Wednesday 26 August 2009


With “Pirates of the Caribbean” as the theme for the upcoming Bursledon Regatta (Aug 29th) and the strange circumstances surroundings the recent disappearance of the freighter Artic Star, Pirates have been on my mind of late.

Before Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow hit the screens, for most of us, that most famous creation of Robert Louis Stevenson; Long John Silver represented the archetypal seafaring buccaneer, with his parrot, gold earring and his relentless search for Flint’s treasure. I remember as a very small child, being frightened by Robert Newton’s portrayal of Silver the 1950 Disney production of Treasure Island.

If you’ve seen the film or read the book, “Treasure Island” is a great story, but for a sequel, track down Bjorn Larsson’s book “Long John Silver”. The Swedish author has captured the character of Long John Silver and produced a book which chronicles his life and character both before and after Treasure Island, his journey through the often savage times and circumstances, which led him into to piracy.

The most remarkable and wholly believable aspect of Larsson’s characterisation is the intelligence, wit and overarching thirst for survival which Silver possesses and which allows him to rise apart from the bloodthirsty rabble, who were his fellow pirates. Pirate fans should track down a copy.

Peter Benchly (of Jaw’s fame) wrote an interesting tale about pirates surviving in isolation from the modern world, into the 20th century, where they maintained their “pirate code” and continued to prey on shipping from an isolated Caribbean Island. An early 80’s film production starred Michael Cane, but I’d recommend the book, although the idea of a “lost community of pirates” operating in the Bermuda Triangle is even less credible now that we have Google Earth!

Our own pirate story happened over 10 years ago, Erica and I were out of Las Palmas sailing for the Gambia in West Africa. Heading south about 30 to 40 miles off the African coast at night, when we sighted a small coaster. Its navigation lights were on, but didn’t appear to be underway. Suddenly it started signalling us with an aldis lamp. I didn’t read morse code in those days, but I knew enough to see that they weren’t putting out an SOS.

We tried calling them on the VHF with no result, the light continued to flash out the mysterious message. Then the penny dropped, if I were on a ship and meeting someone in secret, an aldis lamp is perfect for such clandestine signals.

Since we clearly weren’t the people they might be expecting, we shut off all our lights, and in the darkness put the boat onto a fast reach, heading out into the Atlantic as fast as we could sail, hoping that they didn’t have radar and didn’t follow us. After an anxious hour it was clear they weren’t following and after another equally anxious hour their lights had gone out of sight below the horizon.

Pirates, who knows? It could have been perfectly innocent, just fishermen hauling nets, but it was scary at the time. Scary enough for us to sail with lights out at night, and to make sure we stayed at least 100 miles off the African coast; until we made our approach to Banjul in Gambia.

And a final Pirate thought

Why are Pirates called Pirates?

Because they ArrrAH!

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