A stowaway’s difficult journey years ago led to a happy island life and a sea-loving family
Galveston is in many ways an ideal environment for sailors, with conditions ranging from the open sea to quiet bays and a usually dependable sailing breeze. Some people grew up with these waters and others moved here, drawn in part by a love of the Gulf.
José Cerdas is among those islanders who “got here as soon as he could,” and he’s been sailing here for more than 25 years.
Cerdas also established a family here, and his children were born and raised on Galveston Island, growing up around, on and in the water. The four siblings have remained deeply involved, and have excelled, in the range of sports that coastal waters offer.
Joe Cerdas, 27, is a professional stand-up paddleboard racer and an 11-year veteran of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. He teaches paddleboarding and has participated in competitions from Costa Rica to Rio de Janeiro. But he also enjoys sailing.
David Cerdas, 21, the youngest sibling, is an avid sailor, and at 15, was the youngest person to crew on the Great Texas 300 catamaran race from South Padre Island to Galveston’s East Beach.
Kyle Cerdas, 26, works as a longshoreman on the Galveston wharves, and is a champion competitive surfer.
Reesa, 29, is the eldest of the siblings, and runs a summer sailing camp program to teach sailing to young children at the Galveston Boat Club on Offatts Bayou on the island. She clerks at the office of Galveston County Justice of the Peace Jim Schweitzer.
“Our family and our friends from school all spent all our free time at the beach,” Joe Cerdas said. “We had a good time, and kept the ‘pura vida’ spirit.”
“Pura vida” is a Spanish phrase so popular in Costa Rican conversation that it has become the nation’s official motto. Its literal translation is “pure life,” but it’s used as a greeting, a goodbye and an interjection, meaning something like “life is good,” or “this is living.” José Cerdas brought it with him from Costa Rica, and it’s the motto of the Cerdas family.
Not many transplants had to go through what José Cerdas did just to get to Galveston. He grew up in Costa Rica, a small, mountainous nation sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and he grew up loving the ocean. His family was of modest means, though, and he had no opportunity to actually get out onto the water.
When he was 21, José Cerdas resolved to come to Galveston, where a cousin lived, and to learn to sail on the Gulf of Mexico.
Broke, and with few other travel options, José Cerdas decided to stow aboard a banana boat loading at Puerto Limón, bound for the island. It wasn’t hard to just walk aboard the ship as it loaded at the dock, find his way into a hold, and hide himself among the boxes of fruit, he said. He waited for the hatch to close above him, plunging him into darkness.
He spent three days and three nights, chilled to the bone and hungry, in the refrigerated hold filled with inedible green bananas.
“It was so cold, I couldn’t go to sleep,” José Cerdas said. “I would never have woken up. I hadn’t planned very well; I didn’t even have a jacket.” He tried to stay warm by lifting banana boxes.
“I don’t know if there were tarantulas in there, but I wasn’t worried; it was so dark that I wouldn’t have seen them if they were there,” Cerdas said.
His cousin had told him to spot a tall white building — the American National Insurance Co. tower in the island’s downtown — when he arrived in Galveston, and make his way to it. Then he would be home free. He casually walked off the ship, through the gates of the banana docks and crossed the few blocks to the singular skyscraper, warming up at last in the summer sun. He had a quarter in his pocket, and didn’t speak English.
He got in touch with his cousin, who put him up for a few weeks and found him work the day after his arrival on a roofing crew for $3.50 an hour. He had enough money with his first week’s paycheck to take care of the first orders of business — buying some work clothes and enrolling at Galveston College to learn English.
José Cerdas was a good student, but his English was still rudimentary when a young woman walking her dog past the campus caught his eye. Her daily walks seemed to coincide with Cerdas’ class breaks. He finally introduced himself, and found that the attraction was mutual. It was a difficult courtship, as she, a Galveston native, didn’t speak Spanish. But there’s nothing like love to spur communication skills. José and Karen have been married for 34 years.
Their son Kyle, the champion surfer who works as a longshoreman, today helps unload the banana boats from Costa Rica that arrive each week. The irony isn’t lost on him.
“I laugh about it all the time,” Kyle Cerdas said. “Some of the older guys who worked here back in the ’80s tell stories about helping stowaways ashore, or at least not turning them in. One of them could have been my father. Of course, you couldn’t do that now.”
Port security after 9/11 has grown far more stringent. But in an easier time, it proved a viable, if arduous, path to entry, and ultimately to citizenship.
“I really love the island,” José Cerdas said. “If you give your time to Galveston, you find that what you want is here.”
What José Cerdas wanted when he got here, aside from steady work, a family and U.S. citizenship, was to learn to sail. He has achieved all of those goals.
Today, he volunteers as a sailing instructor with the Community Sailing program at Sea Scout Base Galveston on Offatts Bayou, and once a week as a tutor in English to native Spanish speakers at Ball High School.
José Cerdas learned to sail mainly on Galveston’s East Beach, where he specializes in high-performance 20-foot, two-man beach-launched catamarans, and got involved in ocean racing on the little boats.
Sailing in Galveston can go from relaxing to exciting, but the Great Texas 300 catamaran race is extreme. The boats go from beach to beach for 300 miles over four days, from South Padre Island to East Beach in high-speed 100-mile legs. The boats are met at each landing beach by their “ground crews,” ready to help drag them ashore, make repairs and provide a hot meal. The next morning, the ground crews serve as “pushers” to get the boats through the first lines of surf and on their way for another grueling day.
It’s brutal sailing through wind and seas with no rest during the day, much of it spent with the crew “on the wire,” suspending their weight over the water on the weather side in a trapeze to keep the boat from blowing over under the load of sail, José Cerdas said.
These are twin-hulled boats with a trampoline between them, each hull with a rudder and a deep dagger board that slides down through the downwind hull to provide resistance to sideways motion as soon as the water is deep enough. At racing speed, only one of the hulls is in the water as the boat heels at a 45-degree angle. They sail easily, and quickly, in a 15-knot wind, but are still manageable in winds of more than 25 knots.
There are three sails to handle, in addition to the tiller and daggerboards: a full-battened mainsail squared off at the top; a small jib forward and a large “kite;” or spinnaker, which provides exhilarating power and speed when conditions allow for it.
José Cerdas has served as part of the ground crew for most of the 14 years the Great Texas 300 race has been run, and sailed a few of the races himself. He has his own catamaran, named for his T-shirt design business, “Amante De Mar,” or Ocean Lover.
Cerdas’ youngest son, David, a 2014 Ball High School graduate, has been part of this sailing scene since he was a small boy, and at age 15, he was the youngest crew member ever to compete in the Great Texas 300. He has crewed each year since.
Sailing these boats “is a combination of fun and physical endurance,” David Cerdas said.
Like his father, and the rest of his family, David Cerdas is an ocean lover. In addition to his experiences on the catamaran races, he has also sailed twice in the Harvest Moon Regatta. He and his siblings were lucky enough to be born here, thanks to José Cerdas’ adventurous voyage from Costa Rica. Like their father, they know that “what you want is here.”