Boat | Play | Love

By Ann Dermody

A sabbatical from a hectic career leads to a life changing meeting, in this poignant and hilarious story, which takes our intrepid heroine from crew to "I do."

Years later Ed still joked I was trying to kill him. If I had, it might've been the perfect murder. We were halfway up the Rio Dulce, a large, dark-watered river on the Caribbean side of Guatemala, tucked in the middle of nowhere. High walls of jungle-like foliage rose sharply skyward on the river's banks near the outpost town of Livingston. There, Desperado swayed with the never-ending flurry of boat traffic, mainly the hollowed-out wooden canoes of locals known as cayucos, and engine-powered pangas that ferried locals back and forth. The only way to get out of there in a hurry was if you had a helicopter at your disposal. Even then, landing it would have been a challenge.

Desperado at anchor in the Rio Dulce, GuatemalaDesperado at anchor in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala.

These thoughts raced through our heads the morning Ed accidentally guzzled down a significant amount of Murphy's Oil Soap, thinking it was apple juice I'd left out for him to wash down his pills. I'd poured the end of the soap into an old glass candleholder and filled the spray bottle with water to find a hole that needed patching in our dinghy — a stupid mistake that would've resulted in a dash to the hospital if we'd been back in the States. Here, even getting on the Internet to see what we should do wasn't an option. Thankfully Ed had somewhat of a strong constitution. After a few sudsy burps and 10 minutes of wide-eyed looks back and forth between us, he proclaimed himself all right. So much so, he suggested we go for dinner to settle his stomach — though he did say he could taste soap every time he exhaled for a week afterwards.

This was just one of the eye-opening, thrilling, occasionally hairy adventures we experienced during our two hectic years of cruising. Ed and I hadn't known each other before he'd started a solo trip in the fall of 2001. He'd been widowed four years previously and that transformative event focused the lens on his life. He decided that completing his dream of living and traveling on his own boat was a priority. So, at 59, he traded up to a 48-foot Chris-Craft Corinthian, outfitted it in Ensenada, Mexico, and retired from his job as the CFO of a California air-cargo company.

He dreamed of bringing Desperado south from San Francisco, through the Panama Canal, cruising the Caribbean, then heading north to a new home base somewhere closer to the vacation home he had in Pennsylvania. Desperado was Ed's eighth boat, including tiny sailboats he'd had as a kid, and he'd spent a small fortune kitting her out with new electronics, a watermaker, and other features to make her a comfortable floating home. Arguably, there was one thing missing — a partner to share it. That's where I came in.

Blame It On Brad Pitt?

Now picture a far different scene. It was January 2002, Ed already a few months into his solo cruise. A continent away, I was the disillusioned features editor of a Sunday newspaper, looking out her office window at sheeting rain — another wet, gray winter in Dublin, Ireland. As I depressingly contemplated that unless I made a radical move, this was probably going to be my life until retirement, an e-mail from a movie press contact popped up: "Brad Pitt is in London for the European promo interviews for his new movie "Snatch." Guarantee us the cover of the magazine and you've got the interview." Pandemonium broke out among the women in my office, but I could barely register a smile. I was assigned the interview, and couldn't care less; clearly I was a woman in need of a serious life change.

Cut to seven months later and things had changed dramatically. It was my birthday. I was standing on the other side of the world, alone at the helm of the beautiful 88-foot wooden schooner Copper Sky, the rest of the crew below. As we silently and powerfully carved our way through the waves en route to Vancouver, a tangerine sunset descended, and I knew I was well and truly hooked. It was one of those rare moments in your life that called for a "Chariots of Fire" soundtrack playing to match the exhilaration you feel inside. I'd gotten to this place quite by chance, after seeing a sign in a coffee shop on Graham Island in Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands, requesting crew for 10 days to help bring the boat to Vancouver. I'd been visiting an old friend on my way from Alaska to Argentina, part of the year-long "life-changing" trip I'd embarked upon.

