Stranger in the Night

I heard a thud. I’m always the first one to hear a noise, or feel the change in the sway of the boat at anchor. I’m not good at sensing from what direction the wind is coming, but I do know when something is amiss. And the “thud” woke me up.

We were in Fortaleza, Brazil, a poor desolate place. The northeastern part of Brazil in 1984 was in the midst of a several years-long drought at that point, and the land was dry, a desert dune-like landscape. It wasn’t uncommon to see children, obviously hunger-stricken with bloated stomachs, wandering naked in town. Nevertheless, the city of Fortaleza was trying to capitalize on a potentially flourishing tourist industry, with their unrelenting sun and big wide beaches. Some new flashy high rise apartments, condos, and hotels flanked the waterfront and the city sponsored a lively evening open air sidewalk market/bazaar, trying to lure visitors to the cafés with a festive atmosphere. Unfortunately, so much widespread poverty that was mingled with tourists was a perfect recipe for jealousy, vengeance, and robbery.

There weren’t many sailboats upon our arrival in the anchorage. We quickly got the lowdown from one family that another boat had an incident: they were boarded and robbed. One had to be vigilant here. We decided to never leave the boat alone, and never all go into town together. We weren’t going to stay long either. Just enough time to fill up on some provisions, rest up a day or two, and head on to French Guiana. Fortaleza would be our last stop in Brazil.

It took a few seconds for me to be wide awake and realize that I had heard a noise. Then something told me to hoist myself up through the hatch, just above my head in our rear cabin, and take a quick reassuring look that I really didn’t hear anything. But I came face-to-face with a mustachioed young man on our deck. I scared him; he scared me. I tried to scream and nothing came out. I absolutely froze. He swiftly jumped into his little wooden dinghy that he had tied up alongside our boat, cut the line, and drifted out into the darkness. Then with horror, I suddenly realized he had a knife. I saw an item of our navigation equipment lying on the deck with the wires cut. Oh my god, he wasn’t just arriving, he had already been down below, with the knife, and the kids...while we were sleeping!

Somehow I remembered to waken Michel in my panic (who was still asleep at this point!). While he groped for his glasses, I scrambled up front to the kids’ cabin to check on them—they were fine and asleep. I noticed Michel’s wallet on the chart table, and in a flash I remembered there had been a $100 in there from the exchange he had done earlier that day. I just assumed the money was gone. All the while I was shouting to Michel my quick assessment in rapid fire sequence of what was missing, reconstructing what must have happened: “The kids are OK, he has a knife, he cut the equipment connections, took the money, our foul weather gear is missing...”

Michel had also grabbed the rifle he had kept at the ready near our bed since our arrival in Fortaleza—once we learned how unsafe it was. I’m not proud that we had a gun on board, and although possessing or using guns was never a part of our lifestyle, we felt somewhat obligated to purchase one before leaving on our trip. Although probably not a likely possibility, encountering pirates could occur, and with the drug-running trade at the time, we did know of a few cases of hijacked sailboats showing up in Miami, minus the rightful owners.

I quickly joined Michel on deck and we could still barely see the intruder off in the distance. Michel shouted for him stop and fired two warning shots. He dove from his tiny boat into the water, letting his little dinghy go adrift.

We lowered our dinghy back down into the water (we had been putting it up on deck for the night), reattached the outboard motor, and then like a posse after our man, the two of us took off across the water, me handling the outboard, and Michel literally riding shotgun. We were determined to get our gear back. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but it was a gut reaction; we didn’t think it through.

There were a lot of fishing trawlers near where we saw the intruder jump into the water. We weaved in and out among the boats, looking for a swimmer. It was dark with only some intermittent light shining on the water from some of the onshore port lights, and we never found him. We returned to retrieve the dinghy that was drifting out to sea. Some of our clothes were still on it, even some of his, but the foul weather gear must have blown off. We took everything back and then let his boat go. He got the raw end of the deal, losing not only what he stole but his own boat as well. We were still upset about the $100. That was a lot of money for us then, and in Brazil, it went a long way.

We returned to Cowabunga and tried to regain our composure. Despite our efforts to keep our guard up—having taken steps to safeguard our dinghy, never leaving the boat alone—we still couldn’t believe that someone would be brazen enough to come on board in the middle of the night while we slept. All our navigation equipment was still there. The item on the deck was apparently his first attempt to take some of the equipment after having already loaded the clothes and foul weather items. Then, we noticed that the wallet was still full of $100! He either missed it or didn’t get the chance.

The next morning, Michel went to report our encounter to the police. Their attitude was pretty nonchalant, as they chided Michel for having “missed” his mark when he fired the warning shot! “Too bad you missed him,” they said. It would have been one less problem for them to deal with, they added.

After that, we were good and ready to leave Fortaleza as soon as possible. But events were to determine otherwise. That very same afternoon a visitor came motoring alongside, and before we knew it, we were engaged on a unique mission to sail to the Moon—and back.