After 20 days of fighting strong currents, gale force winds, sleep deprivation and cabin fever it was such a sweet victory when we finally sank our anchor into the volcanic island sand of Dominica. There were times along the way when we were regretting our decision to come this way at all; when the whole crew wanted to keep sailing south to an easier port of call where the winds would stay in our favor. Yet deep down there was something stronger tugging at our spirit to push onward and steer the course we set out on. So we tacked, we jibed, we smashed through wave after wave and storm after storm with the vision of this tantalizing place called Dominica at the finish line.
When its outline came into view, I climbed the mast and peered in silence for a few moments at the formidable land mass they call the nature island. The mountain tops reached up out of the sea and stood tall with a constant cloud cover topping their peaks. The frigates made lazy figure 8 patterns over the rainforest canopy. We could almost make out the outlines of waterfalls amongst all the foliage. It was easy to see this land is still very much in its natural state.
Almost three weeks of constant movement will make a body yearn for stillness again. For the next 24 hours the ship was in a somber state of being. The decks and all the stainless steel were coated with layers of salt build up begging for a fresh water rinse and polish. Below decks, the spice rack, nor was now silent. The sound of the main halyard lightly slapping the mast kept the tempo below as the floorboards creaked in rhythm with the stringers that moaned as if settling from weeks of fighting the good fight with her crew. Our broken and exhausted bodies were sprawled throughout the vessel in a state of deep replenishment. Scotsman laid in the fetal position midship under an open hatch looking for that tropical breeze, the light rain kissing his face. Peanut and I tossed and turned for hours with dreams of the kraken and an angry sea taking CC and her valiant crew down to Davey Jones’s locker. Bru’s bear like snore played baritone in a whole symphony of sounds. The entire world could have came to an end that night as we drifted off into our dream state.
Dominica is one of the furthest east islands on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. There is nothing but a couple thousand miles of the open Atlantic to the east and all too familiar water to the west until Central America. To the north and south is an archipelago of Caribbean islands. Some of the greatest sailing in the world. The people here are strong willed, strong spirited and physically strong. Like a lot of people we have met along our voyage, the Dominican people have a cold and hard outward shell that keeps you at bay for a moment. But then there is no beating our crew’s contagious smiles and good vibrations. Within a couple of days we broke all the barriers down with the locals and the big love of the island people emerged. It was warm hellos and big hugs for this crew of bearded sailors now resembling a band of vikings that have been out on the sea for far too long.
The people dressed in whatever sun burned hand-me-downs that had been given to them by sailors passing through their island. They were a ruff and tuff crowd that were constantly yelling and all up in our face. Their culture is based on respect and hustling to survive in this life. We had one guy by the name of Hamilton tell us his people are the “Pirate people,” and have been since the beginning. He said, “We are criminals by heritage and da system holds us down.” In the same breath he tells me, “Law?….Ha! Dar is no law here.” We’ve found ourselves right in the middle of yet another land of that pirate soul, living strong in the people. That’s perfect, we’ll fit right in here.
We spent the next few days repairing CC due to all those days of putting the old girl in the ring again and again. Both our fresh and saltwater pumps gave out on us the last couple days of the crossing. We had newly discovered leaks in the decks, hatches and anchor locker that needed sealing. We replaced chafed halyards and cleaned the ship inside and out. Our impeller (water pump) went out on the diesel motor just a couple hundred miles into the trip making use of our engine impossible for the remainder of the 1,400 nautical mile sail—hence the reason for staying under sail all the way here and even into the anchorage. This passage has begun to give us our wings as true sailors. We were coming this way with or without a working motor. And nothing was going to stand in our way at this point, so sail we did.
The only problem with getting parts for our vessel in Dominica is that there aren’t any! So we did as the locals do and pushed deep into the shanty town maze looking for the backyard of the town mechanic and welder. We could get custom, homemade parts fabricated from old parts, but no new stuff could be obtained. Everything was very expensive and had to be shipped in from another country with a long wait and high taxes to pay worth more than the parts needed. In the end it made us look deeper at the issues we were having and gave us an opportunity to fix most of them with our own two hands.
