Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Well, folks have been asking me about my autobiography. It’s not done. Dunno what to say except that writing about my life is a long and slow task, partly because of the variety in my life, partly because there’s no surprises ’cause I’ve heard the whole thing so it gets boring at times, and mostly because far too often my monkey-mind sees something shiny and goes haring off after it, leaving autobiographical scribing for a future date.
So anyhow, to fill in the time until the autobiography is finished, here’s part of the story of my looney life. This was something that occurred back in 1984, and it has nothing to do with weather or climate at all. A friend and I had been hired to go to Fiji, with my lovely ex-fiancee of over 30 years now, to install a blast freezer on a beautiful 60-foot (18 metre) steel sailboat called the Askoy II. We just called her “the noble Askoy”, we lived on her while we did the work. My wife was ship’s nurse and cook, my friend and I built and installed the freezer.
Figure 1. The noble Askoy under sail off of Suva Harbour, 1984.
A few years after the crew and I finished installing the blast freezer and we left the boat, the Askoy was later bought by smugglers, used in some illegitimate ventures, and subsequently seized in Fiji. There she sat at the dock for a few years, eventually sinking and being refloated there, still tied to the dock. A friend of mine named Lindsay bought her at auction for a thousand bucks. He fixed her up and went to take her to his home, New Zealand. Just as he arrived, the engine died and she went up on the beach …
where she sat for years before being rescued by some Belgians. Turns out the boat was once owned for a few years by Jacques Brel, one of the few Belgian stars, and before that, she was the pride of the Royal Belgian Yacht Club, so a bunch of Belgican folks put together a foundation and salvaged her from the beach and took her back to Belgia, her ancestral home, as you see below
where she’s now been refitted and is almost ready for sea again. Lindsay’s story of the Askoy and the wreck and the subsequent salvage is here. … but dang it, the story of the noble Askoy, that’s another story, not the story I set out to tell. See, that’s the problem with writing an autobiography, you get side-tractored all over the dang place, it’s hard to hold a fixed course in that kind of weather. Anyhow, the noble Askoy now looks like this, hooray, she lives again,
and is slated to put to sea again in the New Year, 2013. The history of the Askoy is here, and of Harlow Jones, her erstwhile captain that I worked for at the time, and the Harlow Island Packet Trading Company … but there it is, I’m getting diverticulated again, that’s enough about a marvelous boat returned Lazarus-like from death on a distant beach. Here’s the story I started to tell you, a story of modern piracy, from the time when my gorgeous ex-fiancee and I were living on the noble Askoy and working on the blast freezer, anchored up just offshore from the Royal Suva Yacht Club.
“Piracy?? … You boys don’t know what piracy is these days …”
I was in a group of sailors sitting in the bar at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, some of us from the Askoy crew and some off other boats, watching one of those lovely Fijian sunsets and talking over stories we’d heard about recent acts of piracy — yachts lost in the Southern Philippines, Vietnamese boat people savaged by Thai ‘fishermen’, rape and murder in the Straits of Singapore. This was back in the eighties, before the Somalis pretty much got a lock on that particular sector of the black economy.
Old Bill sat next to the group of us, about six beers into his usual evening. Bill was an Englishman, who usually bored everyone with his highly doubtful story that he was married to Samoan royalty. He must have been listening in on our conversation, because he said “I had the bad luck to find out about modern piracy. You think it’s all pistols and eye patches? Well, that was in the old days. Modern piracy’s different, let me tell you.”
We waited for him to ‘tell us’, but he just sat quietly looking at the bar. After a while, the message got through, and we asked Waisaki to bring him another beer. “Better make it a Black Russian,” Bill said. Waisaki brought the Black Russian, smiled, didn’t say anything, just listening to the story. Bill drank it in one swallow. “Black Russians lubricate the throat, y’know. Medical fact … now, where was I?”
“Oh, yes. Well, this all started when I was fishing up in Samoa. Tuna fishing on my own boat, as sweet a boat as you might ever want to see. Fifty-six foot long, all the modern gear. Name of the ‘White Star’. I was making good money fishing it, I was sitting pretty. Fridays, I would come back into Apia, spend the weekend with my young wife. Did I ever tell you I was married to Samoan Royalty?”
We allowed that yes, he had indeed told us that.
“They must have been watching me and knew my schedule, because one Monday morning, I came down to the docks, and my beautiful boat was gone! … Gone, dammit! When I asked around, some people said that three guys had come down on Friday night, gone on board, started it up, and drove it out of the harbor.
