Be Careful What You Wish For
A Touch of Insanity Seals My Fate
I never wanted to be a fireman and save damsels in distress. I never wanted to run away and join the circus. I knew I would never walk on the moon. Most regrettably, I was sure, as much as I wanted to, I would never play center field for the Dodgers. My childhood dreams were muddled and undeveloped.
In my early adulthood, while living in an arctic construction camp, I developed a dream to go sailing. No, not day sailing on lake Winnepookie, but cruising around the world. I even had my boat chosen. It was a boat I could single handle, so that if I wanted to I could go off by myself and spend weeks with nothing but wind and water for company.
Life, to quote John Lennon, happened while I was making other plans. 30 years after my isolated dream state gave me the desire to cruise the world; I wound up here in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. This happens to be a place where there are two marinas, and being south of the hurricane zone, many boats use this as a home port.
Sitting in my favorite chair and reading novels (my only activity sometimes for weeks) I see numerous sail boats come and go, and my dream of being on one of them kept nagging at me. I envied (envy is a deadly sin) the owners and crews of those boats
“The cruisers” as we call them are their own clique. Rarely do they interact with the land lubbers of the Bocas social circles. However, my circumstances here in Bocas made me a babysitter for an old shrimp boat turned cruiser. This boat has a wooden hull, and even us landlubbers know that if you leave a wooden hull alone in tropical waters, well, trouble ensues. I got to know, thru unfortunate circumstances, a couple of people who work on boats. I call them the “save Riptide” committee.
In May Riptide sprung another leak, bilge pumps wore out, and I needed to call on the committee. As fate would have it there was a new guy in town.
This new guy was named Dwight. He showed up, diagnosed and fixed the problem in a couple of days, very ably I must add. Sitting around waiting for glue to dry, we talked. His story about why he was in Bocas was one of woe. The day he sailed in, we had the most intense electrical storm in a year. To us living on land, it was magnificent. However, if you are at anchor, in a boat with a 70’ mast, anything can happen, none of it good. Dwight’s boat had the highest mast in the bay, and sure enough, it attracted a bolt of lightening straight from Zeus’ right arm. It fried everything electrical on board.
Dwight, like all sailors these days, rely upon electronic gadgets. They need radios to stay in contact with other boats at sea. They need another type of radio called a single side band to get weather reports. They need radar to detect those ubiquitous freighters before they cross your path. Most importantly, it seems to me now, they need an autopilot. All of this, and more, were now relegated to relics on Dwight’s 52’ sloop.
While talking to him he told me that he was going to sail the boat back to Key West. He had been cruising the Caribbean for “three years and two months”, which I must have heard him say 50 times during the time I knew him. The little I did know about this man I knew well, because he tended to repeat his stories every time he took a breath. He was in the Canadian navy for 6 years, qualified as a marine engineer. He had owned this boat for close to ten years. It was the greatest boat ever made. Yada yada yada. It must be said here at the outset, it was, even in its crippled condition, a wonderful boat. And I will add without doubt, Dwight knew the boat thoroughly, and knew how to sail her incredibly well.
Now here I was, sitting in my favorite chair, wondering where my next novel would come from, bored to tears with my life. People who move to Bocas hit a wall at two years. If you make it past your second anniversary, you might never leave. I was just past my second year, and starting to dread being here any longer. I needed an out; an adventure, and I did not care much what it was. It just had to take me away from this endless progression of 80-degree weather with 80% humidity and even higher levels of stupidity. Even if the adventure was dangerous, hell life threatening, I did not care. With that rather poor motivating factor, and my unrealized dream of sailing off into the sunset, I uttered the fated words, “need a crew member?” His immediate positive response should have been my first clue.
Preparing to get Underway
My second clue should have been when Dwight told me that due to the absence of anything electronic on board, we would need to steer the boat 24 hours a day. He was certain that we would be at sea without a landfall until Key West for 7 to 10 days. During those days we would be on watch for 3 hours, and off watch for 3 hours. Now having the sailing bug in my mind for 30+ years, I have read most the seagoing adventure stories ever written. I knew one thing. That in the navy, 3 on 3 off was a punishment, a serious punishment. I thought hard about that, could I do it? The alternative, sitting here in Bocas appalled me even more than the thought of going ape at sea.
I soon found out that the boat not only lacked anything that needed to be plugged in, it lacked other essentials, such as diesel, drinking water and of course food. I also found out that Dwight was stone-broke. I am not a wealthy man, and the thought of underwriting this adventure almost diverted my desire to get away from this place.
