How “THAT” Came About

Part I


In 1973, my wife Bonnie and I arrived in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, after a three-and-half-year sail around the world aboard a Brown Searunner 37 named Talofiafaoe. Jim Brown and I published a book about that trip called “Love for Sail.”

Bonnie and I found the Rio Dulce so perfect that we stayed for 13 years. I built houses, grew a few acres of pineapples, danced a lot, drank a lot and, generally, had myself a hell of a good time. For a while, I ran charters out of the Catamaran Hotel for Kevin Lucas, before I gave away my boat. Back then, there were only two places in the River for visitors to quench their thirst for a drink and conversation: the Catamaran Bar and my house, the Casa Media Luna. I remember one week when Bonnie and I had 47 visitors. I loved it. As far as I was concerned, I had the best of all possible worlds. The Rio Dulce was still undeveloped (there were no roads, no cars, no telephones, no television), and the visitors who arrived on our doorstep were interesting folk who had traveled great distances to find me. The River flowed right to my door and it was sweet.

However, everything changes sooner or later, and by 1980 they’d build a bridge across the Rio Dulce. There were cars, trucks, and buses. There were no political disasters and, after the earthquake of ’76, no natural disasters to keep people away. And so, they came. Wealthy Americans and wealthy Guatemalans discovered the Rio Dulce. Big powerboats and sleek yachts shouldered the Indian in his dugout canoe to the side. Elaborate homes dotted the shore line. Rain forest was cut to make room for the cattle ranches which provided U.S. fast-food chains with cheap meat. In a few years, there was only a thin line of trees edging the River, behind that were bald hills. Erosion turned the crystal-clear river water brown.

I’d made myself a promise, back in 1973, that if I ever left the River I’d do it the same way I got there, in a boat. By 1980, I knew I wanted to leave, and that the time to build another boat was at hand. (I had given Talofiafaoe to my children years ago and they had in turn, sold it.)

I was going to build the boat of my dreams, a boat big enough to live on and work in, a boat with a fully-equipped wood shop on board, so that I could make my living wherever I dropped the anchor. I didn’t have any money. I never had any money. I liked living close to the bone... it made life more interesting. Still, I was going to need some money and so, in the summer of 1980, I left for California to earn a few dollars. I took my longtime friend and neighbor, Concepción (“Chung”) Alvarez, with me. Chung was a native who’d never even been to Guatemala City, but I just couldn’t pass up the chance to blow his mind in California. I should have known better. Like natives everywhere, he accepted everything from jumbo jets to potato chips without a change of expression. Only once did I see him upset.

Chung and I had worked side by side for years. We were used to getting up with the sun, and quitting when the sun set. In Guatemala, no matter the time of year, the sun always sets at 6 o’clock. Even I forgot how long it takes the sun to set in these northern latitudes in July. That first day of work (we were renovating the Owl House in Sausalito), we worked until the sun went down, I was shocked, when I looked at my watch, to see that it was 9 o’clock!

“Know what time it is, Chung?”

He looked at the sky like I knew he would, and said “six o’clock, Markos. Time to quit.”

“It’s time to quit all right; but, it isn’t 6, it’s 9.”

“No,” he said. “It’s about 6; you can see for yourself where the sun is.”

“Yes, but we aren’t in Guatemala, Chung. Up here, this time of year, the sun goes down about 9 o’clock.”

“It’s not true!”

“Yes, it is.”

He didn’t argue, but he looked at the sky with such a strange expression of fear and confusion on his face, I felt ashamed. I’d turned his world upside down in many ways, and he’d played along with me, but some things a man has a right to be sure of, or he faces a void nobody can fill.

I completed work on the Owl House in two months, and flew back to Guatemala with $2,500. Now I had seed money for my new boat. Having that much money made me so nervous that I buried it in mason jars under my shop floor.

When his friends gathered around Chung to ask him about his trip to America, he shook his head and said, “nice to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” And, so far as I know, those were the last words he spoke on the subject for the rest of his life.

