Windshifts: a Semi Pirate Story

They didn’t hoist the Jolly Roger or fire a shot across my bow, but their intentions were worrisome.
Author:
Updated:
Original:
 Illustration by Tom Payne

Illustration by Tom Payne

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? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

Ray-Jason-bio-pic---bw

For more from Ray Jason, follow his blog:

theseagypsyphilosopher.blogspot.com,

where he regularly posts his “uncommon

essays from the thoughtful warrior”

Related

Canal-1-Marina-Hemingway-looking-west-spring-2016

Cruising: A Farewell to Cuba

For a few sweet years, American cruisers had the freedom to sail to Cuba. It was good while it lasted, says Addison Chan Cuba has assumed near-mythical properties in the community of sailors around the world. It is almost impossible to utter the name without conjuring up images ...read more

brickhouse

Is Cruising Still Safe?

It is with great sadness that we read of the murder of New Zealand cruiser Alan Culverwell, and the attack on his family, by criminals who boarded their boat in Panama’s Guna Yala/San Blas Islands early in May. The San Blas were known as a “safe” area to cruise. Aside from petty ...read more

QuarterdeckBuildingWatercolor

Bitter End Yacht Club 2.0

Amid the widespread devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria when they swept across the northern Caribbean in September 2017, the destruction of the iconic Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands was particularly keenly felt by sailors. The ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell. Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com The back door Satisfied with your headsails? So was I, until one day I took a long, hard look up the luff of my genoa, making sure I inspected the leeward side as well. The sail had plenty of life ...read more

02-Lydia12-01

Losing Sight of Shore

I arrived on the docks of Beaufort, North Carolina, in late April with two backpacks filled with new gear—everything I’d need for my first offshore passage. Though I’d been sailing for 16 years, graduating from dinghies to keelboats to a J/122, I’d spent my time racing and, in ...read more

Squall

The Face of a Squall

They are the worst of times, they are the best of times There’s a fabulous line from an old Paul Simon song that I often sing to myself while sailing: I can gather all the news I need from the weather report. It is part of the magic of sailing, this ancient process by which we ...read more