by Andrew Foote
Someone once told me, following a very unpleasant business trip to America, that what your average yank lacked in table manners, he more than compensated for with belligerence.
I think that was being just a touch harsh, although the people from the Department of Homeland Security, (here-on-in referred to as the Gentlemen from the University of Intimidation), were definitely not about to lay down the welcome mat for us.
We had been guided to a fairly remote part of the docks then told to leave the boats, where we were almost frog-marched into a building, shown into a waiting room and told to wait.
Who employs these idiots?
They had forgotten to ask us for our paperwork, so Cath and I were taken back to our boats, overseen as we opened safes so we could retrieve our files.
These files contained our life history almost. Passports, medical and dental records, proof of ownership of our boats, certificates of competency, insurance documentation, letters sent and received between us and the Brazilian Embassy in London, Birth Certificates, details of our various bank accounts, – the list goes on.
We were quizzed at some length before our passports were stamped with a temporary entry visor, our files handed back, and we were free to return to our boats to await the Customs officials.
Welcome to the Good 'ol US of A!
By contrast, the Customs people were very pleasant.
They did the rounds, inspected the bonded store and balanced what we'd used against the lists we had drawn up prior to our departure from Lowestoft, but at no time did we get the impression that we might be in trouble.
"We only need to ascertain that you've followed the import export guidelines and not bringing illegal substances into the Country. If you're over limit, we charge you duty but you're fine, everything is in order."
"Yeah, but those people, the immigration blokes. Talk about confrontational!"
"Sure. No one likes them. They act like the Security Guard you meet at the factory gates but all the while believing they're the President of the Corporation.
Thing is, you must try to put yourselves in their position. Here you only have to spit hard and it would land in Mexico. We have major issues with wet-backs swimming across the Rio Grande and attempting to get into the Country and it's their responsibility to keep 'em out. Thankless task at the best of times, one gets in and there's hell to pay so they police the borders like they're Gods private army.
Anyway, you're good to go. Have a great stay in the US and a safe onward journey."
Shortly after this encounter, we were instructed to move the boats to what I can only describe as a marina which was home to expensive seagoing cruisers and yachts.
There were bars and restaurants, shops and chandlers, but being the only two work boats, we did sort of look out of place.
We were the centre of attention, novelty interest what with us flying the British Ensign. People asked if they could take a look around which we were happy enough with and in exchange, we had invitations to visit their boats for drinks and cook-outs and it was on one such occasion, I decided to tackle the question of our onward voyage.
A guy by the name of Nick Polanski, his wife Moira and their two sons, Nick Jnr (14) and Stephen (16) had taken their yacht right the way down to Argentina two years previously, so instead of dismissing our ideas as crazy and unworkable, he was pretty enthusiastic.
"Well okay, we're a sail boat so not totally reliant on fuel, but having said that, there's no fun to be had by cruising twenty-four hours a day. I'd sold my Company so we took the kids out of school in the belief that to experience something like visiting all of those Countries would be perhaps more beneficial to them as a formal education.
There are plenty of fishing ports where you could buy fuel, but avoiding Columbia if at all possible – not a nice place to find yourselves!
I'll check back through my log and let you have a list of places where we stopped over, some good, others not so good but beggars can't be choosers right?
What's you maximum cruising range?"
"Taking it gently, about seven hundred and fifty nautical miles all assuming an average speed of around ten knots.
That's about right isn't it Cath?"
"Probably slightly more but best to err on the side of caution.
Do you think it's workable then Nick?"
"Hell yeah. But there's somethin' else you might like to think about.
The US Navy are pretty active both in the Gulf and beyond, so it might be a plan to tell them what you're doin', your itinerary and stop-off points along the way. That way they can keep tabs on you, and if you hit problems, they'll come a-runnin'.
I noticed you got HF capability, but I never noticed an antenna."
"That's because we don't have one - neither of our boats do. We need to take a cab into town, see if we can find a Radio Shack store and buy a couple."
