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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Fiction
“Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death.” Gen.Omar Bradley
Survival is rare if washed overboard; especially if far from land, without floatation, and in shark infested waters.
A boat, under full sail, was discovered off the coast of Barbados without its Danish owner, Kris Lohr, who was sailing back from Denmark. Bill Slocum with his girlfriend Kitty was delivering a boat from New York to St. Thomas and disappeared in an April Nor’easter. Others, like John B., survived after being swept overboard by a rogue wave; able to grab a line and pull himself back on board before his boat sailed away. Sailing single handed was not without its risks; not for the faint-hearted but many did and survived. Hank was one who for years enjoyed sailing alone.
It was very early when Hank woke up on a calm May Sunday; too early for anyone in the marina to be up, especially after a Saturday night farewell party with friends and a Cinco de Mayo beer fest at Fred’s bar. He was sitting in the boat’s small galley thoughtlessly dunking a very stale, Orange Julius, glazed donut into a cup of instant coffee, (the only thing, besides alcohol, that made reheated instant coffee drinkable) while thinking about his trip.
Bent in aimless thought over the polished mahogany chart table, fingering his rough gray beard with chin in hand, he looked over a calendar where he had penciled in several important dates. Today’s date he had repeatedly circled in red, like a bull’s eye, to remind him this is the day he planned to leave. He brushed away the donut crumbs, littering the calendar, rubbed his finger over the fresh coffee stains, making abstract brown shapes over yesterday’s date with a notation, in bold letters, that it was not only the Mexican holiday it was also the fifth anniversary of his divorce. It was a mutually agreed upon dissolution, free from alimony and malice. Kathy had an unforgettable Cinco de Mayo divorce celebration for them that made the occasion more festive rather than regrettable.
He pushed a few more donut crumbs into a small pile, tilted the calendar and brushed them into a trash can, held in place with a bungee cord, gulped down the last of his bitter instant Maxwell House coffee behind the soggy remains of the his glazed donut, licked his fingers and stood up to begin preparations for the trip. With a forecast of fair morning breezes, a calm sea, and a brilliant sunrise, it promised to be a beautiful day for sailing.
He picked up a small note pad, on which he had scribbled a list of things needed for the trip, and as he studied each item, he thumped the pencil’s eraser on each as if to assure him that nothing was forgotten. Enough food, plenty of fuel, charts, batteries, and water enough for the brief voyage expected to last no more than three or four days. Satisfied everything he needed was on board; he tore the list from the pad then put the wrinkled list and pencil in his pocket. For navigation he needed nothing more than an easy to use RDF, (Radio Direction Finder), since he would not be far from the islands. He opened the battery compartment door of the radio, removed and tossed the old “D” cell batteries in with the donut crumbs and replaced them with new ones. With fresh power the radio squealed to life with some lively, steel pan, carnival music from the only radio station on the island.
Craving more coffee, he put the small tea pot on the gas stove. He removed the pencil from his shirt pocket, and used the eraser end to stir hot water and dark Maxwell House granules into something drinkable. He placed the steaming cup on the coffee stained calendar and then walked around tapping the pencil on his hand, to the beat of the steel pan music, taking inventory waiting for the coffee to cool. He fastened down anything loose in the cabin that could be damaging, or get damaged, in the event of rough seas. He checked the flashlights and replaced batteries where needed, turned on the single side band radio requesting last minute weather information from the Coast Guard and made sure that all necessary charts for the trip were in the navigation table. On deck he made a final check of the rigging then removed, folded and stowed the canvas sail covers, untied the sails, and took another quick look at the dinghy suspended from under the stern davits. Under its seat, as an added precaution, he had secured survival gear in a water-proof ditch bag just in case and carefully coiled its’ towing line.
He was ready. Coffee in hand, he slipped a key into the ignition switch and the engine quietly came to life. Satisfied the engine was operating normally; Hank stepped onto the dock, walked slowly from bow to stern untying the dock lines and tossed them onto the deck. He pulled the boat closer to the dock, unfastened the last dock line, stepped casually aboard, and put the engine in gear. The Wind Song slipped quietly and slowly away from the dock, into the harbor.
