Out in the harbor among a few dozen vessels anchored and bobbing slightly in the water was a catamaran and a man aboard frantically moving about from bow to stern. He grabbed pieces of equipment and moved them. He reached over the stanchions at loose spring lines blowing in the wind and tied them down to deck cleats. He would take a moment and stand upright, staring off at the other boats, but he never seemed to turn toward the shore, where I sat watching him as I absently peeled an orange and smelling the citric scent of micro explosions. The salty breeze dried my lips. I wetted them and squinted at the captain aboard his sailboat.
It had been over two years since I knew the man. Now staring out at his boat the African Queen, which is not the most original name for a boat, I wondered if I would see him in the days it would take me to meet a captain bound for Panama. I thought to our brief time, from the small Kuna Island of Carti Sugdub, a rash encounter when he tore me down, to the meal he bought me in the restaurant where I’d already been working, and to his eventual resolve to at least discount the price, and it having been my birthday, I had agreed to go along on his tour for the halved cost. He had thrown a 4 night stay on his second boat in Cartagena into the deal. Perhaps he was always bitter about it–I don’t know. In any case, it was he who had brought me from Panama to South America for the first time.
I didn’t know then as I peeled the orange, but I would not be seeing him at all, despite my constant presence at the Club Nautico marina, and despite my contacting him online. It didn’t bother me–ours would be an artificial encounter anyway, him a fucking businessman and me a fucking artist.
So the stout captain returned to his chores aboard his sailing yacht, unaware of the vagabond contemplating his supposed friendship from ashore. So it goes.
I never did find a place to stash my backpack during the days, so I would walk dripping weight through the narrow streets of Cartagena greeting Spanish balconies of intricate carved balusters’ balustrades with my upturned gaze. Cartagena, like so many cities in Latin America, is named for its Spanish counterpart. The Spanish–the missionaries, the conquistadors, the adventurous gold diggers. They surely left their mark upon the land, and in the most violent and dazzling ways. The violence of Catholicism and the violence of lust for lavishness and luxury created Cartagena, and accounts for its expansive battlements and forts. Hundreds of years previous, the gold craze found its port of exportation in Cartagena. It created a wealth unparalleled elsewhere, and of course it fomented greed, envy and death. These are not things that cross the mind as you blink innocently at the fantastic facades of deep yellow or orange, the involved frescoes and mosaic red tile entryways and chipping plaster murals. If blinking made the same noise as cameras, the noise might be doubled in Cartagena’s streets. Cartagena, surely a jewel of the continent, is not quite self-sufficient, tourists being the blood running through its narrow street arteries to nourish all its locales.
The Ultimate Plan to Crew a Boat from Cartagena to Panama and Beyond
Dear all cruisers on the net, my name is Chael. I’m 26 years old, male, from Chicago. I am a patient person. I am calm, independent, adventurous and motivated. I am hitchhiking around the world, and have spent around three years so far in Latin America. I have crewed 2 short passages before, from La Paz to Mazatlan in Mexico and from the San Blas Islands to Cartagena once before. I do not get seasick. I am very friendly and conversational. I write and draw. I can cook, clean, wash clothes, keep long watches, line-handle, read aloud, play games, ghostwrite your autobiography, anything really. I’m trying to crew to Panama in order to join a crew headed across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand or anywhere on that side of the world. Contact me and let’s have a coffee to see if we’re a good match. Happy sailing!
Accompanied by three pictures of my naive smile, these words formed a page-long notice which the day after I arrived to Cartagena I had pinned up to the board of the Club Nautico marina. Two years ago the marina was not under construction. Two years ago it still had a dainty corrugated metal wall and flimsy tearing tarps as shade as it did now, but the space in front of the concrete dingy dock was occupied by a couple of tables where cruisers would gather for a beer, and where I had planned to mingle, pitch my case, and eventually meet that compatible captain in need of crew to Panama.
“You can’t enter.”
These were the words the doorman greeted me with.
“Pablo has nothing to do with backpackers. You have to pay to get to Panama.”
The man was in his mid-thirties. I watched his eyes dart around me, never into mine. He was awkward, lowering his head in contemplation and then uttering hashed-out rules of the dilapidated marina.
To be sure, the docks were well-kempt concrete walkways crowded with motoring and sailing yachts, and the small cohort of local men, all older and grumbling amongst themselves about one incongruent piece of gossip or another as they leaned back in white plastic lawn chairs lined along in the shade; they were actively inactive. Already a few cruiser-looking fellows and ladies had past through the gate–a jerry-rigged metal frame with fencing drawn over it. The “cruiser”. That is, anyone with a sailboat and long term intentions to cruise. The cruiser was usually skinnier, often with strange proportions, or with pointy and broad shoulders, tan and hairless skinny calves and weather-worn features.
“Look,” I said to the gatekeeper, who was dressed in a dirty navy blue mechanics jumpsuit. “I’m not a backpacker, I’m here to meet captains. I put my notice up on that board yesterday, remember? You let me in then.”
His eyes darted. “Yes,” he said. He pointed to the area just outside and left of his gate, a sun-drenched tiled area once part of a bathroom that had been demolished. “You can wait here. Talk to captains.”
“Can I at least use the bathroom?”
Darting eyes, contemplation. I watched his face, and observed deep pores on his cheeks. “Yes, here.” He pointed behind at a portable toilet.
I would eventually find trust with this gatekeeper, although a day was wasted when I deferred to him the task of stopping captains with whom to start a conversation. He would stop the charter captains, the Colombians he was familiar with.
The sailing journey between Panama and Colombia is a lucrative business. There are dozens of charter boats geared toward backpackers, who pay 500 to 600 dollars for a 5 day journey through Panama’s San Blas islands to arrive to that country’s mainland. I’d done that already, albeit for a fraction of the price, and I was not looking for fun. I wanted to crew, to learn how to sail, to help a captain who wasn’t in it for money.
