Chapter 1 – Coming Full Circle in Panama
When I had set my feet on land, I was immediately swaying back and forth in time with an earthen sea that no longer required my body to adapt. In a boat’s cabin, when underway, the dizzy factor is all in the mind. The head rights itself as the boat rocks and rolls, so stationary eyes have to deal with a physical world that appears to be moving all the time. Muscles in your legs and abdomen that you rarely use are suddenly called upon, and it can shock your body into sickness or fatigue. Once on land again, it takes a few days for your sea legs to be reminded of the static nature of continents.
From Bocas Town, docks jutted out, their length partially obscured by palm fronds. They led to a center whose demographic hinted at the substantial collection of European and North American expatriates living nearby. There were more white people than Panamanians, and more even than the local indigenous. There were flip-flops, hats, sunglasses and bikes. Short shorts and capering legs. Sleeveless shirts and bleached-blond hair. Tourist bars announcing deals on chalk boards, miscellaneous shops selling floor fans and flags, tour agencies with pictures of white sand beaches plastered to their windows, etc, etc, etc. It was a scene I’d seen before, in every tropical town whose self awareness is defined by tourism. It’s for your adventure, and for your eyes to eat the candy of these latitudes; turquoise breakers, scorching finite runways of grains to lay over and tan, palms bearing and dipping their fruit, bars with others looking for the same thing and getting drunk and having sex and talking about doing places; and have you done Costa Rica, have you done it? I’ve done it.
A cynical tone to be sure, because surely all travelers should at least flavor their fun with the spice of culture, and bushwhack away from the tourist trail to learn something they might not learn with a guidebook in hand held as a Christian holds a Bible. Bushwhack not to cut-off indigenous settlements that only exist because there are tours to them, no; it is to the regular people in places not frequented by foreigners where you must bushwhack. Authenticity is shy in the face of too much exposure and expectation, so break away, and you’ll see.
We had entered a marina called the Careening Cay, and Worth had guided 37′ Satori to snuggle up in between two large steel motoring yachts. One of these was a converted New York trawler whose deck was cluttered with the gatherings of life, from grinders and finishing poles frozen in rust, to a picnic table of weathered wood sitting alone atop the cabin house.
At the marina I posted a ‘crew available’ slip on the billboard. I took a hot shower, using my shirts as washcloths to clean them, and wringing them out. By the time the water reached my feet it had been stained brown.
We were on the island opposite Bocas Town. Beside the marina, owned and operated by an American expat, a thin dirt and mud trail circled the island among trash awash in the sands, twisting around unordered lanes of wooden houses supported on slowly sinking pilings. The painfully observable status quo would continually greet me as I reacquainted myself with Central America: the rich and poor. And only men of great misplaced integrity can pass off as reality the simple truth of the moment: the rich in their large expensive yachts and the poor in their dangerous dengue-prone and teetering shacks.
In the evenings at 5pm, happy hour was announced and cruisers gathered in the common area, which consisted of an open-air roof built over the extended portion of the dock. It was mostly Americans, Canadians and Australians. They brought beer for themselves, and although I did not ask to be gifted a beer, I chuckled, knowing that were the same scenario transposed in most Latino cultures, I would be offered without mercy until I accepted. I suppose Latin American culture had made me expectant of such hospitality, which is uncommon amongst most gatherings of Anglosaxons.
Under flourescent lights the Anglosaxon features were exaggerated. There was a New York man, gruff as hell and tattooed for life, with slit and puffy eyes, a butch cut and thick New Yawwwrk accent. He was the captain of the Twilight trawler. He praised Jack Iron rum from Granada and said to stay away from the French stuff: “It’s spelled ‘rum’… if you see ‘rhum’ with an ‘h’, run like hell cause it’s rubbing alcohol.” There were also the Alaskans, and Alaskans can be strange people. “Alaskan good,” the older lady had said to describe the quality of commercial fishing electronics. She and her husband were both hard-headed, and their duels were very public spectacles in which one would correct the other and vice-versa until they had both laid bare their pedantic eccentricities. An Australian cruiser, whose body had seen sun and work, spoke about the Pacific Crossing when I had mentioned something. I nodded, watching the flabby skin beneath his chin swinging from side to side.
For the permeability of its international borders, and for the breadth of territory covered by just two languages, Latin America is for the linguistic traveler ideal. Nowhere else in the world can so much diverse land be covered so easily by an American traveler. Nowhere else are there so many geographical lines rendered traversable by only a quick stamp and not so much bureaucracy. Nowhere else are cultures in such close proximity which are so diverse and yet which share the same language. So it is with not undue consideration that I decide now to say to Latin America ‘fare thee well!’ I will leave it not from a tarmac, with the green collage of its body to see me off as I disappear into clouds, but instead I will wave to its shores from the tip of a seafaring vessel’s wake.
If the reader is not familiar with the Pacific Ocean, then I will tell you what it is. It is the great blue swathe of color on your spinning globe. When as a child you spin the globe and stop it with your finger to see where you will live in the future, you often spin again since living in the middle of the ocean is not ideal, and that’s where your finger landed. It’s not interesting there. There’s nothing but water. Two thirds of the globe is the Pacific, and the third third has more to offer. So you huff and puff and feel frustration when after a second spin you land your finger once more in the Pacific. Eventually after a few more spins you are contented with a future in India or Rhodesia (it’s an outdated globe).
Did you ever look closer at your childhood globe to see the myriad collection of tiny dots that swarm the South Pacific? I remember vaguely learning that the region is teeming with atolls and islets and islands. In college I learned about the oceans and the submerged Mid-Atlantic Ridge, about subduction zones of tectonic plates and hotspots like Hawaii’i, about the importance of reefs and the vast watery desert that is most of the ocean. In that oceanography course I read up on wave action and tsunamis, about the formation of cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons, learning that they’re the same phenomenon named differently for their geographical locations. Nothing that I learned enticed me to cross an ocean. But here I am. I am in Panama. And I intend to cross an ocean.
Cruisers call it the Puddle Jump. It is an apt title for anyone challenged by the concept of gauging a body of water’s volume, but we’ll accept its irony for now. “Pacific” means calm, or peaceful, and though it is the world’s greatest ocean, its name reveals its true character. While the task of crossing oceans like the North Atlantic or the Southern Indian can tax a sailor until his bones shake from exhaustion, sailing the Pacific allows cruisers to enjoy calm seas of large swells that arrive in steady drawn-out periods, and the occasional squall is just to keep them on their toes.
Some sailboats leave in early to mid February from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. From there there is even a rally called, unabashedly, the “Puddle Jump”. But the majority of sailboats that make the jump embark from the thin isthmus of Panama. They gather from mid February and begin funneling through the Panama Canal, their numbers finally trickling to near nil at the tail end of May.
Though there are several trajectories to choose from when crossing the Pacific, the most popular is the Milk Run, which sees sailboats dipping down to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands and then onward via the easterly prevailing trade winds to French Polynesia’s Tahiti, then to the Cook Islands, to Tonga, and onward still to others before arriving to the substantial landmass of Fiji.
So here I was, stuck in Bocas del Toro, waiting for a sailboat that would bring me to the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, to a marina called Shelter Bay, just opposite a notorious and infamous city called Colon. It is in Colon that the first locks of the Panama Canal begin.
“Jimmy Carter!” the man cried, and vigorously shook Worth’s hand.
Worth allowed a wide grin, which drew yet more cheer from his fan.
“Parece a Jimmy Carter de verdad… pero…. mierda, es Jimmy Carter!”
“Yes, I guess he does look like Jimmy Carter,” I said to the man in Spanish.
“Sabes que Jimmy Carter aqui es muy popular. La gente ama a Jimmy Carter.”
“What’s he saying?” asked Worth.
“He says they love Jimmy Carter here in Panama.”
“100 anos, te digo. Los gringos estuvieron aqui durante 100 anos. Como dicen los mexicanos…carajo!.”
“He says the Americans were here for 100 years.” I turned to the man, who had our passports in his hand. “All’s well with the stamps?” I asked again in Spanish.
“Todo bien, aqui tienen.” He handed us the passports. “No te van a molestar a la frontera, ya lo corregi… el huevon marco mal el sello pero ya esta areglado.”
“Gracias,” I said.
“Fixed?” Worth turned his blue gaze to me.
“Carajo!” exclaimed the immigration official once more. We started and looked at him. “Jimmy Carter. Mira, saben lo que hizo Jimmy Carter?”
“No,” I said. “What did Jimmy Carter do?” The man went off on a lecture of the country’s recent history, and I translated for Worth.
“What’s he saying?” Worth squinted at the man.
“He says Jimmy Carter was the one that signed the Panama Canal over to Panama. In 1999 the last US troops left after 100 years of occupation. He says now they’re expanding the canal, and it’s costing 15 billion dollars. I guess he really likes you, Worth.”
One last adamant handshake took place between the two before we turned to leave.
“Well,” said Worth. “I might not speak Spanish, and they might charge me 400 dollars to get into the country, but at least I have one thing going for me.”
Worth let me stay on the boat while I spieled through his VHF every morning. I washed down Satori’s deck, the doing of which finally made me feel useful to the skipper, but when I finally heard the advice I wanted to hear from another boater, I decided it was time to hit the road. Worth treated me, and himself as well, to a Crab Shack meal of gnocchi, caesar salad and an ice cream sundae.
“Here’s a typical Panamanian dish,” I said. “Thanks. It was a good meal to begin the road with, cause from now on it may well be bread and cheap fixin’s.”
Worth leaned back in the flared crown wicker chair and peered out over the water to a far set of breakers. “I’m just thinking,” he said.
Back at the dinghy dock we embraced before I boarded the small motorboat to leave. It took me across the water to Bocas Town, and my bad eyes made Worth into a small pixelated fixture waving in the distance. I felt sad. I should have convinced him to continue on to Asia.
I found the 4pm car ferry leaving from the concrete mooring dock and paid my dollar fifty. The only uniquely Panamanian coin is called the “Martinelli” after the president that introduced the coin. The use of his name is slander; the people didn’t want the coin, because they were happy with American dollars as they were.
I opted for the slow 2 hour ferry over the 30 minute, 5 dollar speedboat. Pressure and speed are catalysts for stress, which doesn’t exist except as an offshoot of the ego. But I am no monk, so I take the slow road just in case.
“In the late 19th century, the United Fruit Company began its operations harvesting bananas in Bocas del Toro. Their headquarters is that wooden hotel across from the Port Captain’s office. You see Antonio Banderas?”
“Antonio Banderas? If I saw him? I didn’t see him,” I said.
“Well he was in town, aint that right Dave?”
“That’s right eh. Benicio del–”
“–Ah yeah Benicio del Toro is also in town,” said Bob. “Some French film crew is making a movie about a French guy who fell in love with a girl here who turned out to be the niece of Pablo Escobar.”
“I bet it will be an action film,” I offered.
“You bet your ass it will be.” Bob inhaled through his aquiline nose. He had wisps of silver hair that fell astride his cone-shaped head, and a pair of thick glasses magnified his otherwise small puppet eyes. He looked a little like a rabbit, and though at first I thought he had dentures, they were his real teeth after all. “What, you got an itch there?” He noticed me scratching at my feet.
“Oh, damn bugs made my feet look like small pox,” I said.
“Chitras,” said Dave.
“It’s actually pronounced chitre,” Bob said, butchering the ‘re’ with a thick American accent. “Canadians! Ain’t good for anything!” Dave shrugged.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Me? I’m from Minneapolis. California too. But I live here in Bocas now. What are you doin’ on this ferry? You know there’s a speed boat?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “It’s late, I meant to hitch a ride to David. I already asked all the Panamanians.”
“Hell we’ll take you if you chip in for gas,” said Bob. “We’re headed to David. You know it’s 4 hours drive?”
“Well, you gotta give me a good deal cause I’m a cheap traveler,” I said.
I agreed half-heartedly, and then sat back, glad to have secured a ride for such a distance. Bob went on.
