In late spring, the sea is rarely calm in the Windward Passage. The current funnels swiftly from the southern Caribbean through the narrow passage between Cuba and Haiti, flowing headlong into the incessant northeast trade winds. Water and wind always contend in that place; both are resolute and unyielding. Only a sudden downpour of a passing squall brings relative calm, when the sea undulates smoothly, pocked with rain.
The Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton patrolled the Windward Passage in June of 1984, prowling a barrier visible only to those on the bridge whose duty it was to check the progress of the ship each hour. They traced the slow movement of the ship, back and forth along a line penciled on the chart by the navigator, scribing an indelible rut in the frayed chart paper from west to east, and back again.
The cutter rolled about five degrees either side of vertical in the heavy swells, not enough to create discomfort, but enough to keep the men aware of the movement. In the pilothouse, the officer on watch scanned the horizon with binoculars, searching for contacts that might try to elude them. The small wooden boats, carrying human cargo, often remained invisible to modern radar. He walked outside onto the port bridgewing, into the bright sunlight. From either bridgewing, the officer could see fifteen miles in any direction, but the small sailboats were hard to spot, often blending with the whitecaps.
It was time for the change of watch. The helmsman stood at the wheel behind a console in the pilothouse. He shifted his weight impatiently from one foot to the other, as he repeated his last orders a second time to his reluctant relief.
The watch officer, a lieutenant junior-grade, welcomed his own relief, who stepped over the coaming from the pilothouse door and joined him on the bridgewing.
“Anything new?” Habit prompted the question.
The lieutenant shook his head, after removing his sunglasses, polishing them on the pocket of his uniform shirt. In a glance, the two shared the boredom of routine, punctuated by the change of watch.
“The Old Man wants to change course at 1615.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “A half hour from now. That way, we’ll be in a good position at dusk.”
On occasion, the ship departed from the barrier, running to a station on the northwest coast of Haiti, near the Ile de La Tortue. The tactic had worked previously to lure unsuspecting smugglers to attempt a nighttime gambit through the open passage.
“Okay. I’ve got it,” said the relieving officer. They exchanged feinted salutes.
The lieutenant walked to the lee side of the bridge-wing, and looked over the rail toward the horizon, where the mountainous coastline of Haiti rose from the water underneath a dark brow of clouds, highlighted by the afternoon sun. He closed his eyes for a moment and felt the sting of his shirt collar whip against the left side of his chin. The negative image of the coastline, by now memorized, remained etched in the semi-darkness of his mind’s eye. Steadying himself with his hands on the rail, he could feel crumbs of salt beneath his fingers. The rail vibrated with the steady hum of the engines, as the ship continued her slow predation.
After a three-month patrol, it was time to go home. He knew they would soon return to Port-au-Prince to refuel and pay a final visit to the consulate there, before departing for homeport. Another visit to the capital city did not appeal to him, however. The sights and smells of the harbor stained his memory — smells of charcoal cooking fires, diesel fumes, and raw sewage, which sluiced into the harbor after a heavy rain, tinting the ebbed tide a murky cocoa within a half-mile of the shoreline.
Each time he had been there, from the moment they arrived in port, the ship had been quickly surrounded by lateen sails and small rowboats filled with items for barter, mostly made of mahogany: chess sets, dinnerware, cooking utensils, and rudely carved naked figurines, both male and female. A crucifix bearing the emaciated, tortured body of Christ. Finely crafted sculptures of gaunt men with contorted faces and hollow eyes, reaching for the sky. All of these items could be traded for a carton of cigarettes or an unwanted pair of shoes.
In town, the filthy streets teemed with multi-colored buses and taxis, horns blaring, piously inscribed across their hoods with slogans in French, proclaiming “God Saves,” or some other similar platitude. It held nothing for him.
He opened his eyes, as the wind shifted across his face, to see the ship begin a broad turn to port, heeling slightly. He looked back along the sleek form of the ship, almost four-hundred feet long from stem to stern, and watched the wake follow in a sweeping arc. It seemed to him that they were turning early, and he confirmed the fact with a look at his watch.
Curious about the change of plans, the lieutenant walked over to the door of the pilothouse. As he ducked his head inside to inquire, the captain nearly knocked him to the deck in his haste to get outside.
“Have you seen it?”
“Seen what, sir?”
“No, sir. What boat?”
