35 - Into the Storm

Fuel dock texaco sign in Las Palmas Canary Islands photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-1] Fuel dock in Las Palmas, Canary Isls.

After dark, we entered the harbour. I tied to a closed fuelling dock, Elena vanished into a crawlspace, and I waited, nervously tidying up. By special arrangement, a Spanish official showed up to do who-knew-what. He was pretty coy about the whole deal. It felt like something Jon set up ahead of time; like the official was doing us a huge favour. Being at the mercy of anyone in that manner is bloody anathema to everything I am! Nevertheless, as long as we followed his rules, he would let us stay -- turn a blind eye, so to speak. He granted me, and only me, one week in the country.

Wrapping up, he called a couple of his sailmaker friends to act as our guardians. I think he was making sure we got out of there -- pronto. "Only seven days! One minute more and I must report you myself. I have not seen the Russian girl, and she must not be seen by anyone. If anything goes wrong, I only know that it is you, I have met."

Stationary objects appeared to be receding. A hallucination caused by staring endlessly at oncoming waves. The brain compensates for an environment constantly in motion. Come to a stop and the brain keeps on compensating. I stepped onto the floating dock, and then, actual land. I was wobbly and disoriented -- and no, I hadn't been at the scotch. It was night. Every light was too bright. Every noise too loud. Every moving object was threatening and unpredictable. My legs were weak: the chicken legs effect from not using them -- and then, only in a variable gravity environment. Elena and I hadn't been that far apart since Marmaris. I had a weird, panicky feeling, like something crucial was missing. Worst of all, every face I saw, terrified me.

Meg Aitken climbs onto the solar panels and radar arch to replace the radar photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-2] Refusing to be victimized by an opportunistic company rep, Meg removes the under warranty radar to replace it with a different brand.

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The sail-makers, a couple of public-school chums, showed up bright and early. They'd been briefed on our situation, knew that one of us officially didn't exist. They coordinated tradesmen and shops, found parts and services mindbogglingly fast. Even the steam-punk windvane made it to a machine shop. Success really does come down to who you know.

It's who you don't know that's going to get you screwed.

The bricked radar needed a fifty-dollar part. The MajorBrand technician said he could change it in a few minutes for six hundred euros!

I thought he was joking. Elena popped up the companionway to remind me it was brand new and under warranty.

"Oh, warranty is bad." MajorBrand man said. "To fix under warranty will take a very long time. But six hundred, and few minutes. Radar is working like new."

"It is new! Nah, I'm not paying that for warranty work." Getting screwed just because one is screwable, makes my blood boil.

"Your choice!" He slammed his case and stomped off.

The English chaps were dropping off the spinnaker and caught the tail end. "You do realise, he was playing a con on you? It's rather simple, he'd get a few euros from MajorBrand for fixing it. Which is really not worth his time, when he can pressure you into paying whatever he thinks he can get from you because you are under a deadline. Don't let it bother you. It happens to everyone foreign. It's nothing personal."

Furuno fruit bowl decorates Meg and Elena's table, and it was even under warranty photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-3] Turns out, the radar (under warranty), was useful after all.

"It sure felt personal. Like, how did he know we to leave."

"You're not local, are you?" Then, "Right, you two. We need to get you on your way. Is the autopilot back?"

"Ah, no."

Each of them made a frantic phone call. "The ExpensiveBrand man says he doesn't have the parts and can't get your autopilot back to you for a few weeks. Says he's too busy. If I were you, I would forget the autopilot and be on your way."

The other sailmaker continued. "Most componentry is simply not worth the risk of getting caught in the local set-up. The ExpensiveBrand man is notorious on this island. In fact, he may be the godfather of this whole racket. He has crooked connections all through this town and its courts. He probably had you pegged the minute you phoned. He is definitely up to something or you would have your autopilot by now, fixed or not."

The boat was re-provisioned, refuelled and repaired. We even had a few days to spare. Apart from the autopilot's hydraulic pump and motor -- literally, the beating heart of the unit -- we were ready to go. It was removed several days earlier by a morbidly obese Frenchman and his scantily clad, female assistant. "It's worth something like five grand!" I moaned. "And I should just leave it?"

