Friday 12 December 2014

An Odd Place for a Nap

As it’s coming up to Christmas, thought I’d repeat a feel-good tale I wrote about a couple of years ago.

It was the middle of winter. John, Nigel and I had been in Brest, France for over a month waiting for the weather to give us the two day window of relative calm we required for crossing  the dreaded Bay of Biscay.
Toekomst in Brest

We were aboard the Toekomst, a sixty-five foot shrimp boat John had bought in Holland and our destination was Haiti, where he planned to start a fishing business.

For many years mariners have rated Biscay as being second only to Cape Horn so far as general nastiness is concerned. Huge swells roll in from North Atlantic storms and rise to massive heights when they arrive at Biscay’s shelving sea bed. Many a vessel has gone to the bottom of the dreaded Bay.

Whilst waiting for our window of calm in Brest, we were invited aboard a freighter which had arrived at the tail end of a severe storm. Some of the inch-thick glass of the bridge had been smashed by ferocious seas, and the entire bow of the vessel had been bent to one side by the impact of an enormous wave. The captain appeared a little surprised that his vessel had made it to port.

Nigel, Me, John
We were actually featured in a local newspaper when it was discovered we planned to cross the Bay in the middle of winter. Fishermen shook their heads at the stupidity of the English.

As it turned out though, the Bay was docile as a duck pond for our crossing to La Coruña in Northern Spain.
.
It must have been around three in the morning when Nigel shook me awake. John and I had consumed a few beers at a local bar to celebrate our successful voyage and I was well out to it. “I think someone’s fallen in the water,” Nigel announced. He’d apparently been up in the wheelhouse having a smoke when he’d heard a splash, turned around and saw ripples in the water.

Rather than deal with the matter himself (typical of Nigel), he’d come below to rouse John and me and was convincing enough to lure the two of us topsides into the freezing night. Leading us aft, he pointed to the spot where he thought someone had fallen in. I peered over the stern into the cold, inky water with dread.

After a few moments though, I managed to dredge up sufficient courage to dive in and head for the bottom—some fifteen feet down.

I lucked out on my first dive: Feeling my way along the muddy sea-bed I came upon a lump that felt like a body—which I dragged to the surface.

The head of my limp, supposedly drowned victim had no sooner cleared the water than it began jabbering away in Spanish. Frightened the life out of me!

Despite my lack of knowledge of the foreign tongue it was apparent that the words were not the product of a coherent mind. My new bottom-dwelling friend was obviously drunk as a lord.

And as is the way of drunks, he was not at all co-operative in my attempt to rescue him. With some difficulty, I managed to get the rope John had thrown me around his chest, disengage myself and kick to a ladder set into the stone dock.

It took all three of us to drag the cheerfully babbling Spaniard up the ten-foot dock wall. He was wearing a heavy coat and didn’t appear to be suffering unduly from cold so we simply pointed him toward town, gave him a shove and watched him toddle off up the road.

In Antigua
The whole episode still baffles me. According to Nigel, when he heard the splash he turned around instantly and all he saw were ripples on the calm water, which meant that our friend must have gone down like a rock.

Nigel then ran forward along the deck, descended the companionway and shook John and me awake. So it had to have been three or four minutes before I dove in and found the body resting peacefully on the bottom.

Why wasn’t he thrashing around trying to get to the surface? Why hadn’t he gulped down a lungful of water?

I have no idea.

Somehow though, our young friend managed to tuck away somewhere in the recess of his inebriated mind, an accurate memory of the entire episode. Later that day he and his mother arrived at the boat to thank us. He even remembered me as the one who had pulled him up from the bottom.

A rather rotund Mom gave me a tearful bone-crushing hug and a lengthy emotional speech, consisting mostly of, gracias, muchos gracias and mil gracias.


