miércoles, 13 de marzo de 2013

Marooned Sailor Can’t Get Back from the Philippines:

Part 1:  Local Man Hopes to Bring his Family Home

 Carter ‘Hop’ Cowan looks across the narrow strait from his rural home on Cebu Island and wishes that he and his family were back in the States.  But the sea captain’s course back to his homeland is not as easy as crossing the sixteen miles over to Pacijan Island from just outside Danoa City, where he lives with his wife and 14 year-old son.

“It’s hard to believe that after so many years of living at sea and fending for myself – and taking care of my crews and passengers at sea – I can’t manage our lives here,” Carter says, his eyes scanning the horizon as if searching for a safe passage out of this situation. 
Carter with his wife and son in happier days

“This situation” involves a 68 year-old seaman (still afflicted by wounds sustained when a boom slammed into his neck and head during a storm that sunk the yacht he was delivering from Japan to California), his 49 year-old wife Vivian (suffering the devastating effects of late-stage cancer), their son Hopkins (a very promising student), Carter’s own boat (left in northern Australia after foundering there), personal financial ruin caused by mounting medical bills, and lack of work for experienced men in the Philippines. 

“I’d find a way to sail us back to the US if my boat were seaworthy.  But here I am.  Old injuries keep me from the jobs I used to do, and I can’t earn passage for three of us back home.”

The irony is that when it went down in the mid-Pacific, the Empress took Carter’s entire collection of Asian art, statues, carvings and antique swords and knives – and that treasure now lays under two miles of water.  “Hell, I know exactly where that boat went down.  I got the coordinates from the transponder, and if I could only get at that boat, there’s a small fortune there just large enough to pay my off wife’s medical bills and put us back on our feet.”

Now impoverished by medical bills, Carter can’t even leave the Philippines, because he doesn’t even have the money to fly the 355 miles from Cebu to Manila, where the US State Department might lend him the money for a ticket home.  And his situation just deteriorates every day.  “Even my neighbors here can be a threat to my safety.  Once they know that there is nothing they can get from you, you’re useless to them.”

Carter, who graduated Thomas Dale High School in Chesterfield Virginia before attending Virginia Commonwealth University in the late 60s, moved to Harrisburg Pennsylvania in the early 70s.  He later returned to Virginia, where he lived in Richmond, Petersburg, Blacksburg, and Arlington, until he followed a girlfriend from Richmond to California’s Marin County in 1978, where he first got involved with the sailing life.  One friend remembers that Carter immediately fell into seagoing as if he were made for it.  And perhaps he was made for the sailor’s life:  after about a year, he shipped out from San Diego on the Taiyo, bound for Tahiti. 

In late 1979, Carter served aboard the Taiyo as an officer on the Sir John Barrow Memorial Expedition, under command of Glen Christian, an English-born direct descendant of Fletcher Christian.  Tracing part of the route of the HMS Bounty, the group did extensive research on Pitcairn Island that was recounted in a later documentary alternately titled Island of The Bounty and Children of The Bounty

Late in 1980 Carter wound up in Ala Wai Harbor in Hawaii, working as chief engineer on the Good Fortune, a 62-foot Garden ketch that had lain untended for several years after a mid-ocean mishap that resulted in the death of a crew member.  “The sail covers were shredded, and the caulking on the deck had shrunk and disintegrated.  The engine needed a lot of work, every bit of teak was pale grey, and the hull leaked.  Our crew gave that boat a brand-new life.”

By 1982, Carter was back in Midlothian Virginia, where he had spent his childhood.  He spent some time with his parents in Richmond, working in a boatyard and seeing old friends from Midlothian and the Richmond area while waiting for his next billet.  The next year, he went back to sea, heading for the South Pacific.  And for the next 17 years, Carter sailed the world, working in boatyards and refurbishing yachts when he wasn’t delivering yachts for the rich and famous. 

Carter and his wife Vivian were married in 1986, and the next year he captained The Sol on an expedition that that exposed to the world the very destructive muro-ami fishing operation, in which huge industrial pounding devices were used to smash coral reefs in order to drive the fish living there into waiting nets.  (Muro-ami was a scandalous practice that not only resulted in deaths of children used as divers, but also smashed the living coral into small fragments and despoiled huge sections of the life-giving reefs – longlasting and practically total destructive effects that have since been condemned by fishery-management agencies worldwide.)  Carter’s vessel carried the film crews that obtained the footage used by in different reports by Geraldo Rivera, Barbara Walters and 60 minutes reporters in 1987 and helped secure the ban on the destructive technique in the Philippines.