After our duties to the nation of CC were roughly fulfilled, we began looking inland, ready for new discoveries. Rainforest expeditions, waterfalls, stone gorges, boiling volcanic lakes, hot springs and, of course, the local flavor of life that the people bring to our experiences.
On day four now at the little harbor, our whole motley, Viking crew was walking through town in search of the bank and grocery. At one point we were stopped by a local man in plain dress, claiming to be with the health board and showing a serious need of an attitude adjustment. The angry bureaucrat bulldogged his way right up to me with Captain Peanut at my side and inquired if the cap’n was a local dog and if I was a sailor. I could tell the guy had a hair-trigger, ready to fire at will. I told him this was a member of our sailing crew and he was actually the captain of that ship out there in the harbor. Smiley didn’t like that answer much and continued storming his pissed off way toward us. At that point, even Peanut was fed up with this guy’s energy. He demanded to see Peanuts papers right then and there or he was going to take my best mate and put him to sleep on the spot (which really means shoot him in the back alley). So we politely told him to follow us out to our vessel where we would show him the papers.
First off, I don’t care who you are, no one comes up to any member of our crew (especially Captain Peanut) with hostility and not receive an open hand slap across the face—whether it be literal or figurative. You’re going to get what you deserve. We are three of the nicest guys on the planet, but as my dad would say, “If you mess with the bull, you’re gonna get the horns.” So the guy got into his car and slowly shadowed us as we walked back to CC through the maze of sheds and half collapsed structures. It was as if he knew we weren’t phased by his “tough guy” front—we held something much stronger than his jurisdiction.
CC sat valiantly out there in the harbor. I could see her silhouette flickering through the trees as we calmly walked down the street. To me, our boat stands for the last shred of God-given freedom left on this planet. She just so happens to be the nation we pledge our allegiance to. What we’ve discovered through sailing is that there is still a way to live free out there, but it comes with a heavy cost. All of those sleepless nights, living in a washing machine; those stinky and bloody jobs down deep in the bilge trying to keep this forever needy boat above Mother Ocean’s surface. The sight of a storm on the horizon, knowing it’s time to saddle up and ride again, it’s an endless labor of love that isn’t for the light hearted a bit of pain for pleasure, if you will. So with few words exchanged between the three of us, we all knew what time it was. If you can’t beat the pirates you might as well join ‘em. Right? In that moment, the flag flown on the back stay bared a skull and crossbones, Peanut a pegleg and eye-patch and each of us smiled back at the law.
The crew of Cool Change weighed anchor right then and there and left that man standing on the dock where he belongs. I could see the thanks in Peanut’s eyes as we sailed into the sunset. A footloose feeling was all over the ship that night. The boys were all fired up, even caught our first puff of wind on CC’s beam. The compass was finally pointing at 180° south for the first time since the straights of Florida. We laughed, made music and howled at the moon that night out on the Carib.
Around 02:00 AM, CC sailed proudly along Dominica’s coastline and right into a tiny village by the name of Mero. Mero stood at the base of a mountain ridge that had a nice little river cutting its way down to the ocean. Our vessel was the only boat for miles next to the small local fishing boats. We couldn’t tell yet if we had a target on our mast or if we were safe in this little fishing village. When we looked towards land all we saw was a cluster of about 50 concrete block homes with tin roofs and a few small snack shops. The beach was littered with fishing pots (fish traps made out of chicken wire and small tree branches) and classic fishing canoes. The local guys on the beach seemed to just be lounging and relaxing in the sun. Not a whole lot of fishing going on. The four of us landed our dinghy on shore right in front of the Castaways Hotel. From the boat, the hotel looked like it was in order, but now that we got a closer look we realized it was completely abandoned. It looked as if mother nature was in the process of taking back the land that was once hers. There were mango trees, coconut trees and passion fruit growing everywhere. The lizards ruled this domain and everywhere we stepped was either a mango or a lizard in the path.
