Friday, December 11, 2015

NUKU HIVA - Sharking Video

NUKU HIVA - Sharking Video

In this Moth winning story I want to go for a swim in a remote South Pacific anchorage, but I'm on my period and worry that sharks will smell my blood and come for me. When I do decide to go for a swim, I discover that my bravery is more than just a delusion.

This is a short vignette from my in-progress memoir about the three years I spent hitchhiking on sailboats. The story takes place on the first of these boats on the first island I'd reached since leaving Mexico and crossing three thousand miles of open ocean.

Here's the video from The Moth StorySLAM in St. Paul.

If you like this and other stories you see on this blog, join my mailing list to get updates on my memoir about hitchhiking on sailboats and hear about opportunities to attend a reading or storytelling event.

And thanks to The Moth for such a high quality video.



Jamie is so drunk he's unable to hide his cheating. After loudly slamming down his first and only legal play, mumbling something in the South Caicos Creole I can only sometimes understand from sober lips, he attempts to place a second domino near my end of the table. His fingers fumble the delicate procedure. Looking for an ally, I eye Raz across the table who’s studying his own hand too closely to notice. Not wanting to leave the errant domino squatting for long, I snatch it up, “No you don't,” and hand it back to Jamie.

“Ah, tryin' to cheat again?” Raz says as he and Clarence throw up their hands and shake their heads dismissively.

Before coming to the islands I hadn't played much dominoes, and when I had, never took the game seriously. Here in the Caribbean players mean business. Money exchanges hands amongst players as well as spectators during betting games in South Caicos, though tonight we're playing for pride.

George, or so we'll call the captain of the sailboat I’m hitching a ride on, is three sailors deep in conversation on the balcony, while at the domino table I only just begin to understand that strategy has something to do with counting. “How many of each number are there?” I ask the table.

“Seven,” Raz smiles at me. “Now that one’s catchin' on.” And laughing, adds, “watch out boys.”

I'm not exactly sure how to use this information. Mindful of the five six-dotted dominoes currently resting on the table, I play the six in my hand to make sure I can play it at all. Clarence knocks on the table to pass. Raz looks at me and winks. These Caribbean men accept me more than the three American sailors on the balcony whose interest in me is inversely proportional to their age; the older the man, the less he cares what I have to say. Never mind the two years I’ve spent hitchhiking on sailboats and the 10,000 nautical miles I’ve sailed. Rather than fight to be heard in a conversation about rough passages and anchorages with bad holding, I can lay down a domino without reproof, accepted at the table just for my willingness to play.

After shuffling and reshuffling his hand, Raz triumphantly slams down his play, popping dominoes into the air and scattering the long backbone of our board. Clarence and I straighten the table and while we all wait for sauced-up Jamie to put two and four together, Raz says, “Y'know, all the people around here have two names. My government name is Terraz, but nobody goes by their government name.”

“What would my second name be?” I ask.

“I dunno,” Raz says. After consulting his hand a minute, he says, “I know. I have an aunt named Glenda we call Dada. That's you, Dada.”

“I like it.”

For the rest of the night it's, “Good one Dada,” and, “Come on, Dada.”

Late in the evening George catches my eye from the balcony and motions with his head that he's ready to leave. His cadre of white-haired sailors are nowhere in sight. Raz just dealt a hand and I mouth, “One more game?” raising my eyebrows to punctuate the question.

George nods and turns back to his beer. I hope I’m not pushing his patience.

And then, somehow, in that last hand luck combines with my new knowledge of sets of seven.

For the first time all night, I win. 

*Dada Does Dominoes was published by Word Riot.

Thursday, November 28, 2013



The sky breaks open with a terrible ripping sound and slams back together again as the bolt’s bright flash momentarily floods my cabin. In the darkness that follows, I hug my knees to my chest; trying to shut out the storm, I squeeze my eyes tight and plug my fingers in my ears, but the lightning looks like the light of day through my eyelids and the thunder rumbles through my body in a terrifying tremor. Rain pounds the deck like the footfalls of a thousand soldiers as gusts strong-arm the boat over on her side. 

