French Guiana, on the northern coast of South America, must be one of the few places on Earth where sailing plans can be disrupted for a satellite launch. Christmas was approaching; for my partner, Peter Maxwell, and me aboard Mithril, our 50-foot Van de Stadt steel ketch, this would be our first in the tropics. Along with two other English boats, Relax, a 42-foot steel ketch, and Still Waters, a Hallberg-Rassy 38, we were anchored off the abandoned penal colony at Île du Diable, the infamous Devil’s Island, about 10 miles off the coast. The boys went spearfishing while we girls slung hammocks between coconut palms ashore. Mouse, the little Yorkshire terrier from Relax, snapped at butterflies and ran in terror from the small, chattering monkeys that sprang at him from the banana palms. We gathered mangoes and had barbecued-fish suppers on the beach.
Now we were being uprooted because the European Space Agency uses Devil’s Island as a monitoring station for satellites launched from the mainland. As the French navy shooed us out of the bay, we agreed to meet in Trinidad and Tobago. “Same party, different paradise!” shouted Sue from Relax.
This night, the sky was aglow with man-made stardust, as the launch failed and bits of satellite debris descended to Earth all around Devil’s Island. Maybe the French had been wise, after all, to move us on.
Night sailing in the tropics is indeed the stuff of romance. Billions of stars gleam above, and the waters below sparkle with plankton. Flying fish land with a slap on deck, and the poled-out sails cast a ghostly shadow ahead. Puffs of flower-scented air drift off the land. A steady trade wind and calm seas gave us an exhilarating passage to Tobago, and Christmas morning saw us anchored in the lagoon at Buccoo Reef.
Relax had the gin pennant aloft, and the Christmas party began. Our carefully hoarded Christmas crackers suffered from the tropical humidity and were devoid of crack when bitten into. The awful jokes and party favors had survived intact, though, and someone stuck a paper hat on Mouse, who pawed it down over one eye to look like a jaunty pirate. What a novelty for us northerners: “Jingle Bells” while wearing a bikini and sipping rum punch instead of mulled wine.
At sundown, Juliet from Still Waters produced her acclaimed Paradise Pie, a cream-and-coconut confection that’s sublime. While we humans toasted the festive season, Mouse was left unguarded. I heard him growl happily to himself, and I thought, “Oh no! Please-not the pie!” For some canine reason known only to himself, however, Mouse didn’t eat the pie. He sat on it.
The horrified silence was broken by the little bell on his collar, which tinkled merrily as he shook himself. Drops of coconut cream fell like snow and melted in the tropical heat-a never-to-be forgotten and, one hopes, a never-to-be-repeated paradise moment!
1 prepared pie crust, baked and cooled
1 or 2 small, ripe bananas
Dash of lemon juice
2/3 cup white sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
3 egg yolks
1 cup dried coconut
1/4 teaspoon vanilla or
1 tablespoon butter
Mash bananas with lemon juice to prevent browning. Spread on top of cooled pastry. In a small pan, mix sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Gradually add milk and cook very gently, stirring constantly, until thick and boiling. Remove from heat. In a bowl, beat egg yolks and pour in half of the hot custard mixture, stirring constantly. Add egg mixture back to pan and stir all together. Bring to a boil again and stir for 1 minute. Turn off heat and add coconut, vanilla or almond extract, and butter. Stir and pour atop bananas. Let cool completely. To serve, top with whipped cream. Toasted coconut and finely chopped almond can be added if desired.