The chain of events that brought us to Castigo Cay had begun two days earlier on Great Exuma Island. My black schooner was heeled over on the beach at about a fifty-degree angle. Rebel Yell's bottom cleaning had been long overdue. Careening a boat this way was as old as pirates, but in the twenty-first century it was strictly a third-rate fix for a fouled bottom. In our case there was no better solution, not when we were far from first-world ports and marinas, and unable to pay for a boatyard haulout anyway. If we could have even found a working boatyard that had bottom paint, with the economy in a shambles.
From the keel to the waterline my schooner was covered with stinking barnacles the size of Hershey's Kisses, sharp and brittle at their tips and hanging on like hardened epoxy glue at their bases. I was working from the rudder forward, using a long-handled steel trowel to scrape them off while trying not to cut through the old bottom paint down to the bare steel of her hull plates. Tran Hung was working his way from the bow back toward me with another scraper. He was over sixty years old, but when there was a job to be done he did it without question. Especially when the captain was doing the same.
I was standing knee deep in the warm Bahamian water, working the scraper along the belly plates. It was the kind of hard, mindless work where you could almost turn your brain off. Like filling sandbags over in the sandbox with Uncle Sam's Misguided Children. Sixty feet of boat from the keel up to the waterline is a lot of barnacles, but if Rebel Yell was going to move any faster than four or five knots, she'd need a smoother bottom. We were working on the starboard side; we had finished the port side the day before.
My girlfriend Cori walked through the shallow water from behind Rebel Yell's tilted stern and launched into me without saying hello or asking how the job was progressing. She was wearing her red bikini top, with a fringed red pareo sash knotted around her hips, her long brown hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. The tropic sun had turned streaks golden.
"Danny, for how long will the boat be lying down?" she asked with a pout.
Her English was a lot better than when I had met her in Venezuela during the Christmas holidays. With my help she had lost most of her accent and had learned dozens of colloquial American expressions. It still wasn't pitch-perfect, but it was getting close. The little mistakes she still made I found charming.
I said, "How long? Until the tide comes back in, later this afternoon. Just like yesterday." She already knew this perfectly well. She was just being petulant.
It was a Monday in early June, with an almost five-foot tidal difference during the moonless phase of the lunar cycle. For the Bahamas this was a lot of tide, and an optimal time for careening. Low tide had been an hour before, after eleven, so high tide would be around five-thirty p.m.
"Well, I'm dirty and sweaty and I feel gross. I want to take a bath and wash my hair, but it's impossible with the boat falling over on the side." Her thick brunette hair reached almost to her waist. It required frequent shampooing and a lot of fresh water to look its best.
Cori would never help scrape the bottom. This was hard, filthy, menial work. Not that I had ever asked her to do such jobs--Cori was my girlfriend, not a crewmember. To be fair, Victor Aleman, my other crewmember, wasn't scraping the hull either. But at least he was keeping watch on the shoreward side of the vessel. With my boat on its beam-ends, the deck was almost on the beach, and a sneak thief could climb aboard if that side was left unguarded. Like Cori, Victor didn't scrape bottoms or do other menial scut work. He was the ship's doctor and his hands were his livelihood, far too valuable to put at risk using rusty steel tools to scrape off razor-sharp and highly infectious barnacles.
"Listen, I can't do anything about the tide," I told her. "Go for a swim to cool off. You can take a bath later." I cocked my head playfully and gave her the smile that had, until recently, always melted her heart. "You can take it with me, if you want. I'll wash your back ..." Rebel Yell had that rarity among sailboats: a real bathtub, extra deep and just big enough for two. The tub was in the private head connected to the captain's stateroom, all the way aft in Rebel Yell's stern.
For scraping the hull, I was wearing only cutoff shorts, sunglasses and an old Marine Corps boonie hat. My tanned body was covered with a sprinkling of broken barnacle shells. I placed my hat and shades atop the scraper's five-foot-long handle and jammed the scraper into the sand. Then I waded a few feet out to deeper water and porpoised forward to rinse the barnacle grit from my skin. I rolled over on my back and came up clean and wet. Cori often told me I looked sexy like that, with my light brown hair slicked back and my skin glistening. My blue eyes and height had counted for a lot back in Venezuela when I had first met Corissa Elena Ferratti-Vargas.
