A Great and Powerful Sea-Creature
Until three o'clock in the morning, the rum flowed. Music was provided by one of the village elders who commandeered my guitar and played the only song that he knew many times over. Intermittently, we would impose an intermission by playing wild rhythms on a large drum which must have created an eerie vibration at the yacht club meeting across the bay. None of its members came to investigate the source of this tribal sound, but given the nature of human curiosity, it was undeniable that somewhere very near, someone realized that they were at the wrong party...
Having thoroughly debauched the indigenous population of Cayo Holandes, we descended on Playon Chico near the border of Colombia. The village was a bizarre locale, perched on stilts over the water, but connected to the mainland. It's "streets" were filled with signs from the Christian propaganda machine. In equal numbers were others that sought to admonish the more local plant-based God. The fishermen there carried a different kind of delicacy in their dugouts, casually moving the square grouper on the first leg of their ongoing northern migration.
I was sent on a mission to dispose of our garbage and scout logistics on disembarking our benefactor at the nearby airstrip. As I loaded the tender, Kerstin came down the transom with the last bag of trash from the galley and a special black ops order.
"Can you try to get some diet Coke for the owner? We are almost out and I've been mixing it with regular Coke for three days."
Looking at our surroundings, it seemed a futile request, but seeing the desperate look on her face, I agreed to try. Walking through the village, the Kuna were friendly enough but did little to hide their wariness toward the strange outsider asking for a market. Largely, they spoke better Spanish and I was directed to something of a bodega down a small side street. The little open-air shack had a sparse inventory of dusty staple items. An old couple sat in the corner and the man stood up as I walked in.
"Can I help you?" He asked.
"I'm looking for some Diet Coke," I said.
He just stared at me for a moment, with a confused and pensive look on his face. Then his brow lifted as he spoke,
My eyes followed his finger back to the street. The featherweight stature of the Kuna had never been more blatant. I thanked the man for his humility and made my way back to the tender empty-handed with a fresh awareness of the gluttonous consumer society rooted in my homeland.
The following day we ferried luggage and passengers to the end of the hillside airstrip and loaded them into a small charter plane. A sigh of relief was breathed in unison as we all waved the craft off of the runway and it disappeared into the sky. We then returned to the vessel where crew uniforms were promptly shed and Jiorgos declared that for the next three days, work of any kind was strictly prohibited. It was time for some much-needed crew holidays.
The crash came suddenly. Working so hard and for so long without a break, none of us realized how tired we were until we had the chance to rest. Perhaps we squandered our opportunity to explore the coastal jungle of Panama. We were quite content to stay aboard in a sleepy daze entertaining the occasional Kuna visitor and cooking the fish that they brought. Finally, we came to understand that our exhaustion was only perpetuating itself in this place and the remedy was clear. We needed to move.
The island of St Maarten was our intended destination, one-thousand miles to windward across the whole of the Caribbean Sea. Most vessels choose to follow the coast of South America toward Trinidad and then work their way up the Windward Island chain. Alternatively, others sail north along the coast of Belize toward Grand Cayman and work their way across the Leeward Islands.
Our approach was more direct. We beat to windward for ten days without stopping. Day and night we flew from the crests of massive waves and dove into the troughs that followed. The entirety of our existence was sodden and we came to understand exactly how it would feel to be a ping-pong ball in a bingo basket. Anything that was not bolted down gave way and crashed to leeward.
Three days into the ordeal, I consulted the oracle. “World Cruising Routes” by Jimmy Cornell described the passage as one of the most difficult legs around the world. Unfortunately for us, it discussed the route in reverse, with the wind from behind. We were committed though and continued slamming through the wild sea, altering tacks every 12 hours to see if life was any better if we leaned on our other leg.
Eventually, the boat began to protest this torment and some serious problems arose. First, the refrigeration pump was sucking too much air as the boat heaved and it finally drew its last breath and gave up. All of our food rotted, and we started living off of whatever cans we had stashed away for such an event. More seriously, our mains’l pulled itself from the bottom of its track and seized there. With so much wind and swell, it was impossible to fix, and we could not shorten sail despite desperately needing to. We needed a landfall and a decent meal.
On the ninth day, we laid her on a starboard tack and set our bow toward Hispaniola. The sea laid down considerably as we closed on the landmass and I threw a fishing line off the stern. Within hours, I glanced at it from the cockpit to watch as it bent in half and the reel started screaming.
“FISH ON!” I yelled as I hurried aft to collect it. Jiorgos and Kerstin arrived on the scene to tend the helm and slow the boat down as I worked the fish. Nearly an hour, I fought the beast. When it finally emerged from the depths and showed itself, we were astounded at its mass. The great bill of the marlin had grown so broad that it began to spoon downward at the end. The excitement of the moment turned to a serious debate on what to do with the creature. I was hungry and wanted to eat it. Jiorgos was concerned that one or all of us could be killed trying to bring it aboard. Kerstin emerged as the voice of reason noting the greatness of the creature and that it was too much for us to share. As we realized it was not to be, the fish itself seemed to relax for a moment. As it ceased to fight, the hook came loose and in a flash of light, it disappeared into the azure world from whence it came.
Exhausted from the battle, I collapsed on one of the cockpit benches while Kerstin and Jiorgos got us underway again. Our ramen noodles tasted a little better that evening, knowing that we did not indulge in a greedy impulse at the expense of a great and powerful sea-creature.
Life at sea seems to synchronize words like “necessity” with their original meanings. The belief that we “need” something is largely an illusion of status or a fleeting bliss. In fact, our possessions and indulgences, left unchecked, become the building blocks of our own prisons. Too often we abandon our deepest desires in exchange for empty promises and temporary amusement. In the pursuit of freedom, less becomes more.
To be continued...