BITS and PIECES # 28

Leave a comment

May 3, 2013 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 28
Hello again from Luquillo,

Today I’ve chosen to share a story with you that I began working on a few weeks ago — it’s a reminiscence from the years that I spent as a free-lance charter sailboat skipper in the Caribbean — during that adventuresome period, as you might imagine, I had lots of unforgettable experiences — but, for many reasons, this particular narrative occupies a special place in my aging ‘memory bucket’…

I think you’ll see why if you read on…

ALICE

She was sitting in the cockpit, at her feet was a well-worn canvas bag, overflowing with knitting paraphernalia. I made my way down the finger pier, bypassing the pieces of luggage stacked carefully beside the boat. As I stepped over the transom and down into the cockpit, she got stiffly to her feet, extending a thin, freckled hand. “Good morning, Captain” she said, “I’m Alice — I’m afraid that you’re stuck with me and my family for the next week”…

As I took her hand, I regarded her carefully — first impressions are vital when you are contemplating potential quirks and vagaries that might upset the tranquility of a voyage in a sailboat’s cramped quarters. She looked to be in her late fifties — brown hair, turning gray — her un-tanned face was scrubbed clean of make-up, her weary, dark-rimmed eyes showing the ‘crow’s feet’ typical of ladies her age. She was dressed in black slacks, a white blouse and a heavy sweater that seemed incongruous on this warmish Caribbean morning. Her pale feet gave mute evidence that her red rubber sandals were a recent purchase…

Her no-nonsense demeanor made me think of my late mother…

Before I could reply, she continued “I know, I’m old and overweight, without any sailing experience, but I’m a fast learner, and I’m determined to make this a wonderful experience for my son, his wife and my precious grandchildren” — the words tumbled-out with an urgency that I mistook for shyness or possibly embarrassment — it was only later, that I discovered it was neither…

The boat she had chartered for her family’s vacation was a spacious 40 foot cruising sloop. Built by Gulfstar Yachts in 1976, still sleek, despite a decade of charter work — I had been hired as ‘skipper’ for a seven day ‘term charter’ — we would circumnavigate most of the nearby British Virgin Islands before returning to St. Thomas at week’s end…

Releasing her hand, I replied “I’m sure you will ma’am — I vow to do my very best to make that easy for you and safe and enjoyable for your family”. I noticed a wedding ring on her finger, and asked her if her husband would be joining the group. “No, Mark is gone” she replied without further amplification — I didn’t press for details…

As I began to move her luggage from the pier into the master stateroom, she stopped me, saying “we’ll let Jim and Lois have that luxury — I’ll be happy to occupy that tiny cabin up front — the grandkids can have the center cabin with plenty of room to spread-out”. “Okay, when will they be arriving?” I asked. Rummaging through her canvas bag, she dug-out a dog-eared travel agenda, scanned it carefully and replied “They should be arriving by taxi from the airport around 2 pm”…

It was closer to 4 pm when they finally trooped noisily down the dock — Jim was a rotund, thirtyish male replica of his mother — tousled brown hair topped off blue eyes surrounded by laugh wrinkles – a long nose drooped perilously close to a wispy piece of fuzz adorning his upper lip – his pale, un-tanned skin was the color of library paste. He wore rumpled jeans and a flowery Hawaiian Aloha shirt that appeared as new as his mother’s red sandals…

Lois, a plain but attractive young woman had her long blond curls tied-back in a ponytail – her expressive brown eyes took in her new surroundings as she carefully shepherded her children along the dock. She was clad in a travel puckered, but equally vibrant Hawaiian ‘muumuu’ dress that also suggested recent purchase — the children, Will, seven and Chrissie, ten, were miniature copies of their parents, down to their recently acquired and similarly colorful apparel — the young family’s collective demeanor was a combination of exhilaration and exhaustion — the ‘usual suspects’ of long hours spent trapped in cramped airplane seats…

After a quick round of introductions, I helped them stow their gear in the proper spaces below decks. Then I brought them all back on deck and assembled them in the cockpit for a briefing on ‘nautical etiquette’ and boat safety – covering such vital and varied topics as ‘How to flush a marine toilet’, and the necessity of keeping ‘One hand for yourself and one for the boat’ while walking on deck when the boat was in motion…

The boat had been stocked with provisions by the charter company prior to their arrival, so, with their unanimous approval, I elected to depart Red Hook later that afternoon — we sailed out of Benner Bay and had already crossed Pillsbury sound just as the sun was sinking below the horizon. We anchored off the beach at Christmas cove for the evening — ate dinner by starlight and then retired for the evening after discussing tomorrow’s sailing plans. Early the next morning, we upped-anchor and were soon sailing between Lovango Cay and the northern tip of St. John, heading toward Sir Francis Drake channel, and the British Virgin islands…

Chrissie and Will were quick learners — we had no sooner passed Johnson’s reef when they had clambered precariously out onto the bow pulpit, howling with delight, bare legs dangling down into the cold salt spray. As we began tacking into the easterly winds of Drake’s channel, they were already taking closely supervised turns at the helm — gleefully shouting “Ready about-helm’s a’lee’ as I had taught them to do with each tack, just like ‘old salts’…

