Correspondence: Voyager Lands Behind Bars

“Pepe, is that our only chart?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.” he replied. “Covers the whole area.”

Pepe, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested and as strong as an ox, had been at sea all his life; he was probably more at home there than on the land. I had been on other delivery trips with him when we didn’t take a chart at all. We would pick up a yacht, say, in the south of France, at Cannes, deliver it to Balearics or southern Spain, and arrive at our destination spot on. He somehow kept the reckoning in his head. And he was as familiar with the western Mediterranean as most people are with their backyards.

This time, we were in Santander in northern Spain, on the Bay of Biscay. The boat was a brand-new Dufour 34. But there was a difference: It was Pepe’s boat, purchased from the local Dufour factory. After a lifetime of merchant vessels, oil tankers and innumerable delivery trips, he was now about to sail in his own yacht.

I was merely onboard as navigator, though how I was to fulfill that role on a chart that showed Greenland at the top, the Azores at the bottom and Spain the size of a cigarette packet was difficult to fathom. Our route was to be from Santander westward to Cape Ortegal at Spain’s northwest corner, then down the Portuguese coast, through the Strait of Gibraltar and to Ibiza in the Balearic Islands, where Pepe lived. The scale on his chart was such that our route of 1,400 miles was reduced to about 4 inches.

The other crewmember, the opposite of Pepe physically, was his brother, owner of a small business and with zero seagoing experience.

It was rough as we left Santander and plugged our way westward along Spain’s mountainous shore. It was Pepe’s brother who, on a windy day, accidentally let slip from his grasp the shackleless eye of the mainsail halyard. Whereupon, it flew to the masthead and, in an amazingly short space of time, accompanied by a rattling noise from within the mast, emerged from its lead and lay in coils round our feet.

We closed the coast and found a bay. We never knew its name because it wasn’t shown on our chart. A few tough-looking fishing boats were moored to enormous buoys and rolled lazily in the Biscay swell. We anchored. We weren’t sure if we could trust the topping lift to get Pepe aloft, but that didn’t deter him; he clambered up more or less unaided and took with him the standing end of the stainless halyard and stuffed it down inside the mast. It was supposed to emerge from its partially hooded lead just above the winch; I tried to persuade it to do so with a piece of wire with a hook in it — a very fiddly job, especially in a roll.

With this delay and others that had occurred before we set off, I realized I would be unable to complete the trip. Pepe agreed that he would stop in Leixoes in Portugal and put me ashore.

The day before we arrived was windy with strong northerlies. At first, Pepe refused to have the genoa taken down. “Let her run,” he said, glancing aloft. It was as if he wanted to show us that his boat could take it, that he had chosen a sturdy vessel.

But in the afternoon, with seas building, it became unmanageable. Whoever was at the helm had to fight to keep the boat’s head downwind and prevent it from sliding into a broach.

In the night, with a small jib and two reefs in the mainsail, things were not much better. The following seas were beginning to break into heavily tumbling crests. The cockpit was occasionally flooded. The two on watch were cold and wet, despite being in full oilskins; the third person, down below, got little rest.

At dawn, we swept into the harbor at Leixoes and lowered sails. Every wharf was occupied with commercial vessels of one sort or other: fishing boats, tugs, barges. There was no one about and nowhere for us to go alongside.

I was on deck still in full oilskins, with woolen hat and wellies, and with my bag packed, ready to go ashore. “Nose in. I can step off over the bow,” I said to Pepe. “And you can keep going.” The northerly wind had abated somewhat, but I knew he was anxious not to waste any of it.

I landed on the deck of a pilot launch, climbed down to the wharf and set off to where I thought the harbor gates might be. I was desperate for a mug of hot coffee, but had no Portuguese money, and at that hour everything was closed.

I was following an alley between nondescript buildings, going uphill, when a man stepped from the shadows and barred my way. The cap, the long overcoat and the automatic gun on his shoulder told me he was a policeman or a guard of some sort. I was fairly fluent in Spanish, but Portuguese is another language; it sounds a bit like Spanish that has been put through a food processor.

I gathered he wanted to know where I had come from. “Off the yacht,” I told him. I looked round to the wharves. Surely he had seen us arrive. But now there was no yacht; Pepe shot out of the harbor and was now beyond the headland to the south.

He followed my gaze, but I don’t think he understood me. I heard him say “passport.”

I dug into my bag. He looked through it carefully, page by page. I knew what he was looking for: an immigration entry stamp. And, of course, it wasn’t there. He took me firmly by the arm. I imagined he was saying, “You’d better come with me.”

At the duty officer’s desk, I again tried to explain about the yacht. The officer didn’t seem all that interested. He, too, looked slowly through the pages of my passport. Then he kept it.

A third officer arrived who spoke English tolerably well. “There’s no immigration stamp in your passport. You’ve made an illegal entry.” Two of them then took me to a cell. The door clanged shut. I sat on the hard bed and ruefully reflected on the trip. All in all, it hadn’t been a good one. And I still needed something hot to drink.

I changed out of my oilies, but there was nowhere to wash or tidy up. At about 0930, I was told that the chief of police had arrived and would see me.

When I was ushered into his office, the chief sat at his desk in a neatly pressed suit, his gleaming dark hair brushed back close to his skull, a not unkindly light in his eye. Little did I realize that my problems were over.

It turned out he was a yachtsman, a very keen sailor, in fact. Most interested in our voyage, he asked numerous questions about the rough night we had had. He seemed almost to envy me as I sat there in my crumpled clothes, unshaven, salty and bleary-eyed.

“I’m sorry about not having my passport stamped,” I said. “Not a problem,” he replied. His English was faultless. He opened a drawer in his desk and took out an ancient, curiously articulated rubber stamping device. He pressed it firmly onto the open page of my damp passport. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience we’ve caused,” he said, handing it back to me. It was a fair trade: I had provided some vicarious thrill for the chief, and he had overlooked my lack of a proper entry stamp. I also learned an important lesson: Don’t leap ashore in a foreign port from a passing yacht at dawn.

Jack Gush is a sailor and writer currently based in Tasmania.

By Ocean Navigator