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Grenada War, Caribbean Job

It was early October and I was sitting alone, enjoying an evening beer in Pat’s Pub, when Geoffrey Smith-Talbot strode in through the main entrance. He looked efficient and purposeful (as he always did) and wore a grim, determined expression on his face, as if he was engaged on some important mission; for Geoffrey was a man who appeared perpetually to be involved in matters of importance even when busying himself with the mundane duties of his profession as a Caribbean yacht charter captain.

It was early October and I was sitting alone, enjoying an evening beer in Pat’s Pub, when Geoffrey Smith-Talbot strode in through the main entrance. He looked efficient and purposeful (as he always did) and wore a grim, determined expression on his face, as if he was engaged on some important mission; for Geoffrey was a man who appeared perpetually to be involved in matters of importance even when busying himself with the mundane duties of his profession as a Caribbean yacht charter captain.

I had first met Geoffrey the previous year when I had been invited aboard the yacht he was skippering during the annual sailing regatta in Antigua. I have always been suspicious of people with double-barrelled names and so I observed him closely. He was in the early forties and was tall and lean with a creamy, freckled complexion and a shiny, bald head rimmed with a shock of short, curly, ginger hair. He wore his sideburns a trifle long as if to suggest a hint of adolescence, and his large, frank, green eyes were framed by a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles which lent the air of an academic. Other than the square, determined jaw, however, his features were undistinguished. In fact there was a provincial blandness about them, and he might have passed for a village schoolmaster. The top of his shiny skull was pink, with slithers of skin peelings, and I could not help noticing that, although he appeared to have shaved, a few hairs remained on the upper lip, around the nostrils.

What he lacked in physical appearance, however, Geoffrey assuredly made up for in manner. He spoke in a rich, cultured English with an earnestness and authority which were impressive, even when it was evident that he had little or no knowledge of the topic on which he was expounding. I later learned that, if one wanted advice or information, Geoffrey was the man to whom you would turn. His familiarity with the various gossips amongst the sailing community was unsurpassed, and, in a solemn whisper, he was able invariably to recount – in great and inaccurate detail – every misdemeanour or sexual exploit which might be the subject of current rumour. Equally, he was the man to approach if one wanted advice on some technical matter – not because of any particular practical ability on his part, but, rather, because he spoke of such things with a degree of enthusiasm and verbosity that suggested a certain amount of knowledge. He was the only man I have ever met who was able to discourse on marine bilge pumps for an hour or more, oblivious to the rapidly advancing listlessness of his audience. He was, in short, a bore – but the least offensive of bores; fussy and dogmatic, yet generous and eager to please.

On that occasion when I first encountered Geoffrey in Antigua, he was lecturing an assembled group of acquaintances on his “Naval experiences”. It must have come as something of a shock to him when I was introduced as a recently retired Naval Officer, for he looked momentarily embarrassed, shook my hand and promptly changed the topic of conversation. (Later, I discovered that these “Naval experiences” had consisted of a number of years as a Quartermaster in the Sea Cadet Corps).

Thereafter, I was interested to note that Geoffrey’s military revelations alluded solely to his “Army experiences” and, whilst others might have envisioned him charging across Luneberg Heath in full battle dress, I regret that I was able only to invoke images of a gingery, bespectacled schoolmaster reporting twice a week for Territorial Army clerical duties.

As if to convince both himself and others of his supposed military background, George always carried himself very erect – though, contrarily, he was habitually clad in an old t-shirt, an ill-fitting pair of shorts and a rather worn pair of flip-flops, and in the evenings he would exchange the shorts for a pair of baggy long trousers held up by a leather belt with an enormous scrimshaw buckle which verified his status as a veteran Caribbean charter skipper.

Geoffrey was the paid skipper of a 52-foot sailing yacht called Intricacy, and there were some who wondered if the vessel had been named after her captain for no evolution, no matter how simple, could be carried out without an elaborate series of briefings and complicated explanations. This often had the beneficial effect of making it seem as if Geoffrey possessed extraordinary skills that enabled him to execute impossibly difficult manoeuvres under sail – though in reality such manoeuvres might have been mundane in their simplicity.

But less experienced charter guests were impressed, and their captain’s self-proclaimed expertise afloat (which other skippers might have deemed minimal) combined with his scholarly appearance, earned glowing testimonials from his guests. A simple tack in calm conditions would become a daring exploit in the raging ocean; the routine replacement of a broken cooling hose would become a technically complicated task requiring all the skills and application of the most seasoned marine engineer. Geoffrey had the unwitting and dubious gift of making the simple seem complicated and thereby meriting the esteem of his novice charges.

