“Set good little perfect things around you, you Higher Men! Things whose golden ripeness heals the heart. Perfect things teach hope.”- Nietzsche
Yesterday was a good day. This day was spent sitting tucked away, un-showered and in dirty clothes from a lack of water on the boat, in the managers’ apartments of the Royal Caribbean Cruise ship’s dock in Labadee with a mountain of laundry to do, my Blackberry to email with, and my IPOD to distract my mind.
For the first time in many months the only noises around me were the gentle hum of the dryer and the agitation of a washing machine- the beauty of silence after the constant din of life aboard the boat. As the sights of what we have seen while here rattled around my mind and my hands were busy clicking away on my phone readying us for Panama heads started to pop into the laundry room to see what this girl and her dog were doing here with piles of dirty clothes.
The hours wore on, familiarity deepened, and the smiles I received turned into, “is there anything that you need?”
Bottled sparkling water appeared with a smile from their very busy site manager Dave. Philip sat with me in the hot room for an hour, filling me in on the time he'd spent in Panama. Conversations were interrupted with their daily to do’s, but still I was never alone for long.
The evening brought me a chilled bottle of Chardonnay with wine glasses delicately laid out on a dirty hot water heater from their chief engineer Nicola—it is curious what finds its way to you in this world. I am coming from a life where white linen end tables dressed in polished glasses and spotless silverware never crossed my mind as anything special, and yet here in a quiet cove on Haiti’s desolate North Coast a dusty water heater adorned with glassware and an open wine bottle was beautiful.
As the night deepened, Noah and Ben joined me and soon after Peter, the assistant site manager, who sat with us for hours as we spoke of Haiti, destruction, rebirth, and everything in between. From across a small bay it was as if two worlds collided, one of the bounty of a cruise ship and the other the scantiness of a new non-profit, yet, as I have found often with this project, no walls were present. In the end it was just people from all over the world coming together for a laugh, a glass of wine, bits of the philosophy of life and a shared belief that what we are doing here matters. For me it was one of those jewel covered days that I will tuck away into the treasure chest of my mind… a day where people took the time to stop and exchange a piece of themselves with a seemingly latch key girl and her dog.
Today, almost one year to the day that we left the shores of Miami headed to Haiti for the first time, I am in awe- not of what we have been able to accomplish but rather for the countless times that people have stopped and given of themselves to us.
For the people who have nothing material to give but who see the beauty and value of what Noah calls the ‘economy of the heart’- the exchange that lays not within the confines of a dollar but in the splendor of one’s self.
For the Haitian brothers that took eight of us and our equipment eleven miles up the coast to a remote village to treat the children at a desolate school for nothing but the gas to fill their engine.
For Dan at Direct Relief International whose faith in us and our project is never ending, whose kindness and support is felt in every email I open, and whose encouragement gets me through even the most challenging parts of the shipping processes.
For a nameless sailor that showed up at our boat one night with a gallon container filled with vodka/redbull and enough money to buy the much needed fire extinguishers for the boat—he stayed only long enough to hand over his wares and tell us that what we are doing is inspiring to him and his crew.
For Dennis and Jeanette, who looked at Ben and his dream and said yes. With no money to give, they gave what they had poured 27 years of love into, what they had built much with their own hands, what they had hoped to sail on once again, what so much of their dreams were wrapped into- The Southern Wind. They took their own dream and handed it willingly over to a new one.
And, especially, for those young kids around the Caribbean who still laugh and smile despite the pain and beatings that come their way, who will sit in a hot kitchen with me and care about my cooking lessons, who will clean our decks every day for no payment other than hot food and our company, who will laugh and dance and on rare occasions get us to do the same.
For all of these I am enriched and grateful.
The past year has changed me- it has tweaked and pulled on my soul and opened my eyes to the beauty and the pain of this world. The rawness of desperation and the splendor of kindness has uprooted the me of my past, forcing a growth that I am deeply grateful for.
I have been shown a kindness that only the exchange of love can bring. I have shared painful moments, the joys of mothers seeing the babies that grow within them, the desperation of parents with sick children, and the intimate moments that can only be brought by a crew on a boat deeply alone on a vast ocean.
I am changed. I am often scared, lonely, and overwhelmed, but I am grateful, and I am humbled to lead this beautiful life of service.
To all of those who have shared our dream with us, who have worked hard to make it happen, who have believed in us even when we barely did ourselves, thank you. Everyone, from volunteer to fellow sailor, who has given us your time,support or kind words, you share a piece of this project, and for that I am forever grateful and feel an enormous sense of responsibility to pay your kindness forward.
In the end it has been a million small acts of kindness, dedication, and love that has brought us through to serve so many.
And to Dolores- whom I have thought about on so many moments when I felt like it would be impossible to move forward- who mailed a $10 dollar check and hand written note that read- "I wish it could be more, but I pray that it adds a little wind to your sails" It did. Your note is kept tucked away in my cabin, brought out every so often to remind me that from all over the world, with no expectation of returns, people have stopped and given of themselves to a brother and sister team, an old boat, and a dream to stand up and make a difference.
Sent from my BlackBerry® device from Digicel
Cap Haitian, Labadee, Shadda, Milot, Coco (east of Bayeux)
Today is the 1 year anniversary of when we first set sail from Florida to Petit-Goave. Returning to Petit-Goave after a year and seeing our old friends and patients (and meeting new ones) was an incredible experience, but after a week working in Petit-Goave we weighed anchor and headed north to Cap Haitian. After the Windward Passage, it was great to ride across the smooth glass of the Bay of Haiti, but as we approached Cap-du-Mol on the western tip of Haiti’s northern peninsula we entered the edge of the Windward Passage and had a few rough miles before turning east along Haiti’s north coast, arriving shortly after daylight and pulling onto the commercial docks in the port of Cap Haitian.
