The Measure of a Year

As Ithaka ghosts through the channel between Nasargandup-Icaco and Acuakargana and turns west, I try to capture each detail of this landfall in my memory, comparing what’s before me with what’s been in my mind’s eye. After years of dreaming about it--and two light-wind days of sailing from San Andrés, Colombia--we’ve made it to the San Blas islands. Fantasy and reality on track, Douglas and I tuck into the lee of Miriadiadup, set our anchor, look at each other, and smile.

Ithaka’s second season since leaving home in the spring of 2000 has been full. We’ve had 50-knot winds, and we’ve inched Ithaka over shallow reefs that held us breathless. We found an eight-foot boa constrictor in our cockpit, a tarantula in our bed, and a scorpion in the cupboard. I’ve learned to tie knots in the dark, machete the heads and legs off chickens, gauge water depth by its color, cut my own hair, jury-rig stripped outboard propellers, and enjoy the freedom of having freckles all over. But the truest measure of our year has been the friends we’ve made.

On to Honduras

While Ithaka spent last hurricane season 25 miles upriver on Guatemala’s Río Dulce and Iris leveled coastal Belize, Douglas and I backpacked for two months through the Guatemalan highlands, then volunteered at the Ak’Tenamit School and Clinic. On a high November tide, after hurricane threats subsided, we tickled our six-foot draft over the six-foot sandbar at the Río’s mouth, then raced east, thrilled to be sailing again.

On our second day at sea, we pushed to escape an approaching norther, raised the Honduran and Q flags, and entered French Harbor, Roatán, where cruisers heading north and south swap tales and waypoints. This became a magnet anchorage for Ithaka; we returned often to reprovision, scuba dive, and seek shelter from relentless northers pummeling the northwest Caribbean during December and January. The Bay Islands--Utila, Roatán, Guanaja, and Barbareta--offer spectacular diving on reefs that circle each island. Unlike Belize, where most reefs shallow gradually, these steep coral cliffs rivet your attention as instrument readings jump in seconds from off soundings to 10 feet.

Christmas in Roatán connected us with sailors on boats we’d never met but had heard on the daily SSB Northwest Caribbean Net. One year earlier, as we’d poked down the Intracoastal Waterway, Baerne, a powerful black Colin Archer, had plowed by us, and we’d envied the couple cozy inside their pilothouse as we’d sat frozen like Popsicles in the cockpit. Now, we gobbled Pieter and Inge’s holiday appleflappen and olliebollen as the thermal socks we’d worn every day back then now swaddled bottles in our bilge. We met Cade and Lisa from Sand Dollar, then rendezvoused with them in the Cayos Cochinos, pristine island dumplings where we snorkeled for hours every day through mazes of coral beds.

Cruising the Bay Islands brought relentless sand flies--Pieter called them "flying teeth"--that sent us screaming from some anchorages until the day Lisa dinghied over to help me measure and sew a cockpit enclosure of no-see-um screen. It was refreshing doing projects with another woman with whom I had so much in common; Lisa, too, had come from a busy career, a tight family, and a life more independent from her husband. Cruising couples learn quickly that size doesn’t matter: All boats get small fast, and I was glad to reassure her about the emotional challenges that felt overwhelming to her in her first year. A woman with years’ more cruising experience had done the same for me the season before.

We sailed Ithakato mainland Honduras, painted her bottom, and installed a wind generator. With Sand Dollarand Ithakaperched side by side on jack stands, Cade, Lisa, Douglas, and I sweated through projects and devoured cheap meals in the workers’ cantina. Our lists done, gleaming Ithaka and Sand Dollar splashed, we explored the jungle rivers and waterfalls of this wild country and, going inland, stepped back 10 centuries to Copán’s Mayan ruins.

Bidding hasta luego to Sand Dollar, we made for our favorite spot in the Bay Islands, Barbareta, an unpopulated island where horses run free, iguanas sun themselves on the white beach, and during northers, williwaws fly down the mountainsides like whirling ghosts. Douglas and I lingered three weeks, until one night our anchor dragged in a 50-knot blow, nearly landing us on the beach. Adrenaline pumping, we reanchored, then sailed for Guanaja the next morning, reminded that no matter how well you think you’re dug in, when high winds abruptly spin you broadside, all bets are off.

Rounding Cabo Gracias a Dios

Guanaja held us the better part of a month, until it was time to head east against the trades, round the shoulder of Honduras, and turn south. Other yachts gathered as well--Sand Dollar, Rotuma, and Filia--waiting for a 48-hour window of light easterlies. When forecasts predicted the 20- to 25-knot trades would slack toward 10, we boogied, jogging all day and night at seven knots. By morning, winds returned to 25; by noon, it was a gale on the nose. Sails reefed, we eked out what speed we could through more tacks than we can count. By 1700, barely able to make out surrounding coral heads, we reached the first semireasonable place in the Cayos Vivorillo, a hard patch behind Cayos Caratasca, about 40 miles offshore. Douglas dove in and wedged the anchor into a rock hole. We’d gone 150 miles as the crow flies, but 225 miles over the ground. Rotuma was in, somewhere southwest of us. Sand Dollar and Filia spent another night in the howl. Come morning, we sailed across the shallow Vivorillo bank to Bocas Cay.

