides… Perhaps that was not the best name for the thing. On a much more positive note, things went very well today for the project. I met up with Dr. Rebecca Cairnswicks, who is working with the community trying to raise awareness of ecology and conservation. She has been getting schoolchildren and many other people to plant a very special endemic hardwood tree (it occurs nowhere else) called St Helena Gumwood. This tree used to cover about 35% of the island and now its reduced to just a few hectares. Its called the Millenium Forest, and I got to plant my very own tree, so I can now say that I have roots on St Helena! So can people who log onto their site: www.nationaltrust.org.sh and go to the projects page can also make a small donation and have a tree planted here in their name. Every Gumwood tree planted on the Island has either been planted by the donor or done in someone’s name. Support the regeneration of the island with this very special tree, which is a relic left over from vast forests in Africa, when Africa was much wetter. There are none left in Africa, just this tiny population. Rebecca is also the head of the environmental impact assessment team for the airport project and we went out there to see how the creation of the airport affects the fragile ecosystem of that area. It was beautiful, with high mountains surrounding a central basin high above the ocean, lit with rainbows from passing squalls (really). Although they might not appeal to everyone, there is a significant group of hunting spiders, also endemic, which are relatives of the wolf spider. These little night hunters live in carefully constructed holes in the ground, and live only in these few hectares, and nowhere else on earth. The airport runway stops just short of their habitat, and its unclear yet what sort of impact the project will have on them. The most strking thing about the airport is that the safety strip at the end of the runway must be extended out over a gorge about 600 meters deep. This will be done by filling the gorge, which in my opinion is a sad fact to face. It will marr the beauty of one of the worlds most visually striking places in order to bring access into a special community that has grown unique through its isolation. At the same time I understand that the people here would like the airport and voted in favour of it, and it’s their place to do with as they wish. It could be argued that they might not know what they have got until its gone, but I am not so selfish or self centered to think that I know better than them what is good for their future and their island. But I have seen many places with a particular special-something be ruined by all the people flocking to see it. Certainly the legendary hospitality of the people here will not survive the arrival of thousands of tourists. I have yet to put my finger on what special something St Helena has, but there is got a lot of it!
Day 16, 1 st of July 2007 Sunday
Today I met with the governor. I woke up on the boat, made coffee, jumped off the back of the boat and took a sea bath while a soft rain fell, then went into town on the water taxi at about 8am. Mike from Saint FM lent me his car and I went up to the governor’s house and interviewed him about the airport and conservation efforts on the island. He has these huge tortoises on his property and after a brief interview in his drawing room we went out, and he actually scratched them under their chins while I took photos. Sunday is a very quiet day in St Helena. Thank goodness the sun was out for the first time since I came here and I was able to take some landscapes. Me and the crew climbed Jacobs Ladder, a long ramp of 666 steps ( truly there is 674) up the side of the mountain and then went to the old WW2 batteries. It was amazing. We could even go inside them. The barracks and the bunkers were still there. The rusted guns sat silent vigil looking out over the vast expanse of the Atlantic stretching from horizon to horizon. The bad news of the day is that we seem to have hit something in the water on our way here and we have to raise the boat out of the water to check tomorrow, do any necessary repairs and clean the bottom of the boat. There is a lot of seaweed growing on the bottom, and we will get a lot of speed if we clean it off. This means we will be here a few more days. It is Sunday today, so we should probably be off by Wednesday or Thursday. Bernice and Mike from Saint FM invited us to a huge meal tonight so I am now in my bunk about to snooze after too much red wine, chicken, lamb and beef. People here in St Helena have been so good to us. That also why the guys are taking the boat out of the water tomorrow, it’s the cheapest and best place, since the people take such pride in their work. It’s a very strange place, insular and yet very outward looking. People are of many creeds, races and religions yet all seem to get along well. Of course like in any small town such as the one I grew up in, there must be undercurrents of unhappiness that the casual visitor will never understand in a short time here. By and large though people get on with their lives and exhibit a stoic sense of pride in their community that the rest of the world could learn a lot from.
Day 17, 2nd of July 2007 Monday
I am writing this from my bunk, now15 feet above the croncrete pier where the boat is safely resting. We successfully raised the boat from the water with the help of many St Helena dockworkers and the assistance of Deon and Andre. I mostly took pictures and video. It looks easy from the images. It was not. Lifting a boat with a crane is maybe one of the most stressful things you can do with a million dollar yacht. Virtually anything can go wrong, and often does. This time it did not, but we are only halfway up this particular mountain. This is the biggest boat that they have evr lifted here, so it was new ground for everyone. Deon mentioned that he could not believe we lifted this thing in St Helena. There isn’t even a real dock here, just a pier where the boat could not pull up right alongside, she had to lifted from about 15 feet away. Andre thinks we will get most of the repair work tomorrow and may have her back in the water by Thursday if we are lucky. I guess we will leave asap after that. We decided we probably wont stop in Ascension Island, it will take too much time and we need to make up some of what we have lost. It’s a shame since we have some good contacts there to see sea turtles nesting. It’s a small price to pay though. It was either raise the boat here or end the trip. I have become attached to this project very closely and last night, before the successful raising, the idea of ending the trip filled me with such sadness. I was surprised at the depth of my feeling for it. You never know how you will feel about something until there is a risk of it leaving. I hope putting her back in goes as smoothly. Tomorrow I am looking for one of the rarest birds on the planet. Its called a Wire Bird, and there is only 340 in the whole world and they all live on St Helena. I am going with Eddie, a local who works with the St Helena Wildlife trust. He can get right next to the birds, less than 3 feet away! I look forward to it. Maybe after that Dr. Cairnswicks might take me for a walk in the peaks area, the highest place on the mountain, if the weather holds.
