Dancing With The Storm

Island Notes 40

Dancing With The Storm

It didn’t look good.  This was the third consecutive day that winds over 20 knots were forecasted.  In fact, the Dutch Antilles Weather Service issued this warning: SMALL CRAFT OPERATORS SHOULD CONTINUE TO EXERCISE CAUTION OVER ALL THE LOCAL WATERS BECAUSE OF STRONG WINDS AND ABOVE NORMAL WAVES.

My sailboat, Kontentu, can handle winds up to 19 knots, about 22mph.  After that, I stay home due to excessive pounding on gear and people. That is no fun. And the weatherman today was guessing winds between 11-21 knots, but with gusts 22-33 knots, approaching near gale-force.  A dangerous wind of that strength could easily cause a knockdown.  That is when a sudden wind is so strong that it slams the boat and mast parallel to the sea.  Once the sails take on water, it is extremely difficult to bring the boat back up, especially when sailing alone.

But I had turned restless. I was tired of waiting for better conditions.  Perhaps I could sneak in an early morning sail before the winds built up.  Quickly, I downed a cup of coffee, fed the cat and walked the dog.  With morning responsibilities complete, I swam to Kontentu.  The weather was sunny with maybe 10-knot winds.  I hustled to get the boat ready, and minutes later I released the mooring line.  I was sailing.

By this time, the rising sun was gone.  I looked to the east and saw a dark gray storm outlined by a dull, mean, yellow sky.  To the south, however, it looked like the storm ended.  I decided to sail in that direction and try to beat the weather.  No way did I want to be out when the storm hit.  That is when those deadly near-gale force gusts happen.

Kontentu clipped right along.  I felt my decision to head south was paying off in spades even though the storm to the east was growing and looked fierce.  As time went on, new storm clouds appeared on the horizon that were south of the storm.  This wasn’t good.  I was headed directly for a peninsula called Punt Vierkant.  It would take me nearly a half hour to sail around it so that I could continue south–too much time to beat the storm.  I decided to maintain my course heading toward a beautiful strip of white sand we call Airport Beach and see what would happen.

In the sky, I could see the island hoppers–stout prop airplanes that ply the air between Bonaire and Curacao–changing their normal routes in and out of Flamingo International Airport.  No way did they want to take on the wrath of the storm. Dutch Antilles Express and Divi Divi Air were both making adjustments.  I looked back at where I had departed my mooring at Playa Lechi, about two miles to the north now.  Rain was coming down heavy.  With Airport Beach fast approaching, I had to tack to the east, the direction of the storm.  Neptune was with me on this one.  I had reached the very end of the squall line.  The wind picked up quickly, but it was controllable. No gale force gusts here.  A soft rain that lasted less than a minute gently rinsed me.  It was refreshing.   By the time I completed the tack and headed back north, the majority of the storm has passed and was on a full tilt boogey toward Curacao some 38 miles away.  My plan had worked.  I was now sailing behind the squall line in little wind.  My only concern now was if another storm was to follow.

There were some towering clouds coming on to the northeast, but they were destined to hit the national park on the northern tip of the island.  I was home free.  The sun returned and very light winds barely moved the boat past downtown Kralendijk.  I passed the massive freighter, Tolo, at dock.  On her deck lay the windmill towers destined for Bonaire’s new wind farm that promises to supply thirty percent of the island’s future energy needs. Cruising past the City Café, I could see tourists leisurely devouring their breakfasts.  My thoughts turned to food and what I would eat upon return. But most of all I thought about how well this sail had gone.  I had made the right decision, beaten the storm and was sailing home safe.  I was not smug.  I realized that I had just got away with one.  Mother Ocean was nice to me today.  She let me dance with the storm without even ruffling my boutonnière.  Fair winds.


Kronkite, Moon Rocks & Toldeo Girls


A few days ago marked the 40th. anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Back during that extraordinary time, I was in the midst of a long summer weekend taking respite from the hot weather along Ohio’s Lake Erie coast. I remember water skiing behind my buddy’s family boat trying to perfect the skill of picking up an open beer can between my legs tossed from the stern by a friend. I journeyed with my buddy, Billy, to the offshore island of Put-In-Bay by airplane. No ordinary airplane, mind you, but a 1930’s Ford Trimotor classic. It was so slow that cars beneath us were going faster along the roads than we were through the thick, humid air. Billy was petrified. I just laughed.

