Our last port of call in the Bahamas was the remote southern outpost of Matthew Town on Great Inagua. In the harbour there, we tied our dinghy to an extraordinary sailing ship. About 70 feet long, built of rough-hewn hardwood with a gaff rig, the spars basically trees with the branches removed. The sails were hand stitched from ancient sailcloth and tarps, with nylon fishing twine sewn in as bolt ropes. The rigging was what my stepfather would call ‘a right old lash-up’ of rusty chains, galvanised wire and ropes of all ages. Her crew were preparing dinner over charcoal fires on the wood deck. She has no engine, instruments, electricity or lights. She is a working freight carrier from Haiti. We chatted with the crew and to some Inagua locals who were sitting on the dock of the bay. They told us how she manoeuvres in and out of the harbour with sails and punts, how vast that gaff rigged main sail is, and that in the right conditions, she would out-run Escapade.
That ship tells you a lot about Haiti.
We sailed south through the Windward Passage. The sun set behind the mountains of Cuba to starboard.
We furled the gennaker and sailed on a broad reach all night in about 20 knots of wind with full main and jib. We were cruising at about 14 knots on the low swell, catching surfs up to 18 knots.
We covered a lot of ground that night. By morning the scent of earth and woodsmoke reached us across the water and the sun rose over the green mountains of Haiti.
Our destination was Ile à Vache, an island off the south coast of Haiti. As we rounded the tip of the island we could see in to the Baie de Feret where we planned to anchor. A small figure in a dugout canoe seemed to be paddling towards us. Then another, then two guys paddling a rowing boat backwards, then a kid paddling half of a vintage windsurf board with a palm frond as a paddle. In all, our welcoming committee comprised about 25 boys and men, mostly in dugout canoes. Each came alongside, introduced himself in French or English and welcomed us to Ile à Vache.
They accompanied us in to the bay, everyone shouting and laughing, they showed us where to anchor and supervised the whole process which Dawn and I usually manage quietly with a couple of hand signals, but today we were surrounded by a flotilla of earnest advisors. Once the anchor was down, the haggling began for who had reached us first, second and third and could therefore claim priority in offering us all of their services. This was quite a noisy process but it was agreed that the paddling competition to greet us had been won by a boy called Erns, “I was first peoples!”. Now the serious discussions could begin about how much work there was to do on the boat, who would be hired to wash the hulls, polish the stainless etc. All this was a bit overwhelming for us after two long days and a night at sea, with no more than four hours sleep each.
The Escapade Job Creation Scheme.
We soon came to understand a few basics here. We have been welcomed in to the village of Caille Coq. It’s a kind of paradise, children and animals everywhere, everyone living in very simple houses under the canopy of breadfruit, almond, cashew, mango and coconut trees behind the beach. There is some garden farming and fishing, but not much employment. Visiting yachts are seen as an opportunity for the villagers to work and earn some money. We wanted to do our bit for the local economy.
We didn’t really have any work to offer, but we made some. We quickly appointed boys to take our trash, provide us with regular deliveries of coconuts and beer, guide us to the nearby market, watch our dinghy while we were ashore etc. Everyone wanted in on the act, so we hired guides to accompany us to the mainland to see immigration, others to watch the boat while we were away, someone offered to take us horse riding. In addition there were all the kids selling us mangos and anything else they could offer and passing fishermen would sell us a fish or two. We tried to buy something from everyone. One of the boys’ great ideas was to convert their homes into a restaurant for the night and have their mums cook us a Haitian dinner.
We enjoyed evenings in the village and being welcomed into family homes for delicious meals. Everything is cooked over a wood or charcoal fire, usually in a separate palm thatch cooking hut. Fish, lobsters, rice and peas, sauces and salads, all served by the light of an oil lamp. Haiti is dark at night.
The Escapade Youth Centre
When the middle of the day is hot, we usually have a quiet lunch in the shady cockpit and perhaps 40 winks until it’s cool enough to move around again. Not here! We are anchored just off the village and are clearly considered part of it. The kids here grow up in a small group of families and live quite communally. The idea that we would like any privacy would not occur to them, any time our dinghy is visible, we are on board and therefore open to visitors. At any time of day we would have dugout canoes moored by bits of old string to our sterns and an ever changing group of guests.
Apart from the opportunity to work and earn a few dollars, the kids just want to be onboard, to practice their English and French, teach us some Creole, show me how to paddle one of their ‘bois fouille’ (canoe hollowed out of a mango tree trunk). Forget about the quiet siesta, unless I specifically asked them all to leave, which I never had the heart to do, we resigned ourselves to being a floating extension to their social life.