Day 17, 3rd of July 2007 Tuesday
Today I stalked and shot the Wire Bird. He made a nice kebab on the back of the boat, still sitting in dry dock. His long skinny legs are perfect for grabbing after a good roasting to sear the flesh and get the feathers off. I am joking of course, I only shot with my camera, but people did eat them at one time when food was scarce on the island. This little member of the African plover family left Africa thousands of years ago (when exactly is in contention) and established itself on St Helena. There are only around 322 in the whole world, and all of them live here. This is one of the most critically endangered birds in the world. Yet one of them let me come right up to it and look at its eggs. Maybe that’s why they are so endangered? I took some pictures and hung out with the world’s most experienced Wire Bird watcher, Eddie Duff. Eddie is a forty something man, huge, with a bigger smile and long dreadlocks. He loves listening to Lynard Skynard (a very southern US rock group known for their confederate flags) and used to work as a gardener. His skill in approaching this otherwise shy species was noticed by the St Helena National Trust and he has been working with them for the last two years, cataloguing and counting Wire Birds. Eddie can approach a nest and without disturbing the nesting mother, take pictures from less than 2 feet away. He is a gentle soul, and loves his work. It was a pleasure to work and learn from him, and I appreciated my time with him today very much. There is a lot to be said about a society that appreciates and awards a man for who he is and not for the papers he carries. After that I went with Dr. Cairnswicks to the Peaks, the highest place in the whole south Atlantic. There is a very rare woodland there that is in the most dire of straits. The only National Park on the island has been declared there, but only about 10% of the original, rare vegetation remains. We looked at a tree fern forest which is fighting for space with vast tracts of Flax, a rope making material from the beginning of the 20th century/ The tree fern has been here on the island or at least 200 million years. It is in a precarious position, and the park was established to give the tree ferns a chance to repopulate the cloud forest at the top of the Peaks. They have only three guys clearing flax, and this is far far short of what is needed. There are few other very rare species coming back in some areas, including the black cabbage tree, which like most plants here has no relation to its namesake. Then we went down to the nursery for Redwood trees (again no relation to the US tree) . This tree was all but extinct and was highly prized for its strength and beauty. The governor of St Helena, in the 1780s, proclaimed it an endangered tree and put it under his protection, thus making it one of the oldest plants in the world to be officially recognized as going extinct. There was only one tree left in 1960, but Dr. Cairnswicks has successfully reproduced that tree and has managed to keep the species alive in a special orchard on the island that acts as a seed bank. It was a a very interesting day and now I am in bed, still high above the wharf here in St Helena.
Day 18, 4th of July 2007 Wednesday
Its 12:30 at night so not technically still Wednesday. Its Thursday and today is the day (after what remains of a good night’s sleep) that we will put the boat back in the water. I have been sitting inside all day with intermittent rain falling on the street outside, going through the editing of some of the footage from here on St Helena. It’s been long and interesting, and I have gotten a good start. While I have been working on my computer, Deon and Andre have been working on the bottom of the boat, painting it with anti-fouling and getting it ship shape. I also edited a small article I did for the St Helena Independent newspaper, about my interview with the governor of the island on Sunday morning. That should be live on the website soon, so have a look at the official line from the British government about conservation and the airport and the environment here on St Helena. I am going to sleep now on the studio sofa next to my impromptu editing suit set up in the boardroom of Saint FM, and try to get my head down. We are supposed to be leaving tomorrow so it will be more squalls and sea before I get to sleep next.
Day 19, 5th of July 2007 Thursday
Today the boat is back in the water. That’s a relief for everyone, since if something hadgone wrong today, that would have been the end of our trip. Its nice to be back in my bunk aboard the yacht, and even nicer since we haven’t left yet and don’t have to stand watch. We can’t leave on a Friday, its bad luck for journeys…and far from saying we have had a run a bad luck, I am thanking Neptune that worse hasn’t happened to us. So our luck holds. Luck seems to play a large part in the seaman’s lore and thoughts. I have always believed in following the signs and keeping sharp for new twists and turns, both great and not so great,but in the sea, when things turn against you, there does seem to be some sort luck force out there. So hopefully our luck will hold, like the patch on the bottom of the ship. I find myself not wanting to say certain things, like counting on good stuff, and focusing on what is going right, right now. Nothing is for certain out here until it happens. I guess there is some sort of argument to make about that translating into a broader parable for humanity, but it is late and whatever that might be seems to slip by me. So the trip continues. As for our project and the great fact that I have had much longer than I expected to get things done here and have made good use of that time…well I think I am pretty fortunate. Am I getting superstitious? Tomorrow morning early the RMS St Helena calls into our little town. It’s the main vestige of civilization that most people on this island see. The ship comes about once every two to three weeks circulating between Cape Town, Namibia and Ascension Island. It brings all the cars, windows, pots, coffee makers, papers and everything else that makes up the modern life of the Saints. Since there is not dock to speak of, it moors out in the bay and tug boats get loaded up with containers and bring them to the edge of the breakwater and the same crane that lifted us out and plopped us back in the water so deftly picks them all up and they are emptied and put back on board. Very little leaves this island except for people it seems. I was chatting to some students today and they all wanted to leave visit somewhere else, much like youth the world over. But unlike most youth, these kids have very few job prospects, British citizenship and most probably won’t come back here to stay ever again. Everywhere you see and meet and get greeted by elderly people. They fill the bars and dance to saxophone music at the Standard Bar. I keep thinking that the rest of the world could learn much from St Helena, and so here is another thing. Life does not end at 65. Tomorrow we are buying bread from a 70yr old baker who works out of his home. He is very proud of his bread, and we are happy to have it. I am going to miss this place very much.
Day 20, Friday July 6, 2007
We are still at our mooring here in St Helena, the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) St Helena sits off our stern, also at anchor. She is this small community’s link with the outside world. Everything that is here has come from only this ship for the last 17 years. Plates and birthday cards, car parts and every other thing that goes into making a first-world life for the people of St Helena. Once again its late, about 12:30. We had a busy day and it was tough to say goodbye to the very kind people here. I would like to think that I have made longtime friends with some, particularly Mike and Bernice Olssen. They made everything happen here for us, and also helped to make our stay a very special one. We are, in true ship fashion, going to wake up in a few hours, while it is still dark, slip our mooring, and be off into the big blue. That sits well with me now. I think we got a lot of information and I feel much more grounded in my project. When I say that, I mean that one of the whole points of this adventure was to discover rare things, meet people working on the forefront of science, and see amazing places and share them with the world. I hope I have achieved at least half of that. Today I had a radio interview with Mike. It was live, which was something I only did as a DJ at my college radio station. I decided today during the interview that a good goal is to have 1 million hits on our site before the end of the trip. In this 1700 mile leg to Fernando, I will put my thinking cap on try to find some way to get as many people as possible to view the project so they may also join the adventure and learn from some of the scientists that we have worked with in the past few days. I am not sure if I said this in an earlier entry, but islands are so important in understanding what is happening to our planet, as we warm it, change it and remove many of the carbon sinks, like the Congo and Amazon rainforests. Islands have coped with huge environmental changes as they were overrun and changed by humans, and their adaptations or the lack of them have much to teach us about our planet. 600 people came out to plant trees for the Millenium Forest project with Dr. Cairnswicks here on St Helena. This may be a small a number but its one in six people living on the island. Imagine if one in six humans living on the planet were moved enough by environmental changes to plant a tree. That’s one billion extra trees.
