Sailing, Golden and Blue… A review of the Dawn Chorus adventure… so far :)

Sailing, Golden and Blue… A review of the Dawn Chorus adventure… so far :)

img_6966It’s hard to believe that one whole year has passed by since Martin and I, together with collie dogs Bonny and Buzz, sailed away from England in pursuit of our dream to live aboard our new yacht, Dawn Chorus, cross the Atlantic and explore the Caribbean and America. Plans seem to be designed to remind us that you cannot always direct the course of life, and just like a boat at the mercy of the weather and the sea, we have been blown in many directions we weren’t expecting, including our recent return home to the UK. I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on our journey, so here’s some of what I’ve been thinking…

Anchored in a picturesque creek, in calm, sunny weather, it would be easy to forget that onimg_3919 the way to it we were hit by squalls of thirty-five knots of wind on the nose, were forced to plough through choppy, seething water (even though we were in the supposedly protected Chesapeake) and endured being soaked to the skin by wave after wave of torrential rain. Before that, on the Delaware, there was a mass attack of killer flies – well, biting flies, actually – that look just like domestic flies but pack a nasty, painful bite and leave an agonizingly itchy lump behind. A few of those still lurked on board on our arrival, always ready to sneak out and nip our ankles. In the evenings mosquitos visited and unless you’re sprayed with a noxious combination of chemicals and oils, they too will dine on your blood and cause an altogether itchier reaction, in me anyway. During the day, unless there’s a cooling breeze, temperatures can hit 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity, so you won’t be doing anything too energetic. So while a photograph shows a truly ‘golden moment’, the picture hides the fact that “living the dream” comes with a price.

The same can be said of the whole Dawn Chorus adventure – I believe we have paid a high price, in so many ways, for the privilege of sailing away from our everyday lives, even though I know how lucky we are to have been able to go. I’ve discovered that there can be a fine line between pursuing a dream and getting caught in a nightmare. Yes, we have had the pleasure of owning a truly beautiful boat, meeting some wonderful people and visiting some spectacular places, but on the other side of the balance, we have had to sell our lovely home in Clifton Wood to buy the boat, I almost lost my lower leg in a terrifying accident in Portugal that has left me disfigured, and my mother died while we were mid Atlantic, which meant it was impossible for me to go to her wake and funeral in Ireland. My relationship has suffered too. Tensions that would dissipate naturally if we were at home were instead magnified on the boat. Martin and I have always had a sparky relationship at the best of times, but in the close confines of a yacht, and so far away from the support of family and friends (and with no referees), the fights can be, and have been, downright nasty.

The marvelous thing about memory is that it can be so selective. Even though I have grievances about certain aspects of the trip, my memories are still largely positive. I can recall the jittery excitement of sailing out of Plymouth with Martin and the two dogs, knowing that we were leaving our familiar, everyday lives behind us indefinitely, and fullsizeoutput_3a4eembarking on an adventure where we would have to rely on our own skills and abilities entirely. The individual places that we stopped off at all down through France, Spain and Portugal have become blurred in my mind, but stand out moments were: watching fireworks in Camaret, France, our first stop across the Channel; having my first tattoo in beautiful La Coruna, Spain, and admiring the lovely city of Lagos, Portugal, from the vantage point of a romantic riverboat cruise. The Atlantic crossing was made so much more bearable and enjoyable by the presence of our crew members Debbie and Stephen. Debs flew from Colorado to join us in the Canaries and brought a host of skills from seamanship to surgery (even on sails!) and she played bass and sang! Stephen had just passed his yachtmaster exam in the UK, and apart from being great company, proved invaluable in helping us set up the poling-out rig for downwind sailing. He was also the hero of the hour when we got a line tangled around one of the rudders, tying himself securely to the boat and then swimming down to free the line. Some of my happiest memories of the trip were when all four of us were patiently crossing that great ocean together and knocking up an inventive shared meal every evening. Arriving to find my daughter, Eve, waiting for us in St Lucia, was the best surprise imaginable.

I’ve been promising an update on the bizarre leg accident in Portugal, so, for those who find it hard to picture what happened, I’ve made a mock-up of my trapped leg, with a backdrop of the actual marina were the accident happened. The boat we got pushed onto is marked by a red arrow, as is the anchor that cut into my leg. The other pictures show the damage – if you’re squeamish, don’t look!