Two months later, I dug up my money and handed it over to a Belizean schoolteacher named Juan, all because a friend of mine named Sunshine wanted to learn how to sail. She’d bought herself a little Belizean 21-foot strip-planked boat that was ready for the burn pile. Several months later, she fixed it up all by herself. Even sewed some striped sails out of blue and white denim. She turned up one day on my doorstep wanting to know if I’d teach her how to sail. Said she wanted to sail to Ambergris Cay, off the coast of Belize.

I said yes, and then wondered why the hell I’d done that. I had plenty of other things I needed to be doing. But, when I told Bonnie what I’d just agreed to, she said, “You go, Mark. There must be some reason – you’ll find out soon enough.”

So, Sunshine and I sailed away. Monohulls make me nervous anyway, but I was feeling particularly edgy when she rousted me out of my bunk on the third morning and said, “Mark! Come look at this sunrise. It’s absolutely the most gorgeous one I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s blood-red!

I crawled out of the bunk to take a look. She was right; it was gorgeous and very red, and all I could think was, “Ah, shit, not again.”

“Have you ever seen a sunrise like that?” she asked all sweet and innocent.

“Yeah,” I answered. “As a matter of fact, I have. Off the coast of New Zealand. Before the biggest cyclone in 25 years hit.”

“Oh, no!” she breathed.

Forty-eight hours later we limped into Ambergris Cay – the northernmost cay off the coast of Belize and the beginning of the world’s second largest barrier reef. I’d just been through the fifth hurricane of my life. I’d spilled boiling water on my foot in the middle of the fracas, and it was as tender and sore as my disposition.

Ambergris Cay was still an undeveloped tropical paradise at that time. The population was mostly black. They lived in clapboard houses with tin roofs, and ate from the sea. It was a small community of a couple of hundred families, a school, an airstrip, a few bars, and a partially completed stone church.

The usual group of ragtag, toothless old men hung around the pier jabbering in weird English.

“Hey, mon, bahd webber out thar. Yooo sail that bitty boat in bahd webber!”

“Hey, mon, where yoo come from?”

“Hey, mon, nize boat. Yoo wanna sell?”

We left them there, swarming like flies on warm pie, to find a quiet place to eat.

Sunshine ordered grouper; I had gin.

After the second drink took the kink out of my tongue, I told her about the money under my shop floor.

“I’m gonna start me a boat with that money,” I said “and something tells me this place might have a few things to offer in the way of sailing supplies.”

“Here?” she asked, squeezing lime juice on her dead grouper. “Nothing but poor fishermen around here.”

“Well, I’ll tell you something about this place. It’s mighty tricky business sailing in and around these reefs. Not a year goes by in which some boat doesn’t stack up on the reef out there, and the local folks salvage what they can from the wreck. I have a feeling there’s a lot of sailing supplies on Ambergris Cay. All we gotta do is nose around a bit.”

After dinner, we wandered around the village, passing the time of day with folks and asking questions about recent shipwrecks. They told us about a sailboat named Big Trouble, said she came to grief on the reef about two years earlier, but she took a long time to sink and nearly everything had been salvaged. The word was that a schoolteacher named Juan was the man to see about Big Trouble.

We received directions to Juan’s house and set off. I knew we’d found the place when I saw an aluminum mast lying between the house and the garage. My heart started to race.

Juan, a small, dark, uncertain man, met us at the door. After I told him what I was looking for, he took a key from behind the door and walked us to the garage. When he threw open the doors, I caught my breath, Juan’s garage was nothing but a sailboat waiting to happen. There were bags of sails, sheet lines all beautifully coiled, two big Lewmar winches and nine smaller ones. From floor to ceiling there were boxes, crates and cupboards full of neatly arranged hardware from the sailboat, a 39-foot Erickson that had lived up to its name.

“You interested in selling any of this?”, I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “all of it.”

My heart banged away like a bell clapper in a Spanish mission.

