July 1, 2003
Glover’s Atoll, Belize
16° 44.605 North
087° 52.351 West

Welcome To “The Log Of Ithaka”

By Bernadette Bernon

- It’s nightfall at Glover’s Atoll, 25 miles east of Belize. The wind is howling, probably 30 knots. Our anchor’s snubber line is making that moaning sound it makes when the wind is mighty enough to pull it taut. Ithaka strains and bucks as whitecaps splash around us like a washing machine. Inside our boat, however, all is quiet. I’m stretched out on the settee reading Dai Sijie’s novel “Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress,” which has transported me from tonight’s squall in Belize to a remote village during China’s Cultural Revolution. Caught up in my reading, I’d never know that anything is going on with the weather, except when I take Douglas into consideration. My husband is sitting at the navigation desk, staring at the instruments, and announcing with heightening distress the velocity of each of the wilder gusts.

“Steady thirty!” he bleats plaintively. Then, “Thirty-four!” Then, “Oh man, forty-two!”

Ithaka and Dutchess anchored at the west side of Glover’s Atoll, Belize.(Photo courtesy of Kris Pino on s/v Dutchess)

“ I think we’re holding OK,” I say.

“I think so too,” he says, checking the GPS anchor alarm, “but if this keeps up, we oughta do an anchor watch tonight.”

“All-righty,” I chirp, but I think: Ugh, I don’t relish taking turns staying up through the night until this all passes. But that’s just the way it is sometimes, especially when weather turns suddenly ugly. We’ve been seeing more and more of that lately, now that summer is coming and rainy season is here.

Douglas and I know our anchor’s well buried in good, deep sand. We both dove on it when we got here, inspecting its set. It’s going nowhere. But I’ve learned over the three years we’ve been voyaging that Douglas needs to have something to worry about at all times -- and cruising succeeds in providing him an infinite list. Tonight, it’s the wind and the anchor. For my part, I’m probably too much of an optimist, too laissez-faire, but that’s what I bring to this party. Somehow, we seem to balance each other out and make it work.

Bernadette and Douglas on Ithaka

Glovers is a Pacific-style atoll, one of only four in the Atlantic, most likely formed when a volcano erupted under the ocean and caved in on itself. Over the millennia, the erosion of the seas have sheered off its top, leaving a coral crown with a few breaks deep enough you can come through, in seconds going from 3,000 feet of water to 45 feet, and then, once inside the lagoon, anchoring in 10 to 20 feet of water on a mountain-top oasis in the middle of what looks like an endless sea. When we first arrived at Glover’s, we’d anchored west of Southwest Cay, located just inside the reef along the east side of the atoll, where we had perfect protection from the prevailing easterly trade winds. But when the wind died a few days ago, and the inside of the atoll looked glassy, we were tempted by the edge of the atoll’s western wall. We wanted to snorkel and scuba dive it, and have it to ourselves. So, when the sun was high and the sky was cloudless, we motored slowly through the maze of coral heads and patch reefs, with Douglas sitting on the first set of spreaders to improve his visibility of the hazards, and with me driving, and we wove our way slowly to a point inside the lagoon close to the west side of the atoll. Ithaka is anchored tonight in that glorious spot -- magnificent when the wind is calm, a bit dicey when it’s not. Like now.

I climb out the companionway and look around in the dark for a quick bearing check. Because we’re inside the atoll, the reef breaks the worst of the waves, and, considering the wind, the seas are relatively flat. Not far from us is Dutchess, with our friends Erwin and Kris aboard. Other than them, we’re alone out here at this mid-ocean atoll, two of the last boats cruising the Northwest Caribbean before the hurricane-season demarcation date arrives on July 1, and everyone turns off the lights down here. Pretty soon, we’ll need to boogie too -- Dutchess south to Guatemala’s Rio Dulce, heading 26 miles up-river to perfect hurricane protection, and Ithaka north to the States to do some refit projects.

Erwin and Kris on Dutchess. They left Holland four years ago and have enjoyed meandering through the Northwest Caribbean.

Before all this happens, however, we’ll savor our last days in Belize, welcome you aboard, and show you a bit of the world we’ve come to know. We hope you’ll stay awhile and join us on the 1st and 15th of each month, when new logs will appear here on the BoatUS website. It’s not always calm on Ithaka. We’re not model cruisers who always do the right thing, and often the fur flies. Imagine combining “The Osbornes” with the “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and you get the picture. Ultimately, we’re just two people having an adventure, and telling you about it as honestly as we can.

For the past three and a half years, since we uprooted ourselves from jobs, home and families in Newport, Rhode Island, and started cruising, we’ve written weekly, then bi-monthly Logs about our voyaging for Cruising World magazine’s website www.cruisingworld.com. (You can see all of them from the outset by clicking on “The Complete Logbook” icon.) Writing the Log of Ithaka has enhanced our cruising experience in ways we’d never anticipated, and it’s given us a personal relationship with many readers who logged on with us, letting us know we were fueling their dreams of setting off, too. Many have written us with their own intimate stories, fears, and hopes, and these notes inspire us. We welcome your opinions, comments, and questions, too, and we’ll do our best to answer some of those questions here in this column. Email us at Ithaka@BoatUS.com.

