3/12/01 | The boat on the beach

Britt and Mark survey the damageIt's been a bad year for shipwrecks. We saw a sailboat up on Bimini's western shore the day we left that island, and a racing sailboat spent the night on a reef at the entrance to George Town while we were there. When we arrived at Conception Island, we immediately noticed a small sailboat up on the beach, with a camp above in the brush. The next day we landed the dinghy (a tough job in wind-whipped surf) and hiked down the beach with a jug of water as an offering.

We stood by the tilted boat and hailed the owner. While we waited for him to crawl out of his improvised tent (made from the boat's awning), we looked around his camp. He'd salvaged a lot of gear, all neatly arranged in rows and piles:  tools, buckets, jerry jugs, plastic tubs, even his outboard motor. Books and charts hung across his tent ropes, drying in the wind.

The boat's owner was still pulling on his clothes as he walked across the sand to greet us. His name was Mark. A fiftysomething Vietnam veteran, sinewy and deeply tanned, he moved among his scattered belongings like being shipwrecked was no big deal. It was, he told us, the second time he'd ended up on the beach; the first time, in the Pacific, the biggest piece left "fit in the back of a pickup truck."

This boat, like the one wrecked in the Pacific, was a Columbia 26 Mark II. No name on the transom, but Mark told us that when he filled out the papers to enter the Bahamas he called it Roadkill. "It's a bad luck boat," he said.

"I was getting out of here before the last storm, and not half a mile out I hit something. I had the tiller in my hand and then it wasn't attached to anything." The reef had torn away the rudder.

Mark and "Roadkill"He couldn't steer the boat other than some rudimentary steering with the sails, so he returned to the anchorage and dropped two anchors, prepared to wait out the blow. In George Town during the storm, a large but protected harbor, we saw 2-3 foot waves. Conception Island's west bay is entirely open to the west, and with the wind howling at 25-35 knots first from the southwest and then from the northwest, the waves must have been huge. Mark remembers them breaking over the boat as it strained at its anchor lines.

The anchors held, but the anchor lines didn't. First one, then the other parted, and Roadkill headed for the beach. "Rode it all the way in. Hell, reminded me of when I used to ride rodeo."

After jumping off on the beach, he watched the boat buck and spin in the surf, finally coming to rest on its side. With everything he could salvage dragged above the high tide line, all he could do was watch the waves bury his boat in sand. Each afternoon he'd dig out a trench around the keel and hull, and each morning he'd wake to see sand covering the boat again. "You know what Carl Sagan said?  'There are as many stars in the sky as grains of sand on the beach.'"  He kicked at the edge of his sand trench. "I'm beginning to seriously disbelieve that man."

The westerly winds continued for three days, then switched back to the east, and cruising boats began to return to Conception's west bay. By the time the first cruisers landed to see if they could help, Mark had been out of drinking water for 24 hours.

The first visitors to the bay, from the motor yacht Innsanity, gave him plenty of water and offered him a lift back to George Town. But he didn't want to leave his boat or his gear, and thought he had a chance of refloating his boat if he could just get some help and some epoxy resin for repairs. He had some friends in a boat at Grand Bahama that he wanted someone to contact, and that's where we got involved. Overhearing Mitch on Innsanity asking another boat on VHF to pass a message to a marina which might have email capability, we jumped in and offered to send the message from our boat.

Once we were able to verify that Mark's friends got his message, there was nothing else we could do for him. We'd offered him some epoxy resin, but he decided it wasn't the right kind and that anyway he'd need more than we could spare; we also gave him some coffee, an orange, and a piece of marble cake I'd baked. In return he gave us a triple-tip pole spear point and a papaya someone else had given him, which he professed not to like. We didn't want to take food from a castaway, but we could tell he'd rather exchange goods than accept charity.

Out in the anchorage, a small cruise ship, the Amazing Grace, had just come in. Small boats ferried its passengers to the shore so they could walk along the beach. As we said our goodbyes to Mark, wishing him good luck, the passengers had already started to swarm in his direction like ants at a picnic. A few peppered him with questions; others posed at the wreckage as if it were a prop placed by the cruise line to make their vacation photos look more interesting. One man climbed up onto the boat's canted deck and pretended to hold up the mast while his wife snapped pictures. Mark shot us an exasperated look and retreated back to his makeshift tent.

It's hard to say what is going to happen now. Although he's had many offers of rides to various places, he won't leave his boat. But getting it off the beach is going to be a major task, possibly one for which volunteer labor and equipment alone won't suffice, and in any event the boat might no longer be seaworthy. His friends at Freeport are themselves in a small boat; it will take them a week to reach him, if they come, and it's not clear they'd be able to do any more than any of the other cruisers who have offered to help. At some point, determination and self-sufficiency will have to give way to reality. Meanwhile, the waves keep coming, and the grains of sand keep piling up.

postscript 3/15

Before we headed back to our boat, we suggested to one of the cruise-ship employees in the throng by the wreck that the ship could probably help Mark a lot more than any of us small-boat cruisers. He said he doubted they could do anything, but he'd check with the captain.

We lifted anchor and sailed to Rum Cay late that morning. A few days later, two other boats that had been at Conception came into the anchorage, and they told us the rest of the story. The captain of the Amazing Grace had radioed the owners of the cruise line and gotten permission to take Mark, his gear, and his boat to Freeport, their next stop and a major city, for free. All Mark had to do was take off the sailboat's keel so the ship's crane could lift the rest aboard.

Mark declined to remove the keel. According to the cruiser we got the story from, he felt that the cost to get the boat put back together in a Freeport boatyard would exceed its value. But he accepted the offer of several dozen enthusiastic tourists to try to dig out and right the boat.

Maybe it was the result of all those unskilled hands, maybe it was just that the fiberglass boat could not endure days of pounding against the beach; as the bottom of the boat emerged, no longer supported by the sand, the keel broke off and the hull cracked. Roadkill was now beachkill.

The ship's captain was still willing to take castaway and gear to Freeport. When Mark demurred, saying that it would take him too long to pack, the captain offered to send several crewmembers to help, but the offer was again turned down. The last we heard, Mark's still camping on the beach, self-sufficient to the last.

The whole story reminds me of the old joke about the religious man who climbed up onto his roof when a flood hit, praying for God to save him. A boat came by, and he waved them off:  "Save someone else, God will save me."  A helicopter came by; same thing. The flood waters rose higher, and he drowned. Finally face-to-face with God, he demanded, "Why didn't you save me when I prayed?"  God sighed. "I sent a boat, I sent a helicopter..."

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