BY DAVID MOORES
Copyright is held by the author.
RACING SAILS stowed away and the diesel engine burbling, the 33-foot sailboat Mustang Sally was heading home, making six knots towards Oakville. Lake Ontario was boisterous today, and Sally was rolling around. The owners, Norma and Lucy, had set a small cruising sail on the forestay to steady the motion, and Lucy was hand-steering because the autopilot didn’t enjoy waves. The GPS was estimating arrival at 3.45 pm, a perfect time to get there, moor up, tidy the boat and have a cocktail, or it should have been.
But sad to say, Bloody Caesars on arrival were not in the cards today. Conversation aboard had been sparse since departure from Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the atmosphere had all the tension of the air before an electric storm. Norma and Lucy were nursing resentments from a horrible fight the night before. A routine lovers’ tiff had spiraled out of control, with dusty baggage, better left undisturbed in the basement of their relationship, being dragged out and thrown around.
They had fought often during the nine years they’d been together building their law practice, but Lucy sensed that this quarrel was terminal. She wished that the stupid, hurtful things said last night could be unsaid, but the only sounds came from the engine and the swish of water past the hull.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” The marine VHF radio, always turned on at sea, woke up. “This is the yacht Tempestuous, disabled and taking on water. Any vessel, come in please. This is Tempestuous on Channel 16.”
Lucy reached for the microphone but the Coastguard station at Prescott beat her to it. A female officer’s voice, confident and capable, came through over the hiss of static.
“Tempestuous, Tempestuous, this is Prescott Coastguard. State your position and situation, and number of souls aboard.”
The guy on Tempestuous was obviously trying to maintain radio protocol, stilted but necessary, and having a tough time doing so.
“Oh, okay Prescott, there’s me and my 10-year-old daughter, ah shit Amy, don’t do that! Prescott, it’s getting scary here. We’re a 24-foot Mirage sailboat, we’re somewhere like maybe five miles off Clarkson. Our steering broke, than straight away the mainsail blew out and now there’s a foot of water down below. Don’t know why. The waves are throwing us around pretty bad.”
“Tempestuous, what colour is your hull?”
“Ah Christ, it’s red but who cares?” The guy was losing it now, “Just send a helicopter or something, we’ve got big problems here!”
“Alright Tempestuous, we’ll summon help but they need to be able to identify you. Meantime be sure you are wearing life jackets and do not, repeat do not, abandon ship. This is Prescott on Channel 16. All stations, stay off this channel unless you can offer assistance in this emergency.”
“Prescott Coastguard, Prescott Coastguard, this is the work boat Fortius, anchored off Bronte. We have a diver down but could be under way in 15 minutes if there’s nobody closer.” Lucy looked at Norma. “Are we up for this?” Norma nodded.
Lucy keyed the microphone. “Prescott Coastguard, this is the yacht Mustang Sally, we are in the area and can possibly assist.” She read off their position from the GPS.
“Mustang Sally, Mustang Sally, this is Prescott. The yacht Tempestuous should be three or four miles from you on a bearing of 270 degrees magnetic, and has a red hull. I repeat, hull colour red. Please render assistance if you feel able without endangering your vessel and crew.”
“Prescott, Mustang Sally proceeding on course 270 degrees. Stand by. Luce, I’m going to furl that sail now, okay? Last thing we’ll want is that flapping around. I’ll put fenders over the side too.”
Lucy grabbed the binoculars and handed over the helm to Norma. Norma pushed the throttle wide and the engine note became a hammering beat. After a couple of minutes Lucy said, “Got them, torn sail, red hull. Steer about 260 degrees on the compass. You should be able to spot them in a minute. Oh, we better get life jackets on, and I’ll put the stern boarding ladder down. And hey, I better check back with Prescott.”
“Prescott Coastguard, this is Mustang Sally. We have spotted Tempestuous and are proceeding to assist.”
“Thank you Mustang Sally. All stations, continue to leave Channel 16 clear. Fortius, please listen out. Prescott standing by.”
