Sailors Who Never Left #7, Jeanette and Rob ter Borg

In 1985, four years into their world voyage,

Jeanette and Rob ter Borg made landfall on Bonaire where they still remain today.

 “Bonaire was so nice, so simple,” explains Jeanette.  “There were no buildings along the coast.  Hardly any cars or telephones, and Cultimara (a local super market) was here but it was very small.”

“Many people were barefoot, but not because they couldn’t afford shoes,” adds Rob.  “It was just their choice. There was no need for shoes.  So I went barefoot when I went into town too.”

These were the first impressions of the young Dutch sailors when they arrived on Bonaire over a quarter of a century ago.  The ter Borg’s had left Haarlem, the Netherlands in 1982 after they had completed construction of Iltshi, a 38-foot steel sloop.  The couple had bought the hull and Rob built the rest of the boat himself.  He came from a family of sailors, generations of boat builders, so completing Iltshi (which means ‘wind’ in the American Indian language of Apache) was in his DNA.  Jeanette had never sailed until she met Rob in her early 20s.  She quit her secretary job ten years later.  Their goal was to complete a world voyage in four to five years.  By the time they sailed into Spain, their plans had drastically changed.

“I injured my back and had to have surgery and then a long recovery,” tells Jeanette.  “We were in Spain for two years. Then the doctor told me I was not allowed to sail.  I said, ‘Oh, no?’ and off we went.”

This was in the time before the advent of personal computers.  The couple’s main contact with home was poste restante, or general delivery, a service where the post office holds mail until the recipient calls for it.  “Every time we came to a port, we would rush to the post office,” laughs Jeanette. “Now and then we heard, ‘No, we sent your mail back two days ago because it was here too long.’  It was so different then.  You can not imagine.”

Also, there was no GPS (Global Positioning System) in 1982.  Rob, however, was a master at celestial navigation and the sextant was Iltshi’s guide.  That was fortunate, for as Jeanette reveals, “Robert has his own way of navigation.”

“There are two points, A and B,” explains Rob with a smile.  “But you don’t know B.  So what you do is you start sailing and then you end up at B, wherever it is.  Then you can draw this line back to A.  It’s always good.”

It was good enough that when Iltshi’s crew finally left Spain, they had a smooth trans-Atlantic crossing from the Canaries to the Caribbean.  They then sailed the islands throughout the chain.  It was a simpler time of smaller yachts and what Jeanette refers to as ‘sea gypsies’, cruisers on limited budgets who sailed small boats as compared to today’s yachts that often exceed 40-feet.

“I think cruising now is not as nice anymore.  When we were sailing around, in no time you would be invited to a beach party.  Sailors were always gathering together.  Now, everybody sits down below behind their computers.  They are just not meeting each other like we used to.”

By the time the couple reached Curacao, they began doing charters for tourists as a way to financially extend their voyage.  The unexpected, two-year delay in Spain had used up precious savings. Iltshi was first chartered in Curacao, followed by a few months in the Dominican Republic, and then Bonaire.

“We did one-week charters from Kralendijk,” confides Jeanette. “We sailed from Bonaire to the Venezuelan mainland and then to Las Aves and back to Bonaire.  Then you have a nice trip.  It was so pretty.”

“There are not many places where you can get away like the Aves,” adds Rob.  “There is nothing there.  No lights, no noise. That’s very special in today’s world

Rob, Sabina & Jeanette

The venture turned into a life of chartering and living aboard for nearly two decades.  Soon after starting, the couple had their daughter, Sabina, who grew up on the boat.  She now is studying law in the Netherlands.  “We sailed to Curacao to have the baby in the hospital there,” recalls her mother.  “Sabina still loves to sail. As a child, she was never seasick and always slept well aboard.”

By 1993, Rob and Jeanette realized they needed more room, not only for the family, but to accommodate larger charter groups.  They sold Iltshi in Bonaire and traveled to Miami to find a replacement.  “We found a new boat in three minutes!” claims Rob. Sea Witch was a 56-foot ketch (two masts), two heads (bathrooms) and four cabins.  Rob sailed her back to Bonaire where she was used as a charter boat and home until 2003. Sea Witch was then sold to a Dutch family who is currently cruising in Brazil under the name, Duty Free.

“We still have contact with some of our former passengers,” says Jeanette, “but it was difficult to make money in the sailing charter business. We were basically just breaking even after every season.  That is why we stopped eight years ago.”

