Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
About the time the sun began to get low in the sky on their port quarter, Matt suggested that Mary might like to get a little rest, since she’d have the midwatch.
“I suppose I’d better, b’y,” she yawned. “I’d really rather be stayin’ up here and talkin’ with ye, but if I’m goin’ to stay awake in the wee hours a bit of a nap might not be the worst idea I ever heard.”
“I’ll give you a call,” he promised as she headed for the cabin. In moments she was lying on the leeward settee berth, and as far as Matt could tell she was sound asleep. She must have needed it more than she let on, he thought as he sat back on the seat with one hand lightly on the tiller.
Interesting girl, he thought, not for the first time. Mom would really shit a brick if I were to bring her home!
But damn it, what he’d told her was right. He’d only known her a day and a half, but she was so refreshing, so real! She was no plastic doll, no vapid, immature little airhead wrapped up in fashion and status and being social, no predatory suburban girl looking to marry enough money that she wouldn’t have to work for a living herself.
In fact, she was nothing like the kind of girl his mother had tried to set him up with time and again. Mary was real: she was what she was and made no pretensions about being anything else. Granted, she was getting a free ride on an adventure that he’d worked toward for years, but that didn’t matter; she’d come along at the drop of a hat just for the sake of the adventure. The hardships it involved were just part of the deal, a part she knew she could handle. Not only did she know what she was doing at sea– perhaps better than he did, at least in some ways– she was actively enjoying herself.
Matt found himself thinking about Stephanie, a girl his mother had been doing her best to force on him back around the Christmas holidays, the last time he’d been home for more than just a couple days. Stephanie was blonde, perfect teeth, a college student majoring in nothing in particular at Wayne State, if he recalled correctly, and she was the absolute model of the type of airhead who couldn’t open her mouth without saying something inane. She might not have been so bad if she hadn’t been opening her mouth all too much of the time. He’d never told Stephanie a word about this trip, of course– there was too much chance of it getting back to his mother, who was a friend of her mother.
Try as he might, he couldn’t imagine Stephanie on this trip instead of Mary. Stephanie might risk breaking a fingernail, or worse, having to do something useful. In the course of talking things over on a couple lackluster dates, he’d discovered that she was interested in boating, but only to the extent that a large boat gave her an opportunity to show off in a tiny bikini. If she were on this cruise, she would have been bitching and whining continually, where Mary just seemed to enjoy the trip, the challenges, and the opportunity to do something new.
Worse, Stephanie typified the kind of girl that his mother would have been happy to see him latched up with. Someone, hell, safe, for lack of a better word. He’d only gone out with her to get his mother off his back– at least if he was out with Stephanie his mother wasn’t actively bugging him about it, or about anything else. He’d been glad to go back to college when the break was over with, to not have to see the little blonde again, although his mother had been pushing her at him again when he’d been home for the couple days before he left to get on the Mary Sue.
It was too damn bad, he thought, that Laurel couldn’t have been alive to go on this trip with him. She would have loved it for the sake of the new experiences! But then, he thought, if Laurel were still alive he probably wouldn’t have thought of taking a voyage like this in the first place, so it was a moot point however he looked at it.
Not that his mother would have liked Laurel– she’d never known her, except just a little while she was still a little girl– but Laurel would have represented the reality of the leukemia hanging over his own head, and his mother would have realized it and hated her for it. The possibility that he faced an early death was something that his mother had never been able to come to grips with, and it had colored his relations with her going clear back to the time he’d left the hospital.
What it came down to was that, in spite of only knowing Mary for a day and a half, he was comfortable with her, more comfortable than he’d ever been with a woman before. There were no false facades about her, only an earthiness that was refreshing. Mary accepted the realities of her life in a way that someone like Stephanie could never dream, and was happy for what she was. There was no way of telling where things were going with her, except across the Atlantic, of course, but if things went farther than that, he thought he could be happy indeed with it.
As his mind rambled on seeking a way of explaining to himself just how he felt about his newfound boating companion, the sun got lower in the sky. It was a rather red sunset; while the old saw goes, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” Matt could see a high thin layer of cirrus clouds off in the distance, and to him that was a foretelling of worse weather to come, not that it was any surprise. After all, the weather had mostly been good today, and while it would have been nice for it to have lasted, when things are good they can only go downhill from there. Better take some star shots tonight, before I go off watch, he thought; if the weather in this area runs true to form, I may not see the stars again for days.
There was still a dim swatch of twilight on the northern horizon half an hour before his watch was to end– it only gets truly dark briefly at that latitude at that time of year– but the stars were shining enough for him to make some shots.
Thanks to the Global Positioning System, celestial navigation is rapidly becoming a lost art, but Matt was a purist in some ways and wanted to do his part to keep it alive. Although Matt had taken a class on the subject he was not terribly practiced at it, but this was a good chance to get some practice. The sextant he used was in a small cabinet on the bulkhead near the companionway, so he could get to it without waking Mary. He took half a dozen shots, carefully noting the time from his watch and the altitude in a small notebook. When he was done, he also took a GPS position, just to cross-check his work. He didn’t bother to plot the GPS position; it could be done in the morning, as well as the work needed to reduce the sights to a position. This was practice, after all.
It was nearing midnight when he finished with the sightings and took the sextant and notebook back below. Figuring that Mary might like to have some coffee to help her keep awake, he started some in the gimbaled stove. With everything as ready as he could make it, he turned to Mary, who was still asleep fully clothed on the settee berth. “Mary,” he said with a tap on the shoulder, “Time to get up.”
She mumbled something unintelligible, but began to stir, so he headed back up on deck to await her arrival. In a few minutes she appeared, again wearing the quilted vest she’d worn the first time he’d seen her. “Not a bad nap,” she reported. “An’ thank ye for makin’ the coffee.”
“I thought you’d like it,” he smiled at her in the darkness.
“Everything still the same?”
“Pretty much,” he said. “The self steering will hold course for a while but eventually gets lost. You can trust it for a minute or two, though. Mostly I’ve been steering by hand. I haven’t seen anything worth mentioning, no boats or anything. At sunset it looked like we might be getting some weather to the west, so I suppose it’ll catch up with us.”
“I didn’t expect we’d get across without some weather,” she yawned. “It’s all part of the trip and we have ta take it as it comes. Ye might’s well get some sleep, since four hours is goin’ ta go by awful quick.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” he agreed as he got up and headed for the cabin. “See you in a bit.”
“I’ll call ye,” she promised. “And Matt?”
“Thanks for bringin’ me along. This is somethin’ I always wanted to do, and now I’m gettin’ ta do it with ye.”
“Glad to have you with me,” he replied. “In fact, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have with me.”
Over four hours went by and Matt was back on watch when the sun came up off the port bow, after a long and lackadaisical twilight. While it was still clear ahead of them, the sky was now filled with the kind of cirrus clouds he’d seen in the distance the evening before. To the west there was a dark wall of worse weather to come, although it looked like it would be a while before it got there. It was hard to tell if it was closer when the time came for the watch to change, but there could be no doubt that it was going to catch up with them sooner or later.
Once he had Mary up and steering the boat, Matt went down to the cabin. While the settee berth looked tempting, he knew he had some work to do. He made a quick breakfast for the two of them– more cans, of course– and did the dishes before he sat down to reduce the sights from the night before. As expected, his sightings weren’t quite on, and the best he could do was to work out the boat’s position the night before to a triangle about ten miles on a side. However, the GPS put them in that triangle, so he felt like he couldn’t complain too much. He plotted both positions on the chart, then took a new GPS reading and plotted it as well.
They’d done well; they were now about a hundred and eighty miles out of St. John’s, not bad for a little under two days in this boat. Originally he’d planned on going a little farther on this course, but this was a good time to make the change to head directly for Ireland, so he decided it didn’t matter all that much. He plotted a new course on the chart and double-checked it on the navigation calculator, which gave a course too precise to steer exactly. To follow the great circle track, the course was still rather north of east, and he knew he’d have to re-plot it every day or so, but again it was to be expected.
With all that worked out, he stuck his head out of the hatch and told Mary, “We might as well change course like we planned, and now is as good a time as any.” He gave her the new course and asked if she needed any help with the change.
“Naw, I can do it,” she told him. “Go get ye some sleep.”
“Keep an eye on that weather coming up from astern,” he told her. “If it starts looking wild, give me a call.”
Matt slept till nearly noon, and when he came back topside the weather looked closer and conditions were deteriorating. The sky was overcast now, the wind and waves were picking up, and the temperature was dropping. Conditions continued to get worse throughout the afternoon, and before evening both Matt and Mary were wearing foul weather gear again. In spite of the fact that it was still several hours until sunset, it was getting dark.
Under the circumstances, eating dinner in the cockpit didn’t seem all that appealing; they took turns eating in the cabin, but as soon as Matt finished eating he went up and rejoined Mary in the cockpit. He got up alongside her on the cockpit seat to discuss things. “If I had to bet,” he told her, “I’d bet that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
“Aye,” she said. “An’ I’d be expectin’ a wind shift sooner or later. It could come pretty quick, too.”
