Reefs. This place is full of them, or more precisely the Abacos, is a reef. Inexplicably, mounds of coral have protruded from the shallow sea creating islands as wild as one can imagine. Manjack is one of them. Almost as miraculously as the coral taking hold and forming a spit of land, this insubstantial protrusion from the water will soon be a place of human habitation. It will take Herculean efforts for man to comfortably live here, but it is imminent if not already a fact.
As wild as this spot is, we are not alone on the island. Three other catamarans bob in the anchorage and two small craft hang near the beach. One of the boats, Sloop du Jour, is familiar. A day ago we saw them anchored on the Fowl Cay Reef dense with Blue Tangs, Damsels, Sargent Majors and Parrot Fish. Literally, “anchored on.” They had dropped their heavy anchor and chain rode along the delicate reef so, for a few moments, they could snorkel in the splendor that took eons to develop. Surely they later ravished the coral dragging up the tackle with their windlass.
I eye them warily then don my goggles, jump off the stern, swim toward the bow, then veer toward the white stretch of beach. I aim for a smart yellow building, perhaps a small cottage. The sea bottom is a motley lawn of swaying grass pocked with bald white sandy spots dotted with spiny urchins. A body length in front of my reach, a turtle languidly flies towards the shore. I pick up speed to try to match the turtles’ pace. He seems unaware of my progress for quite a long distance, until I awkwardly thump my foot on the surface of the water. Without slowing, he cranes his neck until our eyes meet, then vanishes ahead with no apparent increased effort.
Turning to swim back to the boat to boast of my encounter I’m surprised when I surface. It’s raining hard and the boat is cloaked in a lacy skirt of spattering water, barely visible. The thought of loosing sight of my craft makes my heart suddenly race. I circle toward the stern, in my excitement unable to swim a straight course, and board pushing the dinghy aside. Lowered from the davits it is ready for a trip to shore. My shipmates are gathered in the shelter of the cockpit. From the swim step I tell of my encounter and take an impromptu fresh water shower.
“I saw the coolest thing! I swam with a turtle.” I let the cool downpour rinse salt from my hair and body. The boat begins a swing away from the beach to point toward a cut in the land where the sea is surging and breaking against exposed coral. Two of the boats have departed. Sloop du Jour and the runabouts remain. Toweling off, I join the others in the cockpit to watch the rain filling the dink.
The island, like most of the mounds raising from the Sea of Abacos, is a low crescent. It is easy to discern the end we lay closest to is very narrow. A few yards of coral separates the Sea of Abacos from the deeper Atlantic. The belly of the island is a dense tangle of green; wild, super-sized versions of common houseplants woven through mangroves, delicately edged with sea oats and a thin strip of sand laying before the water. Later, Mark reports the jungle is impenetrable yet a path has been cleared and a house on the Atlantic side is under construction.
Once the rain stops — pauses — we bail the dink then make way through the shallow water to a sandy curve on the beach. We run up as far as possible without going aground, then each grab handholds to lug the craft completely out of the water. For good measure we loop the painter around a broken tree stump as the rain begins to spit again. An orderly line of sea birds stand along the sandy crest pointing into the wind. A carcass of a dinner-sized fish lays close to the dinghy, its stench percolating through the rain. As I walk past, one bird tears away a long string of flesh while another stands nearby waiting for a chance to dine. The other birds point beaks toward the Atlantic; a gradient of excited turquoise blue water blending into a navy blue, dotted with frothy wind whipped white caps. The terns are unconcerned with our transit and stand inanimate like feathered weather vanes pointing windward to the skittering waves. I turn back for a last comforting look at our boat before cresting the low berm. One of the small crafts near the beach is leaving and the occupants of the other are gathering for departure.
As if by instinct, we scatter to survey the wild unsheltered side of the Cay. Solitude has been rare. Without explanations or excuses we turn away from each other and commune privately with nature’s glory. Sunset pink conch shells litter the coral head. Tiny sand tunnels bubble as waves wash over them. A sand dollar slides washes up stopping at my feet. Far off Dianna holds up a huge star fish then drops it back into the shallow water. Bruce stoops over to watch it drift away. Ed walks along well behind me. I wade around the point towards the narrow slit of land. I can see most of our mast as my shipmates disappear behind the jut of land. Ed joins me and we walk to the narrow, picking up conch, examining the creatures and dropping them back to their watery home. As we reach the strand the wind whips. We take a moment to pick a plastic bottle from the sharp coral and head back at a quickened pace. The sea has begin to buck in response to the wind. Waves begin to break against the coral. Suddenly it looks beautifully threatening. Without discussion we turn to retrace our steps. Emily passes us, headed to were we have just left. As we reach the berm, Dianna and Bruce are casually waiting. We ask them about Mark. He is no where to be seen, so to relieve any concern, we joke he could walk anywhere being so tall. Emily is out of sight too. So we wade and turn our faces into the wind and watch the sea’s increasing turmoil. I ask Ed if we should go after Emily.