Several months later, I was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, hungry for my next nautical adventure, hoping to catch a boat headed through the Panama Canal. I interlaced afternoons on the beach with mornings spent at the Nuevo Puerto Vallarta yacht club where the harbormaster kindly let me get on the "net" in the mornings to offer up my services in the slot where the boats, mostly American, look for crew, and crew look for boats. I got wonderful offers to far-flung places: Tahiti, The Cook Islands, Vanuatu, even Australia, and others just a day or two away, such as Manzanillo and Zihuatanejo. If this all sounds insanely cavalier now, that actually never occurred to me at the time. Unfortunately no one seemed to be headed as far south as Panama, until finally, I received an e-mail from another captain, the first one actually headed my way, and in ways I couldn't even imagine yet:

"Hi Ann, I'm a 60-year old (widower) with a 48-foot Chris-Craft powerboat, heading south to Costa Rica and possibly Panama. I could always do with an extra hand. If you'd please e-mail me with your planned itinerary and your experience, maybe we can figure something out. Sincerely, Ed Kelly."

The famous Panama Hat actually comes from EcuadorWe found that the famous Panama Hat actually comes from Ecuador!

Oddly, the detail about being a widower made me smile, and somehow vaguely reassured me that Mr. Kelly might not be a complete pervert. We rendezvoused a couple of weeks later in Acapulco where Ed had made his way from San Francisco. It was February and hot, and the plan was to stay on the boat for the trip to Costa Rica and consider how we got along as captain and crew. Neither of us mentioned the Panama Canal because if we couldn't stand each other, then it wasn't really a runner. Our 12-day 1,200-mile cruise to Costa Rica would have three overnight passages. It was on those nighttime watches that we bonded, telling tales of home, family, and the strange forces that had brought us here together.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Three days into our trip, and with the Gulf of Tehuantepec — that body of water spawning most eastern Pacific hurricanes, and the first hurdle facing cruisers heading south — safely behind us, we encountered our first adventure. Realizing we wouldn't make Barillas in El Salvador by nightfall, we decided to duck into Bahia Del Sol, 30 miles closer. The entrance was hairy at the best of times, with a shoal that moved back and forth across it at alarming speed, completely blurring the opening. A boat from the hotel beyond the entrance came out to guide us in, advising us to "pour it on" to ride across the shoal. It was a thrilling sensation, something akin to a roller coaster ride, to feel a 34,000-pound boat lifted high onto a wave, then surfing toward the entrance, only to be dropped, half-spun, and picked up by another one.

Then, suddenly, the breaking waves were behind us and we were in the most serene anchorage with plenty of time to worry about how we were going to get out again. We anchored in front of the hotel; they allowed cruisers to use their pool and showers for a fee. The immigration officer kindly came to the poolside bar to stamp our passports over beers. When it was time to leave, I walked with Ed to the port captain's office for the usual boat-checkout procedures. It was beside an El Salvadoran naval dock, and in broken Spanish I chatted with a guy in uniform who looked like he was 15. He would be a useful contact.

Although we waited until 3 p.m. for a favorable tide, the surf was higher than when we entered, the shoal now a daunting wall of white reef water, and the guide boat unavailable. As we decided how to approach it, a Navy boat appeared beside us, signaling for us to get on the radio. Aboard was our young friend from the office, offering to help. While our instinct was to gun the engines up and over the waves as when we came in, the Navy kept telling us "mas despacio, mas despacio." We slowed down. Sure enough, after half an hour of being picked up on each wave and deposited farther and farther out, we were free and clear and pointed toward Costa Rica, waving thankfully to our friends from the El Salvadoran Navy.

Miraflores Lock in the Panama CanalCarribean, here we come! The gate closes behind Desperado at Miraflores Lock in the Canal.

Seven or eight hours into our trip toward Coco Bay, Costa Rica, the papagallos winds, famous on this part of the coast, gained momentum until they were right on our nose, blowing 35. By 1 a.m., we were taking a pounding. The TV had dropped off its moorings, the grill had disappeared overboard, the drawers in the galley had come unlocked and sprayed their contents like missiles around the main cabin; even the first mate's chair on the bridge had broken from the impact of the bow slamming down from the top of short-interval six-foot waves. There weren't a lot of places to duck into along this area of the coast, but the closest one with protection was No Name Bay, Nicaragua, still a considerable distance. We aimed Desperado, plowed along, and got there by 4 p.m. the next day. It was a deserted, desolate bay that clearly everyone thought unworthy of being named, but after the night we'd had, its calm waters were a paradise. Any long-range cruiser will tell you that there will be occasional rough crossings, most of which, by some trick of the gods, come at night, but your first is something of a rite of passage. While there were bigger, rougher nights ahead, to Colombia, and Belize, this was the one I'd remember clearly.

