An encounter with modern-day pirates off Grand Cayman island
|Sailing from Cozumel to Grand Cayman, I forget exactly, something North of East and maybe 300 nautical miles. A three day sail in all if you can make good 6 or so knots over the ground. With the prevailing Easterly Trades it's a zig-zag course on a close reach.
Third day offshore, DR and celestial showed we might make landfall at Grand Cayman just before sunset. But since Grand Cayman is a low-lying island -highest point being 40 feet- you can't sight it until you're right up on it. Sometimes with islands, if they have mountains or if they are large enough in land mass, there will be a local cloud build up that is a dead give-away that you can spot from miles away. But not Grand Cayman.
With no GPS, your celestial nav and DR can get you close, but it won't be exact. There'll be some likely course correction needed once you spot land. But if you don't have a fix on Grand Cayman by sunset, you have to stand off overnight, which means staying awake or trading watches and enduring another night of lumpy seas. Even if you spot lights after nightfall, which you probably would, it's generally not a good idea to approach a landfall after dark if you've never been there before.
So, thinking in advance while still a good ways off, decided to raise Port Authority in Georgetown to see if they could draw a fix on our radio transmission signal and give us a more precise heading. Well, no, they did not have a radio direction finder to do that, but they seemed very inquisitive and eager to find us.
They asked us if we were in any trouble or needed help. We told them no, but they ignored that and we could hear them calling out to other boats advising them to keep a lookout for us. At first we found their eagerness to help -when we were in no need of any- to be perhaps a quaint and charming form of island courtesy.
But this wore thin on us after we had to repeat many times, in responding to their continued VHF transmissions to us, that we were perfectly fine and in need of no assistance. Soon other vessels were contacting us with equal concern, ad nauseum.
Meanwhile, we continued on our course having taken a noon sight with our trusty Sextant. Finally, toward sunset, we did spot a low-lying cloud in an otherwise clear sky. We made a slight course adjustment and soon we spotted land.
As we approached the shoreline, we furled in our the gennie and motor-sailed up the coast, heading north to Georgetown less that two nautical miles away.
It was about that time that we spotted a commercial power boat racing toward us at high speed. They circled and came dangerously close along side while slopping their wake all around us. As we stayed our course at a steady seven and one half knots. They angrily shouted 'Where were you?" 'We were looking everywhere for you! You have a sail down. Are you in trouble? We will come aboard to help you.'
Then someone on their foredeck awkwardly tried to toss a line over our lifelines and was readying to make a jump to grab on and climb aboard. But I quickly tossed the line off and we steered further away to avoid any chance of a leap onto our deck.
At this point we were definitely becoming concerned. After all, according to maritime rule on the high seas, if you accept a line from another vessel, they then can claim salvage rights to your vessel, unless you pay whatever amount they demand for 'services'. That's why all the radio traffic trying to build up their case -with a nice assist from some person or persons on duty at Port Authority.
This salvage rights rule had been known to come under abuse from its original intent. After a bit of jabber back and forth on the horn and calling across on deck. They started whining about how much fuel they burned looking for us, but the whole thing was just a set up. I was not amused and sort of dismissed the boatload of swarthy-looking types with some kind of remark like: 'I'll buy you a beer in town'.
This seemed to at last get them off our backs and at that point we were approaching the roadstead harbor at Georgetown. By then it was pretty much dark and after a pounding 3-day slog offshore, we were ready at last to get some real shut-eye. After setting anchor, we contacted the port authority and asked if we could wait and do the customs thing in the morning. They said it would be okay. So we dropped anchor and got ready for a good night's sleep.
Lyndell went below to take a shower and I was clearing up on deck when suddenly a high-speed powerboat came bearing down on us from a distance and put some kind of multi-million-candlepower spot on us. I happened to have same, and flashed my spot back on them. But this did not phase them in the least.
As they came closer, what I saw was a boatload of what I'm sure were some of the same swarthy-types we saw earlier, only now openly brandishing Uzi's, Mac-10s, and I definitely spotted a shotgun or two in the crowd.
I cupped my hands and called, "GET - A - WAY! DO - NOT - APPROACH! STAND - CLEAR!"
As they continued to approach, I shouted across to them: "Do NOT come alongside! -REPEAT: Stand clear!"
As they proceeded to come alongside I commanded: "I am the captain of this vessel and you do NOT have permission to board!"
As they began to jumping on board, I allowed; "Okay, but only two of you!"
And at that point with already four of them swarming the deck I just had to kind of laugh at myself. My show of being in control. A great act but they clearly were not buying it.
It turns out two of them have badges. Claim to be like the DEA of Grand Cayman. Gonna search our boat. Yeah, and tear stuff up too. Like at one point while I am being interrogated in the saloon, I hear pounding in the forward cabin and go in to see this guy named Novac pounding a hole in my boat with a hammer and an ice pick!
