Sailors that stayed – Sean Paton

Sean PatonAzores Tradewinds starts publishing today a series of articles about the sailors that decided to stay in Faial island. People from many different countries, that sometimes have travelled the four corners of the Earth, decided to stop, more or less permanently, their travels and stay here. Why? 

The answer to this question might teach us something new about our own island, something that usually escapes us, naturals and long time residents. Using images and words to draw the possible portraits, we will try to understand better this Mid-Atlantic multicultural community, that is azorean, portuguese, but much more than that. Come join us in a voyage of discovery. 


Sean Paton

The first time I met Sean was during a volunteer plastic clean-up in one of the rivers of Faial. His height, a good head above our Azorean average, his clear brown-green eyes, but most all his uncommonly long white hair, marked him unmistakably as an “estrangeiro”, a foreigner, but more than that, fixed him instantly in our memory, so he is one of those persons in the island that everyone knows, even if they haven’t met him.

His age always seemed to me impossible to guess, but really, after a few minutes talking to him, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. His enthusiasm when he talks to us about nature and the environment has a juvenile glow about it that easily transcends the wrinkles or the silver hair. Arrived on the island about four years ago from Bonaire, in the Dutch Caribbean, his strong accent doesn’t leave room for doubt about his English origin.

Having bought his ship, “Our Confidence”, in which he had worked as engineer, till Malta where he purchased the boat and became Captain of the little ship that he would be with for the next 28 years. He decided to take her to the Caribbean, to escape the quick and certain environmental destruction of the Mediterranean Sea, the pollution, the over-fishing that he had to face every day. The tropical islands appeared like a dream of white sandy beaches with a pristine nature, but very quickly reality showed itself, because all those problems were also there, the same if not worse.

Moving to Faial was, in a way, also an attempt to leave behind environmental abuse but, truth be told, there is no escaping a global issue, and he was once again faced with the lack of regard and care for nature right here in our island. The first time he came to Faial he was impressed with all the nice recycling bins, and he thought it was a much better situation than the one in Bonaire, but when he came back two years later he found out that it was all going into one landfill anyway. Now the situation has changed for the better even though there is still much to be done in terms of a proper environmental treatment and disposal of our waste. “All the things I had been fighting in Bonaire were, even though with a much prettier picture, exactly the same in Faial. These problems are the same all over the world, that’s why I say, you might not be able to change the whole world, but change your own garden, change what’s around you, wherever you are. It doesn’t matter if you are a native or an estrangeiro, if you see things that are wrong, get involved.” And that’s what he does.

Despite never having mastered the Portuguese language, Sean can’t stop himself from getting involved in the community and in local problems, especially those related to protecting the environment. With a very clear notion of the political and social context surrounding him, he speaks to us about worldwide problems and much needed and urgent global changes – also political ones, because Sean won’t shy away from talking politics, even if he has no illusions about the current political system – sharing a vision that has been guiding him for a long time now.

Sean has been involved with the cause of the environment most of his adult life, and he recalls victories and defeats or little of both, like the movement about the waste on the small island of Carriacou, one of the islands of Grenada, where the lack of proper waste management infrastructure was causing locals to dump the trash of yachtsmen into the mangroves, and this was a serious environmental problem. After conducting a strong protest and awareness campaign, they were able to win from the Grenadine government the introduction of a plastic tariff, but it was a bitter sweet victory because that meant that the prices of nearly all goods went up, none of the money was directed towards solving the environmental problem and most people were understandably angry at the environmentalist movement.

It became clear that the only way to effect real change was to get people involved, to get them to know what was going on. And so, later, in the island of Bonaire, he started writing, became a journalist doing a weekly radio show that ran for twelve years, but he also continues to organize local movements protesting the misuse of trash dumps on the island, amongst other topics. It was 2002 when perhaps partly because of one of these struggles while encamped on a waste water facility that he contracted what was considered at the time to be a terminal lung infection. The prognosis was two to four years to live.

So, on borrowed time, using the days the doctors told him he wouldn’t have, Sean Paton continues to be an activist, an organizer, an agitator if needs be, for the causes of the protection of nature and animals, environmental democracy and progress, battles the he might not have yet won, but that he refuses to lose by stopping the fight. As with so many other “estrangeiros” in Faial, he makes a significant mark, even if not always very visible for everyone in the life of our community.

