Following Feathers’ Touches, SOME SLEDGEHAMMER ADVENTURES
After New Year’s Russ and Susan returned to St Lucia, while LULU went into one of the big Puerto La Cruz boatyards for a facelift. Putting your boat “on the hard” is always an awful ordeal. It’s not just that you’ve lost your baby and your home for two weeks or more, but she’s also been relegated to a depressing, sub-Saharan junkyard. It’s hot as blazes, the air is a whiteout of particles whose asbestos content you can only hope will not come back to haunt you. There’s a constant background racket--the squawky whine of the Travelift as it hauls boats from the water all day long, with back-up screech provided by an ensemble of hand tools sanding, polishing grinding and gelcoating. The ground is a deeply-rutted dirt tundra and plumes of water squirting from wash-down hoses turn the swirl of airborne dust to mud on the ground and grime on the boat.
A series of padded tripods cradling the boat’s underbelly raise it aboveground for bottom painting, thereby putting the deck entry point some 15 feet off the ground. The only way to board (to do some work, for example, or to get the hairdryer, tee shirt, computer, shampoo, underwear, suntan lotion, moisturizer, bandaids you forgot) is up--and eventually down—a rickety wooden painter’s ladder--barefoot because you don’t want to bring your muddy sandals on deck. There’s no water, no working toilet, no usable air conditioning--plus the hatches are all closed to keep out the itinerant filth, so it’s probably 100 degrees inside. Plus, since there are projects onboard or outside, and boatyard workers to watch, you can’t just take off touring. Some people actually live aboard in the boatyard, but we stayed in a hotel.
Clobbered by Caracas
When work finally stopped for the weekend, we flew to Caracas to visit with Seyril, a friend of some 40 years. Caracas is one of the world’s most dangerous cities and generally avoided by cruisers, who have no such friend to squire them about.
The poor live stuffed inside filthy, overcrowded barrios, while the rich live in high-rises and handsome villas, barricaded behind walls, guardhouses, electronic gates and barbed wire. From a distance, though, Caracas is a visual treat: completely landlocked but surrounded by green hills and mountains. Housing crawls partially up these mountains on all sides. The high-rise apartment complexes rooted amid the hills provide a soothing architectural array of tasteful pastels, pale vertical sculptures bisected by long stretches of horizontal terraces—all vaguely Mondrian against the greenery.
In the suburban hills are monster private mansions--virtual castles with gatehouses worthy of hotels and exquisite, minutely fitted, mortarless stone walls, some several stories high, surrounded by huge old trees, vast expanses of lush landscaping—all improbably accented by huge umbrellas of satellite dishes, each one of which might serve a skyscraper.
The barrios also climb the mountains, but offer no such visual breathing space. Their cracked and compressed concrete fascias are wallpapered in a grimy assortment of worn shirts, underwear, work pants and blue jeans. Stacked one atop the other, boxcar style, roofs akimbo, terraces askew, these sad dwellings look like they might momentarily crumble and crash down the mountain.
Seyril toured us through the colonial downtown, its historic government buildings, stunning Modern Art museum and fancifully designed cultural center complex. On Sunday we visited the colorful village of El Hatillo-- a name rooted in colonial cattle farms called “hatos” –-now a quaint tourist town with narrow, low-rise wooden buildings painted a variety of gay shades sardined along narrow, hilly streets.
We got a sample of a famous Caracas specialty: urban street crime. Gary had his pocket picked leaving the subway. As we exited the Metro escalator, a burly man stooped suddenly to retrieve a comb he’d been raking ostentatiously through his hair. People behind plowed together on the receding top steps and were momentarily diverted trying to right themselves. Seyril recognized the ploy a bit too late--as the big man rushed off the escalator, followed closely by a considerably smaller, light-fingered accomplice who’d been deployed behind Gary. Both evaporated into the noonday crowd. Two elderly dowagers from a long-gone generation, dressed in Saturday night finery for a downtown afternoon shopping trip,observed the crime, tsk-tsking and shaking their heads.(Was I just imagining or were they actually wearing black mantillas?) At the same time two policemen just as nearby were otherwise engaged in conversation with each other and a perro-calientero (perro meaning dog, caliente, hot--so literally a hot-dog man.)
