(from Chapter 14 La Finca, Love, Loss, and Laundry on a Tiny Puerto Rican Island)
In honor of the opening of the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, I’m republishing this for all our wooden boat enthusiasts!
I’d like to dedicate this to Martin Musson — well-lived, well-loved local sailor, adventurer, R2AK hero, the guy who sold us our wooden boat, who knew the swinging bench, heck — every wooden inch of the finca, well,; who lived to tell the tale of a cockroach who flew directly into his left ear while sitting on it in fact…on his first evening too. But that’s another story… Here’s to you, Martin, with thanks beyond words for all that you’ve done for, and taught us lucky enough to call you friend.
The main deck swing has always felt like the Finca’s throne, or more accurately, helm. From here you can see it all and it is from here, that I, and on a lucky day, gear up for, or unwind from, the day.
Hard to say if evenings are the very best time on the deck swing because mornings from here catch the sunrise. But evenings, too, are heavenly. Like clockwork, as the sun sets over the hill just west of us, the twilight’s symphony of frogs and crickets starts up. The pink-apricot popcorn clouds turn to periwinkle, and the palms and bananas become black lacey silhouettes. The palms start to rustle and the first star twinkles into place.
I hand Bill a cold local beer, and join him on the bench. It’s his first day here. So I’m just a little nervous. The chains creak their acceptance, and the swing regains its rhythm. Then I see something in his face, and I know it’s safe to ask. “So… whad’ya think?’ The swing swings. The fronds sway. “It’s spectacular.”
Long pause; I wait. “I can’t figure it out. The buildings are pretty funky. Like you said there’s no end to keeping up with the place. I’ve never seen duct tape, or a staple gun, used so creatively.” He pats my leg, and takes another swing. “The landscape, the climate, it’s all really beautiful…. but this building; this crazy, out-of-anything that follows code building, Casa Grande, is spectacular. “
Does it call to the architect in him? Or the renegade? I wonder.
“Have you ever realized how much this house is like a big ol’ wooden ship??” Bill goes on “A little derelict maybe, but just like a wooden boat, the more love you pour into it, the more she responds. You can feel how much you love the place. Goofy rigging and all”.
I think of a line from my journal.
A wooden house in the Caribbean is indeed a rare and wonderful thing.
I begin to think of Casa Grande as a wooden boat. In the boating world a few folks, some might say a certain type, are crazy enough to seek out wooden vessels: lifetime projects of love and toil. Similarly smitten souls can relate, others just scratch their heads. Lots of boaters tend to tease wooden boat owners, “Why would you want wood? Fiberglass is so much more practical…”
At La Finca, Bill and I hear the same: “Wouldn’t you rather just get a little rental duplex condo in town?” “Don’t you get tired of working?” “Why don’t you relax?” “Aren’t you worried about termites? And what about hurricanes?”
But Casa Grande, like any boat worth its salt, has weathered many a big blow. She’s the largest in our fleet: a rambling, hand-built, six-room guesthouse, and the heart of the whole finca. Think of the property, the finca, as our cove where she is safely anchored.
And, although clearly a house is not a boat, we live on her decks and sleep in her berths. We oil her wood, and scrape the rust off any metal hardware exposed to the moist salty air. Like a wooden boat, she needs constant care, and responds to it beautifully.
Over the many years aboard, I learn how best to help her weather the elements, like oiling her bright work. And how painting the main house exterior its now-iconic deep “Shaman Blue” actually makes the rooms hotter inside. Who knew that the strength of our sun could soak into the blue, and make those south facing walls hot to the touch all afternoon? It warms the towels that hang on the wall rack, for God’s sake. Thankfully boats have thicker skins.
Like a boat, the building creaks and groans, perhaps even bends, in a good, strong wind. When I was new to the helm, it worried me. But back then we still thought we were in control and logic would prevail. We could fix that! We added massive, stanchion-like cables, strapping them up over the roof to hold it in place, or at least keep it on in a hurricane. It’s worked so far, I guess. The place is still standing. But the truth is, half of the stays are shot now; rusted through. Like loose rigging, their scraping, sometimes whirring sounds, add to the nautical romance of Room 4 especially. One learns to turn liabilities into assets. Just like those sun-warmed towels in Room 3.
