Chapter Six Free, Cape Spartel

Chapter Six

Cape Spartel


The surface of the sea was pitch black while a timorous moon hung high in the night sky, threatened by unseen clouds, casting a broad swathe of light running from the distant starboard horizon and crossing their path. The boat was travelling at a high speed, slicing the still surface of the flat, tranquil ocean, leaving a wide wake of foaming sea, myriad particles of which were picked up in the moonlight.

“ Où allons-nous?[1]” growled the driver disconsolately.

“Drive and shut up or you go in the water,” snarled Pete. He had me worried. I had only the girls and Latifa’s acceptance of him to go by as well as the fact that he had saved us when all seemed lost. Ruben said he knew guys in the army who were like him and they were potentially lethal types. He lay on the deck, propped up on one elbow, bull-necked, arms sinewy and ham-like. His wrists were as thick as my neck, and he was big; it may well have been belly, but his chest was as full, and when he stood he towered over us, but he was lithe, he moved like a big cat.

“Look ahead, keep looking, if we hit anything at this speed, she will be damaged.”

Ruben and I had been taking thirty-minute stints at sitting up and looking ahead into the darkness, with the vain hope of seeing any litter or obstacle lying in the water before we ran over it and damaged the boat.

“We should slow down, Pete.”

He ignored us.

The young driver nursed a black eye and his left arm, which Pete had used as a lever of sorts to get him to agree to steer the boat.

“He will kill you, all of you. This is his boat, and you are crazy people.”

“Later, later I will speak with the Sheikh. He and I are old friends. I had no time… The police… This family is in mortal danger. He was grunting now; perhaps his clock was winding down, and soon he would go under. The mere act of speaking appeared to need some effort on his part.”

“You know him?” The young man was surprised.

“Of course I know him,” he whispered loudly. “We are as brothers, he and I. I asked him for the boat, he said no, so I took it.”

“So it’s not a stolen boat then, no one will be chasing us,” I burst out with relief. Ruben looked into my eyes, moving his head from side to side making faces, keeping out of Pete’s viewpoint.

“Noddy,” he said, “don’t be a Noddy.”

I looked back at him, frowning. “Noddy?”

“Yes,” whispered Ruben. “Tonto[2].”

“Well, I don’t know; I only know we should discuss where we are going. Pete!”

He looked up dazedly. “To the Algerian Sahara. We will return the girls to their home, to their place of origin, out of Morocco, to their people.”

“You are crazy,” snorted the steersman. “Sahara, yes? Just going to climb over the Berm?”

“Listen, Abdul,” growled Pete.


“Phoenix?” repeated Ruben incredulously. “Phoenix?” Then he giggled, looking at Pete and Masuhun. “How did a Moroccan smuggler manage to get himself a name like Phoenix?”

“Yes, Phoenix,” said the driver, bringing the boat to a dead standstill. “Better than Jewish terrorist name Ruben.” He looked straight at Ruben, his eyes blazing.

“Jewish?” retorted Ruben.

“Okay, guys, cool it, go on Abdul… Sorry! Phoenix, tell us how you got your name,” said Pete.

“Well,” started the driver, “but you will joke, the Jewish will laugh.”

“Come on, Phoenix, the Jewish promises not to laugh,” Ruben, patted him soothingly on the shoulder. “Come on, tell us, we are interested.”

“Okay! Okay! I will tell. One night we went to the cinema, all my brothers and I.”

“How many brothers?”

“Come on, Ruben, let him tell it.”

“Well, the movie was Gladiator, and I learned the speech off by heart. When he is in the arena, you know. My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” Ruben clapped enthusiastically, and the girls, who were now awake, joined in with him laughing, although they had no idea what was going on.

“And?” insisted Ruben. “Carry on, tell us.”

“Well, it started as Maximus. I didn’t mind everyone called me Maximus, even my mother, but people made me quote the speech every time I met someone new. Then they decided on Commodus, which progressed to Joaquin––which just didn’t fit––and after a few days of much thinking, they started calling me Phoenix.”

