Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Star of the Sea"

Christmas is still quietly roaring down upon us like a gentle slow motion avalanche. Holidays here in the tropics just seem to be softer than they are up in the USA. We don't see so much of the yearly commercial blitz that we remember descending upon us between the pecan pie and aperitifs of Thanksgiving dinner. There is tinsel on some of the palm trees and we have spotted some unlikely looking elves stocking shelves, but for the most part it's still a religious holiday here. Our one local television station can only advertise a very few stores. And everybody already knows where they are and what they stock, anyway.

Walmart, Norelco, and Isotoner don't buy air time in the TCI. Thank the lord of small favors.

Oh, almost forgot the sunrise photo. Gotta start with a recent sunrise. La Gringa got this one that even has a boat in it:

I was looking for a blog topic that somehow folded the Christmas season into the tropical life mix. I mean, another kayak trip post would be way easy to do right now. Our new approach of each carrying a waterproof camera along on the new kayak is producing scads of photos. Some good 'uns, too. But how "Christmassy" is that, huh? Y'all need a break from kayak photos I bet.

Then just as I was contemplating duct-taping a set of paper reindeer horns on Dooley the Disgruntled, La Gringa reminded me about the "Star of the Sea" and their humanitarian mission. Perfect! The good work these guys are doing, and the way they are doing it, just matches up the spirit of Christmas nicely with a tropical life experience for us. This kind of thing never happened to us living in New Jersey. Trust me.

We first became aware of the schooner "Star of the Sea" when we spotted their very distinctive suite of sails disappearing over the far horizon one morning back in late July. I got a crummy photo and posted it here. Somehow, that photo got to Captain Bob Nichols' attention and he emailed us. I wrote a little more about him and his mission in a later post and mentioned that they were coming back through Provo in November. Well, they did. And this time we heard them on the VHF radio as they were pulling into South Side Marina, a couple miles down the road. We loaded up Dooley the Delighted and were down there the next morning. We'd been promised a tour of the ship and we didn't want to miss it. I mean, how many opportunities to see a working three masted schooner does one get in the course of a normal year? In this century, I mean.

So with all that background, I know it's going to be easy to figure out what this is:

Yep, that's a bowsprit. A real one. A working, structural spar that is used to anchor the tack of a jib and to distribute the load of that foresail around the bow of the boat.

And this is a real schooner captain, Capt. Bob Nichols. A working, structural spar that is used to tack the ship...

He looks almost friendly without the eye patch and cutlass, doesn't he? But you just know there's a potential spot for a parrot on his shoulder, too. A lot of people were probably born a few hundred years too late. But we do what we can.

We've already posted a bunch of exterior photos of the ship from a distance so I won't repeat a lot of those views. But the other photos don't have Capt. Nichols and me in them, so I AM going to sneak one in that does:

As promised in our earlier correspondence, La Gringa, Dooley the Deckhand and I were invited aboard. In this photo we have (left to right) Zach Griffen, some bozo in a UT shirt, then Jay Swett in the dark t-shirt, and of course, Capt. Bob Nichols:

La Gringa is not in the photo because she was the one taking the picture. Most of these are hers, in fact. I am not sure why Dooley the Distracted isn't in it. He must have been up forward sniffing up memories of foodstuffs of yore. Investigating something he read about hardtack. Whatever that is.

Here's the view from amidships looking aft:

(Boy, that sounds nautical as all heck, doesn't it?)

We went below and got a tour of the recently remodeled galley:

Microwave, coffee pot, two burner stove and oven, refrigerator... everything you need.

I am haunted by a more-than-passing interest in marine engines, so Capt. Bob took me through the ship's engine room. In addition to the Perkins diesel, they have a generator for electricity and a compressor to fill SCUBA tanks. At this point I had been asking some specific questions about what the "Star of the Sea" was all about. Somehow, we seem to have settled in the engine room for this conversation. We got to the heart of the mission, in the heart of the ship. Appropriate in many ways.

I am going to post some links at the end of this post for those who are interested in more details, but I'll give you the brief version, as I understand it, right here.

Capt. Bob is a modern day missionary, pure and simple. He does good things for other people. He believes in kids and specializes in working with children who need help. He has an ongoing program in Naples, Florida, to help at-risk children learn about a better life than the one they would get if they continued without this help. His programs there include the "Super Kids Club", the "Super Kids Church" group, and the "Star of the Sea Teen Sailing Program".

You might well ask what all this has to do with a three masted schooner parked for a couple days in Providenciales. It's all tied in, believe me.