Peter’s such a scavenger, you never know what he’ll pick up!  Merry Christmas to all!. ~ Davina

 PS: If you’ve any young adults in your family (or are one yourself at heart), you might like to have a squizz at www.pblawson.com





Thursday 20 November 2014

Great-Great-Grandfather Horatio

My recent trip to England afforded me the opportunity to look into some interesting maritime records at London’s Guildhall Library concerning my great-great-grandfather Captain Horatio Lawson. From my readings I gained the impression that although Horatio was an exceptional sailor, he was somewhat lacking in restraint whilst on shore.
Horatio at the helm

I draw this conclusion from the diary of one Blarney McTattle, sole survivor of Horatio’s last fateful voyage.

Blarney states that when they set out from Boston Harbour on the fourth of September, 1874 aboard the schooner Lady Sheila bound for Maracaibo, Venezuela, Captain Lawson, ‘appeared to be somewhat less than sober, and possessed about him, the distinct aroma of the fairer sex.’

McTattle goes on to say that despite this, Captain Lawson, ‘Conned the vessel out through the tangle of anchored ships with consummate skill…and as far as I was able to observe, did not partake of a drop during the remainder of the voyage.’

There were only two other crewmen aboard the vessel—Bosun Sean Boyle, an Irishman; and Able Seaman Lincoln Merriman, an American negro—a decidedly small complement for such a vessel, as noted by the writer.

McTattle was a rather longwinded diarist so I shan’t bore you with his account of the first part of the passage. Suffice to say there were a couple of gales which, ‘The Lady Sheila and crew handled admirably.’

Some three weeks into the voyage however, fortune appears to have deserted the party when the full force of a hurricane descended upon them, dismasting and subsequently sinking the vessel. By some miracle, captain and crew survived by clinging to the remains of the mainmast.
The Lady Sheila

On the second day following the passing of the storm Blarney writes: ‘We were all of us sore oppressed by thirst and hunger and we of the crew did come to agree that we would be better served by abandoning the spar and allowing the Good Lord to take us. But the Captain did then, by summoning a strength from whence I have no idea, push his shoulders high from the water by levering upon the spar. “No need for despair,” said he, “I see land up ahead. If we all kick hard we’ll reach it by morning.” Thusly instilled with newfound hope we kicked lustily throughout the night.’

And just as predicted, with the rising of the sun, captain and crew arrived at an island.

But this landfall unfortunately proved to be but the beginning of their travails. No sooner had their feet touched sand than, ‘An horde of Indians did come pouring forth from the jungle, launching a fearful fusillade of spears and arrows toward us. We then took cover behind our spar from which position Boyle did offer the opinion, “We’ve had it now lads, better to swim back out to sea and drown.”
But Captain Lawson did then say to the bosun, “No Sean, I feel rocks underfoot. I believe we can defend ourselves.”’

And so they began furiously hurling rocks at their adversaries and were, in fact, able to halt their advance.

Here, Blarney’s account becomes a trifle murky. He claims they fought for two hours but then currents somehow took him away from the others. I suspect however, that those currents were bred of his imagination and that his departure from the others could be attributed solely to cowardice.

He does admit though, to landing on the other side of the small island, sneaking back to the Indian village and witnessing, from a place of concealment, the events that followed the inevitable capture of his fellow crewmen.

The three captured men ended up tied to stakes set upright in the ground with the Indians, ‘dancing and whooping around them. The chief - who, along with his native language, spoke a little English - addressed Captain Lawson. “What we do with captives,” he said, “is skin alive and make into canoe.” With that, he pointed to a number of wooden canoe frames off to one side of the clearing.

The three captives were understandably aghast at this prospect. The chief then added, “But as you have fight so valiantly, I allow you to kill yourselves before we take your skins.”

He approached Captain Lawson and enquired as to what method he might choose to do away with himself. The Captain replied that perhaps the other two should have first choice of weapons.

This answer appeared to imply that Captain Lawson, in accordance with the maritime practice observed by civilized nations, desired to be, in effect, the last to depart the foundering vessel.

The chief then went to Boyle who chose a pistol—apparently part of the spoils obtained from a Spanish galleon which I later learned had foundered upon the shores of that island. After blowing his brains out, Boyle was cut down from the stake and the Indians began the gruesome work of flaying the skin from his body.