“Okay, Phoenix, how about you tell me what’s wrong with my plan? I had thought of landing at Tarfaya, Tam Tam, or thereabouts and then drive to Zag[3]. From there we can plan how to get across the sand wall and into Free Western Sahara.” His eyes were closed, and he spoke with an apparent effort.

“Controls, the Berm[4], and minefields. Nobody goes over the Berm, not even the Polisario[5] freedom fighters, although they have a treaty in force since 1991.”

“Controls?” Asked Pete, “what do you mean controls?”

“From Tarfaya we need to leave the port. Then we drive to Zag: roads bad, police controls, army controls every hundred kilometers. Or we could go through Samara[6], but maybe worse. They are very thorough, these Moroccan army people. I had a friend once who smuggled three live bantam cocks into Spain, and the Guardia civil dogs did not find them.”

“Stoned probably; the dogs, I mean,” chirped in Ruben.

“Il est fou, this guy, this Jewish.”

“The girls want to use a toilet,” I said as discreetly as possible to Phoenix.

“One minute please and… voilà,” Phoenix played with some controls, and a back landing board with an area the whole width of the craft unfolded itself and was lowered hydraulically towards the ocean surface. It projected about one metre and came to rest just centimetres above the level of the water. He unfolded a small staircase and helped the girls and Tanirt down; he gave them soap and towels. Then he drew a little curtain to shield them from the cockpit.

“Cosy,” said Ruben.

“For him and his company,” said Phoenix. “The Sheikh, he likes to entertain some days.”

“Although how he got the Bantams to shut up is the real mystery.”

Phoenix glanced at him and then look enquiringly at me. He shrugged with a smirk. “Fou[7].”

“Of course,” Phoenix continued, “we could go all the way up to Mauretania but it’s a long way, and we haven’t the gas. Supplies we have for a day running, of gas, water, food, but La Aguera is very far.”

“That’s the peninsula?” I was poring over a map trying to follow the explanations. “But this is the Berm, is it not? The wall runs all the way to the end of the peninsula. Look at it, all the way from Morocco itself cuts lengthways right across the country of Western Sahara. When it’s nearly at Mauretania it splits the peninsula of La Aguera, so we’d have to come in on the Mauritanian side, Nuadibu?”

“Yes, but is too far, and anyway road from Mauretania to Tindouf[8] is terrible and full of smugglers and bandits. The tribesmen can be a huge problem. One day they took the capital, Nouakchott[9], and overthrew the president and government. This is why the Mauritanians revoked their claim to Western Sahara.”

 “What about Villa Cisneros?”

“Dakhla now, before Villa Cisneros. You know the Spanish used it as a base for their slaving operations there once. Also, too far up and our gas won’t reach. I hardly think you will want to refill in Moroccan waters. And the Berm, you think, a sand wall, no problem. The truth is that it is so defended by hundreds of thousands of troops––and mined––that you should forget it. Why you do this, take this family to Sahara? They are just poor people. It’s not my business, but you make a big problem. Why not we don’t leave them on a beach? They will make out somehow.”

Pete had been snoring, eyes closed, still held up by his elbow. Suddenly, like a cobra, he whipped out at the unsuspecting Phoenix, who didn’t see him coming. He took him by the foot and dragged the protesting youth towards him. Then he grasped him by the throat with his big hand.

“Those are my daughters, and these are my sons. You tell me that Sahara is not possible from Tarfaya. Well, I listen to you. You belong to my brother, the Sheikh. Turn around now and take them to Algeria, to Oran. If there is any problem or any of my people are touched, I will kill you.”

He spoke with great effort as if he had been wounded, and then he collapsed onto the deck. I covered him with a blanket and let him sleep. Phoenix clambered back to his steering wheel and sullenly restarted the engines.

