Be Careful What You Ask For and Other Lessons, Part One

Of the many things we learned from our life on the water, one of the the most notable was that the cruising community is a small and cohesive group. We would often run into boats, families, and cruisers whom we had met at an earlier time and place, later again (even years) in other ports and countries along the way. We learned that just because one crosses an ocean doesn't necessarily mean that a past stays behind. "You can run, but you can't hide" as one unfortunate cruising couple found out.

A month or two after our arrival in Rio de Janeiro, we were anchored in the Bay of Guanabara, within the Yacht Clube do Rio's designated anchorage, when a German sailboat that we remembered from Dakar, Senegal, arrived. Several of us distinctly remembered this couple from an incident in Dakar one very windy afternoon. One of the boats in the anchorage began dragging while the owners were in town running errands. This is dangerous not only for the boat in question since there is always the danger that the boat drags on to some rocks, but also for the other boats in the area since the dragging boat can also hit others along the way. When we all noticed what was happening, the German gentleman quickly got in his dinghy, attached a rope to the sailboat and towed it over to his boat, tying it up alongside until the owner returned. He also went back and dived for the anchor (which had apparently somehow broken from the chain), retrieving it and holding it for safekeeping until the owner's return. We all applauded his initiative and quick thinking and knew the owner would be very pleased and grateful. Anchors are expensive, valuable items.

However, we later learned that the German held the anchor in "ransom," only agreeing to return it to the owner for a price, arguing that he now had a legal right to the anchor as a "fortune de mer" or salvaged property. If the original owner wanted it back, he would just have to pay the price. The German would not relent and the original owner ended up having to pay to get his own anchor back. The news of this spread like wildfire amongst all the boats; we were all appalled. It was tantamount to stealing, as far as we were concerned. Right then and there the German was branded. His reputation was sealed.

Anchoring in the vicinity of the Rio yacht club was not a given. Cruisers needed permission from the club, which was rarely refused to itinerant foreigners. When this particular boat arrived, those of us who distinctly remembered the Dakar incident felt that "what goes around, comes around." The yacht club office was duly alerted that this boat was not trustworthy, and was known—from eyewitness accounts—to have stolen from other another boat. Consequently, the yacht club refused to let them anchor and have free access to the club's services, as did the rest of us. The news that this boat had arrived in Brazil spread quickly via the ham radio network. They didn't stay long in Rio and we later learned that they were also refused welcome and authorization to anchor at yacht clubs in most major ports along the Brazilian coast. Their reputation preceded their arrivals, and they were snubbed by most boats. Rumor had it that they finally became thoroughly disenchanted with Brazil. Much of this we learned many months later from a new acquaintance we met in northern Brazil who recounted a story "of a German boat who wronged a boat in Dakar..." Back in Dakar the German couple probably thought they were rather shrewd in seizing an "opportunity" to make some quick extra cash due to someone else's misfortune. I bet they came to regret what they asked for. Their underhandedness cost them, continuing to dog them for many months down the road.

Minding our Ps and Qs

The Rio yacht club also served us an emphatic reminder that civility and manners do matter, no matter where you are. Although itinerant sailors, we still needed to mind our "Ps and Qs." Our behavior, or misbehavior, could leave a bad taste behind, shutting doors for those who follow. Before leaving France, we changed the registration of Cowabunga from French to American. As indicated by the obligatory national flag hoisted off the stern of our boat, our flag was now an American one. As far as the Rio yacht club was concerned, it was a wise move, since French sailors in general at the time had become "personas non grata" due to an unfortunate incident following a brief stay of the famous French sailor, Eric Tabarly. The story goes that he and his crew over-imbibed during a layover of an around-the-world race, and their celebratory evening reception led to poolside antics that included jumping into the water fully-clothed while throwing in various objects as well as exclusive evening-cocktail-clad club patrons. It seems the poolside was in a quite a shambles and the reception attendees of Rio's upper class were duly shocked. Tabarly and his crew were banned from the club as were future visiting French sailors. We, however, were "Americans" as signified by our flag, and that proved to be a big help. Although we believed to be leading our lives "under the radar," we nevertheless became aware of repercussions of our actions. Our example could help or hinder those who followed.

Standing our Ground

Being aware of a "trickle-down" effect of our actions also carried over in our refusal to pay bribes. Giving in to the culture of bribery wouldn't be doing any favors for those who came in our wake. We came up against this several times: in Brazil, much earlier in Casablanca, and a few years later in the Dominican Republic. As recounted in the "Rio" vignette (posted March 14, 2013), Michel's refusal to pay bribes most likely cost us quite a few extra hours of useless waiting and aggravation with sudden bureaucratic and visa complications. Eventually the problem was resolved when certain authorities saw that their uncooperativeness was not making any headway with Michel, and that no wad of cash would be forthcoming.