Everyone cruising this area has considered the danger of stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time along the Mosquito Coast, in the Cayos Vivorillo, or at the Media Luna reefs and landing in the middle of a drug deal. It’s critical to be cautious--cruisers have been shot here, most recently including 13-year-old Willem van Tuijl in March 2000--yet it’s important not to isolate yourself from connecting with people. If we’d kept our guard too high, we wouldn’t know 16-year-old Cobi and his 44-year-old cousin Winsal, two castaways who focused our weeks in the Cayos Vivorillo. Our hook was down less than an hour when a handsome boy with a café con leche complexion paddled his wooden cayuco up to Ithaka and offered us fish. Douglas asked how much.

"Nuttin’," Cobi said, handing up the fillets. "I been fishin’ for fun."

After that, Douglas and Cade, who’d become avid hunters, went spearfishing every day with Cobi and learned he’d been stranded with Winsal for four months. Their "boss," who was to have taken them and their catch home to Guanaja, had been a no-show. Lobster season was closed, so no commercial boats were due for months. "We be stuck bad, man," said Winsal; all they had left was a bit of rice and flour and five matches.

Putting off our plans to continue on toward Colombia, we spent our days with Cobi and Winsal; the four yachts shared fish fries and conch stews, along with our fresh foods. As we hung out doing boat maintenance together and Cobi rotated between Ithaka and Sand Dollar seeking help in reading and arithmetic, their stories unfolded. Winsal had been fishing since he was 6. Cobi, who’d been raised by an older sister, had won a scholarship to engineering school when he was 13, but when Hurricane Mitch destroyed their home, his sister sent him to sea instead.

We didn’t know how to help. We could have called the Honduran authorities, but Winsal was terrified of getting the boss in trouble, jeopardizing future work. Two perfect weather windows came and went. But staying here was no hardship; the snorkeling and spearfishing were the best of the year. We explored a nearby rookery, a small cay covered end to end and top to bottom in birds, and watched fuzzy baby boobies snuggle against their mothers and male frigates puff up their great red chests--boys and girls, consistent across the species.

One day, after we’d been at Bocas almost three weeks, Cobi and I sat on Ithaka reading a Harry Potter book. He asked why other passing sailboats had yelled at him to stay away.

"They’re nervous," said Douglas. "Bad stuff’s happened here." Cobi nodded. He knew. Suddenly, Douglas jumped up. A cruise ship was closing in from the south. He hailed the captain on the VHF to find out if they were staying overnight. "No, we’re stopping so a few guests can snorkel," answered the Latino voice. Douglas explained the situation and asked if he’d take two hitchhikers to Guanaja. "Impossible," the captain said. "We’re a private passenger ship."

Douglas and Cade roared over to the Lindblad Sea Voyager and pleaded with its captain to reconsider. Although skeptical, he did; for an hour, he grilled Winsal and Cobi about their circumstances. Finally, he said, "All right. Let’s go. Now." Amid hugs and tears, in the day’s fading light, Sea Voyager’s inflatable loaded a barefoot boy, his wild-haired cousin, and their raggedy rice sack of salty T-shirts, our addresses, and the Harry Potter book. As frigates soared above the quiet anchorage, Winsal and Cobi headed home. The next weather window was ours to use as we wished.



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| Douglas Bernon|

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| In Providencia, I studied Spanish with a woman named Carmeni (with author, above). "It's one thing to learn a language," she said. "It's another to learn a culture." From Punabebe (below), I learned m* * *|

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| Intro to Colombia

March became April, tropical waves threatened, and we pushed south, apprehensive during night passages through reefs and cays that never jived with the charts. We made our way to Providencia and San Andrés, Colombian islands off the Nicaraguan coast, and settled for a time in sleepy little Providencia, with its turquoise margents and wildlife performances. Everywhere, bright-blue lizards skittered on their hind legs while millions of black crabs crawled in carpets up the hills. It was migration season, and armed policemen held up traffic on the island’s single road so the shell-backed carpet could move unmolested from sea to mountain.

Every cruising couple must find a pace that works for them; Providencia enchanted us for a month. Douglas did endless boat projects, including modifying our Monitor self-steering vane with a tiller-arm autopilot--a vast improvement for light airs downwind. We rented motorcycles, read long-saved books, hiked velvety green mountains, rode the collectivo truck taxis here and there in the sunshine, and I took Spanish classes every morning with a joyful woman named Carmeni who’d been educated in Bogotá, Colombia, as a speech pathologist and now taught special-needs children--perfect credentials to teach me Spanish. Our classes were in her kitchen. She showed me how to make yogurt and traditional Colombian potato and chicken soup. I taught her how to make cheese and Irish bread, as we struggled through conversations about Cartagenian art galleries, the "narcos" who traffic "sniffy-sniffy," September 11, and the complicated themes of American politics and profits in Central America.

