Wednesday, May 9, 2012


copyright kevin r. hill

            When you live in Mexico you soon become aware there are a lot of Americans hiding there.  So you learn not to ask too many questions, who not to visit, and who not to let visit you.  But in such a tiny village I would get hungry for a social life and seek the company of any new person in town.  I remember there was one guy who called himself ‘Lucky.’
            One morning his big white trimaran was anchored in front of town.  Lucky’s grandfather had died in Norway and he had inherited a fortune.  Soon after notice of the inheritance arrived, he received a letter from the Norwegian government notifying him that he owned 110% of the money in taxes.  So good old Lucky decided it would be a good time to take his money and see a bit of the world. 
            And if I’m talking about sailors, I have to tell you about Phillip.  He’s a legend among the gringos of Puerto, the John Wayne of the ocean.
            When he sailed into town his two crew members did not even tie the bow lines before they jumped onto the dock and kissed the planks. Forty-foot seas had made them religious, and seeing mountainous black waves surrounding them was not something they ever wanted to experience again.
            But you had to like Phil.  He had this laid-back, Cajun way of seeing the funny side of everything.  It made you like him.  He was bigger than life with his stories of being boarded in Cuba, or of sailing up Rio Dulce in Guatemala.  Sometimes, after a couple of shots he’d slap the bar, and with that ‘coon-ass accent, he’d say, “steel is real,” referring to his boat’s hull. 
            Right away he loved Puerto and started running snorkeling tours with his dingy.  We’d take the tourists out to the reef and I’d guide them around the coral, point out lobster and barracuda and such, and everyone was happy.
            Soon he was part of our lives, a member of the Gringo community in Puerto.  I’d see him at my truck stop restaurant by the port, where no other gringo ever went, and in the tortillaria, buying fresh, warm tortillas.  It was like he had always been there.  He stayed in Puerto so long that the Port Captain invited him to moor on the dock.  For a boat owner that was a huge deal.  If you’re anchored on a sandy bottom, like he was, you are constantly afraid a wind might blow the boat and drag your anchor.  You were constantly jumping up from sleep at the slightest noise, afraid you might drift ashore.  So Phillip took the Port Captain up on his offer.
            But let me be clear:  The Port Captain offered the pier to tie up to, but a ‘mordita’ (little bite) was expected to pass from Phil’s wallet to the Port Captain’s pocket once a month.  And everything went fine for some months, until the tourists stopped showing up for snorkeling trips.  Then Phil got behind on payments.
            I remember one time we were taking his boat out with a couple of young women, and had just raised the main when we heard someone shouting through a bullhorn.  I thought the entire Mexican navy was coming after us.  There behind the boat came a speed boat with a couple of soldiers and a port official.  Phillip was told to turn around and that he could not leave until his business with the Port Captain was finished.
            Nothing pisses off a sailor like taking away his right to sail.  But we came about and headed back.  From that day on Phil plotted his escape.  He couldn’t afford to pay off the debt.  The Port Captain even came to his boat one night and told him how he needed money.
            “I have a wife and two children in school, and a mistress.  You have a fine boat, and I would hate to confiscate it because you don’t have your … papers in order.”  Yep, the Port Captain had him by the short-and-curlies.
            He had to find a way out of Puerto, but the reef kept him fenced in with the only channel into the open ocean right in front of the Port Captain’s office.  There was another channel, the fisherman’s channel, but it was only about ten feet wide, and maybe the same depth at high tide.  Phillip’s keel drew eight feet alone.  But he was a Cajun, and a little thing like shredding his boat on the reef was not going to bother him.  “Steel is real!”  He would rather risk losing his boat than pay the fat Port Captain another peso.
            We met at 4 am.  I came up beside his boat in an open launch.  Phil stood on deck unwrapping the main sail.  I grabbed onto to the deck and peered up at him.  
            “Listen, you have to stay exactly behind me or you’ll hit coral.  Exactly!  You got it?”
            “I’m right on your ass, bro'.” 
            “When you see me throw up my arms, pop the main and don’t look back.”
            I crept along inside the reef in the darkness and searched for the little channel to freedom.  Our engines sounded so lonesome just idling along like that in the night.  When I turned toward the open ocean I could see the water white and foamy around the coral on either side.  The swirling current pushed my little boat from side to side, and I had to fight the tiller to keep her on course and not be town apart on a coral head. Fifty yards past the reef I threw up my arms, holding the tiller between my knees, and laughed when I saw that sail fill up, that deep water boat lurching into the wind as it glided past like an athlete born to run, surging with power, fetching the next port, shaking the dust from her sail and not looking back.
            I’ll always remember that look on his face, a sailor free again, one with the ocean and limitless possibilities, that smile filling his whole face as he bowed hat in hand, and was gone into the rising sun.