Beyond Hercules: Inside the Moroccan Hash Trade

The history of the cannabis plant is ancient and glorious; its global vilification has been less than a hundred years in the making. Despite worldwide prohibition and condemnation cannabis is the most commonly used ‘illegal drug’ in the world today, with Morocco the largest producer and exporter.

beyond herculesBased on real-life events, Beyond Hercules is one man’s inside story into the escalation of the Moroccan hash trade as it developed throughout the eighties; an illicit and clandestine industry supplying ever-increasing demand and sustaining an otherwise impoverished local economy in return.

Back then it was a free and easy world where few, if any, ever came close to being known about by any authorities, far less pursued or incarcerated. The rapidly developing market was serviced by happy-go-lucky, fun-loving, thrill seekers, racing powerboats on moonless nights to fetch and deliver ton after ton.

The downtime was spent indulging in the benefits of a lucrative, tax-free income in a sun-kissed climate, or devising and implementing other ever-ingenious ways to smuggle without any hint of detection.

When the thrills began to turn to chills, inevitably the creative juices flowed towards the simplest of plans for one audacious final walk-away pay-day in Beyond Hercules. But would it all be ‘plain sailing’, and would everyone walk away with what they expected?

Chapter 4: Brazilliant Blessings Beyond Hercules

A camarote brimming with revelers. Isadora Dunne photo.
A camarote brimming with revelers. Isadora Dunne photo.

After two days and nights in Las Palmas, both boats finally headed off in early December, with every intention of making it to Salvador in time for Christmas.

We set a course that would take us about 300 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands, 600 miles off the northwest coast of Africa, enabling us to pick up the trade winds. Attributed to Henry the Navigator, the trade winds were discovered during the ‘Age of Discovery’ and have been used since the fifteenth century to aid the crossing of the world’s oceans.

Originally the word ‘trade’ meant ‘path’ or ‘track’, with the trade winds being excellent for sailing as the ‘path’ or ‘track’ you followed would have winds blowing in the direction of travel. As the trade winds became increasingly understood and used so they allowed for greater commerce, or ‘trade’, to take place.

Detailed charts of the winds and currents of the world’s oceans have been available since the 1850s, so we were able to take advantage of the trade winds to speed our journey to the carnival calling us in Salvador de Bahia, although even then our passage would still end up taking a little over three weeks.

It was an uneventful first week or so of sailing; time to observe whatever marine life was on show, read, write, draw and cook. Dolphins are always a treat at sea, and I never tired of watching anything from tens to hundreds of them bursting out of the water for air as they sped alongside or near Old Smokie.

I’d often take a sleeping bag and climb into the bowsprit netting at the very front of the boat to spend several hours at a time watching the many different varieties swimming alongside us as we traveled. It was clear to me why dolphins are used for various therapies with humans, as merely observing them in their natural environment always had the most relaxing and calming effect.

The Albatrosses

The Filhos de Gandhi, a Carnaval group in Salvador, Brazil, dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi - photos by Isadora Dunne Read more at
The Filhos de Gandhi, a Carnaval group in Salvador, Brazil,

The effortless flight of albatrosses, with their wingspans of three meters and more, was also an impressive spectacle that ate into time. Eventually, however, on a long voyage, you want greater interaction with the wildlife around you, so you turn your attention to catching fish. The dorado, or dolphinfish, is not only dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. amazing to watch, and it’s amazing to eat as well.

Catching these meter-long surface-dwelling sea acrobats is always entertaining, and time-consuming. The reward is always equal to the task, however, as the feast that followed a catch was well savored: large and tasty fillets cooked in a multitude of different ways, dependent on provisions onboard and your own imagination.

Twelve days out we’d just about reached the mid-Atlantic when potential disaster struck, and Lucky Luca earned his nickname. Both boats had kept in contact on a daily basis by radio, especially as Luca and Isa’s boat was much faster and so about seven hours ahead of us. My watch read 04.01 and I was still yawning, rubbing my eyes and waking up properly when suddenly the radio crackled into life: ‘MAY DAY. MAY DAY.’

I rushed to the handset to answer, ‘This is sailing vessel Old Smokie receiving you loud and clear. How can we help? Over.’ The voice on the other end of the static was frantic, screaming over and over, ‘He’s gone. He’s gone. Help me. Help me.’ I recognized the voice through the panic instantly: it was Isa.

