Everything I can remember about Portugal is what I could see from the boat: the hulls of freighters bleeding rust tied alongside us, to a battered old dock. The Neko II stood out from the rest. Her Angelique Teak hull, soaring masts and traditional rigging accentuated her sleek beauty. She stretched 94 feet in the water along her keel, and less than twenty feet at her widest point. A deckhouse covered much of the aft half of the boat. A small wheelhouse sat on top of that. Although the Neko II was commissioned in 1926, clambering aboard was like stepping back a hundred years.
By day, in stifling heat, we worked on an endless list of minor repairs and improvements. My crewmates were fixated on their three ex-cohorts, sailors caught smoking reefer during the transatlantic passage from New York City. The moment the Neko II docked in Lisbon, the Captain had kicked the stoners off the boat, and then caught a flight back to the States on personal business.
In his absence, we slaved under the direction of first mate Andires Piest, a tyrannical Dutchman who singled me out for abuse. He was right, of course. I couldn’t tell the difference between a spinnaker and a jib or a halyard and a mizzen sheet. I tried my best to learn, but the red-faced Dutchman’s screaming made it a slow, painful process.
Piest assigned me to a cabin with five other crewmen. We bunked in a v-shaped space at the front of the boat, on the lower deck. The beds on either side were so close only one of us could stand between them at a time. Acrid sweat stained and scented the bedding. It added to the pungent odor of stale cigarette smoke that impregnated every fiber of wood and cotton on the entire boat. The smell bothered me during the first night. After that, I was too tired to care.
One of my bunkmates, a Brit called Simon, had a way of knowing everything that had ever happened, everything that was happening, and everything that was ever going to happen aboard the Neko II.
“This crew is like a pack of mangy dogs, sniffing each other’s arses,” he said in earnest confidence. “The only arse that never gets sniffed is the runt. You don’t want to be him. He don’t get no respect from anyone, see? The Captain’s some sort of American businessman. Started a chemical company. Sold it for millions. Now he just faffs around on this bloody boat. You’ll never find him with his snout up a bum.”
The Captain finally returned on the fifth of June. We set sail a few hours later. A few hours after that he called me into his office.
He was seated behind a large cherrywood desk in a paneled room significantly larger than my sleeping quarters. He was a large powerfully-built man. His well-fed stomach preceded him. Simon told me that the Captain took great pride in being able to drink anyone under the table. I believed him.
The Captain was reading my application. My arrival didn’t divert his wide-set blue eyes. He directed me to sit with a casual wave of his right hand.
“Mr. John Griffith, welcome aboard my boat.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“It says here you graduated from college.”
“What did you study?”
“Political science. With a minor in history,” I added for no particular reason.
“What are your plans?”
“I’m not sure. There aren’t a lot of jobs for poly sci majors. I might have to go back to school. If nothing else pans out, I can teach high school.”
“You’re twenty-one years old.”
“I graduated early.”
“Looks like you were in a big hurry to go nowhere.”
The Captain looked up. I felt the weight of his full attention. My mother would have said his beefy jaw and cleft chin were heroic. I’d say he was a man who was used to getting what he wanted, one way or another.
“I have a bit of a problem. A few of the crew departed unexpectedly when we arrived in port. We’re short handed. One of the men who left was my chief quartermaster. That’s your job, now.”
He paused without averting his gaze. The look in his eye told me that the matter was settled. Not even a day out of port and I’d been promoted.
“Familiarize yourself with our pantry and supply hold. Study the requisition log to figure out what you need to do. The cook and Piest will help. As one of my officers, I expect you to conduct yourself with the highest degree of character. Do you understand?”
The Captain opened a lacquered box filled with cigarettes. We both took one and he ignited them with a lighter carved like a pineapple that sat like a paperweight on his desk. It was the first cigarette I had smoked in a month. It was horrendous.
“Turkish,” he declared. The Captain’s cigarette was wedged absentmindedly near the base knuckles of his index and middle finger. It looked like a twig in his thick hands.
I forced myself to smile and nod.
“From now on you’ll be bunking in Cabin Four.”
Without any further ceremony, the captain stood. He led me out of his office and below deck to the cabin at the base of the stairs on the right.
Cabin four had a single bunk against the outer bulkhead and a small desk and filing cabinet. The room had its own hanging locker and private head.
“Close the door and lock it behind you,” the Captain commanded. “Do this every time you come in or leave.”
When I had done so, he lifted mattress off the bed frame. The Captain removed a Philips head screwdriver from a desk drawer and unscrewed four brass screws that held the plywood panel underneath the mattress. Using a putty knife from the same drawer, he pried the plywood panel upwards.
“What I’m about to show you . . . don’t say a word to about this to anyone. Only Piest, me and now you know about this.”
My mind raced. What had I got myself into? Drugs? A strange cargo for a man who’d just kicked dope smokers off his boat. Or was it?
The plywood was on a hidden hinge. The Captain angled it upward and propped it open to reveal a hidden compartment. Inside lay a half a dozen long guns wrapped in oily cloths, three revolvers and several boxes of ammunition.
“We look like giant treasure chests floating past some of these miserable countries,” the Captain announced, stepping back slightly to admire his cache. “Sometimes they’ll kill the passengers and crew, ransack the boat and then sink it. Other times, they’ll ransom the vessel, cargo, or people.”
The Captain checked my expression. He lifted a pump-action shotgun from the hidden gun locker under my bed. I could see him resisting the urge to rack it.
“Guns aboard private yachts are a real hassle. Paperwork. Harbor masters. They’ll confiscate the weapons given half a chance. You’ll never see them again. Do you know how to use a gun?”
“I’ve shot them before.”
“I don’t expect you to be John Wayne. But if I give the order, get the guns and divide them among the crew. In the mean time, they’re your responsibility. There’s oil and a tube of metal polish in there.”
With that, the Captain left, rightly assuming I’d restore the camouflage covering the stash. But the lid didn’t remain in place for long.
That evening, I locked my door, opened the weapons locker and inspected its contents.
None of the guns were new. Some were in poor condition. There were two M1 Garand rifles that probably hailed back to World War II, along with a .45 automatic pistol of a similar vintage. Although the Remington 870 pump-action shotgun was the most modern piece, its stock told me it’d been knocked round a bit. Other than that, there was an ancient double-barreled shotgun with one functioning hammer, a bolt action Remington, a Winchester .30-30, and a pair of .38 Special Smith & Wesson revolvers.
Most of the ammunition was stained, but intact. Some of it was so badly corroded I expected it to crumble in my hands.
It was the kind of arsenal you’d expect the poor, desperate pirates to use, not ships defending against them. The fact that the Captain kept the guns sequestered from the crew, who probably wouldn’t know which end to point at their attackers, was worrying. The fact that he’d left it to me to figure out who got what was worse.
Who would command this motley crew in an emergency? Not me. Years of hunting and plinking at plastic jugs hardly made me a combat leader. Even though I’d been elevated in the Captain’s eyes, the rest of the men knew nothing about me. Except that I was the new guy. The runt of the litter. Who now had a better cabin than they did.
If it came down to us vs, them, they’d probably see me as more “them” than “us.”
Meanwhile, cleaning fluids? Bore snake? Brushes? Repair kit? Extra parts? My respect for the boat’s guardians, and my faith in its safe passage, took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse.
Still, as I did my best to doctor the weapons into something approaching health, the first night out of Lisbon was magical. We rode a cool and steady wind out of the northwest that filled our white canvass sails against the starlit night sky. Neko II was as fast as she looked. The moving air sweeping into my new digs was a cleansing baptism, salvation from hell. Or so I thought.