“I take backpackers,” said a leathery man from behind a thick pair of sunglasses which, any way he swung it, they would appear oversized for his head. His hair was raggedy, more so than my own. I felt for a moment that our dirty heads were in a stand-off. That man was stand-offish anyway, and he turned a very cold shoulder to me mid-sentence. This was of course not a cruiser, but a businessman sailor, and after several more of their kind were coerced into speaking with me by the doorman, I said that I would take over asking whom I pleased. This entailed stopping all the foreign-looking non-Colombians walking in and out of the marina, because marinas are mostly Australians, North Americans and Europeans anyway.
One day I came back to the marina to discover that someone had ripped down my notice.
“It cost me 1,500 pesos,” I complained to the doorman. “You didn’t see who tore it down?”
“Maybe others looking to work?”
“There are no others,” I muttered. “I bet it was those damn charter captains.” I fumed silently outside the marina entrance. The lack of a marina bar was a setback. Instead of talking over beers to appear on level ground with captains, I was a bum sitting outside, exiled from their community. How I ever would make headway like this was uncertain.
I had to lug the pack around town, to the center when I wanted to draw, to an intersection 8 blocks away called “El Trebol” where I could eat two large papas rellenas for a dollar. The doorman was unmoving in his obvious gatekeeper exaggerated indoctrination, and would not allow me to leave it in the marina office, which was piled high with nonsense anyway.
On couchsurfing, Cartagena is filled with flashy photos of male hosts without their shirts, looking to get laid by their female guests. So it goes. I came with the intention of sleeping on the streets like my 10 days sleeping in Santarem. And so it would be.
It was with no small amount of luck that the Club Nautico marina happens to be in an area frequented by police patrols. It is a somewhat upscale neighborhood, though not as Miami-esque as the Boca Grande towers across the bay. I assumed that this would be to my advantage having perused the area on satellite maps before arriving and deciding on a small green space 10 minutes’ walk north of the marina.
When I found the small space, it was as I’d expected. The walk from the marina follows the inward curve of the bay, slight waves lapping against its 2 foot stone wall. Palms and bushes dot the way, along which rollerbladers and bicyclists pass me and pull away their sideways glances when I look up. On my torso the same rat-ass tearing synthetic worn jeans-patched dirty gray shirt I’ve had since I left Oregon 3 years previous. Minimalism–use until used beyond use.
I found the green grass space I’d spotted via satellite sitting proper beside the bulwark gates of an even more exclusive pier hosting only two mega-catamarans. There was a small car park, a hotdog stand with plastic chairs set out for customers, and a row of palms dipping their trunks seaward. Here, I decided, I would make camp. Of course, I didn’t know how popular this spot would turn out to be, and I’d arrived in time for the weekend madness.
I eyed the gates of the pier, and a small guardhouse light suggested to me someone was there. When I approached, a guard came to the bars to greet me. At first he was stolid, impassive as a buttress, but after brief conversation, his name was revealed to be Luis Gomez, the night watch. I dropped my pack and we spoke for hours as the revelers of parties occupied the grass and made brutal the otherwise breezy atmosphere.
Luis Gomez held up his hand with fingers pressed together. “Like I told you before, this place gets packed.”
“So I won’t be able to camp here after all?” I probed.
“Camp? Sure you can! I’m here all night. Just wait until they go away, and put your tent over under the palms. Not too close to the gate here because my supervisor will give me hell.”
“I might be here a few days, or longer,” I said.
“Fine by me. But I don’t know what the cops will say.”
“But go ahead, maybe they won’t bother you.”
On the same night I arrived in Cartagena, to the gentle green grass of this park in front of the muelle turistico, as the pier turned out to be called, a pair of Canadian navy patrol boats moored at the end of the pier. From my tent, eventually pitching it despite the lingering revelers, I would listen for 3 straight nights to the loud screams of drunk Canadian sailors returning from Boca Grande parties. I thought about the American Secret Service prostitute scandal, which happened over there in Boca Grande–the towers at night reveal that they’re virtually uninhabited–I entertain the idea of visiting the district.
“I was a solider,” said Luis Gomez one night that he’d gifted me a hamburger. “Lots of death, lots of friends that died. I like this better.” His round, dark face hosted his features such that the florescent lights around brought out the whites of his eyes in stunning clarity. “I’ve killed people, but I never enjoyed it.” He turned and motioned to the empty park space behind the gate, behind him. “This is much nicer than the jungle.”
We spoke of Chavez, and he said that the poor of Colombia are idiots who don’t understand that leader’s intentions.
“We are dumb. We listen to our government. It’s very corrupt. We assume that Chavez is bad because that’s what we’re supposed to believe. Really though, the changes he has done would help the poor, dignify them.”
We didn’t know then, but in a week Chavez would be dead and Venezuela would be thrown into uncertainty. So it goes.
It was probably Friday or Saturday night. I talked especially long with Luis Gomez, the soldier. I feel anxious for the soldiers who never get their war–professional standbys. Some get their war, and realize it’s not for them. Some get their war, and it blinds them.
Leaning against a palm tree was a couple sucking at each others’ mouths. A man drinking and of uneasy grit spat and pissed into the water. From a pick-up truck a short wide man in glasses like goggles and a horizontally striped polo shirt helped a woman out of the passenger seat. He held her hand, and she adjusted her ass-high zebra skirt, tight around her girth. Her chest protruded unnaturally, and her thin jawline rapidly masticated gum such that her gold hoop earrings shivered and returned the copper glint of streetlights. She had streaks of face paint across her cheeks. The unlikely couple sat to hot dogs. I thought about the Secret Service.
A black Carib Colombian woman in colorful designs came into the marina one day, because now I was in, with a large metal bowl filled with bananas, mandarins and avocados atop her head. I found Johnny and the Canadian Katie again. I learned from them about the Universidad Tecnologica, not 3 blocks away. There I would spend many hours in an air-conditioned, 24-hour university library, writing, and posting crew availability notices on online sailing forums.
