A slow boat to Israel:
An episode from the dairies of the Wild Welsh Wanderer
In February 1987, I was employed to deliver a research vessel from Milford Haven, West Wales, to Eilat on the Red sea in Israel. Little did I realise that eight months further on, I very nearly started another Arab-Israeli conflict!
The actual trip to Israel itself went without to many problems considering that the ship itself was not really built as an open sea going vessel, and could not put to sea in more then force 4 weather conditions. There was also a problem with the fuel tank capacity, in that they could not hold more then 70 hours worth of running, which meant that we had to refuel every 3 days at the most. Because of these reasons, the trip took longer than I had first anticipated it would. Although not of a religious disposition myself, the trip took us forty days and nights, and the biblical reference was not lost on me.
Now before I go any further with this tale, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Ray, short for Raymond, and at the time in 87, I had just turned thirty years of age, and was stuck in one of those crossroads of life where I was unsure what direction I was really following.
As a single man, I had only two motives for living: One was the pursuit of happiness and a fun time (hedonistic I know, but you only live once), the other; to keep travelling. Since the age of fifteen when I left home and joined the Royal Navy I had been 'on the road,' and had already travelled extensively throughout Europe, the Americas and Africa. Although most of my travelling had been working with companies in a professional capacity, I had also hitch-hiked around Europe working my passage by picking fruit, labouring, selling drinks and ice on the beaches some illegal transactions I will not write about here.
As it happened, before sailing to Israel, I had been stuck back home in West Wales, broke, unemployed and in a rut. When out of the blue I had been offered a chance to crew a boat to Israel, I had jumped at the opportunity to both work and do some more travelling.
And now here I was in Eilat, Israel. What can be said about this tourist resort on the end of the Red sea. Well mainly you can say it's hot -- very, very hot. In the summer months, normal daytime temperatures reach 40c and more, while evening brings a desert wind called the 'Hamsin,' which instead of bringing nice cool air to refresh bodies boiled by the daytime sun, it sends a constant furnace like blast of hot air over the sweltering seaport. With desert on three sides, and the sea on the other, Eilat can give one the impression of being trapped in an oven.
I had arrived towards the end of March, when the summer heat had not taken its grip on the town. Temperatures at the time were a pleasant 20-25c, and evenings were cool but not cold. In effect, this was the perfect time of the year to visit, and as such I enjoyed my first couple of weeks in Israel there. As this was my first visit to the Holy Land, and having been paid in full for my services, I decided I would like to stay in Israel for a few months and look at the rest of the country.
With the onset of summer, and the subsequent rise in temperature (35c+), I decided to go upcountry where it was a little cooler and use theopportunity to visit Jerusalem, Tiberius, Bethlehem and other places famous from the bible.
Contacts arranged for me to spend a short spell at Stod Yam, a Kibbutz near the ancient Roman city of Caesarea (where I subsequently met the lady who I would end up marrying), then a few pleasant months working at a restaurant near Capernaum on the sea of Galilee, saw the summer out, then it was back to Eilat for the winter.
In return for general caretaking duties, I was offered accommodation on the boat I had delivered in spring, which was shortly due to be refitted as a diving charter vessel in the Red Sea. It was this what was to prove a disaster. In order to understand fully the circumstances that led up to the 'incident,' as it was later called, we need to return back to Wales, back to the day before we sailed to Israel.
I was onboard the vessel attending to some last minute checks, when a port official approached the ship, called up to me and said he would like a small favour.
"I have some out of date pyrotechnics," he explained. "Would you be so kind and drop them over the side on your way down south."
"No problem," I replied and then took possession of a box of various rockets and distress flares. I immediately found a spare locker in one of the cabins, stored the items away and promptly forgot about them.
Fast forward to Israel eight months later, and I have arranged a party on board the ship to celebrate a girlfriend's birthday on November 5. Attending the party, were an international group of friends and associates who like me, had found themselves wintering it out in Eilat. As the parties go, it was quite a small affair, no more then seven or eight people, and like all parties, as it steadily progressed, we found ourselves getting steadily more drunk.
Towards midnight, I remarked that the 5th November was known in Britain as 'Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night', and obviously it fell on me to explain to some of the guests that in 1606, a certain gentleman by the name of Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the British Houses of Parliament. To celebrate this act of early anarchy, a quaint custom had developed whereby an effigy of Mr Fawkes was burnt on November 5 every year, along with a firework display.
It was as I mentioned fireworks that I remembered the pyrotechnics.
"Who fancies a firework display," I asked. Naturally, with everyone a little worse for the alcohol, there were no sobering voices objecting, so I then proceeded to the locker in which the soon to be offending items were stored.
"PARTY TIME," I cried out when I returned.
In no time I had an array of distress flares, star shells and locative rockets laying alongside the beer, wine, spirits, ashtrays and snacks haphazardly scattered on the table before us.
Before continuing this tale, It must explain that one of my great weaknesses in life is my compulsive nature. When I get an idea (especially when I have consumed alcohol and smoked a few spliffs), no amount of logical thought process will dissuade me from my perceived tasks. So without a moment's hesitation, I picked up a star shell, pointed it upwards and pulled the tab. All eyes were raised as a green rocket shot up into the air, then exploded over the night skies of Eilat illuminating the skies and reflecting on the tranquil waters below. I immediately selected the next 'firework' which was a distress flare, and that followed a similar course to the heavens.
Before I could fire off a third, we heard the alarms. Sirens split what had been up to a few minutes ago a calm peaceful evening in Eilat. These were immediately followed by searchlights and more flares (defiantly not mine) lighting up the sky on the Israeli - Jordan border one mile away.
Next came the gunboats. We looked to sea in horror as four small Israeli gunboats, lights flashing and sirens wailing steamed towards us -- in what could only be described as an extremely menacing fashion.
"PARTY OVER," I screamed, "everybody get the hell out of here before the military arrives."
Needless to say, the party very rapidly dispersed. I also left the ship and headed for a bar, not wanting to be around when the authorities came asking questions.
It was while I was there, quietly sipping my beer, that the enormity of my actions finally registered. Here I was, in a country surrounded on all sides by neighbours who would gladly exterminate them all, a country whose military was on a permanent war alert, and its citizens living in a constant state of fear and anxiety. The last thing they needed was some drunken goyim firing rockets and flares into the night sky.
For the next few days, Eilat was awash with rumours about what had happened. One of the stories I heard was that there was an attempted incursion by Palestinian fighters over the Jordanian border (apparently, they were all killed by Israeli security forces). Another really spectacular rumour was that terrorists had hijacked a boat, filled it full of explosives and set it on a crash course for Eilat.
With all the speculation and guesses floating about, it wasn't hard to add my own version of events to the rumour mill. I told a few people that I had heard it was caused by a group of people who had got drunk and set off some flares. This was generally met with derision.
"Nobody in their right mind would be dumb enough to pull a stunt like that in this country" was what people generally told me
2 days later, I left Eilat and crossed the border into the Saini. It was now Egypt's turn to face a bit of chaos.