|nonoctave.com / Rebel Yell / Part V / Chapter 7|
|Rebel Yell||Jason Scott||Part V - In Search of A Wayward Wind|
Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.
. . . . . . Rudyard Kipling
We had come looking for a Wayward Wind. If there was
one, we were warned, it would most likely be found
out here where the pirates roam.
Beautiful Puerto Princessa harbor was cleared at 1500 hours the 16th of June and we turned southward through shallow waters laced with navigational hazards. These waters were fraught with dangers both man and nature created. A wary eye had to be kept at all times day and night. As Captain/Navigator, I knew that there wouldn’t be much rest until we reached Borneo. We had left in the late afternoon so that the approaching night would mask our passage for most of the trip to Balabec.
The wind blew from the northwest at an innocuous five knots making it necessary to motor sail. None of us appreciated the feel or sound of the engine. The shallow waters of the Sulu Sea had very little swell and the wimpy wind barely marred the surface. It was the kind of sea state that Chris dearly loved. To me it was somewhat boring. That condition did not last long.
Just before dust the wind started picking up and a covey of cumulus nimbus was noted accumulating over the land. There was no appreciable drop in the barometer so the conclusion was reached that it was just the normal everyday tropical squall lines which hovered within 10 degrees of the equator which were getting ready to greet us.
An hour after the sun had disappeared over the mountain line on Palawan, isolated squalls gathered around us in all quadrants. Where we were the wind had all but died. As we motored under bare poles in the damp mugginess, there began the distant sound of rumbling as in each squall area, the sky would light up. Not in flashes but in bright pulsing zones, each one lasting some 10 to 20 seconds. Once in a while, there would be a lightning bolt spawned in the middle of one of the throbbing luminous areas which would strike out erratically on its own until it found its way into the sea. Sometimes, when it ran parallel to the water it would splinter dihiscently from the main bolt into thousands of small inconsequential flares until it dissipated itself in frustration. There were times when the entire sky in a particular quadrant seemed to be constantly pulsing luminescently and shooting out a display of natural pyrotechnics unlike anything we had seen anywhere in the world, manmade or otherwise.
Most of us were fascinated even though we knew the danger involved. Chris was noticeably concerned even though she noted that the rest of us were sitting back and enjoying the show. The boat had been prepared for electric storms by providing large battery cables which had been clamped to the mainstays on both sides and dangled in the water to provide a path for the energy should it choose to hit our main mast. These cables were now deployed and all radio and electrical systems were shut down. (The diesel, once started did not need electrical power to run.) The course was altered to steer away from any obvious centers of activity or particularly blade areas but, other than what we had done, there is not much else to do if an area of electrical activity such as this is encountered. The likelihood of a bolt striking the boat was exceedingly small at sea because the lightning prefers the more direct route to the water-ground. With the precautions taken we were far better off than an airplane trying to fly through that stuff!
For the first time since leaving Keelung in the gale, it started to rain. Not just ordinary rain. It came in torrents! As the sea was very quiet, the crew was advised that this was the time to take a shower mariner style. In the heat, all of us were already in regular attire . . . bathing suits or nothing at all. (In deference to Chris, none of the men were permitted to run around the boat sans clothes.) We soaped down and reveled in the warm soft water. An enthused Jeff didn’t just wash, he wallowed noisily in the tropical downpour. All the water buckets were brought on deck and they were soon filled with soft rain water to be used later for the laundry. The deluge didn’t last that long but, while it did, it was great!
The weather lasted some three hours and left much less noisily than it had arrived. Just as soon as it had succeeded in impressing us with Mother Nature’s capricious and awesome power. Then, from the southwest, a gentle warm breeze caressed us and filled our sails. The stars made a welcome appearance as the sky cleared completely. Course was changed to take advantage of the breeze which stayed with us most of the night.
Jeff and I returned to the yacht after spending the better part of a lazy, most soul satisfying day exploring a small tropical islet laying just off the east coast of Palawan. Idyllic interludes such as these tend to put aside any of the ills or problems which are always some part of world cruising and makes the whole thing worthwhile.
We had, together, walked in sands which, for all intents and purposes, no one had ever walked before. Places such as this do exist and are realistically accessible to the world traveler only by private yacht.
