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Cruising Journals - Pam Wall



Chapter 3 - A Foreign Port


"Why don't we stop in Haiti for the night?" The strong southeast tradewinds were doing their best to make life aboard pretty miserable. While Kandarik loves to close reach, the crew thought otherwise. Like a thoroughbred horse, our boat found the going easy and raced to the south bound for the north coast of Panama. Even with the good speed and beautiful clear day, the spray was drenching the cockpit and down below life was at an angle too acute to make anything comfortable. Sammy was terribly seasick and throwing up over the side. Jamie who doesn't know the meaning of being seasick (oh, I hate him for this stomach of iron!) tried so hard to mimic his sister. But no matter how hard he tried to be sick and wanted to get our sympathy, he just couldn't do it. I couldn't leave the cockpit for fear of mal de mer if I went below! So, when Andy suggested a stopover in Haiti, we all cheered and hastily looked at the chart.

Just on the northwest tip of the island of Hispaniola you can see, in tiny print, the port of Cap St. Nicolas Mole. With the trades piping up to 25 to 30 knots we beat up the harbor going like a freight train. The sound of the screaming wind, the splashing water, and the hull crashing through the waves, made this final approach to the anchorage a poignantsail exhausting all our senses. The land surrounding us was in stark contrast to what we had left behind in the Bahamas. Here, instead of white beaches and green Casaurinas, there was not one blade of grass, not one green tree, and certainly no lovely beaches. It looked like the moon! Dry and wind swept, brown and featureless, it was almost depressing. But, we didn't care. For what a relief it was to finally drop the anchor in this tiny bay and know we could at last get some rest.

But what we didn't know was what an unusual place we had chosen as our haven. The village behind us was small and looked very primitive. The anchorage was even different from most as the bay was protected but the strong wind blew directly in leaving us with our stern to the land. Thank goodness the holding was very good and the anchor caught immediately. After a quick tidy up, we were all set to go below and fall asleep. Before we could disappear below deck, our first visitor approached from the settlement.

Out from the pebble beach came a heavy, old, and leaking rowboat. A big man was having a difficult time pulling against the strong wind. He was bouncing up and down in the same spot, then would inch closer, the spray from his blunt bow soaking him with every wave. And still he persisted towards us, a difficult labor for anyone. We all sat watching his approach which seemed to take forever.

At last the heavy boat drew alongside. The big man threw Andy an old and heavily chafed piece of line. With the strong wind and small chop the man and his boat kept crashing into Kandarik's topsides. We all moaned as each smashing sound did a little more to crack our freshly painted topsides. How often this was to happen in the future! How silly we were for worrying about something as ridiculous as this. But, it was the first time a small boat from shore was to hit our topsides, and we would soon learn that it was definitely not the last.

Secured at last, the tall man stood up. On his chest were two crossed bullet belts, the kind of bandaleros that Clint Eastwood wore in the Spaghetti Westerns! A really old and rusty rifle was in his hands. We could see him having trouble balancing in his jumping boat, so Andy leaned over and offered to take the gun from him while he climbed aboard. Gratefully the rifle was handed over while the man clambered up. Once he was on the deck he realized what he had done! He grabbed the rifle from Andy, braced himself, and pointed the firearm at all four of us! It must have looked really funny as all our hands flew up in the air, just like in the movies! Andy didn't think it was very funny and motioned to him that everything was all right and he only had the gun until the man was safely aboard. The crisis over, he pointed for us to go below and start the formalities.

We were still bobbing up and down a bit, and it was very difficult carrying the heavy gun along the deck and down the companionway. But he never let it out of his hands. He wasn't going to make that mistake again! It took a bit of arranging to get us all seated at the main salon table with the long rifle still in his lap. Finally we were comfortable and my French was a great help in communicating with his patois. But at least we could both understand one another, and this was certainly the changing point in our relationship. A bit more relaxed, the gun was lowered and we got on with the process of entering this new and really foreign country.

It turned out that our visitor was the only policeman, or gendarme, in the village. He acted as customs and immigration, but didn't really know how to proceed, as we were the only yacht he had seen for a very long time. The problem was we had no papers to show where we had come from. Remember in San Salvador we had tried to check in, but could not. When leaving the States there is no clearance from the port. So, without any papers from our last port of call, we now had a big problem. It appeared we needed to sail, or at least get our passports to, the capital of Port Au Prince. Well, this was very far away, so what do we do? A few embarrassing, very quiet moments, passed until Andy pulled out a twenty dollar bill, put it on the table, and slowly slid it over to the official's big rough hands. The effect was amazing. All of a sudden the lined serious face became a vision of joy and happiness. A huge smile took the place of the doubt, and now there was not a problem at all! We were welcome to stay and enjoy our visit, our passports would be kept safely ashore, and, most importantly, we were good friends.

Although the gun never left his grasp again, our new friend negotiated the companionway steps, stumbled down the deck into his wet dinghy, and even waved goodbye as he rowed back towards the shore. We were all grateful it was no longer pointed at us! And now for that much needed sleep.

