August 15, 2006
Off the coast of Kuna Yala, Panama
09º37.106 North
078º 57.291 West

Farewell To Dear Friends

By Bernadette Bernon

Despite a spectacular sunrise, what a miserable morning this is turning out to be. We’re leaving two of our best friends, not knowing when we’ll see them again. We’re leaving one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever lived, perhaps never to return. Yet we push forward. Ithaka and Sand Dollar raise our sails, hoist our anchors, ghost out at first light, and clear the reef.

Sand Dollar sails across Ithaka’s track and, for the first time in months, our paths diverge.

Douglas and I watch the San Blas recede behind us, we watch Sand Dollar approaching to cross tacks with us one last time, and then they’ll head west toward Portobello, while we sheet everything in, Ithaka will put her shoulder down, and we’ll head northwest toward Providencia. Everything is gloom aboard.

“You look so pretty with all your sails flying,” Lisa says over the radio, as we intersect and take pictures of each other’s boats. I can hear that she’s crying, and so am I, so much so that I can barely talk into the microphone.

Lisa and Cade

“Honey,” I sob to Douglas, “are we doing the right thing?” I’m referring, of course, to leaving all this, and our decision to bring Ithaka back to the States.

“I don’t know,” says my husband, normally a man of conviction, but this morning a guy crying huge tears over saying good-bye to Cade and Lisa. “We are, I guess, but I didn’t know this would be so hard.” Sand Dollar sails on, and so do we, our distance from one another increasing for the first time in months. The boat, almost as familiar to us as our own, is getting smaller and smaller.

Bernadette and Lisa hauled our Pfaff out on deck to reinforce an area of chafe on Ithakas genoa.

It’s been five years since we first met Cade and Lisa Johnson in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, during our first hurricane season aboard Ithaka. Back in those early days, we were new cruisers, and so were they. Our paths crossed a couple of times after that over the next few months, until the fateful moment that, co-incidentally, both boats found themselves hauled out together for bottom jobs at the La Ceiba Shipyard in Honduras. Misery loves company – all four of us were living aboard our sauna-like boats, on the hard, working as fast as we could, in that dirty hot skillet of a boatyard – and through it all we became fast friends.

Douglas and Lisa on the beach in the Lemon Cays

We sailed from La Ceiba back to the Bay Islands of Honduras, and after that our paths crossed again and again, first serendipitously, then intentionally. We enjoyed Christmas together in French Harbor, sailed on to Guanaja, around the corner of Nicaragua to the Vivorillos, down to peaceful Providencia, then to busy San Andres, and then down to the glorious San Blas. From there, Cade and Lisa received job offers in Venezuela, and peeled off from us – our first good-bye -- to sail upwind to Maracaibo in time to take their new positions as science teachers in a prestigious English-speaking school. We flew there to meet them the following Thanksgiving. Two years passed, we sailed home to Rhode Island to take care of business and to be with Douglas’s mother, whose health was rapidly failing. We were there for her death, which was a good thing. During that time, Lisa and Cade and we all hatched a grand plan.

Cade builds two deck boxes for Sand Dollar in Cartagena, including fiberglassing them, and applying gelcoat.

Last May, their teaching contracts concluded, they sailed to the San Blas and so did we, Ithaka coming from the United States, to rendezvous and resume the cruise we’d interrupted in 2003. Since then, we’ve been a dance team, waltzing here and there, and having a ball. We sailed to Cartagena, enjoyed the beat of that vibrant city, then sailed along the Colombian coast, and up through the San Blas island chain.

Through it all, we’ve been there for each other through much laughter and a few tears, great times and our share of challenges. Lisa’s mom was diagnosed with colon cancer last year, and she’s had to fly home a few times to care for her. Ithaka and Sand Dollar, with Cade single-handing, remained together during those months she was away, and Lisa and I corresponded almost every day over email. This year, Lisa’s mom is healthy again, but my dad, normally a robust man, had a series of health issues – a serious fall and injury, then a big infection, and then on top of that he got a bad case of the flu. Lisa was a great support during my worries.

Lisa and Bernadette in the Cocos Banderos

It’s terrific to travel with another boat when the four people are on the same page. Cade and Douglas are like brothers. They fish together, joke and talk together, fix things together, and pass books back and forth. Lisa is one of the most caring, selfless people I’ve ever met. She understands me, my idiosyncrasies, my problems, my joys, my fears, my life, and helps me sort things out from time to time when I need it. I hope I’ve done the same for her. And the woman is talented. She paints. She sews her own clothes. She repairs canvas. She crafts beautiful jewelry. She crochets. She knits. She plays the guitar. She makes pottery. She’s an organizer, and knows how to get people together, and get them to have fun. She’s beautiful. And, as if that’s not enough, over the past year she’s somehow managed to lose 20 pounds. If I didn’t adore her, well, I guess I’d… be green with jealousy toward her.