Next was Merriman. There were no more pistols so he was provided with a knife. He made little hesitation before severing the veins in his neck and allowing his life’s blood to spurt forth.

Then came the turn of Captain Lawson. Having seen his crewmen off the ship of life and observed as their skins were stretched around the frames of canoes, he prepared to meet his own fate.

"What weapon you choose?” inquired the chief.

“A fork,” said Lawson boldly. “Give me a fork.”

“A fork?” echoed the chief incredulously.

“Yes, a fork,” the captain asserted.

Shaking his head in bewilderment, the chief cut the captain’s hands free and handed him a fork.

Captain Lawson did then grip the fork tightly and turn to the chief. “You’re not making a f*****g canoe out of me,” he snarled as he plunged the instrument repeatedly into his body.


A healthy streak of irrationality appears to run in the family!  Davina

Thursday 18 September 2014

Beaver River Rat Race

Beaver River Rat Race

What a marvelous event the Beaver River Rat Race was! Unfortunately, it went the way of the dodo a number of years ago. Not because of under-population (as with the bird) but rather the reverse—it became so popular that the organizers couldn’t handle the crowds and it was discontinued.

The race was run in April during the spring runoff on the Beaver River in Ontario, Canada. At that time of year there was still snow on the banks and the water ran cold and fast. There were two types of competitor—those who entered to win…and those who didn’t. The few steely-eyed, jutting-jawed individuals of the former category would leap into kayaks and canoes and thrash intrepidly down-river.

In my view they missed the essence of the event. As far as most of us were concerned it was not so much a race as a hilarious romp. We of this latter ilk were content to consume copious quantities of grog while—for the most part—allowing the river to take us. Harassing and attempting to sink competing vessels was considered to be de rigueur.

Few of the eclectic mix of craft in the non-competitive category could be deemed even remotely sea-worthy. These vessels were generally thrown together from scraps of just about anything by builders with vivid imaginations but minimum manual skill.

For the last race I participated in, I put together a simple, sixteen foot punt-like vessel with a four foot beam. It featured an enclosed section in bow and stern (for buoyancy and beer storage) along with a central bulkhead. She was designed to accommodate ten paddlers plus me perched at the stern to dispense ales and issue commands.

As I recall, the race was scheduled to begin at one in the afternoon. But by eleven in the morning all the vessels would be lined up along the banks of the river. This was a time for milling around with fellow participants, assessing the merits and shortcomings of competitive craft. Derisive comments would be bandied about regarding vessels which were unlikely to make it over the first weir.

It was also a time to quaff a few surreptitious beers from coffee mugs while police officers strolled among the fleet confiscating any visible stashes of grog. We old hands knew to conceal it in closed compartments.

As mentioned before, the race was scheduled to commence at one with the firing of a starters pistol. Invariably though, around twelve, some wag would let off a fire-cracker and off we’d all go.

A couple of boats along the bank from us was a friend, J.B. with his entry—a rather flimsy-looking three man craft. The report of the fire-cracker launched the fleet in a foaming flurry of paddles. J.B.’s boat managed to get about ten feet from shore before plunging to the bottom. Seemingly undeterred, J.B. thrashed to shore, ran along the bank and leapt aboard our vessel.

But instead of grabbing one of the extra paddles and assisting with the propulsion of the craft, he perched himself on the transom beside me and proceeded to issue commands to my crew.

At this point in the event—when everyone was ‘at sea’ so-to-speak, an eye cast around the fleet would reveal a certain activity in virtually every vessel. Tools would be involved—tools to unscrew panels—tools to chip at Styrofoam—tools to bring to light the hidden stashes of grog.

There are two weirs to pass over during the course. Having made it over the first one without undue difficulty, we ran into trouble a bit further along in some rapids off to the side of the main channel. Our veering off course in order to get into these rapids was possibly due to the conflicting orders being issued from the quarter-deck by two captains.
Dick about to desert ship

Anyway, as a result, we found ourselves being swept downriver beam-on to the current until a barely-submerged rock brought us to a juddering halt. Again, a string of conflicting orders served to confuse the crew even further, with the result that the vessel remained wedged against the rock like a horizontal see-saw.

