The chance for mistakes is about equal to the number of crew squared.
- Ted Turner
This story is true but the names have been changed to protect the guilty. It’s kind of funny, kind of sad, but there is a lesson to be learned, and as boaters, cruisers, sailors and armchair sailors, we rely on each other for advice . . . and warnings.
Joe and I have been cruising on S/V Rose of Sharon since 2004. We are currently in the country of Panama, preparing for a passage to the San Blas Islands, and as is always the case, untying the lines from our comfortable dock at the Bocas Del Toro Yacht Club is the hardest part.
During our time as liveaboards and cruisers we have hosted many guests and we truly enjoy having guests aboard, especially during any kind of getaway and anchor-out experience. Let me emphasize this: I not only encourage our friends to visit, I beg our kids to join us on a regular basis and have been known to pay for flights where grandchildren are involved.
There are not that many people who can make the leap from North America to Central America, culturally and sometimes emotionally. They are afraid of third world people. They cannot speak the language. They are unable to imagine living a single day without the basic comforts: electricity, air conditioning, flush toilets, unlimited clean water. So we don’t see many of our friends and family as often as we’d like, but we cannot give up this lifestyle yet.
I met Patsy when we worked together at IBM in Indianapolis. She moved to California and I moved to Texas; we lost touch then reconnected. She visited us in Belize where we took a fun road trip, staying in hotels with air conditioning. We had a great time. She visited us in Guatemala, spending two nights on our boat when we were docked at the cushy Catamaran Hotel on the Rio Dulce. With air conditioning. We had a great time.
This year, she said she wanted to go “somewhere” in the boat. And she had a long distance relationship with Walter, an electrical engineer from Seattle. I immediately went into my Travel Agent mode, which is one in which I have created itineraries that have nearly killed previously strong people.
Patsy and Walter would fly individually into Houston Intercontinental then meet up for the Continental Airlines Flight 888 to Panama City. They had strict instructions to go directly to Pappadeaux and order the shrimp enbrochette before their flight out of Houston. I arranged their shuttle from the Panama City Airport, reserved their hotel in Panama City, created a 2-day itinerary that included a wine and cheese welcome party, trip to the Panama Canal, tour of Casco Viejo and two meals at 4-star restaurants. I booked their flights on Air Panama from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro island, where Rose of Sharon sat safe and snug in her slip. “The Old Rose,” as Joe and I often call her, had no idea what was coming or she might have sliced her lines. I can see her now, struggling against the waves to get back to Honduras… If only she had known.
If only I had known.
Joe and I hopped a flight to Panama City. There are two airlines ported in Panama and I like them both: Air Panama and Aeroperlas. Air Panama is a bit more expensive but their fleet is newer, nicer, and your bags usually arrive with you. Aeroperlas is a little less money-wise, but a couple of their planes are held together by paper clips and prayers and your bags might arrive on the next flight. Sometimes we’re okay with that. Plus, I’m losing weight and the Aeroperlas employees let me stand on the luggage scales to weigh when I visit the airport. Both airlines are safety-conscious and I like the hour flight to and from Bocas Del Toro and Panama City.
Joe and I settled into our favorite hotel, one which is typical of Central America for the budget-minded non-backpacker. The mattress is on a concrete slab, the sheets are thinner than rice paper, but it has air conditioning and a kind-of modern shower with very little water pressure and free wi-fi. It’s $44/night and they make a café latte to die for, so it suits me fine.
The first clue I had that there was trouble in paradise was when Patsy and Walter exited the hotel shuttle van. She ran to me and without a hello, she hugged me and whispered in my ear, “It’s not happening!”
Remember the movie Almost Famous, where the happy hippies greeted and said goodbye to each other with “It’s all happening! It’s all happening!”
Uh-oh. “It’s not happening” must be a bad thing. Patsy pulled me to a corner of the hotel and quickly lit the first of what I discovered was going to be an incredible number of cigarettes. She inhaled down to her navel, exhaled, and then said, “He’s completely indifferent. He’s out of his mind, too. He’s not going to be normal until we get settled in this hotel.”
I assured her that we were indeed at the hotel and took her to the little table I’d lovingly set up with wine and cheese. In-between cigarettes, Patsy guzzled most of the two boxes of one-liter white wine I’d bought (Concha y Toro, $1.75/liter in Panama City; not sure what kind of wine it is except white). Joe signaled a waitress to bring us more white wine (Concha y Toro, $5.75/liter in the hotel restaurant). Not that I’m complaining.
