July 15, 2005
By Bernadette Bernon
"Dear Bernadette, We're sorry for the trouble you're having with your radar. We understand that it's only three years old, and even though it's past the two-year warranty period, we agree the problem is totally our responsibility, and we've fixed it free of charge. We realize that you had to disassemble and carry the entire radar display, scanner, and cable back to the United States from Jamaica, and that you'll have to bring the repaired unit back to Jamaica the same way - a hassle and inconvenience for which we apologize. We also know you've incurred considerable expense shipping the radar to us overnight, so that we can make the repair in time to get it back to you before you fly back to the boat. Enclosed is a $122 reimbursement check. Thank you for your patience. We always stand by our products, and promise to do better for you next time around. Please get in touch with me personally if I can ever help you again. Here's my direct phone number…"
That's the letter I showed to Jamaican Customs, so that I could avoid paying something like a 40 percent duty on the new radar I had to buy in the United States to replace our bum radar that had stopped working in the middle of the Windward Passage shipping lane, at night. That's the letter I wish we'd gotten from the company who made our radar, who shall remain nameless (Raymarine). But they didn't write that letter. I did.
Instead of that letter, I received a call from someone at the company's service department FOUR DAYS after they'd promised on the phone to begin working on it immediately. The man told me that if I wanted them to work on my unit right away, I'd need to pay an additional $50 "expedite" fee. "OK," I said, "but please PLEASE just do it as fast as possible! We're sailing offshore down to Panama next week, and need to have it working." So I offered up my credit card number like a supplicant at the altar of the almighty. At that point, I only had a few days left to get the blasted unit fixed and back.
The next day, the service tech phoned me, and it was like receiving a call from the chief of surgery at Mass General; I dropped everything to take the phone. The diagnosis? Our three-year-old Pathfinder radar, scanner and cable -- which we'd packed up into a box the size of a two-bedroom cottage, and which I'd schlepped all the way through dusty hot airports, and which I'd opened numerous times in Customs' offices -- needed $800 in repairs. I was staggered by the number. "But, the whole unit cost $1,500!" I cried. Feeling sorry for me, he lowered his voice, "I'm sorry. These days, once radars start to go, they're usually history. If I were you, I wouldn't fix this. I'd just buy a new one."
"But, but, but, we only just installed this one three years ago," I blubbered. "Our last radar lasted 12 years. What happened?"
"Yeah, I know. The old ones lasted forever. But according to the serial numbers on this unit, it's six-year-old technology. If you use it a lot, that's about the amount of time some of these newer babies last, no matter what company you chose."
I sat there, holding the phone, in shock. Not only had I not planned to spend big bucks on another new radar, I had only four days to go on my 10-day visit home, and two of those were weekend days, useless for making calls to service departments. Most of the previous week had been devoted to tearing around town getting stuff for the boat (I'd had a four-page single-spaced shopping list to claw through), getting a new laptop (our's had died and taken with it to the beyond all kinds of important files we hadn't backed up), and spending a full day at Mystic Seaport doing two slide shows. So I hadn't really had any time whatsoever with my family - one of the main reasons I'd flown to Rhode Island in the first place. So now I had to start doing the homework to buy a new radar, something Douglas would have handled, were he here, but he was back in Jamaica eating bon-bons. I felt the little veins in the side of my head beginning to throb.
"Let me know what you want to do," the tech said. "I'll leave it on the bench till you call me back."
I jumped into my dad's pick-up, and drove over to West Marine to look into buying a new radar, rapido. To make matters worse, I needed to buy another Pathfinder model - much as I was reluctant to slide down that road again - but the model numbers had to match on my Customs forms, so that I wouldn't have to pay the choking Customs charge for bringing a new unit into the country. The Jamaican officials informed me they don't permit goods to come in duty free for "yachts in transit" like they do in pretty much every other bloody country in the rest of the world. They also warned me when I flew out of Kingston that, when I returned to Jamaica from the States with the repaired unit, I'd have to produce the invoice that showed the charge I'd incurred to fix it, and pay duty on that number. No amount of arguing about the "yacht in transit" rule, which it turns out they were supposed to honor, made a bit of difference. As Douglas always laments, the guiding spirit bureaucracy is sadism.
