Adventure story by montecarlo for iceowl's adventure quest
It had become an orgy of cheating. For one thing, the pretense of recreational sailing. How do you pretend to be refreshingly revitalized by a Force 8 gale in the open sea, with three frightened people and yourself hanging on to a run-down, 1919 vintage wooden yacht, designed to sleep 2?
“What the hell is he doing!” The Septuagenarian shouted into my right ear, trying to make himself heard above the howling, splashing, creaking and general racket on board a vessel seemingly facing imminent doom. The Septuagenarian, a cheat if there ever was one, held on to the tiller by folding both of his arms over it, trying to keep the hands free for pulling in the foresheet slack. Except that there was no slack – the Assyrian had somehow managed to fuck up whatever the Septuagenarian had sent him forward to do. Between the splashes of spray from the breaking waves I could make out the crouching figure of the Assyrian being tossed around by the wildly gyrating prow. The din was such that you couldn’t even hear Camilla von Campenhausen disgorging down below. But the stench left you in no doubt. It was growing ever more obvious that things were approaching a stage which the fine print of insurance policies sets down as Act of God – total disaster beyond human control.
The Septuagenarian had started it all off, with a badly garbled call from his mobile phone. My city phone could barely pick up “archipelago thirty” … “good price” … “Gnisvärd”, a date, a financial appetizer and a few slipshod niceties. The call put me slightly on edge. The Septuagenarian was not an individual whose wishes could be taken lightly, not if you had the slightest pecuniary interest. He wasn’t seventy, of course, rather going on fifty. Some years ago he had enjoyed three days of headline fame as “the 70-year-old”, by being picked up on trafficking charges. Swedish press ethics dictate that the media should not disclose criminals’ names until they have received their final sentence, so the tabloids are constantly full of juicy stories about anonymous “57-year-olds”, “31-year-olds” and “26-year-olds”, supposedly suspected of tax evasion, buying sexual services, serially killing 4 people with an ax, etc. As the legal machinery grinds on, this can sometimes result in headlines like “SUPREME COURT REJECTS APPEAL: 38-YEAR-OLD MURDERER, AGED 41, STAYS IN PRISON”.
In the case of the Septuagenarian it was all bunk, of course. “There’s no money in trafficking anyway, unless you control the entire chain, from parents to pavement. And I don’t do pimping,” as he put it, with a conceited hint of a grin. I would have believed him, had he added “any more” – it was a well-known fact that the Septuagenarian had earned his first venture capital by doing medium-to-large-scale pimping in Helsinki. That these particular trafficking charges were bunk, was true, though. He was guilty as hell, but this time of unforgivable carelessness. To allow yourself to be picked up carrying a badly forged Latvian passport with your photograph, issued to a 70-year-old former railroad-worker named Gunnars Petersons, carries the sentence of utter ridicule in most business circles. He was henceforth referred to as The Septuagenarian, plain and simple. Still, it was he who had coined the phrase: ”What’s the good of being a crook, if you ain’t a rich crook.” So I didn’t take his garbled message lightly.
I decided to skip the Gotland ferry, too many drunk teenagers on a Friday. The late afternoon plane to Visby was indeed late, but the Avis counter was still open. So forty minutes later I was able to park the Peugeot 206GTI between two rowan-bushes and take in the panoramic view of Gnisvärd Port. Not exactly the Pearl of Gotland, but still displaying a fair number of nice-looking moored boats, among them an SK30, an old design of sailboat. Walking close I spotted the sign, in English:
“For sale: SK30, pine on oak, built in 1919. Complete set of sails. Sleeps 2. Needs minor fixing. € 900.”
I knew the design well enough. It used to be called “The Toothpick”, because of its ludicrously narrow shape – the length overall would be some 12 m, the beam less than 2 m. The deck stands just a few decimeters above sea level when you sit in the cockpit. All this makes the boat quite unsafe in strong winds on the open sea. But I remembered what marvelous fun it had been, sailing an Archipelago Cruiser in the unending maze of thousands upon thousands of small islands in the Archipelago around Stockholm. Well, someone had sailed it safely across the Baltic to Gotland. So why wouldn’t it sail back just as safely? And for a one-way trip – the final one – you would be an idiot to engage in “minor fixing”. The price in euro and the English text indicated that the chap hoped to palm his wreck on a German tourist. If the thing was safe for going to Hamburg, why not to Stockholm, a much closer destination? These were comforting thoughts. Or so I thought.
