Sailors that stayed – Ruth Schlatter & Duncan Sweet

When you meet them, Duncan Sweet and Ruth Schlatter seem inseparable, and in fact they have been for the last thirty something years. Their stories have become so intimately intertwined that it becomes impossible to tell one without telling the other.

From the sunny days sailing across the Caribbean, to the great adventure, “the greatest of them all”, of raising a child on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, to the tough times of the earthquake that so dramatically shook Faial, Duncan and Ruth stuck together. So, that is the way they receive me in their lovely garden, on a beautiful October morning, with an unusually clear view of Graciosa Island in the distance.

They met in Tortola, British Virgin Islands in the early 1980’s. Ruth was a guest of the family that owned the yacht where Duncan had worked. After that they ran into each other in several other places around the Caribbean (fate or just common-place sailing routes) and they kept in touch. Later, when Duncan finally came to Europe, they decided to be together. Ruth was working as a social worker in Switzerland, but she was tired of that career oriented lifestyle. “I was ready for a change,” she tells me smiling. So they both came back to the Caribbean and worked together on boats: usually Duncan as Captain and Ruth as Chef.

Sailing together was fun – great fun, they tell me. They ran mostly private yachts, thus avoiding all the troubles of commercial yacht chartering. Ruth adjusted easily to the sailing life. She was fascinated with sailing and felt it was a different adventure every day. “It still is to this day”, she adds. Her first long passage was a trip from Florida to Maine: a very tough trip in rough weather. Later, when Duncan became Captain, the hard sailing was over. He makes a point of sailing as comfortably as he can. “I don’t think rough weather is anything to be taken lightly. I don’t like having the shit beat out of me or the crew or the guests. That’s not fun. You don’t have to thrash the boat.

The first time Duncan Sweet came to Faial, back in 1979, while on his first Atlantic crossing he only got to stay for a few days and work on the boat kept him in the city, but he remembers seeing the red windmills up on Espalamaca (the north arm of Horta’s bay) and thinking he would like to go up there and meet the people who, in that time, still worked them. And he did, many years later.

Duncan was raised in New Hampshire, north of Boston, on a tidal creek, a few kilometres away from the ocean. “Salt water and I have been good friends since my childhood”. When he was a kid he spent most of his time on the water, and he agrees that the secret to being happy is to keep on playing as you did when you were growing up. That’s what he still does. “And if I ever grow up I hope I’m dead!

In his early years he would hang around the marinas and the fishing boats, close to home, doing odd jobs for the fishermen, up until the moment when he got to actually run the marina, whose business his parents had bought. The money he earned there put him through college, but a visit to a friend of his, in St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, changed his life and Duncan never got to finish his major.

He recalls hanging around the Marina in St. Thomas and he had never seen sailing boats like those. “I really couldn’t even spell yacht at that time”. His background was fishing and lobstering close to home, and after days talking to crewmen, hearing about the jobs and how to get them, he thought this could be his chance to work on the water.

A couple of months later he found his first job crossing the Atlantic, with a life changing first time visit to the Azores. He remembers being impressed with things he had never seen before, the old architecture; the street’s pavements decorated with stone; the whaleboats; the local fishing boats, and the yachts that then were very few. A very moving experience he never forgot about.

Duncan and Ruth ran yachts up until 1990, when they arrived on the Island, to the house they had bought a few years before, with a six week baby in their arms. It was a great adventure. The house wasn’t really liveable, the roof was leaking, only one of the rooms was habitable, the rest was pretty run down. The walls were good, but that was it. There was no plumbing, very little wiring, and they had to depend on the outhouse bathroom, that still stands in memory of those first days. They also spoke no Portuguese and didn’t know anybody.

Making a home for the family of three, was the main reason to move to the Azores. With time, the house they slowly and carefully rebuilt started to welcome them. They found much joy on the island and life grew better by the day. So, Duncan, Ruth and the young Leah became permanent residents of Faial.

Duncan had to find some work, so he went down to the Marina bar carrying a red tool box. That quickly made several of the yachtsmen ask him if he worked on boats, and that led to repair jobs. The fact that he spoke English and knew his way around town and where to get parts and supplies was recipe for success.

At the time, in 1992, you couldn’t find marine hardware at all, not even stainless steel screws in Faial. There weren’t any yacht services companies in the Island so, if the guy at Peter’s Cafe Sport or the man at the gas station couldn’t help you, you were on your own.

So they decided to open a small shop offering services, marine hardware and repairs to the visiting yachts. Mid-Atlantic Yacht Services was born, almost in the same place where it stands now. Among other services, they installed a telephone cabin and a fax service – communications were not so easy back then – that had a great demand on the part of yachtsmen and delivery skippers. Business was good.

The July 1998 earthquake was a turning point for the whole Island and naturally for the Schlatter-Sweet family as well. Their home suffered very little damage, unlike more than 75% of the houses on Faial. This fact tells us something about the quality of traditional old wood and stone buildings. Still, like many other islanders, they slept in a tent during most of that summer. They had lost the trust in ceilings and floors. Fear of aftershocks made it impossible to sleep indoors.

In those tough times, the community really came together to help, including the “estrangeiros” (foreigners), that back then were no more than a handful. They were out helping friends and neighbours. People from the small village where they live would eat together and work together repairing roads and homes, putting lives back together. Many times Duncan was transporting supplies from town, which wasn’t easy, because a many bridges had collapsed. They also asked their marine gear suppliers for help and got 200 sleeping bags for the Island. A lot of yachtsmen were also making donations. Duncan and Ruth felt part of the Island.

Duncan feels completely comfortable here even though he recognizes the differences in the outlook on life. “I’m not here to change local culture, that’s the Azorean way, the way they feel, that’s their life. Who am I to question it? But my own feelings are intact. I don’t push for my ideas and they don’t push us for theirs.

Ruth, on her side, thinks “living here is the ultimate freedom. Like with any other small village in any place in the world, people know each other, there’s a lot of gossip. But here… we’re not involved!

However, they acknowledge their own impact in the community. For example through the young people they employ in Mid-Atlantic Yacht Services, “we can say that we changed quite a few lives, just by being ourselves, by showing them what we think and the way we live, never by pressuring anybody”, Ruth tells me.

There’s an exchange, a dialogue between natives and newcomers. The economical impact of people moving here is just the surface of the issue. There are layers of consequences that run much deeper. How far has the presence of foreigners, much higher than in other islands, been changing Faial, the culture and the “Faialense’s outlook on life? Through their passion for the island, almost all of the “estrangeiros” end up attracting others to come and live here. So the only certainty is that we are an ever changing community.

Duncan and Ruth’s amazing view to Graciosa and São Jorge islands

Duncan and Ruth built a really beautiful place for their family and made a positive impact in the lives of people around them. “It’s paradise. We’re very lucky”, Duncan says. They don’t have any desire to move any place else. They’re home.

The only thing Duncan would like is to finally be able to enjoy a summer vacation in Faial, instead of working all the time in the Marina. “I bet it must be great fun, summer holidays in the Azores!”, he tells me laughing.

Tiago Redondo

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