The Boat Trip that changed my life

Sunday Trust - - SUNDAY MAGAZINE - • By Judy Gar­ri­son

“We’re go­ing to her,” said my hus­band, who was as giddy as a two-year-old about our ad­ven­ture on the high seas.

At a dis­tance, I spot­ted the tow­er­ing 236ft cruis­ing schooner S/V Man­dalay an­chored in Gre­nada’s St Ge­orges bay. Sail­ing the South­ern Caribbean, much like Jack Spar­row in Pi­rates of the Caribbean, was never on my radar, but see­ing her in the dis­tance, I un­der­stood the lure of the three-masted barken­tine. I won­dered why she wasn’t com­ing closer, mov­ing to­ward the dock for her pas­sen­gers.

It had been a year ear­lier when he had dis­cov­ered this seven-day pho­tog­ra­phy ex­cur­sion that would al­low us to sail along the Gre­na­dine is­land chain, part of the Wind­ward Is­lands, and pho­to­graph some of the world’s most breath­tak­ing lo­ca­tions. As pro­fes­sional travel pho­tog­ra­phers, it was a chance of a life­time. Not giv­ing much thought to the lo­gis­tics or pro­to­cols, I signed up with the pro­vi­sion that wa­ter and I would not come in con­tact.

Now, some 400 yards away, a small launch bar­relled to­ward us, bound­ing over the swells in the har­bour, with two men aboard. “Here comes our ride,” my hus­band trum­peted.

Im­me­di­ately, my stom­ach fell and sweat poured. Hav­ing cruised on large ships, I knew the board­ing cus­toms of walk­ing down en­closed ramps with wa­ter nowhere in sight. We’d be high above the wa­ter­line and ocean move­ment usu­ally went un­de­tected. How­ever, this was dif­fer­ent; the ves­sel, built in 1923, was pow­ered by sail and the roll of the sea. With only 25 pas­sen­gers and a crew of 12, it was just us and the ocean. But, the kicker: the only way on and off the ves­sel was by way of a launch, up and down a small stair­way as the ocean waves slapped at your feet.

Wa­ter ter­ri­fies me. It has al­ways ter­ri­fied me. Grow­ing up in swel­ter­ing Ge­or­gia sum­mers, I was the one who re­mained at the shal­low end of the pool, gin­gerly slosh­ing waves of crys­tal blue chlo­ri­nated wa­ter over my lower body avoid­ing body parts above my el­bows. And if I dared to dunk my head, I would fin­ger-squeeze my nose, which im­me­di­ately drew jeers of ‘chicken’ and ‘baby’ from wa­ter nymphs who bounced from side to side of the pool. I wasn’t sure which was worse: drown­ing or do­ing the fin­ger-squeeze.

From that mo­ment for­ward, I be­came an ex­pert in eval­u­at­ing sit­u­a­tions, avoid­ing any sce­nario that in­cluded wa­ter. I have never stood di­rectly un­der­neath a wa­ter­fall or a shower head. Jet skis ab­so­lutely ter­rify me. I missed many ad­ven­tures, but I kept my feet on solid ground. How­ever, my tak­ing this trip was a di­rect re­sult of wife-guilt, in­clud­ing a hus­band’s prom­ises of life­time jaunts to des­ti­na­tions de­void of large bod­ies of wa­ter.

Ap­proach­ing was the wooden launch that would pick me up and carry me to the Mother Ship. No bar­ri­ers. No fixed sides. No safety nets. At that very mo­ment, I was trans­ported back, stand­ing in the cross-hairs of ‘chicken’ in­sults, only th­ese were blast­ing in­side my head.

As the launch ar­rived, two crew­men bounded onto the dock. I looked around at the stout adults with piles of bulky lug­gage to be placed in that bucket of a boat. I wanted to run. I slowly dragged my­self to the back of the line.

With my heart pound­ing, I knew I had to rid my­self of this fear, if not for me, then for my hus­band. We would be spend­ing a week on the open seas be­ing driven by the wind. For what would not be the last time, I sum­moned strength from my gut and stepped be­side my hus­band. I can do this.

I took a crew­man’s hand and stepped onto the launch’s seat, then the deck, and quickly sat down. I did not move. I eyed the life pre­servers. Good, I thought to my­self, I can reach them. If ev­ery­one co­op­er­ates, makes no sud­den move­ments, we’ll be fine.

Ap­proach­ing the ship’s mas­sive pos­ture - and the im­pend­ing trans­fer - stirred my nerves. The launch pulled along­side the schooner, bounc­ing off her sides un­til ropes were heaved and tied to se­cure her po­si­tion.

