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Blanche Tickle Girl book cover

Blanche Tickle Girl
Book Two of the Full Sails series
Wes Boyd
©2012, ©2014

Chapter 6

In spite of the thickening fog and the dwindling of the light, it slowly grew a little more comfortable in the cockpit of the Mary Sue; the changing wind direction helped a lot. By the time the light was fading into darkness, the boat was on a beam reach, which made the wind seem less strong in the cockpit since the boat speed wasn’t being added to the wind speed.

Matt and Mary continued to sit in the cockpit and talk as the evening progressed. After a while Matt went below long enough to get hot water going for another round of warm drinks, and soon they were back together in the cockpit, with Matt mostly prodding Mary to tell him more about her life and the way she’d lived it. In one way it was unremarkable; after she’d left school she’d held a number of jobs, none very long, some at sea but others not. Very often she’d been a temporary or fill-in worker in one job or another, a long list of things, some of them pretty foreign to Matt. She said she hoped to find one she liked sooner or later, and one she could stay with, but whatever that job was, it hadn’t come along yet.

Still, there were stories to tell, some exciting. Work on a fishing boat at sea is mostly drudgery like many other jobs, although there were some exciting moments, which were often scary moments, too. Parts of her life were nearly incomprehensible to Matt, but that didn’t mean he was less fascinated by it. While in many ways it seemed like a hand-to-mouth existence to him, it was also a life that was a full one. It somehow seemed real to him, primal in a way; she was surviving on her skill and her wits and her luck, and somehow it made her seem wonderfully alive to him.

Darkness came almost unnoticed as they sat there and talked. With no light on the boat except for the dim glow of the navigation lights at the masthead of the Mary Sue, and a small light on the compass, their world closed in on them. Eventually, Matt noticed that Mary was yawning more and more as time went on, and he suggested, “It’s a little early to change the watch but I had a good nap this afternoon. Why don’t you go below and turn in for a bit?”

“Aye, I think I’ll do that. I’ve really been enjoyin’ sittin’ here and talkin’ with ye, Matt, but I’m afraid if I do it much longer I’m going ta fall asleep on ye.”

“Get some good sleep,” he told her. “I’ll call you at four.”

She got up and went into the cabin. In the dim red of the night light, she stripped off her foul weather gear, and at least some of her clothes; she was still wearing the quilted vest he’d seen on her when they’d met that morning. The two of them put one of the three boards into the companionway and he pulled the hatch cover closed to cut out a little of the chill air from entering the cabin, although he could get in if he needed to. Matt got over on the windward cockpit seat, put one foot up on the seat and found a good place to put his other one to brace himself, and leaned back into the corner of the coaming and the cabin. That would allow her to have a bit of privacy if she wanted to take off more clothes. The next time he happened to glance below sometime later, she was wrapped up in a sleeping bag in the leeward bunk, and sound asleep as far at Matt could tell.

He glanced at his watch: five hours and a little bit to go. What a day!

This was, after all, a day he’d looked forward to for years and dreamed about many times, but never in the wildest of his dreams would he have expected to have picked up a girl at just about the last minute before going to sea, and taken her with him! Expect the unexpected he’d told himself more than once, but this was about as unexpected as it could get.

Right then things felt a little lonely, despite his companion sleeping below. On nights such as this when he’d been single-handing on the Great Lakes he’d occasionally pulled out a little pocket radio and listened to it through headphones; he had it with him, but it was below and he didn’t want to risk waking Mary just then. He figured he could get along without it, and besides there probably wasn’t much to hear on the radio out here anyway.

Without much to do other than occasionally check the compass course and glance around to see if anything else was out there. He just leaned back and mentally went back over some of the things he’d told Mary earlier. Nothing he’d told her was a lie, but there were places he’d skipped over parts of the story, which wasn’t surprising considering how much there was to tell.

