I occasionally assist a German underwriter and act as their local contact in the Caribbean. (Readers may remember an earlier account I wrote on the search and recovery of the Arnolf on behalf of the underwriters—this was a vessel abandoned during the ARC 2006).
In August 2007, a known (and dangerous) Polish criminal stole a Lagoon 44 catamaran from a charter company based in Greece. The criminal had done this before and his mission is usually to use the boat for human trafficking (including children) and transporting illegal immigrants to the USA.
I have been watching out for this vessel in the Caribbean and Bill Bailey of Caribbean Marine Underwriters (Tortola, British Virgin Islands) has been assisting in the search. Bill, in fact, had already helped recover a yacht this same criminal stole some years before which he then took to the Dominican Republic. Bill was therefore clear what we were up against if we were to find the stolen vessel and needed to confront the criminal!
Last month the Epirb (emergency beacon) registered to the yacht that was stolen in Greece suddenly gave a short “ping.” This signal was picked up by MRCC and forwarded the UK and the vessel’s Greek owners. Bill and I were informed about the Epirb “ping” and we traced the signal to Brazil. It was therefore decided that Bill Bailey and I would set off on a mission to check out some of the likely places near the area where the signal was located (basically between the mouth of the Amazon River and down to Fortaleza).
I cannot describe adequately how huge the mouth of the Amazon is—so Bill and I were slightly daunted in reality at the prospect of actually finding the stolen yacht. We traveled through Manaus, Belem and made our way down to Fortaleza with the idea of retracing our steps back up North to the mouth of the Amazon, all the time searching the prospective areas. Bill had already contacted all the relevant authorities in Brazil, all of whom were very keen to help us apprehend the criminal.
It appears this vessel had been already seen near Belem and the Polish individual had already transgressed several local by-laws. He had, in fact, been trying to sell the vessel or parts of the vessel inventory. While Bill and I searched in the south, the Federal Police suddenly caught the villain in Macapa at the mouth of the Amazon, just north of where we were—exactly where the NZ yachtsman Sir Peter Blake was brutally murdered. The Federal Police arrested the Polish criminal without any trouble (last time Bill had to get the Dominican Army to help!), and he is now in jail in Brazil.
Bill and I traveled to Macapa and are now repossessing the yacht for the insured parties. We are assembling a crew together who will then collect the yacht and deliver it to the Caribbean. It is not entirely clear why the Epirb was set off, as we found the unit in its box switched off and apparently unused. We also found various drugs on the yacht as well as some shocking evidence of human trafficking. The doors on the cabins were all modified with bolts/locks on the outside to make the cabin areas small “prisons.”
The yacht is in poor condition and it currently rests in the jurisdiction of the Capitania dos Portos in Samana, near Macapa, until the paperwork is cleared for its release. Bill and I found all the authorities in Brazil to be highly professional, considerate and helpful. Both the Port Captain and the Federal Police have shown a good intention to release the yacht quickly and with as little bureaucracy as possible. The criminal will be deported.
Leisure vessels of this size and nature are, of course, stolen worldwide but statistically 80% of them are found and recovered within 12 months, so underwriters will always be determined in their intent to recover where possible.
The Amazon is a fascinating area of the world—however I would warn the cruising fraternity that this particular part of the Amazon (near the mouth) is very challenging. It is very tidal and not particularly easy for cruising yachts, in that moorings, water etc. are not readily available. The river is in fact quite a difficult and problematic environment for the average cruising yacht and specialist knowledge and ability is required if you are to remain in the area for a period.
Macapa is however a fascinating, if remote, town where a very traditional “river traffic life” still exists and where there are wonderful restaurants that serve delicious freshwater fish that I have certainly never seen before!
John Burnie is the General Manager for Nautor’s Swan Caribbean in Guadeloupe, www.nautorgroup.com