In late April, the 76-foot double-ended sailboat Southern Wind was loaded above and below deck for the first of Floating Doctors' missions to carry help to wherever the water flows and the wind blows. Once storms that flooded Miami's streets had passed, a perfect weather window opened and Southern Wind left under sunny skies and calm seas.
Dr. Ben LaBrot, who had the inspiration for Floating Doctors, was once a crew member on a fishing boat and involved in oceanographic research before becoming a doctor. He and the captain were permanent fixtures in the wheelhouse for the first night, and kept an eye on every log entry and every gage – port and starboard engine temperature and oil pressure, especially.
The recently-restored boat was carrying over 10 tons of medical supplies and lumber in addition to its own safety equipment and provisions for a yearlong voyage throughout the Caribbean and Central America.
The heaviest materials were loaded low in the triple marine plywood and fiberglass layered hull in what became known as the "coffin cabin." A leak in the coffin cabin meant the Southern Wind would sink, because there was no way to access that area quickly. Likewise, over half of the captain's suite in the bow was partitioned off and filled floor to ceiling with medical supplies.
Non-pressure treated lumber was fastened to the deck above the salon and along the port catwalk and covered so that it would not absorb water and get heavier. Temporary, load-bearing posts transferred the weight of the lumber on the salon roof to bulkheads and beams encasing the engine room. Cabinets were fitted with locks, latches and bungee in preparation for the crossing.
Although Southern Wind was not loaded beyond the weight limit specified on her original architectural plans, she sat five inches below her normal waterline and it was clear that she was bow and top heavy.
With much of our southing done during the first 18 hours, we chugged east at six to seven knots in perfectly glassy water without veering off course, slowing only to reel in fish. After nearly another day of carefree motoring, the winds started to pick up, everything creaked and moaned and we braced for rough weather as we continued across the shallows of the Bahamas.
By the time we dropped anchor in the lee of Buena Vista Cay among the Ragged Islands, the winds were howling and we knew that we were going to have to sit tight for at least 24 hours until conditions improved enough for us to build our confidence to take Southern Wind offshore into the midnight blue waters beyond the shelf at the bottom of the islands.
A short stop at Buena Vista Cay to explore the island and relax on the beach is usually what cruising is about. Our stay, however, was consumed with studying GRIB files and planning the most dangerous part of our voyage to Haiti, crossing the Windward Passage between the southeast tip of Cuba and Haiti's northwest.
Anticipating the conditions to improve as we made our way to the shelf, we pushed on after 36 hours on the tiny island. We were 20 hours premature and took heavy seas on the bow until we were not far off of our next safe haven, Great Inagua. No one slept. No one got seasick. Everyone was on edge and prayed that the tightly stowed lumber would not shift and the engine, batteries, pumps and hoses would continue to function.
When the wind and weather finally subsided, we saw Haiti off our port side. Once the lumber was unloaded at Southern Wind's initial planned destination, Petit Goave, Haiti, a community devastated by the January 12th earthquake, Dr. LaBrot reported, "It was like having a different ship. We visited a community down the coast and hit a heavy gale dead on en route back at night and it was a cakewalk with reefed sails."
Read the full story of Dr. Ben LaBrot's work in Haiti, plans for Southern Wind and how to donate to the project at www.FloatingDoctors.com.
Who are the
"The Floating Doctors group is from Southern California," Lynn Fitzpatrick told All at Sea. "They worked on the boat for a year while in Florida. In addition to serving Haiti, they plan on going to other islands in need in the Caribbean and to Central American. They align themselves with NGOs, hospitals and orphanages in areas where they are needed and have doctors from all over coming in. I am sure that they would be happy to have doctors from the Caribbean join them." Planned stops in 2010-2011 include Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Panama and Jamaica. To join up and volunteer,
The Floating Doctors are a 100% volunteer project, a 501c3 nonprofit medical relief team of doctors, EMT's and medical students.
Lynn Fitzpatrick's articles on sailing appear regularly in international publications including AARP The Magazine and Cruising World. She has been a highly competitive Snipe sailor and was the 2008 Sports Information Specialist for sailing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.