The sea, a ship — and a case of rum

Aboard the Fantome prior to setting sail.

Aboard the Fantome prior to setting sail.

It was to be an adventure.  And it was.

Finally, having saved some money after getting rid of The Car from Hell, I was looking forward to taking a vacation and going somewhere — anywhere — for an entire week instead of day and weekend trips.  Somewhere away from the familiar, the usual.  I’d already put in for the time but was waffling about where to go, what to do, maybe Sanibel Island, the Gulf Coast of Florida, maybe Club Med in Cancun.

Then I remembered the small ads I’d seen over the years in the back pages of magazines and off I raced to the travel agent in search of a brochure: sail around the Caribbean on a tall ship.  A barefoot Windjammer cruise.  Definitely not my parents’ type of cruise.  “Pick some islands.  Pick a ship.  Pick a week.”  I’d have rather sailed the windward islands but I didn’t want to risk not being able to move my vacation time, so the leeward West Indies were my decision.  They were the southernmost islands I could go to without a passport and two weeks wasn’t enough time to get one.  I started packing.

Back at the office I told my boss not to come up with any new projects because my vacation was booked, paid for and non-refundable.  “Going to Florida?”  Heck no. Someone from our local offices there could track me down if I did that.  I really needed to get away — from work, newspapers, radio, clocks, phones, traffic, suits and stilettos…He was jealous.  I didn’t tell anyone the name of the ship so that there’d be no ship to shore calls.

I sailed aboard the Fantome, which was the largest ship in their fleet.  It carried about 100 or so passengers, and while there may be some aboard whom I may not like, surely I’d meet some people I did for a week of adventures.

Naturally, there was a snag.  At the time (1980s), Antigua experienced weekly power outages and just before my connection from Miami was to board, their airport went dark. There was only one flight per day to the island.  Well heck, they’re in the middle of Hurricane Central, don’t they have generators?  Get every islander out to the airport with candles, flashlights, Coleman lanterns to line the runway…So I chatted up a couple whose luggage had Windjammer stickers while we waited for a fly/nofly decision.  “You’re traveling alone???”  And we agreed to share a cab to the ship if we ever got to the island that day.  The woman sitting next to me on the plane was also traveling alone so I invited her to join our entourage.

We were greeted aboard by a steel drum band and a rum drink (“swizzle“) of unknown ingredients, which set the tone for the rest of the week.  After a quick change into shorts, a tee and flip-flops, I made a few more new friends that I kept in touch with long after that week.

There were ‘snacks and swizzles’ every day at 5 pm — which we were all loathe to miss. One day, one of my new friends greeted me with a glass as I returned from whatever island we were at that day.  He was afraid I’d miss happy hour, so he saved me a glass.  I drank more rum that week than in all the years before or since.  I also suspect that if I knew exactly what was in a ‘swizzle’ I may not have drunk as many, but I was looking to spend my time outside my comfort zone and besides, by drinking rum I felt I was contributing to the local Caribbean economy.

The first morning, at ‘story time’, Captain John formally introduced himself and the chain of command officers and crew “should he go overboard”, which included First Mate Paddy and Chief Engineer Charlie.  He also ran through the protocol for a fire alarm.  The next day, about 6 am I woke up to a noise and my cabin mate throwing me a life jacket.  We (passengers) assumed it was a drill to make sure we were paying attention.  The crew was running around decks taking up their emergency positions, the First Mate looked like he was dressed in a hazmat suit carrying a fire extinguisher, the purser was in a panic taking roll call of the passengers.  We were barely awake having gotten little sleep and weren’t quick to respond.  Captain John remained calm.  By the time the alarm quieted and roll call finished, the captain apologized for the early morning call.  Apparently someone was zealously hosing down the decks and accidentally set off the fire alarm, but “Good job” we’d all quickly responded and only grabbed life jackets and nothing else.  (Hey, nice boxers.)

According to engineer and electrician Steve, they didn’t do drills with passengers aboard.  It would be considered a ‘nuisance’ to passengers looking for fun and relaxation on their vacation…Next time I’d remember to grab my purse along with the life jacket.  It was also while chatting with Steve one night he noticed the Southern Cross.  Served me right that I took geology for a lab science elective in college and not astronomy that I couldn’t identify the constellation.  Point it out to me.  It’s never visible where I live.  I can truthfully say now that I have seen the Southern Cross.  Thank you Steve.

