Christmas at Calabash

Calabash Bight, Roatán, Honduras, C.A.
16o 24.024' North 086o 20.317' West

Over the past week we've 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. Here's 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 Roatan, where the local marina—six rickety slips with nary a yacht before the 23rd—offered free dockage for Christmas and the use of their palapa and kitchen for a pot-luck dinner.

| | The wall mural from the Restaurante Carnitas N’ia Lola in Copan, Honduras* * *| Thirty-five miles north of mainland Honduras, Roatan is a ribbon-thin island that’s 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 diver’s paradise. Roatan, once a pirate’s 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. That’s 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.

| | The wall mural from Lucita’s Papuseria, Fronteras, Guatemala* * *| 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 boats—_cayucos_ and skiffs—inside 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 who’d 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 Fiddler’s 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 Roatan, Christmas at Oak Ridge served up the chance to meet in person some of the folks we’d only talked to on the radio for the past year. That was one of the gifts.

| | Bernadette spent Christmas eve cooking up a storm, as we tried to preserve some of our Christmas traditions, and looked forward to the Oak Ridge get-together.* * *| Lisa on _Sand Dollar_ announced the holiday get-together over the SSB radio on the Northwest Caribbean Cruiser’s 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 feast—including two turkeys with dressing and gravy—magically 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 _Carlin_—with Greg’s guitar—all 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 that’s 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. "It’s in the Lord’s 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 pate, picking his banjo and playing the harmonica; he’s 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.

| | Mayan carving from Copan Ruinas, Honduras* * *| There’s a bittersweet quality to Christmas while cruising. It’s 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 didn’t 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 day—for more than a decade—Billy 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, they'd 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 they’d drop off a small gift for the kids: pencils or a pair of socks or candy bars. They’d each down a shot glass of scotch, always thrown back neat in one hot, brain-jarring gulp, and take a photo of the family. We’d all ooh and ahh, and then they’d 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 we’d never have left for any activity before they got there. We’d linger over everyone’s 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 couldn’t grasp the ripples of their endeavor or their many mixed motivations, but looking back I’m 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 who’ve sent us holiday e-mails telling us of your lives and dreams and wishing us well, we’re indebted. Like Billy and Belle, you make our lives richer. Thanks, and Happy New Year.

| | Sunset at French Harbor* * *|

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