Red Cliffs book cover

“I haven’t seen an M-60 in decades,” I said. “Where did you find them?”

“Massachusetts National Guard,” said Pat. “Same as the rifles. Somehow they got mislaid on their way to the furnace.” Both men were crouching below the level of the flapping towels, not needing to be told to stay low. “Now, here’s what I’m thinking, skipper. Me and Sean will lay flat and stay down out of sight. After the show begins, we’ll make ourselves useful as best we can.” Speaking to me, he shed most of his brogue; he could almost have been an American.

“Just don’t get too excited and shoot me—or my boat.”

“Oh, we’ll try not to, skipper.”

“Sometimes those old M-60s want to keep running, even after you let off the trigger.”

Sean said, “Not these, they won’t. But just in case, we’ll be sure and twist over the belt if that happens.”

Twisting the cartridge belt was the correct solution for a runaway M-60, so I gave him a thumbs-up. Each American-made machine gun had a plastic 100-round box clipped to the left side. More ammo boxes lay within the men’s reach. If the oncoming vessel wasn’t too heavily armed, we would give them a hot time at the very least.

Pat lay down on the port-side cockpit bench; the other Irishman went prone on the opposite side. Sean was a serious-looking fellow with reddish-brown hair. He was thick but not fat, medium height, unremarkable in appearance. Late thirties or early forties, more than a decade younger than Pat, so he was too young to have participated in The Troubles. Both were wearing green boonie hats, green T-shirts, blue jeans, and sneakers. No body armor, no chest rigs. Yellow plugs were sticking out of their ears.

I asked Sean, “Where are you from?”

“Where do you want me to be from?” he replied with almost no Irish accent. “Does it really make any difference?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Sean’s not the braggin’ type,” said Pat, “but he was in your American Special Forces: a Green Beret. And he was in the Irish Ranger Wing. It’s an all-star team we have on board, Danny Boy—even if they don’t talk about it much.”

Rainborow crouched low inside the open pilothouse door. Tolbert was just in front of the pilothouse, on the other side of the open front windows. From these two positions, Tolbert and Rainborow could communicate with their hidden men. All of them carried M-16’s, except for the two machine gunners with me in the cockpit, and another man with a third M-60 who was up forward. Everybody that I saw had bits of foam in their ears in preparation for the grand battle.

I said to their leaders and to anybody else who could hear me, “If we’re going to have a fight, I’ll start it with my heavy machine gun. Nobody else fires unless I do or I tell them to. Make every shot count. And for God’s sake, watch your firing lanes. This boat might be turning fast, so be careful where you point your guns.”

Tolbert repeated and amplified my instructions to the hidden riflemen, and added more of his own. The seas were not big, and although Rebel was heeling a bit to port as we motor-sailed southward, she was riding steadily without much pitch or roll.

The ship grew in size, no longer splitting the edge of the horizon but surrounded by ocean. A few more minutes and I could begin to make out some details on her with my Steiners. She had a blue hull and superstructure. No tuna tower, outriggers, cranes, or booms were visible against the sky. They seemed to be overtaking us by a good five knots, so they were making about fifteen through the water. Maybe that was their maximum, or maybe they had more speed held in reserve, but it wouldn’t matter to the final result. They would overtake us in an hour at the most.

Rainborow’s team settled in for the siege. Firing positions for the commandos were modified and improved upon. More clothes and towels were clipped on the lifelines to improve the deck camouflage and concealment, any movement made in a low crouch. In a half hour I could make out distinct details of the ship and estimate her size and her type even without seeing her side profile, which would have been more instructive. I could see by her finish that she was a fishing vessel or workboat, apparently stripped of working gear. A high, sweeping bow, with a superstructure and bridge deck above.

My binoculars were on their strap around my neck, and I took another careful look at the ship. A few details came into focus. Something on the foredeck looked like either a whaler’s harpoon cannon or a deck gun. And instead of following straight up our wake, when they were about a mile back they began to diverge from our course to pass us down our starboard side.

Rainborow asked me, “What do you think he’s up to? Are they going to pass us by?”

