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From Ch. 1 Temptation—Grand Cayman, British West Indies

Unloading cocaine packets

“Drug Alley, they call it!”

Robin sweeps his arm in a gesture of introduction towards a row of dilapidated boats resting on chocks along the west side of the desert-like expanse of Harbour House Marina, in Grand Cayman. “This is where all the drug boats are stored when they’ve been confiscated by the government.”

The midday November sun blazes down. In the shimmering heat we wander along the row of broken dreams: small sailboats, home-built boats, antique boats—all in degrees of disrepair with vestiges of yellow, plastic police tape attached. I shake my feet to loosen the gritty sand and chips of old anti-fouling paint working their way between my bare, sandaled toes and step over the old paint-rollers, brushes, sanding disks and beer cans littering the ground.

“Have all these boats been caught running drugs?”

“Yes. They’ve come from Panama en route to the USA. They come via the Cayman Islands to throw suspicion from their Panamanian roots.” Robin rolls his eyes. “What the drug runners fail to realize is that the Cayman authorities are naturally distrustful of all vessels from Panama.” 

“What happens to them?” 

“The crew is removed, tried and jailed; the cargo is disposed of and the boat is impounded.”

I don’t think Robin has driven me 8 km from town during our lunch-hour, just for an entertaining stroll in the sticky heat. I wait expectantly, head on one side and smile at him.

“A new yacht came in a while ago,” he says, casually. 

OK, now he has managed to tweak my interest. “What was it carrying?”

“Oh, 900 kilos of cocaine,” he says nonchalantly, “worth US$170 million dollars.”

From Ch. 9  (My first night alone on watch)

Nothing but water

“OK, let’s raise some sails,” says Robin as he’s already moving forward to undo the restraining clips on the mainsail. It’s good to have something positive to do. Once the mainsail and genoa are set and the autopilot is fine tuned we turn off the engine. Sailing at last! The throb of the diesel engine is replaced by the swoosh of the water passing the hull as Orca cuts a swathe through the sea.

Like a smothering blanket, night closes in rapidly after the sun disappears below the horizon. I choose to take first watch as there’s no way I’ll be able to sleep yet. Robin goes below to rest and I am left alone. He has that wonderful ability to switch off, relax and sleep.

I slowly turn 360° to scan the horizon, checking for boat traffic. Pinpricks of light from the occasional vessel approaching Panama pass by on our port side and shrink into the blackness. One by one they disappear towards the land, warmth and company that we are leaving behind. For a moment I wonder if we should turn around and follow them back. Instead, sliding my safety harness clip along the jack-line running from stern to bow, I look past the doghouse to check the shape of the sails. I need something to focus my mind on. Perhaps I should sheet in the genoa just a bit? If I can improve the shape of the sail a little, I can adjust the autopilot to steer slightly closer to our optimum direction, which could reduce our journey time.

I collect the winch handle from its slot by the lazarette seat and manipulate my harness lead to allow me access to the winch. As I try to insert the handle into the winch top I fumble, and it flies from my grasp—plop!—straight over the side.

Adrenaline courses through my system instantly up to my shoulders and down to my feet and icy fingers clutch at my stomach. In disbelief, I stupidly watch the spot where the handle disappeared willing myself back in time a few moments, so that I might be more careful. How did I allow this to happen? I can’t believe it. What will I tell Robin? We don’t have too many spare handles. I return to my watch position and scan the horizon again for signs of vessels. I shiver, it’s cold.

After three hours, Robin relieves me from my watch and I go below to the cabin to lie down in the darkness, but it is impossible to sleep.

The noise of the water rushing past the porthole right by my ear is so loud and so ‘liquid,’ sloshing and slapping at the hull. When the yacht heels over, the lower part of the porthole is actually under water.

From Ch. 12 (A battle of wills with Tau, our "cannibal")

C - 12 - 2 Taipivai Ford

We pick up our fruit and climb into the back of the truck. It’s not many seconds before Tau scrambles to his feet and lurches towards the vehicle. “I will sit in front.”