Arriving on the island, we were thrust into a midsummer regatta/wine festival that seemed to last for days. College friends, Toledo girls, and thousands of other revelers joined us there. My friend Rodney got so sick from over-indulgence that the family priest of my buddy Blitz offered “last rights” to Rodney while he lay face down on the grass. Sometime during that lawn party, we all gathered around the TV to watch the moon landing. There it was—black & white, surreal, hauntingly distant, historic. And there I was—buzzed on Bud, 21 and alive, watching intensely with friends, parents, neighbors, strangers and a priest.

In one way, it was just another Sixties moment—bizarre, one-of-a-kind, difficult to comprehend. In another way, this moment was simply HUGE. Never again would I look at the moon in the same manner. No longer was our moon untouchable. The Apollo 11 team even brought back parts of tierra luna. There were fears among some experts that unknown diseases may be inadvertently transferred to earth. The three astronauts were put in quarantine for nearly two months after return. Nothing, to our knowledge, ever happened. For my son and others who were born after this time, I imagine they see the moon as pedestrian. We’ve been there. Done that. But before the 1969 landing, the moon was viewed from afar. It was considered mystical, other worldly. But the mystery evaporated rapidly that July day.

Or did it? If one goes to Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum, there is a replica of a moon rock on display fashioned after one of the many rocks that Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong brought back. Even though it is not the real thing, the object has been worn smooth by hundreds of thousands of fingers reaching out for a touch of space. One of those hands might have been Walter Cronkite’s, since he enthusiastically reported on all things NASA throughout the Sixties. But after it was determined that moon rocks held no harm for humans, Walter, who just died this month due to earth-bound causes, was presented his very own moon rock in appreciation of his years of broadcast coverage. And that’s the way it was, so many years ago when I was just a young man.

A Gecko Behind the Canvas

Island Notes 39

09JulyBON 18A Gecko Behind the Canvas

In January 2008, we moved to the island.  It wasn’t long before I noticed that we were not alone in our new Playa Lechi home.  Strange creatures of the night came out after the red rubber ball of a sun slowly melted below the horizon.  Like a fleeting Green Flash, I would often see a gecko peek from behind a painting on the wall, and then make quick tracks for the darkness.  Until then, I was unaware of its presence.  This act of something appearing to be one way and then turning out to be another reminded me that not everything is what it initially appears to be on the dushi island of Bonaire.  There are times one needs to look behind the canvas.

Take resort developments, for instance.  You hear stories.  “The Hilton is going to build its next hotel here.”  “The Divi Resort chain is starting construction down by Sunset Beach.”  The rumors are numerous and humorous, but few ever materialize or live up to the hype.  The Hilton didn’t.  They pulled out of their promises before even breaking ground. 09JulyBON 21The Divi built a massive, Quonset-shaped tent to house spec apartments so prospective buyers could view them under comfortable shade.  At their public unveiling of future dreams, Divi pledged an all-inclusive resort, specialty restaurants & bars, 300 meters of prime beach front, and for those who wanted a piece of their own paradise, 75 luxury condos with “lush landscaping, pools, and astonishing views”.  A 2009 delivery date was promised.  Today, the tent is the only thing standing, and it is becoming taken over by weeds.  So it goes on the island of Bonaire, and the gecko just grins.

This chameleonesque concept holds true for legal matters on island as well.  I am still in awe of the disproportionate time it takes to secure documents with little regard to their actual importance.  I remember the 3-inch stack of papers we assembled in order to secure legal resident status on Bonaire.  There were bank statements, passports, birth certificates, statements from American police departments declaring we were crime free, health documents from medical doctors proving we were HIV-free, even papers proving that the legal documents submitted were legal.  You would think the originals would be enough.  But, no.  I had to get an apostle; a legal document declaring that the legal document I was submitting was indeed that legal document.  Whaaaaa? By the time I walked into the immigration office, I expected to see Radar, that red tape guru of M*A*S*H, grinning wildly behind the counter in eager anticipation of something I had failed to gather.  This was deep kimchi, a bureaucratic bruja, a tropical punch without the rum.  I felt like I was sailing between a ship-eating reef and a submerged sandbar.  One slip-up, and I was going under.

