Life Aboard LULU

July 16, 2002 (SCAM, BAM, THANK YOU MA’AM!)
Back Home Next 


 Turns out most of the men never trusted him. The women, on the other hand, fell like dominoes. Most, though not all, onto their backs--one after the other, it seems, and sometimes virtually on top of each other. If women and men talked—really talked--to each other, a 20-year-old English tourist might not be out $6,000.

But that’s the end of the story. Here’s the beginning:

On May 31, as LULU swung gently on a mooring outside Kralendijk, Bonaire’s miniscule main city, someone knocked on her hull. I peered over the starboard stern rail to find a deeply tan, darkly handsome stranger treading water alongside. He’d swum over from the boat “next door,” to tell us our “man overboard” gizmo was lit. A dying sun set his thick black hair aglow; a keyboard’s worth of iceberg teeth flashed in the gathering dusk, matched by a swath of incandescent white below his waist--not bathing suit but butt. He was buck-naked.

He lingered, most disconcertingly, to chat, apologizing for his inadequate English, which was only exceeded by his appalling good looks. Later, when Gary and I bumped into him in town—squiring two twentysomething vacationing American sisters--he re-introduced himself as Patrick.

Though that was really only a nickname, he said when we met him next. Rather, he was Ignácio, and days later “Nacho” to his very good friends, which select circle we were soon invited to join. Most people knew him as Patrick, but somehow Ignácio always fit the swashbuckling-Spaniard image better. And Don Juan was best of all.

Of course, now we wonder just how many other names—not to mention passports—he has. And what part, if any, of his beguiling stories and adventures at sea might be true. He was, he said, Ignácio Miró, an Iberian pilot enjoying an 18-month sabbatical, his father Spain’s ambassador to Germany. His paternal uncle was the renowned artist, Miró, in whose art Ignácio had personally assisted--deployed, as a young boy, before canvasses, with straight pins in his right hand, to release the bright colors that would dribble down when he burst the paint-swollen condoms in his left. Condoms, of course, would later become key tools of his trade, as he plied marinas and moorings rattling marriages and breaking women’s’ hearts.


His boat name was DON JUAN—stencilled, along with its port of call—Tortola--in red on the 50-foot sloop’s navy-blue hull. That alone should have been a clue. But, he said--in a swift murmur of Spanish-accented English that made women lean in, strain to understand, and fall straightaway under his spell--there are two operas called “Don Juan.” Only one, the Italian, chronicled a drop-dead handsome Lothario who leaves a litter of broken hearts in his wake. His referred, naturally, to the older, more courtly Don Juan--the Spanish version.

Over a series of happy-hours and dinners, Ignácio told us he would soon complete a single-handed circumnavigation—the third, in fact, of his 41 years. Along the way he’d stopped in Roatán, Honduras and bought a marina; followed, in fairly short shrift, by a 72-foot sailboat. He would soon depart—two days hence was the recurring joke—from Bonaire for the Canal, en route to California. After taking delivery in La Jolla, he’d learn the boat and its systems—in the allotted two days--and sail to Spain, returning to his job and his hacienda/ranch. He hoped to complete this final leg by sailing to the Arctic, arriving in August and passing from the Pacific to the Atlantic during the treacherous, 17(or so)-day annual weather window when massive blocks of rapidly converging ice would be groaning about his aluminum hull, threatening with basso profundo dissonance to crush it like a can of Amstel. This passage had been accomplished, he told us, by only three other private sailboats.

In the retelling all this sounds utterly implausible, a collection of fantasy only anOn LULU's Boom eight-year-old might buy into. In my defense, and that of many others of my sex, it dribbled out slowly over the month we knew him, during which time he gathered the substance borne of growing friendship. Besides, he asked nothing of us. Quite the contrary, he scrambled nimbly (this time clothed) up our 85-foot mast, crawling everywhere to wash and polish off Bonaire’s least alluring element—the ubiquitous rusty, brown grit that appears unbidden and adheres itself fiercely to everything.


Because the island is low-rise, dry and very windy, the red dust of the Sahara, borne by unobstructed air currents from faraway Africa, deposits--non-stop--a thin red film along with unsightly rusty blotches on our bright-white gelcoat. I take it very personally. This unpleasant grit became the mortar that cemented our friendship with Ignácio/Patrick/Nacho. In one of our early conversations about the ongoing lack of rain I groused about how impossible it is for us to climb that far up the mast, shrouds and spreaders and wash off the red muck.

