A Tale of Tears and Treasure – Part 1 (The Tears)

I shake Tommaso’s, Michele’s and Renato’s hands. Screw social distancing for a moment!

“Fair winds! Stay safe! See you later in this or in next life!” A smile. A hug. A nod. I see tears glitter in their eyes. I climb down the rope ladder into my bright red dinghy. I crank my little Mercury outboard and set off to head back to my anchorage. 

We have known each other since Havana. S/V Shaula was docked right next to S/V Seefalke in Marina Hemingway. At a time when the marinas in Cuba were still open. At a time when the stores still had food. At a time when the only source for headache was the hangover after another night full of rum, cigars and salsa.

S/V Shaula and S/V Seefalke in Havana, Cuba

Just 300 nautical miles and a few months away, in pre-Corona post-revolutionary Cuba it feels like this was in a different life. It sure was a different world. 

But as the world turns and burns and rumbles and tumbles, we sailors remain the same. We keep moving in the continuous rhythm of the winds and the currents (unless forced into quarantine), like driving on seasonal roads. No sailor is stupid enough to go offroad. A lesson each sailor learns at the very beginning of his career. Mostly these are painful lessons, hence effective and lasting. So we are bound to meet again, sooner or later.

But then there also are these crossroads where Mother Nature allows a turn. Shaula decided to pick her up on the offer now.

We sailors have a very special attitude towards parting. The essence of our existence is to see new places, meet new people and make new experiences. The nature of our mode of travel dictates that we can only see the new if we leave the old behind. This is a great difference to land people. For them parting is mostly something forced, something involuntary and sad whereas for us sailors it is a deliberate and free decision. Very rarely you see sailors with tears in their eyes when they part. It is because parting is when we start to look forward to seeing each other again.

This time Shaula‘s crew has tears in their eyes, though, but they are not for me.

The Tears Are not for Me

The wind is fierce today, six Beaufort, gusting seven. As I am trying to make way against the wind, the waves are crashing against my little dinghy and the spray is brutally hitting my face. I feel like someone is beating me with the cat-o-nine tails. Again and again. After two minutes I am soaked to the bone, my eyes are red and swollen from salt water and my dinghy turned into a barely floating rubber bath tub performing a crazy rodeo. The marine version. I feel like I am riding a mad killer whale, stung by a Portuguese man-of-war. While I am trying to bail out the water from the dinghy and at the same time trying to keep my face from getting slapped and smacked all over again, I have a hard time manoeuvring this little sucker through the breaking waves. 

I think of what lies ahead of the three Italians of Shaula.

They decided to sail from Mexico to Italy, maybe hoping on a stop in the Azores but planning for a nonstop passage. Hope for the best, be prepared for the worst. Their route will take them out of the Caribbean Sea through the Yukatan Channel into the Mexican Gulf, then through the Straits of Florida, past Bermuda into the open Atlantic. Then past the Azores through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea and somewhere to Italy. Where exactly they don’t know yet. This will depend on the situation when they get there. Will Italy still be in lockdown after the forty to fifty day passage? No one can tell. A passage with an unknown destination and an uncertain destiny. Nothing for the faint hearted.

S/V Shaula at the Anchorage at Isla Mujeres, Mexico

But Shaula’s crew is everything but faint hearted. They have carefully analyzed the very complex situation. They evaluated their options between Corona lockdowns and hurricanes, ocean crossings and safe havens and calmly took their decision: We are sailing home.

They took on fuel, water and provisions. They are ready. If it wasn‘t for that one little detail. A detail that is capable of wetting those tough sailors‘ eyes.

Prohibition Is the Mother of Invention

Whereas alcohol is still sold in many places on the mainland, here on Isla Mujeres we factually live under prohibition. Alcohol sales at supermarkets and stores has been suspended for many weeks now and bars were closed long ago. The walkways to the bars and restaurants are covered in dust and sand. It looks a little like it had snowed all night. The booze tanks on the boats at the anchorage are drier than Death Valley in the summer and not few sailors seem to be going cold turkey. Alcoholics anonymous at sea so to speak. Others, so the rumors, have used their time, creativity and unused spare parts to turn their boats into floating distilleries or breweries. The mother of invention is having babies. 

The less technically oriented sailors have used their underground channels to traffic the liquid gold to the island. They are easily identifiable by an increased cockroach population. Tell me how many cockroaches you have and I tell you how much booze you smuggled. 

Shaula went down the second route and got hold of three cases of best Dos Equis XX Lager Special bottled beer. 72 bottles of this golden liquid that at the moment outvalues its solid equivalent by far as most breweries in Mexico had suspended their production a few weeks ago. „So, where is the problem now?,“ you might ask. They have 72 bottles of beer for three people for a 40 day passage. This is one for each crew every other day, not too bad and they should be sober sailing anyway.

All correct but here comes the caveat: the three cases of best Dos Equis Lager Special never made it to Shaula due to a series of unfortunate events. 

On the way from the dock their heavily overloaded dinghy T/T Shaula broke apart in the wild surf, the inflatable hull came off the aluminum bottom and in a moment of weakness the crew chose the wrong priority. They first tried to rescue their own lives, then the outboard and by the time they were thinking about the beer it was already on its way to the Happy Brewery Grounds on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. But who wants to blame them? Who wants to cast the first stone in this moment of hardship?

When I got their distress message on WhatsApp – it is obvious why they didn’t want to use VHF – the magnitude of the disaster became clear to me momentarily. The T/T Shaula incident would easily make it to the top ten disasters in civil seafaring. So I cranked up my toy outboard and death defyingly rushed to the rescue. In the meantime they had moved their mother ship to the scene of the catastrophe less than a cable away from the Port Captain‘s dock, pretending they caught a rope in their prop. The depth is just five meters here, so there actually was a chance to retrieve the precious liquid.

The Treasure

Eventually the port captain got impatient and the Search-And-Rescue mission had to be aborted. After one hour of synchronous group snorkeling in front of his dock I don‘t think he bought the rope-in-the-prop explanation anymore.

So while Shaula’s men are fighting their tears and I am fighting the same waves that broke T/T Shaula‘s back, the impressive ketch sets sail and the proud Italian flag slowly fades in the distance. I stay behind on treasure island with the burden of their legacy. 

The treasure hunt is on.