Life Aboard LULU

March 26, 2002 (FEATHERS' TOUCHES: On Cruiser Generosity)
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We met a cruiser named John Featherstone last February, in St Anne, Martinique. Brought along by friends to dinner, this perfect stranger almost immediately announced he was dying of pancreatic cancer. He probably wasn't more than 45-years-old. Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest, fastest growing and least curable cancers.

"I'm living on borrowed time. I should be dead already and I probably will be in the next six months," he told us, so matter-of-factly that we wondered at first if he was telling the truth. He'd already outlived his prognosis of three to six months by almost six.

On hearing this diagnosis he had decided to cash in whatever little he had, get on his boat, FEATHER'S TOUCH and sail away.

"Meanwhile I'm living my dream and if I've got to die, I'll be lucky enough to die doing it too," he'd told us.

We never saw him again. But he was telling the truth. When he reached Trinidad this past fall, he was failing and in no position to care for himself. He had no money for a mooring, for a boatyard or for drugs, doctors or hospitals. But he was lucky.

The tight-knit Trinidad cruiser community swung into action, taking up a collection for his medical care and taking over the management of his last weeks. Many people contributed, one couple we know quite heavily. One of the boatyard owners donated both money and haul-out space. A popular Trini taxi driver ferried John's friends and all manner of supplies back and forth to him after he entered the hospital. John died in November in a Seventh Day Adventist Hospital, with supportive people caring about and for him.

As his story circulates among cruisers, we've heard some grumbling that he had no right to inflict his situation on strangers. I reckon those people got more for their giving than they paid.

We hear of similar incidences of cruiser generosity and compassionate interventions with some regularity as we travel. I think of them now as Feathers' Touches.

Take Kay and Don, on KATHLEEN. When we met this couple in Porlamar, they were on their way to the miniscule village of Puerto Real, a stop they make at least once a year-in a real sense, to visit family. Eight years or so ago a distraught fisherman approached their boat in his peńero, begging aspirin for his feverish baby. Later, Kay and Don dinghied into the village to check on the baby. They were invited in, fed dinner as thanks, and the relationship progressed from there. Kay and Don have "adopted" the family, and enlisted their church back in Park City for backup support. Over the years, this family has received contributions of food, basic medicines, clothing and housewares. Kay and Don have watched the children grow, new children appear and have been invited to family cereomonies like baptisms and weddings. Two of the family children are now being sponsored in colleges.

 A real Duchess

Throwing lifelines may just be an extension of the cruiser mentality. Though unsought, sometimes there are tangible-and entirely unpredictable--rewards for giving. Friends we met in Porlamar, Duchess and Dick on DUCHESS, wrote us about their experience in Tortuga.

Aboard SALTWHISTLE for sundowners and dinner, they noticed some people on the beach searching the sky anxiously-obviously looking for their pickup. They'd seen this family deposited by helicopter earlier in the day. Now, within minutes the sun would set, leaving six people stranded in utter blackness all night, with nothing to eat, little more than bathing suits for cover, without any shelter and in 20 to 25-knot winds-a fearsome prospect. Dick and Craig jumped in their dinghies, while Duchess and Fran started stretching a four-person lobster meal into dinner for 10. (On LULU previous lobster buys indicate no stretching would have been required-lobster for four aboard LULU is elastic enough to serve 20.)

The family boarded the strangers' dinghies somewhat apprehensively. There were three adults, plus a 4-, 12- and 19-year-old. One spoke some broken -- but serviceable-English. He owned the Medivac helicopter service that had brought them to the beach. Later they would learn that the chopper had had engine problems and, without means of contact, had turned back to Caracas.

"Glasses of wine all around helped calm some nerves-they finally realized we were not going to kidnap them and were only offering our hospitality," Duchess wrote. "Thank goodness I had just made bread and a cherry pie..." (italics mine.)

Dinner on SALTWHISTLE soon turned into a sort of celebratory feast, the communication barrier pretty much dissolving with the melted butter. Four slept on DUCHESS and two on SALTWHISTLE. Everyone was invited to SALTWHISTLE the next morning. (Cruisers always share the work burden.)

