May 6 2010. Petit-Goave, Haiti
The sea has no memory.
It blew hard here last night, on the one week anniversary of our time here in Haiti. We spun twice around the anchor in the shifting gales as lightning split the skies and torrential rain washed all the salt and heat from our boat, and dawn showed the clear blue waters of Petit-Goave turned a deep murky green from the mountain and city runoff. Trash floated everywhere as streets poured their refuse into the sea, and I forbade the crew from swimming over the side until the water cleared. I didn’t know how long it would take, but the water off Petit-Goave drops off to over a thousand feet only a half mile from the port, and within two tides we watched the dirty green water sweep out to sea and be replaced with the normally deep blue open ocean water. On the second incoming tide, the water cleared and before the peak we could clearly see the coral and sponges of the reef below us. The sea showed no sign of the storms and rain of the night before, and it rolled on towards the shore as it has for thousands of years .
Thus the sea has no memory. It does not remember the earthquake, it does not remember Haitian independence, it does not remember the greed and corruption that spiraled Haiti down into depression and darkness, it does not remember all the failures and setbacks that have continually plagued Haiti. The tide rolls out, new water rolls in, and the face of the sea remains impassive to all the things that steal hope from a people.
It is amazing how much incident can be packed into each day. The week we have been here has flown by but also feels like a million years ago. Already we have seen so much, and things are not totally what I expected (in some ways things were EXACTLY what I expected). Devastation is everywhere; there is no work, no economy, everyone is hungry, there is nothing to rebuild with, everyone is living in tents…and yet somehow people still get up in the morning and go out to find work or food for their families. It is shocking to me that there are still people here who can have hope—the belief that things tomorrow might be better than today.I have seen Haitians who have literally lain down in the dirt and given up, and I cannot judge them that decision because from where they are standing there seems to be no hope at all. In the face of all we have seen, people still can have hope. From the rubble people try to build normal lives, and from high in the cracked remnants of buildings plants thrust out and reach towards the sun. Life, as Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, cannot be contained. It is a powerful force, and when barriers and challenges are put in front of it, life finds a way. The human spirit is an extraordinary thing and I feel lucky to glimpse a small snapshot of its power, and to have the opportunity to do everything we can to help foster it and encourage its survival. New challenges get thrown up in front of us at every turn—how do you get 20,000 pounds of lumber, building materials and medical supplies through the complicated customs process, off the boat onto the broken,
half sunken pile of rocks that is the Petit-Goave dock?
April 27, 2010. Petit-Goave, Haiti.
At long last, phase one of our project is complete! We have completely rebuilt our ship, found and loaded all our medical supplies, sailed our vessel over 800 miles from Florida and arrived safely in Petit-Goave, on the northern coast of Haiti’s southern peninsula.
Our last port-of-call in the US was Miami, our jump-off point for the long transit southeast to Haiti. Miami Beach Marina and Epic Marina donated dockage for us while we provisioned, continued stowing and securing our supplies and waited for a weather window to cross the Gulf Stream.
Moving from Miami Beach Marina to the Epic Hotel dock was a bit tricky. The Epic Marina is on the narrow Miami River. It had a ripping current flowing into it when we came in, and we had a strong wind blowing behind us, pushing us along the current. When they gave us the docking instructions, they told us, “You can’t miss it—the spot where you guys should dock is about 200 feet long, right between the two mega yachts; be careful because the one in front of you just had a 2 million dollar paint job!” We parallel parked without incident and spent two days provisioning and waiting for the weather to clear.
Two years after I decided to hang up my stethoscope in Ireland, leave the hospital in Dublin behind and move back to the US to organize the Floating Doctors, here we are in Lake Worth Inlet on the Southeast Coast of Florida waiting for a weather window to make the crossing the Haiti.
So many generous hands and hearts have made FD a reality. I am thinking of our friend Don Capo, who helped us save thousands and thousands of dollars, guiding our work on the hydraulics and running gear, and hull repairs, and the refurbishment of many other systems. He finished the survey of our vessel the very morning we sailed from the dock at St. Augustine Marine Center and headed to the inlet to anchor. He stepped off the boat, and he grew smaller and smaller on the dock we left behind. His kindness and generosity are part of what we will carry with us and pay forward on our mission.
On the 200 mile transit to Lake Worth inlet on Florida’s southeast coast we broke up into three watches of three crew each, 4 hours on duty twice a day, 8 hours apart. My own was the 12-4 AM/PM watch. I am usually up till 3 or 4 AM anyway–when you are working on the boat all day and leading a crew, the quiet night hours are the best time to get paperwork and admin done. I have no difficulty sleeping till 9 or 10 AM after coming off watch at 4 AM, even with the morning noises accompanying the other two watches getting up to begin their day. Some of the crew are inherently early risers–you know, those folks who wake up around 5 or 6 AM every day and have no trouble falling asleep around 10 or 11 at night…lucky devils. Some have sleep patterns more like mine, so we were able to do a pretty good job spreading people around into watches that suited their natural sleep/wake cycles.