Day 21, July 7, 2007
Its 7pm and we left St Helena this morning. Its been a big day, and it was the sunniest nicest day we have had for weeks. Some clouds were blowing in at sunset from the east, but hopefully we wont get a beating tonight. Moral is way-way down. Andre wants to now divert to the Cap Verde Islands. This is a big decision, and although it is his boat and all, for him to make that judgment in two hours without any weather data seems like a patentedly unwise decision. On the map we will cut off about 1200 Nautical miles from the whole trip, but we might also have to beat into the current and winds for 800 miles. My feelings don’t really matter since it is not my boat and I am not the Captain. The Cap Verde islands are still islands, with all their sensitivity to environmental changes, and I should be able to find to find some interesting projects to cover. Things get super stressful on the boat when we beat into the wind. Today the wind is blowing more that way than Fernando, but that might not be the case tomorrow. Tomorrow our fourth shipmate was going to fly to Brazil to meet us, and being my old friend, I had to call and pass along the bad news not to leave to tomorrow. Not nice, especially since this could just be a decision we don’t have to make should the wind swing back towards Fernando. So we shall see in the next few days. One things is for sure, the winds have been much more unpredictable than they are in charts that are based on decades of wind data. What a day. The sight of St. Helena disappearing under a blue sky was gorgeous but I was also sad to leave all my new friends and abandon myself to the capricious waves. So the water rushes past my bunk. We have made good time today with the wind just off our starboard rear quarter, and now I must rest before watch and resign myself to a possible course change. The chaos factor, despite the good weather and wind has been extremely high today.
Day 21, June 8, 2007
Scattered clouds and squalls. So its official, we are off to the Cape Verde islands. That’s what we will do. Hopefully we wont get too knobbed by the wind (there is a storm right now as I right this, hovering out there off our starboard-fore quarter. That make this passage from St Helena to Cap Verde the longest leg of the trip. And when, or I should rather say, If we reach there, we will have more than half the journey over. That is sounding like a better and better idea, but I know these are also the blues of leaving St Helena, where I was so busy and ran around meeting scientists, taking pictures, hiking, having fabulous dinners and in general doing all the things that we aren’t doing right here. All we are doing here is sailing this boat, and counting the miles with fishing rod in the sea, hoping our loved ones miss us as much as we miss them. Our route takes us about 200 miles off the African coast, which suits us fine since in case of trouble there is always somewhere to go, even if its just Sierra Leone. That’s where we are aiming for right now, and about 200 miles offshore we will head back out to sea hopefully with good winds, and head up to Cap Verde. I have always wanted to go there, the music is lovely, and I understand that the people have great food and wonderful carribean-like nightlife. We could use a bit of that after this leg. The boat has been blasting along, and since we left yesterday morning we have done the same distance as three days of travel on our way to St Helena. Hopefully that keeps up for the next thousand miles, since it’s the last 500 or so that might prove difficult sailing. If you think of it, there are almost a hundred hours in four days. Stick with me here. Since it is 2100 miles to Cap Verde, and we have already done about 300 since yesterday, that leaves roughly 1800. Which, if we travel at 8 knots (nautical miles an hour) on average, then we will do 800 miles in four days. So IF and that’s a big IF, we keep that average up, we will arrive in Cap Verde 10 days from today. Hopefully tomorrow I will get my energy levels back up and we can continue our reportage. I have a researcher who will assist in getting some of the scientists from Cap Verde to assist in understanding that island’s special biome. This is an adventure, and plans change, so I am rolling with it, quite literally at the moment, and hopefully we look forward to a smooth sailing as we come up on the Line. It will be my first crossing of the Equator and I thinkt here is some initiation in store for me. I have a bottle of Champagne to pop open when we get there. Right now we are about 14 degrees south of the equator and there are 60 nautical miles to every degree. Then we will be in summertime and may not have to put on all our cold weather gear (still!) for the nightwatch. Better go and heck if the guys are all right and need some help before this squall blows in. Bubble bubble the water rushing past my head on both sides up here in the front of the boat. Sometimes I hear flying fish whack the hull.
Monday, Day 22, July, 9 2007
Sunny, partly cloudy with a 3 meter cross swell
It was a gorgeous day today with a good strong wind, the same that carried us out of St Helena, still blowing abaft the beam from the south southeast (the best point of sail for our direction). We carry on towards the equator and then into summer. Its still cold at night now, with jackets and fleeces and a rain-jacket in case of squalls. Our destination today is still Cap Verde, and as long as we still have good wind, we are pretty much all happy, except for the captain who seems to be regarding this more and more as a laborious task that needs finishing asap. He also has his his light moments though and we have all been getting along more or less. The stress builds when we are beating up into the wind, or when the wind keeps changing direction, as it did on the leg to St Helena. The challenge now is to keep up our spirits for what will most likely be our longest, most challenging leg of the trip. Reminding ourselves that we are very lucky indeed to spend a Monday out here in the big blue and not behind a desk with an unappreciative boss and a deadline long passed. Surprisingly its hard to remember that sometimes; cause the stove burned me, the wall is still the floor every 30 seconds, and I dropped my full mug of hot tea, burning myself again, or any number of things. But I am happy. The flying fish are amazing. They are big, sometimes the size of the trout I used to fish for in Colorado streams. They come jumping overhead during watch and often plonk themselves down onto the deck with a pathetic flapping. We gently tip them over the side and let them carry on in what seems a very merry way, ducking and diving through the swells on their wing-like fins. Tonight on watch I will try to photograph and film one before I tip him back in. They smell very bad but its nice to have them along for the ride. Deon was hit in the side of the head by one, and considering their size, a smack on the nose with a wet fish could really ruin your night. That’s not the only wildlife we have seen out here in the mid-ocean wilderness. We caught a fish today! A healthy Dorado, about 8 Kilograms, also called a Dolphin (not the mammal kind) or Mahi Mahi. It’s a rainbow coloured fish with a small sail. Its fast growing, and very very tasty with firm flesh and few bones. I cooked some of it up with onions and tomatoes from St Helena and we had a great meal, the best of the trip, out on the deck under the sun shade. We have enough for another great dinner and counting the fresh tuna from a St Helena fisherman that we have been chopping up and eating as sashimi with hot mustard and soy sauce, we should have fish the next two days. What a joy. It was my dream to be out in the ocean, catching fish and cooking them up on the fly. Very nice to see that dream come true today.