The morning darkness became a pale blue as he maneuvered the Wind Song carefully around the yachts swaying lazily on their anchor moorings. After stowing the carefully coiled dock lines he raised the sails, the Wind Song cleared the harbor and he set a course south for a while before heading west.
The weather was perfect. The rising sun, steady easterly breezes, billowing sails of the Wind Song, his grey beard and tanned skin could have been from the cover of any Yachting Magazine, or island rum ad. Too bad, he thought, the cameras weren’t here to capture the images of such a beautiful morning. It would have been a perfect tribute to his boat and life in the islands.
The breezes now became a light wind so he pulled in the sail’s lines a little until the forty-eight foot Mayflower ketch heeled over with a pleasant low groan. The wind filled, taught sails put the starboard rail just a couple of feet above the water causing a wake of bluish white foam to trail behind. At this speed he could easily be in the Bahamas sooner than expected. Hank was aware that sailing alone was risky but something he chose to do because of past incidents with inexperienced deck hands. This would be a short trip, and it was quieter without someone else on board and he relished the time alone.
Despite his seemingly lonely life, Hank was quite content to be free to travel when and wherever he chose. In his thirty’s he left the states after divorcing Kathy, a marriage lasting just four months.
Kathy tried to live with him on the Wind Song, helping with his island charter business, and tried to enjoy sailing to explore new islands, but she couldn’t quite get accustomed to the slow, unpredictable pace. Added to that was her inability to overcome a fear of sailing and bouts with mild sea sickness; all good reasons to divorce but they continued to be the closest of friends. Hank was happy with his life of chartering in the islands and saw no reason to stop; even to save his marriage.
Hank often lectured friends at Yacht Haven, who recruited strangers to help crew their boats. He had an especially harrowing trip when a crew member placed everyone and the boat in danger while in the midst of a bad storm six hundred miles off North Carolina. He was delivering the eighty-foot racing sloop Unity to a small marina in Virginia. She was a badly designed ship, over rigged for speed, dangerously under designed for safety and required extra precautions for everyone’s protection; especially with its’ inexperienced crew.
Remembering that trip made him grateful for his own well constructed yacht made of fine teak, with ample room below and a mid-ship deck house for cover in foul weather. He kept her brightly varnished spars, sparkling teak trim and paint looking like new, which played more than a modest part in his successful charter business. She was ketch rigged, easily handled by one man and fast, often placing in the top five in the annual St. Croix race. Her good looks had fetched top dollar and in a way he was saddened to be delivering her to strangers.
Enough, he thought, think of something pleasant and went below after trimming the sails. Puerto Rico was not far away and he would soon head North West through the Virgin passage. The weather was holding nicely.
He opened a cold Heineken, spread the charts on the mahogany table in the deck house and looked once again at the course he plotted. After passing east of Puerto Rico he would set a northwest course for the Turks and Caicos Islands. He rolled the charts up, put them back into the chart locker and returned to the aft deck, sat down and put his feet on the ship’s wheel and relaxed. The first day was ending quietly and Puerto Rico would soon be off his port side. He finished his beer and watched as the bottle floated away and finally sink.
The first night was quiet, the glow of Puerto Rico like a dim light bulb, could be seen on the night’s horizon and the Wind Song rolled slightly and pitched gently. Hank woke well rested just before dawn, fixed coffee, and decided to wait before cooking breakfast. For the moment coffee and dunking another stale donut was all he needed. On the horizon a few clouds gathered but for the moment he didn’t consider them to be threatening; just a few gray thin, low clouds skittering well to the west; nothing to worry about.
As the day wore on and neared sunset, which was a brilliant orange against the cloudy sky, Hank prepared for what he saw in the distance as a possible storm. The breeze became a bit more brisk and the waves had small white-caps that sprayed across the deck. He decided to reduce the main and mizzen sails by a single reef and take in the inner jib leaving the smaller outer jib for the time being.
The next day he was North of Puerto Rico heading for the Turks and Caicos Islands. The weather improved slightly. Maybe the storm would go more southward. He put on light weight foul weather clothes then settled down with his feet on the helm and considered moving into the lower deck house if the weather worsened. Although the clouds darkened and the seas became more agitated, the weather was still too good to go inside.
