...a sea story
It all started when the phone rang. I was taking a little siesta... stretched out in my hammock, while the trade winds cooled the balcony of my hillside home on the island of Puerto Rico. The land fell away to the coastline nearly one thousand feet below, where the shallow coastal waters radiated turquoise green and patches of drifting tropical cumulus clouds cast darker shadows of cobalt blue indiscriminately across the Vieques Sound. The hills were covered with native trees and vegetation... pink flowering Robles, flaming red, orange and tangerine Flamboyant, African Tulip, Mimosas, guavas, bamboos, tree ferns, and hundreds more that made up what the locals called selva, or jungle. The sounds from an old Dave Brubeck album played softly mingling with the afternoon sea breeze. I opened my eyes and said out loud, "Shit... it never fails... damn phone always seems to know when I'm trying to catch a snooze." I reached out and picked up the portable, then spoke into the mouthpiece, "Yo... Casa Martin."
"Hey Scott, its Randy."
The voice on the other end was one from my past, and as soon as I heard the soft, laid-back delivery, I recognized it immediately. I drew a breath... it had been a couple of years since I had last heard from my old friend and ex-partner.
"Randy... You still terrorizing the natives up there in Fort Liquordale?" I knew that Randy had turned his life around after doing a year's stretch in a federal country club for running high grade Jamaican ganja... Blue Mountain crude, some of the best marijuana in the Western Hemisphere. Randy had lost everything, his yacht, his car and his job... and a Miami lawyer got the last of the cash he had stashed. Randy had been a yacht broker for years in south Florida, and after doing his time, he had called in a few cards and had gone back to work. He sold yachts, kept his nose to the grindstone, paid his dues, and had made a success of himself. He now lived aboard his fifty-six foot custom built French ketch, Lullaby, docked at Bahia Mar, the old haunt of J.D.McDonald’s', Travis McGee, aboard his beloved Busted Flush.
"I'm sailing my boat to Cuba, 'ya wanna go?" I could hear the hint of excitement in Randy's voice.... How typical, I thought, a couple of years goes by and it’s like we just had a beer together yesterday.
I hung up the phone, and looked out over the view of Vieques Sound with its variegated blue-green hues, the small offshore islands and cays with their stretches of sandy beaches, and dark green vegetation of scrub trees and bushes. So, I thought... Randolph Parker was sailing to Cuba from Florida and was looking for a crew. I had heard that private yachts were beginning to sail the cays and coastline of Cuba more and more, and recently American cruising boats were also ignoring the thirty odd years' embargo that the United States Government had imposed on Fidel Castro's Communist Government. Interesting... the last time I had been in Cuba, I had been just eighteen... now the little restaurant and the conversation with Javier, the Cuban boy of so many years ago came to mind... what was it he had said... something like we would always remain friends in our minds?
My name is Scott Martin. I'm an old ex-military man who did the whole enchilada... twenty years in Uncle Sam's big canoe club. I spent a couple of tours in Vietnam, pounded around the world and poked my face into some real shit holes in a lot of third world poor excuses for civilized countries. After the service, I just couldn't hack the white or blue collar bullshit that was coming my way, so with the end of a marriage gone bad and no ambitions to fill up a bank account, I packed my bags, bought some rice and beans, then got my small sailboat underway and never looked back or shed a tear.
What the hell, I thought; eyeing the small refrigerator I kept stocked with Beck's or St. Pauli Girl. Popping the cap, I took a long pull on the slightly bitter brew, remembering the first time I met Randy.... It was in the Miami City Marina, about fifteen years ago. I had sailed up from the Caribbean with my eighteen years old daughter. She had been touring Europe that summer, having graduated National Honor Society from high school, and I had sent her a ticket to fly into Puerto Rico, upon her return to the states via Washington, DC. We had sailed around the US and British Virgins for a month and then made the run up to Florida stopping in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Bahamas.
Randy was medium built and slightly stocky. He wore his brown, sun streaked hair combed straight back. His face was strong looking with a pronounced ridge of bone over his dark brown eyes. He had been loud, obnoxious and pompous, but for some reason that I could not even recall, I had liked him.... I had chalked it all up in one description... the young man was just full of himself. Later I would remember my daughter had said, "That guy was a pain in my ass." Well, we had drank a few beers together on Randy's sailboat and met the teenage girlfriend that Randy claimed was his mule, running coke up to Chicago in order to support his lifestyle. The next day Randy had given me a ride to the International Airport where I had picked up my own girlfriend and rented a car to drive my daughter up the state where she would be staying with her mother. A week later when Barbara and I had set sail for Key West, I had promptly forgotten Randy Parker. I drank from my beer again, considering the idea of sailing to Cuba.... I had told Randy I would like to go but needed to think about taking off a month or more away from my life and businesses. I was what you might say semi-retired. I was in fact retired from the US Navy, just over twenty years now... Christ I thought, where did all those years go? After retiring from the service, I had taken off on my little sloop Gypsy for the next fifteen years... traveling and working jobs here and there, finally figuring out how to work for myself when it was necessary. I had some vocational training along the way too, courtesy of the GI Bill.
It really was an opportunity of a lifetime... well; I would talk it over with Barbara. In many ways, Barbara was even more of a free spirit than I was, and I was certain she would probably encourage me to make the trip. My life with Barbara was good... we both had our own lives and of course the life we shared together, and she knew and realized that I was still chasing dreams and adventures yet to be fulfilled or even understood. So... if Barbara gave me a thumb up on the trip, I would begin to arrange my life in order to take five weeks off. Then I would fly up to Fort Lauderdale to meet up with Randy and the other guy he said wanted to go along.
There had been one false start after I had flown up early to Jacksonville, Florida aboard a Navy patrol aircraft to visit an old Navy buddy, a retired Warrant Officer I had known for over twenty years. Ed, the old Warrant wasn't getting any younger. Shit, who was, I reflected.... I usually tried to see Ed and his wife once a year. Ed could be an exasperating old fart sometimes, but he was a dear and loyal friend, having stuck by me in some pretty hairy situations. I had spent four days bullshitting the same old war stories and getting caught up with my old pal's life. Then I got a call from Randy saying he had a binder on a megabuck boat and was sailing up to Tarpon Springs for a haul-out and survey.
The commission on the sale was about fifteen G's and Randy had no choice but to put off the departure date for the trip to Cuba. I said, "no sweat," then told him I would rent a car, drive down and pick him up... we could drive back to Lauderdale, and I could catch a flight back to Puerto Rico for the week or so it would take to close the deal.
"Hey, buddy," said Randy. "Thanks for understanding."
I always took pleasure in renting a new car with all the latest conveniences and a good sound system. I could settle in, buckle up, and select a good jazz station if available, hit the road, and drive. It gave me time to think and reflect. Randy was in many ways the same old wild man from years past, but age, and some brushes with the law had slowed him some. Christ, I thought, remembering that sail from the Bahamas to the Virgin Islands back in eighty-one. What a fucking trip. Barbara and I had wintered in Key West and had decided to return to the Caribbean, sailing through the Bahamas. The start had been normal, day sailing up the Florida Keys and dropping the hook every night. Barbara would cook a nice dinner and then we would crawl into the forward berth and sleep close to one another.
Crossing the Great Bahama Bank, Gypsy's diesel lost a fuel pump, so we had sailed into Chub Cay, Berry Islands. The marina at Chub was inclined toward large fishing charter boats equipped with high-powered engines and there was no help in replacing or repairing the tiny pump I needed. Well, it was less than forty miles across the Northeast Providence Channel to Nassau. I got Gypsy underway at first light with a fresh easterly wind up. We would be tacking across the winds but should easily make the anchorage off the old Sheraton Colonial Hotel by late afternoon. Yeah...right... best laid plans of mice and men.
It had been a perfect sail. Bright blue sky, puffy white fair weather cumulus clouds drifting along overhead and a fifteen pound Dorado had taken the trailing bait. Then, with the ship channel in sight, the wind laid back to a dead calm... and so it remained for the next four days. Each afternoon, the winds would tease Gypsy's sails just enough to almost make the channel leading to the anchorage in Nassau, but then the wind would abruptly quit like someone threw a switch, and Gypsy would drift on the current back across the New Providence Channel. Morning would find us nearly off Chub Cay once again.
It was morning and Gypsy lay passive on a glassy calm sea. Dorado with their blue-green-orange coats played around the hull. Chub and Whale Cays hung on the misty gray horizon five or so miles to the Northwest. I had the anchor ready in the event Gypsy continued to drift toward the rocky shore. As I stared at the distant cays, I saw a sailboat motor out from the north side of Whale Cay. I knew from the chart there was an anchorage behind the low lying cay. I watched the small yacht with her sails furled on her main boom and fore-deck continue out on a southeasterly course. Although it was totally calm, I had left the main sail on Gypsy up the mast in the event even the slightest breeze materialized. I had also left the VHF radio on channel 16, the open hailing channel. Although I had no intention of hailing the yacht which was now running several hundred yards off Gypsy's stern, I covertly hoped they might call and perhaps offer some assistance, such as a tow. Just as these thoughts were crossing my mind, the VHF came alive.... "Blue hull sailboat, this is the yacht Cisco Kid, over."
Barbara looked up from the book she was reading and said, slightly authoritatively, "You are going to answer that, aren't you?"
I smiled as I reached for the mike. "This is the sailing vessel Gypsy, come back Cisco Kid."
"Don't look like you're doing much sailing over there... got a problem?"
"You might say that... fuel pump's shot and we been drifting out here for almost four days... ain't life fun, over," I joked.
"Hey, I know you.... Weren’t you in Miami Marina a couple of years ago? You tied up across from me with your daughter.... I had a boat called Bluebird, remember? I'm Randy, over."
"Randy! Hell yes! I remember," I shouted excitedly into the mike, ‘Christ, get your ass over here and give me a tow.... I'll owe you forever!"
Randy had brought his sailboat around and came alongside Gypsy. I passed over a hundred feet of three-quarter inch line which I had attached to a bridle secured to the port and starboard bow cleats. Cisco kid was a Sparkman and Steven's design. She was thirty-eight footer, sloop rigged, with a full keel and a centerboard for blue water passages. She also had a new twenty-two HP Yanmar diesel engine that was swinging an eighteen inch bronze prop that could push Cisco Kid easily to hull speed. In those calm waters, she hardly knew Gypsy was hanging off her stern. Five hours later, Randy cast off the tow line as he called out; "Good luck”, then I anchored Gypsy off the Sheraton Colonial Hotel, Nassau harbor. Cisco Kid motored off to the anchorage closer to the east side of the town, "that's where the best waterfront bars are”, Randy had said. It would be several weeks before we would once again cross paths.
Barbara and I had fixed the engine problem the next day by replacing the pump and buying a spare for insurance, then we headed out to the Exuma Islands... a chain of low laying cays and small islands with sugar white sand beaches united with pristine blue, green, and crystal clear waters on the shallow western shores and magnificent rocky coasts on the eastern side that faced Eleuthera Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. There was a scattering of little settlements and clubs that catered to 'yachties'... places were the beer was cold and the company friendly. We had been several weeks drifting down the islands when we finally put into Staniel Cay. Dropping anchor off the small town, we could see the community that was mostly little frame and clapboard houses and stores painted out in blue, pink, green and yellow pastels, framed with palms, casuarinas and buttonwood. There were four or five other sailboats at anchor in the tiny harbor, and I told Barbara that Cisco Kid was anchored there as well. I was surprised because Randy's crew was a charter that had gotten off in Nassau, except for an old friend named Nickels, who was in his early sixties. I had only met Nickels in passing and I had thought they were going back to Florida.
I was having a little deja-vu, remembering the last time I had passed through Staniel Cay. I wondered if I would know anyone at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club or the Happy People Marina.
It was Beck's time. Barbara and I climbed into the little wood rowing pram and set out for the dock at Staniel Cay Yacht Club. The sun was already well past the yardarm and a small crowd had already gathered at the bar. The club was a hexagon wood building that had a bar on one side of the room, tables and chairs, a small bandstand, and a kitchen. The only reason it was called a Yacht Club was that most of its customers were off yachts and other private boats sailing the Bahamian waters. You could get water at ten cents per gallon, but if you wanted fuel, you had to go to Happy People Marina at the opposite end of the town, which also had a small restaurant and bar.
The late afternoon sea breeze cooled the island like a fan in a room. The breeze was soft and carried the smell of pine and coconut trees mingled with the fragrance of flowering shrubs planted around the small houses of the settlement. The bright yellow sun of the day was beginning to turn orange as it settled into the western sky laced with ribbons of purple clouds set against a robin egg blue sky on the distant horizon.
As soon as Barbara and I stepped inside the screened clubhouse, we saw Randy at the bar laughing, gesturing and in general, holding court. He also saw us and called out, "Hey... over here, come and join us”, and as we walked up he said, "Let me buy you a drink”. I could see that my friend, whom I really barely knew, was on a roll.
"No... This round is on me. It's the least I can do for the tow you gave me." Then I asked, “Why didn't you come back out to the boat while we were still in Nassau?"
Randy ignored the question and re-introduced Nickels to us; he also introduced a young woman in her late twenties named Debbie. Randy had met Debbie in Nassau and found out she was cooling her heels waiting on her old man, who was doing six months in Foxhill, the worst prison in Nassau. He had been caught with enough ganja to get an 'intent to distribute' sentence. The Bahamian judge must have just gotten laid and was feeling benevolent, 'cause he could have thrown away the key on the boy had he so desired. Randy was in seventh heaven with the chick hanging on to him, even though he was paying for the privilege.... I figured that the girl had to live somehow and the alternative was to go home, which she obviously didn't want to do. Besides, who was to judge? People got to follow their own paths.
