05 April, 2010

St. Helena


Napoleon – shark riding – Jacob's ladder – bar jam – hiking – manta ray

In the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean rises an innocuous little
volcanic island named St. Helena. It has no airport. It receives a
freighter—maybe—once a month, on which an islander could hitch a ride
to Ascension Island to catch a plane to the Falkland Islands or the
U.K. It has no traffic lights, no cell phones, no cinema. It is more
isolated in the world that Easter Island or the Galapagos.
The islanders are amazing and unique in that they are a "naturalized"
mulatto, or what a South African would call "colored"—the Saints (as
they call themselves) are a mix of British, Portuguese, Chinese,
African, and Malagasy. Over the 500 years since the first settlement
of the island (1502) the intermingling of the races has come to
something like uniformity, physically something resembling Latinos or
Filipinos. I've never been anywhere in the world where a mixed
ethnicity developed into an ethnicity of its own. Really amazing. In
individuals atavistic characteristics still manifest: a woman with
narrower eyes, or a man with more curly hair, or fair skin—something
like that. I haven't seen any blond hair though.
I suppose all ethnic groups develop similarly—would the S. Americans
be themselves today if it hadn't been for the Spanish and other
invaders, plus their slaves and indentured servants to mingle the
blood of the Aztecs, Incas, ect?? Of course not.

I arrived on St. Helena not knowing anything about the island except
that it was on-route and that I could easily obtain water and
provisions. Well, that and also that the anchorage wasn't very fine.
Both of these facts proved accurate, but it the end I found much more,
much much more. Why are the good spots never where you expect them?

The island appeared on the horizon just as the sun rose up behind me.
There is always an electric feeling the first time you spot land. I
had a great passage and wasn't over-eager to stop, but St. Helena rose
like a massif from the lowlands—all this fine looking rock crumbling
down as it rises up from the sea. I so rarely sail near coastlines, I
was floored by the beauty of it. Good weather, moderate seas. Of
course I ripped the head of my jib only 15 miles out! Ha. Well,
that's what a stay'sle's for.
The anchorage is exposed to the north, but since the SE'lies are so
prevalent it is moderately safe, but deep and rolly all the same. The
swell also makes dinghy landing on the wharf a bit of a challenge, but
my weather on arrival was very calm, and would remain like that
throughout the week.
Where the anchorage is lacking, what I found ashore was much more
welcoming. EVERY SINGLE PERSON I saw on the street smiled and waved
at me. I spent an hour hanging out with the immigration ladies
because they were so friendly. What I found was a slow old-world
life. The island is still British Commonwealth and retains that feel.
There is limited internet, no cell phones, one radio station. There
are cars, but mostly one-lane roads. Few bikes, as the island is so
steep and rugged. Very little flat land, all ridges and gorges. Very
reminiscent of Scotland. The anchorage is in Jamestown. The north is
very dry and arid, like Baja. But as you walk away from town you rise
into the high center of the island and move into a rainforest. The
island is only 5 X 15 miles … small, but there is a real diversity of
climate for such a small place.
It is smattered with walking trails. Although I only intended on
staying a few days, I found the walking to be irresistible. The rock
is mostly basaltic, with some rhyolite and tuff or pumice—not good for
climbing, but the views from the coastal cliff walks are awe
inspiring—the whole Atlantic Ocean all around you. The island makes
clouds and there seems to be at least a bit of rain on most days. But
there are always rainbows—sometimes they are in the valleys beneath
you, sometimes they are in twenty meters between you and shore as you
row home.
From Jamestown, there is a stairway going straight up the valley to
the top of the next ridge. It is 699 steps and is called Jacob's
Ladder. Big steps and about a sixty degree angle. It is pretty cool
and one of the only tourist gimmicks on the island. John could barely
walk for three days after going up. [ADDENDUM: After over a week of
walking I was able to do the Ladder in 10 min 20 sec, up and down.
Pretty stoked about it. Island record is 8 min by a navy officer
though---and that is a big difference. Although my friends on Blue
Sky took 2 hours.]

The big name here is NAPOLEON. He was exiled here after Waterloo and
died here. I visited his house. Just a house, but hey, Napoleon
slept in that bed! I guess that is supposed to be cool. … …
… but let me tell you what I think is cool. … WHALE SHARKS are cool …
and cooler that that … RIDING A WHALE SHARK.

