The Expedition book 2 – The Pirate and The Cabbage

We slipped the lines at first light.

“Goodbye everybody,” I said, shoving Moksha away from the dock with my foot.

A handful of early shift workers from the fish depot had gathered to gawp. “Goot-bigh,” muttered one in disbelief, his eyes popping out at what he was seeing. No motor? No sail? All the way to Australia? “Dispela boi bagarapim het,” he whispered to his friends. This bloke must be buggered in the head.

April and I had spent the week since her arrival readying for the final push to Australia, scrubbing corrosion from metal fittings, and lubricating moving parts. A few modifications to the boat were needed, like using a spatula to position a magnifying lens in front of the compass, allowing April to read the degree markers. And in the event I disappeared overboard, she received a crash course in navigation, and proper use of a lifejacket, flares, and one of the RAF rescue mirrors to signal aircraft.

By the eighth morning, it was time to get going before either the southeast trades blew any stronger, or the local security situation deteriorated. April steered out from behind the Arctic Wolf, a hulking factory ship loaded with frozen tuna, and aimed for the mist-drenched shores of Nggela Sule. Before us, the tranquil water mirrored the swollen pinks of yet another tropical dawn.

“Hang oot there fer a minute will yer?” barked Kenny’s voice over the radio. “I’ll jis’ get ay few still shots.”

A minute later, he had what he wanted, and we were free to get on with the voyage.

“So where are we headed again?” April asked, peering through the forward window.

“Australia,” I replied.

She rolled her eyes. “I know that!”

“Turn to starboard. Then head due south.”

This would take us across Iron Bottom Sound, the deep-water channel between Guadalcanal and the Florida Islands. It had rained during the night, leaving traces of damp, empty silence, a sober contrast to the bedlam that raged for two days in November 1942. By the end of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, more than forty Allied and Japanese warships littered the deep, also known The Slot.

Wearing a black sports top, khaki shorts and sandals, April looked primed for adventure. I had a fair idea of what was going through her head. She was already out there on the high seas, her skin flecked with salt and the wind whipping her hair, living the maverick life of her pirate heroine, Anne Bonny.

She giggled, holding up her wrists to show off a pair of blue canvas straps. “I’ve got my seasickness bands on, so I’m set!”[1]

I smiled. “And for the next month you can eat whatever you like, as much as you like, twenty-four hours a day.”

“And not get fat?”

“And not get fat.”

She chuckled some more and hunched her shoulders at the thought. “Moksha, the ultimate in weight loss programmes. I love this!”

Skirting the southern edge of Tulagi, a white speedboat flying the red flag of the Malaita Eagle Force hove into view. According to the lettering on the bow this was Gary’s Pride, manned by two scruffy-looking men in army fatigues standing behind a tinted windscreen. A third, his forest green tee shirt crossed with ammunition belts, lounged carelessly on the foredeck. He held his semi-automatic Rambo-style, propped on his hip at a forty-five degree angle.

I was on the satellite phone to Chris Court, our old friend with the UK Press Association. “Chris, I’ll have to call you back.” I ducked inside the cabin. “We’ve got company.”

While April pedalled, I stashed the cameras, sat phone, and laptop out of sight. On Tulagi, we’d heard stories of yachts and powerboats being stripped of their electronics by roving bands of militia, in some cases the vessels commandeered outright. Gary’s Pride was clearly a case in point. The likelihood of any of these characters either having the name Gary or possessing a certificate of ownership struck me as remote. The craft had almost certainly been taken from one of the marinas in Honiara.

The helmsman cut the engine and they rocked towards us in the swell. “Holim!” one of them shouted. “Stap!”

April quit pedalling as I stood up in the hatch and gave a friendly wave. All I had on was a yellow lava-lava with green palm trees and The Republic of Kiribati printed in big red letters. Seconds passed. Nobody spoke. The gun-toting Rambo on the foredeck sized us up while I continued to grin like an idiot. In contrast to our low-tech crossing of the Atlantic, Moksha now bristled with antennas: VHF radio whip; mushroom-shaped transceivers for the satellite phone, Inmarsat-C, and Collision Avoidance Radar Detector; Ocean Sentry stick and Varigas reflector ball.

Strangely, none of these seemed to hold Rambo’s interest. His roving gaze came to rest on the cabbage lashed to the cabin roof. At twenty inches in diametre, the vegetable was so enormous it wouldn’t fit through the stern bulkhead.

Rambo stabbed a grubby finger. “Mi laikim dispela kumu!” I want this!

I breathed a sigh of relief. Losing our primary source of vitamin-C was unfortunate, but less disastrous than, say, having to do without a radio, or the satellite phone. “April, did you hear that?” I bent down so she could hear. “Matey boy says he wants your cabbage. Best hand it over, eh?”

My new pedalling partner, however, saw the situation rather differently. April adored cabbage, especially raw cabbage. Learning of her obsession on Tulagi, Kenny had tracked down the biggest one in the central market, an elephantine specimen worth a whopping $120 Solomon Islands dollars, equivalent to $16 US. The prize legume would last almost the entire voyage, a leaf a day enough to keep scurvy at bay.

Until now, April had kept herself hidden. Muttering something about her dead body, she thrust her head clear of the hatch and wagged an admonishing finger at Rambo. “Hey!” she hollered, narrowing her eyes. “Don’t you even think about it buddy.”

The gunman did a double take. Attractive blondes materializing out of thin air wasn’t an everyday occurrence in the Solomon Islands. He obviously thought he’d died and gone to Baywatch heaven.[2]

“Git on widya now, ya hear?” April shooed the air like she was waving errant fifth graders back to their classroom. “And keep ya goddamn hands off my cabbage!”

Grinning sheepishly, Rambo turned to his friends and shrugged. None of them looked scary anymore. They were just three naughty schoolboys being reprimanded for getting carried away playing at Soldiers.

“Plees, missus.” Rambo held up his hands in mock surrender. “Mitripela nogat laikim bigpela hevi, ookay?” We don’t want any problems, okay?

With a sputter of engines, the militiamen bid farewell and took off, their teeth gleaming. I was back on the satellite phone a few seconds later: “Chris, we’ve got a great story for you to go out the evening wire…”

*  *  *

[1] These act on a pressure point in the wrist.

[2] The television programme Baywatch enjoys cult status in the South Pacific.

All Rights Reserved – © 2012 Jason Lewis

>> More excerpts from The Seed Buried Deep, part two in The Expedition trilogy, will be posted in the coming weeks prior to US & Canadian publication.