Luckily, Seyril had forewarned us, suggesting we take nothing of value. The losses amounted to about $90, Gary’s treasured Swiss Army combo pocket knife/money clip—and a big chunk of street-wise, city-slicker pride. We spent the rest of the day ricocheting from store to store, through streets and upscale malls to replace the money clip. The frenzied shopping did not, however, preclude a stop at the palate-dazzling Belgian chocolate store, a confectionary that renders Swiss truffles merely trifles. We finally replaced the money clip, but our urban-guerilla ranking is forever lost.
Seyril has known me from age 17, when my nickname was BP—for bottomless pit. She arranged some superior meals, starting the first afternoon with a fine grilled salmon lunch prepared by her housekeeper/cook, Margarita.
We lunched at an excellent Asian fusion restaurant--one of those places where the delicate food preparations are meant to excite the palate while the rigorous architectural purity soothes the soul. Severe, purist furniture design, in shades of crisp black and white. A shimmering wall of water intended to provide a gentle, musical counterpoint to the dining experience. But the Zenlike calm was shattered completely, as Seyril attempted to waft gracefully to her place at the table. Her tapered-to-a-toothpick chair leg skated along the slippery ebony stone floor, lodged itself in the clever little trough designed to catch the water wall’s overflow and inelegantly catapulted her into the wet. A flurry of apologetic waiters rushed over,un-Origamied some nearby linen napkins and mopped her up.
We sampled one of Venezuela’s signature steakhouses, which specialize in marinated, grilled Black Angus beef. There we were informed a kilo of the thinly sliced tenderloin easily serves 6 or 8. But we easily polished off all two kilos--and overcame the stern waiter who protested our sampling an order of short ribs. There were no leftovers.
We also enjoyed a bit of late-Saturday-night grazing at a mobbed Italian Deli/cum Spaghetteria/cum Runway Show— one of those trendy places whose secondary function is showcasing the female pulchritude within a 50-mile radius. Venezuela’s Lollipop Girls, I call them, these stick thin, long-legged young confections glide past your table atop strappy stiletto sandals, wearing clothing that looks stenciled on—tight shiny pants threaded with snaky belts straddling linguini-thin hips. Eeensy, gauzy spandex shell tops stretched taut over what appear to be titanium strapless push-up bras. With satin skins, big manes of hair, perfectly-arched, impeccably-weeded eyebrows, they are, almost universally, blessed—either naturally or surgically--by gorgeous faces, exquisitely, minutely made-up, unlined and seemingly undisturbed by life.
Venezuelan women, especially rich Venezuelan women, in whose backyard we were grazing, are positively smitten—maybe obsessed-- with physical beauty, immersed in a love affair with plastic surgery and body sculpting second to no other country in the world. Even relatively impoverished women somehow find the money to have breasts augmented, stomachs reduced, hips chiseled, noses done, chins angled, skin lasered. We hear all the time, “She has no money for food, but enough to have her tits done.” With a female-to-male ratio of 7 to 1, this may all simply be a matter of Darwinian survival.
Television fans the national fixation with beauty. Almost every house in the smallest of villages has a TV antenna: despite the rampant poverty, 83% of Venezuelans own televisions--the remaining 17% live in remote jungles, rural outbacks and mountain areas where transmission is impossible. Every bar and even the best restaurants have one or two sizeable TVs, which typically broadcast at over-enthusiastic decibel levels. The Venezuelan programming diet consists mainly of soap operas--known as “telenovelas” –which are wildly popular and watched with quasi-religious seriousness.
