Cruising

Windshifts: Christmas in Panama

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During the “treasures of the bilge” segment of the cruisers’ radio net in Bocos del Toro, Panama, someone named Felix offered a metal sextant for sale. Two minutes later I was racing out to his handsome ketch Boisterous. I don’t know why I was rowing so vigorously. After all, I was probably the only potential buyer, since almost no one else in the fleet practiced celestial navigation. (They considered it quaint, but worthless—even when I reminded them that just one lightning strike could instantly convert their miraculous chartplotters into smoldering etch-a-sketches!)

As I approached the boat, I was surprised to see the greeting party awaiting me on deck. It was a full-on family of six, with four boys ranging in age from 3 to 16. I glanced at their boat name again and remembered a friend joking about a nickname he had invented for the new sailboat in the anchorage: Boys-R-Us. I had intended to use my “only potential buyer” leverage to drive down the price, but one look at this lovely smiling family caused my resolve to evaporate like a campaign promise the day after an election.

Down in the cabin, the dad, Felix, pulled out the sextant box and handed it to me. I was hoping it would be a fine precision instrument, but instead it was a neglected fixer-upper. When I declined, saying it was too much of a project for me to undertake, the family let our an audible sigh. A short while later I learned why.

Felix was a college professor who had taken a one-year sabbatical in order to take his wife, Susanna, and their four sons cruising. Much of the funding for their cruise was coming from the tenants subletting their house, but the renters were missing payments, and Christmas was only a couple of weeks away. They were down to their last $20.  

Learning this wrenched at my heart, and I nearly went back and bought the raggedy sextant, though it was barely fit to serve as a decorative lamp. I assured Felix that in any event our Bocas del Toro cruising community was both generous and helpful. Back ashore, I initiated a campaign to ensure there would be some holiday Toys-R-Us for the kids aboard Boys-R-Us.

A few days later, sitting on a park bench with Susanna, I marvelled at how Christmas in Panama had not yet become a lunatic feeding-frenzy. There were no “29 more shopping days” signs in any of the stores, and you were never assaulted by an endless track of Muzak “pa-rump-a-pum-pums.” I tried reassuring her that here her boys wouldn’t need many presents. But her smile suggested she was not convinced.

During the next week, the family was able to sell a few small boat items, but nothing substantial. Then, only days before Christmas, like a scene from an O. Henry story, agony for one boat became ecstasy for two. A ketch sailed in with a young couple on board who had just hand-steered all the way from the Bahamas after their autopilot failed. Worn down by the ordeal and feeling less like kids and more like ancient mariners, they were desperately seeking a self-steering wind vane. As it happened, Boisterous had one for sale! And with a crew of five and a half, there would never be a shortage of helmsmen aboard Boys-Steer-Us.

Susanna’s gifts for her boys on Christmas morning were simple but heartfelt and very well received: hand-carved wooden turtles and frogs, chocolates, firecrackers, a chess set and some classic board games. I can well imagine them laughing together during a heated Scrabble match when one of the boys insists that “wurd” is actually a word.

Over the years I have often sung the praises of cruising youngsters in my books and stories. This Christmas I will not only hoist my eggnog and toast the amazing cruising kids scattered around the planet, I will also raise my glass two times to honor their extraordinary cruising parents.

Illustration by Tom Payne

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