Eventually however, the pressure of the water became too much for even my flawless workmanship and the valiant craft broke in two. Most of the crew—along with Captain J.B. (who isn’t even Italian)—abandoned ship at this point, scrambling ashore through the thigh-deep water. Meanwhile Jan, Dick, John and I chased down the forward section which remained afloat because of the bulkhead.

As the aft section came wallowing past, I grabbed it hope of rescuing the remains of the beer. But alas, the bottom had been torn out and the grog was gone.

John, me and Jan approach the finish line
With Jan bailing furiously, we made it to the last falls where, low in the water, we became wedged on the lip of the weir. Efforts to dislodge the craft with paddles proved unsuccessful until Dick decided to abandon ship by leaping up and grabbing the overhead bridge. With the loss of his weight, we plunged over the falls, leaving him dangling from the bridge.

Our vessel finally gave up the ghost a little shy of the finish line. The three of us swam across the line then scrambled ashore.


I read somewhere that immersion in freezing water can have a decidedly
adverse effect on the human brain… Hmmm!  ~  Davina

Monday 21 July 2014

How to Quell a Mutiny

A few blogs back I mentioned a voyage to the eastern end of the Mediterranean in an ex-Dutch navy vessel. She was sixty-five feet long, powered by twin diesels. Aboard were a couple of Dutchmen, two Americans and yours truly.

Because the boat flew the Dutch flag, I considered it expedient to promote one of the Dutch crew members, Conrad, to official captain. He was the one who, in a previous blog, lost his vessel to the Spanish Coast Guard off Gibraltar.

With certain individuals, authority does not sit well. Conrad turned out to be such an individual.

Judy, my girlfriend at the time, came along for the first leg of the voyage. She was to disembark in Italy and fly home.

No sooner had we left Holland than—according to her—Conrad began flexing his captainly muscles whenever I was elsewhere on the vessel. He might be standing in the wheelhouse scowling off into the distance or peering intently at a chart when he’d issue an order for coffee—the implication being that his presence in the wheelhouse was vital to the safety of the ship. This, despite the fact that I was doing the navigation, someone else was steering and we were virtually alone on the ocean.
 
At first and in the interest of maintaining harmony aboard the vessel, Judy grudgingly complied. Her acquiescence however, merely served to heighten Conrad’s air of self-importance. By the third day of the voyage she’d had enough and demanded some kind of intervention on my part.

With mutiny looming on the horizon, I was forced to take drastic action. The situation however was somewhat delicate, and required a degree of diplomacy. My solution was to provide Judy with a bottle of pee. “Whenever Conrad orders a coffee,” I recommended, “Add a little of this should you feel so inclined.”*

From that moment, Judy became our captain’s most willing steward. On we steamed—a happy ship no longer under the dark cloud of an uprising.

Mechanical problems forced us into Lisbon, Portugal, where we spent the best part of a week. Each evening, Captain Conrad led the two younger hands around the various houses of ill-repute. And each morning, chest puffed out like that of a bantam rooster, he would hint shamelessly of his horizontal accomplishments.
Conrad's Steward

Needlessly to say, Judy was not overly impressed.

At first, the two lads followed the older roué around like obedient puppies, but by the time we left Lisbon they were barely speaking to him. I don’t know what caused the rift; maybe they simply came to see him for what he really was—a misogynistic blowhard—or maybe he borrowed money. I never did find out.

Anyway, off we went again, rumbles of discontent now emanating from a different quarter.

Fifty or so miles from the Straights of Gibraltar, Conrad approached me sheepishly. “Errr… I think I might have to see a doctor.”

We were already way behind schedule so I was none too happy. “I guess we’ll have to put into Cadiz,” I sighed.

“Errr…I’m not allowed into Spain,” he said. “Perhaps Gibraltar…” His banishment from Spain was obviously due to the past seizure of his boat and his stint in a Spanish prison.

“Sorry,” I said. I’d had a spot of trouble in Gibraltar and wasn’t welcome there. “You’ll have to wait until we get to France.” Conrad squirmed at the thought of what might be happening to the family jewels during the four days it would take us to reach France. He knew there was no chance of me heading back to Portugal so the idea was not brought up.