Tuesday, Day 23, July, 10 2007
2-3 meter following swell, SSE winds between 28 and 25 knots. Partly cloudy skies
It’s been a long day, but a good day. Gorgeous hot weather today, with lots of sun and fluffy white clouds marching across the sky. We are pointed about strait north, just 11:55 off of noon on the compass rose, heading for the big bulge of the African coast sticking out into the Atlantic. The swell has backed around much more behind us, which is a blessing, so we don’t have that corkscrew-type motion anymore. We are however kind of living in the far left hand corner of the boat. The winds keep us heeled over about 20 Degrees, but sometimes that increases to 45 or even 50. Blankets, pillows, food bottles and cans, it all ends up down there in the corner. Yesterday morning the boat heeled right over, while Andre was at the helm. Everything ended up on the port side of the boat…thank goodness all my equipment was stowed tightly against the port side. So life carries on here, the days kind of running into each other. It seems miraculous that people end up getting all the many things done in one day out there on land. Here it seems just a bit of editing a bit of sailing, maybe make lunch, and the day is through. It’s a little unsettling, since all our days are numbered that they should just flit by so quickly, so inconsequentially. By the same token, with morale as its been on this ship the last few days, despite the fish and the good weather, maybe its better that the days fly by and this becomes one of those dream-like fond memories of the past. It surprises me how little there is out here. No other ships since we left St Helena, and nothing but those lovely yet stinky flying fish. No whales or dolphins, only one turtles way way back, halfway to St Helena from Cape Town. It is deep here, roughly 4000 meters (almost two miles) and will get much deeper. We are coming up on the Romanche Gap, an abyss cutting into the mid-Atlantic ridge more the 7500 meters deep and only a few miles wide. Its far, far down there. In short there are few places for small fish to live, and no small fish then for the bigger folks to eat. The deep ocean wilderness is indeed a barren and empty place, but with the waves, the stars and the clouds it seems far from desolate. I stood at the bow of the boat today at sunset, rising and falling above the ocean. I was reminded of a revolutionary book written by Robert Heinlein called The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It was written in 1960 something and predicted the rise of the Internet. Other than that, it’s only its title that harks to an underlying sinister thought that has been hanging over my head, which I stumbled upon while researching a trip to the arctic. The oceans are our biggest carbon and methane sinks, and have been for millions of years. Some of this sequestered methane, itself a very powerful greenhouse gas, is frozen in the arctic seabed in the form of crystals. As the sea temperature rises, and the oceans absorb more solar energy, we run the risk of huge methane upwellings and sea floor collapses as these ice crystals melt, reaching a tipping point of more warming and more melted ice releasing more methane from the sea floor in a growing cycle. What seems like a very steady climate cycle, one unchanged for thousands of years, is in fact only stable to a point. Natural systems are inherently prone to abrupt state changes and we are very silly indeed if we think even the smallest changes we introduce will not affect the environment. Imagine a glass of water. It is water from 0 dg all the way to 100 dg centigrade. But change it to 101, it’s just gas and at -1 its all ice. All of it. An abrupt state change has occurred. She has been very forgiving to us, but for sure, as we have seen in places like New Orleans, the sea can be a harsh mistress.
Day 22 Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Wind from the east southeast (what a pleasure) and following seas
What a nice day. I am sure we will face some very serious days ahead, but today was not one of those days. Last night we had the last supper of our first beloved Dorado fish, and today we caught another, exactly the same size or slightly bigger. So we are set for fish for tomrrow and the next day. It was a gorgeous evening. The dust from central and southern Africa’s dry seasons blows this far out to sea, and although the sky is still baby blue, about an hour before sunset the sun sank like a fiery ball which I could watch with my naked eye, filtered by the thickness of dust more than 1200 Nautical miles off the continent. We expect our wind conditions to change at any minute. As I explained before the guiding hand of luck was far from us on our way up to St Helena, so we are taking the days as they come and just being happy that fortune favoured us today. This may sound like namby-pamby silliness and nouveau religion, but it works for right now so we aren’t knocking it. There has also been a rise in odd nomenclature. Like in the old British boarding school system, when a boy was particularly unpopular, the other boys might slip a tennis ball, or a even worse a bar of soap, into a sock (we all wore blue socks up to the knee) and beat the boy pretty hard but very quietly after lights out. He dared not make a sound, or else he knew it would happen worse later. This was called a right good knobbing. Well, here in the Atlantic, far far from Mr Dalton’s evil wicker cane and the Form 4 dormitories, we live in fear of that time, maybe just around the corner, when the sky will wind up its strato-knobs and its knob-o-cumulus clouds, and give us a right good beating. Once bitten, twice shy, and now, having had a few days of happy sailing (barely touched the sails in four days) compared to re-rigging the boat every hour, and all that earlier beating, we live in fear of being reduced to the most meager forward speed, every mile fought and bled for. So we look no further than the next watch and at least Deon and I hardly ever mention our good fortune, for it feels like we sit on a knife edge, and any passing comment except for the acknowledgement of good winds and fish just in time to fill our fridge would be inopportune at best, and downright regrettable at worst. This is the longest leg of our new trip plan, and we are keenly aware that usually these winds stop around 3 degrees north of the Equator. We are around 4 Degrees south of the Equator, so sometime tomorrow night or Friday very early we will pass The Line, if ur luck with the wind holds out. Just so its clear what is good wind and what is bad, imagine a 2000 km journey. If you walk and run, 24 hours a day, at 5km an hour, you will arrive at your obviously very very important destination in 400 hours, which is roughly 16 and a half days. But, if your destination is even more crucial (imagine) and you manage to jog every once in a while and walk very fast, say 8km an hour, just that little difference makes your journey 10 and a half days. Almost a week less. Now understand that in bad winds, at just the wrong angle to a swell, we can make about 3-4 knots an hour instead of our usual 7 to 9. That means our roughly 2300 nautical mile leg can either take 11 to 13 days, or 23 to 31 days. So speed matters because although I like our days on the boat, (even though the Captain follows in a long line of nutty Captains) I do not want to spend 30 days with him getting to an island chain that I will only get to spend 6 days exploring. I also don’t like it when my bed becomes a roller-coaster. But I guess I should get over it, since one thing that all the scientists seem to agree on is that a warmer world means bigger and more frequent storms. These I imagine will unfortunately do more than just knock us out of bed, but maybe every one of us needs a good wake up call. Mine tonight is at 1:30.
