Pirate Coast: Dead Or Alive? How About Both.

Posted on: November 11, 2009
1 comment so far

By Heidi Hirner

 
 

With the kind of money the company pays, they can pick and choose their delivery men.
 
 
And they picked me because I’m the best captain they know of – there isn’t anyone able to match my skills in navigation, and you’d need skills of my order to safely navigate these routes less traveled.
 
 
And the other reason is because I’m so fast. The fastest. That’s why they’ve given me that strange nickname. They know I can get this ship and my crew to fly.
 
 

 
PIRATE COAST
 
 
When they boarded, it was sudden, I’ll grant them that. Sudden and silent; those Somalis are clearly very practiced in their pirate ways.
 
 

It was Birdman who first saw their craft.
 
 
When he raised the cry, the hair on the back of my neck bristled because this is a dangerous latitude.
 
 
Not only is the sea around Africa treacherous – the Cape of Storms is notorious – but its coasts grow steadily more dangerous. In some areas, the chaos that plagues Africa has ensured that the only remaining economic activity is piracy.
 
 
Because we rely on the wind to press our sails, we’re vulnerable to the swift and agile craft of the pirates. We’re immune to attack from the more organized pirates – the gangs who plan their ambushes using route and cargo information bought from corrupt harbour officials – for the simple fact that we hardly ever go into harbour. But my vessel is not immune to the more opportunistic attacks from the impoverished and hungry African people who’ll attack any ship moving along their coast if it’s in visual distance.
 
 
My name is Barend, by the way – Barend Fokke. I’m the man with the unenviable task of captaining this worm-infested vessel from Rotterdam to Jayakarta, along the pirate-infested African coast. I’m an entrepreneur, a self-employed delivery man – I deliver cargos on behalf of a company that pays me a bonus if I deliver my cargos quickly; I get another bonus if I avoid the unnecessary paperwork and expense associated with harbours and corrupt custom officials. And, of course, if I avoid the African pirates, I’m rewarded with keeping my life.
 
 
With the kind of money the company pays, they can pick and choose their delivery men. And they picked me because I’m the best captain they know of – there isn’t anyone able to match my skills in navigation, and you’d need skills of my order to safely navigate these routes less traveled.
 
 
And the other reason is because I’m so fast. The fastest. That’s why they’ve given me that strange nickname. They know I can get this ship and my crew to fly. Of course the company knows this, they’ve certainly heard of my reputation for delivering two cargos to everyone else’s one. Provided that I can keep my crew and vessel safe.
 
 
Although I plot a course several miles from the African coast, occasionally we hear the ping of bullets hitting our vessel and a sound that Ximénez swears is a Rocket-launcher. I’m not sure that I believe him. We found Ximénez clinging to the remaining flotsam of his sunken boat. He’d been in the water two days before we pulled him from the water, and I know enough about men and the sea to know that what he endured during those two days floating amid shark fins has probably made his judgment less than reliable.
 
 
The thing about the ocean is that there’s no cavalry out here. If you get into trouble, you’re on your own. Lately the pirates have been ignoring the cargo and going for ransom, usually kidnapping the captain and chief engineer – killing them if no ransom is forthcoming. I doubt that the company would ever pay a ransom for me. So we remain watchful as we travel along the African coast, ever watchful.
 
 
Sometimes watchfulness can become paranoia, though, I’m sure you know that. Any crew is vulnerable to the stress of being confined into claustrophobic quarters. There is no escape until we put to land, which is not often. The men keep themselves amused by rehearsing the plays of Lope de Vega, but even these complicated performances are not enough to protect one’s mind from the sea’s erosion, the infinite horizon.
 
 
Even though it is Birdman who has raised the alarm – and I trust Birdman – it would not be the first time that the watchman has imagined seeing another vessel. Particularly in this kind of weather. The fog is so thick it seems as if we are sailing in the air, through clouds. Light is bending through the vapour, mirroring and refracting, creating false images. The water is so calm that any movement, any wavelet or swirl, is rippling and reflecting shadows across the surface and down into the depths, so that the ocean seems at once to be both calm and crawling.
 
 
It is an atmosphere ripe for mirage.
 
 
In fact yesterday, in the night-watch Ximénez saw – or imagined he saw – through the fog, a vessel bearing down on us as though she would run us down; his hysteria infected the rest of the crew, panicking them until they were all squealing like pigs, all screaming that they could see her – or glimpses of her as the fog waxed and waned. The sightings were so ephemeral that one of the men shrieked that it must be a ghost ship.
 
 
A ghost ship.
 
