It was a fine December afternoon in 1979. We were sailing from Panama to Haiti, across some 900 miles of open ocean. I was a deckhand and remember the warm deck beneath my tanned feet as I stood near the fife rail and Regina’s massive wooden helm.
The winds were steady and the seas gentle. No other vessels were in sight; the deep blue seas and wind gently lifted and rocked Regina’s 144-foot Barkentine hull as she gently caressed the ocean swells. It was one of those memorable moments of being under sail with the wind at your back and Regina’s sails billowing as if we had become one with nature. Regina’s roll and swaying motion was a rhythm like a great piece of music you grew to love. It was a rhythm that seduced me and many other sailors who had no choice to but fall under the spell of the ship’s movements as she carried us safely across a large body of ocean.
The whale research ship’s master and owner, George Nichols, was on deck and sparked a conversation about Haiti with a few members of the crew. It was one of those great conversations I’d later remember with wonder. Because it wasn’t a lecture, but it felt as if you’d just taken a short class in the history and culture of Haiti and its long and proud 1804 struggle as the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean. The brilliant revolt against the French was led by former slave and first black general of the French Army, Toussaint Louverture.
That was one of George’s gifts as the master of the ship. He made you curious to learn more about nearly everything you’d encounter on research voyages. Afterwards I remember going below decks and finding an old National Geographic issue about Haiti. I dug into the article, but George’s conversation and the article didn’t prepare me for the powerful experience of visiting Haiti that Christmas.
We made landfall and dropped anchor in Bahia du Mole, a little bay at the western tip of the northern peninsula of Hispanola. It was an enchanted landfall like Christopher Columbus must have experienced in December of 1492. Most of us were able to get ashore into the village of le Mole that day. Some of the crewmembers returned to the ship having met some Christian missionaries and relayed stories about Haitians voodoo customs, one tragic story about how a mother attempting to rid her sick son of evil spirits inadvertently killed him by having him drink urine. The village was very poor, but I remember the smiles on the kids faces as bright and cheerful. They had no electricity, and there were no stores or public pay phones ashore for us to call home.
Our first mate Tad was carrying a scrawny pine tree along the shoreline. After deftly navigating a diplomatic nightmare, he figured out how to compensate the owner of the tree by taking off his own tee shirt and offering it as payment. Tad brought the scrawny and withered looking shrub of a tree back to our ship. It was placed prominently on the main saloon table and its presence ignited a feverous magic amongst the crew as nearly everyone scrambled for materials to create ornaments out of whatever we had available.
We had a memorable dinner with drinks that left us happy and buzzed. Our feelings of being away from our friends and family and normal Christmas traditions started to fade that evening. People laughed and smiled, and shared the evening with kid like giddiness. As darkness fell, some of the crew headed to the village to join in a traditional celebration we’d heard about earlier in the day. I remained onboard performing my watch duties and could see the bonfire ashore burning bright and heard the drumbeat of music echo off the water.
When the crew returned a few hours later, I remember our cook Emile being lit up with energy, telling me a woman who was probably a grandma had danced him into the ground. It was a joyous celebration that reminded us of the precious gift of human friendship and helped us appreciate the surprises of everyday life. In a land far from home, the spirit of love and joy that day and night warmed all of our hearts and left us full, and wanting to share it with our friends and families back home.
A few years later when I read and watched news stories about Haitians risking their lives to vote for a new leader, I remembered that Christmas in Haiti and the villagers we met. It was an indelible experience that connected me to Haitians in a way I would never have imagined possible. And that was part of the magic of Regina and how she opened up whole new worlds and experiences to all of us that we never dreamed possible.