We walked into the main village to see about supplies and fresh drinking water that we were desperately low on. Once again all eyes were on the three Vikings. Every shop we entered the ladies would ask, “Are you boys on that yacht out there?…Where did you come from?…Really?!…On that little boat?” We would smile and say proudly “yes, that’s ours.” Civility and friendliness came through once again. By the next day we were in with the whole village. They must have all talked about us because all the shopkeepers and even the boys on da beach loved us. Peanut made all kinds of doggie friends, too. Once the sun set on the second day of our Mero adventure, it felt like home. The whole crew gathered on the beach to make a fire and truly start celebrating terraferma. One of us gathered mangoes, another gathered firewood and the last went to purchase us some much needed meat for our fire party.
We could see CC keeping an eye on us boys from a hundred yards or so out. The sky lit up with those Caribbean colors as we cooked chicken wings and sweet potatoes over our sandy camp fire. This was a dream come true, to be able to cook a meal on shore and watch our girl swinging in time with the breeze.
12:00 noon the following day we set off to get our first look at the rainforest life here on Dominica. Yet again not knowing where we were really going, we saw a bluff a few miles up into the bush that looked like it had water flowing off it and might conceal something special like a waterfall or nice swimming ponds. Peanut met two of his local friends on the beach again and they trotted along with us for the venture. The dirt road we followed to the bush quickly became a dead end at a cul-de-sac and we were forced to find a trail. At that moment Bru looked over to see one of the stray dogs leading us onto this little goat trail down to the river. We all followed and began scaling up the river towards that massive rock cut we could see from the boat. The river eventually split into two. Bru went to the right and Scotsman and I went to the left, up the tall bank of the river that looked like there was a path at the top.
Once we fought through the brush and got to the small washed-out foot path on top, we could hear Bru in the distance talking to someone. I took a few steps forward to look down into the valley only to see a giant man standing over Bru with no shirt on and wearing rolled-up jungle camouflage pants and no shoes. At first, my mind went to, “Oh shit! We have trespassed on this guy’s property and God knows what he’s up here protecting.” He looks like a troop of some sort. But then I heard the all easing sound of, “Yeah mon!! You’re welcome here!” This was the moment we met our dear friend, “Ruffles.” The footpath I was standing on at this point lead right back into the bush and straight to Ruffles fruit forest domain.
We came from three different directions and one by one introduced ourselves to the man himself. I have never seen a smile so big and bright; and damn he just made everyone around him smile as big as they could too! You could tell right away that this man was full of passion for his island and for keeping it wild and organic the way it has been for centuries. As he took us around his property on the hillside, he tells us of stories past and present. He told us how this piece of land was handed down 3 generations to him, along with the skills to reap the fruits of this fertile hillside. Ruffles would pass by a plant and rattle off a dozen facts about it as if it was one of his children. He had just about every vegetable and tropical fruit growing up there. Papayas, bananas, passion fruits, two types of mangoes, soursop, pineapple, potatoes, cashews, ginger, avocados, coconuts, carrots, pumpkins, guava and the list goes on. All of this set in a thick jungle atmosphere with a turquoise river running through it.
Ruffles led us up the hill to a makeshift mountain camp. It was made of 6 wood beams holding it all up and a tin roof to shield from the rain fall. As I looked down, I saw a cot, a pair of old boots and all of his changes of work garments scattered about. This had to be his sanctuary, a holy place that he could always retreat to and look for nourishment.
He told us that you could never go hungry here on Dominica because it is so full of life and the fruits still grow wild. Ruffles would look at a mango tree and say, “Please eat! All of those mangoes will just go to waste if we don’t eat.” His message that he wanted to leave us with was that on his island, everything is organic and natural. It is so fertile that you just take a seed, put it in dirt and there it goes, growing healthy like it always has. Due to isolation and the pure ruggedness of its interior this island is still wild and remote. The fact that all the soil is volcanic and it rains here nearly everyday helps a bit, too.
