By rights…

… you should never have heard from me again. I keep having these disruptive disasters in my life, but this one I barely survived. Last Monday, I said I was setting sail Tuesday morning for points west. I actually meant east, and I have since corrected the entry. I’ll give you it as a single account rather than an artificial daily diary:

Swinging at the End of a Rope.

The weather was extremely fine, as usual, the wind favourable, and I made excellent progress. However, over-confidence and bravado encouraged me that I might try some night sailing, especially since I’d noticed there was a quarter moon for a few hours after sunset, and the night was clear. I was in deep water without hazards to navigation, all my nav lights were working, and I felt cosily secure in my GPS and my boat-handling skills.

When I’d announced my intention to island-hop, Alexis had provided me with a 15 metre polypropylene floating rope. The idea, he said, was to just attach it at the stern and let it trail behind, in case I fell overboard and needed something to grab hold of. I had seldom used it, being terrified of fouling my propellor, or, worse, someone else’s propellor, and it had been tripping me up for weeks, lying in a coil under the back seat. Partly, I confess, to ensure that I didn’t trip over it in the dark, I secured it to a cleat and threw it overboard.

Night fell and it was very pleasant, cool and romantic. Even when the quarter moon set at about midnight, the starlight was enough to see quite far. I wasn’t tired, having been lounging around for nearly a week, recharging my personal batteries. At about half past one in the morning, I saw lights and soon heard the motor boat they belonged to. They were coming towards me from the east, and looked as if they would pass about half a mile south of me, but they must have seen my lights, and altered course to intercept me. About a hundred yards away, they slowed the engine, which sounded really powerful, and shone a searchlight on me. I concluded that they were some kind of coastguard or naval vessel, though they were quite small, and I waved a hand in the beam in a friendly fashion. The light flicked off, the engine roared again, and they receded astern. Meanwhile, I was totally blinded, having lost my dark adaptation. But the engine note never completely disappeared, and then it started to increase. Within ten minutes, they had pulled within 20 feet of my starboard side, ticking over to keep pace, and subjected me to a prolonged scrutiny with the light. Then someone started to use a loud hailer, shouting Greek at me. It was very badly accented Greek, but I guessed they wanted me to heave to, so I lowered the sail – a difficult task in the dark and under pressure. My guess was that this was a patrol on the lookout for smugglers. I put out fenders on the starboard side, and they grappled close.

I really started to worry when I saw they weren’t in uniform, but they were armed. One covered me with what I guess was an AK47, while two others went into the deckhouse and looked around. I heard them open my tool box, which was seldom locked when I was on board. They were talking in a language foreign to me, but it sounded slavic, and the men were kind of slavic in appearance. And before anyone asks, I could never identify them or their boat again because I was permanently squinting against the glare. The one who seemed to be the leader made me stand up, frisked me, taking my wallet from my back pocket, and putting it in his own. Then they started to transfer stuff to their boat – computer, GPS, compass, mobile phone, passport, money, papers, rubber dinghy, food, clothes.

They. Took. Everything. I started to protest that I couldn’t navigate without my equipment, and was told to shut up. I was still not sure if these were the authorities taking precautions against dangerous criminals, or pirates. I’m not sure I’d have acted any differently, anyway. I was somewhat relieved when they started to arrange to take my boat in tow, assuming that at least I’d still be in touch with my possessions. The one guarding me put down his gun on the deck, which relaxed me a little, but then he pushed me backwards, into the arms of a second man, grabbed my legs, and the pair of them pitched me overboard. Just like that. Miles from land.

I was so surprised, I hadn’t taken a breath and I was still spluttering as I grabbed for the transom. A heavy boot changed my mind about hanging on. I made another grab, and the rifle butt swung in and clouted me painfully on the ear. By the time I could see straight, all the men had returned to their own boat and I was floating ten feet or so away from mine. Then the powerful motor started up again, and their boat, my boat, my home, began to recede into the darkness. Even then, had the floating rope not seared painfully across my neck, I would have forgotten about it, but I grabbed it gratefully and hung on. Now. Were I James Bond or Indiana Jones or even Frodo the Hobbit, I’d have had a plan to pull myself hand over hand into my boat, overpower the pirates, and sail into port a hero. As it was, it was as much as I could do to hang on. I was sort of water-skiing along, twisting around, alternately face down and face up, with my arms jerking out of their sockets at every wave. After a while, I was able to dispose myself in such a way that I offered less resistance to the water, and the strain on my arms reduced. Over the next half hour, I pulled myself towards my boat until I was so close to the stern that no-one would be able to see me from the motor boat. Unbelievably, or perhaps because of the blow to the head which can’t have helped my existing fracture, once I had locked the rope around me, I dozed for a while.

By dawn, I was seriously worried that they might see me and finish me off. We appeared to be approaching a large island, presumably our destination, and we passed north of it, close enough to make out houses on the shore, but didn’t slow. I felt this was my best chance, and let go. It took me about an hour to realise that I was never going to make it to the shore other than as a bloated corpse.

The current, gentle as it probably was, was pushing me away from land. I would like to tell you that I fell into a trance and thought great thoughts as I awaited drowning or consumption by a shark, but I was so busy floating, spitting out salt water, sunburning and worrying, that when a fishing boat loomed up behind me (I’d been facing away from the sun and towards the island) I barely had time to yell and wave before they had scooped me up and left me draining on a pungent deck glittery with fish scales. I answered their questions in my primitive Greek, but I left them with the impression I had fallen overboard from a yacht. They supplied me with some much-needed water to drink and a little feta cheese.

By the time we’d landed in the busy port, I was feeling almost human. Of course, I saw no point in raising my visibility with The Authorities by making a fuss about the piracy, because I was not insured for anything except the computer and the GPS. Rather than get involved with the police, I allowed the rumour that I’d fallen overboard to gain currency, and my rescuers made much kudos among their fellow fishermen from their tale. Eventually, I found myself in the harbourmaster’s office, propelled there on a tide of goodwill, and, after a struggle, because I had no documentation whatsoever, I persuaded him to telephone my Athens lawyer. Under my lawyer’s guarantee of reimbursement, the harbourmaster lent me 50 Euros, and I arranged for the lawyer to transfer a few hundred Euros to a local bank. He also arranged to cancel my credit cards, order new ones and even organised a new Amex card to be available the next day. He’s really earning his fee, that lawyer, but my nest egg, I fear, is rapidly being eaten up by my repeated disasters.

And that’s about it. I had to go to Athens and replace my computer and mobile, sort out things with the lawyer and so on. I think I’m finished with sailing. That experience was enough for anyone.

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