Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Washing up on a buccaneer island

Three hundred years ago, the Ile de la Tortue (called Tortuga by the English) would have been a place to avoid if you were a seafarer. This little island off the north coast of Haiti was known as a base for buccaneers who preyed on shipping passing through the West Indies. By all account, the mostly French buccaneers were a wild band with a ruthless streak; a sailor would have done whatever he could to avoid encountering them. But this past Saturday (April 28), Tortuga was exactly where a shipwrecked captain wanted to be.

According to the US Coast Guard, Captain Ramon Pichardo washed up on a beach on Tortuga after spending four days adrift in the Caribbean. He’d been clinging to a wooden box, without food or water, when he spotted the island as dawn broke and decided to swim for shore. Though he was suffering from mild exposure, Capt. Pichardo was able to find a telephone and contact the authorities, who continue to hunt for survivors. So far, 19 people have been rescued; another 20 remain missing.

Tourists who have visited Puerto Plata may be familiar with the destination of the fishing boat: the Silver Bank, about 100 km north of the Dominican Republic resort town. Fishing and whale watching are popular on the bank, and Capt. Pichardo’s passengers were no exception. His vessel, the 52-foot Abra Cadabra set out from Puerto Plata on Monday, April 23 around 5:00pm, with 39 passengers and crew. But sometime after midnight, sea conditions worsened and the vessel capsized, throwing passengers and crew into the waters. They were over 30 kilometers from shore.

The 38 year-old Pichardo told rescuers that he and six other survivors managed to use a wooden box as a makeshift raft. They drifted west with the current, covering 120 kilometers in four days. Pichardo does not mention if they encountered sharks, but he must have remembered events like the infamous 1987 Death’s Head Beach incident. At that time, dozens of Dominicans, mostly women, were trying to make it to Puerto Rico in the hope of finding work. Smugglers agreed to take them in a fishing boat about the same size as the Abra Cadabra and it, too, capsized. The survivors were soon set upon by dozens of sharks who, according to witnesses, turned the waters red off what is really called Death’s Head Beach.

Currently, vessels and aircraft from the United States, the Dominican Republic and Haiti are running search patrols along the north coast of Hispaniola.

USCG map showing search area off north coast of Haiti

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