01 Oct The Majesty of the Moment
In early September 2004, our first day offshore in Venezuela, Shya caught and released his very first white marlin using a fly rod. Photo ops abounded at this exciting acrobatic, dancing, leaping event.
Earlier that day, the ocean was calm, calm, calm. Very unusual for that particular place, so we were told. But as we came into port at the end of our offshore adventure, we found out that the marina would be closed the following day. They were anticipating hurricane Ivan (the terrible), which was predicted to come closer to Venezuela than any hurricane ever had.
Due to where the country is located, big cyclones usually scoot by and leave the coastline unmolested. Although the storm was happening to the east and north of us, there was the expectation of big swells rolling in from the sea. On a walk around the marina, we found that the general consensus among the staff and crews of the docked boats was that closing the marina was a colossal over-reaction. Chances were, they said, that this would be another beautiful day.
After a meal of fresh fish and a glass of wine we retired, not knowing what to expect in the morning. We awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of rain pounding on the roof, the deluge of a tropical storm.
By morning the rain had stopped, but when we stepped out of our door and strolled to the boats, we could feel the adrenaline. People there were still rocking and reeling from the trauma of December 1999, when after 16 days of nonstop rain, the mountains along 65 miles of coast let loose. Tons of mud, rocks and debris had fallen into the sea just after midnight when most people were in bed. There were workers at the marina who had their entire village destroyed. One young man reportedly helped pull 50 people from the mud and destruction, saving their lives. His home was only one of four buildings left standing in his village after the slide. So with the prediction of extreme weather, the villagers who had survived that tragedy were on edge.
As we walked out along the dock we could feel the tension. Thirty million dollars worth of boats were lined up at the marina, cheek-by-jowl, and crews were rushing to add extra lines and bumpers… all hands on deck kind of thing.
Soon the tide began to surge and the boats went “clackety-clack” all in a line from left to right as the water rushed into the marina. In the distance, we could see the surge begin to jump over the sea wall. Shya and I fortified ourselves with double espressos (we still have our priorities straight, hurricane or not) and then I retrieved my camera and began snapping shots of the preparations. When some of the local men saw me, camera in hand, they suggested we climb to the roof of a nearby half-completed building (construction stopped after the mudslide of ’99 and had not yet resumed) if we wanted an unobstructed, bird’s eye view. We followed them through the dark and dusty underground garage, past the detritus of big boats, banged up props and the like, and began the assent to the roof. It was kind of eerie up there with half-finished railings and an open elevator shaft.
As we climbed the stairs, we stepped over the imprint of an iguana. It had died right there and was absorbed as it decayed, until only a ghostly shadow was left. When we reached the top, we went to the penthouse windows, a breathless eleven floors up. We could still feel the controlled chaos as we watched those below us.
A 63-foot Garlington, a big blue-hulled beauty, motored further into the marina and farther from the mouth of the harbor. The surge had been so unexpectedly large and fierce, the stress had destroyed the cement cleats on the dock to which it had been tied. Now they needed to find a new place to safely moor their boat. We paid special attention to that boat’s security, not only for them but also for us. This was the boat we had rented and all of our equipment was still onboard.
I began to take pictures as the sea first crested the seawall and then later as it went crashing in great massive waves. The seawall stood twenty feet but the swells were twenty-seven. Mountains of spray jetted skyward. The sailboats bobbed like toys. We could see brave souls clinging to masts with arms and legs, attempting to ride the storm. Soon the wind came up, sending sails lashing and flags whipping. And then, then the waves peaked and the worst had passed. Surprisingly, there was no rain. All was soon quiet.
The next morning, we found out that three people at the outer marina died that day. Hungry waves had devoured the docks and boats and men. Five surfers who foolishly had attempted to ride the walls of water also had perished, but our boat had weathered the storm without so much as a scratch. Later, as we rode past the destruction and out to sea, I found myself thinking about those lost souls.
I doubt that they woke up in the morning and knew it would be their last day on earth. They probably had plans for the next day and for the weekend ahead and for their lives. I found myself saying silent prayers for the victims and the grieving families of the men. It was one of those instances where I had a direct experience of the impermanence of things. One where I was grateful for the quirk of fate that left the two of us safe to live another day. There was still time for our lives to continue to unfold.
Shya and I had been brushed by the wingtips of nature’s fury, a single feather touch that left us trembling. It was a reminder of the preciousness and fragility of life and also of the majesty of the moment.