An hour later--at that time he was Patrick--appeared to do the job for us--shimmying up the mast (this time dressed), a garden hose knotted about his slim waist. The water pressure didn’t come near sending a spray to the top. Dissatisfied with the result, he insisted on returning for a second assault, bringing a special pump from his boat. Once finished cleaning, he thought it a good idea to check our standing and running rigging.

So, brazenly taking advantage of all this cheerful willingness, I dragged out an old favorite line of my mother’s—“As long as you’re up there…” and asked him to change a mast-top lightbulb. Because, as anyone knows, the answer to "How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb atop an 85-foot mast?" runs something like, "None--it's not part of our genome."

People of our faith may come to such a job with the electrical, but without the existential wiring. The reason is surely buried somewhere deep in our Sephardic genes. As if too many years wandering in the desert making do with Cactus on Matzoh, hold the mayo, resulted in an unusually high attachment to creature comforts. Or maybe sacrificing countless tender young goats made us overly protective of our hides. In this vein, remember, it was Moses--a token jock emissary and not the entire tribe--who climbed Mt Sinai to pick up the Commandments.

Not surprisingly, then, Gary and I welcomed someone else taking on the role of personal Superman. We insisted in return on taking him to dinner as thanks. Thus began a series of social encounters, during which those fathomless black eyes and deep suntanned swarthiness, set off by white or turquoise or burnt-orange linen shirts, were sufficiently enthralling for me to ignore any minor discrepancies or near impossibilities in his captivating yarns. Gary, on the other hand, sensibly persisted in a low-grade skepticism, warning, “This guy is not who he says he is. But he’s fun, so let’s enjoy him.”

Don Juan incarnate

Slim, muscular, a Pierce-Brosnan lookalike, Patrick greeted strangers along his way like a rambunctious terrier. People unfailingly stopped to laugh with him. Despite his recent arrival, he seemed to have met and captivated most everybody: tourists and residents, women and men. Whatever they called him to his face, most everyone referred to him informally as Don Juan.

We rarely glimpsed him without a woman, and a different woman, at that. Out sailing with a gaggle of laughing, lissome, bikinied beauties. On the dock beside his boat, now marina-based. In his cockpit, laughing over drinks, listening intently to some local beauty. Everywhere greeting women with a healthy series of San-Tropez-worthy, bilateral cheek passes. He charmed shop girls, office workers, even mature local restaurateurs, speaking, as needed, in flawless Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, English…why do I think he could have managed Swahili?

In Ignácio’s reality, everything was always “perfect:” every day, every plan, every situation and relationship--which assessment he delivered with a contented, conspiratorial smile, as if he were the sole owner of the secret to making life work effortlessly. Life got even more perfect when sailing. Unlike the rest of us “cruisers,” he took DON JUAN out for a spin almost every day, sometimes overnight to Klein Curacao, sometimes two days back and forth to Curacao itself. He was an expert sailor: one morning he single-handed our 61-footer in rip-roaring and rampaging winds and seas. As passengers and sailors ourselves, it was easy to believe he’d circumnavigated alone. More questionable was how he’d done it so quickly.

The One

Then one day, zipping by in his dinghy, he stopped to tell us he’d fallen in love, finally, utterly, head-over-heelsedly; the first woman he’d really loved since age 18. He brought her by to meet us. She seemed in every way his equal: in beauty, in poise, in charm, in joie de vivre.

Snow-White serenity meets Don-Juan dash: a match benevolent gods would have intended, created…blessed. Ignácio set about getting Isabel* (*Women’s names changed to protect his victims) to leave her husband, settling for whatever “chance” meetings and midday trysts she could manage.

She was The One, the one he’d settle down with contentedly. (Forsaking all others, naturally.) Meanwhile, until that sylvan moment arrived, he continued along his utterly merry way, the Pied Piper of Kralendijk.

