Pirates

O tempora, o mores’, the old Latins used to say, confirming their ability to express exceedingly difficult concepts in a few words. To us, children of progress, this means essentially that things are not what they used to be any more. And style is certainly one of these things. The same can be said for pirates. Indeed a despicable individual armed with an AK47 speeding around the Gulf of Eden or the South China Sea at 40 knots, or a mafia thug ferrying desperate Nigerians at 5000 euros a pop between Albania and Italy, swift at getting rid of the goods who have already paid, has not much to do with Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. But there is still room for a little bit of poetry in modern maritime mischief.

Once upon a time, yachtsmen calling at a faraway port received a warm welcome by the local communities and could even make the news. The first and best of all, Joshua Slocum, was even invited by Oom Paul Kruger, the legendary first president of South Africa, in his own palace. Indeed the old chap could not understand exactly what all the fuss was all about, convinced as he was that the Earth was flat and therefore a circumnavigation pure nonsense. Today, with thousand of yachts calling at every possible haven between Nunavut and Cebu, one can hardly expect to be welcomed by someone else than the immigration officer, eager to verify that no bipeds are sealed under the chart table. It was therefore with a certain surprise that, not more that an hour past our arrival in Puerto Deseado, Argentine Patagonia, I heard someone knocking on the hull. A lively chap in trainers, jogging attire and disarming smile introduced himself as the president of the welcome committee of the local yacht club, and said matter of factedly that I was invited for dinner. The Argentine version of a yacht club is a serious business. In Buenos Aires these places come with in-house18-hole golf courses, three marinas, five swimming pools, 400 servants, astronomical fees and compulsory blood tests for would-be members to check if the colour is blue. Puerto Deseado’s version was somewhat a lesser achievement, consisting on a group of friends with a shack, no marina, and a single dilapidated dock sticking out of the sand except at spring high water. Indeed Cadeau, the sole floating sailboat within a radius of 500 miles, was moored to a shipyard service pontoon.

‘When they bring you a donkey, be ready with the rope’, and soon I found myself in a generous modern saloon driving swiftly up the hills overlooking the town. Indeed the house where the car stopped stood highest around, a healthy two-storey villa with ocean view.

Marcos, my host, introduced me to his pretty and very kind wife and to Igor, a large bearded chap straight out from a pirate movie, then we started for a delicious dinner of fish and prawns, very unusual in Argentina where every human processes slightly less than a whole cow each month.

The conversation was far from boring, and each of us produced a vigorous amount of sea stories. Marcos, in his fifties, had visited any Patagonian island, including Cape Horn, with nothing less than… a kayak! Which is like doing the Paris-Dakar with a moped. Igor had seen quite a lot of blue himself. He had recently dried up his black ‘Cayman’, a sturdy wooden 50 footer, right there in Puerto Deseado, to the more rewarding job of ‘fleet manager’ for a group of seven massive Spanish fishing trawlers based right there but operating around most of the South Atlantic.

‘What does a fleet manager do?’ I asked quite naively.

‘Well, you know, there are several aspects to consider when you operate a fleet in these waters’ he answered rather airily.

‘Such as?’

‘Consider that these vessels main target are shrimps. You might be interested to know that these are literally scooped up the bottom with nets. The latter have a certain mesh size so that only the bigger animals get entangled. It’s the law that defines the mesh size’

‘You mean that all the 40 or so vessels I saw two days ago were actually dredging the bottom?’

‘Ah, you were south of Camarones? Good, so you can easily imagine what will be left after they sail through’

‘ Thank God they are regulated’ I added even more naively

‘Well, there are finer details to be considered. You see, every vessel must embark an inspector who controls that the correct net is used. The moment the fellow boards the ship, we hand him 4 grand, I mean dollars, of course, in an envelope and a thick set of porn magazines, and we basically seal him into a cabin for a week’

‘I gather you use a finer mesh?’ interjected Marcos

‘Quite’

‘And what happens after a week?’

‘If the fishing is good, we open the door, hand another 4 grand and a new set of porn, and close again. And again after another week. God willing.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Indeed I am. But you know, one of those ships grosses between 50 and 60 million dollars worth of fish each year, so there are many interests at stake. Everything must be dealt with properly’

‘And how much does Argentina earns from all this bounty?’

