Once Rebel was floating level, Tran set up the canvas awnings and the in-port table on the deck between the masts. My own tender, a much-patched gray Avon rigid-hulled inflatable, was tied to the starboard side. At night in port, it was pulled a few feet out of the water using the foremast boom for a crane, and left riding against Rebel's hull, ready to drop into the water. At sea, the Avon was secured on deck in chocks between the mainmast and foremast. Its center console hinged forward, to lower its profile beneath the boom when sailing.
The tender, or dinghy, was every sailor's second-most-important boat. It was his sedan, sports car, four-by-four and pickup truck, taking him from his floating home at anchor into town for shopping, or out spearfishing, or exploring ahead for a deepwater path between coral reefs. My sixteen-foot rigid inflatable outclassed almost every other sailboat's tender in Elizabeth Harbour. Only Topaz's twenty-foot Novurania with its huge motor could exceed her capabilities.
When life aboard Rebel Yell finally returned to normal, the lowering sun was just a hand-width above George Town. Tran was below in the galley, preparing dinner. I hoped it would not include anything collected from Rebel Yell's bottom. Southeast Asians have very different ideas from Americans about what constitutes edible seafood.
Doctor Victor Aleman sat in one of the wood-and-canvas folding chairs at the deck table. He was wearing his half-glasses, reading a zoology textbook in German. With the accent on the third syllable in Spanish, Aleman literally means "German" and was a common appellation for sons of the Third Reich whose fathers washed ashore in South America during the middle of the last century. Appellation or not, Victor Aleman was the name in his Argentine passport.
In English-speaking locations, Victor dropped the accent mark and let his surname be pronounced the English way, with only two syllables and rhyming with paleman. He had a barely noticeable accent when speaking in English, and he was all about camouflage, as I was. Victor Aleman was fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, English and German. You might have guessed that he was not an American, but that was all.
He had signed on in Punta Del Este, Uruguay, during my last voyage south. He was an itinerant surgeon in need of fresh horizons, and having a person with his valuable and marketable skills on board was a big net gain for Rebel Yell, Inc. Victor was in his early fifties but looked nearer sixty because of his short-cropped gray hair and Vandyke beard. Like Tran, he was much tougher than his years indicated he should be. In size, he fell between Tran and me; he was about five feet ten and wiry, with lean, hard muscles.
From what I had gleaned from the taciturn doctor, his father had been a U-boat skipper who made his last run to South America with a compact cargo of considerable value. At least that was the story. Regardless of his actual former position in Nazi Germany, Victor's father had become an important and influential Argentine citizen, with a large and prosperous family.
Victor was not one of them, however. He had been the later offspring of his middle-aged father's young mistress, a dancer. Young Victor Aleman had been well provided for, but from a distance. He had attended private academies in Buenos Aires that had faculties of Irish and German orders of teaching priests and brothers. His grades had been high, and he had been sent to Germany for university and medical school before returning to Argentina. A small trust fund had been arranged, just enough to launch his professional life in Buenos Aires. Victor had married, but had no children of his own. Then, during the millennial economic collapse and social breakdown in Argentina, his wife had been kidnapped. Although the ransom was paid, she had been killed. Paying the ransom had wiped Victor out financially.
These disasters triggered Victor's downward spiral. For a while he worked with Doctors Without Borders and other non-governmental organizations, moving from crisis zone to crisis zone in between hard bouts with the bottle. Victor Aleman was a mean drunk, prone to instigating bitter arguments and brawling in bars with much younger men--which was how I met him. He suffered from depression and dark moods at least a few days out of every month, but at all times he was a superb emergency physician and orthopedic surgeon. For sailors who became seriously ill or suffered injuries hundreds of miles from the nearest hospital, there was nobody more in demand than a competent European-trained surgeon available right on the spot. He'd patched me up a few times, and among other miracles I could thank him for was the continued full use of my left leg.
Even on his best days Victor was no chatterbox. It had taken me weeks to piece together his life story, a fragment at a time. When he did speak, it was to say something worth hearing. Glib and charming poseurs are as common as mosquitoes among the sailboat cruising community, and just as pestiferous. A quiet man with a genuine, useful skill is a rarity. Anyway, after a few years I felt that I understood him, and I had learned to tolerate his periods of moody silence and his terse or unintentionally rude remarks. Someday, after he'd worked out his issues with drinking and depression, he?d probably return to Argentina for good and start a new medical practice, or sign on with a hospital. But for now, and until a better opportunity came along, he was satisfied to roam the oceans aboard Rebel Yell.
