We started with just one boat, of course. Her name is Spray, same as Joshua Slocum’s boat.
I think we could sail our Spray around the world, too, if we wanted.
My sister was usually the skipper, but only because she’s older than me. My name is Zara. Her’s is Chris.
We live with our mum, Maryanne Dobriel. She’s gone back to her maiden name, but she’s made us keep Dad’s name, Eriksen. That makes it difficult, sometimes.
We live not too far from the sea in a small village which has a shop, a pub, two churches and a tennis court. There are about thirty families living in the village, but most of them live on small farms.
Nearly all the farms are dairy. That means that a lot of the kids have to milk every day. I suppose that’s fair enough, but it makes it a bit different in our district to most places.
Chris and me don’t have to milk, of course, because Mum works in town. It’s only fifteen ks, and we all go in on the bus every day: Chris and me to school, Mum to work in Kayo’s. Kayo’s is the estate agent. She’s been there for years, and says she likes it but I think she’s too bright for that job.
Chris and I go to the High School in town. There’s only the one, and it takes most of the kids from all the villages for about eighty ks or so.
It’s not much of a school. If we had the money, Mum reckons she’d send us to a private school. All the kids with money go to private schools, and when you think about it that’s one of the reasons that our school isn’t up to much. The important people, the people who can influence things, they send their kids to private schools, so why should they care if our school gets left behind?
Anyway, I wouldn’t want to go to a private school. There’s only Saint Micks, which is a real dump, or South, where you’ve got to have a million bucks and you’ve got to board anyway. All I can say is you’d have to be nuts to send your kids to either.
So we go to High, which just scrapes by.
But I don’t think it’s going to matter. Not a bit.
We still keep the boats in a small creek not too far away. It runs through Farrel’s farm, and it takes about ten minutes by bike to get there. The creek has a couple of sandy beaches, but mostly it’s pretty muddy. Chris and me have been talking about maybe building some sort of jetty so that we can get out to them easily, without getting wet or muddy. But it’s easier said than done. To do it properly would cost heaps, I reckon. And anyway, it would make it too easy to steal from them. On the whole, I’d rather leave things the way they are.
Spray used to belong to Gramps, Mum’s dad. He lived up in Sydney, and kept her there. When he died, Dad brought her down to the creek, planning to learn to sail her and take us for a trip round Australia, so that he could write articles and become famous. He’s full of bright ideas like that, Dad is. But he’s too lazy to make any of them work out. I think he’s a bit of a dill, but I keep that to myself because Chris thinks he’s fabulous and Mum gets cross and guilty if I say anything bad about him.
Anyway, needless to say Dad spent a fortune bringing Spray down on a truck, and laying out a mooring in the creek, and new sails and stuff like that, and then the first time he takes her out he gets so sea-sick that he never tries again! Then he ran off with Sophie Cranagh, and that was pretty much the end of that.
So Spray just sat there in Farrel’s creek for a year, until old Farrel suggested to Mum that he ought to put her in his barn out of the weather. That was years ago, when me and Chris were still little.
The year before last we had this canoeing thing at school where some guy from Sydney came down and took groups of us out canoeing. It was just the greatest! Most of the kids weren’t that keen, complaining that it was hard work, and not as much fun as water skiing, but me and Chris both loved it, and we were really broken up at the end of the term when the course was over. Well, we tried to get hold of a canoe of our own, but we couldn’t afford one and we couldn’t borrow one either.
And then Mum said that maybe we could sell Spray and get a canoe each.
Neither Chris nor I could remember anything about Spray, didn’t even know she existed. So when Mum took us over to Farrel’s we didn’t really have any idea of what to expect. Farrel took us round to the barn, and heaved all the junk off her and pulled back the tarpaulin and... well, that was that. We fell for her, hook line and sinker.
Spray is a whaler. A navy whaler. D’you ever see the film Moby Dick? Well, a whaler is the sort of boat they used to use to catch whales with, in the days when they did it with hand-held harpoons. Sound’s yucky, doesn’t it? Of course, you can’t do that sort of thing these days, but in those days they reckoned it was just the thing to do. Lots of adventure, and lots on money to be made.
What’s important, though, is that whalers were incredibly good sea-boats. They could be rowed by a crew of six, or they could be sailed. They were launched in mid-ocean in all sorts of weather, and could survive almost anything.
The British navy built thousand of them, and used them as life-boats for years and years.
Gramps bought one from the navy, second hand. I never knew Gramps, but he must have been good with boats because even after Dad had left Spray out in all weather, she still looked like new the day Mr. Farrel uncovered her in the barn.
‘Wow,’ Chris said.
Mr. Farrel chuckled. ‘Looks good, doesn’t she?’
She was painted white up to her gunnels, and everything else was varnished. Her short foredeck was varnished, the seams filled with black tar. The deck-boards and thwarts were plain scrubbed timber, and the inside of the planking was, like the outside, painted white.
From where we stood when Mr. Farrel pulled the tarp off her, we could see the flare of her bows, the shallow curve of her sheer, the fine, thoroughbred lines of her.
Shipwrights had been building whalers for two centuries or more, and they had refined them to perfection.
Inside her we found her masts, rigging, sails and oars, all neatly stowed and looking good. In neat little hidey-holes around the boat we found life-jackets, buoyancy tanks, covers and bailers, heaving-lines, running gear and all sorts of other bits and pieces. Of course, we didn’t know what they were for then, but we learned.
It took us a long time to learn to sail Spray, and that’s what gave us the idea.
I won’t bore you with the details: it took us three months to become reasonably competent, to be sure that we could manage her under sail safely, to learn about the currents and tides, to learn enough to get out to the islands and back without coming to grief.
It took us the same three months to realise that keeping Spray seaworthy was going to cost real money, and that we couldn’t afford it.
So we thought about it really hard, and came up with a plan, one that worked like a dream.
One morning in January, one of those hot, balmy days with gentle breezes and a sky that looks so blue that someone must have been up there polishing it, we sailed round to Sunshine Bay, where the tourist road runs past the long golden beach, and we anchored in a couple of feet of water. It was about half an hour to high tide, so we had about two hours before we would have to move her.
Chris took a black-board three-hundred metres back up the road, and propped it against the promenade wall where drivers could read it as they slowed down to look at the beach, which they always do.
I set up a second blackboard in the tiny car-park at the end of the beach, with a folding card-table, an umbrella and a couple of chairs; I opened a cash-box and a big note-pad. Chris came walking back towards me, looking nervous and excited, and we both sat down and waited.
Sure enough, the cars came, slowed down to look at the first blackboard, and slowed down even more as they came to the car-park. We looked happy and keen.
The blackboard said PICNIC LUNCH ON A DESERT ISLAND - 3 HOURS, $15.00 per PERSON, KIDS HALF PRICE. BOOK NOW.
Most of the cars looked then drove on. We tried to keep smiling and looking bright and keen... boy, it was hard to keep smiling when the whole thing was so important to us. But it only took twenty minutes before we got our first booking. Twenty minutes!
They were a bit suspicious at first, but they looked at the photos of all the happy picnickers sailing to the islands, dining on sumptuous picnic fare from picturesque chequered tablecloths on pristine, shining sand, and they walked down to look at Spray, and talked to each other for five minutes before making up their minds.
The kids jumped around them, excited as anything, shouting ‘Can we? Can we?’ and generally making a nuisance of themselves, until they came back and agreed to have a go.
The first thing we did was to get their money, ten dollars as a deposit. As there were five of them, two adults and three children, we would end up with $47.50, which would work out to be roughly $27 profit if we were lucky. We offered them a menu, and they chose from the vast array of food offered, and promised to be back in one hour. 'See you at mid-day,’ I called out to them as they drove away.
Photos? Happy picnickers? That was three of our friends two days before when we set up a trial run. Without the photos, I don’t think we could have got anyone to make a booking.
Anyway, we had an hour to get organised. Down to the supermarket, buy the salad and rolls and sliced meat, the fruit, the drinks, the ice and all the rest of it. It came to twenty-five dollars, and we bit our lips in anxiety. After all, when you’re already broke and you have to fork out nearly every penny you own to finance a business which is untested, and slightly dodgy anyway, you do tend to be a bit anxious.
But we had no time to agonise. We dashed back to the car-park, and prepared the picnic in double-quick time, setting it all out in the two big eskies we had brought. I’ve got to admit it looked, well... delicious.
Then we packed up and got the lot down to the waterline. Wading through the warm, clear water, I started to get really nervous; ‘my stomach was just full of butterflies’ I nearly wrote, but who thought up that silly line?
We had worked out where everything had to go, and we slipped it all into place easily, tying it down just behind the mast and covering everything with a tarpaulin. Whalers are open boats, and any cargo you carry in them will be exposed to the weather.
Chris made the last knot and sat up breathing heavily, sweeping her hair away from her face. ‘Made it,’ she said. ‘Let’s have a drink.’ But as I reached for the bottle of water that we kept in the stern sheets under the grating, I saw the Sawyers coming towards us over the sand.
‘No time now, Chris,’ I told her. ‘They’re here.’
Chris leapt to the anchor rope and let out some slack, while I jumped over the side and walked Spray back to the beach. There was only the slightest breeze inside the bay, and only the tiniest waves lapped the shore, so I turned her side-on to the sand, and pulled her in until she just kissed the bottom with her keel. Holding her there with one hand, I got the Sawyers to take off their shoes and step on board, which was easy for them because we were leaning the boat towards the beach. ‘Stay on this side, if you would,’ I directed them.
Once they were safely aboard I got them to move to the middle of the boat, and I went forward to help Chris pull Spray off the beach and out into deeper water. Away from the shallows, we made her fast again.
Then we turned and introduced ourselves properly to the Sawyers.
‘Welcome to Spray,’ Chris began. ‘I’m Christine Ericksen, your skipper for the day, and this is my sister Zara, who is the crew.’
‘Hey,’ interrupted the father. ‘We thought there would be an adult in charge.’
Chris didn’t miss a beat. ‘I look much younger than in fact I am. We both do. We are both fully experienced, and we guarantee that you’re going to have a great picnic.’ I caught her eye and winked my encouragement.
‘Now, have any of you sailed before?’ Heads shook, the children looking grave. ‘That’s just fine,’ Chris continued.
She was fantastic. Within minutes she had the Sawyers relaxed and believing that we were the most experienced sailors in the world. I daren’t look at the her as she got them to put on life-jackets, told them where we would be going, what to expect and how to behave, so I started getting her ready to sail away from our anchorage.
I unwrapped the jib, then moved aft towards the mizzen and freed the mizzen boom, leaving both sails to flap. The main could be released in a jiffy, but we intended to sail out on jib and mizzen. I moved forward again, and started taking in the anchor, getting the nod from Chris as she came to the end of her spiel. ‘... so if you’re ready, we’ll slip gently out to sea,’ she said, and with that I sheeted in the jib and heaved on the anchor rope until the little anchor hooked itself over the bow.
Meanwhile Chris had sheeted in the mizzen, and Spray, leaning the merest fraction under the wind, moved out into the bay. There was a moment’s silence from the Sawyers, then a collective sigh as we headed away from the beach.
I untied the mainsail on Chris’s command, and shook it out until it flapped a little in the wind. The mainsail is loose-footed on a whaler, so there was no danger of anyone getting bashed in the head by a flapping boom. I showed the kids how to lower the dagger board now that the water was deeper, and we were sailing sweetly.
Chris, standing in the stern-sheets with the tiller behind her, leaned forward and sheeted in the main. We had modified the rig slightly, fitting quick-release jamming cleats for all the sheets, so sheeting in was just a matter of pulling the rope and tugging it down to be gripped by the cleat.
By now Spray was moving along very nicely at about three knots. The bay was still as flat as a pancake, and with the breeze as it was at force two from the south, it was unlikely to get rough at all. The only sound was the wind in the rigging and the hissing of the sea under Spray’s bow. I took the camera and snapped the faces of the Sawyers as they looked aloft at the burgee which fluttered out from the mast in just the prettiest way, getting South Headland and the flat sea behind each of them in the photo.
As we came around the headland, the string of islands that protects the harbour came into view, each one smaller than the last as they march in a line away from Outer Head.
‘There are the islands,’ Chris said. ‘Now, which one would you prefer?’
The children gazed anxiously, but then the oldest one pointed way out to the end of the line. ‘How long will it take us to get there?’ the father asked.
‘Half an hour, if the wind holds,’ Chris said, smiling to herself. ‘Shall we go to the furthest one?’
