Best known as Bonaire’s diving pioneer, Captain Don looks back on his other life as a sailor a half century ago.
“It was 14:30 hours on May 21st, 1962,” recalls Don Stewart of his landfall on Bonaire. “I had 63 cents in my pocket.”
As the story goes, it was the island’s lieutenant governor, van Hesteren, who met the vagabond sea captain soon after arrival and sternly told him, “Produce you stay, a bum and you’re out.” Fortunately for Don, he had six air tanks and a small compressor aboard his schooner. With that equipment and Stewart’s moxie, the diving industry on Bonaire was born. The stories that followed are a mix of island lore and scuba history known by many. But fewer know about Captain Don’s life at sea.
A couple of years before landing in Bonaire, Don found himself in Hollywood, California, restless and in his mid-thirties. He had served as a medic in the Navy, ran a successful business called Stewart Screens, and had just spent a year traveling the length of the Mississippi River. Stewart then thought the time was ripe to break into the movie business and submitted a script to a studio boss. It was an adventure story that involved a large sailing ship. Ever the optimist, Don thought it best to buy a boat so that when the movie went into production, it would be used in the filming.
“I bought the boat to do a movie. I had never been on a sailboat in my life. I searched the entire west coast from Washington to Mexico. There were some beauties, but most were too expensive. I needed something big—70, 80, 100 feet long—for the film. Then one day in San Diego, in one of the back bays on a mud flat, I found a boat leaning over at low tide.”She was a two-masted, gaff-rigged, seventy foot-long, wooden, topsail schooner built in 1912 called Al Rene. The mainsail alone carried a thousand square foot of canvas. Reportedly newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst, was a previous owner. “I bought her for $7000 from an old Norwegian. Handed him the cash in a paper bag.” Stewart renamed the schooner, Valerie Queen after his Welsh girl friend, whom he married in 1955. “Me and another fella’ with no sailing experience somehow got the boat back to LA. I remember looking down the deck from behind the wheel. It looked like the length of a football field!”
Don was in need of help. He offered a group of local Sea Scouts a chance to sail the Valerie Queen on weekends. In exchange, he would look over their shoulders, watching their every move. Sailing school had begun. Don also chartered Valeria Queen to a women’s sailing team on vacation from Germany. “They sailed the boat. It was a wonderful experience. I was watching every detail-how they tied knots, everything. It was an educational trip for me.”
It was about this time the studio boss delivered the bad news. The company was not interested in making a movie from Stewart’s script, but the man offered some life-changing advice, “It’s a good story. You should go live the script”.
Stuck with a seventy-foot schooner, Don began to contemplate his future. In the meantime, he began running dive charters to Catalina Island, 22 miles out in the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles. “The Coast Guard was chasing my ass all the time. I had no license. I had no insurance. I had nothing but a big boat.”
After a short time sailing San Francisco Bay, Stewart decided to point Valeria Queen south on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1960 and begin his sailing adventure of a lifetime. It was time to ‘live the script’. The voyage took him and his ever-changing crew along the coast of Mexico where Don had several dangerous encounters with Baja desperados. He eventually reached the Panama Canal and headed to the Caribbean with the vague goal of sailing to the Leeward island of Antigua. These were the days without GPS, cell phones or reliable satellite weather information, conveniences that most sailors today take for granted. Guts and good intuition served captains like Don well.
But trouble continued to shadow the schooner. At one point, Stewart summarized his problems as “Latins, redheads and a loose cannon hurricane named Anita in Jamaica”. It was off the coast of Aruba where Don claims a deck hand threatened him with a knife. It was mutiny aboard the Valeria Queen. Don had chased the crazed man high in the mast, and with blade in hand, the deck hand threatened to slice the ship’s halyards. “I had a rifle, but chose to shoot a flare gun at him instead. That might look more accidental if I did hit him.” What Don failed to realize is that his barrage of flares got the immediate attention of the Aruban authorities ashore. “We got hauled into port in Aruba by the police. After a long discussion, I was told to leave the island. But I still have that flare gun.” he says grinning.
Stewart and his Aruban first mate, Percy, pointed the schooner south to Colombia. While heading east along the coast of South America, the crew of two spotted a suspicious boat. Peering through binoculars, they could see the vessel was armed and, with a sudden puff of black smoke, the boat made an abrupt change in course in pursuit of the Valeria Queen. “We were sailing short canvas,” recalls Don. “Schooners have a way of getting along with only a foresail. Our main was cut down to the third reef. I said, ‘Percy, spread this boat.’ Valeria Queen really loved the wind to her shoulder. By this time, I knew my ship well.”
‘Where are we going, Don?’ inquired Percy.
‘We’re going north. Those guys got machine guns on board.’
“I already had two of my buddies killed by pirates. We were going to hit an island somewhere if we headed north. Through glasses the following day, I spotted Brandaris and said, ‘That looks like the place. It’s land.’ We cut across and finally came into port, spotted a Dutch flag and dropped anchor. A policeman came aboard and gave me a cold beer, a smile and a welcome. That had never happened before on the voyage. I looked over at Kralendijk. Clean! Clean! Organized! What a difference after the filthy ‘Spanish’ ports we had visited before. I turned to Percy and said, ‘I like this place’.”
Don and Percy were soon astonished by Bonaire’s pristine underwater world, and slowly they began to bring dive tourism to the island. A year later, Valeria Queen met her fate while anchored offshore. Even today, Don Stewart pauses in silence when asked about the end of his beloved schooner. “It sank at six in the morning. The seacock (a shut-off valve located below the water line) was left open. Somebody must have opened it. I never found out who.”
With no boat with which to depart, Don thoughts of eventually reaching Antigua vanished. But the sinking of the Valeria Queen did not stop him from sailing. A few years later he bought Sislan, a traditional Bonaire sailing boat. In a moment of bravado, Stewart challenged Hubert “Ibo” Domacassé to race his boat, Vella against him. The stakes? Twenty-seven cases of cold beer. Ibo ended up beating Don by three minutes in an exciting sailing dual. When asked why he sailed the race, Stewart answers bluntly, “Money. We had a weeklong party after the race and that was where I made the money. October was always a slow month so the income helped a lot.”
That race spurred on an annual competition that eventually became the Bonaire International Sailing Regatta now in it’s 44th year. And Sislan’s fate? One day Don ran the boat aground and ended up selling it to the local legendary sailor, Ismael Soliano. Ismael repaired the hull, renamed it Etiene after his youngest son, and won the regatta numerous times thereafter. Etiene is the last of its kind on the island and can still be seen on a mooring just offshore from Kaya Playa Lechi.
Stewart still had one more sailing chapter left. In 1971, the salty captain sailed a Sunfish (a basic, 14-foot sailing dingy) from Bonaire to Curacao in record time, around 6 hours. That record stood for a dozen years until a Dutch sailor broke it in 1983.
These days, Don resides inland with his partner, Janet Thibault, out of sight of the sea. After selling his resort, Captain Don’s Habitat, the couple began a plant and landscaping business to promote the use of native plants on the island. To this day, Stewart is unimpressed with his voyage on the schooner and claims that he’s not a sailor. “That day I landed in Bonaire was the beginning of my life,” states Don. “I’ll never leave this island.”
But if one considers the blue water adventures of the Valeria Queen, the exciting coastal races aboard Sislan and his record-breaking Sunfish journey to Curacao, Captain Don is undeniably a sailor. He is, indeed, another sailor who never left.