Incident at Helene Harbour
March 10, 2005
There are a few things we don't like hearing in the middle of the night: unseen breakers; water pouring into the bilge; a big ship's horn. Add to that list an insistent knocking on the hull when we're anchored alone in a strange port. Night-time visitors rarely come bearing good news. The fellow who was knocking on our hull at midnight a few days ago was no exception.
We were in Helene Harbour, near the east end of Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras. Even David, who has an amazing ability to sleep through most night-time disturbances -- which means he's generally well-rested while ever-responsible Eileen is a sleepless wreck -- couldn't ignore the racket this guy was making. David groped around for his glasses, couldn't find them, put his boxer shorts on backwards, and stumbled up the companionway. He turned on the cockpit light. The young man clinging to the gunwales looked familiar, but David was half blind without his glasses and the lighting was poor.
"Hey, man, I've come to warn you that a couple of bad men with machetes are planning to rob you," our visitor said.
David recognized the voice. "Weren't you here a few hours ago? I thought you had to take your sick mother to the health clinic," he said.
Shortly after nightfall, as David was grilling our supper off the stern rail, this same guy had paddled up in his dugout canoe with a tale of woe about his ailing mother who apparently needed to be transported by water taxi down island to the public clinic. He wanted to exchange a couple of crude stone carvings for the taxi fare. It seemed like an improbable story, but the fellow wouldn't take no for an answer. Finally, after the meat started burning on the barbecue, David gave him five dollars and he left. Eileen hadn't thought that was a good idea. "It's the only way I could get rid of him so we could enjoy our dinner," David said. "And you never know, maybe he really does have a sick mother."
Now he was back. "My mother's feeling better," he explained. "I overheard two Spanish men saying they were going to come out here to rob you. But don't worry, my uncle is an auxiliary cop and we'll protect you. You only have to give me $200."
David thanked him for the warning and declined the offer for protection. "We have friends who can help us," he said. It was only half a lie. He called down to Eileen, "See if you can raise Dave on the radio." Our friends Dave and Donna live in Calabash Bight, a few miles down the coast from Helene Harbour. Dave had told us that he leaves his VHF radio on channel 72 around the clock. Sure enough, after a few minutes Dave responded to Eileen's call. From up in the cockpit, David listened to Eileen explain our situation to our friend. She sounded pretty choked up. Dave promised he would try contacting some people he knew in the area. Someone had told him that Wally Bodden was the man who ran things in Helene Harbour.
Our visitor wouldn't leave. "I'm trying to save your lives," he insisted. "Those guys attacked me when they knew I was going to warn you. They almost broke my arm. You owe me some money." He showed David his arm. It had an unimpressive scratch on it.
David explained we had already given him some money and we weren't going to give him anymore. The situation turned ugly. Our one-time protector now insinuated that his family would not take too kindly to having its services rejected. He wouldn't go. The more we argued, the more belligerent he got. David took his picture with our digital camera. That alarmed him, but he still wouldn't leave. Finally, Eileen sounded our air horn and called out to anyone who was listening that we were being threatened. Every dog on shore started howling and a few lights came on. David fixed him with our million candlepower spotlight, and only then did he slowly paddle away, yelling abuse.
Eileen was red-eyed and still sounded hoarse. "Are you okay?" David asked.
"Okay for someone who's just inhaled a bunch of pepper spray," she said.
Eileen explained that just before she called Dave on the radio she had found our stash of pepper spray and tested it in the galley sink. We had bought the stuff years ago after friends of ours had been attacked by boarders, but had never used it. Apparently, it was still effective. "Poor Dave," she laughed, "I must have sounded like I was being strangled."
We decided to take turns keeping watch on deck until sunrise. We thought it was unlikely there were Spanish thieves with machetes, but we weren't too sure about our visitor and his family. We were the only transient boat in the harbour and no one on shore was coming to our assistance. It turned out to be a long night.
At dawn, a fisherman paddled out and asked if we were okay. His name was Vernon and he had heard the commotion coming from our boat. "I would have come out last night," Vernon said, "But I was afraid."
David printed the photo of our visitor and gave it to Vernon. He laughed, "Oh, that's Mark. He's a troublemaker."
Vernon took the photo ashore and a short time later a power boat came out with two well dressed men on board. One of them introduced himself as Wally Bodden, the de facto mayor. Wally apologized for the incident. He claimed Mark was a crackhead who had been jailed before for breaking the law to support his habit. He said, "This place is very law abiding. There's only five or six bad people who give it a bad name." We counted about a dozen houses on shore; we didn't find Wally's numbers to be very reassuring, but we didn't say anything.
In the morning light everything seemed peaceful and David chuckled when he discovered he still had his boxer shorts on backwards. But the late night encounter was no laughing matter. At the time, we were acutely aware of the fact that we were very alone in a strange place and no one was going to help us. We had no idea whether or not Mark's threats were real. It was comforting to speak with Dave on the radio, but there was little he could have done if we had actually been attacked. In the end, we got rid of our unwanted visitor by making a lot of noise and light. We can't think of anything else we could or should have done. We're certainly not about to acquire firearms; given our proficiency with pepper spray, we'd probably end up killing ourselves.
An incident like the one at Helene Harbour tends to make you wary of new places and suspicious of strangers, and that's worse than the loss of a night's sleep. Most of the people we have met in our travels have been friendly and welcoming; we have to keep remembering that.