Fishing with Sammy

Island Notes 63

This is not an epic fishing story like The Old Man and the Sea.  Rather it is a tale of fishing with Sammy—check that—Sameh.  For Sameh is from Cairo, Egypt, and ever since coming to Bonaire several years ago, he has dreamed of landing the big one.  Sameh blamed his lack of success to access.  He has been restricted to humble attempts of casting a line from shore.  That was until he met me.

Two months ago, my sailboat, Kontentu, was on the hard.  I had taken it to the El Navegante boatyard for a few repairs and maintenance. The infamous Swedes, those nautical jokesters who manipulate fiberglass like Houdini finessed chains, took my boat on as a project.  However, these blond-haired, deeply tanned Scandinavians have really gone island since arriving here. They are always smiling, knowing that they won’t be spending the next winter in frigid Göteborg.  Gone is their uber-regimented work ethic.  I find this strange, too, since one of them in a former life worked as an engineer for super efficient Swedish company, Volvo.  Blame it on a change of horizon.  Their work pace now can be best defined as, please permit me, glacial.   These guys have really slowed down in the land of poco poco.  So after leaving my boat with them and returning 3 weeks later from Holland, nothing was done.  “We didn’t know when you were returning”, they lamely explained even though I had clearly informed the Swedes of my return date before departure.  I recognized the game.  If I didn’t ride herd on these Nordic dudes, I wouldn’t be sailing this summer.  From that day on, I went to El Navegante every day to, let’s say, observe the progress.

What do the Swedes have to do with my Egyptian friend?  Not much other that I realized that the more I worked on Kontentu myself, the faster the boat would return to sea.  And as for the Swedes, seeing me sweating under the hot tropical sun made them feel as guilty as getting caught sneaking too much food from the smorgasbord table.  It was past midsummer night’s eve.  Time to start your engines, gentlemen.  One project I wanted to complete was to increase the boat’s flotation.  I had a plan to stuff it with foam block under deck from the midship hatches back to the stern.  I headed off to City Shop, an appliance store, to see if I could score on some foam for free.  As I drove away, I looked in my rearview mirror.  Yes!  Swen just picked up a sander and started to work on my boat.  This “leading by example” method was at least temporarily overpowering poco poco.

It was at City Shop that I met Sammy, uh, Sameh.  “Sure.  We get refrigerators and stoves here all the time.  After we deliver them, I have all this foam packing material that we take to the dump.  I’ll set some aside for you.  Just come back in a few days.”

I returned two days later and Sameh helped me fill my Outback station wagon full with foam block.  This would surely be enough.  I returned to El Navegante.  The Swedes smiled with their shining, blue eyes and grunted with approval.  If this were an Ingmar Bergman film the voice-over would be something like,  “Perhaps the Amerikan is on to something.” I went to work.  I took my mountain of foam and spent two hours cutting, cramming, cajoling, cursing and coercing the white beady blocks into Kontentu.  When I ran out, only the starboard side of the boat was complete.  I immediately drove back to Sameh, my supplier.  “Sure, I will have more foam in the few days.  Come back then and we will fill up your car.”

Again, we filled up the Subaru.  I returned to El Navegante and finished the job.  There was no instruction book on this task.  It was only a concept in my head.  The Swedes checked out my work and again grunted approval.  Skol!  I left, bought a case of ice cold Polar Beer and drove to the City Shop warehouse.  As I entered with the frosty box of suds, the Lebanese workers cast suspicious looks.  Sameh appeared with his usual gracious smile.

“Sameh, I bought you a case of beer for all your help getting me the foam”, I declared.

“That’s nice, Patrick.  But we are Muslim and we do not drink alcohol,” Sameh smiled again.

“Oh man, I’m sorry.”

“No worries. I’m sure you can find friends to enjoy the beer.  But if you would like to do something for me, I would love to go fishing from your boat.”

*     *    *

Five weeks later it is Ramadan; a month of fasting that Muslims believe delivers patience, humility, and spirituality.  These seem like qualities from which all fishermen could benefit.  Sameh and I are on Kontentu along with his Dutch wife, Lisette, who is also now Muslim.  Once again, I am the only gringo on the bus, so to speak–or at least, the only infidel on the boat.  But we are having a grand time.

I must state that I am a sailor, not a fisherman.  I like to cook fish and eat fish, but have no interest in the hunt, the kill, or the fillet preparation.  But Sameh does.  We sail off the mooring in light winds of twelve knots.  He sets out three lines off the stern—one with a very expensive lure, two others with local baitfish of bongo and ballyhoo.  We sail and wait for a strike, traveling over 200 feet of water.

