Coming to Haiti

Haiti wasn’t even on our itinerary. But here we are! And loving it! We left George Town on Monday for a glorious sail out of the harbor and into the Atlantic. The wind was right on the beam, which is ideal, and fifteen knots in strength. Alembic seemed to be rejoicing with us to be back out to sea again. The Hog Cay Cut was surprisingly simple to pass. Many cruisers told us that it was too shallow, and the charts showed spots that were only 2.5 feet. Yes, we draw five feet, but those soundings are for average low tide. High tide this day was extra high, about 3.5 feet above the charted depths. So we planned our trip around this time. The other option, sailing north of Long Island, would add 100 miles to our trip.

We caught a Barracuda soon after passing through the Hog Cay cut
We caught a Barracuda soon after passing through the Hog Cay cut

Since the grocery store closed at 11am the previous day, and we missed this, we had to shop the day of departure. This set us back a bit, arriving at the cut almost two hours after high tide. The ebb was running swiftly, confirming that we missed the high tide, but the most shallow report from our trusted depth sounder was 6.9 feet. Yay!! We were on our way!

The rest of the day was blissful.

Perfect sailing conditions
Perfect sailing conditions

Our autopilot steers, so we just sit back and enjoy. Trimming sails every so often, making meals, eating, and fishing kept us busy, but certainly didn’t wear us out. We had considered stopping in Great Inagua for a rest, but no resting was necessary, so we kept on sailing, right into the Windward Passage, between Cuba and Haiti.

I need to learn how to photograph night shots.  I chatted on the VHF with this cruise ship
I need to learn how to photograph night shots. I chatted on the VHF with this cruise ship

Listening to Chris Parker, our weatherman on SSB, we decided that proceeding southward after the Windward Passage wouldn’t be the best idea. The first day or two would be fine, but the third day would be a wild ride, according to the weather gods. So, what to do? Our ideas of stopping in the Turks and Caicos or Great Inagua were no longer an option, Cuba may need some preplanning, and Haiti… We never really had considered Haiti a possible stopping point.

Approaching Haiti from the North
Approaching Haiti from the North
The Mizzen taking a rest
The Mizzen taking a rest

Luckily, I married a Man with a Plan. Bill always researches. Anything. Anywhere. He had read up about several spots in Haiti as emergency landings if we were having issues. The first place, Anse D’Hainault, was an anchorage on the western end of the Tiburon Peninsula, and the second place, Ile a Vache, was an island around the corner, further south then east.

Just before seeing the Green Flash
Just before seeing the Green Flash
Just after the Green Flash.  I never quite catch the Green in a photo
Just after the Green Flash. I never quite catch the Green in a photo

We decided we would check out the first on our way south, since it was on our course. The sun had set (with the magical Green Flash) two hours prior, leaving us with zero visibility in the moonless night. We decided to skip this place because there was not a single nautical marker or boat showing anchor lights. We were not keen on being the only boat in an anchorage. Carrying on, we sailed blissfully in very light wind and almost zero waves. As we rounded the corner of the peninsula, the winds began to pick up, with waves to match. Soon we were in large confused seas (waves coming from several directions and colliding with each other) with, again, no visibility. Staring into the blackness, we let our ears help us see. We heard voices nearby; sailors in dugout canoes with no lights, and also heard crashing surf everywhere.

Maybe we were tired from three days offshore, maybe we were worried because our trusty GPS was about to go blank (it doesn’t cover this area of Haiti and our mediocre iPhone App Navionics would be our only chart),

Our GPS is about to go blank.  See the screen turn off just in front of our boat’s current position?!


maybe we were allowing stories of unsafe Haitian shores to invade our brains. We panicked. For the first time ever, Bill and I were scared. Scared that Alembic would be dashed onto rocks by a wave, or that we would hit one of these many small unlit fishing boats, or… we needed to do something fast. We turned around.

Bill’s thoughts were dramatic: “Let’s go to Jamaica! Or Panama! And skip Colombia all together” Mine were simpler: “Let’s go back to Anse D’Hainault which is situated in the shadow of the wind, so calm and peaceful” We began to think clearly again, once we were headed west in this strong east wind. The ride downwind is always surprisingly peaceful, compared to trying to sail right into the wind. We motored around the corner again, headed north, and dropped anchor in the harbor at 11:30 pm, having no idea what it really looked like. Sleep came quickly this night.

Waking at 6, as usual, to listen to Chris Parker’s forecast, I slipped my head out of the hatch to see our new digs. The harbor was a perfect semi circle, large enough for one hundred boats, and we were the only boat anchored here. There were plenty of other boats, either meandering about the harbor, or laying on the beach, waiting for someone to drag them into the sea. Every boat was a dugout canoe. Boys and men were paddling or sailing their craft skillfully. Each boat had a gallon jug with the top cut off; perfect for bailing. I couldn’t figure out if the water entered the boats over the low gunwales, or through leaks in the hull. Either way, they required constant bailing.

