Learning the craft took an inordinately long time, and I’m still not done. While I honed my skills, I ran a record shop, worked as a DJ, and sold IT. I moved out of the city several years ago and bought a small block of land at the top of the South Island, which my wife and I share with seven alpacas, three donkeys, and two dogs. I now spend my days writing.
Burying his head in the pillow, he caught Ngaire’s scent, and the reminder of her made his stomach lurch. Jesus, what had he done? No…not now. Sleep. He focussed on the clinking crockery, the chugging motor, the autopilot’s hydraulic bang-bang. He half opened one eye, heart racing, took in the nightlight’s comforting glow, exhaled, and closed his eye again. Sleep. For God’s sake, sleep. Silently, he counted backward from one hundred, slowing his breath to keep time, but another sound, discordant and importunate, distracted him. Like a fly, battering itself against a glass pane. Buzz, bang…buzz, bang. On and on. Louder and louder.
He sat bolt upright, thrashing his legs, kicking off the damp sheet, suddenly comprehending what he heard. The other vessel ploughed through L’Étranger’s starboard side, catapulting him from his berth, across the cabin and into the galley. His arm smacked the breakfast bar. His splayed legs straddled the fold-away dining table and something sharp gashed his inner thigh and snagged his shorts. He doubled up, gasping, then dropped to the varnished deckhead, his world upside down. Every unsecured object in the galley rained down around him. His laptop landed beside his head and sprung open like a clamshell, the screen bursting into a thousand trapezoids. Oil-black water poured into the cabin, submerging the galley nightlight, which fizzled, then popped and plunged him into total darkness.
He reached for the bulkhead with his right arm, and a sickening awkwardness told him he’d broken his wrist. He gulped air and with his other hand fumbled for the ladder, now somewhere beneath him. He pulled himself under the water, through the hatch, and out of the cabin. The mizzen sail, which had been furled, billowed above him. His lungs and brain ached for air, and he thrashed at the sailcloth, which stuck like cling film to the surface, an impenetrable barrier. He rolled over and kicked out, pushing through tangled rigging, swimming deeper until he reached clear water. Chest and throat burning, he shot for the surface, and this time emerged into open space. He gasped for air and spat a gritty residue from between puffy lips. Rain pelted the sea’s surface, creating a fine mist. He rose and fell on the swell, blinking away the water, his head darting back and forth. Where the hell was his boat? And the one that had almost killed him?
Gone. Both gone. The rain’s tattoo the only sound. A moonbeam slid through a crack in the clouds and illuminated the sea around him. As he squinted through the spindrift, L’Étranger’s upturned hull surfaced fifteen metres away, her keel sheared off, her bow rising on a wave, pointing accusingly at the black rain clouds.
Cupping his left hand to his mouth he shouted, “Hello!” but the rain’s rolling snare obliterated his voice.
A section of mizzen mast, shredded sail still attached, floated nearby. He swam toward it, hoisted himself onto the three-metre chunk of Sitka spruce. It sank beneath him. He floated off, let it rise to the surface, and slung his injured arm over it. Raising his wrist, he examined the fork-shaped kink. His stomach turned. No x-ray needed there. He tasted blood in his mouth and ran his tongue over a broken front tooth. The crotch of his cotton pants had torn out, and the belted fabric floated like a frayed skirt. He slid his fingers across his groin and winced as they probed a ragged cut on his inner thigh.
Rolling back, he lifted his leg over the mast, then craned his head forward and examined a ten-centimetre gash on his inside leg. Hard to tell how deep, but each time water rinsed the wound, it quickly refilled with blood. He unhooked his leg, clenched the mast between his arm and chest, and kicked out, trying to propel himself toward the upturned hull, but the shredded sail dragged like a sea anchor. After five minutes, the gap between him and L’Étranger had widened. Holding his broken wrist to his chest, he thrashed his left arm and swam awkwardly for his boat. He sunk into a trough, and when he rose on the next wave, she had disappeared. A cross wave crashed over him, rolling him and pushing him under. He broke the surface spluttering, gasping for breath. He rose on another wave and there she was again, closer now.
Jesus! Something beneath the surface brushed past his ankle and he flailed his legs and both arms, clawing the last few metres to the upturned yacht. His good hand slapped hard on the hull. He reached out grabbed a keel bolt stump and pulled himself onto L’Étranger’s white belly.
As he slid along her keelless spine, she yawed and pitched forward, her buoyancy fragile. He closed his eyes and lay for a moment, panting.
As suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped. He opened his eyes and craned his head skyward. Black clouds fringed with silver flew eastward, leaving clear sky peppered with stars. He rolled onto his side and examined the wound on his thigh, then pulled his canvas belt through the loops in his shorts and wrapped it around his leg twice. He pulled it tight, pinching the flesh together and reducing the flow to a trickle. Flopping onto his stomach, he rested his head on the hull and closed his eyes.
