Stories of survival at sea

Stories of quicksand, banana boats and averting disaster

Wenzil Burlington, 85, from West Bay lived adventurously at sea as one of Cayman’s seafarers. From turtling the Miskito Cays to earning his engineering diploma while working with National Bulk Carriers, Burlington was shaped by his youth at sea. Like many Caymanians of his generation, he started working schooners at a young age, first venturing to sea as a teenager. After being at sea for 13 years, Burlington returned to Grand Cayman and married Martha Borden in 1967.

As part of the Cayman Compass #SaveOurStories series, Burlington shared some tales from his seafaring days. Below are the stories, as told in Burlington’s own words.

Wenzil Burlington, like most Caymanian men, went to sea at an early age.

In the beginning

When I went to sea, there wasn’t anything to do. Nothing was happening in Cayman. There was no work. I was 16.

I went to Miskito Cay off the Nicaraguan coast to catch turtles and nurse sharks. They used to catch the nurse sharks and take their hide off of them, salt them and ship them to Japan and the turtle we used to butcher locally. I made two trips there.

We were fishing off of the coast. There was a big cay and we had to make a hut and we lived in the hut. The cay was big but [because of the] sand flies, you couldn’t live on the land. So, we had to put our hut on a shallow bar and live there. I believe I was there close to four months and then came back home before going back out. Three guys lived in the hut, except for a short time when a hurricane came by and some of our friends were in different places and [it] wasn’t so safe. So, they came and stayed with us. Then when the weather cleared up, they went back.

But, after that, I came home and about two months later, I went back again. This time it was just for turtle, but a freak storm came down. We thought it was a nor’wester coming because the sky was black. We had to bring in our nets because we couldn’t afford to lose them. It was about six boats in different places, they went to tie their net but they went too late and [the storm] caught them and two of the boats were drove away by the storm.

One boat with three guys got turned over three times in one night. As soon as they got turned over the sea went calm and they were able to get back in, but the big seas came back and turned them over again.

They drifted to land. The tide had brought them in and the captain, because the other two men were young boys like me, was jumping overboard to bring the boat in.

It was a pretty-looking beach, and a woman came out and started waving, telling them, “No, no, no”, told them to go further up. So, he went and when he got ashore, the woman told him there was quicksand.

Next couple of days, the other boat that was lost, she drifted in. It was only one boy left and he had tied himself down in the boat. But he had died and the other two never turned up.

Boy, I felt so bad and I was so scared, I decided to come home. I asked the captain if I came aboard, if he would take me back home and he said, “Yeah”.

Banana boats and dodging a bullet

There’s two islands. There’s Big Swan and there’s Little Swan. Big Swan Island, the Americans would use it to ready for the war, during World War II, and two brothers were taking care of the island, Captain Harry Glidden and Captain Donald Glidden. The captain told me if I came down there, he could get a captain of a banana boat to come and pick me up when he needed a man, and so the captain came and picked me up. They were hauling bananas from Puerto Limon to Tampa. We used to make a trip in two weeks, and every two weeks we went. I stayed there for 15 months.

While I was on these banana boats, I took some courses. Gasoline and diesel were the two first courses from the International Correspondence School and I got my diploma. I had to mail the lessons to Ohio.

When I was on the second banana boat, a guy came look for me and said there was a vacancy for a second engineer and I went and got that [job]. But what happened was they had to put [the boat, ‘Romana’] on dry dock. The company didn’t have enough money to pay for it and they plastered her.

She couldn’t sail till a bill was paid and we stayed there about three months. Back then, the immigration was getting kind of stiff then, so they gave me 29 days to start off with, and that ran out. I got another 29 days, and that ran out. Then immigration gave me 15 days and [the official] said, “Listen, sonny, I gave you 15 days. That’ll be up on Saturday and this office is closed on Saturday and Sunday.” And he said, “Don’t you come back in this office Monday morning with that ‘Romana’ in your mouth.” So, I waited two days before my time ran out and said, “I’m going to have to go home.”

I wasn’t prepared to go home yet.

[Before returning,] I had to go to town to get a hair trim. I was in the barber chair and he was trimming me. I had a big old towel around, a sheet, and the door was near me. Through the corner of my eye, I see this man walk in, but I wasn’t paying him no mind.
He went behind us and then I heard ‘BANG!’ I heard this blow and this barber dropped down in front of me, blood spouting out of him. [The man] had shot him in the head and killed him. I was afraid of dead people and I say, “How am I going get out of here?”
I jumped over him and took off.

I took a cab to get to the barber shop, but I wasn’t messing with no cab then. I ran but I see the people on the sidewalk looking at me.

When I got on board [the boat], I sat down [and] them boys said, “What happened?” I [hadn’t] realised I still had that sheet over me. They must’ve thought I was Batman [with a cape].

I came home after that; I stayed home about three weeks.

Climbing the ladder at National Bulk Carriers

I went to National Bulk Carriers. I was working in the engine room as a wiper. Then after that, I was promoted to oiler, fireman and junior engineer and then I went to pump man.

The first assistant didn’t like me. That brute looked at me the first day I seen him in my life and hated me. It was winter and it was cold, and I bought a little cloth hat and I went down the engine room. There was three wipers and I was standing up by the boilers talking to the fireman and [the first assistant] just came up to me and took my hat off and threw it in the bucket with oil.

But because he didn’t like me, the chief didn’t like him. The more harm he done me, the better the chief liked me.

Passing the test

[When I was in New York] I went to the Union Hall, because all my friends that had worked on the ship had worked at the Union. There was a pump man job on the open board and I could apply for that, but I really didn’t care too much about it.

One of my friends said, “Man, go down to the Coast Guard and get your endorsement. Your brother in Mobile, [Alabama], they only asked him three questions to give him the pump man endorsement.” He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I said, “All right, I’m going to go through with it.”

I went and there was a short, red-face, red-hair man and I told him what I had come for.

He said, “All right, have a seat and I’ll soon be with you.” That was at 8 o’clock in the morning soon, as soon as it opened, and I sat down till 12 o’clock.

A girl came out and said, “You getting taken care of?” I said, “I thought I was but I don’t know.”

[The man] then said, “Yes, I’m here. I’m going to soon be out.” He came out and withdrew 180 questions. I hadn’t looked at a book in two years then.

Anyway, I worked on them and worked on them. I wrote till I got a big old blister on my finger. There was some questions I didn’t know the answer, so I skipped them, and I missed five.

He said, “All right, that’s okay,” and he asked me [more questions] verbally. I got three out of the five right, so I thought now he was going to get me the pump man endorsement.

He gave me a ‘Qualified Member of the Engine Department’, which is next to engineer.
When I got to the Union Hall, the [pump man] job was gone. How glad I was. I didn’t want that job.

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