Even though he has been sailing since his childhood, up and down the Thames in a small sail-boat, and has made a living from the ocean for many years, he doesn’t consider himself a professional sailor. All he knows about the sea, he taught himself or learned by doing, never having been the holder of a licence or a certificate of seamanship.

Regardless, he made his living as an island trader in the Caribbean, a colourful life, as close to the adventurous novels that we read in our youth as one can get in this day and age. In the context of the Caribbean Archipelago, a smuggler is more an independent merchant and maritime transporter than someone who actually smuggles goods between islands. (Read more about them here). He gladly tells us stories about that time, as a man with no regrets that keeps on looking forward.

All through the Caribbean on a 60ft motor sail freighter, “Our Confidence”

On board his 60ft motor-sail ship “Our Confidence”, a small freighter, Sean sailed through 3 hurricanes and into most of the Caribbean ports, without any fixed routes, just going where the flow of goods and opportunities took him. For example, once in the island of Saint Vincent, after being invited to what is known by the locals as cook out, he stumbled upon an abandoned orchard full of beautiful, ripe, large sized mangos. “So, I gave some of the guys a few dollars to go into town and find as many boxes as they could and come back. In the end we loaded a lot of mangos and went up to Sint Maarten to sell them. I paid 25 EC dollars (Eastern Caribbean Dollar) for each box of around 15 kilos and I sold them for two dollars a mango! That paid for much needed supplies fuel and crew wages. I had no plan of going to Sint Maarten, but that’s the way it went and that’s the way boat went.

The list of goods transported is large and varied, from baby clothes to Rum – which used to be almost an accepted form of currency in the Caribbean. He recalls a specific occasion, in 1995, where he had bought 1000 cases of a fine Rum from Trinidad. Just two days after he sailed from Sint Maarten to get the first 500 cases, hurricane Luis hit the island with full category 4 fury, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Local Trinidad church and yachtsmen had collected supplies and relief aid and asked him if he could transport it to Sint Maarten. But that meant dropping his valuable cargo and convincing his crew of four to drop their wages for the trip. “Strangely enough, without another word, they all said ok we’ll do it.” Sean recalls. Our Confidence was the second boat to reach the island after the disaster, and the panorama was tragic. In the lagoon there were 1200 boats. Only 300 survived. Most of the houses had been destroyed. His supplies were most welcome in the midst of the disaster.

Sunny days on board the “Our Confidence”

While waiting at the Sint Maarten’s Port Authority for the authorization to off-load, Sean met a french captain, just arrived from Guadeloupe and asked him what was his cargo. “Body bags. I bring an emergency supply of body bags.” was the answer. An emergency supply of body bags for a hurricane that officially had only caused three fatalities… It’s not just in Portugal that local authorities often try to hide the real dimension of catastrophes.

The humanitarian gesture of bringing didn’t go unnoticed. A few weeks later, when Sean was trying to finally offload his Trinidad Rum he got the willing help of Dutch marines to bring ashore his cargo of technically contraband Rum… This is a typical example of how things worked in the Caribbean. Nobody is over the law and nobody is under the law, as long as you look after other people. “I always miss that element of lawlessness. The question was more about what’s humane, what’s real. For example, we used to take baby’s clothes and baby food to Granada and the Grenadines, because the government put such a high tax on these products that they were incredibly expensive. As you got there people would look at you as a hero, though off course they knew you were doing it under the yard arm” he explains.

Sean moved to the Azores not only for health reasons. Friends that had moved here, the proximity, relative but not excessive, to mainland Europe and to his family. The need of being ashore but yet at sea, in the spot where so many headings cross and so many new and old sailors meet and find each other again, maybe even that little element of lawlessness, were all contributing factors to his choice.

He recalls his first visit to Faial, a simple one day stop over to catch a plane to England, and the strong feeling, hard to explain, he had, on the way to the airport, looking at the people and the architecture, “I just knew right then I was coming back, this was going to be it.”, he says.

Sean feels he’s found in Faial a little piece of the English way of life he knew as a child, the traditions, the sense of family, the respect for nature, the history, a culture he feels he is a part of, regardless of not speaking the language. He puts it clearly: “I feel totally rooted. I feel at home.

Tiago Redondo


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