Elena calls for help while an extortionist watches. Las Palmas, Canary Islands, scam photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-4] The autopilot extortionist supervises his scantily clad assistant (her bahookie just visible through the access port on the right) while Elena phones the sailmakers for a desperate intervention.

"Absolutely, it sounds like what he pulled on the German couple." He was already dialling another number. "That was a nice boat, brand new."

"What do you mean by was a nice boat'?" I asked.

"When they tried to leave, ExpensiveBrand man had the police seize their boat. There was nothing they could do but wait for the claim to go to court. As I recall, the couple had to leave the country or apply for residency. I assume, their retirement savings was in that boat. It's still here. One of the yachts tied to mooring balls outside the breakwater." He frowned at his phone. Dialled again. "I will feel him out, carefully. See what I can do. No promises." He climbed out to the cockpit.

The remaining sailmaker explained. "It is a common trick. A crooked tradesman claims a foreigner with an expensive boat owes him for some spurious expense. The foreigner, quite rightly, questions the invoice, or refuses to pay altogether. Then the police seize the yacht connected to the invoice until the claim is settled in court, which can take years. By then, the storage and legal fees exceed the value of the yacht. The owners, if they haven't abandoned the yacht or died by then, somehow don't receive notification to defend their case in court, and forfeit their vessel. The con-man and his eh hem associates get it all. It's a rather brilliant plan."

The sailmaker in the cockpit started down the companionway. "Just ditch the autopilot and get out of here." He pocketed his mobile. "I asked if I could come by with some cash and pick the thing up. He said he's going to feed my dog steak and razor blades, after he puts that thing back on your boat."

"He's bringing it back? You mean now." Sounded like a score to me.

"Then he will kill my dog. He'll do it too and think nothing of it. He's out to blackmail you and Lenna. Knows her name and everything. He's coming over to stick that thing back in and stick you with the bill."

"So, he screws me out of a couple of hundred Euro? I just want to get the hell off this poxy island."

"It doesn't work like that. His invoice will be contentious, likely in the thousands."

"Then, I'll call the police."

"Didn't you listen? That is precisely what he wants. Remember, you are the foreigner. They will chain your boat until his claim against it, against you, is settled." He gestured at Elena. "You have a lot more to lose than your boat. Just go. Your marina bill is paid. You are all set except for that autopilot. Best of luck, you two. I'm off. I have to get my dog."

Scanmar monitor windvane rusted to hell, on the floor of a machine shop. photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-5] That stupid, crappy, horrible, terra-cotta wind-vane in a Las Palmas machine shop for repairs or a bleeding miracle.

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"Hola?" It was the scantily clad assistant. "My boss, he is coming soon. I am to install back your autopilot."

Elena slammed a door below. I winced. "Just give it to me. I'll install it myself."

"Oye, no es possible! I shall then wait for my boss."

"Fine, wait!"

When The Boss lumbered up, wheezing and sweating, I offered to pay for his time and take the autopilot, as is.

"Oh no, no, nooo!" He insisted on installing it. Told me we would settle the bill while his girl put it in. From a book of invoices, he ostentatiously handed me one.

"A thousand euros!" I gasped!

"Ah, pardonnez-moi, there has been an error." He snatched back the invoice, and then, flourishing a gold pen, modified it by scratching a five over the one.

"Right. That's fucking brilliant."

"I should think one in your situation would not wish to attract attention." He sneered.

I pulled two hundred Euros from my wallet. "Take it. Please, it is all I've got."

He did, crumpling the bills and dropping them at his feet. "Perhaps we should call for the police. They can settle this."

"I've heard how they settle things. I'll pay you."

"Very wise."

I oozed. "Of course, five thousand is more than fair. But Monsieur, not being in your league, I don't carry that much cash on me, nor could I get it at the drop of a hat. Just keep the autopilot."

"I could, but you still have my bill for five thousand euros. You must pay. You can keep your autopilot. It does not work, anyway."

"Will you take Visa? You threw all the money I have on the floor."

"I deal with cash. We can go to the bank together. My girl will look after your boat. And, your little friend in the cabin."

"It is way beyond my daily cash limit!"

