Monday, 21 January 2008

Shiver me Timbers!

Okay, you see lots of strange stuff floating off the shores of the world. Single shoes(where are the other ones, how do they get there?), rubbish and once we even found a big wooden boat with a brand new 25hp motor calmly bobbing around in the middle of nowhere. But currently off the coast of Southern England you can't see the beach for the trees and there is a navigational warning out for a large 'wood slick'!

Coastguards said the timber, several feet deep on the tide line, now stretched along the Sussex coast and was moving east towards Kent's coast.It comes from the Greek-registered Ice Prince which sunk recently about 26 miles (42km) off the coast after a storm. It's cargo of more than 2,000 tonnes of timber have drifted 100 miles through the Channel.

The Solent coastguard said timber had washed up all the way from Littlehampton in West Sussex to Beachy Head in East Sussex.
He said: "What's there on the beach will stay until it is removed by contractors authorised by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Any other wood in the Channel will move to and fro with the tides."

He also said that coastguards were unable to predict where timber in the water would drift, because it could depend on whether it was affected by the wind.

In Britain we have an 'Official Receiver of Wrecks', a sort of police man for the recovery of flotsam and jetsam. There is only one and they cover the whole coastline! A few years ago a similar wreck, involving massive quantities of wood, happened off the West coast of England. The authorities were hopping up and down trying to prevent the locals from taking away as much wood as they could carry. It became all rather farcical as new garden sheds, conservatories and fences proliferated in the area and the newpapers became full of stories of the ancient tradition of 'wreckers' on those shores.

I used to live near Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. A wild, bleak area close to the coast where strange lights at night have always been associated with the smugglers and wreckers of the area. It is a romantic place filled with the thoughts of French baccy, cognac and Belgium lace. The old staple of the smuggling fraternity. Sadly these days I suppose it is more likely bales of cocaine and hemp!

There was a song that we used to sing as children that was written by Rudyard Kipling :

If you wake at Midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson.
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump, if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brushwood back again - and they'll be gone next day!

The 'wreckers' would use lanterns to attract the cargo ships on to the dangerous rocks that surround the area and once the ship was wrecked they would loot the cargo. It was seen as an honorable profession in the small villages of the area but strangely discouraged by the authorities..

It is a pastime that still seems to go on in parts of the world. We were anchored off a small island in the Eastern end of the San Blas Islands in Panama. The protected lagoon behind the island was calm and we were enjoying the isolation and peace. It was one of the traditional islands where the village 'chief' kept the occasional yacht very much at arms length from his people. We were officially welcomed with a list of rules, no being ashore after nightfall, no buying molas from non official sources, no locals on the boat etc..

We were a little surprised but quite happy to abide and settled in to let a very nasty weather system pass. I enjoy just sitting on the boat and watching the locals go about their business. It always seems a bit like watching a herd of wild deer. Warily at first they view you with deep suspicion, slowly they get closer, sniffing the air for danger until finally one approaches and makes contact. In the islands that are less frequented by boats it takes time to understand the dynamics of the social structure.

Anyway to get back to the story, there is a point to this I promise!

After we had been there about 3 weeks the ulu(canoe) of the chiefs second in command came alongside. A very drunken number two insisted that we must leave now! We were stunned, this had never happened to us before. We said that as soon as the weather improved we would depart but not before. He was very agitated and we couldn't understand what had gone wrong. We racked our brains for possible transgressions of the rules, could think of none. I was particularly concerned that I had inadvertently done something wrong.

I find it a difficult moral issue at times when we travel to out of the norm destinations, questioning what right I have to descend like a voyeur on these peoples....It makes me very uncomfortable.

So the next day we left, consigning the event to memory. A week or so later TBH had occasion to fly to Panama City. He returned full of news. He had seen on the TV that the island we had been asked to leave was the centre of a massive drug scandal! A Colombian boat, packed with thousands of dollars of cocaine had come ashore on their island, being the business men that they are the Kuna had looted the wreck and sold it on..... BUT the Colombian drug barons were coming after them for the return of either the drugs or the cash. A dangerous situation and we had been sat innocently in the middle of all this. No wonder they were nervous and wanted us out of there!

For the first time since the Kuna uprising in the early 20th century the Indians called for help from the Panamanian police force, simply an unheard of event!!

I wonder what the 'Official Receiver of Wrecks' would have to say about that one?!

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