By Eric Picard, Copyright 1997
Tess stood barefoot on the damp teak deck of Sally Braid watching the gulls swooping down on her discarded dinner. The Herring gulls were always the first to notice food. Without fail the larger Black Backs would come in, bullying their way to dinner. She had seen Black Backs scatter baby ducklings from their mothers before drowning and swallowing them whole. She moved over to the rail, throwing the final tidbits to Herring gulls. The Black Backs squawked and left in frustration. Tess hated Black Back seagulls.
The motion of Sally relaxed her after a long day behind a desk. Her office manager had thrown a surprise luncheon this afternoon, a kind but misguided gesture. Nobody seemed to know how to take Tess’s departure. There was little to say at the strained lunch. The meatballs and spaghetti were cold and soggy. As the day ended, a slow stream of well-wishers passed her office door, waved and nodded, then left. When the flow slowed to a mere trickle, Tess packed up thirty years of office paraphernalia and left for the last time.
Across the harbor Cotton Blossom, the old two-masted schooner was deftly brought into port. The deck hands lassoed the pilings with ease and threw the fenders between the hull and pier to keep the bright-work and paint from scuffing before they hosed her down. Tess went below and put on her coat, then sat in the cockpit and started the engine. She planned to run the engine for an hour or so, just to charge the batteries, but the early September evening was so pleasant that she decided to go for a sail.
The engine eased gently into forward for a moment, then back into neutral. She moved quickly to the bow and cast off the now slack mooring line, then walked leisurely back toward the cockpit. The light breeze caught the bow and tipped Sally off the wind to port. Tom Griebling on Bombardier, the boat at mooring directly to port, sat up to watch her with that chauvinistic air most male sailors had. His hands gripped the starboard rail, tendons popping out as Sally’s bowsprit passed less than five feet off his stern. Tess still hadn’t made it back to the cockpit. She sympathized a little… It wasn’t common for a person her age to handle fifty feet of classic wooden yacht alone. She slid in behind the wheel, popped the throttle into forward and quickly brought the engine up to 2500 rpm. The new Yanmar diesel had a satisfying whine as the turbo kicked in. She threw the wheel to starboard and passed Bombardier to port. She tapped her horn and gave Tom a mock salute as she passed. He smiled and gave a crisp wave. Tom was old Navy. He would never return a salute to a woman.
Tess brought Sally Braid out through the breakwater toward the number seven buoy just West of the harbor entrance. She turned into the wind and let the engine idle in forward, allowing herself to raise the mainsail using her electric winches. Robert had argued against the use of electric winches on classic wooden yachts literally to his dying day. A week later she had them installed. Things hadn’t been difficult between them; quite the contrary, Tess and Robert had a marriage that was a true partnership. Tess had left the winches alone out of respect for Robert’s wishes while he was alive, but she was a pragmatist in most matters.
His death related marginally to the winches; he had a heart attack while they carried sails down from the Yacht club to the launch landing on the pier. Acquaintances gathered and took turns attempting CPR while waiting for the ambulance, but he never regained consciousness. Tess sat on the folded and bagged mainsail watching what seemed like an endless string of people attempt to breathe life into her husband. One pounded Robert’s chest in frustration when he didn’t respond to heart massage.
She was aware that most people at the Yacht club expected her to give up the boat. But they probably never knew that it was Tess, not Robert who was the sailor. It was Tess who did all the navigation, and told her husband the best lines of attack when they raced. It was Tess who brought Robert into the sport of sailing to begin with, their first outing having been on Clarion, a boat owned by her father. Robert had fallen overboard when the launch dipped in stray wake as he stepped between the boats. She knew he was worth her while when he passed her his shoes from the water and decided to go for a swim. She ended up joining him, clothes and all. Robert had always managed to appeal to her carefree side, let loose her inhibitions. Her father had liked Robert exceptionally well; they formed an unusual pair on frequent hunting trips, the painter-poet and the bank president. Besides, she only saw him now when she was onboardSally. She couldn’t give that up.