An engine roared, and he jumped. Thank Christ. It spluttered and settled into a steady thrum, and a moment later what smelt like aviation exhaust wafted across the water. He raised his chest and peered forward into the gloom. Gears clunked, and the invisible vessel got under way.
“Over here!” he yelled, doubtful he could be heard over the thunderous roar.
But the thrum grew louder. He pushed himself up and sat astride the hull. A plump u-shaped bow crested a wave, and a vessel emerged from the darkness. A patrol boat of some sort, but displaying no navigation lights. Painted matt black, she blended into the night, anonymous except for the number one-five-six on her port bow, painted out, but, in the reflected moonlight, still visible in high relief.
“Ahoy!” He waved his arm at a lone figure on the bow wearing dark brown wet weather gear and sitting on a cluster of fuel barrels held fast by cargo netting. Emile swallowed hard. They were leaving their turn late. At half a boat length, the vessel altered course to starboard and passed within a metre. Her wash swamped the capsized ketch, and he grabbed a keel bolt to stop himself sliding off. The black boat’s hull had been gouged from midships to stern. A streak of L’Étranger’s white paint scored down her port side.
Another sailor stood amidships, propped against the cabin staring down at him, looking as if he’d swallowed something foul. A weathered Chinese face. Old and wrinkled. The man shook his head, eyebrows furrowed, then hawked up a mouthful of phlegm and spat over the side. The black boat’s stern slid by, exhaust bubbling from below the waterline like an industrial-sized hookah. Someone yelled a command in Cantonese. The black boat bore away, and her engines thundered.
“No!” Emile tucked his head into to his shoulder as a foaming white rooster tail shot from her stern and smacked broadsides into L’Étranger, rolling her and washing him off into the dark Arafura Sea.
On board the fifty-metre nineteenth-century brig Alwilda, Ana Melo lay on her back in a hammock slung between the mainmast and deckhouse. Mothering a hangover, she shaded her eyes from the Indonesian sun with a tanned left hand and gazed aloft at the square-rigged main sail, which had hung limply for several hours. The creaking spars, the gentle swell, and the smell of decking pitch softening in the afternoon heat lulled her into a contented torpor.
Her rostered watch started in two hours, but until then she could do as she pleased, which in this heat meant resting and recovering. She picked up an art pad that lay on her belly and examined a sketch depicting a whale shark she had swum with yesterday. Not bad. She flipped through the pages. Three weeks into a two-month voyage and her visual chronicle of the journey from Sydney to Papua already half-filled the art block—pencil sketches of exotic flora and fauna, and caricatures of the ship’s eleven regular crew and most of the twenty fare-paying voyage crew. She’d have to slow down if the pad was to last until they reached the Maluku Islands.
A shadow fell across her from behind, and she tilted her head backward. Marco, lifelong friend turned travel companion, looked down at her, smiling. Her stomach fluttered—she hadn’t seen him since last night.
“¿Qué tal?”, he asked.
“English, Che—you know the rules!”
He tutted in feigned disgust. She smiled back at him. Not a rule exactly. The crew comprised a dozen different language speakers from twice as many countries, and although the ability to speak English was required, no-one insisted on it except in the running of the ship.
“Is that supposed to be me?”, he said.
Ana’s pad lay open at Marco’s caricature. She looked at the sketch. His nose a large promontory, mischievous eyes, oily curls escaping a bandana, sharp v-shaped chin below a slack jaw, and an enchanting smile. The giant head perched atop a puny charcoal-black body. It wasn’t flattering, but she’d captured his charm.
She closed the pad. “Could be.”
“Come with me.” He offered her his hand. Ana threw her sunburnt legs over the hammock’s side and touched the hot deck with her bare feet. She grabbed his hand and hoisted herself out the hemp sling, which gave her up reluctantly. Hopping from foot to foot, she pulled her white Alwilda Voyage Crew T-shirt over her head, tucked her sketch pad under her arm, and followed him into the saloon’s gloomy interior.
Brian Kelly stood behind the bar to the right of the entrance restocking the chiller, depleted after the previous night’s celebrations. The crew had thrown a birthday party for their eldest member, seventy-nine-year-old Maggie Thomas, former nun turned photographer.
“Just thinking about you two,” said Brian. His gravelly voice betrayed a lifetime’s commitment to smoking. “You looked like you had a good time last night.” He gave Marco a knowing wink and smiled at Ana.
“Harmless fun, Brian,” Ana said.
Marco followed her down the gangway between two long narrow oak tables, one on each side of the cabin. She slid onto a banquette behind the port side dining table, and Marco sat beside her.
“He is an idiot,” she said, smiling.
“Maybe.” Marco rubbed his hands together.
She recognised the quirk and guessed what was coming. From their first day together as tearful four-year-old new entrants to Buenos Aires’s Belgrano Day School, they’d been friends. Best friends. She knew everything about him, and he her. Their friendship was uncomplicated. But last night they’d crossed a barrier—she’d crossed a barrier—that had endured for thirty years. The wine had convinced her that out here, on the endless sea, the rules didn’t apply. Bullshit. The rules always apply. God, she should know that.