We hung around Staniel for a few more days then decided to drift on down to Georgetown, Great Exuma Island. I was pretty relaxed in these waters as I had been through most of the chain when I had come through back in '78.
We were at anchor off the Peace and Plenty Hotel in Georgetown when Randy and Debbie caught up with us. Nickels had got off and flew back home to Florida. We all sailed out as partners for the run to Acklins Bight and then to Matthew's Town, Great Inagua where Debbie was planning on flying back to Nassau.
We had fun in Matthew's Town, partying at the Hide-a-way Bar. It definitely brought back memories for me. The town constable Roland had long been transferred and the new man was not as gregarious. There was a sense of change too that I felt. Drugs had arrived. They were coming up from Jamaica and Matthew's Town had become a drop point where a small sailboat could off load five to ten bales of marijuana depending on the carrying capacity of the boat. Then it was flown out of the islands small airfield to points north. There was now two separate factions on the island that was in competition for the drugs. It was almost as if there was an invisible line drawn down the middle of the town. On one side was the Spot, the bar and restaurant that served as the headquarters for one group and of course the Hide-a-way now was the hangout of the other group. Since the Hide-a-way was closest to the tiny harbor that Morton Salt Company had built to off load salt from their salt pond operation, it was where us crews of Gypsy and Cisco Kid also hung out. The reason this was so was that we were able to tie up inside the basin against the quay wall for five dollars and change per day. And since the outside anchorage was an open roadstead and uncomfortable with heavy swells, the basin was the only place to be.
It was at the Hide-a-way that we met Fast Eddy. He was a hustler. A handsome young man with smooth chocolate colored skin, flashing hazel eyes, and a set of teeth that looked like a perfect string of pearls. Fast Eddy was slim, but muscular, a sharp dresser in tight chino slacks, flowered tropical shirt, half dozen gold chains, rings, bracelets, and a Rolex watch. He had the sharp hawk-like features of the eastern African peoples. He was also a ladies man. Fast Eddy's current occupation was drug smuggling. Fast Eddy made a move on Barbara as soon as he walked in the door. Randy and I were shooting a game of pool and Barbara and Debbie were sitting at the bar looking super. Barbara was in her early thirties with a tight trim body, a great set of breasts and wearing tan shorts and a white tank top. Fast Eddy homed in on her like a heat seeking missile. I had seen the guy as soon as he walked in the funky little bar. Fast Eddy was a cheeky bastard I thought, watching him trying to lay his jive on Barbara... I figured it was time to rescue her.
After the introductions, it didn't take a genius to figure out Eddy's game. He also stuck around like glue, so the group decided to ditch him by heading back to the boats.
There was a new arrival tied up to the quay ahead of Gypsy. It looked like about forty-five feet and ketch rigged. There was something familiar looking about the guy sitting in the cockpit with a slender blond girl and a younger man. He was a tough looking character, and I did not want to stare. But I could not help but to steal covert glances and finally it came to me... it was Joey, the guy I had left behind back in '78 when I had sailed out of Georgetown to distance myself from Joey and his partner Steve. At that time they were on their way to Jamaica to pick up a load of grass and I was beginning to think that the possibility they might high-jack my boat and dump me was becoming very real.
I thought Joey was also looking at me as I had caught his eye and was forced to nod. Gypsy's hull was now dark blue in color where-as she had been originally white... so that was probably confusing Joey at this point, but I thought Joey's memory would connect in due time just as mine had. I decided it was probably prudent just to go ahead and get it over with.
I took a breath and called out, "Hey... Joey, is that you?"
"Yeah, it's me..." the voice was just as rough and mean sounding as I remembered, then Joey said, "I remember you now... Martin, yeah... come on over and have a cold beer, bring your friends with you." The voice was commanding now. Same old Joey.
We were all sitting around under the sun awning, drinking beer and passing a joint Joey had offered up. Randy and Debbie were especially enthusiastic, but then I didn't mind a mellow high now and then myself. Joey never asked why I had parted company with him and his pal Steve back in Georgetown, and I was glad to let it rest. He said that he had made the run to Jamaica on his little twenty-nine footer, loaded up and made the trip back to Florida. He also said he made enough money to give the small sloop to Steve as his share and bought a larger boat for himself. The ketch he now owned was his fourth trade up. Suddenly, as we were all sitting around, an old Lincoln Continental four door sedan turned the corner into the small marina and skidded to a stop about seventy five feet from Joey's boat. The clearing was lined with buttonwood and sea grape bushes. Fast Eddy and three other black guys jumped out of the Lincoln, popped the trunk and ran to the bushes where they pulled out five bales of marijuana wrapped in black plastic and quickly loaded three into the trunk and two into the back seat. Then, just as quickly as they had come, they jumped back into the Lincoln, spinning the back wheels of the car, throwing gravel and drove off... the whole episode did not last more than three of four minutes. Nobody said anything. I then looked at Joey...
Joey smiled a sly grin and said, "It’s only a small run but safe and profitable."
The next day Debbie flew out on a local island Cessna 172. Randy had told me that all he had to do was get to Puerto Plata on the north coast of the Dominican Republic where he was supposed to meet a big buck charter and then he would have it made. So, Randy was along for the ride. In the meantime we were all broke. Quite by accident, we had gone out in Randy's motor dinghy to dive for conch for our supper and had brought back a couple of dozen. One of the native ladies was passing by as I was cleaning a couple of the big snails and asked if I would sell her a few. Sure, I had replied and she offered me a dollar fifty each. I sold her twenty conchs and split the funds with Randy. We had pennies from heaven. So for the next several days, we would head out for the conch flats in the morning and sell the conchs to the town's women folk that afternoon. It seems that the young men of the town were too lazy now to dive for the conchs... there was money from other sources and that kind of work was beneath their position in life. That was just fine with me and Randy. The only drawback on the deal was that every time we left for our diving run, Fast Eddy would miraculously appear at Gypsy. Although I was not sweating Barbara, she was getting fed up with having to put up with Eddy's obvious advances. I had to admit the guy was tenacious as well as ambitious.
A couple of days later, after the situation at Matthew's Town was getting too uncomfortable. Randy and I both said fuck it, and even though it was late in the afternoon, we slipped the mooring lines and set sail for Haiti.
I had been driving along US19 for the last thirty minutes passing through the town of New Port Ritchie. I spotted 19A, a two lane road that would dead end at Tarpon Springs and made the right turn. I wasn't sure which marina Randy was bringing the big trimaran into but it would not be too hard to find it I thought... Randy had said it was seventy-eight feet and had a forty-two foot beam. I pulled the new white Ford Probe into a combination gas station-convenience store to fill up and grab a soft drink. I picked up my cellular phone and dialed Randy's mobile phone number. Randy had called me last night off Marcos Island. The trimaran had been running along the coast and if it wasn't already in port it should only be a few miles offshore.
I heard the phone ringing, then Randy's voice, "Hello”. It wasn't a good connection but I could hear well enough.
"Randy, it’s me, Scott. I'm about fifteen minutes from Tarpon Springs... where are you at?"
The connection was improving as Randy answered, "We are in the channel now and will be tying up outboard of a shrimper off one of the town's commercial docks. The main mast is almost a hundred feet. You can't miss it. See 'ya soon." He hung up.
After I topped off the gas tank on the Ford Probe, I drove down the two lane road passing stands of Florida scrub pine, laurel oak and palmettos. Behind the road side business and vegetable stands stood trailers up on concrete blocks and here and there cinder block houses with built-up rock roofs... typical Florida cracker houses from the fifties and sixties. As I approached Tarpon Spring, I could see sailboat masts standing above the water front buildings of the town. Marinas from small mom and pop style to yards large enough to haul out expensive motor yachts on Tammy lifts. There were commercial yards with deep water slip rails able to accommodate big fishing work horses. The downtown area had over the years become a mini Key West with tourist shops and Greek Restaurants serving up tasty seafood specials. There were trendy bars for the younger set with rock bands for evening and late night entertainment. The streets were already crowded with the generic groups on private vacations or those from group arranged tours. I saw a few younger couples and some families with squalling, petulant children in tow. I drove slowly through the tiny town toward the commercial docks and quays, easily spotting the towering white mast of the big trimaran raising up from behind a group of buildings housing marine stores, fish houses and repair facilities.
I found a place to park among piles of old netting, engine parts, barrels, boxes and the refuse of the fishing industry. Then found my way along the quay where, tied up outboard of a large shrimp boat, was the custom built aluminum trimaran. I could see several people on the yacht.
After crossing over the shrimp boat and I called out to one of the people on the trimaran deck, "Hello there, is Randy on board?"
Randy, of course, was on board. I helped him collect his gear, waited as he finished up some arrangements with the owner's and the buyer's representatives and then we departed.
"So... it's a done deal, huh?" I said as I unlocked the trunk and dropped Randy's bags in.
Randy was looking a little rough from the sail up from Key West... he shrugged and said, "It's never done until the money is in the bank. You're looking good Scott, what's it been now... a couple of years?"
"Yeah... something like that." Then we old friends embraced each other.
We settled into the Probes bucket seats, started the engine and set the air to high. I eased out through the congested old town area of Tarpon Springs and fifteen minutes later we were on our way south along Florida's west coast. It was a clear windless day, muggy, and we were glad for the air conditioning. I had made a quick pit stop and we had frosty cold Heinekens to help quench our thirst.
"I got a surprise for you," said Randy with a sly grin.
"Shit... you know I don't like surprises, especially coming from you. So what is this surprise?"
"I got an old buddy, guy by the name of Greg... I've known him for about ten years. You remember, I told you he had a whore house in Dayton Beach. Well, he moved to Tampa and I told him we would stop by and see him on the way back to Lauderdale."
I looked at Randy with disbelief... "A whore house. Shit, Randy, what the fuck am I going to do in a whore house? You're not serious are you?"
"Hey, I been promising to stop by and see him for over a year... it's on our way and will only take a few minutes." Then as if to justify the venture, Randy said, 'maybe I'll get laid... Besides, the place is really a fancy massage parlor, Connections is what he calls it. He has about a dozen girls working and the customer has his choice of options from the menu." Randy laughed.
I could imagine some sleazy house in a bad part of town stocked with even sleazier brawds... I wondered what the clientele was like. "We will probably get some incurable disease just walking in the fucking door," I said shaking my head. 'I take it you have directions to this place?"
"I will in a minute”, answered Randy. Then he dialed a number on his cellular phone.
Randy got the old sly grin on his face when his friend Greg answered. "Greg, its Randy. Yeah, we are about thirty minutes from Tampa... my buddy Scott picked me up in Tarpon Springs. So, give me some directions."
After several minutes, Randy ended the call and said, "It's a piece of cake. We turn left on highway 284 and just before Tampa Airport, there is an upscale shopping center on the right. His place is the second from the end on the east side."
"Christ, a whore house in a shopping center... I guess it works." We found the place easily and parked out front. The windows of the storefront had been blacked out with acrylic film and fancy gold letting announced that we were entering Connections.
There was a reception area of sorts with a small glass topped gold painted wrought iron table and chair in the center of the entrance. An imitation leather appointment book and a bottle of red fingernail polish were the only objects on the table top. A young woman wearing only a lacy cream colored negligee sat on the chair... she looked up from the work of painting her long nails.
"May I help you?" cooed the young girl, her ample breasts moving rhythmically to the pace of her breathing.
Randy looked at me and said, "I think I just fell in love”, then to the girl who was fanning her hands slowly, 'would you tell Greg that Randy is here."
The girl winked at Randy and said with a heavy put-on Georgia accent, "excuse me a moment while I tell him you are here." She stood up and I could see that except for a pair of matching cream colored bikini panties, the girl was naked beneath the frilly gown. I looked around, taking the room in... the floor was covered in a mirror finish red tile and directly behind the reception area there were three doors on each side of the lavender painted walls of the space leading into the interior. There was a large glass imitation chandelier hanging in the center of the room and matching sconces on the walls between each doorway leading off the main corridor, and also scattered about was gold antiqued statuary and wall hangings of cherubs and angels. But just before those rooms behind that reception table were two others, one with a small sign signifying the office and another marked, private. The girl had disappeared into the one marked office.
"So, what do you think," said Randy while looking around the room.
Before I could answer, the door to the office opened and a guy who looked like he was pushing sixty and hadn't seen any sun for fifty years came out and said, motioning, 'Randy, you and your friend... come on in."
Once inside, we shook hands and Greg returned to his chair behind an old wood desk that had seen better days. The girl in the negligee left, but there were two other young women sitting on a worn and cracked vinyl couch, reading magazines and smoking... they both looked like they had got their outfits from Frederick's of Hollywood. They were not unattractive, but they were not what I would call lookers either. Randy eyed them like a hawk might eye a mouse.
Randy and Greg started the 'old how you been, whatcha' been doing' routine as I balanced myself in an old wheeled secretary chair that was missing one wheel... Randy had lucked into a regular wood straight chair. After about ten minutes I was getting a bit antsy and mentioned to Randy that we had a long drive ahead of us. But a few seconds later a small buzzer when off and Greg said, "It's show time. Watch this," he said. Randy and I peered out the office doorway.
Two guys had come in the reception area and the girl at the table had called up the troops from the room marked private. Six young women in skimpy lingerie paraded out and stood in a line for inspection... four white girls and two brown sugars, like so much prime beef on the hoof. The two customers each selected one of the girls, signed in the register book and were escorted by the "masseuses" to their rooms. They all sat back down... the girls sitting on the couch were still reading magazines and giggling now and then.
