Sailors Who Never Left-Part 3

A tale of two boats shapes the future of a Swiss sailing couple and their life on Bonaire.

Chris and Yvonne Schultheiss

Deep in Southeast Asia, an American CIA agent is ordered to document the local boats that ply the tropical waters of coastal Thailand.  It is a ‘fact-finding’ mission so to speak.  The man, in the process of compiling extensive information, falls in love with the grace and elegance of the Thai vessels.  By the end of his clandestine work, he commissions a local boatyard to build him his own teakwood, Siamese junk sailing boat.  The boat is christened Samur.  Eventually, the man sails away west passing through the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and makes land’s end in the Chesapeake Bay of the United States.

In northern Germany, a young Swiss couple begins a two-year process of crafting a 40-foot catamaran.  It is designed after a British coastal cruiser but changes are made in order for the boat to meet the rigors of blue water sailing.  The catamaran is named Hey di Hei, which means ‘Hi, At Home’ in Swiss German.  By 1993, the two sailors depart Kiel, Germany for a voyage of a lifetime spurred on what they call “the urge to search”.  They have no itinerary or timeline.  Freedom is the operative word for the trip.  But they realize they will need to work along the way to extend their adventure.

Destiny eventually brings these two boats together, but more on that later.  The main concern for the Swiss couple by the time they reach the Canary Islands is where to have the baby born.  “By the time we reached Portugal, I was pregnant,” explains Yvonne Schultheiss, “but we continued sailing south. We were comfortable having the baby during the voyage.  I went to the hospital in the Canaries to have our son, Urs.  Four hours later, we were back aboard Hey di Hei.”

“Our next step was to cross the Atlantic,” continues Chris Schultheiss.  “We wanted Urs to have a safe travel weight before we left so we set up a four kilo goal for him to reach.  This gave us plenty of time to prepare for the voyage.”

That year the trade winds were not cooperating so when the trio finally departed, they continued south for ten days. About the time they spotted the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, the winds started blowing from the east and Hey di Hei began her trans-Atlantic passage. By February 1996, they landed on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

On a hilltop in Tobago

For the next two years, the catamaran cruised the eastern Caribbean, sailing up and down the island chain several times.  It was on Grenada that they learned about an opportunity to work in Bonaire for two months on a day charter sailboat.  The couple pulled anchor and headed west to check out the opportunity.

“Bonaire was heaven for sailors,” remembers Yvonne fondly.  “In 1998, the moorings were free. The thing was you had a great anchorage with great water quality right in front of the town for easy shopping.  Usually you don’t find that combination. The moorings were always full with visiting boats so we had a lot of fun parties aboard and good times at Karl’s Bar. You could dock your dingy there for free back then.”
“Plus, we had a car!” adds Chris.  “It was a black, diesel jeep with pink wheels.”

“Flamingo wheels! laughs Yvonne.

Chris grins. “Another sailor who had to leave the island gave the jeep to us.  He had inherited it earlier from another departing sailor.  It had no working lights since the alternator was broken.  There were no keys, just a button to push and it would start.”

Those pink wheels delivered Chris and Yvonne to Richard Tuke, an American living on Bonaire who was in need of deck hands to help run his charter boat while the regular captain was off delivering a yacht to the Azores.  The captain never returned.  Tuke’s 56-foot sailboat was the teakwood, Siamese junk sailing boat named Samur.

The Schultheiss’s learned that Tuke was the third owner of Samur, having found it in Maryland where the CIA agent apparently had ended his journey.  The couple skippered the boat for two years, taking tourists on day charters.  The family lived a comfortable life residing on Hey di Hei, which was on a Kralendijk mooring.  But by 2000, they decided to leave the island.  “We still wanted to see more of the world,” explains Chris.  “We were basically not ready to settle down. We had a great time on Bonaire, but it was time to continue our voyage.”

Hey di Hei headed north to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Cuba and Mexico.  The crew eventually sailed to Belize and then to the jungle-rich shores of Guatemala’s exotic Rio Dulce. Chris and Yvonne became managers of a riverside marina.  The new life was ideal for the sailors, and then one day they received a call from Richard Tuke.  He asked them to return to Bonaire to operate Samur for the upcoming six-month cruise ship season.  The family left Hey di Hei on dry dock and flew to Bonaire in order to avoid an arduous 1000-mile sail into the wind.

“One season led to three,” continues Yvonne.  “We would do the cruise ship season during the winter in Bonaire.  Then in the summer, we flew back to Guatemala and lived on Hey di Hei.  It was a nice life, but it was time for Urs to seriously begin school and for the family to lead a more permanent life.  We started by enrolling him in the Pelikaan School and then rented a house in Nikiboko.”

