It has been almost 10 years since novelist and sailor Geert van der Kolk’s life was impacted by a VHF distress call he and his family heard while sailing from Grand Bahama Island to Florida. Van der Kolk’s position precluded him from rendering any assistance and all that they could do was listen. Aboard their 30-foot sloop, Sea Scout, van der Kolk and his family listened to a nighttime tragedy unfold on the radio as 40 Haitian refugees perished while trying to reach Florida in two small open sailboats.
Later, haunted by the events and the steady stream of Haitian refugees attempting to flee the poverty and violence, van der Kolk decided to sail to Haiti for a first hand look at life on this troubled island nation. Landing at Jacmel on Haiti’s southern coast he found poverty, but also as he describes it, “a unique and fascinating society.” Venturing further to Ile a Vache, a remote island off Haiti’s southwest tip, he got the idea for the Haiti Sailing Project.
On Ile a Vache, an island of farmers, fishermen, and boatbuilders, he moored in Ferret Bay near the village of Cacoq. There he found himself surrounded by traditional Haitian fishing sloops, just like the ones attempting the regular exodus to the U.S. Befriending a boatbuilder and pastor of the local Methodist Church at Cacoq, van der Kolk decided to have a traditional Haitian sloop, Sipriz (Haitian Creole for â€˜surprise’), built for himself.
Van der Kolk’s plan is to sail the new boat to Florida with a crew of Haitian and American volunteers in an attempt to “…reconstruct the experience of all those anonymous boat people.” His hope is to draw attention to their plight and the problems facing the poorest country in the Caribbean. With the boat now ready to sail, van der kolk is awaiting travel visas for the Haitian crew members. Once they reach Florida, his plan is to base Sipriz at the Palm Beach Maritime Museum where it will be displayed as an example of Haitian boat building and testimony to the island’s countless refugees.