The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Living La Dolce Vita with Heather Hamilton — Writer, Sailor & Adventurer

One year ago almost to the day, Heather Hamilton and her husband cast off their docklines in Annapolis, Maryland, in their 40-foot ketch. Since then, they’ve covered over 3,500 miles, up the east coast of the U.S. and down through the Caribbean island chain. Life on the open seas with nary a care in the world — sounds like La Dolce Vita, doesn’t it? I asked Hamilton to share the sensory highlights of her nautical adventures, along with a few “sweet life” tips for confirmed landlubbers.

Most heart-stopping sights

On the terrifyingly heart-stopping end of the spectrum: the sight of my mizzen-mast rocking back and forth (definitely something you don’t want) while the boat lurched in 12-foot seas and 45-knot winds. It nearly caused a heart attack. It was our first coastal offshore passage, and we were already sleep deprived and exhausted by the time the storm blew up overnight. We hove-to — that is, basically set the sails so that the boat could kind of “park” and wait out the blow. Pip was below, trying to get some rest, when I noticed that the mizzen sail just kept getting looser and looser, despite my many attempts to tighten it. Then I noticed the mast moving. PANIC!

Turns out, we had just had the rigging replaced, and during the big storm the new rig decided to undergo its initial stretching. The loosening of the stays had allowed the chocks to fall out of the mast’s base.

Despite the howling wind and lurching seas, Pip was able to tighten the rig and replace the chocks — only to discover that the pounding into the waves had splintered the bowsprit platform. After hours of work, we had finally secured the boat. We collapsed in a heap for some rest.

On the heart-stoppingly beautiful side of the spectrum: the hundreds of dolphins that danced around us on our trip down the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis to Norfolk, Virginia. Despite having spent my childhood sailing with my dad in California and having sailed for five years on the Chesapeake, I’d never seen dolphins in the wild. On this particular day, I saw more than I’ve ever seen since: the pod stretched literally further than the eye could see. We radioed a sailing buddy who was two miles ahead of us and he was also surrounded. They played in our bow wave and did acrobatic flips around the boat — but the most astounding thing was their sheer numbers. Hundreds is probably an understatement; there may well have been a thousand dolphins frolicking around us. It was magic.

Most intoxicating scent

Ganja. It’s ever-present in many of the Caribbean islands, and its characteristic skunky smell is nothing if not intoxicating. Local youths and gnarled old rastas alike lounge around the town square smoking their joints; in certain places you get the impression that half the population is stoned. Boat vendors — the men who approach your boat in an anchorage to help you anchor, sell you fish/fruit/veggies, do your laundry, or otherwise do just about anything you will pay them for (uh, no thanks…) — seem particularly fond of weed, often puffing away as they row their boats along.

As we entered a bay in St. Vincent, one particularly ill-mannered vendor shouted at me for declining his services. He sported a spliff literally the size of a stogie, leading Pip to dub him “Stoner Churchill.” His aggression was surprising. Given the amount of weed he’d clearly ingested, one would have expected a much mellower response!

Dreamiest sounds

When I was at home, I had a fancy-schmancy alarm clock that allowed you to fall asleep or awaken to different sounds, like a Zen bell or running water. My two favorites to listen to while falling asleep were the ocean waves and the frogs. Who doesn’t love to fall asleep to the sound of surf? And the sound of the frogs reminded me of the few weeks every spring when the spring peepers went wild in the remote Appalachian area where I grew up.

One night, when we were moored in the national park in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, I fell asleep in the cockpit to these two sounds playing in harmony: the real surf gently breaking on the rocks only a hundred yards from the boat, and the nighttime frogs’ chorus providing the treble counterpoint. Heaven.

Most delicate flavors

Tree-ripened mango in Dominica — actually, the taste itself is nowhere near delicate, but I enjoyed the subtle distinctions between the different kinds of mango the island has. We arrived in Dominica in mid-April, just as these tropical fruits were coming into season. Everywhere you looked, sticky children and adults were peeling mangoes and gnawing the flesh off the seed as they walked down the street, chilled on their porches, or waited for the bus. Mangoes rolled in the gutters, where they became treats for street dogs and chickens. Since mango trees are everywhere, it’s simple to pick up a long stick and knock down a few ripe ones anytime you get the craving.