At the boat earlier, Pete’s friend Latifa had not wanted to board. She said she would stay behind. She would not come with us. She said the town was her home, that she had no reason to run, and would have no problem.

“He is a good man, but sick,” she said. “Sometimes he will lose all strength. Tears will come from his eyes and he will go into a deep sleep for some hours, or even a day, or once for two days. Later, he will awake but very, very sad. I think the girls give him hope because, sometimes after his fit, he sees no point in living.”

The boat came back to life, its colossal engines purring smoothly. Phoenix sent her gliding steadily forward at a good, but not frantic, pace. He looked ahead into the night without speaking; he seemed miserable.

“He was right, you know, and you were wrong,” I told him abruptly.

“Why do you say that? You don’t understand. I only make a joke. Before I like him, but now… now I hate him.”

“Think about it, Phoenix. Put the girls on the beach with no money, no home, or protection. Most likely they will be forced to have sex with men, for money or not; the mother, perhaps even the elder girl. They will have to be very lucky to meet a good man who lives by the law of Allah. Better, next time, you bite your tongue before you speak such words.”

“Astagh Ferrullah[10].” He uttered the words, after a long silence.

“Alhamdo Lillah[11].” They looked back to see Tanirt placing her hand on her forehead. Phoenix went red; they had heard it all, and that she seemed to understand was apparent, by the look on her face.

Malak, lying half asleep at her side, smiled and stretched, “Allahu Akbar[12],” she sung softly. Murdiyyah, who had been wearing a perpetual frown since we left, suddenly smiled, prompting me to elbow Phoenix gently.

“She’s just a baby, could be your little sister.”

“You understand, you are from here; a girl is soon a woman. Better I have her than some tribesman who will misuse her. This is a little jewel, but she is alone, no man, father, or brother to protect her honour. All she needs is to be as fertile as the sand in the riverbed of an oasis when the sun is right, and the season the one and that big brutal tribesman, bolder than his fellows races his horse out of the desert and takes his plunder.”

“Don’t even think about it, Gladiator; Pete will tear you to pieces.”

“Bismillah N Rahman N Rahim[13],” chanted Ruben, setting the girls off laughing at hearing him say the words.

“Even the Jewish knows how to praise the Lord,” said Phoenix, bursting into reluctant laughter. “Look, that’s Laraiche on our right. I would like to get past Gibraltar during the night. There, in those straits, is where the action will be, and we will be in the most danger.”

“When we stopped while the girls were washing, I saw a military-type craft approach us and turn away. We must have been familiar to them or something, as they knew to stay away,” said Ruben. “It was some Frigate or Corvette.”

Phoenix turned and, looking at Ruben and me, shrugged. “They probably knew the Sheikh’s boat; they would have scanned us, probably seen three nubile little things in the moonlight, and didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Bullshit,” whispered Ruben.

“As I was saying,” went on Phoenix, “patrol boats, British perhaps, are our main worry as we go through the straits.”

“The British, probably just watch from the top of the rock with their radars,” said Ruben, “and drink tea.”

“And the smugglers.” I said, “Don’t forget we will be passing through the international waters of four different nations.”

“What about the Spanish Guardia Civil chasing smugglers? This is dodgier than I had thought,” said Ruben. “Is it such a good idea?”

“Much better than the Berm,” responded Phoenix. “You don’t understand what the Berm is.”

“Well, tell us about it. We’re not going anywhere.”

“Think about it. A sand wall, in fact, three walls of about three metres high, which run two thousand seven hundred miles cutting Western Sahara in two, and the Sahara side of the divide is intensively mined so that it is impassable. The various historical claims over this country were being peaceably examined, and still are. Morocco has, in breach of United Nations mandates––with the support of Western nations and governments––built this wall, split the country along with its inhabitants in two, and started a massive phosphate mining operation, and now are actively drilling for oil. The Moroccan army, which is approximately two hundred thousand strong, is in the main based along this wall, with a stronghold every fifty kilometres.”