Day 23, Thursday, July 12, 2007
So no sooner did I say we are in a bit of a wasteland as far as animals go, than no less then 1 or 2 thousand dolphins passed us with a purpose (or shall I shall I say porpoise?) around 3pm, an hour after a huge Marlin, perhaps 2 or 3 meters long, was following the boat for 20 minutes or so, and just before we saw a truly large leatherback turtle holding on to a piece of what looked like bamboo. He even raised up his head to have a look at us as we went past. Alas, when the dolphins erupted near the boat, I was below, working on some of my editing, but I emerged just in time to see waves of them, thousands, nearly stretching from horizon to horizon, and stopping to play in our bow wave. One close to us had a large white transmitter on his (or her) back. I ran out in such a hurry that it was impossible to get the camera out of the waterproof bag where I stow it, so unfortunately no footage, but what a sight! That must rank as one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen. Its comforting to know that they get together in such numbers. Deon, who was on deck at the time, says that they came like waves, and appeared almost out of nowhere. The wind kept right today, and it was the first day of the trip where we had not a cloud in the sky for a few hours. Tomorrow we cross the line, and there is always something horrible that happens to a new sailor (me in this case) cooked up by the rest of the crew. In the old days it used to be tarred and feathered, but Andre hates a mess, so maybe I will get off lightly. Got to snooze and read a bit and get some sleep before watch.
Day 24, Friday, July 13, 2007
So its my Dad’s birthday today. He is 65 this year, and we share a common love of the sea, particularly sea-faring novels, especially those by Patrick O’brien. He is along on this journey through the internet with me. The books are the stories of the great days of sail, when the British navy controlled most of the seas of the world not out of quality ships and well trained men, but by shear numbers. Their naval yards turned out some of the worst skows ever built, but they sailed and they turned them out quickly. There were some very well made ships, but none so good as captured French ships. From that time we have a host of phrases, like caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, or leeway. Its leeway we are doing right now, and a lot of it. When a ship has the wind on her side, or she is in a current, she not only travels forward but also slips sideways. A well made ship does not slip sideways very much. We are in a current that travels from east to west, quite quickly. So we point our bow almost northeast and we manage to carry on in a strait line almost north west. Ours is a well made ship, but with current like the one we are trying to get across, its like swimming a river, you will get pulled downstream no matter how great a swimmer you are. Imagine, to be without an engine to get us out of tight places, and if our leeway was not greater than the angle at which we could travel off a nearby shore. We could do nothing, and the wind would drive us against that shore. That is called a lee-shore. Namibia is a notorius lee shore, that’s why the Skeleton Coast has so many shipwrecks. Liberia also has a lee-shore type system at certain times of the year. We are coming up fast on the bulge of Africa, and we passed the Line today. I got judged by Neptune, played by Deon in a full gown and crown with a fork. The bulge of Africa is a confused sea place, and we can expect cross currents, land weather interacting with sea weather, and there is also the threat of Pirates. Our course will take us about 200 miles off the coast of Sierra Leone and some other West African places that would be better to miss. So hopefully we will not run into any unpleasantness on the high seas, and we will get through these two intersecting currents. The wind has been strong from the southeast still, and we are all surprised what good time we are making.
Day 25, Saturday, July 14, 2007
We are in the Doldrums, but in fact, there is water rushing past the hull and the wind has kicked up again a bit. I have been going through sailing for beginners and now into intermediate training. I know what a clew is, that a sheet is not a sail, and that Port is not the right side of the ship. Today passed like a wildfire in the Colorado summer. Gone. I think I remember what I did, or was that yesterday? I am pretty sure I will be doing the same thing tomorrow too…and probably the next day. Its like time has slowed down, and in doing so the moments that differentiate our days have become fewer and time seems to pass without me realizing it. Maybe I am going nuts…a sea sickness of the mind. I wonder if that is what getting older is like. I am definitely getting wiser (at least about the sea) and a lot less sleep than I am used to. We are off the coasts of Sierra Leone and Liberia, abut 200 miles offshore. We passed an oil tanker, coming for some of Africa’s wealth, like the west has done ever since they landed and got bitten by their first mosquito. Too bad all that oil wealth doesn’t end up in the schools and roads and Universities of this beautiful continent. But I have touched on this subject before, and although it bears repeating, I am not getting that old quite yet. But its funny, I worked on a long project for the Levine Museum in the US about people in Africa who use containers. They make little clinics, shops, restaurants, pretty much anything that needs a secure door and locks that can be moved. In Kampala, Uganda I saw a three story hotel made up of 9 stacked containers, and in Kayelitsha, the township outside of Cape Town, there is a 7 high vertical stack that is used as an outdoor movie theater. The ingenious and resourceful use of what is considered packaging by the western world also has a social commentary side to it. Africa doesn’t produce many things that are shipped in containers. For that you need good electricity, roads, education, a 40 hour work week, assembly lines and all the accoutrements of a manufacturing economy. No, Africa ships most of its materials out in bulk oil tankers, bulk food carriers, in the holds of ships. But Africa is changing, growing, economies in Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya and others are all booming. People there want things, things like TVs and tennis shoes, books, and basketballs, so containers arrive from all over the world, but mostly from China. It costs about 800 dollars to ship a container across the world. If someone justifies costs to a product by saying it’s the shipping that cost them…they are lying. But, it also costs about 900 dollars or so to make a new container. So often the containers arrive in Africa, and with nothing to fill them to defray shipping costs back to China, the containers are sold for about 800 dollars each. Still a hefty price for one in Africa, but not outside the reach of the up and coming middle class, who may turn it into a fried chicken franchise (in Diepsloot near Johannesburg) and get their cousin to run it. I guess my point is that the container is a perfect illustration of the divide between reach and poor, the north and the south. We can see the difference, see the problem, but what can we do about it? A good start would be to only trade with countries that have good governance, a free media, and some semblance of the rule of law. This might sound like knee-jerk liberalism in all its ugly duckling glory, but the fact is that economics are a powerful force for change. The old white South African government knew that too well in the end. That we should somehow justify propping up the openly evil government of Jose Dos Santos in Angola because we want their go-juice is downright wrong no matter what sort of ethical backflips you try to make to justify it. That we should go a step further and provide the Angolan government with information about opposition groups in case those groups took power and actually wanted to keep some of the countriy’s oil wealth in the country, that’s…well that’s a dirty evil underhand thing to do with US tax dollars. If people thought a bit more about the blood money and the suffering they pump into their cars, and less about what the Jones’ are thinking, we might actually have a chance to wean people off petrol and into something cleaner like electrics. If you have a chance, see “Who Killed The Electric Car”. Great, very watchable movie by a bunch of owners of electric cars, about how they were given these great cars and then they were taken away, including Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson. Ok enough ranting, but if we cannot master our addiction to petroleum, it will kill us.