Fair winds prevailed, however, and we were graciously accepted as permanent residents of the island. Still, months later when the freighter Doña Luisa had safely delivered my 14-foot catboat to the dock, I braced myself for another eminent paper chase.  Don’t get me wrong.  The effort to get a sailboat into the country was much less than getting our permanent residency approved.  And that’s the way it should be.  But there were certainly hoops to hop through.  I went to Rocargo, my shipping company, to get a pile of importation papers with a rather impressive “release” stamp on the front.  I went to the tax office and purchased two, five-guilder stamps (about $2.82 each). I put one on my papers to the National Marine Park to secure a mooring in the harbor.  The other went on the front of my importation papers that I took to the customs man where my boat had been transferred.  Upon showing the stamp, I received my “Eilandgebied Bonaire Vergunning”, my boat permit.  Almost done.

Next, I was steered toward the harbormaster—one last stop in this maritime madness.  09JulyBON 23I was sure a gecko would be hiding behind the door. Rob Santiago, the harbormaster, proved to be a nice guy.  We talked about boats.  We talked about weather.  Then he asked me how I was going to use my boat.  “Well,” I hesitantly began thinking this might be the trick question that would sink my ship, “I was going to sail it.”  “Ah,” Rob responded, “You MUST go fishing!”  ­­­Rob then went on to tell me how great the fishing is right here in front of his office door and insisted that I would get bored just sitting there sailing.  I believe Bonairians feel that the simple act of moving through the water is not enough.  You must have a purpose.  You can’t just sail.  You must fish too!  I nodded meekly in agreement even knowing I would never cast a line over the rail.  My registration paper received an official “thump” equal to any stamping noise taking place in former Soviet Union satellite nations’ customhouses.  “And by the way,” interjected Harbormaster Santiago as I headed to the door,  “there is no charge.  Just come back in six months and we will renew it for free.”

I discovered that even the trees on Bonaire have the ability to masquerade as something else.  Take the Kibrahacha tree for instance.  As my friend Fernando Simal told me, “Kibrahacha means ax breaker.  The wood is so hard that it earned this name from those who tried to cut it down.”  09JulyBON 8The trees in this picture certainly belie the fact that they are so tough.  Delicate, yellow blooms mask their rugged resilience.  But wait, there is more.  Three days before I took this photo, there were no flowers to be seen on this hillside.  Then, we got a soaking rain in the night.  If I return in three more days, all the yellow will be gone.  The flowers only last a few days before they fall off and start growing leaves.  Geckos must live among these trees too.

09JanBON 4I have learned that even sailing has its share of unexpected secrets.  Actually, it is not the sailing itself, but what happens before and after.  My sailboat, Kontentu, is a simple and humble craft, fourteen feet long.  I keep it hooked to a mooring in front of my home.  It takes less than a minute to swim to the boat.  It would take less that that if I did not drag a dry bag along full with dry clothes, keys, flip flops, water and beer.

Once on Kontentu, ‘getting her ready’ begins.  I remove the sail cover, tiller cover, and motor cover.  Yes, the sun is intense at 12 degrees latitude and all those covers are necessary to preserve the boat.  Then I lower the rudder, the centerboard, and the outboard motor and remove my five-foot long Kryptonite New York Chain & EV Disc Lock.  This big city device keeps my Tohatsu outboard where it belongs. Things do walk away easily in the night here. Finally, I raise the motor back up.  After all, we are sailing.

I release the primary mooring line. When all things are stowed and the deck is clear, I remove the sail ties, hoist the main, put on the sail gloves, and release the second mooring line.  09JanBON 13Now, it’s small boat sailing—sound of waves lapping the hull, a burst of wind whistles through the rigging.  Kontentu leans to starboard and dashes toward Klein Bonaire, our offshore island.

Upon return, all of the preparatory activities for sailing are reversed.  I have never clocked it—no watch bands my wrist these daze—but ‘putting her away’ probably takes me twenty minutes.  I enjoy the process and just take my time.  If I have water left over, I wash off the outboard shaft, freeing it of salt spray. 09MayBON 149 I then pop a Heineken and watch the sun go down.

By the time I swim to shore, it is usually dark.   I watch electric-green phosphorescence–that magical, aquatic stew of molecules and energy–flow off my fingers and toes with each stroke and kick.  It makes me want to swim forever.  But the shore abruptly interrupts those thoughts.  I am back on land and walk home, hungry.   It is time for food.

It is also time to see the gecko peek from behind the canvas, just one more time.  I wonder what surprise he has for me this evening.

09JulyBON 17