One day, we hiked several miles to the top of a hill where we were greeted by the sight of a stunningly beautiful little farm nestled in the jungle. There were coconut palms, banana trees, taro and sweet potato plants cascading down the steep hills. The farm’s owner, Ti-Babe, was a gnarled old man with approximately six remaining teeth and the warmest smile and eyes you can imagine. Ti-Babe answered all of our questions about his farm before insisting that he load us up with mangoes, peeling open both the large and small mangoes he grew so that we could taste the difference between the two. (The smaller mango had an amazing flavor, with a little sour to balance the sickly sweetness characteristic of a really ripe mango, but was very fibrous.) We sucked on mangoes the whole way back, arriving back at the boat exhausted, sticky and sated.

Softest physical sensations

The feel of the current across my skin while floating along snorkeling in perfectly clear turquoise waters, bright tropical fish flitting underneath in the dappled sunlight. (Pretty much every other physical sensation on a cruising sailboat is intense, painful, or just uncomfortable!)

Most interesting unexpected encounter with a stranger

The other day, I talked the owner of a local beach bar in Bequia, the largest island in the Grenadines, into allowing me to write an article about how she makes her roti, which are a flat bread wrapped around curried fillings, a kind of West Indian burrito. I’d heard that her roti were excellent, but was most intrigued as other sailors had cautioned me that she took a long time to make them — mixing and rolling out the tortilla-like dough for each order rather than making several in a batch. We’d chatted with Ruthie briefly at the bar the day before, when her eight-year old son proudly served us our beers. Her wicked sense of humor promised a fun afternoon in the kitchen.

Ruthie chopped ingredients for the fillings and then walked me through the labor-intensive process of creating the dough, which involves folding cooked, mashed yellow split peas into a flour dough and then rolling it out carefully. While the dough rested, she demonstrated how to make the fillings — both the vegetarian (black-eyed pea/pumpkin) and fish kind, both of which are strongly flavored with Trinidadian curry powder, which is milder and sweeter than the spices used for Indian curries in the States.

As Pip and I tucked into the final, delicious product, we invited Ruthie to sit with us and chat — and that’s when the real fun started. She regaled us with stories of island life, including a side-splitting story about a gay dog she once had. We talked about life and politics and travel, laughing the afternoon away over beers and her delicious food. It was the first serious conversation I’ve had with a local that lasted more than ten minutes, and I know that when we return to Bequia in the future, I’ll seek out Ruthie right away to catch up and continue building our friendship.

The place that stimulates all five senses

Because my life is constant travel, my boat is that place. Living on a voyaging sailboat means that your senses are constantly being stimulated — and not always in pleasant ways. You are stimulated for instance by the smell of a full holding tank, the sight of an approaching squall, the sound of a storm howling in the rigging, the sensation of a rough anchorage that makes you seasick in your own home, and the bitter, dry taste of fear. On the other hand, taking your home with you opens amazing possibilities: staying in one place for long enough to really get to know it; taking days off to do nothing, knowing that another hike or snorkel or town will be there the next day to explore; meeting not just locals but adventurers who have sailed from all over the world; and — most importantly — going to sleep every night in a bed of your very own, cats cuddled at your side. A sailor’s life is bittersweet.

Favorite artist with a sense of dolce vita

In the British Virgin Islands, I was entranced by the art of a man named Aragorn, who had started an artists’ cooperative, complete with pottery studio and organic garden, in the town of Trellis Bay. Every month, Aragorn’s Studio hosts a full moon party, a traditional Caribbean jump-up held on the beach. Trellis Bay’s party is legendary because of Aragorn’s art. Known for his sculpture, Aragorn recently started creating large outdoor fire sculptures: steel spheres, pyramids or cubes that come to life with fire. He hand cuts elaborate silhouetted shapes into the steel to tell a story. On full-moon night, he mounts these sculptures in the sea just beyond the shoreline, fuels them with firewood and sets them ablaze. The roaring fire within the sculptures, each of which is the height of a man, makes the almost prehistoric-style figures seem to dance in the darkness, evoking the earliest cave paintings. All of the elements — water, earth, wind, fire — combine to evoke a kind of primal beauty.

