Excerpt from Rae Ellen’s award-winning second memoir: MY NEXT HUSBAND WILL BE NORMAL – A ST. JOHN ADVENTURE By Rae Ellen Lee
BIMBO MUSIC A Prologue
The wind screams. Whitecaps froth and spit off the tops of mountainous waves.
“We’re okay, Baby!” Tom shouts. “The boat won’t tip all the way over.”
It’s what he always tells me. But this time we’re sailing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This is different. This is big trouble. And, once again, he’s forgotten that my real name is Rae Ellen.
A sudden crack, like a gunshot, announces a new crisis. A pulley on the starboard side has snapped loose from the deck. Now the forward sail, the jib sheet, flails wildly in the gale-force blow.
“Grab the helm,” the Viking captain yells.
A feeling of dread sweeps over me like a rogue wave. But I don’t have a choice. Tom must rummage in the gear locker for the needed part and some tools, so I take charge of steering the boat. I hang on, gripping the wheel at ten o’clock and two o’clock, as we bash through an armada of buttes and pinnacles toward Vancouver Island. I glance at the depth meter and let out a guttural moan. The meter reads a depth of only 36 feet. The numbers are spiraling downward, 35 . . . 34 . . . 32. Vancouver Island looms ahead.
“Come about!” Tom barks.
I spin the wheel, turning the boat away from the island, the rocks, and the shallow bottom. It’s what any sane person would do.
“Why are you turning that way? The wind is from the west.” The Viking is not happy with me.
“The wind is from everywhere,” I mumble, spinning the wheel again. Of course a real sailor would know to turn the boat 180 degrees in the opposite direction, to come about. But it’s too late now. We have to jibe, which means I must turn the boat in a nearly complete circle. So I cuss The Shoe around—first sideways to the attacking wind and waves, now head-on into purgatory, then through the blast to the other side. But just as we reach the proper orientation, the end of the boom catches in the line used to trim the sail.
Tom scurries to untangle the mess. “Now get us back on course!”
“What course?” I scream. “We’ve been zigzagging all over the Strait. We’ve been in and out of Canada six times.”
“Parallel to land,” he states loudly yet calmly, clearly baffled at my ignorance. “We gotta sail east to get home.”
Well, of course. And to think I once lived a normal life on land, before agreeing to this crazy sailboat idea. “It’s a no-brainer, really,” Tom had said, “since the wind is free and we are broke.” If you don’t study the notion in any depth, it almost makes sense. And I am open-minded. Why not get a boat, fix it up, learn to sail, and then boldly set off for St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands? Because that is our goal, our chosen destination. “We’ll live on the boat,” Tom said. So I finally relented, in a tiny well, all right voice with my fingers crossed behind my back.
And now, I’ve had about all the free wind I can take. At the exact second Tom completes the fix on the broken thing, I abandon the helm to him and descend the steep companionway steps to cower below-deck in privacy. My drop into the bowels of the boat is hampered by eight layers of clothing. I’m like an overstuffed chair. When I finally step onto the galley floor, the muffins I’d baked earlier lie strewn among the coffee grounds and guts from our aluminum drip coffee pot. I flex my knees to absorb the rock and roll motion of the boat, and let go of the overhead grab rail. Squatting, I brush the debris off the muffins and store them in the oven, where they’ll be safe. Because while the boat thrashes wildly, the stove is gimbaled to stay level. The boat shudders violently. When I stand up so I can hold onto the grab rails, I get a head rush.
Everything above deck—the halyards, sails, and lines I’m not allowed to call ropes—are all slamming and clanging against the mast, the boom, even the hull. Certain of a frigid, watery death, I squeeze my eyes shut and pray that the end will come suddenly, like when they knock you out with those drugs before a colonoscopy.
“Whales!” Tom shouts from the cockpit.
My eyes jerk open.
He must mean our old friends, the Orcas.
“Hurry!” he yells down the companionway. “They’re heading straight toward us.”
Grabbing my camera, I crawl back up into the cockpit and hook my safety leash onto the binnacle post. Four black fins about eight feet high plow toward us on a collision course. But I’m fearless in my hope for a perfect photo. Will they surface and arc? Only their fins are visible as they travel like torpedoes toward us through the steep waves and spray. Each whale is two or three times the size of The Shoe. I snap a couple pictures.
“They will turn, won’t they?” I yell to be heard over the din.
In answer, the orcas dive under The Shoe, one at a time, and surface a few boat lengths behind us. The wind rages and gusts.
“Here, take the helm. It’s time to haul in the jib.”
I jam my camera into my North Face jacket pocket and grip the helm. On the deck in front of me, Tom drops the sail and lashes it down.
“Now, heave to,” he shouts. “I’ll tie the third reef in the main sail.”