Brian Gardiner, the manager at West Marine's Newport store, after hearing about my radar woes, got right on the program. He located a Pathfinder SL 72 in another store, and arranged to have it sent pronto to Newport, to arrive overnight - turns out it was the only one left in all of New England. I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe this was all going to work out. I rushed, then, to pick up my four-year-old niece from school, so we could spend a couple of quality hours together, and actually heard myself say to her: "Hannah, guess what. Auntie's going to take you to visit Napa!"
Unfortunately, Brian called me the next morning to tell me that the unit was coming on time, but that it was a floor model. He stressed that it was still brand new, and assured me that we'd test it together to make sure all was well with it before I left the store. As an enticement, because it was a display model, he gave it to me at a rock-bottom sale price of $1,000, almost half price. I gratefully said yes, let's go for it. The following day, it arrived, I zoomed into the store with my dad, who wandered over to look at jackets. Brian was out, but pressed for time, I pushed on anyway. One of the West staff set up the display part of the unit, which worked fine in demo mode. We didn't test the scanner, though, because he wouldn't cable the display and magnetron, saying he'd already spent too much time in front of radars in the military. I could understand that. It was still wrapped in plastic, never having been used, and it seemed all was well. My dad was hovering. It was 3:00 and we hadn't gone out to lunch yet, which had been the plan before we stopped at West three and a half hours before. I paid for the radar, brought it home in the back of the truck, repacked it with Styrofoam peanuts for the trip back to Jamaica, and began to unwind from the stress of spending so much money, so unexpectedly, and so fast.
The last problem was coming up with a receipt to show Jamaica customs the cost of the "repair." My friend Margo and I sat down at the computer, made up some letterhead and wrote the letter, the kind of letter we all wish we'd receive from a manufacturer of a defective product, and we tried to make it sound as official as possible. The next morning, at 5:00 a.m., I arrived at the Providence, Rhode Island, airport, had to open the entire box so security personnel could pull out and stare at the radar, then repack it. Next, I got on a plane, physically and mentally exhausted, and flew back to Ithaka.
In Jamaica, the radar's model numbers were compared to my original customs forms by several bored-looking customs officials, meaning the unit had to come out of the box each time so they could shake it and stare at it. (I carried with me four large rolls of packing tape in anticipation of this.) Finally the forms and letter were accepted. I was free now to lug my boxes and bags through the exit doors, trailing Styrofoam peanuts behind me.
Douglas was there to meet me at the arrival area. I might have this wrong, but it seemed he was as happy to see that the new radar had arrived safely as he was to see me. He'd hired the same taxi driver for the six-hour round trip between Port Antonio and Kingston, who'd brought us to the airport over a week before - a great guy who's an excellent driver, and someone we enjoyed talking with. Andre loaded all my boxes and bags into the van, and we took off like a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral.
Driving in Jamaica, you take your life in your hands. Everyone careens along at 60, 70, 80 miles an hour, and the roads through the mountains are narrow, rutted, hairpin turns with shear drop-offs. Dogs and kids avoid the road completely; it seems to be in their hard wiring. There are signs everywhere with saints beseeching drivers to slow down, but no one heeds the warnings because if you slow down to, say, 50, everyone driving behind you goes berserk honking, and screaming out the windows, and riding your tail until you speed up. Andre drives like a bat out of hell, too, but at least he's good at it.
We arrived back to Ithaka, transported the boxes and radar into the dinghy and out to the boat, and Douglas immediately tore into the radar box as though it was Christmas morning. We were psyched, because it looked like there would be a terrific weather window in three days, and we wanted to grab it, and get on the road to Panama. I made some cold lemonade, tried to get re-accustomed to the sweltering heat, and began to unpack. Suddenly, I heard a wailing sound from the vicinity of my husband.
"The %#&*@&% cable doesn't fit the $@#*#& scanner!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, and added some other words I can't include here. "IT'S THE WRONG &%$#&% CABLE!!!"
