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Voyaging

A Cruising Adventure from The Dominican Republic to Florida

Running with the Devil

The cursed crew of an old Post 42 discovers cruising through paradise isn’t always a heavenly endeavor.

Peter Swanson
A pensive author

The twin Detroits roared to life. We took in the dock lines. Well-wishers had gathered on the town of Luperon’s rickety pier, among them the late artist Lou Jorgl, a local expat who’d arrived on the Dominican Republic’s northern coast onboard an old motoryacht and never left. Cigar in hand, he was performing his best imitation of a priest, going through the motions of blessing our voyage—or maybe administering last rites.

My friend Barry Terry and I do the occasional boat delivery to supplement our incomes, and we specialize in the “Thorny Path,” an island-to-island route between Florida and the Caribbean. We particularly like bringing boats back to Florida, traveling with the prevailing winds, waves, and current. It’s easier, mostly. But this old Post 42 was a special case. We figured we’d need a lot more than a few providential forces of nature to deliver her successfully from the D.R. to the Sunshine State.  

Endless Summer had been a fine boat in her day, but not anymore. Non-Stop Bummer was more like it. Indeed, problems had begun well before the new owner had called Terry and me from Louisiana, having heard about us by word of mouth. A couple of expats had started a delivery a few weeks before, only to limp back in the middle of the night, their calls for help causing a ruckus in the harbor.  

Of course, departure day had started inauspiciously, with the local port captain not wanting to let us leave. Luperon’s comandante did not give a whit about our safety, but, for some reason, he heartily disliked the European guy selling the boat. So our first delivery challenge was to break Endless Summer out of jail. “You cannot leave Luperon today,” the comandante said. “You must get these additional documents signed in Puerto Plata and come back tomorrow.”

Terry’s an ex-British Army boxer, ex-rugby player, ex-cop, and a transatlantic sailor. When faced with opposition, he gets mad and his face turns red. Sarcasm and force of argument made no impression, however. The comandante and his men had guns. Go away, they told us. 

I decided to play my “get-out-of-jail-free card” for the D.R., and call a top executive I knew in the energy sector, but in the end, the matter was decided through the intercession of a friend and local boatbuilder, who regularly “sponsors” Luperon’s Navy post as part of the cost of doing business. He came back with us and chatted with the comandante who then cheerfully signed us out. 

Ocean World For Repairs

Helped by our friend and blessed by a cigar-smoking impressionist, we left for Ocean World marina at Puerto Plata. The 15-mile transit would serve as a sea trial, we figured, and then we could stage our departure from a spot where repairing essential systems would be easier.

The seller had vouched for the electronics, but only the VHF and the simple GPS readout functioned. We would have no radar, sounder, or autopilot. Fortunately I’d brought along a borrowed Lowrance fishfinder/chartplotter.

At Ocean World, Terry and I spent the next three days changing filters and belts, trying to find appropriate spares and repairing (or jury-rigging) the electrical system enough to have confidence in such basics as navigation lights. The fuel filters were filthy. Both engine belts were worn. Altogether, we did too much work to list here. 

As a husband to his vessel, Endless Summer’s former owner had been clueless. No wonder the first delivery attempt had failed. Those two gringos had set out on an 800-mile voyage without changing filters or belts, with non-functioning bilge pumps, a non-functioning genset, broken nav lights, no horn or flares, no EPIRB, an inadequate battery bank, and ridiculously inadequate ground tackle. 

We telephoned our client with our appraisal. The boat was essentially sound with strong motors, but she needed work before she would be safe enough for the voyage. Parts and accessories in the D.R. were going to cost more, and sometimes a lot more, than they might in the United States. We didn’t want our guy to be surprised when he got the bill. That’s when he told us something wild. He had bought Endless Summer over the telephone without ever coming to look her over!

Must have been a heck of a good deal, we told each other. Later the revelation would give us pause. Were we unwitting drug mules?