‘Yes, yes,’ cheered the kids, and Chris laid a course that would take us out to the last of the islands, little more than a sand-spit, really.
Well, what can I say? It was fabulous. The kids loved it, trailing their fingers through the water as Spray carried us swiftly to our picnic. The meal was a great success, almost every scrap of it being eaten with relish. The family wandered along the deserted beaches, telling themselves what a great idea it had been to get away from the crowded mainland beaches. The children romped and shrieked and ran and splashed, and couldn’t have been happier.
We stayed on the island for an hour and a half, then took them for a quick tour, including poking our nose out through the gap between the two biggest islands and giving them the tinsiest taste of the real sea, with a big swell to thrill them to bits.
We got back to the beach spot on time, and they couldn’t have been more pleased with their day. ‘Tell your friends,’ called Chris as they trudged, tired but happy, over the sand. ‘And your photos should be ready tomorrow morning.’ I had offered them copies of the photos I had taken, fifteen bucks for the lot, knowing that that would pay for the double set, one for them and one set for advertising.
It was so easy it set us thinking about the future, and everything we’ve achieved since then stemmed from that first day.
The Sawyers did tell their friends, of course, and they told theirs and the whole thing just grew bigger and bigger. All through the holidays we ran the picnic trips, money for jam, varying the day according to the weather. Sometimes, when it was too windy, we took them up the river. Sometimes we just took them out into the harbour and gave them a picnic afloat. They didn’t seem to mind.
I know what you’re going to say, and yes, the Council did eventually poke their nose in. We were trading without a licence, the boat wasn’t registered to take passengers, we didn’t have the qualifications, we just couldn’t do it!
But we did. We appealed to the whole council, explained what we were doing and why, and told them that we were only selling the picnics, and giving our patrons a free ride on the Spray.
That earned us a few sideways looks, too.
Well, we carried on with the picnics, arguing all the time with the Council, until the end of the holidays when the tourists went away. Then we shut up shop for the year, and went away to spend our hard-earned money on tools and paint and varnish and rope, because sailing boats cost plenty to upkeep.
Before the following season, Chris and I bought a second boat, a Drascombe Lugger. Tell you the truth, a Drascombe is very like a whaler, but made of lighter, modern materials. They’re around the same size, and sail about the same, and I reckon they’re excellent boats, and need far less maintenance.
But really, they’re not the same, and Spray will always remain closest to my heart. But we needed the second boat to expand the business. Firstly, we found it easy to get the business, and twice the work is twice the profit. Actually, it’s better than that, but hey, this isn’t a business manual!
Anyway, we started to do things big. Mum became the nominal head of the company, which we called Sand Witches. Mum had to be the boss, because otherwise we couldn’t get insurance and without insurance the Council wouldn’t let us go on. We had to get a food-preparation licence, join the local tourism association, set up a kitchen which had to be inspected three times a year, employees to wear hair-nets and scrub their fingernails and all that sort of carry-on which Councils love.
To be fair, we’d all end up dying of desperate diseases if the regulations weren’t there. I only complain because at the time it was such a hassle to set things up properly.
Once we got things organised, it was much easier: we advertised on the radio, we bought in bulk, we knew from experience when we’d get business and when we wouldn’t. We took most of our bookings by phone, and the scramble of the first few weeks became a thing of the past.
We took on people, too, who would crew for us if we needed them. As we had to train nearly all of them, we ended up with a very good band of ready helpers. We found that we could operate the two boats easily, together if the clients wanted it, or separately if need be. We also started evening picnics, which gave us four picnics a day at peak times. Once or twice, by special request, we even tried moonlight romantic picnics, which were great when the moon was full and the sea calm.
What I’m trying to say was that we got the thing on a proper business footing, and we started really going places.
Then one evening...
The Drascombe was called Starlight. She was only a couple of years old when we bought her, and Chris usually took her. Chris’ regular crew was Sally Grazic, from the farm next to Farrel’s. She was pretty keen, but more to earn the money than about sailing. That’s okay, though... too many nutters in one company wouldn’t be a good thing at all. Sally was reliable and energetic. If she said she’d be at the creek at 2.00 pm, she’d get there at 1.50, and start clearing up or splicing a rope end or something.
My crew was Dave Proble, who lived in town. A St. Mick's boy, of course: his dad’s a solicitor, his mum runs a restaurant. He was either going to be a solicitor or run a restaurant when he grew up. After a few weeks crewing with me he decided that he might change his mind and sail around the world. He was a good kid, but easily led. Which, of course, meant that he was a good crew. Did what he was told, smiled at the customers, let the girls do the sheeting in... that sort of thing. He had a bit of a crush on me right from the start, I think, but it was easy to distract him and keep him busy.
Anyway, we were on our way home in the twilight from one of our dinners on the islands, when we noticed a big inflatable drifting in the gap between two of the islands; it was one of those powerful semi-rigid things, the ones with solid bottoms that can do about thirty knots fully loaded. Although it was a long way from us, maybe a kilometre or so, we could see that someone was standing up and obviously trying to start the engine. The inflatable was drifting towards the rocks.
Starlight was about fifty metres from Spray, reaching easily towards the bay. I called out to Chris: ‘Have you noticed that inflatable? Looks like she might be in trouble.’
Chris turned and watched her for a few moments. ‘Think we should help?’ she called back.
Sailors always have to help each other. But we had passengers on board. ‘If you take my passengers, I’ll go and help,’ I replied.
There was a quick discussion on board Starlight. One of the beauties of sailing is that there are no engines to deafen you. I could hear the discussion quite clearly, for it was yet another of those quiet evenings with a good sailing breeze but no more. Quiet, peaceful, beautiful.
Starlight did a quick 180 degree turn, then another, so that we were sailing side by side with only a metre or so between us. I had four on board, two youngish sort of couples. Can’t remember their names now, but they didn’t seem worried by the idea of transferring from Spray to Starlight. I nudged Spray closer, until we were running side-by side.
Of course, when you do that one or other of the boats loses the wind, so as soon as we were alongside I told Dave to grab Starlight’s gunnel, and Sally grabbed ours. As soon as we were locked together, the two couples swung their legs over and hopped aboard Starlight. Quickly checking that no-one had left hats or bags or anything, I put the tiller over and we pulled away from Starlight. ‘See you later,’ I called.
‘Don’t be too long,’ Chris answered.
It didn’t take more than five minutes to reach the inflatable, but by then it was nearly dark. We were right in by the rocks, the swell from the open ocean surging amongst them and making a considerable din. The inflatable was heavily loaded, five or six shadowy figures sitting along each side. They were all watching the bloke trying to start the engine. He was standing, facing the large outboard, pulling time after time at the starting cord, swearing and cursing, stopping every now and again to hit the engine cover with his open hand, as though trying to slap some sense into it.
As we came up to her I let all the sheets go and we slowly lost speed, heading more or less into the wind and ready to sail out of there and away from the rocks. Dave leaned over the bow and grabbed the safety rope that ran around the outside of the inflatable, holding it tightly. As he did, all the heads whipped around. The bloke at the engine grabbed something from his back pocket and pointed it at us.
From the glimmer of metal reflecting the last light of the day, it looked just like a pistol.
‘Thought you might like a bit of a tow off, mate,’ I called.
He made a snarling noise and staggered to the bow of the inflatable, leaning on the little deck there, bracing his arm. It was a pistol, and it was pointed straight at my head.
At that exact moment, the engine hit the rock that the inflatable had been drifting towards. The stern lifted clear of the water as the wave withdrew, leaving the bottom of the engine hooked. The inflatable tilted further, and confusion broke out amongst the passengers. There was a gabble of voices that I couldn’t understand, shouts and cries of alarm.
‘Let go and sheet in, Dave’, I shouted above the racket. ‘We’re out of here!’
I sheeted the mizzen and turned the tiller toward the rocks. Immediately Spray responded, pulling slowly but strongly away from the rocks, the inflatable and the danger. ‘Main,’ I called, and Dave leapt for the main sheet, giving us the extra power to break away and sail to safety.
I looked behind. The inflatable was free of the rocks, someone pulling again at the starting-cord. ‘They’d do better to get that engine up out of the water and start paddling,’ I thought, but just then came a sharp crack and a six-inch length of the gunnel splintered, tore free and ripped through the foot of main sail.
‘Jeez,’ I cried. ‘Keep down, Dave, that bloody idiot’s shooting at us.’
We were twenty metres away by then, and drawing away fast. There were two more of the sharp cracks of pistol fire, but as far as I could tell both shots missed. I was crouching down as low as I could get while still steering, hoping that my body was below the water-line. Oh, I knew all that stuff about pistols being so inaccurate, and it was dark, and he was on a moving boat, and we were moving away... I knew all that and still I was shaking like a leaf.
‘You okay Dave?’
There was no answer. I raised my head and called again, ‘Dave, are you okay?’ From the shadows in the bottom of the boat I saw Dave’s blonde head rise.
‘Are you okay?’
He gave a broken, chuckling sort of noise. ‘Hey, apart from nearly shitting myself, yeah, I’m feeling great.’
We sailed away from them to seawards, simply because that was the way we were pointing. To keep away from them we had two options: we could sail to the end of the string of islands and get back through the normal harbour entrance, or we could risk cutting through the next gap. But the tide was falling, the gaps between the islands get smaller and smaller as you get closer to the main entrance, and by now it was nearly pitch black. I sucked my lower lip and worried about all that could go wrong.
In one sense, the main entrance was the place to head for. But at any moment they might have got the engine going, and they would catch up with us in minutes. God only knows what they might do then. But I wasn’t going to risk Spray, either, sailing through the jagged rocks of the next gap in the dark. We couldn’t even afford to get one of the torches out.
Dave crept back to me and nestled beside me in the stern sheets. He was shivering, although it was a warm night. He put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a squeeze. ‘You all right, Zara?’
Yeah, I was all right. I nodded. Actually, now that the immediate danger was over I was beginning to feel a bit sick, my stomach turning over and over.
‘What was that all about?’
‘Christ knows,’ I said. ‘I just couldn’t believe it when I saw that gun. Here, take the tiller for a moment.’
I felt along the gunnel until I came to the raw gash where the bullet had struck. I couldn’t see much, but a big chunk of the varnished timber had been torn off, a piece about thirty centimetres long. ‘Jeez,’ I exclaimed, horrified that it had, actually, really happened. The mainsail was out too far for me to feel the tear in the sail, but from the size of the timber torn away, the sail would be a bit of a mess.
By now we were drawing level with the next gap. There was no moon, of course, but the lights of the town, five kilometres away, lit the sky in the west, so that we could see the silhouette of the islands against the lighter sky. We could hear the sea rushing in to throw itself onto the rocks, too, a long, gathering rustling sound, rising to a climax and then sucking loudly as each wave withdrew before throwing itself at the rocks again. But it’s very, very hard to keep clear of rocks going just on the sound.
The last bit of help we had was the phosphorescence, the shining of a million billion little sea organisms, as the sea crashed through the rocks. Now that our eyes were accustomed to the darkness, we could just make out the phosphorescence along the line of rocks. As we drew into the gap between the islands the lines of phosphorescence became closer and closer to each other.
‘Furl the sails,’ I whispered. The bad guys were now more than a kilometre behind us, but I found myself whispering anyway.
Dave has this irritating habit of saying ‘Wha?’ if he’s surprised about anything. Drives his mother to despair, and drives me bonkers, sometimes.
‘Furl the sails. We’re rowing through the gap.’
‘Jesus, Zara, we can’t do that in the dark.’
‘We can, and we’re starting right now.’
As Dave released the sails and wrapped them around the masts and the forestay, I did the same to the mizzen, and then leaned forward to raise the centre-plate. Once we had lost way, I pulled the blade of the rudder up out of the water. Between us we got the rowlocks from the cuddy, tied them in so that they couldn’t be dropped overboard, and drew two oars out from their stowage under the thwarts.
Whalers, as I’ve said before, are pretty heavy boats. They were originally designed for a crew of about six, which gave four oarsmen, a cox who would steer and a lookout or harpoonist up the front. The oars are long and heavy.
Fortunately, the sea was fairly smooth. We dropped the oars into place, and started carefully rowing for the gap. Dave sat on the thwart in the centre of the boat, facing the back. I sat behind him, so that I could time my strokes to match his. ‘Gently, now,’ I hissed between gritted teeth. Actually, it was some time since I had rowed Spray outside the creek; it was going to be hard work. Slowly, we pulled Spray into the rougher, confused water of the gap.
We had about fifty meters to go when, away to the south, I heard the sudden roar of a powerful engine starting. ‘Christ, we’re sitting ducks. Quick, Dave, ship your oar and drop the mizzen.’
For once Dave didn’t say ‘Wha?’ but just did as he was told. I got my oar inboard too, then jumped to the mast. With one hand I released the fore-halyard, letting the jib tumble down from the masthead and lie where it fell, while the other hand dealt with the main.
Whalers are gunter-rigged, which means that they have very short masts, but the top of the sail is attached to a tall gaff, a length of timber very much like a mast. When you lower the mainsail on a gunter-rigged boat, you have to be careful of this long gaff flailing around. I couldn’t just drop it, or it would have clouted Dave hard enough to send him flying, and knowing Dave he’d probably go flying right over the side. I lowered it as quickly as I could.
Just in time, too. Those big white sails, even though they had been wrapped around the masts, would have betrayed us easily. The noise of the inflatable’s engine roared towards us, and both Dave and I crouched in the bottom of the boat scanning the waves to seawards carefully, our eyes just above the gunnels.
We were alright for the moment. Spray lay quietly forty metres from the rocks. Her white hull was low to the water and would most probably be mistaken for breaking waves in the darkness. If we were lucky, they would zoom past us and we’d be safe.
The noise of the engine moved along the line of the islands, headed eastwards for the main entrance. I heaved a sigh of relief, and signalled Dave to get up, grab his oar and start rowing again. Slowly, quietly, we eased ourselves into rowing position and started pulling towards the gap once more. At least, as we were facing backwards, we could keep an eye on them, even if all we could see to seawards was the long line of approaching waves.
For five minutes we rowed, slowly edging our way to safety, threading our way between the rocks. There were many more in this gap than there had been in the last one, partly because there just were more, and partly because the tide was, by then, a little lower. I had a rough idea where they were from all the trips we had done to the islands, but it was still a bit dodgy. Many of the rocks were just a few centimetres below the surface of the water, making our trip doubly perilous.
As we gained the narrowest part of the gap, the noise of the engine started moving back towards us, this time louder and at a higher pitch, which meant that they were closer than before, and moving faster. Suddenly, a blinding light spat out from the inflatable towards the rocks. It was either an incredibly powerful torch or a searchlight run from their main batteries. Whatever it was, it meant trouble for us. The bright circle of light moved along the rocky shore to the east of us, and swept in our direction.
‘Put your back into it,’ I called to Dave, but he didn’t need any instruction from me. Under our renewed efforts Spray seemed to leap forward, all caution thrown to the wind. Gasping for breath, we pulled harder and harder for the comparative safety of the narrow gap. If we could make it before the light caught us, we could shelter under the shadow of the island.
Try as we might, though, they beat us to it. Another ten metres and they would have missed us, but the light swept over the water and framed us nicely. Blinded, we could do little but stop rowing and sit there in some sort of shock, until one of those dangerous little cracks told us that they were firing at us again. The engine roared, and we could see the inflatable leap towards us, foam flying as the madman at the controls scented his prey.
‘Get down, Zara,’ shouted Dave, throwing himself to the deck-boards. But I couldn’t tear my eyes from the scene, because I knew, and they obviously didn’t, that they were seconds from smashing into the reef that lay ahead of them. I couldn’t be certain how much water covered the reef at that precise moment, but judging by the other rocks around it, there wouldn’t be enough for them to cross safely.
I watched in horror as a wave started to lift the inflatable at just the crucial moment that they crossed the tip of the tallest rock of the reef. My hopes of being saved by their lack of knowledge seemed dashed, and I prepared myself for the worst.
As I scanned the shoreline behind us in desperation, a sudden crash to seaward brought my eyes back to the scene: the skeg of the engine had hit the reef at top speed. The boat was thrown high into the air. The engine, still roaring, ripped itself from the transom. Ten human figures cartwheeled through the air, clearly visible against the loom of the searchlight which was also airborne.
With a tremendous crashing and splashing, the debris smashed back into the sea.
Dave and I peered through the darkness at one another, our night-vision destroyed by the brightness of the searchlight. ‘Do we rescue them?’ Dave asked.
‘No we do not. At least one of them has a gun and is prepared to shoot it at us. We’re out of here, and the police can sort them out.’
We rowed clear of the gap and the remaining rocks, and once we were in open water again we raised all sail and belted towards the beach, flat-chat like scalded cats. Neither of us could resist a scared glance behind us from time to time. But we could see nothing.
‘Where’ve you been?’ Chris called out to us as we got back to the beach.
‘To Hell and back,’ Dave shouted. ‘Hey, we’ve been shot at.’
I felt suddenly exhausted as I climbed over the side and into the shallow water. Chris looked at me oddly and took me by the elbow.
‘Hey,’ she said. I shook with emotion, and covered my face with my hands. Then all of them were helping me, looking after Spray and getting me to sit on the sands. Hell, I was only a kid, after all.
Dave told them the story, and I modified the exaggerations as he went along. ‘... and then they hit this rock, and the inflatable just exploded,’ he said.
‘Broke up,’ I put in.
‘Yeah. And Zara said ‘let them drown’, and we went like buggery through the gap.’
‘I said let the police rescue them, and we sailed back.’
‘Yeah. Boy it was really something.’
‘We’d better get the police,’ suggested Chris.
‘No,’ I protested. ‘We’d better get to the police, and quick. Someone has to get out there and rescue them. They can’t all be bad guys. There was only one with a gun, as far as we could see.’
So we got to the police station, and they listened and they took notes and they rang the rescue services and then they took us back to the whaler to look at the gunnel where the bullet had hit, and the sail where the bits of gunnel had torn through, and then they took us to a canteen out the back of the cop shop and gave us a cup of tea.
And then we sailed the boats back to the creek, and by then it was so late that I was just about all in. But we had to tell Mum all about it, so I did that and then I went to bed and, would you believe it, I just couldn’t sleep. I was dog tired, but every time I closed my eyes I saw his eyes just a few metres away and the eye of the gun, the end of the barrel, pointing straight at my face just before the wave slipped away and left the engine of the inflatable dragging it out of the water, and the commotion and the shot and the fear, the bloody awful fear.
And at last I slept. At least, I woke up in the morning so I suppose I slept.
They found two bodies and one bloke with a broken arm and a broken ankle.
I don’t know quite what to say about that.
They’re just words you read in a newspaper, things they say on the news. You don’t expect to have anything to do with them. Violence appears to be everywhere around you, but it’s only because writers and newspeople like to tell you about it, like to write about it, to talk about it.
For most of us, most of the time, violence is something that might, just might, happen to other people. Mostly, we have very little contact with it at all.
And now to be suddenly confronted by violent death, to be involved in something that led directly to it... well, it hardly bears thinking about.
They were refugees. The police said it goes on all the time. A lonely stretch of coast, a sandy beach, a town not too far away, and the chances are that some night a small boat will try to drop off a mob of foreigners eager to get into the country but unwilling or unable to meet the regulations.
Hard to believe that so many people are so unhappy in their own countries. Hard to believe, too, that we have to keep so many out. It’s a big empty country.
Anyway, the two dead had been shot, each through the head. The other, the guy with the broken bones, had seen them being shot. He couldn’t speak English, or not much, anyway. They got an interpreter for him, and got him into hospital and he talked and talked and talked, as shocked as we had been by the accident, and then by the shooting.
The guy with the gun, he said, was mad. Raving bonkers. He had hit them, shouted at them, kicked them and roundly abused them.
They had crossed over in a large ship, a tanker he thought by the smell of her. They had been led aboard her in the dead of night, and hidden in a store room deep inside the ship. There had been eleven of them but one had been seasick all day and all night, and they had been at sea for a week. Well, they had all been seasick, but not like that bloke. Most of them stopped being sick on the second or third day. On the fifth day the mad one had come and taken the seasick one out, and they hadn’t seen him again.
He didn’t know any of the other men, couldn’t describe them because they had, quite literally, been kept in the dark since leaving their families. He hadn’t talked to any of the men, either: most of them couldn’t even speak the same languages.
Finally they had been loaded onto the inflatable somewhere in the middle of the ocean, and had been driven at top speed towards the land. It was dark when they had left the ship, and three hours later, with still no sight of the land, the engine had stopped. The mad one had got it going again after half and hour, but then ten minutes later it had coughed to a standstill again.
So they paddled, taking turns with the four paddles on board. They paddled till dawn and then carried on paddling through the day because there was nothing else to be done. They paddled hungry and tired and expecting to be picked up by coast-guards or police or even just fishermen, but they had not been noticed even though they saw plenty of ships and boats through the day.
In the late afternoon, nearly crazed from lack of water, they had seen the islands. By then they were so tired and frightened and desperate for water that they could hardly paddle any further. Then the mad one had tried the engine again, and after a heap of shouting and cursing and hitting, it had started. With a roar they had darted on towards the coast, and had almost made it when the engine had stopped again. And it was then that we had sighted them.
When the mad one had hurled the inflatable at the reef, the bloke with the broken bones had been at the front of the boat. The impact itself had broken his ankle, the bottom-boards breaking loose and driving forward into the back of his leg, twisting and shattering it. Almost immediately he had been hit in the side by the bloke next to him on the tube which made the side of the inflatable. He felt his arm snap, the pain so intense that he had nearly passed out. Most of the passengers catapulted over his head, the engine following them, still roaring. It was the propeller, still spinning, which had cut into the thigh of one of the others, nearly severing his leg.
Somehow the eleven men had made it to the rocks and sands of the nearest island, many of them, the badly injured ones, being dragged by their companions. He, our broken boned hero, had taken much longer than the others, and then he pulled himself into the shallows and lay there exhausted while he caught his breath. He peered around the rocks, wondering where the others were, and saw the mad one searching the shore. The one cut by the propeller was screaming and crying on the white sands not twenty metres from the pool in which our hero lay. Another man was cradling him in his arms, stroking his head and looking as though he didn’t know what to do next. The mad one went straight up to him, put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. There was a muffled crack and the screaming stopped suddenly. The man holding him struggled to his feet and backed away in horror. The mad one laughed, and moved to the next injured man, further away. Our hero couldn’t see what was the matter with him, but the mad one leaned forward with no hesitation and shot him too.
Our hero stifled his own cries, and slithered backwards towards the deeper water, keeping rocks between him and the group on the beach. He hoped that they assumed that he had been drowned.
And that was where the police had found him, frozen and shivering from fear and cold and horror at what he had seen.
‘Refugees,’ I said, wondering why someone should choose to kill rather than possibly going to jail for something so... well, trivial.
‘Mmmm. Makes you wonder, don’t it?’ said the copper. ‘Reckon you were dead lucky to get away.’
‘You’re telling me,’ I agreed heartily. We were lucky to get away, lucky that he had missed his first shot at me, lucky that the inflatable had hit the reef, lucky that we had a sailing boat to rely on rather than a motor boat which could be relied on to go wrong, just as theirs had.
‘So now we got to find this killer,’ said the cop. I don’t suppose that there had been so much excitement in the local cop shop since Federation. You could see the cop’s eyes gleam, as though he was anticipating the excitement that his involvement would bring at home at the end of his shift.
‘Oh yeah,’ I agreed with just a hint of sarcasm in my voice. It’s a bad habit of mine when I’m faced with authority. I just sort of automatically assume that the cops, for instance, couldn’t find their way out of Woolworths if weren’t for the exit signs. Of course it’s unfair of me... I know their mothers love them, I know that some of them can add up to more than ten without taking their socks off. But in the same way that they give us heaps, we can’t stop making out they’re pretty dim, right?
But all that aside, I had my doubts that the local cops would be able to find the mad guy. He might have made some big mistakes, he might have been a bit stupid in some things. But still, he was obviously used to looking after himself. Wherever he was, it would most probably be a very long way away by now.
So I ignored all the macho cop stuff about how they’d soon have him, about how he was probably heading straight into the waiting arms of one of the road-blocks they had set up. It was the following morning, and we had bookings to keep. ‘Got all you need from us, then?’ I asked.
He nodded. ‘Just keep away from trouble,’ he advised. ‘
I nodded. What did he think, that we chased it?
For three weeks all went well. The media had been full of it for the first week, and each morning there was either a reporter or camera team or something wanting to do some piece on the affair. Talk about famous! Well, for five minutes, anyway. But it did wonders for the business, and we started getting bookings for bigger parties who wanted more elaborate, swankier picnics.
