Prologue: The Attack
young Indonesian poked me in the stomach with the barrel of his
assault rifle. His eyes, cold and hard, challenged me to resist.
I was at the edge of doing something stupid.
had been sailing alone across the South China Sea to Singapore in
January 1992 aboard my little sloop Unicorn. While not a large boat—only
thirty-two feet long—it is stout enough for ocean passages
and comfortable enough to call home. Setting off single-handed was
not recommended; Indonesian harbor officials in Borneo on the other
side had warned me that an oil tanker steaming through the same
area had been attacked by pirates the night before.
was not a threat I took very seriously; I was more concerned with
the difficult navigation through the reefs, dodging the heavy ship
traffic, and getting enough catnaps during the three-day passage.
Piracy was something I associated with Long John Silver, Captain
Hook and Hollywood, a childhood game to be played over the mounds
of dirt dueling with cutlasses torn from a picket fence. How could
pirates climb the sheer steel wall of the hull of a big ship, I
was approaching one of the busiest waterways in the world, shipping
lanes that linked Europe to the Pacific, the Persian Gulf to Japan
and China; it is a highway for 600 commercial ships a day. It is
also, I was to discover, prime hunting ground for pirates.
was my second night out from Borneo and the atmosphere was heavy
and airless. Lightning flashed off the port side from a thunderstorm
over Sumatra. The reassuring loom of the Singapore City lights hovered
faintly on the horizon in front of me to the west. Even without
the benefit of wind, without the use of the sails, and puttering
along with the small auxiliary engine, landfall, I estimated, should
be early afternoon. And, four or five hours after that I’d
be sitting at the bar of the Changi Yacht Club knocking back a cold
medicinal ale. Then sleep. Priorities.
merchant vessels that chugged through the shipping lanes could not
see the Unicorn and its limp mainsail and it was up to me to avoid
them. One large container ship, its decks flooded in bright light
and lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, paralleled
my course to starboard; fire hoses shot water out into the darkness.
I watched her gradually change course, then turn sharply to port
and in disbelief I realized it was heading straight for me. A ship
bearing down at 18 knots — there was not a lot I could do.
The bastard was trying to run me over! I threw the tiller hard over,
increased speed to a smoky six knots; I was being chased out of
the shipping lanes. I looked back and up at the towering clutter
of bright lights that was about to swallow me whole. Then it dawned
on me that the captain was assuming the small blip on his radar
screen was a pirate boat. The ship finally returned to its original
East-West course and I throttled down and slumped back, exhausted
and shaking. He had run me out of the shipping lanes where he couldn’t
go, apparently satisfied he had scared the daylights out of a bunch
of pirates. The Unicorn hobby-horsed up and down on the ship’s
wake, corkscrewed and twisted out of control. The boom swung wildly
from side to side and the engine’s small propeller cavitated
uselessly in the air as the stern lifted out of the water.
sea is a lonely place at the best of times but this was one of those
moments when I realized how totally alone I could be. Even the sensation
of being so isolated in the middle of an ocean with no one around
for a thousand miles cannot compare to this night in the shipping
tired, I was getting confused. Bright halogen lights decked the
passing ships from stem to stern as part of their anti-piracy defenses.
With their regulation navigation lights obliterated, I had no way
of knowing what they were doing, whether they were coming or going
and at what angle.
steered the Unicorn back to the inside edge of the traffic lanes
— keeping outboard of the line of ships. The waters outside
the channel were nearly as dangerous; unmarked reefs, unlit fishing
boats, floats and nets formed as much of a gauntlet as the merchant
ships inside. Still, I felt safer.
was smoking nearby. Once at night off the Sri Lanka coast, I smelled
cigarette smoke; a few minutes later I had to throw the tiller hard
over to avoid an unlit fishing boat pulling up its nets. Only at
the last moment did I spot with my binoculars the glow of a cigarette
hanging from the mouth of a fishermen. There was no doubt this night
— someone close was having a smoke — a Gudang Garam,
the sweet clove-scented cigarette so popular in Indonesia. Senses
heightened, I tried to sort through the throaty vibrations of passing
ships and strained to detect the shadows of a fishing boat that
I was convinced I was about to hit.
to my own building fears, I went below to switch on the VHF radio.