My heart sank. After all it took to get the unit, and transport it here, it was useless without the right cable. There was a period of Douglas ranting and raving at me, at cruising, and at the world before we decided we needed to call Brian at West to see if he could do something, anything, to locate the right cable from the company. I looked for my Daytimer address book and calendar to find Brian's number. What the…? The book was nowhere to be found. I went through all my luggage and bags, again and again, and started to panic. Suddenly I had a searing realization of exactly where my precious datebook was - still tucked into the seat-back of my Continental Airlines jet, just where I'd left it, and now on its way to Los Angeles. In that Daytimer was every important address, date, record, and email address that I'd collected for the past five years, including frequent-flyer cards, phone cards - the list went on and on. I went into such shock over these coinciding problems and the stress of the week, and started to cry with such abandon, that Douglas actually suggested I take an Atavan. I declined, pulled myself together, got to a phone, and called the information number on my Continental ticket.
The fellow who answered gave me the number of Continental Airlines' lost-and-found department -- in Newark, New Jersey -- where all missing things are supposed to be sent. I began to wilt. The plane, I learned, was cleaned in Kingston, took off for LA, then was supposed to be cleaned again in Newark. The man wanted me to answer about 200 questions, and give him a mailing address "in case" they found it.
"But if you find it, will you call me?" I asked, tearing up again. "It's a really important book to me. It's got my life in it."
"No can do," he said. "But if we find it, we'll send it to you in the States. Here's your case number. You'll need it if you want to check on the status of your file." Case number? File? At that instant, I knew I'd never see the book again.
Meanwhile, Douglas got in touch with Brian, who wailed too when he heard about the cable. He immediately began making phone calls to obtain the correct cable. He said he'd call us back at the marina as soon as he knew something. Douglas and I were almost comatose with disappointment over all these developments. We figured that at best we'd get a cable in another week, probably two, at considerable expense and great inconvenience. To sail through the Panama Canal shipping lanes for a four-day trip, we wanted radar. I was filled with self-loathing for not insisting on checking the cable myself, and for leaving my stupid date book on the plane. How, oh how, could I be this naïve, this careless?
Brian called back. He'd located a cable in another store, and would have it shipped anywhere we wanted. But where? Then, simultaneously, a miracle occurred: while we were standing in the marina office making the calls, we overheard that John Louis, the director of the Port Antonio Marina was in Fort Lauderdale AT THAT VERY MOMENT, and was scheduled to fly out to Jamaica the next morning. Then we had a brainstorm. We'd met Pam Wall from West Marine at a lecture we'd done a couple of years ago in New York, and remembered that she was a circumnavigator. Turns out she's also the Outfitting Manager at West's Fort Lauderdale super-store, and in charge of finding and shipping boat stuff world-wide. Douglas called her and SHE ANSWERED THE PHONE! Yes! Yes, YES! She had the proper cable, called Brian, and arranged for a messenger to drive it over to John Louis immediately. Meanwhile, Brian got the other new cable, and shipped it to Pam in Fort Lauderdale to replace hers. I was giddy and overwhelmed to imagine this network of terrific people trying to help us in every way they could. The next morning, John Louis arrived in his Port Antonio Marina office carrying the correct cable, and handed it to Douglas. Brian Gardiner and Pam Wall at West are our heroes.
One problem down. One to go. I called Continental Lost And Found the next day, and was told there was "no progress" on my file. On a whim, I called the main number again in Newark, and got a guy to look up Continental's airport office number in Kingston, Jamaica. I dialed it. A fellow with a thick sing-song Jamaican accent answered - "Continental Airlines. Can I hep you?" -- and I told him about the missing datebook.
"Oh darlin'," he said. "I be feelin' your pain. Tell me more about d'book."
I told him it was dark blue, and that it was packed with notes, and numbers and every important contact in my whole pathetic life. And then, for the twentieth time, I started to cry.
"OK, sugar. Now, tell me about d'size of d'book.
I told him it was about eight inches by about five inches.