Through experience at Club Nautico and at other marinas, I came to decide that there must be different classes of cruiser and sailor, just as there are in any microcosm lifestyle. Some see crew position seekers as leeches, freeloaders to be brushed aside like a hitchhiker dirty on the side of the road. Some, however, and indeed most, see us as legitimate crew and regardless of their need for crew, will dignify us with their level attention and treat us as equals. The charter boat captains gave me the impression that they see “crew” as potential paying customers, like a bus or taxi would see a hitchhiker as a potential paying customer. Of course it’s absolute nonsense: the hitchhiker is hitchhiking, he will not be and never was an otherwise paying customer, and someone picking him up is not stealing possible earnings from taxi services. The same goes for crewing, the only difference being that crew generally pay for their own food aboard.
The second, hand-written announcement I had posted to the notice board when my flashy in-color page had been torn down, was in turn torn down. I was beginning to suspect someone with a motive, and the more I considered it, the more I blamed the charter boat captains in my head. The days came hot, and my fury at this small act of insolence toward my efforts boiled the roots of my hair. Fortunately, I would soon have reason to feel elation.
“So, there you are Chael,” he said. It was the American captain with whom I’d spoken the other day. I’d caught him as he was heading into the marina and I was sitting in the demolished bathroom.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I was in the marina this time. “Look, I’m admitted.”
“Good. Well look, what do you say we go into town, I haven’t been for years. You can leave your pack in my dingy.”
I stashed my backpack in the rubber dingy and we exited the marina. We made our way across a bridge through the cut-away section of ring wall toward the center, and through the tourist-clotted veins of Cartagena. We found a cafe that served ice coffee and he treated me to a cup. In the blistering air outside, it’s enough to wrap your sweating fingers around a cup of ice to feel instantaneous flight.
Sitting in the cafe, we talked. I had made a quick spiel a day previous outside the marina as he had arrived. I’m from Chicago, I’m looking to crew, I’m hitchhiking around, I speak Spanish and French and Portuguese, I this I that I do it all what do you say what about you? I had mentioned that I write literary non-fiction about my travels instead of that travel blog bullshit, and I noted his ears perk. As it turns out, he is a man of letters. Over iced coffee we spoke of literature and life. In a brief hour we had remade our worlds for one another, his a length of 69 years beginning in North Carolina and seeing the world through books and the Coast Guard, and mine of less time but road worthy all the same.
Outside the main entrance to the city center, fronted by a tall clock tower atop the main triple-arched gate, we stood in a wide plaza. A breeze came through and brushed his silver hairline backward. I imagined my thick mass of hair not moving at all, and perhaps he noticed. The sky’s blue looked particularly saturated. He looked around and then turned to me.
“Well Chael I think I can take you to Panama. I’m heading to Bocas del Toro. We’ll leave tomorrow or the day after.”
“Oh excellent!” I exclaimed. “You’re going to have to give me your name I think I failed to ask it.”
“Worth? Like, worth?”
The gatekeeper asked and I told him that I’d met a captain with whom I could crew to Panama. Within a few hours I had come across the Italian girl, Katie the Canadian and Johnny. Besides them, it seemed to me that all the old men in the shade on their plastic chairs giving me thumbs up and smiling for the first time also knew that I had joined a boat to Panama. It is interesting when it is revealed to you in such a way that you’ve been a subject of gossip.
On the day I was supposed to be acquainted with the ship, Worth came to me beside the dingy dock with a frown and announced the sour news that he had come down with a strong fever. I would therefore camp one last night under the palms by the port. After 5 nights the police had still not bothered me despite the proximity of their patrols and likely sighting of my tent.
The following morning I heard Luis Gomez call me over from his guard station at the gate. I hadn’t seen him for several nights, so it surprised me to see the soldier there in the daylight hours.
“So, what of it?” he asked. “Are you going to Panama then?”
“In fact yea,” I told him. “Found a boat.”
“Excellent. There was a Russian guy one time come to do the same thing, but I don’t know if he ever succeeded.”
“I only know of a French traveler who came through here. Hey, by the way, the police seemed not to care about me.”
“Ah.” He wore a strange expression, so I urged him on. “Well,” he continued, “the two police on the motorcycle patrol came to me on one of the first nights you were here, and asked me about you. They thought you were a spy.”
I looked at him then intently, interested. “A spy?”
“Well, not a bad spy, a spy for the Canadian boats.”
“You mean those two patrol boats that left yesterday?”
“That’s right. They thought you were counter intelligence, camping here like a homeless person in order to hear of any plots to go out there and cause trouble, or something like that.”
“So they left me alone because they thought I was protecting the Canadian boats? Me, a dirty traveler in a crappy tent?”
“That’s… that’s awesome.”
She was 36 feet long from bow to stern, a sleek fiberglass sloop I would later hear called from an older Australian sailor a “true sailboat”. “There aren’t many true sailboats anymore,” he will continue, “but Satori is one of ’em”. That’s the name, Satori. She sat bobbing in the harbor waters, just behind the African Queen, whose captain I was glad was nowhere to be seen.
We approached from the starboard side in Worth’s dingy, the rushing wind across my ears ballooning my intrinsic sense of travel underway, that upwelling of gratefulness for movement that in and of itself justifies the voyage.
I wrapped the dingy line around a cleat and Worth immediately examined the tie-off, adjusting the knot and showing me the proper way to tie a cleat hitch (one over two, one over two). Aboard Satori after climbing over the stanchions, I found myself in her cockpit. The benches were slated with wood and double as extra storage for hoses, water jugs, life jackets, fire extinguisher, diving gear, spring lines, mooring lines, winch handles and any of a number of various sailing necessities and non-necessities. Above the back bench was a metal panel that read “Rival 36, Rival Yachts Limited, Woolston, Southampton, England.” Forward of there was the great silver wheel and solid pillar crowned with a bulb compass. It was an attractive helm, and the sewed-on coarse material for the wheel’s grip was visibly used.