Lisette takes one of the lines and actively jerks it so that the bait mimics the movement of a fish underwater.  She tells of her days fishing the Dutch rivers as a young girl where the endeavor usually went on all day.  Sameh seems content to tie off his lines and enjoy the ride.  I am amused at the couple’s cultural contrast of completing the task.  Lisette symbolizes get-it-done Dutch proficiency.  Sameh imparts the image of a pyramid moving slowly over sand.

We begin to fantasize about how the soon-to-be-caught fish could be prepared. I discover that we are all foodies.  I reminisce about my time a few years back when I was on a deep sea fishing boat off the coast of Guam.  The first mate had just landed a Pacific bluefin tuna, and in a blink of an eye, chop-chopped sashimi for all of us.  Talk about fresh.  Sameh follows with cuisine dreams along the Nile—fuul, the quintessential Egyptian dish of fava beans; fetteret el Sabanekh wa Lsin el Asfour, spinach orzo pie; and, asabi’ gullash bi-l-lahma, dry pastries with tasty meat filling.  And if that was not enough, Lisette speaks of spicy Indonesian delicacies that she enjoyed while living in Jakarta a dozen years ago.

Sameh contemplates how to untangle the mess.

The morning sun grows strong and Sameh sticks to his strict Ramadan diet of no intake until the evening hours.  Lisette sips a Coca Cola and nibbles on BBQ chips.  While Muslim, her doctor suggested to her not to fast due to a high blood pressure condition.  I guzzle water against the heat and rays.  We sail to Donkey Beach, tack to the Plaza Resort and then head downwind for miles until we cruise by the Andrea II snorkel site.  I spot nasty storm clouds building up over the northern peaks of Bonaire.  I call a tack to avoid the gray and we head south to Klein Bonaire.  One more tack from No Name Beach and we head home.

The morning of sailing produces no trophy fish.  The biggest we bring back are the bongos, the unused bait.  Hemingway would have been bored with this expedition, but I am not.  I had fun on my little boat with new friends from Egypt and Holland.  And the Swedes?  They enjoyed Saturday on shore slamming down the Polar Beers that I had eventually delivered to El Navegante.  I’m sure they are smiling broadly, far, far away from the looming Göteborg winter.


Ballyhoo Sunset

Island notes 62.

I am always amazed at the amount of aquatic wildlife to be seen at water’s edge.  I don’t mean the storied ‘water’s edge’ where water meets land.  Rather, I am mesmerized by the amazing convergence of sea and sky, that endless millimeter-thin, 2-D plane of indigo blue where creatures of fin and wing congregate.

After too many land-locked years in the States, I have finally developed ‘sea eyes’.  While many people look out from the coast and gaze at endless water stretching to the horizon, I see much more than that.  There is a surprising amount of aquatic wildlife to witness.  Some are very subtle and as fleeing as a Green Flash.  Other encounters are hard to miss.

Brown pelicans fall into the latter group.  No mistaking their dinosaur pedigree with the bird’s signature primordial beak and endless smile.  Pelicans’ ability to glide inches over the water’s surface without touching their wings amazes me.  Their internal GPS allows for variation of wave height in an instant.  Just as speedy is their uncanny ability to spot fish just below the surface and dive in a heartbeat.  Local fishermen claim that old pelicans eventually go blind from repeated headers into the sea.  Once their sight is gone, the end comes soon.

Frigate birds are another favorite.  These large, gull-winged acrobats fish the bay, but also fly hundreds of miles out to sea in search of food.  The frigates have a precarious problem as fish hunters.  If their wings get soaked with salt water while diving for food, they are unable to fly and eventually drown.  Because of this inadequacy, frigates execute amazing maneuvers mere inches above the water in their quest for fish.  In terms of aerial maneuvers, they are the Top Guns in the water bird world.  A visiting sailor once told me that he was far out at sea when he spotted a frigate diving for food.  A rogue wave washed over the bird just as it went in for the catch.  The bird floundered in the sea, moments away from drowning.  The sailor claims that two other frigate birds flew in, each grabbing a wing of their helpless comrade, and freed it from its pending doom.

Sailing the Caribbean gets me up close and personal with a lot of aquatic wildlife.  The other day I was sailing alone, cruising downwind in front of downtown Kralendijk.  I looked over to the now-deserted cruise ship dock.  It was lined with local fishermen hand fishing the day away.  I noticed a barnacle-laden buoy nearby, sinking below and then resurfacing repeatedly. I changed course to investigate.  Was something tugging on the buoy’s line?  As I got about 10 yards away, I saw that it was not a buoy at all but a large hawksbill turtle.  The animal rolled on its side, gave me the eye, and slipped down into the deep.  Only the silence of a sailboat allowed me to get so close.  I surprise sea turtles frequently while they bob on the sea’s surface, taking in the sun.

