Life On The Hard
The land effect from the Sierra Nombre de Dios mountains, spreading from our north horizon to our south, was playing havoc with the weather forecast; from Cayos Cochinos Ithaka beat into 25 knots of katabatic winds from the south-southwest, when 15 from the northeast had been predicted. Strong and determined as she is, though, she shouldered her way through it toward La Ceiba on the mainland of Honduras, eager for her date with a Travelift and a coat of new blue bottom paint.
I stared at the velvety green peaks looming larger and larger before us. Usually shrouded in mist, the range stood clear and saw-toothed against the blue sky, peaked with the unmistakable emerald mass of the spiky Pico Bonito, the mountain jewel towering over La Ceiba; from it cascaded massive waterfalls down to the churning Río Cangrejal, known for some of the best white-water rafting in Central America. The possibilities for adventure looked pretty substantial, but Douglas and I had steeled ourselves; our stop in La Ceiba was for work; every day we stayed there would cost money, and we had a list a mile long of chores and projects.
As we closed in on our waypoint outside the La Ceiba breakwater, it became clear why cruisers are encouraged to call Tony Vorleiter, the owner of Lagoon Marina, to guide them in and down the shallow river toward La Ceiba Shipyard and Lagoon Marina. The breakwater is a manmade structure with a narrow opening that even on calmer days looks like it got stuck in the agitated-rinse cycle. Easterly trades create a frequently shifting sandbar, and boats can ground hard on the shallow, rolly approach. Tony knows where its safe, and when we radioed to say we were approaching, he jumped in one of his high-speed launches, and came out to get usa free service if you plan to stay at Lagoon Marina. As we puttered down the river, I tried to imagine what the next two weeks held in store, how wed fit in all we needed to do and all we wanted to see.
A fellow named Al Jacobs wrote to us almost a year ago, told us he and his wife Teresa had been following our Logs. Said they were living in La Ceiba, Honduras, where Teresa was principal of the Mazapan School, and Al was the schools computer-science teacher. "Stop in," he wrote. "The Bay Islands are beautiful. Wed love to see you, and well make you feel at home. Theres a great marina here, and a good-looking shipyards just opening."
As time went on, Douglas and Al began chatting back and forth on e-mail, and becoming friends. Als a retired Army colonel who fought in Viet Nam, was an instructor of jungle warfare at the Army special-forces school, a military historian and lecturer at the Army war college, a tank-brigade commander in the Persian Gulf War, and a good-ole South Georgia boy who continues the brilliant story-telling tradition of the south. Teresas career had been just as interesting. She started out as a welder in the Air Force, put herself through college, became an award-winning teacher, then a successful school administrator whod developed cutting-edge virtual-school programs. Finally, shed been the president of the Georgia teachers association, and was working on the defense of her dissertation for her PhD.
After Al retired from the Army, he became a delivery skipper for some fun and offshore sailing experience ("Really, to find out what kind of boat Teresa and I should get"). Then he went back to school, got his teaching degree, and started teaching in the American high-school system. He completely hated it. ("There was absolutely no discipline or respect, and too many rules to prevent you from getting it! I cant work like that. After the Army, my performance standards are too high. The coddling drove me nuts.") Looking for adventure, the Jacobs decided that they wanted to work overseas and landed the positions at the prestigious Mazapan primary and secondary school in La Ceiba, which is sponsored by Standard Fruit Company, one of the largest employers in Honduras.
By the time January rolled around, we were excited to meet the Jacobs and put faces on these warmhearted people with whom wed been corresponding. To our happy surprise, it was Al and Teresa who were on the dock at Lagoon Marina to catch our lines. Theyd heard us on the VHF radio talking to Tony, were "house-sitting" aboard a friends 50-footer on the Lagoon Marina dock, and hustled right over.
During the following two weeks, Douglas and I hung out with Al and Teresa in the evenings, when we werent sweating out our chores on the boat, and through them we got a glimpse into the expatriate and local life in La Ceiba. They took us to all the best hangouts in town (we celebrated my birthday at their favorite bar named, appropriately, Expatriates, or X-Pats as everyone calls it). They directed us to the right hardware stores; grocery stores; marine-equipment chandlery ("chandlery" being a generous description); refrigeration parts distributors; places to pick fresh grapefruit, free, near the shipyard; the cheapest laundries; most potent no-see-um repellant; best bakery; and fastest internet. They were a treasure trove of information; theyd led fascinating lives, and they loved to party!