If you grew up here, even the most modest cruising yacht would appear to be a visitor from a different world. We have solar power, phone charging leads, an onboard desalination plant, cold drinks and satellite communications. Remember that on this island there are no roads or cars, no electricity or running water (although everyone has a mobile phone and a Facebook account!) The boys are all keen to learn and they all seem to understand that education is their key to a richer life than their parents or grandparents knew. Most of those generations speak only Creole and have never left Haiti. These kids study English and French, some Spanish, they can communicate with outsiders and start to understand the world beyond here.
The working boats in the area of Ile à Vache are still powered by sails and paddles. The ‘bois fouille’ canoes are everywhere, propelled with a rough hand-made oar or sometimes a trimmed palm frond. It seems every boy has access to one by the age of about 12. They look to be 1000 years old but may have been made last year. One of the earliest forms of human transport! These are in current production, dug-out by hand and available from the builder in Les Cailles for about $60 US, I was very tempted!
They are really beautiful, often with a pronounced curve or s-bend along their length, following the shape of the mango tree trunk. A bit wobbly to paddle but they also rig sprit sails and somehow balance all that and a fishing net.
The fishing boats or ‘bâtiments’ are all engineless with enormous mainsails on bamboo sprits, many of these are old yacht sails, presumably donated by visiting boats over the years. The booms are bamboo and their length out of all proportion to the boat. The hulls are all built on the beach from the indigenous timber with a simple frame and planking construction, often recycling sound timbers from previous versions.
They have no keels but are balanced by wedging a bamboo pole under a frame and sending a skilled man outboard as a counterbalance to keep her upright. Crude but very effective.
These boats sail upwind and down in all weathers, used for fishing, laying out nets and home-made bamboo fish traps, and also as passenger vehicles for visiting the mainland or the market. If the wind dies they fold up the rig and use the bamboo poles as oars. So many skippers asked me if I had any old sails or ropes in the locker, sadly not. Dawn was keen to donate our kevlar code zero which would have made a couple of nice bâtiment sails, but I vetoed that idea. We were able to provide some snorkelling gear, also in short supply and used daily here for conch and spear fishing.
If any other sailors are passing this way, don’t discard anything! Any old sail, rope or rigging that these guys can get will be valued and used to fish and feed their families for decades.
Engines are still rare. We took a skiff to the mainland powered by an ancient chugging outboard, but there are very few motorised craft here. This will change and a couple of the boys from the village told me they would train as mechanics for diesel and outboard engines, they already have good English and they hope to make a living working here on visiting yachts.
We went over to the mainland to visit the town of Les Cailles where we could clear in with the authorities and visit the market for provisions. The remains of the French colonial architecture are crumbling in to the streets, freight is pushed around on hand carts. The market was an experience from a different age, all transacted under a cloud of charcoal smoke. Sorry no photos of this, many Haitians object to being photographed, I don’t fully understand why. There is plenty that I don’t understand about Haiti, in many ways the most African place we have experienced in the Caribbean. Cut off from the rest of the world, the Haitian culture has developed in isolation and produced it’s own art and music, voodoo is a mainstream part of the culture.
In the immigration office we were shown to a private room to have are passports stamped. Two floors below was a scrum of Haitians in the process of applying for a passport. The cost of this is way beyond most of the population, and for the lucky few that acquire one, they then have to get a visa to go anywhere. Not easy travelling on a Haitian passport.
Is the biggest village on Ile a Vache. We walked for two hours along the mud tracks and beaches to visit the market there. Another experience that makes you wonder when the clock stopped here. The market stalls are constructed from twigs, or may be just a few fruit piled on the ground. Goods are transported on mules’ backs or womens’ heads. Fish and meat are butchered under the hot sun. We visited the orphanage and hospital and donated most of the contents of our ship’s medical box.
One morning I was enjoying the Haitian countryside from my high vantage point on a white stallion called Pow. Sheep and goats made way for us on the muddy path while ripe mangos fell from the trees. I’m not much of a horseman, but I was quietly pleased with my mastery of this fearsome beast.
So I was quite upset when Dawn showed me this photo, which somehow makes it look as though my feet were only just off the ground…
A La Prochaine!
We watched four more yachts arriving in the bay as we sailed away, the boys paddling furiously to greet them. I’d love to come back one day and see how life works out for those guys.
We spent about a week living a slice of Haitian life and it was a very intense time for us. Dealing with the non-stop attention and trying to manage all the requests, happy to help in any way we could. A really special experience. How will Haiti change by the time all these smart kids grow up. One of our new friends suggested I may want a small house in the village for when we’re too old to sail anymore. I told him I’d think about it.