Tucked away in a natural bay is the now bustling town of Golfito. Like so many places I visited in my youth, Golfito has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. It's natural harbour has made the place a tourist attraction with a marina and wildlife sanctuary. On my first visit it was little more than a village. The adventure began before we even touched terra firma.
At the time (still?) Golfito could only accommodate one ship at a time, even though most banana boats were only between 12-15,000 tonnes. Another ship was in port when we arrived and we had to anchor outside the gulf for 24 hours.
The deck lights of the ship lit us up like a Christmas tree and we looked over the side. The lights on the water attracted a number of sharks and we decided a spot of fishing was in order. Never ones for finesse, our fishing tackle was crude at best. We used strong rope with steel wire and a meat hook from the galley at the end. A big joint of beef was the bait. The line was dropped over the side and we retired to the bar for a little light refreshment.
It was a surprise when we checked the line and found a shark had taken the bait. Catching it and hauling it in were two different things entirely. After struggling for half an hour we managed to get the shark to the surface but it put up a hell of a fight. Someone suggested we leave the shark where it was stating they needed to keep swimming or they drown. If that's true they forgot to tell this shark.
We did as was suggested and a couple of hours later it appeared to have worked. Three of us hauled the 'lifeless' shark in. All the other crew members wanted to see our catch and watched with interest as we pulled it onto the deck of the ship. The erstwhile lifeless shark was suddenly re-animated as it hit the deck and thrashed about wildly. Seamen scattered in all directions. From the safety of the wheelhouse the Captain shouted at us to 'get that bloody thing off the ship'.
Of course that was easier said than done. Nobody wanted to tangle with an eight foot tiger-shark even out of the water. We managed to kill it and proudly carried it to the galley.
"You can't cook them, they're too salty" the cook said without a second thought.
We would find out this was in fact a lie to cover the fact he was either too lazy or didn't know how. It was a slap in the teeth but one of the crew had another idea. He had heard about sharks and their feeding frenzies. The shark's stomach was cut open to spill the guts and we dropped it over the side. Einstein we ain't. The shark sank like a brick and if there was a feeding frenzy, we didn't get to watch it.
It was soon forgotten as we weighed anchor and sailed into the bay. Costa Rica made the list ahead of Chile by a whisker. What sealed the deal wasn't the bizarre fishing incident, it was Tom's Island. In the bay there was a small natural island which was owned by an American with one leg known simply as Tom. No, that was the name of the guy before you ask me what his other leg was called.
At the time of our visit there were eight people lived on the island. Three of these were ex-British merchant seamen that had jumped ship. A couple of guys on the ship had been to Golfito before and knew of the island so six of us borrowed one of the lifeboats to go and investigate. The first thing we discovered was that the cook had been lying through his teeth as we were served up a meal of shark meat. It was really nice and a texture I hadn't experienced before. The one we caught would have fed all on the island for a week.
The other thing about shark was how many different ways it could be cooked. For the next three days we kept returning to the island We took Tom and the others a few cases of beer and bottles of whisky. It was easy to see why the Brits had traded the rat-race for this idyllic life-style. The quality of life seemed so much better without tv's phones, and other junk consumerism tells us we MUST have.
At that time Golfito was little more than a jungle port for bananas, but from what I have recently Googled it appears to be a tourist destination now with a brand new marina. Back then Tom's Island and one shore-side bar was all the entertainment afforded visiting seamen. I've also learnt since that Tom died some years back and now I have no idea of the status of the island or even if people still live there.
The weather was perfect as usual. Golfito wasn't the only port I visited on these banana runs. Nor was Costa Rica the only country. We also went to Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama and Colombia for cargoes of bananas. All the ports we visited were similar, usually small villages on the edge of the jungle and it was then I fell in love with rainforests / jungles in Central and South America.
On the second day we asked a little uncertainly if it was ok to swim. The guys told us the sharks never came into the harbour because of noise from the ships. I don't know if this was true but we took them at face value and sporadically splashed around in the warm waters of the bay. The next day however, we were on a punt painting the side of the ship when we looked into the water and saw three large sea-snakes swimming around. It stopped any further water-sports.
The main building on the island was of wood construction with a corrugated tin roof. It was simple but all that was needed. We sat inside drinking beer when there sounded like a stampede heading our way. It was really loud and I was about to ask what the hell was going on when it hit the corrugated tin roof. The noise was deafening then all of a sudden a tremendous crash like cannon-fire made me jump out of my skin.
It turned out the noise was the rain, it was so torrential we could hear it coming as first it hit the trees then the tin roof. The huge 'crash' was actually a coconut dislodged by the rain that hit the roof. We learnt a valuable lesson that day. Never shelter from rain under a palm tree.
Costa Rica like their neighbours in Central America was a beautiful unspoilt country. We saw how little the people had and gave them all manner of things, jeans, Sony Walkmans, T-shirts, books and magazines, anything we had basically. We had no need of such things and they were easy to replace. Of my time at sea I sailed on more banana boats than anything else and for two years I was constantly running between Europe and Central America.
In Limon a local working crew would come on board to help paint the ship and one guy I made friends with straight away. His name was Solomon (all the guys seemed to have biblical names). He was intelligent and helped me organise the work party. Afterwards I offered to buy him a beer and we had a good night. Solomon was full of questions and was particularly interested in geography. The next day we left Limon and I thought no more about it.
When I joined my next ship and saw I would be going back to Limon I bought a big Times Atlas of the World in case I saw Solomon again. I did and when I gave it him you would have thought I gave him a million pounds. We went out and drank again. Some of Solomon's friends tried to look at the book but he slapped their hands away tetchily.
Over the next two years I became great friends with Solomon and I was disappointed if I missed him. On the next occasion Solomon took me to his house. We had been drinking - as usual - when Solomon, me, and two of his friends headed off into the jungle. There was no pathway but we didn't have to go far. Solomon's house was a one room structure on stilts. It was craftfully built out of local wood and was neat inside. I saw straight away the Atlas had pride of place and looked as pristine as the day I gave it him. I often wonder what happened to Solomon, I hope he followed his dreams.
A funny incident occurred on my last visit. I was already known as a 'bit of a character' on the ship but a run ashore with five of the lads had them gob-smacked. We were walking down the main street and there were a group of about 15 local men up ahead outside a bar. They were partially blocking the path and my shipmates started to get paranoid, thinking the guys might be hostile.
They looked our way then a hand shot up
"Joel, hey how ya doing man?" shouted Solomon and dashed towards me.
The look on the faces of my shipmates was priceless.
One thing I also remember when drunkenly stumbling back from Solomon's place was a tree. There were no lights in the jungle and to get back I followed the faint glow of the dock. On this occasion there was bright moonlight and I lost my bearings. I came to a clearing and there was a huge tree in the middle. It was covered in purple flowers as was the ground all around it. I stared in awe at the sheer beauty of it and this song always reminds me of that tree.