We actually had our first encounter with a corrupt customs official several months earlier in Casablanca, Morocco, not long after our initial departure from France. The officer had come aboard to process our entry into the country when he eyed some bottles of whiskey that we had stashed down below in our main cabin. We had bought a case of it in Gibraltar following some advice of fellow cruisers that whiskey is a valuable barter item in Brazil for a variety of boat services. There was, nevertheless a fine line between bartering for services and caving in to bribes.

The Casablanca customs official had no qualms about asking directly, outright for a bottle. Although taken aback at such a blatant request, I guess there is something to be said for his being upfront with it. Michel replied "no," only to have the official threaten us with "trouble and complications" if we didn't give him what he wanted. The fact that Michel commented that it was our understanding that as a Muslim he didn't drink alcohol, didn't seem to pose him a problem. This was also the first time we played the "American" card, in that Michel pointed out that since our boat flew the American flag, the official should bear in mind that we would not hesitate to enlist the assistance of the American consulate on our behalf (never mind that I'm sure the consulate had bigger fish to fry, but throwing around names sometimes helps). Mr. Customs Official backed down—but not for long. Later when Michel was in the harbor customs office for more paperwork, the same official asked once again for some whiskey, and this time right in front of his superior. Again Michel refused, invoking the wrath of the American consulate, and the subject was laid to rest.

Other Lessons We Learned

Catastrophic equipment failure (or what seemed "catastrophic" when it occurred) always  served us lessons in patience as well as experiences whereupon we learned more about ourselves and coping with each other and our own frustrations under extreme and unusual circumstances. Our broken wind vane episode from the violent storm we experienced off the coast of Uruguay was one of many equipment-failure related lessons. We had many more over the course of 10 years.

One of our more spectacular ones occurred while sailing back up the coast to Brazil from Argentina. It was a calm, warm, sunny day and we were gliding along quite nicely when we heard a sudden, loud "crack!" Next thing we knew the whole forestay with the roller furl system, including the bottom drum and the genoa under full sail, were all swinging wildly around from the top of the mast like one giant pendulum. It was dangerous and uncontrollable. Michel quickly took evasive action by putting us into a "heave to" or stopped position as if we were in a strong storm, minimizing our movement and the swinging around of this large, heavy, expansive equipment. He was finally able to catch hold of the unwieldy drum and immobilize it. It was a large winch-type device that was normally attached to the bottom of the forestay, just inches above the deck, set at the bow—the front end of the boat.

The forestay is the main cable that leads from the top of the mast, down to the front end of the boat, and the front sail, or genoa in our case, is hoisted along this cable. Our cable, however, was housed within a long metal tube that had a track for sliding the sail up to the top. All we had to do was roll the sail in or out to either increase or decrease its sail area. The drum was the actual device that allowed the tube to turn, rolling the sail in and out. The advantage to this system was not having to physically pull down or hoist a different sail with wind changes. Just by rolling it out or in, a little bit more or a little bit less, one could achieve the sail form and area one desired. Apparently, however, a vital piece at the bottom of the drum broke sending the whole system airborne.

Once Michel immobilized the drum, we needed to get the sail down. It was creating a tremendous drag and awkward listing of the boat since the wind held it captive. It had also been gouged and ripped in several spots by the runaway drum, and we didn't want those spots to get worse. The only choice was to release the halyard that held the sail at the top of the mast, while we both attempted to gather the sail and tubes onto the deck as it descended. The huge mass of full sail weighted down with the metallic roller furl tubes just crashed into the water, sinking, and entangling itself as one huge curled mess under the keel. In its normal state all this was heavy to begin with but now underwater and wet, it was like trying to hoist up a whale with our bare hands, inch by inch. We had no choice but to try and save it all. We couldn't afford to just cut it away, let it sink, and buy more later. This was an absolute nightmare and we literally spent hours hoisting all of this, literally inch by inch, back onto the deck. We were grateful that the weather conditions were nice, otherwise it really would have been hell and most likely impossible. Then we jury-rigged a system with some other halyards and cables replacing the broken ones, used some spare sails, and a good eight hours later, were back on our way with a whole new to-do list ahead of us once we arrived in Florianopolis, Brazil: parts to order, rigging repairs, and sewing to be done.