“Leave all your things. We will get them to you,” shouted the crew­men. Pas­sen­gers ea­gerly stood and moved to­ward the steps, as­cend­ing onto another set. I watched care­fully where feet and hands were placed, plot­ting my de­par­ture. I stood and caught my breath. As I at­tempted to do what oth­ers had done be­fore me, I reached for the two han­dles on ei­ther side of the steps. As both feet were on the top step of the ten­der, I re­alised the next one would be onto the ship’s lad­der, with noth­ing but wa­ter be­low. Each time I climbed the launch’s rick­ety lad­der to board the ship’s equally pre­car­i­ous stair­way, I chipped away at the fear that had con­sumed and con­tained me for decades

“Left hand on red han­dle,” the crew­men re­peated. I grabbed the red han­dle with my left hand, and as I reached up­ward with my right, a stout hand of mam­moth strength en­gulfed mine, pulling me to the top rung with one swift move­ment. “I’ve got you,” he said as he locked his eyes with mine. I felt wood be­neath my feet. Had I fallen, he would have scooped me up in an in­stant.

I would come to know Blaze as the crew­man who stead­ied my fears. From that mo­ment for­ward, wa­ter, other than its beauty, never en­tered my mind. Each time I left the schooner, Blaze was there with an open hand. With each ro­bust touch, Blaze cast my fears overboard.

Over the course of the next six days, I stepped on and off the launch, is­land hop­ping around four times a day. By mid-week, I was first in line to jump from the launch, no longer re­quir­ing the hand of another. I moved my­self out of my way, and I got the hang of it.

Ev­ery isle was movie-scene per­fec­tion, fea­tur­ing a towel in the sand, sun peep­ing through the palm trees, the oc­ca­sional in­quis­i­tive iguana - and of course, Mash-Up, the ship’s stew­ard, who was ice-chest ready with lo­cal Carib beer. How could I have ever missed this?

Other stops in­cluded Union Is­land, Mayreau, Tobago Cays and Gre­nada’s is­land of Car­ri­a­cou, the largest is­land in the Gre­na­dine chain. Lo­cals hastily sur­rounded us upon dis­em­bark­ing, hop­ing we would choose them to lead us around their coun­try.

Most mem­o­rable, our stop in Be­quia, the Gre­nadines’ sec­ond largest is­land and our cap­tain’s home­land, where we boarded the back of a truck and held on tightly as it hur­riedly climbed the nar­row roads to the ru­ins of Hamil­ton Fort, a can­non bat­tery and look-out con­structed by the Bri­tish in the 1700s. From our birds-eye view, the bay was dot­ted with sail­boats on a sea of blue-green wa­ter, and in the dis­tance, the S/V Man­dalay.

We stopped at the lo­cal model boat builder, Sargeant Broth­ers Model Boat Shop, where 10 men were bunched in what was once a small home, now trans­formed into a work­shop. Through­out the shop, hun­dreds of ship clones were in their be­gin­ning, mid­dle and end stages. Out back, gum­wood shav­ings lit­tered the dirt. One man sat at a vice, carv­ing, paint­ing and turn­ing wood into repli­cas of el­e­gant sea ves­sels. In the win­dow was a replica of our ship, the S/V Man­dalay.

Although I never jumped from the ship’s bow like my hus­band or snorkelled in the blue Caribbean waters, I wan­dered from my com­fort zone at the re­quest of another only to dis­cover my own trans­for­ma­tion as a trav­eller. Each time I climbed the launch’s rick­ety lad­der to board the ship’s equally pre­car­i­ous stair­way, I chipped away at the fear that had con­sumed and con­tained me for decades. To oth­ers, I might still be the gal who never does the dar­ing; to me, I’m the one in the mid­dle of it all. I re­alised that in or­der to see be­yond the hori­zon, you’ve got to be will­ing to climb out of the boat.

It was Blaze and his stal­wart grip that re­minded me that with­out risk, there is no re­ward. On our last evening while sail­ing back to Gre­nada, the night sky of­fered up one of its most ma­jes­tic rewards, only vis­i­ble at this ex­act lat­i­tude - to my north, the North Star; to my south, the South­ern Cross. And I was there to see them both.

All her life Gar­ri­son had been ter­ri­fied of wa­ter

In or­der to board the schooner, Gar­ri­son first had to brave a ride in a tiny launch Judy Gar­ri­son

Judy Gar­ri­son: “Over the course of the next six days, I stepped on and off the launch … I moved my­self out of my way, and I got the hang of it”

With the help of one of the crew­men, Gar­ri­son was able to con­quer her fear of wa­ter

Gar­ri­son and her hus­band sailed to sev­eral is­lands in the Gre­na­dine is­land chain

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