Tramp Freighter through The Caribbean
I am sound asleep and then there is a bright light shinning in my eyes. I peer out my small port hole and it looks like the UFO from the ending scene of “Close Encounters” has landed right outside on the water. We are about forty miles from Cuba and about one hundred miles from our next island, Great Inagua. I get dressed and run up top. It is windy and the seas are running in 10-16 foot swells. Standing too close for comfort is a 682 foot cargo vessel lit up like a small city. Off the other side of our boat, about fifty yards away, is a small sailing yacht in distress.
The captain received the SOS at 9:35 P.M., within ten minutes he saw the distress flare arc high into the night sky and altered course to assist. Forty five minutes later a large cargo freighter registered in Oslo, arrives on the scene and provides a lee for the distressed yacht. The sailboat is a 37 foot sloop, tacking to steel bite pro windward enroute to Puerto Plata from Manzanillo. There are four people on board and the Captain has broken his shoulder. The chain plates have come loose from the rough seas pounding the boat. The mast is in danger of falling. They cannot raise any sails and their small engine is not strong enough to overcome the waves and wind to allow them to proceed. We are a 247 foot tramp steamer enroute from Trinidad to Freeport in the Bahamas.
I go up above the bridge on what is called Monkey Island and I have a perfect view. I can hear the radio. The captain of the sloop is freaked out. You can tell by his tone of voice he is pretty sure he will not live to see the dawn. Our captain directs him to motor alongside and we will take the injured party onboard but as he tries to approach, the ocean swells increase and cause his boat to smash into the side of ours. As his 37 foot fiberglass sailboat slides along the side of our steel hull it makes a sickening sound and then the aft stay, which is the remaining wire holding up his mast, gets caught on our forward upper cargo deck and begins to pull back like a bow being stretched to the breaking point.
Everyone is up and on deck watching. There is no moon. Total blackness. No stars. This is high drama. I turn away for a second and behind me looms the gigantic cargo ship blotting out the darkness with its city of light and below that, stretching for a city block in either direction, is the artificial blackness of its huge steel hull. Everyone holds their breath, sure that the sailboat’s back-stay will snap and pull down the mast but at the last second a wave pulls him away and the stay pops free. A sigh is felt all around, but then what is to be done? The waves are kicking his ass and then the Giant Ship radios that it cannot delay any longer. It has to be on its way. When it pulls off station the wind break which it provided is removed and we suddenly feel the full force of the wind and waves. The second mate has now put on a life jacket attached to a long rope and brave soul that he is, he is going to attempt to jump over onto the sailboat with their next attempt but the waves and wind are too strong. It is looking very bad. The Coast Guard is called, but they are 200 miles away chasing suspected drug smugglers and cannot assist. We simply cannot stand by forever. There is the distinct possibility that the mast on the sailboat will fail, the hull will open, and these four men will die tonight. How odd. One hundred people on a carefree vacation all safe and secure, watching with interested detachment as four men in a small boat fight for their very lives. Finally a solution is at hand. We will throw them a tow rope. They fall back behind us and after many attempts finally manage to grab a light line which is tied to a heavier line with which we will tow them. Everyone heaves a sigh of relief. It has been a long night. And then, when it seems over, the tow rope breaks! Just then a large wave picks up the damaged sloop and pushes the small sailboat up into our stern. The broken tow rope quickly wraps around their prop and kills their engine. Now they have no sails, no engine, a captain with a broken shoulder, high winds and ten to fifteen foot seas. You can see the sailing fantasies of many passengers evaporating in the salt spray.
But why, some of the passengers wonder aloud, does a boat registered in New York City have a Haitian crew and a Cuban captain? This is right after we all read about terrorists shooting 60 tourists in Egypt. Maybe these were terrorists. No one has actually seen the captain with the broken shoulder! And no one on their boat seems to know anything about their craft. They aren’t sure where they are and they don’t even know what a GPS (global positioning system) is! Maybe they have just stolen the boat and tossed the real captain overboard? The imagination reels with speculation as the crew tries one last time to get them a tow rope. Finally they get it! We all let out a cheer and by morning light we tow them in to Great Inagua. They even come aboard for breakfast and a shower and they are treated like honored guests. They are extremely grateful. And so it goes…