Please don’t let lightning strike our mast, I plead silently, hoping the next bolt won’t choose our sixty foot aluminum lightning rod as the perfect pathway to ground and blast out our communication and navigation equipment or blow a hole through the hull.

I huddle inside myself as another river of white hot electricity tears a hole in the sky. Clouds collapse back into the open space in an avalanche of air, whose shockwave shudders through me. I curse my decision to hitchhike on a sailboat in the Caribbean during the start of the hurricane season. I don’t have to be here and this is hardly my idea of fun.

Initially, I’d been skeptical, worried we’d be caught in a storm as it was forming, but so far, we’ve been lucky. For the past few days, we’ve been watching a tropical wave grow into a tropical low off the coast of Panama, nearly a thousand miles southwest of us. The tropical low, not quite a hurricane yet, is still a force to be reckoned with, but I hadn’t been prepared for anything like this here. 

In a momentary lull of wind and rain, I can hear small, short waves knock against the hull in a too fast rhythm, jerking the boat from side to side. Thankfully, we are anchored off Georgetown in Kidd Cove, one of the Bahama’s more protected harbors. So protected by reefs and barrier islands, we needed five waypoints to safely navigate the entrance. In Kidd Cove we are sheltered from the waves on all sides, but not from above.

Another crack of lightning unleashes a sonic boom so powerful it feels like it could bruise a person’s insides. I try to tell myself there’s nothing I can do, to go sleep, but alone in my bunk I’m assaulted from outside as well as within as terror tries to beat its way out of my body. I hug my knees tighter, searching for a comfort I cannot find. I have the urge to crawl into the captain’s bunk to quiet my terror by sharing it, but worry he’ll misinterpret a strange woman getting into bed with him in the middle of the night and decide against it. 

Unable to stand lying in my bunk any longer, I throw off my sheet and head toward the main hatch. I want to look this storm in the face. 

Driving rain batters my cheeks, forcing me to squint to protect my eyes. All around us a wall of rain obscures Kidd Cove in frenzied darkness that explodes in my chest in electric whiteness, then falls to black. The sweet char of burning ozone hangs heavy in the air. 

I slam the hatch shut with a force I hadn’t intended. I’d wanted to go on deck, but my own irrational fear that my exposed body would draw the lightning to us, keeps me below. Instead I stand on my tip-toes and peer out a portlight in the main salon.

“Oh... you closed the hatches.” Lingering sleep slightly slurs George’s words. 

I draw in a sharp breath, startled by the captain’s apparition, barely visible in the dark. “Yeah. The storm woke me an hour ago.”

After a while George’s disembodied voice says, “pretty scary.” His fear is comforting; at least I’m not alone.

I want to keep vigil together over a pot of tea, but before I can say so, George says, “Well, good night,” and heads back to bed. 

I envy his ability to sleep. The odds of me getting struck by lightning are better than my being able to sleep through this storm. But more than envy, I feel the lack of him leaving. 

Somehow more alone than before, I drop down on the settee berth behind me. Unwilling to torture myself in my bunk, I sit, straight up, hands on knees, and give over to being awake. While the great collision of clouds continues overhead, my biology stands at the ready, keeping every muscle tensed, sending chemical attention charging through my veins. In the dark punctuated by bombastic flashes of white, I sit alone with only my fear for company. I know I should be able to comfort myself, but I can’t.

We’re moored a few hundred feet from shore in a protected anchorage; even if the boat were to sink, I know I can swim to shore and save my life. My fear isn’t about death, but my total vulnerability to the overwhelming force of this storm. Each burst of lightning bombards my belief that I am safe on this boat and yet I have to trust this thin fiberglass hull to carry me thousands of miles across an indifferent and hostile ocean or I have to give up this journey.

After a while, the lightning and the thunder begin to part. A crack of light turns night to day followed by the steady drum of rain and then a low rumble I can hear, but cannot feel. As the storm recedes mile by mile and the distance between light and sound increases, my animal nature lets go and lies down.

I've slumped back onto the settee berth’s firm cushions without realizing I had. The familiar phrase, “We’ve survived the storm,” runs through my head as sleep weighs down my eyes. I now know intimately the unsettled weather so common in the tropics in hurricane season. I think I’m supposed to feel stronger having come through the other side, but I don’t feel powerful; I feel lucky. More aware of our vulnerabilities, I collapse onto my bunk with the knowledge that I’m still here.

