You are here1974. The Last Chance

1974. The Last Chance

One of the tastiest dishes I have ever prepared was on a becalmed catamaran,  somewhere off Columbia's Pacific coast. There were three of us on board the 10 meter  Last Chance,  Two Americans, Leaning Dick Mapelsden, the owner and skipper, Fast Freddy Campbell, first mate, and myself, Gentleman Jim, as the head cook and bottle washer.

We had set sail out of Bahia de Caracas, Ecuador, on course for Miami, Florida,  where Leaning Dick - so named for his ability, when drunk, which was frequently, to lean backwards forty-five degrees without falling over – planned to sell his boat to finance a harebrained scheme to manufacture the Incamatic; a fiberglass wash tub for the Andean Indians who could not afford an electric washing machine.

We were in the doldrums for two reasons. Firstly, we were literarily stuck in them, being becalmed between the trade winds just north of the equator and secondly, we were overly tired due to the stifling heat and hunger.

Problems ocurred before we had even started out on the saga. At that time the  three of us were practically destitute, which meant that when we provisioned in Bahia, we had only been able to buy the very basics required for what we thought would be a three week trip. What little remaining cash we had would be needed to get us through the Panama Canal and to replenish our stocks. Well meaning friends, waving us off, had been benevolent but however grateful we were for their generosity; their three cases of Tiger beer and six bottles of rum did nothing to diminish our hunger; rather the sundowners, drunk all day, only increased it.
Our naive plan had been to live off the sea; catching and cooking some of the delicacies which are rumoured to abound the Pacific Ocean, but even if they had been there, they had not been waiting for our bait. Fast Freddy , who was with us to escape the wrath of an Ecuadorian police officer whose wife he had briefly met and promptly seduced – hence his nickname – had managed to catch two small, unknown and unappetizing specimens, which had only temporally sated us.

The voyage had not started too well when, by accident, I threw all the cutlery overboard, which reduced us to eating scrambled or fried eggs with our fingers and  that was before we were even out of the harbour. As a staple I had bought three cases of eggs and had spent a couple of tiresome hours coating them in cheap nail varnish in hope of preserving them. But as we could not use the boat’s fridge, the humidity quickly turned them bad and after two days. What few we had not already eaten had been dispatched over the side; along with the putrid potatoes and all but one of the onions which had not gone rotten in the first three days at sea.

The reason we could not use the fridge was because it would unnecessarily empty the batteries and we only had a limited amount of motor fuel to charge the generator and for any other emergencies; The batteries were important for the lamps; port, starboard and mast. Leaning Dick  was concerned. If we left the lights on – which is a regulatory must – it could attract the Columbian pirates who were known to be active in the area we were becalmed in. If the boat sat with no lights on, we could easily be run down, unseen by some larger vessel. His answer was to have the mast lamp alternately on and off for one hour.

None of these minor problems bothered us too much; our primary concern was where the next meal would be coming from? The Last Chance had been lolling around on a motionless sea for two days, waiting for a breath of wind to get it up and running again. Apart from the antics of the dolphins who circled around the yacht and kept away the fish we were in dire need of, the only excitement had been when a whale which, at first glance, we mistakenly thought to be an orca, had taken a too keen interest in us.

On the third day, our fifth at sea, Fast Freddy was half heartedly casting a line, when something took his bait – silver paper from a cigarette packet – and with new found energy and our encouragement he managed to bring in a 10 kilo dorado. Skipper and first mate were all for slicing it up and frying it immediately but I explained that frying it would add to our thirst – the three cases of Tiger being long gone – and we had to be careful with what was left of our  fresh water.

Scavenging around in the galley, all I came up with was the remaining onion, a jar of curry powder, a bottle of dried thyme, a packet of unsalted peanuts and a tin on condensed milk. I scaled and cleaned the fish, leaving on the head and tail. I fried the onion, added the curry powder and then the tin of condensed milk, making a thick sauce. I then stuffed the dorado, poured a little oil over it, added a generous sprinkling of the thyme, wrapped it in aluminum foil and stuck it in the gas oven for 25 minutes.

I still do not believe it was only our ravenous hunger that made it so amazingly  succulent  but, my God, that was a dish to die for. Accompanied by a bottle of Ecuadorian rum and the sun sinking on the far side of Pacific Ocean, all we then needed to make the world a perfect place had been the wind – and later, that same evening,  it had also obliged us.


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