He arrived for dinner one night accompanied by a bouncy, curly-haired Londoner named Noelle*, who seemed socially adept much beyond her 20 years. They returned the next morning for a daysail. She was quite clearly living aboard—and atop--Don Juan. With the sexual insouciance typical of her generation, she was merely enjoying a fling while vagabonding about the world, living off the savings of two-years’ grunt work.

“Everything is perfect, absolutely perfect,” Ignácio/Patrick/Nacho reassured, answering my raised eyebrows.  “They know everything about each other.”  And indeed, they seemed to, I observed, as the two women crossed paths amiably, around lunchtime, in our cockpit--changing shifts as smoothly and impassively as two Buckingham Palace sentries.

Ah, but when it came to shifts—or more correctly, shifty—Don Juan turns out to be King.

Looking every bit the Spanish conquistador, Ignácio outlined their upcoming itinerary, unusual in itself, since he rarely planned more than two days in advance. For the next week or more he would sail DON JUAN around the Netherlands Antilles with Noelle, drop her in Aruba and she’d fly off, meet a girlfriend to explore Italy. Meanwhile, Isabel, his OneTrue Love would return to Venezuela, introduce her parents to the idea of divorce and, not long after, to the physical reality of Ignácio. After that he’d whisk her off to his hacienda in Spain, to assure her he was for real.

“He’s quite swept me off my feet,” Isabel told me. “ But I just need to be sure he’s not some white slaver.”  I wondered, then, was she really aware of the “sleeping” arrangements on DON JUAN? And was my responsibility to our new friend Ignácio or to this jittery member of my sex? 

The Mark

The speed of events eliminated the need to vote. They all went their separate ways one night. Noelle and Ignácio returned from Curacao two days later; the passage back had been rough. They disappeared again some 48 hours later, but, in any event, this was Ignácio‘s well-established pattern. We’d already bid Noelle goodbye. He would return to join us for a July 4th celebration, after which he’d fly to meet Isabel.

But it was Noelle, not Ignácio, who knocked on our hull on July 4. Independence Day, we soon learned, is only for some people.

Did we know where Nacho was? she asked urgently.

Not exactly, but he was due to return any minute, for the party.

“Forget that,” she announced. “He’s run off with all my clothes, my dive gear, my camera, my film, every thing but the clothes I’m wearing. Plus $6,000, every cent I’ve got. I’ve had the Dutch, the Venezuelan, the American Coast Guards out in boats and helicopters searching for him since yesterday. He’s vanished, absolutely vanished.”

But how? Hadn’t they’d sailed off together?

In fact, Noelle had decided to fly to Curacao--to cut several hours of uncomfortable sailing and recurring seasickness from the long trip to Aruba. Nacho would pay his Bonaire bills, check out, fuel up and join her. They’d then sail for Aruba.

But on the way to the airport that morning, Nacho suddenly “remembered” the $10,000 in traveler’s checks he’d planned on buying in town. Achh! He’d forgotten his credit card; in the rush to make Curacao by mid-afternoon, there wasn’t time to return for the card. Could she advance him the $10,000? In Curacao they’d go a bank—she’d have her money back later that day.

Forgetting completely to stop and think, she said,  ”I haven’t got $10,000. The most I can do is $6,000.”  Which she proceeded to withdraw. Trusting him at his word, as many a secure, protected upper-middle-class 20-year-old might—even one as savvy, streetwise and well-traveled as she. When he didn’t show up at the Curacao Yacht Club, she waited several hours, her growing distress inevitably noticed by members, who came to her aid. Certain he was in trouble at sea, they called out all available help.

As Noelle’s story unfolded, we met the Nacho she’d been introduced to: Don Juan—the Italian version—a wanderer, a playboy, a skirt-chaser. Returning to Bonaire? Never under consideration. Nor Venezuela. He was on his way to Panama, where a skipper friend named Raul would bring the new boat, to be—allegedly--much less ostentatiously named TOSCA.  Raul would then sail DON JUAN to her new owner.

Isabel was merely one more of the married women who routinely fell for him. “Why would I want an entanglement?” he’d told Noelle “I’ve got a brain tumor. The doctors give me another four years. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in treatment. I’m out seeing and doing everything I can for as long as I can.” 