I would rather go through childbirth again. But I know what to do. In the chaos of flying lines, spraying water, and wildly flapping sails, I turn the wheel and stall out the boat. Which means the broad side of the boat now faces the screaming wind, and we’re tilted over at about 45 degrees. The wind shoves at us without mercy. Finally Tom has reduced the size of the main sail so it will catch less wind; however, as soon as he takes the helm from me and turns the boat to regain headway, a different piece of hardware snaps off the bow.
“Take the helm again! Quick!” Tom shouts. “And when I tell you, turn the boat directly into the wind.”
I do as I must. He leaps onto the deck and makes his way toward the bow to fix the mystery item. His knees on his long legs are flexed to give him a lower center of gravity and absorb the boat’s wild motion. But the fool isn’t holding onto the grab rails affixed to the side of the deck.
“Hang on!” I yell, like his mother, interrupting his further instructions to me. But I’m quite sure he says, “Don’t be bashful. Make the boat do what you want. You’re the boss.”
So I steer the Titanic while cussing, moaning, and shivering in the cold. Confronting death head on, I turn the boat into the wind with grave determination and gun the engine. At least we have an engine, and it’s actually running. We bash upward into a monster wave, drop suddenly down into the valley of the shadow of death, slam steeply up again, and now, as if a rug is pulled out from under us, back down we go. Tom squats at the bow, untethered in the 50 knot gusts and spray. While I ponder the real possibility that he’ll be washed overboard, a wave crashes into the boat and I’m pitched off sideways like a rag doll. Determined to save our lives, I maintain my death grip on the wheel, and strain my right arm as my left kneecap and thigh smack against the top edge of a storage locker.
Why are we out here? Why am I doing this? Sure, the weather was fine this morning in that nice little cove in the shelter of Vancouver Island’s Barkley Sound. While eating cereal in the cockpit, I’d listened like a good little first mate as Tom talked about the elemental beauty of sails—as if he was talking about the first stone wheels, or the discovery of electricity. And I had thought, wow, I want to write about the physics of sails, discover who they really are, maybe write a story from the viewpoint of a spinnaker. And now to get back to Bellingham we have to use those sails, which is fine, except for the weather. My anger at being in this dangerous situation feels flat, level, open on the sides, and as vast as the ocean.
Tom fixes the problem on deck and saunters back toward the cockpit to take over the helm.
“Those waves are at least fifteen feet high,” I groan, cowering above the companionway steps, underneath the dodger.
“No,” Tom says. “They’re only about ten feet high.”
But I can tell you this: right now the height of the waves is about 15 feet and they are steep, close together, and life-threatening. More ominous than the size of the waves is the deafening roar of the unrelenting wind.
Tom turns the boat south toward Port Angeles. I stand below-deck now, knees flexed, hands monkey-fisted on the two overhead grab rails. I glare out the port window at the receding waves as The Shoe wallows in the troughs between the waves. As soon as we are lifted up to the top of a wave, we surf down the other side. Tom is having the time of his life. Every few seconds he looks over his shoulder and up at the tops of the waves rolling toward us.
“Boy, did you see that one?” he shouts, laughing with glee at a departing rogue wave. “This is exactly the kind of experience we need before sailing to St. John.”
I hate him. Tomorrow I’ll take a helicopter or a float plane from Port Angeles to Bellingham. Surely they take credit cards. I will not endure this nightmare one more day.
Finally, at dusk we arrive at the Port Angeles city dock. Our faces are wind-burned red and mine is fixed in a grimace I fear is permanent. I limp slowly along the dock. As usual, we’re holding hands. Some habits are hard to break.
We find a restaurant at Harbor Mall that serves drinks. Tom orders clam chowder and I get a chef salad served on a glass platter shaped like a big round fish. We each sip a mug of beer. Sixties tunes are playing loudly overhead. I think, at least I’m not hearing Jimmy Buffet. If you’re around sailboats, you can hardly escape him.
“You know how I feel about sailing,” I growl. “It’s stupid and dangerous.”
“How can you say that?” Tom says, wearing his incredulous face again. “Sailing is beautiful. And the boat will take care of us. It knows what to do.”
“I want answers,” I say, speaking each word with emphasis. “You’re the captain. Why didn’t we reduce the sails sooner?”
“Well, I had prayed for wind but when it came, I kept thinking it wouldn’t get any worse.” He shrugs, takes a bite of clam chowder and says, “This is really good.”
“We want different things,” I say, glaring at him. “You need someone pelagic, someone who studies sea birds for a living, or maybe one of those oceanographers. At least find someone who grew up sailing, someone who thinks it’s an acceptable way to die.”
“But I want to be with you.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” I’m on a rant and this time I’m determined to be heard. “I’ve tried hard these last couple years to like sailing and feel safe. You know that. And no matter what the weather is doing, I have to go sailing because the boat is where we live.”
