Sint Maarten: Dinghy Drama

We’re mostly done talking about Sint Maarten, but we’ve got a “fun” little vignette to share. To set the scene and really underscore the fun bit, we need to delve into marine salvage law. Basically, if you find a boat floating on in international waters, you become the owner. It can actually be much worse than that for the original owner; e.g., you could be the salvator of an occupied vessel, entitled to a reward “commensurate with the value” of the recovered boat. But the case of a free-floating dinghy, just for example, is legally extremely clear-cut. That’s not necessarily the same as morally clear-cut, but that’s a different story.

During their passage to St Martin, some people we’d met in Luperon found a dinghy floating in the open ocean (and thus became its legal owners). It had a short, frayed painter on the front, which plainly looks like a rope that snapped off under load. They made some effort to find the original owners and return it, posting on facebook and asking on the local cruisers’ net, but nobody got back to them. After a few weeks, they figured they’d discharged their moral duties to find the owners, and they decided to sell it to some friends of ours. Since our friends were not yet in St Martin, but we were, we volunteered to hang onto the dinghy until our friends arrived, or figure out how to store it for them if we were able to leave. We picked the dinghy up on the French side, and locked it to the back of our boat for safe keeping.

Several days later I’m on the transom working on installing the new solar panels or something, and this young couple pulls up in their dinghy and asks me if this is my dinghy. I start to tell them that we’re holding it for our friends, who bought it from — but the couple is clearly not interested in hearing the history, because at this point they accuse me of stealing their dinghy and start yelling at me to give it back. Hoo boy. At this point, Jazz comes outside, and we start trying to unravel this whole thing. We’ve never met these two before, but the guy produces a key, and it fits in one of the locks that’s been left on the boat; it’s likely that they were the former owners. (Not certain, of course – you can imagine a scam where you pass by at night and clip locks on, but that does seem a bit of a stretch.) So the guy figures we should give him the boat and let him on his way. But it’s not that simple, because we’re holding it for our friends, who (see above) are the legal owners, and we have an obligation to them. So I reach out to them, and I call the folks who found the boat, figuring I can broker an agreement; meanwhile, the couple is yelling and getting progressively more agitated, resisting all attempts to get them to cool down and have some patience.

I think the next photo really captures the spirit of the thing. They’re yelling, I’m sitting with a phone in my hand looking exasperated. Jazz is taking the photos from the dock; she’s tried to get the guy on the boat next to ours to translate, because clearly these two are not interested in having the conversation in English.

So the girl leaves “to get the police”. Fine with me. She eventually comes back, police-less. Meanwhile Jazz has gotten the dockmaster to call the cops, after the guy started to board our boat (we/Jazz shut that down right snappily). Our friends are totally fine unwinding the transaction. The boat-finders feel like they should get something out of the deal, but are totally not understanding the level that the negotiation is proceeding on, and are asking feeler-style questions that won’t move the conversation along at all. Finally I give up, pick a number, and propose a $100 finders fee. The couple thinks this is totally reasonable and accept.

But nobody’s done being angry yet. The dockmaster lets us know the police have arrived, so we all go to talk to them. (Jazz’s note: two very attractive officers, one black and one white, both extremely tall and muscular males). They ask whether there’s still a problem. Everyone says no, it’s resolved, but the other girl wants to tell them about how it’s just not right that they took the stickers off the boat. The police politely listen, and repeatedly ask whether there’s still a problem, and when nobody seems to have one, they go on their merry way.

And with that, we’re nominally on OK terms with the first couple we’ve met in their 30s. They both calm down, and tried to apologize, and he and I have a benign chat on the way back to the boat, but there’s too much bad blood in the air, and it’s awkward. Jazz took a less conciliatory approach, providing (perfectly acceptable) silence and glares to the couple that yelled at her, threatened her and attempted to board our boat. They leave in their pair of dinghies, and we continue to see them around town for the next month, and despite everyone knowing each others’ names, we do not become friends.