For years they had sailed all over the country, once venturing as far as Europe. As they grew older, they moved from sleek racing boats to slower moving, but more comfortable yachts. Eventually Robert convinced her to make the move to Classic Wooden Yachts. The work to keep up a wooden yacht was extreme, but Robert had retired from teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art, and the care of Sally Braid had become his newest passion. Robert had brought Sally back from a near-death condition to recapture her former stately grace. Her hull was caulked and painted so smoothly that she was often mistaken for a fiberglass replica, rather than a true classic wooden yacht.
Tess had gone on in her normal manner for the months following Robert’s death, holidays with extended family and the day to day difficulties of running a large publishing company. Three weeks ago she mailed a letter of resignation off to corporate headquarters. It was gratifying to see the scramble that followed to find a replacement. Her well oiled office-machine was going to take a while to recover from this hiccup.
The breeze caught the sail, filling it with air and giving an audible snap as the canvas stretched. Sally leapt eagerly forward, spray splashing over the bow while the deck pitched at an acute angle. Tess turned South, reaching toward the mouth of the bay while she watched the sky, which was approaching sunset. She didn’t bother to turn on the instruments, preferring to sail the boat in its natural form, as intended by its designer.
* * * * * *
Red threw his cigarette in the water and watched Atherton walk down the gangway with his little brat in tow. The check had arrived in the mail, much to his wife’s relief, much to his chagrin. He felt that a fishing boat had no business carrying passengers, especially ones like these—stupid rich Midwestern sonofabitch and his damn kid.
“Hi there, you must be Red! I’m Jack Atherton,” The stupid looking fuck said.
Red put on his kiss-ass smile, knowing that the yellow tobacco stains on his white beard and mustache would be the first thing a shit-head like this would focus on. He stuck out his sea roughened hand, the one missing the tip of his index finger, and made sure that the rough-scarred end jabbed the guy in the palm. Atherton hid his momentary surprise pretty well for a Midwestern sucker. “Glad you could make it, Jack. Welcome aboard the Gina Marie. Gina said you two would be in sometime this afternoon.”
Atherton’s tanned face shifted into a frown and he shrugged his shoulders. The girl stepped around her father and jumped over the rail onto the deck, almost losing her balance on the slick metal. “Julie, take it easy and slow down. Sorry we’re late, Red. The traffic was really backed up on the way from the airport.”
Red felt the twitch start between his mouth and left eye as he turned to the girl. “Just a minute now, little missy. We need to set us up some ground rules here before we get going.” He reached down and picked her up, then sat her on top of an empty bait barrel. The girl squirmed until he let go, then put on a scared look to get sympathy from her father. The guy just stood there with an amused look on his face. Red knew that he was playing these suckers exactly right. No tourist could resist the ‘rough, but kind-hearted sea captain’ routine.
He fixed the two sardines with a one eyed stare, the left one clamped shut like a scallop to keep the twitch under control. “Okay, here’s the rules. This here’s a working vessel. No horsin’ around on-deck. I’m the captain. You’re the crew. My word is law on this ship. If I tell you to do something, you do it right quick. If I say ‘FREEZE’, you freeze and don’t move. All bodies weighing less than a bait-bucket wear a lifejacket when they’re on the boat, and that means you, girlie.” Red reached out with the tip-less right index finger and pointed it between the girl’s eyes, then slowly moved it back toward the winches and lifting gear, watching her unflinching gaze lock onto his stub. “Those back there are the block and tackle. You don’t touch ‘em, you don’t go near ‘em. They’ll suck you up and spit you out faster than a shark eats chum. That one there ate my pointer, and it’s hungry for more.” He shifted his aim to the father and lowered his voice. “That goes for you too. Nobody touches the tackle but me.”
Atherton nodded vigorously and bobbed back and forth a bit. He answered with that too loud voice that unpopular parents use to win over their kids, “I understand you, Captain Red, nobody touches your tackle. We’ll be good crew, won’t we, Julie?”
The little girl scowled, but then answered her expectant father reluctantly. “Yeah, we’ll be good. I don’t wanna touch no stupid tackle anyway.”
Red straightened out of his crouch and felt his vertebrae snap and pop. He looked off at the dimming horizon, then up at the General Motors rental car at the top of the dock. “Well, then… It looks like you’d better get down off that barrel and haul your gear down here before it gets too dark to see, little missy. Your dad and I have some business to discuss.”
