February 24, 2005
"Where's the tonic water?" David asked.
"We drank the last of it last night," Eileen replied. She added, "Isn't it a little early to be mixing drinks?" It was only mid-afternoon and we were anchored by ourselves at the east end of Roatan Island in the Bay of Honduras.
"Just planning ahead," David said defensively. "Besides, I'm sure there are all sorts of mosquitoes on shore; we should increase our quinine intake."
"You took your chloroquine pill yeserday," Eileen reminded him. "You're good for another week."
David continued muttering about the dangers of malaria as he unclamped the outboard from the stern rail. Before tying the line to the engine's lifting harness he glanced at the tree lined beach in front of us. He suddenly paused. "Pina coladas," he whispered.
Now it was Eileen's turn to be concerned. "You're not thinking what I think you're thinking, are you?"
"Look at all those coconut palms," David said, excitement creeping into his voice. "We're surrounded by coconuts! And we still have the fresh pineapple we picked up at the market in Bonacca before we left Guanaja Island. Forget the tonic; we'll have pina coladas tonight!"
Eileen groaned. "You know our record with coconuts. I'm sure I can find some Crystal Lite stashed somewhere on board. Let's forget about the coconuts," she pleaded. But David wasn't going to be deterred. He was already rummaging in the quarter berth for his machete.
In the decade we've been cruising in the tropics we've had a number of disappointments with coconuts. To put things in perspective, you have to appreciate the fact that we both grew up in Canada. Apparently, there are some 2800 species of palms in the world. None of them are native to Canada. Like most Canadians, we used to spend long winters staring at snow laden pine trees, contemplating our palm-deprived fate. Visions of coconut trees swaying in a balmy breeze came to epitomize tropical paradise for us, an escape from a boring boreal existence. With such inflated expectations, a letdown was inevitable.
Our first palm encounter occurred in Beaufort, North Carolina. Actually, it was a palmetto, but we didn't know any better and thought it was a stunted coconut tree. It was sitting there in plain sight in front of one of Beaufort's many historic houses. "We're in the tropics!" David cried. Beaufort is located at about 35 degrees north latitude, making it slightly closer to the Arctic Circle than to the Equator. But there we were, in the first week in November, with the temperature in the 80's, in a place that was sprouting palm trees -- albeit rather scrubby ones. We asked the locals if it was always so warm at that time of the year. "Yes, always," they lied. We put on our shorts and tee shirts and got out the sunscreen.
The next day a cold front passed through and the temperature dropped thirty degrees. We got out our wool socks and long underwear and didn't put them away again until we reached Florida six weeks later. As we left Beaufort David clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering. "Never trust a palm tree," he swore.
Our first true coconut misadventure happened just after we crossed the Gulf Stream from Miami. We made our landfall at Gun Cay on the western edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Gun Cay is an arid little island with a wrecked light station and not much else ashore. Shortly after we arrived it started blowing like stink from the east, kicking up some nasty waves on the shallow banks. We were pinned down for a week. There was a lone coconut palm immediately in front of where we were anchored. There was no mistaking it was a coconut palm; there were at least a dozen large green coconuts swinging under the wind-whipped fronds. After the fifth boat-bound day David declared, "I'm going to get myself one of those coconuts."
David beached the dinghy and scrambled up the steep limestone rise to the coconut tree. He discovered to his dismay that it was surrounded by a dense cactus thicket. He looked up at the coconuts, ten feet above his head. So close, yet so far. He painfully picked his way through the cacti and wrapped his arms around the coconut's trunk. Now David has climbed many trees in his days, but all of these trees had branches he could hold onto. Palm trees aren't designed and built that way. Their branches are located at the top, making them basically useless for climbing purposes. David persevered, reasoning that palm trees had to be climbable; how else could coconuts be harvested? About halfway up he slipped and fell bum first into the cacti. When we arrived in Nassau a week later, he hadn't quite removed all of the thorns from his rear end. As far as we know, those coconuts are still safely swinging on that palm tree on Gun Cay.
By the time we reached the island of Grenada in the Lesser Antilles about a year later, we had seen plenty of coconut palms and the novelty had worn off. Eileen's brother Dennis flew down for a visit and we took him to the beach. Dennis wasn't in the best mood because it was Super Bowl weekend and we had just informed him that American football wasn't a big deal in Grenada; if he wanted to watch televised sports there, he'd best familiarize himself with cricket. Dennis sullenly surveyed the beach and asked, "What are all those round brown things lying on the ground?"
"Coconuts," we said.
"They don't look like the coconuts I've seen in the stores in Ottawa," he said, unconvinced.
"That's because they still have their outer husks on," we explained.
Dennis brightened up. "You're kidding," he said. "Hey, do you have something I can use to open one up?"
David gave him his pocket knife. He didn't mention the machete we had back on the boat. David figured this was as good a way as any to keep his brother-in-law occupied for the rest of the afternoon.
After about three hours Dennis came back with a slightly mangled coconut and David's knife, minus the blade. "Couldn't open the stupid thing," he said and added, "Sorry I broke your knife."
David stared in disbelief at the remains of his knife, the one he had inherited from his father and had cherished since he was a kid. The score: coconuts two, David zero.
Fast forward to last week and we're in Roatan, about to pursue some coconuts. We landed the dinghy and found that the coconut trees were a lot taller when viewed from close up. "At least there isn't any cactus around," David said.
David considered how he was going to climb a coconut tree and keep his machete with him. He clamped his mouth around the blade. "That doesn't look like a good idea," Eileen suggested. She couldn't make sense of David's reply since the machete was impeding his verbalizing abilities. When he was about five feet off the ground, the machete fell out of his mouth. Eileen jumped back from the base of the tree. On his second try, he got about the same distance up before both he AND the machete fell out of the tree. Eileen was now a good twenty feet away. David brushed the sand off his clothes. "Let's find a shorter tree," he said.
Unfortunately, all of the shorter trees we found didn't have any coconuts hanging from them. David scowled. "Someone got here before us." We struck out on a trail leading inland and were soon surrounded by jungle. We lost count of all the agoutis we encountered hopping through the underbrush. Agoutis are among the largest rodents; they look sort of like big rabbits without ears or tails. We also came across some green parrots and several giant iguanas -- looking like escapees from Jurassic Park -- but no coconuts.
After an hour of dodging agoutis and climbing hills, Eileen was ready to concede defeat. "I see a clearing ahead," David said. We emerged into sunlight. At the edge of the clearing stood a coconut palm bearing fruit. Jumping as high as he could and wildly swinging his machete, David managed -- on his sixth attempt -- to dislodge a cluster of three plump coconuts. "Pina coladas," he wheezed.
The sun was low on the horizon by the time we found our way back to the dinghy. On the beach, David cut open the coconuts with his machete without removing any of his fingers while Eileen swatted swarms of no-see-ums. Back onboard, Eileen got out the blender and the pineapple. The sun set just as she handed up a pina colada to David in the cockpit.
"Best drink I've ever tasted," David said.
Eileen cocked her head. "Somehow I knew you were going to say that," she said