On December 20, 2012, the day before the end of the world by the Mayan calendar, a notice fluttered in a steamy breeze whipping past a rotting Colon telephone pole:
PANAMA TO COLOMBIA
The Last Sail of El Gato
I followed its little map down the street to a hole-in-wall travel office with an open door and empty chairs, where a dozen other bulletins on a board advertised sailboat passage via the San Blas Islands to Cartagena, Colombia. My destination was South America, having been turned back four times in as many decades in attempting the problematic Darien Gap, and so I signed on to El Gato, which was an odd name for a boat but sailed the next day.
Captain Drago awaited the next sunrise at the harbor, a Finn in tatters as alarmingly tall in bare feet as a sturdy mast, with open arms on his old polished yacht that shone like a gem. Two other passengers already reclined on the bow in life preservers, a female international judge from Austria and her physicist German momentary boyfriend. The craft was as the captain had described in his website:
We are proud of El Gato. A high quality yacht, built by Najadvarvet on an island on the Swedish west coast where people for 1000 years have been building boats that can sail the North Sea even in the winter. Her second hand value today is higher than her price when she was new in 1989. Come board, and you will see why! She is equipped for ocean crossing with extensive safety equipment – and has made the Atlantic twice – but also for comfortable cruising in tropical waters.
Some of the features: New mast and rigging, Yanmar 4-cylinder 5hp diesel (2007), electrical anchor winch with stainless steel anchor and chain, navigation instruments, AIS radar – gives position, speed, course and name of all ships in the vicinity, GPS connected with computer with maps and navigation program, CD, VHF-radio and SSB-radio, and autopilot. A fresh water maker with a capacity of 20 gallons per hour – the water is cleaner than what you can buy in bottles. Fiber glass hull and deck built under Lloyds LR specifications, sloop rigging with genoa and mainsail, length 36 ft – beam 11 ft – draft 5.7 ft – light displacement 7 tons, sail area (with genoa) 786 sq. ft, four beds in two cabins, and a very well equipped galley
We enjoy cooking and like good food. ‘Food included’ means a real breakfast, lunches and dinners like pasta Bolognese, filet Mignon, salads, Finnish pancakes, juice, coffee, tea, and fruit. Classical music is preferred for sailing.
I am Drago, the son of a son of a Norwegian sailor who will not be the last, for Junior was born last month to my Colombian wife though I have never held him. I have been sailing for more than 45 years, made four Atlantic crossings, have been living full time on El Gato, mostly in the Caribbean, since 1990. The sea to me is like land to you, and you are in safe hands.
I was afraid of libraries as a child, as some are of the sea. The same is true of my recent students who are overwhelmed by the flood of books. However, one must start somewhere, I tell them, and my first adventure story was Kon Tiki which was the raft used by Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl in his 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian Islands that ran ashore the previous anthropologists’ conviction that pre-Columbian settlers from South America could not have settled Polynesia. I finished it by flashlight beneath my Idaho bedsheet and awoke the next morning knowing that the worse the occasion the better the story. That’s when I decided to become a writer in order to foray into adventures.
One needn’t travel far off the beaten path in Latin America for an escapade, and although the end of the Mayan world had not been mentioned yet, I got my feet wet as the sun set red in a blackening sky over Che Che, one of the 400 ‘I´ve died and gone to heaven’ San Blas Islands that stretch like a torn pearl necklace off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama. They are home of the Kuna Indians, a handful whom I´d seen from the boat on a palm lined shore, waving. I stripped to shorts and tank top, slipped down the back ladder while the others shared wine on the bow, and breast stroked two hundred yards toward the island. A feisty wind struck my face, with a disagreeable current, so fifteen minutes later by the time I reached the island I´d had to jettison the shirt to keep from drowning. The natives, nut brown with ivory teeth and spread feet that had never touched shoes, were sympathetic with coconuts to drink, and I walked the mile beach perimeter as a sudden swell from an otherwise asymptomatic distant storm brought the shoreline to my toes before the dusk swim to hook the ladder.