“This here ferry boat they brought over from the Black Sea. You seen the writing around here? It’s all in Russian. That’s right. This is the Hungarian ambassador to Panama’s boat. It’s his business here. Probably makes a pretty penny too.”
“How long have you been in Bocas?”
“6 years now. Great place, great people, great community. We keep up on the expat news with Facebook. Useful thing that is let me tell you. That’s how I found out about Banderas and del Toro. Funny, Benicio del Toro in Bocas del Toro. Also found out about Jimmy Buffet that way. Yep, he sends his big sailboat down here with his crew, then flies his seaplane in and hangs out in the archipelago for a week. Oh, look there!”
Bob leaned forward in his chair, his eyes bulging. We were on the second deck of the ferry, overlooking the cars below. I had one leg dangled over my pack, and my hand was flopped over by the wrist on the curved handle of my umbrella. I turned my eyes to look towards Bob’s sudden pointed finger.
“That there, you see?”
“Wild Bill,” said Dave in an accent I assumed was native to his Calgary home.
“That’s right, I was gonna say that,” Bob added quickly. “Wild Bill. Butchered 5 people over there, other side of that spit of land there.”
“Serial killer. Happened here about, oh, I’d say 2 years back. American guy. Serial killers are always American or Austrian or something. Austrian more if they rape and kill I suppose. Wild Bill he just saw a piece of property he wanted, and straight butchered the family, and told everyone they had given the land to him. Eventually folks got wise and after another pair of property owners disappeared and Bill emerged shareholder in it, there was an investigation.”
Bob hesitated. “What happened then?” I urged.
“Old Wild Bill made it bout as far as Nicaragua, hijacked a charter boat, but there were gun boats waiting for him. He’s in prison in Panama City.”
“They really are always American, serial killers.”
“Yes sir. Not even in the Noriega times were there Panamanian killers. Just rough-as-hell soldiers.”
Dave butted in, “mean guys, Noriega’s men.”
“Dave was here during the ’89 American invasion to oust Noriega.”
“Is that right?” I had turned to Dave.
“That is right, yes. I was in the Canal Zone. You been?”
“A few years ago,” I said.
“Really different from the rest of Panama eh?”
2 hours were soon gone, and I was in the back of the small jeep. We drove out behind trucks into the industrial town of Almirante. It had a rough face on for us, and we drove silently through.
“Better be glad you didn’t get stuck here,” said Bob. “Nothing here but crime. Like Colon.”
We had come in alongside the dredging machines that kept the port useful for oceangoing container ships. The dockyard was stacked high with white containers stamped boldly by that universally recognizable blue oval and yellow Chiquita Banana lady.
“Something strikes me,” I said. We were up and out of the town now, winding along jungle flanked roads.
“There’s so much money here, with the banana industry and with the canal. How many people live in Panama?” I asked.
“3 million people.”
“So much for trickle down,” I concluded.
“Oh that shit is phony. Look at these people, these indigenous people in their wooden stilt houses. The Panamanians look down their noses at these indians.”
After following the Caribbean coast for a few dozen miles, the road climbed into compact mountains. It was dark. At the apex both oceans would be visible in day, but night had already spread its veil over the land. Dave and Bob ate sandwiches and offered me a half. They spoke of some costly meal they had eaten two days previous in Bocas Town. “That’s so fucking expensive,” Bob had exclaimed. “It better come with pussy next time!”
The next morning, as I was rolling the tent and stuffing it into its green sack, I was still thinking about the curious pair that had brought me here to the Panamerican highway. Bob had dismissed the 4 dollars for gas with a wave of the hand, and had zoomed off into the night. They were in David now. As I recall I slept one night long ago in that city, sprawled out on a medical stretcher at the fire station. All the fire trucks in Panama are orange. I know it because my mind reminded me then of the two nights in the vehicle yard of that Panama City fire station, sleeping on a couch outside, watching Sembrano the old man drink slowly of his water jug. In Guatemala I slept in the still, humid air of another fire station, aback a green fire truck. All fire trucks in Guatemala are green. I wondered then, did I stay with firemen in Mexico? O! What a long time ago!
Just then I noticed a traveler on a bicycle 50 yards away. The bicycle travelers stand out for the travel bags that hug either side of both wheels. This one also stood out for his picture taking of the sign indicating a crossroads. He approached me then and as is customary between travelers we greeted and began discussing our journeys. His had brought him through Mexico, not in one go, but continuous all the same. I told him that I too came through Mexico, beyond Central America and to the southernmost tip of the continent, and then returned, and that here I was again, hitching the Panamerican. He asked me to repeat my name. I did so, and then he said, “Actually… I know you.” I hesitated, the emergency switch in my brain having been thrown and the organ now straining to recognize this man. I asked him if he meant my website, but he said; “No no I mean we know each other.” The emergency effort yielded nothing. “Veracruz, Mexico,” he said. “Carnaval.”
My mind twisted, as I imagine my face did as well. Memories flickered bright lights before my waking eyes and formed images. Feathered bikinis, a girl thick in mascara and stealing my cap, merry friends Vikas and Matt blurting nonsense through wet lips happily moist in booze, songs and random characters coming and going, the Carnival parade through dark colors and glitter, salsa stealing us into the parade itself. I remembered then the city of Veracruz, and when my pockets were emptied of my precious notes. It was a catalyst for resolving to write online. Then I saw the man before me and instantly recognized him as Jorge.
“Your name begins with a J and your last name ends in an S, is all I know. But tell me that I’m right!”
“That’s me, Jorge!” he said in a joyful Canadian accent.
We spoke then of Oz and Luz, our Mexican friends, of that rambunctious festival and the palpable feast it cooked up for our eyes. I shook firmly his hand when he saddled once more for his road. I kept watching him as he became pixels and finally disappeared beyond the heat rays rising off the pavement. Is it that he would disappear again into memory, or is it too easy to cite coincidence?
Chapter 2 – Hitchhiking to the Cruisers’ Net
“Darwin came up with evolution to rebel against the church. His daughter died. God did not save her. He had asked him to. So the Big Bang is incorrect as well. I cannot believe it. If I believe in that, I cannot believe in God.”
His eyes were too clear, his face too void of wrinkles. How was this man 40 years old when he could pass for 30? Is his love for his God enough to keep stress from his life, to keep his skin healthy, to keep his eyes free of dark circles? His cheeks were plump like a child’s. As an Adventist he ate nothing of animals. He was a vegan for Christian conviction. I thought to Argentina, and those peoples’ skin pulled tight and made wrinkly, and how I had always equated that with their high meat diet.
During the final hours before he dropped me off, he spoke to me of Jesus. When in Santiago I was free of the confines of his cab, my ears continued to ring with the vibrating name of the Lord. He had offered me five dollars and I refused, and now walking after a quick meal of rice and lentils, patting the side of my head to get the name, as if like water trapped in my ears, from my memory, I looked up to see another hitchhiker dirty and standing in the distance.
His name was Collin, and he was the first American hitchhiker I had met organically and outside of the United States. He hailed from St. Louis, and so as a Midwesterner, already he was kin.
I had not anticipated his roots. From still afar he looked as ragged as I, dressed in a soiled t-shirt with patches of darkness hinting at overuse, and a pair of cheap trunks. Short blond hair curled immediately from his scalp, and his new moustache curled at the tips like one would expect of a very tan French maitre d’. A few hours later we were in the Panama City Canal Zone, and the lingering blue in the sky was slowly receding, leaving us hustling to find somewhere to camp.
“So what’s your story?” Collin had asked me when we first met. He spoke quickly when he had his words, and though he hesitated only between phrases, the hesitation was characteristic of him, and thus formed his image in my mind. I routinely mentioned his age, partly to nag him, and partly for the benefit of my perspective, since my sister is also 21. Whether because of that or for some other reason, I became finely aware of his youthful apprehensions in conversation, and started seeing him in some ways like a younger brother.
“Well,” I had replied. “I’m trying to get a boat across the Pacific.”
“You mean, a cargo ship, or, what do you mean?”
“A sailboat. Crew a sailboat.”
“That’s awesome,” he said. “So what are you going to do tonight? If you get there.”
“I think I’ll camp if I can get to the end of the causeway, otherwise I’ll go to the firemen.”
He had seemed excited at the thought of camping in the city, and asked if he could come along. I liked him, and though I’ve been traveling for some time, long enough even to think that encounters would be dulled as default, the feeling of meeting another vagabond, especially one from someplace familiar, is a feeling verging on nostalgia that rules then all your decisions.
We were in the Canal Zone after a good long ride from a trucker in a great American International cab empty of amenities. A bus had brought us to the end of Puente de las Americas, just at the beginning of the long causeway that would lead us eventually to the pinnacles, and to the marinas and anchorages where I expected to find a fleet of sailboats preparing to cross the Pacific.
As we had crossed the bridge, I had looked out at the city, which once, two and a half years previous, had reminded me of home. Now I was here again, and now the challenge was renewed to cross a body of water. Only this time, it would not be the short jaunt to Colombia; no: it would be the greatest ocean on the planet.
The first night we had tempted crashing in an abandoned building, one of many in the Canal Zone. We had explored it, walked over the crumpled leaves and peered through destroyed walls once strong and siding a barracks or an office of some kind. No, we would continue onward. I had been in touch with a couchsurfer on a sailboat, who I would never end up meeting, but who had instructed me about the Thursday evening cruisers’ gathering at La Eskinita pizzeria. I did not know it then, but I would attend many of these Thursday night gatherings.
We walked a soaking several kilometers onward from the bridge until finally arriving an hour later at La Eskinita, on the far end of the causeway. To the east the lit skyscrapers of Panama City’s skyline stood, and to the west the beginning or end of the Panama Canal.
That first night brought us into contact with our first cruisers. Roland of the handlebar moustache became our friend. We had our bread, but we treated ourselves to the cruiser discount of beer and pizza before the mostly American crowd had finally disappeared back to their boats. As we walked on, following the curve of the road as it skirted a hill island, we spoke elatedly of the mast lights in the Playita Amador anchorage to the west, and the lights shrouded in the skyline brightness in the Las Brisas anchorage to the east.
“Man, this is it. I’m getting on one of those boats,” I told Collin.
“Yeah man,” he said. “How long will you wait?”
“A month, I think. But no, man, two weeks tops.”
“Everyone I know who has or knows someone who has tried this has gotten on a boat.”
“Well I hope it works out for you.”
As the road continued onward to yet another hill island topped with a spinning radar array, we hopped a wall and followed the flattened ground where they would eventually construct a road. At the far end we made our campsite. We did not know it then, but it would be a regular campsite for us. I didn’t know it then, and I would not have guessed it, but I would camp in that very spot exactly one month later.
In the morning we followed handlebar moustache Roland’s advice and made it to the Playita marina cafe at 8am. I wrote out a short speech to read through once our section would be called. The radio was a yellowing white plastic sitting on one end of the bar. There were dozens of people around waiting for the Friday ferry to Taboga Island. We were two dirty Americans with backpacks among lightweight white and aviators, but we took to the Net with purpose.
For it was the cruiser’s Net we were after. 8am every day except Sunday on VHF channel 74 the net would begin. 15 to 20 boats checked in, announcing one after the other their boat names, but many more were listening passively aboard their yachts and sailboats. “Oh Baby,” “Someday,” “Epiphany”, “Chasing the Sun,” “Stray Cat.” Between the two harbors there must have been 50 boats. The net is for anything and everything, and when the section “Rides and Crew” was announced, I took to the radio with fervor:
Hey crusiers, my name’s Chael and I’m here looking to join a boat crewing across to the South Pacific and beyond to Australia. I’m 26, from Chicago, have been traveling around for 3 years, looking now to arrive eventually to Asia. I’ve crewed 3 short passages before on two cats and most recently on a 37′ Rival mono from Cartagena, whose captain can provide a reference. I’m very friendly, patient, respectful, and I have a serious work ethic. Really I have hopes of meeting a knowledgeable captain with whom I’m quite compatible. So I’ll be hanging out here every day at the dingy dock trying to meet y’all. Oh, and I’m fluent in French, Spanish and Portuguese. Thanks for listening.
