March 16th, Monday
After one last big shopping spree in Sam’s Club for boat provisions we sail to The Coffin Island (Caja de Muertos) 7 miles southeast of Ponce. Every weekend a boat unloads a mob of Puerto Rican weekenders with their beach umbrellas and beach creams to spend a few hours on the beach of this little island which is also a National Park. It is a small tourist attraction with a very interesting history. The legend has it, that a Portuguese pirate buried his beloved, along with half of his treasure, in a glass coffin on the island. Years later, the grave and the coffin were found, but to this day no one knows what happened to the treasure…
And among the sailors there is a superstition that if you want to have a safe passage, you better stop and visit the Coffin Island right after leaving Ponce. We do stop there for a night, but not entirely out of superstition. Rather, we want to start sailing early on the next day, before sunrise and without turning on the engines. In Ponce the wind dies at night because of the katabatic mountain effect until 8-9 a.m., when the sun’s heat cancels the effect, and even though this makes for an excellent night’s sleep, it is impossible to sail near the shores of Puerto Rico before 8 a.m.
March 17th, Tuesday
We set sail for Aruba around 6 a.m. It’s still dark. We have 380 nautical miles ahead, which is a big 3-day passage for us. In the Caribbean we have been sailing for just a few hours between the islands in the past year.
The weather forecast is perfect. East winds 15-20 knots, 1-2 meter waves every 5-6 seconds. We have been waiting for such mild tradewinds for a month now. But the weather forecast is not always exact and we don’t trust them 100%. Often the wind can be 5 knots more or less than predicted and there is always the danger of squalls. First a small innocent white cloud forms on the horizon. The cloud quickly grows tall, heavy and dark at the base. The wind dies for a minute or two- time to reef the sails. And then it starts squealing 30-40 knots, sometimes more, just for a few minutes. Such sudden squalls have ruined many boats.
Nothing extraordinary happens the first day of the passage. The wind is slower than predicted 8-12 knots. Fata Morgana is sailing calmly with 4-5 knots. We sleep, read, Maya plays the piano.
The dolphins find us again and stay to race with the boat for about two hours, which is unusually long. Usually, after a few minutes they get bored and leave to look for other boats to race. We always love to see them and we always talk to them and we admire their skillful fast movements through the water, how they swim, sometime on their backs, just for fun, how they exhale bubbles just before they come out for air, how they jump sometimes, how they enjoy the sea. We love them incredibly much and they know it.
March 18th, Wednesday
The night passes slowly, the wind remains calm, the sails are well adjusted and tight. We are 100 miles south of Puerto Rico and can still hear the US Coast Guard on the radio, and this is great comfort for us. We cross paths with a few big ships. Two of them even change course to avoid us. Celia, Harmen Oldendorff and tanker Lue Liang Wan on its way to Curacao.
No moon. Only billions of stars, so bright they illuminate tiny star-paths in all directions. Fata Morgana skims over the dark surface of the sea leaving a trail of white foam, like a veil, sprinkled with tiny photo luminescent glimmers- glowing jewels on lacework.
The morning arrives slowly. We are very tired and take turns on the helm, Ivo and I, every two hours. We keep sailing and everything is calm.
In the morning Maya makes us omelets with feta cheese and reads another history lesson. There are no more ships around us, we are alone, 150 miles from the nearest land, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Ivo is not happy with the fact that we still don’t have a fish on the hook. He goes below for a nap.
Not long after, I see, just a few meters away from the boat, a marlin jumping out of the water vertically, and splash – a flamboyant splash, like a whale. White belly and dark sleek back, long body and a pointy nose, like a spade. I can’t believe it! He jumps again. Suddenly, the hiss of the fishing pole. Ivo appears eyes wide open, takes the rod and we see the marlin again. He shoots up vertically, falls and snaps the cord. He takes off with the lure. A beauty. Gone.
