Piracy at Puerto Santos
My crew Jean-Claude and I went through a dramatic ordeal of rare violence. We came out damaged, but alive - which was not so certain - and I tell you our story so that you will not have to experience the same.
On Saturday, April 5, 2003, we left the anchorage at Porlamar, Margarita at around 7 o'clock in the morning. We headed toward the Peninsula de Paria, with Ensenada Medina as our destination. With the wind and current against us, however, despite the good engine in the boat, we decided to stop at Puerto Santos for the night.
We arrived at about 4:00PM and anchored in two meters of water, far enough downwind from the fishing boats that are moored close in. Puerto Santos is an anchorage that I don't like, because there several years ago, we were bitten by vampire bats which are likely to carry rabies. That night had been so bloody that it took hours to clean up the boat. Since then, I had avoided Puerto Santos and preferred to anchor in Ensenada Medina. Little did I know that this night would be even bloodier.
We had dinner and made it an early night because Jean-Claude and I planned to leave very early the next morning to reach the anchorage at Punta Pargo, 60 miles farther to the east. As a precaution against bats, before going to bed I closed the portholes and the main entrance, and left a light on outside, which seems to keep them away.
At about 11:00PM I hear a noise and feel a shock from a boat against our hull, then hear the sound of footsteps. We are both instantly on our feet behind the closed door. We make a quick plan, and agree to open up for a look with the halogen searchlight in hand. I have just enough time to see several men in military battle gear, guns in hand, before the searchlight is snatched away. They are shouting "Guardia! Guardia!" They speak a terrible Spanish, very difficult to understand. Then they start to hit us with their guns.
Short is the moment of doubt: the black hoods and gloves of the six-man "commando" leave no question that their intentions are not good. This is no routine night patrol. They make us lie down on the cockpit floor as they go down into the boat. Then they ask, "¿Luz, luz - where is the light?". But every time I go to show them where it is, I get a blow from a gun on my arm.
Then, while Jean-Claude is left outside, they make me go down below under an avalanche of blows on the head and temple, one of which causes a fantastic hemorrhage. The beating is accompanied by short, but very understandable, questions: "¿Dolares? ¿Bolivares? ¿Armas? ¿Cocaina? ¿Americanos?" Because we have nothing of the kind, the attack continues with a savage blow from the barrel of a gun on my hip, which makes me howl.
Then the systematic burglary of the boat begins. They make me go outside, where I collapse in the cockpit. They try to prevent me from watching as Jean-Claude's turn comes to suffer what I had just gone through. We try to scream for help, but that only increases the beatings.
I then realize that there is nothing to do but keep still until they have emptied the boat, hoping to save our skins which may not happen because when there is the barrel of a gun 20 centimeters from your face, and on the other side of it is a very nervous and excitable guy with his finger on the trigger, the bullet may easily come out! I don't consider myself especially brave, but I understand that there is nothing to do but wait.
In spite of the towel that they put over my head to prevent me from watching ("¡No vea!") - and which doesn't stop my bleeding, either - I see almost everything of value leave the boat: the SSB radio and its housing, the fixed and hand-held VHFs, cameras, TV, speargun, ropes, outboard engines, even beaten and smashed padlocks the list is long.
I start to get worried about Jean-Claude because I can't see or hear him anymore. Has he disappeared? I haven't heard a shot.
Then they make me go down and start the engine. We're leaving? It is me who, while still being beaten, raises the anchor by hand because they have already stolen the control cable that operates the windlass. I don't even feel the pain anymore, and the chain comes in by manpower.
The boss gives an order. I am put back on the cockpit floor, and we leave the anchorage. The navigation lights are on. Now I am sure that they are going to get rid of us farther out to sea. But why, then, have they already emptied the boat? I ask the question: "¿Van a matarme?" ("Are you going to kill me?") I get as an answer, "Posible."
Once we get around the headland, they tell me to continue in an easterly direction, and "¡mudo, mudo!" - if we talk, we are dead. Several times they mention the word "mafia", and show me their weapons, their bulletproof vests and their other equipment.
Then they force me down below and close the door behind me so I cannot see anything. I call Jean-Claude and see him emerge from where he has been jammed underneath the saloon mattresses with a heavy wooden bunk base on top to keep him pinned down. He is also very bruised, and asks m
e, "Have they left?" I answer, "No, I still hear noises."
But then suddenly it is quiet. We go out and find ourselves alone.
Alone and alive, with a floating boat and the engine running. It is 15 minutes after midnight. The whole ordeal took an hour - a very long one.
Without wasting a moment we head for the last cape of the Peninsula de Paria, with the help of a GPS that they inexplicably left behind. We navigate the rest of the night without lights, in order to avoid any further encounters, taking turns keeping watch and trying to tidy the scene of carnage below and wash away the bloodstains. There is blood on all the cushions and a big coagulated puddle on the cockpit floor, where I was most of the time. In spite of our physical trauma, our morale is good - we are alive on a seaworthy sailboat, for us to use!
At Cabo San Francisco, almost at the end of the Peninsula de Paria, we stop to eat a little and look after our wounds. Although this is a magnificent area where we had once planned to spend some time, we soon get underway directly for Martinique. It is hard to get going again, hard to get the sails up and set them after the beatings we got. Even finding a painless position in the bunk is hard.
The 240 miles to Martinique, a hard beat, took 40 hours. Oof! A visit to the emergency room at the hospital showed no dangerous internal damage. The doctor counted eight serious wounds and bruises for Jean-Claude, and 14 for me, plus a broken rib. Eight days later, still having pain in his side, Jean-Claude had an X-ray that revealed two broken ribs. After the hospital, we went to the police station to make a report. The gear stolen from the boat was worth over US$10,000.
Lesson learned: I wouldn't wish it on anybody to experience what we went through, and I think that we were very lucky to have come out of it alive. What saddens me, because I love Venezuela and I have been there about ten times in the past 25 years, is that I have decided to strike that destination off my cruising plans once and for all. Along that stretch of coast, at least, one has no chance at night against a squad of six young men with bad intentions and a big motorboat, equipped with automatic guns and bulletproof vests, wearing hoods to hide their faces and gloves to leave no fingerprints. Because of the quality of their equipment, the thought has even crossed mind that they could be renegade soldiers.
I have to add that, although we screamed in Puerto Santos, nobody moved on any of the fishing boats.
The only solution is to avoid the Peninsula of Paria, but my fear is that if no yachts pass that way anymore, the pirates will go look for them at Coche or Cubagua which are only an hour or two away.
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