She hauled me outside every cigarette to explain to me, in sentences that became increasingly incoherent, about how Walter was not paying enough attention to her. I assured her that it was major jet lag and that everything would be wonderful tomorrow.
They were on California Time, and at this point Panama was on Texas Time, so they had crossed two time zones and two continents. I figured anyone would not be 100% after that kind of jetlag.
Cut to Day Two. Joe and I decided we would not under any circumstances waken our friends because of their hard travel day. However, I was chomping at the bit to get to the Panama Canal, then to Casco Viejo. Three café lattes didn’t help because each one was about as caffeinated as a human can tolerate without a heart attack. So, I was wired and rarin’ to go.
A timid knock on the door revealed Walter, who didn’t look very rested and needed assistance getting his coffee. His Spanish was limited to “Si” and “¡Ole!” I then explained to him the poker chip process. When you check in, the hotel gives each person one poker chip for every complimentary breakfast, which is coffee and two rolls. I went with Walter to the restaurant where we were joined by a disheveled and hungover Patsy. She glared and said, “Would you like to join me for a cigarette?”
Why, of course. I’ve just had a gastric bypass, I’m queasy in the mornings so I’d love having smoke blown in my face, thank you.
I chirped, “Love to!” and followed her outside.
I’ve been married to the same man since 1970. I don’t understand the Singles language because I’ve never learned it, but I’m guessing it’s a really complicated language to learn because the entire time Patsy and Walter were visiting, I didn’t understand a Single word when they talked about feelings, commitments, and relationships.
As she inhaled down to her toes and exhaled an ozone hole, she then told me that Walter was having conflicts about his divorce that had been in the works for about 5 years but was finalized last year. He was now indicating that he had mis-communicated his intentions and was afraid Patsy expected more from him than he was able to commit. Huh?
“You know what?” I proposed. “Let’s go to the Panama Canal and to a nice restaurant in Casco Viejo for appetizers and then shower and go to a really nice restaurant for supper and I bet after a good night’s sleep, we’ll all be in The Happy Place!”
We snagged a taxi and went to the Panama Canal. Joe and I immediately had a power struggle about what to do first. I wanted to go to the exhibition hall, but he’d heard a boat was coming through and wanted to go to the observation deck. We went to the observation deck, and sure enough, a boat was crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was about two miles away, traveling at approximately 3 knots an hour. I put my hat on to avoid frying my thin-haired head, but it kept blowing off. The sun was merciless, but we clung to the observation deck rail because more and more people kept coming up to see the tanker’s passage.
“What do we do now?” asked Walter.
“We wait,” I replied.
“For what?” he asked.
“We wait for the boat to transit the lock,” I said. “We watch the water level drop on one side until the boat is level with the other side then we watch the boat lock through Miraflores.” He squinted at the approaching boat and I could see he was doing the math and wondering if he’d applied enough sunscreen.
“Do they sell beer up here?” Patsy asked as she walked to the concession stand. She returned with a diet soda for herself and cold water for me.
It IS fascinating and Patsy and Walter made appreciative noises and asked all the right questions as the Chinese tanker locked past us. We waved and took pictures of the crew. They waved and took pictures of us. There’s simply nothing like the wonder of the Panama Canal!
We did the Panama Canal tour properly, viewing the English version movie of its construction, sharing beers and cold water at a lower observation deck table, perusing the three-leveled museum exhibitions, shopping in the gift shop and finally, walking outside the Miraflores Lock to get a taxi to Casco Viejo.
Ah, Casco Viejo! It’s the site where the French stayed during their attempt to build the Panama Canal; therefore many of its buildings have that influence, with a French/Spanish architectural blend.
Our first stop was the presidential residence, and as always, the security was intense on the streets surrounding the beautiful Panama White House. Guards and military police inspected us and our bags then allowed us to pass, where we could get close enough to peek through the barred gates at the entrance to the Presidential Palace.
Last time I’d visited Panama City I had been unable to enter the church I’d most wanted to see because it was closed. For me, Catedral de la Nuestra Señora de la Ascunción’s architecture is stunning because of its multicolored stone façade, flanked by two majestic white bell towers.