“Tempestuous, this is Mustang Sally. We have you in sight and we’re coming to get you, hang on. Tempestuous, come in please.”
Silence on Channel 16. Repeated calls to Tempestuous went unanswered.
Straightaway Lucy had a bad feeling, her insides knotting. A memory came visiting: an accident on Lac Brule in the Laurentians when she was learning to sail as a teenager. Was there anything worse than the death of a child? Here you are, she thought, having a great sail with your kid on a sunny, breezy afternoon and something breaks, and just like that your lives are in the hands of fate.
It took 20 minutes to close the distance.
“Lucy,” said Norma, “that boat’s sinking! Look, the bow’s practically underwater, and where’s the guy and his little girl? Where are they? Surely they had lifejackets? Oh, come on guys, where are you?” They began a circle around Tempestuous. There was no sign of life. The mood on Mustang Sally turned dark, not for for the first time that day.
“Easy, Norm, slow us down and I’ll try the horn.” Lucy rummaged in a locker and pulled out the foghorn, an aerosol can attached to a plastic trumpet. It didn’t look like much but it was loud. Lucy gave three long blasts. A head popped up from the cockpit of Tempestuous. A girl, her eyes huge with fright, started waving her arms and screaming at them.
“Say again?” called Lucy as they closed in on the other boat.
“My dad’s down below. He’s not moving. You’ve got to help me save him!”
“Hang on sweetheart,” called Lucy, I’ll be right there.”
“Luce, you can’t!” cried Norma, “You’ll just be another person needing to be rescued. You know the safety course told us never to go aboard a sinking boat.”
“Screw the safety course. This is real life Norma, are we supposed to leave that kid there and do nothing?” Lucy was pumped, her game face on, feeling a buzz. Not enjoying it exactly, but ready for the challenge. The thought popped up from nowhere that if she were a damsel in distress right now, the dragon would be well advised to try another village.
Norma, usually the reserved one in the relationship, gazed across at her. Their eyes met, and in that unexpected moment the words tumbled out unbidden. “Oh Lucy, I love you so much when you’re like this, all resolute and brave.”
“Love you too shipmate. Now c’mon, go alongside so I can hop over. Do it!” Norma gingerly steered closer. The boats came together side-to-side with a thump, rolling and pitching in the waves, fenders next to useless. Lucy waited, picked her moment, and launched herself across, grabbing a shroud and scraping her shin raw on a stanchion. She ignored it.
“Good job Norm, now circle round and come back.” She reached out and put and arm around the ten-year-old, who was shaking with cold and fear both, by the looks of her. “Now listen to me. First we have to take care of you. When my boat comes back we’ll put you on-board and then I’ll see to your dad.”
The child cried “No no no!”
“Yes. I can’t help your dad until I get you safe, then I’ll worry about him. You’ve got to do what I say.” The girl nodded, tears running down her face and her upper lip. This is a brave one, Lucy thought. For a second there she’d feared that the poor kid was going to lose it and start fighting her. She peered down into the cabin but all she could see was water and floating upholstery cushions.
Sally arrived with another thud, a gentle rendezvous impossible, the boats bumping and grinding against each other. Too bad, Lucy thought, scrapes’ll polish out. She had a rope around the girl just in case, and she practically threw her over the lifelines straight to Norma who grabbed an arm and dragged her into Sally’s cockpit. Lucy waved Norma to stand off again.
“Now I’ll help your dad,” she called to the girl. “Don’t worry, I won’t leave him!” Oh God, she thought, I hope that’s a promise I can keep. She leaned down into the cabin and saw a leg projecting from behind and to the side where a quarter-berth would be. There was a couple of feet of water there, and more towards the bow, sloshing around and getting deeper by the minute.
This thing’s going down Lucy thought, and it won’t be long. But could she drag an unconscious guy out of there, let alone across to Sally? There was no way. She had no idea what to do and she could sense panic starting to take over.
