Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
In the early seventies, there were few boats to be found in Bahia de Caracas and these were the motorized canoes belonging to the local fishermen. In those times Bahia was little more than a peaceful fishing village on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. The one exception was a handsome yacht, berthed well inside the bay and anchored a few meters in front a ramshackle, mosquito-plagued, wooden house, known to but a few of us as the Snake Ranch.
The house and the yacht – a thirty-foot Catamaran – belonged to Dick Mapelsden, an American ex-pat who, in keeping with his tendency to occasional alcoholic depression, had characteristically christened it the ‘Last Chance’. Dick had found and fallen in love with the abandoned vessel the first moment he saw her in a Florida dockyard, Together he and his friend Tom sailed it down to Panama, through the canal and southwards down the Pacific. A few days after crossing the equator they turned left into the Salinas harbour. It was there at the Anchor Bar, El Ankala, run by an aging, renegade Hell’s Angel that I first became acquainted with this unconventional skipper and his Last Chance.
Dick, known to us as Capitan Dick or Leaning Dick due to his tendency, when drunk – which was often – to lean backwards at a forty-five-degree angle without falling over. As the years took their toll on him, behind his back he was also known as Wrinkly Dick. Being a habitual imbiber, food was secondary to him. He would eat nothing for two to three days and then appear in El Pub, in Quito and in the space of an hour would scoff six hamburgers. When in need of money he would cash a cheque at the bar.
Once, I recall, his hands were trembling so badly he could not write or sign his cheque or pick up the drink which would steady them. He solved the dilemma by bending low to the bar, placing a bar towel around his neck. In his left hand, he grasped his first glass of the day and pulling gently on the other end of the towel with his right hand he slowly hoisted the tumbler to his lips. Having managed to down the alcohol, he was then able and steady enough to sign.
Regardless of his love of hard liquor, with or without drink he was a brilliant all-around technician. Apart from being a qualified armourer and a computer engineer, he was also a self-taught marine navigator. A manager of an oil-field company, who hired Dick whenever an urgency arose, told me even when under the influence if Dick put a screwdriver in his hand it became as steady as any surgeon’s.
He had worked in Chile before coming to Ecuador to work for NASA, who, at the time had a station on Cotopaxi, a 5600-meter volcano. With Tom, they had planned to charter the yacht out to tourists in Ecuador. Sadly Tom was killed during an expedition on the Cotopaxi. The horse he was riding lost its footing on a narrow ledge they were attempting to traverse in the mist. With no partner and no bookings in sight, Dick moved the boat from Salinas to a cheaper berth at Bahia
By this time Joe Sheldon had given up his logging business and was also living in the Snake Ranch with Dick and Freddy Campbell. The house acquired its name from a boa constructor which Joe had brought with him to keep the rats to a minimum. Another of Joe’s less successful antidotes to deter the millions of mosquitoes who thrived there, was to pour diesel into the stagnant ponds surrounding the house. In theory, this un-green remedy of a thin layer of oil on top of the ponds should have prevented the insects from breeding but only served to make the area look like an oil spill.
The trio, being well-qualified mechanics, where frequently on call to Texaco and other international oil companies operating in the Oriente but more often than not they would end up low on funds. Following the expiration of each short-term contract and their pockets filled with US dollars, they would leap headfirst into some new and short-lived business venture. The problem they had, if you could call it a problem, was that they were dreamers not entrepreneurs.
To my knowledge between them, they had been exporters of seaweed, importers of safety clothes, gold miners, shrimp farmers, cattle breeders, illegal excavators of Ecuadorian antiquities and boat builders. At the time I was visiting them, over numerous bottles of rum and joints they were planning a yachting marina in Bahia.
