Chapter 21 To The Waters and the Wild
We knew we wouldn’t make the Canaries by New Year’s Eve. We could barely see the lights of Santa Cruz through the darkness and the distance as we bobbed and clanged in a windless sea, catching only small glimpses of the shape of the island when it was lit up by what was probably a fine display of fireworks but which looked very meager from two hours out on the ocean.
The only blame for the delay so far lay with the weather, which is usually the culprit in ocean crossings. Our biggest delay came just beyond the Bay of Biscay. No sooner had we rounded the headland at the Faro de Cabo lighthouse and headed south along the Spanish coast towards Portugal, we were engulfed by a force 9 gale blowing straight north into our bow and unrelenting for nearly three days.
Those three days were probably the worst days of hell I have ever been through. Not counting the final days of Intrepid. And I hoped, on the other side, a well-earned cleansing. By the end of the first day and with no sign that the storm was planning to relent, we were all scared and tired and quiet as we tacked constantly to keep some form of forward momentum into the screaming winds. Our clothes were soaking wet from the driving rain and the endless waves that came crashing over the bow and always coming to a stop right in the cockpit where we were huddled and harnessed.
The few spare clothes we were allowed to take with us were all soaking too, and our bedding, and never the chance to dry out even for a moment because of all the condensation below deck. In spite of the exhaustion, sleep wasn’t easy either. And none of us got more than a couple of restless hours each night as the waves fought ferociously to toss us from our cots and nets.
Especially for the two of us who had the bad luck to select the forward cabins nearest the bow. Like torturous clockwork, each wave was a slow-motion roller coaster, up, up, up, clang, clang, clang, slowly until we reached the crest. Then a momentary pause, catch our breath, hold it, brace for descent and impact, hanging in there for what seemed like an eternity only to crash down hard and loud into the trough.
And then up and up again and on and on it went for three long days, and each time leaving us wondering if it would be this next trough, this next drop, that would finally separate the hull from the deck and us from our lives.
Then there were the voices, every boat has them, and they get louder and more urgent in a storm. The creaking and groaning of the wood and the fiberglass, supported by a choir of clanking halyards and stays and blocks, not to mention the flapping of the sails when we had them up.
Towards the end of the second day, the captain, a young Welshman who seemed to desperately want to be Scottish, gathered us solemnly in the cockpit to tell us that we should all prepare our grab bags and be ready to abandon the boat at short notice.
He’d noticed water seeping through the decks and into the main cabin each time we were hit with a big wave. And the bilge pump was struggling to empty the water leaking into the hull. “Keep it to a minimum,” he cautioned. “Passports, wallets, a few snacks and water. Nothing else.” What about medications,” asked Al, the lanky dreadlocked Zulu first mate from KwaZulu Natal. “OK, those too, if you really need them. But that’s it.”
He guided us through the activation of the EPIRB, the emergency location beacon. He’d activate it as soon as we were all safely in the life raft, he said, and it would send out an emergency beacon to all nearby ships and aircraft and guide them towards our location. But only for 24 hours, he warned, although being so close to the coast and in the middle of a shipping lane that would probably be enough time.
“As long as it works,” he said. “It’s pretty old and I’ve never tested it before. And I don’t know how old the battery is.” The life raft was big enough to fit six people comfortably and there were five of us. “If you don’t make it into the raft, don’t worry. Just keep blowing the whistle on your life jacket and we’ll try to find you.” We were even more worried now, and not at all reassured.
We worried and watched some more as yet more water came in for the next 12 hours, all of us supplementing the laboring bilge pump with pots and cups. The captain kept changing course to try to limit the impact of the waves but it did little to stop them from nearly swallowing the entire boat whole each time.
At the end of the third day we emerged from the other side of the storm, to blue skies and fair wind, and even a chance to finally dry our clothes like a new set of sails around the boat. The peace was fleeting though, and we would lose yet another day as we turned back to respond to an all ships mayday call from a local fishing trawler that had lost one of its young deckhands overboard in the middle of the night and the storm.
But after a day of disorganized grid searching we decided that we couldn’t help any more and that he was likely gone for good, another soul for the sea. We turned back south again and said little to each other for the rest of the day.