Day 26, July 15, 2007
Its been a good day, got the St Helena footage edited and cut and sent away. It’s a lot of little bits of work rolled into one, and now I am getting material organized for our arrival in Dakar in a few days time. I expected this leg to take much longer, maybe 14 or 15 days. So we are fortunate so far and our luck holds. So far. After my long rant about containers last night, I was thinking how utterly ironic it would be that one of those containers might be waiting in our path, even now, lolling the ocean, just under the surface of the sea, held up by the air trapped in it. It may fallen off a ship like the some that we have seen, in a bad storm. Maybe its been out here a while, covered in briny bits of sea life. It could be home to a myriad of little species, all of whom would have no understanding of the 11 tons of Kevlar and Fibreglass that wiped a small number of them out as it ripped off the round 5 tons steel bullet of the keel of our hull, broached the boat with the weight of the mast and bit deep into the ¼ inch skin of the boat’s bottom. No one who sails in yachts thinks this too outlandish a possibility. I don’t think of it often, but its there sometimes, in the back of the mind. I guess there is a much much greater chance of getting in a car crash 5 minutes from home, but that lacks the spectacular scare of hitting a sunken steel object in such a soft shell, deep in the ocean, far from home and country. It has all the attendant fears in place, fear of the unknown, fear of the things you know but can’t change, fear of being lost alone in the cold wet dark, fears. I wonder if human beings need fear to assist in the continuation of culture. I am wading deep into territory that has been trod by the greats of literature, the Dostoyevskys and many others, who are much more at home in these deep waters, but it seems to me that humans are only capable of coming together on a broad scale when they are reacting collectively to fear. That may be a shame, but it is at least partly true. Why hasn’t global climate change affected people with a fear that prompts action? Is it the lack of a sure smoking gun? Mass myopia perhaps? The thinking that maybe we face an impossible task? I always thought that when we started losing US cities to weather phenomenon, then surely people would wake up and smell the exhaust. How can we look at any of our supposed impregnable empire again and believe this is permanent after what happened to New Orleans? So I have it… we need a collective container-like image to hang our collective fears on. I can’t think of one. Floods, widespread melting, methane releases on a global scale, storms, cataclysm, societal collapse, searing heat waves, the end of our hydrocarbon economy, why don’t these themes carry that ponderously deadly container-like image? These are exactly what a very famous ice-core researcher working in Antarctica suggested to me as events not for the next couple hundred years but in the next 50. So we are careening along outside…the water is rushing past faster and faster as I write this entry, and I feel the boat starting to ramp off the waves as well. Hard not to notice since the computer is bouncing out of my lap now. Since my mother, bless her patient heart, is probably going to read this, I must assert here that very few ships go down from hitting containers, and the ones that do you don’t hear from so the statistics are very low. I am speaking more figuratively here, Mom so don’t worry overly much, but please, please do buy that hybrid. If only as a message to Toyota and the rest of those silly car makers that there is indeed a market for something other than a huge gas guzzler. I think I have a word for that looming collapse my morose scientist friend cried into his beer about. I am going to call it the crunch.
Day 27, July 16, 2007
I am sweating like a pig in my bunk. Its hot, and very very damp. I cant open any of my windows because the storms outside are thumping us every way to Wednesday. I am suffering from a slight malaise. Its been a fast crossing but the three of us together, and particularly the captain, are all starting to wear on each other. Its inevitable in such a confined space and hopefully we will get it all together and be happy chappies in the next few days. Otherwise things are going fine so far and we wait to see how long we will be in Dakar. Hopefully only a day to pick up our fourth sailor and then on to the islands! Snoozing now in my sauna…
Day 28, July 17, 2007
Its still hot but at least I can open the portholes for a few minutes. We had a tough day sailing today, with squalls and heavy seas and stacks of clouds of all types. It is becoming apparent that our captain is losing it more and more. We changed our sails 5 times between 4:30 and 6 pm this evening. Considering that many people sailing don’t change sails for days that’s a lot, and in my limited opinion totally unnecessary. He has also gotten a slightly manic look in the eye, and he dropped our storm jib in the ocean, never to be seen again. The storm jib is a small triangular sail that you put up in a storm to keep the boat strait. It leads me to wonder if it wouldn’t be prudent to maybe leave the trip in Dakar. He really has become the most dangerous thing out here, and that’s saying something. He follows in a long line of nutty captains. I am thinking of Ahab and his white whale, and Lord Jim of Conrad fame, and Bligh, and and and… Maybe the sea does that to some people. Maybe life does that to some people. I am firmly of the opinion that we are all nutty in some way, and I reckon that as long as that nuttiness is not a danger it should be accepted, and in some cases (think Mozart here) it should be celebrated. Otherwise, things are going fine, we are slightly ahead of schedule (our new schedule) and should be in Dakar tomorrow evening or late afternoon. There he goes again, I can hear him changing the sails. Not of course the storm jib, now spending the rest of its time in Davy Jones’ locker. It will probably get pushed by the current and the wind onto the Ginuea coastline, and be snapped up by a fisherman, delighted with his find. Aid to Africa in a much more usable fashion than that usually given. So we meet up with our 4th sailor, Fleur, tomorrow -an old friend and buddy (no romance just a solid sailor). I am now not so sure about having her join us, but its too late now. I guess we can all jump ship together if it comes to that. I have some new appointments in Cap Verde with some turtle researchers, and am looking forward to meeting them. Regardless of whether I continue with the boat, I will definitely go to Cap Verde and continue the project on the islands of the Atlantic. Maybe will even fly or sail with a new boat on to the Azores. That would be fab. Its sad to see a man like the captain with so much going for him fall into the trap of Shakespeare’s King Lear. He is his own worst enemy, and I can see in him a good man trying his best, but so over the top that he keeps making mistakes. Big mistakes. Maybe I am just at a low point, and things will get better, but the fact is (listening to him swear in the rigging right now) he is getting worse day by day. The more mistakes he makes, the more he drives himself mad with them, and then the more mistakes he makes… it’s a viscious cycle and very unhealthy. Its testament to how bad things are that I write this now, since I have studiously avoided any major accusations until today. Alas, I wish there is something I could do, but as I know from past relationships, It’s not up to me. Enough whining, I am capable of making tough decisions, and will continue to do so. It was only after the sail went by the board today that I decided getting off the boat might be the safest action to take. I will be very very sorry to leave it, but breaking up is hard to do. Before I leave I will sit down and try to talk with him about it, but we might be far past the point of no return. You can’t reason with a manic person, they will either argue and scream, or agree agree agree and then keep right on at their mania 10 minutes later.