We were reversing our boat out of a tight spot in a busy marina in Lisbon when disaster struck. A strong current pushed Dawn Chorus sideways and, hoping to avert a crash, I sprang into action with a large fender. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized how big the motor yacht was that we were about to get pushed onto, so when I took a large, round fender and tried to wedge it between the boats, it was pushed aside. The anchor at the front of the other boat hit me on the leg, knocking me over, but because I’d been standing just in front of the winch on our own boat, I got pinned between two metal objects with the full force of several tons of Dawn Chorus and a strong current pushing me onto the anchor. It began to cut into my leg. Thankfully, despite my piercing screams, or maybe because of them, Martin kept his wits about him and gave the boat a quick thrust in reverse to release me and then hauled me free. Good job for me it worked first time, because when he tried to help separate the boats afterwards, the throttle handle was broken and hanging limp and useless. A second attempt at freeing me would have been impossible. It took a team of helpers, including some of the crew of a huge Challenge boat nearby, to winch Dawn Chorus off the motorboat, meanwhile I was ferried off to hospital.

Because we were on a fairly tight timetable, and I was probably in shock, we ignored the advice of the hospital doctors who told me that in order to keep the swelling down I had to keep my leg elevated for a few weeks, and instead, sailed on another hundred miles to Lagos the very next day. I soon realized I’d have to rest if I was going to get better so I flew home for a few weeks and rejoined the trip in Las Palmas in the Canaries. My leg has gradually improved and although it is still a little misshapen, I’m very glad to have it!


Looking back over our trip, which took about a year in total, I realise I have accumulated a kaleidoscope of fond memories: the mesmerizing Atlantic crossing and the paper birds we made and launched into the sea to remember our lost ones; parking our boat among the giant cruise ships in lively St John’s in Antigua; the pristine beaches and powerful surf on secluded Barbuda; the carnival atmosphere of St Patrick’s Day in Monserrat; our first glimpse of the iconic buildings of New York city and then sailing under the towering Statue Of Liberty and mooring Dawn Chorus right in the Hudson River, a stone’s throw from Central Park. And what of Martin and I, and the strains and tensions of being together all the time in the confines of a boat? We live to fight another day!


Hold Onto Your Dreams…

Hold Onto Your Dreams…


I must have been about twenty-five or six, living in London and spending most of my waking hours eating, sleeping and dreaming music. My day job as a sales representative gave me the freedom to disappear off the radar (on a sales call – not!) and grab whatever free studio time I could for myself. Nights found me in sweaty rehearsal studios or on stage at venues as diverse as Gossips in Dean St Soho with an enthusiastic crowd, or in a dodgy pub somewhere in South London with no punters, the landlord and his dog. A beautiful friend, Vanessa (now deceased), worked for Virgin Records and she was a great fan and supporter. “Go to New York!”, she’d say – “they’ll love you there!” She gave me contacts, rang them for me and encouraged me in every way possible. But my moods used to swing wildly in those days and I could get set on a very different train so easily… Enter one “boring old hippie”, as his housemate, Victor, a musician friend used to call him.

The first day we met I invited both Gary the Hippie and Victor the Mod Muso along on a surprise summer ‘picnic’ in the country, which was in fact a nudist holiday camp in Kent that my pal Helen, a young journalist, was reviewing. The guys knew nothing until we turned into the gate and encountered some middle-aged tennis players in white trainers and socks – and nothing else. Meltdown! By the end of that golden day of sunshine, snorts of laughter and shy glimpses of naked flesh, I was smitten. Gary was a tall, quiet, gentle musician and painter – penniless, but lovely. A Canadian friend called Ed the Cowboy sent me a message saying, ‘Hey! If you’re planning to go to New York, why don’t you come here? It’s my school reunion…” The heady mix of new love, the long, hot summer and the feeling of freedom to go anywhere and do anything led to me changing my plans entirely. I booked a trip to Canada. I then had a major meltdown and refused to go unless Gary came with me. So, the dream of being ‘found’ as a budding music talent in New York gave way to a chaotic, and wonderful, trip through Calgary, The Rockies and Vancouver with Gary – hitch-hiking, camping, busking, playing small gigs for money, working under assumed names and discovering the incredible kindness of strangers. We got free lifts, free accommodation, were taken in by students in Lake Louise and by a wonderful old lady in the Okanagan Valley. And we played music, music, music – not for success, but for the sheer fun of it. At the time I didn’t give the missed ‘opportunity’ in New York a second thought. My motto, if I had one, was “life gets in the way”.

