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.
White dust began to form on all of our equipment. Salt encrusted the bowsprit safety netting from the concentrated saline spray. I could taste salt on my lips. Unseen airborne crystals sprinkled my face. Some of the oil wells had giant torches burning off excess gas. Fire and brimstone.
We learned of the Egypt and Israeli ceasefire on the third morning after we sailed from Suez. In six days, Israel tripled her territory and humiliated her Arab neighbors. They hadn’t bombed Port Tawfiq or cross the canal to take Suez. Our deadly flight from our Egyptian captors was for naught.
Why were we so certain that escape was our only option? I had seen the Egyptian officer leave the guardhouse just before I entered. How did it not occur to me that he might remain in the vicinity and hear our boat engines?
We hoisted buckets of water from the sea to pour over the deck where he died. In the light of day we could still see a faint stain, so we scrubbed. The wood fibers had absorbed the blood; they were immune to soap and water and brushes. The Captain ordered us to sand the deck with blocks of wood and silica fume for grit. Eventually, all you could see was a faint indelible shadow the once grisly scene.
Could I have run and tackled the Egyptian officer from behind before he realized that I was not one of his guards? I recalled every moment after I’d exited the guardhouse at the foot of the dock until I felt the revolver in my hand kick and saw blood, black as oil, gushing out of the Egyptian officer’s neck.
The thought had not occurred to me when I saw Piest kneeling with a gun pointed execution style at his head. Perhaps that action would have gotten Piest killed. Who knows?
Our diesel tanks ran dangerously low. We headed straight for Sharm el-Sheikh, the town on the southernmost tip of Sinai. The port was now in the hands of the Israelis. The Captain had planned to steer clear of the place. But now we didn’t dare risk entering an Egyptian-controlled port along the Red Sea Riviera.
An Israeli destroyer decided we were no threat without boarding us. In fact, the IDF paid us little attention. We spent less than five hours at Sharm el-Sheikh, long enough to top off our fuel tanks and provision for our passage down the length of the Red Sea.
Once underway, we didn’t stop again until we reached Djibouti in Côte française des Somalis. The tiny country near the confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is home to desert rocks, spiny xeric grasses, wild asses and the famed 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion.
For one long week in June 1967, Djibouti was also home to a boatload of young sailors looking to assuage their post-traumatic stress in saloons and brothels with women murmuring in French patois.
I replaced our depleted supply of Ouzo and Greek lager with cases of French wine and oak casks of sweet Guadeloupe rum. Long after we left port, Sven kept us swimming in grog he called Nitrous Bumboo.
The Captain made an inquiry at the U.S. consulate to Côte française des Somalis about Annie Cobb. A Deputy Consuls-General assured us that he would contact the National Geographic Society and other embassies in the regions, but we received no reply before we again set sail.
One night, on the Gulf of Aden, I dreamt of her standing on the main deck in silver moonlight. She leaned into me and I kissed her. She smelled of cinnamon. Her embrace felt like home. Without warning, she wrenched herself from my arms and began yelling at me with the vitriol she had unleashed on Piest at Port Sa’id.
“You killed an innocent man,” she accused.
“Innocent? He ordered Ibrahim’s execution. Probably.”
“How do you know Ibrahim isn’t at home with his wives and children?”
I noticed that she was standing on the deck where the Egyptian officer had died. The stain shone dark.
“Bert and Ernie said so.”
“Bert and Ernie never said anything that you could understand. They were probably just trying to scare you into not attempting an escape. Did you actually witness an execution? See a body? Hear a gunshot? Everyone on this boat let their fear and imagination get the best of them!”
“Ibrahim is dead.”
“If you had stayed put, the Egyptians would have set you free by now.”
Blood seemed to be welling up from within the planks. It wet her feet.
“We would have all died. There was no stopping the Israelis. The Egyptians were in full retreat. We saw the dead and wounded. Israel’s air force controlled the skies. Neko II would have been blown into a million toothpicks and the bloated bodies of her dead floating in the harbor.”
“But none of that happened. Did you expect that tiny Israel would overrun all of Egypt? Don’t be absurd.”
“I had to kill him or he would have killed Piest.”
“You put him in that situation. If you had stayed on the boat, none of this would have happened.”
“We didn’t know. We didn’t know…”
I looked down and I saw the hawk-nosed officer lying on the deck in front of her, blood spewing from the wound in his neck. His close-set eyes opened, filled with rage. He cursed me in Arabic.
“I loved you,” Annie said; her eyes hooded with pain.
I lurched awake, my head throbbing. I was in my clothes on the floor beside my bed. An empty bottle of rum rolled across the floor toward me with the rocking motion of the boat. The world through my porthole was veiled with black velvet.
I struggled to my knees. I reached into my desk drawer to remove the screwdriver and putty knife. On the night of the shooting, I’d hastily stowed the gun. I hadn’t opened the concealed locker since. I did so now and removed the revolver.
I regarded the weapon as though I’d never seen it before. The weld that bonded the makeshift suppressor to the barrel looked like it had been squeezed from a tube of toothpaste.
I pushed the lever with my thumb and the cylinder swung open; I counted the six brass circles, one with a dimple stamped into the primer. I pried out the case of the spent cartridge and held it between my thumb and finger before my eyes in the dim light. I replaced the gun in the locker without reloading it and screwed the panel closed. I climbed onto my bunk and fell asleep with the brass case in the palm of my hand.
I awoke to the sound of great commotion. It was light and I heard a crewman yelling the same word repeatedly.
The Neko II was pitching on choppy seas. My breathing quickened as I looked through my porthole. a Johnny boat with a dozen men aboard lay about seventy-five yards off our starboard stern. One near the bow held a rifle.
“Griffith!” the Captain bellowed from the wheelhouse. “Bring me my shotgun.”