In 1985, Sue and I were living on Oriental Lady in St. Martin, and working on Rubaiyat, one of several Peter Spronk designed day-charter catamarans working there. Most of the day-charter boats in St. Martin left from Phillipsburg and took passengers 18 miles directly up-wind to St. Barths (or St. Barfs as some called it - it can be a rough passage, and each of those boats averaged 3.2 people seasick per boat per day!) We had a much nicer trip, leaving from Marigot, on the protected French side of St. Martin, around the bottom of Anguilla to little Sandy Island. I'd give everyone a snorkeling lesson and then turn them lose on the reef while we made lunch for them. Of the 6,000 guests we had that year, I think we only had 12 cases of seasickness. It was a fun trip, and most everyone enjoyed the day immensely.
In those days there was a radio net in the mornings on 4139.5 KHz. This was only a semi-legitimate frequency, as the marine Single-Side-Band (SSB) frequencies had officially changed, but the Caribbean was behind the times. Many boats only had old, crystal controlled SSBs that still had this frequency. This included the charter boats run by Steven's Yachts in St. Lucia, where many of our friends worked. So the net was called the Pirate net - few boats used their correct names and most were cagey about where they were. For instance, Venezuela was "the land of milk and honey" since prices were so cheap. Being fairly radio-active, I was one of the major voices on this net, calling myself Ruby after the boat we were running. We were one of just a few boats in the Caribbean with a really good radio signal back then. This story is about how the Pirate net vindicated itself...
We'd become friendly with Matt and Claire, a nice young British couple who'd arrived in the Caribbean, decided they liked the cruising lifestyle, and went looking for a sailboat to buy. What they found was a French steel sloop that had run into some terrible luck. The previous owners had anchored off Anguilla and gone ashore for dinner. When they got back to the beach, they found their dog had swum ashore, which should have tipped them off. What had happened was that 3 destitute natives from another island had swum out, climbed on board their boat, and tried to steal it to go back to their own island. They couldn't start the engine, but they did find the pistol and the speargun on board. When the couple returned to their boat, the thieves shot the woman dead and put a spear in the Frenchman, who escaped by jumping overboard. After all that, the Frenchman didn't want to sail anymore, so he sold his boat to Matt & Claire, bullet holes and all. They promptly went to work as a charter captain and cook team for Stevens Yachts, so they could pay off their new boat, which they'd renamed Refuge.
Imagine their shock when, a few months later, they returned to their home base in Rodney Lagoon, St. Lucia, and found their boat gone! It had been stolen! The word quickly spread on the Pirate net and people started sending in tips. Eventually we developed a suspect, a German named Wolfgang who usually frequented the beaches of Anse Mitan in Martinique, but who'd dropped out of sight recently. He was quite noticeable, as he was covered in tattoos. Further investigation revealed that Wolfgang had a history of boat thefts. Apparently, he'd gone to an in-the-water boat show in Germany, and asked to test-sail one of the boats. He'd test-sailed it all right - all the way to Saldana Bay, South Africa! Perhaps he thought the world owed him a boat...
News of the theft and descriptions of Refuge were sent to all the ports and harbormasters throughout the Caribbean, but after a couple of months and no sightings, Matt & Claire were losing hope of ever seeing Refuge again. A determined sailor can cover a lot of the globe in that time, especially if he stopped somewhere out of the way to repaint and rename Refuge (which, it turned out, he did).
After 3 months and dwindling reports, we finally got a break. A Seattle boat came up on the Pirate net that had never come up before, calling himself Spindrift. His signal was extremely faint, but he seemed to be saying that a boat answering the description of Refuge was in the marina with him in Curacao. The net was fairly active that morning and since I could only barely hear him, I asked others on the net if they could relay, but nobody could hear Spindrift but me, 500 miles NNE in St. Martin. We tried changing frequencies, but nothing worked. It was extremely frustrating, but we kept working away at it. (Back then, we never even considered telephone - the local phone system was so archaic that calls from the Dutch side of St. Martin to the French side had to be routed through Europe!)
After about an hour, I convinced myself that Spindrift believed what he was saying. It was time to take some action. I called Steven's Yachts in St. Lucia on their SSB frequency, 2572 KHz, and was told that Matt & Claire had just finished a charter in the Virgin Islands. When they checked in with their base, I intercepted their radio call and told them what I knew. Unfortunately, the radio on Talisman, the Gulfstar 50 that Matt & Claire were working on, couldn't hear Spindrift, so I ended up having to relay between the two of them as Matt convinced himself that it was really Refuge. When he did, we worked out a plan. Matt would leave Claire to look after Talisman as he traveled down to Curacao, an expensive 12 hour ferry and plane trip from where they were in Virgin Gorda. Spindrift would go to the Curacao harbormaster to see what could be done to keep Refuge from leaving. Amazingly enough, the harbormaster agreed to call the police and have Wolfgang arrested, just on Spindrift's accusation.
By this time, radio propagation had improved and we had fairly reliable communications. Spindrift started giving us the blow-by-blow. "Here he comes! He's walking down the dock! He's covered in tattoos! He's ...", then, in a much lower voice, "He's walking right in front of my boat!"
"OK! Here come the police - they're pulling into the parking lot. Oh! He sees them! He's running into the bushes! The police are after him ... They've got him!" It was every radio operators dream come true.
But then the dream turned sour. The police naively decided that, since they now had Wolfgang's passport, he couldn't go anywhere so they could just let him go! Spindrift called me back saying we had to do something, as Wolfgang knew that Spindrift had 'fingered' him. So we made up a story that Wolfgang had been seen around Columbia and was probably involved in the drug trade. Although the story was pure fiction, the police promised to hold Wolfgang for 24 hours, plenty of time for Matt to get there.
When Matt flew into Curacao at about midnight, he was met by several police officers. They asked him if he wanted to see "his" boat. But Matt had no real proof of ownership (everything had been aboard Refuge) so he replied "No, I want to tell you about my boat." For the next several minutes he described precise and intimate details of Refuge, things that only a legitimate owner could have known. Not just that there was a certain mark behind the companionway, but how that mark had happened. The police were convinced long before they got to the marina. But in fact, Wolfgang still had most of Matt & Claire's possessions on board, even (thank goodness) their wedding photos! There was lots of proof that Refuge really belonged to Matt & Claire.
So even if we were using an old frequency, I think the Pirate net vindicated itself, as Refuge might never have been recovered without it.
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