Siboney traveled across the Pacific Ocean atop a bed of raw sugar inside the #1 hold of the M/V Talisay owned by Filipino sugar magnate, Amadin Araneta and in Critobal, Panama and using the ship’s crane, dropped it into the water. I thanked the captain for delivering my boat safely, and stayed aboard Siboney together with son Jim as the boat floated anew on its own. Amidst waves from the crew, a small Canal Company tug towed boat and trailer to the Cristobal Yacht Club where with son Jim I commenced the rigging process.

           My friend Siro Cugini, with my first son Bill, Jr., flew in 4 days later to help put the finishing touches on the rigging. Late in the afternoon of May 10, 1969, Siboney cleared the breakwater marking the entrance to the Panama Canal and headed out to sea. Seas were rough and the wind brisk as we drove the untested boat away from the coast. Siboney flew right along all that first night and all the next day. Some 60 miles out, just as we were getting ready to tack, the top spreader bracket cracked and broke. The top of the mast bent so far over that I awaited the not unfamiliar pop. I quickly turned her about and put the strain on the port shrouds as one of the boys started the engine. When I put the engine into gear then revved it, the engine took off and suddenly stopped. We reduced sail and sailed on on a course of due east. 

          There was no way to fix the spreader but thanks to that first long tack to the north, it appeared we could make Cartagena on the tack we were on. I fiddled with the diesel engine during the next two days with no luck. It just would not start and the batteries were about dead. I had fuel going into the fuel pump but no injection. I gave up my job as mechanic and turned to navigation as we neared our goal.

Cartagena, a fairly large bay, faces west. Its mouth, ten miles wide has a small island that straddles the entrance and divides the harbor entrance into two. The widest, Boca Grande, as it was difficult to protect, was filled with large boulders and thus sealed from predators the kin of Drake and others. All ships would have to enter via Boca Chica and past a substantial fort.

Our chart and sailing directions clearly stated that Boca Grande was closed for navigation but as we neared during mid-afternoon, with no engine and seriously damaged rig I needed to find the shortest distance to the city and a marina. While Siro steered, I studied the chart. To enter via Boca Chica would entail more than a ten mile tack inside the harbor in light shifty winds. Night would fall and we would never find our way what with all of the bright city lights.

I had Siro aim the bow towards Boca Grande and went up to the bow with my lead. We remained in 6 fathoms. At 3 fathoms I had the jib dropped to reduce speed. Still debating whether to continue or not, I spot a fishing boat heading out from shore across Boca Grande. I marked the spot with trees on shore and headed for it. Twenty minutes later we were safely inside the harbor!

We had the broken spreader fitting welded but after 3 days still struggled with the engine. Fuel pump and injectors had been overhauled but it refused to start. Siro and I worked day and night until we found that two bolts that connect the fuel injector pump to the drive shaft had come loose while the third one sheered.

Hours after the rascal purred we were on our way tacking up the Colombian coast, past the Magdalena River, Santa Marta and up the long and windy Guajira Peninsula. With the wind dead on the nose, we close tacked always seeking the quieter waters near the coast by day then going off shore at night. Days later we approached Aruba where I planned to leave the boat, get the kids back to school and report to work.

Aruba sits in the middle of a wind vortex. Easterlies blow without letup. We tacked and tacked for days, our small portable AM radio, locked on Radio Aruba, the best navigational instrument in use. In these heaving seas I could not bring myself to hauling out the sextant and a ton of books just to confirm that we were being tossed around but going nowhere in the Caribbean.

Convinced that Aruba lay dead to the East, an hour before dawn I climbed up the mast to stand on the boom in hopes that I could see the light beacon in Aruba which sits atop the only high hill on the island. Billy comes out of the cabin, sees me hanging onto the mast and asks, “Dad, what are you doing,” and I told him was hoping to see the light on Aruba. Siboney loves a good blow. With its two small jibs set and the main well reefed, she’ll do 5 knots plus against a 25 knot trade wind. We drove the boat relentless all that day and through the night.

At 5 the following morning I was again up the mast, searching for the elusive light, when again Billy crawls out of the cabin and poses the same question to which I again say, “Looking for the light on Aruba.” With the innocence of youth, Billy calls out, “But, Dad, that’s what you said yesterday.” We did make it in later that day but not without last minute drama.

 We tacked into the main harbor entrance in Orangestad, and then turned on the engine since the channel is quite narrow. Besides, all of us were anxious to get this tiresome leg out of the way. Minutes later the engine began to overheat with watery steam shooting out of the heat exchanger. I was able to get the cap off and filled the tank with water. The fresh water pump seal had failed allowing the water to drain out as fast I poured it in. When I used up all the fresh water we had I called up to the boys to fill the bucket with salt water and to pas it down.

Six bucketfuls later I stopped the engine. The wind caught us, sails down and quickly blew us more than a mile off shore. Sails up, we tacked back in, down the channel and dropped the hook in the anchorage, totally fried. We’d been out of ice for days and Kooge and I needed something cold. When we approached the town pier panting for a cold Heineken we saw an official looking man who said, “Gentlemen, your passports and ship’s papers.” We just about died right there in the hot noon day sun and all we could say was...but. But.. He did allow us a couple of cold one before rowing back.

 Three weeks later, with a new crew consisting of my cousin in law, Bob McIntire, Al Sparzani, my next door neighbor and Billy we set sail for La Guaira in Venezuela. Again we were delivered into the jaws of hell. Winds never dropped below 25 knots. The engine lost its head gasket and with Siboney racing over 6 to 8 foot head seas, we did a head gasket job, with all the disassembly that implies. Now, the direct distance between Aruba and Curacao is 96 miles. We had no idea where we were except for what our little radio told us.

Four days later, 90 hours to be exact, I’m at the helm at dawn when I see land on the horizon to the North. I’m convinced that we had to have covered at least 200 miles to windward. The crew remained asleep. I got my little radio out and diddled with the dials. Holy cow. The land is Curacao! I decided to say not a word and sail right by it as I really wanted to get the boat to my new home. At that Al and Bob come up on deck, their back to the island. A half hour later up comes Billy, looks around and exclaims, “Hey, Dad, look, land.” It was over. We changed course for Curacao, dropped off Bob and Billy, then Al and I sailed on to Bonaire where again Siboney rested until yet another crew sailed it on its last leg to Venezuela.


William Butler, 2004