March 26, 2010. St. Augustine, Florida.
I am just wrapping up the last watch in the pale yellow pre-dawn before our day begins; we are at anchor in St. Augustine, just inside the inlet leading to the open sea, which I can see just a few hundred yards from where we are now. We were trapped behind the Lion’s Bridge for a few days while it was closed; it is an historic bridge at the entrance to St. Augustine inlet that has just been re-opened after 4 years of restoration–a beautiful bridge but looking at the sea through the closed bridge pylons was like looking through bars in a cage. Yesterday evening, they opened the drawbridge for us, and we dropped anchor safe and sound on the ocean side of it. Very, very frustrating to be stuck for a couple of days, but of such things is life at sea made. The sea is always the same–ever changeable, and always throwing up new challenges and new opportunities. All we can do is adapt as fast as possible, and we have learned to be good at it.
Dr. Cutler, a doctor from Los Angeles, and his family (his wife is a nurse and his 16 year-old son is coming to help out as well) are scheduled to meet us in Petit-Goave, and fortunately I made sure that Dr. Cutler knew that there was always the possibility of unforseen circumstances that could keep us from making our rendevous with incoming docs, and had contingency plans in place for several different scenarios., Dr. Tania Desgrottes–an anesthesiologist in NY and niece of Hughes Desgranges, Ministre du Cabinet for Petit-Goave and director of the health center where we will be working–has arranged for them to be picked up at the airport in PAP, driven to Petit-Goave, accommodated, fed, and started in the health center until we arrive in a few days and bring them onboard.
There was much to do while we waited for the drawbridge to re-open; securing 20,000 pounds of cargo well enough so that, if the boat is upside down, it will not shift (always ‘think inverted’ when stowing gear onboard), poring over the charts, arranging long-range radio contact times and dates for the different cruising nets we will be passing through, cooking, standing watches at night, tinkering with our systems and acclimating our ship’s cat and dog to life onboard. It is mentally and physically exhausting, but also exhilarating. To see the crew working pretty much 7 days a week for 11 months in defiance of heat, high winds, cold, and rain, to see the huge pile of 10,000 lbs of supplies and material collected at our house in Jacksonville (and 8,000 lbs of lumber and 2,000 lbs of tin roofing delivered to us in the marine yard) absorbed into Southern Wind, to be living on the boat and safely at anchor just inside St. Augustine inlet after so much time and hard work rebuilding her, to be stowing gear for departure, and most of all to have all the people in Flagler, Palm Coast and St. Augustine (and across the US) give us so much of their time, encouragement, and support has been an amazing experience.
“The Breaking Of A Wave Cannot Explain The Whole Sea” –Vladimir Nobokov
Looking back over the last 2 years, I really feel for old Vladimir’s sentiment. Two years of planning and hard work have last week been realized when Southern Wind took to the air again. She was lifted off the hard ground on the travel lift a few days ago and gently lowered back into the welcoming embrace of the ocean, her hull all repaired and sound, her bottom paint and hull shining fresh, her clean propellers eager to bite into the water and once again push her out of the safety of the harbor, into the deep blue and over the horizon to far shores under different stars. A ship up on blocks in a marine yard always looks out of place somehow; stranded in a world alien to her needs and abilities like a fish dying on a dock, unable to understand why its swimming motions aren’t propelling it to safety, or like a water turtle turned on its back by some cruel tormentor and struggling futilely in the hot. I especially hate to see ships whose owners get them up into the marine yard and then neglect them or give up on them, letting them molder until they have to be sold for scrap. Ships aren’t made to die slowly on land, their repairs forgotten or given up; their purpose is not to rot away at their moorings. Taking them to sea is a risk—every single time, but every time I see a beautiful ship tied like a forgotten pet, unused year after year, or a once-proud vessel that has seen wonders none of us will ever know shoved into a far corner of a marine yard with long grass growing under its keel, I remember an old quote that I often think of when I am faced with a risk (as most decisions of consequence in our lives always involve): “A ship in port is safe…but that’s not what ships are built for.”
At last, Southern Wind is returning where she belongs, and true to her namesake she will carry us south to new places and new people who do not yet know that soon a white sail and red hull will appear over the horizon and bring a team of people who have demonstrated time and again during this long process their commitment and courage to doing whatever it takes to bring aid and help wherever it is needed.
