Everyone cruising in these parts has considered the potential dangers of the being in the wrong place at the wrong time along the Mosquito Coast, or in the Vivorillo Cays, or Media Luna, of having the bad luck to stumble across some drug transaction going down. And ever since the van Tuijl family of the Netherlands was attacked at Media Luna three years ago, 65 miles from here, cruisers have stayed on alert when rounding the corner of Central America at Cabo Gracias a Dios, crossing between the northwest and southwest Carribean. Most cruisers, thinking theres safety in numbers, try to do this leg of the voyage in company with other boats; thats what were doing. Some cruisers weve met even have a standard policy that locals are never allowed on their boats; we really dont like going this far. Were careful at night, though. If anyone comes to the boat unannounced, Ill go out and greet them first while Bernadette stays below until we know alls well. We have mace at the companionway and below, an air horn, a blindingly powerful light, and close at hand a fishing knife and machete. Our instincts are to be friendly and open, but wary.
Its one thing to be cautiously vigilant, but its another to isolate yourself from the experience of connecting with people. We try not to let vigilance get out of hand. Indeed, if wed kept our guard up too high, we never would have gotten to know a 16-year old named Cobi, and his 44-year-old cousin Winsal, who were stranded on a remote island off the coast of Honduras and who became the focus of our two weeks in the Vivorillo Cays. And that would have been a shame.
We had the hook down less than an hour when a handsome boy, with the complexion of lightly roasted coffee, paddled his wooden cayuco up to Ithaka and asked if we wanted some of the snapper and conch hed just caught. I said, sure, wed buy some of each, and pointed to the ones I was interested in. "How much?" I asked.
"Oh, nuttin" he said. "I just been out fishin for fun. You can have all you want."
Hmmm. This was a new approach. Bernadette asked him if hed like a sandwich. His eyes got big. "Yes, maam!" he said, and she rustled up some ham and cheese with mustard on fresh-baked bread, and some cold lemonade, handed it down to him, and asked him his name.
"Cobi, maam," he said. "Ralph Cobern Jackson."
"You sure we cant pay you something, Ralph Cobern Jackson?" I asked.
"Naw, sir," he smiled. "Well, wait "
Here it comes, I thought.
"Well, sir," he said, "I sure could use some matches, if yall can spare any. We have about tree left, and we needum to cook wid."
That was no problem. I went below and slid boxes of matches into a Ziploc for him.
"Stop back tomorrow if youre going fishing again," I said, as he took off. "Maybe Ill go, too. My names Douglas."
"Yes sir, Mister Douglas!" he beamed, "I can show you the best spots!" And he bailed and paddled back toward the pretty cay close to which we were anchored. I smiled. What a nice kid. Overhead, hundreds of frigates and pelicans soared and circled.
The Cayos Vivorillolying about 45 miles off the coastare teeny little dots plunked on top of a relatively shallow shelf that extends east from the right shoulder of Central America. The Vivorillo bank covers a north-south span of only 13 miles, and includes four islands and a series of parallel running reefs. Our first landfall-anchorage hereafter wed beat 150 miles from Guanaja as the crow flies but 225 miles over groundhad been a rocky patch behind Cayo Caratasca in the northeast section of the archipelago. After a late breakfast on our first morning there and after the sun had a chance to climb a bit and improve our reef visibility, we set sail southwest across the bankan area where we never saw less than 20 feet nor more than 40toward Cayo Vivorillo Grande.
On the way we passed an amazing small cay, unnamed on the chart, that as we got closer we could see was covered from end to end, and from top to bottom, every tree, every branch, covered in birds. Hovering over it was a sky dense with frigates, dancing, and soaring lazily over their island rookery. As we got nearer we could see them clearly, and then smell them!
"Wow! This is like an Alfred Hitchcock scene!" said Bernadette, delighted, trying to steer and take pictures at the same time. We learned later that fishermen call this "stink island," because as you pass downwind, the name fits. But to us, as we sailed by, and on subsequent visits there with the dinghy, it was perfumed beauty!
