These Be The Good Ol’ Days

Islands Notes 71

There is something out of place, uneasy.  There it is.  The wind is blowing out of an unusual southwest direction and it has turned my boat’s stern to shore.  I normally approach while swimming on the port side, toss the waterproof bag in, and move around to the stern to enter by ladder.  I have done it hundreds of times before.

No problem. I will just throw the bag in from the back. I do.  It gets struck between the toe rail and the bottom of the gallows. It might fall back into the sea while I’m climbing in. No matter. I can grab the ladder with my right hand, leap upwards and push the bag in the boat with my left.  This is just like a smooth basketball move. As I reach for the ladder, I unfortunately only grasp the front, hinged part.  Lunging forward to complete the move, the ladder comes undone and smashes into my face.  Problem.

I am in shock.  I blacked out for an instant and now open my eyes.  My right hand still holds the ladder, but the boat has swung 45 degrees away from me.  Is the ladder broken?  Unhinged? I am unsure and let it go.  I still have my sunglasses and hat on.  For some unknown reason, I take off the cap and clutch it.  The boat looks far away now.  I try swimming with my free hand, but I start to sink.  This is becoming a matter.

The cool water over my head startles me into awareness.  I stare through my sunglasses, but I am underwater now.  I have to get to the surface! I do quickly.  I am not that far below.  I swim to the boat, still clutching stupidly to the hat.  I grab the hanging ladder with my free hand and access the damage.

The water begins to turn crimson from my blood.  What a strange color contrast to the turquoise blue. I put my soaked hat back on and check my teeth.  Nothing is loose or cracked.  My upper lip is swelling fast though and I run my finger along an inch-long gash on the inside of my mouth.  Better to just let the salt water flush the wound and let the bleeding stop.

I do this for a few minutes.  My clarity returns but the pain from the impact begins.  While I hang out in the water, I inspect the ladder.  It is not broken at all, but hangs hinged and normal.  I look up and my dry bag is still there where it was stuck earlier.  I realize that I came real close to going under.  That would have been a bad day. There is no one around other than a couple of visiting yachties on nearby moorings.  They probably would have never noticed.  Close call.

What to do now?  I can swim home, lick the wounds and just concentrate on the pain.  Or I can go sailing, get my mind off the pain a bit and enjoy part of the day.  I choose the latter.  I climb aboard and prepare the boat to sail.  I need to stop repeatedly to spit blood overboard.  If I can only get the tasks done that require me to lower my head, I think the bleeding will lessen. It does.

I let off the mooring line and pull in the main sheet.  Kontentu takes off like a two-year-old filly at Churchill.  The winds are strong and come in sporadic puffs.  I probably should have reefed, but I’m still OK.  It is just a bit more challenging to handle the boat.  The pain and swelling increase a bit, but the sailing takes my mind away from that.  Full attention is needed on handling these tricky winds.  After about an hour, the headache begins.  It is time to sail home.

I put the boat away.  As I swim to shore I ponder what could have happened.  But I also think about and appreciate how things turned out.  Glass half full.  I have to agree with Ziggy Marley who once so eloquently sang,

Irie days.  Come on and play.  Let the angels fly.  Let the devils die. Got to do what you can with the time at hand…. These be the good ol’ days.

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Yellow Man Returns

Island Notes 70

He has come back in the past.  Most of Bonaire’s seamen usually do, now and then.  But this encore had a melancholy vibe to it that was unlike any other previous visit.

I first met Yellow Man about a year ago.  He had returned home to see his mom, my neighbor, Ines Martis, and his siblings.  Of course, before that I was introduced to him through various picture albums that Ines always showed me whenever I visited at her yellow, seaside home on Kaya Playa Lechi.

“Does Yellow Man have a wife?” I asked after viewing hundreds of photos of him but seeing no recognizable spouse.

“Oh no, dushi,” Ines answered and then grinned.  “But just like all the seamen, he has a girlfriend in every port.”

Bonaire has a long tradition of producing sailors.  Our flag even salutes the island’s nautical past with a black compass symbolic of the navigation prowess of early Bonairean seafarers, and a blue triangle representing the sea.  As a nation of sailors, Bonaire was recognized for its contribution to the Allied effort during World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt christened a monument in Wilhelmina Park that stands today as testimony to the brave Bonaireans who gave their lives while serving in the Merchant Marines.  German U-boats had a field day sinking supply ships in the Caribbean during the war.

Yellow Man continued the seafaring tradition.  He has spent his adult life in Amsterdam, working out of that great European port as a seaman.  His last gig was the best.  He was first mate on a private, 80-foot sailing yacht owned by a wealthy Dutchman.  Yellow got to see the world aboard this magnificent boat—the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the South Pacific.  The owner would instruct his crew to sail to an exotic port.  He would then meet them, bringing his entourage of friends and business associates on a private jet.  The group would then cruise with the crew for a few days to a few weeks at a time.  Upon leaving, the boss would dispatch his yacht to the next rendezvous point.

This is how Yellow Man has spent the past five years, sailing from Tahiti to Hong Cong, from Saint Lucia to Mallorca.  While he maintained an apartment in Amsterdam, most of his time was spent aboard.  Then it all came crashing down.