Their helicopter began circling at 6:45 AM, so the pilot ended up joining the other 10 for breakfast--which included not only scrambled eggs and toast but Duchess's homemade banana bread.

(HOMEMADE BREAD...HOMEMADE BANANA BREAD... CHERRY PIE? On LULU, the bread and dessert course would have been Ritz Crackers and, well, Ritz Crackers. Though I could--thanks to many of our guests who have carted down Stew Leonard's meat--have broken out 2" thick prime steaks to round out either the lobster dinner or the egg breakfast. LULU is more of an Atkins boat.)

No sooner were the breakfast dishes done than the grateful family began reciprocating. First they treated the cruisers to helicopter rides--aerial photos of sailboats included-followed by a fresh lobster lunch on the beach. (Duchess doesn't mention it but doubtless she whipped up a chocolate mousse for the occasion...)

After heartfelt thanks and some tears, the Venezuelans boarded their Sunday flight home, insisting that next summer the cruisers be their guests at their home in Caracas as well as their vacation home in Caranero, where DUCHESS and SALTWHISTLE will be safely berthed in the local yacht club so the entire group can tour inland Venezuela.

There was more. The family returned the next weekend on a nifty, brand new Italian motor yacht, repaying the kindness by restocking both cruiser larders with cartons of food, fruits and wines. Over that weekend, Duchess writes "we were invited back again and again, till we were literally numb from hospitality the likes of which we have never experienced.

"[Apparently] the family had sought help from two other Venezuelan power boats and had been refused before we showed up to help...It is when we take advantage of opportunities to help others that the experiences become unforgettable."

DELIVERANCE's deliverances

Susan Newman (Click To Enlarge)Russ Newman (Click To Enlarge) Then there are our friends Susan and Russ, on DELIVERANCE. I had assumed the Newmans chose their boat name as a sort of comment on the fact that it would deliver them from one place to another and out of their former working lives. But the name gathers another dimension, since they seem to have taken on the job of delivering various Caribbean locals--mostly Rastafarians-from economic calamity. I've nicknamed their project Operation Bootstrap. Despite the fact that they're often floating non-paying loans, Susan and Russ are involved with the folks who actually call these islands home.

Their first investment was in Vision. For most cruisers that would mean inexpensive Venezuelan ($500) laser surgery to correct nearsightedness, but for Russ and Susan it translated into a $500 prepayment to a Rasta named Vision.

Vision is a lively guy who's got the regulation long, fuzzy dreadlocks stuffed into the official red, green and black Rasta babushka; decorative, oversized caps of all sorts function as opaque hairnets because covering dreadlocks is considered an appropriate form of modesty. Many Rastas will only uncover their hair among other Rastas. Dreadlocks symbolize not only the Rasta's roots in Africa, but also strength, as Rastas trace their origins back to Samson. For the social-protest Rastafarian element, dreadlocks also make an anti-establishment, anti-straight white-man hair statement.

A Judeo-Christian splinter sect whose holy book is the Old Testament, Rastafarians believe the deceased black Eithiopian emperor, Haile Selassie (whose birth name was Ras Tafari) was the Second Messiah and that black enslavement was God's punishment for inadequate or lax worship.

Rastas seem to come in two kinds: true and false. The false espouse the religion to lend legitimacy to their drug use, or they are actually involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activity. True Rastas are gentle, sincere and live a healthy life-with the possible exception of the prodigious weed they smoke. Most Rastas choose the wilderness, where they grow their own food and live off the land.

Every Rasta adopts a moniker -- Vision, Friend, Nature, African Pride - by which all his friends instantly call him and which appears on his business card. The business card helps lend legitimacy to the assiduousness with which the Rasta works, because looking at one, and having some vague notion that they're marijuana addicts, you'd never think he'd get anything done.

Vision, a case in point, has a bopper, dragster-speed line of "can-do" patter. I know this because I happened on him at the cash register in a St Lucia chandlery where, entirely unprovoked, he launched into the astonishing depth and number of boat maintenance chores he could be performing on my boat: rubbing, scrubbing, compounding, waxing, polishing, scraping, sanding, varnishing, rigging and any number of engine or generator fixes. (The rule of thumb, we've learned by now, is to discount any Caribbean boat worker's proclaimed field of expertise by about 90%. After receiving his card, you need to find out his real specialty-generally by asking other cruisers nearby. If he cleans, then let him clean, but don't hire him to take apart your winches, unless you're starting a gear collection.)

