Together with my intrepid crew we sailed as often as my work and my sons’ school schedule allowed to the islands off the coast of Venezuela. Siboney, berthed at Playa Grande Marina which lies about 10 miles west of La Guaira, could easily make the overnight sail to either Los Roques or Aves de Barlovento as the prevailing wind blew straight out of the east. My 39 foot Robert Clark designed cutter just gobbled up the miles with its 2 small jibs and a reefed main when blowing over 20 knots, as was mostly the case. We’d time our arrival for dawn thus, if headed for Los Roques we’d take off about 8 p.m. and if aiming for Las Aves de Barlovento, close to 80 miles away, we’d leave at six in the afternoon.

          Aves de Barlovento had been our choice during the past year. A totally abandoned atoll about 40 miles east of Bonaire, it provided action for both my young sons and for the “White Hunter”, Neill Martin. In the “Hunters” inflatable powered by a 15 horse engine, we searched for wrecks by towing three of the crew who scanned the windward edge of the reef. On October 13, 1972 we made our first major find. A huge canon stood out on a white sand bottom in 75 feet of water. While we circled, the Hunter threw on a tank and went down. When the Hunter appeared to be less than half the size of the canon, I realized its rescue was way beyond anything we could handle. Once we retrieved Neill, we continued on our way.

          Just as we rounded the northeastern edge of the reef, one of the boys spotted a large chain and released his hold on the towline. The rest of us followed once we anchored the inflatable. The boys had stayed with the heavy inch a half chain as it wove around and through endless coral heads in no more than 10 feet of water. In places, some coral heads left less than a foot of water in places. Bill, Jr. who had swum ahead, called out, “Hey, a canon!” Untouched for three centuries, this six inch canon lay half buried in the ships ballast rocks. The hunter swam out to the boat, rowed it in, tied it to a coral head then jumped in with his underwater camera and a half dozen flash bulbs. The entire crew circled our find pointing to new goodies. The Hunter snapped a picture of the scene untouched for three centuries..

          Besides the canon and ballast rocks there were a dozen chain plates, the ships capstan, mast hardware, and planks with large copper spikes. We marked the site on a hand made chart, salvaged several dozen six inch copper spikes and headed back to civilization to plan our next move. We returned again in February, 1973 and came up with a plan. We would invite two other sailors to join us with their boats, to help salvage the canon and get it back to shore. Niko Manini had “Maryann” a 40 foot motor sailor and Eloy Montenegro owned a 45 foot Hatteras sports fisherman, Anfitrite.

          I contacted a friend with the Venezuelan historical society who helped me track this wreck to one of seven boats sunk in 1673 on Aves de Barlovento. This ship, Le Belliqueux, was one of a fleet of about 40 ships that sailed from Cayenne, in French Guyana, to liberate Curaçao from the Dutch. The night had been nasty. Squalls with heavy rains, lightning and thunder were frequent. Two small ships in the lead led the way. They would signal danger firing two canons. One canon would signal ‘put on all sail and follow me’. In the inky black night, the lead ship ran up on Aves de Barlovento. Two shots were quickly fired. Blinding rain obscured the first shot. The fleet put on all sail and headed for the reef. This is why Curaçao is still today under Dutch control.

          On April 17, 1973 Siboney set sail with Anfitrite and Maryann. We, the slowest, sailed during late afternoon in a 15 knot easterly. The others left closer to midnight. A reefed main and the yankee drove us along easily at close to six knots. Navigation tools consisted of a compass and a cheap AM radio. I estimated a half knot current, set a course of 350 and let the self steering gear do the rest. All the crew on watch had to do was make minor course adjustments, trim sails and keep their eye on the North Star.

          I was on deck at first light as Siboney plunged gently over the 3 foot chop. I searched the northern horizon for sight of the low lying atoll, its highest point no more than 25 feet. When land failed to show by nine am, we hoisted one of the boys to the lower spreader with orders to look in all directions. No land was spotted. I slowed the boat down, went over the log to reconstruct our overnight made good, and sent a boy up the mast again. By noon I knew we were lost. I got on the VHF radio and called Anfitrite and Maryann. Anfitrite came right back. I frankly confessed my predicament and asked for a radio fix with his radio direction finder.

