The afternoons belonged to them. They were one grand wet, rambunctious, laughing, amoeba of towheads, redheads, arms and legs; cackling in a variety of accented English, French, and Spanish, swimming and jumping helter-skelter. These were the itinerant children of the anchorage, all glued together for this brief period, sudden fast friends in an unlikely paradise, with nothing to do but have fun!
This was Spanish Water, Curaçao, April 1989, as we knew it. There were quite a few of us cruisers anchored in this bay, and there was no lack of children onboard amongst the families. Just a year or two earlier a Dutch cruising family arriving in Spanish Water and lamenting the lack of services for yachts in such an ideal, tranquil refuge, acted upon their entrepreneurial spirit and established Sarifundy's Marina. Never could a more professional name belie a most unique and quirky social hub, where many of us made lasting memories and friendships for a lifetime.
Arriving in a harbor after several days at sea, sailors always seek out a source for fresh water, the nearest market, laundry facilities if possible (otherwise the old hand brush and bucket would do), the nearest mechanic or hardware and parts store, a post office, information on customs and immigration formalities, and a myriad of other daily details. Jos, Hanny, and their two teenage children provided these services or access to and information for these services, and much more at their Sarifundy's Marina. But more than that, Sarifundy's was the local hangout, the meeting place, a café, the rendezvous point for happy hour, and a very laid-back "yacht club"—a sort of "cruisers' central." It was everybody's living room—and it literally looked like that too! In fact, it was reminiscent of one those pictures following the passage of a tornado or earthquake, with a wall sheared off a house, revealing the inside to the world, something like those cross-section views of life-sized doll houses. To go on land we would all tie up our dinghies at the floating dock, and sometimes linger for a quick hello or a beer at one of the picnic tables set up on the deck under the shaded overhang. As we chatted, Hanny might be at the rear of the room, in the kitchen, preparing a sandwich, burger, or an appetizer order; or making a laundry drop-off/pick-up exchange, while others might be making phone calls, or tending to some passport issue.
It was a busy, lively place as everyone tended to their daily chores. More often than not, spontaneous and impromptu evening barbecues, potlucks, and musical sessions would just happen and rounded out the day. We would all converge on the dock-deck around 5:00 p.m. or so, add our contributions to the collective meal potpourri, a gaggle of kids would be scurrying about, and voila, an evening of good fun was had by all.
Our mornings onboard were devoted to homeschooling for the boys. I handled the reading, English, U.S.History, and Social Studies, while Michel's job was for all things math, science, and our own quick program of French thrown in for good measure. The kids were set free for their afternoons. We had no television, nor Nintendo games (the rage at the time), and ubiquitous personal computers were still distant visions over the horizon. None of these cruising kids had any of these things—just each other, their dinghies, and energy to burn. My younger son tells me that he doesn't really remember much about doing school (but I guarantee he did, since he did learn how to read that year through the first grade program). "It always seems to amuse me, when I think back that it's ever so rare that I can recall really actually doing any school work," he says. In their words though, this is what they do remember:
"We have fond memories of Curacao. There were quite a few kids our age in the harbor. The mornings were dedicated to school for most of us, so we all were on our respective boats trying to get through math, science, history and whatever else was on the daily program. Oh man, did I try to find excuses to get out of the school work. I remember trying to do math and getting distracted by flies, and Michel did not have a huge amount of patience for those kinds of distractions.
Although the morning belonged to school, the afternoons were all ours. Come 1:00 p.m., all the kids would get together on the water with our various dinghies, rafts, boards…One of our activities was to clean other people’s dinghies. Most cruisers had inflatable dinghies that were easy to fold up and transport when underway. We would swim to other boats and offer them our cleaning services. We tied a rope to one side of the dinghy, then we would all stand on the other side pulling the rope and then it would easily flip over, landing us in the water. Once upside down, we would climb onto the bottom and scrub and scrape away the growth. Then we flipped it back upright for a rinse. We did this multiple times for each dinghy. I can’t remember if we ever got paid or if we even did a decent job, but I do remember it being lots of fun. We would also swim down people’s anchor chains to the bottom of the harbor and get a look at them. I’m not sure how deep it was (probably around 20-30 feet), but we got pretty good at holding our breath.
Someone also had a big windsurf board. We all got on it, about five-six kids, with an old bag that was as tall as we were. Two people would hold it up at the top, someone else at the bottom and another person would steer with a paddle that we had found. Very elemental and basic old-school sailing, but we got around the harbor that way and had a great time.
One of the the places we would “sail” to was a tall observation tower located in the harbor. We would climb the tower and jump off. I can’t remember how tall this thing was, but it was high enough to make everyone a little nervous on every jump. If you weren’t careful when you hit the water, you would go straight to the bottom and come back up with muddy feet.
