Night Watch in Pirate Waters

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It was 2am and someone was urgently tapping my foot. It was my shift and normally I got a quiet reminder, but tonight the skipper continued to tap my toe and whispered for me to get up. Bleary-eyed, I threw on some warm clothes and stumbled out onto the deck of the catamaran. The moon shone on the sea.

Normally the moon would be a welcome sight – but not tonight. We’d entered pirate territory. The skipper switched off the radar and all our navigation lights. Except for our white sails glowing in the moonlight, we were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. Skipper Gareth pointed out a shape on the water. “Look there!” My eyes were still adjusting to the darkness but I could just make out the silhouette of a very large ship barely a nautical mile from us to the port side. Gareth was more freaked out about the ship than I would have expected him to be. And then I understood why: The ship also had no lights on. Trip of a lifetime A few months ago, my husband and I were invited to help deliver a gorgeous new sailing vessel to the Seychelles. We both have our basic day-sailing licences and have always wanted to do something adventurous.

This wasn’t just adventurous; it was totally romantic! So we joined the other three crew members in Durban and set sail through the Mozambican channel. No one mentioned the possible threat of pirates. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe they did say something about pirates, but I honestly thought they were joking. As crew, the daily routine included being on shift for two hours and off for eight hours. Being on shift meant you had to watch the yacht’s course, adjust the sails, and make sure the boat didn’t run into anything. Shifts worked on a rotation basis. If your shift was during the day you could get a decent night’s sleep, but inevitably you’d have to do one of the awful midnight-to- 2am or 2am-to-4am shifts. Like most South Africans who grew up near the coast, my husband Jesse is passionate about the sea and all activities related to it. I am American, and I’ve always been terrified of the sea. The closest I ever got was sunbathing on the beach! The first time I went to the beach with Jesse I swam for five minutes, then gave up after being pummelled by wave after wave. Three years later, with lots of encouragement from his side, I can now snorkel without hyperventilating, I can swim in the sea without thinking I’ll drown, and last year I even conquered my fear of waves by taking surfing lessons. Being on shift alone in the middle of the night was still scary, but soon I became familiar with the movement of the yacht and began to enjoy the solitude and silence of night watch. It gave me time to calm my thoughts, which often tend to race. By the time we made it to the northern point of Madagascar I was fine on my own. But then came the heavy seas. And the pirates.

Big waves, bad news The rough seas and pirates seemed to come at the same time. The wind picked up and we hit heavy seas. The boat slid down the waves and back up, making my stomach churn. More than once I was thrown out of bed in the cabin. The creaks and groans of the boat and the smacking of the waves kept me from sleeping. The only solace I found was sleeping up in the saloon on the couch – and even there I had to hang on tightly. This went on for more than five days. In the midst of it all, Gareth sat us down and said we needed to discuss the pirate matter seriously. It took me off guard – I hadn’t given pirates a thought since we left Durban. At sea there is nowhere to run or escape. Thoughts of being hijacked and feelings of vulnerability came flooding back. A few months ago, two men held a gun to my husband’s chest and demanded I hand over the keys to the car… Before any ocean voyage aboard a sailing vessel, there’s a thorough safety briefing, where the crewmembers are informed about what to do in the event of an emergency. Tasks are divvied up and everyone is shown where the life boats and life jackets are stored, and how to operate emergency devices like the EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) and the VHF radio. The EPIRB is most important: when activated it emits a distress signal that is monitored by satellites around the world. We discussed the “what ifs” of a pirate attack. We talked about what equipment we would grab, who would do what and where the girls would hide. We also hung lines off the back of the catamaran that would ensnare and immobilise the engine of an approaching boat. Most importantly, though, we decided that we would not fight back if we were taken hostage… Going on pirate watch meant that all lights had to be switched off. We scurried around the boat in the dark. A fuller moon now greeted us at night and it was the only light we had. My first few shifts were nervewracking; I was afraid to look around for fear of what I might spot lurking in the shadows of the waves. But I had to – it was my job. I had to keep watch. Now the dark ship was getting closer and Gareth didn’t know what to do. The radio crackled and we heard the captain of the other vessel calling us. He asked why we had no navigation lights. “Probably the same reason you don’t,” Gareth replied. The other captain gave a curt laugh and the two men wished each other safe journeys, with no further questions so as not to give away the route or location of either vessel. Phew. But we weren’t out of danger yet. If the ship was travelling in the dark then we were definitely in pirate territory. It also meant that had Gareth not been concentrating, we could very easily have collided with it.

Land ahoy! Thankfully we made it to the Seychelles after 16 days at sea, with no pirate encounters and with the expensive catamaran in one piece. The islands were a fabulous sight. After a week at sea you begin to think you’re on a neverending treadmill of water in a big round room. Then one day you look up and there’s a speck on the horizon. The speck grows bigger until you are in turquoise water, staring at green palm trees and granite boulders on white beaches. It was a bittersweet feeling to come to the end of the voyage. Being at sea was a huge learning curve for me. I was the rookie on the yacht and I’d like to think that I took away the most from the experience. I learnt some important lessons. Living in fear is not a fun place to live. If you have no escape route, you’ll adapt to your environment and conquer your fear. And if you don’t conquer your fear, you’ll never get to experience the wonders of the world around you, like a sunrise at sea or dolphins playing in the bow wave of a boat. This adventure is just the start of many more to come. Who knows what’s next? Maybe skydiving, or perhaps a road trip to camp among lions in Botswana…

Originally Published in – GO! Magazine, January 2011

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