He turned his head and looked over the stern at the waves caressing the bottom of his dinghy suspended under the two stern davits. He looked for the tell tale signs that fish were following but saw nothing. As constant companions the fish helped pass the time. At times there were shark he watched feed on his garbage, curious whales or playful dolphins that sometimes entertained him. Fish, especially shark, learned that easy meals could be had just by following ships. They would eat almost anything. The day and night of his third day passed with no change in weather except for slightly higher seas and rain that forced him into the deck cabin.
The next day weather and seas seemed to ease a bit, as he neared the Dominica Republic and Haiti. Relieved the storm appeared to be falling apart to the south west Hank removed his foul weather gear and hung them to dry over the life line. The Caicos Islands would be a welcome rest; perhaps look up his old friend and sometimes sailing companion Warren on Grand Turk Island.
After fixing a fresh cup of coffee he went on deck and pounded a cushion into a comfortable shape and relaxed with his feet on the helm, undecided whether or not to go back to full sails. He stretched as far back as he could, his sore muscles reminded him of his middle age, and looked up at the white clouds rimmed with a touch of grey. Smelling the salty sweet air of the Caribbean and the aroma of instant coffee he remembered Kathy as he stared into the cup. She didn’t like coffee. He adjusted his feet on the wheel to make a minor alteration in the boats course. He settled back once more, eyes closed absorbing the warmth of the sun he emptied the mug of lukewarm coffee over the side and decided he would rather have a cold beer. The day’s warmth demanded a frosty, cold, Heineken.
It was a rogue wave. He had seen them but never experienced them before and now without warning, it swept over the transom taking him completely by surprise. The boat’s stern disappeared for a moment under the blue-green water as it spilled over the deck rolling him uncontrollably from one side of the boat to the other before he crashed against the dinghy and breaking it free from the davits. He was pitched over the dinghy and into the ocean; thrashing in a desperate fight to find his way to the surface; a struggle not to become one of his unlucky or careless friends, who had mysteriously disappeared at sea. He struggled like a drowning man. He wasn’t going to die this way and he wrestled frantically to be free from the wet grip of the ocean. He surfaced, sputtering, gasping, coughing up salt water then he wiped the water from his face. His vision was blurred from the stinging salt water, but he saw what all sailors feared. His boat was sailing away without him.
The dinghy was hanging awkwardly from one of the broken davits, swinging from side to side in the water. Frantically he searched for something to hold onto; something floating to support him but there was nothing. Then he saw a line trailing in the water, just a few feet away. It was the line used to tow the small boat. He swam furiously with a new fear he had never known before to catch it and pull himself back to his boat.
He swam with all his remaining strength, thrashing and cursing; overwhelmed by the horror that gripped that he could be left behind. He pulled himself over rolling waves and against the wind until he finally reached the last few feet of the line snaking through the water. He reached out, gripped the wet line with both hands, then wrapped it tightly around one wrist and rolled over on his back, hands held over his head to avoid swallowing the deadly salt water. Once he caught his breath he would pull himself to the safety of the dinghy and onto the Wind Song. He was thankful now that he had not put up all the sails when the weather improved.
He remembered the Unity. The boat’s ninety foot aluminum and foam-filled mast; how it was especially annoying, clanging like a dull bell, when halyards beat against it day and night. The noise was the least of her problems. Without proper non-skid paint the flush deck became dangerously slick when wet. Two days into the trip the first late night gale broke the fore stay, nearly wrenching the mast into a twisted tube of useless metal. Quickly coming about to sail down wind repairs were made before the unsupported mast could break loose but adding more to the danger were the terrifyingly, awkward, running back-stays that required two men to work. The stainless steel helm, which had broken earlier, added more to the suspense of the yacht’s ability to withstand heavy weather.
In the midst of that storm an inexperienced sailor panicked, jumped on Hank’s back, causing him to lose control of the helm, and the ship jibed. The main boom swung quickly from port to starboard violently knocking the man overboard. He was gone; sucked into the dark, raging cold Atlantic waters. And now Hank was in a similar situation except he was alive, above water and tied to his boat. A cold chill came over him when he thought how unlucky that guy must have felt watching the lights of the Unity disappear into the gloom of that stormy night; how he must have struggled to stay afloat only to sink beneath the waves in exhaustion.
