Drama Sells

Life onboard Underway
January 10, 2018

Drama sells.

My most popular blog posts are the ones about the big winds and temperamental engines, tense moments and broken spirits. (Like this one from our season-ending southern Mexico passage, or this one about a long ago but very memorable Christmas incident).

And so, by contrast, perhaps people don’t want to read about our most recent passage. A 3-day journey in which we sailed a bit, the engine worked, we caught fish without losing a lure, and we even slept a few hours here and there. How boring! I think I’ll tell you about it anyway.

Mexico did not want to seem to let us go. Fourteen months after first entering the country, Six months after pulling into Marina Chiapas, and six weeks after returning to the boat from our land travels, we were finally floating, fully provisioned and ready to go. And then the port captain lost our Zarpe (our exit papers – without which we cannot leave the country or enter any other country). We were supposed to clear out of Mexico at noon. At 3, after multiple calls and a last-minute trip to his office by a sympathetic marina staff member, the Port Captain finally arrived with papers, along with an inspector and a drug dog. 45 minutes later, we waved one last goodbye to our friends on the dock and motored slowly out of the estuary.

The ocean swell rolled briskly under Halcyon’s hull and the abruptness of this lifestyle shift hit us both. For six weeks, we had been living in a hotel, working hard to knock out projects on a boat on stilts. Halcyon had only been floating for 2 days, which we spent furiously trying to tweak the engine and fix a newly discovered rudderpost leak. And now – suddenly, we were back at sea. Starting a 315-mile passage through unreliable winds and a maze of fishing nets. The anxiety made the queasiness worse. Would the engine behave? Would we remember how to sail? Would the winds cooperate? (See? Even a peaceful passage story can have tension build up).

We turned our bow southeast and hoisted sails. Our movements were awkward as we ran lines and uncoiled halyards. I had to make at least 3 trips down below to bring up bits of hardware or lines we hadn’t yet reinstalled, but soon the sails were full and the engine quiet. All of the stress and dust and frenzy of the last 6 weeks sloughed off as Halcyon gracefully ghosted through the water. The sun dipped below the horizon to our right, shooting streaks of red and orange across the sky. A turtle popped his head up to peer at us from the impossibly blue water. This. This is why we do it. This is the reward.

Soon, and expectedly, the wind eased away and we fired up the engine under a full suite of stars. A new moon makes the anticipation of coming across a fishing panga more stressful, but boy does the sky explode in sparkling wonder. The night passed uneventfully. During my midnight – 4 am shift, I watched as the Southern Cross grew out of the sea and took its prominent place in the southern sky. We are nearing the equator now.

John proclaimed the sunrise the next morning to be one of the most beautiful he has seen. We were motoring along the coast of Guatemala and while the fireball rose in the East, Fuego, an active Guatemalan volcano spewed fireworks high in the sky. Just a few months ago, we stood on the top of Fuego’s next-door neighbor and experienced the eruptions up close, in complete awe of nature’s immense power. How unendingly cool to then see it from the water, a proud and resilient creature breathing fire on the horizon.

The day passed quietly, except for the perpetual drone of an engine that works properly. In the afternoon, the wind freshened and we were able to sail again. In the evening, we pampered ourselves with solar showers in the cockpit as the sun set on our second day at sea. I had just turned on the burner to make some rice and beans when the fishing line went whirring out of the back of the boat. Sailing may have taken some remembering, but the call for “fish on!” elicited instant reflexes. I scrambled into the cockpit and dropped the boat to neutral as John played the drag and let the fish run, hoping to embed that hook. I grabbed the gaff, a glove, a knife and the go pro and waited, poised and filming, while John started to slowly reel her back in.

It was a Dorado, and she was magnificent in her streaks of blue and green. Once gaffed, John had to swing it like a pendulum to get it over the lifelines and onto deck. He made quick work of the scene, now quite skilled at humane fish deaths. I gave a moment of thanks to that beautiful fish before scampering about with bucket, cutting board, ziplocks, and knife. Within an hour, a hunk of the freshest possible fish, lightly sautéed with butter and garlic, graced our plates next to roasted broccoli and a glass of wine. How perfectly civilized.

Another uninteresting night of motoring, broken into 4-hour watches. Mine were spent listening to an audio book and fidgeting. I curled up in a corner with my head on my knees, then got up and scanned the horizon. I sat up high, my face to the wind and my eyes trained on the billions of sparkles above me, swaying past the mast. Grabbed the iPad and stared at the chart, willing the triangle along, a tiny geometric shape on a screen of blue representing us – our home and everything in it bobbing along in the great big ocean. Then back to my corner to watch the hillside creep slowly past, before my thoughts turned too philosophical.

In the morning I awoke just after dawn to a knocking in the cockpit. “Becca?” John hollered. “I need some help.” I clambered into the cockpit, still trying to pry my eyes all the way open. “We caught a fish, and it’s really big”. John had taken up the stance – feet wide, knees slightly bent and braced against the rail, back arched against the force trying to pull the pole out of the tightly clenched crux of his elbow. Gopro rolling, gloves and pliers at the ready (it is already clear this fish is too big to land on deck, so the goal is a photo to back up the fish tale and a lure retrieval without further injury to human or fish). The exercise was successful – a sailfish at least as tall as John flailed as it came alongside the boat. The crystal clear water made the video a shoe-in, and we were able to clear the lure with only a small puncture wound to the fish and all human fingers in tact. What a fun fight!

