by David Goodrum, s/v Faith
Sailing is full of surprises.
We’ve been at it seventeen years. Full-time cruisers is the recognizable term; however, ‘sailing missionaries’ describes better what we do and why we do it. To a half a dozen countries we have made errands of mercy, carrying medical supplies, relief items and church materials including many hundreds of Bibles. And every journey has been filled with unique but very rewarding experiences. It is, though, that unexpected surprise that makes each one complete.
Last December, after our first visit to the Rio Dulce, we were finally on the homeward leg through the Yucatan Channel. In the wee hours of the morning my wife Debbie and I decided to put Faith on autopilot and step below for some coffee. The wind had been painfully light for days, but now its fresh strength had our 40ft trimaran skipping the wave-tops once again at eight knots.
There are always those unexplainable sounds down below (especially at four in the morning), as though your boat and all of its many parts has a mind and a voice of its own. Well this time we both heard male and female ones, like cries – panicked cries. We were stopped in our tracks. After an exchange of confused looks we darted back up the companionway, me with rechargeable spot in hand.
The voices were unmistaken able, even in the howling wind and cresting seas, and I panned the light in their direction in time to see several faces and waving arms, rising and falling between the swells. My first thought was that we had come across the nets of local fishermen (never mind the depths and distance of the middle of the Channel). I called out, “We see you. Sorry!” expecting the propeller to wind up to a stop at any moment. But then I thought of a much more likely scenario – Pirates (well, that sounds a bit too dramatic...we’ll just say, ‘bad guys’).
It was Debbie who suggested a third possibility – refugees. After all, we are between Cuba and Mexico. I decided to attempt a radio call to the U.S. Coast Guard on our only radio, the VHF (just in case one of their ships was nearby). With no response I then tried for Mexican naval or governmental stations, finally receiving a reply from an uneasy young voice with thick accent. After explaining our situation he requested we standby while he went to speak to the ‘Capitan’ (though we never heard from him again - probably a passing ship instead.) By now Faith had covered some distance, and we decided that it was time to reduce speed and drop sail.
The decision to turn around was not made immediately because of certain concerns. Most importantly was the fact that we simply did not know what we were dealing with. On board there was just my wife, myself and another lady – a guest for whom we felt especially responsible. But what if those cries were, indeed, people in distress? That maritime law requires assistance to be rendered whenever possible, and our lifetime of experiences depending on Someone a lot bigger and better at taking care of us, we began a reciprocal course …I had failed to put in a MOB (man overboard) position on the GPS when the voices were first heard.
With Debbie on the helm, and me amidships with the searchlight, we made slow but steady progress. Then suddenly from the dark emerged what appeared to be heap of humanity somehow balanced on the smallest possible craft. They had propulsion and ran themselves right into our path! As Faith collided with them, faces immediately appeared on deck, along with arms and legs waving in frantic pleas. As they scurried up out of their sinking vessel all I could think to call out was, “It’s Ok, it’s Ok. Siéntese, Siéntese [sit, sit].”
By the time a dozen people had already filled the foredeck [thank goodness Faith is a ‘tri’] I had made my way to the bow. There, wedged beneath us, was what I can only describe as part of an oval ‘tank’, torch marks where it had been cut from the whole easily seen. Strewn about with clothing but little else, it was quickly filling with water. A mother held up to me her screaming one year-old son. I grabbed the little one, tucking him under one arm while reaching down to the fearful mother with the other. With the help of one of the young men we brought her aboard, trembling and crying.
Then I saw another young girl…unconscious, pale, lying in the bottom. Two men lifted her to me. She was cold and still. I thought she was dead. As the last one came up onto the deck I realized that their small engine was keeping the ‘tank’ pressed under my bows. I climbed down onto its edge, shoving downward and out until it finally parted from us into the dark, floundering and certain to quickly sink.
Seventeen souls – mostly young men, but also three women and a little baby – lay scattered across our decks. Wearied from four days at sea, weakened by not having food or water, not a sound was being made. We brought the unconscious girl into our cockpit and made efforts to warm her and get electrolyte fluid into her. We were successful in bringing her back from a state of shock. One of the men had a serious cut on his hand from the collision. We bandaged him as best we could. We passed around the little water that remained from our journey and a few sparse food items. Debbie was impressed how the men refused anything until the women were first looked after.
When it was decided that Isla Mujeres would be the best port to carry them as the food and water had run out and their exhaustion had finally overtaken them, they all settled to sleep. I found myself alone in the midst of a boatful of people. My thoughts raced in every direction. What if we hadn’t turned back? They were caught in the merciless western-Gulf current and would never have been found. So many variables of the past several days might have had us anywhere else but on this path, on this particular night. The awesomeness of it all was a bit too much. I was glad that I had that ‘bigger Someone’ upon whom to lean and for whom I could give the credit!
Two of the young men ventured into the cockpit wanting to express their gratitude. With Debbie’s limited Spanish, many gestures and much patience, we understood from them their special version of the night’s events. It seemed that these fellows had just recently found the Christian faith.
While the rest had been gripped in fear and despair these two were praying – praying for their rescue and praying for the little baby who by now was having great difficulty. Just then a ‘giant angel’ flew past them over the water. They knew it was an ‘angel’ because they saw its giant wings (our sails!). But the ‘angel’ continued to fly past and off into the darkness. So they prayed in more earnest for the angel to return and sure enough, suddenly, a bright star appeared just above the horizon (our spotlight) and it kept getting bigger. They knew this star was a sign they would be safe because of the star of the baby Jesus (this was only a few days after Christmas).
By mid-day we were finally rounding Isla Mujeres’ north end, escorted by a small Mexican naval boat. I can only wonder of the tourists’ reactions as they watched us sail past the crowded beaches with our deck full of rag-tagged people. The Mexican officials received us warmly, even having the local press out to interview us. Everyone called us ‘heroes’. The Cubans, we were assured, would be processed and released. The invitation to stay as guests of Mexico was declined, however, because we were anxious to stay ahead of the next cold front making our way home.
I must admit that, as we sailed towards the Dry Tortugas and home, I kept a vigilant watch for any others we might rescue (as I should hope we all would passing through these waters). I also reflected on the decision we have made to do what we do, the life that we live, and the opportunities it has afforded. Opportunities to make a real difference in this world come when they come. You usually don’t find them – they find you.
When you are ‘found’ don’t coward from your opportunities, but go full-throttle forward. After all, that opportunity may be your reason for being here.