Day 33 July 22, 2007
Sorry for the long long pause in journals. But alas, plans have changed and it has taken some time to put them right again. The project continues, and I am in a dingy hotel room near the port of Dakar in Senegal. I spent the last two days working on finding a ship that can take me to Cap Verde Islands, about 200 miles offshore of Dakar. I am hoping to meet up with some scientists there and do some work on conservation on two different islands in the archipelago. I had dinner tonight with a group of NGO (Non Governmental Orgainsation) workers at a very flash new place near the aiport. I met, fortunately by accident, Emma Greatrix who works with Project Wetlands, an orgainsation assisting with wetlands conservation in west Africa. They also have an office in Cap Verde and it will be a pleasure to meet up with her on Monday and see if I can work a bit with them. They have a very interesting project on the West African Manitee, which is one of the most rare and elusive large mammals still alive on the planet. There are not many of them, and they survive in the wetlands and saltwater marshes of West Africa. No one knows what they eat (could be omnivorous or vegetarian) how they reproduce, (aside from the obvious mammalian needs) or how many there are (very very few). are so hard to find that even the one scientist on the project has only seen on a couple of times, and I don’t have the time. Nevertheless, I will visit a nearby wetland and look at some of the environmental education work that Emma is involved in. After that I will be off either by boat or plane to the Cap Verde Islands within the week. Its been a hectic time here. I said goodbye to the yacht yesterday, and today Deon and Andre sailed away for Amsterdam. In the end Andre decided that they would not go to Cap Verde at all, so it was an easy decision to get off the boat. I need to make sure that the project continues, and with the change in plan already with Fernando Des Naronha, it is very important to make sure I cover some interesting science on the next islands. All was fine with the yacht, and Andre’s change of plan had more to do with impatience to see his newly pregnant wife than anything else. It feels strange to be in a huge dirty thriving city like Dakar after the peaceful and pristine nature of the sea. Only coming into a port like this do I truly understand what a mess we have made of much of the beaches and land surrounding the oceans of the world. That we humans would prefer to live in our own squalor and filth instead of creating clean packaging materials and putting them in the proper place, I find pretty suprising. Why I wonder…is it laziness? Simple indifference? It is definitely ugly and far worse on the nose. I will try to photograph some of the detritus that accumulates here in Dakar in such huge quantities…its everywhere! Although I have to admit it is also a very very difficult place to shoot pictures. People always want to be paid for their photo, and this is not something that I do. As a professional journalist working with the newspapers of the world, it is not allowed to pay for a photo or a story. This rule is there for an obvious reason. If someone is getting paid for their story, there exists the possibility that they make it up to sound worse, or better. Obviously for the photos this is not such a big possibility (though it can happen). To offer money for a picture means the unwritten contract of journalistic integrity is broken. Someone may take a picture of me to show others what my life is life. If someone pays me, then how will the person who looks at the picture know if what they are seeing is a real representation of the truth? This is the difference between commercial and documentary photography. I pay a model to create my vision of a photo, I take a photo of a girl in the street to show other what that place and those people really look like. If I pay that girl, and tell her how and where to walk…its not really the real deal. This is why my clients, like the New York Times and the Guardian, have a written rule against paying for photos. So in Dakar, more than in Afghanistan, or Zimbabwe, or pretty much anywhere I have ever been, people want to be paid. I was filming myself in the street today and a few guys came up to me demanding that I pay them for their photo. They relaxed after I showed them that I was filming only myself, but a two didn’t want to believe the footage I showed them. It got kind of nasty, but the they weren’t in the film. Very frustrating, and hard to believe people are so pushy, especially in a place where the people are fairly rich compared to most of the places I work in Africa. But it’s a beautiful place anyway, and I am meeting some great folks. The airconditioner is humming away…I hate the things, but its malaria season now and I didn’t bring any tablets since I was leaving Africa. I don’t like to take them anyway, they make me a little ill. So I have it on just the fan (less energy usage) and the windows are closed but still some street sounds drift up even this late at night. Dakar doesn’t sleep on the weekends. I do.
Day 34, July 22, 2007
I was down at one of the beaches north of Dakar today. Wow what a site. Fishing boats, all brightly coloured, pulled up on the shore with literally thousands of people on a Sunday lining the beach as it stretched curving into the distance. It was like the area one would imagine, that I always imagined where the Sahara Desert meets the sea. Lots of square, middle-eastern type houses in sand with mosques rising up with their graceful minarets towering the afternoon sun. Amazingly prosaic, and very inviting, except for the tons and tons of rubbish and raw sewage floating around the bathers, lining the sandy shore, and sprinkling the landscape with little fluttering bits of plastic garbage. What a mess. Yuck. My first feeling was, don’t these people care about their place? I mean, clearly they like to swin in the sea and enjoy the area on a Sunday afternoon, much like anywhere else, so why leave it looking and smelling like shit? Why not put the rubbish where it goes? I was so shocked that I became angry and self-righteous. Then I tried to push that, to become more thoughtful. Although European beaches are cleaner, some aren’t (like the south of France in some areas). Or the mouth of the Colorado Rover on the Mexican-US border. Pollution is everywhere and its caused by us all. Just because the price of someone’s food or fuel in Europe doesn’t come with a litter-tag, and the packaging doesn’t end up on the sea shore or the street does not mean that that food or product didn’t cause pollution. What I saw today was a brutal reminder of what happens when we humans don’t take care of our planet, or our ocean. The mouth of the Colorado river is one of the most polluted waterways in the whole world. Here it is just plastic, garbage, things that can be picked up or cleaned up in the space of a few months with the right community participation. The Colorado River mouth is another story altogether. It’s a sordid tale of extremely serious and pervasive industrial, domestic and commercial pollution spanning two countries and 6 US states. The river doesn’t even make it to the sea very often anymore. Very little is being done about it. Every time a US household uses Tide laundry detergent, or plastic bottles of virtually any sort, they are supporting factories that left the US, set up again with lax environmental regulations and cheap labour over the border, and started pumping pollutants into John Wesley Powell’s “river that will make the west green”. So our beaches in LA may be cleaner than Dakar, but we are not blameless in any way. Just because few people get to see the sorry, sad and stinky state of the Colorado River mouth does not make it fine to keep polluting it. By the same token, the people of Senegal could use some assistance in getting communities awareness raised about local pollution, and picking up after themselves. When everyone feels like they are part of the problem, and ways are put in place to get things cleaned up so they can feel like part of the solution too, everyone might feel less inclined to dump their rubbish everywhere. There are water bottles here that have just come out with the slogan, “The ocean is not a trash bin”. That’s to be applauded, but drinking water once from a plastic bottle is not a good thing to do. Polyethelene, PCBs, petroleum, these things are used or created when making plastics. It would be far better to have a clean and safe drinking water supply that can be trusted. In the western world we would do well to remember that we do have clean and safe water, and not drinking bottled water would go a long way to reducing PCBs and mercury levels in the ocean (currently so high that pregnant women are warned off eating too much pelagic fish like Tuna).