Chapter 3 – Jeff and Ray
The logistics of being at the end of Panama City’s causeway soon made their shittiness known. Prices of everything are doubled. The pizza and beer at La Eskinita would happen once a week, but for nourishment we were left to ruin eating beans straight from the can that we’d purchased at “La Shoppette”, the only, albeit extremely ritzy mini market within 2 miles. Collin began stealing Snickers, and it wasn’t long until we took turns in this new endeavor of physical and mental nourishment.
To get to town, after the hassle of ignoring taxis and learning of the demise of a city bus service, we used a Metrobus that came once an hour and for which we had a layover in Chorrillo, the part of town that mom would not be happy that you go.
Before all of this however, we met Ray. Then we met Jeff.
Ray had been hovering around us as we also hovered over the net. He said a few things. I recall that Collin had asked him something or another, and for this he had come to us. He liked us, this much was certain. He had been dispelling advice to me once he knew my mission. “You have to dress the part. If you want to be crew, you have to dress it, even if you don’t have the credentials,” he said. “Look here.” He spoke with a slightly southern accent, as one who might suppress it in order to lessen its intensity. He pulled out his wallet. “See all of these?” They looked like registrations and licenses. “This here says I can own a gun in Arkansas. This blue one, well, it says that I can fly and repair 747’s. I can’t, but it says I can.”
“A modern renaissance man,” suggested Collin.
“That’s right, and I’ll tell ya somethin’: there’s no harm in being prepared. I can work in anything. These credentials, they keep my options open.”
Ray was a clean man hanging out somewhere in his early fifties. He was a motor yachtie, and had his fishing vessel parked in the Playita marina. Somehow his attire told me before I’d known, that he wasn’t a sailor: sneakers, cargo shorts with tucked-in polo t-shirt in mint condition, sunglasses and cap pulled snug but not totally obscuring a straight and proper haircut. Somehow his presence made Jeff the sailor seem all the more rugged when he came 15 minutes later stomping up the dinghy dock ramp.
Jeff of the broad shoulders would later show us old photos, and damn it if he didn’t seem to have gone from the barber to the butcher in terms of aspect. “I was never a sailor,” he had said at our introductions. “But when I found out I had terminal cancer and only 6 months to live, I decided with my wife that I wanted to buy a sailboat and sail to her home in Venezuela.” His sun-bleached hair clashed with a silvery goatee and penetrating blue eyes. He was from California, he told us, and had sailed his 26 foot mono hull down, stomaching a few painful storms but most importantly overstaying his six month visa on life.
It was enough for Collin and I to be the audience of Ray and Jeff’s conversations. I had already resolved myself to neutrality so as not to piss some boater off and ruin my chances of crewing, so it was easy to suddenly become, along with Collin, the ones to convince of a certain point of view.
First, Ray decided he liked us, and invited us all to lunch at the Flamenco Yacht Club restaurant around near to where we were camped. Jeff’s argument went something like, “I sold everything I had to get the boat, but I had almost nothing because the health insurance that I didn’t have cost me thousands. The cancer tests and the surgeries to remove parts of my intestine and liver nearly destroyed me. I can’t believe some people can have so much money and then there are people like me who get their lives ruined because they’re denied insurance.”
Ray spoke mostly with the resoluteness of a businessman, for that’s what he was. “Capital goes where it’s needed most and stays where it’s treated best. I did work in Nigeria once, because I’m in the natural gas production business, but we had to get out because of the corruption there. The free enterprise system rewards creativity. Millionaires are necessary to create jobs, and the only things that bring the system down are the parasites on welfare.”
At intervals I reminded myself of the unbearable metaphor I had before my eyes that then and there was being discussed quite openly over Turkish burgers in this restaurant where rich Panamanians with gel slicked hair and sunglasses and whose dress shirts all had the first button undone were picking at their teeth and sipping cocktails, and it was being discussed by two dirty cheap travelers and the cancer-ridden marine equivalent and their benefactor the rich white man who looked like Buck Compton from Band of Brothers. That man was Ray, and he was paying for a meal for poor vagabonds while at the same time denouncing what we might otherwise be observing right before our eyes.
Chapter 4 – Dirk and the Vikings
We met Pete. Pete came up to us at the Playita cafe where we sat, and where whenever I saw someone walking up from the dingy dock I would approach them, and not to ask to crew their boat, but to introduce myself and be friendly. Pete had been there already a week. He was my only competition, so to speak, as far as I could tell. Later I would find out that there was a Frenchman as well, but from future friends I would learn of his slow, passive and ultimately boring approach. To crew, you must present yourself as competent, compatible and conversational.
Collin was gone into the city to spend a few days with friends, and Pete and I took fair turns walking up to boaters who emerged from their dingies.
As it happened, it happened by chance.
It was Pete’s turn. The man was looking for crew. Pete returned to our table. “I found a boat. I think it’s promising.”
Staying my jealousy, I muttered, “righteous, any contribution?”
“Yeah, 10 bucks a day.”
So it goes. Pete had in one week found a boat to crew across to at least Fiji. As with most crew, especially novice crew, they are usually asked to contribute some amount for food. From my 3 dollars a day to ten sounded to me like a stretch, but when I met the French captain several days later who wanted 25 and had crew paying 25 per day, I sulked my shoulders in defeat and began to lament my need to travel only on land and water around the world.
In the days to come I would meet many boat captains, and I would encounter many different ideas of what crew is, what it is for, and what it should contribute. There is no right or wrong in this regard; there is only the captain and the situation of his boat. If the captain is rich, perhaps he does not need crew to contribute. Most captains are rich or well off, and so charging crew is a legitimate way, in their eyes, to weed out freeloaders (although I know a few freeloaders who would freeload for fifteen dollars a day). Some boat captains run their crafts like floating hostels or floating cooperatives, depending on who is doing the talking, and it is also legitimate (because why should only well-off people be allowed the floating life?).
In just a few days I would already be sick of the money talk, of trying to feel the circumstances of the fleet in order to decide whether it would be worth it or not to wait longer for that boat that wouldn’t charge me. I wanted to be like a pirate, like the veritable pirates of 400 years ago who from the Pearl Islands just off the coast of Panama City once joined boats to raid and pillage afar. I wanted to be treated honestly, but I wanted my honest labor to pay my way. Would I ever meet that boat?
I kept speaking with anyone who emerged from the dingy dock, which as it turns out allowed for me to end the night much later on by getting dragged out of the Fatboy Slim concert. What? Yes. Here is what happened next.
“I thought your name was Derrick,” I said. “I’ve been calling you that.”
His name was Dirk, and with Pete gone and my insistence on meeting captains in high gear, I had made friends with Flemish Dirk, who now sat with me at the cafe. Peeking from beneath his sleeve were the purple tentacles of an octopus. “I’ll get the other legs once I complete the next tasks,” he said. “One is sailing across the Pacific. I’ll ask my wife, maybe you can come. But we’re not leaving until April 15th. Ah, you know, maybe we should go alone. You know we’re not married actually, and so three weeks alone on a boat, if we can do this, maybe we should marry then.”
“What if you think of more things to do than 8?”
“I’m sure I can find a tattoo artist to add a ninth.”
It was the second time of what would be many, many times, that my presence in the cafe would create a little circle of sailors, not that they would gather because of me, but because like any group, a group grows bigger the bigger it grows. Eventually, and weeks later, since at this early stage of searching for boats I was still highly motivated on a day to day basis, the dingy dock guard would tell others looking to crew, mostly to Colombia, to come to me for information, of which I was eventually chock full. Everyone eventually knew who I was, whether they had found out through word of mouth, through the Net, or by one of the crew slips I’d posted at the Balboa Yacht Club, the Playita Amador marina, and the Brisas anchorage.
I was sitting with Dirk when Simon and Louie, whose names I presently acquired, were packing a sail that had just been delivered to them. In the next five minutes I learned that they were three young Swedish guys on a 27 foot boat. The captain, Simon, was 23. Louie was 26 and their other mate, Tobias, or Toby, was 25. They were an unlikely trio of Scandinavians among a fleet dominated entirely by the typical European sailor or, and mostly, by the North American contingent of retirees.
“I hate sailing. I’m not a sailor. I’m a marine.”
“You don’t like sailing?” I asked.
“Don’t like it.”
I started and corrected my stutter to say: “You sailed from Sweden, you’re in Panama, you’re on a 27 foot boat, which is very nice, by the way, and thank yall for inviting me out, and you’re planning on crossing the Pacific to Australia, and you don’t like sailing?”
I watched as Toby drank of his can of Balboa beer. He sported a small golfer’s hat which matted down a blond mohawk. The shaved sides of his head revealed silver earrings, the sideburns curving down to meld into a dirty blond shadow and striking blond goatee. Simon also had a strikingly blond beard to accompany his shoulder-length locks of blond strands. Louie had even longer hair, and a small Johnny Deppish patch of chin fuzz. Louie and Toby both had arms decorated in tattooed sleeves.
“Kanulla!” cried Louie, the tallest of the three. “It means ‘fuck!’ in Swedish.”
“Cheers!” cried Toby, and we cheersed. Simon was the quietest of the three, and Toby the most talkative. Louie got the most hung over, and Simon was the most adept at navigation, such that he even passed to my computer all the marine navigational charts of the planet along with the working reading program. Toby was the keenest conversationalist and we spoke of his role as a Swedish marine, of which he said the planet can yield no equal. We spoke also of his profession; a builder, like me, as it were. Louie was the ad hoc leader of the trio. With Louie as the supposed leader, Simon as the captain, but Toby as the most interactive, they all seemed about equal in terms of responsibility to guests. I was their guest. Their boat was Warskavi.
At 27 feet long, their boat was the smallest sailboat that I had yet been aboard. Weeks later a 15 foot French boat would arrive, but the sponsors’ decals on that vessel would in my mind kill its chances to convince me of its character. Warskavi had only to show herself to me for me to feel her personality. The cockpit was crowded with a large cooler, snug up against the tiller at the stern. The Swedes, who by now, coupled with their punk aesthetic and the simple way of their boat, had become in my mind full fledged VIKINGS, told me stories of heroism as rock-paper-scissors had in the past decided who would crawl up on deck in heavy weather to winch down the mainsail. Other than the cramped space of the deck was the roach-infested innards of their cabin. By no means did a few roaches deter me from my appreciation of their vessel, as I was glad to finally meet a crew that was not probed constantly by an enema of their own creation when it comes to the tidiness of their boat. There the gimbal stove, there the two couch berths, and forward the V-berth occupied on one side by three dominating boxes of rum. Later, Simon would say to me he would have loved to take me, if not for the rum.
So we drank, and we drank as they drank, as vikings ought to drink, and in little time I was splattering the still air with my stories, and they with theirs. I told of the time in Ecuador when I blacked out drunk, and woke up mid-sentence and hand-in-hand with a beautiful girl. They told of a night in Spain when they woke up in the countryside with nothing but their underwear. This was our prelude to the night, and a suitable prelude it was.
We boarded their dingy and picked up a friend of theirs, a one Polish Martin, 24 year old captain of a 560 Lagoon catamaran. To the shore we rode, where we left the dingy at the dock, happy that no guard was there to pester me about not having a pink bracelet, and continued on foot to the nearby Shoppette. We found Dirk sitting alone in La Eskinita on the way, so I ran up to him, told him of the drinking and the concert, and in seconds he had doused his cigarette in a Panama Beer and we were off.
At the Shoppette we purchased a third bottle of rum to add to the two the Swedes had brought from Warskovi.
“What does ‘Warskvoi’ mean anyway?” I asked, slurring my words. It was of course Toby who replied.
“It means ‘Where are we going?'”
“Where are you going?”
“Where are we going.”
“… by the way, I was wondering something on your boat, I don’t know why, but I just was.”
“What’s that Cale?”
“How does Superman get a haircut, or does he? Does his hair grow?”
“Good question. You should drink more.”
