Monday, February 6, 2012

Quest in Djibouti

A Few Days Ago…Arctic entered the port of Djibouti, mooring at the long mole at the southern side of the harbor to load several hundred pallets of stores and parts for Enterprise (since delivered). Almost before the moorings were snugged, gangway lowered, or the inport watch set, the talk began. Talk that among Sailors of earlier ages might have seemed almost superstitious in nature, archaic. There was, the whispering went, a Ghost Ship entering port astern of us; a ship of the dead.
All hands above deck had seen her as we drove in from the Strait of Aden, and now we could mark her standing-in to the quay we occupied. Low, sleek, outwardly unmarked by the horror that had swept her deck and cockpit only days before, she looked nothing more or less than a gleaming black, 58-foot Davidson yacht, sails neatly stowed, running in to port on her auxiliary engine. A sight seen in every harbor, every day, but this was not an average port-call; the black yacht bore a large, stylized “Q” on her quarter, and her full name in elegant script on her transom. Quest.
As we got to the business of loading cargo from the quay, Quest moored a few yards ahead of our own spring-lines, her three-man crew deftly bringing her along the wall and heaving precise arcs of polypropylene line to secure her to bollards built to hold tankers and container ships. These men were dressed in Tyvek coveralls and gloves, even in the day’s rising heat—either in repect or fear they wanted no contact with her grisly interior.
A van arrived; more Tyvek-clad men with cases and boxes in hand. The breeze captured one of their large blue bags, “hazmat” emblem clearly visible as it soared off over the harbor. Clearly, this was a cleanup crew, dispatched to scour the yacht, make her presentable, exorcise the ghosts if possible.
The cleanup gang left an hour later, blue bags full of the debris of their labor, stripping-off their coveralls as they climbed into the van. A laugh drifted across from Quest’s berth—a sound so incongruous that Arctic’s deck force started. We had not realized until that moment that we had been carrying-out our duties without the usual chatter, jokes and calls. Performing, without even our knowledge, vigil for the dead.
Quest was six years into a circumnavigation; Scott and Jean Adams were fulfilling a dream of sailing this trim craft around the world. Their friends Phyllis MaCay and Bob Riggle had joined them aboard for part of the voyage. As to the wisdom of taking their small, slow, virtually helpless vessel into these pirate-infested waters I will not comment here, but on 18 February they were attacked and captured by nearly two dozen boarders. During negotiations, with two of the pirate leaders aboard the destroyer Sterett things went horribly wrong. When the violence ended the four tavellers and two of the Somali pirates were dead. The Adam’s dream had ended in gunfire and bloodshed.
Today the surviving pirates—apprehended by a SEAL detachment—are on trial in a Norfolk Federal Court. Hopefully we will learn what happened that day aboard Quest, and in addition hopefully lessons will be learned to help us avoid confrontations that can lead to such pointless acts. Perhaps some good will come of this.
As we secured cargo handling booms and prepared to get underway once more to rendezvous with Enterprise, perhaps the most grotesque image of the day occurred before us. An SUV drove up to Quest’s berth; two men and two women, dressed as if going to a casual boating party and carrying what appeared to be bags of food and drink, climbed aboard the yacht and began preparations for getting underway. It was as if by a few minutes careful cleaning the memory of the people who died in that cockpit was swept away by these intruders on her grief.
The contrast was shocking, and as I watched Quest, loud music drifting from her deck, making her way under power from the mole to the small-craft anchorage within the harbor of Djibouti, I couldn’t help feeling that she had in fact been violated twice; once by acts of evil and brutality, and again by the disrespectful jollity of these intruders soiling her deck. Her period of mourning had been cut short, like the lives of her owners and passengers, in what seemed to me a second act of piracy.

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic

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