“How much do you want?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Make me an offer”, he said.

Oh, God, I hated this part. I stalled for time, fished out a cigarette, lit it and drew a deep breath.

“I’m not a rich man, Juan,” I said finally. “Used to be a schoolteacher like you. I build things with my hands now, grow a few pineapples-enough to keep bread on the table and that’s about it. But, I need to build a boat, and I finally got a little money together to get some things, and well...what I mean is...would you take $2,000 for it?”

He rubbed the end of his nose and looked down at his feet.

“I got a partner,” he said. “I gotta ask him first.”

A partner? My heart sank.

“Well, okay then,” I said. “When can you talk to him?”

“This afternoon,” he said. “I meet you tonight; 7 o’clock at the bar on the waterfront.”

There wasn’t anything for Sunshine and me to do but wait. We took in the local sights but I couldn’t see much for all the salvaged treasure sitting behind those two garage doors. By six o’clock I was a wreck. Over and over, I preached to myself about keeping a positive attitude in spite of the fact that I knew I offered only a small fraction of what that stuff was really worth. But, I argued with myself, who were those guys going to sell it to if not me? Who was going to brave the currents, mudflats, reefs, and storms, to find a tiny little cay off the coast of Belize to pick up the salvaged rigging from a boat called Big Trouble? And how would they transport all that gear once they got here? That last question had me bothered too. If Juan and his partner did accept my offer, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of how I was going to get it all out of Belize and into Guatemala without paying customs (which I couldn’t afford) and without a boat of my own to haul it with.

Sunshine and I were in the bar early; Juan showed up late and his news was that his partner said it isn’t enough money.

I felt desperation rear its ugly head.

“I’ll give you $2500 for it, Juan, That’s all the money I have in the world. I can’t take living on land anymore. It’s been eight years since I tasted saltwater or felt the waves rolling under me, and I need to get back out there. I don’t have more than $2,500 or I’d offer it to you. I can tell you one thing: isn’t anybody alive who’d appreciate that stuff more than me, or put it to better use.”

Juan wiped his forehead. “Okay,” he said.

“It’s yours. But you got to get it out of here this week.”

“Wait a minute! You don’t understand,” I said feeling the sweat trickle down my back.

“I’m teaching Sunshine how to sail, which is how I got here in the first place. But her boat is way too small to haul anything. I have to get her and the boat back to the Rio Dulce, go to Guatemala City to get a visa, and then back to the River to pick up my money. I need at least two weeks, Juan, and even then I’m gonna be bustin’ my ass.”

“Okay,” he said. “Two weeks. No more. Exactly two weeks. If I don’t see you then, the deal is off. We forget it.”

I danced and jumped and twirled and carried on all the way back to Sunshine’s boat. I’d done it! I had the rigging! All I had to do was put a boat underneath it. Hot Damn!

“Untie the lines, Sunshine; we’re going back. Now.”

The next day, we were passing by the mouth of the Monkey River on the Belizean coast when we spotted a trimaran. A Hartley design. There was a fellow standing on deck watching us. When we got close, he waved and yelled, “Hey! Aren’t you Mark Hassall? We’re on our way to visit you.”

I’d never seen the guy in my life, but he’d heard of me and wanted to talk. I hated to waste one precious minute of time, but I couldn’t say no. We rafted alongside and introduced ourselves. He was Mike; his wife was Sally.

“I know Belize real well,” Mike said at the end of our visit. “I’ve been sailing around those reefs for years. I’ll sail you back there to pick up your stuff.”

“You will? That’s great. Oh, God, that would be just wonderful. The thing is, I have to be back to Ambergris Cay with the money in two weeks.”

Mike assured me they’d be sailing for the Rio Dulce in a couple of days – time enough for Bonnie and I to get our visas and pack. I told him I’d cover his expenses for the trip, and we made an agreement to meet at my place on the River just as soon as possible.

