A boat full of friends and family embarked every summer aboard Siboney, my 39’ Robert Clark cutter, to explore Venezuela’s offshore islands. My sons never missed a trip and often my friends would bring their boys. Our basic sail plan was simple: stay far away from populated areas and catch all the fish and lobster we could stuff into our bodies. In general our expeditions were always quite successful. 

          On board when we sailed late on the afternoon of June 23, 1971, from Playa Grande Marina, 10 miles west of the port of La Guaira, Venezuela, were fellow General Electric co-worker Siro Cugini, his son Cary and my sons Bill, Jr. and Jim. All three boys were close to 15 years of age. We reefed the main, raised the jib and staysail, rounded the marina breakwater and set the bow as close as we could to the steady 17 knot easterly. With five reliable helmsmen aboard, watches were easy, yet wet.  

          Dawn found us off Farallon Centinela, a high round rock that juts straight out of the water and lies some 15 miles off the north coast of Venezuela. By the time we were alongside it, all three boys had their goggles and flippers on, spear guns in hand and set to jump in. With sails lowered, I followed the hunters as they circled the rock. Siro was on the bow, keeping an eye on things. Cary popped a middle-sized pompano and quickly tossed it aboard as he had been taught to do. Sharks pick up vibes from the dying fish and shoot in for an easy meal, unless the hunter is in the way. The rest of the fish surely ran for the deep after that first shot, since no other fish came aboard. I talked the eager boys out of the water, upped sails and set a course for the northeast end of Isla Tortuga. A huge pot of pasta and pompano quickly sent the crew into la-la-land.

           Considerably calmer winds made for an easy starlit sail. At just after 8 a.m. the reel whizzed and in no time Billy landed a small dorado, brought it aboard without the gaff, stuck it with the filleting knife and deftly removed both filets as Siro fired up a bed of onions. The crew lost no time in polishing away the catch of the morning but still made loud hungry teenage noises. Siro then sent up a heaping plate of bacon and eggs which also vanished in record time. By late afternoon we anchored off the northeast light on Isla Tortuga. The boys lost no time in shooting supper, two fair sized snappers.

          May 25 found us tacking south against a punishing easterly with only a general idea of our whereabouts. With no stars showing and a couple of confusing shore lights, the compass remained our sole navigational tool. I knew we were heading towards the Araya Peninsula but wanted to be sure we’d miss the Araya sand banks on its northwest corner. Siro hailed a fisherman who pointed out the buoy that marked the bank. Off the Morros de la Peña we had to drop the yankee and proceed under jib and jib staysail as we beat our way into ever increasing winds. Several additional turns on the mainsail boom roller furling helped ease the strain as Siboney worked its way up wind against a steady, raucous and wet 25-knot easterly.

          When we dropped the hook in Porlamar amidst myriads of fishing boats, the crew would have kissed the shore if they had the energy to row that far. Siro fixed the skip a ‘Siboney sling’ and stuffed the boys with spaghetti ‘a-la-mama-Cugini’, a secret sauce recipe personally prepared and canned by Siro’s Italian mother. The three boys vanished into their bunks while Siro and I planned our next move over a second sling.

          On the morning of June 26, with the help of a local fisherman who led the way, we motored into the unmarked entrance to the commercial harbor where we loaded 120 liters of diesel, 60 pounds of ice, 6 pineapples, and two new crew members, Dick Lloyd, another GE friend, and Al Sparzani, my next door neighbor in Caracas. A sail to Isla Blanca yielded three snappers and two yellowtails. They became the centerpiece for supper that evening in Porlamar. Joining us for Chef Siro’s gourmet feast was Dennis Bourne, well-known painter and sailor who was anchored nearby.

          After a quiet evening, Al Sparzani headed for shore and home, the boys upped anchor and set the sails as I put Siboney on a course toward the island chain of Los Testigos. The southeasterly, steady at 15 knots, a star filled sky, and the evening rum ration, turned this leg into, as the crew aptly called it, a “Hollywood Cruise”. Our destination consisted of a small chain of islands 90 miles to the east. Two-hour relatively dry watches provided the entire crew with a good nights rest. All of us were on deck when the first light of the new day began to obscure the weaker stars in the eastern sky. The ‘where are we’ enigma was thankfully solved when Billy, at the helm, spotted the high hill on Testigo Grande. A slight course change and we were right on.

Cary jumped up, grabbed the fishing rod, dropped the feather lure in the water, and silently let about one hundred feet of line pay out. Dick Lloyd and I rested against the cabin, while Bill, Jr. handled the helm. Less than an hour later, when the suns first rays struck Siboney it was as if a signal bell had rung. Cary jumped at the loud buzz made by the fishing line as it flew out. He grabbed the pole, tightened the drag just a hair as Jim picked up the gaff from its storage place under the dinghy and carefully worked his way to the stern. “Hey, it’s a dorado, mahi-mahi,” cries Cary. I dropped below and emerged with a bag of limes, a big bowl, the cutting board and filleting knife. With the dorado still fifty feet off the stern, I had an inch of limejuice squeezed.

          Cary played the fish like a pro, slowly and surely, allowing it to tire before bringing it alongside. Jim stood by, gaff at the ready. It jumped twice, a female. Slowly it was edged closer until Jim got hold of the double leader, which he pulled in gently until the fish was up against the hull. With one clean swipe, Jim hooked the fish through the gills, dropped it onto the deck, held it firm with his foot, reached down, grabbed the winch handle and gave it two swift blows to the head. The dorado instantly lost its bright golden coloring, quivered lightly and died. Jim took the filleting knife out of my hand, dropped down on his knees to remove the top filet in seconds. He washed it off with salt water and started chopping it into small slices. Seconds later he plunked bite size pieces into the limejuice as I stirred the bowl.

          Within minutes Jim set the other fillet and the two egg sacks on the cutting board, tossed the carcass over the side, then washed the deck of blood and guts. No more than fifteen minutes had passed since the dorado had been hooked when Billy, at the helm, wondered, ‘Hey dad, can I try a piece.” I said ‘Sure’. I took a bite myself. It tasted great. The crew dug in and fought for the scraps. The second filet got tossed in. Everyone jumped into the feeding frenzy. Minutes later the dorado was history. Dick Lloyd, who had witnessed the entire operation in awe, suddenly cried out, “Jeeze, worse than a bunch of cannibals!”


          © WILLIAM BUTLER 2004