Asymmetrical Throttles

We aborted our first departure from Puerto Plata because we lost the port throttle. After tracing the control cable we found that it was connected to a massive old synchronizer that had decided to die in the D.R. We disconnected the cable and attached it directly to the port motor. We had both throttles again, but now they were asymmetrical. Rather than risk breaking a piece of linkage that would be difficult to replace in the D.R., it was easier to connect the port cable in such a way that pulling back increased the revs, rather than decreasing them.

Underway at last! Terry and I set a course for the Turks and Caicos, about 80 miles north. We used our borrowed chartplotter to steer, and, lacking an autopilot, stood two-hour watches throughout the night, making a steady 8 to 9 knots. Off watch, one of us slept on the padded bench seat in front of the helm. No human can steer as efficiently as a modern autopilot and our track sometimes looked like a wiggly wave. The constant corrections forced hydraulic fluid out of a leak inside the steering console, meaning we had to top off the steering system periodically.

By dawn we were off Salt Cay in the Turks, and the clouds to our northwest were pale green, reflecting the water of the shallow Caicos Bank. We used “eyeball navigation” to avoid the coral heads, crossed the bank, and anchored at Sapodillla Bay after sunset—exhausted. 

At Sapodilla we cranked up the generator. We had developed a healthy leak from a rudder post during our passage, and I happened to be unclogging a bilge pump for the umpteenth time when the genset rumbled to life. I noticed diesel fuel spreading across the bilge water.

Terry investigated, finding that among the maze of hoses in the engine room, there was an open-ended one that T-ed off the generator’s fuel supply line, so when the genset sucked fuel it also poured the stuff into the bilge. That explained why the boat stank of diesel. Terry plugged the line with a screw and secured it with a hose clamp. 

More Repairs at Caicos

The ocean had grown rougher, so we decided to spend a couple days at Caicos Shipyard Marina where we could get parts and work on the boat. Repairs included installing new bilge pumps and bilge-pump hoses, replacing the genset impeller and fuel filter (not available in the D.R.), repairing the rudder-post leak, reinforcing the port outrigger after a shroud failure, jury-rigging an anchor light, and unclogging the head, which, sad to say, ultimately pooped out altogether.

On the morning of our departure from Caicos we visited the fuel dock and got another surprise. One of the 250-gallon tanks took 70 gallons of diesel, the other 170 gallons. Unbeknownst to us, both motors had been returning fuel to the same tank, with no system to equalize or transfer fuel. When we’d asked the seller and his brain-dead mechanic whether each of our Detroits had its own designated tank, they had responded in the affirmative. In hindsight, they had probably not even understood the question.

Never mind. We’d gone 20 hours without running one side even nearly dry, and based on that experience we figured we could cruise at 9 knots for more than 24 hours before emptying a tank. That would easily take us to our next fuel stop: Clarence Town on Long Island in the Bahamas.

To get there we went south of Crooked and Acklins islands, though it added a few miles to the passage. The route put the swells on our quarter rather than abeam and offered a sheltered bank near the southern tip of Acklins where we could anchor in the dark and get five or six hours’ sleep before dawn. The final leg to Clarence Town could then begin in the lee of Crooked and Acklins. And by the time we were back in exposed water, seas would be calmer, or so the forecast we’d gotten earlier had said. 

Fear and Loathing

Our strategy succeeded, and we arrived at Flying Fish Marina in Clarence Town by late afternoon. But

now sections of the rubrail, which had been attached with only one screw for every five mounting holes, had been dislodged by the force of the waves. And one was bent outward at nearly a 45-degree angle from the hull. We came a little close to an immaculate 75-foot sportfisherman at the dock thanks to our asymmetrical controls, and the boat’s weasel captain and crew made a show of snubbing us at the marina’s tiny pub. 

We endured similar derision during a subsequent fuel stop at Highbourne Cay, when we nuzzled up to the fuel dock in the space between the transoms of two megayachts docked in opposite directions. Both captains came aft to glare at us. One put on “bitch wings,” which is when someone stares at you intently with both fists balled into his or her hips, elbows sticking out, as if ready to take flight and peck you in the head with his captain’s beak.