After a few moments, I managed to calm her down enough to give me the coordinates of their last known satellite navigation location. It showed as a five-start fix, making it very accurate. From there it was a race against time to try to find and retrieve Luca from the water before it took him for good. A full five hours later, when we were tied alongside each other with sails down and the engines on tick over, Luca and Isa recalled verbatim their night’s events.

With both boats back on course, I stayed on board Wind Cheeta while Luca and Isa slept and slept through their trauma. His recovery was quick considering his ordeal and the next day their boat left us in its wake. We didn’t meet again until we reached the anchorage of Salvador de Bahia, arriving eighteen hours after Luca and Isa had set sail from a standing position right beside Old Smokie.

Salvador de Bahia’s Carnival

We had missed Christmas by two days when we anchored off Forte Sao Marcelo, 250 meters from the lower city of Salvador de Bahia. From there we took our inflatable to the shoreline, before taking a giant lift up to the city that spread out from the plateau above the water’s edge. There was over a month to go before the world-famous carnival started, time enough to acclimatize and get acquainted with our new surroundings. It was my first-ever time in Brazil. Within minutes I swore it wouldn’t be my last.

My first experience of Salvador de Bahia’s carnival will be forever etched in my memory. It was a wonderful spectacle, and that was just the babe-spotting as we walked the streets and wined and dined in the many ‘botecos’. The ‘Carnaval de Salvador de Bahia’ is reckoned to be the biggest party on the planet. Over two million people celebrate for a full week, not just on the main four-lane road that runs through the city and is closed while the carnival is on, but in every nook and cranny. You have to experience it to understand what it’s all about.

I discovered during my stay that Salvador is also known as ‘Brazil’s capital of happiness’ on account of the easy-going population, fantastic spicy seafood, and endless outdoor parties. It certainly made me happy. While Luca and Isa set sail for Italy the day after the carnival finished, the rest of the crew and I ended up staying around for another month.

It wasn’t a place you wanted to leave in a hurry. Aside from being in no rush, we lived on Old Smokie, so socialising was our only expense and our money went a long way in what was a very cheap place to live.

Loving Livia

Besides, I also fell hopelessly in love and lust with the most stunning local woman on the last day of the carnival. Everything about Livia oozed sexuality: everything. She was tall, leggy, slender, busty, and perfectly proportioned. Her chocolate-brown skin glistened in the sun and her face couldn’t have been better sculpted had Michelangelo given over his life to the job. Her dark-green eyes exuded a deep sense of adventure, mystery, mischief, and pleasure with every glance, as did her body’s every move.

That first night together, we had five sexual escapades, all an hour or so long, and as all-consuming as the first. In between, Livia washed me, rolled joints for me, poured drinks for me, and cooked for me. She also laughed at my suggestions about settling in Salvador de Bahia and marrying her. ‘You are a man. You can’t keep this up with one woman for six months, never mind six years, or more. Man’s desires can move with the clouds; that fast at times. Don’t mistake sex and love.’

I knew she was right, and in hindsight, I was glad of her clarity, but at the time I tried to argue my case. Livia put me right with one final statement: ‘Promise me you can guarantee to feel the way you do today forever and I’ll marry you.’ She laughed as she said it, while giving my face a friendly slap and looking at me with eyes that said only one thing: let’s have sex again now, while that feeling is still at its strongest.

When we finally set sail from Salvador de Bahia, fully satiated by all its delights, I had a heavy heart. I had been mesmerized by Livia, never before having met a woman who had such passion and also such a pragmatic attitude. She had set me straight, but she had also left me in a spin. I was certainly not fully present as we set a north-easterly course roughly 20 nautical miles off the Brazilian coastline, following it right around as far as French Guiana.

It was twelve days of steady sailing, a distance of 1,900 or so nautical miles. I pulled my weight, as always, but I was away in another world the whole time. It wasn’t until the subject of ‘Papillon’ was brought up that I began to leave Livia behind and come back to the here and now.

