THE BEST OF TIMES

By Papo Negrón

San Juan, Puerto Rico

 

(1968 Alberg 37 Sloop ELUSIVE, Hull # 40)

 

We bought Elusive from a Navy pilot that was being transferred back to the mainland from Roosevelt Roads naval Base in Ceiba, Puerto Rico.  We sailed her to Salinas on December of 2002, a week after acquiring her.  A great lady of the seas.  You see, Elusive is an Alberg 37.  One of those mystically designed vessels that are a pleasant site anywhere in the world, anytime.  She was built in 1967, commissioned in 1968, at the Whitby boatyard, Canada.  Her first owner sailed her all over the east coast, down to the Caribbean, almost to the coast of Venezuela.  Chris Orr, a Navy pilot stationed in Ceiba, PR, had the destiny of holding her for a while until I came along to love her.

Now Its Memorial Day weekend of 2003.  We decided to move Elusive from Salinas to Fajardo.  Salinas is located in the middle southern part of Puerto Rico, and Fajardo is on the tip of the northeast of the island.  It’s a good 100 miles upwind.

Considering a long haul upwind, I decided to sign up my son Ricky, a psychology student at the University of PR, and his lifetime friend Nestor. 

  

 Nestor and Ricky

Nestor has been around boats all his life.  His grandfather owned a Columbia 43 flush deck, hull #6, named “CAREY” which means “sea turtle”.  His father still has it, but he hardly sails it.  Anyway, that was the crew.  The three of us decide that we would leave Salinas at midnight on Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend.  We estimated the time of arrival, at Sea lovers marina in Fajardo, to be at approximately 6PM Sunday.  My wife Gina drove us to Salinas on Saturday evening.

 We all had dinner at Frank’s restaurant.  Frank has this small, cozy, sort of Caribbean Italian restaurant in front of the Marina Salinas, and Marianne, his girl, runs the sail loft “Tradewinds” across the street.  They have this beautifully kept Coronado 34, which is very properly named “Maryanne and Eye”.  After a nice dinner of ribs and coleslaw and washed down with a beer, we were ready for our trip. 

I forgot to mention that the weather was getting nasty.  By 10PM it was blowing 20 plus, and the weather bureau was forecasting similar weather throughout the next week.

 

 Papo Checking the Weather

But we figured we had a safe boat, a good crew, and we would motor through the south coast till morning and then reach up the eastern coast to Fajardo.

At midnight Elusive was making her way through the protected waters of the Salinas inlets and on her way to meet the Caribbean.  As we approached the exit to the Caribbean, we could feel the howling of the wind, and the Ampair wind generator sounded like it was an airplane at takeoff.  Cozy and dry we slowly made our way through the chop.  It was blowing 30 apparent, the Westerbeke (inboard thing that makes us go without sails) was chugging along and everyone made themselves comfortable. 

It must have been when we boarded, at 11:45 PM that Nestor asked if we had any Dramamine aboard, to what I answered negatively and discarded the question.  At 1:00AM I see Nestor going at it “chunking” out the ribs with coleslaw.  “What’s going on? are you ok?” I asked.  Ricky turns to me and says “oh, didn’t you know that he gets seasick?”  We kept on chugging and Nestor kept on “chunking” until his system was totally fluid less.  He accommodated himself just behind the wheel in the floor of the cockpit and dozed off.  He looked like a baby asleep.  NOT!  I did not mention that Nestor has let his hair and beard grow extensively by my standards (and I went to Woodstock, and had hair on my head at the time).  So he looked like a homeless that was sleeping it off in our cockpit.

At 3:00AM the Westerbeke decided to quit and it sort of went to sleep.  I was kind of glad because I was already feeling sick with the burned oil smell.  It had been about an hour, right after Nestor became the homeless, that I started feeling oozy.  As we bobbed in the middle of the night we went to the deck to raise our sails.  After some tangling with the mast steps that always grab the halyards to play with, we managed to raise sails and continue with our journey.  It took us awhile, since Nestor decided to lend a hand, and ended up with his hair knotted to one of the winches, and Ricky almost tore his hair off in one spin of the raising of the mainsail.  “OOOO contraaaa” he said, and Ricky lowered the sail as fast as he had began to hoist it.  I had to go below and get my faithful Swiss army knife (no wonder the Swiss remain neutral).  As I showed the knife to Nestor, he opened his eyes and magically unlocked his hair from the winch.  He then stood in the middle of the foredeck with a rubber band, and managed to tie his hair in what appeared to be a ponytail.  As the sails were trimmed, we all went back to our positions to continue with our adventure.  Ricky went to check on the autopilot, which kept going on STANDBY for no reason at all.  I went below to do some navigation and play with a little GPS we had aboard, and Nestor went back to his cockpit floor to pose as a homeless one more time.

