Cruising

The Thirsty Fishermen

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You’re sailing off the coast of Haiti and come across a wrecked boat with people on board. Do you think “pirates” or “rescue”?
By Jan Hein

One night, at a gathering in the cockpit of a friend’s boat, someone posed a question: “If you came across a small fishing boat miles offshore and the people on board needed water, would you give it to them?” Compassion vied with personal safety and the threat of piracy. One person knew of cruisers who had faced that question; the debate provided food for thought for all of us.

Six days out of Panama, my husband, Bruce Smith, and I left Jamaica to port, sailing on a direct course for the Windward Passage. We were onboard Woodwind, our 34-foot gaff-rigged ketch, 30 miles off the southwestern peninsula of Haiti, when the political volatility of the area entered our conversation. I’d been wondering whether Haitians were still attempting to escape their homeland; it had been years since such activity had hit the news. Normally we rely on the radar as our main “eyes” to tell us if vessels are approaching, but now I found myself staring in the direction of land. It was more compulsion than expectation—a bit of “just in case.”

Just before dark that day, Bruce pulled out the three flare guns we’d carried, untouched, for years. He loaded and test-fired each of them, just as he would if we were to be boarded by unwanted guests, a possibility we didn’t want to acknowledge. As I slept that night, Woodwind slipped along an invisible line that passes between two troubled nations, 10 miles off the northwest point of Haiti. Bruce was running dark, navigation lights off, not wanting to advertise our presence. Around 0200 I took over, with explicit instructions to stay outside this 10-mile line off the Haitian coast.

Our intended destination was Luperon, an anchorage we knew little about, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Once there, we could repair our sails and fuel up, all we needed to continue on our way. In the morning, with calm wind and seas, we were making such good progress that Bruce decided to take the weather instead of the stop, and we sailed off the line, farther north.

At 1100 the next day the wind clocked again, and we tacked to the southeast, laying a course to the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Three hours later the wind shifted in our favor, allowing us to motorsail due east at 6 knots. What luck. When I entered the cockpit, I spotted an object off our starboard side. It was high out of the water, and at first I thought it was one of those mysterious weather buoys that dot the coastlines of the world. We both grabbed binoculars; it seemed we were looking at the front of a high-riding fishing boat coming straight at us, with people waving from the bow.

We maintained our course to keep us at a safe distance from the mysterious craft, buying time to make sense of it. The thirsty fishermen of our discussion came to mind. Why were these people here, what did they want, and what should our response be? As we came closer, we realized that we were looking at the bow of a boat pointing skyward, 6 feet out of the water, the rest of it obscured by the sea. Clinging to it, as if to the tip of an iceberg, were people.

Bruce and I were chattering nervously about the wreck, the people, and what could have happened to them 25 miles offshore. Were they Haitians? If we picked them up, where would we take them? Would we be safe? There was no way we would attempt to enter a Haitian port, and Luperon was 40 miles away.

After we passed them, we took the engine out of gear and Bruce went below to make a Mayday relay call on the VHF. Almost immediately, a British voice answered. Bruce carefully explained the situation, gave our position, and requested assistance. The answering vessel, Bravo II, would relay the call to expand the search for help and would get back to us. Back up on deck, Bruce scanned the sea but had lost sight of them. “There!” I yelled. They were behind us, still waving.

“Gybe her around,” Bruce shouted as he went below to answer the return call. Bravo II told us that Edensong, in Luperon, had a satellite phone and four numbers for Haitian search-and-rescue; they would place the calls and get back to us. As Woodwind came closer behind the wreck, we saw that there were two people flung over the underside of the jutting bow, one man, one woman. I took down the mainsail and Bruce doused the foresails.

“We’ve got to pick them up now. We can’t leave them there any longer,” I said.

“I agree,” Bruce responded.

Bruce radioed Bravo II to tell them of our intentions.

The people were yelling, we thought, the name of our boat, their arms outstretched toward us, hands motioning us on. As we came closer still, Bruce muttered, “This may be the best thing we’ve ever done.” Still scared, I murmured back, “Or the worst.” Their boat had obviously been on fire. Huge angular chunks were missing from the section standing out of the water. As we came closer, we could see the charred sides of the underwater part; the stern seemed to be missing. The woman, wearing tiny shorts and a cotton t-shirt, lay across the top of the hulk; the man, holding himself and her tightly to the wreck, had on only a pair of white briefs. Their dark bodies glistened from salt and seawater. It was a heart-wrenching, horrifying scene.

Bruce carefully brought us alongside and shot forward to get them on board. He grabbed the woman’s outstretched arms and pulled her weak body under the handrail and through the rigging onto our lurching boat while the man crawled aboard. We cautioned them both to hang on as we guided them to the cabintop. They staggered aft, nearly toppling over from the unfamiliar motion. As Woodwind slowly backed away, the wreck, an ominous sight, etched itself deep in our minds. Again, the radio called. Bruce went below to answer while I stayed on deck, making sure the survivors stayed put; with little information, our safety was still a concern.

Bravo II was on its way from Luperon to Cuba. The ever-steady voice told us they would come to help if needed. But this 32-foot catamaran could do little more than we could; we needed a fast boat that could get to us soon. Bravo II relayed a message from Raffles Light, an 80-footer in the Dominican Republic town of Monte Cristo, that the skipper would dinghy over to the Club Nautico there and try to locate a sportfishing boat or the Guardia Nacional to join in the rescue. Bravo II would continue to stand by and relay messages.