Carter on shipboard 
With the money from the muro-ami expedition, Carter purchased the Matilda in 1988, keeping it in Midlothian’s Tichou shipyard.  He then sailed again for the South Pacific.  During this period he continued his shipboard work, at the same time earning certificates in Celestial Navigation, Maritime Engineering, and Piloting, until getting his Captain’s ticket.  And even then he continued educating himself in the ways of the wind and tides – and in the laws of the sea.

In 1999, he went back to Petersburg Virginia to heal after receiving some serious injuries during a storm that sank the Empress in the mid-Pacific.   Once healed, he returned to the Philippines, hoping to get back to yacht delivery and the life of a sea captain.

And life continued, much as it had before.  Carter and his wife raised their son Hopkins, now an honors student currently enrolled in 7th grade at North Eastern Cebu School. 

But the fair weather that Carter had enjoyed for so many years on the waves seemed to slip away for Carter.  Work slowed down, circumstances grew leaner, until he would leave to take charge of other people’s boats, while his wife and son lived aboard the Matilda.  But when his wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, Carter’s life began to really change – work seemed to slip away with the tide, and the international financial crisis quickly changed the world of deep-water sailing. 

And that was only the beginning.  Medical bills mounted while work disappeared altogether in the bad economy that hit the Philippines like a tidal wave, affecting tens of thousands of workers.  So Carter headed for Australia after hearing a rumor of work there.  At that point, more disaster struck, as his boat was disabled at sea.  Barely able to continue paying rent on the tiny house for his family, Carter limped his beloved Matilda (now disabled) into Elizabeth Bay on the northeast coast of Australia’s Arnhem land, not far from Darwin in the Northern Territory.  The little boat was almost beyond repair – but that didn’t matter, because Carter had no money for any repairs at all and was running out of options.

Stranded, Carter managed to find a job as a mechanic at a pearl farm outside Darwin.  Sending his wages home to his wife, he was able to acquire various Australian visas so that he could continue working.  He abandoned the Matilda, and worked hard in hopes of a sea change for the better.  But that change never came, and Carter’s visa expired, forcing him out of Australia’s better economic atmosphere.  He was quoted in a local Darwin news story, saying that he didn’t mind the long working hours there.   “Immigration had a minor heart attack when I got here but we were able to work it out.  Basically I’ve been here on various working visas.  It’s a worthwhile project, the people I work with are pretty reasonable, and I’d rather work out here where the air is clean and the food is good than to be working in a ship yard in Darwin.”

Friends tell how Carter influenced them throughout his life.  Robert O, who met Carter at Pacific Maritime Academy and sailed with him out of Ala Wai, says, “No matter how big a boat is, it’s still pretty small.  This guy’s always had a generous spirit and a sense of humor – the kind you need to make long hauls across the ocean.”

Longtime friend Debra B says, “He taught me many, many things.  I’d grown up spending time with my dad outdoors, hiking, hunting.  And Carter re-introduced me to my love of the outdoors.  We had a lot of outdoor adventures together.  My half-vegetarian diet is based on all the cooking he taught me to do.”

And it’s a funny thing about sailing folk:  they keep in touch and fall out of touch as the wind and the waves take them away and may or may not bring them back.  You may never want to drink with the ones you want standing beside you on the deck – and vice versa.  And even so, you’d welcome either one of them like a long-lost sibling when they bump into you in some far-off port of call.  But the hard thing is that you can rarely find them when you need them. 

Those few friends he’s been able to contact cannot raise the money needed to help bring the family back, though they’ve contacted the Red Cross and even have found some money coming to Carter from the state of Virginia (the complicated process of even gaining access to the files would take months of work from overseas).  

Still, Carter shows the tenacity and strength he’s learned from years at sea.  He’s determined to get somehow back to sea, get his wife to the States where she can get better treatment for the cancer threatening her life, and teach his son the ways of the sailor.  Then, while watching the way the wind changes the surface of the Strait of Cebu, he says to no one in particular, “Always wanted to make the circumnavigation – I’ve planned it over and over in my mind.  Looks like it may not happen now.”

Readers can send advice, encouragement, or prayers to:  Captainswife44@hotmail.com.

Donations may be sent via PayPal to:  Captainswife44@hotmail.com.  

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David Hakim is an internationally-published journalist and award-winning author who has run several newspapers – and recently received a commendation for his short story That Man in the London Aesthetica Competition.  He can be reached at 415.378.6170 or dhakim@earthlink.net

© 2013 Hakim - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: use without profit allowed only with author’s express written permission. Please don't wake up my attorney. Please.