Old San Juan

Too much time has passed since I wrote something truly for myself. So this is that, and for those interested, I’m sharing it with you.

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack.
And you may find yourself
Living in another part of the world.
And you find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile.
And you find yourself
In a beautiful house,
With a beautiful wife.
And you may ask yourself,
‘Well, how did I get here?’

And you may ask yourself,
‘How do I work this?’
And you may ask yourself,
‘Where is that large automobile?’
And you may tell yourself.
‘This is not my beautiful house!’
And you may tell yourself,
‘This is not my beautiful wife!’

You may ask yourself,
‘What is that beautiful house?’
You may ask yourself,
‘Where does that highway go to?’
And you may ask yourself,
‘Am I right, am I wrong?’
And you may say to yourself,
‘My god, what have I done!?’


I’m seated at the nav station on Isbjorn, cooking rice on the propane stove and listening to Pearl Jam’s Riot Act album. I just discovered that the first song on that album is also the first song on Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele album. I’ve asked Mia for a ukulele for Christmas, as it’s something I’d like to learn. 

I’d also like to read more about Eddie Vedder. Pearl Jam has been around for so long, and they are so good. His involvement writing the soundtrack for Into the Wild – and his subsequent shafting when he didn’t even get nominated for an Oscar for that work, let alone win it (on a technicality no less) – seriously inspired me to want to learn more about him as a man. He seems interesting to me. His music is great. And he has a very nice – and unique – voice. 

I heard a few Pearl Jam songs in the beer bar we drank at yesterday. Mia, here sister Lisa, and I. After we’d had a picnic overlooking the Atlantic, sitting on the wall of Old San Juan and eating local bread with cream cheese, Lisa declared ‘let’s go drink beer!’ We had some time to kill before going for dinner. It’s exactly what was on my mind, but I was afraid if it came from me, my idea would be squashed. That it came from Lisa made it plausible.

So we walked to ‘La Taberna Lupulo’ in Old San Juan, covering the few hundred meters in a few minutes, walking across the old bluish stones that pave the narrow streets. They were recycled from ship’s ballast, each one beautifully cut by old-country Spanish stonecutters, sunk into the ground for many inches. San Juan was the first deep-water port in the Caribbean, the gateway to the riches of the New World, the first landfall en route from Europe with it’s own freshwater source. The forts lining the harbor entrance and the north coast of San Juan bely the city’s historical import. The Old Town is awesome.

We sailed here from Christmas Cove on St. Thomas. I was afraid to do so – the little research I did into anchoring in San Juan only brought up horror stories. The 30+’ of depth in the harbor, adjacent to the cruise ship docks and the dirt and grime of a big, unclean city. The two-mile walk along a 4-lane highway (at least there is a sidewalk) from the dinghy dock into Old San Juan. The airport adjacent to the anchorage that is so noisy. No matter. We came anyway, but not without trepidation. Our friend Paul admitted the anchorage was sketchy. But he also said there was ‘adventure to be had,’ so we pursued it. ‘It’s Puerto Rico,’ Paul added. ‘That’s all I can say.’

The sail over was uneventful except for three incidents. We had to motor up through the narrow bit of water separating ‘Cayo Diablo’ from the headland on the northeast tip of mainland Puerto Rico. In the dark I was not confident enough in the accuracy of the charts to jibe and sneak through one of the gaps on this little northern archipelago of rocks and islets, especially with the large northerly swell running. We had to lower all sail in the light wind, as the rig shuddered with each roll. Without the mainsail and with the swell, the boat rolled on her beam ends on several occasions and I was sure Lisa had been thrown from the portside pilot berth. Or at least woken up. She slept soundly through the night and doesn’t remember a thing.

Anyway, after we cleared the headland and put up sail again, having to head due north in order to keep wind in the sails, I heard a motor in the distance. It was constant, but sounded as if it was getting closer. In the moonlight, I saw an unlit RIB approachin from the south and roused Mia from her slumber down below. It was around 10:30pm, and dark save for the moon. We sailed showing our tricolor, but the RIB was dark.

It’s outline looked like that of a USCG RIB, which I ssuspectyed it was, but emotionally I was scared. My blood pressure rose and my pulse quickened. I wanted Mia to be awake, less because she could do anything, and more because I wanted her to witness whatever it was that was going to happen. When the RIB was a few metres off our starboard quarter they shined a bright spotlight on me. I waved. I didn’t know what else to do! My voice cracked as I said ‘hello,’ and I was ashamed at how afraid I sounded. It was I fact the police on a routine midnight patrol, asking us where we were headed and from where we’d come. Still, it shook me.

Several hours later the RIB returned and the same thing happened, this time when I was asleep and Mia and Lisa were on watch. They woke me up, e exchanged pleasantries, and I went back to sleep, adrenaline flowing yet again. 

And a third time, when I was up again, around 0400, another boat approached. I was sure until the last minute that this one wasn’t the police, as it was a fast cigarette boat, and it approached closer than both RIBs had. I woke Mia again, thnking subsconssciously that if I were abducted, at least she’d see it happen. At the last second I saw ‘POLICE’ on the side of the speedboat in big letters and sighed in relief, exchanging pleasantries again and watching them speed away into the dark. Unlit.

Puerto Rico truly seems like a foreign land. It’s so far gone from the tourist heaven that is the Virgin Islands that it feels like we sailed a lot further than 75 miles to get here. It’s exotic. We’re in the USA, but the locals speak a foreign language. They fly another flag. The old town feels Spanish, is Spanish. The forts are managed by the National Parks Department, but they belong to Spain, were built by Spain, not the US. We’re home, yet we’re far from it.

I had a thought meandering down the blue cobbled streets last night on the way to a Spanish tapas restaurant where we drank sangria and ate fried plantains. ‘This is the life I envisioned.’ Walking the streets of a foreign place, with my beautiful, international wife by my side, deliberately seeking adventure, speaking three different languages, sweating in the tropical humidity. My beautiful, beloved boat on anchor in a foreign port, no other cruising yachts around for fear that its too deep and too dangerous here. The though that ‘I was made for this,’ while a wry smile formed on my face. I mean that, this isn’t just something I’m writing about in hindsight. Those thoughts happened last night. No doubt they were helped by sleep deprivation and a few Belgian beers, but nonetheless they were tangible.

Dreams are powerful. Writing down goals makes them real, helps them come true. 

You should try it sometime.