One lucky gringo

Billys Route South America

We spent Christmas in Cuba before setting off for Panama. I was skippering a 55-foot Cape Horn expedition yacht named Billy, ultimately bound for Hong Kong. As we rounded Guanahacabibes Peninsula and set a waypoint 900 nautical miles distant, I looked at the uninterrupted steaming we had ahead of us and the nasty weather closing in and marveled to my first mate, Doug Warthen, how tenuous this was, our hold on life.

“If we lose a handful of systems, like the genset and watermaker, the sat phone and the main engine, we’re dead in the water out here.”

It was one of those things said in passing and soon forgotten. I wouldn’t even remember saying it until Doug reminded me a day later. Because in the next 24 hours, as the seas built and the boat pounded, we lost those four systems in that very order. Our incredible run of good luck had begun.

A Cape Horn 55 similar to Billy, the power voyager Hugh Howey captained to Isla Providencia.

The main belt on the genset snapped, and the spare the owner had aboard was the wrong part. Without the genset, there was no watermaker. The main engine sputtered and began to smoke — we would later discover a clog in the fuel return on the turbo. But the seas were too rough to effect repairs. Foaming 10- and 12-foot seas crashed over the rails. When they combined into monsters, we saw solid green through the pilothouse windows. I expected to see fish swimming by. Stepping out anywhere on deck was hazardous.

The get-home engine
We were just three days into our jaunt to Panama, and it was the last day of the year 2000. For those who knew how to count, it was the true end of the millennium. As the smoke from the main engine made it difficult to breathe, and our attempts to diagnose the problem and make repairs in a violent engine room proved futile, we decided to shut her down and run solely on the small get-home engine.

This poor motor was barely capable of making way in the steep sea. She was enough for steering, but hardly that. I turned to the charts, feeling like a sailor trying to beat too far into the wind and knowing it was time to change course. The problem was that we were in the middle of nowhere. Without the main engine, it would be a week or more to get to port. What we needed was a leeward anchorage, some place to drop the hook and get some rest. Days of pounding and lack of sleep had the small crew at wit’s end.

Howey on deck and in Billy’s pilothouse after leaving Cuba.

There was a spot on the chart, a mere speck, with the name Isla de Providencia. Our track had us skirting this black dot. I’d never heard of the island. It said “Colombia” in parenthesis, which told me who owned it but nothing else. But if it was land, it might be protection. I turned Billy to starboard and found a more comfortable tack. The poor get-home engine sputtered valiantly. We made our gradual way.

Seeing land on the radar felt inspiring after a long day of inching along. The sun left us, and I made a general call on the radio, not knowing if the island was even inhabited. Another skipper called back and filled us in with the lay of the land. There was one protected harbor. Everywhere else was wind-blasted lee shores, and the entire island was ringed with reef. This skipper provided a handful of waypoints from his chart, and with our forward-looking sonar, radar, and spotlight, we crept into port with cliffs on one side of us and coral on the other.

I’ll never forget the quiet that greeted us as we entered that harbor, the waves no longer bashing our steel hull and the poor engine given a rest. There was just the rattle of chain as we dropped the hook, a splash, and a few minutes of watching the lights on shore to make sure we were held. We collapsed in our bunks at the end of a long day, the end of a long year, a millennium — and we woke up in paradise.


An undiscovered jewel
Providencia was one of the last undiscovered jewels in the Caribbean. At least it was over a dozen years ago. While we were there, the first cruise ship visited the island. It anchored beyond the reef and ferried tourists ashore, who glanced around and quickly scooted back to the boat. The local residents, who had swept and painted for a week prior to its arrival, watched the boat steam over the horizon, wondering if it would ever return.

With two months on the island, Howey and his crew Doug Warthen had ample time for exploring.

For the next two months, Doug and I effected repairs and awaited word from the owner. She had flown home with her four small children, rattled by the roughness of the sea, leaving the boat, and us, behind. It was a tricky situation, working for this owner. I had volunteered to help when I met the boat in Charleston. Billy was pumping fuel into the marina, a transfer gone awry, and helping sort the valves out had introduced me to the boat’s owner. I could see that she needed help, as she was attempting to reach Hong Kong with her husband and four kids and not a lot of experience. I asked her to call me if she wanted the crew. She said she couldn’t afford to hire anyone. I told her I would do it without pay.

I brought along Doug as mate, and it was the two of us who were left there in Providencia as the owner departed. It took three days to break down the engine, clean the turbo, and get it up and running again. There wasn’t a proper belt on the island, but we found one an inch short, cut it, and adjusted the length with steel wire. A proper belt and a spare were ordered to be flown in. We spent the next five weeks waiting on word from the owner and exploring this volcanic paradise.