I was curious. "What happens now."
Greg, who I had decided looked a lot like the Jewish comedian Jackie Mason, laughed and took a puff off his ever present 100mm cigarette, and then he coughed and hacked for a minute before answering. "You get a basic body wash and rub-down for forty bucks. That's about half an hour. If you want to spend sixty, you get a full hour." He was very casual.
I still didn't quite understand.... "So, do the girls fuck these guys or what?"
"Sure," replied Greg. He took another hit off the smoke, started hacking again, clutching his chest. Finally, he said, "everything is negotiable... a hand job is twenty to forty bucks depending on the guy's wallet. A blow job is a hundred and a fuck is two bills...." He smiled that casual smile again. Then he added, "We got some toys to heat things up if it’s necessary."
Randy had started up a conversation with one of the couch girls. Greg took note of this and said, "Take the girl for a massage... it's on the house... anything else, you work it out with Sheri." Randy's ardor was obviously up to the task as he stood up and took the girl's hand. He had a grin that stretched from ear to ear.
It only took about twenty minutes and Randy was back... still grinning. They shook hands with Greg and hit the road.
"You know what I was thinking about while I was driving down to pick you up this morning?" I asked as we picked up the interstate to Naples.
"No, what?" said Randy. He had just finished telling me all the lurid details of his massage. Namely having his dick massaged for thirty bucks.
"I was recalling that sail down to Haiti and the Dominican Republic back in '82. Remember when we left Matthew's Town and ran the Windward Passage at night?"
"Do I... we were half shit faced."
"What do you mean we... you were the shit faced one and you were a hell of a lot more than half." I looked over at Randy cocking his eye. "Christ, the first thing you did once we were on course was set your wind vane and call Barbara and me on the VHF to tell us you were taking a nap and to call if a ship was approaching... fuck man, you were crazy! And thank god the wind was steady because you slept for hours. It was a miracle you remembered to turn on your running lights or we would never have been able to keep you in sight during the night. I could have killed you!"
"Yeah, and the nasty town on the North coast of Haiti you wanted to put into," said Randy shaking his head disgustedly. "Port de Paix... don't remind me. What a fucking hole that place was. The anchorage was a sewer and the town a mud hole with five hundred year old shacks. Worst garbage dump I ever saw."
I sighed and said, "You're right... call some, lose some. Can you even imagine what that place must be like now?"
"Don't think about it”, suggested Randy.
We reminisced about the sail along the North coast of Haiti passing under Tortuga Island and talked about when those waters were the domain of old world pirates and probably some new world ones as well. The pirates of old times had look-out posts high in the hills of Tortuga and could spot passing cargo ships under sail. We had passed Cape Haitian during night and had put into the Dominican border town of Pepillo Salcedo... a banana town of the United Fruit Company. We had hung out for a few days drinking beer in the town and exploring a nearby estuary. I had nearly lost Gypsy due to the anchor rode being severed by coral and the boat had drifted down on a jagged coral shelf. It was a miracle that we had only just returned from town minutes before or Gypsy would have been on the coral. We continued the sail stopping at the small coastal resort town of Monte Christi, then on to the big port town of Puerta Plata.
Randy was saying... "We had a great time in Puerto Plata, but if Crazy Bob, my charter hadn't of showed up, I would have been fucked."
"Yeah... you definitely were fortunate that asshole showed up... at least he was a rich asshole... you were an asshole and didn't have shit. Jesus, I remember the day he finally arrived, what after almost a month of delays. We were hanging out at the Los Pinos Bar out by the beach... you were really bummed out, broke and your credit cards were tapped. Matter of fact, so were mine, but at least I was going to get a couple of hundred bucks from the Uncle Sugar on the first of the new month. Anyway, Bob had missed the first flight and we all thought he was a no show... but then out of the blue, he comes waltzing in the bar. He had caught the next flight. You should have seen your face... couldn't have been a happier guy on the planet."
"All I remember is old Bob saying, "It’s party time”, and we got blitzed for the next month. You know, I still hear from him now and then," said Randy.
"That's cool," I commented.
"Pull off somewhere... we need a beer.
It was almost mid-night when we arrived at Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale. We had crossed the Florida Peninsula from Naples via Alligator Alley and were both a couple of tired puppies. Randy was glad to get home to his boat and I planned to fly back to Puerto Rico in a day or so while Randy closed the deal on the Trimaran. Randy figured the sale would be finished in about two weeks. I told him he would return three or four days prior to getting Lullaby underway to help out getting supplies on board and any last minute preparations to the boat.
Two mornings later I boarded a Carnival Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale International Airport and returned to Puerto Rico. Two weeks later I flew back to Fort Lauderdale... the adventure was on.
Sunday. A perfect day... clear with an early morning sea breeze from the Southeast cooling the morning anchorage off the Turtle Kraals Docks in Key West. Randy and I had made the decision the day before to set sail today at noon for Marina Hemingway, just eight or so klicks west of Old Havana. There had been a problem with our third crew member, a serious personality conflict; Randy had put the guy off as soon as we had arrived from the transit sail from Fort Lauderdale. Randy had decided that we didn't need the hassle and we agreed that if we were prudent and watched the weather carefully, we could make the sail together.
We were a good team. We hauled up the dinghy motor and the inflatable stowing the motor in the forward hold and the inflatable inverted on the fore-deck. The anchor came up and Lullaby was underway for the sea buoy where the GPS would track the course and position via satellite mile by mile, minute by minute... a far cry from the old days, I marveled.
I was not unhappy to be leaving Key West.... The laid-back attitude, hippies, bubbas and Cubans that had been the 'town at the end of the highways' trademark, now well over two decades ago, had long disappeared to developers, franchises, and flimflam artists. Duval Street, once full of locals and adventurous snowbirds riding their bicycles down to Sloppy Joe's or Capt'n Tony's for an early morning beer or a cup of Cuban cafe-con-leche, a morning paper or friendly conversation, was now wall to wall shops, tourist bars, and restaurants stretching its entire length. Shamefully, some of the songwriters, road poets, and television personalities had in my opinion contributed to Key West's demise. I felt a heavy feeling of nostalgia and longing to re-experience the first time I came down the Florida Keys looking to escape the bullshit of the Navy and my first marriage. I was also beginning to wonder if there was any place left that hadn't been turned into a twentieth century sideshow. Well, Cuba might well be one of the last truly unspoiled countries left in the western hemisphere... ironically due to an embargo that was archaic and probably unfair.
Having been tied up to the dock for the better part of a year, Lullaby was giving us some fits. Whenever a small yacht goes to sea having been laid-up for a period of time, usually it can be expected that there might be some problems. This had been the case on the passage from Fort Lauderdale. The main sheet block had broken and a high pressure oil line sprung a pinhole leak. There were a number of lesser problems too, but all had been solved, replaced or repaired. At the sea buoy, Lullaby's full set of sails, main, mizzen and big Genoa were hauled up and the ketch came to her course and hull speed eagerly.... The old gut gnarls at the beginning of a passage leaving the territorial waters of the US began to pass quickly and was replaced by the excitement and anticipation of arriving in a new and foreign port.
Then, to add to the apprehension, Randy, while making one last trash run, picked up the morning paper with the front page headlines screaming that Cuban MIG's had shot down two private US aircraft. Shortly thereafter, the cellular phone started ringing from friends and advisers advocating that we hapless sailors postpone the trip to Cuba. Well, be it known that after some discussion, it was decided that the Cuban exiles that had spit in the eye of 'El Commandante' may have gotten what they deserved. The Friends of whatever radical group they belonged to, had been warned not to invade Cuban airspace, dropping leaflets and generally making a nuisance of themselves... maybe a little harsh by American standards, but certainly understandable. Like some farmer in Kansas gives a shit about Cuban politics. So, considering they were not going to war and it was not a problem between the Cuban and American people as a whole, the trip continued as planned.
I had the three to six AM watch, mostly remaining alert to shipping and course as the Aries self-steering vane was handling the helm. Crossing the Straits of Florida at night far from the overwhelming illumination of the metro-plexes of the Florida coastline, the sky was ablaze with its own natural light from the hundreds of thousands of stars studded across the heavens, and of course a waning moon hurrying along its ordained path. Randy had pointed to the loom originating from Havana now glowing like soft candlelight twenty degrees off the port bow. In a dreamlike mood, the night gradually turned to a bluish-gray dawn, with low stratified clouds hanging back on the western horizon now taking on a pale pink color as the earth turned into the face of her life giving sun. Suddenly, the day was fully upon us, and I set a pot of coffee on the stove to brew, waking Randy for his watch. With my belly warmed from a cup, I told Randy I would grab an hour or so rest as we would be closing the Cuban coast early that morning and should make port by midday.
"There it is," I heard Randy exclaim, "The Havana sky line”. And like a magician's trick, first you don't see it, and then if you watch carefully, you do... the sky line materialized from a smoky low lying haze.
I thought approaching Havana from the sea reminded me of the approach to Miami twenty years ago, which had now changed beyond recognition for me as we had sailed past the densely populated shoreline from Fort Lauderdale to Key West last week. Now, with the GPS tracking Lullaby to within a hundred meters of the sea buoy marking the channel leading into Marina Hemingway, the sails came down and were stowed properly and all preparations were made for entering port.
"Hola, Hola! Esta privado yachte Lullaby calling La Marina Hemingway. Yo nessito permission a entrada la Marina”, I spoke in my rudimentary Spanish, into the mike of the VHS.
Almost instantly, which indicated a level of vigilance that I did not expect, was an answer. "Lullaby, Lullaby, this is Marina Hemingway. Permission is granted... proceed from the sea buoy on course 140° with the sea buoy on your starboard. You will then pass between the entrance markers, lining up the range. Please come alongside the Customs Pier. Welcome to Cuba," said the voice in excellent English.
I answered, "La Marina Hemingway. We have received your instructions and will comply. Thank you, Lullaby out!"
With that, Randy, on the helm, increased the RPM's and took up the course for entering the marina.
Having been in many Latin countries, especially those in the Caribbean Basin, I could sense a certain similarity. After all, the language, customs, even traditions, and of course religion was very much the same. There was a feeling... there was the sight, sound, smell and even taste that went with Latin societies that I had come to recognize. So, as we came alongside the customs pier, where a couple of military types in uniform, and plainclothes officials were milling about, it was hard to escape the banana republic image.
The first guy aboard claimed to represent the Ministry of Health. He was attired in a white doctor's coat, a little frayed around the edges, but clean. He made himself comfortable, then proceeded to shuffle some papers and finally asked if we were in satisfactory medical condition. Of course, we said we were which seemed to make the Doctor happy. Then he completed a certificate in a flurry of self-importance, and after drinking a cold coke, departed telling us travelers that the Immigration officials would soon be arriving. In due time, two men, wearing innocuous looking uniforms that reminded me of a man's pants suit, politely requested permission to come aboard. They were extremely efficient, even though I was not exactly sure of what is was they were doing, but eventually our passports were requested and as one member of the team did tedious amounts of paperwork, the other offered moral support. When their business was concluded, Randy and I were told we had been granted a thirty day stay in Cuba. These men then collected up their papers and briefcases, shook our hands formally... and vanished. The next gentleman to arrive said he was from the Coast Guard; he also had some official looking documents to fill out. He requested the ships papers and also needed to verify the copies of the forms from the previous officials. Of course all of these people were happy to be drinking cold cokes and receiving small gifts of soap and Bic pens. We must be finished, Randy and I thought, but alas no. The next official in the continuing parade was the Customs Agent. He seemed harried and was not bashful to ask for a cold drink. He solemnly said he must search the boat for the possibility of unwelcome contraband. But, amazingly, his search was only cursory, and he was finished quickly. He stamped the Coast Guard certificate with his seal and was gone. It all reminded me of an old Graucho Marx Brothers movie.
Shortly, a call was received from the marina office via the VHF informing Randy that he could proceed to channel one, slip five.
The marina was on the ocean but well protected by a wide earth mole. There were about thirty boats tied up alongside a series of small quays, with the boats ranging from megabuck ocean cruising power-yachts to a couple of flimsy mini's that I wondered how in the hell they had made it from anywhere. Randy brought Lullaby alongside her berth, a good spot not too far from the showers and the marina bar and nightclub, aptly called Papa's. There were a half dozen marina workers and neighbors waiting to help with mooring lines and within five minutes a tall skinny guy showed up with some electricians tools and an adapter to hook up Lullaby into shore power. We were home free... or so we thought, because just as we broke out a couple of cold Coronas, two more characters arrived in civilian clothes with old beat-up and scarred briefcases claiming to be from the Department of Agriculture. I thought that surely everyone in Cuba had a rice-bowl to fill and that Randy and I were making ample contributions. The first guy, who looked like a drug dealer from Miami spotted the cold beers and without hesitation wanted one for himself and his weasel looking partner, claiming they were overworked and hot. Well, not much choice in this matter, and Randy broke out the beers. These two clowns were most likely Cuban undercover agents, because they tried real hard to be hip and dropped hints about dope and porno, some real no-no's in Cuba. Finally after they had gone through their song and dance, more papers were stamped and signed, with Omar, the name of the first henchman, letting me and Randy know that he knew where all the bodies were buried and would be our man in Havana. Omar was definitely the most aggressive of the officials we had encountered and managed to squeeze two blank video tapes out of Randy as a present for his family, or so he said. So... finally the clearance into Cuba was finished and we were on our own. The only thing I was interested in at this moment was some sleep.
