Windshifts: A Semi-Pirate Story

They didn’t hoist the Jolly Roger or fire a shot across my bow, but their intentions were worrisome. I was 80 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, on a rhumb line course from Panama to Key West. The seas were sloppy and felt more like Mother Maytag than Mother Ocean. My Spanish is bueno, and I had been trying to raise my visitors on the radio for 20 minutes. Surely the four hombres aboard the 70-foot rust museum weren’t blasting through these dreadful seas just to sell me a fish.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

They didn’t hoist the Jolly Roger or fire a shot across my bow, but their intentions were worrisome. I was 80 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, on a rhumb line course from Panama to Key West. The seas were sloppy and felt more like Mother Maytag than Mother Ocean. My Spanish is bueno, and I had been trying to raise my visitors on the radio for 20 minutes. Surely the four hombres aboard the 70-foot rust museum weren’t blasting through these dreadful seas just to sell me a fish.

When they were only 30 yards astern, I tacked away. Immediately they changed course and continued plowing directly toward me. My mood changed course, too—from curious to concerned. There had been an attack on a sailboat near here a year earlier that had left the skipper dead and his daughter traumatized. So my caution was justified.

Five minutes later, I tacked again and my visitors again followed suit. Now my concern quickly escalated into outright fear! Aventura’s usually reliable Yanmar diesel had seized up two days earlier, so I couldn’t just turn on the engine and try to outrun them. It was time to evaluate my “survival posture.”

For my first 25 years of cruising, my only weapons had been my flare gun, pepper spray and a spear gun. Recently, though, after pondering the state of the world, I upgraded to a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol. It was now a foot away from me in the chart table, although actually using it seemed inconceivable.

That’s because I consider the use of violence to be not just a tactical issue, but a philosophical one. Occasionally, in a waterfront bar, you might hear a sailor, awash in rum and machismo, claim that if he ever caught someone stealing his dinghy, he would “teach him some Smith and Wesson manners.” But I find this abhorrent. If my life or the safety of a loved one is at stake, I will shoot. But I would never kill someone for stealing something. I can buy another dinghy, but I can never purchase a clear conscience. 

I now anticipated three possible scenarios. The best was that the other crew just wanted to trade some fish for something they needed like water or diesel fuel. The next best was that they intended to board my boat, strip it of whatever they could easily take and not harm me. The third scenario was as grisly as it gets. They board the boat, steal whatever they could, kill me and sink my lovely Aventura.

Imagine my pounding heart and frenzied brain as I weighed these options without knowing the other crew’s true intentions. Should I fire off some warning shots to show I was not a “soft target?” If they were armed with more than machetes, it would probably be with automatic weapons that would make my Glock as useful as a banana in a knife fight. Then again, if I truly thought they intended to kill me, shouldn’t I hold my fire until they were at point blank range?

Suddenly it occurred to me that, judging by the way they were struggling through the miserable seas, they might be at full throttle. And although my engine was useless, I had considerably more sail power still available, as I was double-reefed with only about 60 percent of my jib out. 

Unfortunately, my reefing hardware is on the starboard side of my boom, which means it is dangerous to unleash the main when heeled way over on port tack—the tack I happened to be on. Worse yet, if I tacked back onto starboard, the distance between my pursuers and me would significantly decrease. Nonetheless, of all the tough decisions I’ve made in my life, this was one of the easiest. And when it came time to shake out those reefs, everything went perfectly! Once I was safely back in the cockpit, I trimmed the main and jib up to full power, and little Aventura, a San Francisco bred heavy-weather demon, leapt across the wash-cycle seas and steadily pulled away from our nemesis. Ten minutes later, they were headed east as I continued north.

In the year since this incident, I have only told this story to about ten friends. And never once did I tell it with bravado, as though I were some movie hero who outwitted a gang of pirates. That’s because I truly do not know whether I was in danger or not. One thing I do know is this: in real life, moments of true bravery are far more complex and quietly noble than they are in the movies.

Got a good story? We want to see it. Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

For more from Ray Jason, follow his blog, where he regularly posts his “uncommon essays from the thoughtful warrior”

Related

02-'17-Trans-Atlantic_Downwind-Schralpin

At The Helm: Man Overboard!

Imagine this simple scenario: the boat’s powered up, sailing close-hauled in a building breeze under full sail. I come on deck as the skipper during the watch change to make sure the new crew is comfortable and the boat is properly set up for both the current conditions and ...read more

Promo-01-LEAD-MGR00321

Contrasting X-Yachts & Moody Cruisers

One of the most fascinating things about sailboats is the different ways that sailors, naval architects and builders will approach a single design problem. The result has been a bewildering array of rigs and hull forms over the years, and in the case of the two boats we’ll be ...read more

04-Yacht-anchored-in-front-of-one-of-Lastovo's-gunboat-tunnels-(3)

Cruising Charter to Croatia

As is the case with so much of the Mediterranean, to sail in Croatia is to take a journey through time. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Greeks traded amphoras of oil, wine and grain across these waters. During the first millennium, the Romans built lavish palaces and ...read more

m123728_13_01_171012_PMA_02901_9999

Alicante Announced as an Ocean Race Europe Stop

The Ocean Race Europe, a new event in offshore sailing, will include Alicante as one of four stopover cities. This European offshoot of the former Volvo Ocean Race will include the biggest change to the racing rules under the new title—fully crewed IMOCA 60s will join the ...read more

01-LEAD-doublehanded2

Preparing for a Doublehanded Race

A few months ago we took a look at the development and attraction of doublehanded racing (Two to Tango, June/July 2020). Hopefully, that served to whet your appetite. If so, the question becomes: “How do I get started? The good news, as we explained in Part 1, is that if you are ...read more

01-LEAD-Day-three---dolphins.-300-dpi

A Key Approach to Passagemaking

How you approach offshore sailing is key to the success of each passage. In addition, some of the most valuable, even crucial attitudes and skills may not be either learned or valued in everyday life on shore and may even fly in the face of talents that are greatly admired and ...read more

OceanVoyagesInstitute-2048

Point of SAIL: Mary Crowley of the Ocean Voyages Institute

In this episode of Point of SAIL, Principal Editor Adam Cort talks with Mary Crowley, founder and executive director of the Ocean Voyages Institute, a not-for-profit based in California that has been both educating sailors and working to preserve the health of the world’s ocean ...read more

01-Ocean-Voyages-Institute_PHOTO-READY_1_pg

Tracking and Catching Plastic Waste

Plastic waste—in the form of everything from plastic soda bottles to abandoned fishing nets—constitutes a major threat to the health of the world’s oceans. Giving the immense size of an ocean, though, actually finding all the plastic floating around out there in a time-efficient ...read more