Sailing from Haiti to Miami
When you’re crossing to Florida the hard way–across 800 miles of water, with six people and no motor, in a 21-foot handmade open boat–it’s a long, long way from Haiti to Miami.
EARLY ON THE MORNING of the Ides of March, we rolled the boat down the beach on its own oars. It bobbed gently on the Caribbean for the first time, all of 21 feet long. That’s slightly shorter than a full-size F-350 pickup. When Geert van der Kolk, the scrawny Dutch-born skipper, hoisted himself over the starboard rail, the boat nearly swamped right there.
A handful of Haitians waded in with us, pushing and heaving, scoffing and teasing. We were famous in this village: the little crew of six—three Haitians and three blancs, as they call whites—who would sail an equally tiny boat to America.
Villagers presented us with gifts—cashews, a fishing lure—but mostly they laughed.
“Ti bato!” a Haitian woman told us, cracking herself and her friend up. “Ti bato. Sis person!” In Haitian Creole, a derivative of French, that’s short for petit bateau. Small boat, six people.
“Sis person!” she said, wailing with pleasure.
The boat was christened the Sipriz, Creole for “Surprise,” with a bottle of apple cider wielded by Mary Houghton, a lifelong sailor and childhood friend of mine who would do much of the tiller work ahead of us. The “sparkling” juice proved flat, but Mary sprayed down the boat and the crowd as best she could.
In a test, the Sipriz zipped fleetly around the little anchorage at Kay Kakok, one of the last places in the Caribbean where men build wooden workboats with their bare hands, the way it’s been done for centuries. The village sits on an island of 12,000 people, Île-à-Vache, six miles off the southern coast of Haiti, an obscurity off an obscurity. It has no electricity or running water, no sewers or hospitals, no jobs and few shoes, zero roads, and a single moped. But there are turquoise Caribbean currents, waving turtle grass, boys playing soccer, donkeys and horses for transport, hardworking fishermen, lots of alcohol, a hilarious transgendered American artist, and endless groves of palm trees. These shed coconuts, the only cool drink on the island.
The voyage of the Sipriz, March 15 – April 20, 2009
- START: March 15, 7 A.M.
- HEART FAILURE? March 20, 8 A.M.
- COAST GUARD HELICOPTER ENCOUNTER: March 21, 9:45 A.M.
- COAST GUARD CUTTER ENCOUNTER: March 22, 7 P.M.
- ZIGZAGGING STRUGGLE BACK TO THE ISLAND: March 23, approx. 9 A.M.
Immediately, the rudder on our brand-new boat jammed. Jean Oblit Laguerre, the wiry Haitian carpenter, his hands covered in scars, waded out from the beach where he’d built the Sipriz. He hacked at the rudder with a machete until it swung freely.
Oblit had an incentive to make it work, since he himself was coming on the trip. But even steering true, the Sipriz still suffered more shortages than a Cuban bakery. To start with, it had no keel—only a nominal keel board—and no ballast. This was so the boat could be beached easily, but in a storm it could flip like a leaf. The Sipriz had no lights, no radar, no depth finder, no electronics but the ones we fit in our pockets. Geert’s tattered, ten-year-old chart book was “ready for retirement,” he admitted, but no matter: The last reliable soundings for most of Haiti’s coast had been made by the U.S. military in 1904. The Sipriz had no bunks, seats, or creature comforts. No cabin but the cockpit, open to the sea and sun. No head. No spare sails. The hull design was primitive and totally inadequate for an 800-mile journey.Ti bato, indeed.
For lunch, we ate an elaborate French-Creole meal, aristocrats before the guillotine. Laconic by nature, preoccupied by equipment and logistics, Geert skipped the soaring speeches and poured shots of Barbancourt rum to toast our luck.
“With God’s help,” said Gracien Alexandre, the Haitian first mate.
“With God and GPS,” Geert countered.
Geert was a pretty unlikely captain for a Haitian ship: a 55-year-old Dutch-born novelist who lived in Washington, D.C., and sailed, like Mary and me, on the Chesapeake Bay. Ten years before, crossing the Gulf Stream, he’d tried to help rescue a sinking boat filled with Haitians. Forty drowned, an incident he recounted in The Smuggler of the Exumas, one of his ten novels. Geert had become obsessed with the Haitians’ ingenuity and daring. His plan—to build a Haitian boat, the Haitian way, and sail it 800 miles on the route Haitians use to flee to America—looked like suicide to me, but he called it “a sporting challenge with a purpose.”
Several purposes, really. Geert hoped the journey would humanize the faceless Haitian boat people, to make their plight plain—though he had limited expectations. (“This isn’t Save the Whales for people,” he told me one day before the trip.) He also wanted to write a novel about the journey. Mary, 50, a lifelong sailor whose children had left for college, wanted to get back to the sea. As for me, I’d seen too many refugees. At Cuba’s easternmost tip, not far from here, I’d met a 15-year-old boy preparing to sail for America in a canoe. How could I say no to what a boy would do?
So that was the plan: America or bust. We would pick our way around the Haitian coastline and then launch ourselves over the Windward Passage, an 80-mile crossing to Great Inagua, the southernmost island in the Bahamas. That was about 240 miles, at least a week in an open boat, combining intimate exposure to Haiti’s perils with a deep-water crossing of a busy shipping lane. Mary and I planned to quit in the Bahamas; Geert and the Haitians would sail on, joined near the end by Geert’s wife, Olga, and a videographer. The Bahamas would be the longest stretch of the trip, but the sailing would be easier, with beach landings, good wind direction, and several hundred miles sheltered from Atlantic rollers. After a month, Geert hoped to cross the Gulf Stream from Bimini to Palm Beach. A cargo ship could make the entire journey in four days.
We made a sailor’s exit the next morning, up at 5 A.M. to stuff drybags by the flicker of an oil lamp. Then we waded to the boat in the shadowy half light. By seven we had slipped out of the harbor and put our backs to a sunrise obscured by thick clouds.
A strong easterly filled the sail, a Haitian rig like a gunter, the bamboo peak held up by a rope sling. The sail was painted brightly with the Sankofa, a mythological bird that carried news of the slaves back to Africa. Two hours later, racing westward, I threw up six or seven times. After that, only land made me feel sick.
Like hundreds of thousands of Haitians before us, we had slipped the shackles of this cursed land. We were outbound, with a strong following breeze, our optimism unbound by reality.
PER-CAPITA INCOME in Haiti is less than $400 a year, life expectancy is about 53, and just about everyone who can get out of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere tries to do so. The richest nation in the Western Hemisphere is 560 miles north as the crow flies, and thousands flee toward America in ramshackle boats even in calm years. Although some reach the U.S., blending into the roughly one million Haitians thriving, legally or illegally, in Miami and Queens, the majority are intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. That number fluctuates with Haiti’s frequent politico-economic meltdowns: In 1992, after a coup deposed the country’s first democratically elected president, the erratic preacher-populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Coast Guard stopped 31,438 Haitian migrants, and another 25,069 in 1994. Ten years later, in 2004, there was a smaller surge, with 3,229 Haitians picked up after Aristide, who’d returned to power, was ousted a second time (likely with help from the Bush administration). Then things settled down. The year 2008 showed a slight decline from the year before—1,582 migrants sent back home. But then Haiti was hit by four tropical storms, killing some 800 people and wiping out crops and roads. When the hurricane season ended, in November, a tide of desperate migrants surged out. By July of 2009, the Coast Guard had already plucked 1,491 Haitians from the Caribbean.
French plantation owners started the Haitian nightmare. When the slaves finally rose up, in 1791, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, they annihilated their blanc masters and ripped the white out of the French tricolor. But the world’s first slave republic inherited only negatives. An elite of mulattoes and former slaves ruled the black state with greed and impunity; in the last century, father-and-son villains Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier used torture and fear to reign from 1957 to 1986.
In some ways, the country has since gone from bad to worse. The judicial system is corrupt, the politics a charade, the economy nonexistent. In the past 20 years, Haiti’s population has soared from six million to nine million; with more than 300 people per square mile, it’s the densest nation in the Caribbean. Another 900,000 young people enter the job market every five years, but there is no work. A 1994 UN embargo mainly succeeded in wiping out sweatshop jobs, and they don’t even make our baseballs anymore. Trees are cut for charcoal, washing away half of Haiti’s topsoil and rendering a once lush green island into shades of sulfur. With poor land and awful roads, rice grown in Haiti ends up costing twice as much as the American rice sold on the black market.
