Posted December 14, 2016
If you have been reading the previous posts you will know that I was sort of “handed off” by my employer Walter, with a captain named Sven to this couple Amy and Justin to do the same duties on their boat as we had done for Walter on his trawler and then at his townhouse in Brussels. It was December 1994.
This boat was both massive and incongruous. Now I am not a boat nut the way Sven was so I will relate the description he would rattle off and then try to explain it the way I understood it.
It was a twin headsail ketch with a full-length keel. So for those of us who are not boat people, it had two masts, one in the back third of the boat and the main one at around the midpoint in the boat. From the midpoint of the boat back about a third of its length to the rear mast, (basically between the two masts) a large pilothouse consisting of a lot of glass breaks up the deck. Its from here that a skilled operator can maneuver this monster regardless of the weather. It was essentially a motorsailor – a boat that is both a sailboat and a powerboat with a design that is dedicated to both capabilities but with compromises for each.
I was to learn over the next few years about its history, mainly after Sven would have a few drinks and like to wax on about such things. It was designed and its construction started in the late 1920s at a shipyard in Brooklyn, New York and was to be a luxury yacht for personal use.
There were actually two under construction at the time. One was for a large industrialist and the other was quietly being built for an unknown buyer. While never confirmed this second buyer was widely thought to be the shipyard owner and there was officially only one being constructed. Sven speculated that the second one was being done quietly as the designer and the industrialist both thought that it was a custom “one-off” that they were having built. When the big financial meltdown hit in 1929, the shipyard was in a financial mess and the industrialist reneged on the contract and both that custom designed one that was much further along as well as its clone, sat in the shipyard waiting for someone with cash to resurrect one of the two projects. That financial strength came in the form of a fellow who had a long history of bootlegging.
The deal was struck for him to buy the one that was not as advanced but that they would strip out parts of the other one to make the transaction work. A separate shipyard was even used as the new buyer was quite secretive and the builder had some of his own secrets to bury. The reason for this seemingly strange approach was that the new buyer wanted the boat to be a meter (almost 40 inches) longer than originally designed. He also wanted a variety of other modifications including hidden storage facilities, and mechanical equipment that was much larger than a boat like this would usually have. He could not afford to have it sitting in low wind conditions so needed a sailing vessel that had extensive power available. It was just over 59 ft in length, had oversized water tanks, oversized engine, and large battery storage.
By early 1932, while not finished at that stage it was seaworthy enough to leave the shipyard under power, with masts intact but no sails, no interior finishing and under darkness. By April of that year having been finished in the Caribbean, it began its work life.
For many years “En Plein Air”, as it was christened, moved up and down the Atlantic from Jamaica to the United States. The ship was named by the bootlegger’s girlfriend, a painter. While the French art term translates to “in the open air” the owner liked the name as it suggested to him “in plain sight” as he could sail seemingly with impunity with contraband in its hidden compartments.
By the mid-1930’s the need for the black market transport of alcohol was not necessary but still continued because of the lucrative trade in avoiding taxation and duties until the late 1930s when the owner died under murky circumstances and En Plein Air was sold to a European wine producer who wanted her as a luxury yacht.
Lying in a dock in northern France, early in the occupation of France by Germany it was several months until it became clear to the drydock owners that the owner was not coming back for her and once again she was sold by the shipyard to a private owner for not much more than the value of the storage costs and repairs to that point.
The new owner was not known but the boats new function was. In the early days of the occupation of France by the Germans while there was conflict there were as many supporters of the “collaboration” as those who saw it for the occupation it was but thought their lives would be better without a conflict. In contrast of course as time went on what became known later as the resistance was quietly building its strength. En Plein Air was one of many boats that had been reconfigured slightly to allow the smuggling of goods and people. This boat with its two major hiding spots, oversized engine, oversized fuel, and water tanks as well as other hidden storage spots took little modification for its new purpose. At the time it flew various flags, had its name painted over many times and moved about the Baltics, around the north sea and Poland, the Netherlands and France, and as far south as Spain and North Africa. This was all related to me by Sven, a bit of a naval history nut, and immensely proud of En Plein Airs heritage. He related it with great zeal and I have no reason to doubt the details.
The boat was in impeccable shape operationally and cosmetically kept to look in questionable repair. With only Captain Sven and myself to man it, the sails were up only on the open sea on a straight haul, so anywhere near a port or high traffic areas, we were under power.