The girl reluctantly climbed down from her perch, and started on her way up the dock. Her father interrupted her by calling out, then throwing her the car keys. Red scowled as the keys flew through the air and landed square in the palm of her fat little hands. “Do me a favor, Jack. Don’t throw things when you’re on a boat. That’s the best way to have something disappear forever in the drink.”
Atherton cringed, then looked back at his daughter as she dragged the duffel bags from the car’s trunk. “Sorry about that, Red. I guess we’ve got a few things to get used to. Listen, I really appreciate you doing this. I gathered from your wife that you would prefer to be out there fishing on your own, but this is going to be a great opportunity for me and Julie to spend some time together. Since the divorce we haven’t been getting along too well.”
Red felt the acid well up in his stomach, trying to find an open path to the air. He turned away from the health club muscled Midwestern bumpkin and answered over his shoulder. “Fishin’s been off a while now, we can use the money. Stow your gear in the port cabin at the bottom of the ladder. Gina spent all day yesterday cleanin’ it for you, so it should smell okay.” He walked up toward the wheel house, but stopped and turned halfway there. “We’ll get going as soon as you two are all aboard. Weather calls for some thunderstorms, so I want to get out of here before we get stuck at port. And tell your kid to put on the lifejacket that’s on her bunk.”
* * * * * *
Robert sat across from her at the galley table with his usual stoic expression. He was dressed in his dark blue New York Yacht Club blazer, the one he hated, but that made his pale blue eyes stand out in such striking contrast. Tess cut across the uncomfortable silence by making small talk. “Bill and Yvette are talking about bringing their grand-kids out for a weekend later this month. When do you think would be a good time?” Robert didn’t answer, but his eyes looked sadder, she could almost see them cloud over with moisture. “I’m so sorry that I was never able to give you the large family you wanted, Robert. I wish I could change the past. If only things could have been different.” She reached out tentatively to take his hand, but the apparition melted away before she could touch him. Tears began to roll down her face and she dashed them away violently before turning to head back to the cockpit.
She slid back in behind the wheel, letting the lock loosen and freeing the control to her hands again. The gentle roll of the ocean was a constant in her life, the only one that seemed matter anymore. Tess scanned the horizon for ships. She knew that it was a dangerous practice to leave the boat unattended like that, but she had only intended to pour herself another glass of wine, not sit transfixed for half an hour.
Tess looked out at the setting sun that glowed as a huge orange-red globe to the west, then at the sliver-moon framed by Mars and Jupiter in the southwest sky. This is going to be a dark night, she thought.
* * * * * *
Jack sat on the side of the boat watching Julie cast her fishing rod off the stern, and felt a surge of pride in her abilities. They had spent three weeks last summer fishing in upper Lake Michigan, and she hadn’t lost her touch with the reel. He smiled as she shied away from the block and tackle with exaggerated steps, looking back at him with mock fear. He glanced toward the wheel house to see Red leaning up against the rail, lit in silhouette by the brilliant sunset, cigarette in one hand, the other holding the wheel through the open door.
Jack’s greatest hopes seemed to be a real possibility with this trip. Julie had been so distant every time they got together over the past year. Part of it was the normal things that happen with a ten year old, she was growing up and he couldn’t do anything about that. But the other part came from the violence of his divorce. In a way he felt that he deserved the problems with Julie. He had given up the custody battle early into it, when his wife threatened to ruin his career by making public accusations of adultery and spousal abuse. It didn’t matter if it were true or not, the television station’s attorneys had warned him that his contract would be in violation if his public image were tarnished. One weekend a month and three weeks in the summer were not enough time to be a real father, and both he and Julie knew it.
He was brought out of his thoughts by the change in the sound of the engine as Red slowed down. Jack made his way up the deck to the ladder leading up to the wheel house. When he reached it, Red stuck his head out the door. “Okay, Jack, why don’t you go on up the bow, and get ready to drop the anchor. This is a good spot to fish for a few hours until the sun goes down, then we’ll head off toward Martha’s Vineyard overnight.” Red pointed to a tall buoy a few hundred yards away. “That silly thing replaced a full floating light tower that was here for years. When they yanked it up, the support left a pretty good artificial reef. Plenty of fish around here.”