It was June, so most of the hundreds of boats that had clogged Elizabeth Harbour during the winter and spring were gone, searching elsewhere for better hurricane protection. Rebel Yell should have been going too, but with less than fifty gallons of diesel fuel left, our initial target of Brazil was not realistic. I had come to accept that the salvage job was a bust, despite my so-called partners' frantic promises over the single sideband radio, so it was time to clear out.
But in which direction?
My first choice was to flip the globe over again, from the northern to the southern hemisphere. Rebel Yell was anchored along a raggedy edge of the North Atlantic. Just haul up the anchor and head south and keep going, to that parallel American universe on the other side of the equator.
Rebel Yell, all thirty tons of her, was slow under sail unless there was a lot of breeze. From the Bahamas to the eastern Caribbean was directly against the trade winds. Rebel Yell's two-masted schooner rig was not made for beating to windward, even with her modern fully battened main and foresail. For making progress directly to windward, we depended on her "iron sail," a 200-horsepower Caterpillar turbo diesel.
Even if we made it past the eastern Caribbean, attempting to cross the windless doldrums around the equator would quickly deplete her remaining fuel and leave Rebel Yell floating helplessly, an easy target for radar-equipped pirates in go-fast boats. These were hard times everywhere, and a big sailboat represented many years' wages for any third-worlder who could run an outboard motor. True, I had the weapons aboard to drive off most small-scale attacks, but I had no desire to see Rebel Yell reduced to a stationary target, where pirates could alert their friends and continue attacking tag-team style, like hunting dogs wearing down a bear. To depart for Brazil I wanted full fuel tanks, 500 gallons. This was enough for motoring over 2,000 miles nonstop at six knots, with a top speed of ten when she had a clean, slick bottom.
But the hard reality was that my boat was almost out of fuel, I was almost out of money, and fuel cost money. A lot of money. That was the only reason we were still hanging around George Town on Great Exuma Island: the chance to make some money. Theoretically, Rebel Yell was a sailing vessel that could pay her way. Her sixteen-by-twelve-foot hold could carry up to 30,000 pounds of mixed cargo: fuel drums, construction materials, generators, engines--almost anything that could fit down her main hatch. She was built tough from steel like a workboat, and could support salvage or treasure-seeking expeditions. All the gear required for those operations could be contained in her hold and on deck. I had most of that gear already: scuba tanks, a compressor, lift bags--that sort of thing.
The cargo hold and our legitimate equipment also provided a plausible means of our support. Camouflage, if you want to call it that. It's not that I was philosophically dead set against earning an honest living--no way--but overseas I was normally barred from legal work. Let's just say that I'd grown accustomed to coming by my spending loot through unconventional means. There just wasn't any money to be had around George Town in the Bahamas that summer, conventionally or otherwise.
What I wouldn't do was run dope. Not now, not ever. Not that I had a problem with folks enjoying a little reefer. Pot was more common and easier to find in the islands than good tobacco. I just wasn't going to carry commercial quantities of dope. I had enough problems with Uncle Sam without that.
George Town, located 300 straight-line miles southeast of Miami on Great Exuma Island, was the biggest Out Islands community, with almost a thousand permanent land-dwelling inhabitants. Elizabeth Harbour, between Great Exuma and Stocking Island, was a massive anchorage capable of sheltering more than 500 yachts in an open roadstead one mile wide by six long. Most of the anchored vessels were sailboats between thirty and fifty feet long, but powerboats and big sailing yachts of over a hundred feet were not uncommon. Not only was Elizabeth Harbour enormous, but also, unlike most harbors in the Bahamas, it could take vessels up to fifteen feet in draft. George Town had been the economic hub of the Out Islands since the pirate days, and for the same reason: Elizabeth Harbour.