Its purpose now in the 1990s was largely the same as during the war – transport dissidents, journalists and others at risk in a very volatile time. When most people in western democracies during the 1990s were enjoying unprecedented wealth, there were a series of conflicts in the world that were becoming more acute every year and while transport by plane was desirable the old fashioned movement by small boats was still the easier approach, at least at that time.
We had several ports all of which were not in the main centres but in smaller communities close to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Southampton, Marseille, Helsinki and Dubrovnik. There were a few others that we would go to occasionally but these were the main destinations.
And this brings us to Amy and Justin. They were about my age or a little younger so about 40 when we started working together, but unlike me, unbelievably fit, and very focused. While they represented to be a couple they were not very affectionate together and seemed more like working partners than a couple. While attractive they both had fairly non-descript qualities. She was about 1.68 metres ( or 5’6”), medium brown hair, blue eyes and slim. He was about 1.8 metres (5’11” ) and a more muscular build but still slim with a fairly shaved head hiding a receding hairline. They were both Caucasian and on the pale end of the band. Other than when at sea Amy and Justin did not stay on the boat and had other accommodation or safe houses in each of our ports.
The routine became quite clear after a short while. Either Captain Sven or myself would be told to find new clothes. “New” meant either new from a store or high quality used clothes which we would wear and wash over a period of time. Whoever was the designated one of us, Sven the larger or me the average size, would wear them all the time and be seen on the deck or around the boat or in the local market buying food at whatever port we were in. If a female was needed Amy would do the same routine and would have a few wigs she would wear as well. Then one day Justin would take the clothes and we would be told to stay below decks and our clothes would show up with new people in them strolling onto the dock and to the boat, usually with local grocery bags to carry their few possessions. We would go back to wearing those clothes for a day or so and be seen on deck and around the port then we would be off with our cargo of dissidents, journalists, or gay people on their way to another destination.
Sometimes in international waters “the cargo” would be out of their hiding spots but always below deck based on the risk of satellite and drone visuals but when we were leaving or arriving into port at least six hours before, the cargo would be “put on the shelf” in the two hidden spots.
When the boat had been built originally it was extended by over a meter but the designed interior space had actually been reduced in total length by almost a third of a meter so the effect was not noticeable, even when the plans were consulted, but the two ends housed hidden rooms that were two .65 meter (or over two feet) in length and almost the whole width of the boat, although the one at the bow was pretty tiny given the shape so it was the aft hiding spot that was the workhorse.
A flexible pipe to and from each compartment supplied fresh air in from the main cabin which could also be used to talk to them, and a flexible tube out of each one with a small fan like a computer fan pulled the stale air out and to the engine room. The only access to the two compartments was like a jigsaw puzzle. A trim piece on the floor at the entry to the fore and aft cabins stayed in with gravity and dowels and when lifted, then allowed the tongue and groove floorboards in that cabin to be removed one at a time. This allowed the whole wall (in the case of the one at the bow) and a portion of the wall (in the case of the stern) to be tilted out from the floor and lifted out. So with a carpet on the floor, the sequence would involve a series of steps not contemplated by someone standing on that carpet and the closest we ever saw someone come was to remove the carpet looking for some form of a door, or looking for some hidden door in the removable wall, and when not finding one moving on to other spots on the boat.
There were about half a dozen other small hiding spots, that ranged in size to hold something the size of a loaf of bread down to one that would have not have been large enough to hold two decks of cards. They were all hidden the way jewelry boxes with hidden compartments work.
You can probably tell from my description above there were actually five of us involved in this crazy endeavour – four humans and a pretty cool vintage yacht. Under sail, Captain Sven could get her going pretty well and under power (no sails) she would cruise all day long at about 8 knots (15 km/hr, 9 mph) and Sven could take it up for shorter bursts to almost 12 knots (22 km/hr, 14 mph). These speeds, of course, were not enough to outrun looters or government boats but quick enough to move out of areas fast enough to not be noticed and to get somewhere without the extra time needed.
One of the coolest parts of the boat for me, other than the hidden hiding spots was the power. The boat, when in France in the 1930s had been changed from American to European power, but sometime before Sven and I were brought on it had a major retrofit of all the electricals. Things that could be low voltage were low voltage. There was a wind generator that fed a set of batteries, and a generator that ran on methanol. Actually Sven scolded me one day when I used this description as it actually doesn’t run on methanol, it uses the methanol and has some kind of “methanol-reformer” that used the methanol to convert to something else. This generator from Vancouver could run for days on almost nothing and only gave off a bit of distilled water as its exhaust. I used its water “exhaust” to water the plants on my little potted herb garden on the boat!