I’d learned to sail prior to this trip, but I hadn’t taken any navigation courses and I couldn‘t captain a ship without the knowledge and certification.  Paddy was to teach a class but he didn’t think anyone was seriously interested in the subject, so he barely educated us on nautical charts and sextants since no one really navigates by the stars anymore.  He did however, offer to accompany me on a climb to the crow’s nest — which I was supposed to do solo.

We nearly mutinied the morning there was no fresh fruit at breakfast.  Apparently none had been found at our previous port.  The crew made sure the next morning there was fresh fruit.  We outnumbered them easily two to one.  And then there was a run on cranberry juice for those that bloated from all the salt air….

One night/morning some time after 2 am a group of us were hanging out with our last drink talking when we noticed our bartender leaning his chin in his hand on the bar.  “Don’t these people ever sleep?”  Closing time (we had been told) was 2 am and we told him to close up.  We weren’t going to be buying any more.  “I cont do that.”  Sure you can.  No. So long as there was one person with a glass or bottle in hand, the bar couldn’t close.  Closing time was not so much a rule, but more of a…guideline.  Aarrrr!  We looked at each other.  Should we tell anyone else that we just found a way to keep the bar open 24/7?  The first and foremost (almost only) rule aboard a Windjammer was What A Passenger Wants, A Passenger Gets.

Not all my time was spent drinking rum, though I have excellent sea legs, even when motoring (only once), never spilled a drop, never got seasick and returned home with partially unused dubloons.  Ashore the islands I went traipsing through a tropical rain forest in which we unexpectedly got rained on when there hadn’t been any storm clouds in the sky.  We thought it was magical and despite the fact we got soaked, we laughed.  Couldn’t find rain forests back home.  It was the only rain all week.  There were shops to browse and open air markets to peruse, places to explore, vistas to be viewed, sailboats to admire, local food to taste, keepsakes to be found.

Then there was the day we went hiking up to the top of Trafalgar Falls, to the natural hot and cold springs — very Indiana Jones style — complete with crossing the bottom of the falls by stepping on rocks, (hey, they’d better not be turtles disguised as rocks), then up the side of the mountain, climbing rocks via ladders made from branches and crossing others by way of a single tree log for a bridge — which really freaked out the woman in front of me.  “Didn’t you look down???”  Heck, no.  I focused on one foot in front of the other to get across.  Apparently there was at least a 10 foot drop onto other rocks if you misstepped or lost your balance.  There was one huge rock at which I balked since it was far bigger than me and there was no makeshift ladder or toeholds with which to climb.  But our guide and my fellow jammers would not let me quit the trek.  First the guide took my camera so I wouldn’t smash it against any rocks, then he reached down, I put one leg up and then from behind me, I was boosted and pulled up.  I later found out the jammer who gave me a boost was a minister.  What was freaky is that he knew my name and I didn’t remember having met him prior to that hike…The jammer experience lured people of all occupations and we were definitely a friendly bunch.  Fortunately I saw the snakes on the way back down or someone would have had to carry me.

I made sure I worked off all the rum and spent very little time laying on a beach — which I could do at home.  I didn’t however, get the hang of snorkeling since I couldn’t get the flippers to stay on my feet so I missed out on some opportunities.  And since the cabins seemed so claustrophobic having been in the sea air all day, I slept up on the top deck.  By the end of the week it was difficult to find a patch of unoccupied deck.

It happened to be International Sailing Week and sailors from all around the world were there.  There was one boat which, besides flying the American flag, was also flying an inflatable woman.  We saw that boat almost every day and one of my fellow passengers made friends with them and went back and forth from ship to ship.  At the end of the week, there was a blow-out finale bash ashore among all the participants and sightseers of Sailing Week and I went back ashore in the evening with Steve.  Hey, the ship wasn’t going to sail to our start/end port without all the crew aboard….There was wall to wall people, many foreign languages, laughter, music and drink.

At the airport the next morning, there were hugs and kisses, phone numbers, addresses, business cards traded.  Invites to visit were issued.  Plans were made for stateside get-togethers and future adventures.

In 1998, the Fantome was sailing the Gulf of Honduras when Hurricane Mitch started traveling across the Caribbean.  She disembarked her passengers then headed for a safe port.  Mitch, however, changed directions and headed south — an anomaly for a hurricane — and instead of sailing to safety, the Fantome sailed into Davy Jones’ Locker.  She was never found.

Jammers everywhere grieved.  It signaled the end of an era.  But damn, we had fun.