A Most Fortuitous Meeting
In December, 1983 Jon Beadon (62-67) was sailing down the Red Sea to the Seychelles in a 50-foot steel ketch called ‘NYATI’. Nyati is the Zulu word for buffalo, and although the boat was far too beautiful to be likened to a buffalo, she was extremely tough and agile, just like her bovine namesake. The voyage took an unexpected turn which led to a very surprising encounter.
I had found a young Irishman called Patrick (what else?) as crew for the trip. We passed through Suez, my blood boiling yet again at the demands for Marlboro cigarettes and other forms of ‘Baksheesh’, headed south and readied for the expected strong southerly winds once past Port Sudan. These never appeared, and after a great three days of running free, the wind dropped and I was able to crank up the great big 70hp Ford ‘iron spinnaker’.
We kept up a steady 8 knots down to just north of Perim Island, when there was a loud bang from under the cockpit. I stopped the engine immediately and crawled into the engine space, could see nothing amiss, and slithered further aft to the gearbox. At first glance there was nothing wrong, so I yelled up to Patrick to restart the motor, he did so, and only when he engaged the gear did I realise that the coupling was not turning, so the shear pin had broken. I dived over the side to check that there was nothing on the propeller, and found the remains of some polypro rope, so I surmised that we had picked up a fish trap that had caused the extra strain on the shaft. I cleaned the strands of rope from the shaft and checked that the propeller turned freely.
A quick search through my spares box turned up a couple of bolts that were minimally smaller in diameter than the broken shear pin, so I inserted one of them, tightened the nut and started the motor. The bolt broke as soon as I engaged the drive. It seemed that the torque was too much for the slim stainless steel bolts. As I sat and pondered the problem, a light breeze rose from the south, which helped me make the decision to try and find a replacement shear pin.
I still had a couple of hundred miles to go towards Djibouti, and having to tack the whole way including the straits of Bab el Mandeb did not appeal to me, so without further ado, we set the mainsail and a jib and turned the bows towards the north in the direction of Hodeida in Yemen. I had stopped there before when working on a Djibouti based coaster, and although I had never been ashore, I was sure that there would be a workshop where I could get a couple of shear pins made.
We spent that night on a comfortable broad reach, arriving off the entrance of the bay at around 1000, and tacked easily in the calm waters down towards the harbour. I tried calling the port authorities on channel 16, but there was always a few moments silence before the rapid Arabic again flooded the airwaves, so I decided to just carry on and find a berth. There was an open bit of quay between two large dhows, and I was able to drop the main and glide the last fifty metres before letting fly the jib and drifting in to the quay. Patrick jumped up onto the dock and took the lines that I threw him, and there we were safe and sound. Oh! So wrong.
There was the sound of yelling, and two armed guards came hurtling down the dock, waving their Kalashnikovs in the air and shouting very unfriendly sounding words in Arabic. Patrick, who was still on the dock, received the butt of an AK in the stomach, and was roughly forced back onto the deck of Nyati, while I tried my best to show that I meant no harm to anyone, certainly not our attackers. I repeatedly tried to explain my nationality, brandishing my passport in one hand, while refusing to actually hand it over to the larger and more vociferous of these two buffoons. Eventually the second guard was dispatched towards the large port building further into the port, near a number of medium sized freighters that were alongside the quay of the commercial port.
Patrick and I sat on the cabin top in the sun, and waited patiently, while our khat-chewing sentinel kept his weapon trained on us. About an hour later a Jeep rolled up and came to a stop next to Nyati. A young-looking Arab with stars on the epaulettes of his shirt climbed out and spoke to me in reasonable English. He asked why we had entered the port without permission, and I tried to explain that I had tried repeatedly to gain permission, but that no one had replied to my transmissions. He grunted and asked what our business was in Hodeida, so I explained deferentially that I needed the services of a machine shop, and that it was really a very small and quick repair, that we could be out of his hair before sundown. The young officer was not convinced, and spoke rapidly to the guard, who saluted and turned back to us with his weapon readied. The officer then said that he would go and talk to the port director to see what could be done.
We sat on the cabin roof for another hour, by which time my patience had well and truly run out. I stood up and headed for the companionway hatch, ignoring the shouts of the guard. I swung down into the saloon, grabbed two hats and three bottles of water before re-emerging and offering the guard a bottle of water. He yelled something else and then motioned for me to throw the water to him, which I did. I sat down next to Patrick, gave him a hat and a bottle and explained that we would have to do something soon, as otherwise I feared that we could be held there for days.