Honestly, it put a real strain on things, and we had to get Mum to help in the evenings, and all the paid help we could get, and things started going wrong, a bit, because there wasn’t enough time to do things properly, and we got just too tired to make a proper go of it.
Then Chris called a halt. ‘This is stupid,’ she said. ‘What’s the point of working ourselves silly. We need planned expansion, not this ad hoc sort of thing.’ That’s the sort of thing she says, sometimes. Learns it at school, she reckons.
But she was right. So we did continue to expand, and we did improve things and make far more money. But we did it bit by bit, not all in a rush and panic, and things settled down and started to go really well. I began to wonder if we’d need to get a bigger boat, because we were having difficulty getting the larger parties out with just Spray and Starlight.
And then the mad guy returned...
Dave, for once, was ill. I reckoned at the time that he just eaten too much, but he swore he was dying from food poisoning, an oyster or something. ‘Just shut up and try to smile,’ I told him, wondering what the customers would think if the crew came down with something nasty. I gave him the tiller and took over the crewing, trying to chat to the customers and handle the sails and keep an eye on our course and the rocks, and keep the customers from looking in Dave’s direction, because he was actually turning green as I watched.
‘Don’t bloody vomit,’ I muttered as I leaned forward, pretending to be adjusting the main. ‘If you chunder, I’ll have you bloody overboard!’
Afterwards, I told him what a fantastic job he’d done, because we got back to the beach safely without any suspicion from the customers that he had been ill. ‘D’you want a hand getting home?’ I asked, because he looked really ill by then.
He shook his head and threw up right there beside Spray, fortunately into the sea. He must have been right about the bad oyster, of course, because once he had thrown up he began to feel better. Just as well, really.
But I didn’t know anything about that at the time. Off he went, sick as a dog but looking better by the minute, and I finished clearing things away and called Chris at home. She was half-way through the monthly accounts, and loathe to leave it right then; but Sally said she’d come back and give me a hand getting Spray back to the creek and getting everything shipshape there. A couple of hours extra pay never went amiss with Sally. I left Spray on the beach, and had a quick cup of coffee while waiting for Sally.
It was getting a bit late by the time she arrived, but not especially so; we quickly prepared for the short trip, and sailed swiftly out of the bay with a decent breeze behind us. Half way across the harbour, though, the sailbag which had been thrust roughly into the cuddy under the bow suddenly tumbled out, followed by a man.
His sudden appearance was so unexpected that Sally just sat there on the thwart as he rolled out, pulled himself to his feet and moved quickly towards her. He grasped her by the wrist that she put out in protection as he reached her. She cried out in surprise and pain at the strength and violence with which he held her. Without thinking I left the tiller and hurried forward to help her, and found myself staring into the evil snout of a short pistol pointing straight at me, the second time in my oh-too-brief history that I had spent a lifetime gazing down a barrel.
I guess I’m a bit slow: it took several seconds for me to realise that it was the same mad guy. I leaned back against the tiller and took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds and let it hiss from between my teeth. I could have kicked myself.
I needed time. Time to figure out what he wanted with us, and how I was going to deal with it. He sat on the second thwart, gripping Sally tightly by the arm, which he had twisted up behind her. Her eyes were closed and her face was screwed up in pain, and I could tell that it was all she could do not to cry.
He seemed quite relaxed. He held the gun loosely in his right hand, pointed more or less at me. He was gazing around with a pleased look on his face, just as I have seen so often on the faces of our customers: happy to be there, enjoying themselves, taking it all in, but having no immediate responsibility. To look at him, you could almost believe that at any moment he would let Sal go, tuck the pistol into the waistband of his pants and lie back against the gunnel and sun himself.
He was quite short. He had rounded, powerful shoulders, not much neck, a heavy, round face with a receding hairline. Stubble, as though he hadn’t shaved for a couple of days, but of course that might have been fashion; well, maybe not at his age. But you never can tell.
He looked a bit podgy, sitting there relaxed on the thwart. But then he was sitting, and most of us look a bit sort of double-chinned round the midriff when we’re sitting. His thighs were pretty big, his lower legs short and sort of bowed. He wasn’t much taller than me, I guess. His hair was black, except for a little at the sides, where it was starting to go grey.
I took all that in in a flash. Sally was pressed forward by the strain on her arm, sitting on the third thwart, the centre-board trunk between her legs. I had to do something to distract him.
‘Well,’ I said in a deliberately provocative tone, ‘what d’you want from us?’
He ignored me and continued looking around the horizon. I pushed the tiller over slightly, so that we gradually turned to port. Not much, just enough to edge us around.
Eventually, his eyes returned to mine. He was smiling again, and I remembered how he had leaned over the injured men on the rocks before pulling his trigger. ‘Go there,’ he said, waving the barrel of the pistol vaguely in the direction of the open sea.
I pretended to look. ‘Where?’ I said. Sally let out a horrifying shriek. I jerked my head back to them. He was still smiling that slow, almost idiotic smile. He continued to wave his gun at the ocean beyond the string of islands. ‘There,’ he said, and gave another twist to Sal’s arm. She shrieked again, and tried to lower herself to release the pressure.
Hurriedly, I brought Spray around. The sails flapped as we passed the eye of the wind, and then hardened as they filled from the back. I leaned forward and released the port sheet, dropping it and taking in the starboard sheet. The main filled quickly, and Spray settled to her new course. I headed for the harbour entrance, leaving the jib aback for a while as the main and mizzen did their work. ‘You’ll have to let her trim the jib,’ I told him. He looked around the horizon as though to check that all was well, then wagged the gun in front of her eyes for a few seconds before releasing her with a push.
Sal nearly fell from the thwart, but caught herself and rubbed her arm where his hand had been. With a look of pure hatred, she moved forward and let go the port sheet and took in the starboard.
He came back and moved closer to me. ‘You don’t need her to sail. I seen you. Why can’t you manage by yourself?’ It was hard to understand him, the words coming out in a thick accent.
He tucked the gun back into his trunks. He smiled again, but closer I could see the expression in his eyes. ‘You’re the guy on the rocks the other day, aren’t you?’
He smiled again, but this time it was a smile of triumph. ‘Clever,’ he sneered. ‘You must be genius. Now answer me. You can sail this boat by yourself, can’t you.’
I needed that time. ‘Not like this,’ I said. Sally was watching us from the bows. I needed her overboard and swimming for the shore. Clearly the bloke knew very little about sailing; I wondered if I could fool him?
‘What you mean?’
I pointed forward to where Sal was. ‘The sheets need to be worked,’ I said. I pointed up to the top of the main gaff. ‘And the gaff needs two to handle it.’
He looked up, and as he did so I quickly signalled Sal to slide over the side. She hesitated, and with a quick flick of my head I made her understand how important it was. I could see the understanding dawn on her, but then he looked back at me. I put the tiller over again, and Spray turned. His gun was back in his hand in a trice, threatening me and looking extremely dangerous. ‘There’s a rock just under the water here,’ I shouted quickly, seeing his eyes flash in anger.
‘Just there,’ Sal shouted as she pointed over the bow.
‘There’s a whole heap of them between here and the entrance,’ I said.
He peered towards the spot that Sal had indicated, but the surface of the sea was cut up with a short chop, and he couldn’t see through it.
Sal quickly tended the jib sheets, and I fixed up the main before calling out ‘Ready about, Sal.’ I pointed again at a group of fictitious rocks just off the bow, and his eyes followed as I sang out ‘Lee oh!’ and put her about again. The main swung over once more, and I watched with satisfaction as Sal, hidden now behind the mainsail, dealt with the sheets for the last time before sliding soundlessly over the side.
‘More over there,’ I pointed, and, as I had hoped, his head turned again to the starboard bow. So many unfamiliar things were happening all at once, and he wasn’t sure what was true and what mightn’t be just a bit untrue.
Sal was a great swimmer, and in a very short time it was nearly impossible to see her. At least I hoped that it was nearly impossible. I couldn’t check, but she had swum straight into the sun. It was less than two minutes, though, before he realised that Sal was no longer aboard. ‘Turn around,’ he ordered, and I let the tiller go and turned myself around. Immediately he fired the pistol, and I turned back to him, white with shock. Trembling, too: I hadn’t expected him to do that. The bullet thumped into the woodwork beside me, and I could see from the look on his face that he had missed on purpose. ‘That last time I miss, see?’
I nodded dumbly.
‘Now turn boat around.’
I did, handling the main and the mizzen but unable to get to the jib sheets. He leaned over and let fly the sheet himself after he had checked that Sal was no longer there. He took in the port sheet, and made it fast in the jamming cleat. ‘Head for entrance,’ he said, calmly. I did so. It was going to be hard, now, sailing alone with him. He was a quick learner, too, and he wouldn’t need me for long. I dreaded to think what he’d do to me then.
He made me show him how Spray was sailed. He didn’t bother to keep the gun on me, just stuck it back into the waist of his pants, and kept his distance. ‘This rope?’ he asked, touching the main halyard.
‘Raises the main,’ I told his shortly.
‘What is ‘main’?’
‘The mainsail. The biggest one.’
He looked at the way the halyard ran up the mast, over the pulley and attached to the gaff, and he got it immediately.
‘That one?’ he pointed at the mizzen.
‘It’s the mizzen mast and the mizzen sail. Balances the boat so that she can be sailed more easily. Helps push her along pretty well, too.’
He nodded, and I could see him eyeing the layout of the mast, the way the halyard ran, the topping-lift and the sheet.’
‘That rope,’ he said finally. ‘The one that pulls it in?’
‘That’s the sheet. See, mizzen sheet, main sheet, jib sheet. Each one pulls the sails in.’ He nodded, and looked again at the way the jib sheet, the one closest to him, was held in the jamming-cleat. He pulled it out and jammed it back in a few times, measuring the weight of the sail as the sheet controlled it.
He looked aloft again, and took the whole of the rigging in. ‘So,’ he said, ‘we turn, sheets have to be from the one side to other?’
I nodded sourly. He was so quick on the uptake I was going to have a hard time fooling him into making mistake.
‘Turn now,’ he said.
His hand hovered over the pistol butt, and I held out a hand protectively in front of me. I put the tiller over urgently, and we went about neatly. He watched me carefully, and let go the jib sheet himself at almost the right moment. He fumbled the change, but it was damned good for a beginner. He lost only seconds in taking in the port sheet and making it fast. The leach trembled a little when he was done, and I almost told him to take it in a bit, out of habit; but the less he knew the better.
‘Turn back to entrance,’ he said, and I did so, regretting the practise he was getting.
The way I’ve told it makes it sound like it took ages, but in reality it took less than ten minutes. By nine forty-five we were out of the harbour, out beyond the islands, and heading straight out to sea. Unfortunately it was one of those fine evenings, the wind blowing warm and gentle from the south, steady and easy. There was a slight swell, also from the south, and Spray rolled easily over it, doing about five knots and ploughing on so comfortably that it felt like we could keep going all the way to Chile.
‘We have to light the lamps,’ I told him. He didn’t like me telling him, clearly being the type who thinks that women are always, naturally, at the beck and call of men.
‘No lamps,’ he said.
‘Suit yourself, mate,’ I said. ‘If you want to get run down, I suppose I can’t do anything about it.’
‘What you mean?’
I looked away to the south. Far away, about seven kilometres, I suppose, I could see the topmasts of a freighter of some sort. There was just enough light left to see her derricks against the sky. I twisted round and looked up the coast. There were several fishermen, as I guessed there would be, returning to port. I saw their lights come on one after another. Further, there was more shipping. ‘We’re slap bang in the middle of a shipping lane here,’ I told him. Well, actually I was fibbing a bit. It could be a bit busy sometimes, but the days of busy shipping lanes in this part of the world were long gone.
I could see, though, from the way he was peering around, that he was half expecting a ship to come looming up any second. ‘The only thing that can protect us, if anything can, is a lighted lamp.’
I could see that he was still undecided. ‘And of course, the Coastguards will have us on radar, and if we don’t have lights on they’ll be out after us like a shot.’
‘You light,’ he ordered. I thought that mention of Coastguards would do the trick. I only wish that I could have believed that they would have us on their radar. Chance’d be a fine thing.
‘Okay. Come back here and take the tiller.’
He started to move, then thought better of it. ‘I light. Where is switch?’
