My Ship of Fools

Cocaine and stowaways are the only things worth hauling back from Haiti these days. The drug warriors have choked off much of the flow from the Bahamas, so cargo comes in now from Colombia via Hispaniola in record loads. For days at a time, the big Coast Guard spy blimps from Key West and Miami Beach hunker over the narrow Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, trying to stop the drug traffic. But they don't. Meanwhile, life in the western hemisphere's poorest nation has grown even more squalid, and the going rate for shipping a single illegal alien to the United States has risen to as high as $3000. The usual penalty for doing so remains $1000 per head. They all deny trafficking, but at least a fair number of captains and ship owners on the Miami River regularly take the risks that make for a lucrative return trip from the land of voodoo.

The outbound journey is no less risky, and the cargo is equally questionable. If you skulked in the predawn shadows of the river long enough, you would see wide-eyed men and women slipping silently from the decks of returning ships and vanishing into the Miami night, new and unofficial citizens of the republic. And you would see boxes and drums being hurriedly off-loaded into brand-new four-wheel-drive trucks. But in the hours before that, on virtually any turn of the polluted, five-mile-long waterway that runs from Miami Springs to Biscayne Bay, you can easily see old men and boys wheeling bicycles across bridges and up to battered wooden boats or rusty, steel-hulled hulks. A few dollars change hands; the old men and boys go back over the bridges and return with plastic buckets, electric fans, mattresses, sacks of empty beer bottles, kitchen furniture, stereo speakers. Sometimes you can see them pushing automobiles down North River Drive, like dung beetles in the twilight, going from ship to ship until the car is finally sold and hoisted aboard.

By the time a freighter is ready to depart the Miami River - often several weeks after it pulled in - the deck is hidden beneath a glittering, top-heavy hill of trinkets only half covered by tarpaulins, the junk of an aging civilization. From the drunk on the street to the bureaucrat biting his nails on the 29th floor of Metro-Dade's administrative headquarters, no one who has lived in Miami more than a year has failed to look out at the Miami River from some meditative vantage point and wonder: What happens to all that stuff? Where do all those bicycles go?

"We know half the stuff is stolen," says a young Coast Guard inspector, drinking coffee in his car outside a shipyard. "Frankly, we don't care. We've got bigger fish to fry." Gesturing toward a loaded freighter, he adds: "To tell you the truth, I think these people provide a service to the community. They round up all the crap and take it out of the city. They're like garbage men. We just try to make sure they don't sink before they take it away."

Policing the approximately 25 ships per week that leave the Miami River for Haiti is not a task for the lazy or the weak of heart. On October 18, the overloaded Rachel keeled over and sank unceremoniously minutes after a harbor pilot in Miami turned the wheel over to the captain and wished the crew pleasant passage to Haiti. On March 20, the 62-foot Sary began its voyage by filling with water, drifting through the Bahamas, and being towed into Fort Lauderdale. It set out again, caught fire, and finally sank in the Miami Beach surf four days after casting off from the Miami River. On April 4, the bilge pump on the Sea Bod quit working 45 miles out of Miami, the engine room flooded, and the crew abandoned ship as it began going down near Great Isaac Light north of Bimini. Ten days later the 148-foot Melinda D rolled over and settled on the Great Bahama Bank 180 miles southeast of Miami, at approximately 23 degrees latitude and 78 degrees longitude. If you go there today, you can look down through 50 feet of clear water and see the wreck, still loaded with cars and trucks, the blue-and-white flag of Honduras waving underwater from a pole behind the wheel house.

I was too far out at sea to even hope of swimming back, passing, in fact, directly over the wreck of the Melinda D, when the second mate told me her former name: the Helena C. "But that's the name of our ship!" I

"Well, yes and no," he explained. "Our ship called the Helena Sea, sea with the word spelled out instead of just the letter C. Can't have two ships with the same name. That'd be bad luck for sure."

What an odd coincidence, I ventured, this similarity of names. "Coincidence got nothing to do with it," he said. "Captain, he wanted to name this ship after that wreck down there. You see," he said, pointing into the water, "the captain of the boat you riding on now used to be captain of that boat down there on the bottom."

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