And so it was that, one October evening, Geoffrey Smith-Talbot strode through the entrance of Pat’s Pub and bade me good evening.

“Well?” he said. “Fancy earning a couple of thousand bucks?”

He had one hand on his hip and spoke with a knowing smile. I had not been on the island for long and, although I had a part-time job with a local yacht charter company, the pay was not good and the opportunity to earn a little more would be welcome. I told him so and asked what he had in mind.

He looked around cautiously, although the bar was quite empty, and then drew up a chair and sat close beside me. He eyed me very seriously through his horn-rimmed spectacles and then he leaned towards me and whispered, in the clipped tones of a retired Brigadier –

“Grenada! News just came through … Americans landed … all hell let loose …. They want me to take a boat down there …. Need a crew!”

The way he said “they” suggested that he had just been on the telephone to some secret Government agency – a high-ranking official had contacted agent Smith-Talbot and asked for his assistance. It seemed that there had been a revolt in Grenada and that the American military had intervened, and it was rumoured that the Grenadian prime minister had been assassinated.

I wondered why on earth the services of a former Sea Cadet Corps Quartermaster should be required. But then Geoffrey explained – the charter company in whose fleet Geoffrey’s yacht was based had been approached by an American television company and asked if they could provide a boat to transport a television crew to report on the recent events in Grenada. The charter company would be paid $US 5,000 per day, of which the crew would receive half. The manager of the charter company had accepted the contract and, possessed, one might think, of a sense of humour, had immediately sent for agent Smith-Talbot, offering him the job of skipper, asking him to find a crew, and, somewhat mischievously, informing him that the mission was “Top Secret”. Naturally, this appealed to Geoffrey’s militaristic fantasies.

“I came to you,” he said in a dramatic whisper, “because of your military background. You’re a professional! The sort of man I need! I’ll pay you a thousand dollars a day!”

The temptation to resist such remuneration was too great and so I accepted, though somewhat confused at Geoffrey’s supposition that the services of a former submarine officer would be useful. I said to him that it was my understanding that we were to be, effectively, taxi drivers, and he nodded but sternly added that it would be our duty (I am sure that is the word he used) to carry out our task with military precision. And so we shook hands and arranged to set off the following morning (“Oh Eight Hundred Hours” said Geoffrey) on board the 50-foot vessel “Elation”, a comfortable motor yacht whose name aptly described my current state of mind as I considered the wages I had been promised.

We motored out of St Lucia and had an uneventful passage to St Vincent, arriving at Young Island late in the afternoon. Here we were to embark the television crew and their equipment. On the passage down, Geoffrey emphasised the need for secrecy and, puffing on a cigarette, narrowed his eyes, scouring the horizon through a pair of old binoculars and questioning me. How was my night-time navigation? Did I know Morse Code? Did I have any suggestions to make regarding clandestine infiltration of Grenadian territorial waters? I was bemused but humoured him, refraining from reminding him that we were simply ferrying a television crew from one island to another and not carrying out a dawn commando raid in North Africa.

The American film crew arrived that afternoon and as the sun went down we motored south, passing under the lee of Bequia and Canouan. Around seven o’clock (nineteen hundred hours), Geoffrey stuck huge sheets of white paper over all of the wheelhouse windows so that we could no longer see outside. My own Naval experiences had indeed taught me the importance of “darkening ship” but I felt that on this occasion it was a superfluous precaution, particularly as we were likely to be detected on radar as we headed south (the Americans had “closed” all waters south of St Vincent and had stated that any marine traffic encountered would be apprehended and turned back). We continued on our way at six knots, navigating “blind” by dead reckoning as there were in any case no visible lights or landmarks from which to take bearings.

There were three members of the film crew – a producer, a photographer and a gentleman whose sole purpose appeared to be to apply talcum powder to the producer’s nose every time that he spoke into his tape recorder. The producer had been in war-torn Lebanon and also in Afghanistan, and he seemed quite relaxed as we headed towards the prohibited waters surrounding Grenada. He certainly gave no indication as to whether or not he was impressed by Geoffrey’s efforts to proceed with “military precision” and stated only that he had no wish for any confrontations with the American military. “No heroics” as he put it. He and his team wanted only to be landed on the Grenadian coast, to obtain some film footage and then to be picked up and returned to St Vincent from where the film would be flown out. I was thankful that phrases such as “pre-emptive surgical strike” were not known to Geoffrey.

