Shipwreck from 1988 Revisited

This story originally appeared in SAIL magazine as a feature in 1989. I am rewriting it here for those of you that said you wanted to see it either again or for the first time. Nancy ( my ex-wife) and I were cruising the world in our thirties.

We left Los Roques, Venezuela, in Lily, our thirty-six foot steel cutter that we had built for us in England three years previously.

The wind was behind us, surprisingly strong at 30-35 knots. We were flying along, with the main and Genoa sails on opposite sides, both sheeted down tightly. The ride was bumpy, but fast, on our way to bypass the southern tip of Bonaire on our way to Curaçao for stocking up before heading to the Panama Canal on our way to the Pacific.

Our navigation was by sextant and dead reckoning back in 1988. It had been overcast for the first two and a half days of this passage so no celestial bodies to view with the sextant. 

My watch was over just after midnight and I gave Nancy our compass course and the timing of the light that she might see at the bottom of Bonaire as we passed by to the south. She was to have a look around every 12 minutes to check for ships or the light. Staying outside was difficult with the spray on the wind.

I had a little difficulty falling asleep and right after I drifted off I heard “ Charley, there’s a light out here and it’s on the wrong side”.

It didn’t register at first what that meant, but as I fumbled for my glasses and crawled up the companionway I could look up and to the south to see the light almost in front of us. Yikes, that meant we were heading for the island. No sooner did I realize this than did I see the frothing of the surf as it enveloped us. I released the tiller from the self-steering mechanism and threw the helm hard over. This turned the boat sideways as we crashed directly into the stony reef through the surf.

The noise of hitting was frightening and the impact threw both of us across the cockpit. We checked in with each other to see that we weren’t seriously hurt as each succeeding wave threw stones and surf over the boat with vigor.

The force of a succeeding wave broke off the aft hung rudder and tiller and carried them away. Now I was concerned that if we fell back into deep water we would have no way to steer, so I crawled to the front of the boat to get an anchor on the land. As I released the anchor it fell onto the loose stones and I could crawl off the bow onto dry land. “Sure saves launching the dinghy”, I should have humorously thought, but humor was escaping me.

I walked the anchor and chain up into the rockpile ahead and secured it. Returning aboard I used the VHF radio to transmit a series of “mayday” calls on the radio. I had read about mayday calls in my preparations and was aware that I was now living one. No answers came, so out came the flare gun as I shot flare after flare into the dark and windy night with no response.

“I guess we should wait till morning to assess our situation” I told Nancy. “Not much else we can do”

She wasn’t having it and announced “ I’m going for help” as she grabbed a flashlight and put on her walking shoes.

After scrambling off the bow, she had to ascend a rock pile of years of built up surf and eased down the opposite side. Her flashlight spotted a road within a couple of hundred yards and she followed it for awhile. It led her to a group of buildings in a semicircle with an open bar in the middle. She yelled for help with no response, so let out a bloodcurdling scream and a light turned on in the nearest hut. A naked man appeared in the porch light making no attempt to cover himself up. He was followed by his female partner, equally au natural. 

She told them of her shipwreck and they walked over to the manager’s house. Nancy remembers their tan butts wiggling ahead as she followed them with her flashlight. The manager woke to the door knocking, equally unclothed,  and suggested that he call the police and port captain for her and then put on shorts and t-shirt to drive her the six kilometers back to the boat where he dropped her off.

She crawled back over the gravel hill and onto Lily. “ The strangest thing happened” was the best she could in her still shocked state,  describe the surprise visit to what we later learned was a nudist resort.

With the first light of the morning I could see our dilemma. We had crashed into the rocky windward side of the island about a quarter mile north of the lighthouse we planned to sail by. We had driven into an island! And we had no charts of it because our intention was otherwise.

Also in the early morning light, the police and port captain appeared next to the boat and demanded our passports and any weapons we had aboard. We were weaponless, but dug out the passports to comply. “ Wow, here we are in need of help and this is the formal greeting we get” I thought to myself, not feeling too good about officialdom here.

“ We wanted to make sure that this wasn’t the way you intended to sneak into the country” I was told.