Poor driver, I think. Jim and Robin at this point are not sure who should be humoured, Tau or me, but for the moment the situation is defused.

As we chat with the driver he tells us that we’re in the ‘School Bus’ which takes the children living on the mountain to and from school every day. A delightfully swift and bumpy ride takes us down the twisting track. Tau is getting restless, like a squirming child. The bumps are playing havoc with his bladder, yet he asks if we have any beer in our backpacks.

“If we had any beer we’d have drunk it by now.” Robin tells Tau.

Tau is gesticulating wildly and telling the driver he must stop the Land Rover by a group of houses. It transpires that one of the wooden shacks sells beer. Well, after all, it’s at least 30 minutes since Tau’s last liquid refreshment. It doesn’t look promising, though, as the hut is boarded up. After relieving himself against the wall and a few other items that get in his way, Tau bangs on the door. No answer. Undaunted and driven by desire, Tau staggers off to another house, and then another; hammering on doors until he locates the hapless store owner. With bullying gestures he coerces the man to open his shack and sell Tau some beer. It is, they know, the only way to get rid of him. I resign myself to whatever fate has to offer.

In a few moments Tau is back at the rear of the Land Rover, babbling incoherently.

“Have you got money?” we eventually manage to decipher.

Oh yippee! Now he wants beer but can’t pay for it.

Tau is not leaving without the beer; the shop owner is not letting him have it on credit; the driver doesn’t want to be stuck with Tau; and we don’t want him to start fighting. Sighing, Jim, Robin and I empty out our pockets to see what we can find and subsequently a 6-pack changes hands. The driver has seen it all before.

Tau clambers back into the Land Rover and rips the pull-tab from the first can. Because I’m parched, I’m considering the possibility of taking Tau in a head lock and wrenching the beer from him.

From Ch. 14 (A scene mending a generator for an elder in Ahé)

C - 14 - 1 Shallow lagoon

Henri’s palm-thatched hut is partially obscured by multi-coloured bougainvilleas and hibiscus and the heady scent of gardenia hangs on the air.

“Ha! Ha! Bonjour! Ha! Ha!” Our portly host emerges; flicking long hair from his eyes and welcomes us into the shade of some coconut palms. He sweeps the back of a pudgy hand across his rustic garden table to clear it of wildlife and long-abandoned mechanical parts, which now lay scattered in the sand. Henri lifts the ailing ‘Robin’ generator onto the bench and gives it a perfunctory wipe with a rag.

“If you mend this,” he explains, “my father can use his fan. Now he is old, he finds it very hot.”

“I hope we don’t disappoint him,” Robin whispers to me, “it doesn’t look too promising.”

The day, however, does look promising for the Polynesians and is blossoming into quite an event. Dressed in gaily coloured pareus, Henri’s friends gather round, squatting on their haunches, sitting on boxes and leaning against palm trees to watch the spectacle. The smell of cigarette smoke shrouds the gardenia.

Ahéans are, without doubt, the most jocular people we’ve met. On this tiny island every situation is just cause for banter and they are frequently consumed with mirth.

I leap backwards in surprise when Robin removes the starter housing from the generator. A handful of crickets explode from their hiding place and shoot into the vegetation as the onlookers shriek with laughter.

“Oh boy,” says Robin, peering inside, “I guess this one hasn’t been running for a while.” He continues stripping down the machine, piece by piece.

“Could we please have something to put the bits in?”

It takes a few moments to convey the request in French, but soon some old tin cans appear. Now at least we have a fighting chance of reassembling the parts, which are currently being closely inspected and going the rounds of the admiring group. I pray they don’t drop them in the sand.

Progress is slow, but it doesn’t matter, they’re not going anywhere and this is excellent entertainment. Even in the dappled sunlight beneath the palms, it is very hot, so they've given us lots of green coconuts with their tops chopped off, so we can drink the delicious liquid. But this brings a problem. There is only one washroom. It faces the crowd, and is door-less.