I first met Freddy Campbell in the Wildcatter Club, In 1971, He had arrived in Quito flat broke and on his first day, I gave him credit and loaned him a few dollars. Within days he had paid me back, having gotten a well-paying job with Haliburton. Fast Freddy, as he became known to us due to his numerous and speedy seductions of the local and usually eager, teenage girls, was an all-rounder in the oil field business. One occasion, when a very expensive piece of earth moving equipment belonging to Texaco had skidded off the Andean highway at a height of four thousand meters and into the murky depths of lago Papallacta, it was Freddie who saved them thousands of dollars by diving into the depths of the icy waters to dismantle and help raise the machine.
Joe Sheldon I have previously mentioned as having a precarious timber business on the rio Cayapas. His background as a motor mechanic, specializing in racing cars and dirt-track motorbikes had stood him in good stead with the local fishermen, whose motors he repaired for the modest fee of a bottle of rum or a piece of the day’s catch. On one of my visits, Joe got a bad dose of toothache. For something to do, I accompanied him to the local dentist, whose surgery was open onto the dusty sidewalk. To say that the dentist’s equipment was ancient would be an understatement. It looked as though it had been brought over to the New World by Pissarro.
It was fortunate that on our way Joe, for false courage, had polished off the best part of a bottle of rum because, in the middle of the drilling, there was a power cut. Joe was momentarily relieved but lack of electricity did not deter the dentist who had a foot pump to generate enough speed to keep the drill turning – just about. To this day I never go to a dentist without thinking of Joe’s writhing in agony. I have told this tale to countless dentists but they just smile disbelievingly.
One time Dick and I had been out in the bay on his dingy. As we beached the craft, Dick, his hand pressed down on the oarlock, fell forward and the rusty metal pierced his palm. The wound was bleeding profusely and there was no doctor available. I took him to a nearby Ecuadorian naval base. Again there was no doctor but a medical assistant cleaned and attempted to sew up the gash but the skin on Dick’s palm was so tough he could not get the needle through the skin. Dick showed no pain as the medic was obliged to use a pair of pliers to pull the needle through the leathery tissue.
As if this unholy American trinity was not enough for one small town, some of the characters who frequently dropped in at the ranch to share their rum and marihuana are also worthy of a mention. Sergio was a Chilean of Russian descent and weighed three hundred pounds. He owed money to everybody but lived like a king. He kept eight assistants, mostly Afro-Columbians who were employed to wait on his every beck and call. To eat four ducks in the course of a meal was normal for him. When visiting his shrimp ponds, two servants would accompany him, taking with them an imitation Chippendale chair, a bottle of champagne and a bucket of ice, and for cooling him in the tropical heat, a heavy, battery operated air fan.
Jorge Revelli, an Argentinean, was married to a local landowner and was priceless raconteur, who later, in quite unusual circumstances became the owner of the Quito, Lord Byron. Last but certainly the least was an Ecuadorian, a sometime local enforcer, whose presence always made me nervous, having reputably killed seventeen men to achieve his nickname, Matador.
As one can imagine, with a Hollywood cast like this, the marina never did get built, their grandiose plans for it were swept away to make room for new, also to be, unfulfilled fantasies. In a way I suppose I was no better than the boys, having already lost interest in two profitable bars and struggling to keep an international representation business on track.
It was in 1978 that Captain Dick decided he was going to sell his boat to finance a harebrained scheme to manufacture the Inca-matic; a fibreglass wash tub for the Andean Indians who could not afford an electric washing machine. Surprisingly there had been no local interest to buy the beautiful Last Chance. The answer was to sail it back to Miami, where he knew it would sell but he did not want to sail it solo. A crew was needed.
Fast Freddy in his haste to escape the wrath of an Ecuadorian police officer whose wife he had briefly met and promptly seduced quickly signed on as 1st Mate. Joe Sheldon would also go but at the last minute, having been offered a temporary but well-paid job backed out. I do not know why but without giving it a second thought I volunteered to join as head cook and bottle washer. I half hoped Dick would turn down my offer but as no one else volunteered he didn’t.
