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|106--Panama: A Ship Wreck and a Blue Shark|
Dec 18 2002 - 17:03 PST
cherie writes: I saw something out in the distance. And it wasn’t the same boring old white sand beaches, swaying palm trees and crystal blue water. It was something else, a strange speck on the horizon. I wasn’t sure what it was. I picked up the binoculars (Rennie, you left them on the boat.) Looking through those lenses, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I wouldn't be smiling if that was my yacht.
Greg by the ship wreck.
The Kunas really stripped this boat down. (They even pried the teak off the deck!)
I'm surprised Greg doesn't want to tow the wreck behind Scirocco and "fix it up" one day.
Yacht on the rocks, ain't no big surprise.
Greg and the wreck.
That´s not a fish! It´s a shark!
He was a feisty one. Or she, I didn't check.
Those are some sharp teeth.
We wanted to set him free, but he wouldn't give up the lure.
He's not dead. It is just a little blood from taking the hook out.
The "Cuban Reel" Greg caught the shark with.
An aerial view of one of the 365 San Blas Islands. (We took this picture on the plane ride over!)
The old Kuna anchored next to Scirocco that caught a "feesh" every five minutes.
“Greg! It’s a boat!” I screeched.
“Big deal. We see boats everyday. Look over there! Oh my gosh, it’s the sun!”
“Okay. I see how it is going to be. I guess I just have to check out the ship wreck by myself. See you later!” I yelled, clamoring into the dinghy.
“Ship wreck?” Greg perked up. (You mention any form of destruction to a guy and you instantly have their attention. Bonus points if there is a boat, plane, train or automobile involved in the disaster.)
“It looks like a sail boat hit the reef and sank!” I announced as if I were the first witness to the boat’s ruins. (Note: there are thousands of reefs in the San Blas Islands, all just creeping below the surface ready to rip a hole in your hull the second you relax and stop thinking about the dangerous coral surrounding you.)
Already in the dinghy, prepared to row it to the wreck, I waved for Greg to join me. The wreckage was some distance away. As they say, two paddlers are better than one! But Greg said: “Wait! Let me see if I can get the dinghy engine running.”
I was confused. The dinghy engine has not worked for four months. We have been rowing everywhere. It is great exercise (sometimes,) but often just plain tiresome (most of the time.) After months of being engine-less I’d had enough of “row, row, row your boat.” But Greg could never “find the time” to repair the engine. He made it seem like it was a project that could take weeks, even months. And there was too much playing chess, snorkeling, reading and exploring to do! I didn’t want to nag him about it, so I only casually brought it into conversation every few days. I figured he’d get to it when he was ready. But when presented with the opportunity to explore a ship wreck--that outboard engine roared to life in less than ten minutes. (That is no exaggeration.)
“Wow, you got it started! I can’t believe it!” I was ecstatic. Just the sound of a purring engine made my biceps relax. (It hadn’t dawned on me that I’d been a slave-rower for four months because Greg didn’t want to lift the heavy engine on the dinghy.)
“It was just bad gas! It’s fixed now! Let’s go see the wreck!” Greg bounced into the dinghy and in a few moments we tore through the translucent water.
The remains of the sailboat (a little bigger than Scirocco) were already stripped. The wreck was lying in about a foot of water, tiny waves still lapping at its hull, as if they might lick it back to life. Even the teak was pried off the decks. I was scrambling around the semi-submerged vessel when I heard Greg scream.
“Something bit me!” he yelled. Greg hobbled frantically back to the dinghy and landed awkwardly in its center. He was hollering like a shark crunched his leg off. I waded my way back to the dinghy and found Greg rocking his foot like a baby. Groaning in pain. “It just finished bleeding,” he announced. (Like twenty seconds ago it was a much serious wound.)
“Let me take a look at that.” It was a rare moment when my nurturing side came out. Like a compassionate nurse, I gently examined what appeared to be a very normal and healthy foot. “Looks fine to me,” I declared after a complete one minute analysis. Since I wasn’t going to have to amputate Greg’s injured appendage, I decided to shoot more pictures of the shipwreck.
Greg moaned like a Halloween monster. And it was December! I thought I should be a good girlfriend and look at his footie one more time. Good thing, because I missed something. It was so miniscule; a grain of rice would have dwarfed it. A tiny piece of flesh colored coral had indeed “bit” him. “I’m ready to go now.” Greg sighed. He had a wound and was prepared to be pampered. (Even when the toughest men are injured, they turn right back into little boys.)