I came home to the UK, travelled in India for a while and then married Gary and we had a much wanted baby. My moods became even more ‘labile’ or unstable. In one of my darkest hours, I found myself detained in hospital and served with papers for divorce and sole custody of my daughter from my then ex-husband. I got better, fought back and managed to stop proceedings even going to court, but I became terrified that too much excitement or stress could put me in hospital again  or lead to me losing my child. I had already experienced the pain of the loss of my first daughter through adoption when I was a schoolgirl – I couldn’t go through it again. Music settled into a hobby, but always more than a hobby, because some part of me was still that girl, young woman, young mother who had dreams, and who wanted to be the best version of her creative self she could possibly be. Perhaps part of me will always need to sabotage the chance to really succeed. I’ve written and recorded two albums with my good friend and producer Pete Ardron in London, and a third co-written with Simon Ferrigno and the wonderful Rainbow Nation, but none of those albums ever got the push they deserved. After each album I suddenly felt the urge to disappear to another continent – Canada, India and Australia – so far!!! Recently I started recording again, but managed to leave things so late I didn’t have time to even print a few CDs before I left on the latest sailing trip, across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. I’ve switched some of my focus to writing  in recent years – two novels published so far – and I wrote and produced a play, Moodswings. But singing is like breathing to me, and when I get a chance to shine, I still desperately want to, even if I’m crippled with nerves and self doubt, or worries about being too old or not good enough. I’ll sing anywhere – a bar, a boat, a street corner, a shop window (!)  Wherever, whenever – still I sing.

Last night, thirty years after my original plan to sing in New York, I sang in New York! It was only an open-mic – but what an open-mic! Ashford and Simpson’s Sugar Bar in the Upper West Side was absolutely buzzing. Valerie Simpson sang super cool harmonies from the floor and the host for the evening was Chaz Lemar Shepard, a fantastic singer and and actor. The level of the performers was way, way higher than anything I’ve ever heard anywhere else. The band could have been my dream band, with stunning guitar, drums, keyboards and bass – they were on fire. There was a moment when I wanted to just slip out with my guitar before my name was called and disappear into the night. But I didn’t.IMG_3708 I knew I wasn’t going to set the place on fire with a self-penned folk song no-one knew, including the musicians, but I wanted to do my best. I could have copped out and sang a well known classic, but that wasn’t the dream… Later, when several members of the band came to talk to me and say how much they enjoyed my song (one of them has co-written with Gary Barlow), it dawned on me that sometimes, to make your dreams come true, even if it’s only a baby part of your dream, you just have to have a little faith – and do it.


“New York, New York…!”

“New York, New York…!”

Around five years ago Martin and I flew into New York for the first leg of a USA holiday

Timeless old schooner – but what are those buildings in the background???

taking in the Big Apple, Grand Canyon, San Francisco and a long stretch of the Ocean Highway in an open top car (oh, the rows about whether we could close the top and use air conditioning when it got over 100 degrees!!!) Unknown to us, friends of Martin’s had just sailed into the Hudson River, New York and we ended up joining them aboard their boat for a drink, just a short walk from our hotel on the Upper West Side. The seed was sown…

IMG_3506Today, at 1.30pm local time, having sailed under the enormous Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which joins Staten Island to Manhattan, then right up close to the iconic Statue of Liberty and past the towering skyscrapers that define New York (including the new One World Trade Centre – to be visited asap), we turned Dawn Chorus’s nose into the West 79th St Basin, right where we’d met Martin’s friends all those years ago. After a celebratory cold beer aboard, we took Buzz for a walk in nearby Riverside Park – tomorrow, it will be Grand Central Park,

Failed selfie!!!

just another few blocks further. Tonight, we’ll be stepping out to celebrate some more, and no doubt discovering once again that New York bartenders take no prisoners! It’s so exciting to know we got here under our own steam and that all the wonderful sights and attractions of this teeming city are just a stone’s throw away. Yeah!!!




