Torn map

Castigo Cay Part Two

At the 0300 change of watch Tran took over from Nick. I came up for the turnover, because Tran's English is limited and hard for a new guy to understand. Overnight we passed between Conception Island and Rum Cay, and kept sailing a course of seventy degrees until we could see the lights of San Salvador. At 0600 when Victor came on deck to relieve Tran, I was up again. We tacked over and headed southeast on a course that would take us along a line just to the west of the Castigos. Other than when making major sail changes in ugly weather, Rebel Yell was easy to handle. The heavy steel hull took the widely spaced six-foot rollers in stride, and with its long keel, it held course as if on railroad tracks. Once out of harbor, we almost never steered by hand, giving that job to our autopilot.

The wind had backed from southeast to northeast, so after tacking over to our new course we were able to shut down the diesel, making seven knots of speed under all four sails. We switched off our radar, not wishing to announce our presence to the world beyond our sight.

After breakfast and coffee, when we were more than thirty miles from land in any direction, we broke out our weapons for some test firing and practice. If we had a clear horizon, we could shoot anytime we felt like it. The always-available 360-degree weapons range was one of the fringe benefits of ocean sailing. Your bullets and the sounds of your gunfire could not travel as far as your eyes could see.

Shooting always put me into a festive mood, so I found an old Billy Idol CD, pushed it into the disc player in the pilot-house, and cranked the cockpit speakers up to ten. Nothing got me as amped up as hearing the old British rocker sing "Rebel Yell," and I wanted that motivation to infect Nick as well.

And, of course, I wanted to see if he was as good with weapons as he said he was. With no explanation, I handed him my AK-47 and a full magazine of thirty rounds. The rifle was black, with brown wood furniture. The other weapons were legal in the Bahamas and many countries, but not the Kalashnikov, which was kept craftily hidden and never declared to customs. Nick didn?t know the AK existed until Tran handed it to me and I handed it to him.

We stood in the back of the cockpit, braced against the aft pulpit rails, and put in foam earplugs. The boat was heeled about fifteen degrees to starboard since we were sailing on port tack, meaning the wind was coming from the left side. The blasting rock music and the boat's rolling and heaving motion provided noise and distraction, which were intended: when you're shooting for real, there are always plenty of distractions. I was never in a firefight that resembled a straight-lane rifle range, with calm commands of "ready on the right, ready on the left." Shit is happening in a gunfight, and that's the only time your marksmanship really counts.

Nick smoothly loaded and cocked the AK, showing more than adequate familiarity with its operation. "Great gun," he shouted over the rock music. "Not super accurate, but you always know it'll go bang. What's the sight, an M-68?"

"Close. It's an Aimpoint, but a newer model." He had referred to the rifle's red-dot sight, mounted on top just forward of the receiver. The M-68 was the version issued to the military. My black Aimpoint sight was about half as long as a toilet-paper tube. It corrected a major deficiency of the Kalashnikovs: their crappy iron sights.

With the Aimpoint, instead of lining up conventional open sights, or seeing a crosshair inside the tube, you just saw a bright red dot. You put the dot on what you wanted to shoot, and that's where the bullet flew, within the limits of the cartridge you were firing. For the Russian .30 caliber, that was about four hundred yards. But within its range, the red-dot sight made the Kalashnikov much deadlier. And not only was the optical sight totally waterproof and practically indestructible, its battery would last for years even if it was left on. The U.S. military had bought over a million of them.

He turned the rifle onto its side and examined the safety lever. "No full-auto?"

"Nope," I answered. "Semi-auto only." Not that it mattered much. Both versions were illegal in the States now.

"You have a laser too. Cool." He pointed to the infrared laser aiming device attached to a rail on the right side of the barrel, just forward of the wood forestock. The thing was about as big as a pack of cigarettes. These military lasers were just as illegal for civilians to own as the semi-automatic Kalashnikov rifle, and just as available if you knew where to look. Nick said, "Infrared, right?"

"Yeah, but it has a visible green laser too. That way you can check your battle zero in the daytime."

"Cool. The ones we had were twice as big, and they only had infrared."

"That was the old PEQ-2," I said. "This is a 15."

"Then you must have a NOD, right?" He meant a night observation device. The invisible infrared aiming laser was useless without night vision to allow you to see the bright green dot at the end of its beam.