Jack looked back to make sure Julie was okay, and saw her coming up toward the bow as well. “Hey Jules, why don’t you give me a hand with this, huh?”
“I think I’ll just watch. That thing looks pretty dirty.”
Jack smirked at her and walked up toward the anchor. When he got there, he noticed that the winch mechanism was pretty corroded, and that the chain-wheel needed oil, but it responded instantly to his touch on the electric motor and lowered smoothly into the water. “Okay, Red, I’m lowering her in. How much chain should I put out?” For a few moments he thought he hadn’t been heard, as there was no response. Finally Red ducked out of the cabin and walked up to him.
“Yeah, that looks just fine there. Why don’t you and your kid go on and get started. I’ll secure this. I think I’ll run it back and anchor stern-to. That’ll let you two watch the sunset as you fish.”
Jack looked at the older man for a second. “Sure thing, here you are. Uhm… doesn’t anchoring stern-to usually make the boat rock a lot? I don’t want Julie to get seasick on her first day. Two weeks is a long trip with a seasick kid.”
Red fixed him with a look that said, you don’t know shit, farm-boy. “Well, on an ordinary day that would be true, but at sunset on a day like today, the wind’s bound to die out. Plus we’re going to get a pretty major weather change, so it should go calm for a while before then. We’ll get some good fishing in before the storm comes through.”
“Do you think we should maybe go back to port? If its going to be really rough tonight, we might not be up to it. We’ve never been out overnight before.”
Red gave him another one of those looks, and responded coolly. “My wife told you over the phone, we’re a working boat. If you want to travel with us, you get the real experience. Now, we won’t make you handle nets, or drag or nothin’, but we don’t head back to port for some little storm, and seasickness is just a part of the territory. Give her some Dramamines if you’re worried.”
Jack bit back a nasty reply, thinking that this could be a long trip if they got off on the wrong foot. “Okay, Red. You’re the Captain. But just remember, this trip is for Julie, and if she gets sick, nobody will be able to enjoy this.” He turned on his heel, and walked back to his daughter.
By the time the sun had set, Jack’s trepidation had disappeared. True to Red’s word, the winds were light and the sea calm. A huge flock of enormous Black Back seagulls descended on the boat just as they finished anchoring. They amused themselves by throwing the gulls some of the smaller bait while they fished. After the sun had set, a sliver of waning moon gave off dim light in a sky with more stars than he had ever thought possible. Red had helped them put their catch of bluefish and flounder on ice, then showed them how to jig for squid. The strange creatures were attracted by the deck lights, and would wrap their tentacles around the unusually shaped jig lure, then squirt ink as they were released into a bucket. Julie had been a bit squeamish at first, but soon began to enjoy herself immensely. Jack had to admit that Red was turning out to be a great guide.
A few hours later the wind died and the squid all stopped picking up the jigs. Jack helped Julie clean the fish-blood and squid-ink off the deck, then called out for Red. When there was no response, he went searching below. He knocked on the door of Red’s cabin, and eventually opened it. Red was passed out in a chair, with an empty bottle of Rum on the table in front of him. Rather than get into it with him, Jack decided to let him sleep it off. There seemed little enough danger with the sea so calm, and Julie was content where they were.
* * * * * *
Tess was piloting by moonlight miles offshore when the wind died suddenly. At first, she thought nothing of it, but the calm waters and heavy, still night air began to unsettle her. She flicked on the VHF radio and tuned in the National Weather Service’s twenty-four hour report. The announcer’s voice was echoed by the low rumble of distant thunder. Tess felt her stomach drop. She tightened her grip on the wheel, and listened carefully as the announcer repeated his report.
“…A small craft advisory is now in effect for all of southeastern New England from Martha’s Vineyard to Montauk point. Winds will be shifting to the northeast from thirty-five to forty-five knots, with gusts up to sixty knots. Seas offshore are expected to be in the range of fifteen to twenty feet. The US Coast Guard advises all pleasure craft to return to safe harbor immediately. A very powerful squall line has been sighted on radar approximately fifteen miles northeast of Cuttyhunk, and should range as far south as Block Island…”
Tess locked the wheel in position and flicked the switches on the instrument readouts lining the cockpit, which started the radar, LORAN, and depth/speed/wind gauges. She started the engine and moved forward to lash down all the hatches. She moved below and secured the cabin’s contents before donning her life jacket and foul weather gear. When she returned to the cockpit she furled the Jib and lowered the mainsail enough to take three reefs in it.