We were making some progress, so it appeared, and even though it was blowing like hell, the goddess sent us lady moon to accompany Elusive.  For the remaining three hours of darkness we were greeted by a spectacle of constellations, planets and stars in the heavens, and sparkling waters all around.  Yes, phosphorescence.  These waters are famous for it, and this night was no exception.  This universal show was rhythmically dancing at the pace of Lady moon.

Light broke slowly and I was feeling better from the diesel fumes intoxication.  Ricky was at the wheel.  He mentioned that George, the autopilot, was not working properly, that he would set it and after 10 or 15 minutes it would go on standby and Elusive would go off course.

I prepared breakfast.  Dry flakes, fruit cocktail, and a choice of coca cola or beer.  Ricky and I went for the dry flakes and coke.  The homeless was immobile in the cockpit floor.  Later we found milk and sugar and had a ball with what was left of the dry flakes.

I did some navigation a found that we were past the southeastern tip of the island, near the town of Maunabo.  We tacked to get closer to land and to look for calmer waters at the lee of Vieques Island.  But wait, we can’t see Vieques!  I popped the GPS and it read than we were somewhere further south than what we had anticipated.  The new course would bring Vieques into view in a while. 

As the waters became calmer we realized we were making progress into the Humacao area where the Palmas del Mar Beach Resort is, and they have a pretty nice marina.  I thought that if the homeless wasn’t comfortable, we could drop him off there and call Gina to pick him up.  I poked him with my hand to see if he would respond, he smiled and said, “I’m alive”.  I offered something to eat and about 5 minutes later he got up, went below, washed his face, drank some water, and went back to his cockpit corner.  He had dressed up in sweatshirt and sweatpants, and was wearing a French hat.  He looked like a giant gray burrito with long hair. 

Ricky was tired and worried because he had never seen me get seasick.  I was feeling better, drank a lot of water and made some jokes to let them gain some confidence in me and to show that I was ok.

By noon we could see Vieques to our northeast and the Naguabo thermo electrical plant to our northwest.  We were making progress, the seas were more comfortable, but the wind kept blowing hard from our nose.  But Elusive wouldn’t quit and she kept on cutting water and moving swiftly, making us all very proud of her.

I called Gina on the cellular (modern commodities) and told her we were ok, but that our estimated time of arrival was going to be delayed.  I felt like an airline announcer justifying myself.  I figured that, with the prevailing wind, we should be in Fajardo by 9PM, but to wait for my call before leaving the house in San Juan, to come and get us.  It’s an hour and 15 minutes drive.  She asked about Nestor condition, but he said he would finish the journey with us.  We were very proud of our homeless and his commitments.

As we approached the stretch between the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base and Punta del Este in Vieques, the seas started building up.  It was the tidal effect of moving water in a straight.  A venturi tube effect in the water, in addition to the strong head winds took us off our general course.  We had to negotiate carefully in these coral infested straights.  But we figured: no problem, we got GPS.  Right after we said that and smiled, it started getting dark.  Ricky went below for the box of “AA” batteries we purchased last week.  He couldn’t find it, he worried, he came to me with a very worried look in his face, and said “dad, we don’t have any more batteries for the GPS”.  I said not to worry, that I kept shutting it off after each reading.  Ricky was feeling very tired, but he would not let go of the wheel.  I thought it would be a good character building experience for a psychology student, so I let him go for it.  Nestor, he remained constant, in the cockpit floor by the wheel, looking more like a burrito covered with refried beans.

I was doing a lot of “Dead Reckoning” and it was all working fine, until Ricky spotted a light that appeared to be moving from east to northeast, and about 5 miles from us.  I checked the charts but could find nothing on the subject.  I called on the radio, but no one answered.  So we waited and watched closely.  At this time I used the GPS to check our position, and shut it off right away.  It gave us the impression that it was a Navy ship, probably placing a couple of buoys in the area.  It moved from one place and anchored itself further in its path.  I did not pick up a copy of the “Notice to mariners” this time, so I had no idea of what to expect.  We made our way cautiously and slowly (as if we could go any faster on a sailboat).  As we passed about a mile from the light and headed north, we saw the light go off, and then we got a bit scared.  What if there were others around and without any lights?  Well, this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, so we decided not to go on scaring ourselves.  I went below to check on the chart, and suddenly remembered that Gina had put the batteries in my backpack.  I got them and showed them to Ricky.  YES!  We got GPS!