Capt. Bob sails the ship to deliver tons of donated supplies from Florida to an orphanage in the Bahamas. He sails the boat with a crew of unpaid volunteers from Naples , across the Gulf Stream, through the Exumas to the fairly remote Cat Island in the eastern Bahamas. There he offloads supplies to the Old Bight Mission orphanage. Still with me? It's kinda complicated to get it all on the first pass. Or it was to me, at least.

With a now empty cargo hold, he then sails from Cat Island to here, Providenciales. I didn't ask him specifically why here, but I suspect this is the nearest place on his route to reliably take on water, fuel and provisions for the rest of the trip. And he has friends here from years gone by.

Okay, I'm going to oratorically tie up "Star of the Sea" in Provo for a moment (is that even a word??) and put some more ship photos in here before carrying on.

Just forward of the engine room is the Captain's cabin. I bet the old time missionaries and schooner captains would have been amazed at electrical panels, weather fax machines, VHF and SSB radios, and satellite music and telephones:

I noticed a radar antenna high on one of the masts, too. Truly a well-equipped vessel for this kind of voyage.

While the brain of the ship is up to date and modern, the heart is still pure and the soul is very traditional.

Now I am proud of this photo below. It was originally two pictures that I managed to merge using Autostitch into one wide angle of the Captain's quarters on the "Star of the Sea":

Captain Bob apologized for the mess. The crew had just completed a long sea crossing from Cat Island. They arrived here just after daybreak. They had just gone through Customs and Immigration clearance. And then looked up to see La Gringa, Dooley the Distracted and Yours Truly all bright-eyed and bushy tailed (well, one of us) after a full nights sleep that they had not had. Nor had they had time to spruce up the ship for early visitors. This is a working boat as opposed to a pleasure yacht with staff. And sail boats lean over and stuff falls off shelves and rolls around a lot. So for any neatness freaks that would like an explanation... well... There you have it.

Actually, now that I think about it... Captain Bob's personal area was the only sign of disarray. The rest of the boat was ship shape, so to speak. Hmmm.

Now, after that little break, back to the heavy stuff. After a brief stop here on Providenciales, the ship's next stop is the island of Great Inagua. Gt. Inagua is the very southwestern corner of the Bahamas. It is considered way off the beaten path for most sailors. Leaving here, most boats head straight to Haiti or the Dominican Republic. But not the "Star of the Sea".

And the reason is the Morton Salt Company.

A lot of people probably don't realize this, but a lot of the salt you buy comes from evaporated sea water. The salt industry has historically been the main source of revenue for many of the islands in this part of the world. The "salt trade" is responsible for much that has gone on here, both good and bad, over the years. And not only on Gt. Inagua but here in the Turks and Caicos, as well.

These days, it's all about good stuff.

(now here is where I lapse into my pseudo-scientific explanation thingy)

The little island of Salt Cay just south of Grand Turk, for example, is still largely covered with salinas. (There are some photos of all this on a long ago post we did after visiting Salt Cay.) These are shallow areas that flood with sea water at high tide. Gates are closed at high tide, and the water allowed to evaporate in the hot tropical sun. This leaves salt and the other minerals in sea water. Repeating the process builds up the mineral layer to the point where it is shovelled up and loaded onto ships for transportation to market. There have been volumes of books written about all of this, so I won't go further into it here.

The Morton Salt Company is still engaged in this sea salt mining on Gt. Inagua. They load ships full of salt there and transport it to the USA. Then after offloading the salt in the US, the boats are empty. Typically they then motor back down to Great Inagua empty to pick up another load of fresh salt. Still with me? (You can see how this is all tying in, now, I bet.)

Captain Bob has worked out a deal with Morton to transport another seven tons of food from the USA down to the salt loading facility on Great Inagua on ships that would otherwise be empty. Morton's good people offload the food and supplies from Florida at their facility on Gt. Inagua.

Captain Bob sails from here just 130 miles and picks up the load of cargo waiting for him at Morton. He then sails from Gt. Inagua to Haiti, and delivers the food and supplies directly to the hungry children who need it.

Okay. That's the basic nuts and bolts of it. It's all about empty ships and full ships and hungry children and good people who care about them. I don't know why I made it so complicated.

I haven't said much about Dooley the Demented yet in this post. That's probably because he was uncharacteristically behaving himself for the most part. He had already checked out the ship for rats and cats and unclaimed bits of edibles. Having found none of the above, he was just enjoying the sunny day and perfect weather on deck:

"Oh yessir... boss. Now THIS is a sailboat... lets go to Pine Cay.."

And you thought belaying pins were just for whacking pirate skulls:

A modernization, and a nifty way to check out the deck during wild and woolly weather without wetting your wig:

So, I asked Capt. Bob why he would sail supplies to Haiti instead of just using the usual cargo plane method. He told me some stories about how things get bottlenecked up at the main offloading center in Port-Au-Prince. Piles and pallets of donated food and relief supplies sitting inside locked compounds, in the rain and sun. There are a lot of problems with this. Getting the supplies loaded onto trucks when there are not enough trucks. And the road system is in a shambles, of course, having been largely destroyed by the earthquake.

A huge portion of the supplies are ruined, stolen, misappropriated, or just evaporate into the huge city of Port-Au-Prince. They never make it to the remote areas that "Star of the Sea" can reach.

Money donated to the big relief organizations gets largely absorbed into their own infrastructure, with only pennies of each dollar actually making it to the people who need it. Without going into a lot of details, lets just say it's not a good situation for small groups of ignored and starving children in small remote towns far away from the capital city. They never see those supplies.

If Capt. Bob's mission receives a dollars worth of food, they deliver a dollar's worth of food to the children who are starving without it. Money donated for expenses go to pay his expenses. Not to a corporate executive at headquarters, or to an advertising campaign generating ads and buying television time.

"Star of the Sea" only draws about 6 ft. of water. She can sail right up to any small dock, in remote areas, and hand the food directly to the people who will be eating it. No real paperwork, no inland transportation issues, no government bureaucracy. The food offloaded from "Star of the Sea" doesn't sit inside a fenced compound spoiling and feeding rats. It goes where it is needed.

And these are the guys who can make that happen.

(well, not La Gringa, of course. She's not a guy.)

It costs Capt. Bob's mission about $ 4,000. US to make one round trip from Florida to Haiti and back, with a stop at the orphanage on Cat Island. That covers the expenses. The crew are unpaid volunteers but they do have to eat. And the boat does have some expenses. Big boats have big expenses. But they are still cost effective when they sail.

"Star of the Sea" would like to make three or even four trips a year. So far they have been able to find donors for the food and have just been able to cover the expenses. But without some additional funding, they won't be able to continue for long.

There are additional expenses. Southside Marina lets them stay for a couple days while they are in Providenciales, but they have to pay for the fuel. I just filled a Land Rover yesterday. Diesel here is presently $ 4.70 US a gallon.

So the ship has maintenance and permitting and insurance costs. Capt. Bob is barely making a monthly mortgage payment on Star of the Sea. Donations for the orphanages do not get applied to ownership of the vessel and he has had to put her up for sale. I guess in the ideal world we would be able to find someone who could pay off the boat loan and let Capt. Bob continue to use her to support his work with children in Florida, the Bahamas, and Haiti.

If anyone has any ideas on how to do this, please let us know.

Speaking of people who have to eat, Jay told us he caught a nice rainbow dolphin on the trip down. Of course you can't count on that for dinner every night. Even though I could see a potential lunch swimming right under the bow as we were talking...

(not bad water for a protected marina, is it?)

Here's a nice view of what you see from the cockpit looking forward:

And some of us could just see ourselves steering a course out through the reef, headed south for fame and adventure...

"Avast me hearties! Repel Boarders! Repeal hoarders! Man the rigging! Splice the main brace.... is it dinner yet?" Dooley the Deranged thinks he knows the ropes.

He would have a lot to learn about the ropes to be a sea-dog on an adventure of this magnitude, I suspect.

Makes me dizzy just thinking about it.

Later on, we took the kayak around the marina to get a closer view of the ship's stern and caught the crew getting caught up on some much needed rest and relaxation. This was the last time we saw Capt. Bob on this trip but we are staying in contact and hope to see them on their next trip delivering life saving supplies to children in Haiti.

The last word we got was that the "Star of the Sea" was anchored off Los Cayes, Haiti, awaiting an opportunity to offload their supplies and get out of town. If you follow the news, you may be aware of the severe cholera outbreak in Haiti and a rampant crime wave and lawlessness has once again surfaced. We wish Capt. Bob, Jay and Zach a safe trip and fair winds home.

When we hear more, we'll let you know.

And of course you can check in on any news on their blog

You can find them on Facebook, at Schooner Star of the Sea.

If you are serious about charitable donations, they are registered as a non-profit organization in the USA. There is information on how to make a donation on their website.

