Not all paintings are equal, but they all have a story behind them. This story is about a place in time for many reasons. The place is Isla Mujeres Mexico and the time is early 2000’s. My wife Jean and I were the fishing lodge managers at a famous fishing lodge in Belize, central America. The name of the lodge was Turneffe Island Lodge and was developed by several very forward thinking fishing entrepreneurs who saw the potential in a remote bonefishery that had never been seen this far south of the Bahamas.
Established by Cuban Vic Barothy after leaving Cuba in the late 50’s, Vic brought to Belize the first significant tourist operation that would set the stage for many more to come. It’s second and most colorful owner was Floridian Dave Bennett. There are a few after Dave but none more noteworthy. His book, Palm Tree Fever, is a must read if you’ve ever dreamed about chucking everything and moving to a tropical island.
Lodge owner number four, Modi Enov, charged me with supervising the transfer two of his new 48 foot sportfishers from Key West to the lodge in Belize. Sounds like fun, and it was. The adventure is always more about getting there than the actual destination. That was certainly the case on this voyage!
The weather looked good for the crossing from Key West to our initial stop which was Isla Mujeres, a place that I moved to in the mid eighties so I knew that area well. We had put in these huge six foot by six foot fuel bladders in the cockpit to insure we would have enough fuel to get there safely and to cover any surprises along the way. When you’re crossing on a trip like this from Key West you always leave before sunup so you’ll arrive before sundown. Your first few hours are at idle speed so that you don’t hit any logs or junk floating in the water. You don’t want to sink anytime, but especially in the middle of that piece of water.
The sun comes up and you’re greeted with a beautiful calm day with bright sunshine and calm seas. You can also now see all the debris floating in the water that you don’t want to hit in the middle of the night. This is the kind of day you wish you were fishing instead of going somewhere. The day passed but it’s hard not to think of how calm it is and that nautical phrase of “The calm before the storm” is drifting around in the back of your head. Hours passed and there isn’t ever much to do except to stare out on the water and look for anything that might break the sameness of the glare and an occasional flying fish.
By four o’clock the wind began to pick up a little bit but it didn’t really change our speed or attitude. In fact it was a little refreshing after so many hours looking at nothing! Another hour passed and the seas starting coming at us with a different intensity, knocking the 48 footer around and covering us with an unwelcome spray. Realizing that we were only about 2 hours out of Isla, we throttled down to compensate for the size of the waves and knew we would make it to the dock in time to avoid what ever this weather event was. Where the hell did this come from?
We tied up at the customs dock glad to be out of that last part of the totally uneventful trip. The wind was howling and we were damn glad to be sitting at the floating docks in the inner part of the island. We checked the weather and found that we had just beat a weather system that had blown up north of us and we had experienced the “calm before the storm” scenario that was telling us to hold on to your hat, or ass!
We passed the time like you always do on a boat stranded at the dock, cleaning and trying to enjoy the forced time out. At this point we were looking forward to getting underway and getting this trip over with. Several days passed and the weather kept getting worse and worse with no window to get the hell out of here. It’s a beautiful little island but it was getting old. A couple of the crew on the second boat had to leave at this point as the time off from work had run out. The crew on my boat had a similar situation and had to bail as well. We made some arrangements to get some new crew in from Belize to help get the boats back.
Listening to the weather report is the first and last thing you do every day and sometimes in the middle too. The middle report is just wishful thinking. On this day though we get some bad news, we’re going to be here for a while…..there’s a hurricane approaching from the south and it’s coming right up “hurricane alley”. Hurricane alley is that stretch of water in between Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula and it gets its name for a good reason. Well, we start hurricane preparations knowing that this is going to be a giant pain in the ass as we have all done this many times before and we know what’s in store. There’s another nautical phrase that is quoted in a time like this, it’s “any port in a storm”.
As the reports come in and it’s broadcast to other vessels out on the water, Cuban fishing boats start to enter the harbor and tie up to the beach that runs East and West not far from the center of the island. A good spot to be and fairly well protected from the direction the wind will be coming from. On the backside of the storm as the eye moves away they will be okay because they are all tied together and will make them a large heavy object that will not move easily.
Our crew has finished tying everything down and we feel pretty confident that we’re ready for the unknown…..like will we have a boat in a couple of days! After waiting to get out of Key West, waiting for the gale to blow itself out, and again, it’s time to wait, this time we’re waiting for hurricane Michelle.
Like any good artist, I’m always on the lookout for images. It doesn’t matter where you find them or how you find them, it matters that you find them! I take photos and do sketches all day long in my “brain camera”, some make it to paper or notebook , others just wait to be recalled, not remembering where they came from or if they were an original thought. That’s what happened to me while wondering around the island on that pre-hurricane afternoon. The light was flat because of the dense overcast, it was like a grey soggy blanket draped over the sky, casting no shadows on anything, just a somber, even, dull light foretelling the mess that was about to begin.
It looked interesting as I turned the corner and saw the Cuban fishing boats lined up on the beach. ‘Any port in a storm” came back to me. These guys had no place to go but here on this beach. It reminded me that they are always out there, fishing hard every day, you just don’t know it. The brain camera kicked in and I knew I had to get back to the dock where I had my camera stored. It didn’t take long to get what I needed, I knew what that painting was going to look like. I also knew what the name of that painting was going to be…Waiting for Michelle.
Michelle finally blew herself out and we didn’t get hit too hard. Some trees down and a couple of small fishing boats washed up in the middle of town but not much more than that. We got out in the next day or so as a big storm usually takes its weather with it so that left us with calm seas again to finish our trip. It was great to enter Belizian waters again and to know the final leg of this marathon road/boat trip was finally going to be over. The good news, other than having a great story to tell, was that I got the reference photos for the painting.