I laughed. He didn’t like that, either. I thought that I’d better cut back on the insolence... I didn’t want him to feel too threatened.
‘They use paraffin. Look in the cuddy. They’re in clips in there.’
He crouched down and looked. There was a torch clipped to the inside of the bulkhead just inches from his hand, but I thought I’d keep that in reserve. ‘Can see nothing,’ he yelled, his voice muffled.
‘Feel around on the port side,’ I told him. ‘On the left.’
I heard more muffled sounds, then he cursed and brought out a lamp, the red port lamp. He studied it for a moment, and flipped open the glass. He took a lighter from his pocket, and lit the wick, closing the glass and turning the wick down low. A warm red glow lit the fore-sheets area. He stood it on the thwart, and fetched the other lamps.
It only took him a few minutes, I’m glad to say, because if he had taken his time he might have noticed the other items that Chris had insisted be kept securely clipped in their places in the cuddy, always ready for action, cleaned weekly and checked continuously. But I was pretty sure that he didn’t notice, for he moved quickly and surely, once he knew where things were and how they worked.
When all four lights were lit, I told him where they had to go. ‘Green on the landward side, red at the top of the mast, one white at the stern and the last white on the bow.’
And if that doesn’t get reported, I thought to myself hopefully, then nothing will.
I’m going to duck back in time here, and tell you about Sally, because if I don’t everything will get out of whack, and you won’t understand what really happened.
Sally has become a friend, a good friend. Oh sure, she likes money, and she’ll do anything for it; we rib her about it, and sometimes it seems a funny thing to think important. But she’s good, Sally is. And she’s a terrific swimmer. She’s tall, nearly six feet even though she’s only sixteen, so she could be huge by the time she stops growing.
Oh yes, she’s blonde, wears her long hair in a ponytail most of the time, and has a lot of boys interested because she’s got these great boobs on her that make you sick!
So when I suggested to her that she slip over the side and go for help, she wasn’t particularly impressed. Man with gun, not afraid to use it, on the run, already nearly broken her arm... well, what did I expect, that she’d be ecstatic about the idea? She wasn’t.
On the other hand, she wasn’t madly keen to stay on board with him, either, and him likely to do something drastic at any time.
But then again, and I’m only relating to you what crossed her mind at the time, just like she told it to me, then again it seemed a bit much for her to escape and leave me in his clutches.
Let me tell you, I wasn’t going to leave Spray for anything! My plan wasn’t for Sally to escape, but to go for help, because without it we were all sunk, me, Sally and Spray.
Anyway, her brain was buzzing with all the permutations, mostly her chances of slipping over the side and staying unnoticed long enough to get away from the boat and long enough for him not to be able to find her in the choppy sea.
So when I started on about shallow rocks that had to be avoided, she got the picture quickly enough and hammed it up along with me, and, as we have seen, it worked well enough. At the last turn, Sal slipped behind the jib and immediately went over the side, sleek as a wet otter, hardly a splash. She didn’t have much of an idea about the depth of water under Spray’s keel, but she swam down anyway, diving deep and aiming to stay down as long as possible. She saw the bottom coming up towards her, and levelled out, slightly afraid of ‘things’ down there, but even more afraid of what awaited her on Spray if she was seen.
She had a good lungful of air, and bent over to undo her sneakers, which she did easily. She was wearing loose sailing pants, denim, similar to jeans but not as tight. She knew she ought to get out of them before starting the long swim back to the beach, but didn’t want to try until she had a fresh lungful.
She was also mindful of the fact that she had better spend as little time on the surface as possible, until Spray was far, far away from her: so she swam back to the surface, approaching it carefully and slowly. She allowed herself to drift up the last few feet, to break the surface as smoothly as possible.
As her mouth broke surface she breathed out quickly and took a fresh breath, ready to dive again if she wasn’t in the clear. As she did so, she took a rapid look around her: Spray was fifty metres away, and I had my back to her and was pointing forward. She couldn’t see the gunman. After three deep breaths Sally dived again, this time wasting no time in getting her trousers off. She suffered a few pangs of remorse seconds before she let them drift away, remembering in a typical Sally way how much they had cost her, including the belt, the jack-knife in her pocket and the wallet, empty, in her back pocket.
She drifted back up for more air, and noted with satisfaction that Spray was now a good distance away. She tugged her teeshirt over her head, and, using only the breast-stoke, headed for the beach.
Every half-minute or so she looked back to check that Spray hadn’t turned to follow her. She saw us turn at one stage, then again as the madman tried out his tacking skills, but clearly she had managed her escape, and, breathing easier, changed to the crawl and powered towards safety. Of course, by now she was wearing only knickers and a bra, but she reckoned she’d cross that bridge after the problems had started to arrive.
And arrive they did. It was just getting dark when her feet found the sand beneath them, but the lights from the street lamps that lined the top of the beach gave her the feeling of being spot-lit. So she stayed in the water and waded around to the headland where, at least, she had some cover. Once there, she scampered up through the sparse vegetation and hoped that she’d be able to find help pretty quickly. ‘I expect you were worried sick about me and Spray,’ I suggested to her when she was telling me about it, but she wasn’t, or so she claimed. ‘I just wanted to get some decent clothes,’ she told me. ‘I was cold by then, and nearly naked.’
Well, I suppose I know what she meant.
Fortunately for her, she only had ten minutes to wait until a house door opened not far away. Light spilled out and lit the woman who, with her dog, was having a quick walk before bedtime.
As the woman crossed the street, Sally moved closer to the edge of the bush, hoping like hell that the woman would turn towards her, rather than going the other way. And she did. She also jumped nearly out of her skin as Sally called out to her as she passed. The dog, a long-snouted collie, shied away from her and turned, snarling and barking, while the woman all but took to her heels. ‘Please,’ called Sally, much louder than she had anticipated because of the din the dog was making, ‘Please, I need to get help... I need the Police.’
And though it took nearly another five minutes to convince her, the woman finally calmed her dog, listened to her story and eventually, and not without some lingering doubts, turned for home once more and shepherded Sally across the road, along the pavement and into her house.
It was just a matter of time, then. Sally phoned Chris, who was still slogging herself to death with the audit, who in turn called the police.
By the time they arrived, Sally had been kitted out in a pair of her rescuer’s husband’s pants and a long shirt, neither of which were really long enough for her. Have you noticed how tall girls are growing these days? Not me, I’m just a titch; but so many girls are getting on towards the two-metres mark at my school these days... Mum reckons that in her day there wouldn’t have been a metre-and- a -half high girl in the whole school, but there’s at least a dozen that go to High.
So she told the police the story pretty quickly, but they had trouble believing it because neither of them had been on duty on the day of the first Spray affair.
Fortunately, the sergeant or whatever they call them, the guys with the three stripes, fortunately he knew all about it, and Sally was taken in straightaway to the station, and it was there that Chris found her, having borrowed Mum’s car and driven like mad into town.
‘We’ll get him, don’t you worry about that,’ the sergeant guy said. ‘We’ve got the Patrol boat out already, and the Coastguards have been informed. The Navy have got two ships in the area, and they’re already doing a radar sweep.’
‘And how are you going to find a wooden whaler, eh?’ asked Chris.
Thought so, thought Chris. ‘You finished here, Sal?’
‘Well, I’ve filled out a thousand forms, answered a million questions, been seen by every cop in the shop, so I guess so. Haven’t had any tea, though.’
‘Can she go?’ Chris asked.
‘Reckon so,’ the sergeant guy said. ‘We’ll want her back tomorrow, I expect.’
‘Sure,’ Chris said, raising her eyes. ‘Lets get out of here while we can,’ she said in an aside.
We sailed north. It was the most perfect weather imaginable. Mum and Chris had never let me sail so far from land, nor out at sea at night, and if it weren’t for my unwelcome passenger I could have sailed on like that forever.
The breeze was about force three to four, warm and from the east, an on-shore breeze. The sky was as clear as a bell, the stars as bright as could be. Over on the eastern horizon the sky lightened to a blue the colour that dreams are made of, and very soon the moon would come up. It would be a few days short of a full moon. I had a jumper in the cuddy under the stern, and I pulled it out.
‘What you got there?’ he shouted. He missed nothing, this guy. He was quick and aggressive. I held out the jumper to him.
‘I’m getting cold,’ I told him. He grunted, and turned it over. He tried to put it on himself, but it wouldn’t fit over his head and he threw it back to me with a grunt. Keeping an eye on our course, I pulled it over my head.
In the focsle there was a laminated chart of the area, local on one side but covering the whole coast on the other. I hoped he wouldn’t find it, clipped as it was to the deck-head. On the other hand, I supposed I ought to find out if we were actually headed somewhere or if he was just escaping.
‘Where are we headed?’ I asked.
He didn’t look around, and he didn’t answer at first. He just looked ahead, almost as though in a dream. There was a slight swell from the south east, and as Spray sailed along she rose and fell rhythmically at the same time as she rolled five degrees or so from port to starboard. It was like rolling along a comfortable cork-screw.
I wondered for a moment if he would be sea-sick, and I realised that if he was I might be able to overpower him despite everything.
But no such luck. He was just thinking. I realised then that he must have been a seaman. Not much of one, because otherwise he would know more about sailing, but one of those modern seamen who crew tankers and suchlike. Well, maybe he’d be sick if it got really rough, because those big ships hardly move even in the roughest weather.
‘We go to island thirty mile north, forty mile off shore,’ He said eventually.
Fifty miles or so direct, I quickly calculated... funny that because it’s part of navigation I can work out those sort of triangulation problems in my head, no worries. Fifty miles, at around four knots, say about twelve and a half hours... tides should nearly cancel themselves out, wind almost dead on the beam....
‘You’d better give me a course, then,’ I said.
He turned and looked at me strangely. ‘This course.’
I thought about it. ‘You mean straight up the coast like this?’
Then why, I asked myself, did he tell me that the island we were headed for was forty miles off the coast? Unless, of course, he knows absolutely nothing about navigation. Or unless, and I realised suddenly that I really was just a kid, he’s just trying to put me off the track?
He’d have to sleep sometime, of course. I wondered when he had last slept. We were making about four knots, so the seventy miles would take until sometime late the next day to cover.
If the weather stayed like this, that is. It wouldn’t, of course. The wind would die just before dawn, and then blow on-shore during the day, at least for the first part of the trip. There was very little likelihood that a major change in the weather would occur... I’d checked the long range forecast that morning on the radio, and looked at the satellite photos from the Met Office on the school Web - nice and stable, good weather for Sand Witches!
But good weather wasn’t going to help me and Spray at all. A good storm, a dark night, a slightly seasick captor and I’d be well away.
The moon, as promised, flooded the ocean with soft, silken light, forging a trail of silver from Spray to the horizon. To the west of us, eight kilometres or so, the land led us on to the north, pretty flat immediately to the west, but with headlands standing up quite clearly, one after another. The wind hummed gently and rhythmically in the rigging, and the bow-wave hissed in time with our swaying progress. Too pretty, too idyllic, too gentle for our escape.
He had been watching me for a while, his eyes darting around the boat checking everything. ‘Okay,’ he suddenly said as though he had just made up his mind about something. He moved quickly towards me, and I had been still for so long that I was suddenly afraid that he was going to hit me. ‘Okay,’ he repeated as he crossed the last thwart, ‘we go to beach.’
I looked in the direction that he pointed. A long line of silver topped the waves, a beach running for miles and miles. There was a small headland fronted by towering cliffs of glinting rock topped by what looked like a short growth of tufty stuff. It was a long way off still, but without the chart we couldn’t know where the rocks were. Because sure as eggs is eggs, there would be reefs and rocks enough to rip the bottom out of Spray if we made one false move.
He turned roughly towards me, his arm raised instinctively to strike. I cringed, and prepared myself for the blow, ducking my head and raising my free arm in protection. At least, I thought, he wasn’t going for his gun. The blow nearly threw me from my feet. I staggered, and held on to the tiller for support.
‘You ask again, I shoot,’ he spat, and I could feel his rage making him quiver. He leaned threateningly over me for a moment more, then he straightened slightly and I knew I was safe again for the time being.
I stayed in a cringing position for a moment as though I was afraid of being hit again. I made pathetic whimpering sounds.
He looked at me for a moment, then grabbed my arm and pulled me up. ‘Shut up,’ he snarled.
I turned my head to the beach and pointed at random. ‘There?’ I asked.