I insisted our guests see the Iglesia de San Jose, also called the Church of the Golden Altar. When you travel with me, you might suffer from death by church architecture. Patsy and Walter were good sports as long as Patsy had beer and cigarette stops every hour.
We dined at the restaurant Fodor’s said was a must-visit, then returned to our hotel for what I hoped was going to be a good night’s rest for all.
The next day we flew Air Panama from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro and I have to admit, at this point I was getting nervous. Our guests had groused about the service at the hotel, the barely dribbling shower, and the street noise. I love Big City downtown street noise; it’s like a sedative for me but I had not taken into consideration that normal people prefer the sounds of silence at night. So here we were, flying to an island where there is no such thing as biscotti and if there IS a restroom with a toilet lid and wash basin, there’s no soap. And then there’s our onboard head. Take my toilet. Please.
But it started out good, full of optimism and good spirits, despite Patsy’s hauling me aside to whisper about Walter’s neglect and/or disrespect. She and I walked to an outdoor market where a parrot sat on her shoulder as she smelled pineapples. Patsy once lived in Hawaii and it paid off: this woman can pick the perfect pineapple!
Joe and I had staked out a picturesque Bocas Del Toro restaurant called 9º. Its view of the Caribbean and Bocas Del Toro will take your breath away; if there is any whisper of a breeze it blows across this restaurant’s main floor. The menu is limited but epicurean and the bartenders ensure that every mixed drink is a masterpiece. There are lounge chairs near the railing and Patsy staked out a lounge chair. Complete with ashtray and a bottle of Atlas beer, she was as contented as I’d seen her since her arrival. Walter and I took off down the street to provision for our anchor-out, hitting the Chino Mercado first, where it helps if you can speak Chinese or Spanish fluently but I just wave my hands around and usually get what I want. Then we went to the gourmet Tropical Market, where we got identifiable and tasty deli meats for sandwiches and cottage cheese for me.
We returned to find Patsy and Joe on their fourth beers and quite happy but I turned on Joe like a snake: He was nursing his Balboa beer, but while Walter and I were provisioning, his mission was to get steaks and pork chops because we had previously agreed that I cannot see the difference between a good cut of meat and a good cut of shoe leather. Joe and Walter immediately left the scenic restaurant in search of meat, which is what the men are supposed to do anyway, so I had two margaritas with Patsy and was in the Happy Patsy Place when they returned via water taxi to haul all of us plus baggage and provisions to S/V Rose of Sharon. I think Patsy said something about Walter not respecting her or being sensitive to her feelings but I can’t remember.
That night, our cruising friends Paul and Mary Margaret of Arizona invited us aboard S/V AngelHeart. I appreciate being near and with Paul and Mary Margaret; they not only complement our cruising style, they offer leadership to Rose of Sharon´s sometimes slap-happy shipshape attitude. They have been in love about 38 years but married 10 and their love story is sweet indeed.
Here’s the story I got from Walter: After dinner aboard AngelHeart and eventually going to the v-berth for their first night aboard Rose of Sharon, Patsy asked Walter, “Why couldn’t you just PRETEND we are in love like Paul and Mary Margaret?”
That was the high point of the night. Patsy lurched into the master berth, sloppy drunk and sobbing. Joe took his pillow to the salon where he curled up on a sofa cushion and slept. Patsy climbed in next to me and I patted her shoulder, hugged her, and struggled to keep up with her drunken dialogue about how cruel Walter had been to her but I kept dozing off. Walter was very, very quiet up there in the v-berth. And we had full air conditioning, too.
The next day was D-Day as Joe and I like to call it: Departure Day. For Patsy and Walter, this would be a Big Sail but for me and Joe it was our shake-down cruise. We had been in the States and away from the boat longer than ever before. Joe had already installed a new motor mount, we had checked out the single sideband radio and believed it to be in tiptop shape, I had chased down what little mold and mildew was inside the boat (thanks to an ozone generator and a window air conditioner mounted at the companionway entrance), Joe had scrubbed the green mildew off the decks and lines . . . now it was time to “get out there” and see how our Old Rose would respond, if there were additional problems, and to get the feel of being in the water and off the dock.
