HAVANA TIMES – Everything seemed normal. A few last bottles of water, the supplies needed for the long crossing and a photo of the port. Didier and Vicent Epars are at Cienfuegos bay and were ready to carry on their journey towards Cayo Hueso in Grosse Ile, their schooner. Slips for the sails, a click of the camera for the trip’s logbook on Facebook and all set!
During their journey, strong winds on January 27th 2018, the combination of warm air from the south and the prefrontal trough from the north that led to the tornado in Havana, swept the Canadian boat and its crew towards the coast.
Didier held onto the helm. He didn’t want to lose what has been his home for over 25 years. He is what we call a seadog, but this sudden storm undermined any of his knowledge about the ocean. The boat was hit by 50 knots of wind (92 km/h).
On January 28th, Didier and Vicent woke up and didn’t know where they were, but they guessed that their boat had run aground in front of the Maria la Gorda coastline, in Pinar del Rio. The authorities had already been alerted.
“You have to leave the boat,” an official from the Ministry of Interior (MININT) tells Vincent. He doesn’t understand anything, he barely speaks English. The blond Canadian with long hair and a beard, doesn’t really understand what’s going on. Plus the translation and disciplinary tone of the interpreter’s French, who has been brought along to the scene, makes it hard for him to take in the “instructions” of his interpreter.
Stormy weather on land
“He had three stars on his jacket,” Vicent tells us. “They were asking for 270,000 CUC (=USD) to take the schooner to Havana, and if we didn’t then we would have to leave it behind to the Cuban army.”
“But, was there a lot of damage?” “No, it wasn’t a lot. According to my father, the boat can be repaired, and we can carry on our journey,” he explains to me over the phone.
He tells me that they are trying to get in touch with the Canadian authorities and the boat’s insurance company at this time.
Although the captain’s son claims that “they [the Cuban authorities] want to hold onto [his father’s] boat”, the legal reasons behind this might be that Grosse Ile has shipwrecked in a Natural Park, in the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, and is harming the environment.” [The military officer] warned us that because Maria La Gorda is a natural reserve, the schooner can’t stay there, it has be towed to Havana or some other place,” he adds.
After being warned by the authorities, Didier got in touch with the Cuban company responsible for towing and providing technical assistance. Antillana Salvamento agreed to offer their services for 270,000 CUC. This quote seemed far too expensive in Didier’s opinion, who explains that with two 2-inch pumps and power, the Grosse Ile would be able to sail again.
Up until now, the sailor is waiting for a solution to this conflict at a tourist resort in Maria La Gorda.
It’s been more than 35 days now since the captain landed on this beach. The 30-meter long schooner has become a part of its renowned landscape. According to Didier Epars, this has been his toughest situation as a sailor. His schooner finds itself between the beating of two waters: the Cuban authorities and the British insurance company.
Vicent says that they are in touch with the insurance company. His father says that the British company, Concept Special Risks, is the one responsible in all of this, but there hasn’t been very much communication between them.
Most days, they only receive an email from Global Affairs Canada. According to Didier, “they are trying to find a reason for me being here for more than 30 days. Their justification is based on the Cubans asking for too much money, so they are looking for a solution from the US, Mexico or Cayman Islands,” he adds.
In spite of such scarce contact, they know that the British insurance company is requesting a deductible payment of 140,000 USD to move the ship; the highest amount covered by the insurance. The insurance company will only intervene in the difference between this deductible price and the total damages.
Mark Thomas, Director and manager of Marine Claims at Concept Special Risks, wrote in an email sent to Didier that Cuba is a place that has limited coverage in his company’s insurance policy.
He also warns the Captain of Grosse Ile that they won’t act in the case the ship is confiscated. “Given the fact that there is no coverage for theft, confiscations, etc., it’s unlikely his insurance company will take on the obligation of protecting his ship from theft or confiscation. This responsibility is yours alone and we can’t confirm that we will pay for “total losses” if you leave the ship (and Cuba).”
Nevertheless, according to a phone call with Leila Boyfriat (Didier Epar’s niece and proxy in Quebec to take care of legal matters, who has been mediating between both parties), the British insurance company confirmed that they would send an investigator to Cuba to follow up on the situation and to come up with a final verdict.
While all of this happening, Maria la Gorda’s crystal-clear water is becoming polluted with waste from Grosse Ile. Something that gives Didier goosebumps, not only because of the responsibility of what will happen, and him having to fork out a great deal of money, but also because he considers himself an environmentalist and it would be a shame if this happened. “I put in absorption materials to prevent damage to the ship’s oil, but this is a national park.”
Grounded in nobody’s waters?
Looking for answers to understand Vicent and Didier’s situation better, we spoke to a boat inspector who asked to remain anonymous. The woman explained that it is indeed a Cuban company at the Marine Warf that should provide the towing servce. “Extremely expensive services.” But, 270,000 CUC? I ask. Silence on the other end of the line. “No, I believe it is an exaggeration, but it is an expensive service,” she blurts out. In her experience, she says that the port has had similar situations in the past, but a viable solution has almost always been sought.
Lawyer Eloy Viera Caniva says that “we are seeing what we call an “accident” in Maritime Law, and those involved have to pay for the services they are offered to repair and save the boat. Any reparation, alteration or towing costs will be covered by the ship’s owner.” It’s international procedure.
In his opinion, it’s the ship’s insurance company that isn’t pulling its weight. Didier also knows this, he is even planning to sue them when he gets back to Canada. Nevertheless, he is unsettled by the fact that the Cuban authorities want to keep the boat and are putting pressure on him every day, especially to hand the schooner over the government.
In a letter that Cuban authorities handed to Didier, dated February 13th, which he would then send to Boyfriat by post, everything is ambiguous. The letter talks about opening up an abandonment case. “The subscribed, Captain of the Port, Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Benitez, is hereby communicating to Mr Didier Epars, Captain of Schooner “Grosse Ile, from Canada (sic), the opening of an abandonment file, where the owner of this ship has twenty (20) natural days to pay for the rescue [towing service], and if he fails to do so, the ship will be declared abandoned.”
If Mr. Epars were to go back to Canada, leaving his ship as a guarantee of payment while he sorts out a towing and mooring service, why are they forcing him to consent to the opening of an abandonment file?
According to Law No. 115 of Maritime, River and Lake Navigation, in Article 101.1: “When a ship, boat (…) finds itself floating, in danger of becoming shipwrecked, sinking or grounded, and is a danger or obstacle for navigation or protecting the marine environment, or is in the State’s interests, according to the National Maritime Authority’s own discretion; this Authority can adopt the measures needed to begin signposting, removal , repair or sinking of the boat, expenses being covered by the shipowner within the set period of time …)”.
In this article’s following paragraph, it details: “2. With regard to ships, boats or naval devices that have sunk or are grounded are don’t fall under the above, the owner or person with the right to remove it, get it moving again, or remove it from their ownership; has a year, from the date of the accident, to do so (…).”
“If there hadn’t been a statement like the one made in the Lieutenant Colonel’s letter, then there would be reason to believe that the ship’s captain would have a year to resolve this matter. But in this case, the fact that the ship is grounded without any assistance in Maria la Gorda, a potential danger to a protected area’s ecosystem, this might be the main reason why the authorities are demanding he leave the boat,” lawyer Viera Caniva claims.
Faced with the option of abandoning, Leila Boyfriat says: “This is Didier’s life project, it’s his life, he has invested 30 years into this boat, it isn’t only about the money he has invested. It isn’t a weekend boat, it’s his livelihood, his home and is heritage of Canada, as it is the only schooner left in Quebec,” she says with great emotion.
“He has been intimidated and pressured, a colonel from MININT has been bothering him the most,” Leila adds.
However, the initiation of an abandonment file, is legal according to Article 20 of the abovementioned Law No. 115 of Maritime Law:
“The National Maritime Authority can declare the administrative abandonment of a ship, boat and naval device, for any of the following reasons:
- a) Remains in a port for reasons other than trade and without basic safety conditions for a period longer than ten (10) natural days and without asking for permission to moor or anchor temporarily, or outside of a port for a longer period of time than thirty (30) natural days (…).
- c) When a boat is grounded or sinks without necessary action being taken to assist or save it (…).”.
Grosse Ile becomes Home Depot
“We had to sleep on the schooner for many days. They would come and steal from us in the night. They came to steal rope, utensils and anything else they could take from the boat,” Vicent says, on his way to a rental home where he will spend the night before making the trip back to Canada. His step-father passed away the day after the tragedy. He didn’t want to leave his father alone, but many days have passed and he has to go and console his mother.
“How did you know they were stealing from you?”
“My father went to take a look at the boat while we were staying at the hotel in Maria la Gorda. He saw a few people stealing from the boat with his lamp. After that, we both went to the boat to try and stop the thieves.”
“Why didn’t you tell the police?”
“We did, but they told us that they weren’t responsible.”
Vicent tells me that men with three stars on their jackets came to visit them every day. They offered them a way out of Cuba in exchange for the ship or spare parts.
“C’est fou!!!” He says in French, but his gesture says it all: It’s madness!
According to Article 6 of Law No. 115, which sets out the Ministry of Interior’s powers in this regard, we are seeing that the authorities aren’t holding up their part. In Paragraph i) it is stipulated that they are responsible for: “Implementing measures to protect ships, (…) which have become shipwrecked, or represent a threat to safe maritime navigation and marine environment, (…) and measures that are called for in the event of natural disasters or any other chance event at sea.”
While Paragraph k) specifies “the responsibility to contribute to the development of monitoring and control measures of spills or pollution from ships (…) at ports or while navigating the Republic of Cuba’s waters.”
The last schooner in St. Lawrence
Grosse Ile is also known as the “last schooner in St. Lawrence.” The Canadian schooner was built in 1951 and has passed through the hands of many owners until it reached Didier’s hands in 1991.
Ever since then, the sailor began to do remodeling work and repairs of the ship’s hull and other attachments. Masts, sails and other parts that make it a sailing schooner, whose repairs are estimated at a million dollars. Epars didn’t receive a single cent of government financial aid, but he is asking the government to help to get the boat back at least.
“I received an award from Quebec’s Council of Monuments and Sites for the repair work I did. 30 years of savings might well end up staying here in Cuba if the Canadian and Cuban governments don’t come up with a solution.”
Mr. Epars continues with his hands tied as he doesn’t have the money to cover towing his ship, and he is at the mercy of his insurance company who are taking refuge in their contract’s clause saying that there is limited coverage in Cuban waters that Epars himself signed, and he has no other legal authority in Cuba to turn to.