We have just finished our first week working on the boat hauled out of the water at St. Augustine Marine Center. We came back at noon today, as the rain started coming on and you can’t sand boat hulls in pouring rain. I know I said I
had about 28 heart attacks during the move from Palm Coast up to St. Augustine, but they didn’t really settle down until the boat was safely lowered onto blocks and supports and the travelift and straps taken away.
We have a lot to do in a short time, but it looks like we will accomplish it. We have two or three repairs to the hull, prepping the bottom and putting anti-fouling paint on, painting the hull above the waterline, removing our old generator and putting in the new one Polaris Marine are giving us, cleaning and serviceing our propellers and shafts, getting our bowthruster operational, installing a through-hull transducer for our Raymarine sonar…ok, I had ANOTHER cardiac event just thinking about that list.
On Friday January 22nd, we moved Southern Wind from the dock where we have been working for months in Palm Coast, 30 miles north up the Intracoastal Waterway to St. Augustine for a haul-out and two weeks of yard work at St. Augustine Marine Center before we sail for Haiti. Haiti has always been our fist planned destination, and ever since the earthquake we have been frantically trying to finish our work on Southern Wind and set sail. The Rotary Club here has raised money for additional fuel–normally we would travel under sail as much as possible to avoid using too much fuel, but people are more important than diesel and when we depart, we will travel with all sails up and both engines pushing hard all the way to Haiti.
Our project is designed to deliver medical supplies where there are no ports, so the devastation in Haiti’s commercial ports will not deter us from going. Also, we originally planned to sail on from Haiti, but we are leaving some of our field gear here in Florida to make foom for additional supplies and volunteers. Our friend Veronica from Rotary has a bus that we can store our surplus gear in and collect when we return to Florida to drop off Volunteers and take on new arrivals before departing for Central America.
First, though, we had to get Southern Wind safely out of the canal where she has lain for ten years, over the 6-foot bar between our canal and the intracoastal, and safely up the intracoastal to the marine yard in St. Augustine for a haul out the next m0rning. Southern Wind is a BIG boat–70 tons, and this would be our first time feeling how she moves in the water. Captain Ryan Emberley, our friend from West Marine in Jacksonville, was aboard to pilot the ship safely on the maiden voyage of her rebirth after years of exposure to weather and slowly dying in her quiet canal.
We were to dock at St. Augustine Marine’s long dock on arrival, stay there the weekend, and haul Monday morning. We calculated that at 10 knots and no problems, the 30 mile run to St. Augustine could TECHNICALLY be made in 3 hours, but even though I think all of us figured there was no way things would go that smoothly, none of us anticipated the Three Hour Tour we would all experience over the next 72 hours.
Besides working so hard for so long, besides our desire to put our project into action, despite the earthquake in Haiti that has us chomping at the bit to set sail, we had one additional reason to want to move Southern Wind out of her canal–lots and lots of dead fish. A record cold snap (of course, right? While we were here in Palm Coast, we have had record floods, record cold…what’s next?) kept the temperature around or below freezing for days on end, and the canals got so cold that THOUSANDS of fish–mostly catfish, but also snook, jacks, mullet, needlefish–froze to death, and in the two slightly warmer days of preparation to move Southern Wind, all their rotting bodies floated onthe surface and the tides and wind brought ALL the canals’ dead fish down into our blind end canal.
As we near our departure, we wanted to show everyone who has supported us the faces behind Floating Doctors. This is us, interviewed and edited by NotThisBody, and posted to answer (in our own voices) a lot of the questions that we have been asked over the past many months. Thank you to everyone who made it possible for us to get to this point, and wishing you a prosperous and healthy holidays from all of us at Floating Doctors.
Ok, if you follow us on Facebook, by now you have surely seen our boat dog and boat cat. Their full names are as follows: our cat, a little grey Manx, is properly called Professor Tweek Stubbs, and our dog is a black lab-pit-mastiff mutt called Giles McCoy.
The story of our animal acquisition is gradual, but in hindsight was an inevitability. Originally, Sky and I strongly resisted the crews’ (and our own) pleas to get a boat dog. We had opted not to get any boat animals because although Southern Wind is big enough for animals not to be cramped, we were worried about quarantines and immigration. However, we talked to a lot of other cruising sailors who had little trouble—and at worst, in some places the animals might have to stay onboard—which in a 76-foot vessel with air conditioning (while we slog clinical equipment ashore in tropical heat) might be the nicer option! We had to get travel health certificates for them, like the pet passports I got for my Irish cats when I brought them back to California (thanks mom for looking after them!).
While mulling over that news, we visited the local VFW and met a veteran named Bert. Bert told us about a member of their VFW that he wished we had been able to meet—Dr. Giles McCoy. Dr. McCoy had passed away a few months before we got to Florida, and had recently told his story at the Palm Coast VFW.
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