Christmas Winds

I’d met Paul in early November. I had dined with other catamaran crews, and stopped for a last beer on the way out through the quay-side bar packed with yachties. Over a terrible meal of “rotis” we cat crews had all told outrageous “puking punter stories,” puking punters being our overwhelming favorite topic of conversation. This was because we all had to deal with seasick passengers day in and day out. We took between 10 and 20 passengers on open-decked sailing catamarans. The sea was always choppy on the way to St. Barth’s in the morning. Without fail someone would be sick, and that would set off a chain-reaction and all the others who otherwise might have held it together succumbed to mal de mer. We crew became very adept at discretely passing out sick bags just before they were actually needed. One crew liked to surreptitiously slip a little vodka in the morning orange juice. They swore their punters didn’t get as sick.

After that, I sometimes saw Paul at happy hour. He was a feisty little man with a big nose and horn-rimmed glasses who sang like an angel and played a mean jazz guitar. He really surprised me when he offered me a job cooking aboard Enchantress, an aging 50 ft. ketch that carried two crew and six guests, fully laden. Paul was twenty-something and this was his first Captain’s job. But having grown up in New Zealand, he had done a lot of sailing. He had an older sister and brother both well known on the Caribbean-Mediterranean charter yacht circuit, and Paul had put in several seasons as crew aboard charter yachts.

I asked, “How do you know I can cook?”

He replied, “I’ve overheard you talking about cooking. Sounds like you know what you’re talking about.” He was desperate, since the French girl he’d had working with him for the past two charters had suddenly quit.

I’d had my fill of passing around sick bags while beating to windward on the St. Barth’s run every day, so I took the job, and we set off immediately for Antigua to provision and do some quick repairs.

In Antigua, I had a crash course on roasting a leg of lamb from Paul’s sister, (Paul was quite particular about his lamb dinner.) I bought enough food and drink for eight people for a week, and off we set to collect our guests way down south in St. Vincent. The weather wasn’t ideal, and more importantly, it was a Friday. There’s a well-known sailor’s superstition that says, “Never leave on a Friday”, but we were too young to respect the old superstitions. December also brings the Christmas Winds, which though mild and pleasant on the beaches, blow all the way from Africa. Between islands they can blow up some very big seas. I’d never seen waves higher than the top of a mast before. It was thrilling to surf up and down them, as long as we were aimed the right direction to do so. Every-so-often, an unexpected wave would come at odds to the rest and dump freezing bathtubs of water over the open cockpit. Enchantress had no auto-pilot, so one of us had to physically steer at all times. This meant that the helmsman was completely drenched at odd intervals.

About three hours out, the lights of English Harbour were almost below the horizon on our stern and the luminescent glow of Guadeloupe was growing ahead of us, the sea was big, but not too choppy. That’s when the rain started. Just moments later there was a loud “bang” and the boat swung around to windward as the steering gave out. And we began to wallow in the huge seas.

I have to hand it to Paul. He kept his cool. Without raising his voice, he put me to work standing watch and coiling lines as we were tossed around like a cork, and he set to work hooking up the emergency steering, which consisted of a long piece of pipe that hooked directly to the rudder post where it had been hidden under the master bunk in the middle of the aft cabin. I was stunned, and kept my mouth shut. I don’t think I let on that I didn’t know sailing yachts had emergency steering systems. Paul gave clear concise calm instructions, and I did as I was told just as quietly. There is never really any time to panic when things get scary at sea.

Paul wasn’t tall enough to steer with the emergency tiller and see where we were going, so I had to stand on the tiller and poke my head out the aft hatch. I was not a lot taller, but Paul stayed on deck setting the sails and making sure I stayed on course. The wind blew and stung my face all night as I hung suspended there by my elbows and steering with my feet. I had to lean all my weight against the strong current pushing the rudder. I’ve never been so tired as when we finally pulled into Falmouth Harbour and anchored out near the entrance. I don’t remember sleeping that morning before the repairs and airing out of the boat began, but I must have done so. Now we’d have to eliminate an overnight stop that had been planned on the way to St. Vincent. We’d get the repairs done as quickly as possible and head out again that night sailing straight through to be in St. Vincent by Monday morning.

It was hard work on a worn out boat, but I never questioned my decision to take that job. I didn’t think about how hard I had to work. I was too inexperienced to know that girls shouldn’t have to pull the anchor by hand. I’d never had much to do with anchoring, so had no idea that there should be an electric windlass to do the job. I was just happy to be at sea. I soaked up every experience that season like a sponge. We somehow managed to get all the bunks dry and the boat cleaned up before the guests arrived for that Christmas charter. The American family who joined us was delightful. They had never been sailing before, and they had never seen brownies or bread made “from scratch”, so I quickly became a star. Paul turned out to be a great host. Even after their first day at sea, when we crossed those big seas brought by the Christmas winds to get to St. Lucia, they trusted us to show them a good time. We all had a very merry Christmas!