Problems commenced before we had even started out on the saga. For starters, at that time, the three of us were practically destitute, which meant that when we provisioned in Bahia, we were only able to buy the very basics required for what was planned as a three-week jaunt. What little remaining cash we had would be needed to get us through the Panama Canal and to replenish our stocks. Well-meaning friends had been benevolent but however grateful we were for their generosity; their three cases of Tiger beer and six bottles of rum did little to stock the galley.
The voyage had not started too well when, before we were hardly out of the harbour I threw all the cutlery overboard. This accident later reduced us to sharing a cooking spoon or eating scrambled or fried eggs with our fingers. As a staple, I had bought three cases of eggs and had spent a couple of tiresome hours coating them in cheap nail varnish in the hope of preserving them. But as we could not use the boat’s fridge, the humidity quickly turned them bad and what few we had not already eaten had been dispatched over the side; along with the putrid potatoes and all but one of the onions which had not gone rotten during the first three days at sea. Then Freddy discovered that Joe had calibrated our two compasses incorrectly and we would have to navigate by the stars. Fortunately, my two old salts were capable of doing just that.
Our naive plan was to live off the sea; catching and cooking some of the delicacies which were rumoured to abound the Pacific Ocean. But even if they did exist and were swimming near in the near vicinity of the boat, they had not shown any interest in taking our bait. Fast Freddy, in three days, had managed to catch only one unappetizing specimen, the size of a large sardine, which had done nothing sate our hunger.
It was only our fourth day at sea and for two reasons we were really in the doldrums. First, we were physically stuck in them, being becalmed between the trade winds just north of the equator and secondly, we were overly tired due to the stifling heat and hunger.
We could not use the fridge was because it would unnecessarily empty the batteries and we only had a limited amount of motor fuel to charge the generator and for any other emergencies. The batteries were important for the lamps; port, starboard and mast. Dick was concerned that If we left the lights on – which is a regulatory must – it could attract the Columbian pirates who were known to be active in the area we were becalmed in. But If the boat sat with no lights on, we could easily be run down, unseen by some larger vessel. Dick decide we would take turns on watch, which meant one of us stayed awake and keep an eye open for any approaching vessels.
We had now been lolling around on a motionless sea for twenty-six hours, waiting for a breath of wind to get it us up and running again. This was bad enough during the day, when, even with the canvas tent we rigged up on deck to protect us from the sun which at mid-day was directly above us. The only break in the monotony had been when a whale, which at first sighting, we mistakenly thought to be an orca, had taken an over-keen interest in us. A few weeks before we had set off, a yacht had been attacked and sunk off the Galapagos islands by three killer whales and in June 1972 the Robertson family, during their round-the-world trip, on “Lucette”, their 13 meters, 19 ton schooner, were attacked by three orcas and their wooden boat sank in 60 seconds.
But the night watch was quite worrying. A sea mist had enveloped us, blocking out the possibility of seeing any approaching lights. This was worrying enough but we also heard voices calling out in Spanish. These could have belonged to fishermen but there was also the possibility that they were pirates. We kept quiet and the sound of their voices gradually disappeared.
Late in the following afternoon, Freddy was half-heartedly casting a line, when something took his bait – silver paper from a cigarette packet. With new found energy and our encouragement, he managed to bring in a 10-kilo dorado. They were both for slicing it up and frying it immediately but I explained that frying it would add to our thirst, the three cases of Tiger having long gone and we had to be careful with what was left of our fresh water.
Scavenging around in the galley, all I came up with was the remaining onion, a jar of curry powder, a bottle of dried thyme, a packet of unsalted peanuts and a tin on condensed milk. I scaled and cleaned the fish, leaving on the head and tail. I fried the onion, added the curry powder and then the tin of condensed milk, making a thick sauce. I then stuffed the dorado, poured a little oil over it, added a generous sprinkling of the thyme, wrapped it in aluminium foil and stuck it in the gas oven for 25 minutes.