I learned about the accident in early summer, but today I got to hear it from Yellow Man himself.  Gone were the gold-tinged dreadlocks that gave him his fabled, signature name.  His hair was now cut seriously short.  Black circles surrounded his deep-set eyes.  From waist to upper chest, the 50-year old seaman was wrapped in a Velcro bound, protective brace.

“We were off the coast of Italy, heading to Messina when a big blow came up.  We had to take down canvas and do it fast.  I was high in the mast when a big wave hit us broadside. It knocked me off balance and I grabbed a lifeline just in time.  But the rope swung me back full speed into the mast.  I smashed my head and was knocked unconscious.  I ended up falling to the deck thirty feet below.”

The crew immediately sent out a May Day.  A ferry transferred Yellow to a hospital in Naples.  He didn’t know a word of Italian.

“The operation on my back went fine.  It was after I was sent to recover that things got bad.  The staff just placed the food on the table.  There was no care.  If you don’t have family taking care of you in the hospital, you’re in deep trouble.”

The Dutch boat owner sent people down to take care of Yellow Man.  After a month, he was finally transferred back to Amsterdam.  He is now in Month Five in his recuperation.  I asked him what the future held.

“I won’t be able to return to work as a sailor.  I am fifty now.  I think I’ll be coming back to Bonaire for good.  The cold, damp weather in Holland just causes me too much pain now.  It’s time to come home and do some fishing.  Hopi trankíl (laid back).”

“Well, Yellow, if you ever want to get back under sail, you can always come with me on Kontentu.”

Yellow Man smiles through the pain.  We will go sailing.  It is what Bonaire seamen do.

Seaside Escapades Postscript

Island Notes 69

The storm hit at 3:15 am.  Winds were howling.  The sea foamed with whitecaps and waves crashed the coast.

The new fishermen dock nearby my home was nearly complete, a casualty of Tropical Storm Omar in 2008.  This storm, however, sent a reminder that seaside docks have their challenges.  A number of newly fastened planks were upended.  Welcome to the neighborhood.

Before I moved my boat last night, I ran into my neighbor who was staring at the waves while contemplatively smoking a cigarette.  I warned him of the upcoming storm and said I was about to move my boat into the safety of the harbor.  He decided to leave his on a seaside mooring and went off to a dinner party.  This morning, I saw what was left of his Carolina Skiff.  It was still connected to the mooring line, but was upside down and banging against the hard, coral bottom.  His new Yamaha motor was taking the brunt of it, and the stern deck had also become detached, floating aimlessly under the hull.  Bad call.

Total Loss

By 9am, I arrived at the Harbour Village Marina.  Kontentu was in the still, safe water of the harbor.  I lost one fender during the night.  A better knot would have kept it with the boat.  But other than that, she is fine and surrounded by local fishing boats.  The sea today is extremely confused.  Kontentu will stay dockside for a while. Seaside Escapades concluded.

Seaside Escapades

Island Notes 68

We are at a chique art opening at Kas di Arte, our local art exhibition center.  You know it is a special event when Tutti Frutti is playing, the local band from Rincon.  There are wonderful paintings from ­­­­­­­­­­­Ronald Verhoeven of island life on display.  These canvases, however, are probably more than the price of a small boat.  I just enjoy looking at them, talking to locals, drinking a Polár and grabbing a sate covered with spicy peanut sauce when the food tray glides by.

Tutti Frutti takes a break and I get to speak to the drummer, Francis Domacasse, who has a day job as tugboat captain.  Kas di Arte fronts the sea and a sliver of crescent moon breaks through the clouds on a dark, black sky.

“Nice moon tonight, huh Francis?”

“Yeah, but they are getting beat up over at Curacao.  I just spoke with my tugboat buddies there and they are closing the harbor.  A bad storm is coming and it’s headed our way.”

“I probably should get my boat to the marina.  It’s on a mooring not far from here.”

“Oh, yeah.  I gotta go.  Tutti Frutti is about to start again.”

We bid ayó.  I down the Polár and head home.  No more chique art opening for me.  Trunks on, I swim into the night to my boat.  Already the surge of the storm is hitting Bonaire and the waves toss Kontentu to and fro.  I was just in the boat a few hours ago, trying to sail in very confused seas.

I get out the fenders and dock lines.  The motor starts right up.  I release the mooring line and I’m off into the night.  No running lights, but I know this coastline well.  Five minutes later I enter the safety of the harbor.  A dockside party is taking place aboard Aquaspace, a day charter sailboat that used to be part of Jacque Cousteau’s fleet.  As I put-put past in the darkness, Kontentu draws looks.  The dreadlocked captain knows my boat and waves.  The partygoers just stare in rum-soaked stupors as I steer the tiller with my bare foot.  Island boy coming in late.  You never know what that means.

I glide in next to a local fishing boat and raft up to her port side.  Three lines, three fenders and Hettie appears.  We head home for a shower, Mount Gay, and pizza.  We eat dinner from the balcony watching the yachts in front pitching in the water.  The sound of the crashing waves dominates.  I will sleep without worries tonight.  Seaside escapades.