All on board had read the book, based on the apparently true story of the Frenchman Henri Charrière who claimed to have escaped from the notorious French penal colony on Devil’s Island. Given that the island was only six miles off our port bow it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. The collective decision, as we were hard-pressed for time, was, ‘Let’s go and take a look.’ It was a simple task to divert our course and head for the three islands that make up the Isles de Salut, of which Devil’s Island is the smallest. Anchoring in the lee of the Island of Royale, where the prison’s administration center had been, we went ashore to explore.

Exploring Devil’s Island

The following morning Donny and I decided to get in the Zodiac inflatable to explore Devil’s Island itself. Kenny and Scotty had had their fill, so opted to chill out on Old Smokie. In the narrow passageway between the two islands we spotted the fins of several large sharks weaving their way around the shallow waters. We figured that perhaps their ancestors had fed well on prisoners in the past and their instinct was to keep hunting around those waters in the hope of another easy meal.

Either way, and although the sharks posed us no threat, we were relieved to get ashore and pull the dinghy up above the high-water mark. All told we were there for about four hours, mainly sunbathing and swimming in the man-made pools that filled up and emptied with the tides. There was little to see from the Island’s penal days other than the occasional small, ramshackle stone hut that had housed the political prisoners who’d fallen foul of French law and been exiled there. It was a beautiful and peaceful setting, and more than once my mind drifted back to Livia as I wished that she and not Donny was with me. Before we left we caught half a dozen clawless spiny lobsters as a surprise treat for the guys back on the boat.

It was Donny and I who were in for the surprise, as while we’d been away we’d been paid a visit by the modern-day French authorities. With a little trepidation, we tethered the inflatable and clambered on board to find out what was going on. In the wheelhouse galley, sitting at the table opposite Kenny and Scotty, was the captain in charge of the cutter. Our ship’s papers and all four of our passports were laid out on the table.

Both Kenny and Scotty had a look on their faces that told a story about what their sphincters were doing. It became apparent that the captain had been questioning them and writing down their responses. I sat down beside the captain and along with Donny proceeded to get the same grilling. The captain wasn’t best pleased when it became clear that all four of our stories matched virtually word for word. We’d been at the carnival in Salvador and were on our way home when we decided it was too good an opportunity to miss paying Devil’s Island a visit.

Not to be outdone, the captain stood up, gathered our documents and passports from the table and signalled for one of his men to take the weapons and ammunition they’d found. He announced that he would be back in the morning to escort us into Kourou port where a thorough search of our boat would take place. He assured us that whatever we were hiding would be found. With that he and his men left us.

Boarded by Officers

The next morning, as promised, the captain returned. This time he had eight officers with him. As they boarded we were all taken a back by their cordiality, and surprised to see them carrying eight cases of Heineken beer, a large bag of freshly baked baguettes, and a couple of large rounds of Camembert cheese. The captain gestured for the confiscated weaponry to be placed on the table, and was himself the personification of French politeness as he handed over our documents and passports while informing us, ‘You are free to go.’

In the same breath he added, ‘But before you go I want to purchase your shotgun. How much do you want for it?’ He accepted my first price of 500 US dollars when I told him that was what I’d paid for it, although it only cost me $150 US. I knew enough to know it had been worth many thousands before some philistine had bastardised it, on account of the exquisite ornate filigree metalwork it was inlaid with.

As for the stash of 50 kilos that we never got round to selling in Salvador, the captain and his mini-squadron could have searched, stripped and dismantled our boat and I doubt they would ever have found that. It was concealed in a specially constructed bowsprit. The bowsprit is normally a long solid wooden pole that tapers out beyond the bow and is used for adding extra sails to the front of a sailing boat.

Ours was a fabricated steel pole, hollowed out near the bottom to hide contraband, then carefully laminated to appear to all the world as if it was made of one solid piece of wood. Back then, I don’t think anyone would even have thought to try to dismantle what is widely understood to be a solid piece of wood.

Stephen Roffe

After many years closely connected to the sea, Stephen Roffe retired to dry land in Portugal in the late nineties. He can still be found there today, a single parent with three very active children who keep his cooking skills honed with the daily feeding frenzy! Stephen fully endorses the growing global movement campaigning for the full legalization of cannabis for recreational, health, medical and industrial use.

Buy this book on Amazon Beyond Hercules, An Inside Story of the Moroccan Hash Trade.

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