Youthful dreams die hard on the Horn of Africa.
The sun isn’t quite up but I am, wading through a world soaked in sticky molasses. How do you deal with jet lag? I usually try and soldier as late as possible into the night, exhausting myself through and through. Sleep is usually fitful but I will do the same thing the following night and the following until eventually falling back into a rhythm. In any case, I am awake now and alone and it is very early. Would you be so kind as to sit with me and permit one more Arab-like ramble into non-surf related topics? Can we speak of piracy?
I loved the idea of Somali pirates from the first minute I touched down on the Horn of Africa many years ago. The same friends who had conquered Yemen and I peered west across the Indian Ocean on certain days in those early 2000s and thought, “Somalia must have amazing surf too. Look at the way she fronts the sea. Look at the way she bends!” We were not well-versed in what makes waves actually work, had gotten dumb lucky in Yemen and figured Somalia would be an uncharted surf utopia as well.
It was not. Maybe it is public knowledge, but the continental shelf that scoots off the Horn is so gradual that it might be possible to wade to India. There were no waves or very bad waves but I took something glorious from that adventure and it was piracy.
This was years before the world knew anything of pitch black men terrorizing shipping lanes with small motorized boats and I felt as if I had stumbled upon a modern day fairy tale. Real life pirates! Could anything be better? Could anything be more romantic?
I followed their stories in the news and cheered them on. When Captain Phillips hit theaters and I went and felt giddy surges when Barhad Abdi fixed Tom Hanks in his beady eyes and said, “Look at me. Look at me. I’m the captain now.” Mr. Hanks is one of my least favorite actors and to see not only a boat, but a scene, wrested from his prolific hands sent me to the moon!
As children do with all fairy tales, though, I eventually lost interest. Real life invaded and consumed my days. True stories of of Graham Stapleberg getting slapped in his own house. Of Dane Reynolds and Craig Anderson both quitting Quiksilver. I soon forgot about Somali pirates all together.
Then came the wonderfully half-baked scheme to free a ketch from war torn Yemen and sail it up the Red Sea. For the first time in years I thought about what my pitch black friends were up too. Yachts were not immune to their net. Many had been seized over the years with many casualties.
And so as our flight touched down in Djibouti I wondered if I would finally get to meet my heroes and if pistols would be enough to greet them or if maybe a bouquet of AK-47s might be more appropriate.
Djibouti, if you did not know, is Somalia too, just one colonized by the French and driving though Djibouti-ville’s center that first night brought me straight back. It is the very definition of a hot mess. A decrepit slow burn. A God forsaken Eden.
We eventually wound up at the Sheraton, a hideous blight, and saddled up to the bar next to camouflaged Germans. Camouflaged Germans? What on earth were they doing here? I asked and the answer, delivered in thickly accented tones, was “Anti-piracy.”
Yes. The Germans have an entire anti-piracy unit billeted at the Sheraton. The Japanese and Spanish have anti-piracy units billeted at the much nicer Kempinski across town. The French and Americans also patrol and the Chinese are building their first African military base with the expressed purpose of combating piracy as well but with much larger ambitions. And the pirates? They are done. There have been zero incidents for over a year. Zero.
This new reality made me very wistful. The little Robin Hoods have been stomped out. Their game pieces on the high seas wiped off the board. Romantic piracy is now, officially, a relic replaced by an ugly east African land grab led by the yellow bastards. But I won’t bore you any more today with modern colonization and thank you for keeping me company.