Finn's World, Where Dogs Eat Dinghies And People Eat Well

By Douglas Bernon
May 11, 2001
Pelican Cay, Belize
16 41.071 N 88 11.439 W

We'd waited for a calm day of 17-knot easterly winds and somewhat less rugged seas to attempt the exit through the reef in San Pedro. A fraidy-cat by nature, I was nervous about the exit, which requires a sharp dogleg-turn, judged by range marks ashore, just as you're splitting two banks of churning coral reef to avoid a third. But still fresh in our minds was our experience entering the reef a few days earlier, so it wasn't quite as intimidating as when we'd arrived.

Photo of a traditional wood gaffer A traditional wood gaffer sails through San Pedro harbor on its way to the rich fishing grounds outside the reef.

Minutes after our ritual morning check-in on the Northwest Caribbean SSB net at 1400 Zulu (8 am local), we tucked two reefs into the main, hauled her up, took off the snubber, and raised the anchor — which didn't take long, as we were only in 7 or 8 feet of water. Bernadette was at the wheel; I manned the bow, looking for things that go bump in the day. It was a wet ride out on the sprit, but I love it there. Once through the cut and into deep water, we were happy with ourselves for not dithering longer and for not following any other boats out. Indeed, as soon as we cleared the reef, other boats called us on the VHF from San Pedro harbor to ask how the cut was before they made their own decision about attempting it that morning.

It's always very tempting to put off leaving anywhere, especially after you've had the hook down for a few days. This was especially so for me in San Pedro because this town has Ruby's curried meat pies for 50 cents and Maria's enormous conch burritos for two bucks. Marry my fears to my gluttony and I could stay anchored for 20 or 30 years.

Our goal was to sail south in the deep water outside the barrier reef, from San Pedro to just south of the latitude of Belize City, then cut back in through the reef at English Channel. Once inside, we hoped to spend the next month or so ambling among the wonderfully protected islands and cays of southern Belize, within complete protection of the reef. We could have voyaged from San Pedro past Belize City inside the reef, too, and plenty of boats do this, but we draw six feet, and the charts for that option show lots of skinny patches at seven and lower, so we'd decided to bag it and go around rather than aground. Our experience shows that the five-foot, ten-inch spots are always awfully close to the sevens; plus, we noted on the chart that a village we'd have to pass was called Puerto Stuck, and the symbolism was too daunting.

Photo of live sharks for sale Live sharks for sale at Water Cay.

So we took the outside route, and did we ever scoot. We stayed in close enough to the reef to catch almost a full knot of advantageous countercurrent. The breeze piped up to 20-25 knots out of the east, and with two reefs in the main and just half the 135 genoa out, we were hauling at 8.5 knots all the way, grateful for two rare, brief rain squalls that washed the salt off Ithaka's deck.

Unlike Mexico, where the reef is precious close to shore, as you work farther south on the Yucatán, the reef trails farther and farther off the coast, leaving a miles-wide channel of flat, deep water between the reef and the mainland. On the outside, the passage from San Pedro to the entrance channel just past teeny Goff's Cay into the natural 180-foot canyon of Eastern Channel is about 35 miles; we were there before we knew it. We parked behind Water Key in 10 feet of water, the first time we'd actually anchored BEHIND a piece of land in more than two months! The wind howled all night, but, as we were tucked behind an island protected by a reef, it was sweet flat.

As we prepared to weigh anchor the next morning, two local fishermen approached us in their skiff, and we traded a Cruising World T-shirt for seven large cleaned conch. They also offered us some small sharks that were writhing around in the skiff, but the men said they wanted to sell the entire animal, not just steaks. We passed. My Commodore fed us regally with conch ceviche for lunch and conch-fried rice for dinner.

Eleven miles south of Water Key is a cluster of mangrove islands called the Bluefield Range, where we nestled in with great protection. The sail down was brief but magnificent. Again, we had more than 25 knots, a double reef in the main, and a slightly reefed genoa. Ithaka made a consistent 9 knots, and, because we were inside the reef, no waves or swell inclined us at all. Hardly a drop of seawater splashed our decks. People tell us they rediscovered in Belize what it was they first loved about sailing, because whether headed north or south inside the reef, flat water allows for some relaxation and great speeds.

Photo of Finn and Horst (in sombrero) Finn and Horst (in sombrero) take dinner reservations.

We'd been anchored in Bluefield for a couple of hours when Bernadette and I were amiably surprised by the dinghy-arrival of our friend Horst from Flow, one of the four boats already anchored here. Horst was motoring up with the infamous Finn, a sun-baked, basset-faced, curly haired, 60-something Norwegian who's the one-man-band, master-of-ceremonies, chef, entertainment, font-of-wisdom, and source of hilarious good cheer at this unlikely, outrageous, not-to-be-missed theatre of the absurd called Ricardo's Beach Huts. On one of the cays, a former fish camp is now Finn's restaurant alongside a smattering of five plank-floor rooms that hover a few feet over the water on stilts. The cruisers all just call the place "Finn's."

