Christmas at Calabash
16o 24.024 North 086o 20.317 West
Over the past week weve been touched that many of you e-mailed Ithaka with Christmas and New Year greetings, letting us know of your lives, and asking how we spent Christmas. Heres what we did. On Christmas morning, for the first time in seven days, the rain gods rested, the clouds parted, the sky was bright, and cruisers from all over the Bay Islands of Honduras came by dinghy, by cruising boat, and by taxi to the little harbor of Oak Ridge, on Roatán, where the local marinasix rickety slips with nary a yacht before the 23rdoffered free dockage for Christmas and the use of their palapa and kitchen for a pot-luck dinner.
Thirty-five miles north of mainland Honduras, Roatán is a ribbon-thin island thats 40 miles long and two miles wide, running roughly WSW to ENE. The ancient push and shove of tectonic plates produced the Bonacca Ridge, which has given the world a divers paradise. Roatán, once a pirates refuge, sits atop this ridge within the deep Bartlett Trough. Parallel to the south shore is a shallow coral reef with a deep-wall drop-off that runs the length of the island. There are a number of reef-breaks that lead to well-protected bays and inlets, known here as bights. Thats why pirates loved this place: off-soundings water almost to shore, then bights that reach far into the island, offering secret harbors to divvy up booty, escape from each other, and maintain immunity from storms. In Calabash Bight, where we anchored for Christmas, 55 shrimp trawlers successfully weathered the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in October 1998.
To travel between the bights, yachts must exit through the reef, return to deep water, and arc around the reef to the next opening. But for small boatscayucos and skiffsinside the reef and along the shore are channels through the mangroves. Often these are a tunnel with a green canopy, a marine highway that made it possible for a number of cruisers whod anchored farther away from Oak Ridge to dinghy to Christmas dinner. Sailors also came in from the neighboring islands of Utila and Guanaja, anchoring in Jonesville, Big Cay Channel, Carib Bight, and Fiddlers Bight. The folks in French Harbor, farther west and beyond dinghy distance, took regular colectivo taxis on the one main road that runs through three-quarters of the island. For a cruiser in Roatán, Christmas at Oak Ridge served up the chance to meet in person some of the folks wed only talked to on the radio for the past year. That was one of the gifts.
Lisa on Sand Dollar announced the holiday get-together over the SSB radio on the Northwest Caribbean Cruisers Net and on the VHF. Over several days, she somehow orchestrated which cruiser brought what, a task akin to herding stray cats, and at 2 pm, like a surprising new star in the east, a full gourmet Christmas feastincluding two turkeys with dressing and gravymagically appeared on the tables. Guy and Annika on Street Legal dinghied from Hole in the Wall, over in Jonesville. From Calabash Bight, where Ithaka was anchored, Inge and Pieter, a Dutch couple on a 50-foot steel Colin Archer named Baerne, and Carol and Greg, South Africans on Carlinwith Gregs guitarall dinghied over. In the marina for the day were Americans Gene and Marcia on Pangaea; Ullie and Margaret, from Bremen, Germany, on Filia, a Hallberg-Rassy 41 thats been their home for 15 years; from Ruach was Gary, a Lutheran minister from Texas, now on a year-and-a-half sabbatical, his wife Carol and 14-year-old daughter Bethany, a virtuoso violinist who stunned us with her performances. (Ruach, Gary told me, is the Hebrew word for the great winds from God at the time of creation. "The name really appealed to me," he laughed. "Its in the Lords first language, and in the event we need help, well, you know...") Paul from Xtazy came solo; his girlfriend had been called home for a family emergency the week before, but he brought both food and his electric bass. The man can play. We met the crews from Emma Nuestra, and Weigh Kewl, and taxiing in from French Harbor were Leon and Wally from Mabuhai, Larry on Antigone, and Maria and Joe, on Odyssey, who were hit by lightning last season in Providencia, and were busy installing all-new electronics. Dave Waltz from Victoria was there, serving up his homemade paté, picking his banjo and playing the harmonica; hes the man everyone in the Northwest Caribbean relies on for his daily weather reports on the morning net; Dave is amazing.
It was a good Christmas, one of tale-swapping, plan-making, camaraderie, and reunion. Even Pieter, the riotous Dutchman on Baerne, an admitted skeptic about group fiestas, declared that the food was "exceptionally better than the usual lucky pot." Except for those staying in the marina, everyone left by 4:30, to weave through the canals with enough light to find our boats. As Bernadette and I dinghied east to Calabash, a Peter Max sunset followed us home.
Theres a bittersweet quality to Christmas while cruising. Its a holiday with a deep taproot of memories, and many of them were revived by the absence of family and familiar. Bernadette and I had a many-year tradition of large crowds at our home for Christmas dinner: generally a couple dozen friends and family. This year, there were at least that many people in Oak Ridge. Yes, we enjoyed ourselves, but both of us also felt the distance from people we love and miss, and for the first time in her life Bernadette didnt get the opportunity to talk to her father, nor I to my mother, on Christmas. Cruising offers great wonders and extracts high prices. Being away from family is probably the steepest.
Back on Ithaka, along with memories of Santa Claus, Menorahs, Christmas trees and grandmother Gangoo sleeping at our house on Christmas eve, one reverie in particular danced in my head. On Christmas dayfor more than a decadeBilly and Belle Mendelson and their two German shepherds came to our home. Friends of my parents, they had a succession of shepherds, as well as the earliest and latest Polaroid cameras. Starting on Christmas eve, theyd make the rounds of dozens of their friends, Christian and Jew, with their big hounds goofily got up in large red bows and Santa caps.
Armed with rolls and rolls of film, Billy, Belle, and the "boys" piled into their Ford Country Squire station wagon, and at each home theyd drop off a small gift for the kids: pencils or a pair of socks or candy bars. Theyd each down a shot glass of scotch, always thrown back neat in one hot, brain-jarring gulp, and take a photo of the family. Wed all ooh and ahh, and then theyd place it in a shoebox, a small treasure chest, and give us our family photo from the previous year, before moving on to their next host and another round! They generally arrived at our house around noon on Christmas, and wed never have left for any activity before they got there. Wed linger over everyones pictures and listen to tales of friends and strangers. That late in their circuit, Billy and Belle would have been to a score of homes and downed a good bit of grog, 20th-century troubadours chronicling families and linking their personally chosen community with powerful bonds in slices of time. As a boy I couldnt grasp the ripples of their endeavor or their many mixed motivations, but looking back Im grateful for the years of photos I still have and for their generous example.
So, to the wonderful group of cruisers with whom we shared our Christmas, and to the many people whove sent us holiday e-mails telling us of your lives and dreams and wishing us well, were indebted. Like Billy and Belle, you make our lives richer. Thanks, and Happy New Year.