Around four o’clock in the morning (“oh four hundred hours”) we found ourselves abeam of Grenada’s north coast and we altered course to the east to close the twelve miles or so between ourselves and land. We calculated that we would arrive, around dawn, midway between the northern tip of Grenada and her satellite island of Carriacou, a few miles to the north. At four thirty, through a crack in the paper covering our windows, we spotted the lights of a distant vessel, ahead of us and well to the east of the passage between the two islands. Her navigation lights were close together, a usual feature of a warship, and she was in an unlikely location for a merchantman, given the current circumstances in Grenada. Furthermore, she appeared to be a vessel of some size and, to our knowledge, only American warships were able to transit these waters freely. Cautiously, we continued on our way.

By five o’clock (“oh five hundred hours”) the warship was no more than five miles away and it was clearly that she was heading towards us. As she neared ELATION, her navigation lights suddenly went out but, with dawn approaching, we could now make out the silhouette of what was, without doubt, an American man-of-war. I thought it odd that the vessel had turned her lights off for she was clearly discernible and there was no question of her being able to creep up on us unobserved. But evidently the American Captain entertained fantasies not dissimilar to those that fuelled Geoffrey for, having passed a couple of hundred yards down our port beam, the ship turned about, drew parallel to ELATION and suddenly switched her lights on as if to surprise us by her presence.

Geoffrey looked perplexed. The powder man applied some more talcum to the producer’s nose. And I removed the sheets of paper from the wheelhouse windows. The film crew now set about preparing their equipment for some early morning footage of the mighty American military machine in action.

We turned on our VHF radio and I suggested to Geoffrey that he call up the warship whilst maintaining our course towards Grenada.

“American warship! American warship! This is the motor yacht ELATION! Do you read me? Over!”

His voice was rich, determined, and extremely British, though I felt I could detect a slight quiver. After a moment’s silence, our radio crackled and an American voice replied and solemnly instructed us to provide details of our port of origin, port of registry, port of destination and information concerning the crew and any cargo we might be carrying.

Geoffrey replied that we were an American flag vessel, out of St Lucia and bound for Sauteurs, Grenada; that we had no cargo other than ship’s stores; and that we comprised 5 persons, two British and three Americans. He added, much to the displeasure of our passengers, that the Americans represented a US television network, possibly hoping to impress the ship’s Captain (for Geoffrey was a person who associated reporters with matters of importance and believed that, by virtue of their profession, they warranted a certain respect, much in the same way as, for example, a monarch). But, if anything, the opposite effect was achieved. After another long silence, a monotonous, almost robotic voice boomed –

“There is danger to the south! There is danger to the south! You are to proceed to the north!”

I grabbed the microphone from Geoffrey and replied “That’s very kind of you, but don’t worry about us – we’ll just keep heading on to Grenada. Thanks! Out!”

It was at this stage that we became aware that we could hear the buzz of a conversation from the warship being broadcast on our VHF. Whilst the delighted producer stood with his tape recorder alongside the VHF amplifier, we listened.

“Have those damned people answered?”

“No, Sir! I’m trying to raise them but there’s no answer!”

“Well, keep trying – tell them to get the f… out of here!”

“Yessir! Er …. Elation, Elation. This is ….”

And then it dawned on us what had happened. The transmit switch on the warship’s VHF radio had stuck in the transmitting position so that we could hear everything that they said on their bridge, but they could hear none of our responses. To be witness to such an absurd blunder on the part of the mighty American military and in such circumstances was nothing short of hilarious and our hilarity increased as it became evident that the warship’s Captain was sublimely unaware of his predicament.

At length, receiving no radio response from Elation, and perceiving that we were still heading towards the coast of Grenada, a uniformed figure appeared on the warship’s starboard bridge wing, armed with a megaphone. Once again, the robotic voice thundered –

“There is danger to the South! There is danger to the South! You are to proceed to the North! Draw up alongside immediately!”

“You’d better do what he says,” mumbled the producer to Geoffrey who was now nervously clutching the throttle controls. He turned the wheel and started to increase speed – but, suddenly, for reasons best known to himself, he opened the throttles wide and Elation lurched to one side and then sped ahead of the warship’s bows, trailing a broad wake of foaming seawater. For a brief moment, I thought that Geoffrey had taken leave of his senses.