This is where we discovered Walter is cruiser material. When the ignition failed to make contact and the engine did not roar to life, Walter and Joe teamed together to effect a repair within minutes. They traced down and cleaned the corroded contact. Walter leapt to every departure task as if it was the most important job on the planet. It didn’t matter if Joe told him to stand there, hold this line, whatever… Walter was a man on a mission. He came alive as soon as we fired up the engine. I was a bit disappointed that Joe didn’t let me take her out of the slip, but I am more obedient than usual when Joe makes navigational and boating decisions because of his batting average. He’s hit a lot of home runs, in my estimation. So I walked the pole, Walter manned the bow and Patsy watched from the cockpit. When the pressure was off, Patsy lit a cigarette.
I’d not been able to locate the almost thirty-years-old ashtray we had in the boat that probably came with the boat from Great Britain, so Patsy was using old butter dishes with an inch of water and they were cigarette butt-ugly, so to speak. I noticed her ashes were blowing all over the cockpit…the deck…our BOAT. I’m pretty sure The Old Rose was not happy about the ashes and I thought I heard her sneeze.
Joe was traveling exceptionally slow and as I studied our chart, I understood why. We were in unfamiliar waters and even though we had waypoints, charts, and AngelHeart’s waypoints and charts, he wanted to be sure we didn’t hit a shoal or reef. That was okay by me because I had veggies and steak to prep.
I enjoy sitting in the cockpit, making a salad for the evening meal. I clean the odd little squashes that are used as potatoes, cut the lush tomatoes into salad servings and toss the trash overboard. That’s my favorite part; feeding the fish.
Patsy was able to work with some of the vegetables but then handed the rest to Walter, telling him she was finished. She could not wash dishes because it would ruin her manicure. She did not cook and said she really hadn’t spent much time in the kitchen, but she knew a lot about smoothies.
We dropped anchor at 09º19.982´N, 22º10.6´W. I tried to upload a position report to Winlink, using our SSB but could not get it to work. I decided there was too much traffic and propagation was bad and that I would try it again later.
Our anchorage was in a secluded cove near Red Frog Beach, a typical tourist stop for visitors to the area. Located on Isla Bastimentos, Red Frog Beach has the stereotypical white sand and clear water you see in the tour guides. It’s beautiful.
We piled towels, sunscreen, individual waters and one liter of water, mosquito spray, hand cleaner, a quarter-bottle of rum, cranberry juice and our cameras into tote bags and set off for the beach. Patsy and Walter both expressed concern about the walk through the jungle to the beach, and I was unable to tell them the distance except that it had been “no problem” for me 60 pounds ago.
Joe added air to the dinghy, which had a leak but we didn’t know where, fired up our 15hp Mercury outboard and away we went! We motored into the first cove, where we discovered what I’d been very interested in: the construction of a new marina and timeshare condo complex that would become a luxury resort called The Red Frog Project. However, that wasn’t our destination, so we motored back out and into another cove and spotted the familiar dinghy and lancha dock bordering the jungle path that leads to Red Frog Beach.
We were about a quarter-mile from the dock when we ran out of gas. Joe examined the fuel line and played with the choke and shook the fuel can as if he didn’t quite know what was going on but he knew: we were out of gas.
“I thought you bought some gas,” I commented.
“I did,” he replied. “It’s in a jerry can on the deck.”
“Ah,” I said.
Patsy burst into laughter and with one look at her, I doubled over and began laughing hysterically.
“THIS IS NO LAUGHING MATTER!” Walter scolded, and we laughed even harder.
Walter went into some kind of soul-searching holocaust backup plan for Central America. Joe was looking around, studying to see if any other vessels were nearby. I dug the quarter-bottle of rum out of the duffel bag, a box of cranberry juice, and Patsy and I mixed ourselves cocktails.
A lancha ventured near so we flagged him down and asked if he would take Joe back to the boat to get his jerry can of fuel. No problema.
While Walter fumed, Patsy and I toasted many things and the quarter-bottle of rum and the cranberry juice ran dangerously low. We drifted too close to some mangroves and Patsy’s solution was to begin paddling furiously with our one remaining oar, which shoved us into the mangroves even further. My response was to begin to coat myself with Deep Woods Off®, causing Walter and Patsy to gag and try to escape the fumes, but Walter grabbed the other modified oar – a halved bleach bottle – and made better time getting us out of the mangroves and closer to shore.
