Habla Espanol?

When cruising remote destinations and meeting travelers from around the world, language barriers can prove challenging.

September 21, 2015

Some people call me the space cowboy…

Those words sounded funny, sung with a thick accent by six French parents huddled around a laptop on the beach, reading from the screen. Three of them strummed guitar. They’d all graciously invited us to join them here, ashore in the Tuamotus for a nighttime bonfire. In the distance, I heard the shrieks and laughter of our girls running wild and happy with their fellow cruising kids on the tiny motu.

Some call me the gangster of love…


I could tell some of the words were unfamiliar to the singers, but they did a fine job of hitting the rhymes. This was about the 10th song they’d sung and played and we’d enjoyed.

Some people call me Maurice…

At this point, Windy and I, red wine in hand, belted out a perfectly timed WOO-HOO, to fill-in for Steve Miller’s cat-call whistle. We nailed it. We were still smiling at our joie de vivre when every member of the French contingent turned their heads at us to wonder what the hell we were doing. They seemed ready to be amused, but when we just sat there, they seemed confused. I don’t think it even occurred to them that we were participating in the sing-along.


 Since arriving in French Polynesia, we’ve spent a few days and evenings socializing with French or Belgian or Dutch folks. It seems we’re always the outsider, there are just too few Canadians, Aussies, or fellow Americans around this late in the season for us to ever be in the majority. Every get-together ashore or afloat is a foreign-language-dominant affair. And I’m happy for this. It’s interesting and challenging—though a bit brain taxing—and it pleases me to see the girls running around or drawing or even movie-watching with other kids who struggle with English while my girls struggle with French.

But it also reminds me how sadly mono-linguistic we are. All meaningful communication between us and the French or Belgian or Dutch folks happens because they forsake the easy flow of their own tongues to speak our English. If they all weren’t so nice, I’m sure they’d be thinking, I’ll do this for the poor Americans who haven’t bothered to learn to speak anything but English. Their own English is usually broken and they hunt for words, but it comes out a hundred times better than my French and for many of them, it’s one of three or more languages they’re comfortable speaking. I was feeling inferior over this state of affairs, until recently.

We ran into some Russian cruisers about a week after we arrived on Hiva Oa, back in the Marquesas. Nice folks, but they spoke about as much English as I did Russian.


“Parlez vous Francais?” they asked me.

“No.” I shook my head regrettably. But wait…“¿Habla Espanol?” I added.

“¡Si!” they smiled.


It was great. After a couple years in Mexico, I can converse in Spanish—si puedo! We proceeded to talk with ease about where they came from and where they were going. I told them where the supermarket is in town and the best way to get there. I answered the other questions they had.

Since then, including last night, I’ve made it a point to ask the French or Belgian or Dutch folks we meet whether they speak Spanish. Surprisingly, having asked more than a dozen folks, I’ve yet to meet one of them who does. It doesn’t make any sense. Especially for the French. Spain is next door, and if you’re gonna learn three or four languages, wouldn’t Spanish be one of them? No matter, they respond that they don’t speak Spanish and I shrug my shoulders like, Damn, if only you spoke my second language, we could chat it up all night. Which is not exactly true, I know, but it helps me keep face.

…cause I speak of the pompatus of love.

In our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we lived the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Follow along with the Roberston’s onboard Del Viento on their blog at

Start of an overnight passage to Fakarava. Michael Robertson
Eleanor and I sailing the Pudgy in paradise. Michael Robertson
Windy doing laundry at a fish camp. Michael Robertson

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