The Miami Herald
Miami Herald, The (FL)
April 23, 2009
Edition: Final
Section: Front
Page: 1A
Estimated printed pages: 4
Article Text:
RIVIERA BEACH -- News of Haitian migrants dying in boating tragedies resonated so much with a Dutch novelist that he wanted to experience the actual trip firsthand.
A decade after his discovery, he traveled to Haiti, built a 21-foot sloop, recruited a trio of brave boaters, and sailed the very passage that hundreds of Haitians thread every year in a desperate attempt to reach Florida shores.
On Monday, the crew of the Sipriz -- Haitian Creole for surprise -- docked on a tiny island in Palm Beach County after a five-week journey that took the sailors from Haiti to the Bahamas archipelago and then to South Florida. By following the well-worn route, the Sipriz trip sought to highlight the precarious Caribbean path that so many Haitians take to make it to lot bo-a, or "the other side" in Haitian Creole.
"Not enough attention is paid to the fact that thousands of people take huge risks to escape poverty from a country that is only two hours [by air] from Miami," said Sipriz Capt. Geert van der Kolk.
On the 800-mile maritime expedition, the crew met leery locals and adverse weather. And in one hairy episode, hooligans looted their beached boat.
"For me, the adventure was the building of the boat and the excitement of open-water sailing," said Van der Kolk, 55.
The Sipriz will be docked at the Palm Beach Maritime Museum for public viewing until June 6, and will then head to the Katzen Art Center at American University in Washington, D.C., where Van der Kolk lives with his wife, Olga Jonas, an economist at the World Bank.
The modest expedition comes as world leaders start to pay closer attention to Haiti in the aftermath of an especially active hurricane season that caused widespread destruction in the Caribbean nation seven months ago.
On a visit to Port-au-Prince last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $57 million in aid to create jobs, build roads, combat drug traffickers and help the country meet debt obligations.
A few days later, at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad, President Barack Obama talked with Haitian leader Réne Préval about conditions in Haiti.
Meanwhile, Haitian advocates in South Florida have high hopes that the new administration will grant temporary protected status to Haitians residing in the United States, which would allow them to apply for work permits.
Van der Kolk wanted to do more than just spotlight the treacherous stretch from Hispaniola to Florida. He also wanted to reveal something less known about Haiti -- its history of boat building, arts and crafts.
"Haiti's problems of hunger, disease and poverty are real," he said. "But there is a rich and thriving culture of craftsmanship and art in Haiti, as well."
He noted that the vessels are also used to fish and transport goods -- otherwise almost impossible because of crumbling roads.
The construction on Sipriz began last summer. Kakok, a village without roads and power on the southwestern island of Ile à Vache, served as the setting.
Jean Oblit Laguerre, 50, was the boat's architect. And he and nine others used the most basic tools -- machete, hammer, handsaw, nails. Wood chopped from a tree formed the hull and mast.
A pair of artists from Jacmel, a nearby city known for its artisans and expat filmmakers, painted the sail, which featured a mythological bird called the Sankofa. It took three months to build the vessel.
When naming the boat, Van der Kolk wanted to avoid the usual double entendres. He favored a name with sharp consonants and a secular ring. Flipping through a Haitian Creole-English dictionary, he stumbled upon "sipriz" -- a surprise, to be sure, to oncoming boaters.
"It's a surprise in that they may think it's a smuggling boat," said Van der Kolk, whose Dutch-language novel The Smuggler of Exuma explores the issue of organized illegal migration. "And it's so far from its native shores."
On March 16, the Sipriz set sail with plenty of safety devices: inflatable life raft, jackets, an emergency position radio beacon.
Departing from Ile à Vache, the boat stopped along Haiti's western and northern coastline. It then headed to Great Inagua, the most southeastern island in the Bahamas.
Almost as soon as the Sipriz set out, it was spotted by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and jet, said Mary Houghton, a crewmember for more than half of the trip. A U.S. Coast Guard Cutter stopped them 10 miles from the Bahamian island, she said.
"The U.S. Coast Guard has a huge presence in that part of the West Indies because they are working in part to pick up Haitian boat refugees," said Houghton, a freelance journalist who lives in Washington, D.C.
"We kind of experienced this in a big way."
The sailors presented their documents -- including the Haitian men, for whom Van der Kolk secured Haitian passports and U.S. travel visas -- and the Coast Guard let them move on to Great Inagua, she added.
The Bahamas brought more serious complications. Local authorities and even civilians routinely stopped the little sailboat, crew members said. In some cases, there was downright harassment.
"Haitians are sort of the pariah of that part of the world." Houghton said.
In Little Farmers Cay, 10 vigilantes chased the Haitian crew members off the boat and accused them of being drug smugglers, they said. The bandits took off with the boaters' passports.
"We were so afraid," said Jean Emmaniste "Manis" Samedy, 39, a pastor.
In Nassau, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force towed the Sipriz from the capital's harbor to a "traffic free area" because it was deemed a hazard to traffic, according to a statement from Bahamian officials. Immigration checked the crew's papers.
But the trip wasn't just a series of run-ins with the authorities.
Through the voyage, they found hospitality in the form of gifts: a room to sleep in at Môle Saint Nicolas in northern Haiti, conch soup from a Bahamian school teacher, rum from a yachtsman.
For Van der Kolk's Haitian shipmates, being aboard a Haiti-made boat -- modeled for the real ones and then heading to Florida -- wasn't something ironic. Rather, it was something important.
"It's reality for so many of us," said Gracien Alexandre, 42, a pastor. See a photo gallery of the voyage from Haiti
JOURNEY'S END: Dutch novelist Geert van der Kolk, top right, and Palm Beach Maritime Museum project manager Anthony Miller watch as Gracien Alexandre ties down the sail of the Sipriz.
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: The Sipriz -- Haitian Creole for 'surprise' -- is put together plank by plank in Haiti.
TRENTON DANIEL/MIAMI HERALD STAFF AT RIVIERA BEACH: Geert van der Kolk and Haitian crewmembers Gracien Alexandre, right, and Jean Oblit Laguerre, tie the Spiriz Monday morning.
Copyright (c) 2009 The Miami Herald
Record Number: 973746