In the flurry of conversation his disappearance provoked, we learned he’d also skipped out on a marina bill. Nor did he pay a poor immigrant couple: the wife for 15 days of washing his clothes and cleaning DON JUAN’s interior, the husband for $300 worth of boat maintentance—Ignácio had even made off with the man’s toolbox, small, meagerly appointed, but critical to his livelihood.

He was bound for Aruba, Puerto Cabello, Panama, California, Europe, St Martin--depending on who got which story. He showed all his “intimates” somewhat dissimilar faces, described different plans: returning to Spain to work, starting a charter business with Isabel, buying villas in Bonaire, buying the local marina complex itself. Unfortunately no-one, even those prescient (or retrospectively doubting) men, saw fit or felt sufficiently at ease to share their uneasiness.

Confused, chagrined, contrite, Noelle called her parents, who, relieved she was unharmed, quite sensibly told her if money were all that was lost, then nothing truly important was lost. Returning to work, paying her debt would, of course, take precedence over continued travel; she was, after all, a sensible, well brought-up girl. They advanced her the plane ticket home.

We invited her to stay aboard LULU the several days she needed to sort out her situation, during which time we all agreed she probably learned an inexpensive lesson: too good to be true is almost always just exactly that.

We may never know the entire truth about Don Juan. It seems he slips into new harbors, noisily and most effectively sowing the seeds for potential con opportunities. With his boat name he blatantly announces--even while denying--his real game. Noelle may, almost literally, have fallen in his lap, but Isabel was more likely the real mark: an economically viable married woman, once swindled, has too much more at stake to talk. “I knew he was too good to be true,” she told me, when I phoned her in South America to tell her he wouldn’t be arriving on schedule. “But I fell in love with him anyway.”

Gary and I acted not only as the conduits for occasional messages and meetings: we were also, most likely, mere window dressing. Unmistakeably Don Juan was well educated, well traveled--if perhaps not as well heeled--as he seemed, but we--as representatives of high-visiblity retired cruisers--were probably targeted to lend an even more unassailable aura of credibility.

In the scheme of maritime—and indeed, world--crime, $6,000 is hardly of interest to harassed, jaded authorities. Despite the fervor with which Noelle planned on pursuing her various leads, it seemed more than likely he’d slip away in the vast, equally indifferent sea and never be found.

Surprise ending

Ah, but there turned out to be a wild card—me. My dormant reporter’s instincts, not to mention dogged persistence, finally surfaced. I dragged out my Columbia Journalism school investigative reporting skills and, with the Coast Guard Caribbean wide-search dribbling away, initiated our own. Enlisting the Safety & Security Net--that morning radio gathering of cruisers who report from everywhere about crimes involving cruisers or boats—several mornings in a row we radio’ed the details of the theft, plus descriptions of Patrick/Ignácio/Nacho and the missing DON JUAN. We also relayed to David Jones, the Tortola-based weather guru, reaching his large audience. Meanwhile, down in Panama, some 700 miles away, our friend, Sandy, on LITTLE BIT chimed in report she’d ask cruisers over the more local radio-based net to be on the lookout in that area.

Lo and behold, not two days later, the boat was spotted in the Panama Yacht Club. That was several days ago.

Concurrently Noelle's sleuthing unearthed yet another overwrought, broken-hearted married woman left at the dock. Plus, it appears as if Don Juan is a non-discriminatory predator, one who may be romancing both sexes. Innuendo in some correspondence indicates that the month Nacho spent here in Bonaire he was also involved in conning Raul, the California skipper who was to rendez-vous with the new sailboat and who, it appears, has enjoyed some homosexual fantasies, maybe even actualities, with Nacho. Besides an ongoing exchange of cyberspace hugs, Don Juan seems to be inviting Raul and some other men into a syndicate to buy the 72-foot, soon-to-be-TOSCA . Or, even more likely, into co-signing a substantial bank loan for her.

Sadly, though DON JUAN, the sloop, has been located, without some really hard evidence, Don Juan himself can’t be touched. Well, metaphorically, anyway. Most anyone with a bulging wallet or a platinum VISA can always get into his shorts.


Back Up Next


Subscribe To Receive New Newsletters Via Email (LULU News)


Send a Message To Louise & Gary Regarding Their Journey


Send A Message to Wendy Regarding This Web Page


Return to Out There Living To Read Other Adventure Stories