The entire cockpit was shielded by a beige canvas stretched over a frame of aluminum bars, with clear plastic windows that looked out over the bow beyond the mast. The main sail’s boom line was drawn to a winch in the cockpit above the cabin entry. Four additional winches, two on each side, flanked the cockpit and would serve to take out the slack of the headsail sheaths and to adjust tension on other lines. The winch handle was loose and could be picked up and locked into whichever winch was in use.
The mast towered above the bulk of the vessel, and a number of metal cables anchored to the deck would hold it steady. Forward of the cockpit were the tiny rectangular cabin porthole windows along the edge of the coach roof, two hatches that when opened catch the wind, and a set of water and fuel jugs tied to stanchions.
Worth slid out the wooden panels of the cabin entrance, and pushed back its shield. We descended the ladder and I was suddenly in the cruiser’s world. Here in the small cabins of the ocean-faring vessels men lay restless as they must contend with the ocean’s tendency to change unpredictably. To my left was the kitchen. The small sink was operated by a foot pedal, the purified water faucet by needle-nosed pliers. A counter doubled as the refrigerator box, and in between it and the sink was a two-burner stove on a gimbal that would allow it to remain level on a pitched keel.
Opposite the kitchen, to the right as you face the bow, was a small desk area with a laptop and keyboard. On the wall a number of radios, a barometer, reference binders, and the circuit board of the boat. “Make sure this LPG control is turned off after we use the stove–it wastes a hell of a lot of water.” In the time I would spend with Worth I’d learn to appreciate the particulars. He was careful with resource usage, and methodical in the working and functioning of the boat. The boat was his home away from home, maybe mostly of heavily varnished teak trim and plywood bulkheads.
“Here is the bilge pump,” he said, grabbing hold of a black lever behind the desk and before the quarter berth, which would be a bed if not already used for storing misc items. “Give it a few yanks every once in a while to clear the hull of water.”
“Water in the hull?”
“Boat can’t be totally flawless… water has to come in through the motor’s drive shaft.”
I nodded and turned in to the cabin. Beyond the first bulkhead were two parallel berths–couch-like benches under which were stored tupperware and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of canned foods. Above the bench backs were storage compartments filled with books. There was a table in the middle of the cabin, also doubling as extra storage, in this case the treats that would humor Worth’s sweet tooth. Beyond the second bulkhead to the right was a closet and to the left the head, or bathroom. Worth explained the toilet. “Set your knee on the top and start pumping to create the suction, that’s how the head works.” Finally there was the V berth up in the bow, where Worth slept on an elevated mattress. “We won’t be using the V berth while we’re underway, gives you a headache.”
I slept in one of the cabin berths. And as I laid there looking up through the tinted lense of the hatch at the dim starlight, and feeling the steady rock and roll of the boat, knowing that I lay now below the waterline where the fishes sleep, I thought of the divergence of worlds, and especially my own here traveling so. One moment I’m sweating as I dig a hole for a post in Northern California. The next I’m standing in an office 63 floors up, watching the minute yellow taxis move along their grid. Another moment later and I’m accompanying a large trucker as he takes his rig barreling down a mountain road. Still another moment later and I find myself hunkered down in my tent in the middle of a large Colombian city. The subsequent moments combine, and now, here in the cabin berth, I find that I’m awaiting a favorable wind to carry me on into the next strand of unlikely and unpredictable moments.
At 3 a.m. Worth emerged from the V-berth.
“Well I’m up. So. Let’s see about this then.”
The plan had been to leave this early in order to make room for the boat at our stern, a charter boat which Worth knew was leaving today, and had said that he would have to move his boat in order for them to take up anchor.
We snuck up to Satori’s bow. Still unfamiliar with the movement of the floating boat, I made sure to hold fast to the wire mast cables and the safety lines which ran through the stanchions as a last defense against going overboard. Worth opened the anchor hatch and with a steel rod inserted into a gear pulley, began to crank up our anchor. I observed, and committed the process to memory in case I’d be called to it.
Along the bay line the lights of Cartagena buzzed, but the city slept in stillness. The sound of the crank and dragging chain dressed the quiet morning view in a veil of contrast. I looked down at my feet, bare and aboard. This was it, I supposed. I was leaving South America behind.
Worth took a halyard, a free spring line hanging from the mast, and attached it to the dingy, which I steadied in the building wind as he lifted it on a winch. We weighted it down to quit its air, folded it, wrapped it in a black canvas and tied it down to the deck. The anchor up, we were then underway with the motor.
Soon we were clear of the anchorage, boats galore left to our wake. We were the single sailboat, the only boat for all I could tell, motoring between the great blue cranes of the container ship port on the port side, and the empty towers of Boca Grande to starboard. I took the helm. “Find the green buoys, stay to the left of them,” said Worth.
“Left of the green,” I repeated. Worth had told me when I’d been curious that orders in the Coast Guard and indeed in the navies of the world are acknowledged by repetition. I fell into the swing of things, although somewhat self-consciously of the way it made me sound.
“I’m gonna make a head call,” he said, and disappeared below.
Alone at the helm, alone with the beckoning mouth of water, I followed the blinking green lights. “Red right returning,” Worth had said. An idiom, as it turns out, to remember that you are to stay left of the red light on entering a port, and right of it heading out to sea. I craned my neck to look up at the white steamer light atop the mast, announcing out motoring. On the bow was the green port light on the left and red starboard light on the right, and behind the helm the white light of the stern.
Worth emerged from the cabin and looked out over our course. He took a moment, thinking. I was sure not to interrupt his thought, and I would learn that when he was busy thinking, my silence was appreciated.
“I’m just thinking,” he would often say, and then elaborate on the thought, which, when prompted by the latter, would have something to do with the immediate considerations regarding the sailing and the boat.
“I’m just thinking,” he said, “we’ll try to leave through the narrow exit here around the bend.”