‘ Let me see, say 50,000 dollars of fishing permit, more or less the same in bribes, scattered value added on the vessel maintenance… let’s say 150 grand. Trifles, anyway’

‘Indeed he’s serious’ added Marcos ‘and he is a sailor as well. Tell Marco where you got the Cayman’s engine’

‘In South Georgia! It was a generator in the old Norwegian whaling station, abandoned and there for the taking! Works brilliantly, you know?’

 

The pleasant evening went on among glasses of wine and pleasant chatting, until the crossing claimed my forces and Marcos drove me back. The morning after I had to catch a flight to Buenos Aires and Tracy, my first mate, remained aboard and get herself well acquaintaned with the hospitable Marcos.

‘And, by the way, do you know what is Marcos’ job?’ asked me Tracy when I came back

‘No, but I spent a long time wondering’

‘Well, he is the Santa Cruz Province District Attorney’

‘You’re kidding, right?’

‘Absolutely not’

 

In the following months I recollected scattered news about Igor, and none of them was actually gleaming. Felice Raggio (Happy Ray), Italian born, Belgian citizen, aka Igor, has a long story behind, unfortunately obscure to self. Someone who spent many a dinner with him and his wife in Buenos Aires said he was an amiable chap, and that the Cayman was the vessel who wins hands down the record in the number of crossing of the River Plate between Uruguay and Argentina, rivalling the ferry service. Indeed most of the Argentine Yachting community never approved wholeheartedly the 112% tax on yacht parts. But 22 miles away from the mighty Buenos, the same goods could be purchased duty free in Uruguay, provided papers were filled. Igor filled them for a vast number of Argentineans and saved them the 22 miles as well.

My doubts as to how he did so, for so long and unpunished were explained by other sailors. It appears that, in the year 1982, March 19th precisely, Igor and the Cayman found themselves casually close to South Georgia, one of the several HM Queen Elisabeth II’s possession. Again casually, the Cayman suffered some problems and asked for assistance. Those waters are usually as empty as the space between Jupiter and Saturn, but with a great stroke of luck two Argentinean army vessels were sailing nearby and offered to give assistance, escorting the Cayman to Grytvyken. Finding themselves in such a strategically important, well defended and magnificent island, they claimed possession of it in the name of the Argentinean Republic. Few days later the news arrived in Stanley, Falkland Islands, handed to the local governor by the chief officer leading the invasion army that conquered the archipelago. The Falkland War had begun. Igor in the meantime helped himself with some brand-new generators that were in a nearby warehouse. The story goes that the chap thus earned a certain favour from the authorities. More or less in the same years the Chileans, who were close to bombing Argentina for a matter of a couple of pebbles just out of the Beagle Channel for which the Pope had to be disturbed, declared Mr. Raggio Felice ‘persona non grata’ for unspecified reasons.

These is of course just alcohol fuelled yacht club chit chat, of which nothing, or indeed everything, might be true. But this is not the point. Coincidences are many, of course. If one has to admit candidly acts of corruption leading to a more or less complete depletion of the fishing stocks of a whole nation, one does not chose the house of the District Attorney, right? This is just another proof that good and evil do not exist, but just mingle in a ‘soup of the day’ where taste and ingredients vary every day according to the leftovers in the kitchen. Power of judgement to us is not given, and we can just like that soup or not. I liked Igor, especially because he was one of the first of a long string of characters who admitted proudly not to belong to any place and generally despise a consistent number of social rules.

Being a sincere liar, like a genuine pirate, is not conducive to widespread social success, but rather to selective introduction to the circles of the curious, of which the sea and vicinities abound. Usually self contained, they learn in due time to live well with themselves, with our without other people’s approval. Their mask is a revolving cover that turns fast when in curious and not boring company, so fast that one can somewhat see what’s behind.

Humans have an instinctive tendency to prefer interesting and genuine scoundrels to boring do-gooders, and I am no exception, provided the scoundrel is not violent, but simply resisting social control. And that’s probably what a pirate is nowadays, a man who refuses a social security number and a passport for principle, and not because he has something to hide. For people like these, the world gets smaller everyday, and the sea’s the only way of escape.

 

May 2007

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