“Right,” he agreed. “If this is a front, and it acts like it, it could come pretty quickly and pretty radically. What I’m thinking is that maybe we ought to put in a reef now, while we’ve still got the light to do it, and that way we don’t have to fumble around in the dark.”
“We could carry on a while longer, true,” she agreed. “But I’m not much likin’ the idea of puttin’ in a reef while it’s dark and howlin’. Takin’ in some sail might cost us a few miles, but on a trip this long a couple miles won’t matter that much.”
“My thinking exactly,” he said. “I know I can put in a reef in the mainsail by myself with the self-steering to help, but I’ve never tried to do it in the dark when it’s really apeshit, and I don’t think this is the time to try if I don’t have to. So let’s get it in now, and maybe we’ll get lucky and not have to put in another one in the dark. If we do, let’s not do it alone. Whichever one of us is topside should call out the one below.”
“That’s good thinkin’,” she said. “At least with the roller reefin’ on the headsail we can deal with that without havin’ to get out of the cockpit. That should go a long way toward not havin’ to put another reef in the mainsail.”
Taking in some of the headsail was the work of seconds, but it took a while to put the reef in the mainsail, mostly because they took their time in working out how to do it together. The Mary Sue’s mainsail had the old-fashioned reef points, rather than roller reefing or modern jiffy reefing, which meant that they had to tie part of the sail to the boom, which involved turning the boat a little so they could pull the boom over the cockpit. When they were done, the boat had slowed somewhat but seemed under much better control. Once they were comfortable with the way the boat was riding, Matt went below to grab a nap, since he had the midwatch again that night.
Despite the reefs in the sails, the boat was pitching, rolling, and bouncing around more than Matt was used to, but he was confident in Mary’s ability to handle it by now. He managed to fall into a fairly solid sleep, which was interrupted several hours later by the fact that his unconscious was having to work to keep him in the narrow bunk. When he came to enough to figure it out, he realized the boat was on the other tack, and heeling the other way, making it hard to stay in the bunk at all.
He glanced at the clock on the bulkhead; it was about time to go on watch anyway. In an effort to keep things a little dryer below, all but one of the companionway boards had been put in and the hatch slid closed, so there was still some air movement. He took a glance out through the opening, to see Mary sitting at the tiller. “We had the wind shift, right?” he asked, having to speak loudly to make himself heard over the roar of the wind.
“Aye,” she yelled back. “She skewed around right smart, too. I had to wear her around to keep from doing a standin’ jibe before I could get the sails jibed over. It was kinda interestin’ there for a minute or two. We’re on a beam reach right now an’ ridin’ pretty good, but I don’t think the wind is done shiftin’ yet.”
“All right. It’s about time for the watch to change anyway. I’ll get my foul weather gear on and be right up to relieve you. Give me a few minutes to get some coffee going.”
“Aye,” she replied. “Make one for me too, would ye? ’Tis been kinda cold up here.”
“I’ll make yours decaf so you can get to sleep,” he offered.
It took a few minutes for him to get around, but the coffee clearly wasn’t ready yet. He took a board out of the companionway, and slid the hatch back a little bit to look around. The conditions out there were a lot worse than they had been earlier; where the wind had been more or less astern, it was now coming nearly on the beam, and while there didn’t seem to be any wind, there did seeme to be a lot of spray in the air. “Hey, Mary,” he yelled. “What would you think about taking in another reef?”
“They say the time ta be takin’ in a reef is when ye start thinkin’ about needin’ it,” she replied. “An’ I been thinkin’ about it for a bit. I think we’re in about a thirty-knot gale judgin’ by the sea state.”
“Then let’s do it while we’re both up,” he said. “I said I didn’t want to have to do it in the dark when the conditions were wild, and I guess the time has come.”
This time, taking in the reef was a lot simpler than it had been earlier, if for no more reason than they had practiced it before and worked out what each was to do. Matt was able to tie in the reef points on the forward part of the boom by working from the cockpit hatch, which was much preferable to being out on the deck in such conditions, even with a life jacket and safety line. Within a couple minutes, they had more of the sail tied to the boom by short ropes set into the sail, and they had rolled in more of the headsail, which was now down to a tiny triangle. Soon they were back on course and riding a lot better, although the conditions were still wild.
“OK, Mary,” he said over the sound of the storm. “You might as well get below and out of this shit.”
