Port Antonio - No Problem, Mon!

By Gene Gruender

Rainbow Chaser and Zelo made it around the eastern end of Cuba. We'd hugged the coast, staying in Cuban waters while we sailed through the Windward Passage. We were hoping to avoid the dreaded boardings by US authorities that often happen in these waters between Cuba and Haiti. If we stayed in Cuban waters they couldn't bother us. Eventually, though, we had to turn southwest towards Jamaica and leave the protected waters.

Rainbow Chaser, our 37 Hunter Cutter with myself, my wife Nellie, our son Zachary and the ship's mouser Ninja aboard, along with Zelo, a Morgan 41 O/I with Tom, Ellen and their two sons aboard, had traveled together through the southern Bahamas, spent a day in the harbor of Baracoa, Cuba and were headed for Port Antonio, Jamaica. There we'd part company. Rainbow Chaser would head for Grand Cayman, Mexico and on back to Texas. Zelo would head down to Panama.

We'd carefully picked our weather and had a smooth passage through the Windward Passage. Calm seas and some motoring was a far better experience than many cruisers have going through that place. This was our second trip through it, and we had been lucky twice. The price, though, was that we'd end up motoring some of the way to Port Antonio.

It was getting late in the afternoon by the time we left the protection of Cuba. A couple hours after turning southwest dark came over us. We saw the occasional freighter, but nothing else. The passage remained calm. We were just motor sailing through the night. As morning came we faced another glorious day.

This was another lazy day at sea, spent taking care of a few maintenance items, baking cookies, sunbathing, and just being laid back sailors. Zelo was about 7 miles off to our port side over the horizon. We were chatting over the VHF radio in the afternoon when all of a sudden something screamed just over our mast! We'd been buzzed by a US Coast Guard jet flying about 75 feet above the water, doing several hundred miles an hour. He was probably 100 feet to one side of us. The shock of what had happened and the blast of air caught us completely off guard. I could understand if he flew over slowly and observed what was going on, but at several hundred miles an hour, about all he accomplished was to harass us. He was so low that in a couple seconds he was out of sight over the horizon. I went back to the radio and called Zelo to warn him, but the jet had already made a turn and buzzed him the same way.

We continued on, talking occasionally with Zelo. We figured our speed and the remaining distance to Port Antonio and came up with an arrival time of about midnight. Normally we don't like night entrances, but we�d been to Port Antonio 2 years earlier and knew it was a very easy entrance that we could make at any time. Zelo had never been there and was going to this port on our recommendation. They agreed to make the night entrance, but would follow a little bit behind to make sure they didn't follow us right onto a reef or some other obstruction.

We were still some miles out when Nellie and I started thinking about the last time we visited Port Antonio. On our first visit it was daytime, very early in the morning, when we arrived. We had transmission trouble, so we were under sailpower. The wind was coming right down the channel towards us, so we were tacking all the way in. There were reefs on the port side and mud banks on starboard. The entrance is only a couple hundred feet wide so we had to be very careful.

Port Antonio is really two harbors side by side. Straight in is a harbor used by local fishing boats and a little commercial traffic. Once you clear the outer entrance to the two harbors, to the right is a narrow channel into the second port where the marinas and a commercial banana boat dock is located. Next to the banana docks is Port Antonio Marina, which was our destination.

After we made our turn into that narrow channel, we found it wasn't wide enough to tack, and there wasn't enough wind anyway. With only about 2 or 3 knots of wind, we were barely moving. The wind wasn't coming straight down the channel, but it wasn't far from it. I was tweaking sails and watching very carefully to make sure I could make it through the narrow channel into the bigger harbor. We had about two hundred yards to go with the wind almost on our nose, and we were only moving about 1 knot.

Slowly, very slowly, we made our way down the channel. As we got to the end of the narrow section we could see the open inner bay. Straight ahead was the concrete banana boat docks. To the left we could see Port Antonio Marina. There was a man on the dock of the marina waving his arms and yelling. He seemed to be motioning us to come over there. Minutes later as we got a little closer, we could hear him yelling "Here! Over here!" as he motioned to us.

It was clear that he wanted us to dock there, and he was getting frantic as we wandered through the bay. He had no way of knowing that we were going as fast as we could, even if it was only one knot.