We talked about maybe finding another crewmember. Dwight had asked around the marina but was met with distant stares and the back of people’s heads. I guess that is why my offer to crew was so readily accepted.
I suggested that we canvas the hostels in town. Those backpacking adventurists that permeate the Bocas experience might just produce a couple of people crazy as me.
I made up a sign to post in the hostels. It was pretty clear that this was not a pleasure cruise. It stated that this was a working trip. It stated that you did not need to know how to sail, you will learn on-the-job. It also stated that you had to be able to enter the USA legally, much more on this later.
We got one taker. A great British kid named Ben. He was in his mid twenties, athletic and bright. He had a wonderful (although British) sense of humor. He was willing and eager to learn to sail. He was up for the adventure, and he had the $250 we requested. He was in the last leg of an around-the-world trip. Therefore this was his last $250, but what the hell. I liked him from the get-go. It meant that instead of 3 on 3 off we would have
2-on-4-off watches. A bit better.
It was time to buy provisions. Ben’s 250 went for diesel. My wallet was depleted with purchases of food and bottled water. Dwight thought we could just use the municipal water, I knew better, and besides, I was paying for it. We hauled out booty to the boat.
Dwight then proceeded to talk nautical to us. He touched things on the boat and said words like halyard, winch, boom, mainsail, jib along with another thousand terms. I knew some of these terms from my reading, and Ben is truly a bright kid, but geesh. It was like trying to learn Slobovian in ten minutes.
The next experience was with the local maritime authorities and immigration. We had to get a “zarpe”. A term I had never heard before, but basically it is a document that names and describes the boat as well as listing all the crewmembers that will be leaving port on-board. Dwight joked that this was to be sure no one was thrown overboard at sea. I had pause days later to wonder if that was really a joke. The process took only a couple of hours. This is Latin America, so that was warp speed. Dwight did not see it that way. He treated the experience as if he was being personally insulted. I sat there and made jokes with the port captain and immigration man, both of whom I have gotten to know in the last two years. No problema, take your time.
This was Wednesday. We had checked a weather site for mariners called Gribb. It told us that Thursday morning we would have very favorable winds off shore and that we would be well on our way. So we spent Wednesday night on-board, ready to leave Thursday Morning.
Captain Bligh’s Ghost Arises
Remember when I said I was crazy, not stupid? You might not believe it anymore. The crew of three sat up Wednesday night shooting the bull. Dwight told us the abbreviated story of his life twelve more times. All about how even though he looked like a cross between a biker and a pirate (he is both) he is really an intellectual with “three patents”. “Just google me” he said. I never have, I now know everything I need to know about him. He kept talking about his my-space page. I consider people with a my-space page to be the equivalent of 50-year-old men who hang their college diplomas in their cubicles at work. I sat quietly, as did Ben, and listened to him rant about how he wanted to die with “adrenalin in my blood”. Oh great, and I am about to go to sea in a crippled sailboat with this guy. I looked ashore and wondered what my fellow expats would think of me if I backed out at this late hour. Stupidly, I decided to stay.
About then I asked the wrong question. “Dwight, why would you sail a crippled boat from a hurricane fee zone into hurricane alley at the start of hurricane season? Why not fly back to Florida, get a job, buy new equipment and come back, fix your boat and sail it home after Hurricane Zulu?”
“Because no one would take care of the cats and the airlines will not take them this time of year because they are Persians….blah blahh blah”.
My response was “Cats? There are cats on board?”
He snapped back, “Yeah, my Wife’s cats” The question was begged so I asked
“So where is the wife” “She left the boat. SHE DIDN’T LEAVE ME, SHE LEFT THE BOAT”.
I left it there.
I didn’t sleep well that night. It bothered me that I was going on this adventure, even though I thought any adventure beat sitting in my favorite chair. I was truly starting to worry about the interpersonal relationship between me, and a man I must now take unquestioned orders from.
Dawn arrived. I was already up. I thought we would motor out of Bahia Almirante and raise sail once we were at sea. Not Dwight. He started ranting about not wanting to look like all these “cruisers who need to motor in and out of ports”. He was a sailor, not some port-to-port marina dweller. Whatever. So we raised the mainsail and had enough wind to get out of the Bahia, it only took an hour.