The music was loud enough to drown the conversation, or was it that the rum was thick enough to drown it? It was perhaps for both reasons that the night began to melt away.
Suddenly I was being grabbed forcefully by the collar bone, it seemed to me at the time, and dragged backward.
“But I’m a friend of Fatboy Slim!” I protested, to no avail.
Once the guards had tossed me out, Dirk and Toby were yelling above the beat: “We told you to go right, behind the stage, and you went left!”
As rum will often do, it made me lose count. We were 4 suddenly, stumbling and struggling to carry a wasted Martin.
“He’s so fucked, man, he’s so fucked,” Toby was ushering in the words through clenched teeth as he held tight to Martin’s shoulder. Dirk was supporting his other shoulder. I, gaunt as hell with a head of sweaty hair belittling my own shoulders strode merrily alongside the trio.
“You need help?” I asked Dirk, taking up some of Martin’s weight.
We made it back to the dingy in time to see Louie puking over the side. “Kanulla!” he proclaimed. He took Martin and Simon back to their boats, all three of them we could see from the dock puking simultaneously over the sides of the dingy.
Toby, Dirk and I returned to the concert. We lost Dirk. Something about Americans in an empty bar, lights circling overhead and Toby proclaiming the stalwartness of the Swedish Marine Corps. “Man, I can’t stand Americans. You’re alright.” Dirk reappeared. Dirk was gone again. “He’s the coolest Belgian, how old is he?” “I think around 50.” “You?” “26.” Some more time was lost, and when next my eyes broke their seal I was looking at the roof of a cabin. I was in Warskavi. Toby and Louie flanked me above in their berths, Simon in the V-berth. It was morning, and I fell promptly to sleep.
Chapter 5 – Days on Lola
Collin had returned to the Playita cafe, where I sat, with tidings of bread and beans. He was pensive to learn of the festivities he missed, but assured me he had his own adventures in Casco Viejo. He spoke as we munched dipping bread into the gluttonous gook of Campbell’s pork and beans.
“So I think I’m going to go with Jeff,” he said.
“Well, he wanted crew. 250 dollars plus 10 dollars a day for food.”
“If you’re going through the San Blas islands, that’s still a hell of a lot better than paying for a charter, which is what, 600 dollars now?”
“Yeah. It’s a good chance to learn sailing. And line handling. And. I don’t know. It will be good y’know?”
“He did say he was supposed to be dead by now, you know.”
“He said he hasn’t gotten sick yet, even though he can feel the cancer in his lungs. He says he used to be able to hold his breath longer.”
“Well. When will you go?”
“All the way to Venezuela? What about your friends in San Jose, in Mexico?”
“I thought about it, I have to do this. Mexico can wait.”
Like that, Collin was gone. I had continued for a few days to meander between the Playita cafe and the Shoppette internet connection, where I checked my crew profiles on such sites as 7knots.com, findacrew.net, cruiserforums.com, crewbay.com, floatplan.com, etc. Aboard Warskavi the day of our hangovers I had borrowed their internet connection. I had received a message from a Canadian pair coming across the canal. They had found the crew slip that the people at Shelter Bay Marina had posted for me. They wanted to talk.
In the meantime I kept running into Dirk, who would come sit with me in the cafe and we’d drink beer. The predicament of describing Dirk is now brought to the fore. Here is a man who has an open idea of things, as defined by a life forged by his own understanding of the movement of markets and how style influences consumptive patterns. “You don’t fit into anything,” he had insisted. “You don’t fit into my designs.” From a young age he had understood that businessmen don’t know how to market their products because they’re not in tune with fads, trends, styles and lifestyles, and he built his first marketing consulting company based on this premise. Now at 50, he had retired, albeit with stakes in 6 companies still. Originally from Antwerp, where Flemish is the native tongue, he had lived for a time in Rhodes, a Greek island I had been to and which I spoke intimately about. Whether it was the fact of this or that I had spoken with him first in French that began our friendship, I cannot say. I did not invite myself onto his boat, but a few days into our acquaintanceship he said, “hey, man, I have cleaned up a berth if you want a place to stay, I don’t know it’s up to you, but if you want the room it’s there if not that’s ok too you know.”
The predicament of describing Dirk lies in the fact of my usual dismissal of anything having to do with marketing. To attach a value or ethic to a product is the epitome of what I hate about commercialism, which is the sterilization of character, the bastardization of personality, the unthoughtful justification of transactions. How would I get along with someone who made a living running a business that depended on these things? Well, we did get along, and quite well. Maybe it’s because I liked his mannerisms.
Dirk’s conversation involved not only words but a swaying and cocking of the head, sweeping gestures of the arms, a spontaneous alertness and an always-ensuing treble of authentic laugh. Above all, it was what he said, and how he said it. It was the conversations that we had, and that he would treat me not as a youngster but as an equal, unlike many Anglosaxons.
“Anglosaxon boaters are different,” he said one night. A Frenchman, Valerie, was on Dirk’s boat Lola with us. It was a typical soiree and we were speaking the necessary French to make it so.
Valerie sat up, insisting, “They are much different, I agree.”
“How so?” I asked.
Dirk leaned forward and displayed his beer. “See this beer? If I am invited to the beach by a boater I will bring beer and share it. Anglosaxons bring beer for themselves.”
I laughed and agreed. “That’s right, it’s true.”
“If you go to an Anglosaxon party, be sure you take whatever you want to share, but keep a little for yourself because no one else will be sharing with you! The Englishman, or the American or Canadian, he always has his bottle. His bottle, you know? He keeps it there by his side, and sips from it, all night.” Treble laugh.
I said then, “I can’t help but feel that you guys don’t care much for my age, which I really appreciate. I’m half your age–”
“Bah! Wait a minute!–” Dirk cried.
“–yea yea,” I continued, “but yes, you don’t give me the impression that it matters, while if we transpose the same scenario here with Americans, although I can feel utterly comfortable, I will almost always feel that underlying care for the age gap. Fuck it.”
Dirk descended into the cabin of his 42′ Beneteau. To every new visitor that came on the boat he would show the curved wood doors of his berths, running an open palm along their surfaces. “They don’t make them like this anymore, this boat is 20 years old.” I liked the spaciousness of his boat, and the white cushions around the inside table, which looked like something from the Jettsons. The first day I came aboard he set me up in one of the quarter berths at the stern. In the cockpit I had been sitting and he had placed before me a conglomeration of electronic pieces. “This is a lamp,” he had said. “It is broken, and has been for five years. All who come must attempt to repair it. Good luck.” Well I eventually found the problem, but the broken soldering iron prevented me from making my ultimate impression.
Now Dirk was below tending to a great slab of meat that he had seared and that was now broiling in the gimbal stove. Valerie and I sat and I stared off over the flat water. There was very little wind, which accounted for the great buildup of ocean-faring vessels awaiting their moments. The sun found its seat and began to sink into it. The Spanish guitarists Gabriel and Rodrigo rode the air waves up from the cabin. In the bay I saw the multicolored hulls of sailboats. Yellow, red and green, blue and white, the silver of aluminum or steel. The remnants of some ocean storm swell lifted and set the bows of the fleet in turn. Dusk became orange and clouds formed over the city far off in the distance. Pistachios. Garlic meat in the gimbal. The 70 foot wooden schooner like a pirate ship not far off our port. The dingy squelching at every wave. Tiredness, a satisfied belly, a satisfied mind, and sleep.
I was upset to find my announcement torn down from the book exchange at Playita, and it reminded me of the saboteur of Cartagena’s Club Nautico, whoever it was. I did not bother making a new one. The people at the marina, otherwise bright with smiles, would, once you approached them with something that would require of them to think, turn their faces to the stone facade so common in bureaucracy.
Days aboard Dirk’s boat Lola began smoothly and continued as such. In the mornings we woke around 7:30. Dirk would fix us hot cups of coffee, and he was ecstatic to be using an Italian coffee pot. We’d switch on the net at 8 and I would change my spiel from day to day, adding little jokes here and there to bring some color to the oft bland humdrum of the announcements. Then we would go into the marina, I’d weasel my way past the guards who were always vigilant to cause trouble for us bracelet-less, and at the shoppette I would check the internet.
As much fun as I was having, my purpose remained: I wanted to crew across the Pacific.
I spoke with everyone, and I cleaved minds of all the information I could. I wanted dates of the seasons, wind patterns, schedules and routes, and I wanted to get my name out there. Already the guards had been referring other crew to me, and now Roland and others would announce me on the net without my doing anything. Through the talking, the mingling and the force feeding, I learned a few important things about the Pacific crossing.
The majority of the boats heading to Australia or New Zealand, and virtually all of them are, head directly to the Galapagos Islands from Panama City or from the nearby Pearl Islands (Islas de las Perlas). This is an 8 day journey depending on the winds, which are variable. Once in the Galapagos, there is a 100 dollar fee per person for being in the national park. Most boats remain a week or two and then pick up the easterly trade winds, which they ride for a minimum of 3 weeks on the open ocean before arriving finally at the first set of islands, a tiny group called the Marquesas that signal the beginning of the autonomous French territory of Polynesia, and that mark the veritable center of the ocean. For someone like me, holding an American passport, there is an unfortunate bureaucratic stickler on arrival. It’s a bond. A cash bond equal to the value of a flight to the United States from French Polynesia must be paid into a local bank. The bond is retrievable once you leave the country, albeit minus the 3 percent transaction fee. A cruiser with a confused beard and tilted tearing cap told me at close range and under fire from spittle these things, and that perhaps debit cards do not work for the bond. I suggested I make another fake online confirmation to prove I’d have an onward flight, and he said to forget it, French Polynesia is not as idle as other places.
The vikings came and drank with us aboard Dirk’s boat often, rumbling through the waters on their dingy with its 1974 motor. I learned the most important of Swedish phrases, among them the all-too-imperative “Yog vil kanulla bruhst // I want to fuck breasts.” I sat on Dirk’s boat even when he was gone, biding my time drawing, and once I drew Warskavi because it was sitting there tiny and alone, and begging me to immortalize the 3 prominent but tearing Swedish flags.
By chance I met the Canadian couple as I overheard them explaining to some other boater in the Shoppette that they were going to meet some guy named Cale, so I butted in to introduce myself and save ourselves from awkwardness. They agreed to meet me that night at the weekly pizza meeting of cruisers at La Eskinita. My… had it already been a week since I’d arrived on the causeway? Thursday to Thursday.
At pizza the vikings showed up as I was sitting with the Canadian couple. They pulled up some chairs and I felt their merriment stayed by the air of business that hovered around the couple as they probed me for experience, credentials and financial independence. Yes, indeed, I’ve crewed on two catamarans before, and one mono hull. Not so much experience, but on this passage the most important thing is compatibility. Oh, well, you know, I think I can go to 10 bucks a day, but I have to consider the probable 8 months it’ll take to get across the ocean, so… what? Oh, yes, contact my last captain Worth. What? He already responded, but you just sent the mail? Well!
When the Canadians had gone I admitted to my Swedish friends that I didn’t get the best feeling from the couple, but that I had agreed to help Mike, the captain, line handle with a friend boat of theirs through the canal from the other side, and that–oh, yes, merriment now unstayed, of course we should toast and cheers! So the festivities began once more.
Dirk was among another group of boaters at the far end of another table. Valerie was there as well, and so was a girl I hadn’t seen before. Eventually, the Swedes went one by one to the other table like a team of professionals so as not to scare the girl away. By the time Simon and I had migrated, the place was empty of other boaters. So we came to Dirk and were introduced to Kate. She had hair like Toby’s, shaved on the sides and long in the middle, only hers was slightly dreaded, though whether on purpose or not was another consideration. Her legs were bare below rolled up pants and showed the sparkle of hair, and on her chest was a small tattoo. She had an intense look, and it was clear when and to whom she was paying attention. She also drank, and so of course with Dirk, the Swedes and I, she fit right in.
