September 15, 2006
The Light House
By Bernadette Bernon
There’s a dolphin that for the past few years has been a daily visitor to the anchorage within the Bight at Guanaja, in the Bay Islands of Honduras. Every day, she makes the rounds of cruising boats, all anchored together seeking protection from the prevailing easterlies. She weaves in and out between the boats, sounding, playing, coming close to observe, but never staying too long. Sometimes, cruisers slide into the water from their boats to try to play with her. Whenever this happens, she shyly submerges and disappears.
Locals tell us that the dolphin gave birth a couple of years ago. Mother and calf were often observed swimming within the Bight. But then one day the mother was back, and the calf was nowhere to be seen. We heard that, because she lived alone, without a pod of other dolphins around her, the mother dolphin wasn’t able to keep her calf near the surface to breath while she slept, something other dolphins help each other to do with each other’s calves. Exhausted from pushing the baby up without rest, she finally slept and the baby either drowned or was killed by predators. That’s what the locals say.
They also tell us that the dolphin likes to be around boats and people, that she once lived in captivity, in a pen of performing dolphins somewhere over in Roatan, but that she’d escaped, and now, she’s different from other dolphins. She doesn’t fit in. She doesn’t have a group she travels with. Instead, the cruising boats have become her pod. We’ll never know if all this is true. We only know that while we’re anchored here, she’s a daily delight.
We’ve been in Guanaja long enough to watch the dolphin’s habits, and become accustomed to them. We’ve been here long enough to reunite with old friends Jack and Elizabeth, who live on Guanaja with their children. We’ve been here long enough to order a replacement part from the States for the shredded flexible coupling that united our engine with our power take off. This problem has been gnawing at my husband’s gut, and causing him to open our engine compartment every half hour since the moment we jury-rigged an epoxy/5200 “repair” to the coupling almost two weeks ago in Providencia. After waiting for it here for nine days, it’s finally arrived. Hopefully that problem is almost all behind us. While we’ve been impatient to receive this part, we also know we’re lucky to be able to get it at all, and that this has been pretty quick service.
But we haven’t been twiddling our thumbs awaiting this replacement part. Jack and Elizabeth have made our time here an utter joy. Elizabeth threw a birthday party for Jack that was an awesome display of her cooking talents, and gathered their friends from near and far – a German couple who’d built a house here, a doctor and his wife who’d both been volunteering for a year at a local hospital on the mainland, a couple who were running a school. Another night, we all sat together in their living room eating popcorn, and watching “The Phantom Of The Opera,” which Elizabeth’s mother just had brought to her from the States.
The movie was promptly labeled a “chick flick” by Douglas and Jack, and a fabulously romantic escape for Elizabeth and me. During the day, we went diving and snorkeling out to the reefs that Jack knows like the back of his hand. The reefs of Guanaja are thick, healthy, and undiscovered by tourists, and we had them to ourselves. Douglas said the scuba diving on the north shore, through serpentine canyons, was some of the most spectacular underwater terrain he’s ever seen.
We walked, we hiked, we dinghied into town to provision – town being a warren of little streets that are chockablock full of houses and shops, many of which are built on stilts out over the water. Jack and I brainstormed cool house plans. Douglas and Jack spent a day fixing the engine of a friends’ catamaran, which had water in the injectors; they sucked it all out with a syringe hooked to a Foley catheter, both items liberated from our onboard medical kit. The boat is Khamsa from Normandy, France, with Hervé and Leticia and their two little daughters aboard. Douglas and I had become friends with this family in Providencia, and we loved playing with five-year-old Emma and two-year-old Lily. We’d traveled together to the Vivorillos, dived, hunted and explored together, then sailed on to Guanaja. Before they left Guanaja, we sold them our kayak, Mr. Chuckles, after having the fun of watching Emma and Lily paddling it around every day. Herve and Leticia were thrilled with their new purchase, which fit perfectly between the amas of their sleek catamaran.
I spent time with Sam and Annie, Jack and Elizabeth’s children. Annie and I worked on a speech she had to give as a final exam in her American home-schooling course, and one night, after it was ready, she got up and performed it for us after dinner. Her home-schooling requirement was that she tape herself giving the speech, that she could not read it verbatim from paper, and that she send in the tape and the note cards she used so she could be graded not only on the speech, but on the preparation. I look forward to hearing from her when she receives her score. I thought she was great.
Elizabeth and I hung out together, and talked about this and that, and what the future held for us all. She and Jack were considering going cruising again, to the San Blas islands this time, and maybe through the Panama Canal and beyond. The family had some huge decisions to make, especially as they still have one daughter in college in the United States. Their hope was that she’d finish school in two years, and perhaps join the family for a year of cruising before carrying on with any career plans. Meanwhile, Jack and Elizabeth had to decide whether or not to sell the house, whether or not to leave Guanaja for good. This brought back memories of the frantic period of our lives almost six years ago when Douglas and I had to make all these decisions in order to go cruising. Most we made well, a couple we’d probably like to reverse and do differently. But the end result is that we did it, and it was worth it all.
I could relate to Elizabeth’s feelings of conflict about selling the house, and leaving Guanaja. It’s a spectacularly beautiful island. Tall mountains sheathed in lush green vegetation rise up to the sky. Sweetwater rivers pound down these mountains, water the island, and quench the thirst of the people who live here. Tucked into a cranny of one of these mountains, overlooking the Bight, is The Light House, the home Jack and Elizabeth designed and built for their family of five. What they’ve built here, both in terms of their house, and in terms of their family, is impressive.
We’d met the Midences four years before, when we visited Guanaja for the first time. Elizabeth was running a school, and Jack was flying medical missions from the outlying islands to a mainland hospital, and doing his engineering work. We’d become friends, brought together by our shared interest in cruising. Since those days, Jack found a cruising boat for sale in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, bought it, and refit it himself over a busy year. The family then moved aboard and set off on two years of cruising.
Elizabeth’s parents are from Puerto Rico, but she was born and raised in Miami. Jack’s family is Honduran, but he was educated at schools in the United States. Elizabeth and Jack wanted to bring their children to the U.S., so they could see where their parents had lived growing up, and to enjoy the experience of sailing the East Coast on their own family boat.
Kitty Hawk sailed north, through the islands of the western Caribbean, up to Florida, up the coastal states to Maine. They even wintered over in Rhode Island so that their kids could go to an American school -- Annie and Sam think of their year wintering over in Block Island as one of their favorite experiences in the States -- and so they could get daughter Elisa settled in university. Our boats crossed paths and cruised together during that year, along the US east coast, down through the Bahamas, and then finally we connected again in Jamaica. Until arriving this time in Guanaja, we hadn’t seen each other since we’d said goodbye in Port Antonio, Jamaica, one year ago. Kitty Hawk had made a straight shot from there back to Guanaja. Ithaka had headed for Panama. In the way the cruising world turns, here we are, together again.
Cruising at a slow pace gives precious gifts. Some are expected, such as an expansion of your horizons, your language skills, your sailing experience, and your confidence. Some are quite a sweet surprise, such as the delight of knowing a place well enough that you become familiar with the life story and daily antics of a solitary dolphin. The most precious gift, for us, is that we’ve made dear friends from around the world, and some of them have become as close to us as family. But this gift comes with a price, and we were feeling the pain of that price this season more than we’d ever felt it before. The price is that, again and again, we’ve had to leave the pod, and say goodbye to those we’ve come to love, without a clue when or even if we’ll see them again. Another of those difficult goodbyes was approaching too soon.