Every day in the San Blas, Kunas navigate their ulus past Ithaka on their way to and from their fishing grounds. Expert sailors, the Kunas’ sails are always kaleidoscopes of patches

When Jim Ellis, the President of BoatUS, contacted us recently and invited us to begin sharing our logs with you, we were thrilled to renew our relationship with readers online, and to be introduced to a powerboat readership as well. We’re excited to help bridge a false gap between the sailboat and motorboat communities. Ultimately, as Douglas says, boats is boats. We all embrace the same wanderlust, the same passions, and the same dreams of adventuring over the horizon.

Our final Log for the Cruising World website, back in March of this year, was set at the southernmost point of our journey, Suletupu, in the San Blas archipelago, a string of 350 mostly uninhabited islands off the Atlantic coast of Panama. Peopled by Kuna Indians, who call their land Kuna Yala (the Kuna Nation), these tiny people—most are under five feet tall—make up one of the last indigenous communities in the Atlantic. For months, Douglas and I lived among the Kuna, getting to know many of them, learning about their traditions, and spending our days swimming and fishing in paradise.

This was our second trip to the San Blas. It was during our first visit, over a year ago, that that we’d gotten to know Erwin, who was singlehanding Dutchess while his wife Kris was in Holland dealing with a family emergency. Our paths hadn’t crossed since, but in the ways of the cruising community, we’d stayed in touch through our onboard email systems, hoping to reconnect somewhere down the road. In the meantime, Dutchess had gone west, and Ithaka east and south. First we’d sailed to Cartagena Colombia, and for two months immersed ourselves in the culture, cuisine, and music of the most beautiful colonial city in the Americas. Next we headed overland to Peru, where Douglas hiked the Inca Trail, and we explored Machu Picchu, for centuries hidden ethereally in a high mountain valley above the clouds.

Cartagena, Colombia, is a magic crossroads destination for sailors -- rich with spectacular architecture, historic sites, and wonderfully cheap first-class restaurants.

We sailed from Cartagena back to the San Blas, with its gentle Kunas, and made a major decision. Instead of heading home, as had been our original plan, and bringing our cruising to an end, we decided to carry on. We’d found that for each of us, cruising was becoming a steadily richer experience, and we wanted to keep going. Douglas and I began to brainstorm where we might go next, and what we’d need to do to Ithaka to make that happen. That conversation continues, and we’ll share our thoughts with you as we go along.

We explored Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca sacred city, hidden up in the mountains of Peru.

As our cruising to-do list began to grow, we spent quiet days in the San Blas, anchored in the spectacular beauty of reef-surrounded cays. We broke bread with Indians who’d become friends. Douglas spear-fished with the men, I hung out with the women, and as we got to know people, we were brought into some of the rituals of the Kuna’s daily life. Once, to our great good fortune, we were invited to participate in an arcane puberty ritual to celebrate a young woman who’d just had her first menses. Over and over again, we gave thanks that we were traveling this path slowly, for only when you linger can such rare opportunities present themselves. In the San Blas, we also started an extraordinary mola collection – these are the intricately crafted traditional blouses sewn with the complicated reverse appliqué technique, all based on skin paintings from pre-missionary days when the Kuna lived naked. As best I could, with the complications of language, I wrote down the personal story of every woman from whom we’d bought one, and I took each woman’s photograph. Along with memories, and friendships, our molas have become treasures on Ithaka.

Every day in Kuna Yala, women paddled by ulu out from their villages to Ithaka – sometimes an excursion of many miles, that included bringing their children – to show us their beautiful molas.

At Mamimulu on Tupbak, an island in the eastern end of the Kuna Yala, we learned about nuchus, and were honored to be given a few. These are carved spirit figures that all Kunas keep in their huts to ward off different illnesses. When a Kuna becomes sick, the Medicine Woman or Medicine Man comes, selects a nuchu, puts it in the Kuna’s hammock, and invokes its powers to combat the sickness. Usually, these cherished carvings are handed down through families for generations, and they’re believed to have great powers of good and evil. Only nuchus that have been damaged in some way can be given away. Once a nuchu is cracked or broken the spirit becomes unstable and highly dangerous. At that point, I guess, it’s a good time to give it as a gift to an unsuspecting gringo! Although, before they were given to us, they had to be “exorcized” in a special ceremony. As I sit here typing away, I look over at Ithaka’s lobotomized nuchus from time to time, and wonder what kind of lives they’d had, what sadnesses they’d seen, how many people’s hopes they carried. It’s difficult to believe sometimes, that in our pell-mell world, a culture like the Kunas’ survives so close to modernity. Douglas and I are grateful to have been able to linger.

