Nigel North
Tue 24 Apr 2018 17:26

BLOG: 2018

POSITION:  10:40.9N 061:38.5W

Journey back to Trinidad


Its a grey January day, Barnabus the van is once again parked up at Marchants Hill Caravan storage, battery disconnected and solar panel on the dashboard, and thanks to the kindness of Pete Mesney, who arrives spot on time to take me to Yeovil Junction station, I make the early afternoon train to Gatwick via Clapham Junction. Its time to settle down to relax after the usual hectic round of goodbyes and packing.
It didn’t start too well. Parked up on top of Portland’s windswept bluff near the prison at dawn, the wheels were going round but not going anywhere on the wet grass. There was nothing for it but to leave them turning in gear, get out and push, then run to catch Barnabus up, off on his own.

The itinerary was the most complex yet in the six years I’ve been crossing the Atlantic for a summer in UK. Already returning to Pinball three months later than usual after another grandson’s arrival, instead of flying direct to Trinidad via St Lucia, the idea was to repeat the successful trip back from last year, in reverse, by flying to Calgary, Canada for a 15 hour stopover and visit a niece, then on next day to Houston Texas, take a Greyhound bus the four hours north to Dallas and spend a week with friends nearby. Then a flight from Dallas to Port of Spain, Trinidad.

But, of course, there was a difference between then and now. Then it was May, now January, minus 6C in Calgary, the weather probably something to do with the flight arriving four hours late - too late to allow a visit from a busy niece with two lively sons to look after. Luckily I had booked a hotel near the airport - more apartment than room. However, the flight itself was most pleasant, as instead of the usual dork to sit next to, I was lucky enough to have Mercedes - a delightful young companion for the flight, native of Saskertoon.
The following day after 5 hours heading south in a well worn American Airlines Boeing 737 600 - built when legs must have been shorter - we arrived in Houston in the middle of Storm Irma; snow, ice and still minus 6C. Minus 6C to Calgarians is nothing. An unusually warm day. To Texans it means chaos, as I was about to find out. Basically, when it snows in Texas, businesses just shut up shop and go home.

The Houston Greyhound Bus Station I was booked into was half an hour’s drive south into the City, for which taxi drivers would want around $50, I was told by the guy in the taxi office outside the airport exit.
‘FIFTY DOLLARS!’ I had just travelled 15 hours by air for £300.
‘You got Uber?’ I hadn’t.
‘Or you can try inside at the desk inside, they run a sort of shuttle. They might help’.
Inside at the desk was no one, just a phone with a message saying ring it. I rang it.
‘Sorry, we’re not running a service today’.
So, whilst still in wifi range, I downloaded Uber, installed it, and called for a lift.
The little map on the App said 8 minutes for the car that was picking me up. Heh thats not bad. 15 minutes later it was giving 6 minutes. The unhappy looking young woman standing next to me must have been doing similar in the biting cold, and had struggled to plug her Mac into her phone to charge it, all whilst standing at the pick-up point. I felt sorry for her, but could see no way of helping.
My phone rang; it was the driver. ‘Where are you?’ I told him. He was largely unintelligible. Still no Uber car. Another call; ‘where are you now?’
‘Look’, I half shouted, somewhat peeved. ‘You’re the Uber driver…YOU are supposed to know where I am! And YOU are not in the right place. You’re five minutes away from where I am!’ And once again, only more vociferously, I described the taxi rank, bus stops, location and number of the exit.
The little Uber map finally showed him approaching, and I figured that in all probability it must be that big black 4x4 truck with the big black driver that had stopped short up the road. I went to him, and loaded my monster bag and me into the back.

Storm Inga had put down some snow and it was slippery in places on our 30 mins journey into town. We chatted. I liked him.
‘What’s your name?’
By the time we arrived in front of the Greyhound Bus station we were quite good friends. Just as well..
Two dodgy looking guys in hoodies lurked on the sidewalk in front of the bus station, the big guy gesticulating for us to move on.
‘Bus station’s shut. Come back tomorrow’ was the message, translated by Gresham. The other guy, small, thin, lined face almost invisible in his hoodie, was muttering at me.
‘What’s he saying’ I asked Gresham.
‘Oh, he wants money.’

After shouted discussion between Gresham and our sinister brethren, it was decided between them that I was to go to the Downtowner Inns, nearby. A cheap joint, but ok. En route, after driving round several blocks, I discovered Gresham wasn’t actually looking for the Inn at all, but for a liquor store - for me. This was surprising, as I neither wanted nor had asked for one.
‘Ok’. Gresham reset his built-in impossible-to-read satnav. ‘You want a hooker?’
In a way I suppose I should have been flattered that he thought me capable, at my age, and after 4 hours sleep at best. Or even rich enough. This was downtown Houston alright.
The Downtowner was painted puke yellow throughout. A poky office at the front housed a small Indian dimly sat behind bars. He wanted $70. Outraged, I left to tell Gresham of another, cheaper place nearby that the Indian had suggested. Gresham had been very good to me, but I think the adventure was beginning to wane somewhat for him, and he rightly pointed out that at least this place was near the Greyhound Station. I gave in, gave him another $5 tip and took the room.

No it wasn’t very nice. Like one of those grimy movie motels where nothing wholesome ever happens. Filthy old carpet, ancient blower heater that was either off or on, no windows that open, an unsavoury looking double bed and cheap ripped settee, chipped bath painted black with an ominous gape between bath and wall tiles, no tea or coffee or anything edible, a TV of dreadful channels including two of in-your-face porn, and a DVD player that cranked and groaned in despair. Outside young men in hoodies came and went. I locked the door and decided to ration the remaining sandwich and crisps for later in lieu of an evening meal. The future was not bright.

After endless futile calls to Greyhound numbers including a Customer Service person who didn’t even know the buses weren’t running, I decided to walk. It was still daylight, and about a mile. Google maps showed where it was, and off I set along wonky sidewalks. It was so quiet, hardly a person about, and few cars. Those on the streets looked like they lived there, and more than a few. I found the Greyhound Bus Station’s smoked glass doors locked, and waited while a security guy inside struggled to open them, which took a while. Inside I stood in front of a weary half dead looking local youth slumped behind the ticket desk, but it was like extracting teeth, and I only got the one tooth, as all he would mutter was ‘twelve o’clock tomorrow’ to every question. It was a bad tooth too.
On the way back I happened upon an AVIS car rental place and went in, having rung them earlier, enquiring. Inside was a schizoid fifty-something AVIS woman dealing noisily with an old man with dementia standing stock still in silence before her.
‘Clearly I’ll be here til SIX! she exploded on seeing me.
‘Heh hang on…website says you’re open til six’ I remonstrated.
‘Yeah. SUPPOSED to be open.’
Later, she softened, and I sort of semi-booked their smallest car, just in case, without either confirming or paying. But with the added insurance costs it was not going to be cheap. Neither was it what I wanted to do, steep cost aside. Driving nearly two hundred miles, perhaps in snow without snow tyres, on American roads was one thing; finding the address I needed in the maze of highways - all identical - quite another. This had the potential to all turn nasty..

Back in the room, hungry now, the sandwich all but gone, I noticed an advert on the plastic room-key for a pizza place..that promised to deliver! Good idea! A meal! Perhaps more water too. Only to find out it was collect only. And I was NOT going to go walking about again, in the dark. So, gave up on the meal. Better hungry than mugged. Slept dressed on top of the unsavoury bed, restless.

Next day Storm IRMA had moved on, and the Texan sun shone bright. Hope returneth. Maybe the buses will run? If not, what to do? Too expensive to cut losses and fly on direct to Trinidad - the ticket price had doubled since I last looked. Equally, it was too expensive to fly up to Dallas. No, it would have to be a hire car - a bit less than a flight.
Distrusting the instruction to turn up at midday at the Bus Station, about 10am I left, pushing the key through the ‘return key here’ hole in the wall, receiving a muffled response from within - and stood waiting for Uber to react. I had considered walking there, but with a monster bag full of stuff I could not afford to lose, thought it prudent not to put temptation in the way of Houston highwaymen. 15 minutes later I was climbing into anther big black truck, manned by a scarily huge driver. Boy, they build ‘em big over here.
No answer.

The buses were running. Triffic! I joined the queue for the ticket desk, confirmed a seat on the 1210 to Dallas, and now… time to eat!
I cannot ever recall being quite so pleased to see a McDonalds as the one that beckoned from across the road. Inside I was the only whitey..and its clientele reminded me very much of the McDonalds in Marin, Martinique which, as well as providing what you might expect, also served as a meeting place and second home, perhaps even primary, for those down on their luck. I was served by a lady with the most enormous false eyelashes - last seen at the height of the 60’s fashion revolution and clearly popular with all the female staff here - who gave my $20 bill extraordinary scrutiny.
‘Oh..this is such OLD money!’ holding it up to the fluorescent light.
My money’s out of date?
‘No no, s’just they don’t make ‘em like this any more. Wish they deeyud!’ Wish I hayad one!’
‘Well you know, I’m sure old McDonald wouldn’t miss just one..’