From the bay the nighttime breeze had come. I wondered why boats didn’t leave more often at night, if it’s wind that they await. But this brief wind in the evenings was just air from above a cooling land now moving off toward the sea, and it would dissipate 5 miles out. I wondered if I’d leave from here, someday, on a boat.
Chapter 6 – The Panama Canal Locks
There were a number of things that rattled around in my noggin whenever I started thinking about the Canadians and the Pacific crossing. First was that I had heard of people crewing for food and passage, not having to pay for the work and extra eyes they provide. I had also heard that these boats were a rarity. Most of these rare boats were delivery boats, boats bought and paid for by the owner who hired a crew to bring the boat elsewhere in the world. I had yet to meet such a boat.
Another piece of mind matter rattling around was the fact that boats looking for crew will most likely drop the crew off at the Marquesas, because that first long stretch of 3-weeks-and-no-land is the reason for wanting crew in the first place, and from the Marquesas it’s smooth cruising through tropical isles. I’d already heard from several boaters that it would be tough going from the Marquesas trying to crew onward to the capital of French Polynesia, Tahiti. Both Dirk and the Swedes promised to save me from those islands and bring me to Tahiti were I to get stuck there, and more importantly, were I to arrive before them. In Tahiti, a main crew port, it would apparently be rather easy to find a new boat for onward passage to Fiji, and from Fiji the trek gets rough south to New Zealand; word is that many boats will be looking for crew.
In the meantime I was with Mike of the Canadian boat Lazy Bones MM, a 42 foot long Lagoon Catamaran. I had previously come aboard their boat to scope the digs, and learned of the luxurious accommodation their potential crew would receive. That is, they would have the starboard hull to themselves, complete with stern cabin and bathroom.
I went with Canadian Mike into the city, and we jumped on a bus from Albrook mall to the Rey’s supermarket just outside of Colon, 40 minutes away on the other side, the Atlantic side, of the country. From there we boarded a free shuttle to Shelter Bay Marina.
When after the long bus ride we arrived to Shelter Bay, I was glad that I had opted to head straight to Panama City, and here is why. Shelter Bay is on the opposite side of a bay from Colon. There is only the marina, a hotel, the marina restaurant and a small shop. Like on the causeway in Panama City, prices are doubled or tripled. The only bonus was the showers, which I immediately took advantage of. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to eat in Shelter Bay unless you made friends with boats and shared in their cooking on a daily basis.
We were aboard the Canadians’ friends’ boat Maloo Maloo. The naming of boats will always be a mystery to me. Their boat was also a 42 foot, but a mono hull. It was in pristine condition, and everything was neat and tidy. I am by no means a destitute street dweller, but my appearance for such people must have been at least to a certain degree startling. They were in polo shirts and short shorts, he clean shaven and she without a blemish anywhere on her face. I had learned by now that Mike the Canadian was once a Wallstreet lawyer, who had decided that he didn’t want to become like the partners in his firm yelling at the secretaries and fucking them behind closed doors. Good for him.
As I sat drinking a coke aboard Maloo Maloo, feeling somewhat ignored by the friends talking with each other, I met another who would come line handling with us. His name was Bob, and he was an older fellow with a careful gait and cloud white hair. Just as he came aboard, another person showed up, and I recognized him. He was a Spaniard who had posted crew slips as well in all the locations I had. He had more experience than I, and was closer to the Canadians’ age. The Maloo people looked at my Canadian and said to him, “Ah, here is Santiago, and he’s looking to crew.” “Ok,” said Mike, “let’s go somewhere and talk.”
…I of course felt wretched. Here I was, helping not the boat I’m trying to crew on but a different boat entirely, all for the sake of getting to know the captain who I think is looking for crew, and right as we arrive he is taken away by another. When Mike returned, he said, “hmm, Santiago seems like a good fit.”
I was stuck here anyway, and though I wanted to go through the canal locks, I was immediately thrown into an internal fit of desperation. I felt used.
When Maloo Maloo pulled away from their slip and we began crossing the waters toward the locks, I felt even more distant. Mike was of no help to include me into their conversations. All they spoke about was sailing, boating, marinas they had been to, etc. I tried to accept it as a fact of the boating life that conversation revolved simply and wholly around the boating life, but by the 30 minute mark I felt useless and bored. They spoke of sailing as though it was some kind of elite club, and in the days to come I felt like Mike made it his business to make me feel incompetent. I gander what Dirk had said to me about sailing was more truthful than what these people were saying. “Sailing is easy,” he had said. “You learn it once and forever. The hardest part about sailing is maintaining the boat, and the best part about sailing is arriving to land.”
Now, I was not among people who could understand my lifestyle. I was with the young and affluent mid-thirties yachties. No one made much of an effort to learn who I was and why I was even there, except for the ‘thank yous’ I received off and on for coming on as their forth line handler and saving them 120 dollars.
The Panama Canal, it should be noted, is another bureaucratic nightmare for boaters. 800 dollars down for a security deposit in case the boat breaks down mid-crossing, which happened to occur to a boat as we were preparing to get underway. They lost their deposit because of an electrical ball bearing.
To cross the canal, boats pay by their length per foot. This 42 foot boat paid upwards of 2,000 dollars, if not more, to cross to the Pacific side. The reason for “line handlers” is as follows. Each boat must have a captain aboard, as well as 4 people capable of handling the lines that will be used to stabilize the boat rafts as the locks are filled and emptied of water. Really only two line handlers are necessary, but mounds of paper hidden somewhere under some official’s table can in a roundabout way justify the 4-person rule. If 4 additional people (friends, fellow boaters, etc.) cannot be found in time, the canal supplies line handlers that cost 120 dollars each, plus the food and drinks (separate cans or juice boxes, no pouring into glasses allowed). If the line handlers do not like the food they are supplied, they can order a meal from the shore at an additional cost of 100 dollars per meal. I of course would charge no such amount as a line handler. I was there to get to know Mike; but after two days, the only person I felt like I connected with was Bob.
From a pilot boat there arrives an advisor to each boat. Ours was very friendly with us, and spoke Caribbean English. We rafted up with a French vessel. The entire time I spent with Maloo Maloo and with the Canadians, there was an undercurrent of animosity against French boats. Once the bow, stern and spring lines were tied, Maloo powered forward, bringing the smaller French vessel along with it.
We reached the first set of locks aft of a large container ship. Four men, 2 on each flanking lock wall, tossed their thin lines weighted by knotted balls. I was almost hit in the head twice, the balls missing by only inches. We tied these to the thick blue mooring lines, and allowed the men on the walls to gather them up. Once the boat had maneuvered into position precarious between the towering lock walls, these men placed our mooring lines on the great mooring bells atop the walls, and through the boat deck cleats we pulled the lines tight to stabilize our two-boat raft in the center of the lock. The great iron gates closed off the horizon behind us. The gates looked original, but the bright yellow hydraulic system that pushed them shut was clearly new.
Bob and I hung out at the boom and spoke of his home, and I watched as somewhere the locks’ hydraulic system began to pump water into our chamber from below. The water bubbled up and it looked like we were boiling. Slowly the boats rose. We rose until the quaint white and red-roofed locks control house was visible. On the white wall, raised letters read “Gatun Locks”, and below that “1913.”
“So,” said Bob, “it has been exactly 100 years since the locks were built. Pretty cool. Through the locks 100 years hence.”
When the water level had settled and we could well see above the gate once more to the clear horizon, the far gates opened and we proceeded behind the container ship into the next chamber of these locks. There, the same, and we rose, higher now, until the horizon was followed below by the line of our new gate, and further below was the line of the first.
It took one more lock before the final gate opened and we were suddenly released into the fresh water of Gatun Lake, or Gatun Reservoir, as it had been created by dams. Having taken all the photos of the lock transit, I capped the SLR and handed it back to Maloo’s captain.
We detached the French boat, though both boats went to the same place. As we made our way to this place, we passed a get “U” that that had been cut into the land beside the locks. It was immense, and filled with metal cranes. Here, they were constructing a brand new set of locks for the 100th anniversary. The largest ship that could transit the Panama Canal is called the Panamax ship, and we saw many of them, especially those anchored off of the causeway in the distance, giving off their own light pollution like a little floating city. After these new locks were complete, ships twice the size of the Panamax would be capable of transiting. These new ships can carry upwards of 9,000 containers.
The place both boats arrived to was a pair of giant steel and concrete buoys to which we promptly moored. The advisors were picked up, and we swam in the apparently caiman-infested lake water. After a meal and a few beers, I slept.
At 6am a new pair of advisors arrived, but I had already been awake for an hour, my alarm having been the hoot and howl of howler monkeys invisible somewhere ashore. This time aboard Maloo we had one advisor and one advisor-in-training.
“I don’t understand how people can do this,” the advisor-in-training, Roberto, said to me in Spanish once we were underway. No one else aboard spoke Spanish, so Roberto felt comfortable to speak freely. He only spoke freely after he must have decided that I could be confided in. Speaking a language well, and trying to speak it as though you’re from the place where you’re speaking it, lays way for the possibility of trust.
“Que quieres decir por eso?” I asked.
“I mean, I don’t understand how such young people can have a boat and just travel like this.”
“Well, some people sell everything they have to do it.”
“Is that enough?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, I suppose in most cases no.” I had already heard Maloo’s couple speak of money, and that they did sell everything, as did the Canadians. “I think you need to have money, and a good amount of it, to travel like this.” I thought about the vikings. “But that’s not always the case.”
“For a boat like this?” Roberto asked.
“I don’t know much about it.” I looked around me. I saw the Raybands, and the Rolex. I heard the complaints of fees, but everyone complains about fees. “Yeah,” I said, “these folks have money, or come from it.”
“Here in Panama, you have to work, for the family. You stabilize yourself, you don’t go off and spend it all on a boat to travel.”
“I suppose in the Western world there’s more independence, and more individual freedom… actually it’s not frowned upon at all. But you need money, yes.”
Hours later we were once more rafted to the French boat as we entered the third set of locks, called the Pedro Miguel Locks. We followed the same procedure as the previous day, only this time we had to keep the lines taut by letting them out through the cleats, for we were being lowered and could see the turbulence in the water as it was sucked out from the chamber.
We motored across Miraflores Lake to the last set of locks, named likewise. There, an observation platform was crowded with tourists snapping photos. Beside it I spied the fence where years ago I had sat to draw the locks. Back then, I had stayed in Panama City at the fire station depot, and had walked the way around to Balboa Yacht Club, to the locks, and to the end of the causeway. It was then that I learned that now is the time to be here looking for boats making the puddle jump. I did not feel so nostalgic as that. It seemed all the emotion in the air was in use by the couple of Maloo Maloo, whose faces were tearful as the last gate opened and the Pacific salt water encompassed the boat. Challenges. Feats.
By the time the day was ending, we had come around the island hills of the causeway to the Brisas anchorage. There was a strange boat that passed us, which looked like someone had sliced off the penthouse of some apartment building and plopped it into the sea. I learned later that this was the super yacht Venus, commissioned by the late Steve Jobs. It did not have the Apple logo on its hull.
The night we arrived back to Las Brisas, I left the boat and began wandering back toward Playita, but met Dirk along the way.
“Hey Cale! How did it go, you did the crossing no?” he said excitedly.
“Yea, well, it was a good experience. I didn’t really get to know Mike. He met another crew member. I dunno.”
Dirk made a face like he was about to sing soprano. “Aww, aww, aww,” he said. “You can’t be picky.”
“I guess. How much is ok per day?”
“To crew? I don’t know I don’t take crew. If I take crew it’s for company not because I need help. Oh, 6 or 7 I guess.”
“Some charge 20.”
“Bah! Who eats twenty dollars of food a day?”
“One night we ate well. You eat well on land. At sea it’s canned food always canned food.”
“I want to work for the crossing,” I complained.
“Yes, yes yes, you have a different idea. That’s ok ok. Hey, it’s good you’re back. The guys are leaving.”
“The vikings? Tonight?”
“Yea, I moved my boat next to theirs, Kate will come out and we’ll see them off.”