Tess found herself remarkably calm for the circumstances. She had been through storms like this throughout her life, but never alone, and never on a yacht like Sally. She knew that the greatest danger would be from the wooden mast snapping off, and made preparations for lowering the mainsail immediately if necessary. Tess had heard stories of masts coming unstepped in the course of heavy storms—dropping through the deck and puncturing the hull. She checked the stays to make sure that that wouldn’t happen.
Even with the warning, the power of the sudden gust of wind caught her by surprise—every timber on the boat groaned under the sudden load as thousands of pounds of pressure were added to the sail. The boat heeled over at an extreme angle pitching Tess out of the cockpit and into the safety lines along the leeward rail. She lay against the plastic covered cables as sea water flooded the deck and she was engulfed in a steady stream of deep water. Her only thought as she clung to the lifelines was how warm the water was this time of year.
As the wave receded, Tess fought her way back into the cockpit. Water poured out of her foul weather gear and a guttural growl escaped her throat as she fought the wind. Lightning cracked so close that she could see the purple lazing effect as the explosion of thunder nearly overwhelmed her senses. At such close range the feeling of the thunder was much more disorienting than the sound, it pushed through her chest like a chisel.
The mainsheet snapped out of its line-lock and whistled as the boom swung forward, pulling it freely before Tess could get it under control. She managed to chock it down and turn the wheel into the wind simultaneously, which let the boat stand up straight. The gust let up a bit and she took the opportunity to snap her safety harness into the pilot’s seat. “Okay you bastard, lets see what you’ve got!” Tess shouted at the storm. The wind was reading seventy-two miles per hour. “Well, there goes the weather report.” She turned into the wind to reef the main again.
The sea began to buck and kick, quickly becoming a series of jagged bluffs and canyons. These were the most dangerous of conditions as the swells steadily grew to fifteen or more feet. At the bottom of a trough the sky was a black disc surrounded by phosphorescent foam and water. The whipping winds lashed the surface of the water, sometimes knocking the tops off the waves, sending thirty pound missiles cascading horizontally through the air. Tess picked up the radio and switched the dial to VHF channel 16. She shouted into the microphone to be heard over the tumult of the sea.
“US Coast Guard Station, Castle Hill, this is the yacht Sally Braid, OVER…” Tess waited tensely for the response, watching the deck gear closely as the hull started thudding through thick chop.
“Sally Braid, this is Coast Guard Castle Hill. Switch and answer channel 72.”
“Roger, switching 72.” Tess turned the dial until the green numbers matched.
“Sally Braid, this is Castle Hill… go ahead.” The voice on the other end was male, young and southern.
“Roger Castle Hill, I’m about twelve miles out of Newport and alone on a fifty foot wooden sailing vessel. I’m not in any immediate danger, but I wanted to let someone know I’m out here. It isn’t pretty.”
There was a momentary pause before the young voice came back, cracking across a few octaves. “Ma’am, you did say Five-Oh feet, didn’t you? Are you sure you’re okay?”
“That’s a Roger, Castle Hill, Five-Oh feet—and yes, I’m okay for now, but I’ll let you know if anything comes up.”
“Roger that ma’am, I’ll tell you what—I’m gonna stand by this channel, so if you have any problems, you let me know right away.”
“Roger Castle Hill, I’ll do that… Standing by channel 72.”
Tess hung the microphone back on its hook and set the compass on its heading. She wiped her sleeve across her dripping nose and was surprised to see it come back stained with red. After rubbing around her nostrils gently with a hastily squeezed out rag, she realized her nose was broken.
As the squall-line passed overhead, and moved into a more steady tempo, she got into the rhythm of the storm. The boat was tossing heavily and she was forced to use full power on the engine just to keep from losing headway on her course. The wind was directly out of the northeast, which was typical for this type of storm. Her heading was almost due northwest, not necessarily the easiest point of sail to maintain in such heavy weather. She was soaked to the bone and the temperature was dropping rapidly. The wind had settled in at a steady sixty-five miles per hour.
