Editor’s Note: Everett Redus, 21, of Baytown, Texas, now one of four surviving brothers, has been traveling south to Patagonia, carrying and spreading the ashes of his slain older brother, Cameron, a senior honors student at the University of Incarnate word who was fatally shot by a campus policeman outside his off-campus apartment on December 6, 2013. The Rivard Report has invited Everett to publish periodic dispatches as he makes his way south and awaits word on a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family against UIW and the police officer. Read more about Cameron’s life, death, and the aftermath here. Donate to Everett’s trip via his GoFundMe campaign here.
The sailing vessel Sarah Moira was siezed in Alabama by the U.S. government. She was boarded by the Coast Guard after her steering blew in the Gulf of Mexico, and was found to be laden with illegal immigrants and two tons of narcotics. She was put up for sale in Bayou La Batre for a fraction of what she was worth, and thus came into the hands of Dave and Rhonda of Sydney, Australia. It would be a slow trip back home for them, with the amount of work needed to be done on the boat. The whole interior had been gutted, and bunks installed for immigrants, so everything had to be rebuilt from scratch.
An 80-foot, 95-ton, steel bodied ketch (double-masted ship), its unusual to see a sailboat bigger than her, and everywhere you looked there was another problem that needed attention. They had been moored in Rio Dulce, Guatemala for three months before I came, with a crew of 10 local laborers working on her daily.
An obsession with the idea of sailing had infected my mind long before I ever came across a boat willing to take me on as crew. I had dreamt about it for months and could hardly think of anything else. I was discontented with being on land any longer. I was willing to go anywhere as long it was a sailboat taking me there. But when Dave and Rhonda told me of their destination, I still had a very hard time bringing myself to commit. I would be taken far off my intended route, and even further from my ultimate destination. There was a strange sense of guilt trying to keep me from going, until I had a realization. I thought of Cameron, and tried to think of what he would do. It was obvious to me then. Cameron would be the last person on earth to let an opportunity like this pass by. “What would have happened?” Is a question that I intend to never have to ask myself. I was to act, and act now.
The delays piled up as our departure date continued to move further back. I had by now met the other crew members who would be sailing with us and found that they were good company. We befriended the captain of a neighboring boat, and during the indefinite waiting periods went on several week-long excursions with him on the Drum Thunder.
Pete was the type who never allowed for a lull in excitement, and we sailed all about Lago Izabal, kayaking up her rivers, anchoring in a new cove every couple of nights, soaking in the warmth. The lake was absolutely beautiful, and there’s no better way to see it than by boat. It was excellent first exposure to sailing, and I absorbed all the knowledge I could, as it would surely be of use later on.
We sailed through the night to return to Rio Dulce. I had the helm for many hour while the others caught some sleep. We were under a full moon, and the lightning danced wildly behind the jungle hills. There was a good wind, and I learned to find that magic spot where steering becomes unnecessary, when the sails cut the wind so perfectly that the ship is held on course without ever having to touch the wheel. The breeze was sharp, but the moon, stars, and lightning told me not to mind. I became intensely happy, and had my first experience with that timeless sensation that all sailors must have occasion to feel.
We pulled back into the marina only to find that it would be another two weeks before we could leave. The tide would only be high enough for us to clear the sand bar off the coast under the new or full moon. So it was never a matter of waiting a few days. If we had to wait, it would be two weeks. I became very wary of being in Rio Dulce. I’d spent such a long time dreaming of getting out to sea, and now I was wondering if it would happen at all. For our window of time was slowly closing as we moved deeper and deeper into the hurricane season.
I began to involve myself in the preperation of the boat, and was soon promoted to translator between captain and laborers. Dave and Rhonda spoke nothing of Spanish, and the workers certainly didn’t speak any English. By some miracle, they had gotten the boat built to their specifications without any common language in between them. It was all made easier when I came along, and it expedited the process.
We toiled day after day, and slowly, the rusted, junk covered vessel began to look like a sailboat. Things were looking optimistic, but we were careful not to get our hopes too high. But then one day, we actually left.
It was a momentous occasion, casting off the bowline, and under the new name of the Alabama, moving out into the river. A month I’d spent on that boat, waiting to leave, and the time had finally come. We spent the night anchored half-way down the river in Cayo Quemado, and in the morning sailed through the twists and turns of the canyon to Livingston.