Or just skip all that and call Capt. Bob directly at 239-248-0647. He might not answer immediately. He's in Haiti at the moment.

Fair winds for now, Captain Bob. Hope we can be of some help.

Now we haven't been getting great sunset photos lately and that's only partly because the sun is presently setting over one of the distant neighbor's houses here. We don't like the same old view over and over. While we could hop in the truck and head over to a beach for the sunset, by the time we notice it's going to be a nice one it's usually way too late to try to change our perspective. However, La Gringa is persistent and every now and then she sees an opportunity. Guess she caught the neighbor's house with the lights out.


Sabrina and Tom said...

Awesome post. I have been following for a while. I plan to forward this particular Xmas posting to many of my landlocked sailing friends. Thanks for letting us prairie sailors sail thru the cold winters with your spectacular sunsets.

La Gringa said...

I agree. Absolutely awesome post!

Joy said...

Thirded (is that a word?). GREAT post. I heard from Capt. Bob this afternoon via email and he spoke of the severe cholera outbreak, and that they are in ile-a-vache?
I will post this to facebook, as you give such a good explanation of why donating to Star of the Sea is an excellent way to help the Haitians.
Thank you for bringing this mission to our attention and writing about it so well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joy,
Thanks for the update. I looked up Ile-a-Vache and it's an island just off the coast from Los Cayes. Looks like some nice places to anchor there, and it's got to be safer than the main island of Haiti.

That poor country is worsening. I think most people in the world don't understand how different life is for these people. In many ways. Of course we are surrounded by Haitians here, and have come to know many of them over the years. Some of the things we hear and read about the island are astounding.

Just today I ran across this situation, in which a US citizen there is in jail due to some voodoo accusations:

It's all very real in Haiti. And the cholera, crime, and corruption are also very real. Life is cheap and easiy lost. And yet, Capt. Bob continues to deal with it all, and keep focused on doing the next right thing. He works on helping the children and improving their lives. It's got to start there. The world could sure use a few more people with hearts like that.

ThePirateDoc said...

Now THAT is a Christmas story ... thanks for spreading the word about Capt Bob and the Star of the Sea mission. Having been raised a missionary kid in Asia I can somewhat relate to the Haitian plight, though I never lived in those conditions. I wonder if Capt Bob would take on a fairly bright sail-able PADI certified 15 yr old Eagle Scout as a cabin boy/lackey/deck scrubber on a voyage or two? I happen to have one in stock at the moment ...

Merry Christmas, Gringos! Aarrggh!


Anonymous said...

Hi John,
Thanks for writing. I don't know what criteria Capt. Bob looks for in crew. I do know Zach told us he had no prior sailing experience, so that doesn't appear to be critical at some level. I'd suggest you contact Bob Nichols through his website and ask.

He's real easy to talk to.

Ashworth said...

Another great adder to the blog.
Its great for you to know where the boat is on th eopening picture, but those of us on the blog sit in suspense. The boat can be seen at to the right side of the picture.

Star of the Sea is an impressive vessel. I can only hope and pray to one day have a sailboat like that. For now I must settle for my ODay.

Joy said...

Hoping to see your driftwood Christmas tree. Either way, y'all have a happy Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Hello Joy,
Thank you.

We did the Christmas stump thing differently this year. We rented a car for the boys, and sent them out. They came back with four little trees and zip tied them together. Creative. But we do have a new stump.

Y'all all have a Merry Christmas too.
We should have another post up in the next day or so. Still trying for one a week.

Jay Swett said...

Hey, Los Dos Gringos! You did an excellent job on the post about Star of the Sea. My wife and I just purchased Sea Angel, a Kelly-Peterson 44 cutter in St. Thomas. We are hoping to sail her back to Maine for now, but when we finally cut ties with the land (that is, sell our 160 year old house), we plan to help Bob with his mission, among other stuff. We are heading back to Maine around the first or second week of May, so we might be stopping in. Drop us a line @ and maybe we can coordinate a meeting. I love what you two do -- there's another person you should check out: Rebecca Lauren. She's a Maine Maritime Academy grad with a big CG ticket who my wife, Sarah, and I sailed with in 2000 on a 130 foot schooner, among others, and she's done some wild stuff since then... like graduate from Maine Maritime! And since then, she sailed with Liberty (90 foot schooner) from Key West to Haiti delivering food and supplies. There are a lot of people out there trying to help others... Anyway, I had a great time on Provo (remember helping what's-his-name with the pirates? You can't make this stuff up!) So catch us at and let's do lunch!