We were met by Hannah from the Cap Haitian Health Network, and after several days of
paperwork and meetings we unloaded our medical cargo onto the docks, onto a truck and got it into the CHHN warehouse, where it will be available for distribution to the clinics that are members of the network. While we were waiting to unload at the dock so we could move to our mobile locations, we took the opportunity to visit a couple of other health centers, meet the minister of health for the north, do a mobile clinic in Shadda—Cap Haitian’s worst slum—and see a steady stream of patients at the dock the entire time we were there.
It took us almost 4 days to get our material cleared in, which gave us time to visit Milot hospital, the primary center for major or specialist surgery (staffed year round by local and visiting teams) and get a schedule for the next few months of that doctors and specialist teams will be visiting there; that way when I am further afield I can write referral letters and give the dates and doctor’s names to patients I encounter who need specialist care. Above Milot is the Citadel…the largest and most impressive castle I have ever seen, perched on a mountaintop above Cap Haitian. Built after independence, it was made to hold 12,000 troops and be able to fight a devastating guerrilla war from the mountains should Cap Haitian have been re-taken by the French. I liked the raincatchers built into all the roofs, but mostly I was shocked by the size and scale of it. “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings…Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair…” The castle was never really used or completed but it has been well preserved as a UNESCO site and SHOULD be a huge tourist draw for anyone visiting Haiti…just plan to bring $10 for a horse if you don’t want to walk all the way up (3,000 feet in 3 miles…I made it but I wanted to have a coronary at the top).
Cap Haitian was not too badly damaged in the earthquake and is quite prosperous in
comparison to other places I’ve been in Haiti, but Shadda, its central slum, was awful. We saw a ton of scabies, which always tells me an area is really poor, and some half-done operations (like a colostomy that has not been reversed though it was supposed to be). A toxic river draining sewage, agricultural and industrial runoff and storm drains from all of Cap Haitian flows between two dykes made of garbage, medical waste and sewage…Donna was saddened to see three children: one standing in a huge pile of garbage, another simultaneously defecating on the pile, and another simultaneously picking a can out of the pile and checking it for scraps of food. The general health of the population in Shadda reflects the surroundings.
By contrast Labaddee, where we moved and dropped anchor to work from this protected fjord, is one of the more prosperous-looking little villes I’ve seen in Haiti—pretty much 100% because of the jobs and income that come with Royal Carribbean Cruise Line’s destination here. RCCL run a school, help support the small clinic in Labaddee, and have extended themselves to us by providing fuel at cost and allowing us to get water from their dock (thank you Peter and Dave!! Lifesavers!!) and do laundry (16 continuous hours of laundry when we first went over there). I
It is important to remember that Labaddee’s prosperity is relative to places likes Shadda,
so we still saw loads of bad injuries, poorly healed wounds, a LOT of major operations with little or no follow up (we asked Hannah from CHHN to come do a day of physiotherapy and she is planning to try and come regularly), and some unusual cases also—I treated a little boy with a knee wound all septic with ripped apart stitches (almost all healed now), we ultrasounded nearly every pregnant woman in the village of 6,000, and after only two days people started coming out to the boat, night or day, for emergency care.
You never know what will arrive paddling up in a canoe at 10:00 at night—a guy came by
the other night and I saw the blood-soaked rag wrapped around his left hand. We pulled him aboard and unwrapped the hand to find he had been bitten by an 8 foot hammerhead shark (HE says 8 feet…but I’m a fisherman too, so I say read ‘5-6 foot;’plus 5-6 feet is about right for the bite radius). We patched it up and he has come every day for dressing changes. I understand he was offshore, tried to pull the hammerhead into his small boat, and it got the best of him before it escaped. Two worlds collide…Shark one, fisherman zero (for a change).
Speaking of worlds colliding, I am fortunate here to have met one of my childhood heroes, Jean-Claude (one of Jacques Cousteau’s original divers), who has built and run the Cormier Plage hotel near Labadie for the last 23 years. He is 79 years old, dives every single day, swims a couple of miles in the ocean every couple of days, and showed me the artifacts he has collected off wrecks he has discovered over 23 years of diving this dangerous lee shore (I nearly keeled over in shock at the collection of priceless artifacts he has recovered for a museum display when it is complete).
I think that so far one of my favorite days here in the North so far has been setting off
from our ship on an 11 mile trip in a leaky handmade wooden boat with no floor or seats, run by one of our new friends here, through a treacherous series of shallow reefs (on a lee shore, too…bet there’s lots of ships’ bones down there), landing not far from columbus’s landing in the new world. I’ll always have a memory of Sky sitting on the bow trying to keep her back from being destroyed, scanning the mile-long, desolate beach for our contact and a safe passage through the surf. We located our contact and another boat rowed out through the surf, we transferred our gear and under oars we backed through the surf.
Donna’s shorts were soaked in the landing and she abandoned them, so partially clothed
we put our gear on our backs and heads and followed our guide off the beach into the trees, stopping at a small school in a village supported by Dr. Anne, an HIV specialist who helped make this mission possible. We did health checks on all the kids in the school, treating a LOT of scabies and skin fungus, respiratory tract infections, some severe malnutrition from parasite infestation, anemia, and a pre-teen patient who told us they ‘had dirty blood’ from birth. This patient travels 2 days once a month to visit a doctor providing their meds. And, as per our SOP, we gave vitamins and albendazole (for worms) to every kid (and quite a few adults, too).
I love the mobile clinics…each one is its own adventure, at the end of it I have a wealth of valuable firsthand information about the location, and I’ve never done one that did not have at least one patient that I was very, very glad to have come to see.
