Captain Vernon Fine
I want to dedicate this post to a wonderful human being that crossed my path (or perhaps I crossed his) a year ago today (January 4). He was brutally stabbed to death on November 16th, 2012 in a very tragic, and unnecessary event.
His name was Vernon Fine and I don’t think his last name could be more appropriate as, even though I only knew him for a short while, he was a very fine human being. Vernon was from the United States and had come to Honduras – actually the Bay Islands (Roatan and Utila) off the coast of Honduras twelve years earlier to live his dream and escape the consumerism and capitalistic world of North America.
I have friends who live and own a restaurant on the island of Utila who also had gone to Honduras to live their dream. I was invited down over a year ago to visit the island and to see the life that they had made for themselves. There are only two ways to get to the small island of Utila from Honduras – one must either take the ferry from the mainland or fly into the larger island, Roatan and cross the 22 kilometre trek across the open Pacific Ocean. Either way, I was not looking forward to being on any boat on the ocean for four hours!
Despite my hesitation, I knew that I had no choice if I wanted to visit Utila. Hence, another mutual friend suggested that I get a hold of Vernon Fine – Captain Vern as everyone knew him – to see if I could make it in time to catch his Catamaran the day I arrived. As it turned out, my flight was going to make me an hour late arriving for the scheduled return of Vern and his Catamaran from Roatan to Ulita that day. Each day Captain Vern would leave his dock at 6am from Utila and float about picking up touring passengers that were ready to leave Utila and then he safely navigated the ocean waters seeing them to safety on Roatan. The particular day that I first met him, as always he was scheduled to leave the dock from Roatan at 1pm. I happened to have his cell number and the young taxi driver (who also knew Vern) was good enough to call him and let him know I was en route from the airport to the loading dock but would be almost an hour late.
What was Vern’s response? He would wait and so too, would his other passengers. Vern was not going to leave stranded a young woman from Canada on the island of Roatan to fend for herself. He did wait. I apologized profusely to him and his other passengers, but as per usual when you hit the southern islands, no one seems to really mind waiting. I mean, how bad could it be sitting on a catamaran in the ocean drinking some well-deserved cervezas after a long flight or bus ride?
My first glimpse of Vern was that of a very slender, yet sinewy man with a scruffy face and sun-bleached hair, no shirt, no shoes – just a pair of knee-length shorts – who glided out of his cabin, landed on the dock and grabbed my over-sized, over-stuffed suitcase from my hand. “Jump aboard!” He said with a grand smile. He looked like I had imagined him in our email conversations – a little gruffy, yet friendly.
Though Captain Vern was laid back and friendly, he took his sailing and his business very seriously – and most importantly the safety of his passengers. He got us all positioned and balanced at the bow, but told us to feel free to plop ourselves down on the netting that was strung from one hull to the other and to enjoy the ride and the spray from the ocean. He told us if anyone felt seasick to let him know. Four hours on the ocean swells can be enough to make even a fisherman’s daughter (that’s me) a little green under the gills!
I sat at the stern and enjoyed watching the island of Roatan become a distant speck on the horizon. As I turned to see what was in front of us, there was nothing but open water and a clear blue sky. Thankfully, we had a good day to travel. Along with Captain Vern was a young man – maybe about seventeen – who was from Honduras – he was Vern’s right hand man – his first mate for most of the trip which afforded Vern time to go down below in to the cabin to balance accounts of the day and write everyone’s name in the Captain’s log.
Soon enough, however, he emerged from the cabin, all brown and sinewy and stood just behind his young skipper. He flipped on the music – I believe it was a cd of Jimmy Buffet and he stood with his arms raised, his hands resting on the bar above, looking out over the ocean proudly. He reminded me of my father when he would stand back from his helm and watch proudly as his fishing boat would leave the harbour. Perhaps that is why I felt such an affinity with Vern from the beginning – because I had a soft spot for any man who had the courage to brave the seas and to live his dreams.
Our first conversation began casually enough as I asked him how he had ended up on a catamaran in the ocean between Honduras and the Bay Islands. We shared a lovely afternoon sharing our stories of travel and while I was hoping to live my dreams, Vern was already living his – out on the open water every day at 6am, travelling back again in the late afternoon – all the while enjoying getting to know his passengers and ensuring their safety and comfort. Vern was friendly and funny, intelligent and disarming. There wasn’t anything superfluous about him. He was a man with whom you felt comfortable and safe.
Soon enough, as the shores of Utila began to expand on the horizon, Vern was busily packing away things of the day, making sure his boat would be secured and safe for the travellers the next morning, all the while singing along with Jimmy Buffet and answering any questions his passengers had. He went so far as to call the diving dock where my friends would be waiting to make sure they would be there to greet me when we landed. From the moment I met Vern, he seemed to me to be a very caring person, not only ensuring his passengers were safe on his vessel but even after they left it. Sure enough, as Vern handed me my gigantic suitcase and wished me well, my friends came to greet me and Vern seemed happy that he was handing me off in safety. I waved to him and said, “See you in a month!” He waved back and carried on with his other passengers to their destinations.
I didn’t know it at the time but I would be seeing a lot more of Vern and his lovely wife over the next month of my visit. On many occasions, when a group of us would visit the restaurants and bars, there he would be, having a few drinks, laughing with friends and proudly introducing his wife from Honduras – who was a teacher on the island of Roatan – to any of his passengers. He bought me a drink on one occasion and we all had an interesting conversation about teaching and travel.