After the 2004 coup that toppled Aristide, chaos, looting, and gang violence ruled Haiti, until the UN deployed 9,000 blue-helmet troops that cleared the slums and markets in violent shootouts. The UN stage-managed a new government under prime minister Michèle Pierre-Louis and poured $2.5 billion into peacekeeping to stop the cascade of failures. The rarest thing in Haiti—good news—began to trickle in. When I arrived in March, UN troops with armored vehicles still controlled the intersections in Port-au-Prince. Kidnapping was down. Bill Clinton was hip-hopping through schools with Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born member of the Fugees. Hillary soon followed, bringing $300 million in aid and a ten-year commitment to duty-free access to the U.S. market for Haitian textiles. The minimum wage was raised to $1.75 a day.
By the standards of Haiti, we had arrived at a moment of progress. As one Port-au-Prince resident told me, quite seriously, “In terms of the shooting, it’s much better.”
ÎLE-À-VACHE HAD DROPPED BEHIND US by the middle of that first afternoon. The ocean changed from coastal azure to deep-sea blue, and we felt out the routines of sailing, everyone finding his job. Geert pored over his charts, plotting with a compass, ruler, and GPS. Mary steered, holding the mainsheet with a loop around a knee or foot, the way the Haitian crew did it. I sat in the bilge, the “human sandbag,” in Geert’s phrase, ballasting the boat and watching the narrow band of horizon between sail and deck with binoculars.
The Haitian crew were sailors from Île-à-Vache; they’d spent their lives in these coastal waters, navigating by eye and ear, wind direction and dead reckoning, by the stars and the waves. Gracien, the first mate, was tall, powerfully built, unusually quiet for a Haitian, and had been at sea since the age of five. Now 40, he was a Methodist assistant pastor on land and a true expert at sea. (“He’s really in charge of the boat,” Geert admitted.) Oblit, the shipwright, was 50; he would spend hours on the upwind rail, balanced barefoot, watching over his creation. Lastly there was Manis, or Jean Emmaniste Samedy, 39, a voluble, narrow-shouldered Pentecostal who spoke in tongues. His hands were crabbed by a degenerative disease that he attributed to divine punishment.
To them, America was a mysterious idea, somewhere north, beyond the Bahamas. Geert had raised funds from friends to cover their expenses. He’d also paid $250 to each of their families, with another $750, to ensure that no one tried to stay on in Miami, coming by the time they returned to Île-à-Vache. This tiny sum loomed large in their calculations, a financial windfall for men who, between them, had seven years of education. Mani and Obit didn’t use a compass; they ignored the small box of numbers we carried around, the GPS, as beyond the possible.
We bounded over waves that day, the Sipriz at her best, running downwind at six and even seven knots. Oblit had built her like every other boat on Île-à-Vache, cutting trees, sawing the wood by hand—mostly danmari, with cashew on the transom—splitting a curved branch to make symmetrical ribs and sealing the gaps with old rags and homemade resin. He used only five tools—a saw, hand drill, machete, adze, and hammer.
The only metal was in the anchor, the rudder hinges, and the nails. Screws are stronger in a storm but cost slightly more; in what he later termed an “excess of authenticity,” Geert followed Haitian custom and refused to fund the difference. In the end he paid Oblit $1,200 to build it—including materials. The boat had no tackle, hardware, pulleys, winches, or cleats. More important, it had no engine. Without a motor we were helpless when becalmed, reliant on two long oars for maneuvering out of the crushing paths of supertankers and cruise ships, which would not see us at night.
I’d stuffed the drybags before dawn and knew what was in the tiny fore and aft holds. A lot of crackers (the Haitian hardtack), five pounds of rice, five of beans, a bottle of ketchup, two coconuts, some bouillon cubes, a broken Swiss Army knife, 18 eggs, five water jugs holding five gallons each (and, we discovered too late, leaking), a bundle of kindling for cooking on the beach, ten bags of spaghetti, a gallon of vegetable oil, nuts, dried fruit, and granola bars. Most precious were a loaf of fresh bread and a genuine Dutch Gouda, sealed in wax. We also carried an emergency beacon, flares, two GPS units, two cell phones, and a pair of VHF radios, the latter with a roughly seven-mile range. Tucked under a thwart was an aged life raft. Only after the trip would Geert point out that it held four people, not six.
Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, is shaped like a lobster, and our course required rounding its southwestern claw, with three different capes, to make the old port of Jérémie. It had been Geert’s intention to avoid sailing at night; we’d beach the boat, cook and sleep on land, and continue with daylight. But the shore was mostly surf on rock, a line of steep hills tumbling into the sea. This seemed OK; the wind was strong, and Gracien and Oblit claimed we would reach Jérémie by midnight. Manis added that the villages on this coast were too dangerous to stop in anyway, full of thieves.
But wind is fickle. Our breeze dropped at dusk as we approached Cap Tiburon, the first of three points we now had to round in the dark. A squall pushed us everywhere but forward, and midnight came and went, the crew cold and wet. The darkness of the coast was terrifying: no electrified houses, no headlights, not even the glow of a distant television or the flicker of a kerosene lamp. At 3 A.M. the flank of a mountain caught fire, an orange blaze that grew, rose, and finally took shape as the moon, pale red from Haiti’s charcoal-smudged skies. I had the tiller and was steering by the North Star, but moon and stars both vanished in another downpour. Phosphorescent microbes winked in the eddies. Then another moon rose, this one in the impossible west: a ship sliding up the channel over on the Cuban side, 40 miles away.
“We have left Île-à-Vache,” Gracien suddenly cried. “It is gone!” Only 20 hours and we had crossed into what the Haitians called “l’etranger,” the world beyond.
At dawn, without a breath of wind, we rowed for the first time. I had expected to row in emergencies, but the Haitians were hardened and impatient. The oars were 13-foot-long sweeps, requiring two people each, and rested in “oarlocks” that were just sharpened sticks jammed into the gunwales. Four people, rowing hard, could move the Sipriz at one knot. The morning passed this way, under a burning sun. “The last 24 hours,” Geert noted grimly, “are a perfect lesson in exposure.”
Finally Gracien blew on a lambi, or conch shell, a plaintive, low howl that is a traditional Haitian way to summon the wind. As a Christian, he didn’t believe that “white magic” could work. (Black magic is another matter.) But he blew the horn anyway.
And the wind picked up. Like heroes, we raced into the Jérémie harbor with white foam under our bow.
“Get dressed,” Gracien said, in Creole. Each of the Haitians drew out a plastic bag holding a pair of slacks and proper shoes. The poor must not look poor.
Thirty-five hours, 83 miles, a few blisters, some vomit. The shakedown cruise was over.
JÉRÉMIE WAS a busy port once, exporting coffee and timber, and has some grand houses in faded pastels. But the town, a center of opposition to the Duvalier dynasty, had been deliberately strangled into a stupor. The tired shops, behind high warehouse doors, still carried more dust than merchandise. Everything smelled of trash and jasmine. The waterfront was furiously busy while the big Port-au-Prince ferry was docked (cacao and coffee beans drying in the sun, scores of vendors and hundreds of gawkers, cargoes of cement and charcoal and mangoes being loaded or offloaded, a woman chasing a man with a knife) and then deserted after the ferry left.
But there was a hotel, with hot food and ice for the rum. Manis, Oblit, and Gracien took cold showers in my bathroom, unaware that there was a hot-water tap.
We struck out in the morning for our first open-water crossing, straight north over the Golfe de la Gonâve, from the southern claw to the northern pincer. With the wind pleasantly abeam, we had knocked off tens of miles by midafternoon. Then it abruptly died again. The Sipriz floated under a hot sun, and we dove into a spotlessly blue sea, like swimming through a sapphire. Then we rowed.
During a break I noticed Gracien and Oblit staring at the horizon. “Vent,” the first mate announced. Wind. After half an hour it arrived, puffing out the mainsail, and we bubbled north, ripping the loaf of bread and the Gouda with waterlogged fingernails. Gracien had been trolling all along and now hooked a huge dorado, which he reeled in by hand and strangled. He gutted the fish with the bread knife and rubbed it all over with coarse salt brought for just this purpose.