I was feeling very proud of myself, making it into this harbor, down the channel, and across the harbor with only sails. While I was feeling proud, this fellow on the dock was about to wear himself out, trying to coax us to his dock. We made it all the way across the harbor, tacked, and sailed up to his dock, all at about a one knot speed! Although it was my slowest entrance yet, it was by far the grandest arrival I'd ever made, all the way in, completely under sail.

As Johnny, the night watchman, introduced himself, we tied up Rainbow Chaser and asked about immigration, customs and all the other things we were going need. Johnny explained that we could just hang around the marina and at 8 when the day crew came in, they would call the health inspector and customs for us. The officials would come to the dock. We didn't have to find them. "No problem, Mon" was his comment, and a response we were going hear often. There were no charges for their services, either. Jamaica was looking pretty good.

But for now, we could only reminisce about that first visit, we were still a ways out. A few hours later, when it was long after dark, we could see the outline of the high Jamaican mountains. There were a lot of lights along the coast and if you didn't have a GPS or know it well, you'd never pick out the entrance. Even having been there, without the GPS, we would have had to just get close and run down the coast until we saw the entrance. There aren't lights and buoys like we're used to in the US, just a small 50 foot high lighthouse with a small blinking light in it that is hardly bright enough to pick out from the houses around it.

In time we would be able to see the small lighthouse, and the red and green markers inside the entrance. For now we just kept heading for the dark outline of the mountains and a lot of lights along the coast.

On our visit two years earlier we'd learned that Port Antonio was an impoverished part of Jamaica. The living conditions of a lot of the residents made the US homeless people's plight look pretty good in comparison. Work was hard to find and everyone was always looking for a way to make a dollar or two. They had to if they were going to eat.

On that first visit it didn't take long before we�d met the entire crowd at the marina. Some were employees, some were just allowed to stay and do chores for boaters for whatever amount was agreed to. Johnny was an employee, but he and all the others would run errands, do your laundry, or whatever you might need. Prices were negotiable.

When we'd gotten there one of our propane tanks was empty. Johnny took off on his bike to get it filled. Steve took our laundry to do the wash. We met a fellow named Alambe who offered to help with anything we needed. Alambe was in his late 30's and normally did construction work. A few weeks before our arrival he'd been at the marina and a boat had broken loose and was blowing away. He'd been cleaning fish and stuck the knife in his back pocket, dove in to save the boat, and caught his arm on the knife. He had a very bad injury and it hadn�t healed enough to go back to his normal job. He had a pregnant wife to feed along with himself and we quickly became good friends. We hired him to be our daily helper and guide. He normally made $40 a week to pour and finish concrete. We paid him $10 a day to be our helper and guide. It was a good deal for everyone.

Alamabe and Gene relax after a hard day of boat cleaning.

As the mountains got closer, we wondered how Alambe was doing. We'd spent a lot of time with him. Each time we went to town, he'd go as our guide and to protect us from the people trying to sell just about anything. Jamaican's are a very in-your-face type of people. They have to be aggressive to get by. It was hard to walk down the street without them trying hard to sell you every imaginable sort of thing, some legal, some not quite so legal. The problem was, saying no wasn't always enough. They could be very pushy and many people don't like Jamaica for that reason. One way to deal with it is to just learn to ignore it, another is to have Alambe along. We'd walk the streets and nobody would bother us. I noticed that as someone would head for us, Alambe would just hold up a finger, wave it at them a little bit and they'd turn and leave. They got the message real quickly.

Port Antonio Marina is the home of some major Marlin fishing tournaments. During the tournaments, there are a large number of fancy fishing boats in the marina. Many of the guys in Port Antonio work in or around the marina at those times and are used to dealing with the owners of these boats. I�m sure there are exceptions, but many of them were very condescending and didn't treat the locals very well. They threw around a lot of money, though, and expected the locals to ignore their rude ways and do whatever they asked. From all that we heard, it seemed that the Jamaicans were not friends with the fishermen. They just seemed to view them as a source of money. The fishermen viewed the Jamaicans as nothing but errand boys.

When we showed up on that first visit, we were different than those fishermen. First, we had no money! And second, we wanted to get to know these people. That is why we were cruising. It took them a little while to realize that we weren�t going to treat them as nothing but errand boys, but eventually they began to stop just to visit.