Alice and Lois watched these proceedings with a mixture of consternation and maternal pride, while Jim grinned widely at the children’s antics. By mid-afternoon, we were off Roadtown, Tortola, where we anchored near the town dock to clear customs and immigration. Jim, Lois and the children were eager to sightsee and do some shopping, so I took them ashore in the dinghy. Oddly, Alice elected to remain aboard, saying she was worn-out from the day’s excitement — she appeared exhausted…

Later that afternoon, we sailed across to Norman Island, anchoring in the bight. Receiving parental (and grand-parental) sanction, I put Chrissie and Will into the dinghy and rowed them across the bight to look at the ‘Pirate Ship” moored in the shallows — when I mentioned that it had once belonged to Captain Hook, their ‘piratical’ grins were a sure indication that they were suitably impressed…

We set out for Virgin Gorda early the next morning, anchoring off the Baths just after noon. We ate lunch and then made plans to go ashore and tour the famous rock-strewn labyrinth — once again, Alice pleaded weariness and I began to wonder. We ended-up anchored off Spanishtown that evening — I dinghied the family, including a somewhat reluctant Alice, on shore to dine at a local restaurant — the good food and pleasant surroundings (the restaurant had a library!) seemed to revive Alice, and we all had an enjoyable time. Leaving Virgin Gorda the following morning, we ambled slowly back west towards St. Thomas, stopping for the day at Little Harbour, Jost Van Dyke, so I could introduce them to my good friend Harris Jones and let the family feast on his justly famous fresh conch salad, served at a makeshift wooden table in the sandy forecourt of his rustic beachside café. The next morning we headed back to St. John, anchoring in Caneel bay for the final afternoon and evening of the cruise. We enjoyed a nice dinner at the hotel — I borrowed their camera to take photos of their ‘gang’ assembled happily on the beach. We sailed back to Red Hook the next morning. Alice was looking very weary by the time we tied-up to the finger pier. After she had sent her family off to do some final shopping and sightseeing in Charlotte Amalie before their departure, she asked me to sit with her in the cockpit for a moment, to “settle-up’…

Without preamble, she handed me a check for four hundred dollars! When I saw the amount, I quickly handed it back to her, saying “I’m paid by the charter company, Alice — if a charter guest chooses to provide a ‘tip’ for good service, it’s seldom more than a few dollars!”

Looking directly into my eyes, she replied “I choose to reward you for your outstanding service and especially for your friendship to me and my family — you have become like a family member to us in the short time we have spent together — and besides, I need you to grant me a great favor”….

“I’ll do what I can” I replied, “Tell me what you need”.
“A few months ago” she began, haltingly, “I was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of uterine cancer — I will be operated on to remove the tumor shortly after I return to Chicago — the doctors have warned me that even if the operation is successful, I may only live for a few more months — that is why I hastily arranged this vacation with Jim and Lois and my grandkids! — In case this was to be my last chance, I wanted to leave them with a wonderful memory”. She halted, tears beginning in the corners of her eyes, dabbed fitfully at them with her handkerchief, straightened her shoulders, and began again, spewing-out the words hurriedly — “I haven’t told them yet! — I just couldn’t find the words — I want you to tell them today, after I’ve left for the airport!”

“Alice” I gasped, “I can’t do that”…

As she stared pleadingly into my eyes, I relented — “Okay”, I breathed softly, “I’ll do the best I can, but I still think you should be the one to let them know”…

“Good, it’s settled then” she replied, ignoring my final plea — “now I’ll finish packing and get ready to catch my plane”…

She had already left for the airport by the time the rest of her family arrived back at the boat. They were surprised and dismayed that Alice had left without saying goodbye. After they were packed, I asked them to join me in the cockpit for one last ‘conference’…

“First, I want to tell you how much I have enjoyed being your skipper this last week” I began, avoiding what I had promised Alice I would tell them. They smiled and said that they had really enjoyed my watchful care over them…

“Alice has asked me to tell you something important” I began, slowly “she has been diagnosed with cancer and will be operated on to remove a tumor in her uterus soon after she gets home — the doctors say that she may only have a few months to live!” my words tumbled-out helter skelter as I watched their happy faces crumple into disbelief followed by the expected tears of grief. I hurriedly continued “doctors always seem to predict the worst — keep a positive attitude, as I’m sure Alice would want you to, and, who knows, she may surprise us all, and come through with flying colors!” I added: “Why don’t we say a silent prayer together — I’m told praying can do wonders”. And so we did…

There wasn’t much more to say — we all hugged one last time and then I watched as they trooped disconsolately down the dock to a waiting taxi — they turned and waved wanly one last time — and then they were gone. I turned, took Alice’s check from my shirt pocket, tore it into small pieces and dropped the pieces into the water, watching, as they floated away…

Three months later, as I picked up mail from my post box across from the charter office, I discovered a picture postcard among the customary array of bills and advertisements. It was a photo of Alice and the family — and me – taken by Harris Jones at his Jost Van Dyke beach café — on the back, Alice had written:

Dear Captain Alan — All is well — I am a survivor! The surgeons have assured me that I have lots more years ahead of me — Thank you so much for your kindness and care of my family (and especially of me) during our wonderful Caribbean adventure!

Love,

Alice, Jim, Lois, Chrissie and Will — your sailboat family!

I walked out of the Post Office whistling through my teeth and grinning from ear to ear…

© 2013 – Alan Mowbray, Jr.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: