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26 janvier 2005

- JOE MOZINGO

The sailors, who carry charcoal on rickety boats, are being targeted in the Bahamas as possible drug smugglers

The Haitian sloops ride the wind into port like rare tropical birds, their colorful hulls creaking and groaning, their ragged sails flapping against a backdrop of luxury cruise ships and beach resorts.

The sea traders sail like they have for 200 years, in rickety, hand-hewn wooden ships up to 70 feet long and painted in ways that make a rainbow look drab. No motor, no radio, no running lights — just patched-up canvas sails, splintered rudders and crooked masts.

They make the treacherous 500-mile run from Haiti to sell charcoal to barbecue joints like Go Go Ribs in Nassau.

But now politics may sink them. As the Bahamas cracks down on illegal immigration and drug running from Haiti — and anti-Haitian rhetoric sweeps across this island nation — the sailors have found themselves in the midst of a squall.

’’They are the ones responsible for bringing all the cocaine into the Bahamas,’’ said Deputy Minister of Immigration Weston Saunders. ``My thinking is that the charcoal is just a front. When you see a boat coming into Nassau with 10 to 15 bags of charcoal and nothing else . . . come on.’’

In February, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force seized a 55-foot sloop in Nassau allegedly carrying 110 pounds of marijuana. The previous July, they seized 22 sloops in the harbor for carrying illegal migrants.

The Haitian sailors on the wharf at Nassau insist that, by and large, they are legitimate traders just trying to make a living off charcoal, one of the few commodities in their region of northern Haiti — and one Bahamian businesses and families buy because it’s cheap.

SMALL PROFITS

The sailors rely on experience passed down for generations to navigate the Bahamas’ labyrinthine currents, shoals and reefs and survive sudden, devastating storms.

Their profits are scant, they say, but higher than if they sailed the charcoal to Haiti’s main market in Port-au-Prince. They complain the Bahamas reduced their meager earnings by prohibiting the importation of bananas, yams, peanuts and other produce.

Fasilien Lavassier, 31, still finds the long journey worth it. Sailing is what he lives for.

’’I love it,’’ he says, rolling in the translucent-green water aboard the Betty Anne. ’Someday I’d like to go to a mariners’ school to learn more.’’

With steady northeast winds, the red, white and blue Betty Anne took five days to make the trip from the town of Port-de-Paix, where most of the sloops come from. When the wind dies and their sails go slack, it can take more than a week.

Lavassier, a husband with a child on the way, says he is not afraid of the journey, even during tropical storms.

’’The Haitian people are people who God keeps in his eyes,’’ he says.

CRAMPED QUARTERS

The 60-foot ship was hewn by machete from native trees — Haitian oak, pine and tamarind. It has no marine radio or outboard engine. Long sticks are kept aboard to help push off of sandbars. Down in the voluminous hull, sacks of charcoal and chunks of limestone provide ballast. The 2-year-old sloop moans like a dying whale in a heavy chop.

The crew sleeps in small cupboard-like compartments at the stern. They catch fish on the way and cook in a charcoal pit on deck. This bright windy morning, a big barracuda is drying on the deck.

The crew members brush their teeth and climb into the low, leaking dinghy for a trip into town. They rock and fight the current toward the dock, as chop sprays across the bow and curious tourists whip by on Jet Skis.

There are a dozen sloops in the harbor today, like ancient Chinese junks moored in modern Hong Kong.

Many are loaded up for the journey back to Haiti with all sorts of goods that some of the estimated 75,000 Haitians living in the Bahamas are sending back to their families at home — mattresses, bicycles, doors, windows, sacks of rice and flour, car batteries.

’’The conditions are so bad in Haiti, we come here and try to make a living,’’ said Frank Augustin, who owns one of the sloops.

Augustin, a Haitian who now lives in the Bahamas, said the fees he charges for cargo on the way back to Haiti supplement his business. For customers, it’s a lot cheaper than FedEx.

DANGEROUS TRADE

Augustin had to clean houses for years before he could afford a boat, and he still barely gets by. The last trip his crew made took a week one way with 250 bags of charcoal, which he sold to Go Go Ribs for $10 each. He said his profit was minimal.

Bahamian naval officials say the trade is extremely dangerous. When smugglers are intercepted, the sloops are often found overloaded with people and structurally unseaworthy.

’’A lot of those are destroyed at sea,’’ said Lt. Darren Henrick, spokesman for the Royal Bahamas Defense Forces.

’’They have no running lights,’’ said Henrick``You have to be careful at night. You could just plow right through these things.’’

Despite the hazards, Henrick has a deep respect for the seamanship of the traders. ’’They manage to accomplish this magnificent feat,’’ he said.


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