As soon as my head rose above the cabin trunk, the parade of visitors began. How nice of them to allow us to sleep before their visits! The first boat had two young men paddling and bailing. I was under the false impression that my French would allow us to communicate with the Haitians who speak Creole. I struggled to understand a word of their welcoming speech. When two more canoes joined the first, I thought Great! These young kids will translate. I find that young children often speak more clearly than adults. Well, my French and the children’s eagerness helped, but the confused communication continued throughout the day. Hand gestures, laughter, repeating many phrases, and persistence all played a part in the steady stream of back and forth. We never left the boat because we were not checked in through immigration or customs, so they came to us.

While the exchanges of heartfelt thoughts were much more valuable than the exchanges of goods, here is a list of the give and take of goods:

Les Cadeaux
Les Cadeaux

We received four lobsters, one large mackerel, a gigantic pile of plantains, two oranges, one huge avocado, one mango, a grocery bag brimming over with sugar cane, many candles, and home made soap. The items we gave were twelve dollars, an old dive mask, two slices of bread, a cup of our tap water, five pens, one pencil, twenty pages of paper, and two spools of thread with a needle in each. Now if anyone was doing any accounting, the day didn’t end up fairly. Some people received more than they gave, and vice versa, but all seemed happy. Not one Haitian haggled with our offerings. They happily accepted whatever we gave them in exchange for the “cadeau” they brought to us. The only disappointments were when we refused many “gifts”. We just couldn’t take more fish, lobster, and coconuts. And we didn’t accept any invitations for trips with them. One young man came to the boat four times, trying to get me to go to visit with his Mom. He desperately wanted us to connect. I encouraged him to bring her to Alembic, but he explained that she didn’t swim, and that “she would die”. Bill also refused many offers to join the young men on fishing expeditions. I already regret our refusals. We were just not ready to leave Alembic unattended, or to leave each other in this foreign land.

Photographing the Haitians is generally not welcomed, according to other cruisers’ opinions, so the images of the day are safely tacked in my brain, not my photo albums. Impressions that stand out are: The tiny canoe with three children, the youngest being naked. The thirty something man who launched into a dramatic story, even placing tears in his eyes with dips of his finger to the sea, about his dad having heart problems and his needing money but the story had so many conflicting pieces of information. The boy who stood in his canoe trying in vain to ask me to tie a knot in the bag of paper and he finally pointed down to the canoe which was brim full of water. He just wanted to get the paper to shore dry! The same boy asking me to write my name and Bill’s name on a paper, then refusing to write his own but insisting I write it as he repeated: J. Gerome. He didn’t spell it out, nor did he verify that I spelled it correctly. At age 17, he could not write his name. The man and his son who had a dive mask that was so old and worn out that the plastic looked like it had melted right down to the flat piece of glass. How they could use this was a mystery to me. The “potty beach” where we could see a steady stream of people come to squat, some with buckets, some without. The young man who clung to an empty bottle as floatation for hours as he bobbed around Alembic, chanting, singing, speaking, but never engaging us in conversation or answering any of our questions. The grown boy who had a fishing line stuck in his teeth. He was paddling, bailing, and fishing, all at the same time and two hands were not enough, so he employed his teeth. It must have been lodged there quite securely, as he never attempted to remove it, even when he talked.

As the day drew to a close, I was filled with awe for these people. Everyone was kind, friendly, and eager to meet us. I wondered how often cruisers dropped anchor here. When I asked this question to several visitors, I received inconsistent answers.

So many more questions are pounding in my head, but they cannot be answered with words, so I have to be patient and allow my wonder and understanding to grow quietly. Why are there no girls above age 9 in the boats? Are there adequate jobs for people here? What percentage of people read? Write? Teach? Do people here have hope for their and their children’s future? Where is the violence that you always hear about in Haiti? Has anyone explained the reasons for better sanitary conditions? Does this matter? The list goes on and on…

One huge hope for me on this journey is to blur the lines between Us and Them. I have a goal of becoming one with foreigners from many countries. Residing in Haiti for less than 24 hours now makes me realize that the line between us has only become more established, not less. I have more questions than I ever did. I have more pity than I ever did. How can I move toward a better frame of mind, where acceptance is natural, and we can learn from and enjoy each other? Without judging. Or trying to “fix it”? I hope to move toward this goal steadily. We shall see…

One thought on “Coming to Haiti

  1. eloise hoyt December 12, 2015 / 1:21 am

    My friend Anne Hayes shared your post. My sister-in-law has been teaching school in Cap Haitian for the past 13 years. We went to visit her a year ago. I have not found a good way to explain to others what life is like in Haiti. You have done a good job.


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