“Maybe…” He lifts his hand to her small figure wading toward us. It is windy and raining when she joins us.
“Do you think Mark is okay?” I ask, my hair whipping across my face.
“Oh, yes. Sure. He can take care of himself. He’s so tall…” She points down the boat-side of the beach to Mark emerging from the jungle. I notice the fish has been reduced to skin and fins. In the placid lee, the salty surface water springs upward to groove with the rain. The birds stand on the berm ignoring it all.
Without discussion we shove the dinghy into the water and motor to meet Mark who has waded to the middle of the cove, the water scarcely at his hips. Evidence of our presence seems washed from the sand by the peppering rain. I find this comforting.
Miguel’s phone walks across the storage chest, buzzing like an over-sized beetle. Cook extracts himself from the galley, grabs the phone and pretends to toss it out the open hatch. We cheer as he follows Randy’s earlier remedy—flips the phone open, then shut—to quiet the frenetic buzz.
Amí is still not feeling well enough to join us for dinner and takes her plate dotted with a few bites to the deck to dine in the fresh air. Only Amí is still seasick, apparently not so much she can not read. She uses her heavy hard cover copy of Cryptonomicon as a tray. Elenore loads her dish and stands alone at the nav station to eat. I’ve yet to see her sit, for any reason except to put on socks.
Five men, Margarete and I squeeze around the large salon table intended for six. Three men compress onto the storage chest against the bulkhead, heavily laden plates balanced on their unmanly held-together knees. Late comers Conrad and John, the old Brit Berkley professor, stand and eat at the counter like bachelors.
It’s the first time so many of us have dined together. None of us need be on deck, except Amí who has anchor watch. It is by far the best meal we have had on the trip. We laugh, tell jokes and stuff ourselves continuing our toasts, even though our dole of wine is gone. We toast the sea and the wind, tossing our heads back and tipping our empty glasses, hovering them above our bird-like mouths open to catch an imaginary dribble.
Dessert is chocolate cake intended for the Coffee Bean birthday celebration. I swirl my fingers around my emptied plate to collect the tiniest chocolate morsel as Sam cranes behind the bench to fetch dominoes. Some of us—like me—have never played dominoes, let alone Mexican Train. Seven of us start up an over-crowded game. The rules seem to be, shall I say, flexible. Each person, who has played before, has personal rules. Randy is the natural arbitrator, laughingly choosing any domino dictate which clearly benefits him. The good-natured interpretations and disagreements heighten our fun. We play unfettered by hard and fast law.
The galley and salon grow muggy, even though it is cool outside, a light breeze swirling around the companionway. Our faces flush—made rosy by the wine, the heat and the mood. I feel incredibly happy.
At this moment we have a magical communal lightness—except for Elenore. Just after eating she ran to throw up over the stern. She’s allergic to wine and Cook used it for the salmon. Now that the offending fish is—let’s say “gone”—she’s fine but steaming mad Cook did not warn her. “He knew!” she spat. We joke about domino rules, scarcely looking up as she tromps through the boat, giving Cook the evil eye. I know we are too noisy for her to get the sleep she obviously needs.
After playing several games, the various Mexican Train rules blend to be a new set made solely for this day and this boat. We play and tell sea stories, scoffing at obvious lies and exaggerations and leaning into the table to steady ourselves during a recounting of a fearsome yarn. We are laughing; hooting, loudly when Miguel’s phone buzzes to life.
John pushes back, stands puffing his chest, struts to the phone, swings it in a wide arc to his ear and puts his hand on his hip. He doesn’t answer, but effeminately holds the still buzzing phone to the side of his face batting his eyelashes. We know something is coming and hold our breath. In an pinched falsetto John feigns answering, “Miguel? Si. Un momento. Miguelito, mi amor, es tu madre!”
We beg him, “Do it! Do it! Answer.” He doesn’t. He plucks out the fully charged battery and drops it into his pocket. We slap the table and roar. This game is over. We’ve sent the dominoes dancing.