She ignored my suggestion about the shared bath. "Well, at least can I turn on the air conditioning, if I can't take a bath? Just in our cabin, not the whole boat." There was hardly a breeze so far that day, and the mercury was climbing into the nineties.
"You know we can't. We don't have enough diesel fuel to run the generator just for air conditioning. We have to save every gallon to move the boat. And besides, you shouldn't run any motor when the boat is so far over on its side."
She cut her eyes at me and gave a frustrated shake of her head. "So, when will we move the boat? We have enough fuel to go to Miami. You said we had enough even if we motor all the way, and Miami is with the wind, so we can sail most of the distance."
This was true, and I had no ready answer. She didn't want to hear again about the work we were waiting for. It wasn't my fault that my current "partners" couldn't get the barge and crane organized and on the site of the planned-for salvage job. We were stuck here in George Town doing nothing until they could organize the heavy-lift equipment up in Nassau. Stuck, without standby pay for waiting, while my remaining cruising funds evaporated.
"Danny, you promised you would take me to Miami. You promised!"
"Yes, okay, we're going to Miami--but not on this boat. If we sail my boat to Florida, the government will take her for taxes. You know that already, we've been over it a hundred times. We'll go to Miami on another boat, after we do this job and get paid. It'll take a little more time."
" 'A little more time?' Already more than six months of time! I have to go to Miami, like you promised!" Her eyes flashed daggers at me and then set into a determined glare. She was beautiful even when she was angry, but in a different way, with her usually full lips tightly pursed, her big brown eyes narrowed to slits, and her nostrils flaring.
"I'm not taking Rebel Yell to Miami. Not if they'll take her away from me."
"They won't! Not in Miami. Miami is not New York or Washington. Miami is different; Miami is run according to the Latino way. In Miami, you pay the soborno and they leave you in peace. You pay the bribe and go on with your business. Everybody knows you can buy the government officiales in Miami. All the world knows this thing! Even in Venezuela I was knowing this thing! How many years have you been away from the United States? Danny, I think I know more about Miami today than you do."
Maybe Cori was right about that, but I had no government connections in Miami that I could depend on. The federal government's grip on South Florida might be slipping, but as far as I knew, U.S. Customs was still clearing vessels and they would call the IRS as soon as they looked up my file on their computer. And as far as paying bribes, I was reluctant to tell Cori just how broke we really were. She wouldn't understand. Yateros, yachties, were all rich, or so she had thought. If you owned a sixty-foot yate, you were automatically un hombre rico, like the men in her country who in the old days owned polo ponies and race cars. That's what she had assumed when I took her away from her newly impoverished family in Venezuela.
But now my cruising funds were almost depleted and I couldn't bribe anybody, even if I knew somebody in South Florida who would take a bribe--and I didn't. (Cori Vargas could certainly bribe most male officials with her feminine charms, but I wasn't about to suggest that form of payment. Nor would I, ever. No matter how broke I was.)
She continued glaring at me and said, "What kind of captain are you? I think I made a big mistake coming with you. "Ya puedo vivir pobre en Venezuela! I can be poor already in my country, with my family!"
Cori spun around and stormed off, churning through the water and disappearing around the stern of the boat. I put my sunglasses and boonie hat back on, and returned to massacring barnacles. She was plainly disgusted with me, catching me at a bad time to make her demands and vent her displeasure. Captains of yachts didn't scrape hulls and get their bodies covered with vile barnacle debris.
She had a fiery temper; maybe it went with her Venezuelan heritage and her drop-dead-gorgeous looks. Her mother had been first runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant a quarter century earlier and Cori might have won it all, but in Venezuela it took a lot of money to compete successfully in beauty contests. Money her family didn't have, not since her father had been fired from his job teaching law at the Universidad Central for daring to teach the Venezuelan constitution instead of the dictator's whims.
All Cori might need to be a Miss Universe finalist was perhaps a minuscule, almost unnoticeable bit of work on the top of her delicate nose, to make it precisely ruler-straight. In Venezuela, such minor cosmetic surgical touchups were routine and expected. You could stare at her heart-shaped face for days, from any angle, and not find another flaw in its symmetry. And the beauty pageant coaches would no doubt try to convince her to get a boob job, even after I had spent the last six months assuring her that her breasts were perfect just the way they were, pear shaped and uptilted.