Early the next morning we awoke to the creaking of timber, the shouting and laughing of men and the smell of smoke fires ashore. The wind has eased down that night and come off the land making the harbor a perfect calm refuge. The huge, flat bottomed, blunt bowed, native sloops were getting underway. They all looked like they were sinking; their loads of homemade charcoal piled up on deck so high the booms could barely pass over them. The torn sails, full of holes, were all being hoisted by hand; not one modern piece of equipment could be seen on these boats. And yet, once underway, they were as graceful as any lovely sailing vessel could possibly be. They were all on their way to Port Au Prince using the last of the night's land breeze to take them away from the land.

A pretty brightly colored red boat, with a French flag, was anchored next to us. We wondered when they had come in, and if the gendarme had given them the same kind of clearance.

As always, the anticipation of a new harbor spurred us to a hasty breakfast and quick preparation for going ashore. As we were launching the dinghy another tiny, heavy, wooden rowboat put out from shore to struggle towards Kandarik. This time there were two little boys who came crashing alongside that fresh paint! They had some small shells they wanted to sell us for a penny each. After their hard row out to us, how could we resist? A deal was made; all the shells were bought for two dollars. Well, you would have thought we had just purchased the crown jewels! They were so happy, they could hardly believe their fortune, and we loved the pretty shells. A fair deal for everyone. The little boys decided to escort us as we made our way to shore. And what a reception we were about to receive!

Before we had cleared away from Kandarik, we could see the landing being lined with small children. It was like parting the Red Sea for us to pass through the crowd of small bodies that waded into the water to greet us. The shouting and laughing and pointing reached hysterical proportions. Sammy and Jamie were in a daze as dozens of children reached out to touch them, to pull their hair, to grab their hands. Everyone fought over whom would help pull the dinghy up out of the water. We could not move anywhere, as the children surrounded us and bombarded poor little Sammy and Jamie. Suddenly all was quiet. Our huge friendly gendarme appeared on this scene of mass confusion. His appearance obviously was very respected. He immediately saw what was going on, and in his vast wisdom as peacekeeper in this little village, he knew exactly what to do. Two tall good looking boys were summoned from the school down the road. The boys were about fifteen or sixteen. They were dressed in shabby shorts, shirts that only had the collar and button front left, and the remnants of some old and completely worn out flip flops (different color and size on each foot!). We later found out you could not go to school without shoes.

These two dignified and educated young men were to be Sammy and Jamie's bodyguards! And they took their jobs very seriously. The first thing they did was to get two big sticks. As we again tried to walk away from the landing, they proceeded us and swished the sticks back and forth in front of us, to keep all the grabbing children at a distance. It must have been a fantastic sight to see this odd procession walking down the dusty street of Cap St. Nicholas Mole; two tall good looking young men beating their sticks at the mob of children, Sammy and Jamie, with their blond hair glistening in the sunlight, holding their hands, and me and Andy in the rear guard with the curious crowd of local children following us everywhere we went.

What a town! There was not one car or truck, no electricity, no toilets, no running water, and our friend the gendarme was the mayor, police chief, magistrate, and of course the customs and immigration officer. The bakery made only hard-unleavened bread that could be likened to very stale French bread. The open market sold a variety of things absolutely could not identify, although they must have been edible! The Laundromat was the only dribble of a stream coiling through the middle of the town, the drying clothes spread out on the hot rocks lining the narrow river. There was a big church, a small school, and a dark bleak looking establishment selling medications? with all sorts of weird smelling and looking ointments, liquids, and dried somethings!

A few older children came out of the school, all dressed in tattered clothes, but at least they had clothes on, as most of our mob of followers did not! They would come up to us and politely ask, "What time is it?" or "How do you do?" or something that was easy to say in English. Honestly, it reminded me of Professor Doolittle in "My Fair Lady" when Eliza was trying out her newly learned real English. The delightful smiles when we slowly answered in English showed their comprehension of our language. How wonderful it is to try out something you have been learning in school!

When our tour of the town was at a close, and we all arrived back at the dinghy, en masse, we were about to leave the landing when Andy turned toour two young bodyguards. He told them we were so grateful for all they had done for us. How could we say thank you? They both looked at Andy's big size 13 feet. Politely they asked if they could have his shoes! It was a little difficult for me to translate into French that there were two shoes and two boys with four feet! How were they to share the shoes? But after a small conference together, the boys told us there would be no problem, and could we give them the Topsiders? Puzzled, Andy removed his shoes. One boy took one and put it on his left foot, and the other boy took the other and put it on his right foot. They were as proud and happy as could be in these enormous shoes only one on each boy. This is what they wanted in payment for a day of very important duties! So, if you go to Cap St. Nicholas Mole, and you see two young men, each with one Topsider on, you will know that on one particular day they were the honored bodyguards of the crew of Kandarik!

Pam Wall - Expert Sailor

Pam Wall

Outfitting Manager, West Marine Ft. Lauderdale

  • A lifelong sailor, Pam and her husband have been cruising together for over 36 years!