But coming out of the river and into the bay is where the first hurdle faced us. We drew 7 ft. 4 in. beneath the surface, but even at high tide the clearance over the submerged sand bar was less than that. We’d have to be keeled over to make it. Having arranged for two local fishing boats to aid us, we crept out into the bay, the depth registering lower and lower as we progressed. When we reached the critical point, our friends moved into action. One boat bulled us foreward by a line tied off to our bow. A halyard ran from the top of our mast out to the second boat off our starbord side. They pulled until the lines became taught, and we slowly leaned over to starbord. We keeled over as far as we could, without water coming up on deck, but we still felt the hull running aground. Then the line running from the mast snapped, and we were flung into an upright position, wedged even further into the sand. We could attempt only one more time before the tide would drop, taking with it all our hopes of escape. With the broken line replaced, we were again pulled on our side. For the first minute we didn’t budge, but then we began to move slightly forward. It was a ways to the end of the bank, but we carved our way through the bottom until we were free on the other side.
My dream of going out to sea was being realized. I turned and bid a final farewell to Guatemala, and to all the friends and experiences I was given in my five months spent there. Then I turned forward to accept the adventure that lay before me. Our ship was escorted into the evening by a family of dolphins, just as the sun lay down his head behind the horizon.
Oh how beauty is intensified when preceded by frustration and heartache.
The seas became rough as we travelled east out of the sheltered bay. The trade winds blew at 30 knots on our nose, but we had to hold this course until we could turn south around the corner of Honduras. We raised the mainsail, but this was only to keep us from rocking side to side, we gained no speed from her.
Not much changed in the first four days. Most of the crew maintained a horizontal existence in this time, under the throws of sickness. We were still becoming accustomed to life at sea, and the daily workings of the boat. And as these rough days passed I became ever more familiar with the hell that is our engine room. None but a sailor can understand what it’s like to work down in the bilge on rough seas. Multiple times a day I would accompany the captain down to the engine room, if I wasn’t called to go alone. Sometimes it was only a matter of running routine checks on the water, oil, and fuel levels. But most of the time, it seemed, there was a serious problem that needed fixing. One afternoon we lost our starbord engine. It siezed and then would not start again, after which ensued a long day in the pit. But when I wasn’t toiling away in sweat and grime, I was up on deck falling more in love with the sea.
Everytime I scanned my eyes across its waters a school of flying fish would be gliding across the surface for hundreds of yards. Many a time I sat pondering these curious fish. What gave them the desire to leave their vast ocean world and come into ours? What need has a fish to fly through the air? Whatever may have been the reason, I applaud the first fish who did so, for he saw a challenge and accepted it, though it meant leaving his safe confines. He has given an art to his kind, making them unique among all others. Were there more humans under this same mindset, ours would be a much more pleasant species.
As we rounded Hounduras and the compass needle spun towards 180, things became more peaceful. The wind was in our favor now and we flew more sails. We were 100 miles off the coast of Nicaragua when three swallows flew on board. They had been blown far from their home and found us in their search for refuge. It wasn’t long before they warmed up to us and flew over to perch on our hands.
After the excitement over our new crew members had abated, everything slowed down to a tranquil place. And thus it stayed until we had nearly reached our destination. It was the ninth day after leaving Rio Dulce and we were only 20 miles from entering port in Panama, already in sight of land. Then the squall hit us. It came without warning, and with an intensity that threw us about violently. The rain stung fierce as needles against the skin as we dashed up to the bow to bring down the sails, one of which, the jib, had already ripped in half. The seas rose and we hung on to stays for dear life as we were lifted up high then dropped into the trough. Waves engulfed us, washing us clean with seawater. Then just as suddenly as it was born, it died away.
We pulled into the harbor and for a week we waited. The excitement for what would come next was almost unbearable. As a child I was taught about the Panama Canal, but I never thought I would have the chance to sail through it. Finally our slot came.
The sun had already set when we came to the monstrous steel gates of the first lock system. They slowly opened to let us enter. I was stationed on the bow as line handler, and another was astern. Men appeared at the top of the 10 meter walls above us and threw down ropes. To these we attached our sturdy lines to be hauled up and cleated off. When we were secure the water began to bubble up from below and we started to rise. It was our job to pull in the slack on the lines as we rose, keeping the ship close to the wall. But the churning water could take the boat and swing her in any direction, and when we came so close to the wall that we would bash against it, we had to push off the 100-year-old concrete with our hands until we floated back to a safe distance. When we had risen 10 meters our lines were cast off and we pulled through the gates into the next chamber. In this manner we moved through the three chambers of the Gatun locks.
I was invigorated by the experience. Every sailor born during the last 100 years has dreamt of making this passage, and I was lucky to have been doing it. It was in cheerful spirits that we slept that night, anchored out on Lake Gatun. In the morning we continued moving through the ship channel towards the far end of the lake. It was immensely beautiful, passing between little islands, and with nothing but jungle as far as the eye could see.
The lake narrowed and funneled us into the remaining locks. The process was much the same as in the first locks, except that we were lowered instead of raised. It was a bit unnerving when the ship we were to share the chamber with pulled in next to us. The chambers are 1,000 feet long, and the cargo ship took up 800 feet of it, meaning that there was very little room between their bow and our stern. These are the monsters one fears running into on night watch, and here it was, a few meters behind us as we swung about in the disturbed waters. We let out slack on the lines as needed, careful not to let out too much.
