St. John ambulance boat Capt. Liston “Huntie” Sprauve” got more than he expected when he joined a crew to bring the ferry boat Nicole Robin from New Orleans to St. John. In an ordeal that’s become part of St. John’s history, he and the others were captured and put in jail for 13 days by the Cuban military after the Nicole Robin strayed too close to Cuban territory.
The story begins around 2 p.m. on a July day in 1973 when the crew saw a gunboat on the horizon.
“At 5 p.m., they approached us and told us to stop. A plane came over with machine guns,” Sprauve said.
Sprauve said he told the professional navigator, a man Sprauve said the insurance company made them hire, that he was getting too close but he wouldn’t listen. Sprauve said that when the Cuban military searched the navigator, whose name he remembers as Mellon, they found a CIA card on him.
This led to a suggestion from a jail guard that he shoot the navigator with a gun provided by the guard. He declined. Sprauve said he still thinks that the navigator was planted on the Nicole Robin so the U.S. authorities could learn more about Cuba.
“It was a setup,” he said.
The Cuban military confiscated the Nicole Robin’s extra fuel tanks and jimmied the compass, but Sprauve said they had enough fuel in the main tanks to get the boat to Puerto Rico. When they reached the Puerto Rican port, a “big black car snatched the navigator off the boat.” That was the last they saw of him, and the crew consisting of Sprauve, Loredon Boynes, Loredon Boynes Jr., and James Penn made their way home to St. John.
Sprauve said their biggest worry was family and friends on St. John. He said they feared they would think the Nicole Robin sunk on its way to the island.
The Nicole Robin went on to serve many years on the ferry run between St. John and St. Thomas and Sprauve continued his career as the ambulance boat captain.
He started out in 1971 when the ambulance service was still under the Administrator’s Office. In the early 1980s, it moved to the Health Department.
Born on St. John 67 years ago, he graduated in 1962 from Charlotte Amalie High School. Sprauve started his working career as a mechanic at Lindqvist Ford on St. Thomas, later moving to Tropical Motors. After a year living on St. Thomas, he moved back to St. John to work as an automobile mechanic at V.I. National Park, subsequently taking a job at what was then called Caneel Bay Plantation as a marine mechanic.
When the elder Boynes started Transportation Services in the 1960s, he went to work there. He got his captain’s license in 1969, and later worked at Varlack Ventures.
In the early 1980s, he left St. John to attend school at the Diesel Institute of America in Landover, Md. He then got an associates degree in automobile technology from Northern Virginia Community College. He returned to his ambulance boat captain job on St. John in 1990.
Sprauve plans to retire at the end of September. And in April, the Health Department named its new ambulance boat in his honor.
“I love the new boat. It’s a dream come true,” he said.
Sprauve spent most of his years on the job at the wheel of various versions of the Star of Life, the predecessors to the Liston “Huntie” Sprauve. There were always challenges, he said, in getting parts for the boats because of the government’s cumbersome procurement process.
The Liston “Huntie” Sprauve is currently under warranty so repairs aren’t an issue for now, but Sprauve said the Star of Life is still sitting in the Creek waiting to be sold.
“There isn’t enough money to maintain them both,” he said.
There are also pluses on the job. Sprauve said when he sees someone out on the street that he recently transported in the ambulance, it gives him a good feeling to know they’ve recovered.
He’s seen a lot as St. John has grown from a quiet place to a tourist hot spot.
“Everyone knew each other. Everyone helped each other. We didn’t have a whole lot of money, but what we had we shared,” he said.
While arthritis has put the kibosh to his fast-pitch softball game, in his younger years Sprauve played on the territory’s Olympic team at games across Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.
As for retirement, he said he plans to volunteer at the Emergency Medical Service, and of course, spend time with family. He and his wife of 43 years, Joyce Sprauve, have three children, Liston Sprauve Jr., Tabitha Sprauve and Anna Sprauve, as well as five grandchildren.
“She’s one of the nicest persons on earth to put up with me,” he said of his wife.