Cook has closed the bilge and is rooting through the ice chest when Margarete and I emerge from her quarters fully chocolatized. Most of the men who had taken to their bunks to sulk over the floppy dinghy and their resulting denial, are now on deck gazing longingly toward shore. A few others have gathered in the salon and sit reading, eating grapes Cook has set out. Randy, the skipper, is leaning on the threshold of his stateroom casually grasping a handhold while he talks on his cell phone. He’s grinning and cajoling, graphically retelling the tale of the “limp dink.”
After shoving off and until anchoring, phones have been used discretely — except by Miguel, the young Venezuelan, who has his palmed and glued to an ear every moment we are within range of a cell tower. It seems his girlfriend is missing him terribly, even though they chatter constantly. Still hot from recent cooing, Miguel’s phone, which is plugged in for recharging right under Randy’s hand, sings for attention. Randy looks for Miguel to scurry to answer, but he must be in the head or on deck. In a seamless wave Randy drops his hand, swoops up the phone, flicks it open and slaps it shut. Everyone in the salon giggles as the skipper theatrically touches his finger to his lips to shush us. He cranes to look up the hatch.
“Who wants to go ashore?” he asks loudly, holding his phone above his head. An immediate surround-sound, testosterone-juiced chorus of “Me!” “Me!” “Me!” circles the salon. If anyone was asleep, they aren’t now. Spencer yanks the curtain open, toddles into the salon with his hand raised, yawning, “Me too!”
Miguel bounds down the companion way, glances toward his phone and shrugs his shoulders begging a translation.
“Do you want to go ashore?”
“Si. Yes, si!” Miguel smiles as he picks up his phone to determine its status. He checks for messages and plugs it in as Randy finishes his phone conversation.
“My friend who lives here, another skipper, has a skiff he can launch. I didn’t want to impose, so I offered him $100 to water taxi for the evening. His boat can handle six. He has to drive, so five can go ashore in one trip. We should let the birthday boy go to celebrate with his little brother. Miguel, Spencer — Alex, do you want to go?”
Elenore, who looked so longingly towards shore, turns on her heel and lurches up the steps. She knows she must stay aboard and get a bit of sleep.
“Anyone else?” he looks over his shoulder incapable of ignoring the first mate’s huff. “So, it’s settled. We’re pulling anchor at midnight. Don’t miss the boat. Get your twenty bucks and be ready. He’ll be here shortly. Remember, everyone back and set to head north before 2330. No later than 11:30 or you’ll be driving up the coast!”
We nod our heads, satisfied with the arrangement and the change of mood. Cook hoists two bottles of white wine above his head and does the Rocky Balboa victory dance. “Look what I found for the rest of us,” he sings. He stops and gestures stiff arm, palm out. “For dinner,” he decrees. We hold as commanded, lick our lips and make hot tea he has set out. Cook is the master of what and when we eat or drink while on ship — except our chocolate.
Everyone gathers on deck to enjoy the lengthening shadows and scan the harbor for the shore boat’s arrival. A small aluminum skiff nears. The skipper waves and calls to Randy as he eases the throttle. As the boat skims alongside and disappears in our sheer, Miguel’s cell phone rings again. Miguel retreats to the bow to answer, looking somewhat irritated. He returns quickly, flipping his phone shut as he shrugs his shoulders. “Mi novia es crazy por me,” he apologizes.
Boarding will not be as simple as stepping from one deck to the other. We are more than six feet above the waterline. Margarete and Connor rig a rope ladder while Randy introduces his friend below. “This is Charlie. He’ll take you in and bring you back. Call him a half hour before you’re ready or just show up where he drops you at 11. People fall in using these ladders so be careful. If you have anything you don’t want to get wet, leave it or we can hand it down once you board. Miguel, give me your phone,” instructs Randy as the men cue up at the ladder.
The five have primped, slicked their hair, put on travel clothes. They smell strongly of baby wipes and cologne. One by one they lower themselves to the launch and speed away. We watch until they cut behind a jut of docks and Cook has called us to dinner. Randy pulls Miguel’s cell phone from his pocket, plugs it in and turns to serve himself salmon, rice and a green salad. Cook pours wine into small plastic juice glasses and passes them to the table.
“To the birthday boy,” offers Randy. “And the skipper,” adds Ed. “…and the crew.” Smiling, we raise our glasses to toast. Miguel’s phone vibrates loudly.
As soon as we set anchor the boat settles as if the keel was set firmly in bedrock. The sun warms the decks and all manner of clouds dissipate. To the northwest the whipped sea is merely a dark ribbon of contrast below the gray sky.
