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An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude

by Ann Vanderhoof

An Embarrassment of Mangoes is an odd mixture of a book – part travel journal, part culinary tour, part Cruising for Dummies (“cruising” is a term habitués use to describe life aboard a pleasure boat). Ann Vanderhoof and her husband, Steve, spent two years cruising from Toronto to the Caribbean and back on a 42-foot sailboat named Receta, Spanish for “recipe.” Theirs was the dream trip of every armchair traveller who’s ever eyeballed a yacht and wondered, “What if?” This book should be required reading for such would-be sailors.

The Vanderhoofs didn’t jump into cruising lightly. After the Toronto professional couple assessed their hectic lives and echoed Peggy Lee’s sentiment,“Is that all there is,” they devoted years to saving money, finding a suitable boat, and otherwise preparing for the journey. Steve was an accomplished boater; Ann was a rank neophyte with one stellar attribute, the ability to regularly crank out delicious meals from a tiny sailboat galley.

Vanderhoof’s recipes, introduced without warning, end each chapter. They feature local ingredients from the Caribbean islands – Trinidad, Grenada, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic – where the Vanderhoofs spent most of their time. Trouble is, Vanderhoof herself admits that a papaya in Toronto will never taste like its Caribbean cousin, which raises the question of what a tropical-fruit muffin recipe is doing in a book destined to be sold to Northerners who will never have an embarrassment of mangoes?

A second objection is more serious: Vanderhoof makes her trip of a lifetime sound, at times, rather pedestrian. Readers learn about the bars cruisers have made their own, how most boaters ignore the local communities (Vanderhoof is an exception, inviting a Grenadian family on board to eat Canadian-style spaghetti and meatballs and chocolate cake), and how an obsessive weatherman back in Ontario advises cruisers on local meteorological conditions.

Vanderhoof includes a smattering of island terms for the uninitiated and even reproduces, without condescension, local idioms and dialects. We meet the self-styled Minister of Rum, participate in a commando-style Coast Guard drug raid, and party onboard a beer float at Grenada’s Carnival celebrations. Despite these details, and despite Vanderhoof’s competent writing, her story isn’t, in the end, that interesting.

There are lots of books about ordinary folks who take to life on boats to lend meaning to lives that have become stale, and this one needed another hook to elevate it to the status of must-read. If Vanderhoof and her husband had taken the trip as a last-ditch attempt to save a failing marriage, or if they were rum fanatics desperate to find the source of the best spirit in the world, the urgency of their quest would have elevated the narrative. But even the passages where the two battle weather and wind on board Receta, normally the most gripping part of any boat book, have an air of inevitability: you know they’ll get through okay, no matter how uncomfortable they may be for a while.

Despite its flaws, the book should appeal to the sort of folks who, like me, dream of sailing off into the sunset some day. Anyone who considers cruising an endless vacation will be hurriedly educated by Vanderhoof’s day-by-day account of necessary boat maintenance. Vanderhoof doesn’t say so, but it’s clear the waters of the world would be better served by cruisers who knew what they were doing – and ones who, let’s add, could make roti and curry as well as she can.