Last spring, Russ and Susan, who cruise six months and return to the States for six months, hired Vision and a friend named Bash to prepare DELIVERANCE for summer storage. Curious about Rastafarianism and how local people actually live, they asked if Vision would teach them. Knowing Susan and Russ, in exchange for the lessons they upped his hourly rate by some hefty percentage.

Vision, flattered that customers should be interested in his life, toured them through areas cruisers don't usually get to see, took them home to his small shack, cooked dinner for them and introduced them to his parents, some of his sisters and a 13-year-old nephew. They all live in the "family compound," except for Vision's child and his woman, a white Australian he met several years ago on a boat, who live in England to take advantage of the far superior educational system. Vision's dream was to build a little house in St Lucia and bring his family home.

Over the summer, in Vermont, the Newmans got a call from the nephew. Vision had gotten himself into some trouble: it seems a cruiser customer made a mistake in writing a check -- paid him something like 7,000 ECs (about $2,800) instead of 700 ECs for services rendered. Vision cashed it and sent 4,000 ECs back to England. (What he did with the rest remains a mystery.) When the cruiser realized his mistake he returned to reclaim his money and, of course, it was gone. Vision claimed he thought it was a tip.

 "Vision actually is a very charming guy," Russ writes. (And I can vouch for that in my two minutes' experience of him. Construing this situation in the most favorable light possible, I guess he just has an over-inflated view of what his services are worth.)

Vision was put in jail for several days. Meanwhile, the family rallied-that's just the way families still are in most of these Caribbean islands. They'd scraped up $1,000 US; one of the things that had to go by the wayside was the kids' back-to-school clothing. The family asked the Newmans for help. Russ and Susan agreed to put up $500 on Vision's behalf-as repayment he'd ready DELIVERANCE ready for their December return. Problem was the marina revoked his work privileges and the boat was as they'd left her. They hired Bash to do the job.

Vision had fled, no one was exactly sure exactly where, but eventually turned up in Antigua, where he could find work. His woman and his child are with him. He's called the Newmans several times promising to do the work he owes them as soon as he returns.

 I'm going to quote liberally from Russ's last few emails, which track some of their other "investments," deliver glimpses of life among the locals and eloquently illustrate the rewards of unselfish generosity, the collateral compensations for loaning without collateral and having a boat that's in maintenance limbo.

 "After we returned to St Lucia," Russ writes, "I got the flu, when Bash and Ras Ambassador took us to the jungle to meet the Elder Rasta. [Apparently] when I crossed the river the cold water made the flu enter my body right 'frew my feets.' We also got to meet Bash's mom, stepfather, daughter, girlfriend and his great-grandmother, who is also the grandmother of Ras Ambassador. Although Granny spoke only patois, she absolutely loved me and made her amorous feelings abundantly clear.

"Bash is very quiet and spiritual, a true Rasta. He's an extremely loveable guy. He has one child. He currently lives with his family--his woman and child live with her family. His dream is to build a small house so 'de free of dem' can be together. He's got as far as pouring the foundation for this house. It's in Marigot village with a magnificent view of Marigot Bay. (As an aside, Bash's woman's mother is 45 and is hospitalized with uterine cancer. She needs chemotherapy that is not available on St Lucia. She wants to go the hospital in Martinique. Only problem is that it will be private pay and will cost $20,000 and of course she doesn't have any money.)

"The Elder Rasta was cool. He was 50 and looked 35. He and three young guys lived in a lean-to deep in the jungle. They grew all their own food including the ganja. They tried to recruit us. Susan was considering joining, but somehow I think it's too late for me. They were very polite though. They weren't even offended when we repeatedly declined their offer to join them in smoking a gigantic splif.