As are beauty contests--one of the few routes to glamorous lives, potential riches and even telenova stardom. Schools that prepare girls for beauty contests proliferate. One, called The Miss Academy, has “graduated” four Miss Universes and five Miss Worlds. Venezuelans have captured more Miss Universe titles than any other country and are among the world’s highest per-capita spenders on personal care products and cosmetics; every major mall features a raft of stores selling beauty products and perfumes.
We were accompanied on most of our outings by the wholly captivating 17-year-old, Isabel, Seyril’s daughter. The highlight of our Caracas weekend wasn’t the shopping, nor the city, nor the glamour girls, but rather witnessing first-hand a remarkable mother-daughter relationship. Actually, Seyril is not Isabel’s birth mother--Margarita, the housekeeper is, so it was a mother(s)-daughter relationship we were priveleged to look in on.
Seyril has acted as Isabel’s adoptive mother, and is now in the process of formally adopting her. The two mothers raised her together—for the most part under the same roof, all in the difficult context of an employer/servant relationship. It’s a tribute to both women.
When Seyril first came to Ecuador as the Assistant UN Representative, diplomatic-corps friends recommended Margarita, a pious, young Catholic girl, for the housekeeping job. Within three years Margarita became engaged to Isabel’s father--who suddenly remembered to inform her he was already married when she told him she was pregnant. Margarita was distraught and ashamed. Seyril offered to assume full financial and lifetime responsibility for her, and proposed adopting her. Margarita refused the adoption, fearing the baby might grow up and decide she’d been abandoned, but she gladly accepted the financial and emotional support.
Margarita is Mom, Seyril is Aunt Mom. Isabel says with two mothers she hears in stereo. But she also thinks globally and feels panoramically, which has everything to do with the input of two such differently advantaged parents. Seyril has exposed her to private schools, world travel, formal receptions, legislative sessions, presidential inductions, global politics, regional economics, the nuances of diplomatic relations and even allowed her to assist in UN emergency rescue operations during the catastrophic 1999 mudslides around Caracas. From early childhood, Isabel has met—and charmed-- presidents, mayors, ambassadors, judges, legislators, emissaries and dignitaries. Along with wealthy American grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and a Jewish religious education came a far less privileged Ecuadorian Indio, Catholic heritage. Isabel has witnessed her birth mother struggle with a much harder life and been part of Margarita’s working-class circle. Isabel, who considers herself Catholic and Venezuelan, plans on an American college education and returning home to better her people.
The result of this incredible mix is that at 17, Isabel is urbane and sophisticated, with a maturity, compassion and understanding far beyond her years: She’s bi-lingual, politically informed, morally grounded, socially involved. At the same time, she’s still 17: amusingly dogmatic, opinionated and consumed by all the things a 17-year-old should be: makeup-shades, college essays, body lotions, designer jeans, graduation dresses, Friday night’s activities, the depth and breadth of her CD- and Kipling-bag collections.
It was one thing to know some of this—even to have met Isabel with Seyril in America--but quite another for us to experience the triangle: Margarita silently circling the table offering food platters--with quiet humility, serving breakfast or lunch to her own daughter. What reserves of courage, of unselfishness, of deep, abiding love must she have had to be left behind to clean, to iron, to cook, day after day, year after year, while Seyril and Isabel marched gaily out of the apartment to malls and movies, restaurants and receptions--from across the street to across the world. For Gary and me watching, it was poignant, a touch bittersweet, at times almost heartrending. Both of us felt deep respect for Margarita. As a mother, and even a mother who has shared her children’s’ love and respect with another woman—my own housekeeper Ruth—I felt I understood both the costs and the payoffs. For to have your child deeply cared about and heartily ministered to by another is to know he or she is being doubly nurtured and rewarded. No one—and certainly no child--can ever be loved too much.
LULU tangles with the Coast Guard
When we returned from Caracas, we found LULU resplendent from the care that had been lavished upon her. She’d had her paint blisters removed, her name retouched, her bottom painted, her tushy newly gelcoated, her stainless buffed, and her every flank dermabraded by compound and caressed by a coat of wax. She pranced out of Puerto La Cruz at last, in mid-January with me railing at every blackening puff of exhaust fumes, ready to shoot any bird that dared to raise its tail and let go of a shit bomb. Alas, birds and exhausts proved far more relentless and the endless maintenance circle soon reinstated itself full-force.