Kate presently showed up, and together we walked around to the Playita dingy dock. On Dirk’s boat we sat in the cockpit drinking beer and watching the Swedish vikings on their boat preparing it to leave.
“Everyone’s leaving,” I said.
“Ah, it’s ok, you have the Canadians. Canadians are cool. I’m Canadian.” Kate smiled quickly, and drank.
“Yea, I guess. We’re going to Las Perlas to ‘test’ our situation I guess.”
“That’s good!” said Dirk.
“Eh, I don’t know how I feel about them. I think they think more about money than me. Mike told me he was worried about having someone aboard who couldn’t ‘be social’, and their idea of ‘being social’ is going to restaurants and on tours. I told ’em I don’t do tours.”
“Ah! That’s not important, you’re going to be at sea, and once at sea you each have your little worlds and you try not to piss each other off.” Dirk puffed on a cigarette after closing this adamant outburst. “Like I said, if I make it across and my wife and we haven’t torn each others’ heads off, we will officially marry perhaps.”
Soon, Toby and Simon arrived in their dingy. Louie was sick and would not join this last and most intimate of shabangs.
The group was ending already. Already I had seen some cruisers I know leave, including Collin aboard Jeff’s boat, but now the vikings were leaving, and soon Dirk’s family would arrive and he’d be gone into the interior for two weeks with them. Kate was leaving aboard French Rafael’s boat, who had it planned to cross the Pacific as he did the Atlantic, by the stars alone. And, finally, it seemed possible that I too might be leaving aboard a boat, but in my chest I knew the thing was far from certain.
Nights at the end of the causeway seemed to always end with beer. The next morning we awoke to an absence that saddened us. Warskavi had gone off. I didn’t know if I would see them again, but having met the vikings and seen their marine vagabondish ways, I was glad to know that the assumptions of the boating culture are just like any other assumptions about any other lifestyle: they are subject to exceptions.
Dirk had said that I could stay aboard his boat, even while he was gone, for as long as I would need, and that I could use his dingy to visit boats at anchor, a perfect way to show that I’ve already been accepted into the boating world, and will you please consider me as crew? “The best experiences I had were with people who weren’t looking for me to join them,” one boater had said. As it turned out, the Canadians seemed to be looking for crew. Dirk would be gone when I would return from Las Perlas, from our ‘test’, and so we said our goodbyes. I said goodbye also to Kate, who that very day was gone with Rafael the stargazer.
Chapter 7 – Clouded Pearls
The fiberglass Lagoons are immense. Once atop the stairs that led from the water, looking down upon the depression in the boat where a full table and plastic benches had been formed in molds, and behind it the raised helm station, and behind that the sliding glass doors leading into a swath of luxurious space, a table, surrounded by cushions, and a kitchen area with enough space for a small ballet, and everything so big, well, you feel quite like you’ve entered a condominium, and not a boat.
A Lagoon is a make, like BMW, like Mercedes. It is a high-line catamaran brand, and as Dirk put it, “you can’t have a Lagoon and not have a lot of money, even if they did sell everything.”
Why so concerned with money? Why are they? They were the ones who came up with the idea of me making a book of drawings for them, depicting the voyage. When I said perhaps it could offset my daily contribution, Megan, Mike’s new wife, said, “oh, no, we wouldn’t want to pay for that, we just thought you’d do it.”
“When you said this morning to us on the radio that you were still unsure about the financial situation, we started to wonder if we should have you aboard. You see, we have been in that awkward situation where our poorer friends can’t afford to go out, and we feel weird buying stuff and they’re sitting there not.”
“What Mike means to say, Cale, is can you be social?”
“Megan’s right. See, Cale, I have starving artist friends in New York, and we can’t hang out with them anymore because of it. We were trying to stick to a strict budget on this trip, but we feel like it was making us miss the fun in the voyage.”
Megan butted in here, saying: “We’re not going to count every penny to try to stay below 5,000 dollars a month anymore, we’re just going to have fun. What we really want is someone who can be our friend, and on our level. Do you understand?”
They were sitting across from me at a Shoppette table. It felt like a conference. I wanted to say then and there that no, I couldn’t go with them if they cared so much about money. The only way anyone could match them is if they were to have a big enough pocketbook to ignore it completely. My gut told me to drop this chance, to not go to the Pearl Islands with them. Already they bored me. They seemed superficial, like a freshly cleansed product in a freshly cleansed shell. Things they laughed at, when they laughed, were not funny, and would not be funny for most of the people I know and respect. But, as the traveler, as the man looking to work and get somewhere and endure whatever it takes to get to where cultures will once more challenge his linguistic capacity, I responded in kind.
“Look guys,” I said, “I’m just trying to crew a boat. You talk about having someone who can be social, but you know, the only times we’d go ashore would be in the Galapagos, and then you’re leaving me in the Marquesas. I want you think of me as your crew, therefore, because that’s my business here.”
The next day we sailed to Las Perlas islands. Mike explained everything, even things that were painfully intuitive. I thought that perhaps he wanted badly to be that older captain from whom I learn something. Perhaps I should give him a chance to take that role, so I stayed my tongue. But he continued to try to teach me things that a child would know. In his mind he was teaching me the ropes, as they say, but in real time he was making me feel like a jackass.
He would not have the patience to let me fill in the blanks, or to decide something for myself about which way to wrap the sheaths, or how to prepare a cleat hitch. I spoke once of Worth, and that I’d learned from a Coast Guard commander this or that. It fell on deaf ears. I was not trying to outdo him, and I knew that a captain has his way aboard his boat and crew must be obedient. But a pressure threshold can only be so great before the dam bursts.
There were no conversations to speak of during the 7 hours crossing to the islands. We stayed for two nights. There were no conversations. They spoke of Dexter, the series that every night at 7 they would disappear to watch behind closed doors, and I’d be left to do the dishes or lock up and sit by myself getting to know the bland plastic and marine plywood of Lazy Bones MM’s interior. I’d sit and consider my gut, which by now was upset with me. It told me, “I told you. Didn’t I tell you?” Maybe if the Spaniard comes along as a forth, it would balance out. “How will having someone their age aboard make you more acceptable?” asked my gut. He’s European, and I get along better with Europeans, in general. “True, but maybe he cares more about being on the good side of the Canadians.”
When my gut had its fill, it left me alone, and I slept in the cabin. A spacious cabin, with a hatch inward to watch the waves break against the hull. I had a bathroom to reign over, which I had had to clean myself. I took showers with liquid soap that the Canadians provided. They had provisioned for my presence. The Canadians had told me, “look, you get your own cabin, and your own hull to yourself.” They wanted more money per day. That was a vibe that transmuted without noise. They seemed to want me to see this great deal that I was getting. They wanted me to look on the situation with eyes of a vacationer; for just ten dollars a day I get my own room! I get my own bathroom! I get access to the Pacific islands! Given, it sounds wonderful. But I wanted to work. I wanted to learn to sail and to maintain a boat. I wanted to spend my time with authentic people, and during such a long passage I wanted to expand my knowledge of anything, not dilute it by feeling dumb and empty of personality. And I cared nothing for money–I didn’t want it to have anything to do with my travel, it was this damn status quo of some boaters’ ideas of crew that was corrupting the true nature of the situation, which actually called for mutual compatibility in many more ways than one!
We anchored alongside a number of other boats. During the day, we met two French boats. Mike was initially outwardly hospitable to the idea of getting to know them. A blond Frenchman with a happy face invited us to the beach to have a fire and cook up our catch with theirs. I wanted so badly to accept, because already I knew this man by his face better than I knew this couple after days together. But I could only smile as Mike refused the offer, and the blond Frenchman motored off wordless from the Canadian cat to his boat Yapa.
The New Caledonian boat’s captain brought us two spear guns to borrow. Mike speared two while I shot only at the floating veil of dirt that the tide was bringing in. The Frenchman had said, “Je peux meme pas nager, il y en a trop de poisson ici.” Too many fish to even swim, the spear fishing was so good.
Each night ended at 7 with a high-pitched “goodnight Cale!” Mike’s way of talking started to irk my chain. Every sentence was sung as a question, whether or not it actually was. It created a false modern gentility, because really, the man had very little to say.
“America has no official language,” I said one day, when a conversation seemed to be blooming.
“No, the national language is English, all documents have to be in English,” Mike retorted.
“Right, but there is no official language, there’s a dominant language in practice, but the whole premise of the United States is that it’s made up of immigrants, and it should remain open to change.”
“The official language is English,” Mike repeated, hacking off the head of a fish he had just caught. We were motoring toward a new anchorage and the fishing lines had all gone taut.
“Well, here, for example, there are actually lobby groups that are trying to get English as the official language because–”
Mike stopped abruptly and had a sudden look of impatience dominated his pursed features. “Let’s just agree to disagree and drop it!”
The one time an exchange of words was becoming an interesting conversation, the man had to tear it apart with damning words. Emptiness. I felt more alone among this couple than alone in the middle of the Chilean desert. They nagged each other. Every exchange was tense between them. I vented to myself by musing that perhaps their new marriage was doomed from the outset.
A fool’s day if ever there was one. April first. All day images of possibilities passed before my eyes–with whom would I go? Would I shelve my concerns and bite this most bitter of bullets to go on with this couple? I knew they wanted crew, and I knew that I would probably go if given the chance–but oh! how I wanted something to keep me from them!
As we reeled in one last tuna, gutted it and cut off the head, the blood stank, the head thrown falls into the water. I look up to see the Panama City skyline approaching, shrouded in dark plumes of ashen cloud. It was like arriving to a new level of Dante’s inferno. There the dark silhouettes of industrial oil tankers on the horizon, penetrating a sticking haze. They must loose oil and crud into the sea, for already it had turned from Las Perlas’ green to a deep copper color, and it smelled rank. The same sound of lapping water that is refreshing is also sickening. Slowly the empty towers of oblivion appear. Further yet and rising unhindered to envelope Dante’s canvas, the ash clouds from hill brush fires. Black ash fell on the boat, mixed with the humidity, turned putrid. We were motoring, the steady bass hum of the engine, its heat, its metal and deathly explosions like a demonic knell or toll welcoming us back to putrefaction. I feel the pricks as we enter the dwindling spine of a storm. Wet ash on deck renders black the boat’s blood. I should feel a fool indeed to remain longer in this place. Pay this way, and salvage your time. Find your friends the Swedes or Dirk, and stomach a basic existence in the meantime crossing half the Pacific. This hand was dealt you–play it now! Flee this city!
Anchored once more in Playita, we went ashore to use the internet in Shoppette. The Canadians sat at a different table. It didn’t surprise me. Then I saw a familiar face.
It had been three days, but it turned out that Dirk was still there. He came bouncing by in a Panamanian hat, and when he saw me his face lit up and his arms flung out. We embraced, and though I did not catch their eyes, I felt the awkward heat of the Canadian couple examining us.
“You’re back! I thought you were gone, going, to the Galapagos?”
“Oh, well, you know, it was a test,” I said, aware that Mike could hear me.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, we’ll see, they have to decide.” I felt awkward. I was disengaged. I didn’t know how to act–here was my good friend and I didn’t know how to act.
I met Dirk’s wife and his 22 year old daughter. When they had left I immediately sat to my computer and wrote Dirk a message explaining that I was not myself because the Canadians were hovering nearby, and hell if I wanted them to have anything to do with my joy in seeing him and his family.
The next morning, I awoke to an empty boat. The Canadians had gone over to Maloo, and when they returned Megan had a clearly acted look of concern.
“Soooo,” as Mike begins often, high pitched, “we talked with our friends–” (our friends–I was never allowed to get to know any one of them–if what they showed me is who they are, I don’t think I care to be around them–so release me!) “–and we’ve decided to go by ourselves.”
I had packed my things the night before, and I could see the surprise on their faces when I sighed and said plainly once I resurfaced from the starboard cabin with my pack, “I need you to take me ashore.”
“Are you ok Cale?” asked Mike at the dock as I liberated myself from his dingy.
