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.
Without deliberation, the pirates veered away. After the Johnny boat was out of sight the Captain retired to the wheelhouse, keeping the shotgun. I followed.
“Those guys were amateurs,” he said. “No raider worth half his salt would attempt to take a boat in daylight. But we are sailing dangerous waters. The real pros hit at night and they come in quiet. I’m going to double the nighttime watch and I want to keep the shotgun with me in the wheelhouse until we approach port.”
The following morning we changed course and sailed north toward Aden, Yemen, to rendezvous with two French sailboats. The Captain had contacted the other boat’s skippers by radio. They were returning to the Mediterranean from Sri Lanka. When war broke and the Egyptians closed the Suez Canal, the French boats took harbor in Aden. It was clear that the Egyptians would not lift their blockade any time soon. Fourteen merchant ships, all sailing under European or American flags, caught in the Bitter Lakes section of the canal when Israeli bombs began falling, were indefinitely trapped. News reports dubbed them the Yellow Fleet. The French skippers were left with no option but to return home by sailing all the way around Africa.
Due to the piracy risk, it was safer for us to convoy with the French boats than to sail on alone, even if it meant sailing a couple days out of our way to join up with them. Light wind also meant that the detour cost us precious diesel fuel.
Sans Frontieres was the larger of the two boats, and was just longer than half Neko II. Both were modern sloops and both were owned by François Jolliet, a wealthy French industrialist and confidant to Alain Poher, the sitting President of the French Senate.
M. Jolliet, his wife and two young children lived aboard the yacht along with a crew of two muscular crew-cut young men who doubled as personal security. Fifty-something year old Jolliet’s fury about having to sail around Africa was no secret, as he raged about his boat in his short white shorts, loudly cursing Israel. Imperious forty-something Mme Jolliet effortlessly avoided her husband’s indignation and spent most of her time schooling and caring for the children.
Also aboard Sans Frontieres was a tall fawn-haired twenty-something woman who looked like a movie star. She was Jolliet’s mistress and held Neko II’s crew at rapt attention from precisely 10:45 to 11:30 each morning when she sunbathed on the foredeck. Despite the inherent resentment we would assume one would hold toward her husband’s lover, Mme Jolliet treated the young woman as one of the family, even sometimes scolding her like one of her own children. But mostly the two women lounged about their boat and chatted like sisters.
Fleur de la Mer, the smaller boat, was occupied by two couples that were friends of M. Jolliet’s. Neither couple was married.
The French became an endless source of discussion on Neko II among our primarily American crew. Some were shocked to see what we considered hippie values of sexuality embraced so casually into the French convention of everyday life. To me, however, M. Jolliet had more in common with a bigamist than a free-love, anti-war, counter-culture revolutionary.
Our little three-boat convoy made its way without incident around the great Horn of Africa and down along the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia. A broken steering linkage aboard Fleur de la Mer forced M. Jolliet into Mogadishu for repairs. We separated from our French companions because we were in danger of missing the date of having Neko II hauled out for hull maintenance in the Mombasa shipyard.
As we sailed past southern Somalia, the Captain called me to the wheelhouse.
“Tomorrow we cross the equator and we are still in hostile waters and at risk for pirate attacks.”
Worry plowed across his forehead. “I know it sounds silly, but I am a superstitious man. I have a bad feeling about what we might be in for over the next couple of days. So I want you to bring me all of the guns to my cabin tonight. Twenty-one hundred hours. Everything in the gun locker. Guns, ammo. Everything. Got it?”
He paused like he had more to say. Then he dismissed me with a nod.
I wondered what was troubling him. It had been more than a day since we passed Baraawe, Somalia, the last settlement of any size. Is it possible that we were being followed?
I spent more time than usual that evening at the rail scanning the horizon. I was nervous about giving up all of the guns, but I knew that the Captain would certainly notice if any were missing.
At twenty-one hundred hours I knocked on the Captain cabin’s hatch. Piest, Dix and four other veteran crewmen were there. Each looked as somber as the Captain. It was the first time I had been in the room. It was the largest room on the boat, about four times larger than my own cabin, and had a neatly made queen-sized bed, upon which I laid each of the weapons. I was curtly thanked and excused.
I concluded that I was not to be a part of whatever defensive planning the Captain was devising. After the events at port Tawfiq, I would think that I had proven myself capable of handling whatever situation in which we might find ourselves. Maybe the Captain disagreed with what I had done that night. I hadn’t told anyone that my sleep was fitful and my dreams morbid; that every morning was blissful until the memory of that night yanked me back to reality with a startle. Maybe he perceived I had lost my nerve.
Simon had the watch in the wheelhouse and another crewman manned the foredeck. Simon and I spoke of England and America, and of beautiful French mistresses. Anything but war or pirates, or blood and death. Sven brought up his specialty concoction of overproof rum and water sweetened with sugar and nutmeg that he called Nitrous Bumboo. We spoke until I could no longer keep my eyes open and then I made my way down stairs and collapsed onto my bunk.
It was the darkest part of the night, before dawn light turns the eastern sky from black to purple, that three pairs of strong hands seized me in my bed. I kicked and struggled. One briefly lost hold of my sweaty left arm and I lashed out, just grazing an assailant’s faces, before they regained control and hog tied my hands and feet behind my back. My own socks were stuffed into my mouth and my pillow case pulled over my head, and I was lifted and hauled into a supply locker beside the engine room.
A few minutes later I heard a scuffle in the passageway. One after another, my fellow crewmen were abducted and hauled up to the main deck.
How had pirates gotten past the Captain’s armed guard? Had they been killed? What were the pirates after? Ransom? My family didn’t have any money. Not that kind of money.
As I lay absolute darkness, sweating and struggling for air in the stifling hot locker, it occurred to me that the assailant I had hit had long straight hair like a white man, not like the African pirates we feared.