The chance to see Africa had brought our family back together for a couple of months. Our older son, Rafael, 20, had taken leave from college to join the rest of us: Diego, 13, my wife, Dorothy, and our little black dog, Santos.
It was June 1998
Breath had been our only home since I had built the vessel on St. John in the Virgin Islands in the early 1980s. Life afloat had knit close bonds. Everyone had responsibilities—the boys were standing watch when they were six. And for the past eight years, Santos, our loving, feisty, 11-pound schipperke, was at our side.
When we went to bed that night, Santos lay on the cabin top, which he vacated only in the worst weather. He touched his nose to Dorothy's face as she bent low to nuzzle him good night. His ardent eyes flared briefly—he worshipped her—then he returned to his duty.
Santos the mini guard dog
We slept easier with him aboard. It was his self-appointed mission to ensure that no one, friend or foe, approached within 100 yards of Breath without a warning. He'd sailed with us through the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, keeping sharp watch and good company, and bringing us luck. In eight years we'd never suffered a mishap. But during the night of January 2, 1991, that would change.
We were asleep when, just past midnight, our dock lines began to creak. At first I thought a passing boat might have sent a wake, but Santos would have barked. The creaking grew louder. By the time I climbed on deck, the ropes groaned against the cleats that tethered our boat to another vessel.
On such a calm night there could be only one cause—current. My boat was tied stern to stream, and a glance over the side at water speeding past the hull alarmed me. The ebb had tripled its usual spring-tide rate. The cleats on the other boat looked ready to snap. If anything gave, both vessels could spin off bound together, helpless to avoid destruction. I had to cast off.
We were in a difficult spot. Just a few boat-lengths downstream, two high-tension power lines hung across the creek. About 100 feet behind them loomed Denton Bridge. If we couldn't turn in time, our metal mainmast might hit the wires. If the boat hit the bridge, both masts would be pinned by the roadway while the hull was sucked under.
I called everyone up on deck. Sensing something was wrong, Santos stood by, poised to react.
All hands on deck!
We cast off the lines and hung briefly to a stern anchor, but we had to let go as Breath was swung violently back and forth by the current's force. I gunned the engine and had almost turned the boat around when I realised that, dragged toward the bridge by the current, we were going to hit the power line. Dorothy clutched a quivering Santos, and we all held our breath.
We just tipped the wire. There was a meteor shower of sparks and we were through, but the second wire was coming up fast. I flung the wheel over hard, but we struck the wire anyway—a long, scraping skid, the top six inches of our mast pinned against the power line.
Electricity exploded down the rigging, and a hideous incandescence lit the sky. Flames leapt up inside the cabin; fuses shot from their sockets; smoke billowed out the hatches.
Then the fireworks stopped. The cable had rolled over the mast, but we were trapped between the second wire and the bridge. There was nowhere to go but back out—through the wire. Santos wriggled out of Dorothy's arms and dashed up to the foredeck to be in on the action.
Bracing for impact
The wheel hard over, we braced for impact. The mast top hit the cable, sending down a torrent of red sparks. Santos, eyes fixed ahead, stood his ground to defend the foredeck. He was growling for all he was worth when sparks landed in his fur. Uttering a high-pitched scream, he sprinted down the side deck, cinders glowing in his coat, and plunged into the water. When he surfaced, Santos was swimming for the boat, his eyes fastened on Dorothy. But the current swept him into the shadows under Denton Bridge and out of sight.
An instant later a blast like a small thunderbolt hit the mainstay. My son Raffy was flipped backward off the foredeck and into the water.
Then we were through. Diego seized a fire extinguisher and attacked the flames as I steered toward a trawler tied to a concrete slab on the muddy bank. Raffy, a college swimmer, managed to get to the bank.
Against all odds we were safe—except for Santos.
The heart wrenching loss of Santos
Raffy called along both shores, but there was no sign of him. We spent the rest of the night tied to the trawler. As I tried to sleep, I kept thinking of Santos. I felt a helpless sorrow over his fate.
The next day Dorothy walked for miles down the beach, making enquiries at every hotel, talking to beach attendants, tourists, vendors. Nobody had seen our little black dog.
She offered a reward over the ship's radio, notified the police and nailed up signs. It was touching, but it seemed futile to me. Just beyond the bridge were broad flats of sand pounded that night by row after row of massive breakers. The thought of Santos funneled helplessly into the surf made me wince.
Days later we'd repaired Breath, but Santos still hadn't turned up. “Honey,” I told Dorothy, “we've got to get on with our life—do the river, cross the Atlantic, get back to work.”
“But what if he survived?” she asked. “What if he finds his way back, and we're gone?”
“It's hard to believe he survived that surf,” I said flatly, “and then swam till dawn.”
She searched my face, looking for a reprieve from reality. Then her eyes flooded and her voice broke. “I just didn't want to abandon him.”
With heavy hearts the next morning, we hauled the anchor for our trip upriver.
One of a kind
Our loss really hit home 50 miles upstream where we anchored. Suddenly a strange face peered in the porthole and enquired if we wanted to buy a fish. The fisherman had paddled up silently alongside. When Santos was alive, that could never have happened. Now we sorely missed the zealous barking we'd so often tried to hush.
Not a day went by without someone bringing up another Santos story. He might have been small, but he was absolutely fearless. Santos had a classic Napoleon complex. He had to have respect, and he got it by making bigger animals run from him. He was all bluff. But with a histrionically vicious growl and a headlong charge, he had put to flight Rottweilers, herds of goats, troops of wild donkeys, even a meter reader.
We'd never see another like him, I thought as I steered upriver.
A false alarm?
Two weeks passed as we made our way 150 miles up the Gambia River. One afternoon Dorothy and I were reinforcing the deck awning when I saw a catamaran with a man on board inspecting us with binoculars.
“Are you the Americans who lost the dog?” he called.
“Yes,” I said cautiously.
“I don't know if it is yours, but the police at Denton Bridge have a small black dog found on the beach.”
Everyone tumbled up on deck shouting, “Oh, my God! Yes! Yes!” But I cautioned, “Someone might have found a stray mutt and brought it in, hoping for the reward. Don't get your hopes too high.”
Dorothy and I took a series of bush taxis and old buses back to Banjul the next morning. With hope and trepidation we caught a taxi to Denton Bridge to see if Santos had truly survived.
“You've come for your dog!” the police officer on duty greeted us. He turned and called to a boy, “Go bring the dog.” Dorothy and I waited on tenterhooks.
Then, led on a ratty piece of string down the path, there was Santos. He walked with a limp, head down. But when Dorothy called “Santos,” his head shot up, his ears snapped forward, his whole body trembled as that beloved voice registered. He leapt into her arms and covered her face with licks. Dorothy hugged him, her eyes filled with tears.
The police officer told us that the morning after we'd hit the power lines, a Swedish tourist was walking the beach and found Santos—six miles from Oyster Creek. The Swede smuggled the wet, hungry animal into his hotel room and fed him. When the Swede had to fly home, he gave Santos to the police.
Next morning we made our way back upriver. We arrived just after sundown and shouted for the boys.
“Do you have him?” they called. Dorothy urged the dog to bark. His unmistakable voice rang across the river, to be answered by a cheer of wild exuberance.
Later that night we toasted Santos with lemonade. No need for champagne when euphoria spiced the air we breathed. Santos was back. Our family was intact.
Read more stories of lost and found pets in Lost and Found: Battersea Dogs & Cats, £6.99