It became clear it was time to put the camera down.
Tacking up the lee shore of Bequia late morning February 7, 2014 we had one reef in the main and our staysail set as we made our way to the north end of the island. We were to sail to Mustique and arrive by early afternoon.
A calm morning lent to a steady breeze as the heat of the day set in. Wind began to build, drawing wave height, and in time gusts of wind and current built a steep head sea around the point of land we were heading to pass. Sailing the Caribbean Sea between islands can lend to rough passages more often than not. Our ninety-foot ketch is perfect for it. I could never dream of a better sea boat than her rugged teak planking, deep full keel, tonnage, and easy sail plan. Her name is Sincerity. She was launched in Varazze, Italy in 1928. She spends her winters in the West Indies.
It was to be a short day of sailing for Sincerity. The tacking up this coast is exquisite. Very steep cliffs drop into the sea so we can sail relatively close to the shore and then back out again to make way to the north. By doing this we avoid the current in the pass of water between St Vincent and Bequia. On this morning we saw hundreds of sea birds diving near the surface of the churning water. So many sea birds, there must have been a whale feeding. Our eyes were to the water as we prepared for our final tack to clear the north coast.
There was a red shirt standing several feet off the water and then there was nothing. We rose and fell with a wave period and then he rose in his. As we saw a man seemingly standing on water, I imagine he saw the sails of our white ketch. His arms rose high above his head. He was close to the north shore of Bequia, within the reefs, and his boat was sinking.
What was to follow is something that I will never forget. I am home now, sitting in my Munjoy Hill apartment where the walls are not moving and everything that is inside is dry and not lashed down. I want to write about this because the crew I sailed with that day did something that was exemplary, and this is a story worth being told. Two Canouan fishermen returned home to their families. This is the story of us:
The fisherman had started their day early from Canouan and were enroute to the island of St Vincent. It is unclear how long they had been set adrift in their bright blue plywood speedboat. They were without lifejackets, without flares, without radio. Their engine had been almost completely submerged and they were sinking and drifting upon the northern point of Bequia.
Every long sturdy line aboard Sincerity was utilized in the effort to save these men. Hundreds and hundreds of feet of line were hauled out of Sincerity's lazarette. Buoyed at the end with fenders and large bright insulated life vests, we struck the staysail and tucked another reef in the main, and made our first attempt to swing the lifeline within reach of the fishermen.
Our first attempt failed. We were moving too quickly. On our second attempt around, this time a couple of knots slower and that much closer, the man in blue dove into the water and grabbed a hold of our tow. We hand hauled him in. The wave height was increasing, Sincerity rolling, dipping her rails, as we came beam to the sea with each pass. The red shirt was standing atop his half sunk hull steadfast in his desire not to leave his boat.
It will be a long time before I forget the look in the man in red's eyes. It was a look of complete hatred and complete fear. Our fisherman in red was not going to give up his vessel. And so, after many roundings and attempts to reason verbally, his trust grew and he too dove toward our line and we hauled him aboard. The decision was made to attempt fully to tow their vessel in, or standby until a smaller vessel or coast guard could come to assist. This boat was everything to these men. It was clear they were not going to easily replace it if it was lost.
We were able to tow the fishing boat away from the shore and into the clear and deep body of water between St Vincent and Bequia before the tow point parted. Our attempts to tow the boat were unsuccessful, the boat breaking to pieces under the mass of water that filled it. Clear of the reef it was decided that one man would return to the sinking boat with a large bailing bucket. Sincerity stood by, tacking and gybing, rounding the small vessel with one fisherman fighting to keep her afloat.
The St Vincent ferry heard our distress call on the radio and diverted its course in our direction. Within the hour another small fishing vessel came to assist. There appears to be no active coast guard in St Vincent. We left our men safe with the smaller vessel, giving them lifejackets, and the St Vincent ferry continued to standby as we headed back to Port Elizabeth for the night.
We are not sure what came of the fishing vessel we tried to save. It’s men lived beyond that day. On the waters of the Lesser Antilles, between St Vincent and Bequia.
Sitting below in the main salon, guests and crew, we sat together for dinner that night in the safe harbor of Port Elizabeth. We all agreed we were glad we were there to see them. It's a big ocean out there and when you work on it you realize just how large it is. That is in part why I love to sail. It humbles me and makes me better understand my place in this world. It gives me perspective and reminds me to not take for granted the simplicity of a dry, safe bed. I wish to think the favor would be returned if it ever need be. Being in the presence of someone who thought they were going to die is humbling. To be there to help that person is more reward as a human than I ever could have imagined. Mostly, that is why I write this. And to thank the crew I sailed with that day. February 7 brought a lot of luck to this speck of ocean so far south from here.