Malabar coast marauders


To the editor: A light and warm westerly blew off India’s Malabar Coast on a morning in early December. Scattered clouds moved with the offshore breeze, slowly drifting over the Arabian Sea. A half-day sail south of Cochin, a fishing boat appeared on the southwest horizon, lazily chugging its way toward the coast.

It was the standard nautical fixture of developing countries: about 40 feet in length, hardwood planked, dozens of poles with floats and colored flags lining the side decks, and a rusty exhaust pipe poking through the cabin roof. I had seen hundreds of these all the way from Central America across the Pacific to the coasts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Lazily rolling in the low chop, the boat stayed a mile off Saltaire’s port stern, blowing a long black stream of smoke that curled lazily above the smokestack, poured over the rear deck and wafted back into a long gray cloud. 

As Saltaire gradually approached the coast, the breeze died altogether so I cranked on the engine to maintain the northbound course. By this time, the fishing boat had come to within a quarter-mile and was slowly closing the distance. This normally would not have gained my attention, but something in the boat’s furtive movements — pulling back, then moving closer — just didn’t look right.

Since I was motoring, I could leave the tiller for only a few seconds, just enough time to grab my machete and handheld VHF radio, which hung on the bulkhead right inside the companionway. When the fishing boat finally reached a point about a hundred yards off my port side, it straightened its course and slowed down, gradually edging closer. Five men with rotten teeth and tattered clothing laughed and pointed in my direction, trying to tell me something. They were not speaking English, so it was useless to respond. Then they sped up to a point about 75 feet off my bow and abruptly cut the engine, drifting to a stop. I swung to port, just barely missing their stern by only a few feet.

My heart raced with adrenaline and I stood up, brandishing the machete at my side. Undaunted, they threw the engine back into gear, let me move forward, then crossed behind my stern and resumed their course on my port side. The crew laughed and yelled in my direction. I countered with a stiff, stoic face, rather than trying to respond to the gang. Then the boat’s helm quickly swung to starboard, bringing them within 10 feet of Saltaire’s port side, forcing me to throw the throttle forward and lunge to starboard. They obviously were not daunted by a lone sailor with a rusty machete. And, in keeping with my credo, Saltaire carried no firearms.

Likewise, I saw no guns among the other crew, so I figured the worst they could do was ram my boat and cause some serious structural damage. But even that could spell the end of a long cruise, and quite possibly my life. So how do you defend yourself against a larger, faster vessel crewed by a band of local bullies, who are more than likely drunk, on their own turf?

I grabbed the VHF with its dead battery and glared at them menacingly as I spoke loudly into the black radio, its long rubber antenna making it more conspicuous and imposing. I yelled, demanded, waved my fist, barked out details regarding vessel and crew, and stared the crew down with authority and indignation as I spoke.

For the grand finale, I aimed a threatening finger straight toward their faces, demanding justice, baring my teeth, and confronting them defiantly as I hollered into the dead radio. I closed my unacknowledged soliloquy, and the fishing boat abruptly pulled away from Saltaire’s port side, picked up speed and resumed its northbound course. Within an hour, the long smudge of black smoke had vanished over the horizon.

Piracy in this part of the world generally has been relegated to the far side of the Arabian Sea, as I would later experience firsthand in the Gulf of Aden south of Al Mukalla, Yemen. Never in my wildest dreams did I consider India to be a threat. This minor triumph over a band of mischievous fishermen, though, inflated my self-confidence. I obsessed over the details of the encounter all the way to Cochin Harbor. My actions had been flawless, masterful. My chest filled with pride. From here to the Mediterranean, nothing could stand in my way. Or so I thought.

—Circumnavigator Bill Morris’s latest book is Sun, Wind, and Water: The Essential Guide to the Energy Efficient Cruising Boat from Seaworthy Publications.

By Ocean Navigator