Over the next few days, Cade, from Sand Dollar, and I went hunting often with Cobi. We gringos learned soon that this kid is as close as one can come to being a fish and still have lungs. Under water, with his beat-up old fins, he was jet-propelled, and with a rusty spear gun youd think could never work, he dove deep, stalked fish, anticipated their moves, aimed perfectly and shamed us big guys who were always straggling behind him. Our first day out together, in 10 minutes, he had two fish. Mister Cade and I had none. In 20 minutes, he had two more and Id only nicked the hind end of a hogfish. Deferentially, Cobi waited until I muffed that shot. Then he chased after and plugged it through the eye. One day, as a school of rainbow runners swept by us at about 20 feet, Cobi never shot, just swam down another 10 feet and hid behind a rock, knowing theyd circle back. Sure enough they did, and he snagged the largest one right away. Later on that afternoon, he whispered a few pieces of important advice to me: "You know, Mister Douglas, dose tail shots ayours doane never work. You gotta hitem in de brain. You gotta stopem cold. De brain, sir. Dats where de action is."
Truer words were never spoken.
Brain shots were becoming the least of our concern, however. It turned out that Cobi and his cousin Winsal were stranded on this cay and had been there for more than four months. Their "boss" was supposed to have come back to pick them up and return them home to Guanaja well over a month ago, but thered been no sign of him. Almost out of food, they had no vegetables, fruit, or meat, only a little rice and flour leftand, of course, all the fish they could catch. Their boss had hired them to dive for conch and lobster, they told us, and during the season hed come by periodically to pick up the frozen catchpromising 35 lempira a pound (a little over $2 US) for conch, and 55 lempira (just under $4 US) for lobster. But the season had been finished for a month, no money or boss had been seen since, and these guys had been on this little patch of cay a third of a year without a break. With the legal close of the season, there would be no more fishing boats coming through the Vivorillos for five more months. "We be stuck bad, man," said Winsal one night, as we all had dinner together. "An Is real lonesome for home."
In our world of EPIRBS, GPIRBS, SSB radios, satellite-phones, buddy boats, backups for backups, child-labor laws, and mandatory education, its hard to imagine that a man and a boy could be brought to a remote island to fish and then be forgotten, stranded without provisions or a way to return home. But this is the Third World, and its another world entirely from the one in which we grew up.
We spent our days hunting with Cobi and Winsal and many evenings with them on the cay, as the four boats Rotuma, Sand Dollar, Filia, and Ithaka shared numerous fish fries and conch stews, cooked by an endlessly entertaining Winsal over his wood-burning stove (a 55-gallon gasoline drum). Dinner included potluck goodies brought ashore from the boats, and as we hung out together, more pieces of Winsals and Cobis stories emerged, and we all became friends. Finally, they said, they could relax a little about their plight, because they realized we were staying awhile and that we were trying to think of some way to help them.
Cobi and Winsal hadnt appeared to have had many breaks in life so far, but they loved fishing, and especially free diving. "Out here," said Winsal. "I be a free man. I do what I want. Nobody breedin down my neck." He told us hed once paddled an open cayuco more than 40 miles from these cays, to get away from a fishing crew he didnt like, until hed washed ashore "somewhere in Nicaragua." After that he had to walk 30 miles to find a town where he could get some kind of lift back out to Guanaja. Hed do it again this time "in a minute," he said, but he was afraid for Cobi. So he was sitting tight, hoping for the best.
"Cobi is me," he told Bernadette one day. "I know how it is for him, workin since he was a small boy." Winsals father left his mother when Winsal was a baby. "Went to the U.S.," he said. "Never sent us one lempira." His mother married another man a few years later, a man without hands. "I never went to school," he said. "She did a bad ting. She gave me to my stepfather when I was 6 years, so to make him a complete man. He was a fisherman, and I was his hands on dfishin boats. I been fishin ever since dat day."
