An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude
By Ann Vanderhoof
Broadway, 324 pages, $24.95
I'm a confirmed landlubber, leery of spending even a day on water where I can't see the bottom. But I certainly understand the appeal of escaping the strictures and responsibilities of house and job and sailing off to a life of adventure and ease aboard ship.
If only it were like that.
Ann Vanderhoof, a magazine editor, and her husband, Steve Manley, a freelance art director, both in their 40s, had suffered through the freezing cold of Toronto winters, dreaming of their Caribbean interlude. Actually, the shipboard part of the dream belonged to Steve, an experienced and confident sailor who competed in races on Toronto Harbor and Lake Ontario. Lacking anything like "sea legs," Ann dreamed mostly about getting away from her Day-Timer-driven work schedule and indulging her passion for cooking with new recipes and exotic ingredients.
So they hatched a "five-year plan" to pay down the mortgage on their home while putting aside enough savings to get by. ("Five years is a long way off," Ann secretly told herself, worrying as much about financial security and leaving their aging parents as about the rigors of sailing. "We can always use the money to do something else.")
Steve spent the time soaking up information about sailing and calculated the cost initially at $18,000 (later upped by about a third) for a year away ("Staying here would cost us way more," he chirped). They shopped for a boat worthy of the trip and chose a used 42-footer, which they promptly renamed "Receta" (Spanish for recipe). Getting used to Receta added two years to their plan. They outfitted the ship. Pared down their possessions. Rented out their house (which they managed to pay off) and arranged for cash flow and getting bills paid. See? Escaping isn't so easy.
And then they were off.
In "An Embarrassment of Mangoes," Ann chronicles their adventures on what turned out to be a two-year break from their lives in Toronto, sailing first down the Intracoastal Waterway of the United States, then out into the Caribbean, where they hopped around to 47 islands in 16 countries, for a total of 7,000 nautical miles. Her account is both entertaining and highly detailed on the mechanics and problems (as well as the joys) of sailing. Even more, it's a very personal journal, in which she chats about their friendships with islanders and other "cruisers," muses about her own evolving relationship with time and ambition, and confesses to fears about deep water, bad weather, and especially nighttime sailing.
It's also a pretty good cookbook, as Ann revels in the details of Caribbean cuisine, using fresh lobsters, shrimp, and conch along with local crops, such as plantains and the ubiquitous "christophene," to re-create island dishes in her little galley. Each chapter ends with a recipe or two, from mango crisp to "coo-coo" (like polenta, with coconut milk) to Lower Woburn Stewed Lambi (conch).
For readers who share the fantasy of sailing off into the sunset, this book is a valuable how-to manual -- or, for some, a caution that the sailing lifestyle is more work and hazard than they're up for.
Among the first problems Ann and Steve encounter is in the Intracoastal Waterway, near Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, where they mistime the tides and the closings of a highway bridge and run aground right in the channel -- a dangerous spot to spend the night. Fortunately, they had heeded the advice to buy tow insurance, which takes care of the $432 emergency expense.
Later, on the homeward journey north, during a tricky 244-mile, two-night sail across the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, they hear a "clunk" as the engine quits, and fearing for their lives, they are forced to use sail power alone, with a storm bearing down. When the seas calm, Steve ties on a line and dives under the hull for a look, finding the propeller tangled in fishing net. It's "adventures" like these that separate the weak of stomach from the true "cruisers."
From a landlubber's perspective, the clincher is the relentless hard work that is part of living aboard ship. Ann's daily swim always seems to involve some time scraping little sea creatures off the hull. After a three-month stop in Grenada, they go at the anchor chain with a hammer and toilet brush before sailing to the next port in Trinidad. Even using the head involves manual labor in pumping the stuff out properly. So much for the romance of the sailing life.
Despite the hazards and hard work, the trip turns out well for Ann and Steve. They meet a lot of nice people. They enjoy the sunsets. They slow down. And the journey has other benefits. "This year has given us a closeness -- a pleasure in each other's company -- that I know many couples yearn for," Ann writes. "We trust each other too, in a different, deeper way."
Her tale is a bit long on partygoing, with too frequent descriptions of cruiser friends opening bottles of Presidente and letting the good times roll. Foodies will love the focus on ingredients and food preparation, while those reading for details on sailing or the destinations may find themselves speeding through those passages or longing to hear more from Steve's perspective as a sailor.
For Ann and Steve, the journey was ultimately life-altering. They arrive home reluctantly, even sadly, digging out sweaters and puzzling over all the stuff they had forgotten they owned. In a coda to the story, Ann tells us of revisiting on vacation some favorite places and people, but one wonders even more whether she ever again let her life be ruled by that Day-Timer.
Stephen H. Morgan can be reached at email@example.com.