As he was being pulled slowly through the water something brushed heavily against his legs. Hank flushed with fear. He rolled over face down and with heart pounding dread saw a large fin attached to a dull gray shape pass just beneath the water, a few feet away. Bull shark was his first terrifying thought. He twisted to renew his grip on the line with both hands. He began pulling desperately; hand over hand on the rope, against the force of the wake of his own boat sailing beyond his reach. The large gray, fish was following, circling, and then brushing against him now with deliberate curiosity. Terror replaced feelings of exhaustion. He pulled on the rope with renewed strength until his arms cramped but he was finally within reach of the dinghy. The seas and winds calmed but the Wind Song sailed slowly on, never wavering from her course, unattended as though a ghost was at the helm.
He reached up and urgently grabbed the stern of the small boat with hands now raw and bloody from this tug-of-war. Once he got into the dinghy he would rest long enough to get the strength to pull himself up and into the safety of his boat. That, he thought, would be the easy part.
The waves raised him gently as he floated easily hanging on to the stern of the dinghy, its’ emergency gear still intact. The small boat rose and fell, swaying back and forth dangling from the snapped davit. Bobbing like a cork, Hank was too weak to lift himself up and into the boat. He moved slowly to the side and gripped the seat, trying to bend one leg over into the boat but the dinghy nearly flipped over. He moved back to the stern. Be calm he thought and maybe the fish would lose interest and go away. But the big fish returned, probed the strange objects dangling in the water, again and again, then once more, before disappearing into the blue darkness below.
Crazy with fear Hank had broken several fingers, almost tearing them off; ripping several fingernails off to the roots before he managed to fall into the dinghy; bloodied, wracked with pain and shaking. He was completely exhausted; coughed up salt water, gasped in spasms for air and trembled uncontrollably in cold terror. Too tired to pull the small boat close enough to climb back onto the Wind Song he lay motionless in the bottom of the boat mindless of his wounds, grateful to be alive, staring up at the breaking clouds as tears streaked down his whiskered, tan cheeks.
He watched as the sun came out, the clouds fell away and the seas calmed; the distant storm slipped beneath the horizon and the Wind Song’s dinghy rose gently on the long, calm swells of the Caribbean. Like he said, “it was a beautiful tropical day; a beautiful day for sailing.”
Hank was picked up by the Coast Guard, his wounds treated by local doctors in Marsh Harbor before he continued on to Nassau. After settling with the new owners of the Wind Song he returned to Fort Lauderdale, tired, exhausted and sore. His ex wife Kathy met him at the airport. She heard from friends in Nassau of his ordeal and survival after being swept off the Wind Song and insisted on taking him home to nurse his wounds; admonishing him again for sailing alone. He was too tired to argue. Still shaken by the shark encounter he promised not to sail single handed again.
Whether it was the passage of time, his maturing age, or Kathy’s motherly attention to his injuries, he found renewed feelings for her and she willingly responded. After his wounds and broken bones healed, they left together to pick up his new boat, the Phoenix, and returned to Florida. Both had matured since their divorce; each now making compromises. Hank shared Kathy’s home and, beginning with short sails, she took time to enjoy the Phoenix particularly on overnight trips to the islands.
It was the anniversary of their divorce; May 5th and at a Cinco de Mayo party they got married again. They confessed having no regrets at not having the missing years together; a deeper appreciation for each other had grown; time apart made them less demanding and more understanding.
Wonderful years passed, Hank sold the Phoenix when his old injuries interfered with handling the boat, but he was able to ignore the pain and help crew on friend’s boats in the annual races to the islands. Things were about to change.
It was the “C” word; Colon cancer that spread to his liver. “Shit,” Hank thought; “I should’ve done something when I first felt the ache; the pain.” It was too late. He noticed but paid no attention to the tell tale yellowish tint in his eyes; symptoms, he thought, of a bug he picked up. Now nothing in the world would help and he blamed himself for ignoring the symptoms. Now what? He stopped to consider his options. Apparently a long life past his 62 years was not one of them.
Treatment would bankrupt him; “lose every damn thing to a stinkin’ disease?” He ranted, “Never.”
“How in hell will Kathy take the news?” he whispered aloud.
“Get your affairs in order, Hank,” the doctor told him, “It’s not a matter of months; it’s a matter of just a few weeks at the most.”
