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The Dragon’s Mouth

Between Venezuela and Trinidad there is a narrowstrait called The Dragon’s Mouth. Named by Columbus on his third voyage to theNew World, it is a ten-mile wide stretch of racing currents and unpredictable winds separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Paria. In his log, Columbus recounted how his ships had encountered a huge rogue wave as he traversed the passage.

We were introduced to The Dragon’s Mouth by our friends Quillan andHarold La Borde, a Trinidadian couple who had recently sailed around the world in their 40-foot ketch Hummingbird II, a wooden vessel Harold had built himself. After the completion of their historic voyage, they sold the boat to the government and Harold busied himself building a 55-foot ketch in which they would eventually sail around the world again. We had met the La Borde’s while making a film for the Trinidad & Tobago tourist board. Harold had complained that the government was letting Hummingbird II go to ruin at a marina and he decided he would take her for a sail, to rejuvenate her with a taste of the sea and the wind again. He asked Betty Sue and I to sail along.

Harold was born in Trinidad of French, African, Spanish and Caribeparentage. Quillan’s parents immigrated from China. Shortly after they were married, they sailed a 26-foot home-made boat from Trinidad to England. Their second voyage together was the circumnavigation. It is thought they are the first brown-skinned people to sail around the world. Their son Pierre accompanied them on the voyage, their son Andre was born along the way.

Harold was furious at the boat’s condition. Her lovely mahogany wasweathered, her sails and running rigging stiff, her small engine showed signs of neglect. Below decks, there was an atmosphere of abandonment. After a bit of coaxing, Harold got the engine going, Quillan slipped the lines, stepped aboard, and we, and the La Borde’s young son Andre, headed out to sea.

The seascape was magnificent – rollers breaking onto cliffs rising like stonefists from the sea, verdant jungle-cloaked hills with splashes of fiery red where the Flamboyant trees rose above the canopy, sunlight touching the sea with golden highlights. It was a beautiful day for a sail, or so it seemed.

How quickly things can change. We watched the storm approach, rainslanting down beneath a darkening cloud veined with spears of lightning. It grew closer, darker, cooler, the air alive. Nothing to fear. After all, we were sailing with the La Bordes who had dared the storms of the Southern Seas. Prudently, Harold started the engine and asked Quillan to lower the mainsail. But when she went forward, she found the mainsail halyard was stuck in its sheave at the top of the mast. The main wouldn’t come down. Then came the rain, a hammer-blow of wind, and before Harold could steer Hummingbird into the wind, she was knocked flat on her beam’s end. Now the main and the jib were flogging wildly. Harold steered off the wind just enough to ease the flogging, but not enough to fill the sails. It was sailing a tightrope. While Quillan struggled with the main, I went forward to lower the jib. The jib sheet had parted and it was slow work pulling in the stiff and thrashing sail while being horsewhipped by the broken sheet. Little Andre was terrified and Betty took him below.

Almost as quickly as the storm had formed, it swept away to the south,leaving a troubled sea and an angry helmsman who had a few more unkind words for the new owners who had let Hummingbird II rot away in her slip. Looking back, I think he was also angry at himself for not checking the running rigging before leaving the slip.

“A nasty little squall,” he summarized, as we sailed back through theDragon’s Mouth toward the marina.

Harold La Borde, who sailed around the globe twice, died when he slippedand fell on a dock in Grenada. His body was sailed back to Trinidad by his sons, Pierre and Andre, on Hummingbird III. Quillan, in her eighties is known as “Trinidad’s Lady of the Sea”. Marshall Riggan has been writing and telling stories for more than a half century, many of which were made into movies and television productions. Much of his writing has been about sailing and the sea. His books Sulu Sea and The Last Traveler can be found at