When we'd arrived, we'd heard Karen on the VHF calling Bluefield. "Finn, this is Karen on Flow," she'd said. Horst and Karen had met Finn six years ago, when they'd stopped here on Flow, and they'd become friends. This would be their third visit.

"Karen!" Finn called back with great excitement. "You've come back to me! Dat's great! You alone dis time, I hope??"

"Horst's here too, of course," she laughed.

"Ah, vell," he said in mock disappointment. "Maybe you'll come to your senses!"

Photo of Finn and Karen Finn and Karen, his favorite.

Horst dinghied in, picked Finn up, and then delivered him to the other boats to take orders for dinner. "Hallo Bern, good ta meecha!" he bellowed to Bernadette. "Shrimp or fish? When ya come, bring yer own beers. I've got only de soff drinks. An bring a leetle beer for Finn?" We saw Horst smile and shake his head no. "An watch out fer me hounds. Nanook don't like rubber dinkies. He had a bad essperience vit one ven he vas a baby, and he bites the bastards. Attacks em. An dona be comin in til after fife. I'll av im locked up then."

In the old days, this fish camp was just like any other, a collection point for local fisherman out working the reefs for days at a time. They'd stay out here until they caught enough fish to take back to the mainland, then return to their families. But for more than 15 years now, with the exception of the time when he was in the hospital having half his right foot cut off, Finn's been living alone here and cooking dinner for whoever stopped by. But these are not just dinners. They are Terrific Dinners. And every sailing luminary who's ever wandered through Belize has supped with Finn, left a boat card, signed a well-thumbed and tattered guest book, and written warm messages of bountiful thanks and amusement.

Finn is a man of fewer teeth than toes, and even fewer inhibitions. This ass-grabbing, truth-bending, story-spinning, hard-drinking, crinkled goblin is the only one living on the island, except for the generally docile Nanook and Puma. He's decorated his restaurant's bark-covered walls with American, British, Belizean, and Norwegian flags, a hurricane-tracking chart, one raggedy-looking stuffed alligator, a Belize calendar with map, a large amber-colored turtle shell, burgees from the Port Townsend, Pensacola, Salzburg, and New York yacht clubs, dog-eared paperbacks — free for the trading — and a startling pile of Yachting World, Die Yacht, Seigling, Bateau, and Cruising World issues that he reads and rereads avidly.

Photo of Finn's restaurant in Belize
Finn's is an inviting place to break bread, with windows looking out all four sides to the
turquoise water. Inside, Bernadette takes her turn signing the guest book.

"I read everyting I can about da sea an boots," he said. "I can read Swedish an Norwegian, Danish, English an Spanish, a leetle bit of German an French. When I have Japanese girlfriends," he winks, "I speaks some Jap, too." From reading old Cruising Worlds, Finn recognized Ithaka and Bernadette, and completely charmed her by remembering lots of things she'd written in the magazine in years gone by. This rapport seemed to give Finn the idea that he had even greater license to try and rub against her, and every other woman present, although, any excuse would surely do. As he prepared dinner in his tidy kitchen, he'd invite each of the women in, individually, to "assist" him, and several minutes later, each would emerge shaking her head and smiling, with platters of food and a bemused look. When roundly discouraged by each female, he informed the dinner assembly, "Ven I vuz a boy, they set I'd haf troubles vis vimen. But I guess dat dona make me fookin special."

At dinner the first night there were four sailboats represented: Flow, Simba, Ithaka, and Resilience, and an 18-foot, two-person sailing kayak with a handsome young Canadian couple, Jolie and Doug from British Columbia, who'd sailed and paddled here from Dangriga, about 20 miles away on the mainland. They are professional kayak guides off on a lark of their own and had expected to pitch their tent, but Finn took them under his wing, and insisted on giving them free room and eats.

Dinner was shrimp in a tasty tomato sauce over rice, grilled spiced fish and onions, cauliflower, fresh coleslaw, and "Yonnie cakes" hot from Finn's oven. Throughout our meal, Finn entertained us with his stories of being a merchant marine and taking ships all over the world. At the end of a long evening, he asked if we wanted bread or tortillas for breakfast. We thought this his drunken fantasy, but sure enough, at about 8:30 the next morning, a smiling troll in a motor launch driven by his beloved Karen delivered a Tupperware container of hot tortillas fresh from the oven. "Howz dat, Bern?" said Finn, as Bernadette immediately bit into one. "Dey're da same fookin recipe as da fookin Yonny cakes you ate up last night. I could see ya liked'm!" Then and there, we decided we had to stay another night. Frank on Simba arranged for a surprise party in honor of Lynda's birthday. Bernadette offered to make a peach cake. Karen offered to make a creamy custard sauce for it, and Finn hurried back to the restaurant to get a feast started.

Photo of Frank and Lynda at the surprise party
Frank and Lynda at the surprise party we'll all remember. The next morning,
Finn delivers hot Johnny cakes to each of the boats.

As Lynda would point out the next day, we actually remember how we celebrated very few birthdays. "With Finn and all his stories, and this incredible place, well, I'll remember this birthday for the rest of my life!"