Dancing In The Dark

Ed and I spent a few lazy weeks at Banana Bay Marina in Golfito, and at anchor in Drake's Bay. It had already been decided I would stay on to go through the canal. We each read David McCullough's The Path Between The Seas to hype ourselves up. Before then, I headed back up to Nicaragua for two weeks to do some inland exploring. It was here I realized I'd never missed anyone this much in my life. People, mostly women, often ask when you know he or she is the one. The truth for most of us is that it's a series of small things you don't even really notice — a kindness here, a look there, shared laughs and fears and experiences — until you stand up one day and realize you've fallen in love. Given our considerable age difference, for the longest time, Ed and I avoided voicing those thoughts. The problem, or perhaps blessing, is that thoughts have a crafty way of bypassing your head for your heart. It would be another month, a different ocean, and several margaritas, before what had become glaringly obvious to everyone else, finally dawned on us.

Love had descended quietly on two unlikely individuals, while they were each living out their dreams. It crept in, in quiet, soft moments, and wild, intense ones — amid morning coffee in still anchorages; during rough overnight passages in foul-weather gear; while doing mundane maintenance, provisioning, fueling; oiling the anchor chain; lowering the dinghy; making dinner; reading books on the back deck with moths flying around the overhead light. So calmly and comfortably did it open the door and take up residence, we hardly even noticed its entrance. Our reunion in Golfito was giddy. On our week south, we took in endless miles of unspoiled Panamanian coastline, thick jungle, white sand beaches, all deserted and unexplored. We spent each evening on the hook, grilling on the replaced barbecue, to the sound of howler monkeys in the trees, relishing the blissful sunsets and the anticipation of the canal. The closer we got to the canal, the more we became like wide-eyed country cousins arriving in the big city. Our days went from contemplating tropical forest landscapes and no other boats, to an endless convoy of huge container ships from all over the world awaiting transit. Binoculars were permanently glued to our faces until suddenly we were there, at the mouth of the massive Panama Canal. While awaiting our transit date, we hauled out for bottom painting and inspection, and explored the city. On May 10, we transited to another ocean, and a whole new chapter, Desperado a speck amid steel-hulled giants. The Caribbean offered a new world of adventure, and a new set of dilemmas. Ed and I, finally, had acknowledged that we were no longer just captain and crew.

But we were separated by continents and a generation. As planned, I was on my way to Argentina; he was going home to the States for the summer. It was the most bittersweet of partings. He promised to meet me in Buenos Aires for my birthday in August. I wondered if he would. I'd had these romances before. Intense, sweet, but inevitably tapering off with distance. But somehow this captain, with the determined mind, calm soul, and the kindest heart of anyone I'd ever met, had stolen my heart, and I spent a blurry three months heading south, my every fiber aching to be back with him. We needed time together, to explore if this is was big as we thought it was, and after Argentina (he came!), we concocted an elaborate plan to take Desperado to Cartagena, Colombia. I deferred making any large life plans about work and home a bit longer, eager to discover where this adventure was headed.

Right now it was pointed toward the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of 365 islands east of the Panama Canal, home to the Kuna Indians. These picture-perfect islands quickly became one of our favorite destinations, and we explored them before heading to Cartagena. Matt, the son of a friend of Ed's, joined us and we were both on watch for one of the blackest of nights when I noticed a large dot on the radar a few miles out. I ascertained its direction, and turned Desperado to starboard as the ship closed. Then we saw it, lit up like a Christmas tree in the distance. It was traveling fast, probably headed for the canal, but then it turned! I checked the radar; it was now trashing a collision course right for us, and we could see its red and green running lights and the white masthead ones, confirming we were directly in its path! I spun the wheel away when the ship was a few hundred feet off our bow and we could make out the portholes. We missed each other.

Cruising down the Rio Chagres, on Panama's Caribbean coastJungle Ride: Cruising down the Rio Chagres, on Panama's caribbean coast.