The boat rocked all night despite the leeward anchorage, and in the morning another tourist slope under Australian colors crashed to beach, and another tied to a whipping Japanese flag was circling to Panama shouting over a megaphone, ‘Captains, a marine advisory warns of a hurricane.’ ‘Don’t listen to them!’ bristled Drago at the wheel. ‘I’ve sailed solo in worse weather across the Arctic Sea in fourteen days.’ The two Europeans exchanged frowns, and protested that they were certified sailors and knew the ropes. You don’t understand,’ the old Finn cried. I am seventy-eight years old and have a young wife and new-born baby waiting for me in Cartagena. After forty-five years at sea, this is the final voyage before I become a dry dock family man.’
There are no roads between Panama and Colombia, and no regular passenger traffic by boats. The ocean crossing, 200 nautical miles in normally 48 hours, was accelerated by a tailwind that the physicist gauged over his right shoulder at 40mph, from the northwest, and the captain’s strategy was to run with the wind and break his all-time 32-hour record for the passage, as the clipper raced at 25mph before the Northwesterner.
The wind picked up, and like Gilligan the tiny ship was tossed and surely would be lost. The two Europeans yoked me out of earshot of Drago where the judge ruled that the captain had lost his rudder, and the physicist wrapped his Popeye arm around her and counseled, ‘We should but can’t mutiny because I don’t know how to run the radar and radio.’ I whispered, ‘We are somewhat safe on the captain’s determination to see his wife and newborn.’
We exited and crawfished the pitching hold toward stern to behold a tiny open door onto a site that disturbs me to the day. The captain stood like a barnacle lashed by the wind and froth, white-knuckling the wheel, and bellowing from the The Old Man and the Sea ‘Man is not made for defeat. Man can be destroyed but not defeated.’
‘Life raft!’ screamed the judge.
‘Bah! What for? Go below, and don’t look. If you wish, it’s on the pantry shelf,’ and we took turns blowing it up.
But I had looked. We were racing before the wind on high seas. The mainsail was angled at 135-degrees (to the front of the keel), and the smaller genoa was thinned to nothing. The waves approached the stern, towering over, at a near right angle, but never quite caught it because we were speeding faster. To the fore, we overtook from the trough wave after wave that reached twice as tall as the mast, but the wind pushed us up onto the bubbling crest, and accelerated down again into another furrow. The roller coaster repeated twice a minute, except big waves come in sets, and it´s the second and subsequent bigger waves that cause trouble if the pilot isn’t vigilant. The spray reduced visibility to thirty meters and stung the eyes in little lashes. The onboard instruments confirmed a Beaufort scale of 9 points: ‘A strong gale, with 7 meter waves, dense streaks of foam, the crests of waves begin to topple, and spray affects visibility.’ (The same on land causes structural damage of chimney posts and roof slates removed.)
The tempo and lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner were at hand ‘From the mountains; to the valleys…’ as the 36’ El Gato, seemingly with nine lives, or more, rose up from a trough and topped a 26’ swell, and then fell, once every thirty seconds for at least six hours, as the captain expertly pointed its nose into the
waves. Waves are better measured in increments of fear, and we passengers truly anticipated Davey Jones’ Locker. Yet, Captain Drago, the tiger in rags, our sole hope, only turned up the volume of the William Tell Overture to drown the ocean, quoted old sea yarns at the wheel, and once screamed at me when I poked my head through the hatch like Kilroy, ‘The art of a good sailor is to leave nothing to chance. I have done that, but the boat is in the hands of the sea.’
As the cutter raced, below in the berth, I hung on each side of the sling like Snoopy’s ears, with water dripping from a sieve of cracks in the roof. A wave crashed that violently flung me through a fresh rip in the sling across the galley and headlong into a closed cabinet. Moaning and writhing, I slid in and out of consciousness in an inch of water until the judge stumbled over me, and bawling for the captain, who glared through the hatch and shouted instructions where to find the canvas kit to patch and stitch the 5’ tear. But as I rose to find it, the plunging floor sent me into a somersault across the galley into another cabinet, and I lay like a wet crumpled newspaper with the headline, ‘SOS’. I rose again and fell in vertigo.