I sighed at the accumulated memories of our time together, in and out of our clothes. Sometimes I would lose the thread of her conversation, especially when she was speaking very animatedly and jumping between English and Spanish. Even if it occasionally seemed as though she was just chattering away like a songbird, I never minded. I was always glad to be mere inches away from her, with a ready excuse to stare at her lovely face and into her sparkling golden-brown eyes.
Today Cori was throwing another attention-seeking temper tantrum. Her angry outbursts passed quickly, like squalls on the ocean. We had been through this cycle many times in the past six months. The making-up process nearly always led to passionate lovemaking. It was almost something to look forward to while cleaning the hull.
So I wasn't going to stop working and run around the boat chasing after her. Especially not with so many eyes on us. There were maybe twenty boats anchored in this side cove off Elizabeth Harbour, from thirty-footers up to a single hundred-foot power yacht anchored a little farther out. My sixty-foot schooner lying on its side was already providing the morning's entertainment for the anchorage. The schooner captain's sexy girlfriend, who often wore dental-floss bikinis and sometimes sunbathed topless when the crew were ashore, was another reason for the gawkers and voyeurs to keep their binoculars handy. There was no television here in the Out Islands, so we were providing today's entertainment in hi-def living color. I caught a glint of the sun reflected off an anchored boat. Maybe it was a piece of deck hardware angled just right, or maybe it was a pair of binos handled carelessly. In a previous life I'd been trained to notice those reflections, when lenses were sometimes attached to rifles. That sun flash still made me nervous when I saw it. Paranoia was a hard habit to break.
I kept scraping, and reminiscing. The first few months after finding Cori in Venezuela she had been insatiable, a passionate tigress. There had been a magnetic skin hunger between us, a shared sexual attraction that found us entangled at least twice a day, often on deserted beaches or atop sand dunes overlooking the ocean. A night didn't pass that we didn't make love in the double bed of my captain's cabin, which occupied the entire stern of Rebel Yell. Between those times we were rarely more than a few feet apart, and we were usually touching. Her hot Latina temper had never mattered to me, not when we thought we were madly in love.
Now our romantic interludes were becoming less frequent as her pent-up desire to arrive in Miami overcame her desire to be the captain's woman on an endless tropical cruise. Cori was an ambitious girl, and I had been the vehicle for her ambition when Rebel Yell carried her away from Venezuela, where her family was suffering political retribution and financial ruin. Cori had even been expelled from college because of her tainted family name. Her new ambition was to work in front of a television camera in Miami, which she believed to be some sort of Latin American media mecca. This, she thought, would bring in enough money to save her family from complete ruin. Perhaps they could even come to the United States, if she was successful enough.
There was a growing community of Venezuelan expatriates and refugees in South Florida, and Cori's family had enough connections among them to get her started on her way. If a television job didn't come quickly enough, she was confident she could get modeling work in the short term. I wasn't so sure. How much advertising could there be, with the American economy in a state of cardiac arrest? Could the economy in Florida be that much better than back in Venezuela? I'd been away for a few years, and I didn't trust anything I heard on the radio or occasionally saw on satellite television.
I couldn't blame her for wanting to get to Miami and begin making money: Cori's family was counting on her. Her father was blacklisted, and he would never get another professional job in Venezuela, not as long as the dictator stayed in power. Without their father's salary, Cori's younger sisters and brother could not afford private schools, and the family was even at risk of losing their home in a relatively safe gated community. Cori, their oldest daughter and brightest star, was their hope for recovery.
I had assisted her toward her goal by helping to perfect her English, but even that period of my usefulness was ending. Her semester in Dan Kilmer's Finishing Academy was winding down, and she was ready to graduate and move on to the next phase of her life. Cori was eager to invade Miami with her tilty brown eyes, her curves, her legs, her thousand-watt smile, and the unstoppable force of her personality.
But I wasn't going to lose my boat just to take her the last three hundred miles. I had certainly enjoyed her company, it went without saying. What red-blooded man alive wouldn't want to spend six months sailing in the tropics with an intelligent and exciting girl who, incidentally, could also have been Miss Venezuela? How could I complain? I couldn't. But once she set foot in Miami she would soon be leaving my side, of that I had no doubt. My charm, roguish looks and sixty-foot schooner were humble fare compared to what awaited Cori Vargas in that legendary city full of high-powered businessmen, lawyers and broadcasting executives. Even today, with the American economy flatlining.