Not two hours later, the fishing line went zinging away again. A second Dorado, bigger than the first, then finds itself alongside, then on deck, then in the freezer. I had to displace the ice trays to fit all the fish in the coldest part of our fridge that – if I rotate the bags every few hours – will eventually freeze our bounty of fish. A full “freezer” also meant the fishing lines stayed inside the boat – no need to torment the sea creatures if we don’t need the sustenance – and John had lost his number one diversion.

And so, when a brisk headwind came up in the afternoon, I came up from a nap and found John with full sails flying – the main, the jib AND the cutter – hand steering and tweaking sail trim. Anything to stay engaged and occupied. We were once again able to sneak along without the engine for a few hours.

It was our third and last night at sea when the new moon status dampened the mood. On John’s late night watch, he spent the better part of four hours ducking and weaving between pangas lit only with shaky smartphone screens, held by sleepy men yelling in Spanish, and their fishing nets marked with half-sunk milk jugs and black flags. When I came up to relieve him, he was frazzled and exhausted. But he had successfully maneuvered us through the labyrinth without catching a line on the prop or barreling over any of the dozens of unlit glorified canoes. He briefly told of his dark and daunting watch, then quite literally face-planted into a pile of cushions and pillows in the cockpit and fell deep asleep.

When he arose, coffee was ready and I was steering Halcyon between towering green islands in the calm waters of Bahia Fonseca, with El Salvador to our left, Nicaragua to our right and Honduras straight ahead. It looked like we had been transported right back into the San Juan Islands. Or perhaps more accurately, that the San Juans had been transported here – where it is 94 degrees outside and 82 in the water. We meandered up the shallow channel and anchored in front of the tiny town of Amapala on Isla Tigre.

When we finally settled the anchor, cleaned up the cockpit, dropped the dinghy, gathered ourselves and headed to shore to check in, we had a full welcoming committee on the pier. Three smiling young men helped us get out and tie up the dinghy, and the seemingly self-appointed official tour guide, Bob, told us all about his beautiful island and its history, then introduced us to the equally friendly port captain. Checking in was free and took less than 30 minutes. When we told them we would stay for 2 or 3 days, they gave us a visa for 20.

And so we have arrived. Halcyon is floating at anchor once more, looking quite snappy in her new shiny blue. We are relaxing and recovering from our uneventful passage, so very happy to be here.

  1. Cat

    January 18, 2018

    Love love this one. After the past few months you guys deserved a smooth, wonderful passage. Also I can hear the exact voice to a T that John said “Becca….I need some help.” haha Can’t wait to see you guys and Halcyon, hug you so soon!

    • halcyon

      January 18, 2018

      Thanks Chica! I felt we deserved it too 🙂 can’t wait to adventure with you soon!

  2. Karin Black

    January 11, 2018

    My leg is broken from twisting it while shoveling 18” of snow from auto. While mending now, on my back., I read your story.
    Thank you for giving me, and all your readers, a beautiful and relaxing retelling.
    We have wonderful memories Sailing our 34’ Ericson in the San Juan Iands. Your description of your new Anchorage makes me want to visit there also!
    Reading your blog has helped my fracture heal, I’m convinced of it!
    Enjoying following you from here in the Pacific Northwest.
    Happy New Year

    • halcyon

      January 12, 2018

      Hi Karin, yikes! So sorry about your leg. I am thrilled I was able to help you recover faster 🙂 Hopefully soon you will be back on the water making undramatic memories of your own.

  3. Janna Cawrse Esarey

    January 10, 2018

    I don’t know. Those fish are pretty dramatic. And the writing is great with or without the drama. You’ve got two photos upside down. Is that just to see if anyone is paying attention. 😉

    • halcyon

      January 12, 2018

      Thanks Janna – that means the most coming from you! I think the upside down photos are a glitch in the template, I believe they only show up upside down on mobile. Thanks for the heads up, I’ll look into that.

  4. Patrick

    January 10, 2018

    Yes, drama sells. As evidenced by all the YouTube channel promoting their latest grounding, being struck by lightning or other mistake / calamity. : ) I prefer honesty over manufactured drama.

    Telling a good story is tough though, and as writers we sometimes fall into ruts. A skillful writer can create interest even in stories where everything goes right.

    I like your paragraph that ended with “This. This is why we do it. This is the reward.” All the context you described in that paragraph (and the prior) – that was good writing.

    That big Dorado is awesome! And I can’t imagine catching a sailfish. I hooked what we think was a black marlin on a fishing charter in PV, but after 4 people fought it, it either broke or bit off the line.

    • halcyon

      January 12, 2018

      Thanks so much for the feedback, Patrick. I am glad I kept interest despite our perfectly functioning engine and good fishing! The dorado really was awesome, 4 of us ate those 2 fish for nearly 2 weeks! The sailfish are always a fun fight, jumping and spinning out of the water on the way in. Marlins certainly have a habit of cutting and running, so it seems likely that’s what you hooked into in PV.

Comments are closed.

John and Becca Guillote

John is the photographer. He portrays the layers of history, emotion, spirit and culture in each moment through his application of light, perspective, and detail. He also takes pictures.

Becca is the writer. She tells vivid stories of authentic moments, highlighting the beautiful, dangerous, dramatic and hilarious with grammatically correct sentences and her tongue held firmly by her cheek.


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