I woke feeling rested. I looked at my watch noting it was just after nine PM. Christ, I needed that long nap.... I wasn't the young pup anymore, I thought, stretching and flexing my stiff muscles. The night air was cool and refreshing. The muted music of Sade, singing No Ordinary Love drifted into my stateroom from the main salon.... Randy was up.
"Let’s go get us a Cuban beer," said Randy as I stepped into the salon. Randy was already dressed and ready to go.
"Hold your horses’ man, it will take me ten minutes to wash up and get dressed. Go ahead if you like, I'll be along shortly."
Randy nodded and said, “OK... see 'ya at the bar."
After Randy left, using a body and hair shampoo, I washed my blond hair, now more silver than blond, then a body wash using a washcloth, and then I shaved. Feeling good, I thought, as I dressed in cotton khaki colored shorts and a tropical print shirt. Brown leather boat shoes had been standard footwear since coming aboard Lullaby for the cruise. Walking along the quay with cruising pleasure boats moored alongside, I was surprised to see several other US boats mixed in with the expected Canadian, French, British and a few other oddball countries. No matter, they were all here to sample the rum, cigars and young women... girls if they could get them. That was the tragedy of the Cuban Communist system. As long as the Russians had been subsidizing and spending billions of rubles, things had been palatable, but now with the American embargo fully entrenched for the past thirty-five years, the average Cuban had little money and not much to buy if he did. So, during the past five years, with tourism becoming a serious growth industry, and US currency, the money of choice, Cuba and the Cuban people, especially those in the greater Havana area had become the entrepreneurs of the old pre-Revolutionary times. Consequently, this was now a country where a world renowned surgeon or university professor was paid eight or ten dollars per month, but a fifteen year old whore, which there were none five years ago, can earn fifty dollars in one night. Teachers, professionals, and blue-collar workers... anyone who had any guts was finding ways to capitalize on the ever increasing tourist economy.
I rid my mind of those heavy thoughts and let my senses take in the sight, sounds and smell of the night as I approached the cabanas that made up the nightclub area of Marina Hemingway. And what a night it was.... The moon was a bright yellow crescent in the southwestern sky. Void of clouds, the night was alive with stars, constellations, and slivers of the Milky Way. Palm trees swayed and rustled in the pungent smell of a light sea breeze, and night blooming flowers caressed the evening with their scent.
As I walked along the quay, I had passed several pairs of young women... and considering their provocative dress, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that these attractive Cubana's were looking for a guy to show them a good time.... I hadn't had anything under the age of forty flash me an inviting smile in a long time, and although I wasn't in the market, it did pump up my ego, even though I knew that the flashing smiles were just business.
Papa's Nightclub was series of thatch covered pavilions with polished terra-cotta floors, several freestanding oval shaped bars, dozens of tables and chairs and a large open air dance floor which had a quality sound system. I could hear a disco style Afro-Cuban beat coming from the club... got the old blood pumping. There was the usual collection of potted tropical plants, with the exterior grounds landscaped with larger versions of palms, multi-colors plants, and flowers. Red, blue and green lights scattered throughout the foliage and hung from the trees enhanced the tropical effect. The music grew louder as I entered the nightclub which for the most part was covered by a roof, courtesy of Mother Nature.
"Hey, Scott... over here," called Randy from one of the nearest bars. Randy was entwined with a girl of about eighteen, with flaming red hair and a magnificent pair of tits. Randy had the look of a caveman who had just scored some big game. "Raul”, Randy waved at the barman. Typical, I mused; Randy would already know the name of the bartender. Raul, friendly looking asked what I would like to drink.
"Well, it’s been nearly forty years since I've had a Cuban beer, so, I'll have a beer," I responded. Then to Randy, "Who's your sweetie?"
Randy had his arm around the girl's waste, his hand lingering under the heavy lower lobe of her ample right breast; she didn't seem to mind... probably calculating how much she could con out of her new fish.
The barman set a green can of beer, named Crystal, in front of me. I took a tentative sip... not the best brew I had tasted, not even close, but it was cold and wet. Randy had switched to rum and coke, as was the girl, and was already wound up tight. I knew this from all the signs, but the fact that he was already telling the whore that he loved her, cinched it.
Looking around, I estimated there were twenty 'gringo' men over the age of forty, some in their sixties, scattered about the club. Most of them were in conversation, dancing or clutching the Cuban girls, probably younger than their own daughters back home. There were also a number of Cuban men...some were obviously waiters, and some were just as obviously hustlers and probably pimps, although I felt that most of the girls were freelancer's. With Randy now totally immersed in his true love, I thought he might strike up a conversation with an older man sitting a couple of stools down the bar from him. I leaned over and said, "Hello, been here long?"
The man was lean, but hard and healthy looking...he was wearing gray shorts, a pullover white cotton shirt, and he wore his graying hair tied back in a neat ponytail. My intuition suggested that the man was French.
"Yes," said the man with a noticeable accent, "I have been here almost a week, and you?"
"We just arrived this afternoon”, I pointed at Randy, who did not take notice.
The man said his name was Rene, and that he was French-Canadian. He was sailing solo on a Corbin 39, and that he had been out almost five years. He was fifty-eight and he said he had up to this time preferred to sail alone, but now he had to admit it would be nice to have some help. I said that with him and his partner, it was borderline as long as they didn't get into any real trouble or serious weather.
I noticed Renee's gaze shift past him to Randy and the girl. Looking over, I could see Randy deep tonguing the whore and she was stroking his cock through his pants.
"He's in heaven," I said, pointing with my thumb over my shoulder.
"Yes, there are many Chicas here to enjoy," replied Rene”, and you... there is no girl for you?" Rene indicated several attractive girls scattered around the bar.
"Oh yeah... there are definitely some fine looking ladies here and if I was single, I'm sure I would sample a sweet one or two, but, for me... well, I'm just on vacation. I've got a good lady back home, which is all I can handle."
The Frenchman shrugged in his Gaelic way and said, "You are a lucky man... I envy you."
"You got that right," I said, taking a sip of my beer. Thinking back, I looked at Rene. "I sailed solo for a while back in the late seventies and early eighties. It was OK for a while... I needed to get re-adjusted from twenty years in the Navy, but you're right, it finally got old and so did the one night stands and A to B cruising companions. No commitments, all superficial, no substance, and when the lust wore off, a lot of them were not even a good fuck. Well, pal, I'm starting to run on empty... It was good to meet you, but I'm going to call it a night, I need some sleep."
"And your friend? He will be OK?" asked Rene.
"He's a big boy, and running his own course”, I answered, looking over at Randy. "He won't even know I'm gone." The Frenchman and I shook hands, and then I walked back to the boat and my bunk.
I woke... two AM? I reached for my watch on the little shelf beside my bunk, pushing the light to illuminate the face... two-forty. I had to take a piss. I was sure I had heard Randy and the whore coming aboard a couple of hours back, but I had been in deep sleep. I was careful to be quiet as I hit the switch for the light in the head, which cast its light in the passageway and the forward berth momentarily. I could see Randy and the girl asleep, but what was this? The whore was naked except for one thing... she was lying there next to Randy, but incredulously; she was still wearing her white high heel shoes. What next... I thought as I slipped into the head and relieved my bladder.
Sometime later, very early in the morning hours, I woke again to hear Randy in the final negotiation with the whore, then she left, and I slept undisturbed for another couple of hours.
The pale, soft light of the morning sun found its way through the open hatch over my bunk. I opened my eyes, and then closed them again contemplating the new day. Even waking during the night, I was well rested. Swinging naked from my bunk, I grabbed a pair of shorts and went to the galley to get the coffee brewing. While the coffee cooked, I stepped up on deck and watched the marina come awake. Here and there Cuban men were already sweeping the walkways, raking the grounds, and collecting up yesterday’s trash. There were a few boaters milling about their crafts, puttering, like people sometimes do before tackling anything serious. I thought about the twenty-four volt alternator that had gone tit's up during the early morning hours approaching the Cuban coast. It needed to come out today, find a repair shop to have it checked out... hopefully it was just a diode or broken brush.
"Mornin'," I heard Randy mumble as he followed his nose to the perked coffee pot.
"Good morning, sunshine! I thought you would be down for another hour or so," I said, coming back down the ladder to claim a cup for myself.
"God... my body aches, I think I drank too much and fucked too much... my dick feels like it went through a pulverizer..." Randy looked a little rougher than he normally did after trashing himself half the night. "Hey... you're not going to believe this but, this bitch last night gets naked, then crawls up in my bed and fuck's my eyeball's out, but she never takes off her shoes."
"Uh, huh, right!" I said
"Hey, I swear to fuckin' god... do you think I would make something like that up?" Randy said indignantly.
I laughed, "No, I'm just bustin' your balls, I got up to take a leak, and I saw those shoes on the girl's feet... hey, maybe the damn shoes cost her a fortune and she didn't want to lose them."
Randy cocked his head looking up at me, "Hell, I didn’t want to lose anything either.... I frisked her when she was leaving and found my Walkman stuffed down her panties... the fuckin' cunt. 'Ya know something? Whore's are the same everywhere... all they do is try to steal from me!"
"Hey, man... you get what you ask for”; I said lifting my hands, and exposing my palms.
Randy fixed a smile at me and acquiesced, "Yeah... he sighed, 'you're right.”
After breakfast, we spent the day roaming around the marina. Except for the nightclub, I pretty much thought the place sucked. We found the electricity to be fairly reliable, with only sporadic outages, but if I had not been up early when the water had been turned on that morning for only a couple of hours, they would not have been able to partially fill Lullaby's tanks, because it had been turned off, not to return. The marina itself was made up of five parallel canals separated by perhaps three hundred feet of landfill between the canals. I surmised that when the marina was originally conceived and built, there would have been private homes facing the canals where the owners would moor their yachts... but then came the Revolution, and it never happened. During the past ten years, the marina had been revived and on the point east of the canals, a new hotel had been built... El Viejo Y La Mar (The Old Man and the Sea). Most recently, the Club Nautico, or Marina Hemingway Yacht Club was also built and a full service boat yard with a rail and lift, including yacht services, had been established. Probably the boat yard had been there all along, repairing local fishing craft or small government coastal craft, but with more and more cruising yachts and sailboats visiting Cuba, it was only natural that the boat yard would become a greater center of activity. I was certain that some degree of integrity had no doubt gone by the boards as the boat yard had prospered off the misfortune of cruising boaters. Greed is greed where-ever you find it.
Randy and I checked out the yard and found that they could look at the problem alternator. Our problem immediately became minuscule when we saw a cruising trimaran up on blocks missing her port outer hull. I felt the tri had seen the end of her sailing life. We told the Jefe we would bring the alternator by in the morning.
At the end of the marina near the hotel were several shops, all government run as were all commercial and private enterprises, which sounds a bit strange... but how can something be private if it's controlled by the government. Therein lies the root problem here... nobody can really own anything... a house, a business... but, people do seem to own some things, such as the obvious... clothes, household goods, cars, and maybe a horse, but they didn't seem to own land, livestock, or anything that could afford them a personal income. There was some hustling going on. I saw how the officials at the marina conned a few goodies out of them, and no doubt every other visiting boat, large or small. I also guessed that the bigger the boat, the bigger the score.
Omar had wanted to know if we needed a guy with a car to drive us to Havana for the day. He knew such a man and would make the arrangements, getting his cut, I was also sure. Well, why not? We wanted to see Old Havana and perhaps buy a souvenir. So, we had agreed to have the guy pick us up at our berth come tomorrow morning. There were a few guys trying to get jobs washing boats, or doing some sanding and varnishing, but they had already priced themselves out of work... and of course there were the ladies walking up and down the quays, smiling and offering up their wares for whatever could be agreed upon. The ladies of course increased their efforts as the evening hours approached.
We spent the rest of the day doing some ship's work, but mostly relaxing and resting, especially Randy, he was still bemoaning his previous nocturnal activities... namely drinking and fucking. Poor boy, I thought, but without much pity.
The day broke once again over Marina Hemingway. Hemingway...as in Ernest Hemingway, who was greatly revered in Cuba and by the Cuban people. Hemingway had lived in Cuba off and on during his life. He wrote, drank, played and made eternal friends of the people. Ironically, the people of Cuba will probably contribute historically to keeping alive the image and spirit of this man... more than any other country. Of course, Hemingway, also kept his boat Pilar in Havana, and cruised the coast and cays of Cuba long before anyone else thought to do so, and it was during those days that his character Sancho did battle with the great fish in his book, The Old Man And The Sea. Hemingway was one of those rare men, who just sort of went with the flow. He loved life, women, people, and conversation over good food and booze. I thought he was really no different from most men, except Hemingway had lived his life as he wanted, rather than how society dictated.
As had become normal aboard Lullaby, at least while in port, I woke and got the coffee started. The weather had been exceptionally fine... mostly cloudless days and nights with light breezes keeping any insects at a distance. I had a nice breakfast consisting of egg omelet, loaded with bacon, chopped onion, green pepper, and cheese. Served with the omelet was grapefruit, toast with a strawberry jam, and coffee. One thing I would quickly admit, the grub aboard Lullaby had been good and plentiful.
"We've got to do something about the damn dirty clothes." Randy grumbled.
"Well, the guide book says they got women at the laundry that will do it up, let’s get it all together and take it up this morning before the driver comes,” I suggested.
Randy cocked a distrustful eye, and said, "Do you think we should make a list?"
"Probably wouldn't hurt, and at least we would know how much laundry the women is doing, and we can judge the cost," I cautioned flatly.