Finn was born in Drammen, Norway, in the late '30s, "so I vuz old enough to see those fookin Germans take over the whule fookin place." In an instant he pirouettes off his chair, whips off his T-shirt and spits out this recollection: "See them scars on me fookin back. Some fookin German soldier did that vith his fookin stick. He vuz foun dead da nex day. I'm not a sayin how." He smiled.

Finn left home at 15, joined the merchant marines, and by the time he was 17, he says he was a chief cook on a Central American supply ship. "I bean cookin fer sailors since den. On me ships I've bean in every hole-in-da-wall in South America and Central America and Europe and South Africa and da States. I came to Belize the first time in 1954 and verked fer United Fruit fer five yars, an I served in da King's Guard, in the navy fer me Norway, fer me King fer almost two yars. Back in '72, that vuz me las time on a ship. I came here in 76 and stayed fer far yars, and ve had our first guests in 1979. I like it here, but I miss me wives." Even mentioning them, Finn's eyes began to fill.

"I had it hard," he said. "I loved me girls so much, and I lost em both." Then he smiled, thinking back. "I met me first wife, Maria, in Vera Cruz when I vuz 17 and she vuz 15. Ve met at a dance. I had to ask her aunt permission to take her to a movie. I vuz on a ship. Ven ve got back to Vera Cruz, Maria tells me she's pregnant, so ve got married at two o'clock dat day she tol me. Maria gave me two beautiful babies and da happiest six yars, tree months, an eighteen days of me life. She got pains in her tumick an she vuz dead in tree months. Tumick cancer."

Photo of the view from Finn's The view from Finn's is a beautiful and solitary one.

"My second wife, ve vuz was married fer seven yars, two months. I adopted her children. She told me she had da bone cancer before ve got married. But I loved her so much, an I dinna care. I told her I'd take good care of her." Finn's tears turned to sobs. "Me wives are buried in my heart. No one can fookin take them avay from me now, you know. And me children. All togetter I had six girls an two boys, that I knows of. I know I lost one son an a daughter. I had da two vith me first wife and da rest vith other vimen. The oldest one now is a Yaqui Indian living in Norway. She's a doctor, an dere's vun in Japan, an vun in Belgium, an Sophia Isabel in Italy, who I just met ven she vuz 27. I loves em all, I do. Every fookin one of em."

Finn's body, like everyone's, is the playbill of his life. He has a single tattoo on one arm: MAMA. "She vuz a great vomun, me momma vuz. An me vives ver great mamas, so dis tattoo verked for effrybutty!" And there are scars on his back from the Nazis, and a longer one across his gut. "I got meself stabbed in a Viet Nam barroom fight. I lost half me tumick over some fookin girl." And he hobbles, of course, on one and a half feet. Finn still has several teeth remaining in the front. It's not clear, really, how many of Finn's stories are gospel, but regardless of veracity, they offer an unvarying theme of how he's experienced his life, and his body bears faithful witness.

"Two yars ago I had surgery, back in November of '99. Me foot got infected somehow an I lost all me toes, but I didn't have money fer da surgery, so the Norton Fisherman Coop, dey paid for it. They said, ‘Bloody Finn has no fookin money an he verked at da fish camp fer us all those bloody yars. He's one of us, and ve should pay,' so dey did."

Photo of rottweiler Nanook Nanook

Finn's one complicated hombre: multi-lingual, brilliant in many ways, hysterically funny and blunt, a resourceful chef, an extremely knowledgeable sailor with an encyclopedic memory of boat designs, a powerful magnet you just gotta hang with. And he's a generous soul. We heard him on the radio looking for a boat who'd be willing to carry an enormous collection of toys and clothing he'd assembled for the orphanage in the Río Dulce in Guatemala. And here he is, living with his devoted dogs — a rottweiler and a German shepherd — still chasing skirts and, at the rate he's going, an early grave.

I can't help but worry about Finn. In the several days we were there, we watched him fall a couple of times, once off his chair, and once, alarmingly, off the dock. He just laughed it off. We even watched him light a cigarette before hobbling off to hurriedly restart the stalled gasoline generator that had pitched Lynda's birthday party into temporary darkness. Yet, he's a survivor, and he loves his restaurant and his work and especially his guests. Two mornings running, despite what must have been murderous hangovers, proudly teetering on a rickety base, this cooking jack-in-the-box bounced on out to our boats to give us fresh-baked, hot tortillas and "Yonny cakes," the best we've ever eaten. For Finn, honor and dignity are deeply embedded in doing well what he loves to do: cooking good meals and embracing sailors who come to see him.

Finn is a chef who's long lived the spiritual wisdom understated by M.F.K. Fisher, the New Yorker's late food writer and one of my favorite American essayists. She wrote, "There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk."

To Finn: Skoal.

Photo of FinnEditor's note: Since Douglas filed this log, he called and told us: "We've just listened to this morning's Northwest Caribbean Net and heard terrible news. Another boat came on the net to report that Finn drowned at Bluefield Range soon after our visit. Bernadette and I join a worldwide community of sailors who rejoice in having met him and now mourn his loss."