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Posted February 26, 2006 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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Mary Vallis | National Post

Stranded on the ocean on a life raft in the middle of a stormy night, wearing only a T-shirt and swimsuit after watching the US$2.5-million luxury yacht he captained sink, Rob Aitchison thought he had reached his lowest ebb. He had even lost his shoes.

He was wrong. The raft washed up on Caya Coco, a tourist island off Cuba’s northern shore, near dawn. Mr. Aitchison, his wife, Kelly, and two crew members—all from Ontario—were whisked eight hours away to Havana in a paddy wagon, locked up in an immigration facility and questioned about illegally entering Cuba.

Twelve days later, the Aitchisons are still stranded in Havana: Cuban authorities have seized their passports and are refusing to let them leave the country.

“This is a country of contrasts,” Mr. Aitchison, a Canadian Coast Guard officer, said in an interview from his hotel room in Havana yesterday. “On the one hand, it’s very nice. On the other hand, it’s just so unforgiving, and we’re stuck.”

The saga began in the Virgin Islands on Feb. 8, when the Aitchisons met Aubrey Billard, an engineer with the Canadian Coast Guard, and Jim Beatty, an advertising executive with the National Post. The foursome planned to sail the Downtown—a 25-metre, custom-designed “maxi yacht”—to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from St. Martin. The Downtown is registered in Canada and owned by Luigi Boschin, a retired Canadian businessman who hosts a radio show in China.

As the Downtown sailed past Cuba on Feb. 12, the vessel hit a storm with three-metre waves and began filling with water. Mr. Beatty and Mr. Billard searched for the leak but couldn’t find it. Mr. Aitchison, the captain, sent out maydays as it got dark and one engine failed.

The crew made contact with a nearby ship, but Mr. Aitchison was not ready to abandon the Downtown. Instead, the crew guided the yacht toward the nearest land—Cuba. The Canadian Coast Guard alerted the Cuban coast guard. The crew was even in contact with the Canadian embassy in Cuba before they abandoned ship.

“It’s the black of night. We’re in a gale. The seas are big,” Mr. Beatty said yesterday. “There’s a lot of motion in the yacht. Doors are opening up; things are spilling out of cupboards.”

After realizing the boat would sink, the Canadian crew of four kept calm while trying to radio for help. Mr. Beatty collected his luggage and shaved with his electric razor. To lighten the mood, he joked with Mr. Billard that it was sure to be a long night.

The crew lost their last engine and dropped anchor about three kilometres off Caya Coco, so close they could see lights twinkling on shore. The Canadians lit flares to help local authorities pinpoint their location and decided not to abandon the Downtown in life rafts until the boat capsized or sank away beneath them.

Around 4:30 a.m., hours after their first mayday, the Downtown finally rolled over and the crew—in two small boats tethered together—dropped into the water. Before long, the Aitchisons piled into the other crew members’ motorized boat and cut their dinghy free.

Reaching the beach, the survivors were greeted by a crowd of locals who had seen their flares and about 15 Cuban officials who flashed lights to help guide them.

The crew were taken to a medical clinic for treatment. Mr. Aitchison had taken a bad fall and badly bruised his left hip.

The next morning, they returned to the beach. Wreckage from the Downtown stretched for six kilometres, but the yacht was still visible.

“There were waves washing over it,” Mr. Beatty said. “It was this great big groaning, moaning, dying beast…. It was like watching a creature die. It was terrible to watch.”

Mr. Aitchison found his canvas shoes in the abandoned dinghy, which had washed up on shore.

Cuban officials then took the Canadians to an immigration centre in Havana, where they were briefly held in lockup until local officials understood their plight. A representative from the Canadian embassy soon arrived and helped them check into a hotel. They have been working to help resolve the case ever since.

The group have nothing but praise for the way the locals and Canadian embassy officials have handled their case. But Mr. Boschin, the yacht’s owner, insists Canadian officials should have done more to help his crew.

“It is just unfair that people that were in an emergency are being held hostages,” he said from Switzerland yesterday.

“We live in a world where you should be able to come and go unless you have committed a crime, and they have not committed a crime. [Mr. Aitchison] did the best he could for the vessel. He saved the lives of people on board. If it wasn’t him being a captain and having the training of the Canadian Coast Guard, this boat would have been lost at sea and we would never know what happened.”

Mr. Beatty and Mr. Billard have returned home, but not without their own share of problems. After Cuban authorities escorted them to the airport, they had cleared airport security and were about to board a flight to Toronto, local authorities reappeared and took them back to the immigration centre in Havana for more statements. They were eventually released.

The Aitchisons say Cuban immigration officials have also cleared them to leave the country. But the Cuban Coast Guard is insisting it have written authorization from the insurance company, assuring them the cost of cleaning up the wreckage is covered, before the captain will be allowed to leave.

“It’s a dollar issue,” Ms. Aitchison said yesterday. “They want to make sure somebody is going to pay for it, and they’re holding us as the guarantee that somebody will take care of that.”

The boat is insured with Lloyd’s of London, but the company has been reluctant to commit to the cleanup of the wreck, Mr. Boschin said. The vessel does not have coverage in Cuban waters, but the incident began in international waters, he explained.

Pamela Greenwell, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, said Cuban authorities will prevent the Aitchisons from leaving Cuba until “the insurance company or the owner give assurances to local officials that a process is underway ... to clean up or salvage the sunken vessel.”

A meeting between the insurance company and Cuban officials is expected to take place today. Despite the setbacks, Mr. Aitchison expects he and his wife will return to their home in Kingston, Ont., early next week.

The Aitchisons say they are under virtual “house arrest” at their hotel because it is not safe to venture out without their passports. It took Mr. Aitchison an hour to buy shorts in the hotel without his identification, his wife said.

“I’m calm. I would really like to get home and see a Canadian doctor,” said Mr. Aitchison, who thanked his crew for the way they handled the affair. “But my wife and I, we’re handling it. There are worse prisons to be in.”

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