Ruffles laid his knowledge on us for about an hour, but it was clear that he still had work to do up here. He loaded us up with fruits and asked if we had plans for the following day. I think at this point we all were thinking we had found our plans. He looked at these three salty boys standing in front of him and asked us to come to his home in the morning for breakfast, to meet his family and come up the river with him to catch some dinner for everyone. We smiled and Ruffles extended his huge hardened fist. We all three pounded him one. With every strike, he pounded his fist over his heart signifying that we had maybe earned a small piece of his respect. “We’ll see ya tomorrow at 9 am on your beach!” We shot a few more photos and trekked back down the mountain to our sea woman, still in awe of the man we just encountered.
The dinghy motor fired up at 8:57 am and we motored right on the beach of Ruffles’ home town of St. Joseph, a small fishing village next to Mero. The fishermen under the makeshift sunshade stared us down, so what did we do? We walked right up to their clubhouse and asked them if they knew where Ruffles was. Their faces all relaxed and a grin came over one rastaman’s face. He pointed us up a set of stairs, motioning to the right. We took a couple steps in that direction and Ruffles appeared out of nowhere. There’s that smile! This man couldn’t wait to take us to meet his family and see his home.
The town of Saint Joseph had narrow streets with deep open gutters on both sides, the houses were stacked on top of each other. It looked like everyone lived together in one house. There was a bright pink home about halfway down one of the blocks, Ruffles pointed and said, “Here we are.” The gate opened and there stood a tiny one room shack in front of us. He looked at us and said that was the house he first built for him, his wife and first child, but to the left stood his pride. A bright pink, hand crafted, cinder block home with a rusty corrugated tin roof. His queen stood proud at the top of the second story where the kitchen was. She smiled and waved us in. How incredibly open hearted these people were to welcome this crew of sailors into their home. We didn’t come empty handed though! Scotsman baked a couple loaves of banana bread that morning on the boat for offerings to our new friends. We met Ruffles’ wife and daughter in the kitchen that morning. I looked around at their life hanging from those walls. A brass crucifix displayed next to a couple 8x10 photo frames littered with a collage of all his kids’ photos. The light from outside spilled in through the gaps under the beams that held up their rusty roof. We could tell they lived for family. We said our goodbyes and set out on our journey to the Layou River—about an hours walk.
Ruffles would stop at just about every tree and tell us a little story that pertained to each species. Then he would pick their fruits and say, “Come, come! You must try this. It’s the best mon!” With every step we found ourselves immersed in the true Dominican experience and surrounded by the feeling of being at home in a foreign land. He took us around to all of his friends along the way to what he called “His river.” We were introduced to a couple of his cousins, the local boat builders, and one of his uncles. Ruffles was damn near the mayor in these villages and carried himself with the pride and dignity as such. You could tell that all of these people we came across looked at him with respect and kind eyes. Our walk took us along the mouth of the river and then wayyyy up stream.
Ruffles told us that this is the largest river in Dominica and it can reach dangerous heights during a hurricane type storm like it did last year during hurricane Erica. Erica caused Dominica to lose many mountain villages and countless lives in landslides due to 30 inches of rain in just a six hour period. The river banks were badly eroded with the old road halfway collapsed into the river.
After stopping and eating dozens of fruits, we came to a spot on the river where he looked to us and said, “Ok, this is it.” He stripped down to his diving attire and walked out into the river ready to fish for crayfish. All of us, even Peanut, followed Ruffles across the river to see how this was done firsthand. He walks up to a log half submerged on the river’s bank, kneels down and reaches his monster paws up under that log. I am watching his eyes as he is going deeper and deeper with his grip.