On our last day, Douglas was a bundle of nerves before our middle-of-the-night departure, and I recalled Carmeni’s comment when I tried to respond in Spanish to her question of what I liked best and least about him. "Ahhhh," she smiled when I told her how anxious he can get, "'se ahoga en un vaso de agua?"--he drowns himself in a glass of water? Now, her description made him laugh.

Entering Cuna Yala

By June 1, the beginning of hurricane season, we’d set sail from San Andrés, crossed by night the superhighway of ships leading to and from the Panama Canal, and made landfall, amazed to look back at how far we’d come. For years, the San Blas islands set the stage in the theater of my mind as a locale that represented what I wanted cruising to be for Douglas and me--an exploration of unspoiled beauty in a life outside the frame--but from home, it had seemed so distant, with great obstacles involving money, skills, and miles. But we’d set out, pushing a bit farther every day and gratified to watch hopes become victories, with these replaced by newer dreams. "Our doubts are traitors," wrote Shakespeare in Measure for Measure,"and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt." A week later, Sand Dollar, too, was in, and we celebrated with cold beers bought by Lisa back in French Harbor for the occasion of our reaching 10 degrees north latitude.

The charts call this archipelago the San Blas islands, but the Cuna, who remain culturally apart from Panama, call it Cuna Yala, the Cuna Nation. Over the next three months, we lived among the Cuna, anchoring inside the reefs in lagoons of liquid turquoise behind little cays packed with palms and fringed with blinding white beach. When we swam, spotted eagle rays soared alongside, and nurse sharks slept below under coral ledges. We feasted nightly on freshly caught fish, lobster, and giant crabs.

At Miriadiadup, we met a pretty Cuna transvestite brought up to be a daughter in a family of all sons so someone could continue the matriarchal craft of mola making. At Niakalubir, we met the proud father of an albino baby, who told us Cunas call albinos "moon children" and consider them magical. On Banadupu, we met an old Cuna woman named Punabebe who welcomed us into her palm-frond hut, introduced us to her family, and, for me, forever put a face on Cuna Yala.

Over the weeks we were anchored off Banadupu--Ithaka returned several times--Punabebe and I often visited each other, she in her wooden ulu, I in my inflatable. Somehow we cobbled together bits of three languages as she taught me how she made a mola--each intricate panel takes a month of cutting and sewing--and what the Cuna symbols mean. She told me about collecting and selling coconuts to passing Colombian traders. I showed her how our sailboat worked--although being a craftswoman, she was more interested in the fabrics than anything else. Punabebe taught me the Cuna words buna, meaning "sister," and panemalo, meaning "See you soon." Some days, she paddled out to passing sailboats, hoping to sell molas, then stopped by Ithaka to say how she’d fared. One afternoon, sitting in her hut as she stoked her cooking fire, I became a child again in Ireland, watching my granny do the same.

Before we said panemalo for the last time, we showed each other family pictures, and Punabebe took off her beaded necklace and tied it around my neck.

The voyaging life is full of difficult good-byes. Too soon, it was time for Sand Dollar to set sail for teaching jobs 600 miles upwind in Venezuela. Cruising friendships are powerfully concentrated. When you meet kindred spirits, for weeks or months you spend hours together every day helping each other with mind-boggling boat projects, snorkeling, strategizing, fishing, sharing books, and often chatting into the night about life. It’s what cruisers do best, building relationships so intense that, when we part a few months later, it’s like losing a limb. So it was with Lisa of Sand Dollar. Over the past season, we’d shared our wildest secrets and deepest disappointments.

When I was a small girl, I remember riding with my dad in his pickup listening to the radio. "Someone left the cake out in the rain," went one of those songs, "and I don’t think that I can take it, ’cause it took so long to make it, and I’ll never have that recipe again!" "Bern," said my dad, in his brogue, "I don’t think this tune’s really about cake." Stunned, I was forced to consider for the first time that there were deeper meanings to obvious things. As summer rains wash the San Blas air, and thunder and lightning storms become a daily event, Douglas and I prepare to shove off, too, first for Cartagena and a city fix, then to fly home to visit our families--and throughout it all I’ve been mulling the deeper meanings of what this voyage has become for me. It’s been less about sailing, boats, and hairy-chested adventuring, more about nestling into different cultures, learning to share our sandbox, and pushing ourselves beyond limits we once thought extreme. It’s been about friendships with sailors on Sand Dollar, Baerne, Dutchess, Simba, Rotuma, Chalupa, Gringo Joe, Kitty Hawk, Street Legal--all now headed separate ways but connected with us by having shared the year. Then, on some lucky days, it’s been about something more elusive: the pleasure of looking into the eyes of an old Cuna woman, of a 16-year-old castaway, or of a person you’ve been married to for 12 years and discovering there new reflections of yourself.

Bernadette won the 2002 Boating Writers International Genmar Trophy for Best Article of the Year: "Midterm Reflections from a Semester at Sea" (CW, October 2001). Go to CW’s website ( to read the twice-monthly Log of Ithaka.