When we reached the Portuguese coast and within good radio distance of civilization, we picked up a radio broadcast in broken English that one of the three boats in our armada had suffered so much damage from the three days of pounding waves that their deck had indeed started to peel from the hull and the boat was in danger of sinking. The last we heard was that the crew of five, the same size as ours, had to be plucked from the dying boat by a Portuguese coastguard helicopter just off the coast of Lisbon.
And although we were all torn, battered, and strained by the ordeal, we had made it through the storm and our spirits recovering as we anticipated the start of the big dash across the ocean. In the middle of winter, from Sao Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Senegal, our final destination was the US Virgin Islands and a run of nearly 3,000 miles.
The three days it took us to get from the shipyard in France to the Cape Verdes was only the teaser, the workout, taxiing towards the main runway. And once again, sailing with strangers on a boat that I didn’t own and a vain effort to put real distance between myself and Intrepid.
We didn’t see it at the time, we couldn’t have, it wasn’t ours to see. But the arrival of Cylink to our shores, the IDA’s decision to abandon us within inches of the finish line, all signs we couldn’t read. And for the first time in a long time signs that didn’t point to a way out.
A couple of weeks after the Cylink announcement, and a few before I was due to travel to Racal to sign a life and face-saving five-year distribution deal, we received a polite but brief letter from the managing director of Racal. While it was a pleasure to meet us, read the letter, and how impressed they were with both us and our remarkable achievements, because of certain unsaid marketing changes the company had decided to go in a new direction and would no longer be able to work with Milcode or Intrepid.
The letter from Racal turned out to be a fatal wound, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. We were bitterly disappointed, naturally, bewildered. But we’d succeeded at our task beyond every expectation, and this setback, this challenge, like every other, we would overcome. I kept telling myself that, I had to, or I could lose my grip on so much more. But like a dart tipped with a slow-acting poison, our fate had been sealed.
One by one they all fell off and away. GEC Plessey announced that they were no longer interested in Milcode either but thanked us for giving them the option. And would we also mind awfully not using their phone housing any more.
The sales rep from our Motorola distributor called us to say he’d been instructed to drop us as a customer and not provide us with any more chips. Or explanations. Although he suggested he might be able to direct us to an alternative supplier on the black market, the processors would cost twice the price at least.
I couldn’t figure it out, none of us could. Was there something in the technology, the code, our assumptions, an undoing flaw, that we’d all missed? Maybe we didn’t really know the market, maybe there was something out there that was better, cheaper, and we just didn’t know about it? That didn’t make sense, all they had to do was tell us and we could probably fix it.
Or was it my worst fear mockingly coming true? Maybe I’d just been rumbled, exposed. They finally figured out the lie, my audacious bluff, that I had no idea what I was doing, a total imposter, a fraud? And even though we’d succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations, there had to be an accounting.
But I couldn’t understand why they just didn’t say it. We could come to an arrangement. I could step aside, take on a different role, confess my sins but tempered with the truth that I was right all along, it had worked and everyone could win. They could have the company, the phone, whatever it would take, I just couldn’t fail. Not again. Intrepid couldn’t just die.
We had enough money to survive for a few more months, maybe three. But we needed a win, some good news, to help keep faith and hope. An explanation would be even better. I made excuses to the banks and the shareholders for the delays in signing the Racal contract. New management, I said. Things are just paused for review. Everything’s fine. Just read their letter. The first one. No one knew about the second.
I didn’t share the truth, the contents of the death letter, and I shared nothing about the rest, the domino of wounds. Surprisingly, the IDA didn’t seem at all displeased, they were even understanding. I thought about the teacher’s offer, but just briefly. He’d need the truth, that would only be fair, and the truth would do us no good.
I didn’t know what to do. I still hadn’t figured out why everything seemed to have changed, so quickly, so terribly. But I wasn’t willing to give up, or give up control so quickly.
From the date of the Racal letter it took just a few months for us to finally run out of options and break the news to the team, the investors, and the banks. The death was so slow and labored everyone seemed to expect and accept the final outcome.
I told what was left of our troupe that I simply didn’t have the money to pay their wages anymore and they were free to look for work elsewhere. A few offered to stay, to stick it out, stand firm with the firm. But I told them they couldn’t do that either because I didn’t have the money to pay the rent. There would be no place to stand.