We chugged to Porlamar to
provision for the month-long process of finally leaving the country. A week
later we were richer by eight cases of wine and big stockpiles of our Top 10
favorite Venezuelan supermarket treats, plus some fresh buffalo mozzarella for
yet another of my relentless assaults on the secrets of pizza making. On the
last day of January we picked up our friends Barbara and Bob at the Margarita
airport, rushed them to Pescadores for lunch and a final dinner at Jaks. The
next morning we hoisted the sails for an intensive week of cruising—back to
Tortuga, on to Las Roques and eventually to Las Aves, our final exit point. We
were blessed that week with near-perfect winds and seas.
I dashed below to get the handheld VHF radio—an item that should have been in the cockpit and tuned to Channel 16, the international hailing frequency. The excuse that it wasn’t turned on because mostly all we hear is a lot of indecipherable Spanish jabber was not going to cut it. I decided lying would be the more prudent course--we hadn’t understood the call was for us.
Dragging out my Spanish, I hailed what was either the Venezuelan Navy or its Coast Guard.
There were no polite preliminaries: What I heard in authoritative if broken English was roughly equivalent to “Get the fuck out of here!” Essentially it was: “You are in a restricted area…your position very dangerous. Change course immediately to 090.” We were being ordered to make an instant U-turn, head East, directly into the wind, for Playa Caldera, a rolly Tortugan anchorage we’d had no intention of visiting.
“Aye, aye, sir!” We snapped into action, heading directly into the chop. Soon we were being asked to identify ourselves. If it hadn’t been so deadly serious, the miscommunications and mishearings would have been fun. (Since I mostly couldn’t understand their answers, I’m making up some of their part, but it won’t be far off.)
”We are the sailing vessel LULU,” I spoke my answer into the staticky void.
“LULU, we are the sailing vessel LULU.”
“DOO, DOO?” he might just have easily been saying. They were closing in physically, but we sure weren’t bridging any communication gaps.
I tried “L like loco, U like Unidos like in Estados Unidos, L, loco, U, Unidos…” No dice. (Loco, I realized too late, might have been an unfortunate choice of identifier in this context.
I trotted out a small sampling of other L-U words, none of them serving to illuminate better.
Somehow, we got the boat name handled, so I could begin to dread having to spell--much less sound out--the captain’s name – STRUTIN as in “struttin”’ not as in “strew-teen.”
It never occurred to me Venezuelans would use the familiar “Whisky, Charlie, Bravo” lingo, which I thought only English-speaking countries use. (LULU in this Phonetic alphabet being simply Lima, Uniform, Lima, Uniform.) I assumed there’d be a Spanish equivalent—say, “Wahoo, Carlos, Barracuda.” Later, much too late to end the communications mayhem, I learned the Phonetic Alphabet is used most everywhere in the world.
Meanwhile, aside from the frustrating inability to answer his questions, we had no idea just how ominous that “Get-the-fuck-out NOW!” was. Were we about to be blown up because the Navy was staging at-sea submarine war maneuvers? Deploying depth charges and water mines? Engaged in a pan-military coup to rid the country of Chavez?
“Su nacionalidad?” The interrogation continued.
Easy one: “Estados Unidos.”
“International identification?” he barked.
“Huh?…We don’t have any” I answered lamely and tried, ”How about our FCC radio call sign?”
I don’t know who was dumber, him or me. What he wanted was our US Coast Guard documentation number, 1081074--easily and quickly said, even by our four-year-old granddaughter, Veronica.
But our little chat didn’t go any further, because, exasperated, he announced, “We are boarding you.” This I understood, though in Spanish it was more like “we are sending a party.”
