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Trouble in Portsmouth Anchorage: Dominicans Respond Quickly to Yacht Boarding.

By Sue Richards last modified May 27, 2009 12:07 PM

Published: 2009-05-27 12:07:57
Countries: Dominica

Hello Noonsite,
My husband Roy Burley and I were on board our boat Bonanza the night that Clypeus was boarded. (See news articles here and here). We were on the scene immediately and there are a few more things that I feel should be included in the report. Like the fact the dinghy was recovered that night by coast guard and the involvment of both law enforcement and government. Below is my own story that appears on my blog on the incident. Regards,
Michelle Fleming
SY Bonanza

I am awake. Faint reggae music is playing somewhere on shore, but not loud enough to wake me up. So, why am I up? It’s 1:30 AM and I am tempted to just roll over and go back to sleep, but while on board I usually poke my head out the hatch and have a look around. Bonanza, our 40 foot Island Packet sits calmly in this new anchorage after rolling relentlessly for the two previous nights. Imagine trying to fall asleep while holding on tightly to the bed frame. Swell creeping into the anchorage tips our mono hull from side to side in a graduated pattern of increasing intensity. It begins with a slow, gentle motion that escalates into a full blown washing machine like experience which then subsides completely for a few seconds before starting all over again. You get the picture. So since moving to another part of Prince Rupert Bay here in Dominica, we were very happy to be sleeping.

While I ponder leaving the bed, I hear a different noise mixed in with the music. Sounds like a horn…a bit anemic but distinct. I count the blows; one, two, three, four, five. Now I am up! Five blasts on a horn are considered a distress call. Coming up into the cockpit I spot a sailboat moving along slowly behind us. Someone is on deck at the bow and the horn is sounding again. My sleep addled brain is slowly registering the situation. The only thing I can imagine is that it is drifting. Maybe the anchor broke loose? I call over, “Are you adrift?” Someone shouts back, “We’ve been robbed. They’ve taken the dinghy, our radio, cell phones, everything. Can you help us?”

Oh my! Not good. “We are launching our dinghy and we will come right over” I shout back. Roy is now taking in the situation as I realize that we’ve seen this boat. Earlier, Roy and I had chatted briefly with the British couple on board. As we passed by their boat I asked if they noticed any swell in the night. He said no, he hadn’t, but they had just arrived from an over-nighter from St. Martin. Nothing usually bothers us when we are that tired, he said. I wondered why they had decided to drop the hook in this particular spot; somewhat distant from other boats. Maybe they wanted a bit of privacy?

We decided to anchor several hundred yards to the South of them, close to two other sailboats just off the old pier at the Portsmouth Beach Hotel. Our friends on two other cruising boats also relocated here. Along with Daniell Storey and Voyageur C we were five boats in that area.

Roy and I managed to launch our dinghy in record time. We gathered up a VHF handheld radio and a million candle-power search light. Then we headed over to Daniell Storey. Dave has a cell phone and his main VHF radio would have much more range than a handheld one. He said he’d stand-by on Channel 16 as Roy and I headed over to Clypeus with the cell phone.

John was standing on deck when we pulled up. He told us that he and his wife Suzanne had been attacked and robbed by two men armed with cutlasses and another one baring a pistol. The three armed men swam out from the shore and boarded the boat while John was sleeping below and Suzanne was in the cockpit. Both cruisers were held down by the two men with cutlasses while the third robber ransacked the boat. They demanded money and jewelry. They grabbed all their electronics; cell phones, computers, and radios. Then they loaded up the dinghy with the stolen goods and took off. The cruisers were left with no radio or cell phone or even a dinghy to use to get help.

After firing off an orange flare that failed to draw a response or attention, John decided to pull up anchor and head for the nearest people. That is how “Clypeus” came to be dropping anchor just off our stern at two in the morning.

I handed John our VHF radio to make a distress call to the coast guard and climbed on board to see how Suzanne was doing. Roy decided to go and search along the shoreline to see if he could spot the stolen dinghy. Maybe it had been abandoned close by.

I stepped down into the most chaotic cockpit and salon I had ever seen. It looked like the boat had come through a storm. Piles of gear, clothes, kitchen wares, and papers were strewn across the cabin. Even the trash had been emptied into the mix. Suzanne seemed a little dazed as she searched through a plastic bin for something. John came in saying no one was answering his VHF call and lay out on the settee. It was obvious his back hurt and Suzanne was looking for some pain killers in their medicine kit. Either he had been injured it the fight with the robbers or he had hurt it by pulling up the anchor. He wasn’t sure which.