A second guard appeared to relieve the original at around 1630, and I quietly told Patrick to stand up, stretch, and move towards the hatch. He did, and the new guard took very little notice. I then did the same, and joined Patrick in the saloon, where I explained what I wanted him to do. Patrick made a sandwich for us to gulp down and prepared himself for the proposed operation. The tide was as high as it would get, having lifted Nyati’s deck to the same level as the quay, and I had noticed that the second freighter on the commercial quay had a Red Ensign flying at the stern. Now was the time to try our luck. I put the remains of the shear pin in the pocket of my shorts, my British passport in the other pocket, and explained the timing to Patrick.
As part of the ‘baksheesh’ that I normally carried into the Suez Canal, there were always a couple of ‘Playboy’ type magazines, as I had found the Egyptians to be greatly enamoured of this kind of ‘smut’, I was hoping that the Yemenis would be equally smitten. Patrick casually walked up towards the bow, sat down with his back to the rail, and started to peruse the magazine, starting with the centrefold, He made some appreciative noises and chuckled a couple of times. Sure enough, the guard was curious, moved a couple of steps so as to be able to look over Patrick’s shoulder. Patrick played his part magnificently and turned his back slightly towards the stern, so that the guard also had to turn in order to continue feasting his eyes on the forbidden delights.
That was my cue; I quietly stepped over the rail and trotted silently up the quay towards the British ship that I had selected. As I approached the gangway, I saw another Yemeni guard, checked keffiyeh, Kalashnikov and all at the base. I slowed and tried to see the officer or bosun on deck, as the ship was taking on cargo. There was a pink-cheeked young fellow just forward of the gangway, and I called out in English, asking to speak to the mate. He immediately used his handheld radio and within a minute, the mate arrived at the head of the gangway. I explained very quickly what was happening, and he invited me on board, brushing aside the Yemeni guard’s objections.
I was taken straight to the mess, where there were a couple of officers having a beer. The mate went to find the captain, while I was offered a beer by an older officer. I asked the name of the captain, and was told that it was Captain Pym, I could hardly believe my luck, if it was Rodney Pym, he was an OP, probably three years my senior. Rodney entered the mess, and I introduced myself, explaining the situation, asking him whether he could help me. Rodney turned to the older officer, who turned out to be the Chief Engineer, and lifted an eyebrow. The Chief did not hesitate, but called for his second, and told him to take me to the workshop in the engine room and make up a few pins for me.
It took all of thirty minutes and the job was done, I had 5 shear pins made of high-tensile steel in my pocket. I returned to the mess, was offered another beer by Rodney, accepted it and drank his health, the health of the Queen, the Nautical College Pangbourne, and life in general.
I thanked everyone, slid down the gangway to the now dusky dock, and casually made my way to Nyati. I saw that Patrick (God bless him!) had got hold of a torch, and was still sitting in the same position with the guard craning over his shoulder. The guard noticed me as I climbed back on board, and I mimed stretching my legs as he started to make a scene and shake his gun at me. Then he hesitated and turned back to the magazine in Patrick’s hand. I called to Patrick and told him all was well, and that I would fit a pin immediately. I went below, crawled into the engine space, fitted the pin, which was tight enough to need knocking home with a hammer, and that was it. We were good to go.
I asked Patrick whether the guard had taken a break for anything, and he said that the man had been too intrigued, so I suggested that he gave the man the magazine, which he did. The guard immediately rolled it up and secreted it inside his loose uniform shirt, looking around guiltily as he did so. I told Patrick what we would do next, and we waited for the guard to move away, maybe for a toilet break. Sure enough, half an hour later he walked off into the dark of the dock, presumably to use the latrine.
Patrick and I worked fast and loosed bow, stern and springs, allowing the gentle southerly wind to blow us off the dock towards the open bay. I set the jib and we were soon into the outer anchorage, with no sounds of rage or pursuit, maybe the Yemenis were actually happy to have us just disappear! I started the engine, engaged the drive and listened happily to the water chuckling past the hull.
Thank you Rodney Pym, you were a real saviour!
[Editor’s Note: Rodney Pym (60-64) died suddenly at sea in October, 2001, aged 54. He had spent his whole career at sea and always kept in close contact with the OP Society. In 1977 he left the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and moved to Harrison (Clyde) Ltd. He retired as Shipmaster in 1996 and became a Trinity House Licensed Deep-Sea Pilot, taking ships from the Channel to the North Sea and continental ports and return. In 1997 Rodney was elected onto the Council of the Merchant Navy Officers’ Association NUMAST.]