The captain peered at him from beneath overgrown eyebrows, with something approaching annoyance, and indicated with a flick of his wrist a small speck among the whitecaps, near the horizon. He put his binoculars to his eyes. A gaff-rigged sailboat. The lieutenant had not seen it until just now. Perhaps he had missed it among the whitecaps.
The ship began to come out of the turn, and gained speed rapidly, heading toward the boat to intercept. The captain scurried back inside, yelling to the watch officer to have the boarding party piped to the bridge over the 1-MC. As the announcement came over the speakers, the boatswain was already gathering a boat crew, and preparing the starboard motor lifeboat to deploy.
Twenty minutes later, the boarding party stood ready alongside the starboard boat. About two hundred yards abeam, the sailboat lolled like a bloated whale carcass in the six-foot swells. Even with binoculars, it was impossible to count the number of heads peering over the gunwale of the boat. Occasionally, a wave would break over the bow of the sailboat, and the heads would all disappear, only to reappear after a moment.
The boarding party consisted of an officer, four petty officers, and the Haitian interpreter, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who spoke fluent Creole, working for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They all clambered into the boat, and it was lowered slowly to the water.
Thick white smoke billowed from the cutter’s stacks, as she backed down and turned to parallel the heading of the dwarfed sailboat, taking station upwind and about a hundred yards behind to avoid any danger of drifting down on the frail wooden craft.
The lieutenant climbed down the starboard ladder and walked aft, along the boat deck. He reached the flight deck, or the “Steel Beach,” where the embarked helicopter sat tied down in its center. Two dozen of the ship’s crew basked in the afternoon sun, lounging around the helicopter. Some were lifting weights, or jumping rope, spending the few free hours between watches in an attempt to gain respite from a grueling routine of watch standing and boardings, repeated endlessly, it seemed.
A young seaman, who had been reading, placed his comic book face down on the deck and eyed the sailboat warily. It undoubtedly meant a missed meal or a sleepless night or two standing a towline watch. This boat, like four others so far on this patrol, would likely have to be towed at slow speed to Port-au-Prince. He knew, as did everyone else on the ship, that the boat was probably laden with illegal migrants, attempting to escape a life of destitution to seek a new one in the United States.
The lieutenant strode over to the Chief Radioman, who stood near the tail of the helicopter, leaning against the safety nets that skirted the flight deck. He had paused in his daily exercise circuit of the flight deck to observe the progress of the boarding.
“Afternoon, sir,” growled the Chief through a full, graying beard. “I suppose you were the one who spotted this one?” He spoke with resignation.
“No, Chief. You can’t hang this one on me.”
“I was about to commend your vigilance, Lieutenant.” He smiled, teeth gleaming through the beard. “Just as soon that we missed this one, sir. Time to go home.”
The boarding party had just reached the sailboat. The boarding officer leaped from the motor lifeboat into the sailboat, and disappeared among the tangle of bodies onboard. A petty officer and the interpreter followed.
The lieutenant leaned on the safety nets next to the Chief, and looked down onto the fantail below, where a detail of seven were inflating a large, donut-shaped thirty-man life raft, sometime used to ferry people in large numbers to the ship, in instances just like this one.
Once they arrived onboard, the men, women, and children from the sailboat would be identified and interviewed by an immigration officer, to determine their legal status. Most, if not all, would be repatriated to their homeland. All of them had in common a desperate desire to flee abject poverty and pestilence, most likely selling all their possessions to gain passage on this sailboat, hired to smuggle them into the United States. They would return home with nothing but twenty-five dollars, given to each by the Red Cross.
Repatriation was the policy of both governments, a policy shared along with their common heritage, ironically, of being the first nations among their neighbors to gain independence from European rule. These illegal migrants were considered to be a threat to the stability of both countries, for different reasons.
The same process had been repeated countless times already over several years. Surely, at some point, either the people or their governments would have to surrender. Until then, the process continued unabated.
One of the men below kicked the life raft into place at the rail, swearing and muttering at the inconvenience. The other men laughed at his consternation.
The cutter’s executive officer approached the lieutenant on the flight deck, walkie-talkie in hand. He craned his neck over the safety nets and called to the men below.
“Make sure that raft is ready to go. Cap’n is very concerned that the boat is not stable.” He indicated the sailboat with a double-tick of his thumb. Turning to the lieutenant, he said with a frown, “The boarding officer says there’s about six inches of water in the bottom of that boat. We’re moving a little closer to launch the raft. When the captain says go, I want that raft over the side. Understand?”