But as soon as the formalities were over, attitudes changed. “ You could get the island tugboat to pull you off, but it costs $25,000 and it would rip the keel off as it looks like you skidded in sideways”

As I had checked for leaks and found none, all the optimism I had felt dissipated with that statement. Now we’ve got a perfectly good boat that can’t be saved.

“I’ve got a couple of ideas” the port captain stated. “ Why don’t one of you come with me to town?”

I left Nancy to guard the boat and off we went. Our first stop was at the salt plant where I could see the huge excavators pushing salt onto the conveyers that spanned the road for loading onto ships. 

“No, we can’t help, as we cannot allow any of our equipment to go off site due to insurance reasons”

I wasn’t sure how they could help anyway, but now was getting resigned to leaving that perfectly good boat in its landing spot.

“ I have one other idea” spoke the port captain, as he dropped me off in front of a building labeled ACHIE TOURS. “Oh great, a tour company” I thought.

I went inside and introduced myself to the bear of a man named Amado. He listened to my story and offered me a seat and a cup of coffee. “ We’ve got ourselves a problem” he shared. The “We” part had me sit up and notice its inclusivity.

“ Let me make some phone calls and see what I can come up with” he suggested as he dialed the phone.

The first call sounded like to a family member as the tone was laughing and joking in Papiemento, the local language. It ended with some seriousness which escaped my non-translating ear.

“ Ok, we’ve got a big land mover to make a road for you through the rockpile next to the boat” he exclaimed after hanging up. The biggest land mover from the salt mine will be heading out shortly.

“ But we already asked them for help and they turned us down “ I whined.

“Oh, the manager is my brother in law, so he decided to help” he corrected.

“ Now we will need the crane that you are lucky enough to have visit this week and then we’ll see if we can find some straps to lift the boat” “ what does your boat weigh” he asked.

“ Twelve tons” I replied.

“ There are some eight ton straps somewhere on the island that I’ll find and they’ll have to do” he replied confidently.

After two more phone calls he let me know that the crane could help us, but after work hours, which would be in the dark.

“I’ll see you at five-thirty at the boat” “ Now I’ll get you a ride to the earth mover to return to the boat”

A friend of his drove me to just past the salt plant where we flagged down the driver to stop. The wheels on this machine were taller than my six feet seven height. The driver had the only seat, in his protected metal cage high atop. He gave me the thumbs up signal to crawl above his head, even higher atop his cage, for the ride towards Lily.

We rumbled down the highway, with me perched and hanging on high above. Nancy got quite the view as the earthmover with me on top took a big bite into the stone wall between road and boat. I had left earlier to see about options and returned “ deus ex machina” heavy on the Machina!

After a road was carved through the stones and laid alongside Lily’s resting place the equipment went home. A little after five, as dusk was approaching, a half dozen cars showed up and parked near our wreck, leaving their headlights on for visibility. At five-thirty, right on schedule the crane ambled over the new road to sit next to our boat. The crane extended the outriggers onto the new “road” and Amado attached the undersized straps. With lots of helpers we first craned off the mast onto the rockpile, then dug a tunnel under the boat for the straps. As the crane started to lift, the outriggers sunk into the piles of rocks, tilting it precariously. The crane operator called me over and declared it too risky for more and was going to give up.

Amado came forward with another idea. “ How about if we brace the crane on the other side of the rock pile, put the tractor tires that I brought under the boat, and drag her inland to be clear of the breaking surf for now?” He offered.

It worked, and as the crane and driver, Amado, and head lighted cars drove away, we were left with a sideways laying boat clear of the surf.

Lily was on her side, so after many hours of no sleep and well shocked, I got the sleeping bags for us to sleep on the land near the boat. I laid down my bag in the dark, crawled in, felt the moisture that I had setting it on seeping through, but because it was warm cared less and was just about asleep when a car approached onto our new road. Stories of shipwrecks often had locals stripping the boat and I thought to myself “ we still have some chance of saving this boat” so I crawled out and picked up a large piece of driftwood as a defensive club. The car approached and out jumped a clothed nudist resort manager and wife. “ I thought you might be hungry with all that was going on, so we brought you some food and drink”

I sheepishly and silently dropped my club and accepted the beers, half bottle of rum two sandwiches and thermos of hot soup.  I didn’t think too highly of my paranoid self and my judgement of people.