We stuffed ten day's dirty clothes into two laundry bags and hauled it up to laundry room, which was located in the same building as the showers. The middle aged Cuban woman looked over the pile and said it would be seven bucks for washing, drying and folding. Randy and I looked at each other as if to say fuck it, then Randy said, "OK”, and we left. Such a deal I thought, considering the paradox, a guy works in a cane field all day for ten days, and earns about a buck, but a gal in a laundry in a so-so government run marina, charges seven bucks to wash some clothes.... I was also sure that the woman didn't see all that money for herself... who knows?
Randy I had suited up for our Havana adventure, shorts, lightweight short-sleeve shirts and boat shoes. I carried a small leather bag with my glasses, passport, extra medication, money, etc. I had found it much easier than trying to load up my pockets. Randy accused me of being his fag date... fuck him, I thought. The driver arrived right on time, introducing himself as Hector Perez Ramos, but said to call him Perez.... About thirty-five, typical Latin male, with dark coarse hair, short beard and a quick smile, Perez claimed to have been a teacher at the university. What university and where, I didn't bother to ask, as I had already noted that almost everyone claimed to have been at a university at some time or another. With the literacy rate what it was in Cuba, which seemed plausible. At any rate, Perez said he had only earned seven dollars per month as a teacher, and now was driving an illegal taxi and acting as a tour guide. I thought it prudent to ask what his fee was as an illegal taxi driver and tour guide would be. Perez wanted twenty-five US dollars. I offered fifteen... we settled on twenty for the whole day and Perez picked up the gas. I detected no animosity, and the deal was done. Perez also revealed that he had a partner in his enterprise, namely the father of his girlfriend, who accordingly was a well-known economist in a country whose economy was in shambles, and was also the owner of the taxi that wasn't a taxi but was operating illegally as a taxi.... I thought the whole thing was too convoluted to make any real sense, but as they say... when in Rome. Not unexpectedly, we were cautioned to take a low profile. An easy request for me, but an unknown factor if Randy got too close to a bottle of rum.
The taxi, was a Russian Lade, a box-like vehicle that had the appearance of something vaguely European from the sixties, but turned out to be only ten years old. And, although it only had the power of a modified riding lawn mower, it started without mishap and chugged off confidently. Perez had equipped it with a makeshift stereo that crackled out some redundant Latin melody. He could have not been more proud if he was chauffeuring a Lincoln stretch limo. After a couple of stops around the marina; we went to the marina office, which housed the Port Captain, Cuban Coast Guard, and the robbers that collected the money to enjoy the facilities. By this time, I had come to the conclusion that each hand washed the other. Then a last stop at the boat yard to drop off the alternator, and Perez pointed the little Russian beast to the gate separating Marina Hemingway and its privileged occupants from the rest of the Cuban people.
There were problems in the marina, but as soon as Perez passed the boundary at the gate of the marina and entered the little town of Jimenez on the outskirts of Havana, I realized the extent of the failure of Castro's Cuba. It seemed that everything was old, of ill repair, broken, falling down, abandoned, unattended, and just plain pathetic... especially considering what greater Havana and its suburbs were prior to the revolution. As we traveled down what once must have been a broad, grand boulevard with a lovely tree lined alee, green and colorful with grass, flowers, and benches that people could sit and watch the world go by, we neared Havana, where we could see the remains of once incredibly grand, stately homes, and estates. Monuments to men and women that had in another system and time gathered great wealth and power. Now these once beautiful buildings were only shadows of their former elegance. I reckoned them to other former monuments of man's genius and labors... such as the pyramids of Egypt that have been ravaged and desecrated over the centuries. And even closer to Havana, some of the homes that lined the boulevard had become embassies to other countries of the world, or home offices of foreign companies doing business with Castro's government. I thought of the people and families that had once owned these grand homes and estates... I could see them fleeing with sacks and bags, or the clothes on their backs. I could imagine men and women of the revolution breaking down the doors and defiling the private sanctuaries, taking things for themselves or for the revolution. But none of this prepared me for the sight of Havana itself.
Havana.... The name itself can stir the imagination. An ancient city built by Spanish conquerors... a crown jewel in an empire. It renders up images of exotic beaches, seaside estates, seaside promenades, palm lined boulevards, grand hotels, and resorts. There had been the night life, fabulous showgirls, casinos, wealth, intrigue, and the mob. The playground of La Costra Nostra, European Counts and Countesses, Hollywood Stars and moguls, old money families, and the nouveau rich. It was glorious, becoming, decadent, hedonistic, and beguiling. It was ruled by everyone but the people. There was a cruel man, a dictator who presided over the party, but did what he was told by those who had the gold and the power.... It's called the Golden Rule... he who has the gold, makes the rules. The people were poor, downtrodden, without hope. Then there came a new man... a man who promised the people that they were important, and that they had a right to share in Cuba's wealth, and her future. He extolled that with the people's help and support, he would rid Cuba of the scum, the leaches, and the puppet dictator of the United States. He promised them a revolution.
The broad streets were still there, but Havana was now a city of decayed, crumbling and abandoned buildings.... There were storied apartment houses and government hotels that stood unfinished with silent construction cranes standing like eternal sentinels alongside these edifices that had begun their life fifteen to twenty years ago. They now were homes to only the winds, debris, and insects that collected in the cracks and crevices. Mile after mile of colonnaded, and arched waterfront colonial Spanish buildings, and warehouses, the center of commerce of a worldwide enterprise... all broken, cracked, chipped, with whole facades sloughed away. Buildings that had not been cleaned painted or repaired for decades...occupied by the dregs and outcasts of a society that could hardly provide the most basic needs. An entire city without reliable electric and water services... and whole districts with none. A city with an overwhelming sense of failure and abandonment, by a government that had failed and abandoned itself, its purpose and its people.
In Old Havana, they found a section that was restored or more likely somewhat maintained over the past four decades. There was a couple of tiny government run souvenir stores, where I bought a T-shirt with the Cuban flag stylized on the front and the word Si!, meaning YES. I also picked up some post cards with scenes of Havana from the early part of the century. We also found a shop that sold nautical charts, where Randy bought some charts of the Cuban coastline. It was nearing lunch time, and we told Perez we wanted to eat somewhere off the tourist route. Perez asked if we wanted some home cooking.
"Sure," we responded.
It turned out that Perez had a pretty good little business going. He was driving a taxi and trying his hand at being a tour guide, and I would soon find out that the whole family was part of the team. Perez would take customers to his own home where his mother and sister prepared a nice meal of pork, rice, fried plantains, and a shredded cabbage and sliced tomato salad. Perez also mixed rum daiquiris for Randy, while I had a cold beer. Perez would discretely add the lunch to the bill for his services, of course. He told me that the only way the family could get any decent food for themselves and for the meals they prepared for tourists was with the dollars they earned. They then bought what they needed on the black-market... depending on availability of the goods. They spent a couple of hours with Perez's family, politely discussing the plight of Cuba and her relationship with the US. It was painfully obvious that without the family working together, their lives would be totally bleak, absent of any kind of amenities. Perez told me that what they were doing, together as a family was illegal in the eyes of the government and at worst, they could lose everything and be sent to prison or a work farm for many years. So, even though, the family tried to act relaxed and joyful, I knew they were always in fear of discovery and punishment. I also knew that many Cubans were taking chances with private business and illegal activities in order to survive in a country that was, in many aspects, a prison. A country where no one, except those of a most inner circle, knew where their leader, their President even lived. Perez said, "He is always hiding, traveling from one place to another... afraid of the assassin, the American CIA, and imagined enemies”.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and I was tired and somewhat depressed by what I had seen of Havana, although I would never regret the experience. Randy, having drunk four rums, was already wound up and had he been left to his own devices, would have gone out and found some dump to get fucked up in, and pissed off some local cop. I was able to overrule the suggestion, with the support of Perez, who of course had to drive back to the marina, and then return the borrowed car. There was always that element of risk when going ashore or out on the town with Randy. When Randy was sober, he was caring, giving, and a loyal friend, but when he began to drink, and especially the hard stuff... well, the only analogy was the story of Doctor Jeckel and Mr. Hyde. I sometimes wondered why I put up with a man who had no self-control, and became loud, obnoxious, overbearing and childish. I knew that Randy had been an off and on drug addict, and of course a serious alcoholic who succumbed to his self-destructive behavior whenever he had a chance to try to impress new people with his outrageous past, and by embellishing his lifestyle. The more bizarre and shocking he could present himself, the more he inflated his own ego... an ego crying out for recognition and love. Pathetically, the very things he would never attain or achieve. The only exception was he did manage to achieve a reputation as a raving, unstable and belligerent drunk. Naturally, I could usually anticipate the signs and avoided the situation, and any confrontation. And now I had the feeling that the night was shaping up for Randy to make an ass of himself... I had also determined not to be part of it. The problem I faced was that it was Randy's boat and when Randy got drunk, his brain was on maximum overdrive, with only one consideration... total oblivion in his quest for whatever self-satisfaction he was so desperately seeking.
Not surprisingly, Randy immediately hit the Coronas as soon as they returned to the boat. I knew it would be pointless to try to stop him...he was already on a roll. Fortunately, Randy thought I was no fun and roared off to the marina bar to wow any new meat... some poor unsuspecting schmuck, I chuckled to myself. Feeling a little blown out from a long day, I decided it was a perfect opportunity to catch a nap. It was times like this I thought about catching a plane and just getting the fuck away from Randy's selfish bullshit. But, I realized that his friend had a disease, possibly terminal one day if he didn't get it under control or quit completely.... So like a marriage, I endured the bad to enjoy the good.
The sounds of 'Duran, Duran'.... Loud! Reverberating through the boat.... Randy, drunk... singing, out of tune, voices of women, talking excitedly in Spanish. Thumps, bumps and the general commotion of people in a party mode. I reached for my watch on the little shelf beside my bunk. eleven-thirty... oh well, at least I had gotten a little sleep... might as well get up and join them, as if I really had a choice, I thought, mentally shaking my head.
"Hey, old man," shouted Randy as I entered the main salon. 'Did you get your beauty rest?" he chided, mockingly.
I saw no reason to answer.... Randy wouldn't have heard me anyway. He was too full of himself... showing off the three whores he had picked up at the bar.... Who had picked up whom? I asked myself rhetorically.
Catching Randy's eye, I called out sarcastically, "Which one are you going to take home to mama?"
Randy was too busy pouring rum into coke filled glasses and trying to make out with one of the girls to respond.
The other two were busy making themselves comfortable, looking over the boat... I got the feeling they were taking inventory. I also figured they were all friends who normally partied together with a man for each girl... but tonight the pickings were slim and something was better than nothing. I wasn't going to be rude, but I also had no interest in this late night bullshit, or trying to impress some hooker with my kindergarten Spanish. Randy, in high spirits, thinking that these women thought he was a sexual giant, and were only here because they had fallen in love with him, and had to have his body, babbled on, oblivious to the truth... although, I often thought that in reality, Randy knew the truth only too well. The 'party' continued on for a while longer, but with Randy concentrating on only the one girl now, and I remaining generally non-an exchange of rapid, staccato Spanish with their friend, they suddenly picked their asses up and left. I was elated and while Randy was distracted with his new true love...he was already telling the whore, "I love you." I managed to reduce the earsplitting level of the stereo.
The two would-be lovers were each dancing to their own tune, giving me the opportunity to escape to my bed. I knew I would get whatever sordid details that transpired during the rest of the night, retold to me in the morning. Thank God for small favors! Sometime after midnight the Lullaby was silent.
Once again, the cool morning spread over the marina. I had slept late, seven-thirty. Rising, I felt thoroughly rested, thinking that we needed to put into motion whatever was required to start the coastal cruise westward. The main document was a Zarpe, or Cruising Permit. Shortly, the coffee began perking, filling the cabin with the aroma of a Colombian, amaretto blend. I could hear Randy stirring in his bed. It always amazed me how resilient, and forgiving Randy's body was... but then, Randy was pretty much approaching the time in his life where his biological clock was starting to reverse itself, and no amount of re-winding the spring could make it run as efficiently as only a few years past.
Randy, scratching himself, made his grand entrance.... "That fuckin' bitch wouldn't fuck me last night”, he said disgustingly, she ate my food, drank my booze, strung me along and then when I wouldn't give her any money, she beat feet. Fuckin' whores is all the same.... Take! Take! Take!" Randy was a little wild eyed... "You know something? I've been robbed, and fucked over by whores all my life."
At this point I thought only a reply of great wisdom could have any effect... so, with a shitty little grin on my face, I said as solemnly as I could muster, "So what else is new?"
While Randy attended to acquiring a new alternator, which he was fortunate enough to find, although at a terribly inflated price, at the yacht services, the old one according to the boat yard was shot, I made the final arrangements to leave the next day. I settled up the bill at the marina office, notified all those concerned of our departure, and was told that our Cruising Permits would be hand delivered that afternoon. At that time Lullaby would be inspected as to the safety requirements of the Cuban government. Later, when Randy tearfully lamented the cost of the new alternator, I, being essentially distrustful of my fellow man, would wonder if the old one was truly un-repairable. I knew that the boat yard and the yacht services people were in bed together. Of course, later that afternoon, with the new alternator in place, the Cruising Permit issued, and Lullaby squared away, and ready for sea, all was as ready as was possible, Randy got that look in his eye, and that sly grin on his face.... I knew I could expect a repeat of the night before. Actually, I considered, it could be worse, as this was the last night in a port of any consequence. I was beginning to lose my patience, as I always did when my exposure to Randy's antics lasted too long. I was glad we were leaving and wished that there wasn't any booze on board... but alas, Randy had made sure the boat was well stocked.
Once again, after a decent evening meal, a couple of glasses of wine, Randy had several more, in addition to the glut of afternoon beers, I decided to stay aboard, read, and be well rested to get underway in the morning. Randy, of course, dressed in his best finery, left for la-la land, where he was certain, as always, that he would find his true love.