The man’s body was covered with fist-sized burn wounds. The two of them were talking; we recognized the French and knew they were Haitian. Despite his condition, the man made introductions. Her name was Julie, his Djenson, and he wanted to know ours. Bruce grabbed sheets off our bunks and I got the first-aid kit and bottles of water. We set steadying sails to slow the galloping side-to-side motion of our boat. In their weakened state, they were having trouble hanging on. Bruce tucked sheets around Julie’s shaking body and tried, with hand gestures, to get any information that would help us understand what had happened. I went below and collected Ibuprofen and a bottle of Pedialyte we had jokingly put on board in case of extended seasickness. I gave them each some Ibuprofen, hoping it would dull the pain, and handed the Pedialyte to Djenson, gesturing that they were to drink it. “Medicine,” I said.

Bruce brought out the sprayer we shower with and demonstrated it on himself before spraying Djenson, hoping to wash the salt from his wounds. He recoiled from the cold, and we could see that he was in shock. Bruce pulled out an old parka we’d stuffed around the engine controls for noise insulation and laid it around his shoulders. Djenson worked his arms into the sleeves and managed to get it on and zippered, hood and all, but it wasn’t enough. Each time we gave him something, he looked in our eyes and said, “Tank you. Tank you. God bless you.” Using Spanish and English, fingers and arms, and a tidbit of French, we learned that their boat had exploded three days before and that there had been one other person on board, a 48-year-old man.

On the radio, we could hear Raffles Light telling Bravo II that it was a national holiday in the DR and he was unable to find help. He suggested we bring them into Monte Cristo Bay, where he would arrange for help. We were three hours away; it would be dark by the time we arrived, but he would stand by to guide us in.

With the sails drawing and the engine running wide open, Woodwind raced through the water on a direct course for Monte Cristo Bay. We could hear Djenson talking to Julie and her weak voice occasionally answering. Not knowing the extent of their injuries, we first fed them only crackers and water, then hot tea. Seeing that they were handling the food well, we gave them some dried fruit and nuts. I wanted to place a feast before them—anything that would bring them some relief.

Raffles Light continued to monitor our position and the situation. He had arranged for an ambulance to meet the survivors at the Club Nautico dock and take them immediately to the hospital. Using our fingers, we told Djenson, “Three hours, ambulance, hospital.” His smile indicated he understood. “Tank you, tank you.” He pointed to the clouds, to us, to them, and said, “Dio. God.” We no longer questioned their intentions, and we ached for the circumstances they were in.

Bruce had earlier rigged up the awning to protect them from the sun and had strung a sheet between them and the wind. I worked a sweatshirt over Julie’s head and covered them both in layers of bedding and towels. Wanting to prevent seasickness, we kept them as comfortable as possible on deck. Finally they seemed to be asleep, hopefully free from pain.

Darkness came and clouds filled the sky, blotting out the light of the moon. Bruce had located a more detailed chart of Monte Cristo showing two bays divided by a small mountain. We’d assumed we’d enter the westward one, which appeared to offer the most protection. He readied dock lines, checked the running lights and our masthead strobe light, and pulled out backup flashlights. When the radar showed us to be three miles from land, we radioed Frank to get further instructions. Raffles Light was in the other bay, the one with all the lights. We altered course and slowed down, one mile from the island we would leave to port. We spotted it with our binoculars, and our radar confirmed that we were right on course. Then a green light appeared, followed by a red, as Frank’s high-speed dinghy came to guide us in.

Frank directed us to anchor on Raffles Light’s port side; he would come alongside to collect the survivors and transport them to shore. One of his crew, a fellow from Haiti, jumped onto our deck to help Bruce put Julie into the boat. Djenson, who had earlier been so mobile, was now seized with pain and nearly unable to move. Bruce and the man from Raffles Light lifted his burned legs, laying them over the side before sliding him carefully into the boat.

Frank looked at us and said, “You did good.”

“Will you come back and check with us after you drop them off,” I asked. I was anxious to hear what the French-speaking fellow would learn.

“You bet. You can come over. We’ll make you tea. Whatever you want. We’ll take care of you. You did good out there.” And off they sped to a waiting ambulance.

Frank returned quickly to collect us. As I stepped down into his dinghy, the tears that had pushed on the back of my eyes all day finally made their way out. “It’s been a long day,” I apologized. Bruce got in behind me.

“Forty-six people died,” Frank said. “They were refugees. Forty-six people died when their gas-powered boat blew up. They were headed to Providencia. These were the only survivors. They’re going to be okay, thanks to you.”

“And you,” I replied. More tears fell.

Frank seated us on the aft-deck settee on Raffles Light and introduced us to his international crew. They were circumnavigating the island, gathering information and photos for a cruising guide, and had arrived in the bay the day before. They brought us food and drinks and listened to our story.

Frank explained that cruisers rarely visit Monte Cristo. “It’s the town the Dominican Republic forgot,” he said. The immigration office is in another town, but he’d made arrangements and would help us clear in the next day. “What else will you need?” he asked.

What else would we need? What we needed, we got. Seven of the warmest, most humorous, loving people we’d met in ages, sitting on a classic wooden boat, fully relaxed for the first time in the two weeks since our passage began.


Jan Hein and her husband, Bruce Smith, a well-known painter of Caribbean subjects, are cruising onboard Woodwind, a self-built 34-foot gaff-rigged ketch designed by Paul Johnson.

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