 
Of course, the moment he came up with that idea, the fog cleared and the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Since then, I can’t trust my crew. Their minds are too obviously playing tricks on them, they are too easily infected with the irrational in this foggy atmosphere, their minds are clouded with superstition. They are drawn to false lights like moths.
 
 
I’m not angry with them. Frankly, it’s only natural that men that have been at sea for as long as we have should become a little … imaginative.
 
 
When this fog first overtook us – when it was not as deep and thick as it is now, when it was still a blue air, light and pleasant – Fournier claimed he could see an image of Christ in the clouds, holding out his hands to us.
 
 
I ignored the idiot. With Fournier, you never know if he is joking or has some other strange agenda.
 
 
But when the fog deepened and thickened until Ximénez reached the point that he managed to panic the whole crew with his ‘ghost ship’ sighting, I called Ximénez in from the watch and stationed Birdman in his place.
 
 
Because I can trust Birdman.
 
 
I can trust Birdman because he’s been with me from the beginning. And because I have no replacement for him, Birdman’s been standing his watch for 18 hours.
 
 
And now Birdman has raised the cry.
 
 
I had been in my cabin, playing dice with Falkenburg. I still don’t know the reason why the company hasn’t recalled us from these endless deliveries – surely they realize that this vessel can’t go on forever?
 
 
I suspect that Falkenburg does know why but he won’t tell me, even if I pour him a few whiskies. It has become a game between us; I ask him why and he replies in riddles. “We’re searching for my lost shaker of salt” or “Some people claim there’s a woman to blame”.
 
 
But I know it’s nobody’s fault.
 
 
For a man who really loves the sea, sometimes a new tattoo is enough reason to sail the ocean through all its seasons. Falkenburg has a brand new tattoo; a Mexican strumpet sipping a Margarita, from a glass dipped in salt.
 
 
Birdman calls “Captain!” again. We leave our dice to join him on deck.
 
 

It is a real vessel.
 
 
What the hell is she doing in these waters, waters so notoriously pirate-infested?
 
 
The fog is too thick to see clearly, so I can’t see how many crew there are and whether they are armed; nor can I tell whether the vessel is civilian or military.
 
 
Before anyone can stop him, Fournier – the fool Fournier, the Fournier that claimed that he could see an image of Christ in the clouds – shouts out to the other vessel:
 
 
“Can you take a message to Brigitte Fournier of Bordeaux? She is my wife.”
 
 
He shouts it in English, not Somali or Arabic.
 
 
A crewman tackles him but it is too late – our language and allegiances have been declared. Now the other vessel knows that we are neither Somali nor Arabs, with whom the Somalis work hand in hand. Fournier has exposed that my crew and I belong not to the Crescent, but to the Cross.
 
 
And the kicker is that Fournier’s wife has been dead for many years. Fournier knows, we have told him many times. But every time he sees another ship, he hails them and tries to send a message to his long-dead wife. Like I said, it is better to ignore the idiot. You never know if he’s joking or has some other strange agenda.
 
 
We waited. For a long time, there was no reply from the vessel. And then:
 
 
“Hello.”
 
 
The reply was in English, perfect English, what a person might call ‘posh’ English. But there was something about the intonation. A lilt to the phrasing that was not quite right.
 
 
“We’d be happy to convey the message,” the posh English voice said.
 
 
And then there was a splash of oars, as if they were sending a boat across to us. The posh English voice did its best to disguise the splashes by loudly and pommily proclaiming a recent history of the vessel, claiming that it had lost its compass in a recent storm and was pleased to encounter friendly help.
 
 
I waited. My crew waited. Not only was the splash of oars getting louder, but we could now also hear the low murmur of their voices.
 
 
When they boarded, it was sudden, I’ll grant them that. They almost surprised us. But I think that we surprised them more.
 
 
When they saw us – because remember we were as hidden from them as they were from us – when they saw my skeleton crew properly for the first time, they screamed.
 
 
Screamed like guinea hens being worked over by a pack of wild dogs.
 
 
When the screaming began, the posh English voice from the pirate vessel first fell silent – listening; then it recovered and burst into a torrent of high-pitched Somali. The pirate vessel started its engines. We watched it turn and make its getaway.
 
 
I let them go. I like to give them a head start, something to make the chase a bit more of a challenge for me. Because – like I said before – I’m fast. The fastest. That’s why they’ve given me that strange nickname. They don’t call me the Flying Dutchman for nothing.
 
 

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One Response to “Pirate Coast: Dead Or Alive? How About Both.”

  1. George Says:

    Love your style Heidi
    George
    Sydney

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