Inside an Immigrant Boat

Passengers leaned from the Ryanair-blue gunwales as she hoved into view at the harbour’s mouth.

“This is a civilised bunch,” remarked a nonna sitting at the next table. “You can smell the aftershave.”

She was right. Wafting over the yacht basin, I was catching notes of Eau de Third-World Taxi Driver with the diesel fumes.

The canting vessel was surrounded by the Guardia Costiera’s speedboats. Officials in hazmat suits filed onto the wharf designated to this type of arrival. Engines roared, chevroned barriers lifted, and Europe’s hundred latest residents were bussed off to the processing centre in town: a 1970s tower block with an asphalt yard and round-the-clock Carabinieri guard.

We returned to our Quatro Staggione pizzas and frosted pilsners. If there had been a band, it would have struck up a lively Foxtrot.

The boats themselves are later hulked up next to the harbour wall where they are held, in accordance to criminal procedure, before being broken up. Nothing may be salvaged or sold for scrap – which is a travesty. Some are stolen pleasure yachts; the property, perhaps, of Baltimore dentists. Others are Barbary Coast fishing boats.

I have explored about a dozen hulks. Chaps who put to sea in these things are made of stern stuff (and I’m not talking about aft exhaust lagging, guffaw guffaw!).

After half a century of trawling the Levantine sea, this sturdy vessel hoisted her nets, packed her bilges, decks and wheelhouse with a human cargo and made a break for Valhalla. She would have carried about 150 people on a swan-song voyage lasting four to six days.

A month after landing, the faint smell of sweat and rotting faeces lingered on the starboard promenade deck – a reminder of the conditions endured during the crossing.

BBQ anyone? Packages of spicy curry powder were nearby.

…maybe not. The only lavatory. People who’ve skied in the French Alps will know…

The ‘Club Balcony Suites’ amidships contained four berths each.

A glance down the foredeck hatch revealed mattresses and blankets crammed into the prow bilge.

I made my way aft, where weighted lines led from the sterngates to colossal reels between the folded gantries. Amid the snaking warps, a dark hatch beckoned. I descended into the engine room where my eyes adjusted to a scene of yet more mats and clothes strewn amid oil drums and bulkheads festooned with ancient copper wiring.

I clambered towards the engine humming an aimless pentatonic tune, the notes drawn out of me by a vacuum of departed voices and stories.

It must have been deafening in here. Between the planking, a single child’s shoe lay floating in the oily black bilge. Whoever its owner was, the journey would have cost him his high-frequency hearing.

Twelve reclining heads of an ancient Stuttgart crankcase gleamed in a rat’s nest of cables, exhaust flues and hydraulic uptakes. Das Beste oder nichts: the warrior had powered his way back from Troy to await destruction by ceremony of his own kin. It was more than I could bear.

With the wash of a passing tug, the boat creaked against her lines and rebounded from the wharf with a soft clang. Bright patches of sunlight swayed.

I climbed back towards the hatch and up to the wheelhouse where, enthroned like a jungle chief at the helm, he who dared had triumphed in navigating this heap over hundreds of miles of open sea by day and by night. There were no navigation lights. There was no autopilot, radio, nor transponder. The helm lacked even a throttle (commands would have been relayed to the engine room by word of mouth).

‘Good God, where is this man now?’ I wondered, surveying his quarters and lucky charms. There would have been at least two accomplices to maintain the heading by constant physical adjustments. Did their commission pay off debts allowing them to return home? Were they peddling trinkets to tourists in the piazzas of Milan and Turin? Or working in covered markets in Hannover?

If the sons of this boat are in Europe a generation from now, I hope they find these photographs.

‘Land of milk and honey’