While preparing to write my fictional account of the voyage of the Neko II around Africa, which Mr. Farago has been good enough to publish in serial on this site, I spent countless hours researching and reading the accounts of people fortunate enough to sail the globe in private yachts. One of the blogs I stumbled across and drew inspiration from was that of Scott and Jean Adam and their Davidson 58 pilot house sloop, s/v Quest. One of my story’s plot points involved a brush with Somali pirates. No metaphor about art, life, imitation, or the strangeness of fiction is adequate to describe the tragedy that befell this couple and their death at the hands of real Somali pirates.
I was on my stomach with my hands and feet hogtied behind my back. The supply locker in which I was imprisoned was just narrower than I was tall from my knees to the top of my head. The pirates had shoved me in so that my head was lower than the rest of my body. Although my head was still covered by my pillowcase and a sock crammed into my mouth, my face was pressed so closely against a wetsuit that I could smell and taste the rubber. I wiggled and tried to crawl with my shoulders to reposition enough to gain a measure of comfort. The equatorial heat closed in on me in the airless compartment and my breathing became labored. Sweat soon lubricated the neoprene and my body slipped back into the original torturous position.
There are numerous ways to communicate from one vessel to another when at sea: maritime radio, lights flashing Morse code, semaphore flags, flaghoist signals, and gale pennants and hurricane flags. But when facing down a Johnny boat full of pirates motoring through light chop toward our stern, the Captain improvised his own communication. He snatched the shotgun from my hands and held it over his head like a victorious minuteman. After the pirates got a good look, he grabbed the weapon by the forearm, again with one hand, and pumped a round into the chamber with a flick of his arm. Without aiming, he discharged a single shell from his hip over their heads.
After 36 hours of favorable winds, our sails fell slack in light airs. We were forced to motor through windless, putrid heat. The Gulf of Suez is narrow. A busy shipping channel dominates the 180-mile waterway running through its center. Even in this time of war this maritime highway was jammed with traffic — massive fast-moving container and tanker ships that would slice Neko II in half like PT-109 if she got in their way. Lacking the speed and agility of Jack Kennedy’s boat, we hugged the arid Sinai shoreline to avoid the Egyptian mainland, dodging oil wells and pipelines submerged, some only feet or inches below the surface.
Ernie whisked me into the guardhouse at the foot of the dock. He checked behind me to make sure that I hadn’t been seen. As soon as he closed the door, I pulled a bottle of Plomari Ouzo from my bag and handed it to Bert. Ernie did a little happy dance and Bert cupped the bottle solemnly in his hands and raised it heavenward, as if presenting a newborn child to Allah for a blessing. Light from a bare overhead light bulb diffracted brilliantly through the clear liquid. His crooked, stained teeth worked the cork out of the bottle. He spat it into a corner. I handed Ernie a second bottle, holding two in reserve in my rucksack. And then I sat down to eat with the two men that I had been sent to kill.
The walk from Neko II’s gangplank to the guardhouse at the foot of the dock was laborious. Little ridges of black tar bubbled out of the dock’s creosote-impregnated timbers. Each step across the dock made a scandalous ripping noise. My gaze darted frenetically down the dock, to the window, the door, to the warehouses beyond. The oily smell of the dock, the aroma of the slow-roasted meats in my backpack, and the approaching stench of humanity emanating from the old dock house overwhelmed my senses. This would be the night we made our escape. Hidden behind a panel sewn in to the bottom of the bag was the gun I’d use to set our boat free. Yet I felt like I was marching to my own execution.
More than twenty-four hours after the bombing of the airfield north of Suez, it was apparent that our two captors had been abandoned at their post. They seldom ventured beyond the threshold of the dock house at the foot of the pier. One was taller and thin and had a tuft of black hair sprouting form the middle of his receding hairline. The other was compact and wide. Their heads frequently appeared like hand puppets in the small rectangle window that overlooked the pier. I began to call them Bert and Ernie. The rest of the Neko II crew immediately picked up on the nicknames.
I couldn’t imagine what Annie was doing or where she was going. She didn’t speak more than a few words of Arabic and didn’t have any Egyptian pounds. I suppose she might start by seeking to hire a translator from a British or American consulate, a western news bureau, or a hotel. From there, what? Catch a boat or train back to Port Sa’id? And then try to cross Sinai to Gaza? Whatever her plans, she was either the bravest or most foolhardy person I had ever met.
By the time Ibrahim and I caught up with Neko II, she was already into the canal cutting that connects Lake Timsah to the Bitter Lakes. The Captain was glad to see us. I returned my passport and headed straight to my bunk. I didn’t even hear the diesel engine pounding away on the other side of the wall when my head hit the pillow. The last thought I had before dropping into unconsciousness was of Annie.
By mid-morning we came upon Ismaïlia, located where the canal opens into Lake Timsah, which is about half way through the Suez Canal system. The heat of the day was already upon us and a brown cloud from a hundred thousand cooking fires hung over the crowded desert city. Fishermen cast and hauled in nets from boats with square sails swarming the lake, as their fathers had done since before the Pharaohs. A ferry, low in the water, crossed in front of Neko II, laden with soldiers in tan uniforms destine for an encampment on the east shore.
It was dusk when we docked at the bustling Port Sa’id. None of the crew were permitted leave to go ashore. We topped off our diesel fuel tanks; we would be motoring through rather than traveling under sail. The Captain contracted a potbellied Egyptian canal pilot named Ibrahim to take us to port Tawfiq at the canal’s terminus. The man had a long narrow face with missing molars. He looked distinctly equine. His job was not to keep us from running aground – the canal is easily navigable. The fast-talking native was aboard for one reason: to facilitate our passage past every small town Sheikh with a couple Mausers and rowboat demanding “jizya” and every port authority, police, and military official with his palm out expecting gifts and cash. The Captain would still have to spread the wealth to these tin-pot extortionists to complete passage, but Ibrahim would hasten negotiations and minimize the ransom required.
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.
I learned to be a sailor, cruising the azul Atlantic waters down the coast of Portugal and crossing the Mediterranean. My Quartermaster title did not absolve me of any crew duties. First Mate Piest made certain of that. There were twelve of us at his command. He rotated us through every duty station in eight-hour shifts. Myself excepted, the crew worked with the fluidity, timing, and toughness of the Green Bay Packers on Lambeau Field. But day by day, I learned the play book and the coach spent less time chewing me out.
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.
When I think of home in 1967, I remember everything in the muted colors of my mother’s faded Polaroid snapshots. I can still smell burned thermite from the flashbulbs on her Land Camera and hear her tearing the image away from the film back. I was only home ten days after I graduated from college before shipping out. I think she feared that she would never see me, her only child, ever again. She cried and hugged me, told me to take care of myself and then took another Polaroid.