Shit.... It must be party time again, I thought, as I woke, this time to the group INXS, blaring out Suicide Blonde. I could hear people speaking English as well as the voices of young women speaking in Spanish. Oh, boy.... Randy's got a crowd and is really holding court tonight.... Fuck it. I hoped I might sleep through this one. The last thing I wanted to do was try to be social with a bunch of drunken moocher's, and a couple of Cuban whores. After a couple of hours, while I drifted in and out of sleep, I woke to realize that it was strangely quiet... muted was more like it... the music was playing softly, and I could still hear voices. But... that was it; I was not hearing Randy's voice trying to override everyone else, as he normally did. I thought it was a good bet Randy was passed out and decided to put an end to the party. Throwing on some shorts and a T-shirt, I stepped from my tiny stateroom, and entered the salon.
There was four American's, two men and two women, and three Cuban's, two women and one man lying about the main salon, drinks in hand, helping themselves to chips, crackers and cheeses from the ships stores... no doubt with Randy's blessing, I figured. They were all intoxicated at various levels. There were half full and empty glasses scattered about, soiled plates from food Randy had served up, trying to impress his new found friends. I was sure that the last couple of hours had been a revolving door policy aboard Lullaby. A couple of the people stared at me like I was an invader. As I picked up some of the debris, a Cuban man in his early thirties shoved an empty drink glass at me and said in Spanish which I understood, "Fix me another drink!" Not please, por favor, just a statement, a demand.
I fixed the greaser in the eye, a hard look, and said in a tight voice, "Who the fuck are you?" It was obvious that the guy wasn't expecting that for an answer and by the glances from the rest of the people, that I had not bothered to introduce myself to, they were a bit surprised as well.
Had it all your way, huh? I thought to myself... "Where the fuck is Randy," I demanded to no one in particular. Unexpectedly, the Cuban pointed toward the bow of the boat, sort of shrugging his shoulders and looked apologetic. One of the American guys said, "We didn't want to leave the place unattended, if you know what I mean”, he glanced at the Cubans.
"No, I don't know what you mean... you saying these fuckers will rob the place?" I was sure the Cubans had acquired enough understanding of English to catch my meaning.
The other American stood like a tough guy and growled, "I take it you want us to leave, well..." I cut him off, "Party's over people!" then I started forward to find Randy.
I noticed the light switch for the light in the starboard head was illuminated, telling me the head light was on. I pulled the door to the head open, and a startled fully clothed young woman who was bent over Randy said something like, "Oh" I took in the scene... Randy sat head down, passed out on the shitter... his shorts, and under-wear pushed down around his ankles. I had no idea what the girl had been doing, saw no reason for her to be giving Randy a blow-job, unless he had passed out in the process, but then the chances of him even achieving an erection were slim.
"Out! Vamos!" I commanded, sending the girl scurrying back to the main salon. I took another long look at Randy, and then closed the door.
Returning to the salon, I saw two things at once. First, I saw the last of the American's passing through the companionway, and second I saw one of the whore's starting to drop Randy's cellular phone into her purse, I also noted that the Cuban pimp was hovering over Randy's video camera. Without a word, I grabbed the phone out of the startled whore's hand, and then said firmly and loudly, "Get the fuck off this boat... NOW!" They all scrambled to get to the companionway and with me right behind them, literally pushing them off the boat onto the dock. Where were the cops when you needed them? I thought. I spent thirty minutes cleaning up the joint, turned out the lights and went back to bed... I knew that Randy would eventually come around and find his way to his own. Good night Havana, I said to myself, and then went to sleep.
The winds had gone north-northwesterly ahead of a stalled cold front farther north in the Gulf of Mexico. Lullaby was dressed out in her Sunday best... full main, mizzen, and the big headsail. She was pinched into the wind on a west-southwest course trying to chew up forty-odd miles to an anchorage called Bahia Honda. The wind waves were choppy even though the swells were long and moving fast from the Northeast. We had Lullaby sailing at steady six-plus knots with a counter-current running close in behind the reef, so we were really knocking off almost eight miles per hour over the bottom. It was late afternoon when we visually picked up the sea buoy at Bahia Honda. The bay is of no use to a cruising sailboat except as a layover anchorage to points farther west. At this point in the day, Randy was bleeding copious amounts of last night rum from both eyeballs, and was eager to get the anchor down. He was swearing that he would never drink again, and making pacts with god and the devil, just to let him get a good night's sleep. I had, of course, heard it all before.
Before the sun set in a dazzling array of pink, red and purple hues, the anchor was down and set, a young man in army fatigues, from a tiny Guardia Frontier, who spoke not a word of English, sculled out in a leaky little boat, dutifully checked the Lullaby's sailing papers, and left. It was lights out early that night.
The morning was leisurely The habitual pot of coffee blend, and this morning Randy was clanging and banging in the galley mixing up some flapjacks, and frying a bunch of bacon. He got his ration of sleep and owed his soul to somebody...
The winds were still moderate from the North, but it had gotten a little cloudier, middle level stuff moving in. The plan was a short fifteen miles run to tuck in behind a couple a small cays where we hoped to spear some fish for dinner, but I was a bit dubious with Lullaby's eight foot draft. The cay we hoped to get behind was called Cayo Paraiso. Ernest Hemingway actually hung-out there on Pilar during the Second World War.... Many historians believe he wrote the bulk of the Old Man and the Sea while there.
Bahia Honda had provided good protection from wind and seas, but once clear of the channel, the waters close in got choppy again, and the winds increased as the day progressed. Without markers, it soon became obvious that we would not be able to negotiate the shallow waters leading into Hemingway's hideaway. So, we tightened up the sails and made for an anchorage off Cayo Lavista, where we hoped to get close enough to take the dingy ashore. The guide book indicated a small Spanish-run hotel and dive club on the cay. But this also was not to be. Even though the passage through the reef was well marked, once inside it was necessary to navigate by sight, that is, mainly color of the water with the aid of a depth sounder. But, the winds had continued to increase and the sky was now completely overcast making sight navigation impossible. Randy I had no choice except to sound our way off the main channel of about twenty foot depth to an area ten feet deep and drop the anchor. The anchorage was in reality an open roadstead, and slightly uncomfortable, but at least safe. The choppy waters created by winds now blowing a steady fifteen knots would prevent any dingy rides to the cay which was still a mile and a half away. There would be no dinner and dancing tonight.
The winds blew from the North for the next two days, but after spending a day with Lullaby sailing on her anchor, we two sailors decided that we might as well be in the real thing and put to sea. The plan was to make the one hundred and forty mile run to Cabo San Antonio, tucking up into Bahia de Corrientes, and anchor at Maria la Gorda. Once we had taken up a westerly course, with a double reef in the main sail, and the Genoa half furled, Lullaby was banging along at over six knots. The self-steering-gear had a good course even with the sailboat riding up rogue twelve footers, and then sliding down the troughs, and shuddering up to seven and a half knots. Although Randy and I were not overly concerned, we were vigilant and kept a watchful eye on rigging and sails. Suddenly, a voice on the VHF channel l6, which Randy monitored, was heard over the sound of the wind and sea waves.
"Calling any boat vicinity my transmission... this is the sailing vessel Valiant... over."
Randy dropped down the companionway and grabbed the mike for the VHF. "Valiant, Valiant, this is the sailboat Lullaby, I copy, over."
"Roger that," crackled the VHF, 'switching to channel 72, over." Randy switched over to the new channel and reestablished contact with the sailboat Valiant. It turns out the guy was a shallow draft boat, sailing east on the inside of the coastal cays. Randy was not able to provide him with the information he hoped to attain, but possibly out of concern for the weather conditions, Randy asked the guy if he knew anything about a small port called Santa Lucia. Coincidentally, Valiant had just left the port and said it was tight, but a deep, well-marked channel into a mangrove estuary. He also said there was a small bay accommodating a utilitarian concrete loading dock for small shallow draft coastal freight boats hauling sulfuric acid and copper ore, which was mined locally. He said there was room on the south side of the dock where we could dock and take on fuel and water, if we needed too. After a little more friendly banter, Randy signed off and returned the VHF to channel 16. Randy and I looked at one another and silently confirmed we would put into Santa Lucia for a respite from the weather, and hopefully a walk around the local village... of course a cold beer or two would be OK as well.
The last hour prior to picking up the sea buoy had become a slugfest.... Lullaby had a gross tonnage of twenty-seven tons, and was bow down taking some breaking seas. I was glad to get off the wind, taking the channel through the reef head on. The seas and winds continued to drop until entering the mangrove estuary, where it became nearly calm. Nobody could say it wasn't a welcome sight. The mouth of the estuary was narrow and shoaled up to about twelve feet, then widened out as we entered the inner lagoon with its green limpid brackish water.
As we approached the old dock, I thought it was entirely possible that Lullaby was one of the largest yachts to put into the small port, because the keel touched bottom a half boat length from the south-side of the dock where several officials were waving them to moor alongside. At the opposite end of the dock was a Cuban tug boat with a half dozen mooring fenders along her hull. Randy suggested we moor alongside the tug and after some hollering and much sign language, the officials finally agreed this was a fine idea. Coming alongside the tug was a piece of cake, and Lullaby was quickly secured. The clearance procedure was also simple and over with quickly as all the paperwork was in order. The officials were rural people who had not yet been corrupted as those in Havana had become over the past few years. Randy and I were told we were welcome in the small town. Aside from the tug, there was a small Guardia Frontier craft which could be manned by a couple of guys with small arms... I didn't think it got much use. Tucked up a canal was a half dozen fishing boats about fifteen to twenty feet in length. Four or five guys were working on nets strung over bamboo poles. The remains of a warehouse that never got past the foundation stage sat abandoned on the point of land behind the small concrete pier. To the rear of the abandoned foundation was a small cinder-block building painted dark green with a patched terra-cotta tile roof. This was the office of the Guardia Frontier. Inside was an ancient table, several equally ancient chairs and through a curtained doorway were an old metal cot and an upright gymnasium style locker. In front of the building stood a flagpole made from a slender tree of some sort which was surrounded by stones painted white. A very old tattered Cuban flag hung limply in the stagnant air. It was necessary for Randy and me to request permission from the official to leave the port area to visit the nearby town.
The town itself was just outside the port facility, and was only a couple of blocks long with only one back street on either side of the road that passed through. The road was rutted and large and small potholes were numerous. Most of the blacktop had washed away over the years. The sidewalks and curbing were cracked, broken, with large areas and pieces missing all together. We found ourselves looking down a lot to avoid stepping in standing muddy-brown water. Aside from the cloying aroma of the port area, which I identified as chemicals, oil and diesel spills, and the reeking odor of rotten fish and decaying vegetation of the more stagnant areas of the estuary, I suspected that the water running along the side of the street was most likely contaminated with sewage as the smell of waste now assaulted my nose. Most of the older buildings that were constructed of cement or brick dated back to the thirties. There was one small two story structure which was gutted that had a chipped and partly missing bas-relief sign advertising the Hotel Santa Lucia, circa nineteen thirty-one, the rest were more recent, built of wood with galvanized tin roofs, products of the fifties through the early seventies when the revolution was in full swing and the Russians were picking up a lot of the tab. Now, nearly all the building and small houses were badly deteriorated, abandoned, or piles of rubble from scavengers trying to fix what was left. The people were generally solemn, listless, and dirt poor.
I asked several people if there was any cold beer in the village. Apparently, my Spanish was not good enough... but, I thought 'donde esta cerveza fria' would have cut it anywhere. Then as if by magic, a young man stepped up and said, "May I help you?"
He was a tall young man, with curly sandy-brown hair; dressed in shorts, T-shirt and sandals... he would have fit on any beach in the states.
"Yeah," said Randy, "where can we get a cold beer?"
The Cuban pointing, said, "There's a small store... not far, please, come with me."
We walked less than a block to one of the new dollar stores that have sprung up around Cuba... meaning that they only take US dollars which ironically, Americans who technically are not supposed to visit Cuba and are not supposed to spend dollars, do. And of course no one is supposed to spend dollars, but everyone does, including tourist from the rest of the world, who change their money to US dollars.
"My name is Jose," the young man volunteered "Are you Americans?"
I tried my Spanish again, saying Randy was from Florida and that I lived in Puerto Rico. Jose responded by asking me to please speak in English as there were very few people he could practice his English with.
"No problem," I said, then I asked, "where did you learn English, it's very good.” Jose smiled gratefully... "My family has a radio and we can receive broadcasts from American. I listen and study, but it is not so good."
"No, you speak very well. I wish my Spanish was as good."
As we approached the tiny wood building that was the dollar store, we could see a dozen or so people lined up outside the store's single door. Jose directed us to the front of the group of people like we were visiting dignitaries. I felt a little bad, but we went ahead of the group and a guy at the door opened it allowing us entrance, including Jose of course. We were his ticket.
The pickings were pretty slim, but there were some clothing, shoes... which I thought were probably Chinese. There was also soap, personal hygiene products, boxes of crackers, cans of ham, sausages, beef, and a few packaged dairy goods. There were a few cheap tools, screwdrivers, pliers, and wrenches, again probably cheap Asian knockoffs. All and all, it was pretty grim. At one end of the counter a woman sat before a state-of-the-art digital cash register, which seemed impossible in this archaic little nowhere town, and at the opposite end were three rickety stools and behind the counter was a very old GE apartment size-refrigerator. Ah ha, the cerveza, I thought. There was a couple of the privileged few hanging out drinking canned beers... these guys moved back, making room for me and Randy to belly up to the counter. A guy who seemed available to help any of the customers who might be confused in selecting a product from the nearly empty shelves rushed up to set beers out for us...he eyed Jose and Randy nodded his approval to serve him up a beer too.
