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For Amistad, an opportunity nearly lost

Reporter Ted Mann and photojournalist Sean D. Elliot are in Cuba with Amistad, the reproduction schooner built at Mystic Seaport. In 1839, the original Amistad was homeported in Cuba when it was sent to ferry kidnapped Africans bound for slavery.

Matanzas, Cuba - Captain Sean Bercaw of the schooner Amistad was sitting topside on Wednesday in this windblown port city, the long, deep harbor around him white-capped and almost stunningly blue.

As visitors toured the 129-foot ship, Bercaw explained how close the vessel and its 12-person crew came to missing out on this historic visit entirely.

There was ice in Norfolk, Va., hurricane-force winds and rain in Bermuda, distressing lack of wind as the vessel motored - with fuel supplies dwindling - toward the Caribbean, then gale-force winds again as the ship neared Cuban waters.

"It's almost like the gods have been toying with us," said Bercaw, who came aboard the Amistad in August and previously sailed tall ships for about 15 years for the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass.

But most of all, the Amistad has lacked, at times, a resource as indispensable to long ocean voyages now as it was in the 1830s: money.

Delayed payment of a $400,000 grant from the state of Connecticut threw the future of the long-sought Amistad mission to Cuba in doubt last fall and winter. As the administration of Gov. M. Jodi Rell pinched pennies to try to overcome a budget deficit, it missed its first installment payment to the Amistad by nearly three months, leaving Bercaw scrambling to keep his crew hired and to move the ship into position in time to make the sail. A second installment also came nearly a month late, in late January, as Bercaw and the crew were maneuvering Amistad down the East Coast to get in position to set sail for the Caribbean, if funding ever came through.

Now, as the Amistad conducts a friendship mission to Cuba that participants on both sides clearly hope can trigger the easing of a multigenerational diplomatic impasse, neither the crew nor Bercaw has seen a paycheck since Feb. 1. Bercaw has used a home-equity loan to cover the mission's expenses. "I basically floated the boat financially, if you will, for the last few months," he said.

The shortfall from the state has at times threatened the entire mission.

As Bercaw waited for the check from the state to arrive, he had to decide whether to begin moving the Amistad south from Mystic in the late fall, before harsh winter weather made the trip too hazardous. After the first installment arrived, paying off the bills that had accumulated since the fall, the Amistad waited for a month in Norfolk, in temperatures that froze the saltwater used to wash down the deck, for the money that would enable them to set sail for Bermuda, where the ship would stock up before heading to the Caribbean.

"Normally when somebody like a state says, 'We'll give you money on this date,' you figure you'll get it around that date," Bercaw said. "But it was sort of like the quintessential 'the check's in the mail.' "

Instead, Bercaw paid for essentials, including fuel, and the Amistad was under way.

Here is where the pranks of the gods come in.

"In the fall it was sort of politics and fiscal reasons that stalled out the ship, and then we finally got those ducks in a row, if you will, and then Mother Nature stepped in," Bercaw said. "All those storms that kept whacking D.C. with snow - those, when they got out to Bermuda, (gave us) hurricane-force winds. We were breaking dock lines and stuff."

The ship was forced to remain in Bermuda two weeks longer than planned. When the ship left the Dominican Republic for the nearly 1,100-mile journey to Cuba, the vessel did so without full fuel tanks - it carried as much as Bercaw could afford.

The schooner soon hit doldrums and was forced to motor through the long stretches without wind at low RPMs, trying to conserve fuel. After turning back to pick up students from the University of Massachusetts-Boston in Great Inigua in the Bahamas, Bercaw said he and the crew pooled money to buy 40 more gallons of diesel for the trip to Cuba.

Luck lay ahead, however. The ship's first mate, Cassie Sleeper, citing a superstition she learned during a tour on another tall ship, ordered the Amistad's youngest male passenger, UMass student Jaresiah Desrosiers, to whistle, spin around three times and scratch on the foremast.

The plea to the gods of wind seemed to work - almost too well. The Amistad cruised into Cuban waters ahead of schedule.

When the Amistad reached Matanzas on Monday, it could be seen at the mouth of the harbor, black hull and white sails shining.

"I admire the dedication of this group," Bercaw said. "They've worked without pay because they believe in the vessel, but at the same time it's still frustrating."

Right now, the crew members are professional volunteers. But that hasn't dampened their enthusiasm.

"For me, this is an important enough (journey) to take this risk," Bercaw said with a smile. "Another captain once told me, 'There's a little Don Quixote in all of us.'"

The budget shortfall has been kept quiet by the vessel's crew and staff of Amistad America, the nonprofit that operates the schooner. (Amistad America's executive director, Gregory Belanger, who spearheaded the months of effort to win clearances from the U.S. State Department and Cuban officials to make stops in Matanzas and Havana, has also forgone pay in recent months.)

After previous voyages were beset by financial difficulties, including a trip across the Atlantic to Sierra Leone, Amistad officials were concerned that making the funding shortfall public could deter supporters from contributing to its operations. But keeping the funding woes secret has also meant that the crew hasn't received sufficient credit for the sacrifices they continue to make to bring the Amistad to Cuba.

"For me, it's been a delicate balance," Bercaw said. "But for the crew, if you don't acknowledge what they're doing for this mission-it's not fair to them."

The final installment from the state of Connecticut is due in April, Bercaw said, and he hopes donors will step in to help the boat continue its mission. Contributions would supply back-pay owed to the 12 professional crew, young but experienced sailors who hail from around the country, as well as for Bercaw himself, who has floated around $67,000 to enable the ship to come here.

The experience of bringing the schooner to Cuba, and Cubans to the schooner, has been worth it, Bercaw said, though he is determined that the crew members will be compensated for their work.

Meanwhile, he said, his sister has been teasing him about his current job: "That's one expensive internship," she told him.


FULL COVERAGE: Amistad: Voyage of Remembrance Special Section


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