The thing that kept coming to mind was the fact that, despite the vast difference in background between Mary and himself, there were some interesting parallels. Both of them had come up through some tough times, although vastly different; both of them had a desire to see something outside the limited horizons of their local world. Despite the differences, he found himself liking the girl a lot already, since their viewpoints on several things seemed to be much the same despite vastly different reasons for having them.

The hours crept by. There wasn’t much to do, and several times he found himself nodding off, but he always seemed to catch himself before he fell all the way asleep. Twice he noticed that the self-steering vane wasn’t holding them to course, so he had to get up and readjust it. One of those times he just disengaged it and steered the boat for a while to give him something to do, and wound up doing that for more than an hour, making some adjustment to the sheets as he went along. It kept him awake, but barely.

Finally, as the end of the watch neared, he re-engaged the self-steering, noting that the wind had shifted a little more. Only when the hour ended did he go below to wake Mary, who was still sound asleep. “I hate to do this,” he told her. “But it’s time for you to get up.”

“It’s all right, b’y,” she mumbled as she came awake. “That’s the way it has ta be.”

“I’ll get some water going for you in the gimbaled stove, then get back topside,” he offered. “Go ahead and take your time.”

After a couple minutes he resumed his perch in the corner of the cockpit to give her a little privacy; he could tell she was awake and moving from the odd sounds that drifted up from the cabin. Shortly she appeared out of the companionway, once again wearing her foul weather gear and carrying a mug. “Mornin’ ta ye, Matt,” she said, still clearly not fully awake.

“And good morning to you, Mary,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”

“Aye, but not enough. There’s never enough on a four-hour watch. I’ll get by. Anythin’ happenin’?”

“Not much,” he admitted. “The wind seems to be about as strong as it was before, but it’s still slowly swinging around, so you’ll want to keep an eye on your course if you use the self-steering. I steered by hand for a while, and it helped me stay awake. From what I can tell the fog is still pretty thick. There’s not much else I can add.”

“I’ll make do,” she yawned. “Go below and get some more sleep. Maybe when I turn ye out ye can think about makin’ us some breakfast.”

“Sounds good to me,” he yawned in response. After all, he’d been struggling to stay awake for hours, and now was his chance to do something about it. “See you in a while,” he added.

Matt went below, struggled out of his foul weather gear and sea boots, but didn’t strip down any more than that; the bunk with the open sleeping bag looked too good to him. He was asleep within seconds.

It almost seemed as if no time had passed before Mary was shaking him on the shoulder, but the fact that there was light coming into the cabin through the open companionway told him that several hours had to have gone by. “Wow,” he said as he came awake. “It is that time already?”

“Afraid so, b’y,” she replied. “We’re still sailin’ along nicely. The wind has skewed a little more an’ we’re now on a broad reach. The fog is liftin’ a mite, too, I think, but it’s a little hard to tell. I’ll be topside, so ye can be takin’ your time.”

A visit to the head was the first thing on the list, but as soon as he had that relief taken care of, he slid back the companionway hatch and stood up to look around. Mary was sitting at the tiller steering; the wind seemed to be down even further than it had been earlier, but part of that could be accounted for by the fact that they were also headed more downwind than they had been before. There was no sign of spray coming up over the bow, but it was still damp and chilly out there. “Seems pretty peaceful,” he said.

“Aye,” she replied. “Not much goin’ on, so I thought I might’s well steer for a while.”

“Doesn’t look like I need foul weather gear anymore,” he said.

“Not for now,” she agreed. “But it might be a mite uncomfortable without it, b’y.”

“Maybe I’ll give it a pass. I’ll think about it. Now, I know it sounds strange, but what would you think of canned spaghetti for breakfast?”

“Sounds odd,” she smiled. “But it has to beat boiled spuds and boiled cod three meals a day, b’y. That’s what happens on a fishin’ boat more likely than not.”

