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.
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.”