We met up with Preacher for lunch today in Blue Hills. After a great lunch at Smokey's we walked across the street to look at a wrecked sloop:
I have been talking about these boats all through this blog, and looking at wrecked ones ever since we first got here. We have seen them sunken and breaking up a mile offshore. We see pieces of them washed up on the south facing beaches and rocks quite often. French Cay is loaded with their skeletons.We read about them in the newspapers, usually when they get intercepted with a hundred Haitians on board. Sometimes we read about real human tragedies involving these boats. Here was my chance for a close look.
This one sits well above the high water mark, and if you ignore a little cosmetic damage it's in pretty good shape. Needs a little TLC. A Handyman Special....
Well, okay, that was boat salesman talk....actually it's got a big gaping hole smashed through the hull and the pitch and caulking is falling out. I suspect the original hole was smaller and that people on the beach have broken off the boards to get inside the hull. But holing a hull is not hard to imagine at all in a boat drawing about six feet coming into this side of Provo. The outer reef is well over a mile offshore here, and it's a treacherous one. And even once you get inside the reef there are coral heads and coral patches everywhere. I am surprised that this boat made it through to shore at all.
The smashed hull made it easy for me to stick my head inside and take a look around. I have been wanting to get a look at the construction of these boats for a long time. The first thing you see once your eyes adjust to the darkness in the hull is the ballast:
These are a modern version of the ballast stones we found from ships hitting these reefs in the 1700's. These days, the weight of tough plastic bags full of Haitian sand keep the boat upright. Well, that's the plan anyway. Doesn't always work with sixty or seventy people on the deck. It makes sense, actually, to use sand bags for ballast. They are cheap, easy to position, probably pretty comfortable to sit on, and they wouldn't be as prone to shifting as large, loose pieces of rock would be. That means they would not be knocking your planks loose in heavy seas. Good idea, actually.
The bad idea part is not using enough stable ballast, with 'stable' being the operative word here. The more ballast you put in, the less cargo you can add. When your cargo is over a hundred human beings, you can still get away with it if they stay where you tell them to and the weather cooperates.
Just a few months ago, such a boat as this made the trip. Rough seas, desperate, frightened, sea-sick people in the pre-dawn darkness. Somebody shouted "There's Provo!", and over a hundred people rushed up onto the deck at once, joining the 75 already there. The boat capsized. 65 of them died within sight of land. They were buried in a mass grave. Very few of them were identified.
I started looking at the construction more closely. The beams are all hand cut, and solid. Looking up at the underside of the deck, it was not the flimsy construction I expected. I could find no soft pine, or wood that you could define as a "2x4" or a "6x6". Every piece was individually cut to it's purpose. And there isnt a straight line in sight:
I didn't recognize the type of wood. I asked Preacher what it was, because some of these beams are bigger than could come from any of the trees I see here in the TCI. I took a piece of the broken planking home with me. Preacher said "It's one of those Haitian woods...". Okay. Preacher is not a woodworker. I am already thinking of what I can build with this stuff. And I need a lathe.
Then I looked forward in the hull, up to the bow. The only light from the single hatch shining down into the hold:
And for me, at least, this is where it hit me. What it must have been like to tack back and forth into the Trade Winds, the heat and sounds and smells of a hundred humans in this space. The boat rocking, and leaning. The creaking of a boat built to hopefully last one trip. It's only 140 miles in a straight line, but how far in a sailing vessel? No place to lay down or sit comfortably. No food,no water. No bathrooms.
The day after we took these photos, I picked up the current issue of the "Turks and Caicos Weekly News", and there was yet another story about another sloop intercepted by the Marine Police. I thought maybe the newspaper photo would help picture the conditions on these boats:
"more than 150"....I looked at the photo, and I estimate maybe half that many are on the deck when that shot was taken. Imagine that many more riding below in a hold almost identical to the one in these photos. How dangerous is that? And how desperate.
This boat was built by hand, by people who knew how to build a boat. The keel, ribs, the inside planking,beams, timbers, the bracing...it's all like something you would see in a nautical museum in a more modern country. It's what you would expect in a boat built two hundred years ago, before power tools or stainless fasteners. There's no fiberglass here. No life rafts. No fancy adhesives.
It looks like something shipwrecked sailors would put together from whatever they could get their hands on. A boat built by men desperate enough to risk their lives to try to make it to another island, hoping it just held together long enough to make it.
Well, the "Miss Marlenne *2" made it. Battered, but intact. She's sitting high and dry on the beach in the TCI. I don't know what happened to her human cargo, whether they melted into the population here or were rounded up, fed, and sent back to maybe someday build another boat and try again.
Maybe someday we will find a "Miss Marlenne" # 3. I hope their luck holds, and they have fair winds and a star to steer by.