An Encounter with the Crew of the Freedom Express
by Paul Browne - Geezer Boatworks

Not long ago, I broke down and bought a remote control for Icebreaker Danielle’s autopilot. It’s lots of fun to be able to sit out on the foredeck and push buttons to steer. Makes a big difference on a slow boat. Well yesterday was Sunday, and a beautiful warm day it was too. So I set out down the harbour just to relax a bit. And still being enthralled with my new toy, I plugged in the remote. Then to make the most of it, I rigged the hammock up forward, and wriggled into it. So there I was, feeling pretty good about the world and myself, cruising feet first past the freighters, drink in one hand, remote in the other, and swinging gently back and forth in the shade of the canopy.

There was an old beat up freighter up ahead. She wasn’t that large, and she was rafted up beside one of the ships that seem permanently tied to the docks. “Freedom Express, Panama,” the name on the stern proclaimed. As I got closer I noticed there were three swarthy guys on the lower deck, leaning on the rail and looking out over the harbour. They were dressed in tee shirts, and they looked grubby. The three men were watching me intently, sort of scowling. “Rough bunch,” I thought, “Just as well they’re stuck on that ship and not wandering about downtown.” I gave them a wave anyway as I slid by. One of them lifted his hand slightly in reply. It didn’t feel right, Shipmates. Maybe it was that terrorist business making me jumpy, but something was definitely wrong. By the time I figured it out, I had gone well past the freighter. I pondered the situation for a while longer. Then I decided there was only one proper thing to do. The situation called for immediate action, and this was not the time to be timid.

So I tumbled out of the hammock and rolled it up to clear the deck. Then I disengaged the autopilot and cranked Danielle to starboard. Now Tampa’s the kind of town where a situation can get mighty uncomfortable mighty fast. I keep a little “attitude adjuster” on the boat, out of sight but handy, because around here you never know when you’ll find yourself in a bit of a hot spot. So while Danielle was turning, I headed into the cabin for it. Better to be safe than sorry. As I closed on the freighter again, the three fellows straightened up. I suppose they didn’t know what to make of a strange boat turning and coming straight at them. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure what my reception would be either, but I knew I had to give it a try. I managed to stop Danielle, neatly for once, a boat width off the freighter. The sailors were about ten rusty feet above me, looking down and frowning. Then taking a firm grip with my good right hand on what I had pulled out of the cabin, I stepped boldly out onto the foredeck. I looked straight up at them and challenged them point blank, “Ah, you fellows like some cold beer?”

Well that did it Shipmates. Big, big grins all around. “Yes. Yes please! Very good of you,” in English and then some other phrases in Spanish that I didn’t understand. One fellow took off at a trot to fetch a rope. Another called him back, saying, “He’s got one. Catch it.” I heaved the line and tied the cardboard case to it. Eager hands pulled it up. As they pitched the line back down again, I heard things like “Your boat is so beautiful,” then some more Spanish, and finally, “Thank you for your kindness.” “Arrivederci,” I hollered, gunning the engine. The sailors smiled and waved. I waved back as Danielle swung out into the harbour once again. I left the hammock rolled up.

You know Shipmates, there are a few lucky guys who are born with a fine sense of what’s appropriate. They seem to automatically know how best to treat people, and they slide through their lives making good friends and disposing of the odd enemy without much effort. I’m not one of them. It’s taken me half a century to acquire just some of their judgment. But even though I started it off all wrong, I can tell you that it felt damn good to at least finish one right for a change. Well, almost right - I guess “Arrivederci” is Italian, isn’t it? I kind of thought so, right after I said it. Those guys were too polite to let on.
Post Script

This story, which is uncharacteristically perfectly true, happened a couple of months after the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Since then the Harbor Police have turned down the screws, and I’m not sure I’d approach the Freedom Express again, not without a bulldog lawyer aboard anyway. I’ve been warned in no uncertain terms to keep 50 yards off any dock or moored ship. And they want us 1000 yards off any ship that’s moving, if you can believe that one. These days, if the water cops saw me transferring a package to a ship, I bet they’d be on us in a heartbeat, loud speakers blaring, guns drawn, grappling hooks ready, sirens wailing, police cruisers screeching to a stop on the dock, helicopters beating overhead.

I dunno, half of me says the authorities need our full support and understanding. The other half wants to tell them to go roll their hoop. Can you tell the difference between the law and some arbitrary police rule?