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Couple Describe How a Sailing Venture Became Nicaraguan Nightmare

February 17, 1986|BOB SIPCHEN

"We try not to harbor any grudge against the Nicaraguan government," Leo LaJeunesse said in introducing the slide show he and his wife, Dolores, presented at Orange Coast College on Friday night.

Dolores LaJeunesse, however, was less magnanimous.

"Actually, we'd like to nuke Nicaragua," she said, eliciting considerable applause from the 630 sailors and yachting enthusiasts who had sloshed in from a downpour to see this third presentation in the college's popular "Sailing Adventure Series."

Titled "Nicaraguan Nightmare," the LaJeunesses' slide show focused on the widely reported events of last August, when the Costa Mesa couple were intercepted by Nicaraguan military officers and "very hostile" immigration authorities and detained for 18 1/2 days.

Until 12 days immediately preceding that run-in with the Sandinistas, the trip had been fairly peaceful, said the LaJeunesses, both of whom are 53. In fact, for the first part of their presentation, which covered the couple's voyage from Newport Harbor, through the Panama Canal and up to Florida, the couple showed the sort of pacific slides that grace the covers of sailing magazines--shots of palm trees at sunset, islands at sunset, exotic ports at sunset, and shots of little birds perched on the boat's gunwales.

After spending three years in Florida, though, the LaJeunesses had decided to retrace their route back to Southern California, where Leo had been an assistant dean at Orange Coast College. The return trip was less idyllic.

The couples' fortunes first began to change, they said, when they sold the 35-foot sailboat that had carried them from California.

Ketch With a Colorful Past

Feeling that they needed a roomier vessel for the return trip, the couple bought the "Wahine," a 20-year-old, 45-foot, 25-ton, steel-hulled, "ice-rated" ketch with a 54-foot main mast, 12-foot bowsprit, nine sails, aft cabin, center cockpit, a galley, a salon, a forward berth and a colorful past.

"She had been used for drug running, we were told. . . . She'd been in the service of the Canadian government, and she'd been sailed around the world two times," Leo LaJeunesse said.

"She was a decrepit-looking wreck," Dolores LaJeunesse said as slides of the boat flashed on the screen.

The LaJeunesses went to work, scraping off seven coats of paint, patching the hull and repainting "Wahine" a light gray with black trim. By July of last year, they were ready to sail west. "One of the great times in life is when your boat's all ready and you're in the water again," Leo LaJeunesse said.

But in retrospect, in one sequence of slides--the kind of loving

portraits only a devoted boater would think to take--the LaJeunesses now see the source of much of their hardship, Leo LaJeunesse said. Those slides are of the big, blue, "brand spanking new" Ford Lehman diesel engine the couple lowered into the Wahine's engine room before the return cruise.

Immediately after the LaJeunesses set sail, they ran into "the most miserable weather we'd seen in 10,000 miles of sailing," Leo LaJeunesse continued. The howling wind shredded their Dacron sails one by one until the Wahine was flying only a storm jib, a mizzen and a reef main--which are not sufficient to sail a boat of that size, he said. Hoping to power around an approaching squall, he fired up the engine. But it registered no oil pressure and couldn't be used.

Two days later, assured by reports from boaters on their eastward cruise that the area was hospitable, the LaJeunesses sailed the Wahine into an uninhabited cove on Big Corn Island, about 50 miles off the coast of mainland Nicaragua, where they hoped to spend a few days repairing sails and puttering with the faulty engine.

Then, "out of nowhere a little ponga came along, with what we thought were a couple of lobster fishermen aboard," Dolores LaJeunesse said, picking up the tale. The ponga towed the Wahine into the bay and passed the tow line to a bigger shrimp boat, which carried four armed guards, "three of them with automatic rifles, and one with a rocket launcher," she said.

Another fishing boat with an immigration officer and two armed guards came alongside. The men boarded and for the next three hours searched the Wahine. Among the items they confiscated were Leo's boyhood .22-caliber rifle and a shotgun--"an accepted boat gun," Dolores said.

In part because of those weapons, however, the LaJeunesses spent the next 18 1/2 days entangled in an increasingly frightening bureaucratic knot, they said.

Taken to Mainland

The only time in that period that the LaJeunesses felt anything but powerless, they added, came three days into the ordeal. Against the couple's will, Nicaraguan Marines attached a 300-foot towline and pulled the Wahine to the mainland port of El Bluff, 53 miles away. Midway there, though, all three of the armed guards aboard the boat became violently seasick, Leo LaJeunesse said. "At one point we even had their guns. . . . We thought about throwing (the guards) overboard."

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