A month later as I was ready to embark on the end of my journey I again tracked Vern down and let him know I needed a ride back over to Roatan in the next couple of days. He smiled and said, “Well, be on the dock ready to leave at 6am! I’ll be there to pick you up!” And sure enough on the morning of January 26, in the early dawn hours as the sun was ascending over the island’s horizon, there too was the faint shape of Vern’s Catamaran. It had become an iconic image between the islands, travelling reliably and steadfastly every morning at six and returning every afternoon. Almost everyone knew the sight of the catamaran – for some reason it was missing its mast which Vern had never replaced – and everyone knew Vern or knew of him. In all essence, he had become iconic over the twelve years that he transported many people between the islands. He had proved himself to be a reliable and safe alternative to taking the ferry from the mainland. He had also proved himself to be a good friend to many.
On the morning of my return to Roatan it was not the calm seas I had been lucky enough to have the day I had arrived. While the sky was still clear, the swells were bigger and rougher than I was expecting. I sat at the bow this time because my father the fisherman, always told me, “honey, if you feel like you might get seasick, sit at the bow and keep your eyes on the horizon and you’ll be alright.” This advice worked for the first two hours, but slowly as I took my eyes off of the horizon and gazed upon the large swells, my stomach began to churn in time with them.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I was either going to have to lie down on the netting and throw my breakfast into the ocean as one young man had done minutes before (seeing that, I’m sure didn’t help me!) or I was going to have to go back to the stern, face the crowd of passengers and Vern and admit, even this fisherman’s daughter was feeling – and probably looking – a little green. I walked back very methodically holding the ropes, I stepped down, took one look at Vern and he said, “Not feeling so well, eh girl?” I believe I responded, “I feel sick!” before I hurried my way down the steps into the safety of the cabin and to the head (the formal title for the bathroom on board a ship).
What surprised me the most was that following me was Captain Vern, who held back my hair and rubbed my back as I gave up my breakfast. He assured me I was going to be alright. After I finished and had no more breakfast to give up, he walked me back to the little bunk and told me to lie down and go to sleep. “Sleep’s the best thing. I’ll wake you when we get to Roatan. Here’s some water for you.” And he was gone back up to navigate his vessel. I did sleep for the rest of the journey and smiled to myself as I lay there feeling sicker than I ever remember thinking about the man they call Captain Vern – he wasn’t just a Captain of a boat – he was a caring, considerate, kind man – a very, very fine man indeed.
I said goodbye to Vern on the dock that morning as he graciously swung my huge suitcase once again onto the dock. “Now, you’re sure you’ve got friends meeting you, right?” he asked concerned. I reassured him that I had friends meeting me in Roatan. I thanked him for everything and told him the next time I visited Utila that I would definitely look him up and cross again – despite my seasickness – on board his lovely boat. He said, “looking forward to it!” and gave me the Captain’s wave and then he was back on board his boat, disappearing quickly into the cabin. That’s the last time I ever saw Vernon Fine. Little did I know that it would be the very last time I would ever share in a conversation or a laugh or a story with him.
In December of this year, after I had suggested to one of my girlfriends to contact Vern for her trip over to Utila next spring, she contacted me via email with the link above regarding Vern’s murder. I could hardly believe it. Not simply because it was someone I had known but because of all the people I knew who extended so much kindness to a multitude of strangers travelling on their way, Vernon Fine did not deserve to leave this world so early and in such a tragic manner.
I will never understand – despite my comprehension of poverty and cultural reasons as to why violence happens – why anyone would feel they had to kill Vern. I believe Vern, had he been asked, would have gladly given the two men who took his life that day of November 16th, all the money he had. They stabbed him to death – his young first mate only escaped because he had the courage to jump into the ocean. And for what? Some money, his computer and his cell phone. A man’s life for things that he would have gladly gave to them had they just asked.
It brings me great sadness to know that Vern was left to die, bleeding to death within a cabin in which he himself had helped so many people – in a cabin that he had bothered to follow a traveller down the steps to the head, hold back her hair and rub her back while she threw up. In a cabin, where he had laughed, shared time with his friends and his wife – who thankfully, despite usually travelling with him every day to Roatan to teach was not on board that day – and shared stories and advice to so many people he didn’t even know. The funny thing about Vern is that even though many people only crossed his path for a few hours or a few weeks – including myself – he felt like one of those people that you had always known and would always know. I am sure today if I could email Vern and tell him I needed a lift from Roatan to Utila tomorrow, he would remember who I was and he would say in his friendly, gruff voice, “Well come on, jump aboard!”
He lived his life like his catamaran with its broken mast – maybe not the most beautiful on the outside – but brave and courageous enough to face the open ocean every day, compassionate and loving enough to open himself to carrying passengers – strangers – every day to safety. He was a conduit that helped people along their journey and just like his catamaran, one never knew what to expect on the journey but you always knew that everything would be okay.
And although, some would say that everything didn’t turn out okay for Vern – I think a man who braves the ocean and lives his dream for twelve years is somehow luckier than most men who stay in the comfort of their homes, never facing their fear and never seeing the manifestation of their dreams their entire lives. As Jimmy Buffet sings:
Where it all ends I can’t fathom my friends;
If I knew, I might toss out my anchor;
So I cruise along always searchin for songs
(Son of a Son of a Sailor)
To you my friend; may you be looking down on all of us who would be proud to call you a friend and keeping us safe from wherever you are! Here’s a song for you! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Av8ENOhjoLs