SHARK RIDER__________


I met an amazing guy delivering a cat to Greece. This is his 30th
Atlantic crossing!! His name is Gareth. He has nearly 500,000 miles
at sea!!! And what is more, he is only 28 years old. Great guy;
serious sailor; hard hard worker. That is another story … anyway, I
was standing in my dinghy at the back of his boat and he mentioned
that another boat, Ragin Cajin, had seen a whale shark and that they
themselves had felt something rubbing against their chain earlier in
the day. I started laughing because John on Dancyn has hunted the
world for whale sharks and found no success, and now it seemed as
though he had missed another one.
But as we were discussing the shark, Gareth's mate Jenna looked over
my shoulder and says, "Look, there it is." It's true; it's true; I
promise it is true. Sure enough, even as we discussed the very shark,
it swam right past the boat. I shoved off and skulled (a sort of
one-oar paddling) off the bow of the dink to get over the fish. It
was amazing … right there … the biggest fish in the world! But it
wasn't close enough. With my painter (bowline) in hand I jumped over
the side.
There it was, a lumbering boulder, softly sweeping his tail. It
didn't look real—it was just too big, too unworldly, majical. Jenna
calls out asking where John is and I tell her to hail him on vhf 71,
the station we use to chat in the mornings. For whatever reason, the
three of them are still on the cat. Jenna asks if I want a mask.
Hell yes I want a mask!
With the mask the shark really came alive. It was brown with faint
horizontal lines and striking white spots. It was ten meters long.
Longer than my boat!! But for an animal so large, it was beautiful;
it was strangely elegant. Elegant except maybe for its gaping mouth.
Like a manta ray or like baleen whales, the whale shark is a plankton
eater and strains the plankton out of the water by "gulping" large
amounts of water. So it has a tremendous head. But it is not a
predator; it's actually very docile.
Even before I got my mask on I had thrown off my dinghy painter. The
dinghy was slowly drifting away in the light breeze. I couldn't be
bothered; it wasn't going far. This was magic. In fact I knew
already this was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I
followed the shark all the way around the catamaran before John rocked
up in his dinghy, kindly fetching my dinghy. He also fetched Gareth
and his other crew—both with fins and masks now, finally willing to
jump in with the shark. John, however was dressed in his Sunday
best—he hadn't understood about the shark.
I berated him for lolly-gagging. The shark had now circled all the
way back to where it had started and seemed to be descending. Knowing
Johns repeated bad luck with whale sharks, I was sure it was about to
vanish on him yet again. It should be mentioned here that john is the
best free-diver I have ever seen in my life. He can hunt fish at 70
ft. Amazing. Again, another story.
John strips naked—not just a little naked, buck naked—and jumps into
the water—first breath, no fins—and dives down, down, down and touches
the great fishes back. It was some dive. He comes up screaming with
joy. At last … a whale shark! But the shark turns, and then rises,
rises all the way back two feet from the surface. Gently, John and I
dive and ease over its back and take a hold of a fin—and we ride the
shark, right above the gills. The skin was coarse as 120 grit
sandpaper, but nearer to the gills it was soft. John lost skin on his
Never in all my life!!!! … …

And the shark never flinched. It swam up and down up and down, back
toward the bow of the cat. We petted and rode. The imagine I will
never forget was when I was at the surface looking down and John went
down deep and held on by the end of the tail; he did a sort of naked
spread eagle, small against the girth of the shark and abyss of the
dark blue water behind him. A man dwarfed by the great shark and the
deep sea. It was magnificent, truly and utterly magnificent.

I spent about 30 minutes with the shark. When I get back into the
dinghy I was shaking with endorphins. I was so high I couldn't even
find my bottle of champagne after much disorganized searching. We
all climbed aboard the cat a drank ourselves silly—the biggest smiles
radiating from our faces, randomly breaking in to laughter or hoots of
residual pleasure. It is hard to say whether it was or wasn't the
coolest thing I've ever seen, but there is no need to make such a
claim. It was simply great—that is enough. The closest I can come to
describing the feeling is the scene in E.T. when the spaceship has
come to take him home, and E.T. is standing there and the boy is
looking at him, loving him, but also all of E.T.'s strangeness,
other-worldliness is utterly apparent. There is that moment when they
touch each other, loving and marveling at the strangeness of the
other. That is the story of my whale shark.

John left St Helena today, so we figured it would be good to go for a
last dive among the rocks. On our way back to the boat I spotted a
manta ray swimming right for us. It wasn't a big one, probably six
feet across, but what an amazing and graceful creature. We spent a
few minutes with it before it descended back into the depths. A whale
shark and a manta: two of the strangest, coolest—not to mention
hugest—creatures of the sea.

