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The International Writers Magazine
: Diplomatic Diaries Part Three:

James Skinner is the Honorary Consul

‘I live by the sea. Aren’t I lucky! Everyday I open my office window and take in the fresh salty breeze of the North Atlantic.

My view, as a I travel for miles along the coastal roads on consular missions of mercy is that of a beautiful coastline with bays, coves and sandy beaches stretching from the North to the South of the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Every now and then, I do it for pleasure and relaxation, I stop off at a seaside bar of some forgotten town, for a bottle of Alvariño, a bowl of cockles and a tray of fresh shrimps, overseeing the fishermen arriving with their catch of the day. But there are occasions when duty calls. Some Brit has got himself into trouble!

If you think that national or even international legislation of the civilised and democratic world is complex, don’t even try understanding International Maritime Law. I’m sure that for every rule that applies in a civil or criminal court arising from some dispute there are two or three related to the world of the oceans. Anyway, back to some of my ‘lighter’ experiences dealing with sailors, mutineers, and wayward yachtsmen and, we mustn’t forget – fishermen!

Got a call one day from a woman in Jersey, Channel Islands. ‘My lad Johnny has hopped on a yacht and is heading your way!’ ‘So?’ I answered, ‘what’s his problem?’ ‘He’s forgotten his passport!’ was the frantic reply. Now I must explain, the loss or the misplacement of a passport is a very serious matter. With today’s international mafia dealing with drugs, arms and all kinds of other felonies, many rat bags out there are only too eager to get hold of a European or other passport, falsify it, and use it for their criminal gains. When a situation like this arises the whole machinery of the Foreign Office and Consular core kicks off to reunite passport holder and passport. Through the use of diplomatic courier or other mailing systems, Johnny’s document was sent from Jersey, via London, then Madrid and finally arrived in my hands about the time that this lad had docked with his captain in Corunna. End of story? By no means! First things first. Port authorities and yacht club were advised almost immediately that a yacht was on its way and that one of the persons on board had no documents. This is where the peculiarity of sea life comes into play. There is a sort of weird and common bond between all of them. ‘No problem, consul,’ says the yacht club manager; ‘we’ll house him in the Seaman’s Mission awaiting your instructions.’ Customs and immigration are all cooperating.

Captain calls me on arrival. ‘Mr. Skinner, we’ve arrived.’
‘OK, great. You realise that I have to check out Johnny’s identity and that he can’t enter the country without documents. You’ll have to sail down here to Vigo.’
‘No problem, we’ll be there day after tomorrow.’
‘Give me a call when you arrive,’ I replied. Now here’s the catch. I had to make sure that Johnny was Johnny. I mean physically, face to face with passport in hand! Absolutely vital. What I didn’t count on was when. The captain arrived all right and I got the phone call. But it was 06:00 on a Sunday morning, down by the docks, where all the Saturday night left over drunks, pimps and whores were still frolicking about in the street. Besides, it was my bloody day off! Despite my sleepy eyes, Johnny was Johnny all right. He retrieved his passport and I buggered off back home, brushing aside a luscious blond that was offering me a two for one.

Opened the newspaper one day. Headlines read, ‘Portuguese fishermen take over fishing vessel.’ The story went on to inform how the crew decided to mutiny against the Galician skipper and his engineer because they were not being paid enough money. They threw the whole catch overboard, smashed a few odds and ends on the boat and locked the captain in the bridge. Naturally the coastguards went out to bring the whole motley crew back to the port of Marin, about 10 miles from Vigo. So what’s it got to do with me? Damn ship was registered in the UK. Mayhem started. Called my counterpart in the Portuguese Consulate. ‘Don’t talk to me about this lot. I’ve just put them all on a bus and sent them on their way back home. Skipper has decided not to press charges, so lets leave it at that.’ I could just picture the Portuguese and Galicians at sea having a bash at each other!
‘OK,’ I said, ‘suits me.’ I put the phone down. End of story? Like hell! Get a call from the UK Maritime Agency. ‘What’s all this about mutiny aboard a British ship?’ ‘Oh, God,’ I thought, ‘what do I do now?’ ‘Well,’ I said, tongue in cheek, ‘they’ve all gone home. To another country. No forwarding address I’m afraid. They’re all foreigners anyway.’ I closed my eyes and crossed my fingers. ‘Mutiny at sea is a serious business you know? I’ll write up a report to the effect and see if we need to take any further action.’ Case never raised its ugly head again.

Skipper tied to mast!
Best of all was a call I got from the BBC. This case did hit all the tabloid press including front page in the Mirror and the Sun. ‘Morning, is that the Consul?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I’m JB from the BBC. It’s about this fracas aboard a British yacht just off Corunna. Is it true that they tied the skipper up and threw him overboard?’ My adrenalin began at a million per hour. I called up my contacts in the coastguard and sure enough, a yacht with three Brits on board was now moored right up in one of the smallest and most northern fishing ports in Galicia. It had been towed in after an emergency distress signal had been fired off. Two of the crew had tied up the skipper to the mast all right, and then called for help!

The different storylines were as follows. Skipper said, ‘my crew panicked in heavy seas and tied me up. Then they pulled the emergency flare. They didn’t need to do that.’
Crew said, ‘skipper went berserk and was not himself. We had to do something otherwise we would all drown.’
Salvage group said, ‘it cost several thousand Euros to bring the yacht back to port. I hope somebody pays!’
Villagers said ‘wow! The television is here. We’ll be on the news!’
Press said all sorts of things, from ‘Mad Captain’ to ‘Mutiny on the Bounty II.’ Judge said, ‘they’re all upset and must be sent on their way home.’ In the back of her mind was, ‘I must get them the hell out of here as soon as possible. I don’t need all this!’
I said, ‘thank God they’re all still alive!’ I went back home and poured myself a large Scotch! I have no idea what the final outcome was!

I must end on a sad note. One that has haunted me ever since it happened. Three yachtsmen were adrift in the Bay of Biscay. Distress signals had gone out and a helicopter rescue team were on their way. Eventually, two were saved but the third, the skipper, although grappling for the rope as the last one ‘to abandon ship’, suddenly disappeared into the ocean. Despite further fruitless efforts, the search was abandoned. Two months later, a passing freighter reported sighting a body floating in the sea. It was recovered and turned out to be that of the missing yachtsman. Identification was a problem but thanks to the cooperation of the local police a positive ID was issued and the body allowed its rightful repatriation. A proper funeral was carried out in his hometown in England.
A gulp still remained in my throat as I closed the file on ‘Man overboard!’

© James Skinner. February 2005.

Crisis Management
James Skinner in Vigo

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