“What on earth are you doing?!” I screamed at him. He was dripping with perspiration and at once I recognised the nervous reaction of a man who has lost control. From the warship, a very angry voice roared

“NEVER, NEVER DO THAT AGAIN! Don’t you DARE cross my bows! NOW – Draw up alongside!”

Mercifully, we did so. The Captain of the warship shouted down to us from the bridge and ordered us, again, to turn around and proceed to the north. The threat whilst not voiced, was implicit. The producer shrugged and advised that we comply, but also asked if we could somehow delay until daylight so that he could obtain some footage of the aggressive American military harassing a small motor yacht off Grenada. I shouted back to the Captain that we would turn about but could proceed only very slowly as we had developed a problem on one of our water pumps. He looked thoroughly dissatisfied but there was little else he could do. Geoffrey turned the boat about and as we crept northwards under the shadow of the warship, the cameras rolled.

For an hour we were escorted and then, as suddenly as she had arrived, the warship turned about and headed back towards Grenada, satisfied that we were on our way. Our mission had not been a great success, but the television crew was at least happy to have obtained some film within sight of Grenada’s shores.

Around 8.00 a.m., as we approached the southern coast of Carriacou, we were overflown several times by a low-flying Skyhawk jet aircraft. It seemed that the “liberators” of Grenada intended to remind us that we remained under their scrutiny. This overflight was rendered particularly memorable by Geoffrey unmilitarily dropping his shorts and displaying his bared buttocks for the benefit of the Skyhawk’s pilot who, at the plane’s low altitude, could presumably make out every unpleasant detail of the bodily contours on display.

After this light-hearted response to the might of the American military, we increased to full speed and ploughed our way north to St Vincent where we were to drop off our guests. In order to get them from St Vincent to Barbados, from where their report could be sent via satellite in time for the evening’s news, we needed to arrange for a charter plane to pick them up from St Vincent. Time was short, but, inevitably, Geoffrey had an idea. He would contact the charter company from which Euphoria was on lease, and ask them to arrange for an aircraft to be ready on our arrival in St Vincent.

He was, however, disturbed at the “potential security threat” of requesting an aircraft “in plain language” on an “open radio circuit”. The Americans, he reasoned, would not allow an aircraft to overfly the area and thus the only solution was to relay the request in code. He knew of a fellow called Jonathan who operated an air charter service from Mustique and he knew that the yacht charter company’s manager was familiar with Jonathan’s operation. And so he was confident that if he asked for “Jonathan’s transport”, it would be understood that an aircraft was required.

I was somewhat dubious, but nevertheless agreed that Geoffrey should relay his message which read “Urgently require Jonathan transport twenty two miles north-east Salt Whistle Bay”. The recipient of this message later confided to me that he had never been able to work out exactly what it meant but that, after a hastily convened meeting at the yacht charter company offices, it had been deduced that Geoffrey wanted a mini-bus about two miles south of St Vincent, in the middle of the Bequia Channel.

Nevertheless, on our arrival in St Vincent, the services of a light aircraft were procured and the television crew leapt ashore with their equipment and flew off to Barbados to make that day’s headlines.

The bars on St Vincent’s south coast were packed with journalists from all over the world, trying to secure passage on a boat down to Grenada and were offering as much as $US 500 a head to those skippers willing to chance the journey. However, since the few vessels which had attempted to reach Grenada had, like us, been turned back by the Americans, we believed that further attempts would be futile and so we continued north and back to St Lucia. We a! rrived there that afternoon, fairly exhausted, but a good deal less impecunious than when we had set off a day earlier.

Geoffrey, when questioned in later years of his role in the Grenadian invasion, spoke, as always, with an air of authority. He would reply, somewhat mysteriously but not incorrectly, that he had “participated in certain aspects” of the operation but would add little else, leaving as much as possible to the fertile imaginations of his audience.

He never referred to the perilous lapse during which he had almost rammed an American destroyer, nor to the sudden exposure of his freckled buttocks to the pilot of a passing warplane. Such incidents will presumably have no place in his military memoirs.

Later, he married a very fat, plain woman from Hungary and went to live in Budapest where, I understand from a mutual acquaintance, he makes his living as a plumber and passes many an evening in a bar overlooking the Danube, talking about boats.

Narendra Sethia

Narendra Sethia is an accomplished sailor who lives in the Caribbean.