By noon on Wednesday, Rebel was 200 miles west of Lisbon. After six days of steady motor-sailing we had passed most of the Iberian Peninsula. Because the swells were minimal, the boat’s motion was comfortable. Some of the men were bare-chested and wearing only shorts, attempting to darken their pale northern European skin and absorbing some vitamin D. They had all spent time in the tropics and understood the importance of gradual sun conditioning. Some of them did PT on the foredeck, alone or in groups. Others brought their kitbags topside, their contents removed for sorting. Musty blankets and unlaundered clothes were clipped to the lifelines to freshen and dry in the sunshine and breeze.
Tommy Pellow was up the mainmast in the crow’s nest. Anybody could take a turn there, but usually it was one of the two surfers. They could spend hours up there, so it was easy to forget about their presence aloft. Easy to forget—until everybody on the schooner heard Tommy call out, “Contact! Ship dead astern!” I glanced back, saw nothing, and then looked up. The surfer was standing on the seat facing aft, hugging the mast with one arm and pointing behind us with the other.
I grabbed my binoculars from the pilothouse and scanned the sea astern. I soon saw the reason for his yelling: a black dot was just poking over the horizon directly behind us. We had not seen so much as a speck during the past week, so as tiny as it was, it fairly leapt out at us. Since it was clearly visible behind us now, and it had not been there before, simple logic dictated that the vessel was overtaking us.
In a few moments, Colonel Rainborow was in the cockpit with his own binos. Like some of the others, he was wearing a tan T-shirt and his desert camo trousers. After a minute of observation, he asked, “Should we make a turn? To be sure he’s following us and not just overtaking us on a similar course?”
“No way; we’ll hold our course. If he’s a pirate, as soon as we turn he’ll know we’ve seen him. I’ll increase our speed a bit, but we’ll maintain the same heading. If he sees no activity, he might think we’re sailing on autopilot and nobody is on deck looking astern. It might make him more careless about his approach.”
Sergeant Major Tolbert, in running shorts and another tan T-shirt, joined us in the cockpit and conferred with the colonel in low tones, passing the binos back and forth. I nudged the throttle forward, and our motor-sailing speed edged up to nine knots. The winds had lessened over the voyage, and we were getting less push from the sails.
“Is that all she’s got?” asked Pat Maguire, who had come back into the cockpit by then.
I said, “There’s a little more, but it’s not worth risking the engine for. We can’t outrun her, so one or two more knots of speed won’t make any difference.” Before any of them could try to hijack the tactical planning, I announced, “Prepare your men for action. Get their rifles and war gear ready, but everything has to be done below decks and behind cover.” For now, we were just a dot on the contact’s forward horizon, but that would soon change. “Once they’re armed and ready, some of them can use the RIB for concealment. Another three or four can hide behind the pilothouse. One can stand on the ladder in the forward hatch, but just below deck. Two can lie down back here on the cockpit benches. The rest of them can hide in the pilothouse. I’ll leave the details of who goes where to you, but the point is to keep them hidden.”
Hung appeared. He already knew the pirate drill, so he passed us without speaking and removed the machine gun’s canvas cover. He patted the box on the left side of the gun, gave me a questioning look, and I nodded. He lifted the cover, opened the ammo box, dropped the first cartridges into the feed mechanism, slapped the cover shut, and then worked the action with a long pull on the charging handle. “Dushka ready, chu-tao. Sat hai-tac.”
“Sat hai-tac,” I agreed. “Kill the pirates.” Hai-tac literally meant sea robbers.
“Today we kill beaucoup hai-tac, chu-tau.” He was grinning. A battle with pirates was a joyful occasion for the old warrior. He feared dying in feeble infirmity, not in battle.
“I’ll put on the rack, you get the towels.” I had whittled and glued up a special wooden slat that clamped crosswise in front of the Dushka’s front sight. It was stored in a corner of the pilothouse with some other long, skinny items, such as the American flag rolled around its staff. Once in place, the rack extended a meter beyond each side of the barrel’s muzzle. Hung grabbed a few of his galley towels, draped them over the arms, and clothes-pinned them in place. Only the three-inch-high front sight peeked above the flapping cloth.
