When The Rains Came

By Bernadette Bernon
June 22, 2001
Glover Reef, Belize
16 43.068 N 87 51.417 W

It's been an arid winter, and for five months Douglas and I could've counted on one hand the number of rain showers that had washed Ithaka's teak decks. The air has always been dry and hot. The nights have been windy — very windy, actually, often 20 knots or more because of the land effect — and so it's been cool enough to sleep with a light sheet. Until May, we never made the acquaintance of a mosquito.

Photo of rain on the ocean For the first time in five months, the rains came down like bullets in April and May.

But in mid-April, the shower curtain closed, and all that changed, starting with a low-pressure system stalled over Belize, with its big white puff-daddy clouds, and marauding gray squalls dumping their loads on our heads. There was an upside to this change in the weather. Great gutters of water flowed through our catchment hoses from the rains that introduced themselves in April, and returned again and again in May. We (I) finally stopped lusting after a watermaker. During these two months, whenever we had a forecast for continuing rain squalls over a period of a few days, and as soon as we had our tanks and jerry cans all filled, we loved to fill our garden sprayer with lots of hot water and luxuriate in long sudsy showers on deck. For a few days here and there, I actually washed and rinsed dishes in fresh water, rather than my usual routine of washing and rinsing in saltwater, and doing a final mist of fresh water from a spray bottle — a pain, yes, but one that saves an amazing amount of water. I washed and rinsed — really rinsed! — lots of clothes by hand and hung them out to dry almost instantly in the hot sunshine between squalls.

Photo of black 5 gallon garden sprayer We painted our five gallon garden sprayer with black paint so it could more easily heat up the shower water.

During all this industriousness, Douglas and I watched the rains bring dramas — earth-cracking lightning bolts followed a couple seconds later by thunder booms that would knock your socks off, if you happen to be wearing socks, which we don't anymore. I'd always count between the bolt and the crack to gauge the lightning's distance from us — one, November, two, November, thr ... BOOM! Sweet Jesus, I'd think, they're under a half mile away!

Sometimes during these performances, I'd stand in the cockpit under the Bimini, tending to my rapidly filling water jugs and hoses, and thinking of my mother, who was always particularly affected by thunder-and-lightning storms. I remembered once, when I was a child of about 9, that I found my pretty mother sitting at our kitchen table with a cup of coffee, chain-smoking the Viceroy cigarettes that four years later would contribute to the death of her. She was staring out the window through the rain, tears streaming down her face, as the thunder clapped loudly outside. When I saw her tears, with alarm I asked her what was the matter.

"It's all right," she said with a small smile. "The thunder just brings back memories, that's all."

"What memories?" I asked. And then she told me the kind of story that illuminates a parent in a new light, reminding the child of the often unimaginable notion that mummy may actually have had a whole life before the one that included me and my every need. The thunder sounded like bombs, she said, and reminded her of the air raids during the war.

Photo of wind through palms

She'd lied about her age on a school application, been accepted to a London nursing school along with her older sister, Eileen, and left her home in Ireland at 15. By the time she'd finished her training, World War II had transformed London into a full-blown theater of war. Every night, she said, the city was strafed and bombed by German warplanes. The hospital staff where she worked had been instructed how to protect themselves in the bombing raids: stand in a doorway, take shelter under a desk, or, if you're close enough, go immediately with the ambulatory patients to the bomb shelter in the basement. "There was a big red cross painted on the roofs to show the enemy that these were hospitals," she said. "Hospitals were supposed to be off limits. But toward the end, the German fighters aimed for the hospitals anyway."

I asked why.

"That's where the soldiers were," she said. "Or maybe they thought we were hiding ammunition there. I don't know ..."

Photo of rain and fog over the reef The pounding rain softens the edges on all the colors of the shallow reef near Ithaka.

She worked on the intensive-care wards, which were filled with soldiers who'd been ripped apart physically and mentally by the brutalities of combat. "Whenever we heard the air-raid sirens go off at night and watched the lights turn off all over the city, we knew the hospital was going to be a target. The patients were terrified. So many of these boys were in critical condition and couldn't be moved. Night after night, I'd hear the sirens, and feel the bombs hitting. But I just couldn't run to the shelters. None of the other girls on the ward could either. We stood there with the patients, held their hands, and tried to be brave for them. It was a terrible time."

Her hospital was hit several times. She watched soldiers and her fellow nurses killed in the bombings, and even 20-odd years later she couldn't get out of her mind the images of the ravaged bodies she cared for, or the sounds of the death bombs thundering down around her.

Photo of sun reveals reef When the rain stops and the clouds bank passes, and the sun restores the contrast, revealing the reef once again.

As I collected our water on Ithaka, and counted out between the lightning and thunder, I realized with a start that I'm now about the age she was then, on that stormy day when she sat at our kitchen table and told me about the war. It was around the same kitchen table that she often talked of her childhood in County Kerry and her years working in London where she met and married my father — a fellow transplanted Irishman trying to scrape a living out of a foreign city. I thought back to those stories — I heard many of them over the 13 short years I knew my mother, and more later from my Aunty Eileen, who still lives in England, but whose storytelling days have been ended by Alzheimer's. It had been my aunt who'd helped me, many years later, to know things about my mother I might have learned from her myself over time, if she'd only lived longer, and for that I'll always be grateful.

Photo of a water catchment system
On Flow, our friends Horst and Karen have devised a clever water-catchment system. At the breaks
in the toe rail, where rainwater drains off the deck, they installed small sections of PVC pipe, capped
on both ends. The top of the pipe has been drilled full of filter holes. The bottom has a permanent
fitting that allows a hose to be attached (which leads through the portholes to their tanks) during
rain squalls. The pipes are tied in place; they have one at each toe-rail exit point. When Horst
and Karen feel the decks have been rinsed sufficiently by rain, they engage the hoses, and set
the whole process in motion. It's a simple idea that works perfectly.

I've got to admit, I'm not too crazy about thunderstorms myself. I rely on an implanted pacemaker to keep my heart beating, and the last thing I need is for Ithaka to get hit with lightning and blow out her electronics, as I'm one! So, I had a lot on my mind in April and May, when the rains came. But in the deluges, out on the isolated cays of Belize, I found such excitement and beauty in all this weather drama, that there was nowhere else I'd rather have been. One of the gifts you get from cruising is time to think, to reflect and to let your buried trove of old memories rise up and reveal themselves to you anew. As the thunder cracked a stone's throw from Ithaka, and the rain washed our decks and filled our tanks, my memories swirled around me, the world felt fresh and clean, and at the age my mother was when she got bad news about her own future, I get to look forward and know that so many things are still possible.