"What about the father that went to the States?" asked Bernadette.
"God chastised him," said Winsal. "Struck him dead at 42, and I aint sorry."
Cobis parents died in an accident at sea when he was 3. Theyd been traveling from the Caymans to Guanaja, when their ship disappeared. No one knows what happened. Sitting on Ithakas side deck one afternoon, Cobi told Bernadette and me the story, a tear running down his cheek. "My mother had long black hair," he said. "She was real pretty." Cobi was raised by an older sister and her husband in Guanaja. He said he was always in the top of his class at school, and had been invited to go to engineering school in La Ceiba on scholarship, just before Hurricane Mitch hit Guanaja, when he was 13. "Our house got destroyed bad," he said. "I went to work to make some money."
"His sister mean well, but she used him up," Winsal told us later. "Awlways made him take carea awl her babies like he wasnt as good as her damn kids. Had him washin nappies all day long. She took him outta school, and put him out to work wid me. I felt bad about it. The kid has a brain. But dere wasnt nuttin I could do, cept look out for him."
This was an education. One minute we were laughing with these guys, the next we were crying. Winsal would come out to the boats to visit, see if we needed help with anything, shoot the breeze, entertain us endlessly. Cobi was always wanting to join us for diving, and to help us clean and fillet the fish and conch we caught. Some days he went over to Sand Dollar to ask Mister Cade and Miss Lisa for help with some math. Another day, he and Winsal were invited to watch a DVD movie on Filia. Miss Bernadette started reading a Harry Potter book with Cobi in the afternoons, which he devoured, and it soon became clear how much his life and the fictional Harrys were paralleled, both growing up as they had, in families of Muggles. The only big difference was that Cobi wouldnt be swept off to magic school, as was the famous Harry.
"You alls nice," Cobi said one day. "Other sailboats, dey came in here, an dey yell at us to keep away from dere boats. Dey all keep to demselves."
"Theyre nervous here," I said. "Bad things have happened, and theyre just trying to be careful." We talked together about this region, and the problems and the rumors. They nodded. They knew.
Together, we all hiked the island, and went shell collecting, and Cobi told us about the islands former owner, Mr. Bocas, and showed us where he was buried on the western edge beneath the same tree he liked resting against when he was on the top side of the beach. One day, as the weather deteriorated, and a huge swell began to toss the boats violently back and forth, Cobi and Winsal came out in the cayucos and showed us where to reanchor behind a little reef that completely eliminated the swell. Another afternoon, Winsal showed us the route he walks every day, twice around the cay, "lookin for bales of cocaine dat wash ashore." I laughed at this. "No man, I tellin dtrufe. Tree months ago, eight bales wash up on onea dcays. Oh man! Dem men dat founm doane be fishin no more. Me, I aint so lucky. So far all I foun was a little wood chair."
Cayo Bocas, which is the old name for this cay, is no more than four or five football fields long, and no wider than several long sets of first downs. The only permanent structure is an unfinished, ramshackle, cinderblock building intended to be a fish processing plant. But according to Winsal, "Bocas dint pay enough bribe money so dey never approve it." Now the walls and ceilings are disintegrating. Rusty rebar protrudes at odd angles, and Winsal and Cobi slept in a small wooden shack on two bare pieces of foam next to the broken generator, compressor, and freezer.
When we were alone, Bernadette and I talked with our friends on the other boats about what we could do to help. We didnt yet know, other than to wait it out a bit longer. Calling the Honduran authorities was an option, but Winsal was hesitant, afraid of getting "the boss" in trouble, which he thought would jeopardize his chances for future work. One weather window came and went, then another; we remained. But, being anchored at this cay was no hardship. The snorkeling was spectacularan amazing reef system surrounded the islandand the fishing was superb. We made excursions to the bird island, and wandered among the nests, and bird families, which were thick on the ground and throughout the trees. We were rendered mute by the soft beauty of fuzzy baby boobies, and roared with laughter over the swashbuckling antics of male frigates, who looked just like the self-anointed cool guys in junior high school, their great red chests all puffed up. To our delight, frigates and boobies were nesting only a few feet apart. It made me hopeful.