And to be honest, it also felt good to ply the same waters as Columbus for a short time. I
hope the legacy we leave behind has a kinder footprint than his, but I loved rowing through the surf to land in a new place, with mystery and unknown patients waiting somewhere beyond the tree line in the Haiti’s own heart of darkness. Humans aren’t meant to look at cubicle walls…we are hardwired with the desire to stand on new worlds and look to the next. All of us have the explorer soul written into our DNA, and the expression of this most uniquely human characteristic is always a beautiful thing—I think it is when we are being the most true to who we are as human beings.
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Petit-Goave, Haiti–Almost a Year To The Day We First Arrived Here In 2010
This is the overdue final chapter of our voyage from Honduras to Haiti, bringing supplies for the cholera relief and personnel for a string of clinics and villages along the north coast.
After our repairs in Kingston were complete, all that remained was to chomp on the bit while only 40 miles away on the north side of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains a series of storms swept down the Windward Passage and collided with a SE swell across our path. At the first day when the swells and wind subsided, we left Kingston at first light and made all speed for the Windward Passage. Once we got out of the shadow of Jamaica, we encountered the most disorganized sea I’ve ever seen—in the space of five minutes we would encounter NE, SE, W, and N swell…thank god the wind had died or it would have been a horrible bathtub; as it was it was merely uncomfortable until we ghosted into the protection of the Bay of Haiti and at last dropped anchor in Petit-Goave, the first place we ever went for a mission…almost a year to the day that we first arrived in Haiti.
An hour after we dropped anchor, in the dead of night, our first friend from Petit-Goave,
Aniel, came out in a canoe…the next day, we saw dozens of people we knew; we went back to the DesGranges clinic and saw Meomene and ‘Cheeks’ and the kids who were there when we left. The two schools we built are now surrounded by larger concrete structures in mid construction; a larger future school sponsored by Korea, I think…but when we walked up to our little schools, each one was packed with kids and classes were in session as they have been since we built them. That was a great feeling…the pharmacy we cleaned and reorganized, and the day patient treatment room and the minor ops room were all organized and cleaned as when we left, and more rebuilding and expansion was still going on. We left a box of supplies for Dr. Cutler, an MD from L.A. who we arranged to go out ahead of us last year and who is returning to Petit-Goave to volunteer again this year—I think he actually arrived yesterday, as a matter of fact.
It was so different arriving here this time…amazingly, most of the rubble had been cleared, and most of the tents crowding every street were nowhere in sight. Some houses had been rebuilt (in concrete block without much rebar and suspect cement), but we saw hundreds of wood frame and tin roof one-room structures, on new poured concrete foundations from (apparently) a Swiss-led European consortium. More commerce was happening, some small businesses had reopened, and the central park was clear of tents and refugees.
I admit, when we left Petit-Goave after witnessing both the massive problems the
Haitians wake up to every morning and the effects of much of the relief efforts after the earthquake, I was not expecting the level of improvement that we saw. My journey to Port-Au-Prince to drop a volunteer off at the airport, however, was much more depressing…a city imploding on itself, with little visible progress over the past year of funds and relief being poured into it. Petit-Goave’s determination to pull itself out of its downward spiral it gave me a renewed hope for Haiti, a hope that I could see in the faces of all of our friends and the new people we saw.
The best moments for me came during the mobile clinics we ran, on the beach at Fort Liberte and in the ruins of an old French fort back from the coast a mile or so. I saw babies that I had ultrasounded 8 months ago and were born while we were away, patients showed me their thin scars where large machete wounds used to be…when I pulled onto the beach in the first load (two trips in the skiff from the boat to our clinic), the kids in the village saw us coming and ran down the beach yelling ‘Sky?! Rachel?!’ and we were surrounded by everyone we knew and treated in the mobile clinics last year. We wormed everyone again, handed out thousands of vitamins, and saw the usual litany of problems great and small—but we saw one patient in our first mobile clinic–less than 18 hors after we arrived–that made the whole 38 days of struggle and travel to get to Haiti worthwhile.
In the little enclave of cactus on the shore west of Petit-Goave, sitting in the same spot
that we did our very first ever mobile clinic as Floating Doctors, we saw a 6-day old baby with an eye infection from Chlamydia or gonorrhea (or both) acquired during birth. This is a very serious, time sensitive problem–a few more days untreated and scarring develops, blinding the child forever (and cross infection and blinding in the originally uninfected eye are very common). We treated the mom and dad and used several days of rigorous cleaning and washing, and antibiotic eye ointment, and the greatest moment of our return for me was watching the pus-filled swollen eye lose its swelling and turn clear—just a few more days and the baby would probably have been blind forever.
It’s not about saving the day, or being a hero…it’s about timing. It’s about being there, and being available as a resource to people who have no other options. A single patient treated at just the right place and just the right time to prevent a lifetime’s worth of suffering for a baby already born into a hard existence. If we had not been delayed by bad weather and bad fuel on the way from Honduras to Haiti, we would have arrived and departed Petit-Goave for Cap Haitian weeks before the baby was born…and when we finished working around Cap Haitian and returned to Petit-Goave, we would have found a blind 1 month old baby.
Life tends to unfold on schedule…not always the schedule I want, and most of the time I never get to know why things happen just the way they do. But sometimes we get a glimpse of a purpose…sometimes what we endure in life makes sense after the fact, and every moment of struggle and frustration and discomfort and fear during the voyage here suddenly became a price I would pay a hundred times over if it meant being able to be there at that exact moment with everything necessary so that baby will get the chance to grow up with both its eyes working.
