Unarmed but Uneasy
The customs official said to me, "Where is the gun? I have to see it."
My wife, Carolyn, and I were anchored off a dusty little town in Venezuela in the late 1980s. All four of the smiling government officials were sitting in the cockpit with me. I hesitated. This turn in the conversation was really opening up a can of worms. I didn't want to go along with their request, but what were my choices? Disobey? Or, maybe, attempt to leave without clearing in? Both options seemed controversial-aggressive, even. So I decided to comply. What harm could there be in showing them the gun?
I'd hoped that they would stay put. They didn't. They followed me belowdecks. I sighed. Damn it!
I'd built Carlotta from scratch and, while doing so, had built into her a number of security features. One was a panic button that triggered a siren and strobe; I located it beside my bunk to scare away sneak teefs-thieves, in West Indies speak-before they were peering over my bunk with a dripping machete. Another was a huge "secret" compartment under the dinette, which was invisible to the naked eye and yet could take all my electronics and valuables in case I had to leave my vessel in questionable surroundings for an extended period.
I stepped down into my middle cabin and turned to face the officials. They huddled in the passageway, looking down expectantly. They were going to see everything. There was no avoiding it. I was beginning to get a very bad feeling.
In between the cabins on Carlotta was a large built-in mahogany step. I opened the top of it off to the side and withdrew a hex-head bolt, which was acting as a pin that latched the panel covering the adjacent compartment. I put the top back and made one final attempt at stealth: "Carolyn, honey, could you get our friends some cerveza frio, por favor?"
"Sure, Fatty," she said, well aware of what was going on.
Alas, the lead official wasn't as dumb as he looked. "Later," he said curtly. "The gun. Now!"
I removed the step and took out the tray of heavy tools. I then took a tiny dowel that was in the tool tray and pressed down hard at the very edge of one of the floor corners, as far outboard as possible. This allowed the false bottom to tilt up, and I removed it to reveal my gleaming wall safe.
Well, it wasn't a wall safe, really; it was a built-into-the bilge safe. But it was massive, and I'd constructed it so even someone with a cutting torch would have to take a long, noisy time to remove it. I hunched my body over the large dial and twirled it while blocking their view with my head and shoulders.
I tilted back the round, heavy, stainless-steel door, which was small, though the safe was amazingly large on the inside. I had to take out things one-by-one: First, my resealable plastic bag of $1,000 in singles and fives (to pay off individual workers in the event of a grounding, for example), my cruising funds of around $4,000, and my stainless-steel Browning 9 mm automatic pistol.
There was no clip in it. The safety was on. I checked the chamber, and it was empty. Then I held it up, hoping this would suffice-while knowing in my heart that it would not.
Things began happening fast now. The leader took the gun and passed it aft to one of his buddies. I tried to keep my eye on both the packets of money-this was before ATMs-and the fellow with the gun. The leader shined his flashlight into the dark recesses of the safe. "Oh, señor," he said. "How many rounds is that? A lot, no?"
They forced me to take out both ammo clips and all the boxes of bullets and to return to the cockpit to inventory them. "You must count every bullet," they told me.
It came to a total that was just shy of 500 shiny 9 mm rounds.
"Why so much?" their leader grinned. "And two clips. And all that money? It is suspicious, yes?"
I tried to keep my cool. "Although I've shot trap and sometimes go to a pistol range," I said, "I've never fired a shot in anger. And I certainly hope I never will. But I figured that if I were ever in a situation where one bullet might be needed, who knows, another 499 might come in handy, too."
He grinned. I was beginning to think we weren't going to be pals. Then an amazing thing happened. He calmly picked up the gun, rammed in a loaded clip, and slid one into the chamber. The gun was now loaded-and I couldn't see if he'd flipped off the safety in the process.
He didn't exactly point it at me, but he did keep waving it around in my direction. Each time the barrel swept past my chest, which was about four feet away, my heart would stop.
"Hey!" I said, and instinctively raised my hands in supplication. "Be careful with that."
"No worry, señor," he said to me. "We handle guns all the time. It is part of our job. There are a lot of bad people around, no?"
"Damn right there are," I said, with perhaps a bit too much vehemence.
"But no problem," he said. "You and your beautiful wife are almost finished with clearing in. Come to my shore office in the morning, and we will grant you entry." Then he put the gun in his briefcase and started to climb back into his launch, which was rafted up alongside.
"My gun?" I said.
"Yes," he said. "Your gun is perfectly safe. It is against the law to keep it aboard, and we will need 48 hours advance notice regarding its return and your departure." All the time he hurried into his launch.
I was desperate now. "A receipt!" I shouted at the men. "I have to have a receipt for the gun!"
"And you will," he said as his launch cast off and pulled away. "Pick it up tomorrow morning at the police department. Adios, amigo!"
I was speechless. Carolyn was not. She came storming into the cockpit and hissed, "I hate that gun, Fatty. It's going to get us killed someday."