On the weekends, Douglas and I jumped in the back of Al and Teresas trucktogether with Cade and Lisa from Sand Dollar, and Margret and Ulli from Filiaand tossed in a few bags of food and drink. We bounced over the dirt roads of La Ceiba up into the mountains, or to the beach, or along the banks of the churning river to pass the day. What a place. Through Al and Teresas Honduran friends, we were offered the use of whitewater kayaks for the rapids. We ogled the waterfalls, took in the spectacular beauty of the river gorge, walked the beaches, laughed, and carried on together. Then, always too soon, it was back to school for Al and Teresa, and back to the grind for us.
The cruising bard Eileen Quinn hits the nail, figuratively and literally, on the head when she sings about what its like to haul out and paint her boat. Eileen, sing it for us
Scraping off the bottom paint
and sanding down the hull,
Shortening my life span
With some toxic chemical.
Sanded off my fingertips
Along with all the paint.
Its good to see a job well done
But darlin, fun it aint
During our two and a half weeks in La Ceiba, Ithaka was hauled out for six days at La Ceiba Shipyard while we sanded and painted the bottom, had the boat surveyed for our insurance company (easily and reasonably arranged by the yard), and performed other cosmetic chores. Living aboard while we were at it, in the tropics, is a dirty, sweaty business. The mud and paint dust mix with tropical rain squalls and grease, and the whole shebang bakes on deck under the scorching heat. In the end, I couldnt keep up with keeping the boat clean, despite strategically placing foot-wiping mats hither and yon, and running around like a wild thing with my sponge and bottle of Simple Green. Finally, my heart no longer stopped beating whenever someone came below tracking boatyard dirt. I had to throw in the towel, and get on with other more important things.
Its not often you can go to a boatyard with dolphins, manatees, crocodiles, hawks, egrets, good-sized iguanas, and an international staff of Hispanic men who can talk about you behind your back in fluent Russian. Many of the fellows who work there were college-trained marine engineers in Cuba, had traveled to do marine-trade work in the Soviet Union, then theyd returned to Cuba to work at Marina Hemingwaya sophisticated marine facility. Boat services at the Hemingway complex were managed for years by an American named Dale Westin, whos married to a Cuban woman. When Dale decided that this part of Central America was shy a first-rate marine facility, he and a couple of partners bought the land in La Ceiba, recruited several gifted guys from Hemingway, trained a Honduran staff, built the impressive haul-out docks, and bought a 100-ton Travelift; a little more than a year ago, they created La Ceiba Shipyard out of the jungle. The shipyard is on a river, and surrounded by hardwood forests on two sides, and a vast grapefruit orchard on the third. Sheep graze in the orchard; caballeros on horseback, armed with machetes and guns, guard the citrus. The Sierra Nombre de Dios makes the panoramic backdrop.
Its rather an untamed setting. While we were there two lethal snakes were killed right outside the bathroom. One was a tamagas verde and the other a fer de lance, also called a barba amarilla, yellow beard, or thee-stepper, because thats about how far you can limp after youve been bitten before you drop dead. "Umm, unusual," said Dale. "We havent seen too many snakes since we cleared the land. Used to see an awful lot of them, but they dont much like the vibration the equipment makes. We still have plenty of parrots and egrets and storks, and of course our dogs."
Eileen, the dogs are your cue:
Midnight down the ladder
To the Johnny on the spot.
Hope they keep the Doberman
Locked in the long term lot.
The night watchman is trigger happy
Hope he dont shoot me.
Hate to think I bought it
Just to take a pee
We were teamed with a fellow named Leonardo Green, who was the shipyards exclusive fiberglass man, and he had justly earned a reputation for excellent work. Leonardo touched up the various battle scars wed inflicted on Ithakas gel-coat and reglassed the spots along the bottom of her keel where wed forced her to engage in the ignominy of what one of our cruising friends likes to call "reef marking." Meanwhile, while she was high and dry, we also installed a new depth sounder as backup. We found 24-pound zincs lying aroundall discarded from the larger fishing boats that had come into the yard for repair or refitpicked out the ones we liked, and cut them down to size for Ithaka. With the help of the yard, we scraped and put three coats of Interlux Interviron bottom paint on the hull. Every day, I found no inspiration to cook anything very elaborate in this heat, as washing dishes is a chore when you cant use the sink. The shipyards out in the boonies, so we ate a big hearty lunchchicken or beef, with beans, plantains, and ricealong with the workers at their caseta for $2, and then nibbled some kind of snack for dinner. Or else we walked over to Al and Teresas boat at the marina with a bottle of wine, and shared a meal with them.
We loved working with the philosophic, loquacious Leonardo. An industrious, self-educated man, he thought nothing of rigging up floodlights, and sticking with whatever he was doing until 10 or 11 at night. So, in the process, we listened to his musings.
