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March 16, 2003
I Take My Leave (Guest Appearance By Bill McNeely)

Seven or eight nights on Force Five had flown by, and my return ticket on American Airlines called out to me. It was time to head home. We had arrived at Esperanza, the second city of the largest island in the Spanish Virgins, Vieques. We had visited the entire town - about 3 blocks - the night of St. Patrick's Day, looking for a wild party. They were in short supply. On my cell phone, I had arranged air transport from Vieques to Fajardo, a town 40 miles from San Juan on the northeast corner of Puerto Rico. From there, I would find some ground transportation to San Juan International, and thence to Orange County, Ca.'s John Wayne Airport.

In my time, we had done some good sailing, explored several islands in the Spanish Virgins, snorkeled, dinked, and fished, and lived several adventures. Time and discretion forbid my telling you all of them. Like Sherlock Holmes's Dr. Watson, who hinted at other cases ("the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca … the arrest of Wilson, the notorious canary trainer … the tragedy of Woodman's Lee …"), I will withhold, among others, the strange case of the shark remoras, the bay of the baby barracudas, the odd events on the Fajardo ferry, and the tale of Stephanie the Bushwhacker. Those of you who can should try to arrange a visit to Force Five while cruising. I feel sorry for those of you who cannot.

The morning I had to leave, we awoke to find some semi-wild horses grazing next to the Esperanza beach. As I packed, I thought back on cruising in general and my great times on Force Five. Obviously, the islands we had seen were ripe for big, big changes. Vieques, long a military base and stronghold, was being ceded to civilian use by the Navy after many protests from the 7,500 or so full-time civilian residents (and some greedy real-estate developers). Within the last year, a large Wyndham hotel had opened on the island's north shore, and the sun will soon set on the day of $45/night guest houses on Vieques. The announced plan is to maintain half of Vieques as a nature conservancy. If that can be done, with a city at Isabel Segundo and a smaller settlement at Esperanza, the island may become both very visitable and a real gem. Culebra already has some vacation home developments appearing, and some out-and-out mansions. The other, smaller islands in this group will need reliable fresh water sources, but that can be done. Marina Cay in the British Virgins is an example. I am undyingly grateful for the chance to be part of this place at this time. When I return, even if it's in six months, things will have changed.

Happy as I am to visit Curt and Allie, and all their cruising friends like John and Diana on Second Kiss, I know that the cruising life is not for me. As I said, I have no patience with anything, and cruising is all about patience. Other impatient friends and I have often asked each other what you do while cruising, and we've never found an answer that satisfies us. There is always more to do on the boat, but there is always more to fix up on your house, and if that were all you did, you would feel like you'd accomplished little. Exploring is great, but long passages are hard, and many days spent at a single anchorage would, for me, prove dull. Besides, I would miss the opera, symphony, and major league baseball too much (I would manage to create my own smoky little jazz clubs, though). So, Caribbean cruisers, hear me now: I know I can never really be one of you, but I thank you heartily for accepting me as though I were.

So, that morning, we dinked ashore, my last Force Five dinghy ride. We managed to call a cab to the Vieques Airport by cell phone, and Curt and Allie rode with me across the island. "You could stay longer, Bill, maybe another week. Are you sure you don't want to?"

Tempting. The rumbles of a coming war in Iraq had grown so loud we could hear them on Vieques, and a week later I had no idea how tough travel might get. If I stayed another week, I might have to stay longer. "I really need to get back," I said. "I have some meetings scheduled … things I need to do …"

"Whatever you're going back to, it will still be there in another week or so." Get thee behind me, Satan!

At the airport, we looked out on the ramp at the planes. "Where's your plane, Bill?" Allie asked.

Most of the planes were twin-engine, 6-passenger Islanders. "It's one of those, either 980 or 981 out there, I'm sure," I said, pointing to the numbers on the planes' tails.

"One of those?" Allie gasped.

"Allie's not big on flying," Curt interjected calmly, "and small airplanes …"

"NOOOOOO, Bill! You can't do this!" Most of the eight or so people in the little terminal were focusing in on Allie. "If you get into one of those things, it's the last we'll ever see of you!"

"Hey - these have two engines, and the one I flew over here on only had one," I told her. "Islanders are super-reliable. If they lose an engine in flight, they slow down about 15 knots, drop 100 feet or so, and just keep flying." I thought it best not to explain why I knew that.

Curt folded Allie into one of his arms. She had begun making a low, moaning sound and seemed to have lost visual contact with us. "It's a beautiful day," he smiled.

Just then, the little airline's agent came striding through the terminal. "William!" he called to me. "Fajardo, huh? Here we go!"

"Thanks for everything, guys!" I said, shaking hands as Allie seemed to regain consciousness long enough for a final farewell. "Don't worry - I'll be fine! I'll send you some guest columns for the web site!" And now I have.

I flew from San Juan International to Chicago, changing planes at O'Hare and wondering how many times I had been there. I called Dano back in California from the bustling Chicago terminal. "On schedule, OK," I said. "Pick me up at John Wayne about 10:30 PM your time. What's the temperature there, 60 or so?" He told me it was pretty cool at home. "I'll be easy to spot. I'll be the only one standing there in shorts, an aloha shirt, and a big straw hat. And sunglasses. At 10:30 PM."

Now I'm busy making everyone here jealous of my trip, boring them with my photos, telling my stories. OK, guys, the web site is yours again. Thanks for the memories!

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