I am alone on deck.
The last two hours of the night watch.
Dhows float by on the pewter sea.
Snatches of Swahili drift from those that come closest to the boat.
The first birdsong comes from land, a long dark bar that separates ocean from sky.
The nexus of the ancient trade routes that triangulate Africa, Arabia and India.
The eastern sky fills slowly with soft orange light. The fierce, tropical sun will blaze when the earth tips it over the horizon. This morning twilight is an interregnum of cool and quiet and peace.
This is a war zone.
So declared by governments whose economies depend on the safe passage of cargo from east to west and back again. It is here, beyond the reefs, that Somali pirates have been unleashed from the convulsions of their dying country. Groups of young men armed with Kalishnikovs and the fearlessness of men whose fathers lost everything for them before they were born. They have descended like locusts, like hyenas to scavenge on this rich coast. Cargo ships piled with goods; cruise ships jammed with bored, hungover people; and on yachts (like the one I am on with my family) that carry people who love the rich wilderness of the Indian Ocean.
A war zone precludes one from all insurance. How to insure anyway for the millions of dollars demanded in ransom? Last year – 2010 – eighty people or more were killed by pirates. Six hundred and still counting were take hostage. Held for ransom in god-forsaken villages along the Somali coast by men who answer to no government, on whom no pressure can be brought to bear.
I had planned to sail to Kilwa. My great grandfather was buried there in 1916, a victim of the malaria that decimated the British troops stationed here during World War One. But as the attacks got closer – two on Christmas Day in the Mozambican Channel – we altered our route to hug the jagged coastline of an island built entirely of coral.
It would be safest.
Then last night – out of nowhere it seemed – a tropical storm blew up. One minute the sky was black silk pearled with stars and an orange crescent of moon. The next the sky had dropped to the level of the mast. The wind-harried clouds were filled with sheet lightening and the wind was cold.
The boat dragged its anchor and we ran aground. The beckoning white beach with its overhanging coconut palms switched from postcard paradise to threat in the minutes it took to drift from thirty metres depth to four. We got ourselves afloat and, just as rapidly as the storm had descended, it dissipated. But we sailed north anyway, looking for a safer anchorage.
I stood at the prow. The ship slicing through the water, the restored quiet of the night slipping past.
A pair of dolphins accompanied us for miles. Visible only in the swirls of phosphorescence they pulled through the inky sea.
Above us the southern stars wheeled across the cleared sky.
Orion and the green-eyed dog star, Sirius.
The seven sisters, the Pleides huddled just outside the Milky Way.
On the horizon the Southern Cross, the mark of home.
The storm was gone, the jagged coral arms of the island folded again. But I thought of them. Far out beyond the reef. The pirates lurking in their hijacked vessels.
The vast scale of piracy – this evil new empire of the Monsoon – seems too large for the crime novel. The captives either as hostages or murder victims are too impersonal, the boarding of a ship too melodramatic for the confines of a crime novel where death is carefully constructed and motive found through deductive reasoning.
The risks of piracy are too great; the scale of it too vast.
This is the world of the thriller.
But the kernel of a new story is coming to life, that first embryonic heartbeat that sustains one through a year or more of writing.
It has lodged, that first grain of an idea that will eventually pearl into a book.
The restless of the waves, the drama of the seascape with its sudden dangers and unexpected gifts of a magical and otherworldly beauty, the unlikely mix of people drawn together on the ocean will be, I know, too tempting to pass up.