In January of 2015, my wife Corinna and I had left Great Inagua, in the Bahamas. Our 35’ steel ketch Ixion was just beginning to pound into a southwest chop drumming out of the Windward Passage; a ska beat driven up from Jamaica. Our intention had been to make for Isle Au Vache, Haiti, but after half an hour of punching into the waves we shook our heads: What is wrong with this picture? We are beating west? The overall plan was to get east. We bore away, eased sheets and ran down Haiti’s north shore with a thick west wind behind us.
We managed to bump an unseen tree, during a squall, and got pooped as wind fought current, but a day and a night later we dropped the hook in Luperon, Dominican Republic. The west wind still blew, but we had a variety of reasons for needing a break. Surely we would get another cold front to ride, right? We couldn’t have been more wrong. Escaping Luperon took a month as strong easterlies sent white horses along the D.R.’s north shore. Even the night lees were short lived. We took on some of our boat projects and went exploring.
This brought us to Puerto Plata. On many Caribbean islands you will now find ziplines; aerial fun for the tourist. We took a zipline ride of a different kind in Puerto Plata. There is an aerial tram, the only one in the Caribbean, taking day trippers up to the peak of Isabel de Torres for a grand view of the city and sea beyond. We caught a gondola with almost thirty other people and enjoyed the view. On our way back down we loaded into another of the brightly painted trams and found ourselves near the front of the car. An Asian couple held an infant up to see out of the windowless opening in front of us. Whether the car had been built to be ‘open air’ or the windows had been removed I couldn’t tell. A couple from Texas, next to Corinna, were shaking their heads in disgust as we transited down the mountainside.
“Just imagine if this car stops all of a sudden,” the gent said to us, “that baby will be out the window.” I considered the idea. The opening was well above the young father’s waist and he had the entire baby inside—no arms or legs sticking out. We’ve all become so pampered, stuffy, I thought. For a moment it made me glad that I had gotten away from the States for a bit.
A moment later we were in free fall. Perhaps something had gone wrong with the brake, we couldn’t tell. We were flying down the hillside. During bad surprises my mind often jumps to the worst possibilities. I have worked with heavy wire and I thought that maybe the longsplice in the endless loop had let go. Corinna and I grabbed each other. It passed through my mind that this could be the end. There was perhaps five or six seconds of this giddy drop when we lurched to a halt. The pack of bodies flew towards the front of the car, crushing those in front. We recovered as the gondola bounced up and down, probably ten feet, suspended in the middle of the span as we were. The woman on my left was hyperventilating and weeping quietly. I was relieved to see the Asian couple getting to their feet from the floor with their youngster unharmed. Perhaps they were better trained than us.
“Hallelujah,” said the conductor. We were moving again in a minute and made it to the base without further incident. As we debarked another of the gondola operators greeted our conductor; high fives, big smiles, lots of laughing. They threw a couple of jokes our way: “Weren’t we happy to be down?” I couldn’t help but think of what a different reception we would have got in the U.S. or Canada. We’d be talking about refunds, free lunch tickets; some kind of investigation would be launched or at least promised.
Going to sea is a calculation; cruisers all accept different levels of risk. Some boats shuttle from one secured marina to the next, while others will anchor behind any scrap of a reef for some solitude. Some vessels are heavily insured, a good number sail without coverage. People tailor their plans according to their individual bag of tricks and equipment. Most of the time things seem to work out.
Going ashore for the first time in a new place is harder to prepare for. You can know the broad strokes of a country’s economics and social norms but still there will be surprises. I realized after the gondola ride, how much I was expecting the underlying structure of what I was seeing to be much like home. Things that look familiar may not behave in the same way: I once witnessed a bad car accident on Grand Bahama, on a highway well outside of Freeport. Some workmates of mine were still at the scene, over an hour later, when the ambulance arrived. They had expected to see a crash kit, defibrillator, etc. But when the back doors were opened there was only a gurney; all else was bare. In a similar way, when we boarded the tram in Puerto Plata, we accepted it because it was well painted and built by an Italian company. We had not given a thought to its maintenance records or staff certification. How many times do you worry about stepping into an elevator? There is usually an inspection certificate on the wall, but how many passengers check it before pressing the up button? We become products of our places. Tex had seen the risk in the gondola but I had not. I can wonder now where he had been before.
There are cultural attitudes toward risk, and by this I don’t mean strictly regional or national attitudes. Safety is a matter of what means people have to care for themselves. Sailors will sometimes defer the repack of a liferaft in a far-flung port or the purchase of new flares. In the D.R. I was struck by how many scooters I saw burning down bumpy roads, balancing a ten year old and an eighty pound propane cylinder across the rear saddle. I guess it must work for them most of the time. If you were to ask a scooter driver if he thought this was dangerous, he would likely say: no, as long as you’re careful—besides I need the gas. When you get on the road you are in the traffic flow with these I.E.D.’s but one must get off of the boat from time to time. If you go anywhere you are forced to engage in the local culture of risk taking. By leaving home you inevitably move your risk tolerance either, forward or back, towards that of the people you will be surrounded by. I think the Asian couple at the front of our gondola had known and planned for this. At the first sign of trouble they hit the deck and shielded their child.
I wouldn’t like to leave an impression that I see things as sub-par and dangerous in the destinations we’ve sailed to. People strive. We have never had bad food or water in the Caribbean; I did get food poisoned at a pub in Toronto last year. I would go take in the view at the top of Isabella de Torres again, I would just ask exiting passengers about the smoothness of the gondola ride. I’ll go back to Toronto too—maybe dine in.
Adventurers are required to suffer. It’s part of the game. The trick is to suffer just enough to spin a good yarn over sundowners but hold onto all of your limbs. Staying inquisitive is helpful ashore. Other countries don’t always have banks of lawyers to enforce social safeguards; people expect to be more self reliant. Ask locals and other sailors specific questions: How are the streets here late in the evening. Do people like dogs? Is it safe to walk my dog here? How many propane tanks is your scooter designed to carry?—-Just kidding about that last one.
Adventure can come in big boxes and little boxes. You can’t always know when you will open one but you can try for the right size.
Some friends came to visit us on St. Lucia and were keen to try ziplining. Looking at people flying along, geared up in gloves, helmets, harnesses and clips, it did look like fun, and safe.
“Are you going to give it a try Jim?” someone asked.
I declined on account of the cost, and maybe they thought I wimped out, but I knew I had already lived the big thrill.