A sailing community website reported Wednesday that a Frenchman sailing through the Virgin Islands on his way to Guadeloupe in January was attacked and seriously injured at sea.
According to reports, the sailor, 70-year-old Guy Briffa, was shot in the thigh when his boat was boarded about a mile and a half south of St. Croix.
Wednesday’s report on the Caribbean Safety and Security Net website says on Jan. 14 a French single-hander, that is, a boat small enough to be crewed by one person, was en route from the mainland through the Bahamas to Guadeloupe, where the 70-year-old Briffa was to meet his wife. It stopped to rest overnight in a protected anchorage on the southwest coast of St. Croix.
The next morning the boat departed the anchorage at about 11 a.m., according to CSSN. But 30 minutes later, while under power about 1.5 miles offshore, the report said Briffa was approached by a big fishing boat with three men aboard – two Hispanic and one black. Two of them boarded the Frenchman’s boat.
The men aggressively threatened him, the report said, shouting “drugs, money.” They punched him in the face and then stabbed or slashed his lower left leg. They took cash and electronics from below deck.
The captain was then shot in the right thigh at close range, severely wounding him. They left him on the deck of his drifting boat and departed.
Briffa, although bleeding profusely and in severe pain, was able to maneuver his boat into the Hovensa pier on St. Croix’s south side, coming to rest alongside a tug.
According to the report, Briffa tossed shells, winch handles and other objects at the side of the tug to get the attention of anyone on board. After about 45 minutes a tug crewmember eventually investigated the unusual noises and summoned the police and ambulance.
The victim was transported to the Juan F. Luis Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery for his serious injuries, some three hours after the initial attack.
The incident first came to the Source’s attention in an email Monday sent by a member of the Virgin Islands boating community who had talked with the volunteer interpreter for the French-speaking sailor. According to the email, Briffa told doctors at JFL he had been shot with a military or police-style weapon and that the shot had shattered the Frenchman’s femur.
The V.I. Police Department replied Wednesday to the Source’s query about the incident. According to Public Information Officer Kevin Jackson, the information is from notes taken by St. Croix Police Chief Arthur Hector Sr.
The police are "not too sure about his story" as recorded on the CSSN website, Jackson said.
"It may have happened a little further out than he was claiming," Jackson said. He also said that the chief’s notes do not reflect the victim having been stabbed or that the boarders went below and stole any electronics.
"He did claim they demanded drugs and money," Jackson said, and "he did tell them he had no money."
Jackson also said the chief’s notes mention the gun shot to the right thigh but do not refer to a stab or slash wound.
According to the VIPD, agents from Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security Investigations and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas were also on hand, although they took no action.
The VIPD took possession of the boat as a crime scene, Jackson said, and had it towed to Green Cay.
"At that point Coast Guard took it over," Jackson said.
However, the Coast Guard has no record of ever being involved with the boat.
In the first place, according to Coast Guard Public Affairs Officer Ricardo Castrodad, the Coast Guard was not informed of the incident until after the initial police response. Castrodad noted that there had been no report or request for assistance broadcast on the mariners’ emergency radio channel.
"We were notified of the situation after the fact. That’s why there wasn’t a Coast Guard appearance," Castrodad said.
In that report, a call from the Hovensa facility, the Coast Guard was told there had been an incident, that a boat had been robbed and the victim had suffered "an injured leg" and had required assistance to be taken to the hospital.
It wasn’t until two days later, Castrodad said, that the Coast Guard learned, almost accidentally, that Briffa had been shot.
The V.I. Police did contact the Coast Guard, he said, but insisted that his agency had never been involved with the boat.
"The Coast Guard never saw, touched, went aboard or had any control of the vessel," he said.
Castrodad also said that, while the attack seems to fit the literal definition of the word piracy, from a legal standpoint that’s not the proper term.
"As to our understanding, it’s not considered piracy," he said. "It was a crime, certainly, but the criminal attack took place within the territorial waters of the Virgin Islands. It wasn’t a stateless area of the high seas."
Meanwhile, Biffra’s wife Michelle flew to St. Croix, where with the help of an interpreter was sought to find the boat.
The first thing she asked the translator was how to get the boat back as they did not know where it was, but it appeared there was not a police report for the incident. In fact, she said, VIPD Marine Unit officers asked her for information about the attack.
The boat was located in Christiansted and police turned it over to her. She said the boat’s GPS system was missing, among other things. The boat has a video camera in the cockpit and it might have been on during the attack. Police had taken the system’s SIMM card, which was returned to her, but she was told no one had had the time to review the four hours of video.
She attempted to hire someone to sail the boat to Guadeloupe, but said she had to cancel the voyage because of bad weather. Instead the boat was stored in a Christiansted boat yard. Briffa and his wife have since returned to France.
In a letter to the woman who had served as her interpreter for two weeks, Michelle wrote that Briffa has had a second operation and is struggling.
"Guy suffers a lot since his second operation and is depressed, where he has always been a positive person," she wrote. "He cannot yet leave the hospital to go to the center of convalescence and rehabilitation because of his pain."
She expressed gratitude to those in the territory who had helped her and her husband through their ordeal.