This island in Cayos Vivorillo is supposedly uninhabited. so we can’t quite believe what we see before us: a lean-to, ratty pieces of raw foam used for beds, and a broken generator that had once powered a freezer. Around us, as far as the eye can see, is an empty ocean roiled by a summer gale. My husband, Douglas, and I have made landfall here in our dinghy as we hopscotch along Caribbean islands on our 39-foot sailboat, Ithaka. Simply seeking shelter from that gale, we never imagined what we’d find.
To our astonishment, we spot who’s living here: two desperate castaways. They tell us they’re cousins, teenage Cobi and the older Winsal, and that they have been stranded together on this deserted cay for four months. They say their boss has hired them to dive for conch and lobster and has come by periodically to pick up the catch. Lobster season, though, has been closed for a month. No boss has been seen since, and no fishing boats will be coming through again for two more months. The boys have a few matches left, some rice and little water. “We stuck bad,” says Winsal. “D’boss figure we leave by anudder boat.” Douglas and I make assurances that we’ll get them to their island home of Guanaja, which is a two-day sail behind us.
A procession of cold fronts, though, keep us rooted at the cay for 15 days. Cobi and Winsal join us for meals, show us where the best diving is, teach us how to skin a triggerfi sh and bring us to an islet covered in nesting yellowfooted boobies and frigates. Douglas and Winsal do boat maintenance projects together. Cobi asks if I’ll help him improve his English, so every day we read aloud together from a Harry Potter book I have aboard. Cobi is an orphan and was an honor student before a hurricane ravaged Guanaja. His sister pulled him out of school to earn money for her kids.
Cobi and Winsal haven’t had any breaks in life, but they love free diving. An amazing reef system surrounds the island, and together we spearfish every day. Cobi, with his beat-up fins and rusty spear gun, moves underwater as though jet-propelled, diving deeper than we can, stalking fish, aiming perfectly. Within the first 20 minutes, he nails two hogfish while Douglas only manages to nick the hind end of one. Later, Cobi whispers some advice: “You know, Mr. Douglas, dose tail shots a’yours never work. You gotta hit ’em in de brain, Sir. Dat’s where d’action is.”
We make dinghy excursions to the bird cay under a sky Hitchcock-dense with frigates soaring over their island rookery. Every tree, every branch is covered in birds. Awed by the soft beauty of fuzzy baby boobies and the antics of male frigates with their red puffed-up chests, Cobi says it makes him hopeful about people to see frigates and boobies nesting peacefully together.
Finally, one morning our weather faxes show a good window to carry on. But if we take the boys with us south to Colombia, how will we get them home? They have no passports. If we sail back to Guanaja, there’s no telling if another weather window will open for sailing south before hurricane season descends in force. Already, violent summer weather systems are back-to-back.
At noon Douglas grabs the binoculars. Amazingly, a small cruise ship is passing our cay from the south. We get on the radio, pleading with the captain to take the castaways to Guanaja.
“Impossible. This is a private ship,” he says. “Call the authorities.” Of course we would’ve done that ages ago, but Winsal is terrified of getting his boss in trouble, jeopardizing prospects for future work. He has begged us not to. Douglas jumps in our dinghy and zooms out to the 150-foot ship. The captain is understandably dubious about the boys’ circumstances and reluctant to involve one of the world’s most exclusive touring companies. Still, he brings the ship closer and drops anchor.
A big black inflatable carries him to the cay to question the boys while his guests snorkel the reef. He grills Cobi and Winsal for an hour, then returns to the ship. Anxiously, we wait as the sun sets. The captain comes on the VHF: “Ithaka, get the boys ready. Now, please. My guests refuse to leave without them.” There is no time for long good- byes. We bundle up bags of our clothes and sandals, our addresses and the Harry Potter book. With tears streaming down our faces, we hug a barefoot boy and his wild-haired cousin. The ship’s tender whisks them into the night for one of the most extraordinary voyages of their lives. As frigates and boobies soar over a quiet island, Cobi and Winsal head home.
Later we hear from other sailors coming through the Bay Islands that there was great commotion on Guanaja the day a fancy cruise ship delivered two raggedy fishermen dressed in crew shirts. We smile when we hear of a handsome boy seen proudly giving the ship’s passengers a walking tour of his island. A few years have passed now, and I sometimes wonder what has become of Cobi and Winsal. I think the most extraordinary thing about island travel is that while it takes you to precious, untrammeled places, it can also connect you intimately to people you would otherwise never know. It can open your eyes to how human lives have so much potential, if only they are not lost.
Bernadette Bernon, freelance writer and former editorial director of Cruising World magazine, lives in Rhode Island. She and her husband spent six years voyaging on their 39-foot sailboat Ithaka.