It was 8PM and we were on our way to the “Pasaje Medio Mundo”, a small passage between the main island and “Pinero island”.  At that point we were feeling the increase of water pressure caused by the ‘Venturi Tube” effect as we neared.  Ricky suggested to go around “Pinero” and out past the eastern rock called “Cabeza de Perro”.  That way we play it safe and travel smoother through deeper waters, plus it should be downwind once we clear the point.  Good idea!  The change would add a couple of hours to the trip, but, “What The Heck”.

As we approached the “Cabeza de Perro” light, the sea was much calmer and the homeless stood up.  We started easing out the sails and headed for “Palomino” island.  It was a matter of following the buoys of “Cayo Largo”, a long reef that runs from the south of Palomino about 4 miles.

When we getting close to Palomino island, we started to hear music.  We then noticed a floating barge, with lights, and a band playing all kinds of Latin beats.  “El Conquistador” Hotel was celebrating “Memorial Day”.  Soon after there were fireworks and the skies lit up and it looked and felt great. 

The homeless went below, he made himself a sandwich, ate, drank a coke, and then came to the cockpit a talked with us for a while.  I guess we made the right choice in not letting him off at Palmas del mar.

 

It was midnight and I had forgotten to call Gina.  I called her, woke her up, and said, “Hi Honey, I’m not home, we need a ride, are you hip?”

 

 Gina

Twenty-eight years ago I married an angel.  The gods decided I had paid my dues, and awarded me with Gina (That should fill up the points bag for me).  But truly speaking, there are not that many spouses out there that would behave as she does.  Of course, I do a lot of loving and caring.  It’s not a 50%-50%, its 100%-100%, and sometimes more.  You have to love it.

As we approached the Fajardo harbor area, the lights of “El Conquistador Hotel” greeted us.  As we got closer, our mainsails silhouette was cast among the lights and I felt like I was approaching the city of “Babylon”.  Such opulence!.  The little cove where the marinas are located was getting near and The boys went forward to take care of the jib and prepare for docking.  We had to approach by sail since our clunker was dead.

As we approached Sea Lovers marina, we encountered a bunch of pilings that totally confused us.  The marina must be expanding their docks and these are part of this new project.  This is a downwind approach where you have to jibe mid way through a narrow channel, into the pier area.  Luckily we had a pier that would put Elusive facing the wind.  Of course, this was once we had negotiated our entrance among all of the pilings.  I guess our minds were tired and it took us several rounds of jibes and tacks in order to figure out, at 2:00 in the morning, which one was the entrance to our pier.  I had the enlightenment all of a sudden, and approached it finally.  With not much choice, and not very sure that we were approaching the right pier for Elusive, and not caring much either (2AM, cold and tired), we went for it.  Ricky was standing by the mast with the mainsail halyard in hand, waiting for my order to lower the main into the lazy jacks.  This was probably the trickiest part.  You see, the Alberg 37 carries a relatively large mainsail and the 15 feet long boom makes quite a sweep on deck.  The homeless was standing on the fore deck with dock lines in hand and ready to defend, jump, heave, push, pull, whatever it takes.  The winds are still howling and Elusive with mainsail alone can make quite a ways. 

As we were approaching the line of standalone pilings and more pilings, I gave the order to release the main.  Ricky did a swell job of bringing the main down as I brought the boom to the center with the sheets.  She ghosted and the boys thought we were not going to make into the pier.  I was more confident.  As she entered in between the two parallel docks we identified our slip. 

 In Port at Last!

There was not much swinging room, and Elusive is a full keel lady, that usually requires a little more “breast” room.  ¨I waltzed her softly from the main floor, into a corridor and into her slip, and she responded ever so delicately¨.  The approach and set was so soft that Nestor was able to step into the pier and take care of the lines without hassles.  We tidied her up, gathered our stuff, and as I turned to call Gina, she appeared, like a mermaid on a reef.  Walking down the pier with her radiant smile and her long hair blown by the wind.  She approached Elusive and said “I request permission to come aboard” and I immediately said “Permission granted”.  I helped her aboard and was greeted by the most amorous caress, a kiss and a hug.  We left Elusive in shipshape condition as we boarded our car to take us home to a well-deserved rest, during the trip back home I was thinking on the next sailing trip.  Ahh, the Spanish Virgins…  The Best of Times.