It turned out that Jose made a living diving for fish and lobster. He told us that he could free dive to seventy feet... the deepest I had ever dove was thirty-five feet, and that had been over twelve years back. I figured twenty was probably my limit now. "Christ," I said”, seventy feet holding your breath... that's deep!"
Jose smiled, and said softly, "It is necessary."
"Do you have some lobster now?" asked Randy.
"Yes, in my house."
"All right," said Randy grinning at me”, we eat lobster tonight..." then to Jose, "how much for a lobster?" Randy rubbed his finger and thumb together....
Jose hesitated for a moment, looking slightly embarrassed, and then said, "Whatever you like to give me”.
"Don't worry, we'll take care of you... come on we'll get a couple of beers to go.”
Jose's house was a crumbling little cement cube of about four hundred square feet with tiny rooms and a wood burning cook stove set on a cracked concrete slab under a lean-to attached to the rear of the house. There was running water to a standard hose bib faucet clamped to the side of the house with a very old chipped and worn porcelain sink set in a piece of plywood salvaged from god knows where. There were wooden open shelves and one archaic upright cabinet. This was the family kitchen.
Just inside the back door to the house sat a small refrigerator which bore many coats of paint applied during its long life. I thought it sat like a shrine, and occupied a place of honor. The electricity had been snaked in from outside to power the reefer and several bare electric light bulbs hanging from a ceiling that was falling down in small slabs exposing rusted steel construction rods. I didn't think the house had seen any paint in fifteen to twenty years. Glancing out the back, I could see the privy standing off under an old tired-looking tree. I was sure the tree was probably dying. There was a refuse pile to the rear of the ragged yard, and off to one side was a small patch of cultivated ground that had been planted with some scraggly looking tomato plants and what looked like onion sets. The tomato plants looked weak and pale... I didn't think they would bear. I took the scene in at a glance, because now I returned my attention to the inside. We had entered the house through a narrow front door into the living area, which consisted of a wood frame two seat sofa, two brown rattan rockers, a coffee table and an antiquated black and white television set placed in a corner on a wooden box that had been draped with an old towel. Jose had directed us to the other side of the room where a small chrome and Formica kitchen table sat with four chairs that I thought were for children... the chrome was pitted and flaked off and the Formica worn colorless. Jose shared the house which he said was owned by the government, with his mother, father, and sister. Although there was at least one other small room, possible two, I didn't inquire as to the sleeping arrangements.
We all talked for a while about the plight of the Cuban people....
"Jose... if there are no eggs, and not much of other products, I mean produce and such... why don't you raise chickens, pigs, goats and anything else you can to make life better?" I asked.
Jose thought about the questions for a moment, and then with a serious and resigned look on his face, he replied. "The government does not encourage a person to engage in private business, or anything that is considered a selfish, self-serving act. Everyone must work for the common good... contributing his efforts and labors to the central government who then distributes the products to the people fairly. This is to of course prevent capitalist greed and a monopoly... at least this is what we have been taught." There was definitely a smirk on Jose's normally passive face. "It is a dangerous thing to commit acts against the government, and there are those people whose duty it is to report any infractions of the law to the authorities.
"What about selling lobsters and fish?" Asked Randy.
"It is also dangerous, and I must take care how I conduct my business," said Jose confidentially.
"So, let's see the lobsters,” said Randy.
Jose grinned and walked over to the refrigerator. He removed two frozen lobster tails that I estimated at nearly two pounds each, and set them on the table.
"Beautiful”, I exclaimed. "We have some soap, clothes...."
"Hey," interrupted Randy, pulling out a five dollar bill from his pocket, "this is what he needs," he said as he dropped he five spot on the table.
"It is too much," said Jose.
"Not for us," responded Randy.
Pocketing the five bucks, Jose walked back to the refrigerator, and took out another tail. He placed it with the other two. "Now it is OK," he said affirmatively.
"All right," said Randy as he pulled out the last cans of beer from a brown paper sack.
It was midnight.... I had the watch and the wind vane had the helm. The moon was a huge yellow pie high overhead... its intense light licked the surface of the sea like the flames of a fire. Stars filled the lower orb of the dome of black velvet sky. I had just picked up the light on Cabo San Antonio. The timing had been right on the money courtesy of the GPS... I had fallen in love with the little navigation instrument. Early that morning they took on a full load of water and thirty gallons of diesel fuel. Randy and I gave the port officials several bars of soap and he allowed Jose to come to the boat where Randy gave him a diving mask, snorkel and an old weight belt with twelve pounds of lead. Jose was ecstatic.
We took in the mooring lines, and with the port officials, the guys off the tug boat and several dock workers waving farewell, headed out the channel back through the reef. The course was west by southwest to the southwestern tip of the island. The winds were favorable and Lullaby quickly reached hull speed. It had been a good sail during the day and the winds were still favorable for rounding the cape for the leg into Maria la Gorda. Still, I thought it would be at least mid-day before we could hope to get the anchor down.
Maria la Gorda or Fat Mary was a government owned and run dive center. There were perhaps twenty tiny duplexes sharing bathrooms, a general dining room, and a clubhouse and bar. An old converted work boat of about fifty feet served as the dive boat. The beaches were sugar white sand, clean and palm trees grew with abandon. Unfortunately, it was a little seedy, run-down, and generally lackluster. In other words, as with most Cuban government enterprises, there was no money returned to the would-be resort. It was understaffed, and sorely needed a kick-in-the-ass. But, aside from the obvious, it was a lovely spot, the waters clear and magnificent corals were everywhere, and best of all, a hundred foot wall dropped off less than a mile from the shore line. Divers although limited in number came from around the world and endured the utilitarian facilities to dive these pristine sapphire-blue waters.
Lullaby now swung on her anchor in twenty-five feet of water over a coral and rock bottom with patches of sand which Randy had deftly dropped the fifty pound anchor into. Looking down from Lullaby's deck was like looking through a picture window. The coral was alive with colorful reef fish and I could see conchs taking their unhurried strolls across the sandy patches. The local Immigration official and the club manager, who spoke some English came out to check their sailing papers and then departed without much fanfare. Randy and I were gritty from the thirty hour passage... the water looked good. With snorkel gear and swim fins, we dove into the tepid water and the coral world was at their fingertips. Within five minutes we had dinner, two queen conchs and a three pound grouper... it took longer to clean them.
As the sun set amongst a city of towering clouds, which turned kaleidoscopic as the orange ball settled down behind them, the palms and cabanas on the shore turned into a purple painting with lights twinkling on, casting streaks of silver across the sand and emitting inviting glows from the windows of the Bar Maria la Gorda. The night has a way of transforming all things that the daylight can render mean and cruel into a world of enchantment. The gaudiest strip of rundown bars, shabby hotels, and juke joints can seem like a miniature Las Vegas Strip. A vintage car with chipped and worn paint parked under a neon sign can look brand new, and a tired and jaded hooker in the mellow light of a friendly bar can cause you to look twice. There were six other sailboats flying flags from America, Canada, France and South Africa at the anchorage off the dock of the dive club. We had eaten our dinner of fish and conch, breaded and fried in olive oil, with seasoned rice and yellow corn in Lullaby's cockpit, we had watched as several dinghies with their occupants went ashore for no doubt some camaraderie and libation. Now as the soft night air cooled the anchorage, we felt the itch in our shoes and thought we would venture ashore to sample what there was to offer. But for Randy the demons that had their claws sunk securely in his psyche were on the loose and he was programmed to try to drive them back in their cages by causing his mind to go dark with booze... I had known it was coming, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. Actually, it had already started as Randy had drunk several glasses of wine with the meal, and was boasting about finding a piece of ass tonight. I had heard that before too, and knew that once Randy sucked up a couple of beers and then knocked back a rum or two, that would be it for any of his sexual fantasies. But then sometimes my friend would fight the demons off without the help of the drink... maybe this was one of those nights... maybe.
A half-moon was one quarter of its way on its journey across the black velvet sky filled with sparkling diamond chips. We tied the dinghy to the pier and walked along the pristine beach bathed in shadows as the palms glistened and rustled in the moonlight and breeze. There were voices and laughter mixed with Spanish music coming from the bar and clubhouse. There were a dozen or more people, some off the boats and some there for the diving. Randy and I were quickly introduced around and struck up conversations. I found myself talking to the South African, a white man named Mason. He was sailing solo aboard a thirty foot sloop which he said was under-powered and had been out for over three years.
"I can only guess you went straight up to Brazil," I stated.
"Yeah, that was the start of it.... I stayed in Rio Grande in the south for about a month undergoing repairs from crossing the South Atlantic; Christ was I glad to see that place."
Mason had a rough, flat speech delivery, but he had a sly smile and friendly eyes. He was a tall rangy fellow, hard looking, with large callused hands. I was certain the man had known years of difficult manual labor. "I've looked closely at the coast line of Brazil... it must have taken quite a while to reach the northern border of French Guiana... but it must have been a hell of an experience... did you stop at many ports along the way?" I asked.
Mason smiled at me, "Yeah, you could say I stopped at a few ports,” then he laughed and said, ‘hell, it took me almost a year to leave Brazil behind me."
I thought about that and said, "I used to take my time when I lived aboard my sailboat years ago... I was really never in a hurry, and if I liked a place, I might end up staying for several months. Those were good old days, and in some ways I miss them, and in other ways, I don't, but then I was more your age and wasn't thinking too far into the future. This sail I'm on now has been interesting and enjoyable, but I think it will be good to get back to Puerto Rico..."
I met a woman in her late thirties who was sailing with her twelve year old daughter aboard a twenty-eight foot sloop, and two guys from Ohio and a girl from Holland aboard a thirty-two footer. There was also an Italian guy soloing on a little twenty-seven foot cutter rig sailboat. Randy got a pretty good bag on but since we were both so tired from the passage from Santa Lucia, and with Randy, conceding he wasn't going to get laid, we called it an early night.
The next morning I looked north-northwest to see the horizon thick with dark clouds. Blue-gray stratified middle level clouds already extended over the southern peninsula of Cuba, and the wind had died off during the night to a dead calm.
"Front's coming”, I said pouring coffee for myself and Randy who had finally relinquished the head. "Somebody said the dive club has a single-side-band radio... maybe we can get a weather report today."
"Yeah," Randy grunted, sipping the strong brew.... "Can't stay here if the front passes and the winds go north," he said thoughtfully, "the chart shows a little village across the bay on the northeast shore... at least we would be under the lee of the winds."
"Well, I'm sure everyone in the anchorage has the same idea, I ventured, “I guess we will at least need to let the coastal guys know what we intend to do, but shit, they will no doubt move the dive boat and the slow leak little gun boat too. So... if you want my opinion, we should move sometime this afternoon."
"First thing I want to do is try to get some diving in before it turns to shit”, said Randy matter-of-factly.
"Sounds good to me," I agreed.
A sudden gust shook the mast and rigging bringing me totally awake. It was just in time to reach up and close off the hatch over my stateroom as the first raindrops began to fall, and I could feel Lullaby surge up on her anchor chain, a sound like an animal growling.
We had a good dive during the afternoon, bringing up two lobsters and several more queen conch. Dinner was over by early evening and Randy wanted to hit the bar again. The front had slowed down, but the club's radio reported it would come through during the night... right on time I thought as the big ketch surged up on her anchor again. I had read and gone to sleep around ten and didn't hear Randy come in, but there wasn't much doubt he had gotten shit-faced again... oh well, it’s his call.
I pulled on some shorts and went forward to Randy's cabin. "Hey," I shouted, “If you don't want your house next to the palms, we better get the fuck out of here."
"What, what..." groaned Randy“, what the fuck... what's happening?"
"The first squalls are here," I shouted again, exasperated.
"Get the motor started, I'll get the anchor up." Randy was awake now... hung-over, but awake.
This fucking clown, I thought... now he's the concerned captain of the ship. I took a few moments to finish dressing and pulled on a foul weather jacket. It was still dark out as I turned the key to the ignition and the diesel thumped to life. The northwestern sky was alive with continuous sheet lightning and now I could hear the sound of thunder off in the distance. There were a couple of other boats that had not left for the opposite side of the bay and they had mast lights and running lights lit... I could see the people hauling anchors and then motoring out into the night. I slipped the engine into forward at idle speed to take some strain off the anchor as the winds were now whistling across the deck at twenty knots with gusts to thirty. Randy finally appeared and went to the bow to get up the anchor.
I watched as Randy directed him with pre-arranged hand signals while coming up on the anchor as the electric windlass hauled up chain and the big plow anchor. As soon as the anchor broke the surface, I cranked up the diesel to 2200 RPM's and headed out into deep water and the eventual safety of the lee of the bays peninsula. But, it was none too soon as Lullaby bucked her way through the wind waves and the gusts blew heavy curtains of rain over the deck. Randy was soaked. He was shaking from the freezing rain as he a came into the cover of the cockpit with its weather dodger and bimini top.
"Well, I fucking told you so”, I said harshly and to myself... fuck it, it’s his boat and there had to be a way out of here.
