I should have listened; they tried to tell me that this country full of gentle, sweet people is also a murderous place where starvation is juxtaposed with unashamed gluttony. The burned out buildings look like black eyes in a battered woman’s face. It was asking for trouble to bring a well found boat in a desperate hour to a country with a history full of desperate hours, where any excuse for a boat was being drastically overloaded with people who didn’t care if they drowned so long as they didn’t drown in Haiti.
The customs officer ignored my question and closed her reddened eyes and lay her head on the table and appeared to be asleep. In disgust I grabbed my paperwork—notably still sans passport—and made my way out of the busy room, once a respectably large room, now inhabited by a sleepy customs agent and a dozen or more people who it seemed had no place to go, no work to do….just hanging out. I was no closer to securing our passports than I was two hours ago, when I began filling out forms—actually they had no forms, except one, the one which I was told to copy on my own paper, then fill in.
I’d been from office to office—shabby cannibalized affairs with hand scrawled signs, dirt and disrepair dominant. In the whole throng of people—who were laughing, quarreling, chatting—in this throng not one person was working, certainly not the Customs officer who resented us for trying to make her work.
Correction… there was one woman working, in a dress that flopped open at the breasts when she wielded the broom—a stick with hardy
grasses lashed to one end. She was sweeping the pathways but seemed effective only in raising a cloud of dust. Her eyes were shut, perhaps against the dust as though she couldn’t see what she was doing and it didn’t matter—she was only rearranging the dirt. To me, at that point, she seemed an apt symbol for the country. But I was still in possession of my problem and not of my passports. Until this logjam somehow broke loose, we would be stuck at the dock in this poor parody of a country. I was beginning to think they didn’t want us to leave.
Back track a few days
The boat rose and fell steadily, running down the backs of the blue Caribbean swells. On deck all appeared normal, the sails pulling well, the rigging taut, everything in its accustomed place…but down below we were stacked to the ceiling with cardboard boxes filled with medical supplies. There was enough room to crawl from the companionway past the galley into makeshift bunks in the main saloon, where two or three of us lay in the space between the top of the cargo and the deck.
We felt like smugglers. We were bringing a valuable cargo through a naval blockade to a desperate people ruled by notorious tyrants. We all wondered what we would meet off the coast of Haiti. Breath, a fat but muscular, and even sleek, gaff ketch, normally spent the month of May making day sails to lovely snorkeling spots in the sheltered British Virgins where passengers could snorkel to their heart’s content. Now she was on the high seas bound for a nation strangled by UN embargo, where death squads mutilated their victims nightly and cast them into the streets as a warning, for the sun to bloat and the pigs to eat. That, by way of digression, is the best thing about a Muslim country—no pigs wallowing in filth in the streets.
Everyone wanted out. The US Coast Guard and Navy patrolled offshore to intercept the waves of desperate people escaping in rickety boats. Expatriate Haitians in St. Thomas warned us…the place was ready to explode.
The boxes were filled with…medical supplies. I’d always wanted to use the boat for something more significant than a tourist ferry, and the chance appeared when Dr. Heath came to St John one Sunday to address the Unitarian congregation on the subject of abortion. Dorothy and I picked him up at the Cruz Bay dock and during the small talk, he remarked that the St. Thomas Rotary had collected truck loads of medicines. But due to the embargo he had no cost effective way of delivering them to Haiti. He had already flown twice in his own small plane to bring supplies to the children’s hospital near Cap Haitian but this time they had collected far too much for the plane.
They had planned to ship it commercially but then the embargo had been clamped down, with the laudable purpose of forcing the military coup plotters out. Unfortunately, he said, the generals had adequate supplies of champagne, but the embargo was a disaster for the ordinary Haitian. The children’s hospital needed the supplies more than ever.
Dr. Heath is one of the most respected men in the Virgin Islands and soon we found out why—his manifest decency and charisma were palpable. Before I knew it I was offering the use of our boat. His eyes lit up. He said he’d take it up with the St. Thomas Rotary and within days we were on.
Only later did I think seriously about the murderous thugs that run the place. How would they receive us? What temptations to piracy
would our sturdy, well-found boat pose on that coast? But by the
time these thoughts took on their full weight we were committed. And
anyway, the element of risk was why we were needed. Nobody else wanted to go.
We made great time from Christiansted where we had been loaded by the National Guard. Around midnight we had roared past Cabo Rojo with a clear sky overhead, our topsail up and pulling hard. When I came on deck at 3 am to watch for Isla Mona the boat was parting the dark seas with a rhythmic cataract of white foam at her bow as Breath‘s sturdy 20 tons surfed down 10’ seas. Soon the triple flash of Mona appeared at the horizon, first the loom and then the distinct bright light. We pressed in close and finally jibed about four miles off and in the dawn watched the finely chiseled cliffs, delicately fluted by gravity and rain.
Late in the afternoon the long, palm-backed beaches of Cabo Engano slid by a few miles to the south; ahead lay the reef-strewn entrance to Bahia Samana and beyond it the bold high cliffs of Cabo Cabron. That night under a bright moon the headlands drew nigh; we rounded them on an easy reach, and bore off down wind across the expanse of Bahia Escocesa towards Cabo Frances Viejo. Dorothy came to the cockpit with a cup of hot coffee. I held my wife in my arms and we thought similar thoughts as the boat made its way west.
Part Two: June issue of All at Sea