Matt could do much of the cooking with his head sticking out of the hatch, which allowed him the luxury of standing upright. There wasn’t much to the cooking, just getting hot water going in the gimbaled stove and opening a couple cans and pouring the contents into a pan to heat on the main stove. While that was going on, he pulled out one of the three GPS receivers on board and turned it on. It soon came up with a position, which he wrote down on a scrap of paper.

Since he had the time, he unrolled the appropriate chart on top of the built-in icebox, marked the position with a small cross and noted the date and time. Using the straight-edge and dividers, he pricked off the distance; they’d covered about eighty-two miles from St. John’s in something around twenty hours of actual sailing. Not bad, he thought; he’d hoped to cover a hundred miles a day, but didn’t expect that it would be quite that good, based on his experience with other trips in the Mary Sue.

The cooking was coming along nicely, so he put the charts and navigational gear away, and went to a locker toward the front of the boat. He put his foul-weather gear away and replaced it with a foam jacket that provided some flotation but lots of insulation; it ought to be just fine in the conditions topside, he thought.

By then the spaghetti and the water were getting warm enough. He made up another mug of coffee for Mary, and this time made one for himself, then dumped the spaghetti into approximately equal-sized servings in large bowls. He passed Mary’s coffee and bowl out to her– she had the boat back on self-steering by now– and then carried his own breakfast out to the cockpit to join her. “Looks like the fog is still lifting a little,” he commented as he took his seat.

“Might be,” she shrugged. “It’s a little hard to tell.”

“I just checked our position on the GPS,” he reported. “We’re about eighty miles out. I guess that means we’re on our way.”

“Handy things, those GPS’s,” she shook her head. “Albert never had one when he had his bummer, an’ there were times I never figured how he managed to make it back to Blanche Tickle. By guess and by God, mostly. Nowadays just about every boat big enough to have a cabin has them, an’ I’ve heard many a man say that they don’t know how they could ever have gotten along without them. But they did, for years and years and years.”

“I can’t imagine trying to pick your way through fog like this on just a compass and a log line. Maybe it’s not so bad heading out to sea, but heading in? That must have been scary.”

“Aye, ’twas,” she said. “An’ I’ve been there ta know it. There’s a reason the South Shore is lined with places where boats have wrecked. It almost seems like cheatin’ to use that little box.”

“Seems like it to me, too,” he sighed. “I plan on doing at least some of my navigation with the sextant and charts, if nothing more than to know that I have the skill if all the batteries give out on me. Uncle Jake always said to be careful about not trusting electronics too far, because they will break on you when it’s the most inconvenient.”

“I doubt he’s alone in that, b’y,” she grinned. “On most of the boats I’ve been on, the skippers have been glad to have it, but they don’t trust it any more than they have ta. There’s still lots a folk, ’specially on the smaller craft, that still depend on the feel of the sea, the depth of the lead line, and just knowin’ where everythin’ is ta find their way from place ta place. I know a little of that, nothin’ like Albert, of course. It’s somethin’ it takes a lifetime to learn, an’ sometimes those that had to depend on navigatin’ like that didn’t get the lifetime to learn it. I don’t know much about how Pap died, but that could’a had something ta do with it.”

They talked for a while longer about nothing in particular while they finished eating. When they finished, Matt told her, “You might as well head below and catch up on your sleep. As far as I’m concerned, you can sleep yourself out and I won’t worry about the watches for now.”

“It sounds all right to me, b’y. That was a short night an’ I’d appreciate the chance for some more sleep.”

Within minutes Mary was below, asleep on the leeward bunk, which wasn’t quite as slanted now since the boat was heeled less than it had been earlier. Matt left the self-steering set and busied himself with a few chores that needed to be done around the cockpit, mostly cleaning things up and reorganizing.

Now that it was daylight Matt had no difficulty staying awake, although there still wasn’t a great deal to see in the fog. He was aware, of course, that they were sailing through one of the great fog factories of the world, so being fogged in wasn’t unexpected. He slowly began to perceive that the fog was getting a little thinner, and visibility was up to a mile or two as attested to by seeing a fishing boat dimly in the distance. Things remained generally gray, although he looked up and thought he could see small breaks in the overcast.

