April 15, 2003
How odd to be writing this entry in such
stark contrast to what I wrote yesterday. It's exactly what
cruising is like though: the best of times, and sometimes
the worst of times too.
I'm tired today. Last night, we returned
to the boat after a big day re-provisioning in Puerto Plata.
The winds were picking up, and we could see the gray clouds
forming around the anchorage. The outboard on our dinghy went
kapoop the other morning, so we had to accept a tow from the
friends who'd gone to town with us. It was a wet ride and
when we finally made it here, there were bags and bags to
unload from our tender into the boat, and then the arduous
task of trying to stow them aboard. It's reminds me of those
mind bender games on lawyer's desks where you have to get
a ring through a hole half its size, or a unwind a knot through
a loop. Putting the stuff away isn't the hard part, it's figuring
out where to put it. I flipped on the VHF radio, took a big
sigh, and stood with my hands on my hips amidst the mountain
of groceries to try to think about where to start.
By the time the task was done, I was beat.
It was 9:00pm. But of course, leave it to Mother Nature then,
to deliver her squalls. The rain began a deluge in the harbor,
the winds picked up, and thunder cracked overhead. I was sitting
at the navigation table watching the GPS to see if our anchor
was holding, when I heard a distress call on the radio. It
wasn't until then that I realized it was on 16, and I'd forgotten
to switch to 68- the hailing frequency used here in Luperon.
Somewhere, a boat called It's Magic was reading a distress
call from off the coast of the Dominican Republic and was
trying to raise help from the Commandante here in Luperon.
Once my ears were tuned in, I could hear the man in distress
as well. The unnamed boat sounded like a Dominican man, and
from what I gathered, he was hailing from a handheld VHF.
He was at sea in a pirogue, trying to collect people from
the water. He was speaking in English with a thick Spanish
there was a boat sinking. There were 150 Haitians
aboard. They had no life jackets. He was trying to save as
many people as he could, but his boat was small and he couldn't
see since the light from the moon was being masked by the
thunder clouds overhead. He was crying for help. There were
too many people. It's Magic heard them, and was trying
to relay the message on channel 16- I told him to try 68 to
reach an official in Luperon.
It's Magic tried to no avail.
The Commandante (alleged, "navy") we later learned
had his radio off. It's Magic was trying to hail anyone
then on land then that could use a phone to call the Coast Guard,
the US Navy- anyone who could help. A flurry of radio traffic
ensued from boats in our harbor, but the time was passing like
a nightmare when you're trying to run from the bad guy and your
legs are making no headway in a pool of molasses. As cruisers
helplessly deliberated to figure out what to do from here (we
don't typically have phones), people were drowning out at sea.
Someone ashore at a restaurant went to try to find the Commandante's
house. The Bueno Hombre ("good man"), as he was later
being hailed since no one knew his name, was trying to stay
in radio contact, and tell us where he was, but he had no GPS.
From what we could tell, the bay he was off of would have been
unreachable by sailboat: upwind and up current. The first thought
from everyone was the US Coast Guard in Puerto Rico - but one
naysayer said that they wouldn't deploy to help the Haitians.
My face grew hot with anger. IF it were true, who has to tell
them they're Haitians then? Give them the location with a mayday,
and if they arrive to find the refugees, I'd like to see a soul
who could peel the fingers of a drowning family from their boat's
decks. I just couldn't believe we wouldn't help. It was worth
A cruiser hang-out in town was able to reach
help on the phone. The Dominican "navy" sent help-
by trucks ashore. Not much help as the people were out at
sea. Someone in the bay was suggesting they didn't really
want to help, but perhaps they only were interested in sending
the survivors back to Haiti. The restaurant was also able
to reach the US Coast Guard, and two planes were being sent
from Puerto Rico: thirty five minutes via air to the general
area, as Bueno Hombre still could not offer latitude and longitude
only that they were eighty miles from Haiti, six miles from
Fantasy Island, and near Punto Rosia. It's Magic had
since begun to try to walk Bueno Hombre through how to use
the GPS who, by this time, had located one on the sinking
From a mundane day of going about the
slow business of maintaining our cruising lifestyle, we had
been thrust into the middle of a disaster and a firsthand testament
to the bureaucratic horror that affects living and breathing
people that have done nothing more to deserve their persecuted
existence than be born in the wrong country. The Dominicans
hate the Haitians, and sit with their arms crossed before they
will offer aid. They speak of them with disdain accusing them
of being dangerous and filthy people. As an American, I could
not believe we wouldn't offer help, knowing all too well (as
we can see from the recent business in Iraq) that we feel at
liberty to stick our nose in anyone else's business, no matter
who's waters or who's land is involved. There are situations
like the Middle East, that seem so far away on a TV screen from
your living room - that make you think, who are we to stick
our nose in another country's business? But when you see someone
before your very eyes, or within your arms' reach in need of
assistance, I could only feel proud and grateful that our country
would offer help. What's the right answer? It looks quite different
when you see it unfold right before you.
As the clock ticked on, we listened and
followed radio traffic from various sources in the harbor:
Bueno Hombre, It's Magic, Bahia Luperon Restaurant,
Bahia Blanco Marina, cruiser after cruiser from their boats.
One plane had to be sent back to Puerto Rico with engine problems,
the other could be of more immediate assistance to someone
nearer. A third plane was deployed to try to help the people.
More pirogues and local fisherman were trying to help people
from the local waters. The thunderstorm had subsided. The
final news we'd heard was that miraculously, only one person
was known to have drowned, seventeen were unaccounted for,
and that sixty were safely ashore. The numbers didn't add
up, but this was the only information we had heard. This afternoon,
we still haven't heard anything more. The incident didn't
appear in the national papers here. We saw the Commandante
race past us on a motoconcho, but I couldn't think of what
exactly I wanted to express if I could sort through my emotions
and translate them into Spanish. And who am I? A guest in
their land. It felt like I had no voice as I watched him go
by. I felt mute and numb.
So here we're left with another view of
the world from just beyond the decks of our traveling home,
and it appears to me, to be a kaleidoscope. What once seemed
so clear now has so many facets that it shakes up how I once
saw things entirely. Another peek into lives seemingly more
than many worlds away from life in the United States - but
look at a map. They're practically our next door neighbors,
this the poorest country in the western hemisphere. As I listened
last night, my heart just broke. What's the answer? How can
you help and what can you do? Today, a young Haitian boy sat
next to us on a park bench to try to sell us treats. He was
the most beautiful thing, with a bright beaming smile and
glistening eyes that were too shy to look directly at us.
He was so happy to talk with us, he was so happy to just be
sitting there. Here he was - close enough to touch
just a two dimensional image on the page of a newspaper or
TV screen. I didn't have the answer. I could only talk warmly
to him and admire, and revel in his smile.
The event will plague me in some way
forever, though I'm ashamed to wonder if time will dull it's
impact. What's the answer? What's the answer? I keep thinking.
I can't find it.