We cleared the last three chambers with no more casualty than a scratched paint job, and pulled into port in Panama City. Here we stayed for two weeks, repairing and refitting the boat. Many days of tedious work passed, and then I was met with a pleasant surprise.
My good friend Otto, with whom I shared so many grand adventures in Guatemala and Honduras, had hitch-hiked all the way down to meet me and enter his name in the ship’s log. Thus reunited, we set about exploring, all the while recounting everything we’d experienced in the two months since we had seen each other last. Every day had been joyous since Otto’s arrival, but just a few days away from leaving I had a very trying emotional experience.
We had gone to refuel and I was stationed down in the bilge, moving the hose between tanks and keeping an eye on the levels. There had been leakages before, and the pre-existing diesel fumes were overwhelming. I had been down in the grease and heat for so long that I was on the verge of collapsing. I stuck my head out for half a minute to catch some untainted air, then climbed back down only to find two previously unknown hoses spewing diesel all over the engine room. With a thumb in each hose, I shouted up for them to turn off the pump. It was an eternity before the fuel stopped flowing. Diesel cut with sweat dripped over my entire body. I stumbled up on deck and went straight to the ground. My eyes were blinded by fumes, and when I opened them they saw colors that shouldn’t have been there. There was no stopping the flow of thoughts through my mind. And they inevitably fell on that topic that has given my life so much grief. I thought of my slain brother. I erupted in tears that did not stop for some time. It was a most pitiful state that I was in. I felt sad and I felt angered. But most of all I felt cheated. It had been some time since I had tears for my brother and for myself, and I let them flow. I din’t speak much for the rest of the day.
We set sail in a good wind. It was a relief to be back at sea, and this time with my best friend at my side. With every sail bent, we flew over the water. I stared ahead longingly into the nothingness of our path. We were heading west into the Pacific Ocean, in the trails of so many explorers that came before us. But it wasn’t without remorse that I looked ahead either. I was sad to head away from the Americas, where my brother and I experienced so much, and where my projected route lies. There was no knowing how long it would be before the seas brought me back to these lands. But these troubles I pushed out of my mind. I knew fate would usher me back in a timely manner, for I had a quest to accomplish.
Otto and I sat forward in the wind channel between the jib and staysail. Dolphins weaved about in the water that splits to make way for our prow. And to our delight, we were bade welcome by whales, slapping the surface with their great tails and blowing spouts of water high into the air. All manner of sea life was about us. We brought on board two species of tuna, which served as our meals for many days.
Days of smooth sailing passed, and I began to acquaint myself with that ancient knowledge of wind and weather. By now I was familiar with the aerodynamics of our ship – the way she reacts to the elements, how she rises and twists on the swells.
After a few days the winds changed and the seas rose, becoming less hospitable to our presence. Just walking across the deck became a dangerous task. Down below, inanimate objects not prone to movement suddenly sprout legs and jump to the floor. Walls come from one side of the room to the other to meet you. Some days were worse than others, and naturally it was on these days that problems developed in the engine room. The engine room makes short work of a landlubber, and I felt myself becoming hardened.
The dolphins and whales that had been our constant companions for so many days were nowhere to be found on these rough days, but there was other life about. Friggatebirds and terns were always present, riding the updrafts of air we created, flying in between the masts. We also were boarded by to species of egrets, which stayed with us for a couple of days. It was an oddity, since these were shore birds and we were many hundreds of miles away from land. Otto and I accepted the task of catching and studying them, which we successfully did after several attempts.
This served as our main source of entertainment when we weren’t spotting flying fish and anything else that rose up from the deep. One afternoon, as I sat scribbling away in my journal, I heard the cry I’d waited to hear for the whole trip.
“Shark!” shouted Otto. I ran on deck to his side and watched as the dorsal fin cooly drifted by on our port side, seeming unperturbed by our invasion of his kingdom.
For an odd reason, the weather grew colder the closer we came to the equator. One chilly night, Otto and I sat alone staring into the east as the full moon rose. It eclipsed as we crossed the equator. The light grew dimmer as the moon was swallowed by darkness, then shone blood red when the eclipse reached its peak. We sat entranced. The sky was overcome by redness and the sea glowed an eerie green with phosphorescence. I didn’t dare move so as not to break the spell. The ship rolled across this seascape in the endless dance of buoyancy, on the waves that the moon herself lent her hand in making.
I was the first to spot land in the morning, and within a few hours we were dropping anchor in the Galapagos Islands.
*Top image: A view from the mast head on the Drum Thunder. Photo by Everett Redus.