Hung clipped other towels to the aft lifelines and railings around the gun’s tripod. The intent was camouflage, of course. Towels drying on lifelines and stern pulpits are an ever-present feature on oceangoing vessel in sunny weather. The team’s musty clothes and bedding already clipped to the lifelines on both sides of the foredeck added to our laundry-day effect.
Pat said, “Well, this is shapin’ up to be a grand battle.” In the presence of the Brits, he often dialed his Irish accent up to a thick brogue—I think just to needle them.
Sergeant Major Tolbert squinted at him and asked in his round English accent, “And what in Gawd’s name is a ‘grand battle’?”
The Irishman laughed and replied, “Well, a grand battle is when you have time to prepare your guns and put in your ear defenders. That’s a grand battle.”
“And just what army were you in, then, to experience all these grand battles?”
“You know what fookin’ army, Bert—you were there, too. The Provisional Irish Republican Army.”
Tolbert’s face flushed nearly scarlet. “That was no army. Your Provie IRA were just terrorists, planting bombs in pubs.”
“Plantin’ bombs in pubs, did ya say? The first pub that was bombed was McGurk’s Bar in Belfast, in 1970. And as you well know, that was a Catholic pub, and the bomb was planted by your Ulster Volunteer Force, which was no more than an SAS sock puppet. So don’t tell me about bombs in pubs, when your side led the way.”
The sergeant major said, “Bollocks! And what about—”
“Not that tired old subject again,” hissed the colonel, lowering his binoculars and turning around to face the two. “Leave it, the both of you.”
But Pat Maguire wasn’t finished. “Does the Miami Show Band massacre ring a bell? That was your lot as well.”
“Bollocks! We had nothing to do with that. That’s all just IRA lies and propaganda.”
“Your Proddy Ulster Volunteers were an SAS black ops cutout, and we both know it.”
Tolbert snorted. “And the Provie IRA were all Taig Saint Patricks, is that it? What about—”
“Sergeant Major!” snapped Colonel Rainborow. “Call the men to lay below and prepare for action.”
By then we had an audience standing on both sides of the pilothouse, watching the scene in the cockpit and staring at the ship steadily growing behind us on the horizon.
Tolbert about-faced and bellowed, “You heard the man! Get below and break out the weapons. Come on, then, move it, you paralyzed veterans!”
I dropped below through my own deck hatch onto the double bed in the captain’s cabin and slid around to the foot, where I kept my body armor and chest plates, and strapped them on. Stuck my Glock 19 into its attached cross-draw holster on the left side. I took my foam earplugs from their little container and stuck them in my ears. If I forgot to do so later, or didn’t have time and found myself lighting off the Dushka without them, I would be deaf for hours and hear ringing for days (and I would permanently lose even more of my already diminished hearing).
Tommy was still aloft, now sitting backward on the lookout’s seat with a leg on either side of the mast. He called down, “She’s still gaining. Hard to judge her size yet.”
“Okay,” I called up. “Come on down before they’re close enough to see you.” Without radar, the size of the approaching ship and its distance were hard to estimate. Around me and all over the foredeck a dozen very serious men were kitting up, shoving magazines into their weapons, and moving into their positions. In a few minutes, all of them were prone or crouching behind some type of cover or at least concealment, so that they would remain invisible from dead astern.
Maguire and another of the Irish contingent came back to the cockpit, each of them carrying an M-60 belt-fed 7.62mm medium machine gun. He was the same man who had been involved in the galley altercation over peeling potatoes. This was the first time that I had seen the machine guns on the boat.
The M-60 had served from Vietnam to Iraq, but had been replaced as the American general-purpose machine gun by the M-240 during my time in the Marines. These M-60s looked to be in pristine condition. The bluing was not all worn off the metal as I remembered on the ones I’d seen. Either these two guns had lived very gentle lives, tucked away in armories, or they had been refurbished along the way.