Outside of the Bahia we got something like 3 knot winds, for a few hours. Dwight kept asking, more and more angrily “where is the damn wind”. I started to feel like I forgot to bring it along or something.
About 6 hours outside of Bocas, just out of sight of land, it stopped. Not a hint of wind. Complete doldrums. “We are supposed to have 10 knot winds out here, where are they” We sat there for 18 hours. 18 hours of rants from our captain.
One of the rules Dwight had made for the trip was that we would only start the engine to charge the batteries, not to make headway. We only had a half tank of diesel. So we bobbed, and bobbed. It was the first time I had ever seen truly blue water. It was beautiful. The flying fish were fun to watch and a couple flew into the boat, which was cool. The stars that night were brilliant. However, by morning the crew of two was a bit exasperated. I have not had a schedule to keep for years now, but Ben had a flight in 10 days from MIA to Heathrow. At this rate we wouldn’t get there for weeks. He had already changed his flight a couple of times and could not afford to pay the penalty to change it again.
“Please captain, can we motor until we find wind?” He gave in and we started motoring, making a headway of two knots. Slow but sure.
You might ask at this time, “how did you know what speed you were making if none of the electronics worked?” On a lark, I had brought along a little $75 hand held GPS. If I had not we would probablyhave drifted to the mid-Atlantic and starved. The GPS turned out to be the only navigation aid we had with us.
After about 6 hours of motoring, Dwight announced that we could not burn up all the diesel in case of emergency. I had looked at some charts before we set sail and I dared to say “Captain, due north of us is an island called San Andres. It belongs to Columbia. It is a tourist and cruiser destination, so I am sure it will have diesel. Lets go there and I’ll buy you some diesel”. He agreed, turned the motor back on and away we crawled. We did finally get some wind, and on Sunday afternoon we made landfall.
Maybe we could have just filled our tanks and gotten out in a few hours, but I was paying the bills now, and I wanted an overnight break. I wanted to use a toilet that was not a moving target and actually flushed. I wanted a break from Bligh.
The immigration man had to take our passports to the airport to stamp them. Both Ben and I were nervous about that, so I asked to go along because I was a tourist and I wanted to see their airport. So, I accompanied the three passports to a beautiful, modern airport. I looked at all the destinations I could leave for. Nothing I had left on board meant anything to me, and I was already a bit tired of life under Bligh. Again, I thought “don’t quit you bozo. You signed on to this friggen adventure, follow through” I hate it when I use positive clap like that to motivate myself, I usually have to pay for it. Payment came sure enough.
The problem now was that since we were legally in Columbia, we needed another zarpe. Only the port captain can issue a zarpe, and it was Sunday. We were dealing with an agent who kept telling us that the port captain would be there soon. He never showed. I suggested to Dwight that we pay a mordida which is a courtesy payment to government officials in Latin America to get them to leave their home and family on a Sunday and come do their job. It appalled Dwight that he would need to pay a “bribe”. I did not push it, like I said, no schedule for me. At the end of Sunday the agent told us that Monday was a holiday and probably the port captain would not come down out of the hills Monday either. Dwight was a bit upset, I took a cab into town and found a hotel and a restaurant.
Monday rolled around. A very big expensive sportfisher came into the harbor. The port captain was there with bells on. He dealt with them first and then issued us our Zarpe.
Dwight went on-board the sportfisher and checked Gribb again. “great news, good winds all the way to the gulfstream”. So we set off with $500 worth of diesel and the promise of favorable seas all the way to Key West.
We were about twelve hours out of San Andres. We were on course thru the Yucatan channel. In maybe another 36 hours we would catch the Gulf Stream and be literally pushed all the way to Key West. It all looked pretty good.
As my watch ended, about sunset, I turned over the helm to Dwight, telling him the course I was on and that “the winds seem to have picked up”. This is standard nautical behavior at the change of a watch, I knew that from reading Hornblower novels.
To follow a course, we had to manipulate a 48 inch wheel to keep a compass heading at whatever Dwight said it should be. Rogue wave and wind gusts would push the boat onto different course seemingly at will. It was a constant battle to keep the boat headed within a five degree range of the desired course. If the wind changed direction, it became physically difficult to stay on course. Only Dwight could trim the sails to account for a change in wind direction. By the way, again, I will compliment him on his seamanship. There were times tho, when battling to stay somewhere near the desired 83 degree course he would yell out, ‘Change course to 82 degrees”. Yeah right, Aye Aye captain 82 degrees. By the way, this wheel had seen better days. One of the spokes was unattached to the wheel, the rest of the spokes were tack welded in place. A giant bolt that kept wiggling loose held on the whole thing. I kept tightening it by hand. It all made me quite nervous. I mean no electronics is one thing, no wheel would be quite another.