He with no sleep, and I, rocky with seasickness, had brought us to a loggerheads. ‘You’re crazy,’ I muttered through a trough of vomit. ‘You’re a loose cannon!’ he roared, lurching down the hatch. ‘You think it can’t get worse?´’ and with that kicked me in the ribs with his flipper-like foot. I staggered to my feet in the bucking cabin, and the dirty dog delivered a broadside shove with his octopus hands that crashed me splashing to the floor. I have been in enough dozens of fights to adopt a ratio of walking away from all but one in three, but I was unable to rise for this one. He kicked me again, the judge screamed ‘Butcher!’, and I blacked out.
Minutes later, I viewed Drago through the hatch, and he caught my eye. About him a black Armageddon sky streaked lightning and thunder taps. He clamped the wheel to autopilot between swells, and descended the ladder. I heard the captain crack a wrapper in the galley next to my head. ‘Down the hatch!’ he insisted with a saccharine tongue and pirate’s gleam. It was a glass that looked like orange juice but with the bitterness of Tang. I had vomited intermittently and drunk nothing in 24 hours, and so swallowed it. ´Between the devil and the deep blue sea,’ ye are,’ he muttered and slithered away to his post. I felt the potion take effect in minutes, beginning with a kick in the gut, and tingling along the abdominal blood vessels to the heart, that slowed, and reached the brain that became fuzzy as I leisurely drifted into unconsciousness.
What a difference an ‘eternal’ sleep makes. The next sunrise found us in the doldrums. This is a no-man torpor in the equatorial belt where the trade winds of the northern and southern hemisphere rise in the heat rather that move horizontally to work sails. Columbus’ bad luck on the third voyage in 1498 began almost immediately when his fleet hit the Caribbean dismals, and floated several long, broiling, and boring days near us but apart in time battling the same heat and thirst. The wind eventually returned and they were blown to the safety of an island he would name Trinidad. The peculiar weather phenomena of either protracted days of calm or huge hurricanes occur to about five degrees north and south of the equator, a dreaded stripe that is nicknamed the doldrums though it has a scientific name of the Equatorial Convergence Zone. Poetically it is a painted ocean, where the sailors become listless figures stuck on it.
‘Bring me the Horizon,’ pled the captain into the silent blue sheets above and below us, but none found him, and so he swung to face us. He fired up the 5hp diesel Yanmar (‘The most valuable sail on board,’ he assured) and motored southeast at 5mph across the expanse, until dusk when the purr stopped. ‘Why did you cut the motor?’ asked the German. ‘I didn’t,’ replied the chief. ‘We’re out of gas.’ After sundown it was essential to ignite the running lights to be seen by others, so predictably by morning the diesel battery was drained. With it went the functions of the VHF radio, radar, Beethoven’s symphonies, and the fresh water distiller. The mast had snapped near the top like a salute toward yesterday’s storm, and the wind generator hung limply by its wires. The perfection of this old yacht’s beauty is that nothing is there only for beauty’s sake, but everything was broken. No wind, no current, no tide, no sail and no motor.
That night, we ducked through the skeleton ship and confronted the captain at his wheel. I opened, ‘One hand for the boat, captain, and one hand for you. Please rest because we fear you’re going crazy.’ ‘Is that what ye think?’ he jeered, and refused to give up the helm. ‘Be reasonable,’ she reprimanded, ‘And do it my way. The law of the sea decrees an incapacitated captain turn over the wheel.’ Quickly, added her second, ‘All we want is to trade watches through the night, in case you doze, as we have no running lights on this busy sea.’ ‘Pfsst!’ exhaled the captain through a breezy diaphysis. ‘Captaining is a benevolent dictatorship. But share the watch.’ He wouldn’t knock off and turn in, but pulled a large torch and held it under his chin, lighting his leathery face. ‘Then you will need this,’ and handed the torch to the physicist for the first watch.