I took the front seat - best view, more leg-room, empty, why not! Great. The driver, a fluent Spanish speaker so presumably Mexican although he looked Germanic, leant my way and in an aside joked quietly ‘you know, the person who sits in the front seat is responsible for the behavior of the rest!’ The reason why no one had taken this best-seat-on-the-bus became clearer after reading the notice next to me about the elderly, pregnant and infirm’s prioritisation. Perfect! It occurred to me that if I had turned up at midday as advised, I would have missed the bus.
Four times we stopped at Greyhound Stations along the route. After one of these stops, I noticed a backpack, phone and charger had been left in the empty seat opposite. I struggled to recall the occupant…expressionless face, got up like he was in a stupor… Oh well, too late now, we were well on our way again. But nagged by a sense of public duty I leant forward and shouted to the driver, several times, until he got the message.
‘Ok, give me the phone’. And he put it away on his dashboard.
Half an hour later the owner arrived back from the rear of the bus where he’d been doing I know not what, sat down, got up again and began searching for his missing phone. When he reached the inverted state I gave him a poke. ‘The driver’s got it’.

Coming into the outskirts of Dallas, high rise City blocks now no longer on the horizon, the girl sitting behind leant over to ask if i was writing a book, as I had been busy catching up on diary most of the journey. She too likes to write, she confided, ’though i’m not good at spelling so don’t do it that much’. We only had about ten minutes left, but chatted away for most of it, encouraging her to be brave and keep up the writing. Can’t imagine that happening on a bus to London.

Jay, the Iranian company driver sent to collect me, appeared promptly at the bus station. On the way out of Dallas he pointed to a spot in the road ahead.
‘Thats where Kennedy got shot. Right there!’..stabbing a finger. ' There’s a plaque. And up there…’ pointing at the top of a six-story building on our right overlooking the scene, ‘that’s where the killer was.’
My destination was actually quite a long way from the centre of Dallas, although it doesn’t look much on a map. ‘One hour’ Jay said; ‘if the traffic’s ok’. The traffic wasn’t, it was very very heavy, ten lane highways just solid slow glinting rivers of metal for as far as the eye can see. Then Jay took a toll lane that was just another couple of lanes in amongst all the others, but blocked off. This saved us ages. Probably at least another hour. Hardly anyone else was using these lanes in the middle of the highway.
‘Why doesn’t everyone use it? I asked.
‘Aw, they don’t know about it’.
Jay talked about Iran, with passion. When he left Iran, the Shah was still in charge. ‘The country was great then. The Shah, he was a great man. Now? Now its chaos. The people, they all hate the leaders. There will be big trouble. No one is happy now.’

It was Wednesday 17 January. It had taken four days to get here.


Monday 22 Jan 2018 DALLAS TO PORT OF SPAIN

After six happy days in a Dallas suburb cadging off my friends it was time to move on. Simon drove me in his 4x4 tank to super modern Dallas airport, and soon enough I’m queueing for Trinidad Immigration at Piarco airport, near Port of Spain. And its late, about 11pm, the seemingly endless queue extending up a corridor, and the cheapy hire car desk I’ve booked with due to shut at midnight. I ring them to assure them I’m here. But then after half an hour of near stationary, we are moving, and through before midnight. I guess the Immigration Officers want to go home..

23 Jan - 22 Mar 2018

Principal task to be completed here in the excellent Powerboats boatyard in Chaguaramas, Trinidad, is to fix the leak. Do that, and all will be deemed a success even if Pinball is not relaunched.
8 months ago, on my very last day, I had met and contracted Rawle to repaint Pinball’s tatty green sides, and the horrid job of scraping off years of anti-fouling from the hull below the waterline. On arrival back the scraping had been done, and sides prepared, but no green paint. The following day I became Rawle’s assistant, either ensuring he had the air hose unhindered, or topping up his spray gun. 3 coats later, and Pinball was looking good.
It takes me a fair while to adjust to the tropical heat; 3 weeks maybe. It took 2 weeks just to find the energy to fix up the fold-up bike with new cables so it had brakes again, and some gears.
Week 3 I changed the 5kg gas bottle for a full one, only to find it empty again the very next morning. This is serious. A gas leak of propane on a boat is dangerous, as being heavier than air it fills the bilges and can become an explosive mix given a spark. I have an on board gas ‘sniffer’ that can sense gas and gives a shrill warning, but no warnings were given anywhere. Later I found the gas pipe had been bent and fractured close to the bottle, so would have drained out through the compartment’s drain hole. Lucky..
Time to get the so far unused gas Magma BBQ out, something most boats carried to BBQ the fish they’d caught, but as I had caught precisely none at all…
Erected that in the cockpit, and quickly learned to cook on one burner. Easy! Heat the veg to boiling point, take them off with lid on, fry the meat/spuds whatever, veg carries on cooking. Bingo. I quickly came to like this game, as the BBQ was so much better a flame than that produced on the gimballed 2 burner, grill and oven in the cabin. I put this down to the copper gas pipe having been flattened where it fractured perhaps, restricting flow. So hopefully, once repaired, a better flow would return?
It took months before I gave up looking for someone to fix it, and did it myself. The turning point was finding a nice little pipe cutting tool, so now I could proceed. Peakes had lots of gas fittings, and with ideas of improving the system with twin feeds each with taps, bought a load of bits. But they weren’t right, didn't work together, and so took them all back in the end and just mended the pipe using the original end-piece, and now shorter pipe. Peakes is a huge boatyard I’d left Pinball at on first coming to Trinidad in 2012, but found it a rather lonely and impersonal yard as most boats were just being stored there, and twice the size or greater than Pinball. But it has its own chandlers, well kitted out, and tends to keep the more obscure boaty things that the Budget Marine chain store down the road didn’t. Like pipe cutters, and gas fittings .