He lets out this moan, “Ouch, ouch, oooh, ouch!” It sounds like a big snake had a hold of him. Out came Ruffles arm and his hand clenched to a river lobster trying to nip Ruffles with its big claw! He shows off his catch to us a bit and tells us all about these creatures. They have huge claws and a big meaty tail. They are fast in the water but are pretty helpless once you get a good hold of them.
The thing is that as you are sticking your hand into a very dark hole on the river looking for this prey. You have to beware of meeting their sharp claws and/or the other critters that you are not trying to catch, like big water snakes nesting in the rocks or under logs. We spent the whole day with Ruffles the river man. He carried not a drop of water on him nor a bit of food with him all day. He would just forage along for fruits and drink right out of his hand in his river. It was like watching an animal in the wild.
After the master caught a few, I had to take my chance at it. I put my camera on the bank of the river and dove in for my first go around with the river lobster. Ruffles looks at me and pointed to a large rock between the two of us. I get right to work and start blindly shoving my arm as deep as I can into a hole under the stone. Couldn’t believe it when I felt the claws of that crustacean. Quickly, I tried to pin it to the corner of its cave but he exited through the back door right by Ruffles, who was guarding the 6 o’clock for me. “Yeah mon there he goes!” We both dive for the fleeing lobster. With one quick swoop, the river man snatches him up and hands him off to me. Well I can’t technically count that as my first catch but Ruffles made me feel good about my beginner’s luck.
This hunt went on for hours and hours. We must have waded through 5 miles of river before he looked at us and said with that big smile, “Are you guys ready to go? I think we have enough for dinner now.” We all nodded in unison. But just as we were about to turn and head back down river, another rastaman with a big machete and soft eyes came over to Scotsman and motioned him over saying there’s something spiritual going on over here and you must see it for yourself. The Scotsman walks over to the edge of where the old road had fallen down into the river and the soil under the old road had been exposed by the flood from hurricane Erica. The man takes his machete and points down to what looked like the skeleton of a human body laying on its back.
You could make out the rib bones, the skull, a jaw bone and some teeth. Ruffles came over to see what we were all consumed with. The rastaman started speaking in patois with Ruffles and a couple other locals that had gathered now. The more we looked around the collapsed road, we found that we were standing on a road that was paved with human remains. It told the sinister side of this wanderlust landscape. A past full of slavery and the fight for freedom here on this remote island. Maybe they were the remains of the men and women that built this road years back. Maybe it was a tale of another ruthless massacre that just got quietly swept under the rug of this historic country road, only to be brought to the surface a few hundred years later by the ultimate archeologist, mother nature. Everyone who stood around the scene shared a sense there had been a huge discovery made that afternoon on the river. The solemn moment completed our adventure that day. Everyone had something to carry with them home. Ruffles had his catch and we had our experience that would stay with us long past dinner.
It felt like we explored a part of Dominica that only the fortunate few travelers get to see. Ruffles showed us his island the way he saw things. A place where fruits and veggies could still grow wild and organically. A place where he can still drink out of the river and fish to feed his family, just as his ancestors did. A place still full of histories and untold stories.
At the shore, Ruffles helped us launch our dinghy as we gave thanks and said our goodbyes. Looking over my shoulder one last time as we motored away from that sleepy little fishing village I couldn’t help but wonder, would we ever see that man again in this lifetime? Or was he just set in place on our journey to pass down his way of life to us. Or maybe to tell his story to the world in hopes to spark a small change in humanity somehow, some way.
This life that we live is constantly changing and it’s hard sometimes to say goodbye to someone you love or to a friend that you want to keep making memories with. One of Bru’s good friends back home told him before he left on this voyage, “The things that I love about you are the same things that keep us apart in this life.” With that being said, Bru had to travel along his path, knowing that it may be years till they meet again. He would carry their memories with him along his way as tokens of how they have sculpted his life. All in all, Ruffles has caused a change inside us and we will forever look at the rain forest, the rivers and a mango tree in a light like never before. We will always think of this island and see Ruffles smiling face looking back at us. A big one love to you my friend!