Back at the boat, a pair of tweezers and a little antibiotic cream made Greg a new man. I thought we should pour alcohol on it, but Greg vetoed the idea. How about salt in your wound? (Typical for me to make jokes at a bad time.)
“I’d make you some hot coco, but we’ve practically run out of food. Want some pork and beans? We also have tuna.” But he already knew our cupboards were bare.
“I feel better now; let’s go back to the island.” Greg yanked the engine cord and a few seconds later we were gliding over the shallow coral. When we landed on the beach, all the Kuna children came out to greet us. One little boy kept hovering around me until he touched me and then ran away. I had to laugh. I must have looked like an alien to him in my blue and black snorkel suit.
Then we took part in the traditional mola ritual where the Kunas presented me and Greg with all the artwork the island’s women have sewn in the last century. The little boy (who liked to touch me and run) sat next to me. Periodically he touched my skin suit in amazement. I was his new best friend. He pointed to the animal on each mola and pronounced their names in Spanish: pescado, mono, pajaro (fish, monkey, bird.) It was obvious what the designs were, but I let the kid explain them to me anyway. It seemed as if he had just learned those words. He was trying to impress me, and it was working.
Then the Kuna woman showed me a mola unlike one I had ever seen. (And I have seen a lot of molas.) ‘What the heck is that?’ I thought. The boy was silent. The only one I didn’t know and he wasn’t telling me what it was! I asked him in Spanish and he looked at me like I was a Martian.
“It’s a cat with wings,” he informed me, like it was the easiest one to figure out. If he was a kid born in the United States he would have added, “Duh.” He probably concluded that blue women with red hair are just plain dumb. So I bought the winged-cat mola to add to the colorful quilt I’m going to make. Then I’ll forever be able to wrap myself in my fond memories of the San Blas Islands.
Before we left we noticed the remnants of the ship wreck everywhere on the island. Pieces of teak deck nailed over canoe weak-spots, halyards held Kuna clothes (drying in the breeze) and the wreck’s dodger was tacked onto the hut’s entrance. One person’s tattered sunshade is another person’s hut foyer.
I guess seeing all those fish molas made Greg hungry because on the way back to the Scirocco he declared: “I’m going to catch us some fish.”
Greg and I have both been sailing since October 2001, and Scirocco has not caught one single fish. It’s not that Greg isn’t a good angler. He just hasn’t tried. Neither of us knows anything about fishing, so it just never made sense to spend all the money on fishing licenses (they can cost hundreds of dollars.)
But Greg had a change-of-heart, and recently bought a stack of “learn to fish” guidebooks so we wouldn’t catch and fry any poisonous critters. He also purchased a bunch of fishing gear. (At this point, we need to catch about 400 fish and then we break even.)
We decided to sail to the Carti Islands and drag a fishing line off the back. (We heard the Carti Islands had a “store” which in the San Blas Islands translates to a “hut” that sells pork and beans and canned tuna.)
Greg threw the fishing line out and pop! A fish grabbed the lure. It was so easy! His first try! He reeled in the sucker and “crack” the lure snapped off!
“That fish ate my lure! I hate that fish. Does he know how much those things cost?” Greg yelled. Note: screaming at lure-stealing fish--that is the very type of behavior that gives us Americans bad reputations abroad.
I started to sing. “I feel like chicken tonight, like chicken tonight.”
So we had a nice poultry dinner and spent the night anchored off a little island with a thousand huts crowded on it. If we wanted fish, we were going to have to buy the “pescado” the next day.
We woke up the next morning to a new sun with an old fisherman anchored about three yards from Scirocco. (An entire empty ocean and he has to fish a few feet from us.) We must have unknowingly anchored at his “lucky spot.” The elderly Kuna was sitting in a pile of his own freshly caught fish. His technique seemed to be to throw a piece of string in the water and pull out a fish. Seriously, the guy hauled a flapping fish out of the water every five minutes. Then he would hold up his catch (so we could see) and say: “Feesh.” (The only English he spoke.) Any questions we asked were answered with the informative “feesh.” What did he use for bait? Feesh. What type of fish was he catching? Feesh.
Greg was over it. I thought my boyfriend was going to jump over the lifelines and strangle the old angler the next time he said “feesh.”
