When I first met Don Stewart he was 86-years-old and wheelchair-bound. But my idea of a typical octogenarian soon vanished. Stewart’s wheelchair was armed with a .22 caliber rifle. He sat there with a smile on his face while massaging the thigh above his peg leg. “After my amputation, I had my leg buried in the local cemetery,” barked Don. “I’ll never leave this island. I already have one foot in the grave!”
The island Stewart referred to is Bonaire, which had but 4,000 souls when the captain first arrived in 1962 with 63 cents in his pocket. Once anchored, the island’s lieutenant governor made a visit aboard Stewart’s 70ft, two-mast schooner, Valerie Queen. “Produce and you can stay. If you are a bum, you’re out.”
Stewart became a dive guru, a daring entrepreneur, and a staunch environmentalist. He was instrumental in starting the Bonaire National Marine Park, the first of its kind in the Caribbean. He pioneered scuba diving on the island bringing international recognition to Bonaire with its gin-clear waters and world-class reefs. In later years, he established a native plant business with hopes of spreading local flora throughout the island. But in essence, Stewart was always a sailor at heart.
A couple of years before arriving in Bonaire, he found himself in Hollywood, California, restless and in his mid-thirties. Fresh out of the US Navy, Don tried to break into the movie business and submitted a script to a studio boss. It was an adventure story that involved a large sailing ship. Ever the optimist, Stewart thought it best to buy a boat so that when the movie went into production; his vessel would be used in the filming.
“I bought the boat to do a movie. I had never been on a sailboat in my life. I searched the entire west coast from Washington to Mexico. There were some beauties, but most were too expensive. I needed something big—70, 80, 100 feet long—for the film. Then one day in San Diego I found a boat in a back bay mud flat leaning over at low tide.”
That was Al Rene, a gaff-rigged, wooden schooner built in 1912. The mainsail alone carried a thousand square feet of canvas. Reportedly newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst was a previous owner. “I bought her for $7000 from an old Norwegian. Handed him the cash in a paper bag.” Stewart renamed the boat Valerie Queen after his Welsh girlfriend whom he married in 1955. “Me and another fella with no sailing experience somehow got the boat back to LA. I remember looking down the deck from behind the wheel. It looked like the length of a football field!”
Don was in need of help. He offered a group of local Sea Scouts a chance to sail his boat on weekends. In exchange, he would peek over their shoulders, watching their every move. Sailing school had begun. Don also chartered Valerie Queen to a women’s sailing team on vacation from Germany. “They sailed the boat. I picked up details on how they tied knots, everything. It was an educational trip for me.”
About this time the studio boss delivered the bad news. The company was not interested in making Stewart’s movie, but the man offered some life-changing advice, “It’s a good story. You should go live the script”.
Stuck with an enormous schooner, Don began to contemplate his future. During this period he operated dive charters to Catalina Island, 22 miles out in the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles. “The Coast Guard was chasing my ass all the time. I had no license. I had no insurance. I had nothing but a big boat.”
He escaped to San Francisco Bay for a few months and then decided to point Valerie Queen south on Saint Patrick’s Day 1960 and began a sailing adventure of a lifetime. It was time to ‘live the script’. The voyage took him and his ever-changing crew along the Mexican coast where Don had several dangerous encounters with Baja desperados. He eventually reached the Panama Canal and headed to the Caribbean with the vague goal of sailing to Antigua. These were the days without GPS, cell phones or reliable satellite weather information, conveniences that most sailors today take for granted. Guts and good intuition served Stewart well.
But trouble continued to shadow the schooner. At one point, the captain summarized his problems as “Latins, redheads and a loose cannon hurricane named Anita in Jamaica”. It was off the coast of Aruba where Don claimed a deckhand threatened him with a knife. It was mutiny aboard the Valerie Queen. Stewart chased the crazed man high into the rigging and, with blade in hand, the deckhand threatened to slice the ship’s halyards. “I had a rifle, but chose to shoot a flare gun instead. That might look more accidental if I hit him.” What Don failed to realize is that his barrage of flares caught the immediate attention of the authorities ashore. “We got hauled into port by the Aruba police. After a long discussion, I was told to leave the island. But I still have that flare gun.” he said grinning.
Stewart and his first mate, Percy, pointed the schooner south to Colombia. While heading east along the South American coast, they spotted a suspicious boat. Stewart noticed the crew was armed and, with a sudden puff of black smoke, the boat made an abrupt change of course in pursuit of the Valerie Queen.
“We were sailing short canvas,” recalled Don. “Schooners have a way of getting along with only a foresail; our main was cut down to the third reef. I said, ‘Percy, spread this boat’. Valerie Queen really loved the wind to her shoulder. By this time, I knew my ship well. ‘Where are we going, Don?’ inquired Percy. We’re going north. Those guys got machine guns on board.”
After their escape, the two sailors landed on Bonaire. Stewart busied himself by starting a dive operation. During that time, the schooner mysteriously sank. “She went under at six in the morning,” explained Stewart. “A seacock was left open. Somebody must have opened it, but I never found out who.”
A few years later he bought Sislan, a traditional Bonaire sailing boat. In a moment of bravado, Stewart challenged Hubert ‘Ibo’ Domacassé, a local fisherman, to race his boat, Velia, against him. The stakes? Twenty-seven cases of cold beer. Ibo ended up beating Don by three minutes in an exciting sailing dual. When asked why he sailed the race, Stewart answered bluntly, “Money. We had a weeklong party afterwards and that was where I made the cash. October was always a slow month so the income helped a lot.” That race spurred on an annual competition that eventually became the Bonaire International Sailing Regatta now in its 46th year.
More than a half century after Stewart landed in Bonaire, I find myself in a crowded funeral home. Captain Don lies silently in a coffin. He is wearing his signature captain’s hat and a necklace of seashells around his neck. I remember Stewart telling me that he was unimpressed with his voyage, and curiously, claimed that he did not consider himself a sailor. “That day I landed in Bonaire was the beginning of my life,” stated Don. “I’ll never leave this island.” And he did not. Captain Don was reunited with his amputated leg minutes after the ceremony. May the old sailor rest in peace.
When not writing for All At Sea, Wooden Boat and Sailing magazines, Patrick Holian can be found at the helm of his 14-foot catboat, Kontentu, cruising the shores of Bonaire.