We remembered the first afternoon we were there a fellow named Martin showed up at our dock and introduced himself. I'd say Martin was about 35 or so, and a very bright fellow. Martin had visions of being a boxer, but a bout with TB had ended any hope of that. Martin was also a self taught herbal doctor. Over the next week we visited with him many times. Like others, he would try to arrange things for us, find something he could sell us, or come up with some way to earn money, but he�d also just stop to visit. He and Nellie would discuss his herbal remedies. Nellie confided later that Martin really did know what he was talking about, and knew more about the subject than many doctors.

We drank a lot of ice tea. After all, we are from Texas. One afternoon I was visiting with Martin in the cockpit of Rainbow Chaser and Nellie offered us some ice tea. I doctored mine with some lime juice and some artificial sweetener. Martin took a sip of his and asked "What tree does this tea come from?" "Orange Pekoe", she told him. He looked at it a minute and said that he hadn't heard of that tree. "What does it cure?" He asked. "Well, it isn't to cure anything. We just drink it because it tastes good." Nellie told him. Martin didn't seem to be convinced of that, either, as he squinted and tried a bit more. "Do you have any sugar?" he asked. He put about a half an inch of sugar in the bottom, stirred for some time and tried again. I noticed that he never did get more than a quarter of the glass down.

He told us how, when he was younger, the cruise ships would come to Port Antonio. He and other young men would go out in the harbor by the boat and the tourists would toss coins in the water. Martin claimed that they would dive 30 feet or so to the bottom to retrieve the coins. I found it hard to believe they could go that deep and find the coins.

Later, as he was leaving, he bent over and his sunglasses fell out of his pocket and sank to the bottom about 25 feet below. Martin was heartbroken, as it probably had been very hard to find the money to buy them. I felt bad for him as I watched him stare into the water. Soon he said he'd just have to dive for them. I knew there was no chance I'd be able to go down and get them, and thought it was very unlikely that he could either. As he stripped to his shorts to go down I offered my goggles to help, as it looked like he really was going to give it a try.

As he got ready to dive off the seawall right at the stern of Rainbow Chaser I warned him to make sure he didn't come up under the boat and hit his head. It was bad enough to lose the glasses, I didn't want to see him under the boat with his head split open.

Martin dove into the water and went straight down, straight out of sight. I watched and waited. And waited. And waited. When I thought he'd been down way too long, he came up about 150' from the boat! With the sunglasses in his hand! By the time he swam back to Rainbow Chaser I could imagine him coming up with hands full of coins.

The next day he came to visit and had a gift. He�d brought Nellie a couple baggies of various herbal remedies he'd dried from local trees. We looked at the baggies and just imagined getting boarded by the Coast Guard or going through customs and trying to explaining that this was only "medicine". Nellie explained why we just wouldn't be able to take them with us. Martin told us we should just tell them that it was medicine and our "Herbal Doctor" prescribed it for us. We let him keep them.

Each time we get to a new place we look for some way for seeing the local area. We learned very early that we couldn't see and do everything. Cruising is not like being on vacation. On vacation, you can hit every attraction for a week or so, then go home to rest up and recover financially. When cruising, you have to select you side trips very carefully, always watching the budget.

On our first visit to Port Antonio we wanted to see the local area. Nellie had gone off to do the research. She found that there were raft trips down the Rio Grande River nearby. These had actually been started by Errol Flynn, the movie star. He had been a resident of Port Antonio for a number of years before his death, and his widow still lived nearby. He had encouraged the locals to start building rafts and offering float trips down the river. They had, and it had become very popular. Since the river winds through some remote areas nearby, going through banana plantations and forests as it works it's was down the mountain, it seemed like an excellent way to see some of the area.

At the recommendation of one of the marina employees, she had located a local travel agency and tour service owned by a young man of about 35 who had been an Olympic bicycling medalist from Jamaica back in the 80's. After winning, he was hired by a bicycle manufacturer to travel the US, giving demonstrations and visiting with the public. He made good money, but wanted to return to his home town of Port Antonio and try to be successful there. He had come home and opened the travel agency.

We met him and after hearing what he had to offer, we made arrangements for him to set up the trip and furnish the transportation to the start and pick us up when we got to the end of the float.

He came and picked us up in his big Mercedes bus. It had room for about 50 people, but there were only the three of us and him. He also told us he needed to get something form his office first, but he'd misplaced his key. He had to find the house where his receptionist lived to get hers, but he wasn�t sure exactly where it was. He hoped we wouldn't mind riding along while he got it.