Suddenly I heard Dave’s voice on the radio. Being right next door he had heard John call for help, but obviously the coast guard had not. We gave Dave the particulars of the boat and the incident and he was able to relay this information as a PAN PAN call which was picked up by the Martinique Coast Guard at Fort de France. Dave was also able to make a general announcement call in the anchorage to alert fellow cruisers that there had been trouble.

Having no luck with the radio, it was time to get on the cell phone. I could not find an emergency or police number in the guide book. Luckily, I recognized Eddison Laville’s name listed in a phone directory for the Leeward Islands. Eddison is the vice president of Portsmouth Association for Yacht Security and an Indian River Guide. Roy and I had met him on our way through Dominica a few months earlier. The association sponsors a program that keeps up a dinghy patrol of the main anchorage. Unfortunately, the security patrol does not have a VHF radio, so they did not hear our calls. Eddison picked on the second ring and quickly pointed us in the right direction. By the time we called police dispatch they already seemed to know about the incident. I repeated that we were out in the anchorage on a boat. They assured me that help was on the way. John, Suzanne and I were all skeptical that someone would be along anytime soon.

As John got up from the settee I notice that he had something around his neck. They both had been taped up with duct tape and the sticky, grey stuff still clung to them. John had rolled the tape down from his mouth creating a grotesque necklace. Four or five strips of the sticky grey plastic clung to the back and sides of Suzanne’s super curly hair. Out came the scissors and I took off as much tape and as little hair as I could.

I was relieved to hear the sound of a dinghy engine approaching. Roy had been gone for what felt like a long time. He had returned along with some company. Two American students studying at the island’s medical school had seen the orange flare from Clypeus and heard the shouts for help. They called the incident into campus security who then called police. They had lingered on the beach and were able to flag Roy down as he passed by in the dinghy. Turns out these two are EMT second year students – in training to attend medical emergencies. They immediately turned their attention to John and Suzanne.

A few minutes after the EMT students arrived so did the Dominican Coast Guard. Flashing blue search lights lit up the entire anchorage as they pulled along side in their 30 foot RIB (rigid inflatable boat). I was amazed. It had been less than an hour since my phone call and these guys had come from their base in Roseau about 15 miles down the coast. One officer came on board and told Suzanne and John that an ambulance was ready to take them to the hospital if they wanted to go. That wouldn’t be necessary John said; they would make their way to the clinic in the morning. The three coast guard officers where very concerned and ready to help. All eyes grew wide with surprise when the EMT student handed over the pistol that he had found in the cockpit. It looked like a pellet gun or 22 masquerading as a hand gun. Who knows if it could fire or not, it looked real enough. The Coast Guard took the gun, asked a few more questions then went off to collect the Portsmouth Police officers from the dock. With no access to their own boat, they were waiting for a ride out to the Clypeus so they could begin their investigation. It seemed the situation was well in hand. Roy and I decided to head back to Bonanza.

The next morning we heard that Clypeus’ dinghy had been recovered by the coast guard boat after they dropped the Police officers back on shore. It was a relief to know that John and Suzanne could get to and from their boat once again. Both sailors where treated at the hospital; John for back injuries and Suzanne for a possible concussion.

Everyone was stunned at the level of violence used in this robbery. It had been a long time since anything like this has happened in Dominica and the people are shocked and angry, especially those involved in the tourist industry. Response to this incident has gone beyond law enforcement agencies and local community groups. The Minister of Tourism and the director of the Discover Dominica Authority personally came out to see how the people on Clypeus were doing. They assured them that the investigation of the robbery had high priority and was being taken very seriously. In fact, the police had arrested a suspect and they expected more arrests to come. The officials even came by to thank me and Roy for helping out.

So now what? It was a shocking experience to witness the aftermath of such a violent robbery. I can’t imagine what it’s like for John and Suzanne to try to get over what happened to them. They’ve sailed the Caribbean for over fifteen years and never expected anything like this to happen to them. Nobody does. Yes, I feel more fearful, but not to the point where I want to stop sailing.

I do feel that it’s time for us to take a few more basic security precautions on board. Most cruisers lift and lock their dinghy at night. Very few cruisers lock their door at night, but I can tell you, Roy and I have no problem putting in the companionway boards and throwing the lock on the hatch once we are ready to go to sleep. We’ll also be back next year to visit Dominica, one of our favorite places in the Caribbean. Even if the swell rolls in, we’ll stick to the patrolled anchorage and feel secure knowing that the community and authorities in Portsmouth and throughout Dominica take cruisers safety seriously.

Michelle Fleming Onboard Bonanza Sailing in the Caribbean