We traded hourglass shifts, while the captain observed latched to the wheel, sniffing the air, glancing often at the stars, and whirling unexpectedly every hour or so as if he had seen something. Once on my shift, the captain asked for the flashlight and ordered me to go below for a few minutes. I did, but the night was so silent that a short conversation on his cell phone was clear: ‘It isn’t going exactly as planned…Sweetness, until you lose sight of the shore, you will never know the terror of being lost…Please put Junior on…I know, but it’s what I need most to hear.’ Then his cell phone went dead, or lost the signal. And then there was nothing, nothing at all.
‘You bastard!’ screamed the judge at sunrise. ‘Why didn’t you call the Coast Guard?’ ‘Be patient, Auntie, lulled Drago. I’ll not be dragged home like a bloody pet and foot the bill. A wind will come.’ And yet, hour by hour we drifted, our tongues shrinking under the blazing sun until no one cared to quarrel. As night fell without a hint of breeze, the judge and physicist began jabbering in German, then French, Dutch and Italian before, fearing the captain understood all, resorted to a private code of knocks they had developed to disallow anyone from entering their locked fore-cabin. The judge tapped me on the shoulder, whispered that I was invited to a private meeting, and I entered their cubby where there was no room to swing a cat. ‘I have called this secret meeting to propose mutiny,’ opened the judge. ‘I can overpower him,’ confided the physicist, ‘With my German karate championship.’ ‘But,’ she shammed a fist on a pillow, ‘We need you vote.’ ‘I vote, Yes, if you can fix the electrical system. He slipped me a mickey last night, and I’m ready to tie him in Boy Scout knots. But, the vote is, No, if you can’t fix the electronics because we may need him to reach shore.’ The German admitted power was the pivot but hadn’t devised a patch, and so the mutiny was scratched.
There is a Japanese proverb that goes ‘Raise the sail with your stronger hand,’ meaning that you must go after the opportunities that arise in life that you are best equipped to do. The stalwart Drago was born with deformed feet turned to rubber from years of standing before the wheel, and as his eyes turned the color of the sea to him land was created for a place to visit. On his ocean of adventure, there are two types of people: those who thin their sails to pick up the least wind, and others like the captain who sails close to the wind gathering as much as possible which sometimes means dangerously. Now his life is a cyclone, with a newborn he has never seen and the waiting loving embrace of a wife who will finally pull him to port. I forgive him.
The sun rose yellow against the broken mast on a blue funk of the fourth day, without a breath of wind, nor water, nor motion, like the Ancient Mariner, we stuck. The floorboards shrank in the evaporating saltwater, and we were dusted a ghostly white by the same, as our tongues turned to dry sticks. We rationed the orange juice until the sun apexed, and by late afternoon had reached the bottom of the last bottle of wine. Abruptly, the weary captain swiveled, as before, but this time ended with a jig, that met our worried nods that he had gone over the bend. ‘Out there!’ he yelled. ‘In the offing, dead ahead.’ We shaded our eyes under blistered hands, but none could see… yet in seconds the line of sight over the curve of the earth revealed the form of a box, and closing at five miles, a windfall. ‘It may crash us, ´ warned the captain, ‘Because if corners like Cleopatra’s barge.’
How could we contact the cargo ship? The physicist dropped to the engine room and lugged back the dead diesel battery, retrieved an 8¨ solar panel hanging from the wind generator, and ‘jury rigged’ (a nautical term improvised in the mid-18th century) aluminum foil strips from the kitchen to cause the battery to take a slight charge in an hour. Drago keyed the radio mike to an emergency frequency and rasped, ‘Mayday! This is the Finnish slope El Gato. We are listing and without power. I repeat, change your course!’ A weak signal replied, ‘This is the Nigerian vessel Dreamweaver. We barely hear you. Where are you?’ The radio crackled dead. In a few minutes, he keyed again. ‘Ahoy, Dreamweaver, this is El Gato. Our battery is dying. We are directly in your course at two miles.’ ‘Yah!’ the answer. ‘We have you on our radar. What do you wish?’ The captain sighed, the first zephyr in days. ‘Alert the Colombian Coast Guard…’ and the radio went dead again.