Sunshine and I got back to the house in a little less than two days, but Bonnie and I were reluctant to leave for the City to pick up our visas for fear we wouldn’t get back in time to meet Mike and Sally. We decided to forget about visas and take our chances.

We waited and waited. Two days, three, five...a week – and no Mike. I didn’t know what to do. Should I keep waiting and hoping that he would turn up, or should I find some other way to get to Ambergris Cay? I was sure I’d made myself quite clear about the time constrictions I was working under, and I couldn’t imagine what had happened to him.

Then, late in the evening of the seventh day, Mike turned up. He offered no apology and no explanation.

“We’d kinda like to see the Rio Dulce and Lake Izabal before we take off again,” he said. “Maybe do some fishing.”

“Wait a minute, Mike! You don’t seem to understand. I only have a week left, and then I lose all that rigging. This is very important to me. “I’ve got to get there as soon as I can!

“Well,” he said, “the other thing is, my motor’s not working.”

I didn’t stick around to hear any more. In half an hour I had made an outboard motor bracket for his trimaran wing, took the long-footed Mercury off Sunshine’s boat and stuck it onto Mike’s. With that, Bonnie and I picked up our bags and walked on board. I knew by now that Mike was the kind of guy who says whatever sounds good at the time. I knew he didn’t want to take me to Belize, but he’d made the agreement and I was now dependent upon him. I’d be damned if I’d let him spoil my chances for getting my rigging.

Talk about a slow boat to China. It took five and a half hours to motor the 25 miles to Livingston with that little 4½ horsepower motor of Sunshine’s. We checked out of Livingston, headed to sea and, immediately, found ourselves in a northeast blow, right on the nose. It was a rough beat. Halfway to Ambergris, Mike decided he’d had enough. He dropped anchor in the shelter of the next reef.

For two lousy days we hung on the hook, going stir-crazy. The atmosphere on board was every bit as unfriendly as it was outside. All I could think about was the time, and how it was running out. If I’d thought I had a rat’s chance, I’d have jumped overboard and swum to Ambergris Cay. By the time we were able to sail, I had only two days left. Mike pushed hard, and on the day the contract expired we made in to Ambergris.

It was afternoon. I ran ashore, straight to the schoolhouse and burst through the door. A whole classroom of startled black faces and white eyes popped up, Juan, standing at the blackboard, looked stricken.

“Juan, I’m here!” I cried.

Absolute silence. Not a child moved. Not an eye blinked. Juan stood bolted to the floor, his mouth open.

“Oh,” he said finally in a weak voice. “Oh, my God, you’re here.”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

He swallowed hard. “You got a boat?” he asked.


“You can haul all that stuff?”

“Yes. I’m on a trimaran –that one right out there,” I said, pointing to Mike’s boat tied to the dock.

“Oh,” said Juan, Again. I didn’t like the way he said it, and his eyes refused to meet mine.

“I have to talk to my partner,” he said.

“Listen, Juan,” I said, “You and I made a deal, the terms were clear. I’ve got the money, I’ve got the boat, and I made it here in two weeks.”

“I have to check with Bill,” he said stubbornly. He looked miserable. Under other circumstances, I’d have felt sorry for him.

“Come by the school tomorrow morning,” said Juan. “Seven o’clock.”

“I’ll be here,” I replied. “Don’t you worry. I’ll be here.”

I slunk back to the boat, plumb worn out from this ordeal, and it didn’t help my spirits any when I heard the sound of a motorcycle running down the beach later that night. Out of the dark came an angry American voice.

“You stupid sonofabitch! You know as well as I do that stuff is worth $50,000 anyway, and you told him you’d sell it to him for $2,500? You idiot! You stupid, f-----idiot!”

Then I heard Juan’s voice. “How was I supposed to know he’d come back? Nobody ever has before, and they all said they would. Five times it happens, but this guy’s different. Besides, I gave him my word.”

“Well, I dunno what we’re going to do about that,” Bill growled.

