Charter NOMAD

NOMAD is up for Charter

It’s finally happening.  We (Marissa and I) are offering customizable and fully crewed charters onboard NOMAD.  For the time being we’ll be in San Blas (Kuna/Guna Yala), Panama.  There may be some other locations in our future (think Cuba) – but for now we’re happy to have the white sand beaches, the palm trees, the turquoise water, and the amazing reefs of San Blas.

To catch you up – I took a break from the boat about six months ago, starting in Africa and ending up in Colombia (with a few stops in other countries).  At the end of all of that I decided it was time to put some money back in the cruising kitty – so here we are.

As far as charters go, we’re on a great platform (the Lagoon 380) for it.  And NOMAD is a very well-equipped example of the world’s best selling catamaran.  We have two queen berths and a full berth (meaning we can offer charters for groups up to 6).  Two heads, one with a walk-in shower, and a third shower on the back deck.  We have a ton of solar – so we don’t ruin the peace of San Blas with a generator.  We have a huge fridge and a large separate freezer, meaning we can keep hard-to-find foods and drinks cool.  We have all the toys – from underwater lights to heavy-duty fishing tackle to our two-person fishing kayak to our aluminum RIB w/Yahama 15hp outboard.  Even a couple of surfboards.

Most importantly, I know these islands, the people, the Kuna.  So whatever it is you want to do – I can get you to the right spot for it.  We’re specializing in three areas – freediving and spearfishing, offshore fishing, and exploring the remote parts of San Blas.  We’re especially capable in those departments – and if you’ve been following my progress for any length of time, you probably need little convincing.

Getting here is simple – fly into Panama City and let me know when you’re coming in.   We have all of the contacts to get you out to the boat quickly and efficiently.  Note – we are happy to make the arrangements, but we don’t cover the cost of getting you to the boat in our prices.  How it works is:  you fly into Panama City and usually spend one night, then the next morning a 4×4 picks you up and takes you to San Blas (2.5 hours, a fun drive) and transfers you to a water taxi which drops you off right onboard NOMAD (.5-1 hour).  Usually you’re onboard before noon of the same day.  Easy, right?

At that point we sail you to a beautiful anchorage and drop the hook – and you’re off on a vacation you won’t forget!

To charter NOMAD we need at least two people and our rates start at $225/person/day.   That includes everything onboard – lodging, 3 large and healthy meals per day (plus snacks), drinks, and a moderate amount of alcohol (including a welcome drink).  We’ll even help take pictures and video for you and give you a USB with all of your pictures and video, to take back home and show off.

Oh – and if you’re on my mailing list, you get a discount just for being awesome.

So, what are you waiting for?  Come visit us!

 

NOMAD

Obsessed

Alright. So we’ve been in Cuba for a very long time now, it feels like time to go. We’ve done everything we came for and more. I’ve had my fair share of this country, and I’ve enjoyed most of it. We’re running out of money. We’re running out of patience. We’re running out of things to see and do.

There is always the big-fish chase. The underwater sightseeing. The freediving, the underwater observation of the food chain and the reef. There is always that, at least.

It was at this point that my little brother decided to visit.

 

The Visit

 

You know how sometimes you are living in the moment so completely that you forget to take any pictures whatsoever? Nothing crazy happens. Maybe it was just a very peaceful and fun and nice few days and you want to remember that, but there wasn’t any big moment (which is what was so nice about it) – so you didn’t take any pictures. I don’t even know how to log those moments, those days.

We had those days.   They were exactly what we needed. Quiet days anchored very far from people and very close to our dive spots.   And we have no pictures of those days.

Then my little brother was flying in for a short two days with us, then he was going back to Havana for a few days and then back to that grinding worklife. He flew in, I walked to the airport (which is something I appreciate), and then he was onboard.

I love having family visit. And friends. Wonderful stuff. My goal was to get my brother on some decent fish and let him spear one or two for dinner. Outside the wind was whipping , so while we made it outside the reef – it was rough and it wasn’t all that great of visibility. It was also deeper out there.

There were plenty of smaller Cubera Snapper, a couple nice grouper, and boatloads of smaller edible fish. My brother learned how to identify a couple of the target species and then the hunt was on.   I told him he could shoot one of the snapper schooling at the bottom – he tells me it seems small. Nothing was big enough for him, his selectivity made me proud.

Inside the reef we found calmer, clearer water and some smaller fish. A few decent eating-size grouper. More Cubera Snapper. Then I told my brother to take a shot at a Barracuda, if he saw one. He saw one, he shot. He missed. That repeated itself. Barracuda can be hard to hit.

A few minutes later I pointed out a Barracuda, my brother shot and missed and the Barracuda came right at me and I instinctively shot and then we had a Barracuda for chum. I didn’t expect much as I thought the water was too shallow to hold any big fish. 5M or so. Shallow. But I was wrong.

Nothing much was coming up our chum line – a couple of smaller grouper, a medium-sized Cubera Snapper. It was my brother’s mission to get this Cubera. He kept trying, but when a Cubera Snapper gets to a certain size (and they’re in shallow water) – they are wise and easily spooked. It was not meant to be.

But then I saw the largest Cubera Snapper I’ve ever seen in my life. Ever. He looked like a dinosaur in the face and seemed to have more in common with a Volkswagen than a fish. He was not interested in the chum, he was even less interested in hanging around me. I swam and swam and tried every trick in the book – but he was gone and my brother was done diving for a while and we needed lunch.

So we went back to NOMAD. We had lunch. I had a good idea: move NOMAD over to the spot with the giant Cubera and then stay there. We could dive off the boat in shallow/clear water, there were plenty of conch. And there was the giant Cubera Snapper.

So we picked up anchor and weaved our way through the reef and then we were in the spot with the Giant Cubera Snapper. I began diving and chumming and diving and swimming and then sitting on the bottom until I had blue lips. I was, as my brother later said, obsessed with this giant, skittish fish in this shallow, clear water.

The fish was a ghost. He would make an appearance at the edge of your visibility and then just vanish. One time he came up the chum line and grabbed a piece of chum and then vanished. It was maddening. Be gone or come in.

 

The Obsession

 

We were starting to run out of fish because I wasn’t shooting anything because everything seemed so small compared to this monster/ghost/dinosaur. I had some boatwork to do, much writing to do, but my brother was here and so that could wait. What we could do, though, is get this damned Cubera.

So I dove again. And my brother moved to a different spot and I decided to chum right behind the boat – maybe we could catch this fish on hook-and-line, since he was so skittish. He came into the chum line when I was almost out of chum. About that time my brother was heading back to the boat and he saw this fish and chased it, trying to spear it. We saw no more of this fish, but we saw plenty of other fish in the chum line and so we left a couple of fishing lines out – but we only succeeded in catching the bottom.

We smoked cigars and drank rum, played a game of chess, and then called it an early night – all of this diving had taken it’s toll.

The next day was my brother’s last day. We ate very well and drank great coffee and had a very relaxing morning as I taught my brother some chess. Then, with little else to do – we went freediving and spearfishing. Diving, diving, diving. We were running out of the stupid Barracuda in this area (for chum). The only thing left was smart Barracuda (they run) and small Barracuda (they aren’t worth it). But, eventually, we got one.

The chum line started again. The source of my obsession made an appearance and then vanished again. We ate lunch. We set out fishing lines. We dove again. Nothing.

That night, we had a long dinghy ride to the marina, where my brother could get a taxi and then get to the airport and then get to Havana. He would have a couple of days there and then he would go “home” to New York City and back to work. Work. Gross. Much better to be going broke smoking cigars and drinking rum while chasing giant Cubera Snapper around. At least that’s my take on it.

That evening the wind died and we could see every detail of the fish under the boat and the coral-strewn bottom from the deck of NOMAD. Every detail. Then Ana walked to the front of the boat to do some reading and she yelled, “There he is!”

Sure enough. The damned Cubera was cruising around our boat and we could see him very clearly and he could see us. Taunting me.

I had no reason to leave this spot (we were waiting on crew and weather to take our leave of Cuba), so we stayed. This hunt for the Cubera took on great meaning. I was writing and relaxing and then it would rain and then, later, I would have a chance to dive and I would see him and then he would disappear.

This continued for a week. Almost every time we get in the water, the Cubera is within sight for a brief moment – then gone.

Then one day I took a break in the evening to grab a fish for dinner (we were, for the first time in a very long time, completely out of fish). Ana loves triggerfish, so I took one for her. Then as I’m swimming back to the boat, I see the damned Cubera again.