Just in case. The radio had seemed useless. The frequencies were
either jammed with shrill whistles, a favorite Asian calling technique,
or the night-time taunts between Filipino, Malaysian and Indonesian
fishermen, anonymously calling each other: "Hey, monkey —
you Indonesian monkey." "Hey, you Philippine pig —
you eat your mothers shit, YOU big monkey." Tonight the radio
was controlled by someone who kept the microphone keyed open next
to an AM radio playing some twangy Chinese tune. A ship calling
a distress or trying to get through to another would be blocked
unless it had a more powerful signal. I certainly did not.
sudden jolt threw me off balance. My first thought was that I had
hit an uncharted reef or a partially submerged container that had
fallen off a cargo ship.
gripped the handrail, heart beating in my throat. Vibrations rattled
the hull — another vessel, powered by a large engine, had
come alongside my boat. I felt the thump as someone. Then a second
jumped onto the deck. Hushed but excited voices from above sent
a wave of acid horror into my gut. I froze. The sudden unexpected
sound of people when you’ve been alone for days is terrifying.
Somebody is on my boat!
couldn’t run, I couldn’t hide. I felt the panic of a
trapped animal. The voices were getting more agitated as the intruders
stumbled around on the rolling deck. By God, I’ll throw these
guys off! I pulled my Indonesian machete out of its scabbard and
turned to run topsides.
this was pirate country and I had been warned. I had to calm myself
and think. I replaced the knife in its sheath. I would fight only
as a last resort; my life was more important than the toys on board.
I would give them anything they wanted — except the Unicorn
itself. On wobbly legs and scared to death, I pulled myself up the
military-style patrol boat about the length of the Unicorn had tied
up to me. Low-slung and ghostly, the boat was only a colorless silhouette
— except amidships where the orange glow of a cigarette briefly
illuminated a dark face. Two shadowy figures shrouded in terrifying
silence stood opposite, pointing rifles at me. The decision not
to resist was the right one. It was probably better they had guns;
had they been unarmed, I might have made a mistake.
had worked in Jakarta and had a basic knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia;
I had liked those with whom I had worked and found the people generally
a courteous lot. "Salamat Datang!" I welcomed them. My
quavering voice belied my fear. I couldn’t fight, I couldn’t
argue, I could only try to be polite, a trait that Indonesians find
indispensable. It was said in Jakarta that if you were robbed in
your home, the thief will apologize before killing you.
their shoulders I could see a third, smaller figure attempting,
clumsily, to get onto my boat. Holding my breath, I walked past
the guns and offered him a hand. He was just a boy, barely in his
teens. He glowered and waved a long knife in my face. He didn’t
need any help. Then he seemed to relax.
kasih, Pak," the boy thanked me as if he remembered his manners.
was plenty of light from the passing ships to seaward, enough to
reveal their features. One gunman was, in Indonesian terms, an old
man—about forty—with sprigs of chin hair, a permanent
frown, and a pinched lupine face. He wore the camouflaged uniform
of the TNI, the Indonesian military. The other was a bare-chested
teenager with a thin black mustache whose sullen eyes darted nervously
and enviously over my boat. He was dressed only in military trousers.
The patrol boat and their semimilitary attire and their modern guns
gave me an instant of hope. Maybe they were police officers or customs
officials, just checking my papers. However, these were international
waters. And it was the middle of the night. And they wore rolled-up
none of them wore shoes. The toes of their dark brown feet were
splayed, their leathery heels cracked. I suddenly recalled that
Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail alone around the world almost
exactly a hundred years ago, had spread carpet nails on the deck
at night as his antipiracy weapon. It worked near Cape Horn; his
pirates jumped back into the water howling and screaming after meeting
the commercial end of the tacks. It was too late for me to dust
the decks with nails.
tried to refocus; why the hell would they be on my little boat,
pointing guns at me? I just could not accept it—while my fear
was extreme, the situation seemed at the same time ludicrous. I
liked Indonesians. I thought I knew them. I had been up before a
more frightening situation during an anti-American protest in Jakarta
during the Gulf War and I had managed to get out of that. One-on-one
with an Indonesian always seemed to work; I had found myself in
the middle of rioting students in Tanjung Priok dock area who were
burning the effigy of Bush Senior; someone in the mob made me as
a likely American and began shouting and pointing at me. I turned
to an older man next to me dressed in a white robe and asked for
his help. Surprised and pleased that I should ask, he led me out
and away to safety.
large tanker passed about a half mile abeam, its fully illuminated
deck casting an eerie glow upon us. It was so close! There was no
way to signal it, no way to call for help. I watched in frustration
as the ship steamed past, its water cannon blasting into the night.
stood facing each other. No one had ever pointed a loaded gun at
me before and staring into the barrels, I became weak with fear.