My boat, Kontentu, also rousts out flying fish as we sail the bay.  These amazing animals of electric blue color can easily soar the length of a football field in their escape.  They remain airborne, defiant of gravity, for a half-minute at a time.  The best flying fish story I have heard if from my sailor friend, Wendy.  “We were on a trans-Atlantic passage about mid-ocean, and I was in the galley.  The window was open and a frying pan was just sitting there on the stove.  Before I knew it, a flying fish flew in, landing right in the pan!  The crew wanted me to cook it immediately.  I decided this guy deserves to live after what he did, so I threw him overboard.  We ended up calling it the frying, flying fish incident.”

Dolphins also occupy the sea-sky convergence.  We often see spinners breaking the surface, corkscrewing their slick black forms in the air before splashing back into sea.  On Kontentu’s maiden voyage, a pod of dolphins came to greet the new boat in the bay.  They raced the bow for five minutes, squealing with delight. Hettie had to hold our dog with both hands to prevent her from springing overboard.  Sparky wanted to swim with the dolphins.  How touristy, dog.

My aquatic wildlife encounter of the strangest kind occurred at Malmok.  This desolate, rocky outcrop is Bonaire’s most northern point.  It resembles the craggy, treeless coast of Labrador rather than a tropical isle.  I was posted at the top of a 100-foot cliff overlooking the sea.  Our mission that late afternoon was to count brown boobies, resilient shore birds that roost in this isolated corner of the national park.  The boobies, however, were not arriving in their usual numbers and soon my attention drifted to the sea below.  I spotted what can best be described as a small flotilla of vivid purple and pink, floating empanadas.  Yes, empanadas–those fruit filled Mexican desert wonders that please the palette after a hefty plate of creamy green enchiladas.  These bizarre creatures had the same thumb-indented edge to them as my beloved empanadas, but their unearthly color puzzled me.  Actually, I found the sighting disturbing at best.  I was convinced that this was an invasive aquatic landing of extra-terrestrials on Planet Earth or something evil from the deep fathoms of the sea.  As I stared at the alien gathering below, a fellow booby-counter passed by and noticed my horrified look.  “Oh, Portuguese Man O War.  Haven’t seen that many in awhile.”

The next day at sunset, I walk Sunset Beach with Sparky and contemplate the strange looking flotilla of Portuguese Man O War.  Looking west, the water is backlit by golden light.  In a burst of speed, a school of ballyhoo–pencil-thin, near-surface dwellers– explodes on the water’s surface.  The sound of a thousand fish breaking the water can be heard above the lapping waves. Something big is below, looking for dinner.  I continue my gaze.  Yep, once again the group leaps for their lives, rising a foot out of the sea in fourth quarter desperation.  Ballyhoo sunset.  The end of another day.

Shore Side Lullabies

Island Notes 60

I take my first step in the ink black water and a small fish jumps in front of me, and then disappears from sight.  I move further in the cool sea under a moonless August night.

Usually, I  am not aboard Kontentu after the sun goes down.  A few times, I have arrived back at the mooring in the dark with just a hint of light on the horizon.  Misjudged ETA.

But tonight I simply want to swim to my boat.  It has been a long hot day, one fraught with uncommon land-locked demands that kept me away from sailing.

I board the stern ladder and feel the newly sanded teak steps on my bare feet.  I look below at 20 feet of water, shimmering faint blue from onshore lights.  Fish swim leisurely below.  I lie down in the cockpit and stare to the heavens.

There are two movements on the boat tonight.  One is a rock & roll, left-to-right that happens every so often when a set of waves rolls in.  Staring above, I watch the mast and rigging sway to and fro.  But most of the action between the wave sets is a gentle motion made expressly for shore side lullabies.

The other  movement is Kontentu swinging ninety degrees, pivoting with the breeze from her mooring lines.  I have the centerboard pulled up so the boat dances happily upon the water.  This motion gives me a nice sweep of the stars above.  I see Venus burning brightly in the southwest, leaving a star light path that extends from the black line profile of offshore Klein Bonaire directly to my starboard.  Starboard–appropriately named this evening.  The planet shines brighter on the water than the onboard lights of a nearby cruiser bobbing on a mooring. As we swing away on the next breeze, the Southern Cross comes into view.  It is upside down on this sultry August evening, sitting on its head.  But the famed constellation continues to diligently point south in spite of its upheaval.  It is my celestial talisman.