But these indignities were nothing compared to the self-inflicted mental anguish that followed our stop at Clarence Town. “Listen, have you considered that we’ve been set up, that this boat is carrying drugs to the States?” Terry asked at one point. 

“You kidding?” I replied. “In my mind, I’ve been calling that liferaft canister on the foredeck the ‘cocaine canister.’ What we know about our seller is not good, and, even though he seems like a nice guy on the phone, we don’t know much about our buyer.”

For me, you see, the sticking point was our earlier discovery that the Louisiana-based owner had purchased Endless Summer for $40,000 without even looking at her. “Maybe the particulars of the boat don’t matter. Maybe she only has to make one trip to Florida. And maybe the situation gives the owner deniability if we are stopped and drugs found,” I said. “He could point the finger at us.”

This scenario was not far-fetched. It’s commonly known that the D.R. in recent years has become the transfer point for most of the illegal drugs en route from South America to the United States. Besides the liferaft canister (which lacked an inflation lanyard), there were many other places onboard where contraband could be stashed.

Threatened with Arrest

Terry was particularly troubled because, guess what? He had retired from a division of British Customs that investigates drug smuggling. “With my background they’ll never believe I was ignorant of the fact,” he said.

As luck would have it, we entered Port Everglades unchallenged and rented a slip for Endless Summer at a marina along the Dania Cutoff Canal. Had we actually been smugglers, we could have quickly taken our liferaft canister, put it in the trunk of our rental car, and vanished. Instead, we reported to U.S. Customs. At the office, we rang the special button for people arriving on private yachts. A man came out and barked, “It’s too late! Go away!” 

“What do you mean?” we challenged, “The sign says ‘last appointment at 4:30.’ It’s only 4:15!”

“Don’t care,” he growled, “Arriving this late’s rude! Come back tomorrow!” 

So we went next door to Immigration. A minute after showing our passports and papers the trouble started. “Why, Mr. Terry,” an officer asked, “have you chosen to enter this country without a visa?” The guy then threatened to arrest Terry and said our client might have to pay a big fine for letting his boat be used for human trafficking. Ever the diplomat, Terry responded with a quote from an ancient Athenian known as Solon the Lawmaker: “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the blind obedience of fools.” Immune to philosophy, the officer ordered Terry to report back the next morning.

Terry was not in the wrong, by the way. During a layover in Nassau he had visited the U.S. Embassy and had been told—incorrectly—that he could obtain a visa waiver online, which he did.

The next day, after much to-ing and fro-ing, a superior officer at Lauderdale Immigration believed Terry’s story about being misled and granted official forgiveness.

Giant Roaches

With legalities behind us, I went to pick up Endless Summer’s new owner and his wife at the airport. It was instantly apparent that here were no drug kingpins and that our fears about being duped into becoming smugglers were unfounded. Our client was as courteous and straightforward in the flesh as he had been on the telephone. 

I went over the boat with him, and all its problems, including an infestation of giant cockroaches. He had expected Endless Summer to be a turnkey sportfisherman. Instead, I pointed out that he needed, among other things, new wiring, a new fuel system, and new hydraulics. On the other hand, I added, the motors were strong and the genset was too, so he’d probably gotten his money’s worth.

He was a professional mariner as it turned out, the captain of his own tugboat in the Gulf. I asked him why he’d bought Endless Summer sight unseen. He said the seller had been very convincing. “I just felt I was dealing with a ‘brother of the sea’ and I could trust him.”

The delivery’s dénouement? Terry and I came away with a perverse pride in having overcome a host of obstacles—navigational, mechanical, and bureaucratic. We also came away with a conviction to charge more for deliveries in the future.

The new owner savored no such victory, however. As we traveled from the airport, the guy’s wife remained silent while I listed Endless Summer’s issues, including the giant roaches. Once I’d finished, though, she spoke up.

“Huh,” she said grimly, “Sounds to me like you bought the wrong boat!”

Do you have any sea stories? Drop us a line at inbox@pmymag.com.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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