“Aye, sir,” replied the lieutenant, standing upright.
The radio in the exec’s hand crackled as he paced toward the side to get a better look at the sailboat. Instead of a steady, rhythmic roll, the boat yawed, corkscrewing through the tops of the breaking waves. The boat was close enough to notice that its length was painted in two broad bands, bright blue over chartreuse. Pitch from between the planks stained the side in long, fuscous streaks. The yellowed sail bore three large patches, one of which had burst open, and the torn flap snapped in the stiff breeze. The boat rolled so far over on her side that the keel was visible, streaming bright rivulets as it cleared the water. The motor lifeboat followed close astern.
“Look at that.” The Chief grabbed the lieutenant’s arm.
They both looked to see a ganglion of bodies surging from the sailboat onto the motor lifeboat, forming a human bridge, over which others crawled, grasping, clawing for safety. A second later, the wind toppled the sailboat, sending the mast and sail crashing into the waves, and dumping the human cargo into the sea.
The exec groaned. He scampered back to the bridge as he lifted the radio to his mouth and screamed the plight of the sailboat into it. Word of the capsizing scudded throughout the ship. The crew bolted from their leisure activities, rushing to man their emergency stations.
“Come on!” the Chief yelled, tugging at the lieutenant’s sleeve.
They ran forward together the length of the flight deck, climbing the ladder to the next level, where the ship’s life rafts were stowed. They worked together to free the rafts from their harnesses, kicking them overboard. The rafts burst open as they impacted the water in orange and black blooms, engulfed in geysers of spray. One of the rafts caught the Chief’s sleeve as it fell overboard, nearly carrying him with it. He screamed in agony, holding his broken forearm. The lieutenant helped him climb back down to the flight deck, and guided him through the nearest hatch to seek the corpsman on his own.
The team on the fantail managed to get their huge raft over the rail. The wind pressed it against the side of the ship, until the sheer weight of the raft carried it into the water.
The crew swarmed the decks, rushing to launch the remaining two ship’s boats, and tossing life rings, lifejackets — anything that would float — into the water. Small, seething explosions told where frantic arms flailed the water around the overturned hull.
Wind and waves quickly spread the people and flotsam across the surface of the water, speckling an acre of seascape in just a few minutes. A score of survivors already had crawled into the empty boats and life rafts, and they in turn reached out to the others who grasped at the air, their mouths gaping open in pleas for help.
The flight crew readied the helicopter to launch. Within five minutes, the engine whined into life, and the blades began a slow rotation, gradually picking up speed, until the aircraft jerked off the deck, rising swiftly into the air. The helo soon began dipping and hovering, plucking survivors from the water in a basket lowered on a cable.
A motor lifeboat, dangerously overloaded with the first survivors, came alongside the ship. The lieutenant ran down the ladder to the weather deck to help haul them aboard. Two crewmen had prepared a rope ladder at the gangway, which dangled fifteen feet down the side of the ship into the water.
One by one, the boats towed the life rafts back to the ship. The bottom of each raft sloshed with a foul, yellowish gruel of seawater, vomit, and human excrement. Terrified, spent faces stared up in the air, their eyes glazed. Clinging to the sides of the rafts and to each other, the way a child awakened from a nightmare clings to her mother, most were too afraid or tired to climb the ladder. The lieutenant and the other crew nearby lay prone on the deck, reaching over the side to pull them up by their arms. Some hung lifeless as they were pulled aboard.
He saw the exhausted face of the boarding officer among the others.
“Jacques is missing,” the boarding officer called, weakly.
“Jacques is missing,” he yelled. “I saw him go under. He had about eight or ten people hanging onto him. Then he slipped out of his lifejacket. The others went down with him. I didn’t see him come up.” The Haitian interpreter had disappeared beneath the waves with several of his former countrymen clinging to him.
The lieutenant reached down to help the boarding officer out of the raft, who instead lifted up an old man by the shoulders, slumped next to him in the bottom of the raft. The old man’s head drooped, his chin resting on his collarbone, sharply visible underneath the taut, dusky skin. He shivered uncontrollably. His clothes were gone and his entire body was covered with the yellow gruel.
Grasping the man’s armpits, the lieutenant lifted him to safety, with the help of the crewman beside him. The old man looked up at him with hollow eyes, set in a gaunt, contorted face.
It was a face that he had seen many times before, carved grotesquely in dark mahogany, and traded for a pittance.