It began with Venk (short for Venkatachalam, an Indian name.) He and his family came to St. John for a vacation, took a day sail on my boat Breath, and turned on like a spotlight to snorkeling. He was an engaging personality, enthusiastic about sailing and about my boat with its traditional gaff rig, and he and I hit it off together. He came out with us twice and the second day he read my brochure where it said, "Voyage to Venezuela: if you’re serious about leaving the beaten path, try sailing across the Caribbean like the pirates did – to coastal sierras, teeming reefs. This trip is not for everyone, in fact not even for very many, but for a few . . . a true adventure." I saw the light flare up in his eyes as he read that and thought to myself, here’s someone who might actually do it.
Sure enough, about a month later I got a call from Venk. He’d recruited two more nephrologists (kidney doctors) and wanted to go as soon as possible. None of them knew anything about sailing but would serve as crew and learn as they went. They were into the idea of adventure. They brought with them a fifty pound bag of first aid materials with enough stuff to do an appendectomy at sea, including morphine, hypodermics, scalpels, antibiotics, and bandages of every kind ranging from round patches for a mosquito bite to enough to wrap up a compound fracture or a shark bite.
There was a definite hierarchy. Bill was the oldest, in his early fifties while the other two were in their early forties. Furthermore, Bill as the director of a research program had selected Venk and David to be fellows in it—Venk from India and David from South Africa. Although Jews weren’t subject to oppression, he didn’t want to live under apartheid any more.
Bill had a bluff, gruff manner and when we first got onto the boat he took a look around and declared, "The captain has the aft cabin and I’m claiming the forward cabin. You two guys can have the main saloon. Any objections?" As it turned out, the forward cabin was stuffy and bouncy in a seaway and the main saloon berths, being the lowest and the most central, were the most comfortable, but Bill bore the discomfort and refused any offers to sleep elsewhere than his initial choice.
Likewise on the very first day he planted himself in the galley and said, "I can’t cook worth a damn; I burn the water for coffee. I won’t cook anything – but I’ll do all the dishes . . .. all of them." I accepted this proposal with alacrity but once in boisterous seas after he’d done enough dishes to make the average person puke, I felt sorry for him and got at the sink to knock off a few cups and saucers. Hearing the chink of crockery Bill came storming out of his cabin and roared, "Get off of my turf!" I did, in a hurry.
We spent a couple of days sailing up to Virgin Gorda, getting some easy easting in, while giving the crew experience aboard—how to tack, where the light switches were, how to start and stop the engine, how to safely use the propane stove. Then we slipped through the Round Rock Passage and headed south. The first day was lovely, gentle sailing with everything up. David was the most apt sailor, picking it up right away, despite his low-grade nausea.
When the wind died out altogether we put on the machine and motored straight for Aves Island which lay just to the east of our course. These were the days before cheap GPS, so I had my trusty sextant, which I loved, its framework of bronze, its arc of degrees inlaid silver, its vernier drum of ivory. Conditions were perfect—flat seas, clear skies and the horizon a crisp line sweetly, fleetingly "kissed" by the sun. Navigating with a sextant was such a pleasure, a combination of science and art and experience. And raising the island precisely on schedule reassured my crew that I knew what I was doing.
Aves was fascinating, a tiny place of rock and sand, a high seas nesting site for terns and brown boobies as well as a rest stop on the migratory path of all kinds of birds. In particular we saw peregrine falcons and kestrels darting under the container held above the water by massive pilings—the residence of the Venezuelan navy personnel who, to judge from the stark container, must have done something that deserved exile in such a remote place.
The resident biologist spoke English, came out to the boat to share a bottle or two of wine and guided us around his little kingdom. He showed us tiny hatchling turtles in his hand struggling desperately to get to the sea, and pointed out the ghost crabs that lined the surf, looking for a baby turtle to seize and eat its brains. There were half a dozen little corpses that I found, intact save where the brain had been eaten. If our far distant ancestors included turtles (as the evolution of a fetus suggests), this tiny island’s daily drama may be the source of the nameless dread that underlies nightmares and horror movies.
In the morning we set sail to a rapidly freshening breeze. The boat shouldered her way through the building swell and eventually, under small jib and reefed main, she reeled off the miles. Bill held his own, Venk spent a lot of time staring into time/space, and poor David suffered from mal de mar, but he didn’t let it stop him in the least. He declared he was having a wonderful time despite the seasickness and I believed him. He was a very determined person.
We got to Isla Margarita, had a great supper, cleared customs and set off down the coast, stopping to see the magnificent fort at Araya, anchoring at Mochima (aka the Venezuelan Fjord,) and cruising the Santa Fe archipelago. Here, Venk in learning to windsurf, got a foot full of sea urchins. When the other two doctors saw his foot their faces lit up—a chance to do some medicine! They could scrub and cut and suture and dose the foot with tinctures. They unwrapped the first aid bundle and gave Venk a local anesthetic, got out scalpel and special tweezers and started work, ignoring my advice to let the black spines be, since they were too brittle to withdraw and anyway would dissolve in the foot after day or two.
Our next sail took us offshore to Isla Tortuga where we anchored in spectacularly clear water without another boat to be seen. We could clearly see the bottom in 75 feet of water. It was a glorious spot and I was feeling good about it when Bill turned to me and asked, "Exactly why are we here?" Bill was a city boy, not an enthusiastic snorkeler, and preferred restaurants to reefs.
When we left, we had to get up a lot of chain, which the foredeck crew
did while I maneuvered the engine. David went at it with a will, heaving mightily. Venk did his part, but Bill, all the while pulling, called out, ‘I HATE THIS! I HATE THIS!" Alarmed, I suggested that he come back to the controls and I would pull. Bill would have nothing of that and hauled at the chain like Hercules.
We ended up at a classy restaurant the last night before they flew back and Bill was in his element, with a nice sports jacket, choosing the right wine for each dish, etc. I knew Venk and David had had a terrific time, but I felt less sure about Bill.
However, a year later I learned that at nephrology conferences all over the country, Bill carried a portable screen and a slide projector! And would, with little persuasion, give a half hour presentation of his amazing trip.
That closed the circle for me.