Betsy Hitz and Jim Holman sailed their 38-foot Alajuela double-ender Cheers into Friendship Bay off the south shore of the island of Bequia at 4:30 in the afternoon and dropped anchor in 15 feet of clear Caribbean water. All about them, in the lee of the hilly eastern shore, was the tranquility of a tropical paradise. Having cruised this part of the Grenadines myself—as have many other Americans in their own and chartered yachts during the past two decades—I can attest to both the beauty of the scene and the mesmerizing effect it has on the senses. For Hitz and Holman, veteran sailors of 33 and 37, respectively, what followed was in appalling contrast.
They had had dinner of Indian curried chicken with homemade mango chutney and were soon in bed in the forward cabin, reading, under a light cotton sheet. It was too warm for nightclothes. As Hitz writes in her book Sitting Ducks (Seven Seas Press Inc., $15.95), "A light breeze from the east tugged at the inflatable dinghy bobbing off our stern...not a soul stirred on the beach, nor on distant porches...."
Just after three bells—9:30—a wiry, naked, male Grenadine native burst into the cabin brandishing a rusty but razor-sharp machete. He jabbed the blade into Holman's abdomen, withdrew it and then plunged it into Holman's chest. Coolly and in control, though "his wide eyes flashed with hatred," he robbed the two of money and credit cards and prepared, quite obviously, to assault Hitz. After that, he told them, he would "kill you both. I cut you into little pieces."
Considering their condition—Holman could have bled to death and Hitz was riven with fear and rage—it is astonishing as well as a tribute to their courage that they were able to drive their tormentor off the boat. (Holman, who had grabbed a small vial of mace from Hitz's purse, was able to spray the chemical into the attacker's face. The man then fled, jumping into the water and swimming away.) And it is equally astonishing that subsequent events were, in their way, as much of a nightmare as what happened in the cabin.
Two courses of action had to be set in motion at once: Holman needed medical attention or he would surely die, and a start had to be made on tracking, identifying and apprehending their assailant. If they had been back home in Newport, R.I., help would have been a telephone call away. But, as resourceful and courageous as Hitz and Holman were, they were moored well offshore in the dead of night, aliens in a cultural and physical milieu far different from anything they had ever experienced.
The struggle to save Holman's life in the face of indifference by officials, primitive facilities and medical incompetence will alarm every reader, especially those whose own wanderlust may one day place them in a similarly vulnerable situation. Their struggle for justice is even more disheartening. Forced to organize her own investigation because of police inaction and duplicity, Hitz encountered an endless series of lies and evasions in her determined pursuit—literally endless because, though she actually found and unequivocally identified her attacker, an appropriate denouement to the case isn't likely ever to be written.
These events took place in mid-1981. Other subsequent episodes of high adventure fill the pages of Sitting Ducks before Hitz and Holman are able to continue the round-the-world cruise they began in 1980. Hitz had been managing editor of Cruising World magazine and Holman had been a professional sailor all his adult life—his grandfather was a Sandy Hook pilot and his father was a sailor before him.
"For six years before we went cruising," Hitz writes, she was always the one "left waving goodbye as the black yawl he skippered [Malague√±a] pulled away from the dock." When they came into possession of Cheers—raising the money by selling their house in Newport—"We left not to run away from life, but to keep it from escaping us.... And we weren't searching for paradise, Eden or even a better place to settle. Just a way of living free from all the trappings."
They resumed their cruise in March 1982, leaving the Caribbean via the Panama Canal. In 1983 they were married on Tahiti by the mayor of Papeete. Today, they are sailing off Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.