It was a horrendous night watch of storms and gales with the boat being pounded around in inky black waves. Matt's hair stood on end from a combination of humidity, sea spray, and terror. Waves broke over the bridge deck and ran down the necks of our foul weather gear. On several occasions I checked on Ed who, despite the bell on the aft-deck clanging loudly over his head and the fact he was doing midair somersaults in the aft cabin with each pounding wave, remained fast asleep, oblivious to the Armageddon outside. Unless he possessed some sorcery skills to calm the seas, there was little point in waking him. We were not in danger of much more than losing our dinners in these short-breaking waves hitting us on the nose, and the only way out was through. At one point, Matt commented that if he had the black pill astronauts are given, he'd take it. He wasn't smiling as he said this. Dawn eventually arrived and with it Ed, who emerged from below, stretching and yawning into the new morning and calmer seas. "Anything happen?" he asked. Matt and I exchanged looks.

After a month in Cartagena, Ed and I headed back to Panama where we spent time exploring the Rio Chagres, plotting our route north. There were long beautiful weeks where we languished in anchorages, hiked the local terrain, ate at cheap local restaurants and food stands, did boat chores, and marveled at finding each other. We took Desperado up the Rio Dulce, and drank coffee on an ancient roof terrace in Antigua, Guatemala, while the Pacaya Volcano erupted nine kilometers behind us. We danced barefoot in the sand at a pig roast in Isla de San Andres off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, and slowly realized that this adventure, the two of us, wasn't ending anytime soon.

On our way north, to avoid an overnight passage, we anchored off a deserted island — the only possible anchorage for many hours. Sometime about four in the morning, we awakened to several thuds, and the unmistakable sound of being boarded. Hastily throwing on the nearest clothes, we came up from below to find six armed figures dressed in black military uniforms coming down the steps into the main cabin. There was hardly time for fear before they identified themselves as the Panamanian Coast Guard. They examined our passports and the boat's zarpe — and after doing a quick inspection, and looking us up and down, they informed us that we'd anchored slap bang in the middle of one of the busiest drug routes from Colombia to the U.S. It also happened to be a favorite hangout of smugglers.

They left like shadows in the night, silently boarding their large black inflatable. When they were about 200 yards off our stern, the heavens opened into an unmerciful rainstorm, and Ed and I grinned at each other. We laughed even harder when we came back into the cabin and into the light and realized that, in his haste, Ed had put on my shorts, resulting in a very dodgy, skintight look that might have hastened our nocturnal visitors' retreat.

Final Scene, Florida, March 2010

I walked onto the stage and looked out across a sea of perhaps 200 faces. It had been six years since we got Desperado back home to the United States and so much had happened. We've been married for almost four, living in Washington now where Ed has been working for the government, and I've been working at BoatUS Magazine. He was happily retired, and looking forward to further Caribbean boating adventures with his new wife, when he got a call from the Department of Homeland Security. They asked him to lead the government's new air-cargo screening initiatives. Ed had lost a cousin in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, and didn't hesitate when asked to lead. Besides, we had plenty of time to explore the Caribbean, right?

I clutched the award given to Ed by the Air Forwarders Association and looked out at the sea of people, many with tears in their eyes. I thanked them for the award. Ed would've been so proud, I said. Looking at their faces, with their worries about life and loved ones, mortgages, and savings, I wondered if they had any forgotten dreams. Anything they were putting off until they had enough money, enough time, until they were retired. I wanted to tell them not to wait, to do it now, because tomorrow might not come. As Ed learned after his first wife died, I, too, now knew a thing or two about this. It had been three numbing months since Ed died, shockingly, this past December, after contracting Legionnaires' disease on a business trip. Hale and healthy one week, the next in a coma from which he wouldn't awake.

As I clutched this posthumous award, I thought back to our precious, precious years on Desperado when every day, every small chore was charged with living. I'm beyond grateful to have shared, however briefly, his life, his love of the sea, his dream that became my own. Most of all, I'm thankful that Ed got to complete his journey — in life and on his boat. 

Before Ann Dermody became BoatUS Magazine's managing editor, she was a features writer, editor, and columnist for British and Irish newspapers and magazines, such as the Sunday Tribune, The Irish Independent, The Evening Herald, Ireland on Sunday, Woman's Way, Tatler, and the UK Independent. In 2010, she won first place honors from Boating Writers International and an Apex Award for her feature about the first African-American yacht club in America.

— Published: February/March 2011

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