"Your game is not my concern. I will be back in the morning for my money, in cash, and perhaps I will bring the police." He nodded slowly and turned to leave. "Do not try to leave from here. I know what you are thinking."

Elena Vaytsel with a lot of groceries photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-6] Provisioning in Las Palmas

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"I need to email Jon." I growled. Then to Elena, "Put my jacket on, pull up the hood and get out there."

"Excuse me?"

"We need to fill the water tanks and get the hell out of here."

"You think your jacket is going to fool anybody?"

"I don't think that Frenchman or his poule du lux are watching. He thinks he's scared me into paying out." Then it hit me, the banks were closed by the time he put the screws on me. No way I could get the money, even if I wanted to. "Maybe he's hoping we'll chance a runner, so he can take our boat."

Meg Aitken with a big grocery bill photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-7] Now, that's a grocery bill!

"Why not just come with the police and take our boat now?"

"Probably a time period, even scammers have to give their dupes to pay the invoice. Makes it look less like extortion."

"So, by running we bring the cops right away?" Elena stood on the companionway's first step. "Why not wait, make him think you will pay to him?"

"Because I don't think he really wants the money. I think he'd rather have the boat. Besides, he knows you're on board. No matter what we do, we're completely screwed!" It's not like Elena needed me screaming at her. I stood, tried to put my arms around her. Got pushed away. Yup, I deserved that. "I'm sorry, but we don't have time to think. Please, start filling the water tanks. I'll email Jon then we'll change places."

Elena Vaytsel with the British Flag photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-8] Planning to make their escape at night and during a storm, Elena does a little rebranding for good measure.

"Bladt, there is lightning. It is not looking good out here." Elena was halfway out the companionway.

"Just go!" I waved her away. A peal of thunder drove home her point about the weather. I flung the laptop open and jammed in the satellite modem's serial connection.

Elena opened a hatch and yelled through it. "Meg, this is not funny. We can't sail in this." She lost control of the hatch cover. The wind slammed it shut with a crash. At least I didn't hear any screaming.

She had the water tanks full and was trying to shut the overstuffed cockpit lockers. Lightning laced the sky. Gusty wind had the palm fronds cha-cha-cha'ing like crazed maraca players.

Twilight compounded the darkness of the building storm. Sheets of rain and spray roared above deck. It sounded like a train wreck overhead. Wretchedly deteriorating conditions and one very upset, Russian illegal, had me paralysed.

The satellite modem flashed an incoming message: "GET OUT OF THERE NOW! GET OUT. E-MAIL FROM SEA. If you can't sail, you NEED to take Elena by taxi to the airport and make a refugee claim at customs RIGHT NOW! Those are Spanish Feds. Not local cops. It is an extortion racket. They will take the boat and arrest you for people smuggling. Think of Elena, better she turns herself in to the Feds NOW, than get arrested.

I showed her the message.

Meg Aitken installs a monitor windvane before a storm photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-9] Meg installs the repaired windvane contraption before a storm.

"Nothing has changed from Gibraltar. I didn't leave Russia to be a refuge in Spain. I am not leaving this boat. It is my home. You are my family. It isn't meant to end like this. You take me to the airport, you will be killing me!"

"It's not my intention, but you have a choice. It is your life at stake. You need to know what is happening."

"I know what is happening. Some criminal wants to steal, but I cannot be stolen. We are stronger than this criminal. He thinks we are scared ducks and that storm is too strong. He will not think we will try to get away from here."

Elena and I sat across the table from each other. We held hands. Listened to the storm with the lights off, scared out of our minds. It had to let up. Eventually.

Four am rolled around. The storm was still blasting at full force. The harbour police boats were pinned down. The port was closed to small craft, and dawn lurked just a couple of hours away. We hadn't seen activity on shore or on the water since nightfall.

"OK, let's go for it," I whispered.

Elena nodded. "No matter what happens I want you to know one thing."

"Sounds like last words, and nothing I don't already know, so don't say it."

"No silly, and yes, I love you, but what I was going to say was, thank you."