“Yeah,” Tom shrugs and pauses, like he’s giving thought to what I just said. “The fetch is definitely long in the Strait, with no obstacles to slow the wind. That’s probably what happened. I’ll bet that wind got started way over there in Kyoto.”
“You son-of-a-bitch! You can sail all by yourself to fucking Kyoto.” Tom’s lack of acknowledgment of my feelings is all too familiar. But this time I’m not getting back on the boat. In fact, I’m going to sleep here in the restaurant where it’s nice and warm and smells good, not like mold. And in the morning, after the helicopter trip to Bellingham, I’ll catch a flight to Montana. That’s it. I’m going back to Montana.
Another 1960s song is playing overhead now, something about following your man wherever he goes, that deep, deep oceans and very high mountain ranges are no match for your love, are no obstacles at all in holding you back from tagging along with him.
I can’t believe my ears. No wonder I’ve been leading this reckless sailing life, so often on the edge of death. That’s the kind of music I grew up listening to—bimbo music. I begin to laugh, louder and louder. I’m hysterical. I shriek with laughter. People’s forks are paused mid-air while they stare at me. Suddenly, I stop laughing and begin to sob uncontrollably. I howl. Tears stream down my face and splash onto my half-eaten salad on the glass fish platter.
Tom touches my hand. “It’s okay, Baby.”
This is so absurd that I begin to laugh again, and I can’t quit, except to shout, “Stop calling me Baby!” Everyone in the restaurant is quiet now. And I’m embarrassed. I mop at my face with my dirty napkin.
The song surrounds us again, a repeating refrain about loving him and, by God, following him no matter what, no matter where, like what can you do if he’s your destiny? I want to yell, Get your own life!
The song is so foolish that I shake my head and can’t quit. A piece of food, maybe lettuce, is stuck on my right cheek. I can feel it there, but I don’t care.
Slowly, painfully, I slide out my side of the booth and we walk through the restaurant. I’m limping slightly and my arm hurts. I hold my head high, but I know my face is a hideous sight, so I drop my head down and watch my boots take one step and then another. Tom opens the door for me. We walk silently along the waterfront, hand in hand, back to The Shoe. I don’t know how or when, but I will exit this hazardous lifestyle. I picture myself on an airplane. I am warm and dry, and I’m holding a drink featuring rum. Is that a Jimmy Buffet song I hear? The plane is en route to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and soon I’ll be lying on the beach in the sunshine, resting up from the last few years. I picture warm sand between my toes, the ocean sparkling like opals on fire. A green turtle surfaces. Pelicans fly overhead, waiting, watching for the right moment to dive for a fish.
Some people have a baby to save a marriage. But we’re too old. Maybe all we need is to get back to St. John, where we can live out our lives as beach potatoes. I’ll be watching for a way to get us there, and it will not be on a sailboat.
WHY ST. JOHN? AND WHY DOESN’T THE ISLAND FLOAT AWAY?
The first time we visited St. John we said we were doing research for a novel. When we left Helena, Montana, that day in late November, 1996, it was minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The moment we stepped off that airplane into the warm, moist, 80-degree F air, we were goners. The next thing you know, we were no longer wearing underwear. And we were drooling slightly out of both sides of our mouths.
By the end of our ten-day visit, during which time we forgot to do book research, we found ourselves pondering life’s big questions: how could such a small piece of land sustain so many feral cats, goats, safari taxis, bananaquit birds, roosters, and massage therapists?
Life’s big questions remain a mystery, but I have uncovered some facts and made some observations.
For instance, the number of visitors to St. John during the last 20 years has ranged from 700,000 to 1 million a year, many of them doctors and lawyers and such. If your personal physician or legal advisor was among them, he or she probably experienced “vacation brain,” the way we did. This syndrome is caused by the cells’ reaction to the sudden change of climate, especially when said cells have been working overtime to keep the host body alive in a frosty climate. After encountering a big red rooster wandering out of an open shop door, visitors from The City have been known to say, “Oh . . . I didn’t know you had peacocks here.” Or, standing knee-deep in the ocean, he or she might look puzzled and blurt, “Where are we in relation to sea level?” It’s true. Perfectly intelligent human beings, including those who claim status as the valedictorian of their high school graduating class, have asked, “So, what keeps these islands from floating away?” The Tradewinds newspaper police log once reported that a visitor renting a villa at Peter Bay, where the millionaires stay, called to report a dinosaur on his deck. Don’t let this happen to you. Those prehistoric-looking creatures are iguanas, and they’re quite harmless unless you’re wearing I’m Not Really a Waitress Red toenail polish.
The 2010 census registered a population of 4,170 (plus or minus) assorted human beings on St. John, including Fred the Dread, Boiler Al, and Hermon Smith, characters you’ll meet if you hang out on the island for a while.