The Adventure Continues…

So, I’m hiding in a toilet in the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City because there’s a torrential rain and thunder storm outside matched only by Martin’s dark mood. I’ve toyed with the idea of asking for a room here rather than face the music – and the wet boat ( I left all the hatches open in my rush to get ashore and listen to some reggae). The evening started so well with a visit to the boat from friendly locals George and Jennifer- we’re anchored out in the bay and went ashore earlier to explore the famous boardwalk and have a swim. Oh well, here I go… 😳

Songs and Stories in Dublin

Songs and Stories in Dublin

“Home is where the heart is” so we’re told – and so I’ve come to believe…

My grandparents on my mother’s side, Limerick

During the best part of the last year I’ve roamed the seas and oceans in a sailing boat with my husband and dogs. Home has been a Southerly 42 and the companionship of the man I love and my pets. But I pined for my friends and family elsewhere and missed my daughter and pals in Bristol. After the loss of my mother in Ireland, and the finding of my adopted daughter, I felt a powerful longing to be in the place I’ve thought of as ‘home’ since I was a child – Ireland. My two eldest brothers were born in Limerick, where my parents and grandparents hailed from, but as a result of my father’s move to Birmingham shortly after the boys birth, my mother followed, and I was born there instead. As I grew and made frequent journeys with my family back to Ireland, I began to understand the meaning of kinship or ‘clan’. In England, we had few relatives to speak of, but in Ireland, we were part of a whole mob of children and adults that we belonged to. When we returned to our English home, I felt sad and estranged. Maybe some of my childhood identification with aliens, or native americans, stemmed from that feeling of being disconnected from the people and place where you truly feel at ‘home’.


IMG_6364Here in Ireland at last, along with my intrepid travelling collie dog Bonny, (who is on a mission to be the most hugged dog in the world) I have spent time with old friends, made some new ones, and shared my love of writing and singing with friends and strangers alike. Going ‘back to the Green’ refreshes parts of me that other places just can’t reach! Soon I’ll be in Limerick again to celebrate my cousin’s 25th wedding anniversary, surrounded by a whole clan of Kellys, including daughters Eve and Jo and my big brother Chris. Just the thought makes me smile…

After a relaxing (and marathon talking) few days with my aunt and cousins in Killarney, I made my way to Dublin where my lovely daughter, Eve joined me for a fantastic night out at the 3Arena to see the cast of Nashville in concert (sold out back in the UK). IMG_2321We made a dash to see wonderful Jo and family before Eve had to get back to work in Bristol and I had to (literally) put on my singing hat and head for the Winding Stair, one of the oldest surviving independent bookshops in Dublin. (I had to laugh when Eve sent a message saying her taxi driver to the airport told her she’d surely have ‘no trouble bagging a man’!)

Tuesday the 21st of June fell just after the summer solstice and definitely had a festive and celebratory air. What a glorious time and place to launch Laura’s List, my novel that casts Ireland, home and family in just as important a role as any of the main characters in the book.

Dusty the hat-eater!

The launch party was great fun: I sang songs of my own that introduced some of the themes in the novel and met with friends, family and many visitors from all over the world; we drank, we laughed, exchanged stories; I forgot to take email addresses and almost forgot to do a reading from the novel – but sold quite a few books! A spontaneous set of songs by Eamon while I signed copies of the book added even more enjoyment to the evening, as did the drinks and pizzas afterwards. (Next day back at Jo’s house, we discovered family pooch Dusty had made  a fair attempt at eating that singing hat!)

So, now that I’ve spent some time back in my house in Bristol, enjoyed the company of my daughter and friends and have made several trips to Ireland – to visit my mother’s grave, to spend quality time with Jo and family  and to launch my book – I’m beginning to

“The Adventure Continues…”

pine quite strongly for the other place I call home: Martin, my husband. Our 8th wedding anniversary on May 31st was the first one we’ve ever spent apart, but thanks to the joys of the internet we managed to send gifts and Skype a celebratory toast to one another. While I have been following my troubled heart on its journey to some semblance of peace, Martin has been sailing on – from the Caribbean to Bermuda and now in mainland America. In a few short weeks I will rejoin him in Washington to fulfil a strong ambition to sail into New York, in our own boat. Wish us luck…

I like to believe we never stop learning, or that we should certainly try our best not to. In a few days I’ll be hosting my first ‘homestay’ students, Marta and Elena from Spain and helping them to improve their English following my TEFL qualification last year. It’s an extension of all the teaching I’ve done over the years, but still a different challenge from what has passed before, and a new experience for me.

It’s taken me a long, long time, but I’ve recently realised an important truth about myself, which I think is summed up very neatly in this little poem that popped into my head recently:

“How absurd to discover, under the cover of my gadabout wings

Beats the heart of a homing bird.”  DM Kelly

Winding Stair Flyer landscape

A Pink Polka-Dot Adventure!