"Hmmm," he said. "Nobody found nuttin' like dat. But I tell you what. When dese phones quit ringin', I'll go back and check aroun' mysef. Call me aroun' 1:00, and I'll go ax aroun'," he said. "You ax for Wilby."
I counted the hours, then on the dot of 1:00 I called back.
"Continental Airlines. Can I hep you?"
"Wilby, is that you?"
"Dis is Wilby," he said. "I foun' it."
"WHAT?!?" I screamed. "No way!"
"Ya, mon, it was back dere," he said. "Dey cleaned it off de plane, and put it in wid a lot of udder stuff. I got it right here in my own hands. One thing though, I'm off at 4:00, so can you get it by 4:00 cause I doan feel right to take it home wid me, and I doan feel good about leavin' it here."
"I'll be there!" I cried. "Oh thank you thank you thank you!"
I got off the phone, called Andre, and told him what happened. He said he'd step on it, and be at the marina office in 10 minutes. I rooster-tailed the dinghy back to the boat from the phone, changed into a dress so I'd look presentable to Wilby, grabbed my money and shoes, and got back to the dock just as Andre screeched to a stop in front of me. I jumped into the front seat, and we peeled off for the three-hour, dreaded mountain road trip, across the entire country, to back to Kingston.
I now understand fully how Jamaica could have had a bobsled team in every winter Olympics since 1988; they all must be taxi drivers. We rocked left and right at lightening speeds, passing every car we came up behind, whizzing like a bullet through small villages. Finally, I couldn't even look at the road; it was too scary. We approached the bustle of Kingston, tore through town, rocketed into the airport, Andre screeched to a stop in front of the doors, I crawled out of the taxi, sprinted to the Continental desk at 3:50 and asked for Wilby. The man at the counter looked at me funny, and pointed me toward the policeman at the door. "Ask him," he said. I went up to the policeman and asked if he knew where I could find Wilby.
"Ya, mon. But why you want him?" he asked.
"He's expecting me," I said. "He found something of mine."
"Hmmm," the guard looked at me quizzically for a long time, then said, "Awright, mon, come wit me," and he lead me through the rabbit warren of back rooms and Continental luggage conveyor belts, until we reached a man sitting at a small desk against the wall, answering the phone.
"Wilby?" I said. "It's me. Bernadette."
He looked up toward me, beaming, and I saw that he was completely blind. "Hey, baby. I got it right here!" he said, pulled open a drawer, and produced my datebook. "Sorry it took so long to find it, sugar, but I had to wait till I had my break, den get myself all de way back to d'place where d'planes are, and den feel all around. Took awhile, but I foun' it. Somebody had tucked it way back in dere for safe keepin'."
"Oh, Wilby, I'm so grateful to you. I can't thank you enough," I said. "I'd called Newark and they said nobody found anything, and I'd figured it was a gonner."
"Aw, nuttin' to it," he said. "Glad you're happy." I tried to give him a reward, but he said, "Hey, sugar, thanks, but give it to d'church." And then the phone rang, and he grabbed my hands, and squeezed them, said he had to get back to work, and picked up the receiver. "Continental Airlines. Can I hep you?"
The guard was still standing there, smiling, and I followed him out, where Andre was waiting. He cheered when he saw the book. I jumped in the van, and off we went on the roller-coaster ride to Port Antonio. Andre told me the story of his life on the way back, and only charged me half of what he charged us for the same ride the day before. "No problem, mon. You all been good to me," he said. "I'm glad you got the book."
While I was in Kingston, Douglas and our friend Jack from Kitty Hawk spent six hours installing the new radar. Mercifully, the scanner began to turn, the images popped up on the screen, and all was right again in our little cruising world. Suddenly it looks like we're going to make our weather window after all.
There are many morals to this story. Here are a few: Always test even brand-new gear completely before bringing it to the Third World. When you find a sharp, helpful person in an organization - such as Brian or Pam - stick with them like Velcro, never stray. A visit home to family and friends refreshes the spirit, and I hope to try that next time I'm there. And perhaps the most important moral -- if you're searching for something really important, don't be satisfied relying on normal channels; sometimes it's important to keep looking until you find a blind man to help you.