Judy, of course, was delighted when I mentioned the plight of the previously strutting Don Juan.

A little later, the two younger members of the crew confessed to similar afflictions. There were concerned looks when I announced that they’d have to wait until we reached France. At this point, one then confessed that he was not allowed into that country.

So it was on to Italy—another day.

Shortly after we passed through the Straights of Gibraltar, the two young crew members approached me once again. “We’d like your permission to throw Conrad over the side,” the Dutchman said.

Hmmm…thinks I... But reason prevailed. “That’s probably not such a good idea,” I told them. “We’ll be weeks filling out forms and answering questions. If you can put up with him for five more days, I’ll dump him off in Italy.”

And that’s what we did. He was put ashore in San Remo.

I know for sure that one of the first places Conrad would have visited there would be a coffee shop. I’ve often wondered if he found that first cup of land-based coffee a trifle bland.

Oh yeuk!! Davina

*For those of you who might be a little squeamish, urine is completely sterile. It has  
  been frequently quaffed by shipwrecked sailors in lifeboats.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Where There's a Will...

Back in the dark ages when I was around fifteen, a couple of mates and I discovered the wonders of the Middle Head fortifications in Sydney, Australia. Middle Head lies right next to the popular Balmoral Beach, and in those days the whole of the headland was a military base with a gatehouse on the single road leading into it. But between the gatehouse and the actual base was a kind of no-man’s-land of wild bush.
Me, Richard

When Richard, Rod and I first decided to explore the place, we snuck past the gatehouse through the bush, half expecting the report of the sentry’s rifle and the whine of a bullet overhead. We later discovered though—somewhat to our disappointment—that the guards couldn’t give a damn about three kids on bikes. From then on we simply rode in past the gatehouse.

All kinds of neat stuff had been discarded in what we came to think of as our territory: cartridge cases; bits and pieces of old military paraphernalia; even some live rifle rounds. But we never did find the pistols and machine guns we were so eagerly seeking.

What we did discover though, was a square aperture in the earth. Unmarked by anything—it was just there…an open mouth in among some shrubs and trees.

Rod
The hole led to a passageway which disappeared off into darkness in both directions. This was the stuff of true adventure—every boy’s dream!

The next day, armed with flashlights, down we went. The floor was some eight feet below the entrance hole and there was no ladder so the first in had to be lowered down. Then the one in the tunnel assisted the other two from beneath.

It was an incredible underground world.  Tunnels intersected and led off in all directions with rooms of varying sizes branching from them. The plastered walls were covered in peeling cream paint—some of it daubed with ancient graffiti. There’d once been electric lighting down there but that had long since ceased to function. The rusting fixtures looked to be of World War One vintage.

It seemed we were the first humans to have set foot in the place for some time as there was a heavy coating of dust on the ground and no sign of recent footprints.

One of the tunnels led to a huge room at the very end of the headland. From here, three nineteenth-century cannon, pointing seaward through holes cut into the rock, had once guarded the entrance to Sydney Harbour. The guns were long gone but the mounts remained. Directly above this cavern—we discovered later—a huge World War One gun had been mounted on a circular rail. The gun was gone but the track was still there.

It still astounds me that we roamed freely throughout this wonderful place without ever encountering another soul. We didn’t go near the actual barracks and it seemed that no one residing there had any interest in ‘our’ territory. We had it entirely to ourselves.

A few weeks after our discovery of the place, we decided to allow a fourth member into our group. We also decided that he’d have to prove himself by undergoing an initiation test.

The plan was this: I was to guide our new recruit, Gordon, to the place of his testing while the other two gleefully awaited his appearance.

Gordon
When Gordon and I arrived at the hole in the ground, he lowered me down then I helped him with a shoulder and a hand stirrup. Off we went down the passageway. I had him walk in front of me while I directed the beam of my light forward to illuminate our way. We’d neglected to mention to Gordon that he bring his own flashlight.