I’ve been wanting to share this story about a huge, pink polka-dot suitcase, a crab, some dog food and a kitten for quite a while, but at the time it was actually happening, it was important that my movements were kept secret…

IMG_7445It all began when I was still aboard Dawn Chorus in the Caribbean. I knew I needed to take a break from sailing so that I could travel home to Ireland to see my mother’s grave and say goodbye properly, but then it dawned on me that I would also be back in time for my daughter, Jo’s birthday in Dublin. If I managed to spend it with her, it would be the first birthday we’d spent together since she was born. I started planning the surprise visit with the help of her husband, Paul, and decided to keep a low profile on social media in case I let anything slip. Later, I learned my absence from Facebook had nearly alerted her that something was going on!

Martin and I arrived back in Antigua from an amazing visit to Monserrat for St Patrick’s day in plenty of time for me to organise a flight home for my lovely dog Bonny and go looking for a suitcase for myself. St John’s in Antigua is a bustling, colourful town with a mish-mash of trendy shops catering for cruise ship passengers and higgledy-piggledy streets crammed with local shops that often sold clothes at the front and something entirely different like pots and pans or stationery at the back. Finding a big, inexpensive suitcase proved difficult. Then, I saw it. Eye wateringly Barbie pink, hordes of teeny tiny IMG_0494dots, and to crown it all, a big satin bow. Perfect! After nearly eight months of living aboard a boat and years of using sensible sailing bags that are waterproof and fold flat, I was ready for something impractical and silly. I’d picked up a big bag of dried dog food for Bonny the same day so I popped them inside my cute new case and drove back to the marina in the hire car. When I wheeled it back to the boat Martin said he’d just prepared dinner, so we left the case on the dock, meaning to bring it aboard later. The next morning I realised we’d forgotten the case, but when I went out to fetch it, it had vanished. At first, I thought someone had made off with it, but after a while, I recalled a strange noise I’d heard the night before. Had the case fallen in??? If so, would it have sunk, or floated? I was eating a piece of bread and suddenly had an idea – why not throw it in the water to see where it would go? As it drifted on the current in the direction of the far side of the marina, I fetched a pair of binoculars, and – there it was! A splash of pink, bobbing under a wooden jetty. Amazed I’d spotted it, I dashed round there and tried to fish it out, but it was partly open and had become waterlogged and extremely heavy. I borrowed a boat hook from a nearby boat (nobody to ask) and it snapped! Mortified I went and fetched a replacement from our boat (which I left with a note later for the owner of the broken one) and managed to fish the case out and drain the worst of the water away while trying not to let too many soggy dog biscuits escape. Back at our boat I started to clean out the case. As I emptied away the last of the water and soggy dog biscuits I came across an extremely annoyed crab, waving his claw at me as he defended his stash of free food. I popped him in a takeout container (with holes in the lid) along with a big helping of dog food and took him back round to where I’d found him.

Peeping out at me from a little service hut beside where I released the crab was a tiny, black kitten. It looked much too young to be out there alone, but when I tried to come close it quickly hid beneath some pipes. The suitcase survived a thorough wash and looked relatively unscathed, but I kept worrying about the kitten. I was leaving soon so I couldn’t take care of it myself, and Martin would be moving on soon. Finally, I went and found the family renting the property near the little hut and asked them to keep an eye out for the kitten and do their best to offer it some food and milk or water, which they agreed to do. Did it survive? I’ll never know. Travelling home with many mixed feelings, some very happy and some very sad, I was glad of my pink, polka-dot suitcase, like a big, wheel-along smile. And for once, finding my case on a busy airport carousel was a breeze! (Unlike getting it upstairs at my friend, Vicki’s place, when I arrived in London – good job she had a stair lift 🙂



Your toothless smile, round eye’d wonder, bright new world,

Your tender wisps of hair, tiny fist of perfect fingers, unfurled;

Your crab-like gait, dizzy crawl towards freedom,

Your drunken swagger tip-toe, first steps, uneven;

Your brave shoulders squared, new school bag, day one,

Your red bottom lip trembling, bid sad farewell to Mum;

Your delicate skin erupting, hormones a-go-go,

Your battle for independence, shrieking, ‘I won’t! No! No!’

Your proud chin forward, face determined, set to future,

Your shrug, you leave, hearth and home no longer suits you;

Your love-lit face, he’s the one, tender illuminated eyes,

Your body embracing motherhood, recapture family ties;

All these moments mark the passage of your time,

From sweet babe in arms to woman, but none of them mine.

Dawn Maria Kelly