Beer and Loathing in Haiti

Have you ever wished for the chance to go after sunken treasure? Spanish doubloons, Blackbeard, and the Jolly Roger tickle your fancy? Arrrrrgh, matey, sit back and read about modern day pirates that use your dreams to take your gold!

During January of 1982, a 62 year-old businessman from Americus, Ga. was scouting out locations in the Caribbean for a new hotel. His name was William Forehand but his friends called him Bill. Bill owned Day’s Inn motels in Americus, Macon, Cordele and Augusta Ga. His idea was to sell the four properties and build a hotel in the Caribbean as a retirement vehicle. Toward the end of Bill’s travels, he stopped for a few days in Port au Prince, Haiti.

During dinner his second night, Bill struck up a conversation with one Timothy O’Malley, a man whose business card identified him as the president of Haitian Marine Expeditions or HMX. Tim was a trim and dapper gentleman from Ireland who explained his business to Bill. Tim was forming a limited partnership to explore and salvage the hundreds of sunken ships in the waters around Haiti. He explained that his company had an exclusive agreement with the country’s president, Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier. The name of the venture was HMX Operation 22. In retrospect, there is a load of information in that designation. Bill Forehand got excited. The more he talked with Tim, the more visions of untold riches danced in his head. To hell with the hotel, this project could set him up on easy street. Before the night ended, Bill shook hands with Tim and agreed to raise some money and come back to finance the deal.

I am proud of my southern heritage. From 1976-85 I lived in Tifton, Georgia, a little town with an erudite power structure and a sleepy southern charm. Chivalry is alive and well, as is a drawl slow as molasses. Bill hit Tifton with a full head of steam. He set up shop in an office at the law firm representing his motel interests and began selling Operation 22’s prospectus to everyone he thought might be willing to dream big. In three days, he raised seven hundred and twenty thousand dollars. In 1982, America was in the midst of a recession. Unemployment was running 11.5%. The smallest investor was in for one thousand; the largest was in for one hundred thousand dollars. I have rarely seen such a feeding frenzy. It seemed that everyone was afraid of being left out.

During that winter of 1982, it can truly be said that I had more money than sense. It has actually been that way for most of my adult life, regardless of how broke I was at the time. I completely and totally understood the feeling of not wanting to be left out. A couple of fishing buddies and I came up with ten thousand dollars and became limited partners in the one of the most fantastic scams to ever hit south Georgia.

After a week, Bill had close to a million dollars and headed down to Haiti to get the project started. The first order of business was securing a base of operations. Bill chose a mountaintop villa, one and one half hour’s drive from the port. Next up was a project vehicle to carry him to and from the villa. For this purpose, a new Jeep Grand Wagoneer was imported from the US.

Finally a boat was purchased from which the actual salvage work would be done. To the investors back in Georgia, the fact that the boat was purchased was taken as a sign of good news. The pictures showed a creaky, sixty-five foot workboat with a pilothouse and flying bridge. A compressor for dive tanks was located under the whaleback. At the stern, two prop blasters hung ready for action.

After three months of rosy reports and nary a doubloon, the investment group decided to send a fact finding team to Port au Prince to determine where the gold was, and why it was not flowing freely back to Georgia where it rightfully belonged. One of the lead investors, a physician, and an attorney from the firm were elected to form the team. They suspected they had been duped and said as much out loud. As the only certified diver among the investors, and with the time to spend a week in Haiti, I was invited to tag along.

We arrived in Miami and boarded a jet to Port au Prince. Bill greeted us at the airport with his son, Willie, and a government representative. We were waved through customs and loaded our stuff into the Jeep. Bill explained that the boat was leaving late that evening to investigate a site Tim had recommended and we were to be guests on the voyage. We made a quick trip to inspect the boat and make sure provisions for our expedition were loaded properly. A cruise ship was tied up to a nearby wharf. Dozens of children bobbed in the water on the bay side as the ship’s passengers tossed pennies, nickels and the occasional dime from the after deck. The water was over forty feet deep and the kids would dive for the coins they missed.

While checking out the boat, we were introduced to the crew. They were as rough a collection of humanity as I’ve ever seen outside of prison walls. In a small epiphany, I realized that if we actually located any doubloons, these guys would kill us and probably kill each other before we ever got back to port. The cook was a small Englishman with a cockney accent who cursed a blue streak, only stopping to inhale half a cigarette in one drag. The lead diver was a brooding hulk of a man, his speech a snarled mix of English and Creole. The ship’s engineer was equally imposing, sharpening a large knife. He could be single-handedly responsible for the current tattoo craze. The captain was absent.

Our gear loaded, Bill suggested a trip to the villa, followed by dinner and a visit to the local casino. We agreed, glad to get away from the humidity of the port. April in Georgia is pleasant. In Haiti the heat was a palpable force, every movement taking far more effort than we were accustomed to. The ride up the mountain started through some of the most pitiful living conditions in the western hemisphere. As our elevation increased, the people appeared more prosperous. After an hour and perhaps fifteen miles, we approached the top of the ridge overlooking Port au Prince. The road was so steep that three of us had to get out and push the Jeep up the last hundred yards to the villa.