'Ah, I think your boat has a leak here' he says pointing to this fountain of water arcing up through the hull. After a few choice words from me Novak gets peeved and sticks the barrel of his revolver in my face, I'm told to go up and haul in 400 feet of system seven anchor chain by hand (no windlass) so we can scootch over to the sea wall to stay the night under guard.
All the while Lyndell is on the foredeck balling her eyes out. After a point one of them suggest I get her to shut up. Yeah right. Once tied alongside the seawall, I demand to see the consul, who turns out to be totally useless. I demand to have their names which we get and I frankly tell them I am going to file a formal complaint the next day.
The next morning they came down to the boat with chain saws to continue the search, talking about how they had to cut out all the bulkheads on the last boat they searched. At that point with the consul present I simply said: 'No complaints. We are not filing any complaints.' And with that the chainsaws disappeared.
They did a patch of the hole but told us we were under house arrest. They told us exactly where we could anchor while they 'continued the investigation' with our passports in their possession. No time estimate on when they would be through or what it really was all about.
After we got anchored, we shortly discovered that lo and behold, our five-figure cruising stash is gone, stolen, disappeared. There is no way they could have known when they snagged the bag. No time to have looked or counted.
And so now, the next day, they knew they were into us for a lot, and so now perhaps we represented more of a danger to them. Maybe they wondered if it might be drug money. What were they going to do about us? Days languished by in this tropical paradise off 7-mile beach. With a police boat standing by watching us.
We were allowed to go ashore at least. But the fun had gone all out of it. And it was odd. All the vacationers that had come in through the front door, through the airport and the hotel vans that brought them to their isolated resort compounds with police officers in the hallways and lobbies. The thought of cornering a vacationer with our story offered no hope of getting out. Nothing they could do, even if they believed us in the first place.
But we made ready to leave none the less and plotted plans of escape. We even went over and fueled up, including about a dozen yellow five-gallon diesel cans. We repaired frayed line ends and stitched up snags in our sails.
We had been there for a week the day the cruise ship came in to port. And then the next day, a crazy thing happened: The trade winds just simply, well, -stopped. It was a dead calm. Now the cruise ship was lying North-South, completely blocking any view from Port Authority out to sea.
And so, we decided to make a run for it.
We obtained permission to bring our boat in to fill our water tanks. On our way back, once we got around the cruise ship, we simply headed west at full throttle making over 7-1/2 knots. We were constantly watching the horizon for anyone giving chase and took relief when dark settled in and we ran without lights.
That first night along about 3 am, I was coming down to wake Lyndell up for her watch when the VHF broke squelch and a voice said: "Strider: We know you're out there." We both knew that that transmission had to have come from another vessel because we were over 60 nautical miles away from Grand Cayman, well beyond range for VHF.
I snapped the radio off and said: "They're just trying to get us to talk to see if we are still in range"!
A few hours later, as the sky began to get lighter, we were desperately searching the horizon line in hope against hope that there would not be another boat out there. But there was nothing. Still, we continued to scan the horizon until suddenly, our engine began to cough and power down. I checked the glass bowl of our fuel filter and sure enough it was half filled with water. Bad fuel from condensation inside the tanks back at Grand Cayman.
After pumping it clear we started it back up, but it died again immediately. Now we had an air lock in the fuel lines and I was going to have to bleed the injectors. After several go-rounds with the bleeding and trying to restart it again, it became clear that now the batteries were worn down. Even using the old trick of holding the injectors open and then kicking them in at the last minute didn't work.
And so now we were sitting ducks, dead in the water. I mean can you just give us a BREAK for crying out loud?
Well, okay. I'm not panicking or anything except I sure feel like panicking and maybe I actually am. And there sure isn't much breeze and putting the sails up would be like putting up a billboard 60 feet high pointing to where we were.
Okay so we had no choice, and after we got the sails set, and we were broad reaching along at maybe 3 - 1/2 knots, all we could do then was to wait and watch and listen for the sound of a powerboat in the distance.
After a while and nothing happened I was feeling like a zombie, all drained out. For now, we were still in the clear. And so we sailed on that day and through the night heading West in the Caribbean a hundred miles off the Southern coast of Cuba.
The next morning we were nearing the West end of Cuba and the Yucatan Straights where we would hang a hard right and head for the US. Now being some 300 plus nautical miles from Grand Cayman we were out of their fuel range and finally free. Suddenly Lyndell called to me from on deck to come see.
There to the North was the biggest, most colorful complete rainbow we had ever seen in our lives! I went back down below and popped open a bottle of Champaign as we toasted our good fortune at the gateway to a new life.