"Hey, screw Radio Shack! I know of a better outlet, a buddy of mine owns it and I'd be happy to drop you by his place and introduce you – you might even get a discount!
"What y'all lookin' to use, an auto-tune dipole?"
"That would be our preferred option, but they're very expensive."
"A thousand bucks, but we have a sayin'. Buy good to avoid buyin' again. Shit boy? You get your asses to Brazil, go to use your rig with a fucked antenna and its kiss Good-bye to your output stage, and one hell of a wait to replace it."
"Fair enough. When would it suit you to go?"
"Way too many beers to do it today, but tomorrow morning's okay with me."
Two variable frequency dipoles at $750 a pop, but at least we were given a 25% discount.
These were sophisticated units that included a feature that, in the event of antenna failure, instead of the reflected RF going back down the spout thus frying the output transistors, it would be absorbed automatically through a dummy load. We had to feed signal cables from the rear of the transceivers to the step motors that drove the loading coils. We managed to persuade Aruno to shimmy up the mast, fix the antenna and connect all the cabling before testing the systems.
The one on the Marion worked well on all frequencies and at all power levels, but Conquerors refused to play. The transceiver worked fine, but all the RF was promptly dumped into the dummy load.
I suppose that just proves that the self-protection thingy works okay, but where might the problem be?
Aruno went back aloft to check his end while I checked at mine.
He was back down after about five minutes looking a touch sheepish.
"My mistake. The RF feeder helix cable was getting in my way, so I plugged it in but forgot to screw it up after fixing the step motor cable, the core was making contact, but not so the shield.
Try it now Mimi-cu?"
Bingo. We have HF capability! But our control consuls were starting to look more akin to something on the Star ship Enterprise and were in danger of making us look like something we weren't. No more gizmos please…… except for a galvanic isolator to minimise the rotting effect of fresh water on the hull.
We bedded down early that night, sleep not being top our priority list!
I could make a living out of watching him sleep. He normally looked his serious look, but tonight he was smiling and I wondered what dreams were flooding his head.
We had made love for hours, but that wasn't so unusual so I made a point of not to go asking him come the morning, I was more concerned with Nick's comments about keeping to International waters where possible.
"No Borderlines out there buddy" were his words, which reminded me of a song by Chris de Burgh and yet again, I could feel my emotions getting the better of me.
I went to get closer to him, but he took hold of my wrist and pulled me even closer, and wrapping my arm around his waist, – even sound asleep, he loved me still…… and I him.
We had two more job to do before we left. One was to make enquiries of the Mexican authorities about the possible need for visas, the other one was get ourselves to a bank and withdraw cash in the form of US Dollars.
It turned out we didn't need visas as out stops would only be for refuelling and overnight rest breaks, and the cash was to pay for fuel and whatever else by way of provisions we might need.
As Nick had explained, Dollars were a solid currency that would be accepted in any of the Countries we might have to visit, so stick with that rather than amassing loads of different currencies that might have dubious exchange rates.
Diesel, he reassured us, would be cheaper than in the US and definitely cheaper than the UK, so $8000 apiece locked up in our safes should be more than enough to tide us over.
Rob looked on the internet and made a list of the exchange rates for each of the Countries before he and Aruno did a thorough service to all the engines and power-plants – Cath and I shopped for provisions.
We were getting fed up with hanging around. The people here were nice, but when you can't even get served in a bar; you have to be 21 in America to drink alcohol, we made preparations to leave.
Yes, the Americans are weird! You can drive a Rubber-Burning street car at sixteen but you can't order a beer!
Exactly three weeks to the day that we'd been lowered into the water from the deck of Mistria Coral, we upped sticks and were on our way south.
Nick had given us a frequency to monitor so he could contact us, and we him if we had problems.
He really seemed to care about how we would manage, even though we'd contacted the US Naval Department with outline details of our route and timetable, but is was comforting to know that there was someone out there taking an active interest. He would shout us every day to check on progress, but then, on day four, he told us why.