“Maybe, but I think they want to get a better look at us before they commit to action.” I crouched behind the machine gun, clutching its two vertical hardwood grips. One trigger for each set of fingers, so that if you lost an arm to enemy fire, you could at least finish your ammunition belt before you fell down dead.

As they opened the angle between us, I kept the muzzle trained on them, always presenting them with the same innocent picture of laundry drying on the back of a boat. I took another careful look with the binoculars, mindful of the sun and possible reflections. The vessel was close enough to see that she was constructed of wood, obvious from the uneven and choppy lines in her plank-built hull.

I could now see that the contraption on her bow was no harpoon gun. There was a man behind it and another man beside him. A third man was also on the bow but standing away from the deck gun. There were more men up one level, partly visible in front of their own bridge or steering station, and other men on the side of the superstructure. Over the years, I’d studied enough of them through rifle scopes, spotting scopes, and binoculars to know them on sight even at a distance. They were dressed mostly in black and brown. The ends of the rags wrapped around their heads streamed in the wind. So far, no flag was visible. It didn’t need to be to know who they were.

“Colonel,” I said, “I think one of them has an RPG.” They continued on a parallel track only a half mile back. If they held this course and speed, they would pass by our starboard side a few hundred meters off.

From the pilothouse, Rainborow, with his own binoculars still pressed to his eyes, said, “It looks like an Oerlikon gun on the bow. If I’m right, that’s a twenty-millimeter auto-cannon. See the big drum on the right side? If I remember correctly, it holds fifty or sixty rounds. If it’s in good nick, I’d say we have a rather serious problem.”

Pat Maguire raised his head above the cockpit benches to peek beneath the towels for another look and said, “A twenty-millimeter cannon? They can open up on us anytime, then, so why don’t they?”

Still clutching the Dushka’s twin grips, its barrel trained on the ship, I said, “They want to capture us, not sink us. They want what we’re carrying, and they want this boat as a prize. They want to get in close, scare us half to death, and make us surrender without a fight. That’s their SOP. But if they open up with that deck gun, I’m going to open up with mine. I only have fifty rounds in this belt, so you’ll have to do most of the job. Aim for the gun crew and the RPG. Those men on the bow have to be shot first.”

I heard Rainborow repeat my instructions to Tolbert, who repeated them to the rest of the team: aim at the men on the bow. Kill the Oerlikon gunners and the RPG man.

If the pirate vessel simply used their big gun on us from long range, we would have almost no chance of survival. The deck gun remained silent, but its barrel turned to track us. They were still gaining ground, but more slowly now. Five hundred yards back and five hundred to starboard.

They appeared to be slowing even more. Four hundred yards back. Easy for our riflemen if they were on dry land, firing from steady rests. But this was not dry land, and there was no such thing as a steady rest on a pitching, rolling sailboat, even in gentle seas. Now with just my bare eyes above the Dushka I could see the two men standing behind their deck gun, their loose black clothing rippling in the wind.

Behind me, I could hear Rainborow’s team muttering as they crept around the side of the pilothouse and the RIB to remain invisible to the oncoming pirates. I shifted my aim, following the ship until my barrel was pointing over Rebel’s starboard quarter. The towels around the front of the Dushka and clipped to the aft deck’s lifelines kept me hidden from the pirates’ view.

There were at least eight bearded men on their boat now visible to my bare eyes. More of its profile was visible as it advanced down our side on a parallel course. It was smaller than I had thought, perhaps thirty meters or a hundred feet in length. No need for binoculars now, I slipped the strap off my neck and laid them down. Up in the very bow of the pirate ship was a steel-pipe bow pulpit like a harpooner might have used. The RPG gunner had taken up a braced position inside the pulpit. His loaded rocket launcher was held sideways to us, the ugly warhead clearly visible, meant to be seen, meant to intimidate. Behind him on the foredeck, the Oerlikon gun kept its barrel trained on us.