Thinking back, it comes to me that the SK30 may have been where all the cheating started. For the Archipelago Cruiser 30 is an unashamedly double-crossing design, made expressly to cheat the sailboat racing rules of its time. As anybody knows, the maximum speed of a sailboat is proportional to the square root of its waterline length. So the rules specified a certain waterline length for a stipulated sail area. The “30” tells you that the sail area of an SK30 must not exceed 30 square meters. This is calculated as the sum of two triangles, measured linearly from the three corners of each of the sails, the mainsail and the jib. Any sail irregularity sticking outside of the triangles is a free bonus.
The SK30 followed all of the rules religiously, in its own dishonest fashion. When it sits upright in the water, without any sails set, it surely has the correct waterline length, but with two very long hull overhangs hanging above the water, forward as well as aft. The cheating part of it is that a sailboat never stands upright in the water when sailing. And when an SK30 heels, the enormous fore and aft overhangs dip into the water, creating an effective waterline of almost double that of the measured waterline. Cheating by overhangs gave the Archipelago Cruiser some 40 percent extra speed. I could plainly see that the SK30 for sale in Gnisvärd had one more cheating feature – an extremely tall mast that curved aft, backwards. The mastward sail length is measured by the rules in a straight line, from the tip of the mast to where the boom meets the mast. But if you use a curved mast and make a correspondingly curved sail, you get a few extra square meters of convex canvas, projecting forward from the measured straight line. So an SK30 with a curved mast is actually equipped with maybe 32 square meters of sail, an additional sail area that may make all the difference in a tight race.
A violent breaker made me lose my footing, throwing me against the cabin door with a painful bang. Then all of a sudden the whole boat veered crazily. “What the hell are you doing?” “I have to get him, he is worth 100 000 dollars,” the Septuagenarian screamed at the top of his voice. Then I saw – he had left the tiller unattended, and was now intent on jumping over the side, into the churning Baltic. Good riddance, you SOB! What a supreme cheat – telling me that the Assyrian was worth just thirty thousand and promising me a measly ten for risking my life on the angry Baltic!
But the cheating SOB never actually left the boat. Holding on to the narrow railing he somehow managed to grab the floating, screaming Assyrian by his jacket and pull him out of the sea and into the cockpit. “We are fucking deep in the water, are we leaking, or something?” He stared me worriedly into my eyes, while returning to the tiller. The boat responded by roller-coasting just a little less violently. The Assyrian, rescued at the last moment, not because he needed being rescued – which he surely needed – but because he was worth money – which we surely needed – was crying something unintelligible that sounded curiously like Spanish. Damn, if there was a leak, then we were really done for! I tried to make my way down below as fast as I could, all the while holding on to whatever was within my reach, trying to parry the unpredictable movements of the boat.
The Assyrian was the Septuagenarian’s idea of a creative business plan
. The guy had the money, so he fitted nicely into the posh refugee-smuggling scheme that the Septuagenarian was presently operating, tailor-made for the Filthy Rich in Deep Shit. “No suffocating containers or rusty ships. This is a virtuoso
operation, strictly five-star,” as he proudly described it. To begin with, the Assyrian had claimed to be a member of some obscure persecuted Christian sect in Iraq, a blatant lie. When confronted, he did not directly admit, nor did he directly contradict, that he might have some connection to Qaeda, making it even more pressing to get a Swedish refugee status
quickly. The Septuagenarian was prompted to make some discreet inquiries at the CIA
, an organization permanently horny for shady Arab
s. He could, possibly, be a ruthless Sunni terrorist by the name of Karim al-Mulk, for whom the local Stockholm CIA representative would be overjoyed to pay 30 000 – well, actually 100 000 dollars, as the forever devious Septuagenarian had accidentally blurted out. How the Septuagenarian had got the Assyrian into Gotland undetected was anybody’s guess. But to ship him undetected to the mainland by sailing yacht in July, when tens of thousands of sailboats were scurrying about on the Swedish coast, was a thoroughly sound scheme, particularly with me as a captain. Or so I thought.
The sight of the cabin was appalling. The ordinarily well-kempt Camilla von Campenhausen was in complete disarray, but not throwing up, as I had suspected. Rather, she was pumping out bilgewater for all that she was worth. The task looked less that appetizing, even if you discounted the sickening yawing and pitching of the boat. The constant pitching had torn loose the toilet bucket, fertilizing the already murky bilge-water with oblong fecal products. The stench was unbearable, given the circumstances. And the water-and-shit mixture sloshed about as high as her slender calves, in spite of all the vigorous pumping. Was there really a leak? Then I saw – the leak was not below, but above. The dried-out deck planks had contracted so as to leave enough space between them for the light overcast Scandinavian summer sky to shine through, even at this ungodly hour, 3 am. For every wave that hit the deck, Camilla had to pump out an extra bucketful of water. She turned up her face for a moment and gave me the evil eye.