For the next three days it blew and howled but the rain had gone with the advance squall line. The sky, land and sea all looked the same shades of blue, gray and muddy green. It had become cold as the air mass from the north enveloped the Cuban mainland. We were anchored off a small Cuban military outpost. It was mostly defunct now and there were only a dozen soldiers manning antique radar. There was also a row of small concrete block houses along the shoreline. I counted twelve of them. They were the raw gray color of the unpainted blocks with wood shutters for windows. There were no cars, or vehicles of any kind except for a couple of army jeeps parked by the military compound at one end of the row of houses. I did notice a few bicycles leaning alongside some of the houses. Except for some pre-teenage children and an occasional adult wandering around, the place looked almost abandoned. Another thing I noticed... there were no animals, no dogs or cats, horses, cow, or pigs. Later, I would see a few chickens in a pen behind the military post. It's the end of the world I realized.
All things considered, we were safe, dry and content aboard Lullaby. We spent the days fixing a few problems, nothing drastic... reading, eating regular meals, and sleeping. The second day, we took a case of hand soap ashore and walked along the small road that ran the length of the village handing out the bars to the children, especially the young girls. Many were very shy and were almost afraid to take the gifts. The children were a ragged band... their clothes worn and dirty, as were they themselves. But, there was joy and laughter as they played imaginary games and passed the day. I could hardly visualize the endless days ahead of them as children let alone the life they would endure as adults.
One afternoon, some of the people off the anchored boats went ashore and organized a softball game. Someone had a ball, but they had to cut a branch from a tree and fashion a bat. Soon they gathered the children and some of the younger adults chose sides and played the game. The boaters managed to find a few pieces of candy and cookies for the kids after the game was finished, but for that hour in time, the world stood still for the players and only the game mattered.
On the morning of the fourth day at the anchorage, the sun warmed the deck and white clouds took back the blue sky. A brisk north wind commanded the Yucatan Channel and the strong northeasterly currents. We had decided to make the run to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, a sailing distance of some one hundred and forty miles. It was a rough passage with twelve to fourteen feet breaking waves and occasional rogues to twenty feet. There were scattered rain showers causing us to give thanks to the steering vane and the cockpit dodger. Massive convection clouds competed for space with the orange sun as it settled into the western horizon scattering its rays like a conflagration. How insignificant we were on this planet I thought as the black of the night finally took control of the sky and the light from unimaginable, distant stars blinked on one by one until there were countless thousands lighting the surface of an inky sea. Twelve hours later as the sun again took control of the day, the island that was our destination gradually rose from the seascape. Randy handed up a cup of hot coffee and joined me in the cockpit. We had stood three hour watches during the night passage and although not fresh, we were excited to be making port in Mexico. "The last time I was here”, Randy was saying, 'was four years ago. I sold an old iron schooner, the Iron Lady, and I had to get a delivery crew together to sail her back to Florida for a refit. We loaded her up with paving stones for ballast and the owner sold them. He lost his ass on the whole deal and finally sold the boat again. The new owner took her to the British Virgins and made a restaurant out of her." "Christ," continued Randy, 'what a hassle that was... the boat was in hock to the Mexican government and I had to pay the port Commandante ten thousand US bucks to bail her out. I always figured it was a con."
"Goes with the territory”, I lamented. "Iron Lady... I know that boat," I exclaimed, 'she was built in Green Cove Springs, Florida ten or twelve years ago. A friend of mine and his accountant got married on her. She was doing some kind of charter stuff, river cruise during the evening, tourist shit. Jesus, it really is a small world."
Randy was studying the chart, and he had gotten out a cruise guide. "We'll go in on the south side standing off the light by at least a mile and then we'll get a GPS fix and run three miles inside where we should pick up a channel marker. Then we can make a ninety degree turn to starboard and make for the inner harbor. There's a fuel dock just inside which will be on our port... let's fuel up and take on water before we anchor..."
"Sounds good to me, but I don't think we'll be drinking the water, I have no desire to spend the next five days with Montezuma's Revenge.”
Isla Mujeres is a small island... about three miles long by a half mile at the widest. The small town on the northern side has six parallel streets running north to south and another dozen running east to west. Made up mostly of tourist shops, small hotels, bars and restaurants, it caters to the younger less heeled crowd and the day trippers from Cancun on the mainland. It was my first visit and I immediately thought of Key West back in the mid-seventies. Smaller of course and with its own flavor, but the same laid back attitude. I thought this was a place I could spend some time. We were sitting in a little bar, restaurant alongside the water drinking a cold Corona waiting on dinner to be served... fish, rice and beans with tortillas and a fresh salad.
"Well, this time next week, I'll be back at work," said Randy slowly as he looked around at nothing in particular.
"True enough,” I muttered. I was looking forward to the next couple of days on the island, but I was beginning to miss my own island and home. "There is no doubt that this trip has been an experience... not what I had envisioned but an experience just the same."
"Have you had a good time?" asked Randy with a hopeful sound to his voice.
"Sure," I said smiling at my friend. 'But you know when you get fucked up; it doesn't make for the most pleasant of times.”
Randy looked down at the table... We were both tired from the crossing and the day’s activity, some boat work and problems matching the fuel nozzle to the French fittings on the tanks. "I know, I know.... Hey, you know me; I've lost money, jobs, deals, women and a couple of friend because of the booze. I'm a drunk and I know it."
I looked at his face and saw the pain, but I also watched him drain the bottle of beer and call for another one. I knew that Randy had quit drinking from time to time and was a super guy when he was sober, but he also had seen the worst of him when he was drunk.... I had seen him mean, arrogant, obnoxious and just about as unpleasant a drunk as I had ever known. Thankfully, Randy would more often than not just finally pass out.
"Randy, look, I'm an alcoholic too. It wasn't that long ago I wound up in the hospital. I was dehydrated, my cardio-vascular system was shutting down and an intern asked me if I wanted to die. I was popping my first beer at nine AM and would put away a couple of six packs during the day before throwing away the cap on a bottle of run every night. I can remember running out of breath just walking down the street and laying in my bunk at night with my carotid artery leaping out of my neck and my heart skipping beats and fluttering like a leaf in the wind. I'd sleep it off and feel OK by morning and do it all over again. I was about your age and had a covert death wish." I watched my friends face. 'Well, like I said, one day I ended up in the hospital with an IV stuck in my vein pumping glucose into my body. People said I looked pasty gray... no color... like death warmed over."
We were both silent for a moment, then I said, 'They let me out three days later and I decided that I was going to do something different and new with my life. I mean, Jesus, I had already done more than ten guys and I knew it, but the booze was like a cancer and just took over without me hardly even knowing it. I was out of shape and carrying a beer gut and my old lady wasn't too happy with the situation... I found out later. So, I went cold turkey... zip, nada.
"Sure it was a bitch and I thought my life would be shit without the booze and my friends... friends, what a laugh... bunch of drunks mostly, just like me."
The waiter arrived with our dinners. He sat the plates on the table and warned us not to use too much salsa until we had tried it. We ate with gusto.
Finally Randy said, "But you started drinking again... why?"
I thought for a moment and said, "I'll be honest with you. Booze is a drug and once a druggie, always a druggie. But with me, the situation is a little different. I was totally sober for about three years. Then I was having my annual physical because of my hereditary heart disease and the doc was looking over my record and said, "I see here that you have been alcohol free for several years. Did you have a serious problem?" I said back to him, "yeah, you might say that. I was a pretty big drunk." Then he asked me if I thought I could handle two or three beers or wine, no more, during the afternoon or with a meal without abusing the amount of intake. I told him I probably could, but why should I. He said they medical profession had decided that a limited amount of alcohol was good for thinning the blood and therefore beneficial to heart patients, and that he would have no objections as long as I did not go over the stipulated limit. He said that it was my call. So, if I drink too much it will cause me grief and physical pain and damage, but a little bit is OK, even good for me.... Look Randy, if it wasn't for my heart condition that keeps me on the farm, I would have to be completely sober or I'd be a fucking drunk again. I have a situation that if I want to live, keeps me straight."
Randy absorbed that and finally said, "You're lucky."
The next couple of days were pretty easy. We did the tourist bit, some shopping and eating out some. The weather was finally shifting back to more seasonal southeasterly winds and fair weather cumulus cloud formations. Randy said we needed to look for a sailing window and punch out for Florida... he had calculated the sail to be three and a half days to Fort Lauderdale. Then two nights before we had decided to sail, we went ashore. I cut out to make a phone call and cut a final deal on some silver I was buying for Barbara’s business and Randy went off to a bar... we were going to meet up in thirty or forty minutes.
When I arrived at the place, I found Randy at the bar talking with some other American off a large power boat down from Texas. I could tell that Randy was already seriously over the edge. I quickly remembered that Randy had drank four or five beers during the afternoon and now was drinking Tequila... more like belting them down. I had ordered a beer before I had realized how far gone my buddy was. Randy hardly acknowledged that I had sat down next to him... he just got louder and was telling some of the same old stories that I had heard many times past. It was really pathetic as I watched Randy deteriorate rapidly as he drank down three more Margaritas... it was if he didn't even taste them. Ultimately everyone near them had left and Randy was cursing and talking to himself. The bartender cut him off and demanded he pay up. There was a big scene and hassle, and I finally got Randy out on the street. It was an ordeal getting Randy back to the dinghy but I got him down the street to the dock and aboard the dinghy where Randy immediately passed out. When I tied the dinghy up off Lullaby's stern, I realized it would be impossible to get Randy aboard. I was fed up with his Randy’s behavior and thought to myself… fuck it, he can sleep in the dinghy... then went to bed.
Sometime later, I woke to the smell of burning food. I came quickly into the salon to see smoke pouring from the stoves oven... Rushing to it, I shut off the gas valve then opened the oven door and found food burned black on aluminum foil. I grabbed a pot holder and tossed the whole mess overboard listening to it hiss as it hit the water. Randy was passed out at the navigation station.
I had enough. "Jesus Christ, wake up”, I hollered, 'what the fuck are you doing? If you want to burn down your boat, at least give me time to get off."
Randy looked at me with bloodshot eyes, and said... almost like he was sober, "You can always fly home."
I looked down at Randy laying there and shook my head, "Maybe I will”. Then I turned and went back to bed.
I woke early in the morning. I had not slept well... bad dreams. I was back in Vietnam... people were dying. I lay in my bunk thinking of last night’s events and mulling over how I would get to the mainland and the airport if it came to it. I didn't want to leave Randy in Mexico with a three and a half day sail back to Florida. Shit, it was sometimes tough enough running Lullaby with just the two of us; solo would be dangerous if not disastrous. I finally climbed out of bed and went to the galley to put on coffee. It was quiet aboard Lullaby. I could hear the water slapping along the hull and seagulls screaming for breakfast as they careened over the anchored boats. I went back to my tiny stateroom and laid out my carry bags on the bunk trying to figure out how I could carry all my gear. Fuck this, I thought... fucking booze. The coffee was perking, this can wait.
I was on his second cup when I heard Randy hit the head. This should be good, I mused.... I was so angry with the son-of-a-bitch, more disappointed and tired of the bullshit. I could never enjoy myself when we went ashore worrying if it would turn into a disaster or not. I was tired of putting up with it, the embarrassment, the uneasy feeling and worst of all getting stuck ashore late at night. Randy would always make fun of me because I would not go out at night... little wonder when you never knew what was on the agenda.
I heard the head flushing and then Randy came into the salon.
Not talking isn't going to get it I thought. "Coffee's on the stove, it's still hot."
Randy didn't say anything but filled his cup. After a few minutes he asked calmly. "What happened last night?"
I sighed heavily. "Well, same old shit... you got fucked up. You damn near burned up the boat and you suggested that if I didn't like it, maybe I should get off."
"Yeah... I remember that part. I saw your bags on your bed... are you leaving?" He looked dejected.
I did not want to go through the problems of leaving the boat. We would have to get me off the ship's manifest and I would have to take the ferry to Cancun and try to get a flight to Puerto Rico. Shit, what a fucking hassle.
"Randy, we have two days left here before we sail. The only way I will stay is if you get off the sauce for the rest of the trip. I'm tired of it and your lousy attitude when you get drunk... you just don't give a shit about anybody or anything. And I'll tell you this... if I get off, even as long as we have known each other and all we have been through together, I probably won't be back." I spoke firmly, but with compassion.
Randy looked me squarely in the eye and said, "Deal”, and then he stuck out his hand to shake on it.
I stood up and took my friend's hand. Our grasps were tight and I could sense the meaningfulness, we simultaneously embraced one another. As we hugged, Randy said, "Thanks buddy... you’re my best friend, I love you."
I felt tears well up in my eyes and whispered back, "I love you too, 'ya dickhead you." Then we stood back and laughed.
We spent the next couple of hours drinking coffee and talking of Randy's addiction and how he hoped to take control of it. Randy talked of his love of his long distant girlfriend and how if he was to get sober, there might be a life for them both. Finally we put the subject to rest and hoped for the best.
Our last two days were uneventful but yet they were the best days that we had enjoyed so far on the adventure. We wandered about the town, went to the beach, ate lunch and finished our shopping, buying souvenirs for friends and family. Randy was sober and although he was hurting, he was pleasant to be with, and more important, he was determined to stay sober.
At last we woke on the morning of departure and went ashore to the Port Commandante where we picked up our sailing papers. It was a beautiful crisp day with a brisk southeast wind and a sky so blue it almost hurt your eyes to look up at it. After securing the dinghy on the fore-deck and getting Lullaby ready for sea, we raised the anchor, then the main sail and Genoa. We cleared the island on the north end dropping off into blue water almost immediately. Lullaby was on a beam reach and the Gulf Stream would soon give her an extra two knots over the ground. The GPS was tracking and all was good. Eighty two hours later Lullaby passed the sea buoy at Port Everglades inlet.... Randy was home and I would soon return to my much missed Barbara and my Isla Bonita basking peacefully in the Caribbean sun.
We both closed another chapter in the book of life.