When we came around the tip of Boca Grande, the last of its towers like failing lighthouses, we were staring out into the blackness of the Caribbean Sea. The waves had grown to 5 feet from trough to crest and by now Worth and I were each geared up in red and yellow harnesses. Worth squinted into the dark at the narrow passage before us, peering through the blue binoculars and then bare-eyeing it again. The mouth of the bay was quite large, but only a narrow corridor provided a way out. Cartagena, in its history as a gold port, was invaded and sacked so many times by privateers and corsairs that today the incredible number of ramparts and walls remains. From the left and right side of the mouth of the bay were underwater walls constructed to obstruct vessels from entering en masse, and at the corridor defenders would string thick metal chains to impede any attempt at entering. There were of course no chains now, but as we approached I saw Worth start.
“Breakers,” he said.
“White water, there, at the corridor. Swell’s breaking. I don’t like this.”
I held firm to a mast cable as we rolled.
“The seas have been rough the past few days. I was worried about running into a lot of squalls out there. But now these breakers… I’m coming about, we’re not going through that,” he said determinedly. He swung the wheel and soon we were out of the 5 foot waves and back to calmer water. “That’s alright, we’ll go through the shipping lanes. Take the helm. Pick a reference point on the coast if you can’t see the buoys.”
I steered toward a small peak while Worth sat back in contemplation.
“I’m just thinking,” he said. “I’m gonna shake out a reef.” He made his way along the deck to the mast, a winch handle in hand. On Satori, the main sail has to be cranked up from the mast forward of the cockpit. He raised the sail halfway and returned to the helm, then turned and looking up said: “Telltails aren’t moving, damn it. They’re stuck on the velcro. All my other wind instruments were taken out in a lightning strike. Oh well.”
A gust of wind came over the newly raised sail and rocked us. We were motoring still, heading out along another bend around an island, following the long line of green buoys, avoiding container ships anchored in the surf. By now the sky had donned its milky blue of clouded dawn. The fresh air would soon be made hot by the rising sun, so I put my face into the wind and allowed elation to poke at my sensibilities.
Suddenly the flight was interrupted by a shudder and loud spit that sounded like a collapsing bookshelf. We both turned abruptly to see a long trail of black smoke thinning out beneath the surface of the water. Our turning had been accompanied by Worth’s exclamation: “What the fuck? Damn. The engine. I knew there was something wrong with this throttle.”
“This ever happen before?” I asked.
“It’s a first.”
Worth did not strike me as a particularly superstitious man, but for better or worse I kept the thought that these omens of breakers and breaking engine were due to my presence aboard.
He pulled back the throttle and stopped the engine.
“Alright I’m gonna go down and look at the engine, you push the throttle, but gently, when I say. That silver knob, pull it up to kill the engine when I tell you.”
“Alright,” I acknowledged.
We played around with the throttle for some time. The problem was that, on pushing it forward, it wouldn’t catch until already too far along. “We should be getting connection, some acceleration there,” said Worth. “Alright, pull the engine stop.”
Worth pull on a pair of swimming trunks, adjusted a set of goggles and dove into the water. I kept a watch on the surrounds as we heaved to, and on him to watch for any sign of need. When he surfaced he said: “there’s a damn mooring line caught on the prop!”
“I guess that’s the problem.”
“That’s it! Bring the rudder amidships will ya?”
He went down a few more times and then finally surfaced with the ragged broken line, handing it to me and pulling himself up the transom swim ladder. “That’s that!”
I felt a surge of relief, though I wouldn’t have complained were we to have had to return to Club Nautico for a few days to repair whatever kinks had to be righted. It had taken me only three days in Cartagena to meet Worth, so what are a few more cycles?
Underway once more, we round the bend, which then opened to a second access to the ocean. A freighter was approaching, and we headed right. Guarding this entrance on either side were two ancient Spanish forts, long since defunct and one wall of cannon ports even flooded to its brim. In an instant I was imagining myself a member of Francis Drake’s fleet of privateer vessels, coming in 1586 to wreak havoc on the fortifications and to claim our plundered gold for the crown. Or I was part of the American colonial contingent arrived on 186 British ships in 1741, Lawrence Washington among us, and us buffeted by the fact of numerical superiority against Cartagena’s defenders, but ultimately I will have succumbed along with my countrymen to the untimely mix of yellow fever and the rainy season, and the siege will have been abandoned.
Basking in the warmth of romantic imaginings, we sailed out into the deep blue of the Caribbean, and South America was soon obscured behind the endlessness of the horizon.
The trade winds refer to the prevailing winds of the equator, which generally allow smooth and steady sailing from east to west. These would be the winds that would bring me hopefully crewing a second boat from Panama across the South Pacific to New Zealand or elsewhere. Worth, explaining this to me, said that now, in the Caribbean, we would hope for northerly winds, or wind coming from the north, to help us along to Bocas del Toro Panama.
“We’re going to passing the canal’s shipping lanes tomorrow and the next day. Gotta keep a tight watch for other ships because small boats need to yield to big ones,” he had said. “If we can find some wind we should sail at around 4 knots I imagine.”
One nautical mile is 6080 feet, which is slightly longer than a terrestrial mile. At 4 knots, we would most likely arrive on the fifth day out.
It did not take long for Worth to decide to cut the motor. He let out some of the head sail, or Genoa or ginny, as it is called.
“I thought the sail in the front, the angled one, is called the jib,” I offered in curiosity.
“It’s only a jib if it doesn’t extend aft past the mast when fully unfurled. It’s a genoa on Satori because at full sail it’s more aft than the main.”
“Ah I gotchya.”
With the main sail at half-mast and the genoa unfurled, and with a small forward sail just aft of the genoa, called the staysail or stays’l also billowing, Satori rotated on its axis and we were leaning 10 degrees to the port side. I had always felt hesitation about sailboats, how they have that strange capacity to turn on their side without flopping down into the water. Satori’s 6,000 pound lead keel would see to it that she did not flop. So we sailed.