So, I hit the rack. I needed my sleep after fighting that wheel. I fell asleep quite easily. Soon, I was rolled over up against the port side of the boat. I was actually pinned against it. It woke me up. I heard screaming and yelling from the deck. No one was calling for me, and as far as I was concerned, I was off watch. When I finally got up to go on deck, I realized that things were quite abnormal. The boat had a 45 degree keel to port. I could barely maneuver my old body from my rack and up the ladder to the deck. When I got there, Dwight was screaming “This is friggen beautiful, this is what it is all about”. The water was over the port scuppers, and we were flying. Again, both the boat and Dwight were incredible. If not, we would have been in serious trouble. We were being slammed by the first named tropical storm of the year, Arthur. A tropical storm has winds of 50 knots and we were being treated to every knot. We were truly moving. Dwight kept the helm until the storm passed. The two of us did whatever he asked, excuse me, whatever he screamed out at us to do. “Douse the jib” he would yell. “Douse the effing thing.”
Neither of us knew what dousing meant. ”Let it out, bring it in? Speak English” yelled Ben.
That night I had a dream of receiving last rites at sea, and I’m not even Catholic.
Anyway, thanks to a great boat and a very able seaman, we survived Arthur. Only problem was we were now somewhere between Jamaica and Cuba, oops.
Cuba and the Elusive Gulf Stream
The plan was to give Cuba a pretty wide berth. Now, we had to beat around the western tip of the island. In order to do so we had to head west again, actually WNW. It meant another 24 hours at least before we could get into the warm embrace of the Gulf Stream.
It took longer than that. The winds were all wrong. We could not get a northerly course after we saw the light at the tip of Cuba, which by the way was pretty close. We were now paralleling the north coast of Cuba, heading for Havana. Dwight is Canadian, Ben English, and either of them could enter Cuba sin problemas. But me, well I would have to convince my government that it wasn’t my fault. Not that it bothered me. We were running low on food, fuel, water, and patience.
But we spent the next day trying to get north so we could catch that damned Gulf Stream. The winds started to cooperate, but alas, no gulf stream. We were not getting any closer to Key West.
We started heading west again, then north, then west, but east did not seem to be a course Dwight either could do or wanted to do. I was beginning to think that he knew this was the last voyage he would be on for some time, and he wanted it to last a bit longer.
As far as we could tell, for some reason the Gulf Stream was eluding us. So finally, Dwight took the initiative, checked the available diesel, and started the engine. He decided that we would head for the Marquesa Islands, which are the last islands in the Florida key chain. They were on the inside of a reef, and he promised that we would have a smooth sail all the way into Key West.
I only saw one problem with that. We were vulnerable in the shipping lanes. Our radar was useless, our radio had a range of maybe a mile, and in Arthur, our radar deflector had been blown away.
Dwight told us that the Coast Guard would probably board us. I hoped so, maybe I could jump ship.
It was my 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. watch, when I noticed a couple of lights off the starboard bow. They got closer. Then I noticed a red light, meaning I was looking at the port side of a ship, crossing our bow. I blew the air horn we used to wake up Dwight. Once, twice, thrice and a fourth time. By the time he got up on deck, I was maybe 300 yards away from an oil tanker and way off course to avoid him. Dwight’s screaming was intolerable. However, again, we survived. It was the end of my watch anyway so I waved him off and hit the rack again. I felt like saying “wake me up when we get to Key West.”
The Last Leg
We were now inside “the reef” heading for the back door of Key West. This is supposedly the smugglers route. We were passing the infamous spot where the infamous Mel Fisher found the infamous Atocha and got rich. Great, all I wanted by this time was off this damned boat.
When I got up for my 8 a.m. watch on Sunday morning, Ben looked like a beer truck had hit his dog. I asked him why the long face. He held out the GPS and showed me we were doing about 2 ½ knots again. “At this speed we won’t get to Key West until Monday. I have to be at MIA 3 hours before my 5 p.m. flight. We are not going to make it” He gave me the heading and went below to console himself. But about then, the wind picked up. We were running under a double reefed main. Dwight came up and said we should let out some Jib. Fine by me. All of a sudden we were making 7 knots and ETA Key West became Sunday afternoon.