"Us yanks like to get stupid – not that I'm saying your adventure is, but it's a challenge and one that warrants some media coverage.
Look at it this way. Four kids taking two inshore, or at best, coastal trawlers across the Gulf of Mexico then down through the northern South Atlantic to Brazil has to be about as silly as me trying to round Cape Horn.
There's a bit of everything in this. Adventure – the leap into the unknown, romance – Cathy and Rob, you and Aruno, testing your seamanship skills to the max, then of course you have the reason behind it.
A new life for three of you, but bringing Aruno back to his old one. The media are desperate for details so you must send me as many photos as you can, video clips and reports of your progress, and in return, I'll split the royalties three ways like on third to Cathy and Rob, a third to you guys and I get to keep what remains as a fee for doing the organising. What do you say bud?"
"Sounds fair enough.
You listening in to this Cath? Rob?"
"Roger that Simeon. Gets our vote…… we're fast running out of cash!"
"I guess we're in then Nick. We'll make a start tonight once we've docked at Nuevo
"Do that buddy. And by the way, you'll be okay there. They're a fishing community and you'll be well looked after.
Better go now, and I'll catch up with you guys tomorrow around the same time.
This is MV Fire Lake, off and listening."
Nuevo Campriano was sweet if somewhat basic.
We got our fuel, topped our water tanks (remembering to use sterilising tablets), then took a walk around – not that there was much to see.
Aruno bought a knife – a vicious-looking thing about eight inches long, serrated and sharp as a razor.
He licked it, balanced it in his hand, weighed it and played with before handing over payment of $5.
I bought a pair of cut-offs and a couple of long sleeved mutton-cloth shirts – cool enough, but sufficient to protect me from the sun which was getting hotter by the day.
Rob bought much the same while Cathy chose a long hippy-style dress which she bought from a market stall and got given a bandana of woven dried flowers in the bargaining process.
"What do you need the knife for? Are you going to slit my throat as I sleep and the steal the boat?"
"You've been reading my mind Mimi-cu" he laughed. "Actually, I used to have one much like this, but the Customs men took it off me when we came to England; I just wanted to replace it."
"Why am I not surprised? Get caught carrying that around with you in England, and you'd be looking at a prison sentence."
"I know that now, but back at home, there it was just a tool – we all had them. You have no jungles in England, but where we will be living is wild country and such things are very necessary."
Onward and ever onwards.
I had printed off a map of the Gulf coast. It doesn't look that big on paper but shit, it's a massive area and plotting progress was doing nothing, if not making me realise the enormity of this our undertaking.
Eventually we got to Belize which came as something of a relief.
So far, everywhere we'd called in, we had been made to feel very welcome, shown bars, shops and cafés and treated with respect and friendship. We were subjected to photo-shoots by those who possessed digital cameras or video equipment and never ripped off for anything we bought, but here in Belize, there was an order to life, probably the result of the British military presence there. We like it here and stayed for five days before leaving for Guatemala following visits from the British Consulate.
We sped on, stopping over in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa-Rica before reaching Panama.
Here was completely different from anything else we'd so far experienced.
This was a major sea port which served the famous Panama Canal.
Everything was here and we made good use of the facilities, catch up on lost sleep and generally relax and take stock of our situation.
We were at about halfway-house, so engines were in desperate need of a service, deck lighting failures sorted out, and all manner of other jobs needed doing; We needed this time, big time!
The next leg, the point at which Nick had told us to be vigilant and take extra care, was the coast of Columbia – a known Country for drugs and their export abroad. We didn't need to get caught up in that, especially after what Jack Penfold and his crew had been subjected to.
We studied maps and decided to plot a course that would take us away out to sea – beyond our zone of comfort perhaps, but better able to be out of sight and out of the way of trouble which would bring us to the coast of Venezuela where we would leave the Caribbean Sea to re-join the North Atlantic.
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