The “villa” was actually a rambling stone fortress built into the brow of the ridge. There was a large, well kept pool with a stunning panorama of the ocean and the city far below. After freshening up, we headed to dinner in a part of the city known as Petionville and on to the casino. Dinner was unremarkable. The casino had an exceedingly European flavor with Baccarat seeming to be the game of choice. I discovered yet another card game with which I have no talent. At midnight we were driven to the boat.

As the others retired for the crossing, I headed to the pilothouse to meet the captain. He turned out to be a wizened old man, appearing well over seventy to my twenty-something eyes. His English was spoken with a heavy French accent. The evening was clear, but new moon dark and this fellow was about to head out of one of the most difficult harbor entrances on the planet. Accustomed to the electronic navigation technology of the time, I could find none on the bridge. The only instrumentation was a large compass and a chronometer.

With the rest of the crew fast asleep and no desire to deal with them after an evening of rum, the Captain sent me up to the flying bridge to help spot markers or anything else that might get in our way. Communication was via a two-inch brass tube that ran from the bridge to the helm. Actually very little was said on the way out as the old man expertly snaked his way out to the open ocean.

Eighty miles ahead, our destination was a reef on the eastern approach to the Ile de la Gonave. The voyage went without incident and just before dawn we were off the coast of the island. The only lights on the island were fires, visible through the thick foliage. I imagined the faint beat of drums….or did I? Willie Forehand had towed his old sixteen-foot Glastron ski boat behind us and was off to find the shipwreck. He located it and before breakfast, we were anchored from three directions directly over a brace of cannons protruding from the reef. The water was twenty feet deep.

After a greasy breakfast, we dove in to take a look at the wreck. This ship had obviously gone down in a storm. Contrary to popular belief, ships that go aground don’t just sink and stay there. This ship had been blown onto the reef and the force of the wind and waves tumbled it across the coral for hundreds of yards. Its cargo was scattered across the area and, except for the cannons it was covered by coral growth. The reef was spectacular with one exception: it was completely devoid of fish, even small tropicals. The inhabitants evidently did not cull their catches and had virtually fished out the barrier reef surrounding the island.

By the time we got back on board, the engineer had lowered the prop blasters over the propellers.

They took the propeller thrust and directed it down toward the bottom. I thought they would be used to blow sand from around an area, but to my horror, the force tore the coral below apart and exposed the cannons and other artifacts. The water turned milky and visibility was reduced to near zero. For a couple of hours, the professional divers and I used hoses connected directly to the compressor, called hookah rigs, to explore the aftermath of the prop blasters. We felt along the bottom and placed anything that didn’t feel like coral into mesh bags we carried.

Examining the booty topside, we discovered numerous cannon balls and grapeshot loads. There was a lot of old broken pottery and silverware. Sailing ships of that era had copper sheets attached to the bottom with bronze tacks to prevent fouling growth. Strips of the copper, still holding the tacks, were sticking out of the rubble everywhere. Occasionally a large piece was found tacked to a seventeenth century plank from the ship’s bottom section. We found buttons, tobacco pipes, belt buckles, etc. Over my protests, we continued to expand our area of destruction until mid-afternoon the next day with similar results. Every sort of detritus imaginable from the ship was found with an important exception: there was not a doubloon in sight.

There were storm clouds gathering on the horizon when Willie and I set off in the Glastron to check out some local fishermen in a small wooden boat. We were trying to barter for some lobster and Willie’s obvious distain for the locals was not helping when the wind freshened. We were about two miles from the mothership. The dark clouds had gathered rapidly behind us and there were already whitecaps past the reef. The bigger boat was heading out to deeper water. As we tried to catch up, the Glastron had difficulty with the sea conditions. We began shipping water almost immediately. The bilge pump refused to work. I jerked the wires from the switch and wired it directly to the battery, all the while imploring Willie to get to us to the big boat NOW.

I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but in 1982, the weather forecasts were slightly, shall we say….unreliable. The predicted calm weather gave way to a fast moving front. The workboat was in the uncomfortable position of being on the eastern end of the island and being pounded by westerly winds at a steady 30-35 knots. One of the elderly diesels has died and they’re trying to keep from being turned broadside by the wind and driven up on the same patch of reef that they’ve just spend the better part of two days demolishing. The milky water has been transformed into the Sea of Irony.

At the same time, they have two young men in a tiny boat trying to reach them and not having much success. To this day I am convinced that, had his father not been on the boat, Willie and I would be sporting great tans, speaking fluent Creole and beating on those drums…that is if we had made it back to the island. The natives would have loved In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita. The old captain made a quick and calculated turn. We were able to jump from the Glastron to the larger boat and tied the ski boat off the stern. It sank within a few minutes and we cut it loose…an offering to the Gods of the reef.

