The St. Barts breakaway


To the editor: So here we are sitting on board our catamaran Indigo, all alone in our own private anchorage in Puerto Ferro on the south side of Isla de Vieques. It’s a barren island off the southeast end of Puerto Rico‚ a place I can’t imagine more than a dozen or so boats visiting a year. Soon we’re not alone: A sleek powerboat comes through the narrow entrance.
It anchors perhaps 150 meters from us, and we go back to doing whatever it is we’re doing (nothing). A couple hours later we decide to launch our tender and go for a cruise around the bay. As we pass by our visitors, someone appears on deck and waves wildly for us to come over.

In a thick French accent he indicates that he needs a ride to shore. I look where he is pointing and there, out of view from our catamaran, is a group of six men all dressed in orange shirts (federal prisoners?), a guy with an official-looking green uniform (the warden?), and a truck with a trailer. On the trailer sits an inflatable yacht tender. This is all very strange, so I ask him what is going on.

“Well you zee, I have lost zee tender in St. Barts 10 days ago and here it is.”

Debbie and I exchange glances. “Excuse me?”

His name is, of course, Pierre and he tells us the tale of the wandering tender. Pierre owns a small charter boat company in St. Martin. He tells us that he has five boats in his “fleet” and adds thoughtfully, “I need to learn to tie better knots.”

Apparently one of his tenders decided to take a midnight swim from St. Barts when it discovered only a very poorly tied knot holding it to the mother ship. So off goes the tender — a very nice 14-foot AB inflatable with a 70-hp outboard — searching for bluer waters and greener pastures. Sure enough 10 days and 135 miles later, it washes up on a tiny beach on the south side of Isla de Vieques —in itself a miracle, since the south coast is 95 percent ringed with jagged reefs, rocky cliffs and crashing waves. 

So someone finds the tender and rather than thinking, “Wow! I just found an abandoned $16,000 boat!” they contact the police who discover the registration papers in the forward locker (along with the keys, still in the ignition) and track down Pierre in St. Martin. 

Since it’s a full 135-mile open ocean crossing, Pierre has to find a way to get to Vieques, retrieve the tender and bring it back to St Martin. His phone rings: A friend of his has just shipped a 39-foot boat he bought in Italy to St. Thomas. Would Pierre mind helping him drive it to St. Martin? This is just too good.

The wayward dinghy at the start of its 135-mile tow back to St. Martin.

Eric Sanford

So Pierre flies to St. Thomas, meets his friend and they take his new boat the 30 miles over to Puerto Ferro to meet the officials there and claim his tender. Which is where our story begins.

Pierre and his friend are on their boat in the middle of the bay with no way to get to shore to meet the officials who have his tender on a trailer on shore. Had we not happened to launch our tender to go for a ride, it might have been a Puerto Rican standoff: Pierre not able to get to shore and the officials not able to unload the tender. With 100-to-1 chances of there being another boat in the bay (us), I’m not sure what he would have done. Even if he swam to shore, the battery in his tender was dead and there was no way to get it back to his friend’s boat.

We bring him to shore, he thanks the officials profusely and we tow his tender back out to his friend’s boat. Everyone is happy except perhaps the tender, which, much like an escaped horse, saw this as a chance to see the world.

Pierre casually loops the frayed polypropylene tow rope from the tender around a cleat at the back of the boat. 

“Uh, you’re not really going to tow it back like that, are you Pierre?” I say with a frown.

“No, no, no,” he insists. “I am going to make zee knot, of course.”

“Oh good,” I say, “because I don’t think you’d make it 500 meters out of this bay without losing it again.” I glance out into the frothing seas at the entrance to the bay just as another 30-knot gust rips through. Outside it’s howling, and with 8- to 10-foot seas, their planned voyage straight into the wind and seas is going to be nasty. Indeed, it will be a miracle if the tender isn’t swamped and sunk.

Pierre spends the rest of the afternoon cleaning his tender and, I assume, scolding her profusely for her wayward odyssey. Personally, I’m impressed. One hundred thirty-five miles of dangerous ocean in 10 days with no GPS, chartplotter, radar, depth sounder or even a compass — not to mention a soft beach landing … I don’t know many captains who can do that well. I know I couldn’t.

—Eric Sanford is an inventor, sailor and writer whose book The Buena Vista Diaries documents his many adventures on land and sea. 

By Ocean Navigator