Jeanette & Rob next to 'Vida'.

Jeanette got a steady job as manager for Tropical Travel, a tourist-service company based in the Plaza Resort.  Rob bought another boat, Vida, a British schooner built in 1928. He tried over the years to build a new hull around the boat’s present form, but experienced a number of setbacks. Rob finally realized that by the time he completes Vida, he would be too old to sail.  The schooner is now for sale.

The couple still dreams of continuing their world voyage that they started nearly thirty years ago.  When asked how the transition was moving back to land, Rob says, “Like now, horrible.”  “Strange,” concurs Jeanette. “I love living on a boat”.  Their daughter, Sabina, also expressed her desire to join her parents after she completes law school.  So the search for the family’s next boat continues.  Until that yacht is found, the ter Borg’s will remain on Bonaire with the rest of the sailors who never left.

The Peru Chronicles- Part One

The Lost City of the Inca

It was the early 1970s and Pan American Airways was marketing their flights south of the border.  The one I lusted for had three stops:  Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—I had basic Portuguese speaking skills back then and wanted to mingle with the girls of Ipanema; Buenos Aires, Argentina—the throbbing metro of the tango, blood-red wine and ex-Nazis lurking in the shadows; and then there was Lima, Peru with a side trip to Machu Picchu—the high altitude, lost city of the Inca empire.  Those dreams lingered in the long, cold winter nights of upstate New York where I was living at the time.

But when spring erupted, so did my meager budget.  My 1968 Saab needed major emergency care.  So did a neglected wisdom tooth that was throbbing daily.  After those expenditures, I resorted to looking at Pan Am’s less glamorous Central American trip that packaged Guatemala City, San Josè, Costa Rica, and Panama.  It was a price I could handle and I proceeded to have a grand voyage of discovery.

No regrets mind you, but that burning image of Machu Picchu high in the Andes was seared into my brain.  I carried it for forty years.  Then, after moving to Bonaire, a doorstep to South America, I knew it was only a matter of time before I traveled there.  But it always was a matter of time, and perhaps a bit of money.  A spontaneous, unexpected trip to Cuba intervened. Family sojourns to London, Holland and Florida followed.  Finally, the moment arrived.

Just over one hundred years and one month after explorer Hiram Brigham stumbled upon the jungle-covered ruins at Machu Picchu, I found myself at Intipunku or the Sun Gate to this incredible ancient site.  This was my second day at the Lost City of the Inca.  The first was spent touring the major sights—the Temple of the Condor, the astronomical observatory, and the Sacred Rock.  It was all splendid, as was a close encounter with a group of grazing llamas, but Day Two proved to be the best.

This was the freelance day, a time to wander, to contemplate the extreme grandeur of this manmade phenomenon that has been declared one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  We rose at 5am to catch a bus that would take us from the El Mapi Hotel of nearby Aguas Calientes up a dusty, endless, switchback road to the ruins.  We arrived just after 6am, puffed up a trail for twenty minutes, and arrived at an 8200-feet overlook above the royal Incan city.  At 6:40am  the sun broke over the sky-high, surrounding peaks of the Andes and spotlighted the intricate stonework.  My eyes awakened to the thrilling moment of seeing a new day begin at this ancient site of mystery.  Sunrises have happened countless times over the centuries, but I got to capture this one in all its glory on this grand morning.  It was time suspended.

Twenty minutes later the show was over as thin clouds began to roll in, subtle hints of what was to follow.  We trekked away to the Inca Bridge along an ancient path that took us away from the ruins.  Upon reaching the crossing, I had flashes of Indiana Jones treading over this precarious structure with precious booty swinging in hand.  The daydream ended here, however. The Inca Bridge is closed to all visitors who want to cross.  Upon our return, we saw local workers tying ladders over the steep side of the path.  I asked one what they were doing.  “We cut back the plants that grow through the wall that supports the trail.  If we don’t, the roots expand, crush the rock and the wall eventually crumbles taking the trail with it.”  Hmmm.  This must have been an on-going endeavor of the Incan public works over a half millennium ago.  Their trails to this day form a matrix that covers the Andes of Peru. It was a network of nearly 40,000 thousand kilometers that connected the distant corners of their vast empire from Quito in Ecuador, down to Santiago in Chile, and east to Mendoza in Argentina. It must have been a Herculean task to maintain that extensive infrastructure.  As our guide from Day 1 explained, “The Incas could work all day long.  They thrived on chicha (corn beer) and coca (leaves from the narcotic plant).  With those, they could accomplish anything.”