It would be his secret. Reluctantly his doctor promised. It was the worst possible news he ever imagined. He flipped open his cell phone and called Kathy who was visiting her sister in Tampa, “I’m going to stop at the marina and see Ken about the trip,” he told her; “we should be leaving in a few days; weather looks good.”
“Be careful,” she said, “good luck and I love you.” He turned the phone off, stared at it for a second then slipped it into his shirt pocket.
His mouth was exceptionally dry. He stopped to buy a bottle of water from a neighborhood store before taking a long walk to town in the cool fall afternoon. He sat down on a tree shaded bench and listened, as if it were a new experience, to the noises around him; almost like he never heard them before. The passing world of bird chatter, kids yelling, the hum of distant traffic, a plane overhead, and then he was aware of his heart beating. With each painful spasm he imagined there was a monumental battle of good against evil raging inside his body; a pain he thought that remained from his fall into the ocean years before. He looked at the fall colors of the trees in the park and oddly thought of them as his partners in death. Cancer, he thought, was no way he should die. He pulled a small white envelope from his pocket, shook it over his hand until a pain killing percocet rolled out then gulped it down with the bottled water; for the time being it would dull the pain. Hank knew he would soon need something stronger when the pain worsened. He didn’t know what but he had to do something.
Then a dark thought came to mind. Suicide. But if he decided to leave that way how could he possibly make it look like an accident? A serious decision and something he never thought about before. Time or cure was not on his side so he needed to come up with a good plan and soon.
Hank had lived a life sailing over oceans, treasure hunting and now felt let down; betrayed by his own mortality. He had always been in good shape and now was not going to let some disease tell him how he should die. He was the only one with that right; to go out on his terms.
There should be a more dramatic or romantic end. Like being lost at sea, fall off a cliff climbing the Andes, get bitten by a deadly Bushmaster or shot by rebels in Guatemala or… “Shit,” he said out loud hammering his knee with his fist. “Shit, shit, shit.” Startled at his outburst some people, passing by, stopped.
“I’m okay,” he answered when they asked if he was alright, “just a bad day. Everything’s okay.”
He crossed his legs, bent over slightly; arms crossed to ease the ache in his belly and thought about Kathy and their renewed years together. He loved Kathy and they were both enviably happy; swearing to each other to always be truthful. He wouldn’t betray that trust; just hide the truth.
Hank’s health had always been good; his system resisting most bugs in foreign countries; an adventurer who experienced aches and pains as part of his travels sailing; strained muscles, twisted ankles, occasional digestive problems but nothing that lasted; anything serious ‘til now. He finally got up from the bench, walked painfully back to his car and decided to call his close friend, Ken.
Ken had asked Hank to go along as crew in the Caribbean 1500 rally to Tortola and sail back to the states in the Atlantic Cup the following spring. For Hank and Ken sailing was the Holy Grail of traveling and this years rally was just a few days away. On his way home he came up with what he thought was a good plan. This trip would be the most important one of all. His call to Ken, to go over his equipment list, would be more to give him something to think about besides dying.
He was looking forward to the race; grateful for being lucky most of his life able to do things, go places, and enjoy a life that other folks had little or no opportunity to do.
At home, Hank gathered up his foul weather gear, clothes, packed his medications, and moved onto the boat with Ken the day before the race was to begin. This year they would be sailing a larger, more traditional boat rather than the fiberglass sleek yachts of past years; a gaff rigged schooner that required three additional crew; more than usual. His plan depended on perfect timing and with extra crew he had to be careful. To make his plan work, it had to be done when he was alone. With five people on board, watch would only be a couple of hours for each man. In that time, if the wind and seas cooperated, the boat could be maybe twenty or so miles away; too late for them to turn back. Good. He called Kathy one more time before they left. His cell phone would be useless once they got out of the bay and into open water. He told her he loved her and missed her then folded the phone, threw it overboard thinking, “That’s symbolic of something.” He was amused at why he did that but it seemed to be the thing to do.
Ken had plotted a course taking them south along the coast to Cape Hatteras, across the narrowest point in the Gulf Stream, to avoid its’ rough seas and bad weather, and then set a course southeast to the islands. Sharks often followed for the leftover food that boats threw overboard and when he helped clean up after meals, he watched with fascination as several quickly appeared, circled then attacked the garbage; devouring it within seconds. They would be an important part of his plan. If successful there would be nothing left; no evidence. The time was getting close. It was their fourth day at sea, Gulf Stream behind and Hank was on the 4 to 6 morning watch.
