Last Friday, the 13th.

5 February 2012 § Leave a comment

Returning from an afternoon of jellyfish stings and sunburns on a private Caribbean island off the coast of Panama, our cayuca, a dugout canoe with room for ten, nearly sank into the slightly stormy sea. 

Finn turned around from his seat up front and said that more water was coming through the bow than usual. Three people behind him, including me, were bailing water with styrofoam cups, mostly for fun, to ease the flooding stern, where the Panamanian boatman stood, driving across the windy stretch back to Bocas del Toro, smiling. His baseball cap sideways, he kept that easy-going, I-may-not-have-any-idea-what’s-happening expression, even when when wave after wave of the Caribbean Sea found their way into his boat. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing – that’s just how Bocas people react to sinking.

Napolean was his name, and he was a former employee of Ian, our friend whose island we’d visited that morning. He said with some urgency that everyone needed to move toward the back of the boat. The kids, Finn, 12, and Maible, 8, showed their fear then, without shame. They were far from their home in the forested cold of the Yukon Territory, where we’d all met – with their dogsledder mother, Moe, and Ian – six months earlier. 

A significant chunk of the cayuca‘s rotted bow tore off and landed at Finn’s feet. The hole in the front gave way to a crack in the hull I’d been eyeing since we first saw the boat early that morning, at the dock at Hotel Las Brisas, and through which bubbles seeped since we departed. Now, eight feet of the bow threatened to tear away with vaguely more force than a broken zipper on a monkey’s diaper would have taken had he seen a female in the next tree. 

Asking for help these days seems a difficult thing. Individuals to the last, admitting that we need assistance usually only comes after we’ve cut off our own arm and rappelled 80 feet to the desert floor, or after the boat sinks and the cell phone’s mic is full of salt and fish eggs. Heather and I sat on the narrow deck bailing with the snorkeling equipment bucket and the water jug. We were in boatmode, thinking that no one was taking this very seriously at all, and yelled at Ian to call shorewise for help whether he thought we were going to make it back or not. But the super-chill Brit-Aussie traveller was already on the phone. 

Napolean was a competent enough boatman to slow down and face the lengthening crack in the bow away from the coming waves. Which was good, because had he not when he did… 

The wind continued to pick up, and there was the very real possibility, with every full bail bucket sculped overboard, that the boat would see its ruin and we seven would sink into the warm ocean, twenty minutes from Bocas town by boat but considerably more by swimming – sixline smile wide, I just thought about how much I didn’t want another jellyfish to roll over the inside of my arm today. 

Maible cried quietly in her mother’s arms, her face red either out of fear or sunburn, and sometimes when I looked at her I wondered if there was something that I myself was missing. Should I be scared instead of grinning to the thought of sinking, or of telling this story? Irony stuck me that my Alaskan skipper had just written to me the day before about something I’d written six months earlier about not catching an abundance of fish that season, and I could only imagine how he may of thought what I’d written reflected on him as a skipper, as a fisherman, when in reality we’d just had a bad season like everyone else, and felt bad about it like everyone else, and there was still no one else in all of Bristol Bay whom I’d rather fish for, go without sleep for, or be friends with, than he? Surely, he was far better to his boat, crew, and passengers than others whom I’d shared the sea with. But was Maible seeing something I couldn’t, through my two-dollar sunglasses and deteriorating vision, feeling a reality I was not privy to? 

From the deck, cross-legged and still bailing seawater, I tried to allay her fears with some happy confidence: “Maible, don’t worry, baby, we’re going to be okay, I promise, okay?” 

She gave no reply, and I went back to worrying that the next wave would rip the port side out like a ripe banana peel. Napolean would really have to get the boat on step then, to keep the hole out of the water, to pull us up toward the Bocas marina, bypass it, and land at a dilapidated dock next to the riverboat bar, maybe wishing us a nice day, and good luck. 

But as we got out, tip-toeing down the warped and fastenerless dock one rain way from collapsing into the reef below, we saw the outside damage to his boat as he pulled away, back to the sea, cheery as we’d seen him all day, and realized that he would need a whole lot more luck than we.

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