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.
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