RABAT, Oct 10 (Reuters) In his Saharan robes the tanned Frenchman passed unnoticed in Nouadhibou, a chaotic Mauritanian fishing port with an iron ore terminal and a lucrative second line in drug and people smuggling.
Those he befriended knew Dominique Christian Mollard as an undercover worker with a non-governmental organisation.
In reality he was an independent TV reporter waiting for a chance to steal aboard a fishing boat packed with illegal migrants for the perilous journey to Spain's Canary Islands.
Desperate to escape poverty, more than 30,000 Africans risked their lives to reach the archipelago in 2006 but many died on the way, victims of poor planning, treacherous seas or people-traffickers. For the ones who made it, there was a new battle for asylum papers to avoid deportation.
While he waited in Nouadhibou, the 58-year-old veteran of wars in Afghanistan and Somalia shared a room with a group of the travellers. He won their trust, recorded their dreams of Europe and caught scabies, fleas and dysentery.
He struck deals with trafficking gangs but endured more than 20 false starts, was twice tricked out of his money and once rounded up by gun-toting Mauritanian police.
In late August 2007, a year after his first failed attempt, Mollard found himself aboard a 14-metre fishing boat chugging into the dark, surging ocean with 38 seasick fellow passengers for a voyage expected to last up to five days, if all went well.
''EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF'' Mollard had paid 1,198 dollars to be packed in alongside young people from Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Mauritania, Ghana and Guinea Conakry with no cooking gear, toilets or shelter.
Though he was well-equipped with flares, a GPS and satphone, he had not accounted for their indiscipline and selfishness.
''I had expected more solidarity but it was every man for himself -- people were nasty,'' he told Reuters in Rabat where he lives.
There were four ''captains'', he said, and all were ''doped up''. One turned to Mollard soon after they set off and demanded money; another insisted the boat turn south instead of north to the Canaries and drew a knife when Mollard argued back.
''I got mad at him in a dignified way,'' said Mollard. ''I said he was an idiot and if he wanted to arrive alive he had better listen to what I was telling him.'' He tried to pass energy bars across the boat to a Congolese woman and her undernourished baby but the bars were partly eaten by the others. People were soaked in sea spray and were soon too ill to lean over the side to vomit.
''I was covered in puke -- it was disgusting. You understand why so many die on this journey. People just let themselves die because they don't move, eat or drink.'' The poorly built boat leaked and the engine was constantly cutting out. They discovered the fuel had been deliberately mixed with water which they managed to syphon off.
After the sun set on the second day the sea grew rough and the engine died. The captains dismantled it, than replaced it with an older one. Nothing worked.
The lights of a tall cargo ship appeared half a kilometre away and the panicking migrants lit a distress flare, but the ship lumbered on heedless into the night.
''As the night went by, we were drifting in rough seas and people were starting to scream, to cry, to pray.'' JOY, DESPAIR Early on the third day, Mollard decided to use the satphone he had brought along but hidden up to then for fear of raising suspicions that he would give the migrants away.
He called the Spanish coastguard and was told a Russian oil tanker would switch course, pick them up and hand them over to a Spanish patrol boat that would take them to Canaries.
The immense tanker hove into view and drew alongside, the migrants ran to grab the rope ladder cast down to them. The fishing boat leaned into the three-metre swell.
''We were in serious danger of capsizing. I had to hit people, slap them,'' said Mollard. ''One of the captains had a piece of wood and was threatening them.'' The baby was hoisted from the boat in a bin but the mother panicked as she climbed the ladder and plunged into the waves.
She was dragged out by the other passengers and all eventually arrived safely on the tanker's deck. Celebrations broke out, but later as the tanker approached a patrol boat, hope gave way to despair.
''I saw Moroccan uniforms. Then I looked at my GPS and saw we were just 5 miles from Dakhla in Western Sahara. The migrants were back to square one, or in fact square minus one as most are still in an internment camp.'' Mollard is preparing a documentary of his experience.
REUTERS SZ KP0837