Day 35, July 23, 2007
It was a long day today. I looked and looked and looked and waited here and there and everywhere for news of a boat going to Cap Verde, the islands I am heading for. After three hours of waiting for an appointment at the port authority office, I had to leave there for another meeting with some of the people from Wetlands International. It was fascinating chatting with them about some of the endemic bird life of Senegal and lots of other things. Its time for bed now, but hopefully I will be working with them in the next few days and finding out more about their projects. Had a few tough moments today, in the heat and the waiting, but I have often found that when things get tough, its often just before they get really great. So I am holding out for the silver lining and getting some sleep.
Day 36, 24 July, 2007
Had a good day, exploring Madaleine Island, off the coast of Dakar, on a boat, with a snorkel and hiking around. Now sitting in a gorgeous room with nice breezes off the ocean, in my buddy Finbarr’s place here in Dakar. The island was gorgeous, all columnar basalt columns twisted and turned. Its also called Snake Island, and I am not sure if that’s because of snakes there or because the columns resemble piled up serpents. I saw a lot of birds, but couldn’t find the Tropic bird that the island is famous for. The fish and the sea life there are also incredible, and I cruised up next to a huge puffer fish and Finbarr, who is a photojournalist with Reuters news agency, snapped a quick pic of me there with that fat fish. It was great to get out in nature again, and tomorrow I am headed down to the Gambian border with Wetlands International to visit an area where the Manatee lives, and loads of nesting Royal and Caspian Terns.
Looking forward to that.
Its hot and late, and I am sitting here naked in a tent listening to the sound of bats eating the fruits out of the tree I am camped under. They are big bats, the size of a large bird, and the slap of their leathery wings is surprisingly calming after my 9 hour car ride down here to the Guinea border with Senegal. Its one in the morning and the traffic was so bad and the road so bad that our 200 kilometer trip might as well have been a thousand. The rattly, blue, bashed up old peugout came from another era of Saharan travel harking back to the 60s. Nostalgic, but very uncomfortable. It was nice once we got out of Dakar, crusing through the Sahel, on the far western edge of the Sahara. The whole landscape of sand and baobab trees was appropriately diffused with a golden yellw light around sunset. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but also a bit strange and I thought that most of that yellow came from the topsoil of the Sahel blowing off into the wind, into the Atlantic Ocean not far away. The Canary Current comes down this side of Africa and picks up all sorts of entrained sand and topsoil that drifts on the winds off the Sahara. That topsoil and sand helps little plankton and other small sea creatures grow, which then get eaten by larger fish, and so on. The Canary current has one of the largest and healthiest fish populations on the planet, but how large and how healthy is anyone’s guess, since there is no monitoring infrastructure of any sort other than reported catches by the Spanish fishing trawler fleet. These same hot winds kick up in the mid-Atlantic and help drive the hurricane season that we thankfully missed on the way up here by our change of plan from Fernando and South America to the coast of Africa. Tomorrow I am bird watching and looking for the West African Manitee…I think the manatees have it right, they sleep in the water…they live in the water, and after my trip yesterday swimming near Madeleine Island, in this heat, I can attest, the water is the best place to be.
Copied from my notebook
Wow, what a place. I am on a barrier island, about 20 kiloeters from the mainland. On one side of this long skinny north-south little strip of land in the Atlantic is the protected waters of the Saloum-Nyoumi river delta, on the other side is the rolling waters of the Atlantic. It is here that thousdands of Red-headed gulls, Royal Terns, pelicans and many other birds make their home. It is the Island of Birds, and it is one of the most incredible places I have ever been. I am camping in a sandy tent which must have been used in a sandstorm in the Sahara the last time. It is covered with a think brine of the finest sand ever, and like sandpaper it seems welded to the plastic of the tent. Weird what heat and sand can do. I have just come back from a long walk down the islands, about 5 kilometers. Around me are the 18 people of a bird counting training course for parks officers from all over west Africa. They have all come here with some funding from Wetlands International to learn how to count birds so they can return to their own countries and help in census data and research. Most of them work in seriously under-funded parks that have little or no basic infrastructure other than a thinly respected boundary and a few ramshackle buildings. We had a communal dinner of fish and rice, eaten out of large bowls by hand. Very tasty and very filling, which is a godo thing since it’s the only square meal I have had all day. We came here throughout a whole day, which saw the trainees begin their course sitting in a circle under a huge African tree, like most successful endeavors in Africa. After two truck rides, a long wait, and a longer boat trip we got here about an hour before sunset. I ran down the beach alone, having been told that the birds were “not far” and just made it there before the sun went to sleep. The whole beach was full of crabs, white ones that glowed yellow in the last rays of the sun. I stopped and made some hurried pics of them too. There is so much to see here, and once I got to the nesting colony I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were thousands upon thousands of birds. It was stunning, and noisy and and and…it occurred to me how much more stimulation I have had in the last week after getting off the boat. After more than a month of just sea and two other people, my head has been spinning from a noisy dirty city, plans, plans changing, cars, computers, more plans, birds, other people…we have so much that suprises us in our daily lives that it all becomes like a waterfall, a constant stir of background noise that we just filter out. Its great to be out here and I will get up before dawn toorrow to head back down the beach and see these birds again. What a treat!
July 30, 2007
I bought my ticket on a plane up to the UK today. I am going up there to present my project, and maybe even continue