The original lancha passed us en route to the Red Frog Beach dock and its driver waved and said something about how he left my husband behind. I laughed and waved the rum bottle at him, indicating that my husband was no longer needed.
Walter tensed and said, “What did he say? Where’s Joe? Why didn’t that guy bring Joe back to the dinghy?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “But Joe’s on the boat…with a VHF radio…and a single sideband radio…and a cellphone. We’ll be okay.”
Patsy and I mixed the last of the rum and cranberry juice drinks and decided that an appropriate name for the cocktail would be rum-a-dumb-dumb.
Joe returned with another lancha driver, added the fuel to the dinghy’s fuel can and said, “Well, it’s too late to go to the beach now. We’ll do it first thing tomorrow.”
Patsy and I were very okay with that plan and no one recalls how Walter felt or if he was willing to commit.
Back on Rose of Sharon, steaks were grilled, salads were served, wine flowed at the speed of Niagara Falls and as bedtime approached, Joe announced that he didn’t care who slept where but he was sleeping in HIS bed with HIS wife. I liked that. So Walter took the v-berth, Patsy joined him, and after a brief discussion/confrontation, Patsy wound up sleeping in the salon on the sofa. This was everyone’s first night without air conditioning. Patsy was staggering drunk, uncomfortably hot and left the salon for the cockpit much of the night, smoking and contemplating her life. She didn’t know it then, but she got a lot of bug bites that night.
The next morning, I was eager to set off for the beach but Joe said we had to have breakfast, another one of our consistent points of argument. He thinks breakfast is three eggs, something that is 90% lard and 10% meat accompanied by half a loaf of bread or similar starches. I think breakfast is a café con leche. Our rule at anchor is: one cooks, the other washes the dishes. If One or The Other is doing something important like fixing the autopilot, I cook and wash dishes too. It’s all negotiable. I got off easy this time because Joe cooked and Walter did the dishes, so I prepped the evening’s salad and chops.
Patsy smoked, dropped ashes all over the cockpit, had two rum and pineapple juice cocktails and determinedly began reading a paperback because she decided not to utter a single word out loud the rest of their visit. She was never able to cohesively explain why, but it had something to do with Walter contradicting her and discounting her intelligence.
Eventually, Walter got me alone and whispered, ���What’s going on with Patsy?”
“It has something to do with sex,” I replied.
We dinghied to Red Frog Beach and discussed our newest and most important priority: we needed ice.
Our boat’s refrigeration system has taken a dive three times, been replaced or repaired three times, cannot be consistently on during our long passages and therefore eventually will not work at all away from the dock and I decided the last time was the last time. “No more refrigeration. We can live with or without it but I’m tired of fixing it,” I had declared. Our West Marine cooler was doing a fabulous job but it needed ice every now and then. For our passage to the San Blas Islands, I was provisioning for three days’ worth of West Marine cooler refrigeration and then relying on non-perishable foods for the next 1-3 months. It’s easier than it sounds, if you can be creative with canned roast beef and rice.
However, S/V Rose of Sharon had company, so cheeses, meats, dairy products, and juices required refrigeration…and the men now had to find ice.
Before they left, Joe watched me carefully as I took a very long swim. Several swimmers have drowned in the rough waves of Red Frog Beach and neither of us was sure of my strength. I did, in fact, get into a bit of trouble and began swimming furiously against the strong undertow until I could once again touch the sandy bottom. I could see the consternation on Joe’s face as he walked closer to the water’s edge and when I felt safe enough, I gave him the traditional diver’s ��I’m okay” sign. But it was an exhausting swim.
The men left on their search for ice so Patsy and I settled ourselves on our beach towels. While I tried to nap, she worked to keep me awake to tell me of her continuing difficulty dealing with the boring, unresponsive Walter and how she needed a man and a relationship. What actually happened was that I dozed off and she got a sunburn.
Four beers later, Patsy said, “I’m ready to leave.” I explained that we were kind of stuck ’til the guys returned… and even if I could get a lift on a lancha, I didn’t have the keys to the boat.
“It’s all good,” I soothed. The shack that served as a water/soda/beer vendor was shutting its doors and I could see she was getting very edgy.
“Where ARE they?” she fretted.