Gently I put the tiller over, and Spray turned her head towards the land. I reached for the main sheet, but he waved me back impatiently and adjusted it himself. I watched as he moved forward to deal with the jib, and I reached behind me to harden the mizzen. ‘Anchor?’ he barked.
‘In the cuddy, where you got the lights.’
He crouched in the shadows under the bow, and I could hear his head strike something. Good, I thought. But no, really it would be better just now if nothing went wrong for him, so that later I could take advantage of his lowered sense of danger. But he banged parts of his body a couple more times before he emerged with the long anchor rope in one hand, and the chain in the other.
I watched as he made the end of the anchor rope fast to the king post on the bow. He knew that much, anyway. He flaked the rest of the line, and the chain at the end of it, on the floorboards forrard, ready to throw over on either side when it was needed.
We were still six kilometres off the shore. I didn’t say anything, waiting for orders from him. He stood up front, one hand hanging on to the shrouds, while he looked ahead. After a while, he pointed.
‘Over there,’ he said, ‘under cliff.’
‘There’ll be rocks there,’ I said quietly. ‘I don’t know where they are.’
I shrugged. Nothing I could do about it. I turned again for the edge of the headland, and trimmed the sails to slow us down, spilling most of the wind to give us time.
There were no lights on the land. I had half expected to see the lights of some village somewhere, but the whole of the shoreline was dark and mysterious. A long way inland you could see lights occasionally, but they moved and went on and off... a road somewhere, with a bit of traffic? Too far away to be of much help.
Oh, there would be roads leading down to the beach, there always are; but at this time of night there would be no-one around. No chance of rescue.
The beach swirled around the headland, cutting deeply into the side of it as though the sea was trying to gouge it’s way through and make an island. That’s exactly what it was doing, of course, given a few thousand years. The result was a deeply curving sheltered bay at the very northern tip of the beach. The headland curved out to the south, as though throwing a protective arm around the top of the beach.
‘There,’ he pointed, and I sailed north until we were almost on the beach. Suddenly he threw the anchor over, and I could hear from the hiss as the rope burned over the gunnel that the anchor had bitten deep into something on a shallow bottom.
As we reached the end of the rope Spray’s head was snatched around like the head of a horse pulled up with a cruel lariat. I lurched forwards and nearly fell again, but the wind was immediately spilled from her sails, and she settled to her anchor as nicely as you could please.
He must have thought that I’d be over the side in a trice, because he ran back at me over the thwarts, grabbing me and throwing me to the bottom of the boat. He knelt on my back and twisted rope roughly around my wrists, pulling them painfully behind me.
I couldn’t believe that they weren’t going to do anything, just wait.
I’d tried to change their minds, tried real hard. I’d really thought that Chris would have wanted action... wouldn't have thought that she would be prepared just to wait till the police or the navy came up with something.
The way I saw it, we had two choices... north or south. I didn't reckon that he would go straight out to sea. He'd be meeting someone somewhere. Anyway, all I could do is to flip a coin, and follow my nose. What I couldn't do is to wait around.
I'd taken Uncle Phil's catamaran, the Hobie. A hell of a lot faster than Spray, though not much good if the weather had turned bad. And no stores handy, no lockers with emergency meals, water or wet-weather gear. I just grabbed his wet-suit and a five-litre bottle of water, and went.
I guessed I'd get it in the neck when I got back, but I couldn't just leave Zara...
The coin said south, and my plan was to sail southwards for most of the night. I didn’t have a clue how far I'll get in that time, but I reckon Spray had a three hour start on me. Three hours at, say, four knots gave them 12 miles. To be on the safe side say five knots... they wouldn't be doing that, no way, but I'd better give them the benefit of the doubt. That would be fifteen miles. To get to where they were then would take me half that time, say an hour and a half. By then they’d be another seven and a half miles ahead, which would take me another hour (that's two and a half hours), and by then they’d be another five miles ahead, taking me about 3/4 hour (three and a quarter hours), and they'd be three miles on… say about twenty-five minutes (four hours and ten minutes)...
Well, it shouldn't have taken me more than four and a half hours to overtake them. I had to do all the working out in my head... there had to be a better way of working it out, but that had to do me for the moment.
I got through the islands, and the sea was fine. I had been a bit worried that it might have built up, because to tell the truth I wasn’t all that experienced on the Hobie. I took it because it was quick, but if I tipped it over, God knows how I would get her upright again. Anyway, the sea was okay, and we were zipping along with an on-shore wind more or less on my beam.
It wouldn’t matter in the least for a couple of hours, but by then I'd better be close inshore because I'd never see them against the land. If I was inshore of them they'd be silhouetted against the sky, though the problem was that being so close to the sea I didn't think I could see another small boat at much more than three miles, and
I'd have to have been pretty lucky at that.
I didn't have any sort of weapon with me... when I’d set out I thought Uncle Phil kept a spear-gun at the shed, but I couldn't find it. I'd got a spinnaker pole, but I didn't think that was going to be much good.
I had a jack knife. Better than nothing, I suppose.
The moon came up at around ten o'clock. There was a fair amount of shipping around, but none under sail. I wasn't at all cold, though I hadn't put the wet-suit on. I would put it on as soon as I started getting cold, I thought, but until then I preferred to be able to move around more easily.
The surface of the sea was smooth under the gentle breeze. The swell ran easily beneath us, lifting and dropping us regularly but not slowing us down at all. As I had thought, we were running on a broad reach at around seven to eight knots, just about perfect for a Hobie. I was glad of that, because I don't think I would have been able to handle anything like a strong wind without the constant fear of capsize. I might have been employed as a sailor of sorts, but I knew bloody well that I had a lot to learn.
I found it hard to remember what I was supposed to be doing. We usually makes notes about things as we go along... I do, anyway, and without even thinking about it we check back and there it is... the course, for instance, or the time that I should overtake them. Even now, though I wrote it down not so long ago I have to go back and check.
So, four and half hours. I had left at eight o’clock, so I supposed that I should catch up about midnight or twelve thirty. Christ, I thought, it’s going to be a long night.
And I’d have to keep on south for at least another hour, and if I still didn’t see them, well... I didn’t know.
The thing to do, I thought to myself, was to zig-zag for another couple of hours at least, in to the coast for half an hour, out for half an hour, back and forth. And If I didn’t see them after that time I’d have come the wrong way. But there was only me, and I’d had to make a choice.
You’d have thought that it would be pretty dark out there in the night, even with the moon. And it seemed like that at first, frightening and dark and the wind and the swell and me all by myself, and if I succeeded, there’d be a bloke with a gun and me in just my swimmers...
But gradually it seemed less frightening. It looked as though I could sail the bloody Hobie without tipping the thing over. And the sea, rather than being frightening, seemed after a while to be a friend of mine, rocking me gently and lulling me into a sense of security, as though I’d been doing it for years. The breeze was quite warm after my skin had dried. And, though it was still dark, I felt that I could see for miles. I could see the coast because of the lights of towns behind the dunes. I was surprised at just how much light there was from these towns, and I wondered if there would be as much after, say, midnight, when people had gone to bed.
My confidence increased to the point where I began to experiment. The Hobie had been heeling a fair bit, the starboard hull digging far more deeply into the sea. Cautiously I leaned out further to get her on a more even keel, and bit by bit I brought her upright, and our speed increased quite noticeably. The wind, steady and reliable, gave me something steady to lean into, and I never once felt as though I’d fall off, even though I was leaning out a fair way.
After a couple of hours I decided that I should get closer inshore. The coast, of course, was dark; and if I had passed Spray leaving her between the Hobie and coast, I wouldn’t have been able to see her. But if I was close inshore, I felt sure that I would see her against the lighter sky. So I slackened the sails a little, and turned her head closer to the shore.
It was quite a bit more difficult sailing in there. The chance of rocks was much higher, of course, and though I kept a good lookout I couldn’t be certain that I wouldn’t hit anything. And of course, having to keep such a good lookout ahead meant that I couldn’t keep such a good lookout for Spray, sort of between a rock and a hard place, really. But I had no choice, and so I kept on, hour after hour.
I thought about whales and I thought about sharks and I wondered what the hell I was doing out there in the middle of no-where. What was I, I wondered, a bloody hero?
No, I wasn’t that. But I guess that I was just the tinsiest bit interested in Zara, that silly, tough kid with enough guts to put the rest of us to shame.
If that sounds pretty silly, just let me tell you for sure that the sea puts those sorts of thoughts in your mind. I’m just trying to be honest with you, and that’s the truth. The sea at night, especially soft gentle nights like that one had proved to be, can be the most romantic environment ever. Why do you think sailors fall in love so often and so easily?
I didn’t, as it turned out, hit any whales, nor did I fall in and get eaten by a shark. I didn’t get within a cooee of a rock, or at least if I did I knew nothing about it. I just sailed on and on and on, and at one o’clock in the morning I turned off shore and sailed out for half an hour, and then I turned inshore for half an hour, and though I was probably hallucinating with fatigue by then, I didn’t see a thing.
At three in the morning I gave up, and I stopped sailing and dropped the sails and wrapped myself up in them and drank some water and tried to sleep. Of course I couldn’t, not properly, not drifting like that. But I dozed a fair bit, I reckon and noted the passage of time and hated the fact that I had failed, and that I needed rest if I was going to be any use to Zara even if I did find them, which seemed pretty unlikely. The net deck was pretty comfortable, and the Hobie seemed pretty stable, and pretty soon I stopped worrying and probably got some sleep, and then the sun came up.
I don’t think I’ve been so frightened in my life. Even when the gun was pointed at me I couldn’t treat it seriously. But here, now, raw violence and pain frightened me almost to death.
He threw himself at me over the last thwart and smashed me to the deck. I fell against the edge of the quarter seating, and I felt as though all my ribs had been broken on that side. They weren’t, but I can’t think what saved them. His arms around me were bruisingly tight, and indeed I had bruises on my left arm for months afterwards, where his hands had grabbed me so tightly.
My head hit the duck boards with a crash that had me seeing stars. The weight of him falling on top of me knocked the stuffing, and the breath, clean out of me, and again I thought he’d crush me. Within seconds, though, he was on his knees beside me, twisting my arms behind me and forcing my face painfully into the planking.
He may not have been a proper seaman, but he knew how to tie people up. In just moments, it seemed, my elbows were lashed together behind my back, my wrists tied to my heels and my ankles were tethered tightly to the thwart. But the thing that was uppermost in my mind was that at least he wasn’t going to kill me. I almost hummed it in glee.
I could hear him moving around forrard, and then I felt a sail being dragged over me, and realised that he had covered me deliberately to keep me warm. Silly to feel grateful to bastard like that, especially when there was obviously going to be much, much pain in the night if I was going to be left trussed like a turkey, but that’s what I felt at that moment. It’s almost as though it’s difficult to believe the worst of people even when they have just shown you how nasty they can be.
Spray lay quietly at anchor all that night, rolling gently and coming to no harm, and I lay rolling, too, in an agony of bruising and stiffness and muscles screeching for relief. But I couldn’t move a finger, hardly, and though I must have dozed sometimes in the night, it must have been the longest and worst night of my life.
He woke just before daylight. I knew he was awake because his breathing changed, and he started twitching. I was in agony, and prayed he’d let me up soon. Even under the sail, the cold was getting through to me. Not that it was really cold, but the circulation had gone in my arms and my fingers were swelling and freezing and I had a secret worry about gangrene… how long did it take to set in?
He twitched more often, and then, with a big intake of breath he woke. I could hear him sit up and stretch, felt the boat tip slightly as he urinated over the side… which reminded me of another of my problems.
‘Oy,’ I shouted, ‘I need to go too.’ God, the embarrassment of it!
But funnily, it was him who seemed the most embarrassed. He pulled the sail off me, looked at me for a moment or two as though deciding what to do, then rolled me over onto my face and undid the lashings on my arms. He rolled me back over, and stepped back out of reach. ‘Do your feet,’ he said.
The sky was lightening in the east. I couldn’t help it, but I just love the dawn over the sea and even at that moment, when I was in such danger, my first thought was that the morning was beautiful. The delicate light in an arc over the horizon, the twinkling of the stars above, a planet shining out brightly against the lighter sky… what was it, Venus or Jupiter or something? Simply stunningly beautiful.
But my arms and hands were in an agony of slowly returning blood, and I couldn’t move them or bear the pain or anything… I just tucked them both against my body and leaned forward over them and bit my lips and waited for the pain to subside. And all the time distracted by the growing pressure in my bladder.