There was a double swell. Worth had feared a confused sea, but the swells were 5 to 6 feet and easy to ride. Forward and backward, side to side, we rocked and we rolled and I started to think that the term is not nearly as apt for music as it is for sailing. In the troughs of the swell, the crests of oncoming water obscured any view of the next trough because as it was, the boat and us aboard were well below the level of towering swell. It was a whole waterscape of ascendant wall after ascendant wall of sea, and when I gazed at it closely through the binoculars, I half expected hidden boats or creatures to pop up from behind the mountains of salt water to surprise us.
“Alright we got some wind now,” he said, pointing off at the white caps where wind was brushing off the tips of waves. The continent was gone now, we were left with only the watery dunes carrying us gliding. It was full day, the blue sky’s uniformity broken here and there by streaks of torn cotton.
The swell grew.
Waves were now 7 feet trough to crest and the bounding of the vessel was becoming exaggerated. Back and forth, back and forth. Side to side, back to side to forth and back. I felt my face cringe in a frown, and under my breath I was muttering don’t don’t don’t. Damn you, Davy Jones! You can’t have me but you irk my body anyway. A full chicken dinner the night before leaving was at the time a superb idea. I had stuffed myself, hungry after 5 days eating mostly potatoes in Cartagena. The fat and the grease was probably in my stomach now, staining the walls with their foulness and only beads of stomach juices clinging to their stick but unable to digest it what with the sea’s swishing. Then it happened. At the stern, over the transom I leaned and released breakfast into the surf. There was no relief, and I felt wretched. Worth would later say that it wasn’t a bad case. I would later convince myself that it wasn’t seasickness, but just un-thoughtful planning. I would not eat Thanksgiving’s feast and then ride a roller coaster, but now I have.
Though feeling wretched I was not incapacitated, and the light duties of helping a man who had never taken on crew and who is used to single-handing his boat were attainable. The main headsail line that ran to the cockpit and wrapped around one of the silver winches, called a sheath, I became familiar with, tightening and loosening it as Worth saw fit. “Two wraps clockwise around the winch and then secure the line in the jaws, got it?”
From time to time Worth would be thinking before deciding on a course of action to deal with a sail in some way, always adjusting as the winds shifted. I was not accustomed to noting the wind, and it would come as a surprise to me each time he was able to tell, even by just the sound or feel of the boat, that the wind had died down or changed direction.
“Sailing has a lot to do with feeling,” he said. There was a lot of down time. We each sat on purple cushion chairs set beside the cabin entrance. The better spot was the leeward side, where you could allow your body to sink with gravity, whereas on the other side you’d have to brace yourself against the leeward bench.
As we sat, finally able to appreciate the sounds of sailing, I felt suddenly relaxed. South America was behind me now, and here I was with North Carolinian Worth on our way back to Central America.
“If you-re captain does that make me first mate?” I asked expectantly.
He smiled, and through his crystal blue eyes he observed me in my hesitation. “No,” he joked, “you’re a damn crew member.” He leaned back as I laughed, and breathed in the sea air. “Conrad says that motor boats try to conquer the sea. Sailboats try to find natural harmony with it.”
I nodded. A few days previous, when I had met Worth outside the marina, our first connection and hint of compatibility came at the conversing of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “It’s remarkable,” I had said, “that that man mastered English, which is not his native language. You’ll be hard pressed to find such intellect in today’s world.”
It was the beginning of a theme of our conversations. We spoke of the world and of things we both agreed to be meaningful. We discussed what America is when we return to it, and we spoke of literature’s value. I read quotes of Joyce that I admired and he read Shakespeare from his memory. As men at sea should rightly due, we told stories.
“I was in the Coast Guard for 20 years. That’s all you need for retirement. Married at 16. Retired at 37.”
“Do you have any kids?”
“I’m actually a great grandfather.”
“At 69? How does that feel?”
“20 years in the Coast Guard. You must have stories.”
“Well, yeah.” He drew in air and looked at the horizon. “I was stationed once on the island of Attu, in the Alaskan Aleutians. You heard of Attu?”
“Rings a bell. I like WWII history… anything to do with that?”
“That’s right, it was the island that the Japanese invaded. The one time they attacked on American soil. Well, the Coast Guard had said to me; ‘well Worth there’s a position on a boat heading to Vietnam, a good career move for you if you want it.’. Well, I said the hell with that what else is there. They said, ‘alright well then you have a choice between Eniwetok in the South Pacific and Attu Loran stations.'”
“Loran stations?” I asked.
“Yea, the US had a a system before GPS called Loran, it would send out timed pulses that navigators would pick up, get their position.”
“Anyway, of course I chose Eniwetok, this picture/perfect South Pacific atoll? No question. Who wants to spend a year on a desolate North Pacific island? Well, they gave me Attu.”
I laughed at the misfortune and Worth responded with a smiling chuckle.
“Well,” he continued, “I’d be out on that island oh, a year in total. Constant winter, gray skies, shit weather all the time. Easy to remember stories though, if that’s what you want, I have lots of stories from Attu.”
“Well tell me know,” I insisted.
He turned his head and scanned the horizon. “Gotta keep an eye out for boats remember. Well, I was the commanding office on the base in Attu. There was an Air Force base there, but all their operations are always top secret. Anyway, one day I get a call from a pilot who’s coming in, he says he needs to stop over for fuel or a break or whatever. I get a call from my supervisor who says, ‘Worth, damn it, don’t let that man land, the airstrip is not a charity for footloose pilots!’ So, I command a reply over the radio telling the pilot that he doesn’t have authorization. He replies that he’s just gonna go ahead and land anyway. My supervisor from mainland HQ by this time is screaming at me to jack this guy up good. So, I’m charged with chewing this pilot out once he lands. So he lands, and I go out, and immediately I get the impression that this guy has some history. He was an older man, and his face just told me that he wouldn’t react to a young lieutenant chewin’ him out. So I tell him, ‘well my chief wants me to jack you up.’ The guy just chuckles. Turns out he was a army air corp pilot in WWII, flew the hump in Burma. No way was I going to affect this guy yelling at him. So I invited him in, we had some beers, he spent the night in the station. The next he left, and that was that.”