“Let’s try to make this quick, and go ashore to get more food.” Greg suggested. We thought we could briefly visit to Carti’s local “store” and stock up on pork and beans and tuna. But it couldn’t be that easy. Greg and I were informed that we had to meet the island’s chief before were permitted to walk around the island. The leader’s hut was no different than everyone else’s, except that he had a framed picture of himself tacked up. (I laughed because it sounds like something I would do if I was a Kuna.)
What do you do when you meet a chief? Bow? Shake hands? I was at a loss for words. What should I say: “How about them coconuts?”
The chief turned out to be a pretty relaxed guy. In fact, during our entire visit, he never even got out of his hammock. We sat in his hut and made the strange conversation you make with people who you have nothing in common with. “Yeah, I know what you mean…we have those same problems when we build our huts in the USA.” We had a couple beers with the chief and his friends and a few Kunas stopped by and brought their giddy children to sit on my lap. Headline: Quick Shopping Trip Turns Into All Day Event.
We thanked the islanders for their generosity, still harboring these crazy hopes that the Kunas on Carti had a greater selection of food. No such luck. Pork and beans lined the store-hut like bad 70’s wallpaper. (The name “pork and beans” is really quite misleading. For accuracy, it should be called “beans with a little piece of fat included.”) Nevertheless, we headed out with a Costco-sized supply of the stuff. But really, Greg just wanted to get going. He had the fisherman’s itch. He needed to catch a cockpit full of his own “feesh.”
Greg’s fishing rod is a contraption called a “Cuban Reel.” It is basically a giant spool of line that you reel in by hand. The fishing device is simple, light and easy to store. It is made to pull in a two-meal fish. Something small, manageable.
“Fish on!” Greg yelled. I maneuvered the boat, while Greg fought the fish.
As Scirocco’s head photographer, I got out the camera and snapped away. It was going to be the first fish that Greg ever caught (in his whole life.) It was also going to be a delicious dinner. I was anxious and excited. What was it? Tuna? Dorado? It was like opening a present.
“Greg! It’s a shark!” I SCREAMED. “You caught a SHARK!” My camera kept clacking.
“Will you put down that camera and help me.” Greg pleaded.
“Do you think you can bring the shark on the other side of the boat, the light is better over there for pictures?” I asked. Snap, snap, snap.
Greg gave me the squinty-eyed, catching-a-shark-is-serious-business look.
“Put the camera down and get me my gloves.” Greg spat.
“You’re sailing gloves? Don’t those gloves stop at your knuckles?” I asked. The shark was thrashing around the bow, going under the hull, and tugging Greg all over the deck. I don’t mean to take sides, but the shark was clearly winning the fight.
“You’re right.” (Rare moment that I am right and that Greg admits it.) “Don’t YOU have gloves that cover your fingers?” Greg asked.
“Yes, my wake-boarding gloves. But, they won’t fit you,” I said. Then I could see the idea as it hatched in Greg’s skull. He wanted ME to jerk the lure out of the shark’s jaws. Was he nuts?
“No way! Don’t even think it! I’ve grown quite fond of each of my fingers and I’m not prepared to lose any.” I said firmly.
“I’ll bring the shark on deck and you get the lure out of his mouth. It’s no problem.” Greg was sure of it. I could imagine Greg as a child saying to another kid: “You buy the candy, and I’ll eat the candy, deal?”
“Of course it is no problem for you. You won’t be the shark-attack victim. Why don’t you just cut the line and let the shark have the lure?” It seemed logical to me.
“That is our last lure! He’s not getting it.” Greg was determined. “Plus, those things are expensive!” he added. Headline: Man Exchanges Two Fingers For One Five Dollar Lure.
Greg hauled the shark aboard, which was a giant feat and a huge mess. The shark didn’t like being out of the water so he beat the crap out of our boat. Then he would be still for a moment (just to fake us out) and Greg would lean in to pull the lure out (with his open-fingered gloves) and then the shark would thrash about like it was dying. It was.
“Greg, hurry up! I don’t want it to die.” I pleaded. I was now on a “Save the Shark” mission. My Uncle Steve taught me that if you kill something, you have to eat it. And I wasn’t in the mood for shark-fin soup.
Then with a deft flip of his wrist, Greg pulled the lure out and nudged the shark back into the sea. “Everyone wins!” I shouted. Greg ended up with his lure, I ended up with my photos and the shark ended up with his life. Ship wrecks and sharks, I thought sailing was supposed to be relaxing!
Click on each picture to see it full size.
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