Sunday, September 15, 2013



I hear the divemaster say he’s from Jamaica and wait for my chance, “I hear you’re a yardie.”

“What?” He turns his large, muscular body and intelligent face toward me, his eyes gleaming with either curiosity or animosity, I’m not sure which.

Josephine in Cockburn Town, South Caicos had assured me “yardie” wasn’t an insult, so I gather my courage and hope I'm not offending this big, beautiful man who will soon lead me seventy-five feet underwater.

“I hear you’re from the yard, from Jamaica, right?”

“Where’dya here that?” his face still unsmiling.

I tell him about Josephine, the cook and waitress at the cafe where I played dominos and ate conch salad delicately flavored with orange. Josephine had told me she was a yardie and giggled, explaining, “yard is slang for Jamaica.” According to her, Jamaicans are called “yardies” because they love their home, the “yard.”

Hearing this, the divemaster smiles and laughs deeply. That’s the reaction I’d hoped for: silly foreigner knowing things she shouldn’t - or at least that’s what I think his laugh means at the time. Only later, will I learn that “yardie” was originally a derogatory name given to residents of government yards, or housing projects, in Trenchtown, a neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica. I’ll wonder about the genesis of Josaphine’s positive re-envisioning of the word “yardie,” and if other people share her feelings, but standing on the dive boat, speeding over turquoise water, I don’t know any of this. I don’t realize how graciously the divemaster laughs away the insult. Unaware of my mistake, I smile back, pleased at what I think is my insider knowledge. Silly foreigner and her misguided attempts at friendship.

The divemaster, seeing my curiosity, begins teaching me the local language, “Wahgwo’on?” He looks at me expectantly. 

I shake my head perplexed. 

“What’s going on?” the divemaster translates.

One of the guys working the boat, we’ll call him Tyler, stifles a laugh as he watches the divemaster instruct his eager pupil.

“Meh bendig go big sea,” translates to, “I’m thinking about going to the beach.”

My lesson is cut short by our arrival at the dive sites on the northwest point of Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos. Seeing the many clearly marked moorings bobbing in the water, George, who owns the sailboat I’m traveling on as hitchhiking crew, remarks that we could have come over in his boat, Carpe Diem, dove with his gear and bypassed the dive company. Too late for that now; we’re $300 committed.

More than 10 great dive sites at the Northwest Point of Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
We suit up with the other divers and flop gracelessly into clear water above colorful, living coral. “The visibility is incredible,” George says, “must be close to 100 feet.” Once we’re all gathered in the water, the divemaster, clad nonchalantly in khaki shorts and a t-shirt, guides us two and a half atmosphere’s underwater to explore “The Crack,” a site covered in living coral, christmas tree worms and feather dusters. 

At one point the divemaster points out a sea turtle, tagged, three feet across and sound asleep. Our eight person group slowly swims into a circle around the loggerhead turtle who floats unaware of our presence, motionless and serene, as we each marvel at her speckled fins and shell. I hold my breath until my lungs scream for oxygen and then breathe as shallowly as possible, hoping my noisy air bubbles won’t wake her. Sleeping beauty begins to move one yellow-green fin, then another, slowly lifts her head and looks around as if confused, but doesn’t move at first. She looks back at us as we look at her and then slowly swims away.

Loggerhead Turtle, picture thanks to National Geographic
On my way back to the dive boat I get a violent cramp in my leg. It feels like my muscle is tearing itself away from the bone. I manage to grab onto the boat’s mooring line to keep from being swept away in the current. Miraculously, Tyler is there and when I explain my predicament, he doesn’t hesitate to knead my calf. “You need to exercise more.” I don’t mind his scolding because in his expert hands my painful muscle relaxes. When he releases my leg I’m tempted to say that after the dive he should come over to Carpe Diem and finish the job, but don’t. I thank him, but he’s already on to help other wayward divers get back to the boat.

