I talked to quite a few people about pirates. It seems almost any yacht coming from Taiwan to Hong Kong will be chased by fishing boats. I met an Australian dentist who had an even more interesting encounter than we did. His new Ta Chao ketch was chased for a day and a night until the junk materialized ahead of him at dawn and managed to get alongside. The Aussie was prepared.
"Blam! I fired the flare gun smack at the wheelhouse! It made a beautiful sight, the red flare skittering all over the deck, Chinese running in every direction. There was an incredible amount of smoke." He grinned at me over his sour mash whisky at the Yacht Club bar.
The junk veered off and paced them, out of range of the deadly flare gun. The Aussies waved their gun and shouted threats. Shortly, the three-man crew spotted another boat steaming toward them. They quickly put away their flare gun as well as their hopes when the newcomer turned out to be a Red Chinese Navy gunboat. It hove to alongside with a 50-Cal. deck mounted machine gun aimed directly at them. An officer in uniform leaped onto their deck, put a pistol to the head of the man at the wheel and demanded their surrender.
The gunboat hauled them into port, held them for three days of questioning (3 AM bright light, hard chair stuff), and then sent them on their way with a very clear idea of their status should they ever enter Red Chinese waters again. The dentist said he was going to ship his new boat to Australia by freighter as deck cargo. At the end of the story he was frowning into his whiskey but he was clearly unharmed by the episode.
One morning a small ketch came into the Yacht Club with an elderly couple aboard.
"See any Red Chinese?" I asked the tall, lanky skipper as he secured his boat to the wharf.
"See them? They captured us and held us for a week!" Right there, with no further encouragement, Billy Budd related their entire Chinese pirate tale. "We were three days out of Taiwan. Saw some rough seas. Our main boom had snapped in half, the jib halyard broke and we lost our engine. A soft plug blew and ruined everything - the alternator, the starter; no hope of getting it going again.
"Then along comes this big sailing junk. Those dirty Commies got me when I couldn't get away! They came alongside and threw us a line and towed us in. There was nothing we could do. It towed us along at seven knots. Man, those things can really move.
"They held us five days. Our biggest problem was the droves of people who came to see the boat. At one point we must have had a hundred of them aboard, fingering everything. Most of the time they just stood there, watching us like we were animals in a zoo. But they didn't take anything or hurt us. In fact they were highly offended when we told them we were worried they might take our stuff. They asked us some questions and fixed our engine and boom." Billy stopped and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then his face refilled with disdain for the dirty commies and he went on.
"We had to get out of there. I was sure we'd be the cause of big trouble. One day a guard shot a pistol at the crowd to make them back away from the boat. I knew someone would get hurt eventually. Some officials came to the boat and I demanded they let us go. While I was explaining my fears to them, the guard unslung his machine gun and pointed it right at the people. An hour later the officials came back and told me we were free to go whenever I wanted. But before they actually let us go they made us go all over the village and pick up every damn cigarette butt. They did it just to degrade us. But it was amazing. The guard knew where each one was."
As he told me his story, he smoked one filter tip cigarette after another. The image of the commies first grabbing him when he couldn't get away and then degrading him sounded more like they rescued the old couple, fixed their boat, and then made sure they took ALL of their belongings with them (including the filter tip butts they had carelessly thrown all over the village).
Nobody I talked to was physically hurt by their adventures. Of course there may have been others which simply didn't make it. I guess we would not hear their stories at all. Why would the Chinese go through all that hassle and red tape? Would the junks which were after us really have dropped their nets, chased us all day, and then towed us more than 60 miles just for political reasons? If not, then what did they want?
One evening, in the yacht club bar, a club member and long time Hong Kong sailing enthusiast observed, "Well, they could have been after anything, couldn't they?"
"What do you think would have happened if I had pulled out a rifle and started blasting away at them?" I asked.
"I imagine they would have whipped out their guns and started shooting back at you. I'm sure they carry something aboard. Probably automatic weapons. And if you should have been so unlucky as to kill someone....The others on the boat are likely to be his family. In fact the whole fleet would probably be his relatives. I don't think you would have escaped. And if they were Red Chinese, a gunboat would surely have been sent out for you."
I thought about the jet fighter that buzzed us when the pirates were falling behind. So much for armed defense at sea.
Yesterday, when I cleared Customs to leave Hong Kong, the port authorities gave me a form to send back to them when I safely reach Manila. If the form does not come back within a reasonable time they assured me they would ask all vessels and aircraft in the vicinity to keep an eye out for me. Actually, I wasn't sure I wanted all vessels in the area looking for me again.
Since the guy was very friendly I told him about my encounter with the pirates and asked him if the problems were the same on the way out of Hong Kong. He said they really did not have reports of such problems even on the way in. Right. Sure.
"Are there any yachts which simply vanish after they leave here?" I asked.
"Uh. Well, yes. But probably they simply forgot to mail back the reply form."
"Yeah, sure, probably forgot," I gave him a skeptical little smile and then turned to go.
As I walked out the door he quietly commented, "Strictly off the record, you understand, I would leave before first light and make the first 50 miles as fast as I possibly could."
So here we go, bound for Manila, in the blackness of early morning, with no running lights.