In March of 1981, Sue and I found ourselves about 90 miles up the Amazon River in the town of Belem, Brazil. We'd arrived there as crew on the Rhodesian sailboat Sabi Star. When we first pulled into Belem we'd seen an American sailboat, the "Now Can I 2," a beautiful ~65' equal-height schooner. When we went to say hello, we found only a single 17-year-old American kid on board. He said they were on charter, out of Antigua. The 4 British charterers were supposed to be photographers, but they didn't seem to know which end of a camera to look through. They were also built like Rambo. They were all off the boat at the time, having flown down to Rio de Janeiro with the skipper. The young British cook didn't like the whole thing, so she'd jumped ship. (We later told the British High Commission, so they could spring her out of jail.)
Belem cathedral, from Para/Amazon River, Belem, Brazil
The kid didn't really know much. He was incapable of managing the boat, and had let the batteries run so low that nothing worked any more. When we asked if they had visas for Brazil, he replied, "You mean, like, a Visa Card?" Clueless.
A few nights later, Sue and I were writing letters in the yacht-club bar with Margie, the only other young woman on Sabi Star. There was no dock, so Sabi Star was anchored out in the river, swinging to the tide. We had the dinghy, a sorry little thing that would roll over if you looked at it sideways, but it usually got us back and forth with its 3.5hp outboard.
It was midnight, and the 3 of us were tired, so we climbed (gingerly) into the dinghy and motored out to Sabi Star. As we got into the current, we could see by the moonlight that we had visitors. A dinghy of some sort was alongside Sabi Star. But as we got closer, some shadowy figures carrying a Santa Claus-like bag over their shoulders climbed down the side and into their boat, which we realized was a local dugout canoe. This wasn't right! We started shouting to anyone on board that we were being robbed, but nobody heard. The owner and his wife were aboard (in their cabin) but 1 other crewman was asleep on deck in a hammock.
As the 3 robbers drifted down towards us in their dugout canoe, I decided to ram them. After all, I had a 3.5hp outboard! When my intentions were clear, one of them pulled a pistol on us, so I quickly veered away and let them drift down-stream. It was a very good thing that nobody heard us shout earlier, as Sabi Star had just come from the Rhodesian war. On board was a .38 pistol, a .22 long rifle, and a fully automatic copy of an Uzi sub-machine gun! If anyone had started shooting while the robbers had their gun out, we would have been in big trouble (as Peter Blake learned about 20 years later, in almost exactly the same spot).
When we got back to Sabi Star, we found they'd taken anything that looked like a purse, camera, jewelry, etc. Sue and I lost travelers checks, binoculars, some jewelry, and a nice 35mm Canon A1 camera body and lens. Luckily, they did not take our camera case, which contained the other camera body, several lenses, and about 50 rolls of irreplaceable exposed film from Africa. Others lost much the same, plus passports and a guitar.
In the morning, the police and papers made a big deal over us. They all knew who'd done it: El Gigante. He'd just been let out of jail 2 days earlier. His crime? Climbing up a yacht's anchor chain and shooting a 17-year-old British kid dead, for which he got 3 years in jail. Brazil had an interesting judicial system...
The newspapers had a field day with us, exaggerating our losses that first day, and then increasing our losses by a factor of ~10x on each succeeding day. We had the front page headlines for 3 days. The police were anxious to pursue the case, but ... they had no money or transportation(?!?). We had to buy them taxis any time they wanted to go check something out. Yeesh!
After 3 days of this, I got a radio call from Now Can I 2. Could I please tell them (over the radio) how to get their engines started? Ummm... No, not really. But I could perhaps get them started if I came on board. They were very hesitant to let me on board, but eventually decided that was the only way they were going to get their engines started. When I got there, I found that the 'charterers' were indeed huge, and didn't seem to know much about photography. But I got their engines started and left, and they pulled up their anchor and headed down the Amazon to the Atlantic.
The next day, we found we'd been replaced on the front page of the papers. It seems that Ronald Biggs, the English Great Train Robber of the late 1960's, had escaped to Brazil several years earlier and gained citizenship by marrying a Brazilian woman. He'd been living quietly in Rio de Janeiro, but had just been kidnapped from his favorite restaurant, and flown up to Belem in a chartered jet. From there, it was thought he'd been taken to a yacht. It wasn't hard for us to fill in the other details...
The next thing we know, the Belem police want to talk to me and Sue. Great. Did they know I'd (accidentally) helped the kidnappers escape? I thought hard and eventually called the US Consulate, telling the Consular Officer all we knew and asking for advise. She said we had to go to the police, but we didn't have to tell them everything we knew. I was afraid that if we went in there, we'd never come out again, so I asked her to come get us if we didn't call her back in, say, 3 hours. She agreed, and with some trepidation we headed off for the cop-shop.
Luckily, they didn't want to talk to us about the kidnapping. (Whew!) They'd caught one of El Gigante's 2 accomplices, and wanted us to identify him. Identify him?!? It was midnight, and they were pointing a bloody cannon at me! To my eyes, it looked at least 8" across, probably 4 feet long, and I could have driven a small Volkswagen down the barrel! I was not looking at the people. But this guy had our travelers checks on him, as well as our binoculars and Doug's guitar. Surely that was enough to incriminate him? The police replied, "No." If I couldn't positively identify him, he'd probably go free. I replied that if they wanted to let him go, that was their problem! I was leaving the country as soon as possible, and I wasn't ever coming back. Yeesh! An interesting country, Brazil...
So what ever happened to Biggs and the bounty hunters? Apparently, Now Can I 2 motored the 90 miles to the Atlantic, started sailing, and then couldn't get their engines started again. Off Barbados, the wind died, so they called the Barbados Coast Guard(!?!) to come rescue them. The Coast Guard towed the boat in and threw everyone in jail. Now, I would think that a good, ex-British colony/nation like Barbados would send The Great Train Robber to the UK to stand trial, but no - they sent Biggs back to Brazil! This all coincided with the release of one of Biggs's books, but I can't imagine it was a publicity stunt. Many years later, Biggs, now in need of British medical care, turned himself in, but I don't believe the money was ever recovered. Biggs apparently spent much of it helping the poor of Rio de Janeiro.
This Pre-History series now continues with our purchase of our first boat, the Oriental Lady.
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