When I first moved to Bonaire, I was amazed at the number of sailors I met who had sailed to the island and chose to remain. These are people who had visited dozens of islands, numerous exotic ports and were vagabond in spirit. What was it about this tiny place that had made them stay? What had grabbed onto their soul?
Starting year four here, my list of sailors that chose to remain had grown. So had my curiosity. I needed to answer this pressing question, to get some answers. With audio recorder in hand and the encouragement of the island’s English newspaper, The Bonaire Reporter, I began my personal voyage of discovery. Here is the first episode of the Sailors Who Never Left.
There are thousands of nautical miles between dushi Bonaire and Lennart ‘Lelle’ Davidsson’s homeland of Sweden. Lelle spent his childhood learning to sail in cold Scandinavian waters and by the time he reached his mid 20s, the lure of the sea was calling. On October 2, 1992, Davidsson left as part of the crew on Royal Eagle, a 64-foot racer/cruiser that was Caribbean bound.
His plan was to cruise the islands, bail out in Central America, travel north to San Francisco, perhaps work for a boatyard there, and then return to Sweden in about a year. Unknown to Lelle, that plan began to unravel before the Royal Eagle had even left coastal Europe. In La Palma, Spain, Davidsson met the crew from another Swedish boat, Örnen. Built in 1933, the wooden, 50-foot, two-mast fishing trawler was also headed to the West Indies, albeit at a sea turtle’s pace. The two crews discovered their hometowns were in close proximity and most had mutual friends back home. It was also here that Lelle met Örnen crewmember, Per Magnusson. The two would soon cross paths again.
Royal Eagle’s first Caribbean port of call was the French island of Martinique. The boat’s owner took on charters so Lelle and his mates got to see much of the Windward and Leeward islands. Months later in Barbados, they once again ran into the crew from the Örnen. For Davidsson it was like meeting old friends, and he decided to join them on their world voyage. The crew of six sailed south to Grenada-the island of the spices, reveled in the wild Carnival of Trinidad for days where they signed on two more Swedish sailors, and then journeyed westward to the Venezuelan islands of Testigos, Isla de Margarita and Los Roques. It was in March of 1993 when Örnen dropped anchor in Bonaire.
“The water was amazing,” recalls Lelle. “We had seen nice water on the other islands, but when I came to Bonaire it was stunning. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! This is clear!’. After four hours in Bonaire though, I said, ‘Let’s go.’ The place was too clean and too expensive. The islands before were much different. By then, I only had $500 in my pocket and couldn’t afford Bonaire for long. But the rest of the crew wanted to stay.”
Days later, two of the Swedes met a local construction boss. He was in desperate need of workers to build a house in Belnem. The news was brought back to Örnen and the crew voted unanimously to do the 6-month job. Work permits were arranged for over the weekend with Frits Goedgedrag, later to become governor of the Netherlands Antilles, signing the documents.
“Our group had an interesting set of skills. The crew consisted of a former Volvo test driver (Per Magnusson), a mechanic, an explosives expert, a postman, a bus driver and a chef. The chef and I were the only ones with actual construction experience. Let’s just say that the first months, making the foundation of the house, was our ‘school’ for the team. We went on from there.”
The sailors-turned-construction workers resided on Örnen during the project and frequented the bars at Karl’s and Mona Lisa Restaurant on their time off. They also played football (soccer) and arranged for a match in the Kralendijk stadium against a group of Dutch electricians with whom they had worked. It was Holland vs. Sweden. Lelle does not recall who won that game, only that both teams had plenty to drink before and after the competition.
The house was completed in eight months and the crew then waited for a weather window for passage to the Panama Canal. It was time to continue their world journey. When Örnen finally departed, only five Swedes were aboard. One sailor had met a Dutch girl on Bonaire. They later wed and moved to Sweden. Another met an Ecuadorian girl. They were wed aboard the Örnen in a ceremony complete with a priest. The couple later left Bonaire and joined the crew in Panama. The third Swede to remain on island was Lelle. He too had also met a Dutch lady, Inge Berben, who had peaked his interest. Plus, the young seaman was not finished sailing the Caribbean.
“I joined the local Sunfish sailors club on Bonaire. It was much more active back then. I also windsurfed and was crew for some big races in Puerto Rico and the Trinidad-Tobago Race Week. One year we won our class in the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta.”
Davidsson continued to do small construction jobs specializing in window installations and traveled to work sites by bicycle. For nearly two years, he lived aboard a 28-foot sailboat that he had purchased from a Frenchman who had given up the cruising life. And then serendipity struck.
“There was a 46-foot teak sailboat that went aground on the south point of Bonaire. Both masts were damaged and there was a 1.5 square meter hole in the side. I went there to give advice on how to get the boat shipped to Curacao for repair. But after looking at it, I decided I could fix it myself. I had changed planks in oak boats when I was 12 years old together with my uncle. So why not repair the boat myself? No one was doing yacht repair on Bonaire at that time.”
Marine repair became Lelle’s expertise and in 1997 he began Navegante, a boat repair and service company that still exists today. “That’s the nice thing about life,” reflects Lelle. “Everything offers opportunities.”
One of those opportunities was meeting Inge Berben. They are married now and have an eight year old daughter, Sanne and a five year old son, Luca.
And what was the fate of the Örnen, the boat that delivered Lelle to Bonaire? The old ketch completed its world voyage, but by the time it entered Swedish waters only two of the original crew were on board. Per Magnusson had sailed as far as Australia when his money ran out. He had enough left to fly home to Sweden. Per returned to work at Volvo as an engineer, but he longed for the island life. Eventually, he returned to Bonaire in 2008 and became partners with Lelle in Navegante.
“I still miss the sailing life,” explains Lelle. “Once you start a business, vacation time is very limited. When I see a sailor swinging in a hammock on his boat in the bay, I’m jealous. But I’m a long term thinker and one day it will be my turn again to have my time on the water.”