The ocean by now was growing like boiling water in a pot, tumbling the boat up and down an 8 or 9 foot swell. Under the heightened wind pressure we were heeled over at 20 degrees and up to 25 degrees at some points.
Worth told many stories, and I tried to keep up by retelling some of my own. With all the time we had over the next few days at sea, we would have times of silence and times of sharing. His light blue eyes pierced even the lowest light, beaming through to meet mine and so easily did we get along that often we made absurd jokes to laugh out the rolling boat. He told me of his family, and of life in the Coast Guard. The service paid for his 3 year engineering degree, and after being discharged he studied English, got a Master’s in English, and had begun a PhD when he decided to spend more time in other matters. He even taught college composition, which explained why we were so easily swept away by conversations of language, literature and life. “I’m a true dilettante,” he had said, at which point I burst into a monologue about my love for the word and how I once wrote an entire section of a post dedicated to vocabulary and praising that word when I’d discovered it for the first time. “I am too,” I said, “a dilettante”.
We spent 4 nights at sea. As we crossed the Panama Canal shipping lanes the winds picked up and the swell held steady at frequent intervals of 8 foot waves. A clear sky allowed starlight to filter down over the deck, and as Satori careened through the surf, her bow wave splashing sounding like a muffled moan, in the white bubbling water I perceived a slick black surface that made it seem as though we were slicing through an ocean of hair gel. I prized the 2 hour night watch shifts. Some nights it was calm seas, but one night in particular my eyes were wide with anticipation as we entered a squall, and we heeled further than 25 degrees, the ginny taunting the swell just two feet above. Like a mountain climber resting on a slope I would grip the windbreaker and stare out passed the stern at the deep black mass of moving water that would pick us up and drop us down its back into the next trough. Worth was asleep in a cabin berth and I was huddled against the purple cushion, listening to the percussion of our course. We were making good headway, pushing 6 knots in the windy darkness. Sometimes a breaker would slam the hull and rock us even further on our heel before righting again. When the volume of our wake became normal to my ear, I would pick out the soft hissing whispering whistle of the wind turbine mounted above the cockpit. The autopilot kept our heading on 271, and every now again on watch I would stand and scan the horizon for lights. I woke Worth the few times I saw lights, but never did we have to change course. When my shift was up I’d descend the steep ladder into the sticky cabin, remove the red headlamp and plop down to sleep, serenaded by the shifting popping joints of the floorboards and cabinetry.
I often took the last watch, and was awake to welcome that milky blue sky. Nothing to see but sea itself. Leaning over the safety lines one morning I became lost in contemplation as I stared into the water. The Caribbean water is blue. It’s deep blue, which is the most appropriate description of it. It’s not just the color, it’s its whole character that is blue. When the water scoots splashing under the sun, you see that it is in fact clear aqua-marine in color. But in tiers, in infinite atom layers of itself, it compounds into a constructed blue that’s not just the surface color, but the conglomeration of depths of crystalline sheets of Caribbean water. It’s truly blue. It’s voluminous blue.
When the sails made noises of stretching and rubbing, and the rigging began to clank around and the boom flapped to and fro, Worth adjusted things accordingly. We found a flying fish dead in the cockpit, and later a small black bird that had died lodged in a cleat. I’d seen flying fish, which when in flight look like that had the agility of hummingbirds, so it saddened me to see one dead. Of all the places to fly into, he flew into a trap.
“Tell me another story about Attu,” I said to Worth another morning after a meal of Campbells tomato soup. I was still feeling queasy, and the previous day upon trying to ingest a chicken sandwich, my body had immediately rejected it. The soup gained access.
“Hmm, well. Oh, I have one.” He took a breath a leaned back against the bulkhead in the cabin. We were catching a respite from the cockpit.
“Revolution Airlines fly in to Attu once a week for mail, produce. One day I get a directive quarter of an inch thick, about pollution control. this is early 70s, people are becoming conscious of pollution. It’s about reporting spills. Well I glanced at it, well, ok, and I put it aside. Well Attu was a logistics base when it was retaken from the Japanese, and there were these big oil fuel storage tanks for ships surrounded by berms. About a week later I was bored so I took my truck and took it down to the river… oh, what was it called.. maybe the Henderson. So I’m standing on the bridge looking down at the river and I see this oil slip. A small sheen along the edge… well I didn’t have so much to do, so I looked the directive again and it said to report it, so I did, just for the hell of it, something to do. The next day I got a message back and it was from as I recall JCS, the Joint Chiefs of Staff–haha, the fucking department of defense. The header alone was a page and a half long. The subject was named -Operation September Sam-.. they took it on as a spill. They directed the air force to fly out a Navy Seal team to investigate this thing. So you know, I’m like flabbergasted… holy shit what have I done! I get a call from the air force saying that 2 C130s are coming out. They asked if they could bring us anything.. I say, well, yeah, you can bring us some beer.” Worth smiled wide, the crease trails of his eyes bending in delight. “You see, the Coast Guard limited the stations to one and a half beers per day… probably because the academy type puritans treated the service like a ship at sea. I was always trying to find ways around it. So the guy asks how many cases… I say 300 cases… he says alright! Well alright.
“There were about 30 cases missing once they got there, probably taken by the flight crew, which was fine with me. So the seal team goes and surveys the situation, and they set up another mission while they’re there. That mission comes out a week later with a demolition team. So then they go up and they’re gonna blow up those tanks to burn off the residue diesel fuel. So they rigged it. And one afternoon at the station we sat up on the roof and watched ’em blow the thing up! And every night we’re drinkin beer with the guys, with the navy Seabees. That’s right, not seals, Seabees construction battalion. So a lieutenant JG says ‘hey we got a bunch of explosives left over, you need anything blown up?’ I say, well, yea, there’s an old wooden bridge we could blow up. ‘Sure’ the guy says. So we jump in my old jeep and we go down to the bridge. I had a notion that they’d run a cable and use a plunger to blow the thing up. Well they set the explosives, ran the cable, but instead of a plunger they just light the fuse. The guy says suddenly we have to get out of there, I’m like, what the hell, this jeep sometimes doesn’t start. I thought we’d be blown up! Well finally she caught and we got out of there right as the bridge blew, timbers flying all that jazz. Anyway, they flew away and left, and we heard later that the lieutenant JG was arrested for trying to take explosives home to his dad in Anchorage. That was kind of the punctuation mark of that.