As if we needed salt. Waves came into the boat constantly, and we were wet day and night. Eventually I learned to sail like the Haitians, barefoot, in underwear and a foul-weather jacket. The odor of the sea was supplemented by the briny stink of the dorado, drying like cheap bacalao. Fish blood sloshed in the bilge, adding a high note of chloroform, along with swollen chips of oatmeal and granola and distended raisins like fruit corpses. Breadcrumbs added a gummy film. The most nauseating was the odor of tinned mackerel in tomato sauce, which the rest of the crew devoured with their fingers in a desperate moment as I stood back in horror. There was also a small bonito rotting somewhere under the tarps, although we couldn’t find it, and later in the trip, when weather made reaching the rail impossible, the faint ammonia of urine. Haiti added its own olfactory signature: Even far offshore we could smell the acrid trace of charcoal fires.
Haitian refugees might have considered this a luxury cruise. Though they use bigger boats than ours—60-foot charcoal carriers or purpose-built people smugglers of twice our length and four or five times our displacement—the passengers are typically packed into holds, with little water and a spoonful of corn mush once a day—conditions I can compare only to those of a slave ship. They would have no fresh air, no tarps, no waterproof gear, no GPS or life preservers. But they go much shorter distances, leaving from the northernmost tip of Haiti, not the southernmost, like us. And while some Haitian skippers go straight to Florida, many quit in the Bahamas, leaving their passengers to finish the trip later, with professional smugglers in speedboats.
We sailed far into another cold, wet, grumpy night, looking for a town called Môle Saint-Nicolas. The GPS went wiggy, so we followed the North Star, closing on another blackened coast. In a mortal sin of navigation, the Cap du Môle lighthouse was dark.
Around midnight, the clouds closed in. Manis and Oblit roused me from sleep—not hard, since I had boat ribs, flashlights, and canned food jabbing me at all points. “M’sur Pa’, ” they said, prodding me awake.
“Fait le kompa’,” they urged. “Fait le kompa’.” Make the compass. I fixed a course and lay down on a can opener again.
Around 2:30 A.M., we gave up on finding the town and pulled hard for shore. But the anchor rope—a crazy concoction of sheets and webbing improvised every night—was too short to find the bottom. (“Jamais!” the despairing Oblit cried out. Never!) Finally, pressed dangerously close to cliffs roaring with surf, we anchored.
Gracien ordered us not to speak English or use flashlights. This coast was filled withgens méchants—”naughty people” in French, but with a much darker meaning in Creole. Half the drug dealers in the Caribbean had to pass along this coast; the people here, Gracien said, specialized in robbing boats and killing witnesses. Foreigners would attract attention; he tried to make us hide under tarps. But too late: We saw a burning torch come along the hillside, the unseen figure stopping to watch us. “Pirates,” Gracien said.
I had a heart attack, I think. As soon as Gracien pronounced the word pirates, the stress, fear, and exhaustion of the previous days broke through me. The left side of my chest began to close in, tighter and tighter. In a minute I was having trouble breathing. I clutched my chest, wheezed, and lay down on the foredeck while I still could. For ten minutes the pain grew until, twitching on the deck, I almost blacked out. Trying to keep silent, Mary gave me two aspirin, which I ground in my clenched teeth. Another ten minutes and the pain subsided, slowly. Whatever had happened, I sat up after an hour, frightened but fine.
In any case, we were 20 to 40 hours from even a bad hospital. Showered by a chill rain, we stretched out where we could. Manis and I shared the puny foredeck, which pitched enough to toss a careless sleeper into the sea. Manis rolled himself up in the jib; I tied myself to the mast like Odysseus.
Around 3 A.M., a dugout canoe slipped out from shore. “Ou se le bato bleu?” a man called. Are you the blue boat? “Non,” Gracien replied, tensely. The man paddled away.
It happened again, twice more during the night. Each time it was a different man in a different canoe. Are you the blue boat? they called softly. “Le bato bleu?” Each time, Gracien sent them away.
In fact, the Sipriz had a blue hull, but we were not the drug dealers they were waiting for. We survived because we were too small to be important, a bug on Haiti’s troubled skin. There was nothing to steal on such a tiny craft, no secrets worth having. In any hard storm, Robinson Crusoe noted, “the light ships fared the best.”
At 5:30 I felt the foredeck yawing under me; we were sailing north in darkness.