Lisa is always wearing some lovely piece of jewelry shes designed and made herself.

Luckily for me, she’s taken me along for the ride. I now dabble in watercolors, I’ve “assisted” in sewing projects (i.e., I hand things to Lisa, or hold things in place, when she asks me to), and I’ve made a few pieces of jewelry that, to my astonishment, I find that I’d actually wear. Normally I’m all thumbs when it comes to delicate crafts, but Lisa makes me feel more adept than I am at such endeavors, and so it’s fun – and relaxing – to sit together on a breezy afternoon, talk about everything imaginable, and create beautiful things. She’s given me that gift, and I’ll always be grateful to her for it.

Lisa and I both have Pfaff sewing machines great, strong, rebuilt, 1950s era German workhorses that can sew through several layers of sail cloth.

It’s been so easy for all of us to be together, so effortless to just get together on the spur of the moment, at sunset, for a cool drink and a few wasabi peas, or olives, or what-have-you – nothing fancy required. With Cade and Lisa, it’s easy to just put out two more plates, family style, and enjoy a simple light dinner – perhaps just freshly caught fish cooked in garlic, onion, and tomato; some rice; and a veggie or salad. Dessert is a liqueur, or some chocolates. Between us, it’s easy to know when a few nights alone are right, or when it’s time to kick up our heels together and search out a restaurant and some music. It’s easy to share a simple movie night in front of a computer screen, and pass around a bowl of popcorn; or invite everyone anchored around us over to Sand Dollar’s vast foredeck for a potluck and party. It’s just plain easy.

A costume party in Cartagena brought out the clown in Cade.

That said, when one of us feels inspired in the galley, the results can be gastronomically awesome. Lisa made a beef stroganoff last week that was the best we’ve ever tasted. And a few nights ago, I outdid myself with a Thai dinner that I must say was scrumptious. Between our two boats, we eat like kings, and nourish each other in all the important ways.



Sand Dollar and Ithaka in Yansalidup, our second-to-last anchorage together.

There’s a symbiosis that occurs when boats travel well together, and the positive energy created among the players can be greater than the sum of the parts. Here’s an example. When some mechanical system breaks down on Ithaka -- a regular occurrence on every cruising boat -- the fur tends to fly. Douglas takes care of all things mechanical on Ithaka, which is a huge job. So when things go wrong, if he talks to Cade about it, they’ll methodically walk through the problem with Cade’s engineer logic, and Douglas will calm down about it immediately, perhaps even laugh about it – something I seem incapable of helping him to do. Suddenly, the world can continue to turn.

After all his boatwork while Sand Dollar was in Cartagena, Cade became so knowledgeable about the best stores for all the do-dads cruisers need, that for fun he began leading what he called Hardware Hikes through town. Every couple of weeks hed invite all the newly-arrived cruisers to walk with him, a morning of information collecting that would save them days of research time.

When I want a third opinion on something I’m writing, after showing it to Douglas I show it to Cade or Lisa or to both of them; they always give me perspectives I hadn’t thought of before. When Cade wants to fish, or noodle some computer issue, or just hang out, he calls Douglas. When Lisa or I want a shopping fix, we’ll go into the village and look at molas, or seek out the odd vegetables that may be available, knowing we’ll strike up interesting conversations with the local people while we’re there, and some little adventure will ensue. When we want to swim, while the boys hightail it out with their spear guns, we’ll take the dinghy out to a different part of the reef and spend a couple of hours exploring and showing each other what we find – unusual shells, eels hiding in the pretty coral beds, octopus clinging to the underwater cliffs and changing color, wildly painted fish, nurse sharks sleeping in the sand, dramatic eagle rays soaring alongside us. It’s always more fun to share these beautiful sights with a good friend, to remember the excitement of seeing them together.

Did you see that eagle ray! Its magical to share the spectacular underwater world with a friend.

This morning, as our loved ones sail farther and farther from us, we wonder if we’re doing the right thing. Douglas and I are both excited about things we want to do in the States this year. But to do so we have to cover thousands of miles between here and there, leave two of our closest friends, and a place as special to us as any we’ve ever been. Are we crazy to let this slip away? Sand Dollar becomes smaller and smaller in the distance, and we carry on, tears streaming down our cheeks, wondering about the folly of sailing on toward the unknown, and away from what we’ve come to treasure.

In this mola, two Kuna women share time together, contentedly talking, and working on their craft. We can relate to this peaceful feeling.