A love for gambling
Here was a beautiful land settled by beautiful people with a love for gambling. They raced horses on the beach and bet on the winner. They fought chickens — a brutal affair — while wadded bills were tossed from one screaming spectator to another. In the protected harbor, model boats were pitted against one another, the skippers tending to their creations from noisy dinghies. But the grand tradition on Providencia was the racing of their homebuilt sloops, sleek buckets that held a pile of canvas with booms as vast as their masts, a dozen men hiking out to keep the keel firmly in the water.

Every Sunday, we watched these boats tack their way past us up to the finish line at the wharf. The same boat won each time. It had been winning for years. None of the others could touch her. But we met a man who was building a challenger. We watched as the finishing touches were put on his craft up on the beach, then as the nameless boat was rolled on logs down to the sea. I had gotten to know the owner from going out fishing with him several mornings, helping pull up heavy traps out on distant reefs in exchange for a few of the fish trapped inside. I was asked if I would like to sail on his boat during the next big race. I couldn’t believe my luck.

We had been in Providencia for more than a month, had sailed around the island in a catamaran built by lashing our two kayaks together, had donated one of our Panama Canal towlines to replace a fraying swing at a popular beach, had fallen so madly in love with the place that I had taken to asking strangers to marry me so that I could stay forever. And now, as our time there came to a close, I found myself swimming from a beach to this new sloop to ride on its maiden voyage, a race around the south side of the island and up the length of the harbor.

By lashing two kayaks together and using a makeshift sail, Howey and Warthen made an impromptu catamaran. 

I was mere ballast for the race. And I believe, quite possibly, a good luck charm. For the owner, anyway. He claimed his pots were more full of fish the days I came out to haul them up, but I knew this was just a happy man seeing all the possible good in the world. It was, I felt sure, the same amount of fish whether my hand was on the line or not. And I weighed as much as anyone else who might sit on the rails while he did all the work of sailing.

The race began with a gunshot. It was a fair start, and hundreds waved from the beach as the sails gathered the wind. It was soon apparent that we were not the swifter boat, as the longtime champ clawed away from us. By the time we rounded the spit that led into the harbor, we were 10 or more boat lengths behind. But now the real work would begin, the tacking back and forth into the steady breeze that ripped over the island day and night. The boat ahead of us turned toward the finish line. We continued to sail right by.


Skipper with a plan
There were arguments from those of us along the rail, but it soon became apparent that our skipper had a plan. There was no outrunning our foe. But we could outthink them. The races that had filled the harbor in prior weeks had entailed close maneuvering, a lot of friendly shouting back and forth, and the dodging of the handful of us anchored in the middle of the course. As the one boat tacked toward the finish line and the other sailed across the mouth of the harbor, it looked less like a race and more like two boats parting ways. Our skipper, it turned out, was hoping to do in two tacks what normally took dozens. Less time spent turning meant more time moving. The distance covered through the water was the same, and we had more wind outside the harbor.

Howey sailed on this locally built boat during the island’s race series.

Howey with Bing, the local skipper who invited “the lucky gringo” aboard.

After a long run toward the sea, we finally tacked to starboard and made for the wharf, and it became a race again. The time spent luffing and trimming sail had cost our adversary. We had gained on them, and we gained more every time they turned across the wind. The cheers from the shore came to us on the stiff breeze, and as the other boat straightened out on its final tack, it was hard to tell who would win. We had a boat length on them, but they were still the swifter hull. They had not lost in years. Our boat was not yet named. The finish happened so fast — and the boats arrived almost on top of one another — so that I could only know who had won by the sagging faces in the other craft and the eruption of joy in ours.

Fully clothed people jumped from the wharf and swam out to join us. The boom was eased and the great pile of canvas lowered, and even those we had beaten were swept up by the occasion. Doug motored around us in Billy’s dinghy and filmed the celebration, smiling as widely as any of us. The result was unforeseen, the upset full and complete, those island gamblers dizzy from the consequences. Someone said the boat would be named Lucky Gringo, though I knew I had nothing to do with this. I was just lucky baggage perched on a rail, watching a magical island slide by, studying the tactics of a master skipper and boatbuilder, and marveling at the fortuitous turn of events, the spectacular breakdown, that marooned me in paradise at the turn of the millennium.

Eventually the parts arrived and we left Providencia. We took the boat back to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stopping in Honduras, Belize, and Mexico along the way. The trip to Hong Kong eluded us. But life is a series of lucky accidents and pleasant detours. It’s what we do when everything breaks that defines us.

Hugh Howey has worked as a delivery skipper and is the New York Times bestselling author of the novel Wool.

By Ocean Navigator