WE MADE OUR LAST LANDFALL in Haiti at Môle Saint-Nicolas. In the first half light, I heard Geert whispering in French and Gracien crying. “I’m not tired,” Gracien was saying. “My only problem is Yadle.” That was the 15-year-old daughter he’d left back home. “I’m not tired,” he repeated, although he was handling the boat 15 hours a day, wrestling the sails without mechanical aid, carrying our lives on his shoulders.
The town was amazingly hard to find. Boys in fishing canoes pursued us over the sea at dawn with howls of delight—Such a fine boat! Such good sails!—but acted stumped by our questions, as if they’d never heard of the region’s only major port. In late afternoon, I saw a gleam in the palm trees—a tin roof. Gracien urged us to pass by without stopping; the people here were gens méchants. But this was our fifth day at sea—40 hours on this leg alone—and we needed to refit for the Windward Passage. Geert ordered a turn into the bay.
We came into a soft beach rimmed with old French forts, and Geert jumped down, expecting knee-deep water. The clarity fooled him, and he sank up to his stomach. Amusing but for the fact that he had our two cell phones in his pants. The only weather reports we got came over these phones, in the form of text messages from a Maryland sailor watching over us. We frantically shook off the phones, trying to dry them. But Gracien had another idea: He began to “wash” the phones with fresh water—prompting my breakthrough moment after a lifetime battling the French language. “Arrête!” I shouted. “Ce n’est pas une bonne idée de laver les telephones avec eau! Defense d’eau!!!”
Too late. Both phones fizzled out. No more weather reports.
For a bunch of gens méchants, the citizens of Môle Saint-Nicolas were first-rate. Behind a veil of trees, we found a squarely laid-out town with friendly people and busy commerce. The beetling waterfront would have made Patrick O’Brian weep: tattered sailing vessels of every size, from huge charcoal carriers to tiny lateen-rigged dugouts. Everywhere, great crews of lean men unloaded lighters of goods, and barefoot boys manned the rigging of a double-masted cargo sloop that looked as old as the Napoleonic forts guarding it.
The last weather report had mentioned a cold front, with accompanying southwestern winds. Perfect for us: A south wind would carry us straight to the Bahamas, making a lark of the 80-mile Windward Passage. But talk of leaving at midnight evaporated as we found a spot on shore and began to drink cold Prestige beer and stew the salted dorado over an open fire. The malodorous fish proved spectacular with beans and rice.
But the next morning, when we reached open sea, we were pushed only by the traditional easterlies—blowing in from the Atlantic unimpeded and raising great swells, so relentless they gave the Windward Passage its name. We had 80 miles to go.
“This is a very lonely piece of ocean,” Geert said, steering north on the tack we would hold for the next 30 hours. Somewhere ahead was the Bahamas.
NOT EVERYTHING SMALL goes unnoticed. The Sipriz was barely three miles off the coast of Haiti, still inside her territorial waters, when the U.S. Coast Guard busted us—and quick.
In my sandbag duties, I was watching the western horizon with binoculars when I spotted a small dot ten miles out. What I first took for a ship, and then an airplane, turned quickly into a helicopter heading precisely for us. It was an HH-60 Jayhawk, the Coast Guard’s version of the Blackhawk, with an orange body, a white slash across the tail, and a black nosecone full of radar and thermal sensors. No hiding from the Coasties today.
It wasn’t a bad feeling, watching the Jayhawk sweep slowly around us once, the orange-helmeted air crew gawking from the open door. Unable to raise them on our toy radios, we just waved. Apparently satisfied that we weren’t refugees, they peeled off and returned back to the west.
And if we had been? The Coast Guard stops scores every year, sometimes hundreds. All are desperately overloaded—200 people on a big charcoal carrier or 80 in a 35-foot sloop. One Coast Guard commander referred to the boats as “the world’s most pathetic oceangoing vessels.” The dehydrated, weakened passengers are removed to a cutter in an operation always described as a “rescue.” It is a rescue—this July, for example, the Coast Guard plucked 113 Haitians off a reef in Turks and Caicos—but this is also the blunt application of our anti-immigration muscle.
Many Haitians naively welcome the appearance of the Coast Guard, believing they will be taken to America. Instead they receive food, water, flip-flops, toothbrushes, and an express trip back to Haiti. Since they’ve typically sold everything they own—fishing canoes, houses, farmland—to finance the failed voyage, a Haitian boat person may end up a month later as a beggar in his own village. It is the measure of Haiti’s despair that people keep trying anyway.
