Bonaire has always been a favorite island of mine so when I had the chance to sail there on a 41’ Swan, I jumped on it. Bill Rich was taking his boat south of the hurricane belt to hole up in Spanish Water, a bulletproof refuge landlocked three times over, located in Curacao… So a downwind trip in the steady trades, warm water, blue skies . . . what’s the down side?
Our first leg was an idyllic reach to St. Croix. Once again Frederiksted surprised me with its quiet and stately waterfront, its flagstoned walkways under gracious palm and mahogany trees, and its remarkably intact colonial architecture, some examples of which date back almost 300 years. Two streets back, in the heart of town, a lovely cemetery lies shaded by a grove of tall, magnificent mahogany, one of the pristine New World’s most exemplary woods. We met friendly shopkeepers, a group of men playing open air dominoes, an old lady in a rocking chair looking out from a porch framed by gingerbread, and an industrious rasta, his locks gathered and tied tightly above his head, working on a car. He stopped working long enough to exchange pleasantries and offer his services
Most notably, we were not mugged, threatened or harassed in any way. I heard no oaths, no voices raised in dispute. The place seemed as quiet as last time I anchored there.
Which got me wondering about the supposed crime epidemic in St. Croix… maybe they just make this shit up, to scare off developers, to keep the place quiet and traditional and for themselves. Prevent all a dem billionaires dem from buying up the cemetery and bull dozing the trees, bones and all to a more appropriate site at the dump, so that a nine story condominium tower, you know, something that fits in, could be erected.
The next morning we rounded the sandy SW point and entered the trade wind belt. Ever wonder why they use the word “belt?”—– because it more than likely will take a belt to your backside! We started out in 15 knots of wind with everything up and as we inched SSW across the chart the wind slowly built to 18 knots then 22, steadily gaining speed. We tied a reef in. That helped but not for long as the anemometer continued its steady climb till it reached the upper 20s and frequently gusted past 30, hitting 34 once.
By this time we were double reefed with most of the jib rolled in and leaping from wave to wave. The Monitor self-steerer handled the helm while we watched gouts of foam explode alongside the hull as the sea tried to bury the bow and sometimes did. The Swan was by now down on her knees and hurtling ahead. I liked the feeling of safety in that hull, not once was there a quiver or a qualm – it felt about as vulnerable as a javelin speeding to its target. The hull had been laid up thick back in ’74 when fiberglass was still proving itself
I looked out and saw everywhere around me, a jumping electric blue field heaving foothills with breaking white crests. The boat found its way adroitly through the roaring seas, in front of one, behind another, hesitating now and then as though it were sentient and considering its options
I wished my 94 year old father could be there with us. That man, a leathery old missionary, liked it best when it got rough, the rougher the better. I remember years ago tacking up the Narrows between St. John and Great Thatch as the spring tide ran against the Christmas Winds while a large ground sea battered the coast. The wind hurled a lash of spray from every wave. Everyone else was miserable and cowering below or in the shelter of the dodger while he sat on the forward hatch shouting with delight the harder it blew. Another time off the Azores when a long black squall forced us to reduce sail I was complaining about the weather when he said to me, “What a magnificent vantage point we have for watching the power and beauty of the Lord’s creation. I love it!” This as he sat soaking wet on the foredeck in pelting rain, stuffing the jib into a sail bag.
Ever since instead of whining about the wind or rain, I reflect on how a well-found little vessel is an amazing way to encounter the vastness of the ocean, to touch base, one on one, with one’s own sea-blood.
Well, it blows harder down islands, that’s a commonplace— but after 48 hours it was starting to get a little much. Nothing fazed, Cap’n Bill took in another roll on the jib, tied a third reef into the main and pressed on into near gale force winds.
One needed both hands to avert a battering death when moving about below – I got thrown, pivoting on my one hand with a coffee cup in the other, going from galley to the head, and still have the bruise where my hip hit the edge of the navigation table. Despite the conditions “Hard Man” John (Van de Water) decided to make a salad for lunch, a hearty chef’s salad with plenty of cheese and chicken, chopped onion and garlic with a delicious raspberry vinaigrette dressing.
Just as he made his move to the companionway, the serving bowl in one hand, the other in a death-lock grip on the galley counter, I gave a shout from the helm –“Bad one coming!” and a steep, cliff-like 15 footer slammed us on the quarter, burst like a bomb and almost broached the boat. It was the worst, most abrupt wave of the trip and it broke John’s grip and flung him across the interior. There was a split stroboscopic second of stasis, John in mid-air, striving mightily to hold on to his creation— then, simultaneous with a soulful obscenity, an expletive not fit to print, it hit the ceiling and came down like a waterfall all over the floor. After a quick check of the crew’s toes for athlete’s foot or ringworm, John gathered up, washed and served what had once been the chef’s salad, now immortalized in our memory as the tossed salad. And was it ever good!