We crossed oceans of time to find each other ... We are crossing oceans of water, going home. Painting by Elena Vaytsel on the breakwater at Las Palmas, Canary Islands. Meg and Elena Love Ocean Home Stars Love photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-10] We crossed oceans of time to find each other ... We are crossing oceans of water, going home. Painting by Elena Vaytsel on the breakwater at Las Palmas, Canary Islands

"That's it?"

"Isn't that enough?" She pulled on a boot. "Come on, let's get going."

Boadicea's deck was littered with broken palm fronds and plant debris. I swept it from the helm and started the motor.

Elena stood at the bow. "Ready! Let's go!" she ordered in Russian.

I released the stern lines.

Elena triggered the electric windlass to raise the anchor.

Boadicea inched into the fairway.

The howling wind forced us to shout. We were moving way too fast, pushed by the wind toward the opposite row of boats. Turn or crash. The wheel didn't budge! The steering was jammed. "Don't lift the anchor! Leave it down! STOP! LEAVE IT!" I screamed. Combined with full reverse, it might buy us a few seconds before we blew clear across the fairway into a row of big motor yachts.

"The son-of-a-bitch sabotaged the steering!" I waved frantically at Elena to get off the bow.

In full reverse, Boadicea swung to one side. The wind did the rest. We ended up perpendicular to the bows of the big motor yachts. "Grab a fender! Get it between us and whatever!"

Elena froze, then pitched sideways toward the powerboats. A grinding shudder came up from below. Boadicea came to a surrealistic, leaning stop less than a metre from the bow of the nearest motor yacht.

I did a double-take. "Holy shit! We've hung up on their anchor chains! Their chains, Elena!" I laughed like a fool. "Their anchor chains are holding us off. Bloody lucky we didn't hit anything."

"We are stuck on anchor chains, and that makes us lucky!?"

Palm trees in the wind and rain at night Meg Aitken photo photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-11] Storm force winds thrash these palm trees as Meg and Elena make a midnight escape for the high seas. Las Palmas, Canary Islands

"Not stuck! Just stopped and I don't know for how long." I jumped down the companionway. Wiped out on the wet floor, scrambled for the electrical panel. I killed every glowing breaker I saw. The anchor windlass, I left on.

Elena ran to the bow. I lunged for the wheel. With the hydraulics disabled, it turned. "Raise the anchor. Go, go, go!" Boadicea lurched, shuddered. Sickening grinding sounds came from below, but the bow lifted slowly away from the parked yachts. Our own chain was stretching out, pulling our bow toward the middle of the fairway. I saw torch beams cutting through the rain saturated air like lightsabers. There might have been a bullhorn barking in Spanish. I couldn't tell.

The crunching and grinding stopped. A metre from the chains, two, two and a half, and then Elena was shrieking from the bow. "Anchor off bottom!"

Throttle to full forward. Excruciatingly, we picked up water speed. I was frozen at the wheel, unable to breathe until enough water was flowing past the rudder to give me control. The anchor clattered into its cradle, and Elena ran for the cockpit. We rounded the fuel dock, still picking up speed. Arms and torches waved. At least no one seemed to be shooting. Still accelerating, we passed the harbour police dock. I noticed the speedboats safely tied up for the storm.

The opening to the breakwater was dead ahead. A raging maw of white water and exploding waves beyond it. Police cars raced along the northern section toward the opening. "What are they going to do, ram us?" It wasn't cars that worried me, but something that was meant to float and had a lot more horsepower. A flash of lightning and instantaneous thunder knocked the wind from my lungs. Elena dove for the cockpit floor.

I followed her lead, crouching behind the wheel. "What am I thinking? Fibreglass won't stop a bullet!"

"But they can not see where to shoot."

"Good point! And I suppose, a bit of plastic might slow it down." Boadicea barrelled forward, rearing and bucking through the breakwater opening. The first wave outside the breakwater nearly threw us overboard. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" I screamed.

Glancing back, I saw police silhouetted on the breakwater and the orange, firefly glow of a cigarette. I imagined the smoking copper telling his mates, "Ach, storm'll get em. What say we head back to the nick, lads? Taggart's on DVD."

Disaster area aboard Boadicea Elena Vaytsel Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 35-12] Bedlam aboard Boadicea

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 18:03 GMT ]]