On Women: "Da wimins wants dmoney, and dnice clodes, and dey needs dbig house, but dey also wants you at home alla time, holdin dere hands. My first wife, she got awl upset wid me for wearin my work clothes to dweddin. Darlin, I says, dats just me. Well, one day she upn leff. Said she was lonely. I blew it. She was a good wimin."
On work: "I be real good at what I do. I got awl dbooks and I study fiberglass. Im a man wid no diplomas, but I can do 21 trades and been working since I was 11. I had my own cabinet shop at 15. I juss like bein dbest."
On life: "I come from French Harbor, Roatán. Growed up poor. Now I awlways be drivin dcar a dyear. I got a 19-year-old girlfrien at home. She does tings an I dont wanna know. But she dont be angry when I be getting home late. I wanna retire when Is 45, but for dat I need a wimin wid a brain, someone to tink wid me. I aint foun her since my first wife. Got no time to look!" We all can sing parts of his song.
When our body work was done, we splashed Ithaka back into the river and headed over to Lagoon Marina, just around the bend. There we tied up for another few days to wash the dirt off the decks, wax the rest of the fiberglass, waterproof the awnings, paint the anchors white to make them more visible underwater, scrub the yard dirt out of the carpets and from every nook and cranny inside the boat, do five big bags of laundry (basically, every piece of clothing we owned), craft a couple of fittings to rig a small cockpit-mounted tiller pilot to our Monitor wind vane, scrap the inefficient rain-catchment system on our bimini and replace it with sink drain parts we screwed into the canvas (its working great now!), help Tony fabricate and fit a stainless-steel pole and proper mounts for our new KISS wind generator. (Tony is one of those masters who can fix or make anything on a boat, and his stainless-steel work was superb.) Plus, we accomplished about 20 other small projects involving loads of fresh water, lots of electricity, and a stable environment.
During most of these days, I caught a ride into town for pilgrimages to the hardware and supply stores for all the bits and pieces that we needed as our projects went along. Acetone was on my list, but I had a hard time finding some because its considered a controlled substance in Honduras; large quantities of it are used to process cocaine. You can, though, walk into any pharmacy and, to your hearts content, buy uppers and downers without a prescription. Now, back to you, Eileen:
For every job crossed off the list
I seem to add two more
I blinked and one week in the yard somehow ran to four
But with a credit card and a little luck
Soon well be afloat
Please mister lift driver
Please dont drop my boat
Finally, our days at the shipyard and at the marina were drawing to an end. Our projects on Ithaka were done (for now!). We accepted an invitation to talk to the writing class at Al and Teresas schoolan eye-opening experience. The kids were high-school students in uniforms; they were very bright, articulate, curious, funny, and extremely polite. They speak Spanish as a first language, but go to school in English, and flow easily between their two languages. Over 90 percent of them will go on to college; most will receive scholarships. We were impressed, particularly when we saw some of them being picked up after school by armed body guards. This is, after all, a private school in a poor country, and for some of the kids, theres a real risk of being kidnapped.
We made our last trek into town to provision, went over to the shipyard to say good-bye to Dale, Enrique, Hugo, Leonardo, and all the other great fellows wed come to know and like. Then we stopped by Tony and Ritas house at the marina, told them wed be shoving off the next morning, settled up, and told them how much wed appreciated their kindnesses and help, and what a first-class and beautiful operation theyve built here. Wed give both the shipyard and the marina the highest marks for quality work at reasonable prices. Then, finally, we went out with Al and Teresa to X-Pats for a final dinner together. Without these wonderful people, our time in La Ceiba wouldve been all work and no play. Thanks to them, well remember it more for their friendship, the fun we had together, and we look forward to crossing paths with them down the road somewhere. For now, though, its time for another good-bye. Take it home, Eileen, while I remember how I never get used to that:
Its a hard
Its a hard
Its a hard life on the hard
We quietly untied our lines early the next morning, slipped out, and moseyed down the river. Just before we got to the shallows, we heard Tonys outboard, and saw him whipping around the corner toward us. Speeding by, he went out the breakwater before us, checked the entrance for white caps, then waved us on into the rollers and shallows with a last-minute instruction on taking the corner. The guys such a pro.
Ithaka rounded the breakwater in nine feet, started roller-coastering, we upped her RPMs, and pushed her hard to get out of there. Soon she inched into deeper water, and we got her sails up. With decks, hull and bottom sparkling, and her new wind generator whirling, she put her pretty shoulder to the job, and was back in the groove.