There are many reasons people come to live on this nipple of land in the Caribbean. Some of those reasons are, obviously, weather related. I’ve read that if you are a person of character, you’re not so apt to be needy when it comes to climate. But why not be somewhere consistently warm and moist and welcoming? Why not live where gentle rains caress your body, and tree frogs and other strange noises tickle your ears in the night? Why not be surrounded by a turquoise sea as warm as bath water to swim in, among green turtles and bright blue fishes, and lie on warm sand the color of honey?
According to a quote by Captain Phil of the s/v The Wayward Sailor in an article in Tradewinds by Allison Smith, “Some people are looking for their destiny, some are looking for their truth, and others are just looking for a parking space.” Others manage to engineer their own witness relocation program, although I enjoy substituting witless for witness. On our second visit to the island, in January 2001, Tom and I rented a car one day, and gave a Bordeaux Mountain resident a ride. He told us that police still come looking for people on the island by their alias or nickname, and that you don’t always get to know someone’s real name until after they die. Then you might learn they’re on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Occasionally, the secret that someone is hiding from the rest of us is the same secret he’s hiding from himself.
This very special island could have ended up as one of the many neighboring British Virgin Islands, except the United States purchased St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix (the three U.S. Virgin Islands) from Denmark in 1917. The Danes had planted sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton, and at one time there were over 100 plantations on St. John, worked with slaves brought from Africa. The island is now divided into estates named after those plantations, including Enighed (which, properly pronounced, sounds like the whinnying of a horse), Glucksburg, Zootenval, Calabash Boom, Fish Bay, and Hard Labor. After the purchase in 1917, the island was ruled by a governor appointed by the U.S. Navy until 1931, when the Department of Interior assumed control. Now an unincorporated U.S. territory, residents cannot vote for President of the United States, although they receive other benefits of citizenship, including the right to serve in the military and, of course, pay taxes.
In 1950, Laurence Rockefeller purchased more than half the island and developed Caneel Bay Resort. When he and like-minded friends donated acreage to the U.S. Government as public park land, Congress formed the Virgin Islands National Park (VINP). Now about two-thirds of the island is public land, and vast stretches of its terrain are lush, green, and laced with hiking trails. The other one-third of the island is dotted with shackteaus, unfinished houses that look like concrete bunkers with rebar sticking up, and villas, many with stunning ocean views.
Cruz Bay, located at the west end of the island, is the main harbor town. Coral Bay, a smaller concentration of buildings and services, is near the east end and enjoys a more rural atmosphere with an enduring population of hippies.
The average annual precipitation ranges from 43 to 55 inches, compared to Seattle’s 38 inches and New York City’s 47 inches, keeping in mind that snow is also precipitation. Winter temperatures range from 77 to 84 degrees, although it can get down to a chilly 70 degrees on 1,277 ft. high Bordeaux Mountain. Summer temperatures range from 82 to 90 F, but when the trade winds stop blowing in September and October, it can feel like a sauna.
Hurricane season begins June 1 and ends November 30, and hurricanes do hit the islands. There was Hugo in 1989. And the big one, Marilyn, in 1995, after which the name Marilyn no longer reminded anyone of a luscious blond trying to keep her skirt from blowing up around her ears. Everyone has a Hurricane Marilyn story, and you will hear conversations in which a resident will say, “Hmmm, let’s see, was that before Marilyn, or after?” Other hurricanes have come over St. John in recent years without leaving major wreckage in their wakes: Georges in 1998, and Jose and Lenny in 1999.
Geographically, the island is located 1,075 miles southeast of Miami. The Atlantic Ocean sloshes up on the north and east shores of the island, the Caribbean Sea on the west and south. And although a certain air of lunacy and mischief prevails, the island does not fall within that vast area of unexplained disappearances and phenomena called The Bermuda Triangle.
At approximately 19 square miles in area, St. John is roughly the same size as Manhattan; however, this island is surrounded by sandy beaches and water the mystical color of rare and precious sapphire. And, yes, formed as it was from volcanic activity, the island goes all the way to the bottom, which keeps it from floating away.
That first visit to St. John, in 1996, wrecked us like a hurricane. Vulnerable travel virgins that we were, the island felt other-worldly, mysterious, and oh-so romantic. Sometime during that visit, we crossed over the line separating us from voodoo and the super-natural in ways we couldn’t understand. We sobbed on the ferry when we left. And tears stung our sunburned faces on our flight back to the mainland. By the time we landed back home in snowy Helena, Montana, we’d made up our minds: one way or another, we would live on this tiny speck of land in the Caribbean.
End of Excerpt
I hope you enjoyed this sample of MY NEXT HUSBAND WILL BE NORMAL — A St. John Adventure. To find out what happens next . . . Buy it now in print or ebook at Amazon or Barnes & Noble/Nook (U.S). or Barnes & Noble/Nook (UK).