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A tale of the captain and the crook

A tale of the captain and the crook

The gringo at the next table informed us that Julie Ann had been sold and that he was her new owner. He had made a shrewd move and was happy with himself.

I should have known, or I should have asked, who had designed and who had built the 40-foot ketch, which I had always assumed was a Valiant or some such Robert Perry creation. Suffice it to say, she’s a canoe-sterned, clipper-bowed beauty, built like a tank and lovingly maintained during her decade at anchor here in Luperon in the Dominican Republic.

Despite a couple of years in the same harbor, I had never met her longtime owner, who was always described as a retired CIA man. The old spook had crossed the bar recently, and his heirs felt compelled to rid themselves of Julie Ann. And so they did.

The gringo got her for $30,000; he said he already had a buyer willing to pay substantially more for that handsome vessel.

Make sure you record the purchase and sale with legal formality; hire a lawyer, I advised him, but I needn’t have. He may have been a gringo, but that didn’t make him stupid.

Four years ago I sold an old boat here myself — a 1965 Cheoy Lee Bermuda 30 ketch. She was “made in Hong Kong,” so my cousins and I named her Hong Kong Maiden, and over 15 years she took us to every corner of the Maine coast, up and down the Atlantic Coast, as far north as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and as far south as the Virgin Islands.

Gone were her once-beautiful teak decks, replaced with Douglas fir, epoxy and glass. Gone, too, was her varnish: spars and teak house had been painted as proof against the tropical sun. She may have been old, but she was still serviceable with a strong beating heart, courtesy of Volvo Penta. We bought her for $14,500 in 1987, put much more into her and the sweat equity was beyond measure. Still, over 15 years she had repaid us with the stuff of priceless memories.

Problem was: Nowadays boats like our old Cheoy Lee have almost no dollar value in the United States. Quite the opposite; they cost money to moor or store, and in the end one must give them away. Rather than sail her back to Florida, I decided to sell Hong Kong Maiden in Luperon, where she lay at anchor, on the theory that she might well be the only sailboat on the market in the entire Dominican Republic.

My broker and I were approached by an intermediary, and we negotiated a price of $12,000. I was delighted. The intermediary — a fixture in Latin American deal-making — said his client wanted to use the boat to operate a day charter service in Punta Rucia and, by the way, did we know of anyone who wanted to skipper the operation? I had worked as a day charter skipper for tourist catamarans myself, and I kept quiet about what was clearly a very dumb business plan. No, I didn’t know any skipper candidates, I said.

In the lawyer’s office, the intermediary began working another angle. He asked whether the boat’s U.S. documentation could be maintained by his client, a Dominican national. I doubted it, I said. Not my problem, anyway. I would be surrendering my certificate of documentation to the U.S. Coast Guard as soon as the sale was completed. As you will read later, this was a wise move.

Fast forward to November 2004. Kelly and I are flying down to the D.R. for a visit. I gaze over the page of another passenger’s Spanish language newspaper and the headline grabs me: there had been a “nautifragio” on the North Coast, a shipwreck with many dead. I borrowed the newspaper and read the article. The story was appalling. Twenty-nine people were killed after leaving Luperon on a sailboat. Migrant trafficking is epidemic, but the vessels of choice are 20-foot outboard-powered yolas, crossing to Puerto Rico from the eastern end of Hispaniola. Not sailboats and not from Luperon.

And it better not involve the Hong Kong Maiden or I might be in trouble.

Somehow, someone might try to blame me, even though 18 months had passed since the sale.

The more I thought about it, however, the less I worried. Forty-one souls had departed on the boat, the newspaper said; of that number 29 were dead or missing. No way could anyone cram 41 people on Hong Kong Maiden, 30 feet long by 9 at the beam.

After touching down in Santo Domingo, I learned more. The shipwrecked sailboat was actually smaller than the Hong Kong Maiden; the migrant smugglers had gutted a 26-footer’s interior to accommodate her human freight. The boat’s only job was to ferry the migrants to a Miami-bound freighter waiting a few miles offshore. No one bothered to check the weather or no one cared to because the overloaded vessel left the harbor in north winds of up to 25 knots and 7- to 10-foot seas.

The outboard pushing her soon stalled and the vessel was swept against a cliff side to the west of the harbor entrance. Her captain-for-hire, a Haitian, had the only life jacket on the boat; he decided to abandon ship as it was breaking up against the rocks.

As the captain was saying adios, his smuggler boss drew a 45 and blew off the man’s head. Enough of the migrants survived to implicate the boat’s former owner — an American described in the news as an “anthropologist” — and he was thrown in jail, though I understand he later was released.

These last details were related over Presidente beers in Luperon, at the Puerto Blanco Marina, where we had gone to visit old friends. I confessed my initial fear that my old boat might have fallen into the hands of the smugglers and become that ship of death.

At this point, the woman who had helped broker the sale of Hong Kong Maiden realized we hadn’t had a chance to speak since the sale. “Your boat made a trip all the way to the United States,” she said. “The buyer had no intention of using it for tours. I found this out later.”

After the attacks of 9/11, scrutiny of international arrivals was ratcheted up substantially, and individuals who had come and gone freely were now being detained for reasons such as old warrants or because their names were on various “watch lists.” Apparently, one man in the Dominican Republic could no longer fly back to the States on American Airlines, so he bought Hong Kong Maiden and hired a captain to sail him there. When they arrived in Florida, they rented a slip for the night at the nearest marina. No Customs, no Immigration.

The captain and the crook rented a car and drove away, never to be seen again, or so the story goes.

Whenever I talk about the Hong Kong Maiden’s last passage, inevitably someone asks whether I ever went looking for my old boat. I didn’t and I wouldn’t. Not even to confirm the truth of what I’ve written here. I’ve never gone out of my way to feel sad. The only good outcome, from my point of view, would be if the boat had found itself in the hands of some impecunious young people with dreams of adventure. She would take good care of them.

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, is sailing southern waters aboard his ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: www.cubacruising.net .