Friday May 23 seemed like just another typical day in the Caribbean, more specifically Saint Lucia. The sun was out, the weather looked fine. Nice day for the beach or even sailing. A good day too, for the owners of the iconic Brig Unicorn to take the boat back into the deep, to Saint Vincent for repairs. Or so they thought. The Brig had experienced many a journey, serving as a party boat, sunset cruises for locals and vistors alike. Many famous visitors to the island had experienced a ride on the Brig. But perhaps the most well-documented rides of the boat were its role in the historic TV series “Roots” back in 1977 and more recently in the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean”. The Brig Unicorn played “The Henrietta” in “The Curse Of The Black Pearl”, and “The Terrasaw” in “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”.
Jaireh Lawrence was among a nine-member crew and captain that set sail that day. The able-bodied seaman and entertainer on the Brig relates his story of the experience on that fateful day.
According to the thirty-year-old, “The Brig had been docked in the marina for nearly two years and that was because the crewmembers were doing maintenance work on her. It was almost like an overhaul, we were changing the wood and building a brand new deck and we decided to take the ship to Saint Vincent to continue repairs.” For some time now the boat was docked near the boat yard at Gros Islet and used as a restaurant.
He went on: “The ten-member crew, myself included, left the Rodney Bay Marina en route to Saint Vincent just before 2 am that Friday. We left early in order to get there during the day, so we could get the prerequisites like Customs and so on, done when we dock.”
All onboard are already bright-eyed and bushy-tailed inspite of the early morning trip.
“We had brand new sails, brand new tools, like power saws and a lot of new stuff, everything just seem to be right,” Lawrence says.
Hours later and with the first sign of daylight the Brig is now in the middle of the channel (between Saint Vincent and Saint Lucia) and all still seems to be fine. That is except for what appears to be some huge waves. “I remember the weather reports informing us of six-foot waves but they somehow seemed much bigger than that to me,” Lawrence says.
“So I’m taking selfies behind the wheel and I asked the captain to take a photo for me. He answered that he was too busy. He appeared slightly perturbed but I didn’t understand what was happening yet. He then leaves me to steer the ship, and of course I didn’t hesitate,” Lawrence says.
At that moment the seas became somewhat less calm than when they had set sail. There were constant strong winds and it was difficult to keep the ship on course.
“After some time, the first mate came up to me and asked if I was tired from steering because it was very difficult managing the boat, as it was being tossed around like a toy,” Lawrence said. But before he could respond, the captain and crew called for his help. Somehow the Brig had now become waterlogged.
“The instructions were to form a line and start throwing water out. So I left the first mate at the wheel. When I get to mid-ship, I noticed that the guys, with buckets in hand, were throwing water from the engine room out of the ship. So I got in line and started helping out. All of the pumps were working fine and were sucking water out as well.”
According to Lawrence, at first, the water looked manageable. For about an hour it seemed like the crew was getting somewhere with the pumps and the buckets as the water level reached ankle high.
“But before you know it, the water soon rose above our knees, signaling that the intake is at a much rapid rate. At this point there is so much water in the boat, that it is forming waves. Things are now floating and banging everywhere, and we now have to monitor floating objects that could hit and probably injure us.
“The captain returned to the wheel and the first mate is now down helping in the engine room shaking his head in dismay, like ‘no!’ ” Lawrence consoles him; “We’re gonna make it, let’s have faith.”
“As crewmembers flung bags and personal belongings on deck, I remained with the engineer in the engine room as the water level rose above the engines and generator. That was the point when I finally admitted to myself that we were indeeed going to sink.”
At that point the water level was waist-high, Lawrence says, covering the engine causing it to stop along with the generator. “I had to swim out of the engine room to get to the bow,” he says.
“I proceeded to the deck, where all the guys are now and put on my lifejacket. We had an emergency lifeboat towing behind us, and the captain asked us to get water and food and get aboard.
“All I was able to salvage were two of my bags, one with my first aid kit and the other with some snacks. I literally had to swim to get off of the ship onto the life raft. One of the guys helped me onto the lifeboat. When the captain and the other guy got aboard we did a head count to make sure that everyone was accounted for. By the time we did that, we looked back and the Brig Unicorn was gone, sank. It went down so fast! We did not see the sails go down, nor the mast go down or the yardarms because our backs were turned. As soon as the last person got off, the boat just sank.”
As the ship goes down, the cargo and other items submerge including a flare gun which Lawrence decides to swim out to retrieve.
“So I get the gun and I’m swimming back toward the crew with the current. But I realized that I am not getting closer. Worse was that the engine on the lifeboat was failing to start and it was drifting further and further away from me. I’m starting to lose confidence, lose hope, I’m tired from all the bucketing, the shock that the ship sank and now being in the water. The distance between the crew and myself is now widening.”
Fear is creeping in.
“I shout to the guys to send me a rope. Instead, one of them tied a rope to himself and swam out to me. But the rope was too short. There was still a considerable distance between us but I pushed through the waves and finally got to his outstretched hand. The crewmembers then pulled us aboard.”
With all safely on the life raft, the captain and first mate are now using their cellphones desperately trying to get in touch with the Saint Vincent coast guards. After two hours drifting on the seas, they are finally rescued.
Though happy to be alive Jaireh Lawrence says he sorely misses the Brig Unicorn. “The Brig was truly a treasure. I had so many wonderful experiences aboard it; I think that it was a part of Saint Lucia’s history and that was really a sad way to say goodbye to it.”