Some party! We had to slow down in the roiling seas, bounce around like a bottle while readying ourselves to receive who knew how many black-booted Venezuelan storm troopers (whom you do NOT ask to remove their shoes.)
A dark-skinned youngster, who looked not much over 16-years-old, approached by dinghy. Once aboard, the solemn teenager politely introduced himself as Privado or Enseño or Marinero Rodriguez. I noted happily that he was wearing sneakers and, hoping the soles weren’t slathered with seaweed, took him and his clipboard below.
Seaman Rodriguez was actually quite sweet. We had a conversation in a combination of Spanish, English and Hand Signal. After every question he radioed the ship, relaying my answer to his commander and receiving the next question. This arms-length interrogation continued with an order to drag out for inspection all our safety equipment—horns, bells, whistles, flares, life preservers—from a burial site behind the sofa cushions. This entire procedure took some time, during which LULU continued to lurch over the waves. Then we entered into negotiations over our fate vis-à-vis the Venezuelan government and Guardacostas.
Rodriguez said we were getting a citation—the word, differently pronounced, is the same in either language. But what that meant wasn’t quite clear to us: we imagined being thrown in the ship’s brig, banished to dry-dock for months, sentenced to pay some usurious fine, like 10 million Bolivars or—worst financial case--to provide the Guardacostas’ monthly beer quota. (Guardacostas, for the most part, have nothing to do but sit in their un-air-conditioned barracks in 100-degree heat, day and night, waiting for important missions such as the current one. Beer is an essential dietary staple.)
More important than what the citation was for was the bigger, most immediate problem of what to do with it. The Radio Voice--disembodied, but nonetheless boss—ordered us to report back to Porlamar, 90 miles away, two days hence, on Monday.
“Imposibile,” I replied. Barbara and Bob were flying out of Los Roques to Caracas—90 miles in the other direction—on Wednesday. “Can’t we answer the citation in Las Roques?” I asked Rodriguez, in my best imitation of simpering, hoping he’d plead my case to his Comandante.
Absolutely not—Los Roques is only a secondary or tertiary Coast Guard station—the inescapable implication being hardly anyone there was significant rank or importance to deal with miscreants like us. The Voice allowed that we could answer it in La Guaira—another hundred miles, this time south. Same problem. He continued mentioning first-rank Guardacosta headquarters around Venezuela but I finally wore him out. Okay, we could report to Los Roques.
That settled, I tried finding out exactly what quagmire we’d trespassed into. We learned there were two or maybe even three ships in the area doing seismographic research. Each was dragging four or five underwater cables--about five miles long behind. If this was true and we’d crossed their trail, presumably we or they--or all of us--could have been incinerated.
Since we couldn’t be cited for destroying either ourselves or the seismographic ships, the best the Guardacosta commander could muster was the citation, which we puzzled out was for not answering a radio call. Curious about our punishment, as soon as Rodriguez left, we set about emailing our contacts back in Porlamar, who dug around the Guardacostas and reported that when we got to Los Roques and reported to headquarters, we should hang our heads politely and look thoroughly remorseful. When the Comandante appeared he’d deliver a verbal hand-slap and send us on our way.
Ultimately we discovered the “research” area actually covered some 300 nautical miles—hard to avoid if you happened to be sailing Venezuelan waters. How typically Venezuelan, to invite you to a party and not tell you where it was happening. And then, when they show up and you don’t, they come gunning for you.
When we arrived at Los Roques headquarters, a small Quonset hut with mouthwatering cooking aromas wafting from the attached barracks, we were told to wait for the Comandante, who was either 100 miles away in Blanquilla or 100 yards away talking to Blanquilla, it wasn’t clear which. I understood we would have prepare a written document, a detailed explanation—in Spanish--of why we failed to answer the Coast Guard call. Ever the “A” student, I pulled out my handy pocket translator and jumped into a lengthy apologia. No one ever asked for it.