Favorite travel quote

“Every great and commanding moment is the product of some enthusiasm.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

I truly believe that without enthusiasm, life risks not only being terribly boring, but meaningless as well. Great things do not generally occur because one stumbles into them, but instead are the product of passion. Travel, with its many discomforts and trials, requires that one persevere with enthusiasm and passion. If you manage to do that, you’ll be rewarded accordingly — with great and commanding moments.

Advice for living la dolce vita under more mundane circumstances

The very same thing that makes travel great — but takes the most work — is something you can do at home: seek out new experiences and take the time to talk with people you meet while having them. I spent 15 years in Washington, DC, and while I hit the art museums more than some people would, I certainly didn’t begin to plumb the depths of experiences I could have had in that city. I wish I had taken the time to attend a service at the African-Methodist-Episcopalian church around the corner, whose rockin’ gospel shook the neighborhood windows every Sunday morning. I didn’t take any funky, historical tours or visit the off-the-beaten-path attractions. Most importantly, I didn’t take as much time to talk to people about their lives as I would have liked. When I travel, I’m good at asking questions and drawing people out; at home, I was in such a hurry to get things done that I didn’t take the time to ask the quirky characters omnipresent in any city about their lives. Travel is definitely a state of mind, a way of becoming an observer rather than a doer. Take a day now and then to become a traveler in your home town; it’s amazing what stories people have to tell.

A self-described “overachieving save-the-worlder” who used to run an international affairs advocacy group in Washington, D.C., Heather Hamilton is enjoying her newest incarnation as a writer, sailor and adventurer in the company of her husband, Pip Fryers. (Fryers has been sailing since he was a wee laddie in the Lake District of northern England.) You can learn more about this adventuresome pair and see where their boat is right now on their Picaroon Blog.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another expat book review, by Kate Allison.

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4 responses to “Living La Dolce Vita with Heather Hamilton — Writer, Sailor & Adventurer

  1. Tony James Slater May 23, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Wow, that really does sound like the dream life! I had a rather different sailing experience myself when I tried to get into the yacht delivery game – not to put too finer point on it, I sank. It definitely put me in mind of being a ‘fair weather’ sailor, something there’s plenty of opportunity to do now I’m living in Australia! But one of my all-time fantasies is to do exactly as you have; buy a boat (ideally with royalties from my travel books), and gently drift around the world, from gorgeous coastline to tropical paradise to deserted island… with my wife, of course. And a dive compressor… oh, and rum :0)
    Glad to hear you’re enjoying the life. I think that’s what we’re here for, after all. I’ll head on over to your blog to find out where you are at the moment!

  2. Adventures (@in_expatland) May 23, 2012 at 2:04 am

    You painted such fascinating pictures with your words, it was as if I were right there, too. Such an amazing adventure you’re on! And you’re right, travel IS a state of mind

  3. Anne O'Connell (@annethewriter) May 23, 2012 at 3:22 am

    Hey Heather,
    What amazing descriptions! It brought me right back to the many sailing expeditions we did throughout the Caribbean while we were living in Florida. We loved every minute of it and can’t wait to get back under sail (this time in Thailand). Your advice reminded me of a quote from Bob Bitchin’ of Latitudes and Attitudes fame, “Attitude is the difference between adventure and ordeal.” It’s so true… although I haven’t been tested by a wobbling mizzen but lots of dragging anchors in the dark, stern-to docking disasters (mostly in Greece), lines stuck in auto furlers and malfunctioning anchor winches! But, if you keep smiling, the sun does eventually come up.
    Happy sailing!

  4. ML Awanohara May 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    I love the way you balance the sweet with the bitter. In my vision of what constitutes La Dolce Vita, you have to have both. The bitter (the smell of a full holding tank, the sound of an approaching storm, the taste of fear) makes you appreciate the sweet (the sound of the waves, the sight of the dolphins, the taste of a ripe Dominican mango).

    Following up on tastes, I was very curious to learn that the West Indians have their own version of roti. I first discovered roti (which I love, along with all other Indian breads!) when I was an expat in England.

    Tell us, have you had your article on Ruthie’s roti-making methods published, and if so, can you provide a link?

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