TRIAL BY FIRE___________


You would think it enough to have one life-changing experience on a
little island like St. Helena. And sure, it would have been. I
thought to stay only a few days and I've already been here nearly two
weeks with little thought of leaving. I've gone walking in the hills
nearly everyday. I've even played 9 holes of golf (for a laugh) on
what may be the most isolated golf course in the world. But something
much more meaningful to me happened, something for which I owe a lot
of thanks to a boat called Ragin' Cajun.
I met Tony on the radio a few days out of South Africa. I was trying
to get on the Peri-Peri Net for some weather, but the reception was
terrible. Out of all the static comes Ragin' Cajun. This is how I
met Tony. He was looking for weather too and having no more luck than
I at picking up the Net.
But we talked a bit and I asked about his interesting boat name.
Turned out he was not American, but Australian, and the boat was named
as it was because he loved playing Cajun style music. He told me he
had often played in bands and played the fiddle and mandolin. I told
him about my sister and my friends and how I love bluegrass and have
been learning the guitar myself. Maybe we'd get together one day and
play. You never know. He was on the west coast of Africa heading to
I arrived in St Helena before John. But John showed up the next day,
and just behind John was a bright yellow boat with a huge alligator
playing a fiddle. Under the alligator was written Ragin' Cajun. So
it was that Tony and I met for the first time.
St Helena being small place and little to do (if you aren't a walker)
the lot of us would get together for a beer at a little place called
Anne's. We broach the topic of music and decide to get together the
next day and play. However, to my initial dismay, as I show up at
Anne's I notice Tony has none of his kit. He says to me, "so what are
you doing tomorrow?" Slightly irritated at the trouble I had to go
through to get my guitar ashore in the rain, I thought about
responding that I had a big hike planned for the next day—which I did.
Instead I asked him what he had in mind.
He explained that he had met a few local musicians and had organized a
sort of jam at a bar in town called The Standard. I was welcome to
play if I wanted to. This was music to my ears. Well, sort of. I've
never really used mics or amps or any of that, and to play in a bar in
front of a lot of people—without ever playing with ANY of the
musicians—seemed to be asking a lot of my musical ability. Deep
water—just jump in, right? "Sure," I said. "Hell yeah."
Before long he coaxes me to get my guitar out and play. I didn't like
this much either. I still balk at playing alone in front of
people—and in this case, in front of an accomplished musician.
I played a song; he played a song; I played a song. And what I got
was a lot of feedback—quality constructive criticism—the very thing I
crave and need. It was great. It was even fun. Perhaps it wasn't an
audition as I'd already been asked to play, but it felt like it, and
apparently I passed, as he mentioned certain songs that he wanted to
play the next day—my songs. Wow.

I still manage to get a good walk in—not the full hike I had planned,
but good to move my blood around. I showed up 45 minutes early to
work my fingers. I met Johnny. Johnny owned the Standard Bar.
Johnny plays the bass guitar. Johnny is awesome. Stew showed up with
a four-piece drum set. Another guy set up a keyboard. Donny, a
bee-keeper, showed up with a set of harps. To my dismay, no other
guitars, no other vocalists.

What to say? Was it awesome? . . . hell yes! Was it perfect? . . .
heavens no. I mangled songs I've played a million and two times. My
mic was silent because I was sitting in front of speaker, but it was
the only place I could hear myself play. And yet people screamed and
applauded. People were standing in the doorway and beyond. The whole
damned island turned up. And all my yachtie friends.
For one thing, Johnny organized it so as to be back-up for Tony and
I—that was why his guitarist didn't come. Johnny has his own band, of
which the keyboardist and the drummer were a part. And man were they
good. They were killin' it.
And they were killing me. I had no guitarist to follow. Most of my
song had changes that would need rehearsing, so we ended up playing
mostly Tony's music—who didn't like singing either. There weren't any
changes and just three chords. But it was great. He was great. It
was heavy, foot-stomping, low-down country dancin' music. He and
Donny the harp player stole the show. They sounded so good together
you would have thought they'd played together all their lives. It was
something to behold.

Not having another guitar to follow was not comfortable. Not having
played this style of music or these songs was not comfortable. Tony,
telling me only, "this one is in D", was not comfortable. This is why
it was truly a trial by fire. These were fine musicians; we were
putting on a show, and I was the only guitar. Tony made it clear that
there were two principle rules: always stay in time and in tune, and
if you don't know it—Don't Play.
My rhythm didn't abandon me, but there were a few tunes I just
couldn't figure out. I just couldn't hear. I am learning to hear and
recognize chords of the guitar, but distinguishing an A from a D on a
fiddle was new for me and I wasn't completely successful.

That said, songs like Country Roads, Mama Tried, and Fulsome Prison
Blues got roaring applause. And there were
times where I could really relax and flow.

I did it.
I've now preformed with a band on a stage in front of a crowd. It was
an amazing experience. I had a guy come up to me on a break and
effusively tell me what a wicked-good guitarist I was. Twenty minutes
later he was unconscious on the bench, head lolling side to side.
Well … it wasn't an insult; take it or leave it.

The next morning I was walking up the road to go for a hike and I see
Tony coming down towards me. He said that a guy from another bar
heard us play and asked if Tony and I would come and play his bar
tonight. So, I took from the invitation that I couldn't have been all
bad. And free beer.

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