"I have a PVS-14." That was a monocular night observation device. With the NOD on my left eye and the IR laser on my rifle, I had a combination that was pure death out to a few hundred yards. The laser was used sparingly, only right before firing, because an enemy with night vision could also see it. But against an enemy without night vision, it was like troops with belt-fed machine guns versus spear-wielding natives in a bygone era. In the military this happy state of affairs was called overmatch.

Nick was grinning. "Shit hot, man. Pretty high-speed gear for a mere civilian puke."

I looked straight at him. "Fighting fair is for suckers."

He looked back at me and put up a fist. "Dead suckers."

"Damn straight." I gave him his fist-bump over the rifle, rapping our knuckles together. "So, did you get to shoot AKs much in the Rangers?"

"Not really. Just a few times at the range. We always used our M-4s and M-16s for the real deal. Or SAWs, or whatever you were assigned. When we recovered AK's, we had to turn them in or destroy them. We did get some familiarization fire, in case we ever had to fight with battlefield pickups. But I never did. Shoot them for real, I mean."

"Well, Nick, I guess there's a first time for everything."

He laughed and asked if he could take a few potshots at nothing, and I said to be my guest. He shouldered the ugly rifle, adjusted the brightness of the dot inside the Aimpoint, then picked a distant swell and fired a few rapid shots. The rifle blammed and the bullets made violent splash eruptions a half second later. "Nice," he said. "Not exactly a sniper rifle, but I like how it feels."

We had a jumbo bag of cheap birthday balloons for target practice on the ocean. Tran blew them up one at a time and let them go. After a few yards floating in the air, the colorful balls hit the water and stuck, then slid away from us at seven knots as Rebel Yell sailed onward. Nick stood with his hip braced against the corner pulpit, sighted on the first pink balloon, and fired when it was about thirty yards behind us. He missed with his first shot, but we could see that his splash was just a few inches off and he popped it with his second, churning up a gout of water as the pink ball disappeared.

He quickly got the hang of long-range rapid fire with the AK, using his splashes to adjust his aim, and then he was making plenty of first-shot balloon hits at well past a hundred yards. This was great combat accuracy against six-inch targets on moving swells, firing an AK from a rolling sailboat. We continued shooting balloons until we had emptied a few magazines, and then we switched to my Remington twelve-gauge pump shotgun, then my Glock nine-millimeter, and finally Nick's stainless steel .357 revolver.

Tran and Victor also got in some practice. Although they weren't going on the mission with us that night, they still needed trigger time. We never knew where or when bad guys might jump us, and we had to stay ready for them. I might be sleeping in my aft cabin some night when we were attacked. I wanted crew who could protect me, just as they depended on me to protect them.

Victor was somewhat casual about weapons practice, but Tran Hung was happy anytime he shot the AK-47. He crouched low on Rebel's shifting stern, grinning as he fired, no doubt remembering his youth. His right leg was almost an inch shorter than his left, where long ago a bullet had removed part of his femur. This slight handicap didn't matter much on a sailboat, since the decks were rarely level anyway, but it gave him an odd gait ashore.

We didn't shoot my Savage bolt-action rifle, but I did show it to Nick and let him handle and dry-fire it. The Savage cost less than half the price of the famous "name brand" hunting and tactical rifles, yet it shot groups that were just as tight, about half an inch at a hundred yards with match-grade ammunition. I didn't have enough .308 ammo to waste any shooting at the wide ocean, and there was no training benefit in firing it from the moving platform of a sailboat. The bolt gun with its ten-power scope was for firing from the prone position on dry land, using its bipod for a steady rest--conditions not obtainable on a boat in six-foot swells.

Given a steady firing position, my Savage .308 was an honest thousand-yard gun on a good day. That was pretty much the outer limit of the caliber for delivering accurate fire against man-size targets. I would have preferred also to have rifles chambered in .300 WinMag, .338 Lapua, or even .50 caliber. These were some of the more powerful rifle calibers I'd shot in the past, but that was back when Uncle Sam was buying my ammo. They could reach out much farther and hit harder than my humble .308, without question. But a .308 Savage was what I had. And on an island that was only a half mile in length, I thought it would be enough to give us a monopoly on long-range precision firepower. Overmatch from overwatch was always my goal. Dominate the battle space and deal death. Fighting fair is for dead suckers.

(Continues at Part 3.)