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Miles away in one sense, light years in another

Unique voyage to ‘the other side of the water’ spotlights Haiti’s tragedies as well as its boatbuilding

Dutch novelist Geert van der Kolk was cruising the Bahamas aboard his 30-foot sailboat, Sea Scout, when he experienced firsthand the sad reality of Haiti’s boat people.

Author Geert van der Kolk initiated a nautical experiment: commission the building of a traditional Haitian sloop and sail it to Florida.

Distress calls on the VHF radio alerted him to the sinking of a Haitian sloop in the Gulf Stream — upwind and too far upstream for him to assist. Thirty of the 40 people aboard, he later read, were lost, and it bothered him that he had been unable to help. The events of that night initiated van der Kolk to the plight of Haiti and later informed the plot of his 2002 book “The Smuggler of the Exumas.”

In 2007, aboard the same 1968 Dufour Arpège — a Spartan vessel by American standards — he and his crew visited Ile a Vache (Cow Island) off Haiti’s South Coast. Thanks to his French — one of the languages spoken in Haiti — van der Kolk befriended some of the Ile a Vache fishermen and boatbuilders during his layover.

“I met several fishermen who took me out on their boats,” says van der Kolk. “Two of them had already tried to escape the nation’s poverty and anarchy in small boats. From that, the idea was born to build a boat like that and, with my Haitian friends, try to sail it to Florida.”

This is the story of that voyage.

Inspired by Kon-Tiki

In recent years, the 55-year-old writer had piloted Sea Scout from Greenland to the Caribbean. As a serious mariner, he had come to admire the skill of Haiti’s wooden-boat builders and the men that sailed these Haitian sloops without an auxiliary engine for backup. Belying the pathetic news images of boats overloaded with migrants is the fact that they are one of the most successful and enduring vessel designs in history. They had their beginnings in the Bay of Biscay in 16th century France, carried the buccaneers of Hispaniola through the 17th and 18th centuries, and now, in the 21st century, are still moving goods and people under sail alone — the last such cargo vessels plying the waters of the Western Hemisphere.

A giant Sankofa adorns Sipriz's mainsail in recognition of Haitian culture.

As a boy, van der Kolk had been inspired by the feats of Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl — best known for his 1947 attempt to bolster an oddball theory about the origins of the Polynesian race by sailing a balsa raft named Kon-Tiki from Peru to the remote Tuomoto islands of the South Seas.

“From the moment you land in Haiti, the poverty is in your face and in your nose. It’s really striking that the place so close to Florida can be in such completely different and inhuman circumstances,” van der Kolk says. “I do not have an agenda of how to improve the situation in Haiti, but I do feel that I somehow could not ignore or be indifferent to this. So even though I am not a missionary or a politician, I was looking for a way — groping for a way — to bring substantial attention to Haiti and to Haitian culture.”

Oddly enough, van der Kolk says, the actual inspiration for the trip was reading “Kon-Tiki.”

“Heyerdahl was trying to prove with his raft some completely eccentric and now discarded theory about migration from South America to the Pacific Islands,” he says. “And here, by building a boat in a traditional way, I thought I could draw attention to a real migration that’s taking place every day.”

According to the Forced Migration Project of Oxford University, between 55,000 and 100,000 Haitian boat people managed to reach Florida in the 20 years leading up to 1981. Since 1982, when the U.S. Coast Guard ramped up its interdiction of migrant boats, nearly 115,000 Haitians have been intercepted at sea, most of them only to be repatriated. Thousands more, like those van der Kolk laments off Bimini, have died trying to reach “lot bo dlo,” Creole for “the other side of the water,” in overloaded vessels that capsized or broke up.

In 2007, the British Marine Accident Investigation Branch studied the circumstances in which a Haitian sloop had capsized near the Turks and Caicos, a British protectorate, while under tow by the island’s marine police. More than 60 migrants died in the tragedy. Interestingly, the investigators concluded that despite the weight of more than 125 people, the 37-foot boat was “relatively stable” until passengers surged on deck once the boat had been intercepted.

Solid, seaworthy boats

With all this in his thoughts, van der Kolk contracted Ile a Vache boatbuilder Jean Oblit Laguerre, 50, to build him a 21-foot sloop. With no electricity on the island, the boat would be built using hand tools — hammer, saw, machete — on the beach in the shade of palm trees. For materials and three months of labor, Laguerre charged the equivalent of $1,250. Van der Kolk named the boat Sipriz, Haitian Creole for “surprise,” a prophetic choice as it turned out.

ISLAND BOATBUILDING: With no electricity on Ile a Vache, Jean Oblit Laguerre built Sipriz in three months using hand tools. Van der Kolk says the sloop's design is 'smart and solid,' and he had complete faith in its seaworthiness.

The son of a son of a boatbuilder, Laguerre began shaping Sipriz’s timbers in June 2008. Van der Kolk moved to Ile a Vache for the three months of construction. Family and friends came and went. “The island has no electricity. There is no running water. There is no sewage system. It was like camping, but camping in a very attractive environment,” he says. “We had big mango trees and banana trees around the house. The front porch was covered in bougainvillea. It’s a beautiful, beautiful Island. The rent was quite affordable. We paid five euros a day — maybe seven dollars a day — for a three-bedroom house that included a maid and somebody who did all the laundry and dishes. It was a pleasant life.”

In an interview with Soundings after the successful conclusion of the voyage, van der Kolk was full of praise for the sturdy construction and performance of Sipriz and Haitian boats in general. “Partially because of the fairly primitive construction methods, I think they are vastly overbuilt. They are much stronger than they have to be for the work that they are doing,” he says, “because the Haitians do not have sophisticated planing and cutting equipment, and they do everything by hand. Everything is heavier than necessary.

“The reason why these boats go down is because they are completely overloaded and become unstable, or they are badly maintained. These boats require incredible maintenance. They are built with green wood, so every year you have to recaulk the whole thing. And if you want to preserve the wood, you have to repaint it every year, which most boat owners in Haiti don’t have the money to do, so the boats deteriorate very quickly.

“When we got to the first ocean passage we had to make going to the Bahamas, up the Windward Passage, I was worried that things would break — that the rudder pins would come off because they were old galvanized rudder pins, that the rigging would go, or the sail would tear — but when nothing broke during two nights of fairly heavy-weather sailing, I never had a moment of doubt about the seaworthiness of the boat anymore. It is a very smart and solid design, and even the sail plan, which looks crazy when you look at the pictures, is very intelligent with a lot of experience behind it.”

Praying in tongues

Van der Kolk holds dual citizenship and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, a World Bank economist. He was able to convince U.S. authorities to issue tourist visas to Laguerre and two other Ile a Vache mariners. Manis Samedy, 39, and Gratien Alexandre, 42, would sail with van der Kolk and Laguerre the entire 800 nautical miles to Florida. Alexandre, the best educated of the Haitians, would serve as sailing master during the voyage.

Two others would be aboard Sipriz at the beginning of the trip, for a total of six people. Mary Houghton, a medical editor and freelance writer, is a friend of van der Kolk’s and had sailed with him on Sea Scout. The other is a professional adventurer named Patrick Symmes, who writes for Outside magazine. Houghton went about halfway, flying back to D.C. from George Town in the Exumas. Symmes’ plan was to go as far as Great Inagua, the first Bahamian island en route, which meant he would have to endure the worst sea conditions of the entire odyssey.

Sipriz left Ile a Vache March 16, sailing around the southwestern tip of Haiti and up the Windward Passage to Môle Saint-Nicolas on Haiti’s North Coast. After a wait for weather, Sipriz sallied into the North Atlantic to the Bahamas, stopping at Great Inagua, Long Cay, Long Island, Nuevitas Rock, George Town, Little Farmers Cay, Pipe Creek, Hawksbill Cay, Nassau and Bimini. On April 20, Sipriz crossed the Gulf Stream, arriving in Florida at Lake Worth Inlet 36 days after she sailed from Ile a Vache.

A stopover in the Bahamas was on the itinerary to check that the newly launched sloop was holding together. In the end, it fared just fine.

Although the route is faithful to historic migration patterns, the Sipriz inventory included gear that few Haitian captains can afford, but which van der Kolk brought for safety’s sake. This included life jackets, flares, two hand-held GPS receivers, safety harnesses, jacklines, an EPIRB and a hand-held VHF radio. All were from Sea Scout’s inventory, including the four-person life raft, which van der Kolk reasoned would be better than nothing.

In the sense of man-versus-nature, the worst leg of the voyage was the 90-mile passage from Haiti to Great Inagua, the Bahamian port-of-entry for Haitian sloops. The weather window for crossing closed earlier than van der Kolk had hoped when a cold front swept through. As seas grew, the six-person crew huddled together for warmth in the tiny cockpit.

“We were really worried. Oblit, the boatbuilder, he had hypothermia. He was just shivering, so Mary and Patrick Symmes, the guy from Outside, took turns with him on their laps warming him up with their own body heat,” van der Kolk recalls. “Gratien and Manis were praying all the time out loud. That’s how they pray. You pray out loud and, in the case of Manis, it was interesting, because he is a member of the Pentecostal Church, so he prayed in tongues, too — not only in Creole but in a language that nobody has ever heard of. When the Holy Spirit descends on you, you start speaking strangely.”