Shea and I huddled daily to come up with something, some other desperation encryption product, anything that might bring in some money to satisfy investors. We purchased some cheap fax machines, took apart the innards, and turned them into the world’s first fully encrypted fax machines. And except for the speech coding, most of the same encryption technology as Milcode.
We approached Ireland’s biggest computer company at the time, Cara Computers, and demonstrated to them what we called Etherphone. We proudly explained why it was quite possibly the first ever demonstration of secure voice over ethernet networks and how great it would be if they, and Ireland, were the first to launch such a product.
“I think very soon people are going to start using ethernet networks to make digital phone calls,” I explained. “Our device will do it all – digitize and compress the speech, encrypt it, do all the key management. All military grade and still sounding like a plain old telephone call.” It was perfect. And finished.
They passed. Analog phone calls on digital networks? It’s not realistic, they said, you mustn’t understand the technology. You can’t mix voice and data like that. It’s like oil and water. Piss and shite, I thought. But we were well used to rejection.
There was no formal winding down of the company, no meetings of creditors, or shareholders, or lenders. Just a round of exhausted and apologetic phone calls with little explanation to support them. Most were understanding, some mumbled solicitor. Intrepid never closed, it just faded, without explanation. I still couldn’t explain where all the hope and promise and customers had suddenly disappeared to. Even the army wasn’t taking my calls.
I was stripped in the town square, bare and exposed, as an imposter and even a failed one at that. Everything I had was either taken back or given back. I gave the keys back to the landlord and left everything but the treasure. All our office furniture, equipment, electronics, computers, most of it stayed. Shea and I never said goodbye, never settled the matter, just stopped talking to each other. He took the treasure, the prototypes, the printed circuit boards, all the designs and code. And our best people.
Much of my time was now spent in my parents home fighting legal battles as each day seemed to bring another process server to my parents front door. One day a man from the bank showed up with a large clipboard that he said he wanted to use to inventory the entire contents of the house for possible auction. Prior to putting the house itself up on the same block, he said.
I explained it wasn’t my house and I knew it was just an intimidation tactic. The man said he’d return but promised that the bank’s position was that unless we came to some acceptable arrangement for the repayment of my debt, they were going to assert that the home and all its contents were indeed all mine.
My parents’ solicitor had to assemble all the documents necessary to call that bluff and to prove it was and always had belonged to my parents. But I learned later that my parents had to remortgage the house just to stop the bank from proceeding against them anyway.
The only relief from the collapse and what followed was a little relief from all the anxiety. Moving back to my parents house was a welcomed retreat back inside myself. I no longer had to pretend to be an entrepreneur and employer, a boss, encryption expert, visionary, a man chosen from amongst all other men. Perhaps I had earned the return to my rightful place. I had no business being where I’d ventured, trespassing into another world, maybe even imagined much of it, and at the very least, a completely irrefutable proven chancer.
Out of options, and with most of the fallout from Intrepid faded away, eighteen months later I moved to London. Although there was nothing there for me, it was far enough from the place that had nothing for me but bad memories.
I was unknown in London, invisible, maybe a chance to start again, although at what or with what I just didn’t know. But at least I would be anonymous, no one there would know my past. Except that I moved into the spare room of my first cousin in Wandsworth who was brother to the first first cousin I had hired at Intrepid. So I was still known.
I’d kept in touch with Racal, who seemed genuinely disappointed that everything had gone so wrong so quickly. They even invited me to help them in the design of a new secure phone they were developing but this time with a much less ambitious and already government approved encryption system they called Clipper.
And as a gesture of at least their continued trust in me, they invited me to attend a meeting at GCHQ in Cheltenham, Britain’s notoriously secretive spy center, and introduce my new role as an advisor to Racal. You’re quite possibly the first Irishman to get past those gates, said my host, just before introducing me to my new friends as the Man from Intrepid. I was about to learn that my new friends were also my executioners.