When we passed a particular side passage, I slipped into it and turned out the light. At the same time, I emitted a strangled gurgling as if something had got me. Panic edged Gordon’s voice as he called out to me in the darkness—softly at first, then beginning to build in volume with his fear. On cue, from a little further down the passage, Rod popped out of a doorway draped in a white bed-sheet, his flashlight within its folds shining up at his face, giving it a surreal ghostly pallor. “Wooooooooo,” he moaned.

Gordon let out a shriek and went racing toward where a vague hint of light showed from the hole above the tunnel. But before he got there, Richard appeared at another doorway in the same regalia as Rod and gave another ghostly, “Woooooooooo.”

Well, Gordon let out another terrified howl and fairly flew toward that speck of light.

Normally, when we exited the tunnels, one of us would make a step with his hands and the first two would climb up, onto his shoulders, then out. Once two were topside, they’d hoist the last out. It was virtually impossible to get out alone.

But Gordon managed it in a single leap!

I don’t think he even touched the sides.


Idiots! Poor Gordon could easily have succumbed to a heart attack at the tender age of fifteen.  Davina







Saturday 7 June 2014

The Duke

Difficult to believe, that Eugene ‘Duke’ McCarron is no longer with us. For me, it was always just a given that I could go into such-and-such a bar at such-and-such a time and there would be the Duke holding court. In my view, he was as much a part of Toronto as the Royal York Hotel.

Younger days: The Duke, Simon, Paul, Me
I met the Duke some 45 years ago and not once did we exchange an angry word.

Due to my lengthy absences from Toronto, I sometimes wouldn’t see him for a number of years. But when we did meet up, it was as if the two of us had been quaffing ales just the night before.

From what I’ve heard, he went peacefully in his sleep while vacationing in the Philippines. Upon learning this, I remarked to a couple of friends, “I can only hope he snuffed it whilst on the job.”

Well, at his wake I heard a whisper that this may have been the case—well, almost—that a local young damsel may have visited his room earlier on in the evening. All I can say is that I certainly hope so.

I drove down to Toronto for the wake Friday before last. It was a brilliant event. Must have been over two hundred of his friends there!

Some years back, I returned from a voyage and needed a place to stay in Toronto. Dukey had a spare room so I ended up staying at his place for a year or so.

One Friday night, after an obviously trying day at work, my landlord arrived home a little peaked-looking—nothing like his usual self. It must have been terrible day because he’d come straight home rather than stopping at one of his watering holes.

In an attempt to cheer him up, I cracked a bottle of wine. The contents perked him up sufficiently to warrant the uncorking of another. By the time we got through this one, Dukey was back to normal. He went to his grog cupboard and produced a third bottle.

Well, we lied and laughed our way through that one then Dukey remembered he had another in the trunk of his car and went toddling off to retrieve it. He was gone for some time—not long enough for me to go searching for him, but longer than it should have taken him.

When he returned, his whole mood had changed—he seemed preoccupied and had lost his recently regained spark.

Finally I managed to coax it out of him that he’d fallen down the front steps. There were only about four of them, but they were concrete, and on each side was a concrete ledge running down at an angle a little above the steps. Apparently he’d gone plummeting over this ledge—fortunately before he’d retrieved the bottle from the car or we would have lost…errr…or he might have cut himself on broken glass.

Well, I cracked the bottle and the two of us drank, but this time, the wine didn’t shake the Duke out of his funk.

Then I noticed a pool of blood by his left foot. An examination of his leg revealed a twelve inch gash down his shin, opened up to reveal ten inches of bone!

One of the concrete ramps beside the steps had once had an iron handrail set into it. Well, the thing had rusted off and left a few little pointed nubs sticking out a couple of inches. It was one of those that had nailed Dukey’s leg.

We discussed going to the hospital, but of course neither of us was in a fit state to drive. And being Friday night, there were bound to be numerous drink-related mishaps, meaning a lengthy wait in Emergency.

So I was forced to apply a field dressing. And what a beaut it turned out to be! I first gave the wound a liberal splash of vodka (Dukey’s home contained no other medicinal supplies) then tore up an old bed-sheet with which I bound the injured limb. The dressing was then banded with duct tape to secure it in place.

