One lucky gringoOct 2, 2013
Mechanical troubles lead a delivery crew to a little-visited Caribbean island and a hotly contested local boat race
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An undiscovered jewel
Providencia was one of the last undiscovered jewels in the Caribbean. At least it was over a dozen years ago. While we were there, the first cruise ship visited the island. It anchored beyond the reef and ferried tourists ashore, who glanced around and quickly scooted back to the boat. The local residents, who had swept and painted for a week prior to its arrival, watched the boat steam over the horizon, wondering if it would ever return.
With two months on the island, Howey and his crew Doug Warthen had ample time for exploring.
For the next two months, Doug and I effected repairs and awaited word from the owner. She had flown home with her four small children, rattled by the roughness of the sea, leaving the boat, and us, behind. It was a tricky situation, working for this owner. I had volunteered to help when I met the boat in Charleston. Billy was pumping fuel into the marina, a transfer gone awry, and helping sort the valves out had introduced me to the boat’s owner. I could see that she needed help, as she was attempting to reach Hong Kong with her husband and four kids and not a lot of experience. I asked her to call me if she wanted the crew. She said she couldn’t afford to hire anyone. I told her I would do it without pay.
I brought along Doug as mate, and it was the two of us who were left there in Providencia as the owner departed. It took three days to break down the engine, clean the turbo, and get it up and running again. There wasn’t a proper belt on the island, but we found one an inch short, cut it, and adjusted the length with steel wire. A proper belt and a spare were ordered to be flown in. We spent the next five weeks waiting on word from the owner and exploring this volcanic paradise.
A love for gambling
Here was a beautiful land settled by beautiful people with a love for gambling. They raced horses on the beach and bet on the winner. They fought chickens — a brutal affair — while wadded bills were tossed from one screaming spectator to another. In the protected harbor, model boats were pitted against one another, the skippers tending to their creations from noisy dinghies. But the grand tradition on Providencia was the racing of their homebuilt sloops, sleek buckets that held a pile of canvas with booms as vast as their masts, a dozen men hiking out to keep the keel firmly in the water.
Every Sunday, we watched these boats tack their way past us up to the finish line at the wharf. The same boat won each time. It had been winning for years. None of the others could touch her. But we met a man who was building a challenger. We watched as the finishing touches were put on his craft up on the beach, then as the nameless boat was rolled on logs down to the sea. I had gotten to know the owner from going out fishing with him several mornings, helping pull up heavy traps out on distant reefs in exchange for a few of the fish trapped inside. I was asked if I would like to sail on his boat during the next big race. I couldn’t believe my luck.
We had been in Providencia for more than a month, had sailed around the island in a catamaran built by lashing our two kayaks together, had donated one of our Panama Canal towlines to replace a fraying swing at a popular beach, had fallen so madly in love with the place that I had taken to asking strangers to marry me so that I could stay forever. And now, as our time there came to a close, I found myself swimming from a beach to this new sloop to ride on its maiden voyage, a race around the south side of the island and up the length of the harbor.
By lashing two kayaks together and using a makeshift sail, Howey and Warthen made an impromptu catamaran.
I was mere ballast for the race. And I believe, quite possibly, a good luck charm. For the owner, anyway. He claimed his pots were more full of fish the days I came out to haul them up, but I knew this was just a happy man seeing all the possible good in the world. It was, I felt sure, the same amount of fish whether my hand was on the line or not. And I weighed as much as anyone else who might sit on the rails while he did all the work of sailing.
The race began with a gunshot. It was a fair start, and hundreds waved from the beach as the sails gathered the wind. It was soon apparent that we were not the swifter boat, as the longtime champ clawed away from us. By the time we rounded the spit that led into the harbor, we were 10 or more boat lengths behind. But now the real work would begin, the tacking back and forth into the steady breeze that ripped over the island day and night. The boat ahead of us turned toward the finish line. We continued to sail right by.