I wasn’t sure how to prepare for the two-hour drive through the English countryside to Cheltenham. I had no idea what might be waiting for me at the end of the drive. It would also be two hours sitting next to the man who was at least partially responsible for destroying everything. Destroyed Intrepid, my dreams, my millins, the Crock, nearly destroyed my parents, nearly did me in too. I really shouldn’t be speaking to him at all, let alone be in this company.
But I needed the money, I needed to work, I thought I needed the forgiveness. And while I also longed for some answers, I didn’t expect any. And I certainly had no intention of asking. But I hoped.
That didn’t matter anyway, because he intended to give me those answers, and this drive through the English Countryside would be his opportunity.
“Have you ever heard of something called Echelon?” he asked.
The old me, the expert on all things spooks and spies, would have said something like “it rings a bell, remind me?” But I was too tired, and tired of the old me.
Echelon, he explained, was the world’s biggest and most secretive electronic spying network, also known as Five Eyes, and run by America, the NSA, and their allies. It cost billions of dollars each year to run, and it was the core of America’s ability, and the ability of its allies, to electronically spy on anything and anyone they wanted.
Every communication in the world, he explained, every phone call, fax, radio communication, telex, data transmission, they could all be intercepted by giant listening stations around the world. Just like the one we were driving towards. And all those communications, millions at a time, were analyzed at lightning speed by massive arrays of Crays, the world’s fastest supercomputers.
If Echelon picked up a hot word, a phrase, a name, its almighty power could be instantly directed at that whisper and thoroughly dissected. “If you said the word bomb on a phone call,” he said, “there’s a good chance that you would have just brought yourself to the attention of the NSA or CIA.”
“They can monitor anything.” Satellite and microwave communications, telephone networks, undersea cables. And encryption was not a barrier, they can break anything. More than 90% of the world’s communications, Echelon is always listening.
“Except Milcode,” he said. “They picked up our encrypted test calls, couldn’t break them, and that was the end of it.”
Echelon had intercepted our encrypted test conversations, between Salisbury and Dublin. Unable to break the encryption, we became the focus of their curiosity and their technology, the Five Eyes turned their gaze on us, they started to look closer at Milcode. And worry. If Milcode made it into the wild, onto the market, into every government, so unbreakable and affordable, it could leave Five Eyes with severe visual impairment. Even completely blind.
“They were genuinely worried that you might shut them down,” said my driver. “So they shut you down.”
Within days of the first phone test phone calls, Racal was approached by their partner GCHQ with a message from the UK Ministry of Defense, a message, a threat, from the US Department of Defense that originated from the NSA.
A very clear and simple message. Any company, British or otherwise, that worked with Intrepid or sold Milcode would be blacklisted. Banned forever from participating in any future US military contracts or projects. Simple as that. Or worse, if anyone dared to defy the edict.
That was it, that was all, nothing more specific. Our phone and my dream all done in by a single phone call about a phone. But the industry knew clearly what that meant, it was a commonly used tool, and very effective in coercing cooperation from threats, competitors, even partners.
“The Cylink deal?” I asked. “Probably not a coincidence either,” he said “More of a cover, even an incentive.”
It explained so much. The sudden unexplained departure of all our customers and suppliers, the betrayal by the IDA. We’d been entrapped in our own private cold war, shut out.
“And who knows, they were probably doing their technology partners a favor too, taking out a competitor. They do that. It’s not just national security. They take care of their own.”
I thought about asking about the bomb threats too, but there was no need now. Who else would it be? He left me be for the rest of the journey, drove silently through the countryside as I tried to digest the revelation. It all made sense, naturally enough. And absolutely true because he had no reason to make up such a story. He owed me nothing.
I tried to imagine how I could take this story back to everyone who had doubted me, discarded me, mocked and belittled me. Finally, have the explanation for why everything changed so fast. It would be a wonderful story alright, that we were so important, so threatening, and so right all along that the greatest powers of all not only recognized our achievements but felt so threatened by them. Cold comfort though. It was a story that would likely never be told because it would never be believed. Because the storyteller could no longer be trusted.
Three years in London went by so fast and with nothing to show. I spent nearly a year working on a piece of technology developed by a small company in Leeds that claimed to be able to control access to any computer simply by recognizing a previously recorded copy of the user’s voice. I tested it and it worked, and I immediately saw an opportunity to secure the growing interest in the field of telephone banking.