Amado had made arrangement for the crane to return on Saturday, four days from now. He was bringing over big square sheets of thick steel for the crane’s outriggers to steady on. He also needed to have me measure the highest height of the boat, so we could fit under the salt loading bridge. His plan was to have the earthmover spend more time making a better road, steel sheets for the crane, and get a lowboy trailer ( like they haul tractors on) to have the welders from the oil plant weld to the trailer ibeams and then tack weld them to our steel boat. Sure!!

I had the boat plans aboard, but the head welder took me inside during construction and showed me how he altered the plans for what he called “ my problem” with heighth. So now I had to try to get the height of the boat on the lowboy. I did the best I could and assured Amado that we could clear the bridge.

Saturday morning came and so did half the island’s residents. They brought music, barbecues, and the grandkids for the big lift of Lily.

Of course Amado’s ideas all worked and I watched as the semi driver would inch forward over the uneven surface as the top heavy Lily swayed over to one side, then the other, but coming safely back to center until they reached the paved road.

Nancy followed Lily in the truck with Amado and I stayed behind to load the mast on another flatbed trailer.

We stayed in touch via vhf radio and I heard Nancy say that Lily was about two inches too high to fit under the loading conveyor. Not too surprisingly, Amado jumped out of his truck and released half the air from the lowboy’s tires to allow a fit under. On the other side he used the welders portable compressor to refill them.

We had to go through town the wrong way on a one way street, with two young boys lifting wires with wood poles as they went. The remainder of the town’s residents were watching from the sidewalks. A Lily parade!

Once through town the boat cradle was  unwelded from the truck and the “cradle” held her to sit on the ground for repairing for now.

A big thanks to all the people in Bonaire for their help and especially to Amado for being not just helpful but a genius to boot!


A couple of weeks later I was sitting in a bar on the waterfront, nursing a Heineken and lamenting the dents in the side of the boat to the guy on the barstool next to me.

“I’m an engineer, maybe I could help you with this” he offered.

“Sure, I’d like that. How about next Saturday?” I suggested.

“How about now?” He responded. “ Let me make some phone calls to have some friends meet us there” followed.

So, we drove in his truck to the dark boat. Soon his friends arrived, complete with portable welding equipment. Now we knew we could get light from headlights.

“We can’t weld much into the boat as it’s lined with foam insulation that can burn” I informed him.

“But we can do a quick tack weld to the steel hull without much heat” “ Then we can attach threaded rods, pass them thru holes in a flat piece of steel offset from the hull and screw down nuts, pulling out the dents”

And they did just that, while laughing and drinking beer in the light of the headlights.

Also, days later, the local dentist found the rudder and tiller, mostly intact at the southernmost tip of the island and brought them back to us.

Three months later the crane returned to Bonaire to free us from our cradle and drop us into the marina where I could sail her to Venezuela (60 miles away) for the remaining repairs in a proper boatyard.

Next time I was sitting behind a beer in the same waterfront bar I asked a new neighbor “ Why do you think that all these people are helping us here?” Thinking that maybe it has something to do with the high wattage Christian radio station on the island.

His reply: “It’s an island, and there’s nothing else to do”

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7 thoughts on “Shipwreck from 1988 Revisited”

  1. It doesn’t matter how many times I have heard the story. It is still an ultimate adventure. You are amazing

  2. Like Jim, I’ve loved this story. The written version has filled in a lot of blanks. Ain’t life grand?

  3. I remember the story but not all the details if what it took to save Lily. Then the rest of the story for us was that we planned to visit you in Venezuela, you left to join Nancy and save your relationship and we were left with 4 nonrefundable tickets. We ended up having an incredible trip, seeing Angel Falls and lots of Venezuela.

  4. I’m a big fan of Wayne Stinnett adventure series. Your story would fit right in at the top!

  5. In the mid-1980s I was landlocked and “anchored down,” though not in Anchorage (per Michelle Shocked). I was in N. Idaho, feeling sorry for myself. Postcards I received during your sailing adventures, Charley, made me happy for you but reinforced my personal pity party. I hadn’t heard about the Shipwreck of 1988. Perhaps my fantasy of All Fun All the Time On The High Seas wasn’t entirely accurate! You made the best of a tough situation. Thanks for a fun, nail-biting read!

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