I met Captain Sarah Schelbert back in 2019 while on the boat trip from hell aboard a seaworthy but poorly run Triton 28 in the western Caribbean. I was trying to help the owner sail his boat back to Florida from the Rio Dulce, in Guatemala. Outbound from the river basin, we had one last stop to make. After motoring in silence between the fjord-like cliffs, we pulled in to check the mast and shrouds at a rigging and sail-repair loft built into a treehouse.
Tucked into the mangroves of Texan Bay, the loft was run by an American ex-pat. There were no roads, only a small fleet of long wooden canoe-like vessels with outboards to get from dwelling to dwelling on the mainland and a variety of cruising boats.
Sarah was there, restoring and rebuilding her 36ft, wooden sloop, Alani, aboard which she would not only eventually go on to win her clasFalas at the 2022 Antigua Classics Regatta, but take second in the event’s “Concour D’elegance” or beauty contest.
When I met Sarah, Alani was tied up at the loft, and Sarah was bending bronze chainplates by hand in a vice. She’d gotten the bronze from some Amish folks in the area. But it ended up being the wrong type, and she would have to have the necessary bronze shipped in from abroad—no mean feat given Guatemala literally has no official mail service. Sarah caught our dock lines, and when she found out things were not at all well aboard the Triton, took me in as one of her own, having me over for an amazing meal with her longtime friend and occasional crew in their jungle kitchen. Later that same evening, she and her crew picked me up in their skiff for some “Family Time,” at the local floating bar, after which it was back to the treehouse where we talked until late into the night. I promised myself then that I’d be sure and meet up with Sarah and Alani again. And while I have yet to make my return, I haven’t forgotten.
In the years since our first meeting, Sarah not only finished up her work on Alani but is living aboard the boat in what is literally paradise. Alani was built in Denmark in 1960 and is one of two sister ships designed by Alan Gurney. Sarah found her in a boatyard in the Rio Dulce in 2015 after hitchhiking/sailing across the Atlantic and in the Caribbean. Before that, she studied literature, political science, feminism and anti-racism back home in her native Germany.
After covering Alani’s planking in fiberglass, rebuilding a number of rotten sections, re-powering the diesel and installing a Monitor windvane—Sarah was ready to brave the Gulf Stream solo, sailing upwind into the trade winds from Guatemala to the Lesser Antilles. Based in Grenada, Sarah now works as a charter captain and American Sailing Association sailing instructor for LTD Sailing. To get to work, she sails Alani over from her home port of sorts, in Caricou. During hurricane season, she and Alani tuck themselves away among the mangroves.
Sarah balances independence and interdependence using sailing and yacht repair as a way to empower not just other women sailors but women in general. While rebuilding Alani she made a point of employing the local women in Central America at a fair rate to help them out and is no stranger to being the only female captain in the anchorage. She was also the only woman skipper at the regatta in Antigua and had a good laugh when she received a man’s watch at the awards ceremonies. (Afterward, she was able to trade it out for a better-fitting timepiece at a local jeweler’s.) Sarah hopes to become involved in the local Carriacou boatbuilding scene in the near future, perhaps with an all-female crew.
Returning to the events of 2019, after departing Texan Bay and not only failing to claw our way out of the Gulf of Honduras but nearly getting run over by a cruise ship when the captain fell asleep on watch, the Triton thankfully diverted to Belize. Safe and sound again inside the protection of the outlying reef, who should I find at the dock but Captain Sarah off on her next charter! I jumped ship with Sarah’s blessing. Our pact to meet again in El Carib may be overdue, but Sarah assured me she’s not planning on leaving anytime soon. “Why would I leave paradise?” she says. She even has a tropi-pup, now named Maya, to hunt for coconuts and spear fish with her.
Photo by Emily Greenberg