It might be said that Camilla von Campenhausen was a friend, of sorts. Originally a listless affair, the relationship had petrified into occasional meetings over a drink or two, with her happily confessing to her latest erotic exploits. An ex-lover, forced to listen to the antics of active-duty lovers, is not to be envied. In my heart I was intent on some kind of emotional revenge. And out of the blue, the occasion suddenly presented itself. Camilla von Campenhausen had recently had a violently passionate affair with an almost illiterate, but apparently well-heeled and well-hung gangster. The ambivalence of it all disturbed her no end. “I can’t even think of showing him to anyone outside my bedroom. I really don’t understand how I got involved with a slob like that, well-hung or not. I’m so terribly ashamed of myself!” But the Well-Hung One proved to be tough to get rid of. He kept calling her, ringing her doorbell, making a persistent nuisance of himself. “Not that I mind the juicy rolls in the hay with the guy, but the side-effects are simply too much. This really has to stop!” So she had been forced to take up for a time with a girl-friend of hers, in a different section of town, while lying to him that she had moved to Gothenburg. Why she had spoken of me to the Well-Hung One, I don’t know. But just before I left for Gotland, I got a call. “You want to make some money? Get Camilla to come to a bar in Stockholm, and you will get 1000 euro. Half now, half later. OK?” Could I really stoop so low as to sell my friends? Sure I could.
Meeting Camilla in Visby was purely a coincidence. I was waiting for the Septuagenarian and his refugee, she had stayed in her friend’s summer-house on Gotland and was about to board the mainland ferry. She was not difficult to persuade to take a wholesome sailboat cruise instead, in the beautiful sunny July weather. Little did she – or for that matter I myself – know what Scandinavian weather had in store for us in the middle of the Baltic, just a few hours later.
It was perfectly obvious to all, that Camilla’s pumping was not nearly enough to save our miserable lives. Not while this howling wind was blowing. And not while there were vicious waves breaking over the leaking deck of the old SK30 in two perpendicular directions – a remaining swell from yesterday’s gale, coming from the south, and the new waves from the present gale, which were building up in an east-westerly direction. We did get some steerage-way from the bottom-reefed mainsail, but the jib was flapping wildly, as a reminder of the Assyrian’s mortality, making the Septuagenarian’s attempts at steering somewhat unpredictable. Every minute or so the boat would make a violent jolt in this or that direction, presenting mortal danger to anyone who at that moment didn’t hold on to something solid by the proverbial “one hand for yourself”.
I had found a collapsible canvas bucket in the forepeak. Bailing was badly needed to augment Miss von Campenhausen’s pumping, if we were not to drown in less than an hour. I looked up into the cockpit from below. The Assyrian was clutching the cockpit seat tightly, ashen-faced and still dripping of seawater. “No use praying to Allah, you idiot! Take the bucket and empty it over the side!” The Assyrian raised his head slowly. Not only was color returning to his face, it soon exceeded the pink pastel-shade of a human face in mental balance and slowly turned into flaming red – the Assyrian was getting mad! “I’m tirrred of being trrreated like dirrrt! If you want my help, ask forrr it nicely,” he spit out in a Spanish-sounding accent. “And I’m a Catholic, if you please,” he added in a slightly less hostile tone, apparently taking in the gravity of the situation.
Soon most pretenses were gone, thanks again to the utter gravity of the situation. What is the use of cheating your fellow man, if he is the only shield that stands between you and the fury of Nature? We had formed a human bailing-chain, the Assyrian and I. After about an hour, the sum of our considerable efforts, combined with Camilla’s pumping, had visibly lowered the water level in the bilge. During that period of the first honest work we had seen in some time, we also learned to our amazement that the Assyrian’s name was José Maria de Requena, that he was a native of Gibraltar, that he was wanted for a bank fraud committed in Barcelona and that he desperately needed to pose as a Middle Eastern refugee, if he wanted to have the slightest chance of shaking off Europol and possibly the Interpol as well. This was almost too much truth to be taken in in one gulp, particularly when it shattered the Septuagenarian’s and my hopes of coming out ahead in this adventure, financially speaking.