Dr. Holly saw the baby and when I wandered over to investigate and the problem became
clear, I though “Ahhhhh….so THAT was why we had to go through that crossing.” If we saw not a single other patient there are people who would say the journey was wasted…the old numbers game; people always want to know how many patients seen (over 5,000 so far), how many vitamins (over a million given away so far), etc…and those numbers are important in making sure the investment of resources is not ‘wasted’…but when I get a patient like that baby, the numbers become meaningless and that one patient becomes, for a moment, your whole reason for existing at all.
To that baby and her parents and to me, it seemed pretty worthwhile that we were there and equipped to help…and we see hundreds of people like this, whose paths cross ours at crucial moments when only a small intervention is necessary to change a life forever.
And with each such patient, our lives are also changed forever and a memory is created that I know I will playback to myself many years from now when my adventuring days have ended and smile and wonder how that little intervention in time played out on the world’s stage ove the years. I’ll likely never know–the years-later effects of what we do aren’t ultimately up to me, but I’ll always remember that we were able to help give people a chance at better lives and futures, and no one will ever be able to take that away from us.
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The night was moonless and the oceans were violent—that last stretch of ocean fighting our arrival not wanting to give up the shores of this place that holds so much of my love and fears. I slept a restless, perturbed sleep. This was day 35 for us, for my heart to wait, for the boat to traverse and I wasn’t sure if dawn would really come, and I would see the sun rise once again over the shores of this tree stripped island. Yet as light infiltrated the darkness, there she was…. Haiti. A word that has aroused such emotions in me since we pulled away 11 months ago- joy, sadness, longing, fear, and wonder- was suddenly a tangible solid landmass in front of me.
No more dreaming, no more voices from across the sea jolting me awake, like a lover whose spell you will never break. Haiti has haunted me. I had dreamt of this moment so many times, wondering if it would ever happen even while on our way. And yet, there I was—alone on the bow with the sun and an island knocked down by the earth and by man. The flat blue seas lying ahead of me were bringing me closer and closer to those that I have missed, dreamt of, and longed for. With a gleaming sun overhead and a glass sea beyond, we made our way down Haiti’s Southern Tip.
Eight o’clock brought us creeping into the darkened bay of Petit Goave- poking our bow into waters as familiar as the streets of my childhood. As we laid our anchor down, Ben, Noah, and I strained to identify which lights were what on shore—the UN Dock, the bright lights of the welding shop across from our corner store, the neighborhood of bigger houses where all of the big NGO groups live, our mental landscapes melding with the physical. We had to wait until day light to break to make our way to shore and clear in, but I couldn’t sleep. I found myself once again perched in the captains chair watching the lights over the bay, smelling the slightly sweaty odors and smoky food smells wafting to the boat, listening to the fisherman sing their way through the darkness to the deep water fish traps. I was enveloped in the warmth of knowing that only 200 yards from me were Bichara, Evenson, Meyomen, and my little man Cheeks.
The morning was a fury of Ben and me readying our paper work and records, getting the skiff back into the water after the transit, and preparing our new crew for what they should expect. The first group going in though was Ben, Noah, and I. It felt like the skiff couldn’t move fast enough. Immigration was a breeze, and then we were through the gates of the UN dock and back on the streets, our streets, of Petit Goave. We were shocked at how much work had been done- the streets were cleared of rubble, no tents were left, and a lot of building had happened. What had been blocks that were nothing but tents were now hundreds of one bedroom plywood homes. It was amazing. The town square had been cleared of tents and shanty homes and was clean and full of students and people sitting under the shading trees. We worked our way past the market (not a Ralphs but wonderfully familiar) and up towards Madame Feave and her bakery. 11 months after I was last there everyone recognized us—the workers in the back greeted me with a “hi, Sky’, like I had seen them the day before. Not overly emotional by any means but brought a lump to my throat.
Next we jumped onto motor Taxi’s and whipped across town to the clinic—I was so nervous. I prayed Cheeks would still be there—I had heard from almost everyone in Petit Goave since we left and knew that all of them were ok, but nothing about him. The pink pants orphan that stole my heart on my first day. Above all, it is him that wanders around my dreams. We pulled up to the clinic gates and to the huge smile from the woman who runs the small food stand in the front. We were bombarded with hugs from her and the clinic staff. Ben whisked right into the clinic checking on the supply rooms to take an inventory of what they needed and to say hello to the rest of the staff. I on the other hand made my way to the school. Cheeks’ sister spotted me first—the girl in the ripped turquoise dress—this time in a school uniform. She yelled my name and made a break for me—followed then by all 30 or so kids that I had spent so many hours with. I was surrounded, waist high, with little hands and Como Yas (how are you in Creole) but no Cheeks. After a lot of hugs I asked here Golobo was—Cheek’s nickname at the clinic—everyone pointed down the path and to the tree that he and I had played peek-a-boo around so many times. With 10 kids in tow I made my way down the dirt path. And then, just like that, there he was—he turned and saw me, stopped, and then ran into my arms. If he only knew what this moment meant to me, if only I could explain to this 4 year old little boy that for 11 months and from hundreds of miles of open ocean I had longed for this exact second, that my mind would be quieted, that it was like hugging a piece of my own heart that I left here willingly. He scrunched his nose at me and I scrunched mine back. He put his head on my shoulder and all of those fears quieted. Here he was – still orphaned, still dirty, but here alive.
Part 3 of Our Transit: Cayman to Jamaica
We departed Grand Cayman on a beautiful sunny morning, anxiously clearing past
the eastern end of the island and waiting to see if an unexpected northeast swell would devastate us, but all seemed tranquil with gentle 1-2 foot seas and clear skies. With the calm water, our fuel (having already been filtered through 10 of our filter cartridges) wasn’t sloshing badly, and our port engine was running smoothly. When it did require a filter change it was comfortable to drift forward for ten minutes while we changed filters.