Joe and Walter finally ambled up the jungle path. They’d encountered other boaters from our marina anchored at the island of Bastimentos for the weekend, chatted and finally scored two bags of ice, returned to the boat to put the ice in the cooler, returned to the beach . . . and Patsy emphatically let them know it was time to leave. Joe rushed the refreshment shack before the vendor locked the door and bought three more beers, but once they were finished, it was D-Time for Patsy. Departure Time.
The fact is, she was fried and not quite pickled, plus her bug bites were beginning to itch. She’d lost ten pounds in perspiration and between hot flashes and heat waves, she was in the uncomfortable zone. She’d also told me that she was cutting back on her water intake, I think so she could cut back on her urine output, but trust me… Panama is not the place to try this.
We trekked back through the jungle, jumped into the dinghy and returned to Rose of Sharon at anchor off Red Frog Beach. I think I saw “The Old Rose” tremble in fear as we approached.
That night’s meal was grilled pork chops, another salad, and Joe, Walter and I watched as Patsy consumed an amazing amount of wine. When the box of white was empty, she drank what was left of the red. There was no discussion about sleeping arrangements. Patsy took the v-berth and Walter bunked down in the salon. It was hot, very hot. Joe slept like a baby and I spent much of the night spraying water on my face then aiming my face at the 12-volt fan in our berth. Walter had two 12-volt fans in the salon and slept comfortably. This is when Patsy discovered there were no fans and only one overhead hatch in the v-berth. She did not sleep at all that night and the pile of cigarette butts in the cockpit ashtray got higher.
The adventure continued and the next morning we weighed anchor to sail to Auree Caye. Of course, there was no wind, we weren’t sure where the shallows were, and we had to get through a tricky place called The Gap, so we motored. There could be an entire family of seagulls living in our sails but we won’t know until we sail to the San Blas.
The anchorage was secure and secluded; there was a white patch of sand visible near the mangroves and that’s where we dropped anchor. By this time I had realized that our single sideband radio was not working properly; we had checked-in with the Southwest Caribbean Net every morning only to be told our transmission was weak or fuzzy. I had not been able to upload a position report on any Pactor 3 station. None of this was critical now, as we were within civilization’s cell phone and even visibility range, but these were priorities if we wanted to make passage.
Patsy offered to prepare our pineapple for the morning’s breakfast, so I eagerly handed up the necessary knives and plates. Meanwhile, Joe began frying bacon and preparing eggs so his breakfast would have the proper amount of cholesterol. Once again, I dodged the dishwashing because Walter willingly took on the thankless galley task.
Patsy slept topside near the bow the entire passage from Bastimentos to the next anchorage. I’ve slept there too and it’s a good spot for napping.
Our goal for the day was to handle our newest priority – we were running out of drinking water – and to find the perfect snorkeling spot. The drinking water was easy; there was a tienda in a village between our anchorage and Crawl Caye. We bought eight liters of bottled water.
While at Crawl Caye, we motored in our dinghy to what looked like a dive shop, and there we found the perfect snorkeling spot. We met others from the U.S. who were there only to snorkel the site, which was a restaurant built atop several stilts and piers. The restaurant fed the fish every day, so . . . we looked down to the ocean floor from our dinghy and there they were: Stingrays! Angel fish! Starfish! Parrot fish! Sea cucumbers!
While Joe was discussing where to tie up and Walter was dealing with his interesting gear (a mix of modifiable fins, spandex shorts and a net shirt) and Patsy was looking for her gear somewhere under the lifejackets in the dinghy, I shoved myself overboard backwards and let the wonderful sea water wash over me. Then my butt hit some corals and I realized the waters were not very deep plus the current . . . well, I fought my way back to the dinghy for my snorkel mask and it was a lot like a workout. I hadn’t brought my fins because I always think my feet are propulsion enough and I’ve been wrong my last couple of snorkels. I needed fins for this excursion, too.
It was wonderful, and a visual overload. I would see something and surface, looking for Joe, Patsy or Walter so I could let them know what I saw. “There’s a stingray!” I exclaimed, then dropped my face into the water. My mask was leaking and I was swallowing too much salt water but I couldn’t stop – what if I missed something? I snorkeled to another site, saw more wonderful things, choked on more salt water then snorkeled back toward the dinghy only to see that Joe, Patsy and Walter were still outfitting themselves.
