Otra Vida´s anchor lies snugly in the white sand of French Harbour, Roatan, waiting patiently for a few days of atypical weather to make the journey east to the corner of Nicaragua, then south to Providencia and eventually Panama. The reef protects us from swell and waves and presents a pallete of blues and turquoises either side of a sharp white line of foam crashing in the middle distance. The constant trade winds soften the fire of the tropical sun toasting us from a mostly cloudless lapis lazuli sky.
|The reef protecting French Harbour|
We read, talk, think in the hammock, do a little boat work, swim, cook. Sunrises and sunsets frame our days, accompanied sometimes by a masterful education in contemporary electronic music from Icelandic crew member Gusty.
It´s not hard to spend time on this island.
French Harbour´s version of breakfast TV is the daily cruisers´ net, a VHF radio discussion between yachties about upcoming weather, social plans, trips to the grocery store, the local iguana farm and needed or offered spare parts. At the end of the net each day the yacht “Mermaid” chimes in with a trivia question. Erudite and thoughtful, these questions involve history, literature, sailing lore, mythology … an injection of a fragment of magic from a fine mind into the everyday cruising business of propane refills and potluck dinners.
Sometimes at sunset you´ll find the crew of Otra Vida at the supremely casual Tiki Palapa enjoying inexpensive cold beers and easy conversation with other yachties and a few stray adventurers seeking escape from the nearby hotel. One evening we join a table including a fit, slender, tanned American guy talking politics, lamenting the likely choice of Trump as Republican nominee. He holds forth with passion and wit and obvious intelligence.
|Breakfast with John in the cabin of Mermaid of Carriacou|
This is my first face to face encounter with John A. Smith, captain of “Mermaid of Carriacou”. I introduce myself, strike up a conversation, comment on his interesting trivia questions, and the following day invite him to join us on board Otra Vida for dinner. He arrives in his sea kayak with a freshly baked loaf from Mermaid´s galley. Within minutes it is evident that John is someone cut from a different cloth, and we are in for a special time. It turns into a late evening of stories and memories, fuelled by beer and rum and grilled vegetables.
John´s a wonderful raconteur, full of colourful stories, engaging, interesting. But there is more. His lifestyle, indeed his very existence, is a challenge to consumerism, to accumulation, to striving. By the standards of the mainstream John Smith cannot exist, and in practical terms for them he more or less does not exist. No bank account, no “fixed abode”, no “job”. He sails a traditional wooden cargo boat built on a Carriacou beach, a boat with plenty of history. He rescued and painstakingly restored the partially sunken Mermaid by hand, after a previous shipwreck in the 70s saw him bivouacking for a few months in the Swedish cemetery on St Barths.
The Eastern Caribbean back then must have been a remarkable place. Along with John Smith you would have found Don Street, Jimmy Buffett, Fatty Goodlander, Bob Dylan, Herman Wouk and a cast of other unique individuals living a life of freedom on and around boats. That has all gone now – the relentless march of neoliberal consumer capitalism and disneyfication has rendered those islands into a theme park servicing first world tourists with a contrived pastiche of Caribbean life. As John puts it, the Eastern Caribbean today is “embarrassing”.
The legend and the person fluidly intermingle. He is the “chum with a bottle of rum” that Buffett ends up “drinking all night” with in “Changes in Latitudes”, the “hobo sailor” of Dylan´s “115th Dream”. The legend and the person are both fascinating. A life demonstrating that truth is relative, that facts are perceptions, his very existence holding a mirror to your eyes, bringing you face to face with the impossibility of objective truth.
Where does truth end and legend begin? Postmodernism showed us that truth is temporal and relative (unimaginative conservatives and religious literalists can please go and wail somewhere else). So what matters more? The illusion of objective truth that would turn an evening into something akin to reading the stock prices from the Wall Street Journal, or an evening of magic realism flowing like a silver stream from the lips of someone the mainstream could accept only as a fictional character in a novel?
We go aboard his lovely engineless wooden sailboat for breakfast the following morning, nursing modest hangovers, faces smiling with memories of the night before. He makes good strong coffee and we sit on deck chatting, photographing parts of a no longer published sailing guide to these islands, and listening to John tell stories. He reaches for a tattered copy of Ovid and reads a few lines to us, then recites a Shakespeare sonnet from memory.
|Mermaid of Carriacou with John on deck blowing a conch shell|
Later that day, I watch him swim the half mile to shore from Mermaid, towing his sea kayak behind him, playfully flipping on his back to admire the emerging stars at dusk. Here is a man at home in the moment, revelling in the now, drinking in the wonders of the planet and the universe that pass many of us by. I sit on the dock, cold beer in hand, having arrived in my rowing dinghy powered by a small outboard motor, a rather modest set up by yachtie standards, and feel sharply how much further there is to go in simplifying life and appreciating the wonderful pleasures of the planet. John´s an inspiration, a man living a purely free life. I hope I get there one day.
The atypical weather we have been waiting for finally arrives. We weigh anchor and head towards Guanaja. Leaving the anchorage we motor towards John´s engineless boat held securely by three anchors, pipping the electronic horn on Otra Vida as a salute to him and the good times we shared. John springs up from his cabin, joy in his muscles, a big smile on his face, conch shell in hand, and blows us a traditional salute in return. The sound of his conch echoes across eons of seafaring. As to my oh-so-convenient push-button electronic horn … well, what can I say? There is still so far to go. I hope I get there one day.