Not all our activities were on the water, though most were. There was a dried pond or lake bed out behind the “yacht club” (more like a run down house that was open to the local cruisers). Our group of kids would split up into two teams. The back side of the dried bed backed up to some trees. Both teams would hide out and set up our forts which we made from plywood and mud. Then it was a full onslaught of mud balls. We threw these things at each other and pretty much got all covered in black mud. It stank. Once the battle was over, we ran back to the club and straight off the dock, into the water for a rinse.
Some nights, the parents would have an adults' evening at the yacht club while all the kids regrouped on a boat. We used to play various versions of hide and seek. Although one might think you would quickly run out of places to hide on a boat, our imaginations didn’t let us down. At night on a boat, there are plenty of spots, up the mast, in the water under the transom, hanging off the anchor chain…"
We would take a few days here and there to explore the island. Shortly after arriving, we rented a car and drove all around to see the sights. On a regular basis, however, for errands, grocery shopping, etc. the best and usually most efficient way to get around and to get downtown, was by hitchhiking. The locals, it seemed, were used to ferrying tourists to-and-fro so casually and were not hesitant to pick us up. This was how we met local residents (and fellow Frenchman) Jean-Marie, his Argentine wife, Maria, and their two young children. They lived in a home on the island. Their story of how they arrived in Curaçao via France, Argentina, and Columbia was most fascinating, and we found we had a lot in common. Spending many an evening together, either at Sarifundy's or in their home, they showed us their island; we spent afternoons together, and we sailed together on occasion. Many years later we met up again in California and France, while we all watched our children grow, and we remain friends today. Jean-Marie and Maria still live in Curaçao and some day we intend to go back and visit them there once more.
A whole litany of characters from Spanish Water comes to mind from those four months: Kim, the hard drinking, keen-humored Brit who serenaded the evening barbecues with his mean and melodious hammer dulcimer; his wife Sue with her circus-career background and deft demonstrations of juggling on stilts, and their three rambunctious kids; American catamaran family Casey and John, with her evening fireside guitar renditions of Dust In The Wind, and their twin terror toddlers Tyler and Travis, dubbed "TnT"; solo Englishman sailor Ray and his magnetic contact with the kids, serving as their punching bag just about every evening, wrestling and horsing around with them as they would all end up in the water off the dock—over and over again. Aside from the "club" evenings, we also spent a few unforgettable afternoons rambling around town en masse as a group, all the kids in tow, exploring the ins and outs of the alleys, Willemstad's floating market, and in one finale, dancing in the street one warm tropical evening during an outdoor concert sponsored by the cruise ship docked in the downtown harbor.
A Touch of Hurricane Hugo
It was hard to leave that September, but it was time to move on. We set sail for Aruba and our friends Jean-Marie, Maria and their children came along for the ride, just a day sail from Curaçao. We parted there. After a brief stay of a day or two in the main harbor in town, we found a pleasant anchorage at a beach farther down the coast. One afternoon Sean and I hitchhiked into town to buy some last minute groceries and clear out with immigration authorities in preparation for a final departure for the San Blas Islands near Panama. At the time Hurricane Hugo was picking up steam, albeit well north of us in the Caribbean, and on track for the States, but Aruba nevertheless was beginning to feel some of the effects as the skies became an unseasonal overcast gray, the wind picked up, and an unusually large swell was growing and persisting in the anchorage.
The water became so agitated that it was dangerous for us to remain anchored there. While Sean and I were in town, Michel had to make a quick decision, se he pulled up anchor and headed to a more protected place. I was surprised when we got back to the beach, and there was no Cowabunga, no Michel, no Brendan, yet I had a pretty good idea of what was happening. After scouting up a VHF radio from the nearby water sports rental shack, I raised Michel on the common Channel 16 frequency, and found out they were actually headed back to the main harbor in town. Quickly Sean and I flagged down a taxi and headed back to town.
We were dropped off in the harbor just as Michel and Brendan rounded the jetty. I was a bit perplexed because I didn't understand how Michel was able to raise the anchor all by himself, since it usually took the two of us: him at the windlass and anchor, and me at the wheel controlling the engine to forward, reverse, and neutral, into the wind...Brendan was only 6 years old at the time, and under a quick tutelage on the spot from Michel, he performed to perfection at the wheel while Michel raised the anchor. Then as they motored into the harbor, Brendan eased himself into the dinghy and motored up to the quay to pick us up so we could join them on Cowabunga.
I marveled at how suddenly it seemed that our boys had transformed from the babies and toddlers that we began with on board, to competent sailors at 6 and 9 years old without ever having really been taught. It just was part of them.
The excitement of discovering the San Blas Islands lay ahead, but the eclectic mix of cruisers, the unique landscape, the easy living, the stars at night...who knows. It just all came together at the right time in the right place in Curaçao. Like pieces in a puzzle, it was a few months freeze-framed in my family's mind for a wonderful experience that leaves us with nostalgic memories of being anchored in Spanish Water, anchored to Curaçao.