Soon he began to run out of things to do that didn’t involve going below and possibly waking Mary. He was just starting to get bored when he remembered a book he’d stashed in one of the cockpit lockers when he’d been crossing the Gulf of St. Lawrence a few days before. It took only a minute to dig it out and take it out of the plastic bag where he’d put it to keep it dry. He settled down in the familiar corner between the cabin and the coaming and started re-reading Thoreau’s Walden where he’d left the bookmark, stopping every few pages to check the compass and take a look around.

As the morning went on things got a little lighter; the fog seemed to be lifting even more, and the occasional breaks in the overcast started to be big holes. The wind picked up a little, and got even more around towards the stern; soon he could tell the self-steering wasn’t handling things well, and was happy to disconnect it so he could sit there and hold the tiller. It wasn’t as if Thoreau was palling on him, but it was nice to have something to do.

It was approaching noon when Mary stuck her head out of the companionway. “Turnin’ into a fine day, ain’t it?” she said after a look around.

“It is. It’s about the last thing I expected around here. ‘Nice days’ and ‘North Atlantic’ aren’t words I expect to go together very well.”

“We do get some nice weather up here every now and then,” she replied. “But don’t be expectin’ it much or to last long. Are ye ready for some lunch?”

“I could handle some,” he said. “If you want to do some real cooking, it’s probably smooth enough now that we don’t have to open a can, heat it, and eat it.”

“Maybe I’d better let you do it,” she suggested. “Ye still are the one that knows where everythin’ is, b’y.”

“Well, yeah,” he replied. “And I don’t mind, if you can stand my cooking.”

“I’ve been able to so far, and like I told ye, it beats boiled cod three meals a day b’y.”

“All right,” he said as he got to his feet. “I’ll go below and throw something together. Just bear in mind, my cooking, at least on this boat, mostly involves opening cans and throwing whatever’s in them in the pot. I do all right when I have a kitchen with a grill cook top, but I’m strictly a bachelor cook out here.”

“Like I said, ye ain’t hearin’ me complainin,’ she grinned.

He explained about the shifting wind causing the need to steer the Mary Sue. “The only thing is that the wind is getting far enough astern that you’ll want to want to keep an eye on it. When it gets much farther around the sails are going to want to jibe over.”

“Aye, looks like it ta me,” she replied as they moved to change positions at the tiller. “Doesn’t look all that close yet but it probably won’t be long.”

Matt went below, and got some water to boiling, then opened a can of the meat and cut it into thin slices to fry in the frying pan. While lunch was on the stove he busied himself with a few clean-up chores around the cabin, but the meal soon drew most of his attention. He was in no hurry, and it probably took him ten or fifteen minutes to finish. Soon the two of them were out on the deck eating; it took a little coordination for the two of them to hold their plates, eat, and manage the tiller but somehow they made it work.

Once they were done eating, Matt rinsed out the dishes, then went below and handed the pans out to Mary to do the same. Washing the dishes took a little time and involved heating a bucket of sea water, but while that was heating he did a few other chores around the cabin, most involving putting things where they belonged.

He was just finished up when Mary called to him: “Matt, have ye got some binoculars?”

“Sure thing,” he said. “Just inside the companionway to port. I’ll hand them out to you.”

Curious, he finished putting the pans away then poked his head out of the hatch. “See something?” he asked.

“Aye. Looks like an iceberg a couple points to starboard, way off in the distance. Looks like a big one, too b’y.”

Matt looked in the direction she was pointing, and could see a faint white dot on the horizon, several miles away. Mary handed him the binoculars and he took a look at it with them; yes, it was an iceberg! “Neat,” he said. “Let’s get closer.”

“We don’t want ta get too close to it,” she warned. “Them things have been known to roll over without warning, b’y.”