“Damn, if it is not slackening a bit,” the Septuagenarian suddenly cried out, as to hide his disappointment, looking skyward. Could it actually be that the jib was still flapping violently, but not quite as crazily as before? The wind pressure on the mainsail also seemed to ease off a tiny bit. Was the gale really on its way to pass us by, leaving us to see the dawn of another day?
Two or maybe three hours later we could clearly make out the mainland coastline as we looked westward. “Wherrre arrre we headed, Captain?” José Maria de Requena’s seemingly innocent question hit a sore spot, and hit it hard. How the hell did I know? The gale was all but gone, rays of morning sun were playing through the clouds. But the swell was still heavy. During the chaotic night of pitching, yawing, creaking and leaking it had been physically impossible to record the log and the course. It was even doubtful that we had followed a course at all. Without records of the last half of our Baltic crossing, dead reckoning was just one more theory. “I think we are headed for Sweden, don’t you?” The Septuagenarian’s sense of humor hade never been much. A thousand nautical miles of Swedish coastline, stretching from north to south right before our noses, would have been hard to miss. The painful question was rather: which one, among these thousand north-to-south miles, was our particular mile? “I think there is a stretch of granite reef somewhere around here. We had to look out for it last summer, when I was crewing an ocean racer in the Round Gotland Race.” So Camilla knew what I knew and what the nautical chart knew in precise terms – at one particular place there was a dangerous granite underwater reef a few miles out from the coast. The swell was still violent enough to smash our creaking SK30 to bits, were we to hit the reef. Problem was, there was no way of pinpointing us in relation to the reef that the chart was pinpointing. Death in sight, for the second time.
José Maria de Requena was a reasonably agreeable new addition to the crew, once we had got rid of the virtual Assyrian. A nice-looking guy in his late twenties, trying hard to keep up our spirits, which surely needed all the upkeep they could get. “I’m not a sailorrr, but couldn’t we slowly zigzag closerrr to the coast. If we get close enough, we might see a landmarrrk orrr something.” ‘Something’ turned out to be a lighthouse, but which one? The chart gave the outlines of all lighthouses in the area, only it was impossible to make out the details from our distance without binoculars. And if we got much closer, then we would be certain to hit the deadly reef, if this was where it happened to be. “Now, wait! If you look at the chart, then there are three lighthouses rather close together, on the stretch where the reef is, see?” Camilla pointed agitatedly at the chart. “They seem to stand close enough together, so that if you see one, then you should be able to see at least one more, right?” Yes, the distance between the lighthouses seemed to be of the same order as the distance from the coast to the reef, about where we were still anxiously zigzagging. And a second lighthouse at that distance, if it were to exist, would have been in plain sight by now. But there was just one lonely lighthouse to be seen. So we could not be where the reef was! I immediately took control of the tiller and started cruising toward the coast. The SK30, now with all sails set, raced elegantly through the water at its deceptive forty percent extra speed.
Laying at anchor behind a few green Swedish coastal islands in the midday sun, after having been rescued twice from certain death, is as close to paradise as you will ever get. Wolves were gleefully playing with lambs, snakes curled cozily up against babies. I still hadn’t quite figured out how I could return the advanced blood money to the Well-Hung One; I would certainly think of something. The Assyrian was a thing of the past. The Septuagenarian was already giving José an outline of available options, for free. Camilla was offering José the use of her apartment, which she didn’t use for the time being. Glances and looks tell more than a thousand words. I could bet that Camilla would shortly move back to her apartment, sharing it with its new tenant. The release of tension and fear had a formidable effect. Saddam Hussein and Dubya had suddenly become laughable paper tigers, distant from everything that really mattered. We were alive, not again, but for the very first time!
So it wasn’t going to be a one-way, one-time trip after all. “When we arrive in Stockholm, I think I’ll take it to a boatyard and let them fix it,” the Septuagenarian said in an almost loving tone of voice. “We should get all the usual equipment too – a full complement of life vests, a GPS unit, binoculars, a radio, a rubber dinghy, an outboard motor,” I added, thinking with a shudder on how close to perishing we had been for not possessing even the barest essentials. “Does the boat have a name?” José Maria de Requena asked. A name? For a one-way, one-time illegal refugee-smuggling vessel? I now sensed that in my mind it had already transmuted into something else, into something with a soul, during our Night of Troubles. We, at least the Septuagenarian and I, in our unspeakable arrogance, had put ourselves and two others recklessly in jeopardy. In the final analysis it was nothing but the boat that had saved us, like an improbable Protector from another age. “What about the ‘Talisman’”, I proposed, humbly.