I tried to put her out of my mind as I scraped barnacles. The rising tide wouldn't wait while I sorted out the lasting meaning of Cori Elena Ferratti-Vargas to my life. Already the water was above my knees as I worked along the keel toward Tran.
The job was never-ending. Within days of this scraping, the new crop of barnacles would be pea-size. In three weeks they'd be as big as grapes and competing with each other for every square inch of boat bottom. My schooner needed a real boatyard haulout and a genuine anti-fouling paint job. But that would cost thousands of dollars, dollars I didn't currently have in my cruising fund after a run of bad luck that had begun in the Dominican Republic. Personally, I didn't mind going from riches to rags, because I knew that sooner or later I'd put something together and make another big score. I always did. But Cori had run out of patience.
It struck me that my own personal low tide was happening at the same time as this careenage job. Nothing was lower than scraping barnacles during the summer's lowest tide while my beautiful Venezuelan girlfriend was falling out of love with me. It was also no coincidence that my personal ebb tide was occurring almost on Uncle Sam's back porch, in the Bahamas just three hundred miles from Florida. I was an expat renegade who couldn't seem to stay too far away from the country of his birth. An outcast hang-around-the-fort Indian, hoping for some scraps to fall his way. This was not a cheerful self-image to confront while covered in barnacle grit and slime under the blinding tropical noonday sun, with Cori's angry reproach still ringing in my ears.
There comes a time when harsh reality must wrap itself around your deepest desires, and you must decide what is truly most important to you. How could I keep Cori Vargas, and what risks were worth taking to keep her? Freedom I still had aplenty, but for how much longer if I wanted to keep both Cori and Rebel Yell?
There was no legal work for an American expat in the Bahamas. There was only off-the-books work like the pending salvage job, raising an eighty-foot powerboat recently sunk between Great Exuma and Long Island--a job that seemed less likely to happen with each new delay. This was practically honest work--it lacked only the government's blessing. In fact it was closer to a straight job than anything I'd done to fill the piggy bank in two or three years.
But at least it had the virtue of being a quickly accomplished job with an immediate cash payment--or so I had thought. I should have known better than to believe that anything could be accomplished quickly in the laid-back Bahamas. Now I had blown a few more weeks in George Town, with nothing to show for my time here and no other prospects lined up. With no money coming in, how much longer could I maintain my status as the young skipper so in control of his destiny that he sails his own schooner where he wants, when he wants? The facade was becoming as thin as the white paint on Rebel Yell's decks.
No way was I going to lose Rebel just to keep Cori happy for another week or two. Miami was her magical Land of Oz, her Emerald City, but to me it was just United States government territory. Miami was her dream, not mine. It was a place where I would risk losing my boat, my floating home and livelihood, and possibly even face jail time. I wasn't going to return to America, not while I faced a tax bill for my unpaid national health care and other accrued fines. Even worse, my boat was now considered to be "luxury personal property" and was therefore subject to an annual federal tax. An expat CPA I'd met in Antigua had run my numbers and showed me that I was deep in the hole to Uncle Sam.
I'd been oceans away when the new tax laws were passed. I'd never voted on them, and I felt no obligation to pay them, not when I was out of the country and not using any government services. But unless I could write a big check to my greedy Uncle, my schooner would be taken away from me if I returned to the States. Rebel Yell was my sole asset of any note. The pints of blood I'd shed on foreign sand could not be offered as a substitute. Uncle Sam was unsentimental and ungrateful. He wanted dollars, not another vet's sob story.
No, I'd worked too hard getting Rebel Yell to take the chance of losing her now. There was still a lot of world outside America left to explore, and a million more pretty girls to meet. I wasn't going to risk giving my schooner to the feds just to deliver Cori to Miami. We'd had a good run, but our time together was ending anyway. I'd sensed it for a few weeks. The closer we sailed to Florida, the more distant she became.
What the hell. There would be other girls, but there wouldn't be another sixty-foot schooner like Rebel Yell. Owned outright, free and clear--except in the opinion of Uncle Sam and his tax collectors. I continued scraping off barnacles, working my way down the hull. Cori would go off and sulk, and soon enough she might be leaving my life--but today's rising tide waited for no man.