At its worst, it resembled a vast floating trailer park, with dozens of noisy outboard motors pushing dinghies between shore and the hundreds of anchored boats at any hour of the day or night, accompanied by the sound of generators and stereos blasting every genre of music. In June, there were still more than a hundred boats at anchor. It was not a place I would choose to remain for very long. Not unless I was nearly broke and anxiously awaiting my next profit-making opportunity.
The hundred boats in the anchorage also provided us anonymity, important when Uncle Sam considers you to be in his debt and you cannot travel home freely. At least not via the international airports, where everyone is herded through people corrals to be digitally fingerprinted, photographed, sniffed, crotch-groped, full-body-X-rayed, retina-scanned and DNA-swabbed. On those infrequent occasions when I return to the States, it is by more informal routes, without the need to present my passport for inspection or kiss the rotund behind of a TSA agent.
We were anchored in eleven feet of water, leaving five extra feet beneath our keel. I was forward of the anchor windlass, checking how the chain was riding over the starboard roller. We were facing east into the prevailing late afternoon trade wind, with the sun setting behind us. I'd showered and felt fresher, but my too-long hair was whipping around my face. I was constantly replaying the loss of my girlfriend, second-guessing myself and wondering if I should have done anything differently to keep her.
Dinghies passed through the anchorage constantly. Some were being rowed, some were small sailing prams, but most were powered by outboard motors. A red inflatable appeared on a course directly toward Rebel Yell, a solitary man sitting on the boat's side tube steering a small outboard by hand. In a minute, the boat pulled up alongside the bow beneath me. The man was about my age or perhaps a little younger, maybe thirty.
I didn't know him, but I'd seen him around, in the anchorage and in George Town. He was single-handing a plain-vanilla fiberglass sloop, maybe a Hunter or a Catalina. He was tan and barefoot, wearing the usual faded T-shirt and paint-stained cargo shorts. His hair was an unruly sun-streaked mop, a little blonder than mine, and his eyes were brown to my blue. I nodded and looked down at him, waiting for him to state his purpose. He snapped the gear lever on the side of his ten-horsepower motor into neutral and grabbed hold of my bowsprit's bobstay wire to remain in place.
"Hey, hello," he said, looking up and smiling. He had a brushy mustache and stubble on the rest of his face, where he appeared to have shaved off the rest of his beard perhaps a week or two before.
"Hello yourself," I responded. "What's up?" Did he need to borrow a tool? My schooner sometimes gave the appearance of being a floating workshop, with its nearly square pilothouse and less-than-smooth hull plating. Or was this a business venture about to be pitched? Was he peddling a treasure map, another salvage opportunity, or a smuggling scheme? It wouldn't be the first time. But you had to listen to them all in order to find the genuine nuggets in the fool's gold.
He stood up on the plywood floorboards of his inflatable so that he was closer to my level. His dinghy was unstable in the light chop, so standing took a little balance and coordination even while clutching the bobstay wire.
"I saw you careened over today," he said.
So had the crews on dozens of other boats. I nodded and grunted acknowledgment. It was hard to miss a sixty-foot schooner lying on her side in knee-deep water.
"I saw the girl leaving on the white inflatable. She your girlfriend? Wife maybe?"
"What's your point?" I was growing irritated. It had not been a good day, losing Cori. Our first few months together had been like a magical honeymoon, one of the happiest periods of my life. Maybe the happiest. I'd thought we were in love, and I already missed her badly.
He said, "I saw the boat she went out to. Topaz."
"Yeah. I saw it too." I was in no mood to discuss my love life with this stranger.
"Well, I think you'll want to hear what I have to say. I know some things about that boat, things that you'll want to know. I mean, if she was your girlfriend and you still care anything about her. But hey, if you don't want to hear it, I'll shove off."
I looked at him. "Okay, I'm listening."
"Don't worry, I'm not asking for anything. I just thought you should know what I know about Topaz, since your girlfriend's on it." He stared up at me, still hanging onto the bobstay wire. The water was fairly calm in the lee of Stocking Island; otherwise, Rebel Yell would be pitching, causing the bowsprit above his head to lunge up and down.
I looked him over carefully. He seemed sincere and was making an effort to be friendly. In spite of his scraggly hair and whiskers, he was clear-eyed and articulate, not a burnout or a drunken bum like so many of the broke sailors trapped in Elizabeth Harbour. "Okay, come on around to the stern and tie off."