There is always an amount of danger in going ashore in primitive areas anywhere, but the risk is well worth the taking. In this particular area of the Sulu Sea, the predominate danger, ever present, was the very real possibility that the particular place chosen to explore might well not be uninhabited but be, in fact, used by the Moro pirates who abound in the area. Hearing the tales of others and listening to the warnings of government officials is one thing. Believing that real pirates commonly existed in this modern day and age was another. At any rate, as any blue water skipper will attest, a certain amount of risk-taking goes hand in hand with world cruising. Like the tables in Vegas, it ends up that the one in control of a situation is the only one who can determine if another card turned up is a proper risk.
When at home discussing the pending trip with my son Jeffry, I had spoken quite descriptively of the beautiful small islands of the South Pacific which I had visited during the war. He responded to these stories as any little boy would, by conjuring up mental visions of deserted islands lying in the sun just waiting for an intrepid boy to set foot on them for the first time. Since we had sailed south through the Phillipines on our way to our ultimate destination, we had been passing hundreds of these exotic little cays splattering the turquoise sea. Each sported a ring of sparkling white and pink sand set off with dense kelly green undergrowth and hundred foot palms nodding their fronds in an unmistakable welcome.
Jeff continually reminded me of my promise and on this leg of the voyage it was fulfilled for the first time. In spite of the dire warnings not to chance a landing but to keep moving because of the situation between the Marcos government and the Moros of the south, I decided that this was the time to turn the card over and take a chance. We went in and experienced no undue problems. We returned to the boat in late afternoon, hoisted the GD Dingy aboard, started the engine and hauled anchor.
Gingerly, we wended our way back through the shallow coral-laced waters until we reached the safety of at least ten fathoms. As the plan went, we would continue on a somewhat more direct course south-southwesterly towards the southernmost end of a group of water-level islands which lay off the southern tip of Palawan itself. We would then turn for Balabec, the last island of the Phillipines before Borneo.
Just as we were starting up, Jeff had retrieved the binoculars and was scanning the island we had just visited. He sat on the deck forward of the cockpit with his back braced against the cabin, his feet dangling over the side of the rail and his legs astraddle a stancheon.
“Dad! Look at what’s on the island. Are they pirates?”
That statement was enough to catch my immediate interest even if proved to be a ten year old’s imagination. Turning the wheel over to Ernie I retrieved the glasses and scanned the shore. There were two men standing on the beach where we had landed and they were certainly not Navy or Coast Guard! Both looked pretty rugged, with long scraggly hair and bare chests. They were lava-lavas and held wicked looking machetes. One had a rifle slung over his bare shoulder. That caught my attention, for firearms are a strict no-no in the Phillipines.
“I don’t know what they are Jeff,” I mused as I the glasses were turned back to him. “I’ll tell you one thing, for sure. I’m glad we left the island when we did. This is Moro country and most of them hate everybody except other Moros.”
“Do you think they would have killed us if we had stayed there?” he said with eyes as wide as they could get without bursting. Kids his age always have the means to expand any situation to the most macabre they can entreat.
“Well, the Moros are about as vicious a fighter as there is in the world. Many of the natives on these isolated islands are still living like stone age men,” I paused to let him absorb that statement and then added a clincher.
“Some of them are still known to practice cannibalism and headhunting.” He gasped audibly. Chris, my wife, had been listening to this conversation.
“Do you think you ought to be saying things like that and unnecessarily putting fear into him?”
I had, perhaps, been a little too dramatic. By this time the two Filipino crewmen joined us and looked through the glasses at the scene ashore.
“Those are plenty bad men,” Ernie assured us. “We’re lucky we left when we did.”
The two of them engaged in some lively conversation in dialect. Amazingly enough, they weren’t putting on a show. They were genuinely afraid. If the Filipinos themselves had reason to be afraid, I told myself, it more than justified a genuine concern for our continued trip through these waters. I made up my mind at that moment to pick up a sidearm before making any other impromptu sorties into primitive areas again. A more wary crew sailed on.
A short time later, an excited Ernie called to me from the foredeck. When he was excited he shouted a mixture of Spanish, English and dialect that was intelligible to no one. In this case, it wasn’t necessary to understand him. . . the object of his concern was clearly visible.
A large outrigger had pulled out from behind one of the cays and was headed towards us on a direct collision course. I went below, got the 30.06 rifle, loaded it, put some spare shells in my shirt and returned to the deck. The outrigger was closing fast.