But beyond this amazing generator, the switching from a company in Germany was the most impressive. The switches were automatic and would figure out when the batteries were getting too low and would turn on the generator. The boat engine did not have any kind of generator on it so the electrical power for the boat came entirely from the batteries or the generator so there was no additional drag on the engine to generate electricity. So when we would be in port we would never run the engine to generate power, it was the solar or wind generators feeding the batteries and if they were running low the generator would kick on and supply the power as well as charge up the batteries.
I never knew who Amy and Justin worked for, but knew that Walter was somehow involved and when Sven was pushed on it would only comment “They have friends everywhere”. This is also what he said when I first noticed their array of passports and assumed they were fakes. “No, they are all obtained from the passport office of each country and under different names. They have friends everywhere”. It became a common explanation for much of their arrangements. I carried two passports myself, one originally from France and later the Eurozone and one from Canada as a dual citizen. My father had been French and my mother a French Canadian. Captain Sven was Danish and had only one passport from Sweden for some reason.
I had a food budget and was always paid in cash and was supplied with cash to pay for everything. There was also a small stash of cash kept in an “obvious” hiding place in case we were ever boarded by looters (I don’t want to romanticize them by calling them pirates) when at sea so they would find the stash as our hidden treasure and not be looking further. We kept several expensive-looking watches and a couple of fake diamond rings and two credit cards with limited capacity on them for the same purpose in that spot. The real stash was in one of the smaller hidden compartments on the boat.
Whenever we were in the U.K. I would make arrangements with Captain to leave the boat to go to do a bank deposit of my wages and once or twice a year would go ashore to have a checkup and some dental review. For the first couple of years, I would try to see my grandmother Bebe once or twice a year until she passed in 1996. Otherwise, I went for about a decade essentially on or near the boat.
Part of my role was security. We kept no conventional guns on board but kept a series of modified defensive tools on hand. About every twelve feet we were within arm’s length of one of our modified flare guns. They were essentially sawed-off shotguns dressed up to look like flares. In the kitchen, I had been provided a hand blender that was equipped as a stun gun. In all my days on the boat while we were overrun by looters several times we never had to use any of these but Captain did a regular drill while at sea to test the equipment. When he first introduced me to it all I was joking about James Bond and he became all serious and reminded me that looters would kill for a pack of cigarettes and most of the authorities we were outmaneuvering, while more professional than the looters, would still have no remorse in killing us all, while in, or close to, International Waters. As a result, when we would be in potentially bad situations I kept my hand blender close and at times slept with it under my pillow.
At least once every sixteen to eighteen months or so we would be in a safe port and the same crew would show up, no matter which port, put up tarps, do some work on the boat while we were ashore and there would be a new name on her. Its bad luck to change the name of a boat so these were painted on top. Captain used to always tell me “she knows who she is and knows she’s only acting”. He was quite deep it seemed to me, especially when I would be drinking.
Ah drinking. I did a lot of that, but only when in port, and only when we did not have “cargo”. So we would go for periods of time when it would be quite a dry time and then a bit of overindulgence. I never saw Amy or Justin drink. I think it was partially because when in port an important part of their job would start when ours would be in hiatus. And then it would be time to get some new clothes, and sometimes cut and bleach or color my hair, and do it all again.
So I went off on this diversion to tell you about my life with Amy and Justin that started in the 1990s. At one point in a future piece, I will relate the significance of the flag we sometimes flew.
The whole time, other than security, or helping Sven on manning the boat when in transit, my role was to feed our cargo. Sometimes they were malnourished, and always underfed and my cooking was very focused all during this time on nutrients, protein, and hydration. When the cargo would leave us, I would pack from one to three days of food for unrefrigerated overland travel. At some point in a future post, I will set out some tricks I learned for getting nutrients and protein into a person quickly.
In previous posts, I have related what we were doing at the end of the decade. Well at new years 1999, in contrast to a decade before, I knew exactly where I was. We were about to leave the Mediterranean on a typical run from the Dalmatian coast to Helsinki, our longest run, and as we cruised under power by Gibraltar to the north and Tangier to the south and watched the fireworks, Captain and I shared a tea on deck with a full and quiet cargo on the shelf, and stayed ready for what might come.