maintenance, provisioning, fueling; oiling
the anchor chain; lowering the dinghy;
making dinner; reading books on the back
deck with moths flying around the overhead light. So calmly and comfortably did
it open the door and take up residence, we
hardly even noticed its entrance.
Our reunion in Golfito was giddy. On
our week south, we took in endless miles
of unspoiled Panamanian coastline, thick
jungle, white sand beaches, all deserted
and unexplored. We spent each evening
on the hook, grilling on the replaced barbecue, to the sound of howler monkeys in
the trees, relishing the blissful sunsets and
the anticipation of the canal.
The closer we got to the canal, the
more we became like wide-eyed country
cousins arriving in the big city. Our days
went from contemplating tropical forest
landscapes and no other boats, to an endless convoy of huge containerships from all
over the world awaiting transit. Binoculars
were permanently glued to our faces until
suddenly we were there, at the mouth of
the massive Panama Canal. While awaiting
our transit date, we hauled out for bottom
painting and inspection, and explored the
city. On May 10, we transited to another
ocean, and a whole new chapter, Desperado
a speck amid steel-hulled giants.
The Caribbean offered a new world of
adventure, and a new set of dilemmas.
Ed and I, finally, had acknowledged that
we were no longer just captain and crew.
But we were separated by continents and
a generation. As planned, I was on my
way to Argentina; he was going home to
the States for the summer. It was the most
bittersweet of partings. He promised to
meet me in Buenos Aires for my birthday in August. I wondered if he would.
I’d had these romances before. Intense,
sweet, but inevitably tapering off with
distance. But somehow this captain, with
the determined mind, calm soul, and the
kindest heart of anyone I’d ever met, had
stolen my heart, and I spent a blurry three
months heading south, my every fiber aching to be back with him. We needed time
together, to explore if this is was big as we
thought it was, and after Argentina (he
came!), we concocted an elaborate plan to
take Desperado to Cartagena, Colombia. I
deferred making any large life plans about
work and home a bit longer, eager to discover where this adventure was headed.
Looking toward the future at
Castle Durrow, Ireland.
ight now it was pointed
toward the San Blas Islands,
an archipelago of 365 islands
east of the Panama Canal,
home to the Kuna Indians.
These picture-perfect islands
quickly became one of our favorite destinations, and we explored them before
heading to Cartagena. Matt, the son of a
friend of Ed’s, joined us and we were both
on watch for one of the blackest of nights
when I noticed a large dot on the radar a
few miles out. I ascertained its direction,
and turned Desperado to starboard as the
ship closed. Then we saw it, lit up like a
Christmas tree in the distance. It was traveling fast, probably headed for the canal,
but then it turned! I checked the radar; it
was now trashing a collision course right
for us, and we could see its red and green
running lights and the white masthead
ones, confirming we were directly in its
path! I spun the wheel away when the ship
was a few hundred feet off our bow and we
could make out the portholes. We missed
It was a horrendous night watch of
storms and gales with the boat being
pounded around in inky black waves.
Matt’s hair stood on end from a combination of humidity, sea spray, and terror.
Waves broke over the bridge deck and
ran down the necks of our foul weather
gear. On several occasions I checked on
Ed who, despite the bell on the aft-deck
clanging loudly over his head and the fact
he was doing midair somersaults in
the aft cabin with each pounding wave, remained fast
asleep, oblivious to the Armageddon outside. Unless he possessed some sorcery
skills to calm the seas, there was little
point in waking him. We were not in danger of much more than losing our dinners
in these short-breaking waves hitting us
on the nose, and the only way out was
through. At one point, Matt commented
that if he had the black pill astronauts are
given, he’d take it. He wasn’t smiling as he
said this. Dawn eventually arrived and with
it Ed, who emerged from below, stretching
and yawning into the new morning and
calmer seas. “Anything happen?” he asked.
Matt and I exchanged looks.
After a month in Cartagena, Ed and
I headed back to Panama where we spent
time exploring the Rio Chagres, plotting
our route north. There were long beautiful
weeks where we languished in anchorages, hiked the local terrain, ate at cheap
local restaurants and food stands, did boat
chores, and marveled at finding each other.
We took Desperado up the Rio Dulce, and
drank coffee on an ancient roof terrace
in Antigua, Guatemala, while the Pacaya
Volcano erupted nine kilometers behind
us. We danced barefoot in the sand at a pig
roast in Isla de San Andres off the Mosquito
Coast of Nicaragua, and slowly realized
that this adventure, the two of us, wasn’t
ending anytime soon.
On our way north, to avoid an overnight passage, we anchored off a deserted
island — the only possible anchorage for
many hours. Sometime about four in the
morning, we awakened to several thuds,
and the unmistakable sound of being
boarded. Hastily throwing on the nearest
clothes, we came up from below to find
six armed figures dressed in black military
uniforms coming down the steps into the
main cabin. There was hardly time for fear
before they identified themselves as the
Panamanian Coast Guard. They examined
our passports and the boat’s zarpe — and
after doing a quick inspection, and looking
us up and down, they informed us that
we’d anchored slap bang in the middle
of one of the busiest drug routes from
Colombia to the U.S. It also happened to
be a favorite hangout of smugglers.
They left like shadows in the night,
silently boarding their large black inflatable.
When they were about 200 yards off our
stern, the heavens opened into an unmerciful rainstorm, and Ed and I grinned at
each other. We laughed even harder when
we came back into the cabin and into the
light and realized that, in his haste, Ed had
put on my shorts, resulting in a very dodgy,
skintight look that might have hastened
our nocturnal visitors’ retreat.