I took the position atop the cabin, standing spreadlegged and holding the rifle out in front of me for them to see. The outrigger slowed down at this display and several natives on board started waving. They looked to be of the same ilk as the ones we had spotted ashore. If they were friendly, why did they carry arms?
“They bad men, skipper,” Ernie admonished. “Do not be fooled. . . do not take a chance.”
“When they get to within hailing distance call to them in dialect and tell them to keep their distance.”
Ernie didn’t wait. He immediately started shouting instructions through cupped hands. This did not seem to deter their approach. By this time Chris had come on deck followed by a curious Jeff.
“Both of you get below and lie down on the bunks in the main cabin,” I growled. “If they start shooting, you will be below the water line.” “Also,” I added as an afterthought, “put your life jackets on.”
Brave as Jeff had been before, he caught the urgency in my voice and immediately retired below with his mother. The outrigger was within firing range of the rifle. I fired one shot in the air. This stopped their boat dead in the water for a moment. Then they started up again, this time moving much more slowly than the 50 knots they were capable of under power but still ignoring our efforts to wave them off. The next shot I put into the water about fifty feet short of their position.
“Ernie, tell them that if they don’t leave now, and right now, I shall fire for effect.”
In spite of our warnings they kept on coming. The next shot was put into their hull. I didn’t want to kill anyone unless it was absolutely necessary but it was also mandatory that they knew that we were serious about protecting the boat and my family. The shot into their hull got their attention. They gunned their engine and returned at top speed from whence they had come. We all breathed a well deserved sigh of relief as we watched them until they retreated out of sight behind the foliage of the cay.
I called below and let Chris and Jeff know that it was now safe atopsides.
“Were they real pirates, Dad?”
“I suspect so, son. Not the professional kind or they wouldn’t have been scared off by just one rifle.”
Chris proceeded to light a cigarette with none-too-steady hands. As a matter of fact, mine were shaking too.
“I think I’ve had enough of this foolishness Jason. Don’t you think it’s time we ditched this thing and returned home to any ghetto where we have some safety?”
“Not to worry,” I assured her somewhat unbelievingly, “I think we’ve seen the last of that type for a while.” I had to exude an air of confidence for benefit of the crew, if not for myself.
But, little did I realize! We had been spotted, and from that point on, we were in more danger that I knew. One thing for sure, it would not be to my best interest to talk of this incident and how it was handled. There were some countries get a little sticky about the use of firearms on their nationals while within their territorial waters, even if it was to prevent piracy!
One of the problems with paradise is that those who live there don’t really appreciate it and live accordingly. This enigma goes back as far as Adam and Eve. Look what a mess they made of it for posterity!
Pirates were pretty much on our mind as we continued our way towards Balabec, the last westernmost southerly island in the Phillipines. A sharp lookout was kept at all times for the telltale sound of powerful engines and roostertail spray of their highly efficient craft. We had been accosted thus far only by the semi-pros. . . it was the pros who were to be feared the most.
REBEL YELL sailed during the night hours without benefit of lights and we moved even further out from land to give us more reaction time in case of another problem. The pirate pros could be identified not only be their telltale spray but, if they got close enough in, the 50 caliber machine guns sitting on their foredeck (furnished by the Red Chinese, according to the military). Those military type guns have an effective range in excess of 500 yards, far in excess to anything we had on board. Private yachts are not exempt from attack just because they carry no worthwhile booty. They provided the opportunity to practice their skills. Unlike their counterparts in the Caribbean, they did not covet the boat to use in illicit trade. It was just a matter of embarrassing the legal government. This made them the most dangerous type of freebooter in the world!
Pirates notwithstanding, the nights under sail in this area were breathtakingly beautiful. We were not able now to enjoy it to the fullest. Most of the time the breeze came up as soon as sunset from the reversal of cooling effect between land and sea. When the wind was still the air became oppressive.
We made the well-sheltered and beautiful harbor at Balabec without major incident and spent two days exploring.19 On the 20th day of June we cleared the harbor for our next stop, the island of Labuan just off Borneo. Several things bothered my peace of mind.