And then their boats are sunk. The Coast Guard usually machine-guns them. Again, there is a safety aspect: Abandoned boats are a hazard. But a boat full of holes will also never again carry desperate people to America.
On that first day we made good progress, due north, and then night came. We were 30 miles into the Windward Passage.
The night was bad. Water came in constantly. The wind grew hard, boisterous, and finally, at 4 A.M., began to gust at more than 20 knots. We crashed back and forth, unable to find equipment, a note of desperation in our howled communications. A clumsy move with my shoulder parted the shroud, dropping the jib. The boat could easily swamp this way, and if we went over in this strong wind, in a tangle of equipment and lines, amid hurtling waves, I doubted we would all come out. But Gracien scampered up the mast as if he were fetching a coconut and, bobbing back and forth, spliced the cheap plastic rope.
Now it was the Haitians who had their heart failures. Brave on their home sea, they were unmasted by l’etranger, the immense new world we had entered. Gracien stayed at his post but began to shout over the wind that we should turn around: “We must go to Cuba!” Oblit grew hypothermic and began to mumble in despair. Manis picked up the fear: “We are lost, we are lost,” he shouted in Creole. “We must go back!” He began to pray for us each by name, his voice rising into a sustained howl to Jezikri—Jesus Christ. Geert finally told him to save his voice for the prayers we would need later and launched into a string of Dutch sea shanties.
It was a night for misery. I wrapped the shaking Oblit in my arms and we sat like that under a tarp, separated from the sea by the thin boards he had made himself.
EVERYONE KNOWS THE COLOR of the sky. It is blue by day, gray with clouds, diurnal yellow at the extremes of the day. It is even white at moments, the pure white of a Maine fog. But worst of all is black: the sum of all fears. Night, tied to an open boat, on a violent sea.
Well before dawn we saw a glow in the north, which we mistook for the Morton Salt works on Great Inagua. It was another bright cargo ship, racing upwind at more than 20 knots. We never once succeeded in raising these big ships on our radios; with no lights and a tiny radar signature, we had to quickly assess each one’s route and steer for safety.
But in the last moments of darkness we saw real hope, the lighthouse on Great Inagua. Weakly at first, it gave out double pulses, brushing the planets. The GPS showed we were still 35 miles out, but there was no mistaking it: That light was the Bahamas.
We spent our second day on the Windward Passage in false confidence, convinced we would make landfall by lunch, or midafternoon, or sunset. Although capsizing had been our greatest concern, the Sipriz had proved surprisingly stable. But the lack of a true keel cost us in another way. Big rollers, towering over the rail by seven feet or more, repeatedly picked the boat up and put it down two yards to the west. We experimented with the mainsail but could not hold our northern course; the closer north we got to Inagua, the farther west we were from it. Geert spent hours poring over his wet charts, struggling with his calipers, staring mutely at the GPS. The wind backed to the northeast, even worse for our purposes.
In the afternoon we missed the island by 15 miles. It seemed incredible, impossible. Inagua now lay due east. We would have to tack almost exactly upwind in a boat that could not even hold a course abeam.
At sunset, dodging a container ship and rushing to don our night gear, we failed to notice another ship slip in behind us: the Coast Guard again. A short-range cutter eased up to the Sipriz, crawling with a boarding team in orange. In failing light, we finally raised them on the radio and spent half an hour spelling out G-E-E-R-T-V-A-N-D-E-R-K-O-L-K. (They put down the boat name as Sea Breeze.) Our Haitians gave up, passive, letting the bow fall off, the tiller flop. They assumed the trip was over, no matter how much Geert insisted that “le Coast Guard n’est pas un service de taxi.”
Geert pleaded for permission to continue on to the Coast Guard’s own base, on Great Inagua. He knew that if they stopped us now, they would probably destroy the Sipriz rather than tow it in heavy seas. Ten years of Geert’s dream hung in the balance.
The orange-clad boarding party went back inside. “Will advise,” the radio sputtered, and the cutter turned and ran into the darkness, moving fast.