At this point I have largely given up hope. I’ve broken two rods and several lines trying to catch him. We’ve hooked everything else – sharks, tarpon, jacks, grouper, the bottom. With all of that, I’ve never been closer than 15M from him in the water. He seems impervious to my tactics.

This dive in question was supposed to be a short grab-some-food-for-dinner dive. I had the triggerfish to clean. I was tired. It was starting to get dark. The Barracuda were wise to me, so I couldn’t get chum.  The current was picking up.

But I decided to give it one more attempt. I shot a Chub. I started cutting it up and the fish started to come in. A small grouper. A decent Cubera Snapper. Barracuda. Mutton Snapper. Lots of Yellowtail Snapper. But no dinosaurs.

Then he was there. Sneaking around on the edge of my visibility. In and out. Not coming close enough to the chum to eat, but attracted by it.

Of course – by that time – I was out of chum, except for the head of the Chub. The stingrays and sharks and grouper and other snapper had swallowed it all up.

I kept dropping the head of the Chub and watching it fall to the bottom. Sometimes he would come, intrigued by seeing something dropping, within 10M. Then I started dropping the Chub head and (when I needed to retrieve it) diving to the bottom and flattening myself out there. He was coming closer.

I did this over and over and it was starting to get dark and the other fish had started to leave. It was me, a shark, and two Cubera Snapper all interested in this last piece of chum – a Chub head. It was a game of keep-away and hide-and-seek played together, underwater.

I started dropping the Chub head on one side of a coral head and then diving to the other side and hiding there. He was getting closer. He came within 5M and offered me a marginal shot. I didn’t shoot. I was getting somewhere with this fish, and with a fish this size – you have to be close for your spear to penetrate far enough to hold him when he takes off like a freight train.

Yes, he will take off like a freight train.

Over and over and over we play this game. He comes closer and closer and seems to be growing more tolerant of my presence.   I’m starting to hope. No more shot-offerings from him. The shark won’t leave me alone and the other Cubera seems intent on committing suicide by swimming straight at the tip of my spear.

Ana is cleaning the triggerfish on the back steps of NOMAD. I told her I might get him, to be ready to toss me a line or a float or help me, in case I made a bad shot.

She is not very excited.

I try to get my heartrate down, try to push down the adrenaline. I need to be on the bottom for a very long time before he gets the nerve to come close.

My heartrate is down. I dive. I see him leaving my area on the way down, I wait forever on the bottom, and then I see his tail on the other side of the coral head. I guess where he will come out from behind the coral head and flatten myself on the bottom.

And then he makes a very large mistake and comes out where I thought he would. And I have this fleeting hesitation – Jesus Christ he’s huge, can I really handle this fish?

I don’t know how Jesus always seems to get mixed up in these affairs.

I pull the trigger. The spear hits the fish and it sounds like the spear hit some kind of metal. A solid thud that seems to reverberate a little under water.

And he doesn’t take off like a freight train. He goes and he does pull hard (the spear bends in a U shape) – but I already know, before I come up off the bottom: this fight is over. The spear went in through the gill-plate, he’s stunned by the impact, the spear is not coming out, I’m in control of this situation.

He circles under me and I’m straining to get him in. I finally get a hand in his gills. I let out a little whoop and Ana knows I have him. She gets the camera before I make it back to the boat. He flips and splashes and crunches my hand in his gills, but he’s mine.

He beat me for a week – day and night, over and over and over. He kept winning. But I only needed to win once, and I did. Finally.

The next day I shrink the picture and send it to Jaco and my brother. They’ll both appreciate it.

Though I can’t say that being obsessive about fish is a good thing, every now and then it pays off in a big way.

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

PS – please excuse the disheveled appearance and the constipated look on my face.  It’s hard holding a fish up, when it gets this size.  And I was far too busy chasing this fish to bother with things like shaving, combing my hair, and general life maintenance.

 

PPS – Oh, and the sail that’s uncovered in the background.  You see, boat maintenance is important, but not as important as dinosaur fish.

 

 

 

RUM!

Friends in Pictures

Finally, out of Havana. Back onboard NOMAD. Life starting to seem normal again. Back to the familiar problems: finding provisions, lugging around diesel containers, running out of water, everything corroding and breaking.

The normal, expensive boat problems.  Familiar, grinding, frustration. Long quiet periods shattered by moments of terror.

Back with friends. Then saying goodbye to those friends. I hate goodbyes and I’m horrible at them. I put on a plastic smile and shake hands or embrace and then just try to get through it. Or I just ghost out of goodbyes altogether.

Songerie

If you haven’t figured it out yet – we’ve made some friends, very good friends, on a boat called Songerie. We met them – Jaco and Cristelle – in San Blas, through Drummer.   Jaco is a superb freediver, likes fires, and can tell a good story. Cristelle drinks rum with us and smokes cigars with us and keeps us in line and organizes beach outings and cooks wonderful food for us. Cristelle and Jaco smoke fish with us and bring their dogs over to play where they (the dogs) go nuts trying to say hi to Ana. Their dogs understand Afrikaans (XXX), French, English, and (now – thanks to Ana) Portuguese. The dogs probably understand Dog, too.

Talented dogs.

Those dogs are more well-traveled than the vast majority of people on this planet.

Anyways.

We sailed around together in San Blas. Then we bumped into each other in Puerto Lindo. Then again in Panamarina. Then again in San Blas – were we waited (impatiently) on a weather window to sail to Cuba (together).   Then we sailed to Cuba and both stopped in Grand Cayman. In Cayman we waited on weather again together (impatiently) and went fishing, terribly hungover, on NOMAD. Then we met in Cienfuegos again. Then sailed to Cayo Cuervo and Alcatracito. Then back to Cienfuegos together.

And after Havana we met each other again in Cayo Largo. Then we sailed with Jaco and Cristelle (and Kantala – we miss you guys too!) to Rosarios, then further to a secret spot. Then Kantala left our merry crew and we were sad. Goodbyes suck.

Then the unthinkable happened: Songerie had to leave. F***! It’s strange because the goodbye happened so quickly that it seemed surreal. All that time together broken, possibly permanently, by a few words and a final beer with the final CUC and then Songerie motoring out of the marina, now on a different path.

The thing is – Songerie isn’t heading to the Pacific. At least not quite yet. They have a big circle that they do, here in the Caribe. The circle takes them to Venezuela so they can get the best, cheapest, rum. Then the circle takes them to back to Cuba when they run out of good cigars. And then back to Venezuela for rum.

You’ve gotta have priorities.

I am heading for the Pacific. I need bigger fish. I’ve seen as much of the Caribe as I care to see. I’ve dove on enough fished-out reefs. I’ve paid the Gringo tax. I’ve fought with manana-time. South and Central America is cool, but most of it is well-traveled. Like the rest of the world, too many people. In the Caribe there are too many “cruisers” – not enough adventurers. Too many liveaboards, not enough voyagers. It’s time for a change. Sometime I’m going to have to start across that little patch of water we have so ironically named “The Pacific” – when it is anything but.

And so began the different trajectories of Songerie and NOMAD.

It took a long time for it to sink in, but we really miss Songerie. Suddenly we didn’t even have a reason to keep the VHF on. No more dinner parties. No more sundowners that last ‘til sunrise. The rum stayed on the shelf a little longer. Jaco wasn’t making fun of me for sleeping in and then convincing me to dive with horrible hangovers. No smartass VHF conversations. No more sailing with buddies and marking fishing spots on our fishfinders and helping each other find the entrances and the exits to the reefs. The fish wasn’t being smoked and there were fewer reasons to go to the beach. We learned how to clean and cook our own conch. My morning weather updates weren’t coming in through Songerie. My freediving became shallower because I no longer had someone with me that could dive past 30M, recover anchors at 35M, and fight the big fish up from the depths. Jaco is a hell of a freediver.

We worry, due to our separation, the dogs are losing their ability to understand Portuguese.

We had so much fun together. It felt like family, but a family that we chose. Then they were gone and we all couldn’t help but think it might very well be the last time we see each other.

Ouch.

In this lifestyle, sometimes the connections are immediate and strong. The goodbyes are always hard. Usually permanent. But the strong connections, those are very rare in any lifestyle.

We miss Songerie and Jaco and Cristelle and Coco and Canella.

But before they left we had some damn good times.

And since it’s been so hard to get reliable Internet connection here I haven’t posted in a while. And since I haven’t posted in a while, it would seem tedious to relate all of the insane and crazy and fun stuff we did. Rather than do that, here are some pictures that’ll be better than my words.

You know what they say about pictures and words. I’ll keep the words to a minimum.

Friends in Pictures

There were a great many beach parties.

Beaches and parties

Beaches and parties

More beach parties

More beach parties

House-party

House-party

More beach parties

More beach parties

More beach parties

More beach parties

Mas fiestas del playa

Mas fiestas del playa

 

There were a great many boat parties.

Boat Parties

Boat Parties

RUM!

RUM!

Boat Parties

Boat Parties

More boat parties

More boat parties

So many parties my head hurts

So many parties my head hurts

There was the time we putted in my dinghy for hours, getting to this wreck. Jaco got some nice fittings, we managed a piece of Tupperware and a good jar.

The wreck

The wreck

Jaco was always getting great fish, and we both took massive Cero Mackerels one day. Mine came in at 12.5 pounds and Jaco’s a little less. Massive Ceros.

That huge Cero

That huge Cero

Big Cero, big fillets

Big Cero, big fillets

Jaco, Hogfish, and the mankini

Jaco, Hogfish, and the mankini

Big ol' Cube

Big ol’ Cube

Black Grouper

Black Grouper

Dinner

Dinner

 

There were the days that Jaco and I went and looked for lobster for our lobster parties. The one day I was trying not to throw up as I looked, inverted, underwater in holes with a horrible hangover. And we bitched about how much we hated looking for lobster and how we didn’t even really like it. Better to be chasing grouper and snapper. Lobster is for those who can’t get it everyday. Conch is so for the connoisseur.

Lobster

Lobster

More lobster

More lobster

There were a great many fish taken. That is what we live on.

Mas Cubera

Mas Cubera

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

There was the day the Great Hammerhead chased me up from 20M and I let him chase me rather than challenging him so that I could show him to Jaco and then I realized Jaco was a very long way away and the Hammerhead was very close and very interested in me. And on the surface, I yelled “Shark!” to Jaco and he thought I was talking about the little reef shark that had been taking his fish.

I wasn’t talking about the little Reef Shark.

Shark snacks

Shark snacks

There was some hook-and-line fishing.

Mahi

Mahi

Trolling

Trolling

Fishing with the fishing dogs

Fishing with the fishing dogs

The fishing dogs admiring the catch

The fishing dogs admiring the catch

And there were the days we would only pull in half of a fish, sharks and Barracuda were taking our fish before we could boat them.

Half-fish

Half-fish

There was some epic diving. That’s a big school of Tarpon swimming over Jaco. What the picture doesn’t catch is the big Dog Snapper on his right, the Hogfish underneath him, and the two grouper just out of range. But they were all there. Jaco lost that wetsuit in Cayo Cuervo, during a storm, in a near-collision with a French boat (it really seems like the French are always anchoring too close and dragging their anchors into other boats). We’re still asking fisherman if they’ve seen his wetsuit.

Jaco and the Tarpon

Jaco and the Tarpon

There was the day our three-boat entourage day-sailed on the inside of the reef to another spot and Songerie left first, before the regatta started and without any warning, and we overtook them and sailed by them and we played “Eye of the Tiger” very loud and I stood on the front deck showing them my ass. Which is the way you should overtake any sailboat, friend or foe:  bare assed, blaring “Eye of the Tiger.”

"How to Overtake Other Boats"

“How to Overtake Other Boats”

It was a great time. Songerie – we miss you guys.

Rum Tasting

Rum Tasting

The beaching of NOMAD

The beaching of NOMAD

Songerie, Jaco, Cristelle

Songerie, Jaco, Cristelle

NOMAD and the sunset

NOMAD and the sunset

And Jaco, Cristelle, we didn’t talk about it – but I’ve decided to make it a life goal to visit you back in your home country and we’ll bullshit and smoke fine cigars and drink our good liquor straight (maybe over rocks) and cook over an open fire and hunt in the bush and talk about “The Good Old Days” when we sailed together and drank too much. We’ll tell great lies about good fish, like real fishermen do.

So, I’ll see you again.

And it will be glorious.

 

 

The Black Grouper Hunt

At this point we had some epic sailing. Some epic diving. Remote spots. Not-so-easy boat maintenance. New friends. Full freezers. Great beach parties. And an epic success (thanks Jaco) in targeting and acquiring a specific and sizeable species. A personal best and trophy Cubera Snapper. And everyone rejoiced with us and enjoyed the fresh fish.

All was well.

Of course, with my recent success – and because Jaco had checked himself to help me out in our last hunt – we now needed to find a suitable trophy for Jaco. That’s the way a good spearfishing team works; it’s all mutually beneficial.

The Black Grouper Hunt

Since we found out that our Cubera Snapper didn’t have ciguatera – we were hopeful that we could find and boat a big Black Grouper for Jaco. The plan was fairly simple: go to where we last saw the giant Black Grouper (The Deeeep Ledge) and attempt to locate him again. We felt confident. And though Jaco uses a similar speargun (I use a Rob Allen Snapper 130 and he uses a Rob Allen Snapper 120) – I let him use the “big gun” – with two (short) rubbers and set up Hawaiian breakaway. I would be using a smaller gun and my primary job was to chum, backup, and serve as the safety for our diving. We were, afterall, diving deep and long. That is, freediving deep and freediving long. Not for the inexperienced or faint of heart.

Our confidence diving that way; a direct product of our combined experience and understanding of, what can be – a dangerous sport.

And so we went.

We dove and dove and chummed and chummed and dove. We saw many grouper. We got close to many a grouper. We checked our fire on Cubera Snapper, Yellowfin Grouper, Black Grouper, Nassau Grouper. Looking for the Big One. Despite our depth, our experience, our understanding of the local water and the underwater topography – we failed.

The diving, as it were, was epic. It was beyond beautiful. It was fishy. It was healthy and fun. But it was, for the desired target; fruitless. I was, again, impressed by Jaco. The man has lungs like I’ve never encountered. Without training, he dives deeper than most that compete. And he does it hunting. In this he is among the elite.

But we had a backup plan (as you learn to have, when adventuring in remote locales).

Our backup was a shallow(ish) reef that sat in about 10 meters of water – but moved into 5 meters of water. At this depth, hunting becomes about stealth and tactics and understanding terrain. You must use all of this to spot, and then sneak up on a fish that has grown large by not being snuck up on. It’s challenging. From a freediving perspective, this kind of hunting is immensely easier than freediving and spearfishing at deeper depths. From a hunting and spearfishing perspective, this can be much more challenging.

We had a limited amount of time before the girls, who often stay on the boat for trophy-hunts, became annoyed with us. There is no boat large enough for a man to escape a woman who has become annoyed with said man. This boat does not exist. Sometimes a country isn’t big enough. And as such, it is wise for men to avoid annoying the women with whom they share a boat.

So we cruised the reef. At first, it was fruitless. At this depth we were hunting separately. Either of us was allowed to take whatever (giant) Black Grouper we were lucky (or skillful) enough to get close to. It was a free-for-all. With some level of preference to Jaco, who had helped me immensely in landing my trophy Cubera Snapper earlier.

So we searched solo. I shot, early, a Barracuda, for chum. I began scattering chum about and managed to attract quite a following among the Dog Snapper, the Yellowtail Snapper, the Mutton Snapper, and the smaller grouper species. They became docile when they realized (as species lower on the food chain, but still hungry, do) that I was more of a food-machine than a threat.

Jaco found our Black Grouper.

But, as large Black Grouper can be – he was onto us. He was wily. He knew his terrain better than we did. That is to say he knew his backyard. At one point I found Jaco when he found the giant Black Grouper. It was in a hole with a million tunnels leading a million different ways to a million exits. And so, we eventually gave up. Big fish, when smart and pressed, can be remarkably evasive.

So we kept moving.

I found, by accident, the virtue of leaving a fish-head alone for an extended period of time – and then returning stealthily to the spot in question. A large Barracuda head has the quality of being food, but being too large for all but the largest reef fish to consume. And so – they all mill about, picking at it, and it gives the stealthy spearfisherman a chance to, minimally, see what is in the area.

This, accidental, tactic allowed me within range of trophy Nassau Grouper, Mutton Snapper, and Dog Snapper. And it allowed me a glimpse of the – always evasive – giant Black Grouper.

Of course, upon recognizing me (and they see you before you see them) he went into turbo-mode and vanished into a hole that I never would have guessed he would fit into. Jaco found the fish as he made his escape, but having seen a much large Black Grouper earlier – checked his fire. At this point I realized that the Black Grouper I had seen was a minor trophy in comparison – so my enthusiasm waned.