“Naw,” she said. “Hand me up my coffee an’ I’ll drink it out here with ye. Put the boards back in so’s it doesn’t get too wet below.”
Matt started to protest that there was no point in both of them having to sit out in the cold and flying spray, but realized that he’d appreciate the companionship for just a little while, so he went out to join her. “I’m glad we put that reef in,” he said, not quite as loudly as before since he was sitting right up next to her.
“Aye,” she said. “I think we’re goin’ ta be all right now, unless it gets a hell of a lot worse, an’ now that the wind has shifted I don’t think it’s goin’ ta get much worse. It may blow like hell for a while, though.”
“That’s about what I figure,” he agreed. “Does the self-steering seem to be handling the boat all right to you?”
“I think so,” she said. “I had to unlock the vane for a few minutes while I brought ’er on ta the wind to reef, but it seems ta be holdin’ the course pretty good now. The wind gusts a little bit but the direction seems to stay steady.”
“It seems like it to me too,” he agreed. “Look, it may be unseamanlike of me, but what would you say to both of us going below and just letting the self-steering handle the boat? There’s no point in sitting out in this shit doing nothing when the vane can do the work. The one of us on duty could stick their head out the hatch every few minutes to be sure that everything is going all right, but there’s no point in keeping much of a lookout. I don’t think we could see anything a hundred feet away in this shit in the dark, much less have time to do anything about it.”
“There’s a part of me that says it just ain’t right,” she replied thoughtfully. “But there’s a part of me that says it makes a lot of sense. It’s what ye’d be doin’ if you were out here by yourself, isn’t it b’y?”
“Well, yeah,” he shrugged. “I might try to sleep but I don’t think I’d get much.”
“Then I’d say let’s do it,” she agreed. “I don’t much like the idea of sittin’ out here by myself when I could be below, an’ I don’t think ye’d like it much, either.”
“Well, shit, let’s do it,” he said. “At least till it gets light and we’d stand a chance of seeing something. You can dry out and get some sleep, and I’ll try to keep an eye on things.”
“I think you’re talkin’ sense, b’y,” she replied. “No point in bein’ miserable if we can do somethin’ about it and we can’t get much done up here.”
“Go ahead,” he told her. “I want to check a few things and make sure the vane clutch is clamped all the way down.”
It didn’t take Mary long to get below; Matt checked the lines, the self-steering clutch and a couple other things, then followed her below. It wasn’t a heck of a lot warmer in the cabin, but it was out of the wind and the spray so it seemed like it. Matt put all the boards in the companionway, and then closed the hatch to keep the weather outside. “Shitty night,” he said to Mary, who sat on the windward berth with her coffee cup in her hand. He could see in the light of the tiny battery powered LED, the only light in the cabin, that she’d gotten out of her foul weather gear, and it was hanging in the front of the cabin.
“Aye,” she said. “Could be worse, though.”
“Yeah, we could be down to bare poles, but I don’t think it’s that bad,” he said as he pulled off his foul weather coat. “And that’s the next step for reefing. If it gets real bad, I have a parachute drogue that we could use as a sea anchor. That way we could just keep the bow to the wind and ride this stuff out.”
“It may not get that bad this time,” she agreed, taking a sip of her coffee. It was quieter in the cabin with the hatch keeping some of the roar of the storm outside. “But it always could, so it’s good to know we’re prepared if it gets worse, an’ I’ve seen it worse than this. That was always on a bigger boat, though.”
“Mary,” he sighed. “I think I could have handled all this by myself just fine, but I have to say that I’m glad I have you with me. It could be awful damn lonely to be out here by myself in this shit.”
“Aye,” she grinned. “I don’t think I’d want to try it by myself, either, but the two of us, we make a pretty good team. I’m glad ye asked me along, Matt. I’m getting ta do somethin’ I always wanted to do, even if it’s a little different than I’d imagined it, and I’m gettin’ to do it with a guy I’m comin’ to like more than a little bit, too.”
“Same here,” he agreed. “What’s more, I’m glad it’s you who’s with me. Earlier, I was thinking about a girl my mother was trying to set me up with. Even considering that there was no way I’d ever have been able to get her out here in the first place, she’d have been totally useless and complaining every step of the way, and that would have been a hell of a lot worse than just being by myself. You just take this shit in stride, even if some of it is pretty new to me. Mary, I’m damn glad I have you for a shipmate.”
“For sayin’ that you’re pretty new to it, an’ in some ways you are, you’re doin’ damn good yourself,” she smiled in the tiny bit of light. “I’d say ye make a fine shipmate, an’ I’ve known a lot worse.”