“I called the authorities, we put the word out, I even hired a helicopter, but that was a thousand bucks an hour for nothing. I was furious, all my money was tied up in that boat, gone …”
The word “gone” reminded him of his glass, and he looked at it until we signaled to Waisaki to fill it up again. Waisaki smiled. “Make it a double,” Bill said. When it came, he drank it in one swallow … “Where was I?”
“No I wasn’t, I was telling a story.”
“Oh, right. Well, we didn’t find the boat. I was in a blue funk. Then, about three weeks later, I flew from Samoa to Fiji on some business, and damned if the ‘White Star’ wasn’t sitting at the dock in Suva, looking pretty run down. I went to the police, filled out the forms, and had the boat impounded.”
“What luck!”, someone said, “did you get it back?”
“I’m coming to that. The guys on board claimed to be the real owners of the boat … said they had a Bill of Sale from me, with what they claimed was my signature at the bottom. Bunch of damned forgers, they were. So I filed a complaint and took ‘em to court. The court said the calendar was crowded, it would be a couple of weeks until the case would be heard, so they put a guard on the boat and we all settled down to wait.”
“Who were these guys?”
“Well, they claimed that they were part of some corporation called ‘Deep Sea Limited’, out of Australia.”
“Couldn’t you prove it wasn’t your signature on the Bill of Sale?”
“I figured I might, but I talked to a barrister and found out how that one goes. You get an expert to say it isn’t your signature, they get two experts to say it is, you get three experts, they get four … it goes on forever.” The word ‘forever’ seemed to send him into a brown study … or perhaps it was a Black study, so we gave Waisaki the high sign again. “Make it two doubles,” Bill said. I doubted very much if one of them was for any of us. He drank the first one in a single swallow. … “Where was I?”
“Right … Turned out the signature didn’t mean a damned thing anyhow, ‘cause one morning I was driving down the hill into Suva, you know the road by the old cemetery with the view of the harbor, and I saw the ‘White Star’ heading out the channel past the wreck of the old ‘Nam Hai’ … sonsabitches had gotten the guard drunk, and made off with my boat again. I drove like hell over to the Fiji Navy Base. The Commander got their boat fired up, guys were running all around, the Commander said ‘How fast does your boat go?’ I said ‘Eleven knots’ … all the activity died down. ‘Let’s go, they’re getting away,’ I shouted. The Commander said ‘Our fastest boat only does 10 knots …’”
“A trifle slow for a stern chase,” I commented.
“Modern piracy,” Bill said, and drank down the second double.
“What did you do?” There was another long pause, and another nod to Waisaki … “Make it a pitcher,” he said, “saves trouble in the long run.” Waisaki brought the pitcher of Black Russians and smiled, a big easy knowing Fijian kind of smile. He’d heard all of Bill’s stories more than once. “Where was I?” Bill asked.
“Moving a little bit slow to catch the boat.”
“Oh yes. Well, they had let slip that the ‘Deep Sea Limited’ corporation was based out of Brisbane. I’d be buggered if I’d let them get away with it, and the boat was worth about two hundred thousand dollars, so I flew down to Oz, and started searching the harbors. Before too long, a little harbor north of Brisbane, bingo, there she was. Repainted, with a different name, but the same boat, same hull number welded over the bulkhead. I went down to the Australian authorities, swore out a complaint, and had the boat impounded again.
“Just like in Fiji, the Aussies told me that the court calendar was a bit crowded … only the Aussies said that it would be fourteen months before they could hear my case, guess there’sa lotta pirates in Australia. Anyhow, they put a guard on the boat, and said that the two parties to the case had to share the cost of the guard. And the Australians had a real guard service, not another alky like in Fiji.”
“How much did that cost?”
“Fourteen hundred Australian a month.”
“Not cheap, but I guess it’s worth it. So what happened?”
“Well, nothing’s happened yet, that was all only seven months ago … no, no, something has happened. The goddam corporation filed for bankruptcy. They said that I had tied up their only asset, that they had no money … of course it was all a scam to get out of paying for the guard. So now, I’ve either got to drop the case, or pay for the guard by myself, fourteen hundred a month … I’ll be bankrupt for real myself before the goddamn case even gets to court, and if I can’t pay for the guard service, then the case is dropped and I’ve lost my boat. Now that, boys, is what I call modern piracy. No AK-47 machine guns, no eye patches, no rape and pillage, no walking the plank … just courts and writs and signatures and impoundments and guards and you get a bill from the pirates for fourteen hundred a month to guard your own damn boat … real modern, all right.”