We returned, over and over and through many different routes, to the last place Jaco had seen the giant Black Grouper – but to no avail.

And so we packed up and headed back to the boat, empty-handed. Despite the incredible variety of great fish which had presented themselves. I’ll say it again – a spearfisherman should be judged more by what they do not take than by what they do. Inexperienced or spearfishermen without virtue are prone to taking what they can, instead of what they should. Discrimination is virtue.

Moving On

So, thwarted, we picked up our anchors and moved to our next spot with Songerie and NOMAD. We were moving further Northwest – closer to Cienfuegos – where we needed to resupply and wade to the obligatory redtape.

We were able to sail, and it was much appreciated. As we sailed in I stayed in the helm the entire time, marking spots which showed an abundance of fish life at depths we could dive. This was, as always, a wise decision.

NOMAD arrived first, with Songerie a bit behind.   And when I called Jaco to tell him we were going for an hour dive, he told me something not-so-unexpected: he needed to do boat maintenance. He would skip this one.

So Anna and I went, and because Anna was with me – we went to a bit of a shallower spot.

When I asked Anna to drop the anchor – she told me it was “just sand.” But, I knew what I had seen on the fish-finder. So we dropped anchor and slid into the water.

When I first saw what was underneath us, I was ecstatic. It was a coral head holding medium-sized but dense fish life. And I dove and dove. I checked my fire over and over. But for Anna – this was a perfect ground to progress. She took two great grouper and lost one nice snapper.

As I met her at the dingy to chat – she told me to go just one coral head further. I did.

Here I found huge schools of Tarpon, what had to have been a breeding ground for Schoolmaster Snapper. Large Cubera Snapper were milling about. And then I caught a glimpse of a very respectable Black Grouper in the middle of the water-column (which isn’t very common).

The Black Grouper was milling about in a school of Spadefish and Tarpon. And as I approached, he veered. He moved further as I approached. He was getting further and further from my grasp as I slowly kicked in his direction. So I stopped. And at this point, his curiosity got the better of him.

I saw, what is always the best moment in spearfishing, his decision to investigate. He stopped moving away. He turned. He began paralleling me. I covered one eye and feigned disinterest. Out of my peripheral, he closed the distance. I began having contractions.

And then there was the moment when I hoped (but felt) that he was within range. Practice makes perfect here – as I turned and aimed and fired with one fluid movement. He didn’t move a muscle. Not even a shake of his tail.

When the spear hit him, he rolled.

And as I surfaced I felt guilty that Jaco hadn’t been here to take the fish. As I boated him I actually considered not showing the fish to Jaco. There’s nothing worse than being denied a spearfishing opportunity, only to learn that it was productive for everyone else.

But, one way or another, it would come out that we had found the fish.

So we headed back and showed it to Jaco. He was, obviously, fired up. It was decided then and there that we would make another attempt in the AM for a Black Grouper for Jaco.  Spoiler alert:  he was successful, despite high winds, strong current, deep diving and poor visibility.

Here’s the fish.

Spearfishing Black Grouper

Spearfishing Black Grouper

That evening a large (160 feet) traditional sailing boat came into the anchorage.  They were Harvey Gamage. And they wanted fish.  We cleaned the grouper and gave it to them.  And they brought us a bottle of much-needed rum.

Life was good.  Again.

 

The angel NOMAD

Spearfishing Cubera Snapper

It was nearing the end of our adventures in Jardin De La Reyna. We needed to get back to Cienfuegos to renew visas. We were anxious to visit Havana, and we’d been remote for long enough that people were likely starting to worry about us.

So much had already happened. There was the time that we traded liquor for shrimp in Cayo Cuervo, and since we traded with only one of the shrimpers – they received a fair amount of alcohol. And they proceeded to drink it immediately – we heard them laughing and shouting and playing music all day, deciding the shrimp could wait.

There was the time we had sundowners on the beach and then had rum and played chess onboard NOMAD until late at night. Then we watched a movie and went to sleep. And then when the wind picked up the French boat started dragging down onto Songerie and they called us on the VHF in a panic and I took the dingy and pushed the boats apart and the crisis was averted.

There was meeting new friends onboard Roxy and Kantala.   There were many days of diving and putting off boatwork. There were so many great fish. So many great dinners and so many cold beers and aged rums.

And after all of that, we were back where we started in Jardin De La Reyna. And this was our favorite spot, and we were with our favorite people. And just a short dinghy ride away was our favorite reef with our favorite dropoff where we could find any fish we desired.

Tons of stuff was broken. Emails and messages and phone calls and banking was piling up. We were out of most vegetables and our stock of cheese was dangerously low and our wine non-existent. Diesel and gasoline and propane were nearing panic-levels. We were many miles from what you guys call “civilization.” We were much further from our families and friends and our “homes.” But we were so happy.

Our Favorite Spot

Even mediocre fisherman, those weekenders and amateurs and wanna-bees, don’t give away their fishing spots. At least they don’t keep doing it. Fool me once. So I can’t tell you where we were. Forgive me. But we were in a good spot.

We had mere inches of water under our keels. We were tucked in close to the island. The water was clear. The VHF was quiet, until our friends had something worthwhile to say. Our fridges and freezers were full of tasty fish. Maybe we could have spent more time on boat-maintenance, but I’m convinced that’s not something I’ll wish I did more of on my deathbed. So, the real concern here was bagging a nice Black Grouper and a nice Cubera Snapper.

Preferably something that resembled a dinosaur and tested us thoroughly.

 

The Dives

We have, at this point, began placing a relatively high value on chum (or burley). We handle this one of two ways: we drag small lures in our trolling spread or we shoot a fish for chum early. Our preferred target is barracuda – but in a pinch you can use anything. Then we drift and scrape and cut and see what happens.

I can’t say that we’ve actually boated anything as a direct result of this method, but it moves the fish around and gets them out and about. It’s a worthwhile tactic. So when we our spot on the deep ledge (it was only Jaco and I), we came with chum. We dropped the dinghy anchor in 30M of water and then we pulled out all the gear and then we began diving and searching. We found the spot. Then the real diving began.

The honest truth is that I’m not a great freediver. Most of the guys that are serious, that I dive with, are deeper divers. Jaco is one of the deepest spearfisherman I’ve ever dove with. It’s a remarkable luxury to dive with someone that is better than you, one I appreciate very much. And so he did some of the gruntwork scouting and diving and hanging on the bottom – while I did the chumming and kept an eye on the mid-water.

We shot a nice Yellowtail Snapper for sushi, then we moved back to Cubera hunting. They did come into the chum, but they were wary. Grouper were everywhere. But this wasn’t a tablefare mission. So they all swam away unscathed, but with full bellies.

And then the current pushed us over a new spot. This was the Deeeep Ledge. It went from 25M to infinity. Huge caves. Massive overhangs. If one kept diving a spot like this, they would encounter massive fish. But it was deep and if you shoot a fish at that depth and it runs over the Deeeep Ledge – you’re effed. Either you: a) likely drown trying to pull it up or b) you lose your gear and your fish. Outcomes not worth pursuing.

This is where we saw our first giant Black Grouper. Jaco and I, in a rare move, both dove at the same time – but at different ends of the chum slick. And I saw a huge Black Grouper approach Jaco. He held his fire. At the surface we talked – it was too big.

And today was Cubera Snapper day.

So we kept diving. It was exhausting.

Spearfishing Cubera Snapper

And, at the end of our diving, as the sun was setting; it happened.

I saw a school of fish passing beneath us. They were deep, just in front of the Deeeep Ledge. They were so deep and so big and there were so many – I was sure they were Tarpon. But they weren’t. Jaco dove. When he surfaced he looked at me and said: “Nate, there are 26 Cubera Snapper – that I could count – that are over 15 kilos.”

He had a shot, but had waited for me to take a dive on them. It takes a mature spearfisherman to do that. and a friend. So I dove. And at 25M I hit the bottom. I waited. And as the contractions came, so did the Cubera.

The school was largest I’ve ever seen. They split as they approached me. Some came almost in range, then moved off. Others, smaller, came within range. I waited. The contractions were getting stronger, but Jaco was above and we had one shot at a monster. So I tried to push down the adrenaline.

Then, finally, came the right fish at the right distance presenting the right shot. I fired, but they were moving so quickly – rather than hitting him with a spine-shot (which is lights-out) the shot went further back. Before I even realized I’d hit the fish, he was running over the Deeep Ledge – which is to say he was leaving my reality, with my gear.

