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Tobago: Englishmans Bay - Armed Boarding, Assault & Robbery

By Sue Richards last modified Oct 27, 2011 11:19 AM

Published: 2011-10-27 11:19:09
Topics: Piracy Reports 2011
Countries: Trinidad & Tobago

Report from Martha Boston of SV Lightheart
Armed Boarding & Assault in Englishman’s Bay, Tobago

Posted: September 16, 2011

Approximately 1:30 am on Sunday September 11, my husband Peter Branning and I were asleep aboard sv Lightheart, anchored in beautiful and remote Englishman’s Bay, Tobago, along with sv Kookaburra, sv Nouveau Jour and sv Dreams at Sea. We were anchored about 150 yards from the beach, the closest of the four vessels. It was a bright moonlit night, but it was also quite windy and rolly, so the boat was very noisy.

The boat was very dark inside, and the moonlight in the cockpit backlit the companionway. Peter had gotten up to go to the toilet, and he almost bumped into a man standing near the companionway, about 12 feet from the forward cabin where we sleep. The man wheeled around raising a lobbed-off machete over his head, poised to strike. Peter instinctively lunged at the man and hit him, and a very brief struggle ensued. Peter was screaming loudly at him while reaching down for his pole spear, at which time the man fled up the companionway and dove overboard.

Peter chased him on deck screaming while I grabbed a light to shine on him and also raised our neighboring yachts on the vhf channel we were using for group communications. We sounded airhorns and fired a flare to attract attention, while following the intruder with the spotlight all the way as he swam to shore and disappeared into the woods. Our friends on the other vessels joined in with spotlights and noisemaking, and together we created what was probably a rather chaotic environment for the intruder as he made his escape – but he was a strong swimmer. During all of this, I was trying to raise help on vhf 16, but received no response until a bit later when I was called back by a local gentleman the next back down who happened to be scanning his radio at that hour. He contacted the nearest police station for us, and they came to the bay to investigate.

The intruder had apparently swum or floated to the boat, but either way, he left large puddles of water in the cabin. We don’t know how he boarded, as we had our dinghy strapped to the stern and thereby blocking access, and our boat has very steep and high sides. It’s possible he climbed up the anchor chain. While Peter was on deck, he looked down and fished out of the water alongside the boat a very heavy water-soaked costume that we assume the intruder had planned to wear to frighten us … but it was probably too heavy to wear when he tried to board the boat. It was a very oversized black sweatshirt with glow-in-the-dark skeleton markings on front and back, with a hood that would cover the entire head and face, with mesh eyeholes for visibility.

During our attempt to contact police, we discovered that our iPhones, which had been on the chart table between the companionway and our bedroom, were missing, as was an airhorn that had been in a plastic bag on the bulkhead of the cockpit.

One of our fellow cruisers dinghied Peter to shore (it’s a very steep beach landing) to meet the police. After taking their report, they asked us to come to the police station in the morning to give another report. Through the grace of a tour operator who happened to have brought some tourists to that beach, we were able to get a ride into the town of Moriah, about 30 minutes away, to the police station. After giving more reports, we returned to the Bay and to Lightheart. On the way back, we discussed the possibility that the intruder might have dropped any items he was carrying on his swim back to shore. We, along with our fellow cruisers, jumped into the water, and in short order came up with the knife, which was very close to the boat, and the phones which were about midway to shore, along the intruder’s swim route. The phones were wrapped (quite ineffectively) in the same plastic bag (from a Miami grocery store) that had held the airhorn in the cockpit. The police returned to take these items of evidence. All four vessels left together for Grenada as soon as we could clear customs and immigration.

Peter suffered only minor cuts on the knuckles of his right hand and a bruise on his left arm that appears to be the shape of the butt of the machete. We are very lucky something much worse didn’t happen. Our guess is that the perpetrator’s plan had been to awaken us, frighten us and take our money – he didn’t seem equipped to take anything else with him, and finding our phones on the way to our forward cabin must have just been gravy to him. That said, they also provided a distraction to him (including retrieving the plastic bag and wrapping them) which may well have saved our lives. It’s a small loss in comparison.

We found Tobago to be very beautiful, and Englishman’s Bay in particular is idyllically gorgeous. We were in Tobago only about a week, visiting Buccoo Bay, Store Bay, and Englishman’s Bay, all of which were uncomfortably rolly at best, and at times untenable. We’d planned to stay for several weeks and visit several other anchorages, but all of them are exposed to sea swells which seem to continue marching through. Between the state of the anchorages and the incident at Englishman’s, we were more than ready to return to Grenada early. We met some very kind and caring people with whom we would like to have had more contact (including the gentleman who not only contacted the police but who also has called us at least daily to see how we are doing); but like most places, we also ran into a few very rude people along the way, not the least of whom, of course, was the intruder. Most of the people we talked to after the incident seemed genuinely saddened by the information, and were concerned for us as well as for the commercial impact on them.

Peter and I recognize that we have been pretty happy-go-lucky cruisers, and are now aware that we have been foolishly loose about security. We are already beginning the process of installing security systems, including locking metal grates for our companionway and hatches as well as lights and alarms. We are extremely grateful to the careful reporting of Kate and Allen of Mendocino Queen about their incident in the Cays, which kept us very conscious of the need to raise a ruckus as soon as we could. We are exceedingly grateful to our fellow travelers in Tobago whose tremendous help and TLC were so easily and thoroughly given. We are grateful for the bonding that has occurred among all of us, and particularly between Peter and me. We also are grateful for whatever divine intervention may have assisted in keeping our losses so small. We intend to continue cruising undeterred, albeit with heightened awareness and diligence.

UPDATE: Posted 27 October 2011

The report of the perp being apprehended seem to be somewhat exaggerated. According to Katy at Store Bay Marine, someone was indeed arrested, but released shortly thereafter; and to my knowledge there have been no other arrests. Peter and I are both lawyers, and we're well aware that it would be quite difficult to make an arrest "stick" in this case - there's really no evidence to go on unless they can tie someone to the knife and/or the costume, as far as we know. I don't know if there's been any progress at all, as I've heard nothing from the police since we left Tobago.

I did, however, run into a cruiser here in Grenada who'd been in Tobago a couple of weeks after the incident, and he reported that there were patrols going on in Charlotteville. I do hope this is a sign that the officials and businesses and private citizens of the island are indeed coming to realize that unless they join together to take responsibility for the safety of cruisers and other tourists, there will be economic repercussions for all.

Thanks for the good work you do.

Best regards,
s/v Lightheart