I did not say, “You’ve only wasted a week of my time.” I said, “I’m fine. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
I did see him around, but I greeted him no more. My gut was laughing at me, but in solidarity we fled the dock and felt free and clear to listen to each other from then on. From then on, my gut was in charge.
I made it in time to announce myself on the net, then I went directly to Shoppette to update my online crew profiles and speak with a few boat captains who had contacted me, one of which just so happened to be also anchored in Playita.
Dirk showed up, walking solemnly and finding me from behind. He patted my shoulder and sat at my side.
“I got your message. It’s too bad, but it’s cool. You shouldn’t go with them. And yea, that was crazy last night with the Canadians there not looking up when I was asking you, just staring at the computer.”
“They were listening,” I said.
“Of course they were listening, that’s what made it weird!”
His family came and sat at the table, and for a brief time I was able to feel relaxed and show them who Dirk knew, for the me they met in front of the Canadians was not me.
“I don’t want to have to put on some costume personality to get on a boat,” I said to Dirk. “I was myself with you, you invited me aboard, and we’re friends. Damn the fakes.”
“Damn them! Eat this I want nothing more to do with it.” A Milky Way.
I watched Dirk and family walk off. They would return in two weeks, but together we hoped that I was not there. I had never asked Dirk to crew with him, and I would not.
“I’ll see you in the Marquesas!” I yelled after him.
Chapter 8 – American Men
There was another Mike, or Michael, in the anchorage. His boat was called Epiphany, a common name to hear over the morning net. He was self-employed with his own sign company in San Francisco, which he’d ran since the age of 19. I had met him several times throughout the weeks. My… had it already been nearly three weeks?
Mike came by the table. He had the proportions of a big fellow, and silver-black shoulder length hair accented the silver-black goatee. I told him I’d be at ceviche.
Although I didn’t know Mike very well, as I watched him turn the corner I realized that he was one of the only boaters left that I knew and liked. The Swedes, gone. Kate, gone. Dirk, gone. Pete gone, and Jeff, gone. Collin, right over there walking this way. –Wait!
“Collin man!” I cried over-zealously. I was surprised, to say the least. Collin should be halfway through the San Blas islands on his way to Venezuela by now.
“Sup man? How’s it?”
“What? What the hell man? What are you doing back?”
“I wondered if you’d still be here.”
“Damn, man, sit.”
“Want a Snickers?” he offered the stolen chocolate.
“Ah, indeed, thank you kindly.”
We spoke then, and I learned that Jeff’s generator, with which he charged his batteries (instead of the common solar panel), had crapped out in Carti, near to the island Carti Sugdub, where I had hitched the African Queen years back. He and Jeff had returned via the Kuna Yala National Park and were now here, albeit Jeff somewhat frenetically.
We left Jeff with our packs and went into town for dollar burgers. We returned several hours later to a Jeff who had run out of patience. His blond tasseled hair shivered under his bronzed body’s stress.
“Where have you guys been? I been sittin’ here hours watchin’ your stuff.”
“Here Jeff a burger,” said Collin, handing him the thing. “It’s probably made of leftover meat.”
“Cheap is all I care I’m runnin’ low here.”
“I had to spot Jeff some cash,” Collin said, turning to me.
I liked that they were there. After the veritable pain that the last week with the Canadians had wrought on my intellect, I was glad to be among friends.
We met Michael at the ceviche place, drank our dollar beers, and when he asked us where we were staying now that Jeff’s boat was no longer around, and we replied that we’d go camp, he said, “ahhh, alright, well, I guess we can fit you all.”
So began a funky adventure in Michael’s tiny dingy. We were four men, three of us with our heavy and quite large backpacks. Michael didn’t seem fazed.
“I can row back if you want,” I said. “To pick up the packs, or someone can wait.”
“Oh…” said Michael in a plying voice of shame. “How’s that helpin’ our comadrie?”
So, we piled into the dingy and began the slow rowing. We sang. “Show me the way to go home… bum bum bum bum bu’I’m tiiiiired and I wanna go to bed….. had a little drink ’bout an hour ago, and it went straight to my head!”
We hadn’t made it very far by the time another dingy was passing us. He swerved and slowed, offering us a tow. At first, Collin held the rope as the motoring dingy pulled off. It pulled our dingy sideways and we were nearly swamped before the other noticed and let off the throttle. Finally Jeff transferred to our benefactor’s dingy, we tied up properly to his stern rope, and we were underway.
After thanking our benefactor, having passed our packs up to Michael, and tying off his dingy, we were finally resting pretty in Epiphany.
I slept feet to head on Michael’s bed, Collin on the opposite berth, and Jeff in the cockpit. The night, of course, ended with too much beer. There was one aspect to the night that I had not anticipated, but which I loved very much. Michael produced a small hookah, and from a canvas bag revealed mint tobacco and self-starting coals.
Alas! O! This is a strange world! Where one minute you convince your eyes to see a living hell from which you want so desperately to escape, because you’ve been there for three weeks and you’ve stomached the parting of all your friends and you’ve championed the irresoluteness of your gut that has brought you a week of blandness… and the next minute, you are once more among like-minded people who treat you as equal, who quickly turn the air into interesting vibrations to hear and to comment upon. You’re back, and of all the things to welcome you on your return to familiar faces, a hookah. And my, how you’ve missed hookah. You share, but slowly take in the cooling mint smoke, which you covet, with closed eyes, and reuse in a French inhale, and release slowly, so that the good feeling finds its way into your tired bones.
Chapter 9 – Becoming Territorial
We stayed two nights on Epiphany, finally leaving to give Michael space to work on boat lettering. It was, after all, a 28 foot boat. Jeff had gone off to find a new part for his outboard motor, and that was the last time we saw him. Collin had decided not to go to Venezuela after all, but to return to San Jose and further to Mexico. I could close my eyes and see a thousand memories from that country, and so naturally I agreed it was a good choice to return.
Before Michael deposited us at the dingy dock, I rowed over to a boat called Zenna. There I felt bizarre among the Australian woman with her English husband and departing Canadian crew. They wanted crew, after all, and asked for 100 dollars a week. I had decided that, at least to the Marquesas, I would pay 300 a month, but any more would be unfeasible. Down in the cabin I stood among these three, and it felt too strange to be there, having learned that their Canadian crew member was leaving for financial reasons, and that the two owners had decided not to take him at least to the Galapagos as he’d asked, even after he had already spent a month with them in Ecuador preparing for the puddle jump. I thought it cruel. But the couple already seemed kinder than the Canadians on Lazy Bones. I decided then to give them time to consider my budget.
In the meantime, my reunification with Collin was set, and it was now Thursday, three weeks exactly since we first walked the full length of the causeway. As if to celebrate an anniversary, we walked once more across to Balboa, my endless yapping and complaining accompanying us the whole way. There, we did a load of laundry, and best of all, we took free scorching hot showers.
That evening, after trimming our beards and donning fresh shirts behind a dumpster, we were at La Eskinita to partake in the discount pizza and beer among an unexpected and boisterous crowd of some 60 boaters.
Among this crowd was a trio of roaming Europeans looking to crew to Colombia. There was also a trio of Americans from New York and Missouri, also looking to crew to Colombia. I counted myself lucky, and told Collin that I was a lucky man to not have competition besides the purported wandering Frenchman. Everyone wanted to get to Colombia, to avoid that otherwise 600 dollar backpacker charter boat price.
All of these wandering souls were directed by various boaters that I knew and didn’t know to come to me. They all came and Collin and I together told them of their chances in Shelter Bay, we told them about the Net and about the billboards where they might post crew slips. We are now veritable authorities on the topic of crew.
Also among the crowd was a group of young people, one of which I had introduced myself to at the Shoppette. This was Tomas, the 32 year old French captain of his boat Karaka. I had recognized him. Months previous he had sent me an e-mail inviting me to crew on his boat, but finances would keep me from it. “That’s alright man, we do couchsurfing. We’re having a party tomorrow night, you should come!”
The night ended with handlebar moustache Roland, the Americans looking to crew, and Collin and I. By our 6th beer we were the only two left in the building.
“I spoke with Marion from Zenna tonight,” I said.
“She actually apologized for the strangeness on the boat when I went over there this morning.”
“Could be promising.”
“How much do they ask for?”
“100 dollars a week. But man, I have to think in terms of 8 months. That’s 3200 bucks just to get across the ocean. The Australian holiday work visa I’m eligible for until 30, but it costs 365 dollars and you have to apply for it outside the country. By the time I get across, I may very well have nil.”
“Well, shall we?”
We made our way back to the campsite, where I pitched my tent and he laid out on his footprint. Over the next few days we would wake early, walk to the Playita cafe and use the radio among the trio of Americans to announce our cases. Both moustache Roland and Bob from the line handling gig gave me references over the net to the whole fleet. Otherwise, things seemed like they had been the day we first arrived.
“It’s as if nothing has changed,” I said. “It seems like you never went with Jeff through the canal, and I was never in the Pearl Islands. There were no vikings, no Dirk, and Fatboy Slim never played here.”
We skipped stones when the tide fell sufficiently. I checked my email to see about contact from an owner of a 74 foot catamaran who was looking for a cook and a stewardess, a Scotsman I’d met the other day while waiting for Collin to shower.
“I pay my crew,” he had said.
“Don’t have to pay me,” I had replied.
“We’re going to Auckland. Maybe the captain might like an additional crew member. I’ll ask him.”
“You mind I ask what you do?”
“I’m retired. Yes it’s a big boat. I had a company that rented out generators.”
“We covered the Beijing Olympics,” and he smiled wide with flared teeth.
Collin and I started to get to know Florent.
He was the last one standing from the trio of Europeans. The Americans also stopped coming to the radio.
“So, what’s the story?” Collin asked him. We were the three of us sitting at the Playita cafe.
“Well, I’m here to talk with the Zenna people.”
I sat up. “You mean Marion and Mark?”
“Yeah.” Florent’s French accent rang through clearly.
“Oh. I thought you wanted to go to Colombia.”
“Maybe yes. Maybe I go to just the Galapagos, but they said they want someone for the French Polynesia.”
Collin and I exchanged glances, and Florent caught the look.
“Oh, man, I don’t know how I feel about it. I know you’ve been here, what, 3 weeks? I just got here and if it’s a question of just money I feel bad.”
I didn’t try to hide a sigh. “That’s the name of the game,” I said. “Just don’t listen to me, I’ll say anything to convince you not to go with them, probably.”
And I did. Florent had been traveling in Mexico and Central America, but never had he been to South America. He said he wanted to get to Asia because he thought South America was too touristy. Of course it’s just the opposite. I didn’t know how to use my words to make two years’ worth of experiences in South America seem worth the utterances. “How was Peru?” “It was great.” Damn it all.
The Zenna couple showed up, and brought Florent aside. It was the next day, and after a night of Florent coming with Collin and I to our campsite, we were back at Playita.
I had become territorial the night before. I heard Collin talking with Florent, telling him how great it would be if he decided to go to French Polynesia. It made me bitter and jealous. I felt betrayed by my friend, and I made him know it, though I doubt I did so with any clarity. The difficulty was that I liked Florent. I had no problem with Pete either when he was still here, but he had been there longer than I, and his meeting his boat had occurred in the first week. Here I was several weeks later, and no closer to finding a boat to crew except for this one opportunity. And just now, just when all it should take is their deciding to come down to my already inflated budget, another shows up, willing to have his plans entirely changed so that instead of one continent, he chooses another, and thereby replaces me as first choice. Bitter, by all means.
It speaks volumes of Florent’s character that he insisted on trying to get Zenna to compromise.
“I want to get to Ecuador,” he said. “But they don’t want anyone to Ecuador, they want someone to the Marquesas.”
“Maybe they take us both. More money for them, I get to Ecuador, and you get to French Polynesia.”
It was a good idea, and when he had gone off with the Zenna couple to talk, several minutes later he returned.
“Come with me, I think they’re considering it.”
We walked over then to the couple. Marion said in a dodging way that they still wanted 100 dollars per week, and could I do it? I was looking at nothing halfway down from her eyes. It was my gut that made the decision.