“We’re being followed,” cut in Ruben.

Phoenix and I turned our faces into the bright moonlight, looking backward in the direction from where we were travelling to see the newcomer.

“It’s just a powerboat, flying the Moroccan Marine Royale[14] flag. Can you make it out, Moon?” He handed me the binoculars.

With difficulty due to the spray and the rocking of the moving boat, I peered through the night sky at the vessel illuminated in the moonlight. “Various Striped colours, mainly blue with a green and yellow line, and yes, looks like a laurel crown in the centre,” I reported. “They are looking at us through glasses also and making signs. Hold it; he’s saying stop. No, he’s saying stop and run. I think they want a race.” I turned around grinning, “They want a race, I can’t believe it. What shall we do Phoenix? They must know your boss, maybe raced him before. If we don’t take them on, they’ll get suspicious; we’ll have the whole Moroccan navy after us.”

“Okay, wave them alongside. You, Jewish, get down with the girls. Your hair is the wrong colour.”

“What do you mean? I’ve seen tons of fair-haired Moroccan chaps.”

“Humour him, Ruben, for heaven’s sakes,” I pleaded, the binoculars still trained on the other vessel. “Hold on, the boat. Is he saying something cab? Capo spo, capo spa.”

“Cabo Spartel,” said Phoenix. “That’s the first Tangiers lighthouse as we round the point. That’s where he must want us to run to.”

“Can we outrun him, though?” I asked.

“Course we can,” piped in Ruben from the bottom of the boat. “She’s a French-constructed Damon Interceptor capable of up to sixty knots when fully opened up and with a calm sea. And we… we’re the dog’s bollocks compared to the Damon, with our eight hundred horsepower thrust and wide beam built for balance and super-speed. This boat is a billionaire’s toy. Don’t know who this Sheikh fellow is, but what a boat.”

Phoenix looked down at him and nodded his head. “You know your stuff, Jewish; maybe you are not Jewish, maybe Nazarie[15]. And those boys in the Damon, you know, they think they have a chance; maybe my boss raced them one day, let them win.”

“Your English is amazing, telling us about that wall. Are you really Moroccan or from Essex?” retorted Ruben, not being one to let things rest. “What do you think, Moon? Shall we let them win? And I’m not hiding anymore; it’s stupid,” he edged back onto one of the cockpits seats, showing Tanirt and the girls how to fasten their seatbelts.

“How about we just let her outrun us until we get to one or two kilometres before Spartel, and then we run and leave them standing?”

“Okay, Moon,” said Phoenix with a chuckle. “We’ll do it.” The others looked at him waiting, excited at the prospect, after so many hours cooped up in the cockpit, of a bit of excitement. “At Spartel, we head out a bit toward the open sea and then veer to starboard towards Malabata lighthouse[16]. We need to go slower from there, and before even, because of the shipping lanes and ferries crossing.”

The Marine Royale craft came up parallel to our boat about two hundred metres seaward; we could make her out quite clearly in the moonlight and see one or two figures of people moving around her. We heard a sea horn, which was evidently signalling the start of the run. The Damon surged forward with a leap, and we followed, with Phoenix holding our position just a hundred metres or so behind. Our wipers working full-out to deal with the spray cast up by the slipstream of the other craft, which although off to our port bow was veering in, threatening to cut us up with the excitement of the chase.

“He’s doing it on purpose, the dirty rat,” shouted Phoenix. “He’s making it so that we lose our starboard position, and to overtake must cut across his wash. He’s forcing me to make our move now.”

He opened her up gradually, and we began to make rapid headway on the other craft, cutting in towards land where she was pushing us, at the very limit of what seemed safe, given that there may have been rocks or reefs or other snags. The boat moved at an incredible speed, yet not lifting her nose discernibly or vibrating, other than with the occasional slap of a wavelet against her speeding hull and a gradual increase in her rhythmic rocking. And then we were upon her and racing past.

The other boat started to fall behind so rapidly that she appeared not to be moving at all. She rolled and pitched violently in our wake. We could hear her sirens start bleating, and Ruben craning his neck in spite of the slipstream reported that she was ablaze with light. “Lousy losers, hahaha,” he shouted. “That’ll larn ‘em.”

We huddled in the cockpit behind the windscreen and lateral protectors to avoid the massive slipstream as the beautiful craft raced across the moonlit sea.

“Down there is the lost city of Atlantis. Here, at the gates of the Pillars of Hercules, as Plato wrote,” I enthused as we went. “And soon looming up on our starboard side––that’s the right for landlubbers––we will see the beam of the Cabo Spartel lighthouse sweeping the straits.”

“That’s it now, Moon, you can just see it as it moves in our direction, you can see the actual beacon, the light itself.”

“Yeah that’s it, and above, behind it, the hill of Jebel Quebir, crowned with a second tower which, look, you can see now; it’s vaguely lit up. Below the cape, near to the lighthouse, are the caves of Hercules famous for their prehistoric remains, and previously used as a brothel.”

The fleeing boat raced over the tranquil moonlit waters of the Atlantic, causing a glittering wake as she aquaplaned heading away from Morocco and towards Barbate and Spain. The occasional cloud passing slowly across the moon’s face plunged the craft and us, its occupants, into a sinister half-light. I gazed forward fixedly toward the now dark and mysterious Spanish coast. It evoked memories of the last time I had made the journey; that time it had been at the risk of my life[17]. Soon we will change course and line Spain up on our port side with Morocco to starboard. As if reading my thoughts, Phoenix spoke, breaking the silence that had reigned since we had passed Spartel.

“We’ll change course at a point more or less equidistant between Spartel and Barbate in Spain. By staying right in the centre, as we run through the straits, cutting across shipping lanes, and going around stationary and moving tankers and other vessels, we will be less visible to Spanish and Moroccan patrol boats. It’s not that wide; it’s only seven or eight kilometres at the narrowest point.” He had the radio on now, and we could hear various languages, predominantly English, Spanish, and French, as the multiple ships negotiating the straits spoke with each other, with Tarifa control, or the various naval control centres of the area.

A swell was building up as we started towards the straits. Ruben said it was due to a wind funnel effect accelerating what little wind there was by a couple of notches. Also, he told us that the current here was huge, that it was due to the strongly salinized water from the Mediterranean Sea forcing its way at ground level under the seawater from the Atlantic, which would simultaneously come into the Mediterranean as a fast current, offsetting the incoming current below. The water from the Mediterranean would on getting to the Atlantic roll down the continental slope, thereby allowing for a constant supply of salinized water to be displaced. He said that the German U-boats, during the war, would come into the Mediterranean, washed along below the surface by the current and not under their own power, so as not to be heard or detected by the watching British.

We came close to a huge tanker, its sluggish wake letting us know that it was moving at all. Her vast bulk loomed up above us as we passed, rust and filth encrusting her sides telling of how long she had been away from home or of the scant attention received from her owners. It needed little imagination to say where the ship hailed from with her name proudly emblazoned above her colossal barnacle-encrusted anchor; the Cyrillic letters were illegible.

The water was getting choppier as we wove our way around the occasional sailing yachts tacking through to and from the Mediterranean, a tanker, and several other ships of varying sizes. The girls had gotten to their feet and moved around the boat a little; Murdiyyah and Tanirt were both sick. Malak, full of concern, but cheering them up with her usual joyful high spirits. I was kept busy emptying buckets and providing water and a towel. Then, unexpectedly, the radio brought an unwelcome voice.

“This is the Admiralty control for the straits. Grey powerboat heading towards Gibraltar waters, please identify yourselves urgently.”

“We’re nowhere near Gibraltarian waters,” protested Phoenix.

