Birds in the bilges
Customs regulations often restrict international border crossings to a mind-numbing crawl. Not so in the smuggler’s world, where everything and anything is fair game, writes Lindsay Wright. Photographs supplied.
Watch the wall my darlings,” Rudyard Kipling advised in his 1906 poem The Smuggler’s Song, “while the gentlemen go by.”
He was warning Cornish villagers about the menfolk smuggling “brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk,” across the English Channel.
But smuggling is no longer the preserve of gentlemen and it’s likely that whatever gets spirited ashore after dark these days is a lot more deleterious than “baccy or brandy.”
Working in the Caribbean as a charter skipper, it wasn’t uncommon to see a boat arrive and disappear after dark – and the crew reappear, gaunt and haggard, weeks later.
“It’s not easy money,” one of them told me ruefully. “We had an old CSY charter boat loaded to the gunwales with bales of dope – just enough room to squirm into a sleeping bag on top of it – and we lived on muesli bars and sandwiches because we couldn’t get to the galley.”
They sailed the boat to rendezvous with a fishing boat several miles off the US coast. “We worked flat-out all night, transferring cargo – just waiting for a Coastguard boat or helicopter to appear over the horizon – then scuttled the yacht and steamed back to the mainland on the fishing boat. It was scary – those guys would have shot us for the money.”
Miles up a darkened creek my friends were handed a briefcase full of US cash and dropped off at the nearest town just on daybreak.
“But what do you do with a shit-pile of cash like that?” he asked rhetorically. “We were terrified of being picked up by the cops and having to explain where the money came from, we had no inbound clearance papers and we couldn’t fly back to the Caribbean in case customs or airport security looked in the case. We couldn’t leave it anywhere in case it got stolen – it was a nightmare.”
So they did what anybody would do in those circumstances – they hired a car and drove around the US for a couple of weeks, staying in ritzy hotels and spending as much money as they could until it was almost used up.
“Now,” he added, “I’m waiting for a tap on the shoulder from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) to tell me that someone has talked and they want to chuck me in an American jail for the next 20 years. That’ll be the last smuggling trip I ever do.”
That story was uppermost in my mind when I was approached by a well-dressed fellow guest at a barbecue in the Far North a few years ago.
He sauntered up alongside me and we stood in companionable silence for a few minutes. “I hear you do a fair bit of offshore sailing,” he said. “Yeah, a bit,” I replied. He looked me in the eye: “Well – I’ve got a proposition for you.”
It went like this. I would fly to Australia and pick up a boat. The boat would have about 800 rare birds on board, all heavily sedated and put inside sections of PVC pipe stowed near the engine. “That’s because when the Orions put their heat-seeking radar on you – the birds will look like a warm engine to them.
“You’ll drop the boat off at (he named a small, Far North river port) and the money will go in your bank account. If this trip goes well, we want you to do one from Papua New Guinea – you could pick the boat you want – we’d put the birds in it – and the boat will be yours when you get it back to New Zealand.”
“What sort of mortality rate do you expect?” I asked. “Oohhh – somewhere between 25 and 40 percent.”
“What happens if the birds have a disease?” I asked. “I’d hate to bring in a virus or something that wiped out every Tegel chook farm in the country – or decimated the native bird population.”
“The birds are all thoroughly checked over and go straight into an aviary when they get here,” he replied. “The only contact they have with other birds is when we sell them to bird collectors. They’re worth big money.”
I thought about sailing the ocean; sails bellied with wind, as free as (pardon the pun) a bird. The boat heeling to an ocean breeze, ringed by a clear horizon and ceilinged by a glittering starry sky after dark.
Then I imagined a prison cell, walls, bunk and toilet with a small barred aperture in the door and daily shuffles round a walled yard for exercise – not to mention the dubious sexual practices of my likely jail mates.
“Thanks,” I said, “but no thanks… I’d rather not.”
On another occasion I got talking to a bystander on the dock in Bristol, England. He asked the dimensions of my boat, Elkouba – length, beam and whether she had headroom. Harmless interest from a fellow yachtie, I thought.
But he returned the next day with two others, all with the beatific glow of reborn Christians. “I’ve worked it out,” my acquaintance from the previous day said. “I reckon you can fit about 60 cartons of bibles in there.” The men were members of a prominent Christian group, they explained, and wanted someone to smuggle bibles across the Mediterranean into Algeria.
Smuggle bibles into a Muslim country? The likely penalty if caught would make a US penitentiary look like a Kiwi playcentre. Anyway my hackles rose at the effrontery of people foisting their religion on others.
“No thanks,” I said, “I’m a Muslim.”
A few months later we were tied up in the harbour at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands when three jolly middle-aged Norwegians turned up in a mid-sized fibreglass production boat. Next day a truck appeared on the wharf beside them and the driver and boat crew chain-ganged cases of whisky on board and below-decks.
“Duty-free whisky here costs $15 a bottle – and sells for about $75 in Norway. It is good business, no?” one of the Norwegians said. “The only people who get hurt is the government. This boat makes a lot of happy people.”
The trio left port with an efficiency born of practice and the overloaded boat waddled away nor-east towards the isolated fjords of Norway.
We just smiled and watched the wall.