I heard no more. I went to bed not knowing what was going to happen. For the time being, the fate of my future boat lay in the hand of a Belizian school teacher and a gringo biker.

The next morning Bonnie and I went together to the meeting with Juan. His eyes looked as sleepless as mine. He didn’t say a word, just motioned for us to follow. He took us to his garage, inserted the key, took off the padlock and said in a grim voice “get it out of here.”

“It’s mine?”

He nodded.

“All of it?”

He nodded.

“Oh, Juan, thank you!” I pumped his hand up and down, again and again. My eyes filled with tears. “You’re a good man, Juan. The best!”

“You pay at noon,” he said grimly. “We meet here.”

Bonnie and I rounded up couple of native helpers and, for the next eight hours, carted what was left of Big Trouble from Juan’s garage to Mike’s boat. By evening, the garage was empty and the trimaran was sitting low in the water. Mike and Sally were keeping to themselves. Bonnie and I had dinner ashore.

Next day, at noon, I paid off Juan and his partner. The not-too-silent partner in this deal turned out to be a big, Nordic type with huge paw-like hands that opened and closed continually as if they wanted a neck to wring. I knew I’d been damned lucky to get that stuff by him for $2,500. And he knew that I knew. We said quick good-byes.

Bonnie and I ran back to Mike’s boat just in time to see it pull away from the pier. It took a few seconds for my brain to convince my eyes they were seeing right. But, after several minutes of hard staring, there could be no doubt about the obvious. Mike was sailing off with my rigging. Then I remembered, Mike wanted to build a boat, too. He’d talked about it when Sunshine and I first met him at Monkey River; that was part of the reason he wanted to meet me - because he knew I’d built three trimarans already.

The boat continued to head out to sea. There wasn’t a thing I could do if he decided to keep the rigging for himself, except start over again. No point going to the Belizean police; I was in the country illegally.

Bonnie and I stared at each other, speechless. In the cockpit of their boat, it looked as if Mike and Sally were having a heated discussion. I was too stunned to be angry, yet. I couldn’t believe what was happening right in front of my eyes. It was absurd. Something welled up in my chest but I didn’t know if I was about to laugh or cry. All I knew was that a plug had just been pulled, and I felt like I was swirling down the drain, butt over brains, into a black hole.

Finally, I turned to walk back to the bar. If it was going to happen, so be it; but I didn’t have to watch. I started slowly up the pier. Bonnie caught my sleeve.

“Mark,” she almost whispered. “I think he’s turning back.”

On second thought, maybe I should watch.

Yes, he was coming back. The weighted-down tri moved like a heavy old turtle in the water. My mast stuck out beyond the deck some 20 feet fore and aft, and the decks were piled with boxes and bags of my gear. It certainly did look to me as though Sally’s conscience couldn’t quite pull it off, and Mike was headed back to the pier. He ran her close alongside, and Bonnie and I jumped aboard. Nobody said a word. Bonnie and I sat on the foredeck and watched Ambergris Cay grow small and dim.

At long last Mike hollered at me from the cockpit. “I ain’t talking this shit to Guatemala. Too risky. I’m dropping it off a helluva lot sooner than that – you just tell me where.”

I considered our situation. As far as I could see, we had only one option: Hard Luck Charlie. Charlie lived in a house made of driftwood, broken bottles, cement and rock on the Belize coast (about 16 miles north of Punta Gorda) with his wife, five kids, a small zoo of animals and, usually, a couple of down-and-outers who figured life with Charlie was better than nothing. A boatload of sailing gear hadn’t ought to disrupt their lives all that much. They might not even notice. In fact, I’d offer Charlie the wind generator he’d been wanting to get off me for years, in exchange for watching my stuff.

It would work. I knew it. And after the dust had settled, I would make plans for bringing the rigging all the way back to my house.

I leaned back against an ice chest and thought of my Australian friend, Thurston, from Rabaul, New Guinea, who used to say, “It’ll awl ba awl raht in the end, you’ll find, mite.”

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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier