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Haitian sloops: an outlaw tradition

Haitian sloops: an outlaw tradition

A contraband search offers an up-close view

of this boat favored by traders and refugees

Few will agree that the best part of Nassau is the fleet of Haitian sailing vessels bringing cargo to and from the Bahamian capital. Haitians are the finest yet least-appreciated sailors in these islands. Their lateen-rigged sloops are a living window to the 17th century, when bloody-minded buccaneers used the superior maneuverability of this old French design — particularly in light air — to get the drop on the vulnerable sterns of the ponderous Spanish galleons.

Kelly, unfamiliar with my admiration for Haitian mariners and their vessels, was mystified when I dove for my camera to capture a fine example of a Haitian sloop sailing a broad reach past our Nassau anchorage, beneath the faux Antediluvian towers of the Atlantis resort. The sloop’s only consolation to the 21st century — not to mention Bahamian port authorities — was the outboard pushboat trailing behind.

She was less surprised a few weeks later at Staniel Cay, when we spied a Bahamian patrol boat towing a Haitian sloop to the government dock on her hip. I grabbed the camera, jumped in the dinghy and headed for the pier.

With only the captain remaining aboard, Bahamian authorities were towing the 45-foot sloop for a contraband search. The vessel’s three-man crew was being interrogated separately at the OPBAT base on Great Exuma. OPBAT is the anti-drug trafficking initiative by U.S. Army aviation, Coast Guard and elite members of the Bahamian police.

Their search came up empty, and the police said that this was one of the “cleanest” Haitian boats they had ever boarded. Still, searchers all wore rubber gloves and facemasks while down below. I sidled over to get a word with the sloop’s skipper, who sat through the entire process with the ingrained patience of the powerless.

“Are you going to cut this guy loose?” I asked the Bahamian inspector who replied yes, eventually. The sloop’s crew would be airlifted from Great Exuma. I took this as a signal that I could interview their captive.

Coughing, he said his name was Albert Pierre, and he was 41. His English was good from having spent so many years plying Bahamian waters. His cough came from extended exposure to one of his frequent northbound cargoes: charcoal. Haiti’s poverty is a vicious circle in which charcoal plays a leading role. The hillsides are deforested to render charcoal, soil erodes, and in the absence of fertile soil for crops, desperate people cut whatever trees remain for more charcoal. On deck, the sloop also carried sacks of ginger root, whose health benefits “Capitan” Pierre had explained to his captors. The ship’s skiff was filed with a dozen or so tinker-made charcoal stoves. No cocaine.

For 300 years engineless Haitian boats have followed the same trade route to Nassau. They clear customs at Great Inagua on the Bahamas’ southern frontier then navigate up the shallow banks west of the Exuma chain. Few cruisers brave the southernmost reaches of this old trade route, fearing the shallow sands, despite the aid of sonar and satellite technology. I asked Pierre if he had GPS. “No. GPS would be better, but too expensive,” he said, reaching into a deck locker. He showed me a wet compass in a rough box. “Do you carry charts?” I asked. “No, just this,” he said, holding his compass.

Pierre said his return cargoes to Haiti often are loads of clothing discarded by Bahamians. On other Haitian boats, the homebound cargoes are items scavenged from Nassau’s dump — plastic water jugs, old mattresses, bits of hardware and scrap metal.

At this point, I asked the skipper if I could come aboard and check below decks. Within moments of boarding, the gendarmes on the dock politely ordered me off the boat until it was released from custody. I never got a second chance, but I’ve looked into other Haitian vessels that have been seized or abandoned. In general, they are heavily built, with the hull planks more than an inch thick and frames varying, some 6 by 6 inches, others 1 by 6 inches. As I recall, the fastenings were clinched nails. The spars are not straight, having been hewn from palm trees. Standing rigging is heavy steel cable and running rigging appeared to be 3/4-inch nylon. Ballast is moveable: stones or coral.

Like the old wooden “Novies” of Nova Scotia, Haitian workboats have a lifespan dictated by the materials used. They earn their keep, wear out and are then replaced. If you consider their historic role in Caribbean piracy, their 350 years of island trade — if you consider that all the thousands of Haitian migrants in the Bahamas arrive in sloops, and that since the 1970s, tens of thousands of Haitians have found better lives in the United States thanks to the efficacy of these vessels, the Haitian sloop has proved itself one of the most successful sailing vessels in history.

The Coast Guard has a world of familiarity with the Haitian boats because of their interdiction role — a heartbreaking task if ever there was one. They have frequently stopped 45-foot sloops en route to Florida with more than 300 people crowded aboard. The people are sent back to squalor and starvation; the sloops are deemed hazards to navigation and sunk by gunfire.

The Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale once had reporters trace one of these interdicted vessels back to its port of origin, a small seaside village on the north coast of Haiti. The entire village pitched in to finance and build the sloop and hire the crew. Each family picked a member to make the perilous journey with the understanding that the chosen would send back hard-earned dollars, earned in the restaurant kitchens and tomato fields of South Florida. The village mayor complained to the reporters that returning would-be migrants had crushed the village’s hopes for a better life, and that people would die as a result. Why were Haitians treated differently than Cubans?

Back on Staniel, Pierre and his men were allowed to continue their voyage, but that didn’t mean the agents of OPBAT believed in their innocence. Their attention had been drawn to the sloop because they had intercepted the captain’s cell phone conversation with a nearby “go fast,” the drug smuggling vessel of choice in southern waters. The Bahamian Defense Force caught the Haitian, and after a high-speed chase also captured the go-fast. A search of the go-fast showed it to be as drug-free as the sloop.

One agent concluded OPBAT had been had — that the sloop had very little cargo of any kind aboard, and the go-fast had surely been a diversion. Why would two such dissimilar boats be talking? The cell phone conversation must have been bait. As OPBAT’s helicopters and patrol boats focused on those two, a cocaine shipment had apparently slipped by quietly.

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, grew up on Cape Cod never wearing shoes in summer until he shipped off to college. 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.