With two fully functioning legs, I board the dive boat and hear that George also had a terrible leg cramp. Its not just me, I think, breathing a sigh of relief. When we trim sails on board Carpe Diem, we work our upper body grinding winches, but our leg muscles don’t get much use. We need winches you can grind bicycle-style to keep in better shape.

Back at Southside Marina we have a beer at the bar and talk about the dive. The dive company, Ocean Vibes, picked us up at the Marina, provided local knowledge, lunch, and a cultural lesson I won’t soon forget. If you don’t have a boat equipped with dive gear to go to the dive sites on your own, I highly recommend them. Just don’t put your foot in your mouth the way I did. Your divemaster might not be as gracious as ours was.

Southside Marina, picture thanks to 2 Gringos in the Caribbean
The next day we say our goodbyes to the Turks and Caicos and Bob, owner and manager of Southside Marina and our local guide during our stay. Despite good intentions, we get out late, so that the sun is in our eyes as we attempt to exit the reef strewn pass.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


SAILING THE CAICOS BANK - Sailing a Sea of Color

We're sailing on water that drinks in light and pours it back out. Atop this glowing sea, beneath the blue underbellies of clouds reflecting the bright light back down, we scan the water for dangerous coral heads.

The aquamarine waters and blue clouds of the Caicos Bank.
Here, on the Caicos Bank, a shallow body of water ringed by aging coral islands slowly falling into the sea, there is rarely five feet of water beneath our keel. Sometimes the water shallows so steeply, there is less than an arms length between our 5'3” keel and the bottom. Luckily, the bottom is soft sand, though coral could be growing anywhere. We have waypoints that route us through the deepest, clearest path, but our guidebooks caution to keep a sharp look out. If we hit a coral head, it could damage our keel.

The mainsail and even the radar reflecting the aquamarine glow
of the Caicos Bank.

At first the water is an immense, uninterrupted sea of color. What else in nature is this color? A hummingbird's iridescent feathers. A drop of rain glinting in the sun. Then large, brown marks begin to blemish the seascape. Though the water is clear as air, I can't make out what the hazy brown patches are through the rippled backs of wind driven waves. George and I choose to believe that these blemishes are sea grass, though we aren't really sure. A few minutes later, we accidentally sail right through the smudgy brown water and run to look at the depth sounder. The instrument panel reads a steady 8.6 feet deep; the smudgy brown patches must be sea grass.

Still, large black areas in the water worry us most. These black stains don't look like the coral reefs I remember from the South Pacific, which change from green to yellow and then brown as the coral heads shallow to break the surface. If not coral, what are they? Now, with only a foot and a half between the keel and the bottom, there is little margin for error. If we hit a coral head, we might bulldoze through, or, depending on the size of the coral head, it might stop us like a brick wall, cracking the hull or worse. Without being sure if these large black marks are coral or not, we swing wide of them; there's no reason to play Russian roulette with the hull. Besides, I chose this route; I charted this course. It's not my boat, I'm only a hitchhiking temporary crew member, but if something were to happen to the boat ....

Cloud shadow?

Tensely, with our eyes swimming in aquamarine, we sail toward the next waypoint as clouds huddle together behind us. The harsh afternoon sun casts deep cloud shadows that look unfairly like the black marks in the water that might be coral. Its hard to tell the one from the other. Eventually, cloud shadows start to blur and then run toward the horizon while the other black spots remain firmly in place.

At times, clouds obscure the sun entirely and transform the translucent water into an opaque surface that refuses to reveal what's beneath. Then we have to trust entirely to chance as we plow through the water at six and seven knots. All the guidebooks warned us to make this passage in good light to be able to see obstructions in the water. We've planned well, the sun is high and behind us, but the clouds aren't cooperating.

All day we remain vigilant; I watch on the starboard side, George on port as we glide over neon blue-green water glowing under our boat as if back lit by the white sand beneath. For hours on end we steer around dangers real and imagined.

Five o'clock sun glinting on the waters of Providenciales.

At five o'clock, as the sun sinks in front of us, turning the surface of the water into a blinding white, we arrive in Providenciales, or Provo, in the northwestern corner of the Caicos Bank. After we drop anchor in Sapodilla Bay, George stretches out his hand and says, “Congratulations, we've made it across the bank.” Did I ever have any doubt?