In a moment of pure luck, I managed to grab the floatline as it sped down and past me. It was at this point the disagreement between this fish and I hit its pinnacle.

You see – he really wanted to disappear into the deep and then into a cave. I really wanted him to come up to the surface with me so I could eat him and share him with my friends. The disagreement was fundamental and not-so-easily resolved.

The good news is that Jaco was watching me from the surface, so if I did blackout – I had a very high likelihood of surviving it. The bad news was the fish was almost my size and was certainly a stronger swimmer. That became clear very quickly. And so, in an environment which I cannot breathe, we played tug of war. Him down, me up.

After what seemed like an eternity (but was only seconds), I realized I couldn’t gain ground (get to the surface) without giving him something. The best I could do was to hold him out of the hole/off the ledge and get a breath, then fight him to the surface.

The progress was slow and exhausting and the contractions were powerful – but I could see that Jaco knew what was happening and he moved to assist, if needed.

I broke the surface. I breathed. Jaco asked: “Big?” I had no breath, but could just get out the word. “Yes.”

The fish kicked my ass all the way to the surface. Then at the surface he kicked my ass some more for good measure. Then he met a humane end and we struggled to get his mass into the dinghy.

I couldn’t have been more happy, at that moment, if I’d been declared King of the World. The rest of the night we spent running around and showing off the fish to our friends. Then it was time for rum and fine cigars.

PS – in the pic below, check out those canines…

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

There are two issues with shooting a fish this size: a) ciguatera b) making use of this much meat. Problem a is solved by someone being a tester (not a cool job, but if you shoot a fish this size – I think it’s your responsibility). The tester tries a small amount of the fish one night. If they get sick, it’s cig. If not, they try a little more the second night. If they get sick, it’s cig. If not, the fish is declared safe for human consumption. This one was, thankfully, safe for human consumption.

We solved issue b (making use of this much meat) by a) giving it to friends, b) freezing a portion of it c) smoking a portion of it.

Which meant that we had a very good excuse to pull the beach gear back out and have another fish-smoking, rum and sangria-drinking, cigar-smoking, beach party. And it was glorious.

The beach bums

The beach bums

 

Cayo Cuervo, Cuba

Sailing Cuba’s South Coast

Hey there, glad you’re still around. The connectivity here is causing major problems. With that said, Cuba is now much more connected than it’s ever been. And as that connection increases, the culture will fade – so what is a struggle is the very thing that keeps Cuban culture alive.

For me, that’s fine.

But for people that have become accustomed to internet access everywhere, at any hour, for free – Cuba is a frustrating place. And it’s hard for them to imagine having to fight, pay, wait, for severely-limited access to the Internet.

Online banking? Nope, that credit card will just have to pay itself. Regular posting on the website? Can’t do it. Instant messaging? Not with any regularity. Checking emails? Once in a Blue Moon, at which point you’ll have 1600 emails to scan and a few minutes in which to do it (1,637 was my number). What about researching and planning? Better make wise use of your connectivity. Can’t get distracted.

But – back to sailing Cuba’s southern coast.

 

Sailing Cuba’s South Coast

So we planned our next move down the Cuban coastline. But we had a day to kill before we traveled and I had marked several promising spots with the my Garmin fishfinder. We needed to try them. But they were deep, some upwards of 25 meters.

Since we were hunting deep, we decided to use a bit of chum to help our odds a little. At the depth we were diving, it’s impossible to chase fish – and so you must either a) spot them before you begin your dive or b) have a rough idea where they will be when you leave the surface. Using chum helps with both scenarios.

So we decided to take a particularly large Barracuda that was using our boat as a hiding spot to surprise baitfish. I loaded a speargun for Ana, she dove in, lined up and took a shot. She nailed it and the Barracuda took powerful run, Ana and the Barracuda pulling opposite ways in the water and neither making any progress.
We did get the fish though, and with that we had chum.  It was the size of Ana, as you can see.

Ana and the cuda in Cuba

Ana and the cuda in Cuba

 

The Deep Ledge

Diving deeper ledges is only possible when you a) know where they are b) have someone experienced with you and c) can hunt at that depth. The stars aligned when with Jaco and I both being fairly serious divers (and Jaco being much deeper than myself). And since I could use NOMAD’s bottom machine to read depths and structure and mark it all – we were in business.

Jaco and I took off after hearing the weather report. We dropped the dinghy anchor in 25 meters of water and started chumming. The Yellowtail Snapper were our first visitors. Then some larger Dog Snapper, Barracuda, Queen Triggerfish, and a host of smaller grouper (on a single dive I counted six on the bottom).  But none of these were the target, and so we waited and dove and waited and practiced our trigger discipline. It’s amazing the fish that will come in to you when you aren’t hunting them!

Cubera Snapper came in next, and this was our target. But they were fast and sneaky and since they can breathe underwater, all they had to do was outwait us. So we dove deep and dove long but we were outfoxed by these big fish.  And we couldn’t get away with diving forever…

And so we moved inside the reef, deciding to settle for Hogfish and lobster. Which really isn’t a huge sacrifice.

Looking back – I realize we took such great fish from the area, but I have few pictures of them because the whole thing became ordinary.

Let’s suffice it to say we ate very well, as did everyone in the anchorage, and we have a healthy supply of smoked fish. When Songerie leaves NOMAD we’ll be very sad to see them go – not just because they are great friends but also because we’ll lose our access to Jaco’s smoker and their Venezuelan Rum.

Onward, to Cayo Cuervo

So, eventually, we picked up anchor in paradise and set out to Cayo Cuervo. Here we would go and trade with the local shrimpers for fresh shrimp. And here, I had decided, I would beach NOMAD to change the oil seals in my saildrive (which I had destroyed with fishing line, again).

After motoring against wind and a strong current with a single engine – we eventually arrived in Cayo Cuervo. Here there were many more sailors, some shrimpers. There was also mediocre visibility and less fish.

For the first two days I planned and placed sticks in the sand to mark tides, as I needed to put NOMAD up at the highest point and then do the necessary work at the lowest point of the tide. Then the Cubans went ashore and removed my sticks and I was back to square one…

So I started marking tides again.

And within a couple more days I had a fair idea of what high tide was and what low tide was. Then I swam the beach and marked my route to the beach, then I waited for high tide.

These days went by quickly and there were parties and new friends and great food – but all day, every day, were the thoughts and worries and concerns about beaching NOMAD, doing the work, and all of the things that could go horribly wrong.

Parties on the beach

Parties on the beach

We called it "planning"

We called it “planning”

At high tide, on the big day, I maneuvered NOMAD to the beach, and slid her up as high as she would go. Then we pulled the anchor and chain a long way across the beach (which is great exercise) and then put out a stern/side anchor to brace her against the strong winds that we knew were coming that night. Before sundown we were all set and with nothing else to do but wait – we decided to have a party onboard.

Naturally.

NOMAD beaching party

NOMAD beaching party

And this night, like many before, we had great people onboard with great food and great drinks and engaging conversation until the wee hours of the morning.

The next day, around 2PM I decided to start work. The tide was much smaller than expected – meaning that all of the work was done underwater. But I was prepared for this possibility.

The first step was to take the prop off. Then to remove the prop shaft and seals. Then I had to fashion a press to remove the ruined seals. Then use the press to (VERY carefully) press the new seals onto the prop shaft. Then put it all back together. Of course, since the prop was underwater, seawater had entered the saildrive – which isn’t ideal, but wasn’t a major concern as it would all be soaking in oil and the exposure to seawater was minimal. That said, getting the seawater out would require some trial and error and some ingenuity.

At that point of re-assembly, we used a Shop-Vac to blow air (from the top of the saildrive) through the bottom of the saildrive, and then reassembled it all and sealed it. Then, we filled the saildrive with oil. At that point, the work was complete – but, as with anything fairly complex done with a time-constraint in less than ideal conditions – the true test wouldn’t come until we had tried everything…

But I was fairly confident in the work and all indications pointed toward a successful job. The only issue was that, because I was working underwater, I couldn’t put the Max-Prop back on and was forced to use my backup, 2-bladed fixed prop. That would hurt sailing speeds a little, but in a country without access to a marina and very limited resources – it was the best we could do.

Waiting for high-tide

Waiting for high-tide

So that night at high tide we pulled NOMAD off the shore and motored to our anchor spot – with everyone watching and hoping that it all went well. It all went well. Not even a drop of seawater in our saildrive oil – meaning that the seals were holding and we had succeeded in getting the water out of the saildrive before reassembly while the saildrive was below the waterline.