The wind picks up 14-18 knots and we speed up to 6-7 knots. The sea gets more agitated too. The waves are now bigger but still gentle, coming slowly behind us at an angle and we surf comfortably down with 8-9 knots. At noon we doze off in the cockpit. We see seagulls. Thousands of seagulls, flying low over the water, some perched on the waves, rocking. What are seagulls doing hundreds of miles away from land in the middle of the sea? Fishing! Beneath us, a school of hundreds of tunas are feeding on smaller fish and the seagulls are waiting for the abundant pickings. We are passing right in the middle of the commotion with one lure all tangled with seaweed, but the other clean and completely available for the grabs. We catch a striped tuna. They are also called watermelons, as they do look like watermelons, all round, with red juicy meat. Extremely tasty with garlic butter just a few seconds on the frying pan. Ivo is happy.
March 19th, Thursday
We are halfway there. The second night is as calm as the first, even more so with no ships around. Ivo decides to see how he would singlehandle the boat and orders me to go and sleep all night. He just lies in the cockpit and sleeps too, opening one eye every now and then to see if everything is normal. It is.
To imagine sailing at night you must imagine driving at night in complete darkness in a bumpy field, without headlights. Not any lights, no moon. Everything is black and you cannot see ahead. The only lights are the stars and the two screens- one is the GPS showing you on a map where the boat is and another indicating the wind speed and direction. The autopilot is keeping the course. You do nothing. Even if the tiny lights of a ship appear on the horizon (and you first see the ship on the GPS or the radar), it’s 2-3 hours at least before you get close to it.
The wind picks up in the morning 18 to 24 knots. The boat is going faster now 7-8 knots surfing with 9 down the waves. White caps form and it’s bumpier. But the distance to destination gets shorter a lot faster too.
We catch a female dorado. She is a beautiful golden fish with an extravagant blue dorsal fin. Some fishermen will tell you that the dorados, also called mahi-mahis, get married and remain with their spouses for life, not like most people who divorce when they get fed up with each other. The couples love each other dearly, without questions, jalousies and complications. They swim together in oceans and seas, give birth to billions of babies, and die together at the end. When you catch one dorado, the other will desperately follow the boat without thinking, without a plan. It will just swim after the boat on which his beloved better half is, with a broken hearth and without hope till the end of the world.
Ivo gently unhooks Mrs. Dorado and puts some medical alcohol in her gills (anesthesia), and we watch her die. The shine in her gold skin fades away, she stops trembling and the terror in her eye freezes. Ivo puts the freed lure back in the water and carefully starts operating, like a skillful surgeon. First, he removes her guts, then he slices the filets on both sides of the middle bone, he peals the skin off, and he amputates the head.
Of course, after just a few minutes we hook Mr. Dorado, it’s inevitable. On the same lure. He comes out without a fight, he gives up, abandons himself, brokenhearted. The last thing he sees before he dies is the dismantled body of his wife. And Ivo leaning over him with a bottle of medical alcohol.
We decide not to fish any more. One 15-pound tuna and a couple of dorados is enough food for a week. Like experienced shamans, satisfied, solemn and sad, we thank Neptune for the fish.
Sunset. It gets dark. We are approaching Aruba. In the night we first see a glow on the horizon, then the light from a lighthouse and then the many lights of buildings and cars and ships anchored. Hotels and restaurants, drunk people are singing somewhere on land. We drop anchor at midnight, after a 66-hour passage. Three sunrises, three sunsets, three fishes, not a single squall. Three people in a boat.
The next morning, March 20th, Friday, we go to the docks in Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital, where we clear in immigration and customs. It takes about 2 hours, mostly waiting for the officials to come to the boat and bring the paperwork, which we have to fill in and return, without ever leaving the boat. Passports are stamped, documents and exchanged, no one boards Fata Morgana, and the entire procedure is completely free and done on the pier. No fees whatsoever. What a pleasant surprise!