An Incident at Sea

While on Passage –Are Them Thar Pirates??

Between Cuba and Haiti, it looks like a 2 way highway on the chartplotter,   like a road with arrows. Each lane is about 5 miles wide. It is quite a pinch point for all of the cargo ships passing through.

Once around the SW tip of Haiti, Angie saw a whale breach a few times towards shore. We headed  East  on a 2 day tack for a better wind angle to Bonaire, about 5-10 miles off of Haiti’s mountainous shore. Angie was taking the late morning shift at the helm. Mark was laying down (not sleeping, but trying to relax).  The ship’s horn sounded.  “Mark, I need you up here….NOW!”  Angie had made 3 steering corrections and one of two Haitian boats had correspondingly moved so that we would run directly into them. This boat had a hull painted the same color as the Sargassum sea grass “rivers” we were maneuvering around. Otherwise, Angie would have seen it much quicker than she did.

The boat was about 16 ft long, had a tall bow for waves, a single outboard, and 4 people in polo shirts in it. No fishing lines were out, or any type of gear, once we got close enough to see. Angie had started the engines and turned almost 90 degrees on a heading away from the boat and coast line, out to the middle of the Caribbean Sea. They continued following us. Angie continued at the helm, and Mark stood on our port hull, waiting for the approach of the fishing boat and possible boarding. Once the fishing boat was close, the 4 guys motioned with both arms in a distress motion over their head. Almost 30 ft away from us, at the port stern, they became angry, arms now stretched out below the waist making an upside down v gesture with palms up.  The man at the stern then held up a gas can and pointing to it. What’s the international gesture for “No way in hell are we stopping ?” Mark moved one arm from across his opposite shoulder down to his waist, shaking his head, and saying,  “NO”. Multiple times. With just starting out our journey, we were not going to give away fuel that we might need.  The guys continued arguing in the fishing boat.  Minutes after “drifting” by us, they fire up the outboard and headed  towards land. The 2nd  boat, originally in front of us, now off our port, slowly moved away. At the point where the first boat disappeared into the coast, a Haitian sail boat hoisted its sail, now sailing away from shore, on an intercepting course with our new heading.  These sail boats are mid-sized, about 40 ft, with big square rigged sails (Lots of sail area). With a determined crew, they can easily outrun us down wind. We hoped this one was like the others we saw in Great Inagua, without a motor. We were then about 10 miles off shore and turned directly into the wind. We dropped the sails and ran with a single motor, full throttle, going 7 knots.  The only way we could keep distance is to head directly into the wind as long as they didn’t have motors.   They followed us for four hours, trying to pinch that square rigged boat into the wind, before doing a 180 and headed back to shore.  Again, why does stuff like this always happen when Angie is at the helm??

With dusk arriving, we continued our course, at least we were making headway  Southeast towards Bonaire.  We were trying to get away from the mountains of Haiti, which still were on the horizon.  We could still be seen from shore. A decision was made to run without navigation lights at night while this close to Haitian and DR waters and without our sails up, making it harder to be seen on the horizon.  There was not much moon light to help with night vision.  With leaving the radar and AIS on, we could see other boats approaching us. If they had radar and AIS, they could  “see” us as well.  We figured if a boat had radar and AIS, then they probably had enough motorpower to overtake us, if they meant any harm.  We would not really have a chance.  Of course, by this point, we now had our flare guns with 410’s and 45’s loaded in the inserts, setting next to us at the helm.  Angie did the first night shift with no big issues. She turned on the nav lights when a cargo ship was passing close, but kept them off while a small sailboat passed and a big power boat headed out from the DR shore.  We were on edge the whole night, wondering if another boat would follow us. Thankfully, we didn’t run into any more vessels acting weird.

In hindsight, were the guys out there to intercept us or actually in need of gas/money? What were they doing out there without fishing gear? Did we overreact? Was it coincidence the sailboat came out of the harbor? We don’t know what their intentions were, but the situation did not feel comfortable in any regard.  Maybe if they had signaled that they were out of fuel BEFORE they maneuvered to cut us off multiple times, we would have reacted differently. However, we went with our guts, and would do what we did over again. Don’t really feel like being another statistic.

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