To lift their spirits, the Sipriz crew decided to sing as well as pray. Van der Kolk says it got off to a bad start when he chose a traditional Dutch tune about a ship’s cabin boy who dies at sea. The Haitians wanted to know what this “sentimental classic” was about, and when van der Kolk explained, it made the Haitians even less happy. Symmes did a little better when he enlisted Jimmy Buffett, but he was tripped up when he couldn’t recall the words after “blew out my flip-flop” (“Stepped on a pop-top/Cut my heel, had to cruise on home”).

Deteriorating weather forced their overnight passage to go another 24 hours. “The winds were easterly about 15 knots when we left, so we were sailing pretty high already, but then it backed to the northeast, so we couldn’t keep our course anymore,” van der Kolk says. “At the end of the first night we could see the lighthouse of Great Inagua, but we ended up 15 miles west of the island. So then we had to tack to the island against the waves and wind that had picked up to 20 knots or more. It took us 20 hours to sail back 15 miles.”

Pariah treatment

Later, when Soundings interviewed Laguerre, Samedy and Alexandre, they agreed that one of the most surprising parts of the Sipriz voyage had been the “strength of the north,” meaning the north wind. Ile a Vache, off Haiti’s South Coast, sees such fronts rarely, and with their force much diminished after having passed over Haiti’s mountains.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter headquartered at Great Inagua to counter smuggling flew out to scrutinize Sipriz, and later, as they approached Matthew Town, a Coast Guard patrol boat challenged them. Sipriz and her crew were legal to enter the Bahamas, but local Bahamian authorities had not received the memo and tried to enforce the Bahamas government’s new zero-tolerance policy toward migrants.

“We had passports. My Haitian friends had passports and Bahamian visas,” van der Kolk recalls. “So then they said, ‘You don’t have registration papers for the boat. We need proof from the Haitian authorities that you have not stolen this boat.’ An outbound clearance? Right, which, of course, does not exist in Haiti for little fishing boats. You cannot stay in the Bahamas. You have to go back. … as soon as the weather clears,” van der Kolk continues. “I immediately bought a Bahamian mobile phone and started calling people and, finally, after three days of telephone calls, we were let go. I’m sure the hassle wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have Haitian crew on board.”

While they waited for the paperwork shuffle, the Sipriz crew went to check into the hotel at Matthew Town, only to find that the Haitians were unwelcome. The hotelier tried to bar the black men of the crew from entering and only relented at van der Kolk’s insistence. As it would unfold, the Great Inagua experience was a prologue to their treatment throughout the Bahamas.

Indeed, the timing of the Sipriz expedition could not have been worse. Bahamian hostility to Haitian migrants has long simmered beneath the surface, even as the darker-skinned Haitians performed the jobs Bahamians would not do. Now, with the economic downturn affecting the island nation as badly as the rest of the world, anti-Haitian sentiments have risen to the surface, stoked in part by Bahamian access to 24-hour U.S. satellite TV and its coverage of the immigration issues stateside.

“My Haitian friends were treated like pariahs in the Bahamas,” says van der Kolk. “I went back to my log and added it up. During our transit of the Bahamas we were stopped 11 times by real officials — the Bahamian National Defense Force, policemen — but also by vigilantes and individual citizens who just felt they had the right to stop anybody who looked Haitian and ask for their papers. My friends were so intimidated that they didn’t want to go anywhere without me because they don’t speak English.”

The worst incident happened at Little Farmers Cay while van der Kolk was away from the crew on a walk. That’s when a gang of “hooligans” attacked Sipriz. “Ten guys with sticks came to the boat while I was away — which must have been at least half the adult male population — chasing my Haitian friends from the boat. Then they jumped onto the boat themselves, went through all the lockers and all the bags, everything we had on the boat. Fortunately, I had the money with me. They were just accusing my friends of being smugglers and, of course, they thought I was a smuggler trying to take illegal Haitians to the United States.”

Well-known Little Farmers pub owner Terry Baines interceded on behalf of van der Kolk and his crew, but no apologies were forthcoming. “They said they were doing their duty as citizens; the government has asked them to be vigilant against illegal migration,” van der Kolk says. “My friends were scared as hell, so we got out of there as quickly as we could.”

Lions and more

Like the phrase once coined by author Mark Twain, the Haitian men were very much the “innocents abroad.” For example, none had ever strayed far from home, and Laguerre was surprised on arriving at the Bahamas that no one understood his Creole greetings. All his life he had assumed that all black people spoke the Haitian language and that everyone else on Earth was white. When they stopped for the night in front of a Bahamian beach, van der Kolk would sleep ashore but never his Haitian friends. They insisted on staying aboard Sipriz, fearing bites from dangerous animals such as snakes, rats or scorpions. To his amusement, they repeatedly asked van der Kolk whether any lions roamed the Bahamian bush.

Even though van der Kolk had discussed the distance involved in a voyage to Florida, the men had difficulty grasping the time required to sail those 800 miles. Transiting the islands was very much like a road trip with the kids asking, “Are we there yet?” And these were experienced boatmen. Unscrupulous people-smugglers frequently use the same ignorance of basic geography to take advantage of their passengers; they will approach a Bahamian beach hundreds of miles from Florida and announce that yonder lies Miami: Quickly now, wade ashore before the immigration police come.

Despite rough seas and rough treatment from the Bahamians, the trip was not entirely unhappy. Laguerre, Alexandre and Samedy had been subsistence fishermen their entire lives, but had never experienced waters as productive as in the Bahamas, which is another sad commentary on life in Haiti. So they caught a lot of fish to accompany their daily rice and beans.

Also, many Bahamians are of Haitian origin, so despite the general atmosphere of intolerance, refugee communities along the way welcomed the crew with food and fellowship. Gratifying, too, was the warm welcome they received from American and Canadian cruisers. There were still 200 foreign boats at George Town when Sipriz arrived, and it was these cruisers who helped help haul her onto Volleyball Beach. Planked with green wood, Sipriz needs to be careened regularly to dry out.

For writer Patrick Symmes, the experience may have been significant because of the mild heart attack he suffered at Môle Saint-Nicolas — mild, presumably, because he went on to endure the slog to Great Inagua shortly afterward. His account of the trip appears in the September issue of Outside.

Of her Dutch friend, Mary Houghton says: “Geert is a tower of strength, particularly when exhausted, wet, cold and getting nowhere in bad headwinds and worse seas.”

In Bimini, little Sipriz stood out against a phalanx of Florida sportfishing boats docked at a marina. Once again, the Haitian crew was verbally abused by a Bahamian official, who suggested Sipriz leave the marina and go anchor to wait for weather, or face unspecified “trouble.”

“It was a kind of threat that something bad would happen, but I had already paid the marina fee, so I decided to stay,” van der Kolk says. “There were big sportfishing yachts there, and sailing yachts heading back to Florida. And all these people were unbelievably nice to us and interested in the project. Some of the kids they had on board went conching with us on Sipriz in the bay. We were protected by the white people.”

On the day Sipriz reached Florida, a 30-foot Haitian sloop with 73 people on board was intercepted off Key Biscayne. A week later, another Haitian sloop went down off Palm Beach, where Sipriz had landed. Twenty people were rescued; nine drowned.

South Florida’s Haitian community welcomed Sipriz warmly. The press took note, and the boat was docked for public viewing at the Palm Beach Maritime Museum for several weeks before going north on a trailer for display at the Katzen Art Center at American University in Washington, D.C. Van der Kolk is looking for a permanent home for Sipriz, preferably in a Chesapeake Bay-area maritime museum.

For van der Kolk, the biggest surprise was the “kind of racism” his crew experienced in the Bahamas. “The assumption that we were smugglers and the complete lack of interest in the project — that was one thing I had not expected,” van der Kolk says. “On a positive note, I think in a boat-construction way and human aspect, the trip was a great success. The boat did beautifully. Thanks to the three experienced Haitian sailors on board, I don’t think we were ever in serious danger. We cooperated very, very well, even though we come from totally different backgrounds, so that was a very positive experience.

“Also, there were no disasters and nobody broke anything,” he says. “I guess we were in many ways lucky, too.”

Laguerre, Alexandre and Samedy, as lean and lanky as they may have been back home, nonetheless had managed to lose weight on the voyage. In Florida they put that weight back on and then some. Asked whether they would consider making the same trip again, each replied with an emphatic no. “Not even,” Laguerre says, “if they offered me a house here.” They followed van der Kolk back home to Washington, this time by jetliner, where they stayed for a few weeks working for homeowners around the capital. The modest sums they were paid for yard jobs would add up to a big score once they got back home.

Best of all, they went to the zoo. They got to see the lions and tigers and giraffes that cling so tenaciously to the Haitian imagination. Friends and family in the Haitian-American community urged them to stay in the States, to fade into America’s subterranean economy.

All three declined, and that was perhaps the biggest “Sipriz” of all. Back on Ile a Vache, the crew would be welcomed as sophisticated world travelers — men that had seen “the other side of the water” and returned to tell of it.

See related article:

- To tack, you just flip the bird

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.