By this time, we had all started helping ourselves to Black Russians from the pitcher, and we were young and full of fire, so we started to figure out how we might be able to help old Bill get his boat back. He assured us that yes, the Australian Navy definitely did have boats that would do more than eleven knots, so no, we couldn’t just drive the boat away. However, he had a complicated plan that involved getting the boat out of the harbor and then painting it at sea, and using some plywood to make a false superstructure which might pass inspection from a distance, and sailing it back to Samoa where his relatives in the Government would keep the boat safe … but by that time, the velvety tropical russian blackness had started to close in around everyone’s brain, and the rest of the evening is unfortunately lost to history.
In the morning we all went back to our boats or our jobs or both. The plan to save the ‘White Star’ from the modern pirates remained, though, and it was discussed with old Bill, and improved on for a few days. But then new interests came up, and it gradually faded, and eventually was not heard of again.
And that might have been the end of it, except that it was such a good story to tell.
I told people about the modern pirates with their writs and their court cases on various occasions, and one day a few years later in the ’90s, through a series of misunderstandings and coincidences I chanced to be sitting once again in the very same bar of the Royal Suva Yacht Club. Waisaki was still behind the counter. There I met an interesting man and we got to talking about piracy back in the ’80s.
“The best story about piracy I’ve heard was the story of old Bill and the ‘White Star’,” I said.
“Yeah, I heard all about that,” he said.
“Oh, you heard the story?”
“I knew Bill,” he said. “In the end, the whole thing drove the corporation bankrupt.”
“Of course, that was all a scam,” I said.
“Yes, that was finally proved in court,” he said.
“Oh, it finally went to trial?” I asked. “Did he get his boat back?”
“Old Bill’s boat. The ‘White Star’.”
There was a long pause, and then in a slightly incredulous tone of voice he said “Old Bill’s boat?” I nodded assent.
“What’re you talking about? Bill never owned that boat in his life!”, he said scornfully. “The ‘White Star’ belonged to three Australian farmers who’d had a good year and figured they would buy a boat. But the poor buggers didn’t know anything about fishing, so they set up a corporation to fish it, looked around for somebody to run it for them, and had the bad luck to find old Bill.
“He took the lease on the boat all right, ran it up to Samoa, and then he had a Bill of Sale made out and forged the signatures on it. When they heard about it, they went to the Samoan authorities, but the Samoans just laughed. Did he tell ever you he was married to Samoan royalty? Turns out he was. He used his connections to hold on to the boat. In desperation, they finally had to steal it themselves, and he chased those poor farmers around half the Pacific trying to steal it back again. He knew that if he could just get it back to Samoa, he and his relatives would make sure that it would never be lost again. I even heard rumors at one point that he’d recruited a bunch of young studs with more balls than brains, he’d conned them with some story, the fools were going to go down to Australia and help him steal the boat away from the Australian courts, but I guess that never came to anything …”
Since his tale was in full spate, I considered it an act of mercy not to increase the burden of his store of knowledge on that particular point … he continued:
“In the end, the farmers almost lost the court battle when Bill came up with two bullshit experts to claim that the signatures on the Bill of Sale were real. The case went right down to the wire before the farmers won, and even then all they got was their own boat back, never mind all the time and money they had lost, and their corporation bankrupt … yeah, you’re right, that is about the best story of modern piracy that I’ve heard.” We both laughed. His laugh was somewhat more hearty than mine. I didn’t press the subject after that, and in a bit he left the bar.
I sat there in the lovely Fijian warmth … I thought about all of that for a while as I watched the sunset … asked Waisaki to bring a couple of Black Russians. He brought the drinks … smiled … didn’t say a word. He’d heard all the stories. I lifted the glass, and I drank one of the Black Russians straight down in one swallow as a toast, and then sat and nursed the other one until the bar closed, gazing out over the night-time harbour toward the mooring spot where my love and I had once lived and worked with Harlow and the crew on the noble Askoy.
PS—Of course, the South Pacific being a tiny place in some ways, it was fated that I would run into old Bill again, when he managed to sink an sixty foot (18 m) barge in Lautoka Harbour in Fiji, and my friend and I had to get out the scuba tanks and the underwater welding gear and go down and refloat it from where it was sitting, 30 feet (9 m) down on the bottom of the briny blue … but again, that’s another story, and I’m out of Black Russians.
Bill was a classic character of the South Pacific, though, and a con artist through and through. A friend of Bill’s once told me “Most con artists, their problem is they can tell you a story that is so good, so well crafted, that you’ll believe it without question. But Bill’s worse than that, he’s got it so bad he can’t escape—that poor boy tells his stories so damn well that he’s ended up believing all of them himself”.
… from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …