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.