This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue
Sweet little Bocas del Toro, Panama, was slipping astern of me. It is an obscure but superb cruising stop where life and laughter flow as easily as a mid-moon tide. The hub of the scene there is the Bocas Marina and a delightful bar called the Calypso Cantina.
This is a classic example of what I call a “cruisers' haven.” These are bars or restaurants that cater to the needs of the sea-gypsy community. The Calypso Cantina's owners, Dyllan and Darion, have such an infectious enthusiasm for the cruising life that they also let the restaurant be used for domino tournaments, swap meets, DVD exchanges and spontaneous social combustion. But even without special events, each evening at the bar is a delight as sailors gather to share their stories. The setting is sublime, with the bar positioned between the marina on one side and the anchorage on the other. On some evenings the view of the boats glistening in the tropical twilight will take your breath away.
And so, as I sailed away from the affection that had been bequeathed me in Bocas, I pondered how wonderful it is that the cruising life can provide both the independence of isolation and the comfort of community. Soon the following sea swept my thoughts back a few years to two of my other favorite cruisers’ havens.
The town of Melaque was legendary amongst the Mexican sailors for two reasons. The first was the swell that the Pacific Ocean sends into the anchorage there when the wind veers around to the south. This made landing a dinghy on the beach a challenge better suited to Navy Seals than mom-and-pop cruisers. But if you made it through the chest-high breakers, you were rewarded on arriving at the Los Pelicanos restaurant. Here the indomitable Philomena (Phil) held court. This was the second reason for Melaque’s fame. It was also the first cruisers’ haven I ever found in my travels and memories of it still delight me.
Phil encouraged everyone to paint their boat’s name on the walls and over the years the restaurant had become a kaleidoscope of color and cleverness. The artistic efforts ran the gamut from ordinary to Extraordinary with a capital E.
On arrival I noticed that some of the names were covered with dried spaghetti. A veteran cruiser told me this was how Philomena expressed her disapproval if you got on her wrong side. Using the “pasta is ready if it sticks to the wall” technique, she would aim for her least favorite boat names. She referred to this as spaghetti justice.
Phil also kept a large skillet and a wooden mallet at the open end of the restaurant facing the beach. If the waves were up to what she called “showtime height” she would start banging this gong as a dinghy approached. This guaranteed that all eyes would be upon the incoming inflatable as it attempted to land rather than somersault on to the beach. After a spectacular wipe-out, sailors would rush down to help the involuntary acrobats. When they arrived at the bar they received raucous applause and free drinks.
The next cruisers’ haven that enticed me to stay for a while was Isla Gitana in Costa Rica. Its original name was Isla Muertos, which means Isle of the Dead in Spanish. It was a burial island and local workers who paddled over to do the gardening and laundry there refused to stay after dark. But in my months of anchoring there I never had any close encounters of the spectral kind.
Isla Gitana was owned by a feisty old American named Karl. He was patriarch of a colorful assortment of animals, human and otherwise. There was a white-faced monkey that was a skilled pickpocket, a coatimundi, which is a cross between a raccoon and an anteater, and a chicken that had her own regular barstool.
My favorite recollection from my lazy months there was when a tall ship named the Pacific Swift anchored beside me. One could easily picture Joseph Conrad standing on her quarterdeck. She was a sail-training ship filled with bright, idealistic kids out seeing the world.
Just after twilight on Christmas Eve they rowed their longboats to each of the sailboats anchored nearby. The kids all had a candle in one hand and a songbook in the other and they sang a Christmas carol as a gift for each boat. It was so touching and sublime that I felt like O. Henry standing in the middle of a Norman Rockwell painting.