But that wasn’t what I was there for.
It wasn’t until week 3 that I actually got off my backside and cycled round to Mark’s Dynamite business - specializing in hull repairs and odd jobs. Mark had overseen the hull/keel joint repair back in 2016 and done a good job. Trinidad born, he too had once been an airline pilot.
To prove the location of this leak - suspected to be somewhere in the stern tube (surrounds the propellor shaft) - the rear of the boat had to be flooded. To do that a template was needed to block off the rest of the boat from the flooding, so made one out of plywood and duly filled the stern area with water. Outside water dripped steadily from the end of the stern tube, proving the leak. When the dripping ceased, that was where the leak was on the stern tube.
But just getting at the stern tube was difficult. The hot water tank had to come out, and floor holding it. My job. But I could not remove the stern tube itself, a two man job.
The two lads from Dynamite had it out in a day. It was fractured 75% at the point under suspicion, but just to know the cause of the leak was a big relief.
The fix was to manufacture a new bronze piece to replace the fractured part, and weld it to the tube. This took a couple of weeks. Then, when in the lathe to cut a new thread, the other end cracked and also had to be welded.
It is now all back together, and float tested. Pinball is dry again!


Its a sunny day. Abes is out there somewhere, starting his airline flights down to Trinidad via Miami from St Louis - to where he had just delivered his Falcon 50 executive jet to its new owners, flying from Oxford, via Gander, Bangar, and Washington Pensilvania. The Miami to Port of Spain airline flight was delayed several hours I found out by text later, but I had already left the boatyard in the Econocar rent-a-wreck by 1pm, planning on the original arrival time at Piarco International of 2130. Never mind. Time to shop for clothes at The Mall - a smart American style air conditioned collection of shops and fast food places all under one roof. ETA was now 2330.
There is one multi lane highway in North Trinidad, running East coast to West, past Piarco the airport and then right through bustling Port of Spain the capitol. Liberally endowed with traffic lights at every junction, it quickly becomes a car park at rush hours, but driving up that evening was uneventful. Except I missed the turning.
Now I’ve done this trip lots of times, admittedly in daylight usually, and was fully aware of the lack of signs to Piarco. At 7km to go there’s one warning you, and then just one small one at the actual turn off. Never saw it in the dark, and I was LOOKING.
So, miles later, U turned, another sign giving a distance to turn, noted, added it to present mileage, and turned off at the correct distance as once again there was NO SIGN visible. Thats Triniland!
Abes emerged an hour after landing at midnight, his usual chirpy self. Good to see him again. He is disappointed that Pinball is still on the hard. Launch day is Monday..

Next day:
To Budget Marine to buy a spare fuel hose and connectors for the dinghy, then on to Econocar to put Abes on the drivers list, finally to Massy Food Hall for a monster food shop, including 50 litres of reverse osmosis drinking water. Loading this is hard work, with my big green bucket being hoisted up on deck using a block on the boom. But Pinball is nearly ready.

Pinball is positioned downwind in the boatyard - great for keeping a good flow of air going through - but hopeless for fitting sails if there is any wind. I had managed an early morning effort to fit the genoa on the forestay ok, but now it was the mainsail’s turn, and went up ok.

Monday, March 26, 2018 LAUNCH DAY

Hot. Preps continue for launch, mainsail up but still no reefing lines as facing downwind and its quite gusty today. Send Abes off to return the car, via Massy’s for biscuits and Peakes for a towel.
Launch time of 1500 comes and goes, no travel-lift, but we are ready. Paid the bill…gulp!
Mike, the Travel-lift man, very nice guy, has a flat tyre on his machine. These tyres are huge..
Eventually the boat lift arrives 2 hours late. Frenchman comes and complains volubly to Mike that he’s first, but he hasn't paid. We go in. All is well! No leaks!
No docks available for us but lively Charlene the Rasta in the Office organises us to stay on the fuel dock overnight. Good girl!
SAILS restaurant next to us for shrimps and sweet pots; Tired. Bed at 9pm