"Then my brother and sister-in-law Doug and Suzanne came to St Lucia for a week. We had a great time. Suzanne got her hair braided the day that Bash took us to the market in Castries. Bash introduced us to all the old ladies in the market and Susan loved learning about the different foods that grow in St Lucia. The only problem we had was the fight at the Rasta restaurant in which we had lunch. Bash is so proud of Rasta food and the owner seemed delighted that we came to his two-table shack. He was so happy to see us that he asked the Rasta guys sitting at the two tables to take their food outside. That's when the fight started. We knew they were mad but couldn't understand what they were saying because the fight was in patois. The only words we recognized were the words "white people," which were loudly repeated several times. In the end we think logic prevailed and most of the people apologized to us for the rudeness of the few.

"We did an overnighter to the Pitons with them and Suzanne was sick all the way. She was a very good sport and stuck it out. Doug told her it would calm down when we got moored. Well, we got moored and not only did the flush handle come off the head but the anchorage was rolly. Suzanne finally lost her cookies. I'm not sure if was the roll or the sight of me with the head in little pieces on the salon floor. We evacuated them around 9:00 pm to the Hilton. They loved it. Guess they are just hotel people. 


"When we left St Lucia we stopped in Wallilabou, St Vincent. Last year we loaned Nada $400 to buy the rowboat he uses in his boat-boy business. As soon as he saw us enter the harbor he rushed over to the boat and started babbling about something. We finally figured out that he is a little concerned that he won't be able to make his first payment. It seems that since 9/11 the boat boy business has been bad. Then there was the armed break-in of a yacht that got publicized all over the cruiser nets on the short wave radio and in the marine newspaper. Seems people are

reluctant to stop now. Then there was the problem he had with the police. He was accused of doing the break-in. He got a lawyer and was acquitted at his trial. Only trouble was, he used the money he had been saving to make his boat payment to pay the lawyer. Then he had the problem that someone burned up his backpack. He kept all his legal documents in the

backpack including his identity papers, his copy of our note, and our boat card. He had intended to send us an email explaining his problems but the guy at the Internet café charged for use of the computers and he didn't have any money. Then he said, "Of course I couldn't email you anyway because your boat card with the email address on it got burned up in the backpack." He did assure us that the bad guys were identified and arrested and that there is no reason of us to be concerned about our safety. Just in case, Susan slept that night with her trusty dinghy oar.

"After finally understanding this sad tale, we felt it was completely understandable that he was having trouble with the payment. We agreed to lengthen the payment schedule. I would hate to take advantage of the fellow when he is down.

"Did I mention that his 16 year-old girlfriend is expecting a baby the first of April?  Does this guy have bad luck or what???

 "So we pulled into Bequia two days ago. As we approached the harbor a boat boy offered to take us to a mooring. We told him we wanted to go to one of African's moorings. We dealt with African last year and he was great. The boat boy promised to take us to African's mooring but somehow we didn't believe him. We got on the VHF and called for African Pride. Sure enough, another guy answered and promised to take us to one of African's moorings. About 2 hours after we got all settled at the mooring we had a knock on the hull. It was African. He said, 'How come you didn't tie up at one of my moorings?' It then dawned on us that these boat boys are not the most honest businessmen in the world. Seems like they finally figured out the American Way."

Why not give?

The laughs alone might outweigh the Newman's losses. But Russ and Susan are more than just soft touches and -- since we tend to tease each other a lot - I'll let Russ, getting serious, set the ledger straight:

"The truth is that as American WASPs of British ancestry, we feel our people have benefited  tremendously over the last 400 years from the exploitation of people of color. We are

embarrassed and ashamed of the brutality with which our ancestors treated these people. We feel that overpaying a little or making a questionable loan or two is the least we can do. The thing that has amazed us the most is that many of them have completely forgiven and moved on. As an 11-year-old boy in St Vincent said to me "Mr., the slavery stuff happened a long time ago. It's time for us all to move on."

Regarding the Vision thing, Russ had this to say: "So what's the truth in all this? Who knows--who cares? The money went to the family and did relieve a little of the stress Vision placed on them. It certainly wasn't [their] fault that Vision screwed up. It is interesting that Vision called us three times. He did go where he could find work; he was with his family.  


"Now we don't want you to think that the West Indian people are the only interesting ones we're met down here. We also meet a couple of nutty Jews from The City -- but that's another story..."