Eventually the crisp, debonair Capitain del Guardacostas appeared and gave us more of a convivial backslap than a gentle handslap. His beneficence may have been related to the fact that it was his birthday, coincidentally just one day before Gary's, which made it an occasion for even more of those silly smiles that frequently fill embarrassed chasms in rudimentary bilingual communications. Before dismissing us, he invited us to his cumpleaños fiesta in the town square at about 9:00 PM.
But we weren’t quite home free because El Capitain, always seeking activities for his barracks of bored men, announced he was sending over an inspection team, which materialized as a boarding party of five galoots, most of whom DID wear army boots—or sticky sandals or sneakers infused with pelican guano since the Gran Roque sky is home to maybe 1,000 pelicans swooping—and defecating—all hours of the day.
He sent not only his men, but an English translator—like there was something complicated about dragging out the safety equipment. But it was a sweet, convivial group, who treated us to an almost-Oriental series of handshakes and head-bobs. There was much agreement about how pretty and impressive LULU is--sledgehammer hints they wanted to see the rest. I sidestepped the dilemma of their filthy footgear by offering instead some liquid refreshment—water wouldn’t divert, but cerveza would. You will however see no hint of those five beercans on the website commemorative photo—they vanished under the table before the word “photo?” was even out of my mouth.
Dinner that night was in Gran Roque’s “town,” a sprinkling of buildings spread along a coral-sand necklace of beach. The village is dotted with pastel-colored private homes and tiny posadas--bed and breakfasts--built around enchanting courtyards. As we left the boat, we grabbed a bottle of Aniversario to present to the birthday boy. As the four of us sat on a beachfront patio eating, drinking and toasting the Welsh’s visit, various Guardacosta seamen rushed into the restaurant and ferried out of heavy-laden platters bound for the Comandante’s birthday dinner. But the alleged 9PM fiesta proved another of those vague Venezuelan parties—by 10:30 PM it was nowhere to be seen or heard in any of the three midget streets—or sole central square. More likely the public festivities didn’t rev up before 1PM or whenever the complimentary courses ran out and everyone exhaled their last puff of Cuban cigar smoke. In any event, we prided ourselves on being willing to, but not actually having to, relinquish our last bottle of Venezuela’s ambrosial rum.
Barbara and Bob left the next day, Bob having depleted, to the very last drop and at virtually the very last second, all his Martini ingredients. We hauled anchor and set about enjoying the rest of Los Roques in the 15 government-allotted days. (No, we weren’t singled out and penalized for our transgression—15 days is all any visiting boat gets.)
Sorta shitty weekend
The Roques are an archipelago, stretching some 15 by 25 square miles, of desolate islands that, geologically speaking, seem to have poked out of the sea not very long ago. Of the 50 named islands, only Gran Roque is inhabited. Beyond that are some 300 other land masses, little more than low-lying banks and reefs—sweeping, mostly unfoliated strips of pale white beach surrounded by large submerged expanses of themselves. These shallow-to-very-deep underwater reefs fragment the water into a swatch card of blues, from the palest of aquamarines to the most vibrant of cobalts. A sailboat, especially one with a nearly 7-foot keel has to thread very carefully between them. In this we were only moderately successful, having hit bottom at least three times. While you can see many long stretches and squat lumps of islands from wherever you’re anchored, these are still miles and miles away, all making for a contented feeling of isolation.
Passing by six or seven merely gorgeous beaches—making me feel like a Yuppie male in an Upper East Side bar--we dropped the hook in Sarqui, one of the most glorious anchorages ever: a giant horseshoe of a turquoise cove, rimmed all the way around by a perfect strip of marshmallowy beach that dribbled off on our port side to a squat stretch of reef less than 75 feet away.
Waves breaking against the small reef created a low-decibel level surf symphony, soothing and ceaseless. The burbling sounds were so mellifluous, the night stars so plentiful, unaccompanied as they are in the uninhabited Roques by electric land lights of any kind, that I’d actually suggested sleeping outdoors.