A brief digression, dear reader. I realize that "gun issues" are hot buttons for both left-wingers and right-wingers, and that there are strong stands taken, both for and against. I'd like to clarify mine: I'm not anti-gun. My father was a hunter. I'm a meat eater. I love venison. I seldom missed hunting season in Maine. And I've dressed out a couple of steaming deer. I enjoy both target shooting and shooting trap, which are Zen-concentration pursuits to me. And finally, I'm into great tools and fine machining. Guns are often lovely bits of metal put together in very pleasing ways-at least pleasing to a hopeless gearhead like myself.
On the other hand, I'm not pro-gun, either. I don't think everyone needs a gun or that if everyone had one, the world would be a better, safer place. I don't find anything "sporting" about a MAC-10 or an Uzi. And I know of a number of wonderful sailors who'd still be alive today if, when they rushed on deck, they'd been holding a flower in their hands instead of a gun. (We miss you, Blakie!)
So I'm conflicted. But I must admit that there are a number of marine situations I can envision in which I'd love to have a gun in my hands. . . .
But back to our tale of South American woe. It was too late that afternoon to go ashore, so I stewed the whole night about what to do and how to do it. At dawn, I rowed ashore and went to the police station. I waited until midmorning for someone to see me.
The officer said, "Why would we give you a receipt? We didn't take the gun, and we don't have it. Why bring a customs matter to us?"
I had to agree.
I went to customs. They graciously finished up our inward clearance and told us not to worry. The gun was a local police matter, not a customs problem, and there was a slight delay because the gun was "in transit" to the police.
By this time, it was noon. Carolyn and I pride ourselves on being able to find the most popular sailors bar, which isn't hard because it's almost always the one closest to the dinghy dock. We went there and talked with some yachties who'd been on station for a while.
We were stunned when one of them said, "So you're the people with the safe and the money in plastic bags and the stainless-steel Browning 9, eh?"
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"Everyone knows it," he said evasively. "The word is out, all over. Is each department saying the other has the gun?"
"Yep," I said. Then, without thinking, I blurted, "Bastards!"
"Sometimes," said another fellow, "your first loss is your best loss."
"That gun is gone, my friend," he continued. "Chasing after it will only get you closer to the wrong end. The problem is that a stainless-steel Browning 9 is a gun to die for. And people do, people will. The chief of police has a large collection of confiscated weapons. But he probably won't end up with it, because it's worth so much. In a week or two, it will get sold to the highest bidder-who will be exactly the worst person in the world to have it."
"That's not exactly what we sailed here for," said Carolyn, "to supply the local pistoleros with modern weaponry."
I tried to be logical, to err on the side of safety. I wanted to let it all go, but I couldn't. To put it another way: I was born in Chicago. There's still a little street punk left in me. I get mad. So I did something I seldom do: I threw my weight around. At the time, I had a weekly marine column in The Virgin Islands Daily News. I also had a radio show on WVWI Radio One that, when the signal propagation was right, could be heard in Venezuela. And I wrote features for Caribbean Boating and international and U.S. publications.
I told the officials all this, and then I said, "I want my freakin' gun back, and I want outward-bound clearance-now!" And then I recklessly added, "Your country's embryonic marine industry is just starting to get off the ground. Surely now isn't the time to argue with someone who buys printer's ink by the 55-gallon drum."
Three hours later, I returned to Carlotta with the Browning-unloaded, the chamber checked-in the pocket of my foul-weather jacket.
"I'm cranking up," I told Carolyn. "You get the anchor."
"But we just arrived," Carolyn said through clenched teeth. "We were going to spend a couple of months-."
"Mouth closed, anchor up!" I snapped as I bent over my cockpit ignition switch. "I don't like it any more than you do."
As we steamed out of the harbor, she finished sloshing mud off the deck, then slid past me in the cockpit, firing back at me: "Your precious gun!"
Soon we were past the coastal shelf, in 300 feet of water with the depth dropping fast.
"I'll sell the gun," I said, trying to be reasonable. "It cost me, like, $800!"
"And have some cop call you up years from now and tell you it was your gun that killed the kid or shot the mother or dropped the Korean kid at the convenience-store checkout counter?" she asked.
We both paused. And then we glared at each other.
I'd disassembled the 9 mm many times while cleaning it. A flip of the thumb reduced it to pieces on the starboard cockpit seat.
I picked up the firing mechanism, showed it to Carolyn, then deep-sixed it. Ditto the barrel and the grip. When every piece of the Browning was overboard, she said softly, "Thanks."
We haven't had a gun aboard since that day, and that was more than 20 years ago. I'm cool with it. It certainly is less hassle. And I don't plan on getting another. But here I am in the Indian Ocean. And I'm going to have to leave Somalia either to port or to starboard, and there's still a little bit of the American macho male in me who barks, "What are you gonna do, worst case scenario? Hit 'em with your peace symbol?"
Cap'n Fatty Goodlander is a CW editor at large. He and Carolyn have sailed Wild Card, gunless, through some of the world's most troubled waters.