Worker removing plant roots from an ancient Incan wall.

Later, we hike the renowned Inca Trail, the path that used to connect Machu Picchu to the Incan capital of Cusco 112 kilometers away.  A shortened route now leads tourists to the Lost City.  We, of course, are doing it backwards—walking away from the ruins toward the Intipunku, the Sun Gate.  After an uphill hour, we sit among the temple’s massive stone blocks that overlook the ancient city a thousand feet below.  I feel young today and walk fast and sure in spite of the high altitude.  It is great to be alive.  A forty-year dream has been achieved and Machu Picchu has delivered beyond expectations.  I don’t want to leave, but a two o’clock train back to Cusco awaits.  Ominous, dark clouds begin to roll in.  The Incan gods have been gracious with sunshine for the past two days, but the fiesta is over.  It is time to move on.  But coming here was always about time, and perhaps a bit of money.  I leave with the satisfaction of closure, a lifetime dream completed.

Sailors Who Never Left. Part 6-Sean Paton

After an intrepid life at sea, an Englishman delivers Our Confidence to Bonaire.

If destiny is a matter of time and place, Sean Paton had both in alignment four decades ago.  The time was the early 1980s and the place—Gibraltar, a British territory on the extreme end of the Spain’s Iberian Peninsula.  Paton had done extensive engine work for new owners of a 45-year old, wooden fishing trawler, but the couple soon realized they had made a mistake.  “The people that bought the boat didn’t know what they were getting in to,” explains Paton.  “They soon wanted to get rid of it. They owed me enough money for the engine work and paid off all the debts.  I ended up with the boat.”First called Confidence, Paton re-registered the boat at the insistence of Gibraltar’s Board of Transport.  Apparently, an existing vessel had already taken that name.  “So they gave me a list of things that we could choose and Our Confidence was at the top of the list.  I thought that sounded good.”

She was a stout, 60-foot long, 80-ton Danish-built workhorse commissioned in 1939. By the time Paton took ownership, the boat had a two-stroke, two-cylinder semi diesel.  That powered a 7-foot, 2-bladed propeller at a maximum 350 rpm.  Translation?  Slow, low torque and extremely powerful.

During World War II, the trawler fled Denmark with a load of German refugees bound for England. “But she wasn’t flagged and had no lights,” tells Sean.  “As she got to the English coast, Spitfires were sent out and she was shot up.”  The boat was towed to the Isle of Man where the refugees spent the rest of the war in a civilian internment camp.  Strangely enough, Sean’s father was a member of that same Spitfire airplane squadron that had intercepted the boat.

Our Confidence was a good match for Paton.  He had a dream to run a cargo boat in the Caribbean, and after nearly a decade in Gibraltar, new horizons beckoned.  Sean and three crewmembers soon took off for Barbados, but during the trans-Atlantic passage, tragedy struck.  “We hit a semi-submerged container floating in the middle of the ocean,” recalls Sean.  “It hit us on the corner.  The container went down and then hit us again on the skeg.  We tried to sink it (the container) without success and then pushed on.”

After arriving in Barbados, Paton’s first job was to haul a barge with an enormous crane to Saint Lucia.  This was an ideal task for Our Confidence’s low-rev, macho diesel.  But it was during that job when Paton noticed part of the boat’s keel floating to the surface.  The sea container encountered in the Atlantic had done its damage.  Sean headed for the Grenadian island of Carriacou for repair.

“We found that most of the sacrificial keel was gone,” says Paton.  “We had to replace it.  I got a piece of purpleheart (extremely hard jungle wood) from the Orinoco River in South America.  Four Carriacou shipwrights chopped it all down to size with adzes.  We had no grinders or Saws-alls.  The process took two weeks.  We also built a new rudder and when it was finished, that alone weighed two and a half tons.”

For a dozen years, Our Confidence worked the eastern Caribbean hauling bananas from St. Vincent, imperial mangos from Dominica, and rum from Trinidad.  By this time, Paton was based in Sint Maarten’s Simpson Bay Lagoon, living the hand-to-mouth life of an independent cargo ship captain.  “We figured we had a big boat with a big hold and we would be able to trade.  I thought we would be king pins,” says Sean with a smile. “But we soon found out that the Caribbean has a lot of cargo boats. You survive on a hop, a skip and a bounce. You learn to get through it.”