A young dive master swam near and offered to adjust my mask. He tightened it and told me to swim under the piers to another site, so I did and saw even more beautiful fish. I fought the strong current and wondered if many 56-year-old women could struggle against such a force, but then Patsy appeared at my side and we clutched each other in the water and surfaced. “Can I stand on your fins?” I gasped, as I struggled for balance.
“Of course,” she said, and she held my shoulders while I balanced myself on her fin tips, striving to stand upright but not kill any underwater plant life in the process.
“Thanks! Isn’t this absolutely fabulous?” I exclaimed. “This current is killer,” I added.
“Walter’s scared,” she replied. “What a WIMP.”
I saw Walter splash toward us and Patsy tried to snorkel in the opposite direction but I was still standing on her fin tips, which caused a comical delay in her flight plan. Then I snorkeled toward Walter, grabbed his arm and tried to steer him toward a particularly large angelfish touring with a school of parrotfish. He swam toward the direction I pointed then splashed away, so I figured he was doing alright. I decided to look for Joe and found him back in the dinghy, having snorkeled, returned and was at that point donning a dry shirt. The restaurant had a bar and though none of us had brought our wallets, Joe had enough cash for one round of beers.
Walter and I climbed onto the dock, staked out a nearby table, then sat down to catch our breaths while Joe maneuvered the dinghy to the nearest dock. Now adorned with his clean and dry shirt, Joe tied off the dinghy and proceeded to climb onto the dock. With one wrong tilt and a wave of hands, he fell out of the dinghy and into the water. Walter jumped to his feet and rushed toward the dock’s edge to help Joe. I was too busy laughing.
Back at our boat, I made a pressure-cooked stew that utilized pieces of the leftover steak and pork chops. It got rave reviews and I’m here to tell you: once you learn to cook with chayote squash you won’t go back to potatoes. Ever.
I’m not sure who slept where at this point but I know for a fact that Joe and I were in our usual places and it was a bit cooler than usual when we heard Walter shout from the main salon. It was about three a.m. and the anchor alarm went off.
Joe and I scrambled out of our bunk and as he rushed to the nav station, I clambered up the companionway to look around. I could see nothing. I mean, NOTHING. The sky was black, the water was black, the mangrove-lined shoreline was black and I could not visually align where we’d been vs. where we were. Walter joined me and we sat quietly, waiting for Joe. When Joe reached the cockpit, he studied the GPS and said, “When we anchored we were in . . .”
“Twenty-seven feet of water,” Walter finished.
“And now we’re in . . .”
Walter and I looked at the instrument panel.
“Seven feet of water,” we said.
Joe studied the shoreline, the water, the sky, the GPS, and then said. “I guess the anchor chain tightened a bit.” Then he went down below.
Walter and I sat in the cockpit, in the dark, in silence, for quite some time until Walter said, “Where’d Joe go?¨”
“I think he went back to bed,” I replied hesitantly. “Actually, with the way the wind’s blowing, the worst thing that can happen is that we’ll drag into some mangroves, which is more or less a bug problem, not a boat problem.”
Walter and I returned to our respective sleeping quarters.
The next morning Patsy said she’d been up for a couple of smokes during the night and was aware of the slight drag on our anchor. She claimed to have heard the scurrying around the rest of us had done, but was not able to join us at that time.
She was also bright red in some places and polka-dotted in others. The bug bites were legitimately itchy and despite a repeated slathering of SPF 50, every day, she had bodacious sunburn on her shoulders and upper arms.
The next morning, I was greeted by the smell of cigarette smoke drifting through my overhead hatch. My stomach roiled. Joe sliced watermelon for breakfast because he was out of eggs and high-fat meats. He and Walter listened to the local cruisers’ Net and the Southwest Caribbean Net and based on both weather reports, decided we needed to get underway as soon as possible; there was a high probability of thunderstorms.
While I did the breakfast dishes, Patsy sat in stony silence in the cockpit. She read her book furiously, pausing only to grimace her way through cigarette after cigarette. Joe and Walter held an animated technical conversation and when I joined them, I put in my two cents’ worth if the conversation was boat-related. Patsy motioned me to follow her to the bow. Once there, she said, “I’m tired of not talking.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Would you like to try a conversation again? Let’s go back and talk.”
“No!” she spat.
“He contradicts and criticizes everything I say and I refuse to speak to him unless it is absolutely necessary.”