So much for that idea. Florent told them he’d decide at 3 whether to go with them, or to continue to search for a boat to Ecuador.
Collin left that same day. Impatience had sparked a fuse, and it had reached its charge. The goodbye was cordial, and I wished him well in his vagabonding, sad to see my closest friend in Panama leaving. “If you’re here in 2 months, I’ll come back and we’ll go pay for a night with some hookers.” These were his words of farewell, and then off he went to join the ranks of memory.
So here we were, Florent and I, sitting around the Playita cafe. At regular intervals of 15 minutes Florent stood, gaunt in his loose-fitting clothing, with a wisp of moustache following the blotting down on each newly-lit cigarette. He paced back and forth. Perhaps his singular choice was more difficult than all my weeks here combined. Perhaps I couldn’t understand.
That hour a group of boaters with some guys my age that I’d met the previous week sat with us as they waited for a dingy ride back to their boat. While they sat there chatting with us, a new French couple came up to me, telling me that the dingy dock guard had sent them. They wanted to crew to Colombia. I knew the folks sitting with me were leaving and were in desperate need of line handlers, so after a little explanation of Shelter Bay and what line handling entails, I had negotiated between French and English parties the boat’s quotient of helpers. The lady was so happy that she bought me a beer, a meal, and quite literally forced a twenty dollar bill into my hand. “You saved us!” she exclaimed.
Later on, Florent and I were again at the Shoppette. Again again again. I felt passive, sitting there beside Florent as he surfed the internet on my computer. Then something happened. It was a feeling I hadn’t sensed since I first met the Canadians. It was a rumbling, and a deep-downness that banged at the walls of my intestine, urging me to listen, crying for my obedience. What was on my mind? Nothing special, just the Playita cafe. That’s it then, I have to be there!
“Florent, man, I have to go.”
“I just need–”
“–hold on to the computer. Come over to the cafe when you’re done. Man, I have to go… I have a feeling. Last time I didn’t follow my gut I regretted it, and right now it’s telling me to get back to the dingy dock.”
“Alright,” he replied, and I was off with my pack.
There was no one at the cafe except the phantasmal Cedric, that wandering Frenchman who was also looking to get to French Polynesia. He came and sat with me. He asked me questions, and after the first dozen, I started answering them without emotion, so that he’d bore of me. They all concerned the matter at hand, the search, and how much money I spend, and his strange quirky smirks when I said something that to his mind made him a cheaper vagabond. I already knew that he had money, for he had spent days on the same boat as Kate before getting kicked off for slothfulness. He was kicked off a second boat as well. He was an O-K guy, like anyone, but he spoke only of things that caused the idea of cheapness to form in my mind.
Florent appeared with my computer in its grey backpack. I introduced Florent to Cedric, and leaned back to breath in some fresh air away from the discomfort. It was then that I recognized the blond Frenchman. There were already enough French around, but this was the Frenchman from the Perlas Islands that had been shirked by the Canadian couple when he had invited us to the beach for a fire. He and his friend walked up to the table beside us and sat down.
“How is the search going?” the Frenchman asked me in English.
“Oh, you know, it’s alright. You know?”
“Everyone knows. What happened with that couple?”
“I meant to apologize for that… I couldn’t be myself in front of them for some reason. They were empty of conversation. I didn’t go with them.”
He was a little tipsy already. His friend went to the counter and returned with three Balboas, tossing one to me. Florent and Cedric were still distracted by each other when the Frenchman and his friend wanted to smoke.
“We can’t here anyway, come on,” he said.
We walked to another set of tables away from the cafe and the others. We sat and cracked the Balboas.
“Oh, good good good,” said the Frenchman. “The girl she looked like she was going out clubbing in New York or something.”
“The Canadian couple, yea,” I said, swigging off the cool beer. “They were high class. Even mentioned my appearance on a few occasions.”
“What? Man. Yea, it’s probably good you didn’t go. What’s your name by the way?”
We introduced ourselves. Isham was his name, and he was actually French-Moroccan. His father had been the ambassador to the US. He spoke fluent French, German and English. His German friend’s name was Guido, who also spoke English without much of a German accent. They had unshaven faces, and somehow I fit in with them. I knew this, and it was only the first 5 minutes of our acquaintance.
“It’s also a bit complicated with couples,” said Guido. He did not speak slowly, but softly, and composed well his words. Isham shared this trait, and in our short interchange already I felt it worth more than all the time I’d spent on Lazy Bones.
He continued: “on my boat, with my girl, and my son, I don’t know.”
“Yea, I guess that’s it, it’s difficult. It might have been OK with the Canadians were there a 4th person, but…”
“No, no man,” Isham said, “don’t think like that, you shouldn’t have been on that boat.”
“I guess not.”
“How long have you been here?” asked Guido.
“A bit longer than three weeks.”
“Oh, a long time.”
“I always said to myself it would take over a month, but I never believed it. It’s just that crewing isn’t quite what I want it to be.”
“How is that?”
“Oh? Well, I always just wanted to work on a boat in exchange for food and passage. Like a pirate. Why do crew have to pay? It doesn’t make sense. I guess I’ve been holding out for a delivery boat.”
“Those are a rare thing to find, and they don’t stop anywhere long.”
“I guess not,” I conceded. “But I was hoping.”
“So where are you trying to go?” asked Guido, taking a slow drag off the dwindling butt.
“French Polynesia–I mean, Australia I suppose. I want to get to Asia. I want to learn new languages… I’m kind of tired of English already, and I speak French and Spanish.”
“Are you good with kids?”
“Kids? Oh I dunno, I guess. I’m shy around kids.”
I glanced up to see Isham and Guido looking at me carefully.
“Well, ok, come out to the boat, meet the family. We had tried to find people, but it was too much of a headache online. But let’s see.”
Chapter 10 – Sairam So Long
I must have had a stupid look on my face. I didn’t expect it. I still can’t believe it happened as it did, with two guys as cool as these, who never listen to the Net, who never were looking for crew anyway, and who were now inviting me out to meet the family.
I took long strides across to the table where Florent and Cedric were talking. I gathered my things with a wide grin, said goodbye to the two and disappeared down the dingy dock ramp with Guido and Isham.
Isham had his boat Yapa also anchored in the bay, but he came over with us to Guido’s 50′ aluminum catamaran.
“The boat is Sairam, it’s Sanskrit,” said Guido, softly.
From afar I recognized the boat. It was the most interesting looking boat of the fleet. I had been aboard Lola with Dirk when they had arrived two weeks previous, and I had commented that it looked like a tank. Though, I had never seen Guido on shore.
“If I don’t want to be seen, no one sees me,” he joked, with a long smile and peerless blue eyes.
Aboard Sairam I met his lady, Angelika, also of clear eyes, and their three year old son Luk, a naked boy running amok until he spotted me and hugged close to his mother.
The boat itself, as Guido described it, was a Polynesian-style catamaran. Its two aluminum hulls were long and sharp, connected by four stout beams of wooden sheets epoxied together. Guido had built aft of the cabin house and cockpit an area of teak planks that served as a patio. Inside the cabin, which was open to the elements, there was a small desk to the left, a kitchen area to the right, and a horseshoe area of cushions sitting comfortable around a table, and the whole space was lit through large tinted windows.
Above all, the boat had character. There were children’s toys strewn about. Legos reminded me of my childhood. Industrious little Luk had tied things together in all different assortments.
“Sometimes the whole place is like a spider’s web,” said Guido.
“I like it, I like that there is a sense of order among the disorder.”
“Most people want their boats perfect. These plastic boats, I don’t learn from them, I learn from this one, it’s a floating workshop. For the plastic boats I give a shit.”
“You mean you don’t give a shit.”
“Is it that? I have said this for years and you are the first to correct me.”
“It’s a pleasure to help, I hope it doesn’t annoy you.”
“By all means, correct me. Maybe you could teach Luk English on the passage. He needs English from a native speaker.”
“I have English teaching certificates.”
Along each hull were the hatches by which the individual berths and storage spaces were accessed. Unlike a normal catamaran, through whose hulls one could walk, Sairam’s hulls were sectioned off by aluminum welded bulkheads, each section accessible only from above. Already aluminum boats are stronger than fiberglass ones, but in the case of Sairam, were the hull breached, only that ruptured section would flood, but Sairam would not sink.
“So it is a tank,” I offered.
“It is, yes,” agreed Guido.
I stayed with the family for an hour or so, had a beer with Guido, and decided not to stay aboard on this first night, to give them room to breathe, them having just met me.
Guido dropped me back at the dingy dock, where for the tenth time I had to weasel my way out of paying for a bracelet. I shouldered my pack, and walked. A feeling of elation grew in me, such that each step became lighter and lighter until I could hardly feel the weight of my pack.
At the Shoppette I stole Snickers and sat with the crew from Karaka, my happiness having invigorated me and made me especially personable. The young crew’s captain Tomas showed up, and they gathered themselves to return to the boat for the party Tomas had spoken of. I went along with them, rowing out to their 53′ black hulled ketch, which fit very much in the role of pirate ship.
The deck seemed much higher above the waterline once aboard, and I discovered an incredibly spacious living situation. Tomas gave me the tour. It took a minute to reach the bow, and then back at the stern where ten people were comfortably sprawled and talking and drinking, we entered the cabin house. Past two berths on the supposed mezzanine level was a ladder leading into the main cabin area where a living area shared the space with the kitchen. Random things were plastered to the walls. There were posters, pictures of past crew, instruments, miscellaneous souvenirs got from what adventures I could only imagine. There was a classic bookshelf filled with kind of copy you find publish under Penguin Classics. There was a huge reference library, and stacks of sailing magazines.
The night unfolded, and wine turned my mouth to blabbering jokes. I sat below deck for a time listening to Tomas’ story. He bought the boat for one dollar when it was about to be destroyed in a Hong Kong harbor. 25,000 dollars and 9 months later he had renovated it and turned the sturdy beast into its present self. For 6 years he has been sailing the world, and using the boat as a floating cooperative, where crew come and pay 100 bucks a week to maintain the ship, in addition to food costs. Though the financial contribution was beyond my means, his spiel convinced me of his project’s value, and I could vouch to the uniqueness of their boat and the boat’s circumstances. Karaka’s would be a wonderful adventure to share in.
Before sleep swept through the vessel to take everyone to its special dimension, there was one last surprise on this day of days. It had to do with a cute Bulgarian girl who had been sitting next to me in the stern. She said her named was Elena, and when I glanced once more at her, I realized that I recognized her.
“You’re not Elena from Gone with a Backpack are you?”
“Yes, how did–oh! You’re Cale, you have velabas!”
Of all the people in all the places, it was on the deck of a ketch floating in Panama City Bay and sipping on box wine that I met someone I’d been linked to for years.
The next morning I was sitting around with several boaters at the Playita cafe when Guido and Angelika, who went by Geli, came over to me from the dingy dock. In his soft and patient way, Guido related to me their decision. They would like to have me aboard.
I decided to spend one last night on dry land, to come full circle and engage in one last American culinary hour. Bennigan’s. I ate chicken strips. It was an apt way to see off the American continents. I had finally found the boat that would bring me face to face with the Pacific crossing, and my gut was appeased in more ways than one.
Several days aboard Sairam. I have taken apart and cleaned the main winches. Guido has said that I must be Swiss for the perfectionism. We fashioned additional supports out of cut aluminum tubing, and screwed in to prepare for a new polyester roof. We replaced the headsail. An 8-strong battery bank is now installed. There is work to be done yet, and in the Perlas Islands we will beach the boat, clean it, sand it, and apply anti-fouling.
“Will you work?” Guido had asked.
“Of course,” I had replied. “That’s what I’m after.”
“You work, and you will be a part of the boat, don’t worry about money.”
Kate returned, and so did Dirk. The full circle has been completed, and at the last possible moment, for tonight we depart. We leave Panama City in its haze, and look to the horizon. Onward, then, to the Galapagos, perhaps to catch the Swedes, but surely to ride parallel with Isham, Dirk and future friends!