The International Writers Magazine:Distress Story

Salvage Rights
Richard Corwin

It wasn’t what Tony expected to happen on this trip; as a matter of fact it happened without any warning at all; really odd. He had made this ocean voyage many times before delivering boats to and from the islands but nothing quite this weird had happened before.

It was very early on a calm, breezy morning. He had been at sea for about five days nearing the Turk Islands when it happened. The sea was calm despite the early morning freshening wind. Slow, long rolling waves moved the boat along at a comfortable steady speed. The weather was wonderful and the sails were trimmed perfectly.

As always, though, Tony had learned to expect the unexpected and he was prepared for almost anything each time he set sails for such trips. Each brought new adventures; not always pleasant but always a challenge. Today’s event would be more than he could have ever anticipated or been prepared for.

The ketch was well built but not strong enough to withstand such a collision. Once the emergency signal was activated, he gathered up a five gallon jug of water, flare gun, flashlight, rope, knife, fishing gear, clothes for foul weather and threw it all into a small self inflating rubber dinghy carried on board for such emergencies. Then the boat disappeared below the waves in less than an hour leaving only a trail of bubbles behind.

Tony was an excellent sailor and at seventy six he prided himself in his youthful stamina and sailing skills. His purchase of the fifty-five foot ketch was his latest in a lifetime of buying, fixing up and selling sailing yachts. This time, however, he decided to keep the boat despite friendly warnings from friends and fellow sailors that new the previous owner. The boat was in need of a lot of work; more work than he anticipated.

Tony bought the ketch rigged Suddenlee anyway. Retired Admiral Ruben Wagstaff, who was docked in St. Thomas, was anxious to sell the Gardner designed ketch after a near disastrous trip from Coos Bay, Oregon. Once in port his wife and daughters returned to Florida telling Ruben that once the boat was sold he could come home. Then Tony bumped into the Admiral at the dockside bar and struck up a deal too good to pass up.

The admiral, Tony discovered, had devoted little time making repairs and maintaining the yacht. In the following months, Tony produced a novel-length list of repairs and adding new equipment that seemed more like a marine equipment catalogue than a repair list. But Tony ignored the costs and stubbornly worked on. He was determined to sail to Nassau and begin a charter business with the Suddenlee no matter the cost.

Once in his rubber dingy and safely away from the sinking yacht, Tony began searching for what he had smashed into. A few hundred yards from where the boat disappeared was a large blue and rust colored box.

Tony rowed over and tied the dingy to one of the large rings welded on the corner. It was much larger than he expected and when he realized it was an abandoned container from a passing cargo ship, his heart raced with anticipation. He would claim recovery rights. After all, it was abandoned which gave him the right to claim salvage rights. (These containers are often jettisoned in rough weather if they threaten the ship because of the stacked high shipping boxes). Perhaps he could buy a new boat with the sale of its unknown contents. All he needed was a tow to shore; maybe a day’s sail away to reach Grand Turk Island. 

Before the day ended a small coastal freighter, on the way to the Islands, spotted Tony. After some negotiations, they agreed to tow him ashore with his prize but for a small percentage of the anticipated profits. If the contents were damaged or ruined at least the shipping container had some value. His heart raced with hope.

With the local officials and the freighter’s crew looking on, the container was lifted out of the water and placed on the dock. The locks were cut off with a cutting torch and the large doors opened. Everyone gasped at the unexpected contents; stared in disbelief.

Five refugee Russian girls, who were being smuggled into the country, were rushed to the local hospital. Fortunately they had not been at sea long. With limited freedom on board, they were forced to live in the container only at night or when being boarded by port security. From all indications they were nearly out of breathable air but sea sickness, brought on by the erratic movement of their air tight boat, caused serious dehydration from lack of water.

To say the least, Tony and official onlookers were shocked. He followed the ambulances to the hospital with the officials in pursuit. But the freighter crew left, not seeing any immediate benefit to claiming their share of the cargo, while Tony paced the floor desperate for a plan. After all he did claim salvage and by Bahamian law he was not only responsible for disposing of the container, he was also responsible for the five Russian immigrant girls to boot. Selling the container was no problem; drug smugglers would be eager to pay good money for such a box. The girls? He was now responsible for them but being a step-father was not part of his plan. They were rather cute, though; maybe in their early twenty’s and spoke very little English. He’d work out something.

When I last saw Tony he had decided not to sell the large shipping box but instead executed some well thought out alterations. It was no longer a faded blue and rust color but now a well lit, bright pink and red, well run house of delight providing work for his newly acquired five girls. Business had been better than he expected and he was able to buy himself a newer and larger sailing yacht. The charter business was good and Tony was celebrating his 78th birthday with his girls.

Richard Corwin October 11th 2006
Williamsburg, Va

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