Now, how could we mind getting a tour of the back streets of Port Antonio in a Mercedes bus? We went up a number of small streets, up into places I wouldn�t have thought you could even get a bus. Way up the side of one mountain we hit a dead end on another wrong street, and hung on as he turned around. He had to back the rear of the bus out over the side of a hill, sticking out over the side 20 feet in the air, then pull forward, and repeat it 4 or 5 times to get turned around. Eventually he found the correct place, got his keys, made the office stop and we headed out to the Rio Grande River.

The Rio Grande is a slow moving river, and riding a bamboo raft down between the mountains, banana trees, tropical flowers and other sights is quite a relaxing afternoon. I highly recommend it to see some of the out of the way parts of the area.

This was Errol Flynns favorite spot on the Rio Grande.

As the lights at the entrance to the harbor came into view, we recalled one afternoon on our last visit when Alambe was helping me wash Rainbow Chaser. He asked me if it was possible for us to send him a pair of tennis shoes instead of paying him for the last few days of work. We'd noticed that he never wore shoes, but assumed that was because he didn't like wearing them. I asked him what kind, would he like Nikes or some other particular brand? He said it didn't matter, he'd just like to have a pair of shoes. They cost over $100 in Port Antonio and he just hadn't been able to get enough to buy a pair. We took a piece of paper and made an outline of his foot so we could get the right size and told him we'd send him a pair when we got back.

Later, I told Alambe I'd like to get a haircut and asked if there was a barber shop nearby. "No Problem, Mon!" was the typical Jamaican answer. We headed to town to get my hair cut.

When we got there, there were two barbers and a couple customers. It didn't take long for me to get into a barber chair. Now, keep in mind that the population of Port Antonio is about 98 percent black. They don't give many haircuts to white guys. Also, besides needing a haircut, I had pretty long hair to start with. When my barber started cutting, he'd cut a bit here, then a bit there and kept working his way around my head. He was taking a long time, and my hair kept getting shorter. I noticed that the typical haircut of the locals was about 1/4" long, and I began to worry that mine was going to be shorter than theirs if he kept cutting. He seemed to be almost done, but just doing a bit more finishing up. But that even continued for a long time. I wanted to be polite and not make him think I didn't think he knew what he was doing, but finally, I just had to declare it done! I was beginning to think my hair would be so short I'd sunburn the top of my head. As it turned out, I waited too long, because by the next day that is exactly what happened.

I paid him the $3 for the haircut, and as Alambe and I walked back to Rainbow Chaser, he told me, "Mon, you should have told him to quit - he cut it WAY to short! These guys don't know how to cut a white guys hair, you need to tell them when to quit." When we got home Nellie got quite a kick out of my new very short hairdo.

Later, as we got ready to shove off for Ocho Rios, most of our new friends were there to see us off. We quietly make our way among them and gave each a tip for spending time helping us. It wasn't much - $5 or $10 each, since we didn't have that much - but we wanted them to know we appreciated what they'd done for us.

But tonight, as we got close to the coast, we picked out the opening to the harbor. Dropping the sails, we could see the "lighthouse" on the port side, which was shaped like most lighthouses, but only about 40' high and next to a house. In the top was a blinking light, with probably a 100 watt bulb. Since the channel was really the valley between two mountainsides, it was very deep water about 100 feet deep as we went between the first pair of markers. At the second pair of markers we were still in about 75 feet of water. Looking to the right, we could see right down the channel leading to the West harbor. We were in familiar territory.

As we made our turn into the narrow channel leading to the West harbor, we could see the banana docks a quarter mile ahead. We had the motor going, sails down and even though it was midnight, it was a much easier entrance than the time two years earlier under sail power. With Zelo a hundred yards behind, we were heading for a familiar spot. Looking a little to the left, we could see the docks where we'd spent so much time on our first visit. We could also see that there were people on the dock to meet us.

We headed straight in, planning to turn to port, and come back to the dock while Zelo turned straight into the docks. We were coordinating on the radio. We would tie up close to the marina building, and Zelo would dock a bit farther out on the pier. We'd meet on the dock. We went on in, made a turn to port and pulled up to the dock. Someone was waiting with his hand out to take our line. Looking up, it was our friend Alambe! He'd already seen the name on the boat and knew it was us.

With a big smile, he said "Hello Captain! It's good to see you again." I said "Hello Alambe! How are you doing? Did you get the shoes?" With a big smile, he held up a foot, pointed to it and said "Yea, Mon! Thanks!"

This was going to be an enjoyable visit.