The three captains of the tall ship Lord Sheffield were sitting in the cockpit sipping blackstrap rum and talking about the day. A hurricane lamp, swinging in the low swell, lit their faces. It was unusual for the three captains to have worked the day together, but the crew had needed some well-earned time off, and they'd all agreed to help out.
The weather had been blustery with a south wind and several of the guests had been seasick. It wasn't often that guests were sick, but when a south wind blew, the Lord Sheffield would move and roll as if she were in the open ocean. It was a lot more work when guests were sick, and with the sunset cruise being the third cruise of the day, all three were exhausted – exhausted, but relieved that the day was done and that at least most of the guests had enjoyed themselves.
Captain Rob, sitting behind the wheel, was the owner of the Lord Sheffield. He'd brought the boat down from Canada ten years earlier and had built a day-charter business around it. He looked and moved as if he were much younger than his fifty years – fit from climbing in the rigging and time in the water guiding snorkelers. Though many people envied his Caribbean lifestyle, he'd never worked so hard in his life.
To the left of Captain Rob sat Captain Mike, a wiry yet powerful looking man with deeply lined skin, a bushy beard and thick red hair. He'd arrived in St Maarten several years earlier on a boat out of South Africa and had never left. Over the years, Mike had earned Captain Rob's friendship and trust and was now considered to be 'family.' Although one of the most knowledgeable sailors in St Maarten, he was never boastful. "Rob," he would say, "you know with sailing, you never stop learning." He'd served in the South African Navy and the South African special-forces, or Recces, though few people knew about his mysterious past. Like many ex-soldiers, he didn't talk that much about his military experience.
Captain Olsten, his gold tooth glowing in the lantern light and dreadlocks backlit by the flickering dock-lights, was sitting to the right of Captain Rob. Olsten had come from British Guyana to work for an uncle and had begun lending a hand with the Lord Sheffield when he started dating one of the crew. He'd proven to be so useful that Captain Rob had had little choice but to hire him. Olsten was the best natural boat captain he'd ever met.
After the conversation about the day had wound down, Olsten began to look subdued. He looked at the deck and held his head in his hands. Captain Rob and Mike exchanged a concerned look – they sensed that Olsten had something to say and remained quiet. Olsten looked up, and then around, to assure himself that they were alone on the dock. There was only the sound of laughter and 70's music drifting across the water from the nearby Chesterfield's restaurant. He began to speak.
"Guys, I have a problem." Olsten usually kept a low profile, but it's a rare day in the tropics when something interesting doesn't happen. "As you know, I come from Guyana and my family doesn't have a lot of money." Everyone knew how Olsten sent money home to his family each week. "But my family does own some land back home. It's the old family farm, originally granted to my great, great grandfather. It never proved to be that good for farming, so my family eventually had to move to the city. We kept the land and the farmhouse though, and it's still really important to us as a family, especially to my mother."
Olsten caught his breath, looked around again, and then continued. "However, last year a Canadian mining firm showed up and wanted to do some exploratory drilling. Guyana is well known for its natural resources and there's a lot of these companies around. Mother didn't give them permission to be on our land, but that didn't stop them. Well, they found what they were looking for – gold – and enough of it to be worth mining."
Olsten had Mike and Captain Rob's total attention. They were always amazed by the rich and complicated lives of Caribbean people.
"Well, we weren't sure what to do, so we talked to a lawyer we know. He told us that, under Guyanese law, land owners don't have the rights to the minerals found on their land. We'd be paid the current market value of the land, which isn't much. My mother was quite upset, so the lawyer asked us to bring him the title documents, just to be sure. Well it turns out that there's something special about our documents and there's a way to keep the mining companies off our land or at least to get them to pay something closer to what it's worth."
Captain Mike asked, "Olsten, what's special about your title documents?"
"Well, in 1838, when slavery ended, the former slaves were given land to farm on. Nobody could read or write back then, and no-one had proper names or was properly documented, so to prove ownership, the government created a special kind of land title document. These documents were special because they weren't issued in the owner's name. Anyone who possessed one was considered to be the owner of the land that the document described. The other thing about them is that, back then, no one had thought about mineral rights, so the mineral rights part was never made clear. Well, it turns out that we have that type of document. It also turns out that without these documents in hand, even if they have the mineral rights, the mining company can't get legal access to the land."
"That's kind of like a bearer bond... a transferable security. So, what happened next?" Rob interjected.
"Well, with the lawyer, we worked out what we thought was a reasonable price for the land – you know based on the fact that there was gold on it – and presented it to the mining company. I guess it was too much, because they rejected our offer. They were probably planning on getting our land really cheap, but there's no way that Mom would sell the land... well not unless we got quite a lot for it. So, we thought, well that's that, but now we're worried that they're going to try to steal our documents."
Captain Rob asked, "Why? What happened?"
"Well," said Olsten. "We had them with us, but we usually keep them at my uncle's house – you know Bobby's brother, Carter. He has a house in a safer part of town. But last week, just before I flew back to St Maarten, Carter's house was broken into and the place was ransacked. We think they were looking for our documents."
Mike asked, "So, what did you decide to do with them?"
"Well, that's the point," said Olsten. "I've brought them with me, but I've been hearing through friends of friends that there are people on the island that are looking for me."
Rob and Mike pondered Olsten's problem, the hurricane lantern alternately lighting their faces. Olsten spoke again. "I think the best thing to do is find a good place to hide them. If they know where they are, they'll find a way of getting them."
"What about a safe deposit box?" Rob suggested. "That's what most people do in these situations. I can arrange it with my banker."
"Skipper," Olsten often called Captain Rob, 'Skipper.' "I'm from Guyana and in Guyana we know that there's always a way to get what you want. People can be pressured or bought and I don't have any faith in St Maarten banks."
"I'm not too impressed with them either. I've caught them cashing other companies' checks out my account on several occasions."
Captain Mike rose from his seat, leaned on the rail, and looked out into the harbor. A tug was returning to the anchorage. He watched it slow, pick up its mooring, and then he turned back to Olsten and Rob. "Olsten, I'll take the papers," he said. "I know a safe place where they won't be found. If no one knows where they are, they can't pressure anyone to give them up – except for me, of course."
"What do you think, Skipper?"
"Olsten – Mike, as you know, isn't afraid of anything, or anyone, and it's less likely that the mining company would guess that he had the documents. I can't think of anything better and it might solve the problem for now."
And so it was agreedthat Captain Mike would hide the documents. After a while, the mining company,and the shady people that served it, seemed to lose interest in Olsten's land.The documents stayed hidden though, and as the months turned to years, theywere mostly forgotten.
YOU ARE READING
In the Wake of the Lord SheffieldAdventure
"The perfect book to read with your kids... if you want them to become sailors." Set in Saba, and some of the more exotic and beautiful islands/places in the Caribbean including Guyana, Carriacou and St Maarten, we follow the adventures of Brian, th...