Geert picked up our heading. We clipped into our harnesses. That night was physically harder than the one before—wetter, less hopeful—and yet we were too tired now to care. We had been so close, in sight of the southernmost point in the Bahamas after 80 miles of open water, and yet here was the same blackness, worse now, the boat tattered, the crew spent. And here again, 14 hours later, the same white beacon, beating the same tattoo against the sky. It no longer cheered.
The last ten miles eastward turned out to mean about 30 miles north and south, beating upwind in hard tacks of about 20 minutes each. Geert said little; the skipper should be stoic. His real fear had always been that in a hard battering one of Oblit’s boards would break or the too-authentic nails would pull out. The wind settled at more than 20 knots, and the swells came storming in. I bailed for an hour straight, then cussed at Manis for dropping the bucket, forgetting that his cramped fingers were useless in the best of times.
But that white light in the black sky stayed with us, and we with it. We beat upwind, making no progress, hour after hour, always ten miles west of Great Inagua. Then, just before midnight, we felt a drop in the wind and soon the waves seemed to temper. Gracien could hold the boat higher than anyone, and he broke the ten-mile barrier for the first time. Right and left, we clawed our way east, to nine miles. Gradually we gained the wind shadow of the island. The ocean swells declined. Eight miles. Seven. Six. Five.
At this late hour, almost in sight of safety, the tireless Gracien collapsed, Geert fell asleep sitting up, and Mary and Manis and Oblit all crawled under tarps. Here the human sandbag rose up to be useful for half an hour. I took the tiller, holding a long northeastern tack, feet braced on the rail, the mainsheet wrapped around my waist. This is the whole import of such journeys: to prove yourself useful, even once. To watch over five sleeping forms and deliver them into the shore of an island at 3 A.M.
Four miles. Three miles. To serve your measure, even once.
When I could smell diesel, I roused the crew and we feebly tacked into Matthew Town, the only settlement. The tiny harbor was blocked by surf, and we threw down an anchor and slept, rocked by chill winds, until long after dawn. Finally Gracien glided us into the wharf, where we were met by Bahamian customs and a scramble team of U.S. Coast Guardsmen.
The customs officers were not amused. We had visas and passports but no departure stamps for Haiti, and the boat had no documents at all. They would not clear the Sipriz for entry, and crew were part of the boat. As soon as the storm passed, they told Geert, we had to turn around and sail back to Haiti.
BUT IT WAS NICE in the Bahamas. White sand. Fried fish. Cold beer. A Bahamian woman in a cell-phone store giggled when Geert and I walked in.
“Coast Guard say your boat too small,” she explained.
Yet the Sipriz was hardly done. The Haitian ambassador in Washington called his Bahamian colleague, and the customs officers relented. The little boat sailed on. Even the Coast Guard grew fond of the Sipriz, donating wool blankets, plus foul-weather gear for the Haitians. Gracien, Oblit, and Manis had a tough time of it, repeatedly harassed and finally attacked by Bahamian vigilantes who took them for illegal immigrants.
After five weeks at sea, the Sipriz finally crossed the Gulf Stream from Bimini into Florida on Monday, April 20—a fast, wet ride that concluded at 3 A.M., when they scooted into the old Coast Guard station on Peanut Island, near Palm Beach. The museum caretaker greeted them with a bottle of soda. And Geert did get some attention in the end: The Miami Herald dedicated much of its front page to the arrival of the 21-foot surprise. The brave little ship was put on display in Palm Beach and, later, in Washington, D.C. The crew briefly starred on Creole radio stations; when their visas expired, all three went home to Île-à-Vache. I last saw theSipriz sitting outside a museum in D.C., the wood faded and battered but the sail still bright with the messenger bird, the Sankofa.
Consider again the fate of all those other boatmen who have traveled that long sea road. For the Sipriz was not alone that last day, crossing over the Gulf Stream. Another small sailboat had come out of Haiti about the same time, following about the same course. They also suffered on the sea and were tested. They also threaded their way through the reefs and vigilantes of the Bahamas, and, with a mixture of good luck and bad weather to hide their passage, they evaded the Coast Guard. They too made the crossing into South Florida, on the same day. But their boat ran aground near Key Biscayne, where the Coast Guard found it. There were 73 people on board.
The 73 were discovered on a Sunday. By Wednesday afternoon every one of them was back in Haiti.
It’s hard to sink a little boat like that, made entirely of wood. The Coast Guard likely burned it.