In Search of Promised Land Pt. IX

Twenty-three Sweaty Dollars

Previous Post - "You'll be a Man, my son!"

The captain of the other vessel was in a frantic state of panic, which had rendered him useless.  Instead of regaining control of his vessel, he chose to scream at Jiorgos and blame him for the predicament.  Jiorgos continued to speak calmly to him throughout the process.  

Kipling described the scene perfectly in his poem “If”.

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
Yours is the earth and everything in it,
And - which is more - you’ll be a Man, my son!"

By luck alone, disaster was avoided.  The water and the tempers calmed and we descended to the sea level of the Caribbean...  

We approached the marina in Colon in the dark and Sergio gave us a fond but hurried goodbye as his launch came alongside to collect him.  We proceeded to a berth in the marina for the night.  There, we offloaded our line handlers and enjoyed a much-deserved dinner and a good night’s sleep.  

In the morning, we cast off again and headed out into a very boisterous Caribbean Sea.  Our destination was a bit of a mystery to me.  All that I knew was that we were going to be off grid for some time and that there was a small island chain along the Panamanian coast near the border of Colombia known as Islas San Blas.  We found very little information in the pilot books regarding the area, but some other sailors advised that one particular section of the archipelago was not to be missed.  Cayo Holandes was marked on the chart, and we set our course and trimmed our sails accordingly.  

As the day wore on, the seas became more difficult.  All of the trade wind and equatorial currents arrive in that place, having traveled all the way from Africa fairly unimpeded.  When they reach the coast of Panama, the shallow waters confuse the waves creating a somewhat challenging sailing ground.  Jiorgos and I took turns at the helm to try and ease the motion.  Despite our efforts, we were taking some good-sized waves over the bow when Kerstin emerged from the cabin.  In her polite German way, she said,

“Guys, we have a little problem down here.”

One of the large Plexiglas windows in the main salon had become unsealed on two of its four sides.  The result was a great deal of water pouring through the opening and not much to be done about it in our current circumstances.  We covered it as best we could and continued sailing.  Around the same time, Jiorgos found that the owner’s mother was not at all well.  She was extraordinarily seasick and had acquired a greenish grey complexion.  The owner insisted that we continue to our intended destination, which was still forty miles away.  For the first time, Jiorgos defied him.  

“I’m sorry, but your holidays are not above your mother’s health, and she’s not going to suffer any more today.”

With that, he turned to me and asked me to read through the pilot book and find a suitable place to get out of the weather.  There was only one option, if it would be an option at all.  From what I read, the difficult entrance at Miramar required help from a retired cruising couple who had made a home for themselves there.  As we approached the coast, we began to see that the whole area was fringed with reefs and there were breaking waves everywhere.  I called our only hope, “Serge and Mimi” on the VHF.  Mimi answered in French, a tongue that none of us on board could understand with any certainty.  In a mix of broken Spanish and English, she managed to ask the vessel particulars and agreed to send Serge out to guide us through the treacherous entrance.  


As we approached the break in the reef, Serge came into view riding an old Jet Ski.  In the same broken Spanish that Mimi used, he instructed us to follow him very closely.  Slowly and with great care, we made our way through the reef and into a tiny backwater lagoon.  His intention was to lead us all the way to a little dock he had built near his house, but he was uncertain of whether our draft would allow us to pass through the narrow channel.  Arrangements were made to tie up alongside a fishing vessel in the lagoon while I took a lead line and went with Serge to take some soundings.  Definitively, we could not pass.  A bit more troubling was that the lagoon itself was too shallow in parts to turn the vessel around on its own.  Our friends on the fishing vessel agreed to let us spend the night on the condition that they be able to leave at six a.m.  Serge suggested that we stay put for the time being and when the tide came in a bit, he would use the Jet Ski as a tugboat and help us turn our bow seaward again.  

In the interim, Serge asked me to come to his home.  He and Mimi had swallowed the anchor in this odd place at the edge of the world and began to build their perception of paradise.  The two were weathered in a way that showed many thousands of miles of salt and sun in their past.  Serge had the kind eyes of a sailor, and in the right light, you could see the reflection of the moon shining on the sea.  Mimi was wrapped in bandages.  There were a few places on her arms that were uncovered, showing that her skin was badly damaged.  She sat in the corner at a sort of shoreside chart table complete with the VHF radio from their boat and Serge continued with the tour.  He took me up to the highest building on the property, which turned out to be a funky little restaurant they had built.  He asked if we would come to dinner that evening.  It seemed only right for us to patronize his little corner of the universe in some way, and I told him I would suggest it to the owner when we returned to the vessel.  

We made our way back down the hill and climbed aboard the Jet Ski to go and make our maneuver.  When we arrived, I climbed aboard.  Jiorgos gave all of us a briefing on how he wanted to perform the stunt and the whole thing was completed without incident.  Once we were again secure, we said a gracious farewell to Serge, and I reported my scouting mission to the rest of the crew.  The owner wanted no part of the little restaurant on the hill, insisting that we have dinner on board.   

As we prepared the meal that evening, the VHF nearly vibrated itself out of its mounting bracket.  


Mimi’s voice came through shrill and harsh.  As I had been the elected representative who spoke with them all day, all eyes turned to me to answer.  Try as I did to ease the tension, she became ever more frantic until I finally explained that I would come to the house with “zee moonay”.  The owner, quite curious what I meant, proclaimed that he owed them nothing, having not been able to berth at their dock and not having eaten in their restaurant.  

The three amigos all went to our own wallets, quickly discovering that between us, we had twenty-three wrinkled, sweaty dollars to our names.  There wasn’t a bank around for tens of miles, and it was up to me to go and smooth things over with the little old sailors.  I climbed over the fishing vessel and took the dirt road toward their house wondering what I would possibly say to make our meager offering equal a day’s work.  When I arrived at the door, Serge answered and welcomed me inside once again.  As I looked into his deep seafaring eyes, I realized that there was nothing I could say to make this right.  I held out the twenty-three sweaty dollars and apologized to him, telling him the truth of what had happened.  He understood and invited me to have a drink with him.  As we entered the kitchen, it became clear why the voice on the radio was so aggressive.  Mimi sat at the end of the counter, moving to the swell of her passage making days over a nearly empty bottle of pastis.  She maneuvered to interrogate me, but Serge intervened and they exchanged some words I could not understand which sent Mimi staring back into her empty glass.  Serge took a fresh bottle from the pantry and poured a round for all of us, asking me to join him at the chart table.  As we drank, he imparted to me some wisdom.  Mimi frequently interrupted him when she would awake briefly from her boozy coma to notice my presence and remember why I was there. 


“YOU!  WHAT IS ZE NAME OF YOUR CAPITAAAN?” she would erupt, looking down her nose at me with one eye closed.

Each time, Serge retaliated in French telling her that the Captain was a good man and that the problem was not the Captain.  Each time she looked me up and down, took a swill of her drink and grunted.

Serge continued as best he could and with infinite patience.  

You can learn a lot from what you are doing and you have the makings of a great sailor.  Take this experience of the journey you are on, but know that this fancy yacht is not the way of the sea.  You must learn the old ways.  Learn well how to navigate by the stars.  Learn well the sextant.  Then you will understand the Sea.


“MERD!  Woman, I told you the Captain is a good man!” Serge fired back.

We finished our drinks and he walked me to the door keeping me well clear of his “one-eyed pirate” wife.  We said a heartfelt farewell and I made my way back down the dirt road to find my bunk.

To be continued...