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Sea Tales - The Incredible Escape

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From Crayfish to Iron

3. The Perfect Hills of Ethiopia

It took us all the daylight hours to raise the perfect hills of Ethiopia. Night fell long before we reached the lee of the sheltering string of islands and, with no moon, we crept in by feeling, rather that seeing, the looming rocky islands off the port.

There were no lights on the coast. None. It had that special pitch-blackness of a Third World desert coastline, where even kerosene is too valuable to burn. When the sun sets in these wild places people go to sleep.

We let go the hooks in about 25 feet of water and settled in for the night, tired but grateful for the surcease of 30-knot winds and the rolling tossing motion of our boat. We had earned a night's sleep. We had survived our dismasting. There was more than a little pride in our exhaustion as we fell on deck, almost where we stood, and slept till the rising sun etched out the land around us. As the light grew we found ourselves in a cozy, seemingly uninhabited and totally protected bay. Just what we needed to lick our wounds.

Early in the morning we were visited by three Ethiopian fishermen in a narrow 15-foot canoe. They seemed friendly and, with sign language, begged for gasoline. Their friendliness waned when told that we had none aboard (we did not) and then they asked for water. From long experience in desert areas I have learned that water is never refused, so they got 5 gallons, asked for more, were refused and paddled off. No talk of papers, officials, entrance formalities or any such nonsense. We took them at face value, just local fishermen making a touch.

I turned to the task at hand. First we had to bring the broken mast section down. It was hanging by its entrails of wire, cable of line. If we were to cut it down, I was fearful it could injure the person on the mast on its way down. From deck level, we hauled and tugged and pulled to no avail. We tried cutting all the lines and wire at the top of the mast, which we had hauled out of the water. Nothing worked, the morning was wearing on and I was uncomfortable about our visitors. I wanted nothing official to do with them.

Finally I sent everyone below, released the dangling section so that it hung more or less straight down along the two remaining lower shrouds, went below and brought up my Kalashinikov - the famed Russian automatic assault rifle that played hell with our troops in Vietnam and which the Russians have sown throughout the Third World like fabled dragon's teeth. It had been loaned to me for this passage and, although I had never used one, I was familiar with its awesome potential. I was going to shoot the damned, stubborn mast down. My crew hooted with doubt and dismay as I stretched out on deck, loaded a 50-cartridge clip, took aim and let fly. The Kalashnikov worked like a pair of giant scissors. One after the other it snipped the offending stainless wired and, after only the 9th shot, the broken section slid quietly and obediently into the bay.

With the mast section down we went to work immediately, as we were already familiar with the midday Red Sea sun, which puts a halt to all activity. We were able to work on the rig from six in the morning until about 11 and then from three in the afternoon to sundown. All told, we had about seven good hours and in that time we rigged twin downwind sails with a pair of upside down working jibs and, using the storm jib and storm trysail, we rigged a set of sails that, given a stiff breeze, would take us to windward.

To accomplish this we needed a pair of head stays, a pair of running backstays, a port and starboard topping lift for the whisker poles, a topping lift for the boom, two jib halyards and a main halyard. Since we had saved all the running rigging that had come down with the mast and since I had carefully hoarded a stock of stainless cable clamps over the years, we had plenty of gear to work with. We tensioned the head stays with spare turnbuckles and rant the backstays (Dacron with wire tails, our former staysail halyards), through a turning snatch block to the staysail winches.

The jury rig was all very neat and provided the security and control that we would need to sail the few hundred miles to Djibouti where I planned to step a new mast. At about 5 in the afternoon we tested our new sail plan and were amazed at the ease with which it worked.

Things were going very smoothly. We had cleared away the dismasting in two hours the day before and, in less than a day, we had completely rerigged the boat and were ready to sail out.

I was eager to get away from Ethiopia but my heart sank when I saw the same canoe, this time with five people, take off from shore and head directly our way. As it came close I know we were in trouble.

Next: Page 4: "Innocent Fishermen" with Kalashnikovs

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