A way for banks to quickly identify a phone caller by recognizing, by verifying their voice response to a number challenge. NatWest, one of Britain’s largest banks, liked the idea, but after six months of discussions decided that any technology that would delay a customer’s access to their accounts and their money would not be a good idea. Even if its purpose was to protect those accounts and that money.
I wrote, compiled a book on how to start a small business, and persuaded the London Evening Standard, London’s biggest newspaper, to co-publish it as the first of a series of guides I was to compile around everything London. But with endless delays and pushbacks, and no money ever earned, that too evaporated.
The new partnership with Racal and GCHQ fell away quickly too as I became so engulfed with depression, I just started hiding from them, ignoring their constant calls for news, for updates, for anything, any response from the Man from Intrepid.
Then two things happened, in quick succession, that brought an end to my London adventure and put me before the mast. The first event unfolded on a chilly Spring morning on Vauxhall Bridge, on the way to my office and under the gaze of the giant green glass headquarters of MI6.
A young homeless schizophrenic named Duane brushed past me, through the small gap between me and the wall over the Thames, and tried to throw himself into the river. And I stopped him, held on to him until some other pedestrians made it to us and hauled him back down.
Which was what he really wanted, it turns out. An intervention, help, and not an ending like this. We took him back to my office, at Studio Crown Reach on the north side of the bridge, offered him some tea and comfort, and listened while Duane tried to explain why his voices had so much sway over him, from mocking and teasing him, to daring him to do terrible things. He just wanted them to stop, he just needed some rest, some time away from that awful crowd.
The police arrived within minutes, but only because they were already there. Already on the bridge, responding to a call of another jumper, at the other side of the bridge, a young woman. More officers arrived, I was pleased that they cared. “That’s probably my girlfriend,” said Duane. “Is she OK?” The officers swapped glances and took Duane away to whatever police did with homeless schizophrenics on cold Spring days on Vauxhall Bridge.
In the days and weeks after Duane, after the pride of my accomplishment had passed and nothing more was being said about it at the office, I couldn’t get out of my head how freeing Duane’s choice could be. To simply float off that stone wall, sail into the embrace of the terrible Thames and after just a few cold and terrifying seconds, complete peace.
I couldn’t let go of those thoughts, they accompanied me almost every day after that. A draw becoming so powerful I had to find another bridge to cross each day. One with a higher wall. But now I had something new to fixate on, one that came with an overwhelming sense of relief. Perhaps, after all, there would be a way out, an escape, peace. It made me a little happy again.
The second thing that happened was not unlike the encounter with Duane’s, and did ultimately result in an escape. It was just a phone call. This time not a phone call about a phone but without question connected to that very particular phone. But like before, just silence. Nothing said. Every couple of weeks they would come, just silence, not even a breath.
Just like before, like Intrepid, like before the end of Intrepid. And just like Duane, screams that no one else could hear. It was another sign, perhaps a final sign. They didn’t want me involved in encryption anymore. Even with Racal. Or especially with Racal. So much like Intrepid. How come they didn’t know? There was no more Racal. Not any more. No encryption. Nothing, now, any more.
They should have known that. They were supposed to know everything. But not knowing them, I had no way of explaining. In three years I changed address six times, a rotation every six months, a race against the caller. But they kept coming, even if less frequently. And eventually those calls became my bridge and I was now ready, eager, to jump.
Walking through Pimlico Station one day, I picked up a copy of Yachting World, and not by accident. They always had classifieds at the back, they reminded me of the classifieds for bugs and wiretaps in Exchange and Mart. But these ads were not for spooks and spies but for skippers looking for crews. And it didn’t take me long to find my new crew, and adventure.
A professional skipper was seeking crews to help deliver three brand new, as yet unsailed virgin Beneteau yachts from the boat builder himself at his home at Saint Gilles Croix de Vie, on the Côte de Lumière on the west coast of France. Across the ocean to their new home at the Moorings yacht chartering company in the British Virgin islands.
No experience necessary, no payment offered, no questions asked. It was time to run, again. Abandoning everything and what little I had and knew in London, eight weeks later and just weeks before Christmas, I stepped aboard the sailing ship Foxtrot Oscar and let the water take me.