But getting through hurricane season was a different kind of challenge for this transplanted Englishman.  In early September 1995, Hurricane Luis was churning toward Sint Maarten.  This bad boy was an enormous, classic Cape Verde-type hurricane—large, long-lived and Category Four.  No one had seen anything this big since Hugo.

Our Confidence left just before Luis hit.  I had a crewmember, Freddie, who was freaked out by hurricanes.  Plus, we had to go to Trinidad for a cargo of rum.  We were going to have our own label, Our Confidence Light Magic White Rum.  It was a strange passage—no wind, eerie, and long swells.  We were so incredibly lucky that we left.”

By the time Paton made landfall in Trinidad, Hurricane Luis hit Sint Maarten with full fury and spawned several F3 tornadoes.  Seventy percent of the island had extensive damage.  Of the 1500 boats sheltered in Simpson Bay Lagoon, nearly 1300, or 85%, were sunken or run aground.  Dozens of sea containers were tossed into the harbor. 7000 people were left homeless.  Paton learned about the destruction and was approached to take relief aid to Sint Maarten. Sean gave up the rum cargo idea and took the supplies for no charge instead.

“It was an amazing turnout by the people of Trinidad.  We filled my hold—36 tons of stuff went in there.  Generators, fiberglass, nails, wood, tarps, medical supplies—everything that you would need to rebuild.  It was a big commitment for the crew.  It wasn’t bravery.  It was stupidity!” laughs Sean.

After a subsequent hurricane, Paton took off again for Trinidad thinking there might be a market for landscape plants after the storm.  He returned with trees—mango, lemon, orange, and palm.  However, the nursery Paton planned to sell to had gone out of business due to repeated cyclones.  He finally bumped into the former owner working as a bartender. Her name was Marjolijn van Dam.  She helped the captain sell his cargo and is still with him to this day.

More major hurricanes followed—Jose, Georges and Lenny.  Paton’s health was deteriorating and the cargo business was slow.  He resorted to hauling boatloads of explosives for cruise ship fireworks displays.  It was a dangerous way to make a living.

"Our Confidence" ends up on the hard after one of Sint Maarten's ferocious hurricanes.

Finally by 1999, Sean had enough of it.  About this time, Paton’s friend, Jaap Ensing, hired him to transport his household goods to Bonaire.  Ensing had plans to start an aloe plantation and a new life.  His endeavor later became Onima, the aloe vera products company.

“Once we were unloaded, I could breathe again,” recalls Sean on his first trip to Bonaire.  “I looked over the side of Our Confidence.  All I could see were fish.  It was hard to see the blue! That first walk through the town—everything was so still, so quiet, so friendly. And the sea was just so alive.”

Soon, Paton returned to Bonaire to live permanently.  He docked Our Confidence at the Harbour Village Marina and worked at Ensing’s aloe plantation for a bit.  Then in 2003, Sean and Marjolijn van Dam became managers of the Caribbean Club at Hilltop.  Bonaire was the first place in decades where the captain lived ashore.

“I sold Our Confidence to Lele Davidsson (now owner of El Navegante boat yard) for a dollar.  By this time, her engine was frozen in forward gear.  Lele went on holiday for 3 months and didn’t leave anyone to pump her out.  She sunk on her lines.  The boat was refloated and the official story was that the marina was going to take it to Curacao. Our Confidence ended up sinking just outside of the marina’s entrance.  I was pretty sad.  The first five years were the hardest because she was still intact.  But the boat’s gone.  It doesn’t hurt anymore and that’s the way I like it.”

Paton left Caribbean Club after a couple of years.  He now works for Mega FM and is an environmental activist on Bonaire.  “There is something about this place,” says Sean.  “A spirituality, a connection—call it what you will.  Whatever it is, it is what keeps me here.”

While Bonaire is undoubtedly Sean’s home, he is still lured by the sea.  Every now and then he leaves with friends on Synergy, a 58-foot sailing racer.  “Getting back to the sea is fantastic.  Our last day out crossing the Atlantic, we were followed by schools of fish and dolphins.  That was just amazing making that connection to nature again.  It reaffirms why I fight for the environment.”