A few short weeks before we sailed into Egyptian waters, President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the United Nations out of the country. His army reclaimed control of the Suez Canal. But there was more going on than a pissing contest between the Arab leader and the blue helmets of the latter-day debating society. Egypt’s hatred of Israel was red-hot and ready to boil over. If the Captain had any reservations, he didn’t show it. Not running through the canal was not an option – there is no other way – we either had to go through it or go home.
When we came into view of Port Sa’id, we caught sight of an Egyptian patrol boat racing toward us. The Captain warily stepped out of the wheelhouse onto the upper deck and ordered us to douse the sails. I was in the rigging helping with the furling when the speeding naval vessel abruptly stopped alongside us. It pushed a large wake that pounded the hull and caused the sailboat to pitch upward. I stumbled and grasped for the rail.
An Egyptian gunner quickly removed the canvass cover and barrel plug of a large machine gun mounted on the PT boat’s fore deck. He wheeled it around and pointed it at us. Three other Egyptians on the boat were armed with Soviet-made Kalashnikovs.
Annie emerged from the salon and taking photos of the Egyptian naval boat. The Egyptians were clearly unhappy. She kept clicking away. The Captain gave her a sharp warning look. Annie ignored him and moved towards the bow.
The senior officer of the PT boat yelled something in Arabic that none of us understood. Then in broken English he said, “You are entering the territorial waters of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Turn around immediately or submit to search.”
The Captain smiled and opened his arms welcomingly. “We are headed to your beautiful canal, so come aboard.”
The pilot of the PT boat repositioned the craft so the bow nearly touched Neko II’s stern, allowing three of the Egyptians to jump onto our deck. Throughout the maneuver, the bow gunner kept his weapon trained on our Captain.
The Egyptian skipper joined our Captain on the upper deck and spoke something to him that I could not hear, although it must have been about Annie and her cameras. The Captain nodded and Piest went directly to her on the foredeck. He said something to her and she vehemently rejected it. I still could not hear what they were saying. He said something else with greater emphasis and she ignored him.
She lifted her camera to her eye and stepped around him, but Piest grabbed her by her wrist and the camera fell against its strap. She tried to pull out of his grasp but he was unmoved. Expletives exploded from her mouth like fragments from a grenade. This I could clearly hear and understand, as could everyone aboard both vessels, whether they spoke English or not.
Without letting go, Piest appealed to her again. His face reddened but his words were calm. This time she threw her entire body away from him in an attempt to break his grasp. It didn’t work. He hung on and in a swift fluid motion backhanded her with a savage blow. She fell to her knees but immediately stood up and stared defiantly at Piest. Her cheek was red and beginning to swell, but not a single tear lined it.
Satisfied she would not pose any further problem, Piest let her go and returned to the Captain. The Egyptian skipper seemed amused by the event. He joined the Captain into the wheelhouse to review Neko II’s logs, registration paperwork, and passports of everyone on board.
The other two Egyptian sailors disappeared below deck and I began to sweat. What if they find the stash of guns under my bunk? Would I end up in an Egyptian prison? Would I suffer the same fate as T.E. Lawrence at the hands of his Ottoman captors?
When I finished with the sails, I climbed down. I gathered with the rest of the crew sequestered in the center of the main deck. We were uneasy under the watchful eye of the PT boat’s machine gunner. We could hear the Egyptians knocking around in the cabins beneath us.
Annie stood apart from the rest of us. She returned my glance with an expression of restrained rage. She stood with shoulders squared like Mohammed Ali waiting for the bell to start the next round.
The search was thorough. We began to feel the heat under the midday sun. One of the crew sat down and the rest of us followed. I found partial shade from a mast and tried to fit my body into it. Only Annie remained standing. How long had the Egyptians been below deck? Ten? Fifteen minutes? Have they found something? The search continued. My hands were shaking. I longed for a cigarette, even one of the Captain’s awful Turkish smokes. We waited wordlessly and baked.
After forty-five minutes, two Egyptians emerged from below deck and headed straight for the wheelhouse. A river of sweat poured down the center of my back. Ten tense minutes passed before I heard laughter from the little room. A moment later the Captain, Piest, and the three Egyptians emerged, their skipper enthusiastically puffing on a thick cigar. He and the Captain patted each other on the back like old schoolmates. Apparently the Captain had brokered an “understanding” with the official.
Within minutes, the Egyptians were on their boat and roared away. The Neko II crew resumed their duties and set sail for the port. Annie powered her way past Piest into the wheelhouse and delivered an epic tongue-lashing. The Captain allowed her to vent. When she finally ran out of venom, he calmly explained that her cameras and film would all now be at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and she would be in an Egyptian Navy brig if Piest had not stopped her.
Meanwhile, I went below deck to inspect my cabin. The door was wide open and everything was on the floor. The desk drawers had all been opened and dumped out including the screwdriver and putty knife I use to access the hidden gun locker. My clothes had been pulled out of my hanging locker and the file cabinet had been recklessly emptied of every shred of paperwork. Even the mattress had been flipped. But the secret stash of guns remained hidden.
I was weak-kneed with relief and my skin chilled. I collapsed on my upturned mattress and lit a cigarette. After a few minutes, Annie stormed down the stairs and glowered contemptuously at me while slamming her cabin door shut. I think she might have called me a name, but I can’t remember. And I didn’t care. The weight of the world had just been lifted off my shoulders. For a while.