A 20mm auto-cannon’s rate of fire would be machine-gun fast, so I would have to be even faster and more accurate with my 12.7mm Dushka. If their first shells missed us, or at least did not destroy us, I would have to chop up that gunner before his follow-up salvos finished the job and sank us. At sea, most gunners correct their fire by observing the curtain of spray where the rounds strike the ocean. It was normal to take some ranging shots and then make adjustments. Or he might try firing into the water across our bow, to encourage us to stop and surrender. No matter: if he opened up, so would I.

“What are they waiting for?” asked Sean, taking cautious peeks between the winches on the cockpit combings.

“I think they’re confused because they can’t see anybody on deck. If they think we’re running on autopilot and nobody is keeping watch, they’ll get a lot closer. Remember, they want to capture us, not sink us.” The enemy vessel was now well inside the effective range of my Dushka, as long as a bad roll or pitch didn’t throw off her barrel as I fired. The heavy machine gun was evenly balanced above its deck-welded tripod mount. If I was standing to fire, the Dushka’s grips would be level with my chest. But I wasn’t standing; I was crouching low, with one knee on deck.

Then a black flag slid up a pole behind their bridge and unfurled in the wind. A simple banner with a broad white scimitar against a black field. This was confirmation. The shit was going to hit the fan, no ifs, ands, or maybes.

Our VHF radio, always set on channel 16 at sea, crackled to life for the first time during the voyage. I heard a bit of Arabic muttering, then “Hey, come on, somebody waking up. We want to talk with you.” A heavily accented voice. Probably the first language was Arabic, but I guessed a French blend. Marseille or Morocco or anywhere in between. The message was repeated in French. Marseille had been a Muslim stronghold for so long that the voice on the radio could have been a jihadist who had been born in France. And maybe his father and his grandfather as well.

From the pilothouse Rainborow said, “Well, Captain, are we going to chat them up?”

“No. Let them wonder.” I wasn’t about to answer the radio. If they heard no response, they would think that maybe our radio was broken or turned off. Then we heard a rapid exposition in Arabic, probably an ultimatum for us to see the way of Allah and his prophet. I could make out a few Allahu akbars.

My Dushka’s front sight, sharply pointed on the top and shrouded on both sides with protective metal wings, was bladed on their deck gun as I steadied the leveled barrel with both grips. I crouched lower, my left knee on deck. Our two vessels were close enough that I could pick out individual human targets. Some were bare-headed, but every face was bearded to a greater or lesser extent.

I was looking straight up the muzzle of their deck gun as its barrel swept up and down the length of Rebel Yell. The pirate vessel slowly crept ahead, closing the distance between us. Even without seeing any crew on board their target, they were being extra wary. Hidden riflemen were not exactly an unheard-of ploy in the game of cat and mouse at sea between pirate and prey. Another try on the radio, another angry voice mixing Arabic, French, and English. The main gist of what I understood involved forcibly committing painful and humiliating unnatural acts upon us as foreplay to cutting off our kafir heads. They were trying to goad a reaction, but there was still no response from our radio, and nobody visible on our deck.

Then she was nearly flanking us, less than 300 meters to starboard and only 200 behind. I anticipated a warning burst from their deck gun exploding in the water ahead of us at any moment. Instead, their RPG gunner turned, assumed a new position braced against their bow pulpit, and took aim at us. His rocket’s warhead became a black dot resting on his shoulder. It was a view I’d seen before, through a rifle scope.

I expected them to gradually edge close alongside us with their most menacing weapons brought to bear. I hoped that the leaders on their bridge were gathered around their radio, discussing the sea-jihad pirate theory that cowardly infidel sailors were so terrified of Allah’s mighty warriors that they would all hide below deck until their ship was boarded and captured, hoping to survive as kafir slaves by offering no resistance and begging for their miserable lives.

Come a little closer, boys, we’re almost there. As soon as I obtained a steady sight picture on their foredeck gun between rolls, it would be go-time. I knew that most of Rainborow’s men were drawing beads on their RPG gunner, and would let fly the moment after I did. I was just about done waiting. My index and middle fingers were already caressing both triggers, the wavering tip of my black front sight hovering around the gun crew on their foredeck.