          Twenty minutes later we discovered the sad truth. We had passed Las Aves before dawn and were now 30 miles north. It took until last light for us to work our way into the lagoon and anchor alongside our two long waiting partners. My original plan centered on Siboney being helped through the reef and directly over the canon to then raise it off the floor. We’d carry it back to the beach where all crews would push the canon, which we estimated at 2000 pounds, up an inclined plane to the deck of Anfitrite. They had brought all the lumber required but between us we could never solve one critical problem. How to get the canon down to the deck of the sport fisherman? All of us envisioned the canon flying down through the hull and back to the ocean floor! We’d sleep on it and work up a solution tomorrow.

Early the following day all three crews moved to the wreck site. With one man atop each of the brain coral heads alongside the wreck, Siboney was eased on top of the canon and firmly secured with lines forward, aft and amidships. The Hunter secured lines around the center swivel ears, another from the muzzle end and another from the knob on the breach. The genoa winches slowly lifted the canon off the bottom. When it was high enough to clear the reef, Siboney was eased back out into deeper water and towed to our anchorage. 

Obvious that if the canon was going to shore, it had to be under Siboney, the experts pooled their knot tying skills and practiced most of Saturday evening. Early Sunday morning saw the canon secured under Siboney, the muzzle aimed forward, all four lines doubled. With an important business meeting scheduled for Monday morning, we upped sail, tested the boats response, found it adequate, and sailed for home. 

When the breeze began to die about midnight we cranked up Bertha, our trusty Perkins 4107. It pushed us along on the flat seas at about 5 knots. With everything under control and on schedule, I hopped into a bunk. Billy came down twice during the night to announce that he thought the engine needed oil. Each time I OK’d he  add a quart. Up at first light, I saw the faint outline of the coastal mountain range, about 35 miles to the south. If we hurried, I might get to the office on time for my meeting.


Suddenly the engine pickup up speed and began to rev out of control. I pulled the stop lever but it had no effect. The racket was deafening and the plume of smoke that shot out of the exhaust climbed sky high. When the crew dashed out of the cabin they thought nothing of stomping over the skip. Unable to stop the engine and afraid the engine would blow any minute, I headed on deck.


The crew all huddled behind the mast in hopes it would deflect any flying pieces. The Hunter, sharp knife in hand asked if he should cut the canon loose. I ordered a hold. The racket continued unabated. Smoke plumed a hundred feet in the air. It seemed like hours, but the engine ran on its lubricating oil no more than 10 minutes. And just as suddenly as the engine took off, it stopped. The entire crew collapsed on deck, stunned and befuddled. I ordered happy hour as we threw back and tried to sort out this new dimension.  

An hour inched by. Nothing stirred. The crew remained in total silence, totally shook. No wind and no sign of wind, no waves and worse of all, no engine nor any desire on any ones part to deal with it kept all of us stunned. The damned engine could have killed us. Two hours later gently zephyrs led to a steady 8 knot wind. We raised and trimmed the sails. But when Siboney began to pick up speed, we were headed north, away form shore, back to Las Aves. Damn! I tried to bring her about, then tried to jibe. Neither would do it. We’d come close but never could go all the way. I ordered the two boys to don their flippers and push the stern around. They kicked as hard as they could but she still could not come about. The Hunter jumped in. All three strained until we did succeed to push the stern around. At one knot, we would not be back until Tuesday.

Another desperate hour passed. The dangling canon cut our speed down to almost nothing. It was now noon. We’ll be out here forever. At that, Billy calls out, ‘Anfitrite heading this way!’ Like a blessing out of the blue, the 45 foot Hatteras headed our way at 25 knots, swung alongside and tossed us two stout one inch lines which we secured first to the bow cleats then to the mast. We reached shore at dusk, dropped the canon near the travel lift, and headed for home, mission accomplished. The canon rests to this day atop its wooden cradle at the Playa Grande Marina, its muzzle aimed towards the Caribbean.

©  William A. Butler, 2004