He licked his lips and rubbed his hand behind his neck. “Can we talk about last night?”
“Come on, Che. There’s nothing to talk about. It was a party.”
Marco took a deep breath and looked down at the table, his usual way with words having abandoned him. Ana wrapped her hands around his.
“We were drunk. We had a good time. That’s all.” His face fell. She felt as if she’d slapped a child. “You’re my best friend. Nothing’s changed.” She shrugged, but Marco’s eyes told her everything had changed.
Before he could speak, Abe Conroy, the First Mate, entered the saloon and sauntered toward them.
“Weather’s going to turn,” his Midwestern accent and ursine looks made her smile. He leant on the table. “Ana, you on next watch, right?”
Of course, he already knew the answer. That was his job—organising the ship’s routine. She nodded.
He ran a hand through his unkempt hair and scratched the thick ginger beard under his chin. “Weatherfax says we’re in for heavy showers. You might want your wet weather gear.”
“In this heat.” She frowned. “If it rains before my watch, I am going to grab my shampoo and soap and have a deck shower.”
Yesterday, Alwilda’s freshwater maker had broken. Derek, the ship’s engineer, lacked the part he needed to fix it, so the Old Man had imposed water rationing—basin washes only, no showers until after they made port.
An hour later, as Abe had promised, the weather changed. A mild breeze developed into a steady twelve-knot easterly and finally a full-blown squall.
Regular crewman Isaiah Morgan, the ship's sailmaker, jury-rigged two canvas funnels slung between the fore and mainmasts to channel the rain. One to fill four wooden half-barrels for laundry, the other to act as a makeshift shower. The ship’s captain, known to all as the Old Man—though never addressed as such—gave the women first turn in the shower, while the men either waited in the saloon or did their laundry in barrels on the rear deck beside the helm.
Ana peeled off her salty clothes and stood naked under the sagging flume in the three-sided canvas cubicle that Isaiah had erected to provide privacy. The water, surprisingly cold and more like a fire-hose than a shower, plastered her long dark brown hair to her face and breasts.
Stepping from the torrent, she grabbed her shampoo and soap from the deck beside Maggie who sheltered under the canopy, clutching a white towel to her chest, waiting her turn.
“You have a fine figure, dear,” said Maggie.
The woman spoke pretty candidly for an ex-nun, but Ana smiled at the compliment.
Maggie’s eyes flicked to the tattoo on Ana’s pelvis.
“A boyfriend’s idea,” Ana said, rubbing soap over the indelible memento.
“It’s, er…very nice.” Maggie said her pale cheeks turning a delicate pink. “A snake?”
“Yes, he was.”
Maggie laughed nervously. “I meant the tattoo.”
“I know what you meant.” She grinned, and Maggie’s face turned bright red.
She washed the remaining soap from her body, then stepped from under the canvas flume and grabbed her towel from a lantern bracket. Standing under the shelter, she towelled herself dry.
“Thought I was in love…Lautaro Garcia,” she said, wistfully. “He’s in prison now. Another demonstration of my tendency to hybristophilia—says my mother. Ana smiled. “Unkind and untrue.”
“I’m sorry my dear, I have no idea what that means.”
“An attraction to bad men.” Ana shrugged. “My mother is a forensic psychologist, so that’s the kind of thing she would say. Especially to me.” She wrapped the towel around her chest and picked up her sopping clothes.
“Young Marco doesn’t strike me as bad,” said Maggie.
Ana laughed. “Marco and I are not lovers.”
Maggie raised a doubtful eyebrow.
The ship’s bell rang eight times. “You’ll have to excuse me,” Ana said gathering up her shampoo and soap. “I’m late for my watch.” She gave Maggie’s arm a tender squeeze and headed below decks.
Ana descended from aloft at the end of her watch, having just helped haul in the fore course. Before joining Alwilda she had never sailed, not even a dinghy, but after a week at sea she felt born to it. Of all rostered duties, she most loved working aloft—perched on the yards fixed to the towering masts, taking in and setting sail high above the deck, where one slip would send her into the roiling sea, or worse, to the solid timbers below. A seductive high, but not for everyone. On their first day, Marco had crept halfway to the crosstrees when his courage failed and two crew had to help him back down. From then on, he’d refused to go aloft.
“How long before familiarity diminishes the thrill?”, she had asked Abe.
“The day it does, you’re dead,” he said, then told her about Didier Girard, a young crewman lost overboard in the Southern Ocean because he’d become too cocksure, refusing to use a safety harness, likening them to motorcycle helmets and condoms. A flailing sail in heavy seas knocked him from the yards. He fell, unimpeded by the icy rigging, hit his head on the stern deck gunwale, and plunged into the gelid water like the lead plummet on a sounding line. They never recovered his body.