At this point, I could relax again. And at this point I could start dreaming and planning and scheming about getting back to my own piece of paradise where the water was clear the reef was beautiful and the fish were big.

Two days later we pulled our anchor in Cayo Cuervo and headed back south to chase the elusive giant Black Grouper and Cubera Snapper. It was a regatta of sorts – with all of our friend’s boats (3 in addition to NOMAD) sailing back to the same spot.

That morning I annouced the beginning of the regatta on the VHF, and we were the first to take off with the rising sun.  The regatta was a downwind sail and I was able to experiment with downwind sailing, using some rigging and some lines to wing-and-wing downwind and making excellent time. As our buddies on the monohulls rocked and rolled their way South, we sped downwind with near-perfect stability. It was a pleasurable sail that ended with us tucking in behind an island in remarkably shallow water. We sat in 1.5 meters of water and watched our friends come in and anchor in much deeper and less protected waters – as the drafts on the monohulls prevented them from getting any shallower.

Catamarans aren’t always the answer, but in the last few days – we did things that monohulls can’t do (with style): we beached for maintenance, hosted comfortable parties, sailed downwind with speed and ease, and then  navigated through and anchored in very shallow water.

And after all of this, I began my second game of chess with large reef fish on the southern Cuban coast.

Jardin De La Reyna

Jardin De La Reyna

So. We were in a remote anchorage along the Southern Cuban coast – somewhere in the Jardin De La Reyna. NOMAD and Songerie were the only two boats in sight. NOMAD had only a few inches of water under her keels, and we had a ton of chain out – so we were completely secure.

Jardin De La Reyna

As soon as we dropped our anchor Jaco called on the radio and asked if we were diving. I told him that I had too much work to do on the boat – just seeing if I could get a rise out of him. He called my bluff and thirty minutes later Cristelle, Jaco, and I were heading to the outside of the reef.

On the way we talked about the fish species in the area, sizes, depths. The prevailing wisdom was that there were many a grouper in the area – primarily Yellowfin and Black Grouper. I asked about Nassau Grouper (my favorite), but Jaco hadn’t seen many in the area last time ‘round.
The goal, today, was nice a nice grouper or two and a nice Mutton Snapper. Hogfish were on the menu, but we weren’t diving in prime Hogfish area. Cubera Snapper were common in the area as well – but we didn’t have enough info on Ciguatera, so today’s hunting was like a trip to the grocery store (and not like a big-game safari); we were shooting tasty fish that were good table-size.

And, as I dove into the water I told Jaco what the old Mexican fisherman told me a lifetime ago in Mexico: the first one in shoots twice. I saw him flash a smile as I rolled of the dinghy.

As soon as I was in the water I saw a good Mutton Snapper and before Jaco had his wetsuit on we had a Mutton Snapper boated. I reloaded and was off again. Within five minutes I’d found and cornered a nice Yellowfin Grouper. The fish was deep in a hole and I was having trouble getting my speargun angled correctly – but I did it. Of course – shooting the fish is only half of the battle, the other half is getting them out of the hole. Twenty minutes a few curses later, the Yellowfin Grouper was boated as well.

With the immediate dinner-need satisfied it was time to explore and begin being selective. I did what all experienced spearfishermen do – I headed to deeper water and looked for The Wall. Really, just any structure in deeper water that would hold fish. After a bit of kicking, I found it.

On the way to The Wall I saw several Nassau Grouper, but – as hard as it was – I refrained from boating them thinking they may be rare here. I was wrong. At The Wall I saw several more and eventually decided that I really wanted a Nassau Grouper sandwhich. And so, when I was sitting on the bottom and the fifth Nassau Grouper visited me, I put a shaft into him.

At one point in this dive Jaco was sitting on the bottom, and I was watching from the surface as a school of 100+ pound Tarpon came and visited him. In that moment Jaco had two large Dog Snapper, two Yellowfin Grouper, and a Hogfish all within range. But a real spearfisherman isn’t made by the fish he takes, but by the fish he leaves. Selective shooting and selective hunting is important. He let them all pass, looking for the right fish. And I was proud to be diving with him.

And I was so f***ing happy to, finally, be diving in untouched waters. The amount of marine life here was exceptional. We earned this.

Ana, the fisherwoman

Ana, the fisherwoman

The first-day grouper haul

The first-day grouper haul

Mature Hogfish

Mature Hogfish

A perfect dinner

A perfect dinner

For a couple of days we stayed and dove and hunted and ate and drank together in this paradise. But then a Northern threatened and so we took the dinghy and scouted the area looking for a way into a protected lagoon, to sit out the high winds that were coming.

We checked depths and holding and entrances to the lagoon, and then – holding our breath and gritting our teeth – we eased through the shallow water with Songerie and NOMAD – into the lagoon where we dropped anchor in complete protection. Once there, Jaco and Cristelle brought out their smoker and we commandeered a decrepit fishing shack to smoke our fish, smoke fine cigars, and drink Cuba’s excellent rum.

Jardin De La Reyna

Jardin De La Reyna

Fish-smoking, cigars, friends, rum

Fish-smoking, cigars, friends, rum

And with full freezers, full stomachs and fuzzy heads – we planned our next move down the Cuban coastline.

Paradise

Back There

Laundry.  I desperately need to do laundry.  The good news is that board shorts never really get too dirty to wear in the water.  It’s the time out of the water that gets you.  I’ve discovered the art of using towels as clothes, though I can’t say that my towels are in much better shape.  This, though, will hardly make me leave my favorite dive spot. 

Onward. 

Back to The Swimming Pool

With Sandra onboard and getting her sea-legs we headed back to The Swimming Pool for a break in the weather.  Kenny (S/V Makai) was on his way up there, and we’ve become great friends so I was getting excited to see him.  I was being lazy, and ended up leaving the kayak in the water and towing it.  About halfway to The Swimming Pool, in the middle of a 6-8 foot beam swell, I noticed the kayak was no longer behind us.  A quick look around and (though it is bright red) – I realized that we would have trouble finding it. 

Aw, shit. 

We made a huge circle, taking into account wind and waves.  No luck.  Then we were back where we’d started a couple of hours before.  Still no kayak.  This was beginning to worry me.  Kayaks aren’t cheap.  At some point Sandra caught sight of the kayak in the binoculars.  A bit of maneuvering and we got along side of it and then got it back onboard.  A piece of the kayak had broken – it was nobody’s fault (except mine for being lazy and not bringing it up onboard).  The buck always stops with the captain.  Now we just needed to get back to The Swimming Pool.  

There.  Finally.

We pulled into The Swimming Pool and anchored in a spot I that I hoped would have good internet reception.  Of course it didn’t.  The updates here, the various boat-parts-searches, the “important” emails, communication with family and friends – would all have to wait.  We were, afterall, in an island paradise.   Internet connection, at least for short periods of time, is a sacrifice I’ll happily make.  

With the anchor down I immediately got my diving gear out.  I was here to chase fish.  As we headed toward the outer reef it looked rough.  Rougher than they were predicting in the weather forecast, surely.  The swells were 6-8 feet and breaking. That’s rough weather in a dinghy.  We did make it across the reef, though, and soon I was back in one of my favorite dive spots.  After all of that effort to get back here I was hoping the Universe would cut me some slack and give me an easy fish or two.  That was not to be.  Hell, it took us 15 minutes to set the anchor in the sloppy seas.  

Sandra had come out with me, but after a bit of diving through the swells she decided to wait it out in the dinghy.  I couldn’t blame her, it wasn’t comfortable diving.  Even for me, having done this more than a couple of times – it wasn’t an easy dive day. 

After a half-hour of being churned and pounded and rolled in the giant washing machine that was my favorite dive spot this day – the giant Dog Snapper, Cubera Snapper, or Black Grouper had evaded me.  Not even a sighting.   

So I kicked and kicked and kicked and eventually found myself in a slightly different area. And there I saw the only two shootable fish that day.  One large and one passable Dog Snapper.  I was out of breath and definitely not relaxed – but I made the dive, grabbed ahold of the bottom, and waited.  And waited.  And waited. 

The smaller of the two fish came and investigated.  The bigger one was keeping it’s distance.  As I waited on the larger fish, I was having a fierce internal debate.  Shooting the small fish would guarantee me ceviche, but since the dinghy was a long ways away – it would be nothing short of a miracle to be able to land his bigger brother also.  But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  But I really wanted his big brother.  Really.