The engine had the unnerving habit of intermittently speeding up by itself a intervals of about 45 minutes, then settling down to the fixed throttle setting. It was also running at less than best RPM. Since I didn’t know the cause for such erratic behavior, it was becoming more than worrisome considering the dangerous area we were passing through. There were some other things which I couldn’t get a handle on.
I was most uneasy. Intuition? Perhaps. I had experienced such queasies before in my lifetime. My skin sort of prickled with anticipation. I suspected that others in the crew also felt something was awry.
The air itself, as we left, seemed awfully heavy. A low-hanging sea mist clung to the torpid water and wafted as though through osmosis, with parasitic tendrils searching out from the sea whence they had come. . . clinging to the sides of the hills wherever a chasm or gully would provide support. Not a breath of breeze stirred. The only sound to be heard was the rattle of the diesel as we made our way under bare poles southwestward around the island.
The trees, even though we were but a scant two miles offshore, faded into an obscure blue-grey blur of nothingness as morning passed into midday and the muggy tropical heat distorted everything in continually waving wisps of mirages. Even the terraced scars of the open mine pits which laced the hillside soon faded into the background and appeared to be nothing but sandstone bluffs until they, too, disappeared from our view. The land looked and smelled primeval and eerie as we sailed by. We could have been, with very little imagination, the only human life on earth.
The signals from the radio beacon perched on rocks nestled in the cliffs of the southernmost point became increasingly stronger at our approach. Their coded B A L seemed to be baleful and dragged out in the tropical heat. It seemed forever before it worked up enough energy to lugubriously repeat itself. The sound made me tired and sleepy just to listen to it so I turned it down and waited until I had the visual bearing I wanted as a turning point, a phallic like structure of the unmanned light house roosting at lands end came in to view.
Waiting until the station was normal to our position we altered course to a true heading of 200 degrees. This would bring us clear of the flat malaria-ridden alluvial swamps which appeared on the charts just south of us and west of Banggi. We had just made this turn when we saw it coming.
Actually, it was the sound which first alerted us that we were going to have company. At first, I thought it was a Phillipine Coast Guard boat coming to escort us through the waters of the strait but, from the twin plume rooster tails which fanned from the rear, we knew that it was an extremely high speed boat of no ordinary design. It had come from around a point of land and we were quickly able to identify it as one of the outriggers used by the professional pirates in the area. We didn’t have much time to prepare.
Ernie had been lying on the pulpit, Chris and Florento were sitting in the cockpit and Jeff was below in his forward cabin. I was at the wheel. I handed the wheel to Chris, opened the cockpit hatch and retrieved our only weapon system. . . the flares. By this time Ernie had joined us in the cockpit.
“Chris. Go below, and without scaring the hell out of him, get Jeff and yourself into life jackets and take the same position on the cots as before. Stay there until something happens. Don’t look out. If we are not successful in what we’re about to do and there is gunfire, stay below until it is over. Listen to hear which side of the boat the pirates are on and then, if the boat starts to sink, you and Jeff get overboard and into the water. I don’t think they will bother with women and kids.” (Later I was to learn that they didn’t care about the age and sex of their victims.)
“Pirates?” she gasped.
“I think so.”
She turned and rushed below as I handed the stick flares to Ernie and Florento. We had previously prepared them by taping a small American flag to each, which made them appear to be staffs which we used to wave small flags in salute. If the pirates suspected we had anything aboard which could be a danger to them, they would sit off and strafe us with machine gun fare much outside our range. It was important to make them think we were at their mercy.
The crew had been instructed for just such an occasion by permitting them each to fire a flare to experience the trajectory and get them used to the procedure. If we were going to use them, we had but one shot. If this didn’t work. . . we were dead. I knew that and so did the Filipinos.
Range was important. Too close and the rockets might hit and break before igniting the powdered magnesium or aluminum, thus making them no more effective than firecrackers. Both men had already been advised where to stand and what to shoot at on command. They had red rocket distress flares and I had the high intensity flare which is normally used to light up an area for landing. The crew was to wave our flags and shout friendly greetings until the pirate ship was within range.
“For God’s sake don’t panic, fellows.”
By this time the boat had approached within 300 yards and started to circle, still at high speed. Even without the glasses their crew could be made out. They were a motley bunch all wearing the typical tropical skirt and armed to the teeth. A large military machine gun (some of them had two) sat forward of the cabin mounted on a tripod. It was manned with the business end pointing towards us. After the first skidding circle, they slowed and started spiraling ever closer. We continued to shout friendly greetings and wave in all seeming innocence. One thing for sure. . . they weren’t official visitors!
