Island Time - Bound for Florida, obliged to assist

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Quiet Caribbean cruise gets interesting when the Coast Guard drafts couple to help fishermen adrift

Quiet Caribbean cruise gets interesting when the Coast Guard drafts couple to help fishermen adrift

“Sailing vessel at 20 49.5 north, 71 49.2 west, this is U.S. Coast Guard aircraft on Channel 16.” The hail came over the VHF radio even as we heard the engines of a jet shooting past Rio like a glistening orange and white arrow. She took us to starboard, sweeping by just 500 feet above the water, getting a good look at our big fat Morgan ketch.

I reached for the mike. “This is sailing vessel Rio at 2049 North 7149 West, bound for the States from the Dominican Republic. Go ahead Coast Guard aircraft.”

The voice from the plane explained that we were only a few miles from a fishing vessel that has been reported overdue three days earlier. The Coast Guardsman on the radio — he couldn’t have been older than 25 — gave us the fishing boat’s coordinates and asked whether we would proceed there to assist.

We would be happy to help, we said. Rio was 60 miles from anywhere; we hadn’t seen a boat since leaving Luperon at dawn. Dropping the mizzen and furling the genoa, we proceeded on mainsail and motor. Sunset was only an hour away.

Any information about their circumstances, I asked the airplane? None, except that they were reported overdue. The fishermen didn’t have a working radio, and the airplane was about to drop a communications packet. We watched the parachute stream and blossom as a handheld VHF radio was delivered from the sky.

By now I could see the fishing boat through my binoculars. It was an open craft of some sort with three or four people in it. I had misgivings. These were smuggling waters and open boats often transported migrants or drugs; the smugglers were ruthless sons of bitches. “Coast Guard aircraft, don’t go wandering off,” says I. “You are my only backup in this. Please don’t go away.”

“Rio, Rio, request you stand off disabled vessel until we can get other assets on scene,” said the Coast Guard, by way of reassurance. As Rio approached the drifting boat, and as I got a better look, my apprehension dissolved. There were three of them — typical Dominican fishermen — in an old Boston Whaler with a single outboard. Rio would approach the fishermen, I told the Coasties. “Up close they look pretty harmless, just fishermen,” I radioed.

The young Coast Guardsman made a reasonable stab at speaking to the fishermen in Spanish, but soon I was translating for the plane, once I had convinced the Dominican skipper to downshift his staccato Spanish to match the speed of my foreign language processor.

The boat was from the Dominican port of Monte Cristi, near the Haitian border. They had indeed drifted for three days, which meant they had been working the reefs of the Mouchoir Bank and drifted downwind and down current to their present location. The boat had plenty of gasoline, el capitan said, but their outboard was beyond repair.

The fishermen had run out of food and water but had plenty of fish. Our noses confirmed this, as Rio stood to leeward of the center console. They had spread filets of sushi-grade grouper to dry on the boat’s horizontal surfaces, including over the gray cowl of their defunct Yamaha. The crew proudly held up some filets to demonstrate their culinary resourcefulness as I snapped a couple photos.

Before we had the chance to do anything further, one of the crew was holding his hand up to his mouth. “Do you want cigarettes?” I asked. “Yes, yes. Cigarettes,” they said, two of them smiling. “Kelly,” I turned to the ship’s official supporter of Big Tobacco, “toss them a pack of cigarettes. Put it in a plastic bag, please.” Which she did, adding matches to the Ziploc and a lime for heft.

To the Coast Guard, I reported this exchange as a positive development. “They’re out of water. They’ve been eating sundried fish,” I told the plane, “but the first thing they asked for was cigarettes.” The plane said they had food and water packets to drop, but I told them not to bother. Kelly assembled another Ziploc, a big one. Contents: (1) pineapple, medium-size; (2) bananas, small; (3) chocolate bars, with peanuts and raisins; and (4) individual packets of Saltine-type crackers. She also tossed over a liter bottle of water.

Los tres amigos immediately chugged the water and carved into the pineapple. They were pleasantly surprised to learn that all food in the pack was from their beloved D.R., including the particularly popular Mas Mas chocolate bars and Hatuey crackers. These comfort foods brought smiles to their road-weary faces.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard said the Dominican Navy would be on its way but also asked me to ask the boys on board Anderson, that being the name of the disabled boat, whether they might be willing to abandon their vessel.

The fishermen said they would stick it out until a tow arrived, and I passed this on to the Coast Guard plane. “Good luck getting the Dominican Navy out here,” I added, word to the wise. Maybe it was because of that comment — I’ll never know — but I heard the plane hailing another vessel, the Stoltz Hawk.

The plane then said it had to return to Puerto Rico to refuel. The radioman reassured me that they would be back as soon they had topped off and would Rio be willing to stand by the fishermen until further help arrived? The plane dropped a floating combination flare and smoke marker, circled once and roared off to the east. Soon it was dark.

Standing by

Rio had arrived on the scene in calm seas, but that could change quickly. With darkness came a freshening breeze. Also, weatherman Chris Parker had forecast widespread squalls with potential for 40- to 50-knot winds and 10-foot seas. Such waves could overturn an open boat without steerage, and while the Whaler might be unsinkable, capsizing would be a bad deal for los tres amigos. I passed the word to the fishermen that their official rescue vessel had an ETA of 10:15.

Only a few weeks earlier 19 fishermen were drowned when the 53-foot Abra Cadabra overturned and sank in the same waters. More of the 39-man crew would have perished had it not been for the efforts of the Coast Guard. I remember seeing the helicopters shuttling over our Dominican anchorage carrying survivors to the NorthCoast city of Puerto Plata.

I had agreed to stand by because the only alternative would be to take the fishermen aboard and deliver them to port. The Coast Guard had actually asked whether I would be willing to take Anderson in tow. Nix nix, I said. My engine develops only 38 hp, nowhere near enough power for an ocean tow. I told the Coast Guard I would be willing to take the men to the Bahamian Island of Great Iguana, about 80 miles westward, but not back to the Dominican Republic.

We might have been able to make Monte Cristi on a tight reach, but we were only a squall away from being driven toward a Haitian landfall — a bad option — in which case we would have turned back northward for Great Iguana anyway.

But I had another reason. I had just snuck out of the Dominican Republic, and felt going back so soon might prove … well, inconvenient.

“Mac, tomorrow we are just going to go. I’m not getting a despacho from the Navy,” I had confided to a local ex-pat the night before our departure. “I like this country too much to have my last memory of the place be some punk in uniform trying to extort money from me.”

In my three months in Luperon I had seen Naval officers with .45s tucked inside their pants suggest “donations” from arriving cruisers. When these same cruisers left, they were charged $20 for an outward clearance paper called a despacho. Don’t have $20? He would take $10. It didn’t matter — the bills went directly into his pocket.

What’s more, the Dominican government had revised the law a few years ago to allow foreign boats to clear out by radio, but local Naval authorities had instructed individuals who had dealings with cruisers not to mention this change. Navy “business” continued as usual.

So at dawn we had hauled up the anchor and chugged out to sea. I was up to date on my port fees, having paid three months in advance on arrival; I had paid my bar bill. We left quietly, no long goodbyes. Now, having evaded the commandante, I had no intention of going back to the D.R. with fishermen to repatriate. I wanted no reunion with the bully boys of the shorebound Dominican Navy.

I kept Rio close to the fishermen, developing a maneuver just for that purpose. On mainsail alone, I hove to, then wore the boat around. Never mind if that sounds like nautical mumbo jumbo, the effect was that Rio loitered in a tight figure-eight pattern. I tried to keep the fishermen between Rio and the light of the quarter moon. I didn’t want to get too far away, but I didn’t want to collide with them either. Wouldn’t that have been something?

Foreign aid

“Rio, Rio, this is Coast Guard aircraft on Channel 16.”

“Welcome back Coast Guard,” I said, and confirmed we were still with the disabled vessel.

“Have you heard anything from the Dominican Navy?”

“No word,” I said. Obviously I’d been monitoring Channel 16, and if the Marina de Guerra had sortied, there would have been plenty of evidence over the airwaves, I told the airplane. I had talked with Stoltz Hawk, however, and confirmed their ETA at shortly after 10 p.m. (At the time I had hollered “hora y media” to the amigos, telling them their rescuers would be arriving in an hour and a half.)

As the nav lights of Stoltz Hawk came into view, I radioed its captain with the position of the disabled boat in relation to our own, on the assumption that we made a better return on the ship’s radar. He was Russian, I surmised, because he pronounced his English like Ensign Checkov.

As the Hawk neared, I realized that this was no towboat, as I had assumed. It was a 350-foot freighter. The fishermen were surprised, too, and frightened. Apparently, they were still expecting a Dominican Navy patrol boat. The Anderson’s captain hailed me in a panicky voice. “There’s a freighter heading right at us! Is that the boat? Is that the boat?” he asked.

“Yes, Yes,” I said. “No te preocupe. Do not worry. They are professionals.” At that point Captain Checkov had positioned the Stoltz Hawk to windward of the disabled boat, creating a lee and letting the freighter drift slowly down alongside Anderson. Kelly asked me if they would tow the disabled Whaler to port. No way, I said, and I doubt they’d haul it aboard either. The amigos were going to lose their boat after all.

Rio resumed her course for the Bahamian island Mayaguana, although we would later divert to the Turks and Caicos because the rescue had thrown off our timing.

As we furled out the genoa, the Coast Guard came over the VHF a final time. Saying that he spoke on behalf of the aircraft’s crew of five and the entire United States Coast Guard, the young radioman thanked us so elaborately for our help in “saving three lives” that I might have blushed.

“You’re welcome, Coast Guard. Rio is standing by on 16.”

’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.