From Ch. 24 (The cyclone develops and we must secure the vessel)

last picture tilt

“We’ll be OK.” Robin promises. He checks to see that my harness is fastened securely and gives me a bear-hug before dropping to his knees and crawling forward on the see-sawing deck, dragging the 25-kilo parachute assembly between his knees. I follow close behind pulling the flotation buoys we will attach to stop the parachute from sinking.

Exposed on the foredeck near the bow, we are at the mercy of the sea as we kneel to attack our self-preserving task. In all directions waves peak and break; spume flies through the air in long strings. The rain-laden wind screams in our ears making verbal communication impossible. Each time the bow bites deep into a wave we cling to each other and the safety line, holding our breath as tonnes of seawater sluices us to the extent of our tethers against the perimeter safety lines. Each time we laboriously crawl back into position to continue the painstaking assembly of the equipment.

The parachute-anchor line is stored at the bow in the chain locker accessed by a hatch in the deck. I start hauling out a few metres at a time. Robin, spread-eagled on the pitching deck, feeds the line over the bow, under the side-stay of the bow sprit and back onto the deck, ready to shackle it to the stainless steel swivel protruding from the parachute-anchor bag. Each connection has to be meticulously locked with stainless steel wire, using pliers.

Kneeling beside Robin, I clutch his harness in one hand and the jack-line in the other as we wash back and forth, knees bleeding from continually scraping across my new, anti-skid coating of the concrete deck. Hawk-like, I watch his every move. We have only one chance to get it right. With 15 metres of the line pulled out like spaghetti on the foredeck, we force the bagged parachute and its attached flotation buoys under the side stay into the sea.

Almost instantly, the bag pops off, the chute opens and Orca’s bow jerks into wind. Metre by metre I haul the rest of the line from the locker and Robin controls it by leaning back with all his weight as it runs out, snaking in a double figure-of-eight round the two 20-cm-tall metal mooring posts set in the deck. Seawater-soaked, the brand-new line stretches and a fine, acrid-tasting chemical mist emanates and blows over us.

“WHAT’S THAT?” I cry, blinking and making an ugly face as it stings my eyes, nose and throat. Robin just squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, water flying off his beard.

From Ch. 24 (admitting to ourselves it is a MAYDAY situation)

Cyclone Justin

At 3:00 p.m., once more in the womb-like security of the cabin, we no longer feel the bruises as we are flung against the interior of the vessel. We look around and take stock. The last repairs will be no match for the forces of the sea and at any time a large port light could be punched in. The barometer is still falling and reads 968 millibars as we approach the severest weather circling the cyclone’s calm eye. We are taking on water in a cement vessel. For 53 wretched hours we have been dragged unswervingly towards isolated Malay Reef. At this rate it will only be 8 more hours before we founder. We have to accept that Cyclone Justin is not moving and we possibly won’t make it.

Frowning heavily, Robin reaches for the microphone to call Townsville Radio, the closest Queensland Marine Radio station. “We should update them on our latest position and the weather conditions. If we don’t come through this they can inform the children.”

His thumb closes on the transmit button. 

“Is this a life-threatening situation?” quizzes the radio operator after he has taken our details. We no longer struggle with denial. I look at Robin and nod.

“Yes,” Robin admits, “this is a life-threatening situation.”

It is surreal. At 3:10 p.m. on 9th March we listen while Townsville Radio broadcasts our personal distress to the shipping community on VHF Channel 16.

MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. All ships, all ships, all ships, we have a MAYDAY situation. A sailing ship is breaking up at 18°09’S, 149°22’E. Any vessel in the area call with your location and intentions. All other ships keep clear of this channel until further notice. Repeat, there is a MAYDAY in progress.” 

“I’m sorry,” Robin’s voice is husky and quivers as he reaches towards me huddled on the companionway steps. 

“It’s not your fault.” I move into his arms. “We went into this together. We’ll just keep working until we can do no more—we may still get a wind change.” 

The unmistakable smell of electrical burning reaches us both at the same time.

“Oh no, the electrics!” Robin says, snapping open breakers on the electrical panel. He pulls his multimeter from a drawer and starts testing circuits. Salt water has seeped into one of the light sockets and shorted the lighting system.

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 © Maggi Ansell 2015