 City Mouse, Country Mouse-- but above all, Water Rats

I'll tell that story because you must be curious about who else these terrific people are -- besides bankers and bumpkins, that is.

We nicknamed them the Bumpkins and they reciprocated by calling us their CITY friends, as in New York City, as in New Yorkers refer to THE CITY as if it's the only city in the world. (Well, isn't it?)  We tell them the existence of Russ and Susan Newman Foundation for Rasta Disastas is directly related to the fact that their past lives were so boring, had so few things to spend disposable income on, that they've amassed a huge fortune. We tell Russ his spending habits are so conservative he's going to end up dribbling away this vast surplus on rocking chairs, hearing aids, potty chairs and diapers--and then he's going to be forced to blow it big-time on some nursing home where he'll get the chance to spend what's left of his pennies on fresh crayons for the occupational therapy room.

The four of us met about two years ago on FEISTY. They were brought to a sundown cocktail party by mutual friends Walt & Chris on BLUE MOON. Both seemed very shy, which just goes to show you the value of snap judgments.

Russ is about 9-feet tall, with that kind of pinky, freckled redhead complexion I usually associate with "Aw, shucks" country-boy candor and friendliness. No one would have blinked if he'd been wearing bib-tip overalls. So I wasn't surprised to learn they'd lived all their lives in some teeny backwater suburb of Buffalo, New York.

Susan is actually tall, but next to Russ could pass for a pygmy. I counted her lucky not to have been crushed to death living with this giant for more than 35 years. She's also a Size 4. (I know this because I've had her shorts in my washing machine. Believe me, I've had to work hard at spending time-and tropically-clad time, at that--with this sized woman.)  Her body, in addition to her bounty, must endear her to Rastas, who are accustomed to bigger bosoms and much more zaftig bottoms.

(Zaftig, Russ, is a Yiddish euphemism--there are many more--meaning fat.)

It didn't at first look like this sort-or any sort - of friendship between the four of us was the remotest possibility. They were quiet that night and left very early-in fact it looked to us like they couldn't wait to escape us-as in "Lord, deliver us from these louts!" Could have had to do with the fact (an alleged fact is all I'm willing to own up to, since I don't remember all that well) that it was one of my more raucous nights. Perhaps embarrassing would be a better word, but-- as I said--I don't remember. Apparently I was carrying on pretty good with Walt, who has a great sense of humor. Jackie and I were also regaling everybody with the story of how we met. Telling a tandem story with Jackie is always a no-holds-barred verbal tug of war, so the party got pretty loud (doubtless the Newmans would have chosen the word "obnoxious.")

I was convinced they would run from any anchorage we happened into, but then we bumped into them in Martinique...and then again in St Lucia, where the four of us hung out pretty much constantly for a week and we laughed almost non-stop. Apparently they did have senses of humor, quite good ones at that, and they either hadn't hated me (they've been very diplomatic and vague about this earliest stage of our friendship.) or they decided with constant exposure that I wasn't so bad. Russ really dug Gary's dry humor and his ability to fix anything with such quiet aplomb. Russ now calls Gary his Idol.

Since they cruise pretty much as you would expect from bumpkins-at about horse and buggy speed -- and since we travel like CITY people and since they're always back in the States for six months of the year, we figured we'd never see them again. But when we were back in New York during the summer, on their way home after visiting their kids in Vermont they tacked down to THE CITY for an afternoon (not exactly a route between Vermont and Buffalo that our GPS or your onboard SUV computer would suggest.) We squired them through THE CITY's varied neighborhoods, included a walk in THE PARK and brunch at The Stanhope. I tried, but couldn't quite fit in the soup dumplings at Joe's Shanghai

Since we were sure we'd never run into them again, we diverted to St. Lucia last January on our way back from Barbados. We spent another week together, got to meet their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter--two weeks younger and currently promised to Ryan.

And then this year, since they were still in St Lucia and we absolutely knew we'd never see them again, we invited them to spend New Year's with us in Venezuela on LULU. We had a wonderful time, but I think Russ was a little disappointed he didn't know enough Spanish to check out the barrios and spread around some Bolívars.

Anyway, that's how fast friends are made in this life in the slow lane...



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