The next day, as we bore further south, we started to take the wind just forward of
the beam. We shook out the sails, gaining another 2.5 knots to the port engine, but as we came within sight of the western tip of Jamaica, waves wrapping around the north AND south of Jamaica were building and converging on our position at 45-90 degrees to each other, and building fast. As night fell, we were well east along Jamaica but still 50 miles offshore, having worn south to use the wind longer. We turned east and pulled the sails down, securing the ship in anticipation of yet another nasty sea coming…and we were not disappointed.
The seas came round close to the starboard beam, and the period shortened as we drove dead into the wind. Fuel started sloshing, and we soon found ourselves dead in the water as the port engine sucked up the sludge that was our fuel. Frantic filter changes continued, with increased urgency each time as we bore closer to the lee shore. We downloaded a weather report through our satphone (tough to hold the antennae southwest in that sea state) and realized that, once again, unexpected bad weather (11-12 foot seas and 35 mph winds) were coming to the windward passage, and we knew that we would be very, very lucky to make it around Jamaica’a eastern tip and pull into Port Antonio on the north side.
As day broke, Sky and I made the decision to divert to Kingston, which we might be able to reach before dark.
As we approached, we were not able to raise any of the Jamaican officials. It was a public holiday. We raised a local boater on VHF who connected us with a retired Evinrude dealer, who lived up the mountains and monitored all marine radio traffic. We rendezvoused with the first boater at a small cay off Kingston. He lent me a chart and pointed out the unmarked location of the
customs area, a small unmarked anchorage, and the Royal Jamaican Yacht Club anchorage, also unmarked and uncharted. Then, our new friend Tony Tame up on the mountain contacted the customs, immigration, health, and port officials, and we made our final, hair raising approach past Wreck Reef’s dangerous lee shore into Kingston’s main channel and the protection of its harbor…what a relief.
Within 2 hours we were cleared in and allowed to proceed to the yacht club, where we dropped anchor and collapsed asleep. We then spent 24 hours on reconnaissance; getting a Jamaican sim card and number for the blackberry, finding and calling stores that might carry the parts we needed, finding and arranging transport into town to search for what we need at stores we had already
contacted. The kind master mechanic and master engineer from the neighboring Carribbean Maritime Training Institute drove us all over town and helped us figure out where to find what we needed. Within 72 hours, we had obtained and installed all the parts that we needed to repair our engine systems (and incidentally, our alternator) and had polished the 400 gallons of diesel in our tanks…opening each of the three tanks’ access hatches, pumping out and filtering all the fuel, scrubbing and vacuuming the sludge from the bottom and then re-sealing the tanks. We finished at midnight, took on fuel the next day and then were invited by the yacht club to wait for weather at their dock.
What a relief! Tied to the dock, everything is easier, and anchor watches don’t need to be set. It will be hard enough in Haiti; it is great that everyone might get a chance to rest now. The weather is driving us crazy…there is a huge high pressure system over the east, sending howling winds down the Windward Passage, and a SE swell meeting it…it is nasty there, and we are heavily loaded with IV fluids.
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Note: This is Part 2 of the story of our voyage from Honduras to Haiti
First, I will say that the first 48 hours of this crossing from Guanaja to Jamaica will remain with me forever as two of the greatest days I have ever spent on the water…so good that even at the end of the second day, we said to each other that we would surely pay dearly for the day we had. And pay we did…I wish we had pictures of the madness that ensued when things turned from paradise to misery, but by then we were working too hard to remedy our situation, and too sick, to pick up a camera.
Those first 2 days, however, we cruised at 7 knots over a glassy Caribbean sea, with clouds reflected in it, catching fish after fish—dorado, tuna, wahoo, longbill spearfish, blue marlin at sunset, barracuda, grouper (when we passed over the reefs of Swan Island on the morning of the second day) and Jacks. One of the most epic and beautiful days on the water ever—but it meant that when I was off-watch (I had the con from 12-4 AM/PM), dawn was just coming so two full days of catching fish almost hourly kept me awake all day, catching only an hour or two in the evening after dinner.
On the morning of the 3rd day, I went to bed around 4:30 AM after my watch, but since my bunk is in the forepeak I feel the seas pretty badly when we are pitching, and I woke to hell…a wild sea, and a cross sea with the wind out of the northeast and the swell from the southeast. We strapped everything down and bore down dead ahead, climbing up the faces of the swells and coming down hard; Southern Wind handles seas on the bow pretty well, but this Caribbean sea is like a bathtub! Every sailor I’ve talked to says it is choppy, unpredictable, subject to sudden changes in weather, and watching the 3rd day of this supposed 7-day weather window dawn to whitecaps and a short cross-swell makes me long for the long rolling groundswell of the Pacific.
Our journey probably would have been merely miserable but uneventful, but 60 miles south of Grand Cayman
and only a day and a half from Jamaica, bad fuel we took on in Honduras (the worst I have ever seen…might as well have put gutter water in our tanks) started sloshing in our tanks and our fuel filters soon became clogged…Ed and Larson spent hour after hour in the engine room shutting down one engine at a time, changing filter cartridges (good thing we stocked up in Roatan with enough to last—we thought—6 months), until one of the canister cartridges grew so hot the metal fatigued and broke, disabling the starboard engine (to run it unfiltered, as we then rigged it in case of emergency, would have seized all our injectors and the engine would have been much more damaged).