By 2006, the Schultheiss’ had purchased Samur from Richard Tuke becoming the boat’s fourth owners.  Business went well and the couple finally bought their own home in Hato in 2009.  Urs became a talented Optimist dingy sailor often winning regattas in Bonaire and Curacao.  He also helped his parents aboard Samur and could often be seen swinging overboard from one of the long lines tied to the mast top.  Captain Chris to this day enjoys sharing Bonaire’s underwater beauty with the passengers, especially the older ones.

“We had just taken a group with an 84-year old man to Klein Bonaire.  It was the first snorkel of his life.  Afterwards, I saw him sitting on No Name Beach crying.  I asked him what was wrong.  He said he never saw anything so beautiful in his life and that he was ready to die right there on the beach.  Fortunately, he didn’t.  Sometimes we get caught up in the charter business and forget about how much beauty there is here on the island.  That old man reminded me of what surrounds us.”

And what about the Hey di Hei, left behind in Guatemala?  Chris met two Texans years later, owners of a 20-meter motorboat, who offered to tow the catamaran to Bonaire.  Chris flew back to Rio Dulce to join them in the journey.  The trip took nearly three weeks, but that was only after the boats became separated at sea on two occasions due to chafed lines.  The Hey di Hei now rests peacefully next to the couple’s Hato home.

These veteran sailors, however, may not yet be done with their world voyage.  After all, a foot-long model sailboat floats in the couple’s patio wading pool.  Errant winds have the tiny craft circling the perimeter, desperately looking for a way to escape the concrete pool.  Perhaps that is symbolic of something.  “Bonaire is our home and we love living here,” assures Yvonne. “But we still keep Hey di Hei. She is a big part of our life history.  And you never know what the future may bring.  We may start another phase of our life someday and just sail away.  Or maybe we won’t.  It’s just nice to have options.”

In the meantime, Chris and Yvonne seem quite comfortable with their two contrasting options: the Samur, constructed in Asia and still sailing the waters, and Hey di Hei, built in Europe, sitting high and dry on blocks.  Both boats have made Bonaire their home.  So have three Swiss sailors.

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A Scream in the Night

Island Notes 83

It was a shriek of terror, a sustained banshee wail, a high-pitched howl like I had never heard before.  I tumble out of bed.  It is 0-dark-thirty and I head naked in the direction of the commotion.

I first meet Sweet Pea with his moon-sized eyes.  Hey, what’s up, Doc?  Got any food for me? he asks optimistically. Sweet Pea is always optimistic.  No time for food now.  I need to find the source of the strangest, most disturbing sound I have ever witnessed.  Chills down my spine still linger.

The next suspect interviewed is my naughty buddy, Pirate.  She is the hunter of the household and can often be found with insect, bird or beast clamped between her jaws of death.  I exaggerate.  Actually, Pirate has held a dove, a tropical oriole, a bananaquit, even a bat between her teeth, but never chomped down.  We always manage to get the bird or bat released and all have flown away relatively unharmed.

So what are you after this time, Pirate? At this terribly dark and early time of the day (or is it night?) the cat refuses to look at me during interrogation.  Rather, she rudely points her furry, feline ass in my direction and ignores the question.  But there is more than just rudeness and insubordination on display here.  The cat is intensely looking under the off-the-floor sink cabinet in the small bathroom.

I can’t see anything looking from above so I get down on all fours and peer into the shadows under the sink.  So does the cat.  There appears to be a dark scrub pad wadded up in the back corner.  But it does not really quite look like a rag.  I gently poke it with my finger.  Mistake.  AAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!

The sound from hell is in high decibels piped directly into my ears.  The scrub pad morphs into a terrified frog, which leaps for its life.  Pirate takes a swipe at the aerial brown rana and misses.  It leaps again and lands halfway up the tiled wall, clinging to the slick surface with the ultra über adhesive pads of its feet.  I snatch it up in a towel just missing Pirate’s second attempt.  The amphibian goes silent under the darkness of the towel.

Now I must tell you I have a tremendous affection for frogs.  It started very early in my life when I would tune in to the 1950’s NBC kids show, Andy’s Gang.  There was a cast of weirdo characters like Pasta Fazool and Gunga Ram to grab the attention of hyper adolescents like me strung out on sugar-laced cherry Kool-Aid.  And of course there was Buster Brown, the imbedded, mopped-head trickster of a kid who was the appointed, character logo of the show’s sponsor, Buster Brown Shoes.  But my all-time favorite was Froggie the Gremlin.  This suave green machine would be summoned each show by host Andy Divine  saying, “Pluck your magic twanger, Froggie!”  What a latent, bawdy sexual innuendo that was.  The TV technicians would snicker in the background and Froggie the Gremlin would proceed to harass Andy Divine the rest of the show.  The frog, not the host, was my folk hero.