We walked back to the cockpit and she returned to her book. Joe, Walter and I discussed the docking plan. It was trickier than usual: Joe would leave the cockpit and get into the dinghy while I backed the boat into the slip so her stern would face the dock. A slight wind would be off my starboard side as I reversed and Joe would assist by nudging the boat with the dinghy.
Everything was going fine and I was in a good position when I nudged the throttle into reverse. Nothing happened. I pushed it harder and the boat failed to respond. “Reverse!” shouted Joe from the dinghy. The marina sent a lancha to wedge itself between my starboard side and the row of boats to which I was precariously close. I shoved the throttle into neutral and into a hard reverse but the boat barely moved and at this point I was no longer in the middle of our small canal. Joe was waving his arms like a crazy man and I was trying to follow his instructions but the boat felt completely out of control.
“I’m losing it!” I shouted and it wasn’t just the boat to which I was referring. As my starboard side approached the bow of a docked boat, I told Patsy to push us off and she was nearly impaled by the boat’s bowsprit as it pushed between the lifelines. This was getting dangerous.
Once again I pushed the throttle forward, got the boat centered in the canal, straightened the wheel and then slammed the throttle hard into reverse and we moved backward. Not only did we move backward, we were moving in a straight line. I held my breath, swung the wheel left and eased into the slip. Walter began tossing lines to the people on the dock and Rose of Sharon was finally secure. I exhaled and pulled the kill switch, turned off the ignition key and collapsed on a seat. Patsy lit a cigarette and for once, it looked appealing.
Having sat idle for 10 months, the prop of our boat was so barnacle-covered that it was almost unmanageable. I hadn’t noticed any problems during the anchoring process because at that point, all I had to do was throttle in reverse without making a turn. Later, another cruiser told me they cover their prop with trash bags before any departure. Our only excuse is that we thought we’d be in the states 6 months, not ten. Even in Texas we had never had such a barnacle-coated bottom.
The four of us were sandy, sweaty, exhausted, and hot. Joe hooked up the air conditioning and then he, Walter and I gathered our shower gear and eagerly headed up the dock for our much-needed showers. Patsy made a beeline for the bar. After a few rum and cokes, she took her shower and we all reconvened at the Calypso Cantina for supper.
It was Mexican Night. “The enchiladas are sure to be great,” I said.
“I don’t eat Mexican food,” she replied.
“The burgers here are terrific,” I added, even though I’d never had a burger at the restaurant. Once again, Patsy drank herself into a sloppy stupor and the bartender averted his eyes every time she returned for a refill.
I guess my warning is this: When you invite your friends to visit you and your boat, it isn’t enough to understand where they are geographically. Understand where they are emotionally and physically. Patsy lives in California and I had seen, via e-mail, a few red flags indicating that she had developed a severe drinking problem, but I ignored the warning signs. Anyway, I thought I could deal with her drinking but really had no experience dealing with someone who was unable to communicate for an entire week because she was either too hung-over or too drunk to make sense.
I had also seen indications that her entire sense of worth was based on the need for a man’s – any man’s – approval. Her last day in Panama, she told me of another man who would be a lot more fun and had some sailing experience and that she would bring him with her next time. “Is he the kind of person who would be willing to make a trip like this?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know,” she replied.
“Then you don’t know him well enough,” I responded.
¨You’re getting on my nerves,” she snapped.
Physically, I figured Patsy was way ahead of me because she was not fat but I quickly discovered that the combination of smoking and the extreme heat of Panama – which is not unlike the extreme heat we have on the Texas Gulf Coast – diminished her capacity to walk distances without losing her breath. She literally carried her beach towel with her as we walked through town, stopping to mop the perspiration from her face. I may have made light of her discomfort here, but the fact is, she was very uncomfortable in this tropical climate. That kind of exposure to extreme weather can pose a health risk to your guests. Understand if they are capable of handling the physical demands of even a short sailing trip.
Yes, there were moments where Patsy and I once again shared our bond of friendship, and yes, Joe and I made a new friend, Walter. But the getaway on our boat fell short of everyone’s expectations.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King, we must accept disappointment but never lose hope. I hope my dear friend chooses, someday, to be happy with herself. I hope I’ve learned my lesson.
The first evening alone in our boat, I snuggled up to Joe and told him I loved him very much and loved our life. He told me he is currently unable to commit because he needed to find himself and hoped we could have a meaningful relationship because he had very strong feelings for me.