The lobotomized nuchus of Ithaka

From Nuinudup, in the western San Blas, on a course of 325 degrees, it was just under a 300-mile sail to Isla Providencia, one of my favorite islands, a dumpling owned by Colombia in the middle of the ocean, 125 miles east of Nicaragua. Providencia’s green mountains paw down to the sea. Ringed by turquoise reefs, the island has an exquisitely protected harbor where the pirate Captain Morgan often sought refuge. Anchored in his shadow, we dinghied ashore every day to the pristine village to buy our veggies, or go to the internet (there’s one terminal), or catch a collectivo truck, which is the normal taxi system on the island’s one road on the 25-mile perimeter. One of the first things I did when Ithaka arrived in Providencia was reconnect with a Colombian family we’d gotten to know the year before. With Carmeni, I’d taken Spanish lessons, but they were more like life lessons really. We’d talked for long hours about Colombian politics and life, and in her I’d made a lasting friend.

Medicine women and medicine men are revered figures in Kuna life. Here, one is honored on a mola that has become a part of Ithaka’s collection.

Relationships out here are often fast and intense, which is one of the gifts and one of the burdens of cruising. Sometimes, the weight of so many difficult goodbyes is a high price for this lifestyle. When you connect with people, share attitudes, and humor, and days of projects and play, you want to hang on for awhile, and share your days. Friendships among cruisers blossom through fishing and snorkeling together, exploring, forever making repairs aboard each others’ boats, getting together for drinks and dinners in the evenings, noodling problems big and small, talking about life into the wee hours. In a month or two, you can cover more emotional ground with copasetic fellow cruisers than, previously, you may have been able to explore over years with some of your dearest friends back home.

At the end of a long day of free diving, Kuna fishermen row their catch back to their hut on Mistup to be smoked. (Photo courtesy of John Kornahrens on M/V Gabrielle)

This was the case with Erwin. When we met him, he was alone on Dutchess in the San Blas. Two months before, his wife Kris had needed to fly home to Holland unexpectedly to be with her mother, who’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Our two boats stayed together for a month or so, and Douglas and I became fast friends with Erwin, until the weather had propelled us on our way east to Cartagena, Colombia, and him west to Colon, a reunion with Kris, and adventures in Panama’s magical Chagres River. In the year since, we’d written back and forth, planned our reunion, and much had happened. Kris’s mother had died. Dutchess had a series of mechanical challenges: Erwin rebuilt their big generator, it failed despite his ministrations, they’d bought a new one, and installed it themselves. Then they’d lost their transmission, and Erwin successfully rebuilt that. He’s a technical wizard, and tenacious, but his emails revealed what we all discover quickly out here: when things with the boat go right, cruising is life-affirming; but when they go wrong, it’s emotionally wrenching. Meanwhile, I’d had a medical emergency myself, needed surgery, and Douglas and I had flown home for that. All had turned out well. For both boats, it had been a roller coaster of a season.

A yellow-footed booby guards her egg, at the rookery at the Vivorillos Cays.

In April, finally, Ithaka set sail to the Vivorillos Cays off the eastern shoulder of Honduras, where we spent several days by ourselves, far from civilization of any kind, dinghying to a small island that was a booby and frigate rookery. Around us were totally unspoiled reefs, and Douglas was in spear-fishing heaven. In our first hour in the water there, he scooted among the staghorn coral and brought back two dog snappers, one hog fish, and a major grin. For several days, we were the only boat there. We dawdled happily, savoring our primitive privacy, and the good weather. But each day we pulled down weather faxes on the SSB, and they were showing a large cold front forming in the upper Gulf of Mexico and heading our way.

There’s usually great fishing in and amongst the staghorn coral beds. (Photo courtesy of John Kornahrens on M/V Gabrielle)

The shallow Vivorillos banks, with no protection from the north or northwest, is no place to be with a low-pressure system coming through, so within hours of seeing the fax, we retied everything on deck, stowed everything loose down below, upped anchor and sailed north. We headed around the corner of Honduras, 185 miles to Roatan in the Bay Islands, with its magnificent necklace of coral reef, making it one of the best scuba-diving destinations in the world. There, tucked by ourselves into a fjord-like bay called Calabash Bight, we rode out four days of 40-knot winds and heavy rains. We showered outside any number of times each day, filled our tanks with good rain water, had a sparkling, salt-free boat, and read book after book. When the rains stopped, we let the seas die down for a day and then hightailed it out. We had a date to keep. Dutchess was sailing from Colon. Both boats had their sights set on a reunion at Glover’s Atoll.

Our most treasured memories from cruising include the incredible sunsets as seen from the deck of a boat, far from civilization.

Ithaka arrived first, and we talked with Erwin and Kris on the SSB radio daily. Two days later at about 8:00 a.m., Erwin hailed us on the VHF. They were an hour away. I’ll always remember how fine it felt, after a year of talking about it, to see our friends sailing over the horizon.

We sat out on the deck with our binoculars, watching and waiting. When we saw them closing in, Douglas and I jumped in the dinghy, roared out to the cut in the jagged reef wide enough to allow entrance into the atoll, and we lead Dutchess through it. In tribute and celebration, Douglas blew his conch horn, given to him in the San Blas by a Kuna fisherman. The low, long foghorn sound carried loud and strong through the morning air as Dutchess followed us through the coral heads to where Ithaka was anchored. We whooped and beamed at each other from ear to ear. All around us was a pristine coral atoll that would be our protection. Our good friends had arrived. We had so much to catch up on, and so much to see.