The finca sits pretty much right on the island’s ridge between the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Casa Grande sits where the land slopes southward, and so its big back deck stands high off the ground, its prow facing squarely into the trade winds, which, unlike common sense, do prevail. They hail from the southwest, across our mid-ship. To harness them, slightly starboard is where we hang our laundry. We line dry about 98 percent of our inn linens, and always have. It takes time, of course, and then more time, to wash, hang, take down, fold, sort, and put away, all before it rains, or a guest inadvertently adds sandy beach towels to the mix.
There aren’t a lot of things in this world that I enjoy more than doing finca laundry. It’s a good thing, with the mountain that’s often waiting. Is it the basic Zen of it, or the creation of the temporary art piece—where the flowered vintage thrift store pillowcases patchwork themselves in amongst the colored sheets? I have fun, like I do making the beds, marrying random to chaos, for our own look. Sometimes I checkerboard the colors and designs, other days I group them by color, a family of pinks and roses together, from dishcloths to bedspreads. The other end of the line can have the blues today. A few, albeit far between, guests have complimented me on how beautiful our laundry looks hanging, and blowing. Most others, like my kids, probably think I’m a little nuts. But once an art director, always an art director, noticing and playing with colors and shapes.
If you’ve ever taken down sails in nasty weather, you know how scary it is when they wrap themselves around you, tugging at you with a life of their own. The large queen sheets can be just like that—flapping, snapping, and flying, sometimes downright horizontally, enshrouding you in their faded pink or bright apple green selves, threatening to knock an unsuspecting crew member or housekeeper off the deck. Many a time, I’ve wondered if the long scratchy fall down through the amapola hedge might be my eventual demise. It’s not just me. Our manager Wendy, a tall, strong, capable woman, tells me she’s learned to hold onto the house with one hand when taking them down.
“One hand for the boat; one for yourself,” I tell her. “It’s a boating mantra. Don’t let go.”
The veranda wraps clear around the house, from laundry to front porch, to our long-neglected honor bar, to the big main deck, where guests gather to eat and hang. That’s the bow of our ship. The big deck looks out over hills that roll out to countless miles of ocean, and on to my favorite horizon anywhere. Turquoise meets robin’s egg blue in its own clashing way, as if sea and sky are wearing colors that shouldn’t go together, but somehow do. They pull it off, except of course when enormous tropical clouds take over, separating the two with varying greys and pinks, charcoal to apricot.
Off to portside lies St. Croix, showing itself as different sizes and versions depending on the day and haze, and theoretically Venezuela is out there, due south. Doubt if I’ll make it there, but it feels good knowing a place as foreign and exotic as that is our next-in-line neighbor.
In summer, right at dusk, the Southern Cross shows itself just above the neighbor’s goat farm. But it slips below that southern horizon quickly, and twilight doesn’t last long in the tropics. The next thing you know it’s another jet-black, star-studded night sky. A skilled sailor can navigate by stars, but we just stretch out on the deck to watch them, share our salty, sandy tales, and try to chart what’s coming next.
There’s that inexplicable deep love/magic/soul thing, that I’ve yet to really find the words for—the sense of purpose that a boat, or the finca, gives me. What would I do all day in a little condo apartment without laundry to fold, or a painted floor to touch up, tropical problems and Latin mysteries to solve? If Jimmy Buffett is right about “doing it all for the stories we can tell,” then building in wood, for salty sea—or land—makes perfect sense.
Funny that after so many years adrift, just when I learn to single-hand it, to go it alone pretty well, I meet Bill Parker, wooden boat guy, who prefers the lines of mid-century classics to anyone, I mean anything young and sexy. He’s an architect to boot. He gets the whole finca thing. He gets me. Here is someone who I don’t have to explain any of it to. Bill cautiously steps aboard. I think he falls in love with La Finca as he falls in love with me, and we are on course, underway.
~ ~ ~
And while that was the happy ending of that chapter of the book, it doesn’t seem right to end there now. I get quiet, here as I try to capture it…or rewrite that ending.
Bill got cancer ten years later and died six years ago. I sold Tyke, our 1955 Atkin Eric Jr a month later at the Wooden Boat Festival in 2017. Two weeks later, that big old beautiful boat of a house, Casa Grande, blew away in Hurricane Maria. Two months later, the little house I’d bought in Uptown as shelter from my many storms, was burned…not quite to the ground.
But I am back…step by freaking step, I walk back. Not to my old life, as much as I’d like to…but to where and whatever is next. I know now, it doesn’t have to be wind-powered, or even wood. But I do continue to dream about sailing away.
This poem, sung to the tune of Red River Valley is performed by Corky in her audiobook version of the book.