The breeze blows soft and cool tonight and easily dries the salt water from my body.  There are no mosquitoes out here.  I only hear the lapping of waves on shore.  That holds true until Aquaspace cruises by, a futuristic-looking metal catamaran that at one time served as a research boat in Jacque Cousteau’s fleet.  Tonight, however, is disco night on Aquaspace.  Heavy bass notes boom from the decks.  A psychedelic light show is projected on the overly large foresail.  The jib looks like a pulsating Grateful Dead T-shirt with its glowing tie-dyed patterns.  Rum-soaked laughter travels across the bay.  The tourists are happy.

This is not the only light show this evening.  Erratic beams of light bounce off the sea bottom as two divers explore the coast’s nocturnal underwater creatures.  Miles away to the south, the sky is lit up by lightning storms high over the Venezuelan coast.  I sink back down in the cockpit and contemplate my mast.  Back and forth.  I nearly fall asleep.  Shore side lullabies.  I slip back into the cool water and swim home.

Beach Daze

Island Notes 59

I always saw myself living on an island, barefootin’ long stretches of sand for hours on end.  And then I moved to Bonaire.  We are, what some may term, “sand challenged”.  We don’t have the endless miles of beach that, say, nearby Aruba has.  But then again, we don’t have urban clusters of multi-story hotels and hoards of tourists that accompany those primo Aruban strands.

On Bonaire, many of our beaches are covered with pieces of dead coral—difficult to walk on, uncomfortable to lie on, and not what many would expect from a tropical island.  But if you take the time to search Bonaire’s shores, there are choice spots to dabble along the water’s edge, and your tan won’t fade from being in the shadow of a Hilton or a Marriott.


One spot is along the south end of Lac Bay called Sorobon Beach.  This is a wind surfer’s paradise.  Shallow waters, constant trade winds, and a wave-breaking exterior reef make for smooth sailing.  Sorobon has a real surfer vibe, albeit one with a huge Dutch influence.   It’s a tables-in-the-sand, flip-flop paradise. Tourists from Holland flock here to soak up the sun, drink Heineken beer at Jibe City or eat a croquette at The Beach Hut.  It provides the Dutch with warm respite from the cold North Sea waters.  The sand is soft. The bay is mellow.  The party is on.

No Name Beach

A short sail to Klein Bonaire takes me to the finest beach around, No Name.  It is a kilometer long of fine white sand bordered by gin clear water.  Day-trippers return on the last water taxi, called the Kantika Di Amor (Song of Love), around 4PM.  After that, it is common to have the whole beach to yourself.  A palm frond palapa provides shade.  Walks here at sunset are simply stellar.  Sea turtles chose No Name for nesting from June to December.  Walking to the east end of No Name, the beach turns from sand to rock. At this point, there is a gap in the reef.  Swim through this point and drift snorkel all the way back to the shade of the palapa.

Dogs admire No Name too.

Waves breaking at Playa Chikitu

Playa Chikitu is on the Wild Side of the island known for its strong winds and currents.  This beach, located in the national park, is an awesome place to watch the sea’s raw power.  White sand slopes steeply down to massive waves.  The undertow here is unbelievably strong.  It is difficult to even stand knee-deep in the water. Swimming is out of the question.  But the sand is bountiful and the south end has massive boulders to explore.  It’s a gas to see Neptune flexing his nautical mojo at this nearly always-deserted beach.  Also in the national park is Wayaká Two.  This is the ultimate snorkel site where large French angle fish greet you in ankle deep water.  Further out is an extensive reef with thousands of fish. A steep cliff backs the beach so at high tide there is not much sand left above the water line.  No matter.  Just lime about and soak up the natural beauty of this place.  The tide will soon roll out.

Donkey Beach

I end many beach daze at Donkey Beach.   In the late afternoon it is prime time to watch the local island hoppers do their treetop flying.  The Flamingo International Airport runway starts just behind the beach and the prop planes fly in directly overhead on their approach.  Facing toward the water offers a grand view of islet Klein Bonaire.  The sand at Donkey Beach is white and mixed with some dead coral, but it’s not really a problem.  Nice reefs and gentle waters make this a good snorkel spot.  Plus, I like the shade of the trees from the late day sun.  That, with the constant, offshore breeze, makes Donkey a great place to chill.

These are my five well-known beaches on Bonaire.  But there are others—hidden, diminutive coves of brilliant, white sand lapped by lazy, Windex-blue water where you will not see another human all day long.  But I cannot reveal these gems here.  They are too precious and need to retain anonymity in order to preserve their beauty.  I know. I know.  Life’s a beach.  But what a way to live.