The dinghy, which for the past two days hung flaccidly from the stern, suddenly becomes an object of serious attention. It is wrestled to the deck by the Coffeebean Brothers, Margarete the engineer and Elenore. The older Bean brother, Michael, is marking a milestone birthday and a trip ashore will ensure a proper celebration. As they lay the craft on deck the younger of the Beans glances over his shoulder as if he expects the coast to disappear. Four mates toil, the men stripping off fleece a layer at a time. Taking turns on a foot pump they work feverishly to revive the boat. Although the resuscitation attempt is intense, the launch refuses the inflation. Soon the entire crew has circled the craft with hands hanging slack at their sides. The little boat is a goner. There’s nothing anyone can do but stand silent and regard its passing. Finally someone asks, “Is there a water taxi? A shoreboat?”
You see, our voyage is dry.
We are near Santa Cruz as my watch ends and it is decided we will wait out rough seas churning north of Point Conception. I’m both relieved and disappointed when during the sparsely attended lunch the plan to anchor is announced. I wanted the excitement of a fast night sail, but was not quite sure I would be up for it. We will stay put, rest and wait for calmer water to develop probably near midnight, the end of my next watch. Most everyone is suffering from seasickness, or from side effects of medication to prevent it. Only I, the skipper, first mate, engineer and the cook seem to be none the worse for the unsettled ride. Men not on watch snore in their bunks. I make my way forward to my cubbyhole careful not to invade their berths while reaching for a handhold. Ed is laying in his bunk with his arms folded over his pasty white face.
“Are you okay?” I ask concerned by his waxy appearance.
As we near Point Conception, the ocean folds into a field of slippery hills, each wave piling an ever greater volume of the sea before us. I have relinquished the helm to John, clipped onto a jackline and lurched forward to cling to, and lean against, a trio of shrouds. They are arranged in a comfortable triangle, seemingly for my support while standing watch. Our impermanence is confirmed by each wave, a child of the vast communal body of water, of the same makeup but unique. They slip under my feet; under the deck; under my mates, sleeping, reading, cooking and perhaps playing Mexican Train; under our tiny dryish world. Each ridge slides under our puny mass.
For this watch, and the last, we have seen an abundance of jellies sliding past with the waves. Translucent orbs, milky with plum splashes, they wash past the hull trailing gelatinous lace. They’re a staple for Mola mola, a fish I would love to see. Read more
As soon as the excitement of spotting the California Grays dissipates, Ed and John are dispatched to the foredeck, opting to click onto the jacklines so they can safely peer into the thick fog. Eleanor scribbles in a notebook as she asks me to confirm my wobbling course.
“Three five zero.” In an attempt to make it so for more than a few seconds, I aggressively push the wheel to port as we hit the trough.
“What’s the wind direction?” she asks without looking up from her writing.
I look at the wavelets and answer, “West north west.”
And as if she does not need to see, she asks, “What’s the wind wave height?”
“Less than a foot, but we have some pretty big rollers.” Read more
I refill my cup with stout fine coffee, the kind I personally find too expensive to drink. It is an offering from the Vallero brothers, San Francisco coffee importers who are aboard the ship and must maintain their caffeine standards. The steam roils above the mug as I emerge from the companionway. The plume does not whip away, but slowly swirls, confirming there is still no wind. We should round Point Conception at the end of our forenoon watch. There, we are told by Eleanor with a small degree of glee, “the conditions will change.” NOAA, in a droning electronic voice, corroborates her forecast. “Forty-five knots … at twelve feet … building…midnight…” For the moment though, there is not a breath of wind. The sea rises before us in swelling heaps. Visibility is poor. Beyond the bow the world is gray, featureless and void. Read more
I jerk awake as adrenaline squirts into my veins. Have we hit something? A whale, a container, a crate of shoes? No. The thump is on the sole, not the hull. I take a long breath. Has something fallen? No. The boat is neither pitching nor yawing nearly enough to toss some heavy load onto the floor. I peek around my lee cloth to see the dark figure of the First Mate Eleanor pulling on her shoes, illuminated by her red flashlight. She has launched herself from the bunk above me to prepare for the change of watch, her third watch in 24 hours. She is covering for a mate stricken with seasickness. Read more
The closeness of the water around us is not to be easily dismissed. Where I lay to find the comfort of sleep is most certainly below the waterline with only a thin metal shell dividing my repose from the deep watery world spreading beyond the curve of the earth.
There are seventeen souls aboard the schooner. Four of us; myself, two other women sailors and Ed my husband, berth in the focsle — sleeping, reading, resting or seeking solitude behind powder blue lee cloths. The space is about the size of a mini-van. Read more