A shudder ran through the boat as her keel struck bottom. Instantly, a mental picture of the chart Jack had studied prior to this leg of their journey filled his mind, and he threw the helm hard to port. They had drifted farther west with the gale and sea than he had anticipated, and came too near a shoal. The boat hit bottom several times more before they reached deeper water, and Jack worried about the larger vessels which were hopelessly beyond his view. He could only hope that they had turned away in time to prevent grounding. To prevent certain death.
For two more harrowing hours the storm raged on. Jack was exhausted from the effort exerted just to remain standing, and Seth was noticably worn in his eye as well. They were both soaked, chilled, and mentally drained. Finally the winds subsided, and the rain slowed to what might be called "gentle". The seas began to subside, and the visibility improved. Little by little, Jack was able to relax as the sight of running lights materialized behind them. After a while, the clouds parted, and Jack was able to get an elevation on the North Star. Seth took the helm, and Jack went below to work out their position.
Returning to the cockpit, Jack tried to count boats. But the little fleet was pretty scattered, and rain squalls still obstructed his view.
"I think we'll just keep the storm jib for now" Jack said, "to give everyone a chance to catch up."
Seth simply nodded, never taking his eyes off of what little he could see before the boat. Jack focused his attention astern, searching for the other boats through the murk. Then, he saw something that made his guts tie in a knot. A flare. Far astern, several miles it seemed, a red flare soared skyward, then disappeared in the low cloud.
"Come about!" Jack bellowed, and he began to unlace the mainsail. Seth spun the helm and Jack let the jib fly. As the boat came around, he sheeted it home on the opposite tack. Then he raised the main to the second reef and sheeted it in. First Watch heeled hard in the stiff wind, and accelerated quickly.
"Ten degrees port!" Jack yelled from the mast as he saw another flare rise into the clouds. To his relief, he also caught a glimpse of a stern light a few hundred yards ahead of them. Someone else had turned toward the flare.
They flew toward the spot where Jack estimated he saw the flares. To his surprise, they caught up with, then slowly passed Island Time, which was running as hard as she could with her tow still attached. Within a few more minutes they saw the source of the distress signal. It was the fifty foot cutter. She had run hard aground...
Waves crashed against her hull, and she listed perilously with each one. The wind screamed through the tortured rigging, pulled drum tight as it strained to hold the mast upright. Jack doused his sails as he approached, and Seth started the engine.
Meanwhile, Island Time had cast loose her tow, and was maneuvering to pass a line to the stricken cutter. Three times the attempt failed. As they hauled the line in for a fourth, Jack saw a most welcome sight. The crew boat was approaching. On seeing the situation, the crew boat's captain slowed and let loose his tow. The big diesels growled, then rose to a thunderous pitch as the captain raced to the scene.
Island Time moved away to let the big crew boat get into position. On the second try, the cutter's crew caught the tow line and made it fast to a makeshift bridle they had rigged. The crew boat's engines growled again, and the cutter's bow slowly turned into the waves. Carefully, carefully the crew boat began to pull the sailboat off the bar, pouring on power when she rose on a wave, and backing off as she dropped in the trough. It was a delicate balance of moving the boat without snapping the tow line, or tearing out the hardware to which the line was made fast.
Jack took the helm, and moved his boat to a position just down wind of the cutter, taking care not to get too close to the sandbar. From this position, he would be able to rescue the cutter's crew should the unthinkable happen. The sportfisherman, which had been the crew boat's tow, also took up station near Jack.
Slowly the crew boat worked to windward, inching the big sailboat away from the sandbar, and away from danger. By the time they were back in water of a comfortable depth, the sun had risen. Though still rather rough, the seas had dropped to something a little more manageable, and the wind died down to twenty five knots or so.
Jack pulled alongside the cutter and hailed her captain.
"Can you start your engine?" he yelled.
"Yes, but the prop is bent pretty bad. Can't do much more than idle before it starts vibrating."
"Can you make sail?"
"I think so, after we get this mess on deck sorted out."
Jack motored up to the crew boat and hailed her captain.
"They bent their prop pretty bad, but he says they can make sail as soon as they get the rigging sorted out."
The captain waved in acknowledgement, and Jack powered over to Island Time. He relayed the news to Willie, who visibly breathed a sigh of relief.
During the course of the morning's events, the stragglers had assembled nearby and the little fleet was whole again. Even the little trawler, which Jack feared would be lost, considering the damage she had sustained in the battle with the gunboat.
"Must be one hell of a table" Jack thought to himself, in reference to the table top the little trawler's crew had used to patch the hole in their hull.
In an hour, the cutter's crew had patched things up enough to make five knots, and the flotilla was once again headed toward Mayaguana. The wind settled back into it's usual eastern flow at around fifteen knots, and the seas calmed down to a choppy four to five feet. The close, steep waves made for wet running, and the effort required just to remain standing made Jack weary. But he sent Seth below for some rest, and tried to make himself as comfortable as he could while still steering the boat.
Though Jack was tired, he was glad he took the helm, because he was rewarded with some of the most fascinating and beautiful sights he'd ever seen. The water changed from brilliant emerald green to deep cobalt blue as the depth varied. Sandbars snaked off in curvaceous forms, sculpted by the current. A pod of spotted dolphins joined the boat to play in the bow wave for a little while before speeding off, leaping into the air as if to wave good-bye. Numerous seabirds soared overhead, sometimes dive-bombing some unfortunate fish from amazing heights. A peek over the rail revealed the bottom passing underneath him in the shallower parts, a light, sandy bottom dotted with patches of marine grasses and plants of seemingly endless variety.
Several times throughout the afternoon, Jack found himself lost in his gazing overboard, or staring off to the horizon. So soothing were his surroundings, in spite of the wet and bumpy ride, he wondered why he hadn't left the world of hustle and bustle behind much sooner. As if on que, a huge sea turtle slapped the water with it's front flippers, lifted it's head for a breath, then dove beneath the surface, just off the starboard beam. It seemed to Jack like validation of his thoughts, like an acknowledgement of sorts. Like he belonged here...
Seth appeared in the companionway, groggily scratching his head through disheveled hair, and squinting at the evening sun.
"It's alive" Jack said, one side of his mouth drawn up in a mischievous grin.
"How the hell do you make coffee when tha damn stove is going back and forth through a forty five degree arc?" Seth muttered sleepily.
"You don't" Jack said, still grinning. "If ya need a caffein fix, there's some Cokes in the 'fridge."
Seth grunted something unintelligible and went back below. In a moment he returned, can in hand, and plopped down on the bench next to Jack.
"Hold this course" Jack said. "Watch out for sand bars, try to stay in darker green or blue water. And enjoy the ride."
"Got it Cap'n" Seth replied.
Jack went below, and was asleep before his head hit the pillow...
Do or Die - Slowly the boat weaved its way through tight packed bay, and finally they came alongside *Tropic Star*. Happy greetings were exchanged between the crews, ...
1 year ago