That was when we were only one of four boats sharing this vast, inviting space. Too inviting, apparently. Into our idyll, chugging in on Detroit (named and sized) diesel engines, intruded a 120-foot motor yacht, dragging behind two ancillary boats: a water-ski dinghy sporting an 85HP engine and a 20-foot skiff for even longer range outings. Either of these can easily overpower a gentle, melodic surf. On deck was a hyper-enthusiastic family of maybe 20.
By the next morning a sistership with a similar guest roll appeared, and soon the harbor was infested by at least 20 more Caraqueñan stinkpots, all over 70 feet, each sporting a summer camp’s worth of water toys.
We’d forgotten this was the weekend preceding Carnival, creating a five- or six-day vacation opportunity. Venezuelans are revelers by heart, adept at savoring downtime in a big way. They’ve got it rigged so that Christmas is a month-long celebration, flows seamlessly into New Year’s, which is celebrated until at least January 7--but, with most everyone hung over and partied out, in many areas businesses first sleepily open their doors around the 14th. No sooner do the keys cool than it’s Carnival time. Yippee!
Parachute gliders were soon soaring overhead and waterborne ski-boarders skimming over the waves at high speed. Attached to airborne kites in the shape of giant parentheses, these new-fangled waterboarders vault high into the air like ski jumpers, twisting, turning and somersaulting.
Daddies amusing the little kids began blasting around the anchorage in ski boats, jetskis, banana rafts and gargantuan rubber tires, while female family members, most of them Binocular Scorchers of the highest order, strung on their bikinis and made for the beach.
As dusk fell, things quieted down. Gary scanned the passengers next door and noted there were (I’m not exaggerating) five nubile young girls--though only 12 or 13 clearly trembling on the brink of significant flesh explosions--plus a curvaceous, possibly surgically enhanced, daughter in her mid-twenties and a not-yet-over-the-hill mother. The thonged younger set began jumping off the two-story flybridge. Gary grabbed for his trusty binoculars.
Gary, who never took up any other male sports, seems to
have picked up the latter-life lecher activity of using all available ocular
enhancements to pour over the local female pores. He’s not yet sunk to
critiquing bikini waxes, but that could come any day. In addition, he finds one
of the particular joys of the cruising life the number of Europeans who bathe
off their boats naked. He spends many a pre-sundown scrunched into the cockpit,
unabashedly flaunting his binoculars, while hailing Mel by radio with bulletins
about his more noteworthy sightings. I do not consider these his finest hours.
Lucky for him, in Sarqui he was working off a substantial credit for good behavior, gained that very day…
“I figured out what to do about your dish drainer,” was the first thing he’d said on awakening that morning, as if sleep had torn him away from a discussion of our ongoing failure to pamper the china.
Now, it’s true my collapsible plastic dish drainer is an irreplaceable (because discontinued) treasure. Compact, foldaway, not to mention tastefully black, it uses the minimum possible space on our tiny sink counter and stores easily when underway. But, not unlike us humans, its best quality is also its key flaw--it tends to collapse utterly under the weight of more than two plates, thereby becoming a danger to itself as well as the dishes. Gary had thusfar developed only a series of patches and stopgap measures to keep it working. Now, within an hour, he’d cut, glued and installed a foolproof fix, all out of a mere scintilla of leftover clear plastic.
”I’ve been working on a solution a long time, you know…”
No, I hadn’t known, but that kind of episode is not atypical. Aside from napping (and fixing things) Gary spends most of the rest of his time staring off into space, usually with the index-finger side of his hand propped between his lips (which I surmise may be a form of appetite control—otherwise he’d spend all of his waking time eating.) When I ask him what he’s doing he says, “Thinking, I love to think.” (We used to call him “Mr. High-on-Life.”)
He’s usually thinking about a problem. Gary really enjoys gnashing his brain on a good problem. Not a dilemma, not a predicament, certainly not a crisis. He doesn’t like such negative words: problem is okay if it absolutely has to be identified. Difficulty is better. Challenge is better still.