We got all the way into Key West without a single Coast guard visit. Dwight had asked me about twenty times if I had any contraband , which of course I did not. I got tired of answering the question and eluded to a package of white powder I bought in Columbia. He had no sense of humor, about that or anything else. This guy didn’t laugh once for 12 days.
About this time Ben and I noticed a bucket floating by. It looked just like a bucket we had lost over board just out of Bocas. I said, “Yup, same bucket. It beat us here” Ben and I looked at each other and simultaneously said “It must have found the gulf stream”. Dwight was not amused. By this time we did not care if he laughed or not, we knew it was a lost cause.
Dwight made an excellent anchoring maneuver. We raised the yellow “Q” flag, meaning we had not “cleared in” yet. We waited for a coast guard or other vessel to approach us, nothing doing. We found out that they do not work on Sunday. Really. We could have snuck in the entire Cuban National Baseball team and no one would have been the wiser.
I wanted to go ashore. I wanted to use a real toilet, and I wanted a cheeseburger. We had to talk Dwight into it. “Don’t tell anyone we haven’t cleared.” Who would I tell?
We went to his old haunt, the Schooner Wharf Bar. He began telling his story to anyone who would listen. Ben and I wolfed down burgers and had some beers. I asked the bartender for “Gulf Stream Ale”, Ben Laughed, Dwight didn’t get it.
After what I knew would be my last night on that boat, we headed into the Key West federal building.
We walked up to the window, there were two immigration officers working. I handed one my US passport, he took a look and said “welcome home”. I gave him a power salute and said “God Bless America Bro.”
The other two were not so lucky.
The same guy that welcomed me back to the bosom of my homeland asked Ben “where is your visa.” Oh oh, I backed up against the wall and watched.
Ben is a very polite young man. His response was “Sir, I have entered America ten times, I have never needed a visa.”
The immigration man said, “well son, that is because you came in on a common carrier. If you arrive on a private vessel, you need a visa.”
Ben’s polite and politically correct reply was “I apologize for my ignorance sir, what can I do?”
The immigration man hemmed and hawed for ten minutes, walked away from the window, came back and said “We have to deport you.”
Ben’s reply was, I have a reservation on the 5 p.m. BA flite out of Miami to Heathrow, if I get there in time I’ll be gone by sunset.”
“Where is your ticket?” said the man in uniform.
“It is an Eticket. If I can go to an internet café I can print it for you.” The important man in his crisp uniform said “You are not leaving this building”.
I told Ben, “What the hell, let them deport you. A free flight and you don’t have to worry about missing your flight” He did not like that idea at all, go figure.
The Graham Nash tune Immigration Man came to my mind “c’mon and let me in, immigration man”
The now probably amused federal employee came back twenty minutes later. ”I have a solution for you. You have to pay a fine of $550 dollars and we will give you a five day visa”.
Ben, now broke, said “I do not have $550 dollars sir”. I gave them both a “don’t look at me” glance and the immigration man went away for another half hour. By now Ben was going to sprain his wrist from looking at his watch. There was no way he could make MIA by 2 p.m.
Finally, Mr. Important returned and said, “Kid, I like you. I am waving the $550 fine.” He stamped his passport and Ben’s face somehow showed relief, gratefulness and confusion all at the same time.
That was the easier experience of the two.
Dwight had been talking to the other guy the whole time. I was listening to his travails along with those of Ben. He had managed to tell his story a dozen times to the same guy. “I was a permanent US resident. My card got stolen in the DR. I have been cruising for 3 years and two months…my card had actually expired anyway…my wife works for the Ft. St. Luci police department. You can check out my My-Space page. I have a job interview in Marathon tomorrow.” He kept repeating himself. The immigration man had his hands folded in front of his chest and was just shaking his head.
He finally interrupted him somewhere in the middle of Dwight’s umpteenth recitation and said “Buddy, you just are not getting in.”
Ben gave me the high sign. We booked. He went to the boat and got our bags, I figured out how to rent a car we could drop off at MIA, and an hour later we were gone. Did we abandon ship? Did we leave our captain in a dire strait? Damn right.
Ben made his flight. I flew out the next morning. I had not showered in ten days and the two people sharing my aisle asked to be moved. Great, I laid down for the flight. Before I did, I looked out at the ocean underneath me and said, “never again.”