Four or five minutes later I could bear to rub my hands together, tentatively at first but with growing speed, until at last I could feel my fingers enough to start untying my legs and feet, and freeing myself from the thwart. My fingers still collapsed and curled up, out of control, but finally I shook off the last of the rope and staggered to the bow, where I dragged down my pants and propped my backside over the side and did my business. He watched, but not too closely.
I was hungry and thirsty, and so would he have been. But there was nothing to be done about it because I wasn’t going to tell him there were emergency rations in the bow cuddy. He had checked the picnic basket the evening before, and found it bare… we always get rid of any left-overs in the bins on the beach before getting back to the creek. So hungry it had to be, for the time being, anyway.
He had the gun back in his hand. ‘Get going,’ he told me, and I staggered around getting ready for sea again. I was dog-tired and everything was an effort, but I raised all the sail and tidied up as Spray waited, head to the wind.
‘You’ll have to get the anchor in,’ I told him. He summed up the situation in his mind, and obviously decided that I was right. But he was taking no chances that I would try to escape, keeping one eye and his pistol on me while he dragged the anchor in one-handed, stepping on the rope to hold it in place as he changed grip. The rope dragged over the gunnel, scarring my beautiful paintwork, but I knew I couldn’t do anything about it except pretend I didn’t care.
I felt the anchor lift off the bottom and got Spray away on the port tack as he dragged in the chain. He lifted the anchor in and dropped it carelessly into the bows. Spray rode easily out over the shallows, south around the headland and then away from the land until the waves changed colour as the sea deepened. ‘Where to?’ I asked, and he pointed up the coast. I put her about on the other tack.
‘You left the lights on all night,’ I told him. ‘We don’t have any spare paraffin, and the wicks’ll have been ruined.’
‘No,’ he said, smiling in a most unpleasant way. ‘Blew them out. You think I give us away like that?’
Bugger, I thought to myself.
I looked around the boat and wondered what Chris would say: running lamps still out, anchor and chain not stowed, dried salt all over the paintwork and the varnish, scars on the gunnel… fine way to run a ship, she’d say. I wished she were there.
Within minutes of the sun coming up, I was roasting. I re-folded the sail over me so that I could get more protection, and I ducked my head under several layers of sail, and tried desperately to get some more sleep, but I just couldn’t.
Me, I’m used to about twenty hours sleep a day. A growing lad, like they say. I couldn’t, just could not, get by on the two and a half hours sleep I had had. But after a while I gave up and crawled out from under the sail, feeling like death.
I’d heard descriptions of how people feel after a night on the tiles without enough sleep… mouth like the bottom of a birdcage, stuff like that. I knew then what they meant. Drained, drawn out, rat-shit.
But… well, instead of sleeping I could be chasing Zara. I dived over the side, came up and shook the sea out of my hair, grabbed a swill of water from the bottle, and got the sails up. I turned her head north and we were off like a rocket, wind about force three and the sea an oily, glassy swell of about a metre or so… couldn’t be better. Eight knots? Yeah, about that. Maybe more.
Note: They have to get quickly under cover. As soon as they sail away at dawn they find a small island or a river entrance where they can drop the mast and hide. Zara finally recognises that she’s there as a hostage rather than as a skipper.
Dave sails right past them that morning.
Plane searches and Navy ships out looking for them. Patrol Boats. Find out what type of boats are used nowadays… Janes Fighting ships should be easiest. Email Mark for type of plane used in coastal search, crew carried, longest search possible, base from which they would fly, ranks of people, navigational system used.
Zara manages to get free and tries to knock him out… nearly succeeds, but is re-captured. They sail off that night, and Dave finally spots them.
I didn’t have a clue where I was, except that I was much further south than I had ever sailed before. The coastline was completely unfamiliar. Amazing that you could live on a bit of coast all your life but have no idea what it looks like.
Way inland, looking misty and blue-grey, was a range of mountains, and I guessed they might the Farnham range. That didn’t help me much either, being so far away. Anyway, what did it matter? I had no chart and no compass. The realisation that I was... well, lost at sea, I suppose, sent a bit of a shiver through me. It’s one thing being in a boat when you know your skipper knows all that needs to be known, and that you can rely absolutely on her. But it’s quite another to be all alone on a tiny boat with no idea where you are, no idea where you’re going, and a very good idea that if you are successful you’ll meet up with a bloke with a gun who will probably want to shoot you and the girl you… well, like very much and respect.
The Sun became far, far too hot in no time at all, and it wasn’t high enough for the sail to give me any shade. The wind was off-shore, so at least there was a prospect of shade later if the wind held. But I was in just my swimmers, and I was going to be roasted before the day was out. I looked at the wet suit and realised that I was going to have to put it on to protect my skin, or get burned to a frazzle. I put it off for a while longer, but the prickling of the skin on my shoulders kept reminding me. And I was getting hungry, too…
Things were different this morning. Instead of keeping far out, almost out of sight of land as we had the night before, he wanted us close inshore. I said, 'A bit dangerous this close in,’ but he just snarled at me to shut up. I was pretty hungry and still as sore as hell, and I was feeling pretty resentful, so I shut up and concentrated on sailing safely a couple of hundred metres beyond the breakers.
The off-shore wind was perfect, and we rose and fell rhythmically as the glassy swell passed under us. I thought how this would excite our clients, sailing along this close to the land.
Ahead was the entrance to a river, a small one, just under the next headland. We could see the discolouration of the sea where the browner waters of the river carried mud and sand out through the waves, and the beach sort of curved round to create a sort of alleyway leading inland. I could see him looking at this river with interest, and wondered what that meant. Did he mean to go inland here? God, I hoped not. Didn’t he know anything about sand-bars and things? And if we weren’t at sea, he wouldn’t need me to skipper Spray any more, and he might… well, he might do something to blight my future prospects. I bit my lip and started praying to a God I didn’t believe in, but who suddenly seemed pretty important.
‘Slow down, now’, he ordered.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Get some sail down.’
He reached for the gun from his waistband, and I started shaking a little. ‘No, I mean what do you want to do? We have to prepare. What are you planning?’
He frowned. ‘We go in here.’
‘We can’t,’ I said. ‘There’ll be a sand bar, and the waves will be too dangerous unless we know exactly what we’re doing. The wind will die, we’ll be out of control. We’ll be wrecked.’
He thought for a moment, and all the time we were getting closer to the river entrance.
I wasn’t exaggerating. Most of the river entrances on this coast are really dangerous, with hundreds of small boats, maybe more, getting into trouble each year. Swamped by following seas, tipped over end-for-end, rolled, and simply holed and sunk. Lives thrown away by ignorance. Was this how Spray would end up?
‘We go in,’ he repeated after a moment’s thought. ‘Get sail down, big one.’
I showed him how to furl the main rather than dropping it, so that would be ready to help us out of trouble if we needed it. At least, I thought, he’s ready to listen.
Under the jib and mizzen sails we nosed forward, rounding the spit of sand that formed the mouth of the river. The river ran out quite strongly, forming a few big waves across the mouth. Right in under the headland there was a short break, and I guessed that the main channel was there. I pointed, and he saw what I meant and nodded. I could see he thought that I’d be making a run for it as soon as we got close to the land, and he eased the gun in his belt, letting me see that he was ready for any move I might make.
I did my best to ignore that, and concentrated on getting Spray into the river mouth in one piece. The wind was just strong enough to give us control against the current flowing out to sea, and fortunately the tide was almost exactly on high. That meant that there was no particular flow from the sea, which in turn made it the safest time to attempt an entry. I don’t want to get too technical right now, but the state of the tide can make an enormous difference to the condition of waves over river bars.
Still, though, this entrance was a bit dicey. Frankly, I had no idea which river it was, for it was much too small to have a harbour or a town on it. Nevertheless, the wave on the bar, which gets formed by opposing forces of tides, was enough to give us rough time, because the passage was so narrow. Maybe with a motor we could have made it more easily…
I tried hard, really I did, mostly because I didn’t want any harm to come to Spray. But I fluffed it three times and had to turn away each time because of the buffeting and the amount of water breaking over us. After the third attempt he got pretty mad. He turned and looked at me with murder in his eyes, and he suddenly charged at me and threw me to the duckboards again, just like the night before. Spray turned immediately, and wallowed in the troughs of the waves, but he wouldn’t let me up and wouldn’t stop hurting me until I was trussed up again, though not so thoroughly tied as before.
‘Turn her head and get her out to sea again before we sink,’ I yelled, almost crying in fear for Spray.
But he thought he knew that I had been faking my attempts to enter, and he got her headed for the entrance again.
Of course, he soon found out. The current wrenched the bow to one side at just the crucial point, and Spray cannoned into the cliff-face beside the passage. I thought we were done, then, striking the rock so heavily that I felt the gunnel bend along half its length. But the Rock Elm of the shipwrights held good, and we bounced off again, scarred but only superficially wounded.
Seconds later the keel grated on the bottom, and Spray heeled heavily. He grasped her side and pulled himself back into position heaving at the tiller to try to bring her around. But she wouldn’t head up stream at all, pivoting on her keel and lying over until the mast was almost horizontal. Water poured in over the port side in a great wave, but miraculously she righted herself, and with a terrible screeching from the keel Spray dragged herself off the bottom and out into deeper water. We were swept out again, away from the bar, out into deeper and calmer water. I could see he was shaken by the experience.
‘Get the bloody anchor down,’ I screamed, afraid for a moment that he was going to have another go. He looked at me in bewilderment as though not understanding, but then he shook his head as though to clear it, and jumped up and over the thwarts to the bow. The anchor was still lying where he had left it before, and it took only seconds to get it over the side.
‘Don’t let too much line out,’ I warned, and for once he paid attention to what I said. He let the rope run through his fingers slowly, and secured it to the strongpost when about half of it was out.
‘Now get back here and untie me,’ I ordered without thinking, so angry at the whole episode that I had quite forgotten that I was a prisoner. I guess he must have been taken aback by that, because he did exactly as I had ordered.
I rubbed my wrists ruefully, and looked around. We were lying snugly and safely in water a couple of metres deep, from the way we lay, with the anchor rope standing taut from the water, the anchor was evidently safely dug in and in no danger of dragging.
‘What the hell did you want to go in there for in the first place?’ I demanded, still fired up at the near disaster but at the same time secretly triumphant that I was getting away with taking charge, for the moment at least. I’d better play things pretty carefully, I told myself.
‘We have hide. They will search.’
‘So you thought the river would give you shelter, eh?’ And you’re probably dead right, I thought to myself.
‘That’ll never work. If you have to hide, you’ll have to try one of the islands.’
I could see that he had already come to that conclusion himself.
I really wish I could have been there to see it. Mum and Chris and Sally down at the creek, all arguing about who was going to go and rescue me. Very touching. No, I really mean it…
Chris? Well, I knew she’d come. Chris is simply dependable. Predictable too, and I know that’s supposed to be a negative thing, these days. But come rain or shine, storm or war, Chris will do the right thing. I knew she’d be out looking for me.
Sally? A surprise, really. I’d have expected her to be off buying a new pair of jeans, sneakers and a wallet to replace the ones she lost escaping the night before, and sending the bill to our insurance company. Of course we’re insured; we’re a proper business, you know. And, by the way, Sal did get a new outfit from the insurers at the end of it all, which demonstrates the benefits of a formal company setup.
So, no, Sally was a surprise. Once she has agreed to do something, like turn up at four a.m. to get the boats ready for an early trip, you can rely on Sally, as I think I’ve said before. And I like her, too, for her honesty, her resilience, her sense of humour and her plain, down-to-earth good sense. But I wouldn’t have put her down as a volunteer in a dangerous situation, or even a situation where her lovely blonde hair might miss out on its regular shampoo. We can’t all be heroes.
But the biggest surprise was Mum. Mum is a natural stay-at-home-and-stand-by-the-telephone sort of person, the sort of person you come home to after it’s all over. I thought I could rely on Mum to be ready with a warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, a band-aid if need be and many, many kisses of relief to see us home safely. She’d be the one to co-ordinate things, to make sure that the police knew what the fire brigade were doing, that the Vicar was notified, that the insurance details were ready to hand.
But there she was, down at the creek, ready to get into the thick of it, and to hell with the telephone.
‘Just let go the buoy,’ she was saying to Chris, ‘and get us under way.’