“I’m thinking that we ought to just get close enough to get a picture,” he protested. “Besides, we’ll have to jibe to get close to it, and maybe the wind will have shifted enough by the time we get there that we won’t have to jibe again.”

“Aye,” she replied. “Not a bad idea at that.”

“I’ll come up and help with the jibe,” he offered. It only took a couple minutes to accomplish the maneuver; when it was done the wind was coming from starboard and the sails were billowed out to port, the first time on the trip.

It took them a while to get close to the iceberg, but over that time it grew from a tiny dot on the horizon to something large enough to see a little detail without the binoculars. This was an unexpected meeting, but something to add a little excitement to the journey.

Matt knew generally, and Mary explained in detail, how North Atlantic icebergs, at least close to Newfoundland, are huge pieces of ice that break off glaciers in Greenland. The icebergs float with most of their mass submerged, and only a small percentage of it sticking above the surface. They drift south in the cold Labrador Current, fairly close to shore, within a couple hundred miles or so. Once past Newfoundland, they generally drift eastward until they melt in the warmer waters. Taking the northeasterly course out of St. John’s meant that they would soon pass through the area where they were likely to be icebergs, but still the odds had been against them seeing one at all.

The day grew even nicer, even warm as they got closer to the iceberg. Matt took off his jacket and stowed it below, and Mary did the same with her vest; it might well have been a nice day on Lake Huron for them rather than the North Atlantic, except for the looming white of the iceberg drawing slowly closer. They began to realize that the iceberg wasn’t a little one; they’d seen it at a good distance, so it was large indeed.

Finally, they got close to it. It was hard to estimate the distance, but they were well under a quarter mile. They could now see a lot of detail, ridges and valleys and convolutions beyond description. Matt went below long enough to grab the little water-resistant camera he’d decided to take on the trip, then shot several photos with the zoom run all the way out. “Hey, Mary!” he said as an idea hit him. “How about going up and hanging onto one of the stays so I can get a picture of you with it in the background?”

“Aye,” she grinned, and walked carefully down the port deck, then put a hand on one of the wires.

Matt shot two or three frames, then told her to turn around so he could get her face in the picture. After another two or three frames he called her back to the cockpit. “Go ahead and get a picture or two of me,” he said. “Just point the camera and press this button.”

He took his time getting out to the stays. Normally he wouldn’t have gone out of the cockpit without wearing a life jacket and a lifeline, but things were so calm he thought he could risk it for a moment or two. Still, it was good to get his hand on the stay in case the boat took an unexpected bounce. As he had with her, Mary took a picture or two of him looking at the iceberg, then a couple with him looking at her with the iceberg in the background.

When she was done taking pictures, Matt carefully worked his way back to the cockpit and was relieved to get there; a fall overboard in these conditions might not have been fatal, but was sure to be cold. I better not take that risk again, he thought. “You know,” he said as he got back to his seat across from Mary in the cockpit, “I’ll tell you what, I’m darn glad we didn’t come up on that thing in the middle of the night and the fog. It could hurt if we ran into it without warning.”

“Aye. It doesn’t happen much these days because of radar and such, but since we don’t have it, it is a worry, b’y. Still, we should be out of iceberg waters in another day or two.”

“Still, I’m glad we took the time to see it up close,” Matt smiled. “There’s a picture that could wind up on someone’s living room wall someday.”

“Could be,” she agreed. “’Tis not the first iceberg I’ve been close to, but the first one where I’ve ever had my picture taken.”

“It might be the only time for me,” he agreed. “So it’ll be nice to have the photo. Maybe someday I’ll even have a living room wall to hang it on, if I live long enough.”

“You’re thinkin’ you might not live long enough, b’y?” she replied somberly, remembering the discussion about his leukemia from the day before.

“There’s always the possibility,” he nodded. “There’s even a pretty good chance of it. That’s why I’m making this trip, so I can have experiences that I might not be able to get otherwise.”

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To be continued . . .

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