My affection for frogs continued into adulthood.  I never had them as pets but always admired them in their natural setting.  Decades later, I had the privilege to make a documentary about the threatened Chiricahua Leopard frogs of southeast Arizona.  It was a great story.  Enlightened, tough-as-nails rancher Matt Magoffin purposely set up water holes for the endangered croakers, free of non-native predator bullfrogs. Magoffin got it.  To have a healthy ranch you need a balanced, natural ecosystem.  He was giving the edge to his spotted friends so they would survive the invasive bullfrog onslaught.  I got to know the Chiricahua Leopard frog up-close and personal making that film.  That was a cool gig.

But I digress.  It is still 4 am.  I am standing in the buff with a frightened frog wrapped in a towel.  Pirate gives me a look of disgust.  Just when I had the jumping bastard in my sites, you had to go save him!  Get over it, cat.  The frog will live another day.  I walk outside to the well-lit stairwell and release the spooked amphibian.  He pauses for a moment and adjusts to the light.  Suddenly, the frog springs halfway down the stairs.  On the second mighty leap, he goes over the edge and lands on the ground ten feet below.  Hettie calls from the door, Get your naked butt in here.  The neighbors will see.

I close the door behind me and look outside.  Faintly in the darkness I hear, RRRRiiiibbbiiiiitttt. Ribet.  Mission accomplished.


Diving the Hooker

Island Notes 82

The time had finally arrived.  I had more than 20 dives under my weight belt now and figured it was time to dive the Hilma Hooker, a freighter that sank in 1984.  It is one of the few wreck dives of Bonaire.  The vessel now lays on its side with the deepest depth at nearly 100-feet.

I had never gone to that depth before but do know that problems become much more complicated deep down.  Some people become goofy in the head, a condition called nitrogen narcosis.  It is caused by having too much nitrogen in the blood stream and exhibits itself with confused thoughts and bad judgments.  Plus if your gear fails at that depth, you are in deep kimchi.  Your dive buddy is the only one to save your ass. And during ascent, you must spend more time decompressing than with shallower dives in order to avoid the dreaded ‘bends’, a painful condition arising from dissolved gases forming bubbles inside the body on depressurization. The trick is to reduce the excess pressure of inert gases dissolved in the body so they slowly dissipate. Taking repeated stops at certain depths during ascent is the ticket.

Yeah, diving is a high-risk sport.  It puts people in places where we have absolutely no business being.  If not done properly, trouble becomes your immediate dive partner.  I choose my buddy, Bruce, to accompany me instead.  He’s a veteran of hundreds of dives and I have full confidence in his skills.  Game on.

We enter the blue from shore and follow a white, sandy bottom to the first reef. We drop down its face to about 40-feet.  Peering below, I can just make out the mysterious dark hull of the Hilma Hooker.  The cargo ship lost power offshore of Bonaire one day, and when officials discovered 25,000 pounds of ganja stashed in false bulkheads, the 235-foot ship was seized.  Later, it was towed to an anchorage while the legal process stalled.  On September 12, 1984, the outlaw freighter began taking on water through the lower portholes.  She sank within minutes after rolling over, conveniently landing on the sand bottom between two reefs.

Bruce and I arrive at the bow of the beast and swim along the deck that now lays vertical.  Looking into the dark shadows of the hold, I a spot a 5-foot tarpon, motionless and metalic.  It resembles a fish mounted on a den wall.  I swim toward it.  But before I get within 10 yards, the tarpon vanishes with one powerful thrust of it tail.  I turn to look out into the light.  Bruce is floating there with a patient finger motioning me to come back to safety.  Yes, Sensei.

We continue on around the ship’s two massive masts.  We peer into another hold and swim through a wide bulkhead.  I mentally check myself to confirm if I got a case of the goofies. No, all systems still seem ‘go’. When we arrive back in the light, Bruce points upward.  He had told me earlier on shore to watch my bubbles rise at this 100-feet depth.  It takes them forever to reach the surface.  Yeah, we are not really supposed to be here.

I swim underneath another large tarpon.  A teeth-baring barracuda cruises by to check out my electric yellow-striped dive suit.  I grin back at the sleek, silver assassin.  We round the stern of the ship, glide by its rusting propeller, and then peer over the port side rail downward. We can see other divers exploring 30-feet below us.

It’s time to go.  We slowly make our way up the face of the reef.  Bruce stops to check out a spotted moral eel with its mouth agape.  The moray moves back and forth from his hole in the reef’s wall.  This is all part of our decompression plan, but it’s great eye candy too.  Later at 15-feet, Bruce calls for a 3-minute stop.  I stare at a piece of brain coral to pass the time and watch a couple of purple/yellow fairy basslets (tiny reef fish) dart around their home.  Bruce taps my shoulder minutes later and we push toward shore.  It is time to get back to land and its gravity.  The hammock will be especially delightful today. Hilma Hooker dreams are on the way.