A 'Terrorist' Scare, July 2006
For most of the summer, we stayed close to big towns and ports along the Cote d'Azur, in part because we had company and wanted to see the sights, and in part because of the World Cup, which we enjoyed following. But eventually we made our way west, on our way to Barcelona, with our friend Suzie Jardine. On the way, we anchored in a small "calanque" (a steep-sided fjord-like cove) between Toulon and La Ciotat. There were other boats in the anchorage, but most were small powerboats which we thought would soon return to their ports.

As we were anchoring, busy with determining the right spot, the required length of chain, the boats nearby, etc., we noted a blue RIB (rigid inflatable boat) slowly motoring through the anchorage. Aboard it were 4 young men, dressed in brown or camouflage robes or ponchos, with headscarves that covered all but their eyes. One had binoculars; another had what appeared to be a rifle or bazooka. The RIB came into the calanque and stopped, and the guy with the binoculars examined the shore for some time; then the RIB turned and left the calanque. It was bizarre and startling, but happened as we were anchoring and preoccupied, so we just shrugged and wondered among ourselves if we'd really seen what we thought we had. A Frenchman on one of the other sailboats said, "Oh, it's just a military exercise." We weren't too sure.

As evening came, most of the small boats in the anchorage departed, leaving only us and 2 other sailboats. Ashore, the 2 small beaches separated by a small headland were also emptying of bathers and picnickers.

The blue RIB then reappeared. This time, it was very obvious that its occupants were pretending to look like Arab terrorists. One's headscarf kept slipping and he was clearly white, not Arabic. But they still had their binoculars and that rifle. They didn't seem military. They seemed a bit inept, but they were still scary.

Feeling uncertain, insecure, at least annoyed if not scared, we decided to report their presence. Andi got on the VHF and reported (in French) "SECURITE, SECURITE, SECURITE. We are in the Port d'Alons and there is a blue inflatable with 4 men who appear dressed as Arab terrorists. They seem to have a rifle. The boat has the number xxxx."

She repeated this in English. After the second repeat, Cross-Med replied to her. Cross-Med is something like the US Coast Guard, providing weather, coastal safety and other support to mariners. Cross-Med asked, in French, for confirmation of our position and a repeat of the situation. They then took our mobile phone number and said they'd phone us. Within a minute they did so, and once again verified the information. As Andi was talking to them, the RIB had landed on the more deserted beach, and was greeted by about 20-24 other young men, whooping and hollering. All of them then disappeared into the woods above the beach. Andi reported this, and Cross Med asked us to hang up, saying the local police would call us. Again, within 2 minutes they had, and reconfirmed these details, asked if we had a small boat they could use, and said they'd meet us at the larger beach.

Within 3 minutes, we saw 4 policemen in uniform and flak jackets running down the beach. Rob and Andi got into the dinghy and tore into shore, leaving Suzie aboard Akka. Our hearts were beating hard, heading toward 4 very fit policemen with their hands on their holsters. We yelled, "We're the ones who called." They waded in to meet us, commandeered the dinghy and took off at warp speed around the headland to the other beach. We stood ashore, unable to see what was happening, but having to explain to the few remaining beachgoers just what had happened in front of their (and their small children's) eyes.

We started to walk across the headland toward the other beach, but we were barefoot and it was rocky, so we didn't get very far before we saw our dinghy and the RIB returning to the big beach. Two of the policemen were in the dinghy; the other two were in the RIB with 2 of the "terrorists." The leader of the police explained that it was not a military exercise, it was just some people acting "with very bad taste." He thanked us profusely and assured us we'd done the right thing. When we asked the policeman if the actions of the miscreants had been illegal, he said, "not exactly." We'll never know what he meant. He and his companions took the two "terrorists" away, leaving their RIB on the beach.

When we returned to Akka, Suzie reported that when the police sped into the small beach in our dinghy and jumped ashore, all of the young men immediately came out of the woods with their hands atop their heads. She wasn't sure if the police had actually drawn their guns, but the "terrorists" clearly knew their "game" was over.

And so was the evening's excitement. We reported the outcome to the other moored boats, all of whom thanked us for our actions. We had a stiff drink. We watched carefully when the "terrorists" were returned to their RIB to make sure they left the anchorage. We had an uneasy night's rest, despite our lovely surroundings, wondering if they might return for any revenge on those who finked them out, but all was well.

One final note: When we next used the outboard, we discovered that the propellor was broken -- apparently the police had simply run the motor all the way to the rocky beach, and the propellor had hit a rock. This didn't keep us from running the outboard, but prevented us from getting up on a full plane, as the inner hub was no longer firmly connected to the blades. So in the end, the episode did cost us more than a scare.