When the port engine fuel filter clogged again, as we struggled to change it in the heaving engine room and reprime the fuel system, we turned beam onto the seas and started to roll. I threw lawn chairs tied to heavy lines off our bow to act as a sea anchor and hold our bow to the weather, and Noah, Dr. Holly and Randy worked to bring the sails up as we turned north to try and make it to Cayman. Sky raised a nearby freighter on the VHF, whose radio operator relayed our position and situation to Cayman port authorities and USCG Miami, and the Jamaican Coast Guard. The freighter stood ready to divert and take us off if necessary, and Sky contacted USCG directly on Satphone to update them with our position and situation in case a major rescue should become necessary. It meant a great deal to us that the freighter was willing to divert and rescue us if our ship had been lost; when we were in Roatan we saw a captain on another ship be told by the owner NOT to divert to help a sailboat that had gone up on the rocks on a channel entrance; the captain was very shaken up by this as he felt it was very, very bad karma. The law of the sea is the ethos of Floating Doctors…always stop and help, since you never know when it might be you on the receiving end of assistance
However, because I have a ship that refuses to give up fighting and a crew that can tackle any challenge and
function even under horrible conditions (even if afterwards we all have a series of quiet heart attacks and have lost weight from vomiting), we refused to give up the battle and with the wind sustained at 25 knots on the beam, the sails stabilized us (I immediately felt it in the engine room) and for a while we made 4.5 knots under sail alone (so much for the skeptics! We may not have all the sail Southern Wind had before her mast was shortened, and she’ll never be a racer, but she was a champion that day).
One the sails were up and I saw that we were making headway safely (if slowly) toward Cayman, I don’t remember much more for the next few hours as I think someone made me go lie down. One of the last things I remember is that the port engine had just been restarted (had to be re-primed with fuel every time the filter clogged) I think, and I put my head down on it in the engine room to fall asleep. It was awesome to make the transit with other captains onboard…otherwise I would have had no choice but to remain awake and functional (the most dangerous scenario faced by solo long-distance sailors). I was pretty dehydrated (had had no water for almost 24 hours, had been vomiting, had not eaten for 2 days, and had been awake for almost 4 days…Ed and Larson (and all of us, really) had a similar experience, and we were crazed when we finally pulled in sight of Cayman.
Holly and I brought the boat the last leg to Cayman and Holly (what a trooper) took the helm and let me sleep a little as we stood offshore, waiting for daylight to make our final approach to dock and clear in at Grand Cayman. We knew a mooring was available free, but first we had to visit the customs dock to clear in before we could move to the mooring and finally relax and sleep. I must have looked wild-eyed in the Port Captain’s office but they must be used to it as we cleared in with no difficulty and got onto the mooring asap.
We spent two days in Cayman waiting for the weather to open (or so we and various government and commercial weather prediction services believed it was going to), made a few repairs and tried to recover from the mess and shock of our previous crossing. We didn’t see much of Cayman (saw a lot of the inside of our engine room!) but the water there was beautiful, and it was a shock to be somewhere with good services available. Our next departure, we thought, would see us arriving in Port Antonio, Jamaica to take on some fuel and fix our broken fuel filter and tie up to a dock one last time for a night before crossing the Windward Passage and beginning our mission in Haiti (where we will likely be anchored in poor holding ground of uncertain depth, and it is impossible to completely relax).
The starboard engine could be used in an emergency (though it would surely soon seize if it had to be run), and
the port engine was functioning adequately to make it to Jamaica in good weather. Repairs were more practical in Jamaica, so at the next weather window we sailed for Jamaica on a calm, flat day…that was not destined to remain so for long.
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Note: A month ago we departed from Roatan for a ten-day transit to Haiti, with a stop in Isla Guanaja to clear out of Honduras and a stop in Port Antonio, Jamaica, for fuel and a night’s sleep before the final 36 hours to Petit-Goave, our first destination In Haiti.
That was the plan, anyway.
The next couple of updates, written here in Kingston, will tell the saga of what happened and catch us up from Roatan to here in Jamaica…I have written them all in one go, and will post one a day till we are caught up.
March 1, 2010–Isla Roatan to Isla Guanaja, Honduras
We knew it would be an up-wind, up-current battle the whole way to Haiti, so we made the 40-mile run from Roatan to Isla Guanaja to clear out, and wait for a weather window long enough to reach the protection of Jamaica. When we got to Guanaja through 6 foot, choppy seas coming from the east, there was no room in the only protected anchorage and we anchored outside in the channel, where it
proceeded to blow hard from the E and SE for 9 days. We dragged anchor several times before finally putting out a second bow anchor, which seemed to hold, but we spent many hours at night watching our chartplotter and peering out at Dunbar Rock to see if it loomed any closer in the darkness than it had 5 minutes before as we bucked and swung on our anchors.
Our generator was not putting out full power; its regulator control board had finally failed (it had done well to survive the lightning strike at all) but Ed managed to coax it to produce some power by using an old cell phone charger, wired directly to the circuit board, plugged into a small dashboard inverter which he wired directly to our battery bank. Thus, we were able to excite the part of the generator circuitry that allowed the generator to produce power, but it would frequently get hot and fail and need to be reset.
It turned out that I had to fly back to Roatan on a puddlejumper with all of our passports to clear out of Honduras, and we also had several cases of vitamins, IV fluids, gauze, syringes, antibiotics, heart monitors, and other supplies to deliver to the health center on Guanaja. I went back to Roatan and got everybody cleared out of Honduras, and when I got back we connected with the director there and we arranged for me and Dr. Holly to help out in the clinic. Holly saw patients for general consults, and I did ultrasounds on some pregnant women and women with abdominal masses.