“Answer them, for God’s sake,” shouted Ruben. “They’ve got rockets at San Roque[18], artillery at Tarifa, and God-knows-what hidden away in Gibraltar. Give me the mike.”

Phoenix handed him the mike and explained how to operate it.

“Hello, admiralty control. We are a pleasure boat based in Morocco enjoying a short trip; we are nowhere near British waters.” Then to Phoenix, “Cut in, man, get closer to the Moroccan coast.”

“But it’s not Morocco; it’s Spain. It’s Ceuta.”

“Do it anyway, get away from the straits.”

“This is admiralty control; please identify yourselves. Sir, we require your I.M.O.[19] number, and your name, sir.”

“My name, Sir, is Bullock,” said Ruben using his best upper-crust English voice.

We headed away from the centre of the straits and towards Morocco and Ceuta. Within minutes, we had a helicopter heading towards us from the direction of the Spanish enclave.

“Just head toward Morocco without going any closer to the Spaniards, just in case they start playing up. So far it’s just the bird keeping an eye on us,” said Ruben, who seemed to have taken control.

“Good idea,” I said. “After all, the British seem to have shut up since they heard the magic name: Bullock. Where exactly does Spain end and Morocco begin?”

“Six nautical miles radiating out to sea from the Spanish enclave. After that we’re back in Moroccan waters,” answered Ruben. “It’s twelve by international law, but as the waters are in dispute by Morocco and Spain, they’ve settled for six.”

We coasted along up to Tetuan, and Phoenix headed for the open sea, saying he wanted to get out and set a course directly for Oran so as to avoid the next Spanish base on the African coast, Melilla, and the Spaniards again.

The powerboat motored along at a fast pace for several hours as the sun rose in the sky, only interrupted occasionally by Phoenix stopping the boat and kneeling discreetly in a corner to pray.

“But the boat’s drifting around, and you’re not moving with it, probably missing Mecca altogether,” said a bored Ruben who was busy changing into a swimming costume. “Anyway, how do you guys know where Mecca is[20]? I mean, is there a star shining above it? At least Jesus had a great massive star when he was born.”

“Halley’s comet,” I said.

“The grand comet that also appeared in the year 435 of the Hegira, the journey of the prophet,” said Phoenix. And then dropped his bombshell, “We’re running short of gas; one of the tanks that I thought was full is empty, so we are now running on our last tank, just enough, perhaps, to get us to Algeria, just.”


[1] Where do we go?French.

[2] Stupid. Spanish.

[3] Tarfaya, Tam Tam and Zag are all towns in southern Morocco.

[4] The BERM, the infamous sand wall that has ousted the saharaoui people from their rightful home.

[5] Polisario, the 25000 strong armed body of desert fighters serving the SADR(Saharaoui Arab Democratic Republic, which lives in exile in the Algerian desert.

[6] Samara, a southern Moroccan city.Not to be confused with the Russian city of the same name.

[7] Mad. In french.

[8] The main desert refugee town that serves as home to the ousted people of Western Sahara.

[9] Nuakchot, capital of Mauretania.

[10]  “I seek Allah’s forgiveness”.

[11]  “All praise belongs to Allah”.

[12] “Allah is the greatest”.

[13]  “In the name of Allah, the Merciful”.

[14] Marine Royale, the Royal Moroccan Navy.

[15] Term used loosely in Darija to refer to followers of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians. Darija is a colloquial language used, only orally in the North of Africa. Official documents are in classical Arabic.

[16] Malabata lighthouse is on the Algerian end of Tangiers.

[17] Masuhun is referring to his adventure in the previous book in the series, “The Boy Who Sailed To Spain.”


[19] IMO number is a seven digit number for the identification of a vessel through Lloyds International register of shipping.

[20] Muslims often carry a special compass to locate Mecca.The direction of Mecca is known as Qibla. Another way to find Qibla is to locate the North star in the big dipper constellation.