24 August 2009


When I woke up this morning, it seemed unusually quiet. I was up a little early, so I didn't think much of it. But after about 45 minutes, I found out that it wasn't because everybody was sleeping in, but rather because they were out in search of a lost boat. The new moon brought unusually high tides in the recent days and, apparently, it caused our "rescue boat" to break free from its mooring last night. This was especially bad because it's the nicest of all the boats and worth something like $22,000 (the other three boats, only one of which is running at the moment, aren't worth one-tenth that).

Unlike the last time I was involved in a "lost boat" situation, I was in no way responsible for this incident. I could, however, sympathize for the others and was concerned that we were down to one functioning boat for a program entirely dependent on access to the water.

By the time I had figured out anything was going on, the first search party had already returned. They had searched a large area in the direction of the prevailing wind and current and even walked through a large tide flat for quite a distance only to find the shell of an old wreck. They returned empty handed. They had also attempted to request assistance from some of the fishermen that are friendly with SFS, but they had already left for the day.

After a short while, Will and I decided to go out and search a little more. We checked at the public dock first, hoping that somebody might have brought it back, but there was nothing. With Will driving I scanned the bay with binoculars (which is incredibly ineffective when the boat is shaking you all around). Not long had passed, however, when we spotted a fisherman towing our lost boat! We adjusted our course to meet up with them and decided we'd offer to give them our extra fuel for their trouble.

In hindsight, it's funny that we made this offer of fuel because the two fishermen demanded far greater compensation. They claimed, according to British Common Law, that they owned 1/3 of the recovered vessel and informed us that they wanted $5000 for it. We'd never heard of this law, but Will did know that some arcane "Laws of the Sea" that still existed (for instance, if you are in need of assistance at sea and you accept the bow line of another vessel, they have the right to ownership of your boat, but if you give them your bow line, then you retain ownership). Anyhow, they refused to hand the boat over to us there and towed it to the dock, where they planned to hold it for ransom.

At this point I decided to become only an observer, though I amused myself by contemplating a pirate-like attack to free our boat (in my imagination I was jumping from our speeding boat with a knife in my mouth and a parrot on my shoulder). Instead, Will contacted the center director who agreed to meet us at the dock to deal with the situation (slightly less dramatic). For the sake of brevity let's say the negotiations took up most of the day, but finally resulted in a payment of $700 for their trouble and lost day of fishing. The fishermen weren't happy about this, but it turns out that TCI does have a law about recovered vessels and it states that "reasonable compensation" is due in situations such as this. Fortunately for SFS, most of the other fisherman and bystanders who had gathered around and, more importantly, the police thought that $5000 was not "reasonable."

The recovered boat.

$700 even seems a bit steep, if you ask me. It was a sensitive situation though. SFS needs to maintain positive relations with the fishermen (if not for the sake of community, for the fact that the boat could easily be vandalized by unhappy neighbors). Some here at SFS were, understandably, upset that the two fishermen expected payment for retrieving the boat. We intended to compensate them for their trouble and time from the beginning, but their exploitation of the situation was not justified. On numerous occasions in the past SFS staff and boats have been involved in assisting stranded or broken down boats of locals, and some here felt the same courtesy should be extended in our direction. I think, however, this is problem for all people or institutions that are viewed as "outsiders" to a community. Especially when that outsider is believed to have considerable wealth (which is actually not the case for SFS - there is considerable debt, not an endless budget). As I've mentioned before, I feel like we're largely separated from the South Caicos community. We do outreach (i.e. swimming lessons) on Saturdays when school is in session, but that doesn't feel like a very meaningful connection to me. I wish we did more to integrate, but not being very extroverted, I'm not the best person to make that happen. At the same time, I felt slightly more connected to some local people who came to our defense and argued in our favor.

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