Where in hell are Marco’s troops now that we need them, I thought to myself. When they were about 75 yards distant they hailed us through speakers.
“What did he say, Ernie?”
“He say, come still and stand to for boarding.”
Not on my gottam boat they won’t, I thought. I was never cut out of the same cloth as Commander Bucher!
“Tell then that we are friendly Americans.”
Ernie shouted some words in dialect which were quickly answered.
“He still say come still in water and stand by for boarding.”
“Tell him we will comply.” Ernie gave me a funny look then forwarded the information to the pirates.
I reached over and put the engine in neutral. The pirate ship slowed to a crawl. . . still circling inward.
“So far so good, guys. Keep waving and stand by. I will count to three, then we will all aim and fire at the word.”
They kept their cool. What else could they do? The pirate ship was almost abreast of us. . . the distance looked right.
“One. . . two. . . three. . . FIRE!”
At the word, all three of us pointed our sticks, flags still dangling on the ends, and pulled the triggers. For what seemed to he an eternity time stood still while the rockets sped towards the outrigger. Keep ’em straight, I silently prayed, Oh, God, keep ’em straight and make this work.
The three struck almost simultaneously and on target. For an agonizing instant, there was no light and I thought they had fizzled out or had broken on impact. The pirates were too stunned at this unexpected turn of events to retaliate immediately. Then all hell-broke loose.
My white flare burst in the cockpit sending plumes of smoke and fire into the air and fingers of searing white hot fire spewing forth from a center fire ball seemed to explode in the midst of the greater part of the crew. Ernie’s red flare inundated the machine gun nest position and Florento’s spilled all over the cabin. The entire boat was burning and men were leaping off into the water.
I reached over, put the engine in gear, and gave it full throttle to pull away from the scene. I don’t know how long I stood at the wheel grimly looking forward. I could hear a lot of screams coming from the pirate ship but I didn’t want to look at what was going on. I was just content to leave. . . just get the hell out of there with my little family and boat. Both Chris and Jeff came out of their position in the cabin and stood in the hatchway looking out at the holocaust. Not a word was said as they continued to watch the scene which we now rapidly fading into the haze. Ernie returned to the cockpit and the wheel was silently turned over to him.
When my hands were taken from the helm, I started to shake. . . wanted to vomit but couldn’t. Both men were looking intermittently back at the scene and then to me. I didn’t want or need their obvious admiration at what happened. I was exhausted from the excitement. What had to be done was done.
“I just hope to hell we get far enough across the international border before the Phillipine Coast Guard shows up and decides to investigate the fire,” I remarked.
“Did you have to kill them?” Chris asked.
“I don’t think I killed anyone. At least I hope not. If they had to swim ashore, it wasn’t too far. At any rate, I don’t want to think about it or talk about it. Suffice it to say it was a choice of us or them. I didn’t ready have any other alternative.”
“How do you know that they weren’t friendly and would have left us alone,” she persisted. “Did you really have to do what you did?”
I just looked at her thoughtfully for a moment then shrugged in resignation.
The receding sun, it, too, seeming tired, engulfed itself in a seabed blanket of vermilion haze and, as it does near the equator, night came without benefit of much twilight. Just before dark I absently wadded up some toilet paper, soaked it in diesel fuel, lit it and threw it overboard, ostensibly to check for wind and prevailing current drift there in the strait. There seemed to be none.
Confident that the vector we were riding off the BAL radio beacon was valid, we ploughed on under power though the morose night air towards Borneo. A light breeze finally honored us with its presence about 0200 and the earth seemed to come alive again as we set sail with the freshness of the zephyr brushing aside the oppressive hand of the god Thanatos and replaced it with the more pleasing touch of Aphrodite, she who was born of the foam of the sea.
Later, I learned from word of mouth through the grapevine of cruising yachtsmen, that just after our incident and a scant six miles from the same point, the Filipinos found a 52 foot ketch, or what was left of it, washed up on the rocks. It had been raked by machine gun fire and a man, his wife and two children were found aboard. . . all dead.
What had to be done was done.
|Part V||Part VI|
|Chapters 5-6||Chapter 7|