We attacked the rigging with kitchen knives to fashion a three-strand, knotted 50’ towline that Drago tied to a bow hoop where the figurehead usually stands. Suddenly he stopped, rose tall on flipper feet, cupped a hand over the bushy brows to block the sun, and scanned the horizon scratching his beard, slowly turning like a puppet on a string. Something loomed in the distance, like Pirates of the Caribbean. Three cargo ships surrounded us at two miles in a protective circle, and closing. Or were they caring?
Pirates of the Caribbean is a dark flume ride at Disneyland that I recall being surrounded in as a youngster. It was the last attraction whose construction was overseen by the great Walt Disney who died three months before it opened in 1967. A long-standing urban legend maintains that Disney was cryonically frozen, and that his corpse was placed as part of the ride. The ride, which originally told the story of a band of pirates including their exploits, gave rise to the song ‘Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)’ that plays throughout. I remember the queuing area winds through several courtyards before entering the actual fortress building. Inside, the flume passes through the fort dungeons, offering glimpses of several skeleton pirates, gun noises and sword clanking are heard in the back as the boats climb up a large lift where, at the top, riders are given a brief view of the Wicked Wench pirate ship in the harbor below before entering into the depths of the fort. Flames are engulfing the place, and the shadows of fighting pirates are seen. Up ahead, guests see the pirates in jail trying to coax the key from the naughty guard dog. The boat races down a waterfall caused by a cannonball and are bombarded in an attack scene just seen, with a flashing of lights until the guest drops into a darkness doldrums, with an echoing ’Dead men tell no tales’. I remember a pre-show giant chess board in position that is not random. They are arranged so that any move will result in a stalemate, thus the skeletons are playing the same game since 1967.
The captain scratched his salt-crusted beard, and there was little else the rest of us could do. In two hours, the flying colors red-blue-yellow of the Colombia Coast Guard cut through the ring. The rescue boat circled in a closing spiral, with braced men at ready on the deck machine guns, calling over a loudspeaker, ‘Who are you, and where is your flag?’ The captain steeled on the bow with the rope looped in his hand, and hollered, ‘We’re the boat in distress, here, catch,’ and he tossed the line that caught a gunner around a torso, causing the pilot to cut the engine, the Chief to take the line and tie it to the stern of their powerboat. Their motor growled deeply at the increased load, but slowly, at 5mph, we were towed south.
Sailing has two pleasures. One is to go out in wilder waters from a sheltered place. The other is to go into a sheltered place from wider waters. In four hours, the imposing beach fortress of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas rose a few hundred meters ahead against the Cartagena skyline. The Cartagena Bay is eight miles from north to south and four miles from east to west, and everywhere you can see why the city was built because of its protected waters. Container ships and big cruisers are coming and going, but the Coast
Guard threaded us through a subsurface breakwater wall into the inner harbor where the ten-meter statue of the Virgin Carmen, Cartagena’s patron saint of navigators, greeted us. We parked beneath her near the preserved fortifications and the base for the Colombian Marine, the Armada. Anchors plop into the crystalline water, and the Coast Guard tightened the ties and climbed aboard to cordially check our documents and ask for cigarette rolling papers. The captain kindly included a twenty dollar note in each. It’s Christmas Day.
El Gato was mysteriously scuttled at sea the next morning, the captain was seen walking smugly on landlubber legs through the cobbled streets of Cartagena (no doubt with an insurance policy for his new family), the judge and physicist turned over their sopped passports in complaint to the local police, and I decided that whatever I am, child or man, there is another chance to do what I want in my life, and it would have something to do with exploration and doing new things far, far from the sea.