“C’mon, Lucy Davis,” she said to herself, “you gotta think of something. Do you want to be the one to hold that child while she watches this boat, with her dad still inside, disappear under the waves? But no ideas came and Lucy let out a wail, equal parts frustration and distress. Then she heard an answering groan, and the leg moved.
She heard “Amy, Amy are you there?” Another groan. Someone in pain, and groggy. Oh Thank You she thought, that’s the most beautiful sound I’ve heard all day. This wasn’t the slightest bit exciting anymore but the adrenalin was in Lucy’s veins and she didn’t hesitate. She jumped down the companionway steps into the rising water, turned and found the skipper lying on a half-submerged bunk. His other leg was bent in the wrong place and he had a big contusion on his forehead. Lucy guessed he had been out cold.
“Amy’s safe. Can you hear me? Amy’s safe on my boat. Now we’ve got to get you back there too.” Still damned if I know how, she thought, but at least he’s conscious. Brute force I guess, if I have the strength. No, I do have the strength. That child is not going home without her Dad, that is so not going to happen.
“Can you move? We gotta go and let Amy know you’re okay.” That seemed to rouse him. “Can you turn yourself around and get hold of that grab handle?” He managed it, grimacing and swearing in pain. Lucy gripped an arm.
“Ready?” He gritted his teeth and nodded, pushing himself up with his other hand. Bit by bit, timing her efforts with the rolling of the boat, Lucy shoved him up the steps like a sack of potatoes and into the cockpit.
Her strength was going and her muscles were starting to shake. How in God’s name, she wondered, could she get a guy with a broken leg transferred between two pitching and rolling boats? He was a big man, 200 pounds for sure, way too heavy for her to do what she’d done for little Amy, and on top of that he was injured. He was looking around and seemed unsure of where he was. Then he gripped her wrist with a fierceness Lucy hoped was determination, not panic, and spoke up.
“Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to tell your driver over there to throw a towline across. We can save this boat and make it back to Oakville. This is my ship, remember, and I’m in charge.” Then he groaned again, started panting like a dog, and vomited.
Wonderful, thought Lucy, this is what we need, a delusional Type-A male. He looked ready to pass out again but she got in his face, undeterred by the vomit breath. “Now listen Buster. Two minutes ago you were down there, out of it, and your boat is sinking my friend. So smarten up. Nobody’s going to tow this baby anywhere, and if you want to see your daughter again, you, Sir, better get with the program. You understand me?” That got his attention. He seemed to come to grips with reality, and gave a nod.
“Good.” Sally was coming around for another pass.
The solution had come to Lucy while she was delivering the talking-to. “You’ll never make it across, but if you go in the water can you pull yourself up our stern ladder?” He appeared to see the sense of that. “I think so. I’ve still got two arms and a good leg.”
“Okay, let me get a line around you first.” Lucy called out the plan to Norma, who manoeuvred Sally close aboard. Lucy unhooked the lifeline by the cockpit and flipped it out of the way. “Right, get your behind on the side here. Now, can you get your legs over?” He swung his good leg over the side, then braced himself, pulled the broken one across with a yelp of pain, and gave her a shaky thumbs-up.
Lucy said “Okay, go.” He flopped into the water and it seemed to revive him some more. In a few strokes he made it across to the ladder. With Norma reaching down to help, he was hauled aboard Mustang Sally and in moments was being hugged by his daughter, her tears and shivers forgotten.
Lucy, still aboard Tempestuous, experienced a flood of emotions, chiefly gratitude and relief that no one had died that day. “Not this time, Bitch,” she told the lake, which she knew was unfair because it wasn’t really the lake’s fault, but it felt good saying it.
“Hey Lucy, better hurry up or you’ll have to swim too!” called Norma with a big smile on her face. Lucy didn’t care and anyway it was too late to avoid a swim. Tempestuous took her final plunge and Lucy stepped off the stern thinking, Woohoo, just like Leonardo on the Titanic!
After the unhappy departure this morning, it felt as if she’d arrived home safe already, her quarrel with Norma gone to the bottom along with Tempestuous