English Harbor in Antigua is a typically lush Caribbean Harbor, a tourist paradise, with fringes of golden beaches strung like pearls along the edge of the island, mangrove trees dipping their branches into the clear, blue sea.
It was a beautiful setting for a holiday – but one that did not just attract the expected type of guests.
I was working as a crew-member – and having on board – a 90-foot sailing yacht, not one of those sleek, fiberglass ones, but what could kindly be described as an “old tub”.
“Valdivia” at the time offered air-conditioned luxury, miles of highly varnished wood that was stripped back to bare wood and re-done every season even a telex machine at a time when they were still’ a novelty in offices, let alone a boat. But the boat had far more humble origins. It was originally part of the Baltic fishing fleet, way back in the Second World War and it had been bought by a young German officer. He had had the boat converted to sail-power, and we, like the many crews who worked on the boat before us, wondered why he had spent so much time and effort on the “tub”
In April of that year, we were particularly busy, trying to get the boat ready for the Atlantic crossing, making good the damage of a busy charter season In the Caribbean. That kind of work demands equally heavy relaxation, so when we all stumbled down to our cabins one night, pretty exhausted and a bit worse for drink, no-one expected to stir before the next morning.
But the cook, Marietta, woke up just after midnight and trudged down the corridor, past all the closed cabin doors, to the toilet, stopping to let a man pass her. It took a few moments to shake off sleep and realize that he shouldn’t really be there. At first, she thought he was just a friend of someone on the boat – but it didn’t seem likely. He was elderly, very tall, over six foot, white-hair cropped so short as to be almost military. Not quite Caribbean boat-bum type. Her doubts materialized as fear even as he dematerialized. He just went right through a corridor wall.
Needless to say, the “alarm” was raised – but no one could take Marietta’s story seriously. Who would, after a good night on the rum punch?
Nothing more was said. She gave up trying to persuade the skeptical lot of us, and apart from lying in wait for each other shining torches under our chins and surprising each other with woeful moans and groans, the incident was forgotten.
But weeks later, another girl, Irene, walked up into the saloon to find a man sitting there at the U-shaped table, which had a huge mirror on the wall behind it. She too hesitated, but as she started to walk towards him, she realized that there was something wrong with the scene in front of her. The man had no reflection in the mirror.
It all happened so quickly. She turned away in surprise rather than horror and when she turned towards him again, he was gone.
Yet again, cynicism won the day and the incident was put down to a fervent imagination, perhaps sparked by overheard stories from Marietta. So no one was surprised that Irene’s man resembled Marietta’s.
But what happened three weeks later was much harder to explain. By then eight of us were half way across the Atlantic, some 1,500 miles from land and, as every evening before the night watch took over, we were all gathered around the huge saloon table having dinner together. We had been very lucky with the weather – the seas were rising and falling gently and there was enough wind to keep the sails full, but we had not picked up another ship on the radar since a few days after we had left the Caribbean, and outside there was just an inky darkness. We used to look forward to washing up in the scant basinful of water each of us was allowed every night, slipping out of our dirty T-shirts into clean ones, and getting to chat to each other. During the day, some of us were on watch, some of us slept, others worked on the wood, sails, or engine. With so many of us living in such cramped quarters for so long, we each respected each other’s need for privacy and a bit of space. But by evening, we were looking forward to a bit of company.
Valdivia had a raised saloon, with huge square windows along two walls looking out over the side decks, a far cry from the round portholes associated with sailing boats. I had my back to one of the windows, chatting to the captain, Steve, opposite me. He was in his mid-forties, a pragmatist who had made his fortune as a specialist diver and who now owned and ran Valdivia as his business. In the middle of a sentence, he just looked over my shoulder and shuddered in shock. Again, the whole scene moved tremendously quickly. We all spun round, aware that he had seen something outside the window, but expecting it to be the light of a ship. No one believed him when he said he had clearly seen the face of a man peering in through the glass. Not even when he described him as being an elderly man with white hair.
A search was immediately mounted for what must have been – what we hoped against hope had been – a stowaway. But even as we opened sail-lockers and checked whether any food was missing, all eight of us realized with sinking hearts that it was no real person that Steve had seen.
Eventually, after trying to re-create shadows and reflections with all manner of light combinations in a last desperate attempt to find a rational explanation, we gave up, and the incident was duly entered into the log.
Very little was said. After all, if we worked ourselves up about the fact that we were on a haunted boat half way across the Atlantic, there was not much we could do about it. We wouldn’t exactly be able to move out, would we…?
So the night watches doubled up for the rest of the trip, and the summer went on without any further sightings of our uninvited passenger.
Till then, even we did not want to believe the story. But at the end of the season, the boat stopped off in Porto Ercole on Its way to Sardinia and we met our charter agent who had also handled the sale of the boat from the German to Steve. Had we heard he asked, that the German had had a stroke and had died? Steve replied that he had had never actually met him in person, the sale of the boat having been handled through agents and lawyers.
Apparently, the agent added, he had been in a coma for several weeks, from around the middle of April until the end of May.
By this time, the rest of us had perked up our ears and quietened down. A shiver ran down my spine. We all moved closer so that we could hear the rest of the story.
One of us hesitatingly asked what the German had looked like. And yes, he had white hair, cropped very short; quite tall, over six foot tall. He loved the boat, said the agent. Don’t you think he would have loved to see the boat just one more time before he died…?
This post was written by Albert Saliba