It was really late for us boatie folk. Late even for me back in the Real World. Late, like 10.50pm (I’m such a wild child these days…). I had brushed my teeth. Dietmar was already in his bunk and snoring lightly. I was just about to climb in when I realised I could hear what sounded like a burglar alarm. Back in the Real World, this would not have elicited much of a reaction from me to be honest (in London for example, alarms are such a ubiquitous noise that some bird songs mimic them), but here? Here it’s different.
From the cockpit, I could hear the alarm more clearly. We had dropped anchor about 150m from the fuel station in the eastern part of the bay. As you look at the shore, you can see (in the daylight, obvs) from left to right: the back of the Department of the Environment; a garage/workshop area with two vehicles on ramps; the Total fuel station; an open space of about 100m; 2 large gas tanks; some outbuildings. In the foreground there is a concrete quay and a small commercial fishing boat is tied up there, and has been since we arrived.
The alarm was not coming from the petrol station, but seemed to be coming from the outbuildings behind the boat. I could hear the fishing boat generator running but there didn’t appear to be anyone on board. Suddenly, I spot two lights moving around near the outbuildings on the far right hand side. As I stand and watch, I can see someone struggling to open a garage-type door, and then the next thing I see is two people carrying something heavy away, across the open space into the darkness behind the petrol station. My heart starts to pound in my chest. Am I witnessing a theft? What on earth are they carrying? It’s box-shaped, about the size and shape of, for example, a small generator. Shit. And I am probably the only person witnessing this as all sensible people are already in bed…
Meh. Better ring the police. Shit… what is the number for the emergency services here?! OK, I’ll dial 999. Worse case scenario, I’ll get Scotland Yard and perhaps they can patch me through…
I dial 999. To my surprise, I get the police on Pape’ete, on Tahiti, 750 miles away. Er… now my brain has gone to mush and I can remember which island I am currently on but can’t remember the name of the bay. Thank God, the very nice lady on the other end of the phone guesses correctly and I explain in my best French (again, thank you to my parents for my expensive education…) what I am seeing. The dispatcher says she would be very surprised if a burglary was taking place but that an alarm is an extremely unusual occurrence and she will send the local force to investigate. I figure that the burglars will stand no chance of survival if the gendarmes on Nuku Hiva have breath as bad as those on Hiva Oa, so the Forces of Good are bound to prevail this night.
I go back up into the cockpit, aware that I might have been talking very loudly and wonder if anyone on shore could have heard me. I also realise at this point that I am standing there naked and pretty much glowing white in the dark. Argh. I go back downstairs and fumble around for one of Dietmar’s dark t-shirts, not wanting to put a light on in case I am seen. I thought to myself, if this is a gang of international criminals, they might come and drill a hole in our boat and sink us in revenge for being foiled. Yes, I know, Wow, my brain does crazy shit in the middle of the night, and I hadn’t even had a drink…
Like a sailing version of Miss Marple, I crouch low in the cockpit and peer through the binoculars, waiting for the Keystone Cops to arrive. Unlike the really good ones that I left on board in my previous life, these are ‘City View’ binoculars that were probably bought in Dietmar’s previous life, somewhere like the top of the Empire State Building. They are crap and impossible to adjust to my terrible eyesight, with or without my glasses on. I doubt I could see a truck clearly at 50 yards through them. Blurrily, I can make out 2 more lamps, this time inside the workshop area. And now two more, by the wharf, getting into a small boat. Oh my god, now what are they stealing? Come on, you gendarmes, hurry up!
Eventually, after what seemed like hours but was probably only ten minutes, I see two figures in uniform arrive. They walk hurriedly towards the workshop area, but then turn and walk away. Wait – there are still people in there – you’re going the wrong way. But then I see them approaching the torch lights and think – great, now you’ve got them. Still no action though. Shouldn’t you be running? Oh god, they’re getting away…
Now I can see a vehicle moving away by the petrol station, without its lights at first, ever so slowly. I go back below to get my phone and it rings as I am about to dial 17 (now I know this is the real number for the police). The dispatcher in Pape’ete tells me she is going to connect me with the gendarmes on site and I ready myself to tell them urgently about the other things I have seen.
The gendarme asks me in French if it was me who reported the alarm.
“Yes, sir, it was.”
“OK, we are on site and we have checked everything out.”
“OK great…” I start to tell him about the car that I have just seen leaving slowly. He interrupts me to tell me that everything is OK.
“The alarm is coming from the fishing boat but everything seems fine on board.”
“So we have called the captain and asked him to return to turn it off.”
“And what you thought was a theft was in fact the local crab fishermen. They store their catch in those buildings…”
“So there is nothing to worry about. You can relax. Everything here is as it should be. We are sorry about the alarm but the captain is coming.”
“Oh. OK. Très bien. Merci beaucoup.”
“Merci à vous, et dormez bien.”
I had to laugh to myself, standing there like a super-sleuth with just a t-shirt on in the cockpit. The heavy load that I had seen the two men carrying was probably a cool box full of their catch ready for the market. God knows what was happening in the workshop but clearly nothing bad. I realised that I was still not completely acclimatised to this completely different world where an alarm going off does not mean a terrorist attack or armed robbery. The style and pace of life here has still not quite got into my bones. Maybe it never will. Maybe I have spent too many years in the fretful West, where a high level of latent stress just seems to be the norm. I have to return to it in September but I hope the South Pacific will have worked a little of its magic on me by then…
In the meantime, I’ll be standing by on Channel 16…