Fly on the wall

2009-02-06 00:00

The throbbing heartbeat of the approaching behemoth numbed me with fear as it filled my mind with its monstrous sound. The shock wave of its powerful beats vibrated though my body, triggering a wave of nausea that pressed against the rubber mouthpiece of my scuba gear. I was forced to inhale sharply as I panicked and my face mask pinched painfully as it squashed against my nose. If I lost control I knew that I would have little alternative but to fin frantically upward to the surface, risking the bends or being sucked into the blades of the gigantic propeller of the approaching ocean liner and being shredded into its crimson frothing wake like a frog run over by a lawn mower.

Clank! Clank! Clank! The staccato sound of a prearranged signal made by beating a hammer against a length of steel bar alerted me to the fact that I was approaching the limit of my planned dive profile. I was searching for the brass propeller dropped by the yacht Pegasus as it motored toward the harbour entrance. Peter, its charismatic skipper, had promised me R1 000 if I could retrieve it. Despair washed over me as the poor visibility and the cluttered harbour bottom, littered with man-made debris, made my task virtually impossible. The lure of the cash paled as I considered once more how I had acted without thinking it through properly. To make matters worse I sensed a dark shadow hovering just out of sight, waiting for the right moment to come up behind me to sink its ragged teeth into my thigh and shake me like a dog killing a rabbit. Besides, what I was doing was illegal. If the harbour police caught me it could mean jail.

Two clanks reverberated through the water. It was the recall signal summoning me to the surface again. The prospect of defeat gave me new strength. Finning strongly, I covered a lot of ground in an all-out effort. A dull glint caught my eye. The propeller seemed to beckon me from the spot where it had come to rest next to a rusting oil drum. A small grouper mouthed defiance before retreating into its lair. Elated, I had difficulty in forcing myself to stop and decompress, hanging suspended a few metres below the surface, purging my blood of expanding air bubbles before rising into the sunshine, propeller first, parodying King Arthur’s sword brandished by the lady of the lake.

“I’ll draw your cash and meet you at the Point Yacht Club bar this afternoon to celebrate,” said Peter, slapping me on the back with enthusiasm. My heart sank. Although we had been living on board my yacht Pisces, moored in Durban harbour, for less than a fortnight, we had quickly become aware of some quirks unique to the yachting community. Unwritten rules determined a pecking order incorporating your financial status, your job or profession, the yacht you owned, the school you attended and your sporting achievements. These determined more or less automatically to which yacht club you could aspire and your status in the inbred community. Membership of one of the recognised clubs was mandatory if you wished to secure a berth in the crowded yacht basin. I joined Durban Boat Owners Association based upon the tactful advice of my yacht broker as I signed the yacht purchase agreement and on the basis of their more relaxed rules and significantly lower membership fees. Membership of this club, together with the fact that I was a despised Vaalie, relegated me to the bottom rung of a social ladder, the existence of which I was blissfully unaware at the time.

During the short time we had been (illegally) living aboard Pisces anchored in deep water “on the chains”, on the outer fringes of the yacht basin, we had learnt to maintain a low profile in order not to draw attention to ourselves or risk expulsion. Besides, I had the uneasy feeling that the inbred “upper classes” seemed to be sniggering at us, whenever we came ashore, reminding me of my grandfather’s motto. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t out to get you!”

Although the Point Yacht Club was not the pinnacle of the yachting community’s elite, it outranked the lowly status of the association and I could not help feeling that I would be recognised as an impostor by its members hissing “Unclean, unclean!” as they made signs to ward off the evil eye.

“Don’t be silly. It’s all in your mind. This is a great opportunity to make some new friends,” said my wife, Anne, kissing me on the forehead as I climbed into our yacht tender before rowing to the garbage-strewn shore.

The level of noise issuing from the crowded bar indicated that we were at least three rounds of drinks in arrears as we entered the smoke-filled room, where the inhabitants squabbled raucously, exchanging testosterone like jostling walruses butting each other in the hope of soliciting the favours of a few battle-scarred females lounging in a corner nursing chilled white wine and soda water cocktails.

“Hey Terry! I told you I wouldn’t have to pay your thieving rates to get you to make me another prop even though it’s your fault it fell off in the first place,” bragged Peter, brandishing the bronze propeller I had lifted from the harbour floor earlier that day.

“And this is the guy you have to thank for it,” he said, pointing at me with a thumb over his shoulder. Terry glowered at me, marking me as the cause of his being cheated out of his rightful due.

“How about a drink for Durban’s answer to Jacques Cousteau?” roared Peter, instantly forgetting me as he assumed his place at the head of the walrus pack, allowing me to merge into the background as the beer and banter flowed.

My face reddened as I tuned into a fragment of gossip on the fringes of the posturing herd.

“Did you hear that some idiot Vaalie bought Pisces?” snorted one of the lesser walruses.

“Yes, I wonder if he knows that he’s bought the most jinxed boat in the bay?” guffawed his companion.

“Remember how those four youngsters who built her hull were all killed in a car smash?”

“Yes, and what about that croupier from the Transkei casino who bought it on an auction and then ran out of money fitting it out? Do you remember how he used to drive the hull around the bay like a motor boat, while he saved up for the masts and sails?” guffawed the first walrus.

“Do you remember what he did when we kicked him out of the club?” snickered his friend.

“You mean the time he mooned the commodore of the club and the fancy ladies taking the salute at the Yacht Club’s annual sail-past ceremony?” giggled walrus.

“No, what happened after he slipped and fell overboard, got crushed against the dock and ended up paralysed in Addington Hospital? When Brian, the engine mechanic, pulled a fast one and had Pisces ‘arrested’ so that he could force it to be auctioned just so that he could get the two grand he was owed?” snorted walrus.

“No flies on Brian, eh?” laughed his crony, slapping his knee with admiration.

“What about the guy who finally got Pisces finished and took it on its maiden voyage?” quizzed walrus.

“How could I forget? Damn boat nearly killed my buddy Gunter and the owner. They had to get the NSRI to tow them into Richards Bay, barely afloat. The owner never set foot on a yacht again,” said sidekick, shaking his head.

“Never mind that, do you recall how Pisces fell off her cradle in the boat yard when they tried to patch her up and it flattened that kid?” frowned walrus.

“Bad news, a jinxed boat. I wonder what kind of fool has ended up with that Jonah now? mused walrus.

“That would be me,” I said, gritting my teeth as I entered into their conversation for the first time.

This was my first inkling that there was a superstitious myth attached to the Pisces. I began to trace the history of the vessel, following a trail of death and destruction that was probably nothing more than coincidence but nevertheless one which narrowly missed adding my family and me to its tally when it sank, and was swallowed up in a patch of quicksand near a lonely village on the island of Madagascar.

Lawrence de Robillard

Lawrence de Robillard has been married for 30 years and has three children. In 1990, he sold his kitchen furniture manufacturing company to buy the yacht that was the basis for this true story. Two years later he was shipwrecked in Madagascar together with his young family.

During 2005, he sold his stake in a small IT company in order to pursue a dream to move to the KwaZulu-Natal midlands and distribute rare Malagasy chocolate.

During his spare time he is working on a book exploring a little known “final solution” that was meticulously planned, (but never implemented) by the Nazis.

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