Our boat scared us. In the late 1990s, when our family of four began our two-year cruise through the Caribbean, we had no experience with the Catana 40 catamaran we'd just bought in St. Martin. The 44- by 23-foot monstrosity felt huge and unwieldy. Our maiden voyage was a circumnavigation of the island with the boat's former captain, a Frenchman who was a bit nonchalant about big winds, waves, and other situations requiring caution. It was a brilliant blue day, and the four of us-my wife, Diane, our two daughters, and I-stood smiling and blinking into the sun. Le Capitaine was all smiles: "Bonjour! Comment allez vous? We go now, no?" I desperately wanted to learn everything he knew about the boat, so I paid close attention as we raised the monster mainsail at anchor. As we sailed clear of the north tip of the island, we were greeted by the winter trade winds and their roller-coaster waves. The Catana romped.
Though bouncy, our maiden voyage was uneventful-until we returned to our mooring in the Baie de Marigot. To a cautious American sailor, it seemed like we were moving too quickly into a crowded anchorage, but as we zipped along, Le Capitaine simply squinted and puffed on his cigarette. Then he turned to me, released the helm, and said, "Now, you are zee captain."
I swallowed. The anchorage was jam-packed. I felt as if I were driving a basketball court and that the prudent approach would be to furl the towering sails and motor. In the dripping humidity of the Caribbean, my mouth was desert dry.
"Diane," I croaked, ignoring Le Capitaine's nonchalance, "let's start the engines."
She went below, and one engine roared to life, but then nothing. She reappeared looking quite pale. The port engine wouldn't start. At low speeds, a catamaran with only one engine is a bit like a bird with only one wing. The boat veered and presented itself broadside to the wind, not advantageous in an anchorage crowded with expensive yachts.
Meantime, Le Capitaine had either not understood our predicament or was choosing a poor moment in which to practice his crash-course teaching method. I asked him to go below and check on the errant engine. He shrugged and disappeared. Then I asked Diane to drop the mainsail. She raised the cam cleat to release the halyard, but nothing happened. The line was jammed. I peered below. Le Capitaine was bent over the engine controls, scratching his head. I looked ahead and aimed at the largest opening I could see between two boats, then jumped on the cabin top and proceeded to bang on the cam cleat and curse it. I was interrupted by the touch of a hand on my shoulder. It was Le Capitaine. "Zen, Todd. Zen," he said sagely.
He reached around me, grabbed the halyard, and made a wrap around the winch. With one jerk on the winch handle, the cam cleat released, and the mainsail dropped to the boom in a billowing furrow. I jumped to the wheel and brought the boat over the mooring buoy. Diane hooked it and tied it off. All was still.
"So," Le Capitaine said to me, "we are happy, yes?"
"Oui," I said to him, quite happy to be at rest, anywhere.
"Then I see you tonight, and we celebrate." He stripped his T-shirt from his skinny frame and dove into the water, producing a tiny splash no larger than his brief, black swimsuit. In a few strokes, he was gone.
That night, celebrating our safe homecoming with the captain's family, we ate delicious garlic prawns (giant shrimp) with moros y cristianos (black beans and rice). When the wine disappeared, Le Capitaine produced two bottles of champagne.
As tree frogs croaked and night birds sang, Le Capitaine spoke. "Todd," he said, including Diane with a hug, "you and Diane will be fine. You are good sailors, no? Your new boat, she is a good home. And now you are getting to know one another. Yes?"
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 sticks margarine, melted (butter
Splash of dry white wine (optional)
12 prawns, shells on
6 to 8 whole cloves garlic, peeled
Black pepper-lots, to taste
1 tablespoon rosemary
1 loaf French bread (or several)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat a large, cast-iron skillet or heavy baking pan with olive oil. Place margarine, prawns, garlic cloves, and wine in pan and sprinkle with black pepper and rosemary. Bake until prawns are pink and shells look crusty. Serve with the sauce. Serves four. Garlic cloves can be popped into the mouth and eaten whole.
For the moros y cristianos recipe, log on to CruisingWorld.com (www.cruising
world.com) and click on People & Food.