“So the beer thing, we were allowed one and a half beers per day, but I was the commander of the station, and I let the guys drink as much beer as they damn well wanted. So when I’d send our supply guy to ADAK I’d order 500 cases. Lots of beer. Well one day a few months later I get a call from HQ chief of ops, who says ‘Mr Gray we’re looking at our logistics operations, we’re spending too much money. Just calling around to see to check on what you’re flying in on the C130s. How much beer you got on order?’ He was calling me out on that. I said we got a bad connection, he orders me to my office. I said I got 500 cases. He says ‘what the hell don’t you know directive blahdedeblahdeblah? Why do you have so much beer?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess we’re drinking a lot of beer’! Damn if he didn’t chew me out then and there, and we had to cut the beer supply. Anyway we got an air force guy to buy hard liquor and carry it on a few suitcases to sell to our guys. It was bullshit that we were limited on the drinking, a bunch of lonely guys in the middle of nowhere end of the world with nothing to do. I’m perfectly competent to run the place and control the drinking. Fuck them bureaucrats.”
For lunch we ate wraps on pan integral, whole wheat tortillas that he was sure to pick up when we’d provisioned back in Cartagena. We spoke then of America’s blame game, of our disparate need to blame the ‘other’. We spoke of religion. Worth had come from the conservative south and had grown up with religion, and through no volition but his own he had come to understand it differently and reject it. Needless to say it was a strange coincidence that in the cabin on a metal heater mount, there was a very clear image of Jesus that had appeared the day I boarded the boat. We of course included the image in our conversations when we thought it might have something to say.
Worth the adventurer. He flew sail planes, and broke his hand hang gliding under the auspices of a good ole boy he met in a bar. He didn’t like my absolute questions of what do you prefer this or that, and made me realize I was asking them in the first place, at which point I stopped. I became particularly fond of his Coast Guard stories, which included wild nights falling in love with Irish beauties in Veracruz, a city I too have wild histories in, and also a strange night in the southern French city of Toulon, in “Little Chicago”, where he argued with another officer and threw a cigarette in the man’s face before wandering into the streets without a fight, only to suddenly feel like he was in Havana and started to hide from every passing car. “Someone must have slipped something into my drink,” he had said.
The conversations worked like clockwork between us. We were never curt with one another, and always appreciated the others’ insights into our own musings. His stories put me on tangents exploring my own aloud, and vice versa. The days went swiftly. He would read in the cabin berth and I’d hunker down in the cockpit keeping an eye on the blueness. Then we’d eat and share stories again. It was a very agreeable match, and the only thing we both agreed was missing was one beautiful woman apiece.
On the 5th morning aboard, when the blue hue of dawn illuminated everything and the slick surface of the chopping sea appeared as rasping film, and a few coastal birds cried and circled above, we could begin to make out the lights ashore.
“That’s it. Bocas del Toro.”
Worth had been tired of the gray skies, but after I’d found the small black bird dead on deck, and had set him over the safety lines and into the water, he turned a frown to the wind and mist and said that it was better that we were arriving that way, like real sailors.
“Better to arrive on a rainy Sunday morning,” he said. “Like sailors coming in from the storm.”
We had outrun a light squall, whose gentle edge grazed our wake as we came bobbing into the bay between Isla Basimentos and Isla Colon. There were no buoys so we referred to the charts to navigate our arrival. When we had come around an island where smooth water laid the way bare for the final course, the voyage was over. I steered into the wind to release the boom, and Worth went forward to reef the sail. We set anchor off Bocas town, whose concerted wooden buildings reached into the water on stilts, and each with a dedicated dock hosting water taxis parked alongside. The buildings were colorful. They were multi-tiered and each floor balconied. Worth switched on the VHF and hailed the Port Captain.
When a boat arrives to a new country, it must register with the Port Captain of whatever port it arrives to. International law allows for unregistered entry to safe waters when emergency calls for it, but to cruise legally, sailors must purchase the cruising permit.
After the black creole Port Captain with his blank glazed destroyed eye had motored out on a boat with 4 other men, who each in turn boarded us, and after they had stamped our passports and given Worth some papers, and after they had left, Worth turned to me in resignation and said that Panama was the biggest rip-off of all the countries he had been to.
“400 dollars,” he said. “That’s how much I just paid.” Worth stared after the Port Captain’s lancha and sighed. “I’m just thinking,” he continued. “We should have arrived yesteryday. Damn Bureaucrats.”
The fees in Panama are doubled on Sundays. We came through the rain and cumbersome sea, an ominous setting for this most fitting result. Instead of 20 dollars per person aboard the Port Captain’s boat, it was 40, and they came unnecessarily as 5. The cruising permit cost 190 dollars and was good for one year. If the boat leaves Panamanian waters, Worth would have to purchase a new permit. They had done away with the week-long, month-long, and 6-month-long cruising permits, and verily fucked all cruisers on a budget.
There were no fees for me individually, for which I was glad, since I had agreed to pay for them. There might have been such fees had I been on Worth’s crew list, but before departing Cartagena we had decided to call me his guest, so as to avoid any possible costs for crew. Sometimes money is lost to linguistic deception. So it goes.
The bored sky showed gray and made this supposed tropical paradise seem like a forgotten fairy tale. I couldn’t get the Port Captain’s blank eye out of my head. He had spoken English creole quickly to the others, much like a busy interested adolescent trying to impress a group. That eye made it seem almost sinister. He had thrown sideways glances at Worth and it had upset me. I don’t know why. I had become friends with the skipper. We had remade the world in that boat, and in only 6 days. Now we had rejoined the world, which flowed in uninvited to remind us of its flaws.