After a few seconds of the smaller fish swimming around me I took the shot.  The spear passed through the gill-plate, so he was absolutely stuck.  Before I even made it to the surface, I had the spear back in the gun and was reloading the rubber.  On the surface I took a quick breath and then went back down, the smaller of the two snapper still swimming around on the end of my spear – making it very difficult to a) aim and b) control the speargun.  The good news was that the large Dog Snapper was still within eyesight when I hit the bottom. 

With the smaller snapper still swimming around on the end of my spear I waited on the bottom.  Much to my surprise, his big brother decided to investigate.  He came closer and closer.  But I needed him close to the end of my spear before I could take a shot – I had no way of aiming and the speared snapper was continuing to jerk me around.  About the time I had given up hope, the larger snapper came within range and I pulled the trigger.  Stoned.  He quivered and then, with two Dog Snapper on the spear I returned to the surface. 

The kick back to the dinghy in the rolling surf with two large and bleeding fish was a long one.  Then I needed to retrieve the anchor.  Then get the engine started and the dinghy away from the breaking waves.  With all of that done, I could catch my breath.  I earned those fish. 

Sandra and dinner

Sandra and dinner

On the way back to the boat, Runner waved me over and I met the fine folks on Paradise.  Both were interested in fish, and I was planning on diving every day I could – so I was happy to give some away.  I cleaned the fish and an hour later delivered it, ziplocked. 

That evening, after an awesome fish dinner, Runner and Paradise came by and gave me some fresh-baked bread.  Once again – among friends and with a fridge full of fresh fish, all was right in the world. 

Paradise!!

Fish and Other Stuff

The saildrive fight is still on.  It’s the seventh or eighth round and I’m not sure who will win.  It may end up a split decision. I’ve overcome bad businesses, crappy customer service, impossible connectivity, and strange personality differences.  If I can’t figure it out before I go home for Christmas, I’ll simply buy the part there and put it all back together after I return.  But I really hope it doesn’t come to this.

With all that said, we’re still having fun. 

New, Good Friends

We’ve become great friends with Sundowner.  They have an awesome site here:  Sundowner Sails Again…  When you’re cruising, you live with a much greater understanding of the temporary nature of things – and this leads to relationships which form and strengthen remarkably quickly.  Because, inevitably, one of you will sail away.  Our friendship with Sundowner has been no exception. 

It helps, of course, that Tate is a promising spear fisherman and than Dani is an all-around awesome chick who plays chess closer to my level (when I’m sick of getting my ass kicked by Tate).  It also helps that Tate drinks good scotch.  And that they are funny.  And that they are in their 30’s (at least 20 years younger than the average cruiser).  There has been much laughing, some dancing, much fishing, much diving, beach fires, and a fair amount of drinking.  All in all, it’s been great. 

It’s probably not much of a surprise that Tate and I did some great diving. 

At some point the wind and waves calmed down enough for us to “get outside” to the good fishing.  Tate knew a spot, I knew a couple of spots – and together we were in great shape to land quality fish. 

The outside reef in The Swimming Pool is accessed through cuts in the reef – some can be taken when the waves are 1 meter or less, some can be taken when the waves are up to 3 meters.  But ain’t nobody wants to go outside when the waves are stacking up to 3 meters.  So on our 1 meter day – we all went outside.

The girls have the spearfishing bug as well.  They’re sometimes more excited about spearfishing than I am.  All the gusto of a beginner in an adrenaline-filled sport.  Ana shot her first Dog Snapper the other day.  Impressive stuff, all around.

Fish and Other Stuff

On the day in question Dani stayed back with another of our friends on Meridian (hey Dom!) to do some snorkeling.  That left Ana, Dez, Tate, and myself on our voyage.  We made it outside the reef and then I tried to find the familiar landmarks that make up one of my favorite spots on the outside of the reef.  I found the landmark, but our first dive produced nothing but a couple of swim-by’s (Tarpon and Permit).  So I swam back to the dinghy, picked everyone up, and repositioned. 

On our next dive we found the spot. Huge caves in the bottom where Grouper and Dog Snapper hid and hunted.  Sharks too.  Lemon sharks and Blacktip sharks and Grey Reef sharks all competing for your fish.  But where there are sharks there are fish, so this is a good sign. 

On my first few dives I scored two large Dog Snapper.  The sharks were active, so I returned to the dinghy with the fish.  Restringing my speargun in the dinghy I heard Tate yell, “HELP!” – and when I looked over at him I saw his speargun floating next to him and I knew he’d speared a fish.  He had, and the fish was in the process of thoroughly kicking his ass.  Tate’s a big guy.  So as I jumped in and kicked towards him I was hoping his struggle involved a giant fish.

I was not disappointed.  When I saw the flash of the fish I knew immediately he’d shot a respectable Cubera Snapper.  And when I saw his shot placement I loaded my speargun and prepared to shoot the fish again.  Tate’s spear was precariously lodged just under the skin of this huge fish who was literally fighting for his life.  By the time I reached the fish and got my hands in it’s gills to secure it, Tate had mostly recovered and the fish was largely under control. 

We high five and Tate tried to tell me the story of the fish between gasps and between waves.  I was mostly concerned with landing the fish so I pulled it back to the boat and let Tate recover.  That’s when I noticed the second fish on Tate’s shooting line. 

The story goes like this:  Tate had shot a couple of nice Dog Snapper and on his way back to the dive spot (from putting the fish in the dinghy) he spotted a few nice Dog Snapper and then something larger in a cave.  He dove to the bottom, sat there, and threw a few handfuls of sand up into the water column.  Which is when the Cubera’s curiosity got the better of him.  The fish approached Tate, and as the fish turned to give Tate the shot – a smaller Dog Snapper got between Tate and the Cubera.  Tate took the shot and his spear passed through the Dog Snapper into the Cubera.  At which point the Cubera went apeshit.

The Cubera ducked back into the hole (as they do) and refused to come out.  This is a large fish, at home underwater and in caves.  Tate is less at home underwater and in caves.  Which is why Tate and the fish had such a disagreement about where they were going next. 

To make a long story slightly less long, Tate’s shooting line wouldn’t let him get back to the surface without dragging the fish out of the cave.  Which left him with two choices:  get the fish out of the cave so he could return to the surface to breathe, or let go of his gear and lose the fish and the gear.  Tate managed to wrestle the fish out of the cave, which is when he hit the surface and yelled for help.

Here, it would make sense for this story to end.  Alas, there was more in store for us. 

With the Cubera secured in the dinghy we all laughed and congratulated and back-slapped.  But I knew we were in a hot spot, at the right time, and that this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often.  So I apologized for not sticking around and then jumped back in and kicked toward a hole I hoped would hold a nice fish for me. 

I was kicking hard when I saw the tail.  I knew it was a grouper, but couldn’t see the body and had no idea how large it was.  Just a tail that vanished into a hole.  That, though, is enough to dramatically raise my heartbeat. 

You see – in all of the time I had been diving San Blas I still hadn’t shot a Black Grouper.  It wasn’t an issue of seeing them – I saw them.  It wasn’t an issue of freediving skill – I could get down to them.  It was an issue of their spookiness.  They bolt, I mean HAUL ASS, whenever they see a diver.  You can chase them.  You can follow them to a hole.  You can search the entire labyrinth of the cave they swim into – but you won’t get within range.  They’re incredibly difficult here. In the Bahamas they are relatively easy.  In Mexico they’re an achievable goal.  But the Kuna Indians have been hunting them religiously for hundreds (?) of years here.  The Black Grouper in San Blas are a savvy fish.  And, as of the moment in question, I needed this monkey (Black Grouper) off my back.  Back to the story…

So when I saw this tail, I figured out an approach to the cave that would leave me hidden. Then I dove.  And this time, rather than running away the Black Grouper poked his head back out of his hole.  Then he turned slightly sideways to begin his escape, but it was too late. 

My heart was pounding and in my head I was screaming:  No Way! No Way! I’ve got him!  I’ve got him! FINALLY A BLACK GROUPER!  Nervous and excited in a way that neither Tuna, Billfish, Snapper, Wahoo, nor any other gamefish makes me, at least at this point in my spearfishing. 

I squeezed the trigger.  When the spear hit him he rolled and twitched.  One second the lights were on and somebody was home and the next it was an empty house.  Lights out.  And then it started to dawn on me that finally, finally, after over a year and a half – I had a San Blas Black Grouper.  Jesus H. Christ.  So much work.

Line fishing?  You can catch three a day.  But we work for our fish. 

With my prize in my hand I called the dive and we all regrouped at the dinghy.  From zero fish to enough to feed the anchorage – in TWENTY MINUTES.  When it’s hot, it’s hot.  The kind of day that you work really hard for and get rarely.  Finally. 