Tess checked her radar frequently to make sure the path ahead was clear. She had set a course directly for the Brenton Light Buoy, which was the main navigational marker for this entire section of coastline. The overwhelming danger of this type of storm came from other boats, and aiming for the buoy was possibly the most likely scenario for encountering another vessel. Tess was constantly adjusting course for the effects of the wind and swells, which wanted to push her southwest toward Connecticut.
She kept her eyes darting from radar to LORAN and compass. Finally she was close enough to the Light Buoy to hear the piercing siren that it let out, and periodically she would see the flash of its light. In-between the siren calls, Tess heard another sound—seagulls shouting across the waves. She was surprised to hear them this close to shore—seagulls usually weathered storms out at sea—but supposed that they had been caught by surprise the same way she had. Suddenly she was in the midst of a large flock of Black Backs sitting in the water, facing into the wind. Her passage through their ranks startled a few into the air, but they quickly settled back in. She sped by, approaching the Light Buoy just short of a hundred yards downwind. At this range the periodic blasts of the siren were nearly deafening, but there was a two minute delay between them.
Tess was slammed chest first into the wheel as the boat suddenly lifted out of the water and a loud crack and clang rang out. Sally Braid had hit something very hard. She threw the wheel to Starboard and pulled in on the mainsail to heel and slide over whatever she had struck. She swiveled her spotlight over and saw the wreckage of a boat just below the water. As the sea moved over it, the hull would hover just below the water in the trough of the swell. It took her a few moments to recover her senses. Had she caught that thing as she slid down the side of a wave, Sally would be on the bottom right now. She leaned over and hit a series of five rapid bursts on the horn.
Tess moved the light over the water surrounding Sally Braid, but the beam was obscured by the rain before it illuminated more than the immediate surrounding water. The sea had become even more enraged, the waters rising and falling in glacial proportions. The larger swells were too steep for Sally to climb fully, causing the bow to slice deeply into the top few feet. Sea water ran across the deck in foot deep sheets, smashing into the cockpit housing and creating a plume of water that completely soaked Tess.
“Castle Hill, Castle Hill, this is Sally Braid, I have a situation here. I just came across the wreckage of a boat, looks like a fishing trawler. I’m about a hundred yards southwest of the Brenton Light Buoy, OVER.”
“Sally Braid, did I hear you correctly? Did you say that you had found a wrecked vessel at your location just south of the Brenton Light Tower? Are you damaged, over?””
“That’s a Negative, Castle Hill, but I don’t know if there are any survivors floating around out here.”
“Roger Sally Braid, I will dispatch a team out that way immediately, but be advised that we are looking at a wait of thirty to forty minutes. All available crew are involved in another rescue at this time.”
Tess closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the wheel. She took a deep breath before picking up the microphone again. “I copy that Castle Hill, I think I’ll take a look around.”
“Negative Sally Braid, I don’t advise that—you should proceed immediately back to safe harbor.”
“Sorry son, I don’t think I can do that. I’ll keep you advised as to my situation, Sally out.” Tess slowed the engine and headed in toward the Light Buoy.
* * * * * *
Julie held her father as tightly as she could with her right arm. The left arm was hooked through a bar on a support beam, then held her hand over her ear. “dontdiedontdiedontdie dontdiedontdiedontdie…” She repeated her chant under her breath while she waited for the horn to sound again. Julie just knew that if that horn sounded again, she would go deaf in her right ear forever. There was a barely audible click and buzz, and the monster horn let loose. Even the water that sometimes managed to cover her head couldn’t block out that sound. It emanated through the steel beneath her, it traveled up her spine and through her arm that clutched the support. The horn overwhelmed her senses—it was her enemy.
The buoy was tall, incredibly tall, but somehow her dad had managed to drag her under his arm as he climbed the ladder. The waves were like nothing to her dad, he just kept on plowing through, and held onto the ladder, even when it would go completely underwater. She had inhaled a lot of it before he got them to the top.