Bye Dukey
Once the problem had been taken care of, the Duke perked up considerably and we carried on as before. As I recall, when that last bottle of wine had been demolished, we toasted the success of the operation with what remained of the antiseptic.

Next day some thirty-five stitches were applied to the wound. I was rather chuffed to hear that the attending doctor had a few good words to say regarding my dressing.

Well, a month or so later, off I went on another voyage.

It was from somewhere in the Caribbean I learned that Dukey had had a leg amputated. Oh, my God, I thought!

But as it turned out, it was not the one I’d attended to.

 When I first arrived in Toronto--back when dinosaurs roamed the planet--the only pub in town, the Bull & Bear, was the watering holefor all the ex-pat Aussies, Brits and South Africans. Whenever new blood, in female form, showed up there, Dukey would be the first to buy her a drink.
Duke, I can only hope that wherever you've gone, some young damsel will buy you a few.
Davina


Monday 19 May 2014

An Interlude at an Historic Retreat in Gibraltar



The old Kalinka in front of The Rock
Gibraltar was an interesting place when I lived there aboard the old ex-British Navy vessel Kalinka. In those days it was a big smuggling port—cigarettes, hashish and anything else that a devious mind could contrive to sneak past grasping government talons. A not uncommon boatyard sight was some intrepid mariner adjusting the waterline of his vessel upward a notch or two in order to accommodate more weight than the vessel was intended to carry.

Because of the nature of the place and due to a legal misunderstanding, combined with an obstinate old beak at the bench, I was offered a nine month, fully paid stay in Gibraltar’s historic gated community.

There were not many guests at the time of my visit, so I was given a room to myself in accommodations that had at one time been a military barracks—constructed sometime in the late eighteen-hundred’s. In order to ensure adequate security for the present non-military occupants, the doors had been strengthened and glass windows replaced by reassuring steel bars.

The night watchman was an old geezer who in the past had held the position of Police Chief. I know he’d been unfaithful to his oath of office because one evening, before I went to my room, he was regaling me with tales of the old cigarette smuggling days when supercharged PT boats roared out of Gibraltar with their cargoes, headed for Spain and Italy. At one point he became carried away with his story and said, “The cargo boats would bring the cigarettes in and we’d unload…errr, they’d unload the boxes directly onto…”

Although I’m not overly fond of bent cops (if you’re going to be a crook, be an honest one is my view) what I did later had no personal overtones—it was done simply in the pursuit of amusement:

At around eleven in the evening the old boy would make his rounds, shining his flashlight in through the windows to make sure we were all snugly tucked in. I’d learned—from one of the more frequent visitors to the establishment—that he didn’t hold keys to our rooms. Well, this particular night I decided to relieve him of his boredom.

I collected a bunch of stuff together and made a crude effigy of myself. A ball of clothing served as my head; a crumpled piece of black cloth became my hair and I puffed the covers out with various bits and pieces of clothes and bedding. A blind man could have seen that this was not me. When I heard him coming I slipped under the bed.

First day outside the retreat
The beam of the flashlight swept into the room…lingered…then came a loud gasp. The light went out and I heard the sound of running feet. I would never have thought the old boy capable of the swiftness of movement that the rapidly receding footfalls indicated. Thank God his ticker didn’t give up the ghost.

Quickly disassembling the effigy I put all the pieces back where they belonged, then hopped into bed. Fifteen minutes later, when I again heard running footsteps—this time  approaching—I contrived to snore softly.

The door was thrown open and a light beamed in my face. “Wha…whas happening,” I stammered.

There was a moment of silence then a growled, “Nothing,” from one of the two hard-looking gentlemen at my bedside. I could see in the glow of the flashlight, the old boy just outside the door looking distinctly sheepish.

The door was slammed shut and locked and as the footsteps receded, I heard the words, “…need f-----g glasses,” in a rather unkind tone of voice.

I chuckled myself to sleep.


Lovely to hear that Peter was once welcomed into a stately home. Davina