We also managed to revisit a patient we saw when we were there in October—the patient that we suspected had
elephantaiasis. With a tropical medicine specialist onboard, and armed with the opinions and advice of many clinicians (form as far away as Fiji!) who wrote to offer suggestions, we re-examined him and decided on a course of treatment that might at least stop forward progression of the symptoms by killing any active filarial worms, and Noah taught him a series of exercises and techniques to try and increase lymphatic drainage. The next time we visit Guanaja, I hope he will show improvement…at least no progression!
We endured the wind and anxiety of anchor dragging for 8 days, finally moving to the backside of the island and negotiating a narrow, twisting reef passage to an anchorage with some protection. We still dragged, but only a little, so we managed to have a semi-restful last night and in the morning the sea and wind died down to nothing and we nosed out through the reef passage and headed NE towards Jamaica. Little did we know that the calm glassy waters of our departure would not last for long…
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The road I think that I will journey down is rarely mirrored by reality. This “crossing turned journey” brought me to the brink of what I believe I can handle and cemented my understanding that control is merely a delusion.
I could write about a million pages about the twenty-one days since we left Roatan, but I will only start on Day One after leaving Guanaja and its nine days of gale force winds, unsafe anchorages, anchor draggings, and impossible customs agents… some stories should be left untold.
Day One: We pulled away from the North Side of Guanaja to what was supposed to be four days of amazing weather; enough to get us to Port Antonio, Jamaica and our first resting point. A huge system had worked its way over the Caribbean Sea for the previous week and a half and the lull was obvious on all weather sites. The seas were flatter and bluer than I had ever seen them and everyone was very excited to be making the “8 Day” trek to Petit Goave, Haiti. I on the other hand am always suspicious and anxiety ridden once we leave land. I have seen what an angry ocean can be like, and I never trust a weather report. But the day was beautiful and the fishing was amazing. It seemed as if we could get no more than an hour between the mad rush that is “FISH ON”! Larson and Ben were ecstatic, and Noah’s new addition of the fighting platform on our stern was getting put to use- a sight I never thought I would see aboard S/V Southern Wind. All was tranquil expect for my growing suspicion that this was way too good to be true.
Day Two: We arrived at the first land we’d seen in about 30 hours, the famous fishing haven Swan Island. This is a small slice of land 137 nautical miles from Roatan whose waters are crystal clear and full of fish and sharks—Ben and Larson were in total bliss. We spent the morning exploring the reefs around the island catching fish and admiring the birds. For me it was very nice to be near the solidity of land knowing that once we pulled away from its shores we had 367 miles of ocean to cross. At about 10 am, I pulled the latest weather report seeing that our weather window was not as long as had been the day before…the weather gods were closing in on us.
Day Three: I felt the first buck at about 3:45 am near the middle of my watch. The stern of the boat kicked for a minute, a momentary lurch but definite. I slid out of the navigators chair and walked onto the back deck, straining to see the sea state through the moonless night. The seas looked dark to me, for I believe I knew what was waiting. Eight AM brought fun house hell to us. It’s hard to explain what a 5 – 7 foot confused sea state is like… imagine your house on a pivot point being tossed in every direction possible. It’s like a roller coaster that doesn’t stop with noises never ending. Up and down, side to side, forward and port, sideways and starboard, far away from land and a total loss of control of the ride you are on.
I was lying on the floor of the main salon doing all that I could to baby my back, which, for those of you who don’t know me well, has been a huge source of problems for me while on this voyage, when I thought I heard the engines accelerating and then decreasing RPM’s. Now I am always the one to worry on the boat and am always asking questions about if something ‘seems right’ or not, so I decided that I was going to say nothing and that it was just in my mind and all would be ok. Right. Over the next 30 or so minutes the noises and RPM difference became very noticeable until… sputter sputter sputter and the horrifying silence of no engines. The situation suddenly went from uncomfortable and nerve wracking to the reality of true danger.
Everyone sprung into action… Ben, Larson, and Ed ran to the engine room. What was the problem? What are we going to do? How long until we roll? The boat in a matter of minutes was turning so that our broad side or “beam” was face to face with the oncoming huge swells. The likelihood of us rolling over grew with every second we were in that position, but we were left adrift. The engine room was like something out of a nightmare, up top the rolling waves were taking their toll quickly on the boat and on the crew. The vomiting started soon after. Pretty much everyone was growing greener and greener by the passing seconds. While Ed and Larson were feverishly trying to figure out what was wrong with the engines, Ben and Noah were tying line to our deck chairs to use them as sea anchors with the hope of pulling the bow into the wind, but the help that they were providing was minimal. I was on the VHF radio hailing the US Coast Guard or anyone that was out there. Randy and Holly and Noah at that point decided that it was time to deploy our main sail. In the midst of my radio hailing my stomach reached its breaking point and the little that I had in me decided to come up for a visit. After my bout of sickness, now covered in my own throw up, I was back on the radio. It was then that Ben ran upstairs and got sick himself… at this point I knew it was bad. In my 29 years of being on the sea with my brother and through some ugly weather, I have never seen him sick before–from this point on I was entering into uncharted waters.
Ed, Larson, and Ben came to the realization that the problem was bad fuel, and that our tanks had been filled with very dirty and watered down diesel. Worst nightmare, as there is no immediate fix for this. I had finally gotten connected with a navigator from a passing cargo ship who was hailing the US Coast Guard for us—the voice over the radio was surprisingly comforting—someone, over the vast expanse of angry blue, was there.
Noah, Randy and Holly got the main sail up, and, although the wind was not blowing in the direction that we wanted it to, our bow was being pulled into it, and the ship was starting to steady a bit. But now what? Jamaica was still 36 hours away. We opted for the nearest land, Grand Cayman, 68 nautical miles to the North.