Once they were there, her dad had hugged her, and laughed. For a long time, they just lay on the top of that buoy, laughing with each other. She hugged him, and even the howl of the horn just seemed to make them realize that they hadn’t drowned. Then the water started to get rougher. The buoy was getting pulled into the waves deeper and deeper. Eventually the water started to wash right across the top of it. Dad held her tight to him, and used his belt to tie them together by the wrist, but the water was rising on each set of waves. The rotating light on top of the buoy let them see a little, but would go from dim to bright so quickly that they hardly ever had chance to let their eyes adjust.
Eventually the waves got so big that sitting on the buoy was like being on the roller coaster. Every once in a while a big wave would cover their legs, and then some huge wave would come, and cover them completely. They held their breath and counted during those waves. Her dad said to count slow, “One Mississippi… two Mississippi… three Mississippi…” And he would squeeze her arm on each number just so she knew he was there with her, counting.
Then something happened. A wave covered their heads, and her dad just stopped counting with her. His hand went slack, and she clutched his arm as hard as she could. The water went down, cascading over the sides of the buoy, and her father lay there, his face covered in blood, a big gash across his forehead. He had managed to hold onto the support column, but when the water went down, he just collapsed. She put the belt around his head, but she didn’t know how tight to make it. It seemed to stop the bleeding, but she didn’t know what that meant. Occasionally he would open his eyes, they would flutter like a bird, but he didn’t see her. They just swam in his head, moving back and forth. Julie just held on and counted.
* * * * * *
Tess could see the Light Buoy flashing and kept up her five horn blasts every minute or so. She would vainly flash the spot across the water’s surface, hoping to find someone floating in a life raft, but somehow knew where she was going to find the survivors. She was within fifty feet of the Buoy now, but really couldn’t imagine anyone using it as refuge.
On a calm day, a Light Buoy stands twenty-five feet from waterline to deck. On the deck is a welded steel tripod that extends another thirty feet into the air housing the siren and light near the top. Below the surface of the water is another twenty feet of buoy that is attached to a huge chain running hundreds of feet down to a multi-ton cement block.
Tonight the Light Buoy was a radically different creature. The chain held the buoy in place, but the wind kept the chain tight. As the swells were now averaging around eighteen feet, with the occasional twenty-five to thirty, the buoy would range from showing a wall of steel thirty feet high, to being covered above its deck around five feet. If she were to get too close, the buoy could slip under Sally’shull, then rip her from the water as the wave retreated, tearing the boat in two.
Tess brought Sally Braid in closer to the buoy to look for survivors. At first the light of the spot didn’t illuminate much, but as she passed, a frantically waving arm caught her attention. Tess flashed the light on and off, then gave one long honk on the horn.
“Castle Hill, this is Sally Braid. I’ve located at least two survivors of that wreck. They’ve managed to get onto the deck of the Brenton Light Buoy, Over.”
“Roger that Sally Braid! That’s great work. We’ll have a team there as soon as possible, Over.”
“Do you have an ETA on that Castle Hill? One survivor looks like a child, and the deck is awash every couple of swells! They won’t last much longer on there, Over.”
“I’m sorry Sally Braid, but that’s still going to be another twenty to thirty minutes. We’ve got a multi-vessel incident off…” The radio transmission was cut off by the sound of the siren. “…out of Galilee, but I can’t promise anything.”
“Listen, I can’t talk anymore right now. I’m going to go over the PA and tell them you have help on the way. Sally Braid Out!” Tess cut off his response by clicking the dial from VHF radio to PA speaker system.
* * * * * *
Jack came back to consciousness underwater and nearly tore off his daughter’s arm in his frantic efforts to escape. As the water receded around them, his recollection of the situation returned. After spluttering water he managed to get out a few words. “I love you honey…”
He started to fuzz out again during Julie’s response, but was brought sharply back to awareness by a hard slap to his face. “I’m sorry. Please do that again if I start to go, okay?”
“Yeah daddy, please don’t go anywhere. I need you here with me… okay, here comes another one. Squeeze my hand.”
Jack squeezed her hand, but couldn’t remember what she was talking about until the water came up around him and covered his head. He fought down panic as he felt her small hand squeezing his rhythmically until the wave passed. “How did you get so smart?”
Julie looked at him with huge eyes. “There’s a boat out there. It flashed its lights at us, and honked a horn. I think we’re going to be okay.” The siren blasted again, driving a wedge of sound between them, isolating them in space and time.