He actually seeks them out. I’ve always thought the reason we were always making corporate spending decisions that looked like certain suicide, the reason Plastic Works seemed always to be teetering on the brink of financial extinction, its emaciated checkbook barely able to cough up lunch, was so Gary could pluck some new infusion of borrowed cash out of air even thinner than our bank balance, rescuing us in the nick of time from certain annihilation.
This propensity to hover on the brink is what makes him so well suited to living on a boat. And, living with me, I’ll admit. Because boats break all the time. And, as for me, I’m always at the ready with a new crisis: ”Gaaah! I can’t find my sunglasses…my credit card…my magazine…the rag I was using. Where I stored the ketchup…the yeast…the raisins…the extra flag…”
”Gaaah! My shoe jumped overboard…I dropped the walkie-talkie in the toilet…the VHF radio in the sink!”
“Gaaah! The dryer won’t start…the washing machine doesn’t stop…the Dustbuster won’t run…”
“Gaaah! The vacuum…this door catch…my electric toothbrush…my computer doesn’t work!”
(In my own defense, since he’s off in some corner or couch staring into space, I’m the one more often doing things. So by default, I’m the problem discoverer. If people hearing me shriek, “Gaaah!” think I’m a shrew, the fact is he’s so far away solving problems, I have to scream just to break into his concentration.)
So, I’m Chicken Little, he’s Captain Marvel and the sky is always falling—even if it’s only a ceiling panel.
The additional allure of a boat is that not only do constant problems crop up, but he has to solve them with the available materials, which frequently enough are the equivalent of a foot of wire and a wad of chewing gum. And he does eventually solve all the problems, almost always in some ingenious, completely unexpected way. (Except my computer, which seems to have more unfamiliar interior gizmos, mysterious, finicky green and silver circuitry that don’t lend themselves to his particular intuitive mechanical problem-solving like your average pump—or dish drainer.)
My dish drainer, he pointed out back in Sarqui, hadn’t even been on his “List.” This earned him extra points, which he sorely needed at that moment, since I was miffed his blatant ogling and our intrusive neighbors. My mood had blackened about 8 PM, after a pleasant cockpit dinner, when we discovered that, in addition to its many other charms, the skyline-grabbing Park Avenue apartment building next door was blessed with circus-tent klieg lights and a stereo system capable of blasting out a Broadway musical. Preferring unspoiled cove to “Evita,” I began grumbling and went below, while Gary happily immersed himself in watching the little sexpots wiggling, waving, high-kicking and committing Salsa on the flybridge.
So I took some savage pleasure in breaking into his bliss with my last of the day “Gaaah!” which was actually related to one of the first, which was “Gaaah! The bathroom stinks!” Now, competing two rooms away and below decks with a virtual cabaret, I reported at earsplitting pitch, “Gaaah! The head is stinking like a cesspool and I think I hear something coming out of it!”
Those are words even a problem solving addict prays he never hears. Nonetheless, the binoculars remained riveted in place. “Oh, it probably needs some chemical. I’ll look at it later.”
Meanwhile, the holding tank continued protesting whatever it was holding ever more vociferously. One more screech brought him below--where simply opening the Formica door in front of the holding tank compounded the noxious odor by about 1000 percent and rendered me remorseful for every overspiced, peppery, acidic Caribbean meal I’d ever digested. But Gary, utterly impervious to guilt of any kind, took only a cursory look, slammed the door shut, flipped me another “Needs some chemical, I’ll do it in the morning,” and, abandoning me in the can, returned for Act Two of “Can-Can.”
Suddenly I heard a long, uninterrupted hiss. I opened the door, was almost blown away by the stench and saw something very dark brown burbling around the screwed-on metal plate at the top of the tank.
“Oh, God, Gaaah, it’s leaking!!!”
Show over…no encores.
We spent the next 24 hours siphoning, unclogging, draining, cleaning--not to mention retching—and finally disinfecting that tank.
Till it was over, only the binoculars got a rest…