I still do not believe it was only our ravenous hunger that made it so amazingly succulent but, my God, that was a dish to die for. Accompanied by a bottle of Ecuadorian rum and the sun sinking on the far side of Pacific Ocean, all we then needed to make the world a perfect place had been the wind and later, that same evening, it obliged us.
Next morning, for me and regardless of the fair speed we were now making, the novelty of the voyage on the ocean waves had worn off. Reality had sunken into my sun frizzled skull. I realized that even with good weather and a favourable wind, there was no way we would make Miami in two weeks. As we needed to land to top up our water supply, I told my two fellow sailors that I was going to abandon ship. They had no objections. As Dick rightly said – what was the point of having a head cook and bottle washer if there was nothing to cook and no more bottles to wash.
Dick had calculated that in a few hours we would see a lighthouse on our starboard side. Sure enough, we did and, the same evening, we dropped an anchor in a small bay. We were the only boat in sight but a few lights dotted along the shoreline and the sound of Cumbia music drifting across the bay meant there was life. Freddy and I were keen to set foot on terra firma but Dick, aware of the Columbians’ reputation for larceny, refused to leave the Last Chance until daylight.
We launched the dingy and the pair of us made for the shore with me rowing and Freddy directing me towards the beach and nearest flickering light. “You know.” He said with authority, staring past me. “I’ll guarantee that’s a whorehouse.” We reached the beach and dragged the dingy above the water line, almost to the open door of a cement block building. The group of curious customers had come outside to welcome us, including three young women who confirmed Freddy’s earlier statement.
Above the deafening noise emitting from the bar’s jukebox, we explained ourselves. The inbuilt intuition of the ladies quickly told them that we were not going to be punters. But they remained friendly and insisted that we danced with them and we even got a free beer. Word of our arrival must have gotten around quickly because it did not take long because a young army lieutenant entered the bar, looking for us. Indignantly asked why we had not been to his office before coming to the bar. The locals, obviously on our side, defended us and after checking our passports, the lieutenant said he would come out to the boat the following morning and we were not to leave before his inspection. A couple more beers and Freddy and I, with a bottle of rum, pushed the dingy back into the water and headed back to report to our captain.
The sun was only just rising behind the bay as the lieutenant drew his motorized rubber dingy alongside the yacht. After a perfunctory check to see if we had drugs or weapons on board, he stamped our papers and left. I packed my bags and the three of us went ashore, Dick and Freddy to replenish supplies for the next leg of their journey; Panama.
I was lucky to get a seat on a military plane to Buenaventura. I was not exactly on a seat but on one of the cases of live rifle ammunition which filled the body of the aircraft. It was extremely hot and a bunch of unwashed women and children and babies also crowded on board and until we took off, you could have cut the air with a knife. The air quality improved considerably as we flew low over the jungle and the door on the port side flew off. Unlike what would have happened if it was a Lufthansa or Airfrance flight, no one screamed but automatically all crossed themselves. Eventually arriving, I had just enough money left to catch a bus to Cali. Livia, the Columbian girlfriend from Pasto, who had entertained Doug Feasey and I during a local festival a couple of months before, was studying in Cali, so I had somewhere to stay and she loaned me enough cash for a flight back to Quito.
Did Dick and Freddy make it to Miami? They did – but it took them three months. They made good time to Colon, Panama, where they had to hang around the yacht club until they could find a larger vessel they could tie up to and take them through the canal. Later Freddy caught an ear infection and, in an emergency, they had put into the Turcs and Caicos Isles. By then they were flat broke but the Islanders looked after them as one of their own until a friend sent money enabling them to continue to Miami. The boat was duly sold, debts were duly repaid and before long they were back at home at the Snake Ranch. The Inca-matic washing machine project came to nothing as Dick had not reckoned with the Indians in the preferring to communally wash their clothes the river.
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