The unfinished wooden boat rocks gently in the backwater of Cap-Haitien Bay, lulling 17-year-old Douna Marcellus and two dozen others to sleep as tight balls of mosquitoes hover overhead. Cicadas serenade them from the reeds on one bank and, on the other, black pigs root through rubbish.

Like the others in the boat, Douna is a refugee from Port-au-Prince and the unspeakable horrors of the earthquake and its aftermath. Her parents and sister were crushed in their home, just seconds after Douna walked out the front door to run an errand for her mother. The government offered free bus tickets out of town and Douna took one.

But this city on Haiti’s northern coast is just a waystation. When builders finish the boat in a few days, it will set sail with the teenager and at least 40 others for the US. If they survive the 965-kilometre crossing, and aren’t intercepted by the US Coast Guard, they’ll soon be walking the streets of opportunity. “America is a place where everybody can become someone,” Douna says. “It’s where everyone lives like human beings.”

The earthquake, and reports of a US administration newly sympathetic to undocumented Haitians, has meant opportunity for the shady world of Cap-Haitien boat builders who promise to make the dream of life in the US come true.

After the earthquake, the Obama administration announced it was granting “temporary protected status” to the more than 100,000 undocumented Haitians estimated to be living in the US, and suspending deportation proceedings. Some politicians expressed concern that it might trigger renewed efforts by Haitians to attempt to enter the US by sea.

Dorcilien Louis, a taciturn man of 40, is the captain of Douna’s 13-metre boat. During his 15 years as a captain, Mr Louis has made a dozen journeys to the Turks and Caicos Islands with passengers hoping to find a way to the US. Mr Louis changed his itinerary after the quake, when thousands of people began arriving from Port-au-Prince looking for a way to get to the US. He said 40 passengers had signed up for the trip and he was expecting another 20 from the capital. The boat is built for 40 people, “but can hold 60,” he said.

Among Mr Louis’s passengers is Fanise Jean, 24, who has twice attempted the journey. “It’s a lot of suffering,” she said. “People throwing up on you, you can’t take a shower, there’s little food, and the boat is always shaking back and forth.’ One of her journeys lasted 14 days because the captain got lost, and three people died. Leaving her family makes her sad, “but I’m not all that sad, because I’m going to look for a better life.”