The Moonless Night Was All But Dark
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I lay in my hammock that night on the foredeck as I had taken to doing to escape the heat of the cabin. Gunshots ringing through the hills made me think better of my position and I decided to sleep on the deck instead. I fell asleep grateful to resume the journey with my two friends. Tomorrow, the owner would fly home, and we would soon set off for Central America...
Full away for Nicaragua, there was a feeling of relief on board to be traveling peacefully again without the pressure of our tyrannical benefactor. The tropical climate was building. Bathing suits and t-shirts became the new crew uniform both day and night. I think the difficulty of the past ten days bonded us in a new way, galvanizing our trust in one another by giving us a common foe. Kerstin and I were becoming more proficient in our abilities for collision avoidance allowing Jiorgos a more uninterrupted sleep pattern. There was however, a more real tension on our minds.
Until now we had been in poorly charted waters, the Admiralty last having surveyed this coast in the 1800’s. Ahead of us, charts were almost non-existent until Panama. The pilot books for the area were mostly in the form of cruising guides written by retired couples of moderate experience. There was an undertone of extreme danger in their directions and we were nearing a place that was described to be some forgotten level of hell.
The gulf of Tehuantepec is a two hundred-sixty mile stretch of water constituting the final stretch of Mexico’s west coast before Central America. The land narrows greatly there between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean allowing the trade winds to spill across the Isthmus, exacerbated by the land. The result is an offshore wind often referred to as a “tehuantepecker”. This wind can easily sustain at 60 knots for days on end. The advice is to travel so close to shore that the sea will not have enough fetch to build, or to travel 500 miles offshore where the effects of the gulf subside.
We were in a bit of a hurry and Jiorgos made the call to abandon this advice and head straight across. We entered in the night and Jiorgos took the first shift. Winds were light and I think he wanted to feel out his decision knowing that if it came, it would be sudden. When he woke me around three in the morning, I came on deck to find a spectacular scene.
The moonless night was all but dark. I don’t think before or since, I have ever seen so many stars in the sky. The sea as well had a unique characteristic. It was absolutely flat, not so much as a bouncing swell or ripple and the whole of it stretching in all directions created a giant mirror image of the sky, reflecting the stars from above. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. That night, motoring through the darkness, completely surrounded by stars in our tiny ship, I was in outer space.
As the light of day began to grow on one corner of the horizon, I could hardly believe that so many hours had passed. The realization returned a sense of gravity and gave weight to my eyelids. I woke Kerstin and she emerged to the twilight of Dawn. We shared the quiet sunrise and I retired to my cabin.
Jiorgos and I nearly ran into each other in our groggy state as we scrambled from our bunks to the companionway. Neither of us fully emerged when we saw the Panga a hundred meters off our starboard quarter and closing fast. Without a word we ran to the master cabin taking the two Glock pistols from the safe. We arrived on the quarter steadfast and brandished our weapons. The panga, now fifty meters off was occupied by two men dressed like eskimos. When they saw us, it wasn’t more than a few seconds before they came about and took a reciprocal course at full speed. We will never know what was their true intention, and gratefully so because the handguns we used to intimidate them likely would not have penetrated their odd attire. They were air guns, only real in appearance. We did all share the feeling that they meant to harm us and these were not the peaceful fishermen who normally ply these waters.
Far too full of adrenaline for sleep after this encounter, we all took to the day. Slowly, the uneasy feeling left us and we began to take note of our surroundings. There were turtles on the surface to every horizon. Many of them carrying a passenger in the form of a seagull. The birds were eating the growth from their shells, but hardly leaving them clean. Each empty turtle showed signs of a recent stowaway.
On our bow, Kerstin spotted something she called “transparent snakes”. As Jiorgos and I arrived to inspect the oddity, a group of Mahi-mahi came up to devour them. The thought of fish tacos entered all of our minds, and I went aft to send out a fishing line. A few hours had passed when Jiorgos spotted some mist off our starboard side.
“It looks like they are coming this way. Get the fishing line in!”
As I hurried aft to reel it in, I heard Kerstin say,
“Guys, they look like Killer Whales.”
Jiorgos and I glanced at each other disapprovingly and I went about my work. As the lure came into view, so too came an odd creature following it. It resembled a scuba diver in a wetsuit with a yellow dive tank. How could this be? I yelled to my companions to come and witness the beast and all at once, it surfaced and declared itself indeed to be an Orca. The whole pod surrounded us, keeping a moderate distance, but traveled alongside for some time. It was an incredible sight, none of us could have imagined we would see these animals at this low latitude. Later, we came to understand that this is actually common due to the sweep of arctic currents through the region.
The heat of the afternoon and the excitement of the day left us all needing to freshen up. One by one, we took turns with the hose on the foredeck to have a shower. As we finished up and began to discuss a meal option for the evening, I spotted something strange in the distance off our bow. Kerstin took the binoculars forward to have a better look, and Jiorgos altered course to approach.
“I think... I think it’s a life-raft.” Kerstin said rather hesitantly.
I took the binoculars from her to see for myself. It was hard to make out, but I couldn’t disagree. As we approached and the scene became more clear, it became certain that it was an inflatable boat. There seemed to be something erect in the middle with clothes hanging from it, presumably to make some kind of shade. And then, could it be? Yes. Draped over the side was a human arm. When we were a few boat lengths away, the arm came to life, and it’s owner scrambled to his feet quickly followed by two other men. We offered to bring them aboard and give them safe passage to shore but they refused. Kerstin, thinking they might be delirious tried to reason with them in Spanish but they would have no part of it. They refused any and all offerings from us and insisted on being left exactly as they were.
Having done all that we could short of forcefully dragging them aboard, Jiorgos put the engine in gear and we reluctantly resumed our passage. Some months later, we heard a story about three Mexican refugees arriving on an island in the Pacific. Apparently they were running from one of the cartels. We couldn’t know if they were the same mysterious three that we had encountered, but the tale made us all feel a little better.
I guess if you’re trying to cross the Pacific in a raft, it’s best not to be distracted by a girl in a bikini on a million dollar yacht. All of us in life must make decisions that define our path. Destiny after all, is a fancy conjunctive of action and circumstances. None of us can truly know the struggle of another, but we all share in the great human enigma. The fragmented feelings and moments of many are all one great story in the end.
To be continued...