First, only by sail, and, then, a bit later when the fuel filters had been changed with the engines, we started our transit through the stormy night towards land. We trudged through the growing swells getting tossed and beaten for the next 12 hours praying that the engines would hold. I have never prayed so hard in my life, nor have I ever actually truly been that full of fear. I had no control, not even the illusion of it. I had spoken to the US Coast Guard, the Jamaican Coast Guard, and the Cayman Coast Guard, all of which were on the ready for us, but, other than that, there was nothing that I could actually do to help the situation. I held fast, praying to get to the faint glimmer of light on the horizon that would bring safety. Never once did our crew stop working toward a solution.
At 4:30 am we limped into George Town harbor and tied to a mooring buoy. I have never been so happy to see land in my entire life. At 8:30 when we pulled onto the customs dock I nearly kissed the solid ground… the crew and the ship had made it.
Or so we thought. What was coming to us on our next transit to Jamaica was double the fear… but at least for two nights we slept above the blue waters of the Caymans.
My next entry will tell the tale of what happens in rough seas, bad fuel, dangerous reefs, and one compete engine failure.
“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding,
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.”
All Stanzas from The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes
Alone out in the middle of the ocean this stanza repeated itself over and over in my mind. I was scared for this crossing—what I was leaving behind was not just the town of Petit Goave, but the me of before. The me before I was witness to a country brought to its knees, before I had to leave a boy that I knew was being abused by his care takers, before I gave my heart to an orphan I called ‘Cheeks’, before 3 teenagers worked their way onto our boat and forever into our souls, and before we had to leave them sitting in their small canoe watching as our boat grew smaller and smaller in the distance. I felt alone in the ocean- the vast expanse of open water echoed the void that all of those I left had filled. The last thing that I said in Haiti was “ Moi Matrin es Tris”—meaning, my heart is sad.
How I will reconcile all of these experiences is still unknown to me. I find my heart and head wandering around the streets of Petit Goave late at night now restless in the unknown. I miss Haiti terribly.
Our time in Honduras has already been so productive- we are spread out between three clinics on the Island while also working as the doctor and medics on Aeromedical a helicopter that flies emergency victims to the main land. I have already found my little boy love- his name is Oscar and he is a gorgeous 3 year old that suffers from Down Syndrome. He is the most incredible and rambunctious little soul- unable to speak but communicates in a way that speaks directly to the heart. It’s hard for me at times, I
feel his little body in my arms and can feel the same warmth and heart beat that was once my Cheeks. And I know that one day I will be holding another little one and think of my time spent with Oscar– each of them holding onto a piece of my heart long after they forget the details of our time spent together.
“Look for me by moonlight;
Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come for thee by moonlight,t hough hell should bar the way”
I wish that I could take each of them by moonlight- take them to a place where no pain or stigma exists- I wish that the my love would ease any burden- but I am honored to be the one that holds these little wonders, still so happy and full of joy no matter of the obstacles that lay in their way. My heart, I hope in some ways, will always beat in time with theirs.
There are no safety nets in what we are doing- not for us, for our minds, and most of all for our hearts. Each of the crew will carry the joys and scars of our experiences, we will carry those that are left behind with us until our hearts stop and our bodies are freed from the confines of this life. I am lucky to have heard the laughter of children playing in the rubble piles of Haiti, to have felt the hands of a Honduran boy unable to speak grasp my fingers while fighting his way up a flight of stairs, to have seen the ocean glow green on a moonless night in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, and to have done all of it with the finest group of people I have ever know.
Here in the darkened back room she sits like a stone- hands shoved under her small thighs, eyes fixed on the worn floor. The muffled noise of the other children playing drifts in like waves through the slatted window– but in this room everything is still. I sit with my hand on her back reminding myself that I am the adult and strong one here– it is not my turn to cry. I watch as the tears run down her nose making perfect circles of darkness on her dirty pants. “I just don’t like it when they look at me while I’m in the shower, but it only happened once”…”It mostly happens to the other girls”. I hear this from all 6 of them….”The boys here hit us”….”we are worked from morning until night and I’m tired”….The room spins as I hold back the choking sobs that are clawing their way up my throat. A knock at the door and a bidding from the house mother and she’s gone– off to the kitchen to prepare lunch for the 23 other orphans. I watch as she pulls herself together, she is 9, she should not know how to hide pain like this. All 6 girls have claimed abuse over the past two hours and here we are left – 2 shells left shocked into silence. I can not show emotion, I can not allow the owners of this hell to see that I know what kinds of evil the night brings here.
Our allotted time is up and we are escorted out under a the watchful eyes of those in charge searching our faces for any sort of recognition “do we know?” “How much did they tell”. The girls pull at my arms as we leave… am I coming back, when, when, when? “Bye Sky, Bye Sky, when are you coming back”? I can see the pleading behind their words… don’t leave me here, please don’t leave me here. I promise them I will do everything that I can.
We get into the car unable to speak , unable to file away what we just saw and heard, left stricken by what people are capible of. They will not allow me access to the girls, I asked to take them once a week– for the first time on this trip there is suddenly “proper procedures” that take months that have to be followed before I can spend any time with these forgotten no named little girls. There is no one for us to turn to. A barrier put in between that has been so far impossible to traverse around– they are money makers who have been taught to shut their mouths for if they speak they are given up to the streets and the ugliness of the sex trade. I have fought to see them, fought to come back… they have my phone number and they call still pleading asking for my return. At night I think of them laying stone faced in their pathetically pink painted bunk beds scared of any noise in the night and what it will bring.
This is the ugliness of humanity- I see it as I toss and turn in my own bed- their hushed tones narrating the visions of their experiences haunting me into wakefulness………..
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