As the siren’s sound faded away, it was replaced by a new noise, but far more pleasant to hear. It was a woman shouting across the water, no… she was using a speaker or something to make them hear her. He couldn’t quite make the words connect in his head, but Julie clutched him tighter and seemed excited. “What’s she saying, Jules? I can’t hear what she’s saying.”
Julie turned to him with an incredibly mature look on her face and gravely said, “She says that the Coast Guard is coming, but that it will be a while before they get here. She wants to know if we can make it any longer.” He could feel himself fading again…
* * * * * *
“I said, can you hold out any longer on the Light Buoy! If you can hold on there, wave your arm once. If you can’t hold on any longer, wave your arm three times!” Tess’s nerves were definitely fraying. The Coast Guard was not going to be appearing anytime soon, and the frantic multiple response told her clearly enough that they wouldn’t last out there much longer. She couldn’t decide what to do.
Tess turned to Starboard and spun around for another pass at the buoy. As her gaze swept across the deck, there was Robert, standing with his shoulder against the mast, staring off into the weather. She shivered and called out to him. “So what do I do now, Robert? I’m in way over my head here. A little help would be nice.” Robert didn’t respond immediately but turned eventually and walked across the deck to her.
“Should I do it? Should I try to get them off?” Still he didn’t respond, but as he got closer, Robert met her eyes. His former sadness was replaced with a fiery excitement. He slowly nodded to her, then faded away as the boom swung through his nebulous form. Tess shuddered, then finished the turn for another pass at the buoy.
The problem was, she couldn’t approach the buoy at full speed, because she never would be able to stop in time. But without full power from the engines, Sally would drift off course before she could land. Tess took another pass by the buoy, and judged the distances she needed. The only way was to approach upwind. The microphone felt leaden in her hand. She waited for the horn to fade out, then spoke. “Okay, here’s the plan. I’m going to time this so that I’ll be able to put my boat right up against the side of the buoy. I may only get one chance , so you need to be ready when I get there. I’ll make one more swing around, then I’ll try for the landing. If you heard all that, wave your arm three times!” One, two three. “Okay, I’ll give it a try!”
Tess brought the boat around in a full tack, then came up on the buoy with her port side to it. She timed the landing with a swell, to keep the two objects aligned. As she reached the top of the swell,Sally Braid’s hull went over the side of the buoy’s deck, and for a moment frozen in time, the shining varnished rail hooked itself onto the buoy—holding them still just long enough for two stumbling figures to crash across the gulf and land in a heap on Sally’s deck.
The water dropped lower and Tess watched in horror as the rail and front quarter of the hull splintered away on the buoy. The cracking of timbers and screeching of metal were drowned out by the blast of the siren, but the vibrations of the impromptu surgery left an imprint across Tess’s psyche. She watched as the gaping hole in Sally’s side dipped into the water and saw four red lights blink on the console. Tess gave a silent oath.
As she swung Sally away from the steel giant, she called out to the two figures that were making tentative movements on the fore-deck. After a moment or two, the smaller figure pulled on the larger until it responded and followed back to the cockpit. When Tess saw how young the little girl was, and the blood on her father’s face, she understood how perilous the situation had been for them.
Tess got them settled in the cockpit, then picked up the microphone. “Castle Hill, this is Sally Braid. I’ve got the two survivors from the wreck off the Brenton Light Buoy, but I took a lot of damage in the maneuver. I don’t think she’ll hold together long enough to get me back to port, Over.”
“Roger that Sally Braid, I understand. We should have a boat your way in a matter of minutes. If you continue North, you should cut some time off their trip.”
* * * * * *
Tess watched her two passengers clamber across to the Coast Guard vessel and then stepped up on the ladder and followed them. From the cutter’s deck she watched Sally slip deeper into the water, and saw the bright red marker she had attached to her, floating off the stern. She knew that the insurance company wouldn’t want to pay for a salvage, but felt it was only proper to mark the site.
As the Coast Guard cutter began to move, she saw Robert one last time. He stood on Sally Bride’s bow and tipped his hat. Tess raised her arm in salute, then turned away. The salt on her face had little to do with tears. This time her tears had been given a proper burial.