Unscathed, we celebrate with a beer and a swim. Tomorrow we'll move to the South Side Marina which will be our home base to continue our underwater exploration of the Caicos Bank.

Anchored in Sapodilla Bay, Providenciales in the northwestern corner of the Caicos Bank.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013



Long Cay is a dumping ground for shells from the conch processing plant in Cockburn Town, South Caicos, or conch heaven as we called it. Yesterday after discovering the shiny pink piles that make up the conch burial ground, George and I climbed to the top of Long Cay. The long limestone island straddles the deep indigo Atlantic on one side and the glowing aquamarine waters of the shallow Caicos Bank on the other. Standing on the lanky body of Long Cay lying supine before me, I was struck by the feeling that even the most beautiful place on earth is meaningless unless you have someone meaningful to share in the experience. Maybe something fundamental inside me has changed since I was last adventuring.
Thousands of discarded conch shells on Long Cay, just south of Cockburn Town in South Caicos.
Swimming in the clear waters of the cut, the thousand foot opening between South Caicos and Long Cay where the waters of the bank and the Atlantic meet, my sense of wonder is renewed. Here the depths shallow from 5,000 to 50 to 10 feet in a flutter of an eye. Teachers from the School for Field Studies call the area, Shark Alley, and say that it is one of the best sites around for underwater wildlife. 
We couldn't resist taking a souvenir and spent hours picking
the perfect shells.

George and I anchor the dinghy, don our fins and snorkels, slip into the crystal clear seawater and swim together toward the opening of the cut against an incoming current. A few minutes pass as I acclimate to breathing through a plastic tube with waves rolling over me and then I see a giant spotted eagle ray whose wing span is as wide as my own and whose head is twice the size of mine. Its dark body flies effortlessly by in dappled glory. I turn to follow it and see two more spotted eagle rays of equal size soaring toward us from behind. I am in their world lucky enough to share this moment in time.

From the gray-blue limits of visibility, a Volkswagen of a creature emerges, round as a pancake, with two huge, deep-set eyes. Its enormous body glides over the bottom and passes beneath me. It is one of the biggest rays I have ever seen. I look for a barb on its tail that would carry poison, but don't see one.

Feeling both outnumbered and too close to the breakers crashing onto Long Cay's sharp limestone shore, we head back to the dinghy. But we are not alone. We are flanked by the long, menacing bodies of giant, open-mouthed barracuda. Their large, round eyes are trained on us - or at least that's how it feels. I know reef sharks are rarely aggressive, but not knowing anything about barracuda, I feel vulnerable in a school of carnivorous creatures as big as I am. We make it back to the boat so I can contend with an even bigger fish that night - Winston.

Long Cay between the Atlantic Ocean on the left and the Caicos Bank on the right.
In South Caicos nobody believes that George and I aren't together. When I say we aren't married, but just friends, Richard gives a knowing nod and says, "Riiight, you doin' this trip to see if you can get along for the long haul." Suzette agrees, "yeah, you don't always have to get married." Try as I might, the idea of hitchhiking crew doesn't cut it for the islanders.

Still, when it comes to Winston, I appreciate the misunderstanding. Even assuming George and I are romantically involved, Winston waits till George is out of earshot to tell me I'm beautiful and that he can't wait to dance real close with me at the disco. He was the first person I met stepping off the dinghy and onto the hard ground of South Caicos after our 400 mile sail from Culebra. He took one look at my twin star fresh fade and said," You an Indian or somethin'?"

Cockburn Town, South Caicos
The second person we met was the manager of the SeaView Marina and SeaView Market, partner establishments that consist of one rough concrete jetty with three free advertised but undefinable "slips" and a dusty grocery store. The third was the immigration officer who charged us overtime for meeting after hours at the late time she had chosen when George called during regular business hours to make an appointment. The customs officer, who charged a similar fee, was the forth.

George and I get gussied up and head to the local disco, but luck is on my side. The place is empty because the whole town is at a local basketball game. I love dancing, but considering the dark hole of a dance floor and the presence of a known predator, it's just as well. Tomorrow we leave at dawn to navigate the Caicos Bank, an extremely shallow body of water dotted with shoals and reefs, with our fingers crossed that our waypoints will lead us through safely.