After an exhausting start, and staying up late from the excitement of the trip, everyone had gone to bed early. A small galley light was left on for anyone wanting to go below for coffee or use the head. Sitting behind the helm, Hank stared at the light and felt a strange peaceful reassurance in its warm glow; like a night light at home. He had packed several doses of valium to help with the anxieties, when it came time.
It was time. He was on watch; the ocean calm with a mild breeze.
He went below, fixed a half cup of coffee, and gulped it down, then over to the chart table. He looked briefly at the chart, the marks showing their position, the course that Ken had drawn and finally a quick look at the island of Tortola at the end of the pencil line.
Quietly and nervously he lifted the chart table cover, removed Ken’s revolver, kept for emergencies, tucked it into his belt, and got a bottle of water from the fridge. In the cockpit, he swallowed a handful of valium and a several percocet, and when finished, twisted the plastic bottle into a knot and put it in the trash.
At 62 and wracked with pain he felt no shame; only frightened of what may wait for him on the other side. Whatever it was he hoped would be painless. He never was religious but still harbored a suppressed belief and fear, thanks to his Southern Baptist upbringing, that he could experience some sort of life after death and be damned for what he was going to do or end up as a wandering fog of invisible energy traveling throughout the universe forever; never resting. Theologians and philosophers never agreed on what lay ahead; only guess. But he was about to find out. A new adventure, he thought.
He took a deep breath, with shaking hands grabbed a nearby life jacket. The vest would make certain his head would remain above water and he wouldn’t drown. That was his biggest fear; drowning or being alive as the big fish went about their business. Drowning was not an option. His death needed to be quick and painless.
He began to feel the effects of the drugs and, with the calm of a man going for a morning swim, slipped quietly over the side and into an unusually calm ocean. He bobbed like a cork on the waves, one arm holding onto the vest; gently moving up and down slowly as he was shuffled from wave to wave and watched as the boat sailed on.
He didn’t lose sight of the boat until it sailed far enough that its lights blended with the morning stars. He feared nothing at the moment feeling a drug induced calmness and the urge to go to sleep; thinking maybe he swallowed too many pills. The drugs were doing their job. Something bumped into his leg. He hardly noticed when it happened again.
He thought about Kathy; worried about how she would take the news. It would be painful for her at first but she would be happy knowing he died the way he always said he would and, besides, it would be a lot easier on her than watching him waste away; plastic bottles, tubes and noisy machinery in a hospital bed being eaten up by cancer and chemo-therapy. That wasn’t his choice.
The moon was full and cast a cool, dull blue-gray but welcome glow over the ocean. Then he saw his friends who had been following the boat; circling closer and closer; brushing at first gently against his legs; curious if the thing just thrown off the boat was edible. He was frightened; the sharks were circling closer; a cold sweat of fear trickled down his cheek. Now he really began to panic. Was he doing the right thing? Stop thinking about it, it was too late and get on with it. He shook his head. He felt dizzy and the cold water was causing the drugs effects to wear off; his head jerked quickly side to side; looking fearfully in all directions. It was time to finish the job. The sharks were becoming bolder; moving in quickly. No time to waste.
He removed the revolver from his belt, cocked the hammer with his thumb, grinned, his hands were shaking and afraid of missing he put the barrel in his mouth, let go of the life vest, said a brief, muffled goodbye to his wife, apologized to Ken for ruining his trip, promised the fish a good meal and, before he could think about it anymore, screamed as loud as he could, “Goddamn it to hell,” and pulled the trigger. The shark moved in.
Always a meticulous planner he had carefully thought out his death in every detail; making sure everything would appear accidental; leave no evidence except an empty life vest. What better way than disappear at sea? Kathy would get his sizeable insurance check and he wouldn’t have to endure the prolonged agony of cancer treatment that would have cost them everything. And there would be no costly burial either and she could go on with her life quickly. He thought out the plan carefully. What he failed to do was check to see if the gun was loaded.
“Caribbean Bones,” published 2011 by Bujew Press, won the USA Book News Best Books Finalist Award.
© Richard Corwin March 2012