A sailing instuctor from Hartlepool was locked up in one of the world's most notorious prisons for his part in a botched plot to smuggle £48m of cocaine to the UK from Venezuela. Neil Hunter speaks to Donald McNeil about he survived the experience.

IT was the first Tuesday of November in 1999 and a day that was to change Donald MacNeil's life forever. In the gathering twilight, Donald walked from his rented flat at Hartlepool marina, across the lock gates and to the social club that had become his second home.

Inside the Smallcrafts Club, the phone rang but he paid little attention to it - Donald assumed it would be another irate wife looking for yet another wayward husband.

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But the steward gazed up from the bar and told the 45-year-old Scotsman - working in the North-East as a sailing instructor: "It's somebody looking for you."

On the other end of the crackling line was a voice he vaguely recognised as a man he had shared a few beers with in the club earlier that summer, Mick Jowett.

"Are you working at the moment?" asked Mick, who told Donald he was with another pal, Denis, in Greece. They had bought a yacht and were looking for an experienced skipper.

As a professional sailor for 15 years and with a log of 100,000 miles in command of training vessels, sailing school yachts and boats belonging to private owners, Donald was just the kind of person they were after.

By now he had been in Hartlepool for three years working for a charity teaching children from under-privileged families, and as a freelance instructor.

"Nothing steady," Donald replied. "I'm just doing a bit of evening class work."

"Well, we have bought a yacht in the Greek islands and we're bringing it back to Britain," said Mick. "It's very different to the motorboat we're used to and so we were wondering if you would be available to come out to Greece and teach us how to sail it for a month while we cross the Mediterranean to Gibraltar."

Mick offered to pay Donald £1,000 plus his expenses and asked him to join them in Crete by the Friday.

The pay was good. The work sounded easy. He agreed.

Donald says: "I have lost count of the number of times I have bitterly regretted that phone call.

"Why did I have to be in the club at that particular moment? It is unlikely that Mick would have carried out extensive efforts to track me down over long-distance telephone calls.

"If only I had had other commitments and had been obliged to regretfully decline the invitation. If only something had triggered alarm bells.

"Little did I realise that fate, time, place and circumstance had conspired to send me off on an endeavour that was to bring me years of hardship, pain and misery and alter the course of my life forever."

Shortly after arriving in Crete, the alarm bells which didn't alert him during the telephone conversation, were starting to ring loud and clear.

Donald quickly realised the pair had no idea how to sail the yacht and a short while into the first part of their journey to Malta vague references were being made to large sums of money.

When the skipper and his novice crew on the 38ft Pulse arrived at the island's port of Valetta, Mick announced he had something important to tell Donald and they went off to a bar.

The enormity of what he was getting embroiled in quickly became apparent - a plot to smuggle one of the biggest consignments of cocaine ever destined for the UK. Donald was actually being hired to sail the yacht with the other two to South America - not Gibraltar - to collect almost £50m of the drug and return.

Fearing he might be thrown overboard once they were back on the ocean if he refused or showed any signs of doubt, he asked how much he would be paid, and agreed after being told £40,000.

The journey across the Atlantic ended on Margarita - a small holiday island off Venezuela - and they arrived in good time for the delivery.

Then Mick claimed he had received a call telling him his wife was ill and had to return to the UK, leaving Donald and Denis alone.

The pair spent the next fortnight ferrying consignments of cocaine to the yacht, but once it was fully-loaded they were arrested by the Venezuelan National Guard. They had been tipped off by police in the UK who had been monitoring the activities of the Mr Big, a Liverpudlian called Edward Jarvis - jailed last year for 27 years.

Weeks later, on June 22, Donald and Denis pleaded guilty to smuggling cocaine and were jailed for six years and eight months.

They were sent to the island prison of San Antonio... and soon discovered why Venezuela's jails are reputed to be the most violent and dangerous in the world.

Donald's stomach lurched as he left the prison gatehouse and started to make his way across the inner compound where ten of the most miserable souls he had ever seen - looking ill-fed and dressed only in scraps of clothing - were there to "greet" him.

"Welcome to Hell," said a tall, skeletal European, his face drawn from the effects of hunger and stress. "We've got a bit of a war going on at the moment between the two sides of the prison."

The inmate, speaking in English but with a distinctly Danish accent, advised: "Try to get yourself into Pavilion 4. That's where the more peaceable people live."

Pavilion 4 was over-crowded and filthy and Donald found himself surrounded by armed gangs, crack addicts, death and disease.

Ferocious guards beat prisoners indiscriminately and many resorted to hunger strikes and even "blood strikes" - deliberately cutting themselves - to protest against the scarce food, undrinkable water and lack of medical care.

Finally, a gang war broke out between the two prison compounds involving guns, knives, machetes and even grenades.

Donald's friend and mentor, compound leader Mancho, was strangled, had his lips sewn together and a noose placed around his neck before being suspended from a wall.

The head man of the prison, Miguel, had ordered one of his minders to carry out the execution as a warning to others not to speak out of turn and disrespect him.

Donald says: "It later emerged the incident which led to Mancho's murder stemmed from a row over a TV. A clearer testament to the value placed on human life within Venezuelan prisons could hardly be imagined."

Throughout his wretched time behind bars, Donald clung to the belief that one day he would be reunited with his family and friends, and was helped through his ordeal by letters from pals in Hartlepool.

He was released from San Antonio after two years and moved to a jail on the mainland for a further two years and four months before spending four months in the community on licence.

Donald returned to his native Scotland last December and is battling to rebuild his life.

"I was extremely anxious to get back, but living in the community in Venezuela provided a period of settlement to get used to being free," he says. "It was a kind of half-way house. Now each day is a new beginning for me and it is fantastic - absolutely fantastic.

"While I was in prison, the letters I received from my friends in Hartlepool are what kept me sane and alive. It is difficult to explain how much it meant to me, knowing that throughout this horror and terror there were people who cared and were concerned for me.

"Knowing that there was this beacon of hope on the other side of the ocean allowed me to survive."

* Journey to Hell (Milo Books, £9.99)

* Donald's story will feature in the five series Banged Up Abroad. It is scheduled to be broadcast on October 2 at 10pm.