The engineer can’t make the second diesel work and, with no safe anchorage, the captain heads for Port au Prince. We are beating into twelve-foot head seas with a single engine and not making very good time. The doctor and lawyer have gotten more than they bargained for and stay below. Throughout the night we gradually fall under the protection of the mountains on island of Hispanola. The wind’s effect on the waves diminishes. Those same mountains have knocked the starch out of many a hurricane. I spent the night observing the old captain, how he handled the boat and managed the crew. Around four in the morning, he asked me to once again head to the flying bridge and keep watch as we limped into the port. Once inside the harbor, I collapsed on the floor of the bridge and slept as never before.

I was having a dream about swimming in an icy cold mountain stream when a foot rudely awakened me. “Man, we thought we lost you out there!” said my lawyer buddy. A swarm of mosquitoes buzzed about. He’d been spraying me with insect repellent, thus the dream. “It’s ten o’clock and we’ve already reported you lost at sea.” I started thinking about the pain that news will cause my family. “Come on, we gotta get this straightened out or you’ll never get out of the country. Not only that, but we got a lunch appointment with Tim O’Malley, and I want our money back.” I took a quick shower and dressed. My stuff got loaded in the Jeep with the boys and we drove a short distance to a restaurant outside the iron market.

Tim cheerfully greeted us and asked about our exploits. The doctor said it sucked and asked how much money was left. Tim replied, “Not much.” The attorney demanded a complete accounting and the immediate return of all remaining funds, or else. “Or else what, mate?” The cheerful demeanor was gone. “I don’t think you’ll find that American law degree of much use in here in Port au Prince. My friend, Jean Claude, will see to that….so bugger off.” It’s easy to believe the venture’s Operation 22 designation meant there had been 21 equally gullible groups proceeding our own. The haggling began and continued until I grew bored and walked outside and into the iron market.

Street kids clawing and begging for attention instantly surrounded me. A large youth approached and offered protection for one dollar. I paid him and the children promptly retreated a few feet. They remained within striking distance as we walked through the market. A well-endowed wooden mermaid caught my eye. The carving was five feet high, cut out of solid mahogany. She had a long sinuous tail and a face straight off an Easter Island moai. The asking price was $450 American. Ten minutes later I walked out of the market, my protector toting the mermaid, after he negotiated sales price of $24.75. The attorney and doctor emerged from the restaurant with a dejected look on their faces. They now knew that over one million dollars had left South Georgia and it was not coming back. Bill Forehand remained optimistic. “You boys get on home and scare me up a little more operating money and I’ll find the gold!” He left for the villa and we caught a taxi to the airport.

Compared to the passage back from Gonave, being escorted by MIG fighters through Cuban airspace on the flight to Miami was a walk in the park. I was unwilling to check my mermaid and had to carry her in my lap on the plane. Trying to clear customs at Miami International was a trip. Picture this: It’s 1982. Miami Vice rules the television. A sunburned, mustachioed young man with longish hair is trying to pass a wooden mermaid with large breasts, dive gear, camera bag, an attaché containing five bottles of Barbancourt Reserve-Especial Rhum and a big duffle bag through customs. The folks in line behind me did not appreciate the fact that the customs officials left very little to chance. They x-rayed the statue, looked through all the bags in detail, and had the dog sniff the whole shebang, me included. In the process, someone stole my camera bag with the photos of the trip and a Nikon FE inside. I do not care to visit Haiti again.

A few months later, the political climate changed in down there. Jean-Claude Duvalier was deposed and fled to France. Bill Forehand managed to escape the country, taking the boat to the Bahamas where it was sold. The investors got a very small amount back from the sale of the boat and a large tax deduction.

“Sixteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Rum.” I still have about half a bottle of that Barbancourt Reserve-Especial. Occasionally over the years, I’ve poured a snifter, toasted the buxom mahogany mermaid and contemplated what happened and what was to be learned from it. I lost an extremely small sum, relatively speaking, and got a splendid adventure and a mermaid to show for it. The rest of the group was not as fortunate. To overstate the obvious, the lure of easy money can infect anyone. There were some very savvy and intelligent folks on the investor list. Our efforts to get a bigger piece of the return resembled nothing more than a school of hungry jacks tearing a bait pod apart. Additionally, there are people out there slicker than a river rock and just as slippery. The only thing wrong with your money is that they don’t have it. They are willing to go to extreme and ingenuous lengths to separate you from your cash and all of us are susceptible at one time or another.

Without putting too fine a point on it, there are also people that live lives of unimaginable desperation. The faces of the grimy children in the iron market still occasionally haunt my dreams. Theirs is a world where life, human or otherwise, has little meaning or value. I try to thank God every day for being born in America……and especially being born in the South.

Copyright by Capt. Wiley Horton