To make this fish story more interesting, I’ll tell you that Tate shot this Black Grouper too.  You read that right.  Tate shot the fish before I did.  When I got the fish to Tate he pointed out a hole in the fish’s tail where Tate’s spear had been only a few minutes before my spear stoned him.  A crazy day. 

Back in the anchorage we made the rounds.  We showed off the fish (many of the cruisers here are spearfishermen) and took orders.  It’s a longstanding tradition on NOMAD – when we have a good day fishing we clean and bag fish and give it away in the anchorage.  That makes friends and brings people together.  We had Permit, Yellow Jack, Black Grouper, Dog Snapper, and Cubera Snapper.  A great day fishing. 

Back onboard we took pictures.  Enjoy.

Fish and Bikinis

Fish and Bikinis

Dinghy full-o-fish

Dinghy full-o-fish

Fish!

Fish!

San Blas Trophies

San Blas Trophies

Then we set about the fish-processing.  It takes a couple hours to correctly process this many fish.  Every boat in the anchorage wanted fresh fish and as we were cleaning the Kuna came by – so they got fish and took all of our fish heads.  Not a drop was wasted.

Kenny dropping by...

Wrapping Up San Bernardos

We’d finally had some success spearfishing in Colombia.  The Rosarios didn’t produce much for me, but it was starting to seem like the San Bernardos might be the ticket.  Here we were able to land plenty of food-fish, and saw some fish that we could be proud of.  If we were lucky – we might get another chance at those fish in the latter category.

Wrapping it Up in San Bernardos

This was our last day in these islands.  Puffer Dan was on a schedule.  He’s all responsible and stuff.  And despite hating being on a schedule, I’m more than happy to make exceptions when friends come and visit.  Especially one that enjoys shooting and eating fish.  Or ones that look good in bikinis.  Dan falls into the first group – but unfortunately not the second.  Alas. 

I was a little foggy, but not bad, at 6:30 when I crawled out of my bunk.  The coffee was on and our morning smoothie was in the blender. That’s a nice way to wake up in paradise.  I took a look around and smiled and started going through the gear we needed to bring. 

We had the coffee, had our smoothies, packed our gear, and then headed with Payllo to make the daily gas run at the most populated island (people per square meter) on the face of the Earth.  True story.  At this island there are indeed many people.  And there are fish-pens.  The last part is cooler to me. 

In these fish-pens there are fish that the locals have caught and are raising.  They raise them and then either a) sell them to outsiders or b) have a big party and eat a big grouper/snapper/shark. In these pens was proof that there were good fish around.  Of course, the fact that all of these fish had been caught is also proof that these guys are hardcore fishermen.  With their nets and traps and lines – they catch a lot of fish.

On the ride out I got suited up again.  Payllo wanted to know where we wanted to go.  There was apparently another spot that we could try, but it would be closer to the island.  I’m of the belief that the best fishing is the furthest from the humans.  The honest truth is we manage to screw up the environment in many different ways, so getting away from that is the key. 

We dropped the “anchor” (a large rock tied to several lengths of ancient rope) in the same spot as the day before.  I flipped in, loaded my gun, dropped the flashers, and kicked off into the blue.  Today I was looking for The Ledge. 

The Ledge is where the “shallow” (50-60 ft) area drops off into The Abyss (? ft).  The Ledge exists in most good reef spearfishing spots and all good bluewater spearfishing spots.  Though, often, in bluewater spearfishing spots – The Ledge is several hundred feet under the water.

I kicked and kicked and kicked.  Eventually the hazy light-blue of the bottom faded into a deeper darker blue.  Here small schools of baitfish were hanging midway in the water column.  This was The Ledge.  I dove to 55 feet.  There I saw The Ledge.  The issue was it was another 30 feet to the top of The Ledge.  To get to the bottom of The Ledge, I’d need to be pushing 100 feet, freediving.  That’s pretty damn deep.  All of my freediving, recently, was restricted to 50 feet. 

I dove and dove, but wasn’t comfortable pushing it that deep.  If I’d been diving with some deeper divers or some certified freedivers – this story might have been different.  Needless to say, The Ledge was big enough to hold fish, it was deep enough to hold fish, but it was too deep to get to without pushing my luck.  With that realization I decided I’d hang around it and dive around it – hoping to bump into something pelagic with the same ideas I had about ledges near bluewater.

I had three fish in the bottom of the boat and a fourth on my spear, most from the area around The Ledge – when Puffer Dan swam up to me, blocked my way back to the boat, and shared some very important information with me.  He said, “the vis here sucks.” 

I think I told him to move, but I may have just ignored him.  You see – we were on the deep side of The Ledge.  We were in 200 foot of water or more.  Dan couldn’t see the bottom, so he thought the visibility was bad.  What he hadn’t grasped was that even if the visibility was 199 feet – he would only see blue when he looked down, here.

Dan was convinced the visibility sucked though, and in a few minutes I noticed him in the boat. Then Lauren joined him. Then I joined them both and we moved on.  Of course the other spot we were going to was 500 feet away, with the same visibility.

Here I switched to exploring.  I wasn’t finding much life here, but Dan managed to spear one of my favorite fish.  I swam around for a bit and managed to get a decent Cero Mackerel to come into the flashers, then I chased him and pinned him to the bottom with my spearshaft.  When I got back to the boat, I decided that was it for this spot. 

In the boat I was greeted with a pleasant surprise – Puffer Dan had expanded his target species (from puffers) to include Rainbow Runner.  I love Rainbow Runner.  Love.  They have a pink and firm meat.  Something between the red of tuna and the white of wahoo.  Closer to wahoo, but firmer.  Very tasty.  I learned later that Dan shot the Rainbow Runner, then brought it back to the boat and asked Payllo if it was a good fish before I got to the boat.  Luckily for all of us, it wasn’t just a good fish – it was a great fish. 

So when I saw this, I was a happy dude.  We had Cero Mackerel, Rainbow Runner, and Ocean Trigger for food.  Meaning we could cut up an epic sushi lunch, and then cook an epic fish dinner.  And we did. 

Fresh food!

Fresh food!

Back onboard, I left Dan to butcher the fish while I took about 50 pounds of fish over to our friends at the hostel.  I was greeted warmly and though the travelers didn’t care, the locals were really excited and the hostel owners started feeding me beer again. 

When I came back to the boat I used a very dull knife to attempt to cut up sushi.  Dan inhaled the sushi like a Hoover while I tried to savor it.  Having fresh sushi, on the back of my boat, anchored over a reef in crystal clear turquoise water anchored off of some remote Colombian islands is something worth remembering. 

Fresh sushi

Fresh sushi

There were some rumors about a cockfight on the inhabited island.  I share no particular love for chickens, beside loving to eat them – so I was excited about seeing it.  When in Rome, right?  Dan even more excited when he learned that you could buy a cock, fight it, and then make money if it won.  He was in.  I was excited about the whole thing, hoping to have another genuine Colombian experience.

About this time, my friend Kenny sailed in from the Rosarios.  He came up next to us, we chatted quickly and he went off to anchor. 

Kenny dropping by...

Kenny dropping by…

Naturally, there was a mixup in dates and times on the cockfight.  Likely a combination of alcohol consumption and a language barrier.  And as we learned that we wouldn’t get to see a cockfight, my dreams of titling a post “Dan’s Cock” faded.  It was certainly a disappointment.

This, of course, opened up our afternoon. With some time, Dan was able to do some work on deck-cleaning (he’d sprayed suntan lotion on the decks and stained them), I was able to scrape the bottom (my guy in Cartagena screwed the pooch on this one), and Lauren worked on the wood. I did a quick once-over on the rigging and gear and then we went over to talk with Kenny.

Kenny learned we had cake onboard, so he came over and had desert, while we ate gnocchi and marinara and parmesan-encrusted chicken.  There were a couple of good stories shared, we talked about the rich that owned property here and the obvious ties to the obvious business the rich were obviously associated with here in Colombia.  Then I needed to take a nap – the way back was against wind and waves all night – as I moved my condoamaran back to Cartagena.  Kenny left and took a few pounds of filets back with him. 

An hour and a half later I crawled back out of my bunk, got stuff under control, and pulled our anchor.  We were heading back to Cartagena.  Dan was heading home.  I was going to be up all night.  We were all happy, but we all wanted way more time there.   

Very little of that was on my mind, though.  I was busy hoping for a smooth, issue-free ride back to Cartagena – against wind and waves that were predicted to be un poco fuerte.