After wed been at the cay almost two weeks, with no sight of a north-heading boat, I looked out to the horizon and did a double take. A cruise ship was approaching from the south. Wouldnt this be convenient, I mused, if it just hung a right and drifted into our shallow anchorage. And then, amazingly, the 150-foot ship turned and did just that!
I called the other boats and hailed the captain of the ship on VHF channel 16 to ask if he was staying for the night. "No," he said, "Were the Sea Voyager, from Lindblad Expeditions, and were just stopping so a few of our guests can go snorkeling for an hour."
With great excitement, I explained the desperate situation to him and asked if hed consider taking on two hitchhikers to Guanaja. "Negative, captain," he said. "Not possible. Im sorry, this is a private tour group. Our next stop is (long pause) Puerto Cortez. Perhaps the Honduran navy can help you."
I jumped in the dinghy, roared over to Sand Dollar, picked up Cade, and we headed out to Sea Voyager to plead the case in person. The first mate received us politely but firmly said that picking up people out here was too risky. "Why are they stranded?" he asked dubiously. "This sounds too extraordinary." I could read between the lines of his concern. I was almost sure he was thinking that this was some kind of drug situation, in the middle of which he certainly didnt want to involve himself nor one of the most exclusive touring companies in the world. Then, I thought I heard him say something about their next stop really being Guanaja, not Puerto Cortez. We thanked him, begged him to reconsider, considering one of the castaways was merely a boy, and asked him to speak with his captain. He reluctantly said he would. We jumped in the dinghy, and headed into the cay.
"Get ready," we told Cobi and Winsal. "Theres a very remote chance. But if its going to happen, its going to happen fast." The four of us loaded all the islands scuba tanks and pots and pans into a small shed and nailed shut the door. Then both guys put their few belongings in old rice sacks, and we all went to the shoreline and waited, doing what guys always do. We threw rocks at stuff. Within an hour a humongous black Zodiac of wet snorkelers came by the island and stopped. We introduced them to Cobi and Winsal. The Lindblad expedition leader and some of the guests assured us theyd also do their best to talk to the captain and urge him to help, then they jumped into the Zodiac and roared back to the ship.
The minutes ticked by. Nothing. It was almost time for the ship to get underway. We dinghied back to Sand Dollar with Winsal and Cobi, then I went back to Ithaka to give Bernadette the update. I told her it wasnt looking good, but I hoped the guests were still working on the captain. Then something changed. Suddenly, the captain of the Sea Voyager was dinghying over to Sand Dollar, and personally interviewing Winsal and Cobi about the circumstances in which theyd found themselves, why, and their prospects for another ride. Within minutes, Lisa called us excitedly on the VHF. "Come on over and say goodbye, everybody! The guys are shipping out!"
Amidst hugs and tears, at 1745 the large Zodiac loaded a barefoot boy and his wild-haired cousin, and their two raggedy little rice sacks containing a couple of stiff, salty T-shirts; papers with our addresses; detailed notes on how to contact Jack and Elizabeth at Lighthouse in Guanaja, who said theyd help them in any way they could; oh, and a Harry Potter book. Then they sped off to embark on the luxurious Sea Voyager, and probably one of the more memorable journeys of their lives.
As they passed and waved and whooped, we took out our air horns and blew and blew, and waved, and the girls threw kisses, and we hollered and saluted. As the Sea Voyager raised anchor, sounded its horn and got underway in the waning light, we poured our rum and criedin happiness, in triumph, and in a little sadness too. Two people had entered our lives and become firmly rooted there. As the frigates and boobies soared over a quiet island, Winsal and Cobi were going home. The next weather window would be ours.