Sunday, June 9, 2013



The wind has shifted and I can’t steer the boat. When I push the familiar +1 button on the standard autopilot control panel to turn a few degrees to starboard, nothing happens. The boat continues on, straight as an arrow into the night. Set in track mode, the autopilot is keeping us hard on target, compensating for sideways slip and current as it drives us blindly to the next waypoint, but the wind is not so easily tethered. I press the button again, harder. No response.

It’s deep night. The moon set hours ago. The familiar rhythm of large open ocean waves sweep through the black and under the hull of the unfamiliar boat beneath my feet. I can hear the papery rustle of the restless headsail as it wanders aimlessly across the foredeck, snaking back and forth, before meandering back into place.

Wing on wing sail configuration.
We've been attempting to hold the rum line – the straight line course between where we were, Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands of Puerto Rico, and where we are going, Cockburn Harbor on the south eastern side of the Caicos Bank – but the wind is not cooperating. In an attempt to compromise, we have spread the boat’s wings wide, splaying the mainsail all the way out on one side and the headsail out on the other, to catch as much wind as possible. But the wind is fitful and when the breeze stops to catch its breath, the sails flog - their own weight pulling them down in the roll of the waves - backwinding momentarily and then falling back into position. Sometimes in these momentary lulls the headsail’s motion is confused, but gentle. When a big wave rolls the boat, though, the headsail slams out of place and back in again with a force that resonates through the rigging. That’s the sound of things breaking.

On the way to Culebra George showed me how to switch between the autopilot’s different functions, but now, a handful of days later alone on watch at three in the morning, I can’t remember how. I consider attempting to switch the autopilot setting to allow me to steer the boat to fill the sails, but if it doesn't work, I might not get the autopilot back on and would have to steer by hand. Then if I need George, who is asleep down below, I won’t be able to leave the helm to wake him. I would have to pound on the deck above his cabin or call through his open hatch, but he's a sound sleeper and I couldn't be sure he’d hear me. The absurd image of me standing at the wheel screaming as I waggle my head from side to side pops into my mind and I find the idea both humorous and terrifying. I've never felt so scared on watch.

I’m not afraid of the night or the ocean, the waves or the wind, but of being out of control. Though I've sailed over 10,000 nautical miles, I don’t know the particulars of this new boat. Do I blunder through and figure it out or do I wake the captain? I curse the fact that we didn't have a get-to-know-you sail where I could have gotten to know the boat, curse myself for not knowing how to do this simple task. And then George’s dark-haired head pops up from the main hatch and asks me how long the headsail has been flogging.

It feels like a slow and frustrating process getting up to speed on S/V Carpe Diem - figuring out new systems, new configurations, how everything works in order to become a fully functioning member of our tiny two person crew. George, a competent single-hander, can sail the boat by himself and often does during the day. I observe and try to take it in, though it’s not the same as doing. I need to remember that I've been hanging out on this boat for weeks, but this is only the second day we've been sailing.

With George on deck, we swap the wing on wing sail configuration, flying the mainsail on the port side where the headsail had been and visa versa on the starboard side which quiets the sails a bit. He shows me again how to switch between the autopilot functions cautioning that I should leave it on track and goes back to bed. I am left alone and shaken. What other fundamental tasks am I unfamiliar with on this new boat? I tell myself that while I’d felt helpless, help had been sleeping close by. Still, my stomach churns as I consider the gap of knowledge that keeps me from being able to help myself. For once it’s easy to stay awake on watch.

The view from inside the bimini in S/V Carpe Diem's cockpit. 
Sleep and sunshine erase the dark feelings of the night and I enjoy the ride on our floating house with wings as we fly hundreds of miles downwind. With the wind at our backs, I feel everything out here – the wind, the waves, the fluffy white cumulus clouds – are all going the same way we are going. Everything, the whole world, is pushing us the four hundred miles to our next destination. And then we spot the low crouching landmass that is our first sight of the Turks and Caicos, supposedly one of the most beautiful natural structures on earth.