I knew I had to maintain some control. The older boy massaged the
trigger with his forefinger. He jabbed the barrel of his rifle into
my ribs, silently egging, taunting, challenging. His deep-set eyes,
like black glass marbles, drilled into mine with inexplicable anger.
I stood before him with my teeth clenched, unflinching, staring
into those depthless sockets. He poked my gut, then jabbed harder,
testing the tenderness of the meat. Emboldened, he jabbed again
as if the barrel of his gun were a bayonet. The hard metal felt
like a dull knife. Relaxing my stomach muscles lessened the pain.
I was so close; bloody hell, one little push and he’d be overboard.
I was about to do something really stupid. The older man’s
squeaky voice cut like a razor. "Money! You MONEY!" he
said in agitated jerks of English.
Yeah, sure. Money," I think I managed. As I turned, the surly
youth slammed the butt of his rifle against the back of my head.
I lurched forward, falling against the wire shrouds of the mast,
then slipped to my knees. He yanked me up by my hair and kicked
me ahead of him toward the cabin stairs.
three men stood awkwardly in the narrow cabin below, their assault
rifles too large to point. Through tears of pain I watched the old
man’s eyes scan my sea-going home. The Unicorn had none of
the toys found on most blue-water yachts. It had no radar, no sophisticated
radios, no televisions, no weather fax machines, no satellite navigating
system, not even any refrigeration (I had learned to enjoy bilge-warm
beer), only shelves of some treasured books, a mahogany box for
an old sextant, and a rack for binoculars. There wasn’t much
dazed, I nodded for them to sit. I reached for the thermos of old
coffee that I had made hours earlier and with shaky hands splashed
it into some mugs and slid them across the table. There was a sickening
crunch as the Unicorn and the pirate vessel banged against each
other in the wake from a passing ship. The damage to my hull would
be considerable. The sullen youth, whose eyes never left mine, watched
me cringe at the sound of the two boats smashing against each other;
his face brightened with a thin, cruel smile.
susu," I muttered. I nodded toward an open tin of Nestlé
sweet cream. The youngest boy placed his knife in his lap, stirred
in the cream with his forefinger, and slurped his cup noisily.
old man barked something and the youngster, looking a little sheepish,
hastily put down his coffee. I noticed then the similarity between
the two boys. I poured myself a cup, opened a drawer, and pulled
out a photo of my two sons taken years before: I was cutting a birthday
cake and my face was plastered in chocolate icing; my three-year-old
hung around my neck, his fingers thick with goo, and my five-year-old
was doubled over laughing in the background. In passable Indonesian
I told the old man they were my kids and asked him if these were
his boys. The old man, who up to this point had no real face at
all, broke into a crooked grin, straightened himself proudly, and
said they were indeed and that he had two more sons back in Sumatra.
He picked up a cup and sipped. I pushed the other two cups toward
his sons; the youngest looked at his father for permission. The
other pointedly ignored the coffee and kept his eyes pinned on mine;
his challenging arrogance continued to test me. The old man and
I spoke in stilted Indonesian about his village, somewhere on a
nearby island, and my town and his admiration for America, until
impatient shouts from the boat outside reminded the old man what
they had come for.
was a tense silence. The old man stared into his cup; he pulled
nervously at his chin hairs. He raised his eyes and again looked
over the cabin. I leaned over and pulled out my binoculars from
the rack and handed them over. He slipped the strap around his neck
without acknowledgement. I watched his eldest son scan the cabin,
looking for his own booty. His eyes settled on an open carton of
Marlboros atop a row of books. I had kept the cigarettes to exchange
for fish from passing fishermen in their dugouts.
tidak bagus," I tried to joke, mimicking a current Indonesian
anti-smoking slogan; I realized at once that I sounded like a patronizing
smartass. I reached overhead and handed the carton to the humorless
old man rose. In the Islamic tradition of respect he shook my hand,
then tapped his chest lightly; he turned and ascended the companionway
steps in silence, followed by his sons. As the pirate boat motored
off into the darkness to perhaps more lucrative prey, the angry
tones of a loud and rancorous discussion drifted across the water.
I imagined they were catching hell for not returning with better
went to the side, held my throbbing head between my hands to keep
it from exploding, leaned over, and retched.