‘Mum,’ Chris said, and it was one of those drawn-out two-tone cries we all use when we’re exasperated by our mothers, ‘this just isn’t right. Why don’t you get off the boat and go back home while Sal and me get on with it?’
But Chris could see by the set of Mum’s jaw that that was the last thing on her mind at the moment. ‘Come on, Mum, we have to go!’
But Mum went forward, plonked herself over the bow and started undoing the shackle that held Starlight to the mooring.
And then the most amazing thing happened, and this is the bit I REALLY wish I had seen:
Old Kayo, I mean Mr O’Mara, Mum’s boss, comes scurrying down the track, suit and all, calling her name. ‘Maryanne, Maryanne.’ And, hardly noticing what he’s doing, he walks straight out through the mud and into the creek until the water is up to his knees. And he’s holding out his hands to her like he’s pleading, and his head is to one side and his face is screwed up as though he’s in anguish or something.
And Mum straightens up, darts a quick look at Chris and mutters ‘Oh Lord’ under her breath and wipes her hands on her shorts. She tosses back her head and puts a hand to her hair, which is getting blown everywhere in the breeze anyway, and looks a bit uncomfortable.
By this time Kayo is nearly up to his waist in the water. He still appears not to have noticed it, except as a hindrance.
You know how when you’re a kid everybody grown up seems as old as the hills? Well, we had always thought of old Kayo as round about the same age as Winston Chruchill or someone like that… sort of really, really old. Certainly older than Mum, anyway. And married, too, though no-one ever sees his wife. And here he is, out of the blue, carrying on as though Mum is a girl-friend or something, and he’s messing up his smelly old pin-stripes and his neat black shoes without even noticing it.
He’s so old he’s loosing his hair, and the wispy bits around the side are blowing around, same as Mum’s. He looks a bit pathetic, really, standing there in the creek, his arms still out, pleading.
So Mum leans over the side and reaches out a hand to him. She can just reach his outstretched hand. She looks straight into his eyes, ignoring Chris and Sal completely, and says, ‘Keith, Dear, I have to go. I’ll be back with Zara as soon as I can.’
He’s almost in tears, maybe just frustration or something, but his voice is wavery and defeated. ‘Who’s going to look after the office and phones and organise things?’
‘Your are, Dearest,’ she says, and as the word ‘Dearest’ slips out she darts a sidelong glance at Chris to check her reaction. But Chris is just standing there in the sternsheets like a stunned mullet.
Almost from the side of her mouth, like an actor in a very bad movie, Mum says under her breath to Sal, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ and Sal nods and finishes releasing the bow shackle. Starlight turns her head and slowly drifts downstream with the tide, and poor old Kayo is left on the shore looking like a pickled prune, half in and half out of the water.
‘But I love you,’ he wails at the top of his voice, and Mum, brave as can be as usual, stands very straight in the middle of the boat and calls back to him, ‘And I love you too, Keith.’ And she raises her hand to him and waves it slowly as they drift downstream, still turning like a leaf on a mill-pond. She stands like that, watching his receding shape, her hand still half-raised by her shoulder, until they slip round the bend at the entrance to the creek.
Sal, meanwhile, has been doing all the things that the skipper should have been doing, getting ready for sea. She got the jib up, went aft, moving around Mum and Chris as though they were statues, leaving them to recover from the scene, and got the mizzen up, too. She perched on the stern deck and steered Starlight out into the bay, catching the breeze nicely but ignoring the finer points like a trembling leach on the jib, and generally getting on with things and heading for the islands while the rest of the crew got themselves together.
Chris looked down and found herself holding the end of the mainsheet, and looked at it for a while as though deciding what to do with it. Then she looked up at Mum, who, by then, was watching her face, puzzled. ‘Mum,’ she said slowly, thinking about it as though the thought had only just occurred to her, ‘Mum, that was old Kayo.’
Mum smiled slightly to herself. ‘Mmmm,’ she said.
‘And he said…’ Chris continued, hesitantly as though working things out as she was speaking.
‘Mmmm,’ said Mum again.
‘And you said you… loved him too?’ there was doubt in her voice, as though she just must have heard wrongly.
Mum sighed, and gave a little shiver. Then she looked around as though for the first time, and started putting gear away, her usual busy self. ‘Well,’ she said, and she looked past Chris at Sal, and a twinkle appeared in her eyes, ‘that let the cat out of the bag, didn’t it?’
And Sal guffawed and then chuckled and Mum started chuckling, and Chris stood there still dumbstruck until she reached for Mum and started bawling, hugging Mum and rubbing her face in Mum’s shoulder, and Sal nearly falling over the stern in amusement at the whole scene and Mum looking more and more embarrassed with every second, and slowly Chris got herself under control and looked at Mum in wonderment and in some awe.
‘You love him?’
‘And he loves you?’
‘It would appear so.’
‘But what about his wife?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Does she know?’
‘I don’t think so.’
Then, with the beginnings of a chuckle, ‘Oh Mum, what a naughty girl you turned out to be!’
And Mum just nodded.
Now look, I’m not just glossing things over or anything. It’s going to take ages to sort this one out, the Mum and Old Kayo thing. But at the time it was just a distraction, and there were more important things going on. Hell, though, I really regret not being there, eh?
A quick resumé. Dave is out somewhere to the south, but sailing north. And he’s eliminated the southern part of the coast as a possibility for our escape, so he’s been unlucky, but useful. He’s not really a very good sailor, and might end up having to be rescued himself. His Mum and Dad don’t know yet that he’s missing because they were out at a swanky party, the night before. His uncle, Philip Scoble, doesn’t use the Hobie much and certainly didn’t know that Dave was likely to ‘borrow’ it. He won’t check it or anything, so won’t call for help to find his nephew, either.
The Police launch is standing by. What sort of boat do they use, who skippers it, what equipment do they have, what expertise, what communication equipment? As soon as they get word of any kind, they will be off after the criminal. The skipper of the launch, Dick something-or-other (I can’t remember his last name now because although we see him around the place all the time, everyone just calls out, ‘G’day, Dick,’ to keep him happy and not looking too closely at what they’re doing), well Dick the Water Cop has had too much overtime over the last six months and there’s no way they’re going to let him clock up more just sitting around waiting on his launch.
The Navy has had a report that there might be a small boat in danger with a hostage on board and a criminal with a gun. Sounds pretty Ho Hum to them, but they have to be seen to be helping out. They’ve got a Patrol boat in the area, just a bit north, actually, and it has been sent south to get closer to the action if anything should develop.
The Patrol boat is pretty cool, really, one of those Freemantle Class boats that the papers were so full of not so long ago because they cost so much and wouldn’t be much cop in a fight with an FA18… you know the sort of thing they rap on about. Anyway, they look great and can really a get a move on when they need to. And they’ve got this neat little gun thing on the bow, and all the sailors running around in fancy dress, sort of… you know, that silly uniform they have to wear?
So this Patrol Boat, the Dubbo, I think her name was, well, she is keeping a close radar watch, or so they say. All very well, as I told the Navy afterwards, but a whaler is made of wood and will reflect hardly any signal, so they had a fat chance of finding us. And in the slightest swell the hull would be invisible to a low vessel like a Patrol Boat anyway.
Still, if we had known about it it would have been nice to know that she was out there looking for us.
The plan on board Starlight is to search north then south, which has also been decided on the flip of a coin. They have no idea that Dave is out there on the Hobie, because he hadn’t told anyone he was going. Like me, Chris has very little idea of the coast outside our bay, so they are being motivated by the thought of doing something, anything, rather than sitting around and waiting. So they might not have much of a plan, and their technical expertise might be a bit on the thin side, but they have two factors weighing heavily on their side. Well, my side, really. The first is their determination, ‘hell hath no fury like a mother deprived of a daughter to shout at’ and the second is the mobile phone that mum brought with her from the office.
And far away to the North West, at an Air Force base in the middle of no-where, the only really effective help was sitting on the tarmac at that very minute with its engines running up, a whacking great ???????????? THIS info should come from Mark Smith fairly soon..
* * *
Hiding on one of the islands might have been just too good an idea, really, and I wished that I hadn’t told him about it before thinking it through. But, having gained a little through (a) a sort of native bossiness that made me shout at him, and (b) being right a couple of times in a row, and him being wrong, I didn’t want the chance to slip by to make him listen to me.
And, anyway, it was the only alternative, so I wasn’t really telling him anything he wouldn’t have thought of within a few minutes.
I could see why he thought we needed to hide: any time now the planes would be out searching for us, and in the sort of weather we were having, we’d stand out like a sore thumb from the air.
The little islands and rocks that littered that part of the coast were too small, on the whole, to have trees to hide Spray under, but she could be disguised fairly easily during the day, and that was obviously what he intended to do. But it was already getting on for nine in the morning, and it was only by luck, we thought, that we hadn’t been spotted so far. So, without any further argument from me the sails were hoisted again and we made a bee-line for the closest island, which looked to be about twelve kilometers away.
Both of us were scanning the sky as we went, him because of the danger, me because of the hope of rescue. But we saw nothing. Away to the south there were a few jets twinkling at very high altitude, busily scurrying from one capital to another, I supposed. But that was all we saw.
There were quite a few tankers, ore carriers and container ships ploughing along, some heading north, some going south; but they were all far out in deep water, and probably didn’t even have anyone on watch. They were much too far away from us to register us on any radar, and they wouldn’t have noticed us at all, even if they had been looking, because the land behind us would have made us almost impossible to see, a tiny spot against a multi-coloured background.
We were reaching and sailing well… oh, why couldn’t it have been just Dave and me with a boat full of paying clients and a hamper full of grub? I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of longer trips to spots outside the bay, maybe overnight camping on one of these distant islands? Maybe if we could guarantee the weather we could try it.
Perhaps it was the thought of picnics that made my empty stomach start grumbling, but I guess it was just hunger that made him start thinking along the same lines. He looked over the side, and back at me. ‘Fishing lines,’ he said. You got fishing lines?’
I thought quickly about the possiblity of denying it, but hunger got the better of me, and I opened the locker just under the port seating and came out with the two trolling lines that we use to amuse the clients. He grabbed one and unravelled a length of line, checked the spinner on the end of it and chucked it over. Our lines were pretty rough, just a piece of wood with a deep vee cut in each end, and a length of ten kilogram fishing line wrapped around it. At the business end, a big triple-hook with a silver spinner on it. No bait needed. Just stick it in the water, tie it to the side of the boat, sail at around four knots for a while and bang, some fish will take it. Works like a charm, most of the time. And sure enough, within ten minutes we had four nice big taylor on board, each one just over a kilo. He pulled the lines in and chucked them in the bottom of the boat. Chris would have had a fit.
He gutted all four fish, got a plastic bucket from its place in the cuddy under the bow, half-filled it with sea-water and put the fish in, heads down and tails standing up like flowers in a bizarre arrangement.
‘Water?’ he asked. I shook my head. I was bloody thirsty too. We should have got some before we left that river entrance. There wouldn’t be any on the islands. Bad thinking on his part, but from my point of view it was a pressure-point that I could use against him, sometime. I wondered if I could hold out without water longer than him?
I had to put the suit on in the end, and then I was roasting. Even with the zips all undone I felt as though I was inside a furnace.
I scooped lovely cool water from the sea every few moments to splash over myself, but it’s not really good enough. And because I’m so hot it’s very hard to concentrate on sailing and keeping a lookout.
It was also quite boring, after a while, just sailing on and on by myself. Very different from sailing in Spray, with Zara, and not only because of Zara, either. In a real boat you could move about, read a book if you wanted, certainly look at charts. Talk to people, look at the ocean, all sorts of things. But here there was nothing but the trampoline, the rigging and the sails. You look around, but that was it.
On the other hand, of course, the Hobie was much, much faster than Spray, and that was what I needed then. I tried to put my discomfort out of my head and concentrate on getting a little more speed out of her.
Frankly, we were whipping along at a great rate. I was getting the hang of her now, no-longer afraid that I’d have her over at any minute. Eating up the kilometers. Zooming northwards.
By eleven o’clock I could see the islands and behind it the bay, and I was thinking pretty seriously about going in and getting some more sensible clothes. But I realised that if I did I’d most probably be noticed and I’d have to explain what I was doing and stuff like that, and if I was allowed to carry on at all it would waste hours. So instead of that I steered further out to sea, putting plenty of distance between me and authority.
Tell the truth, I could hardly believe that I was doing it. There I was, almost out of sight of the land in a tiny little boat, all by myself. I didn’t think anyone knew where I was, and I had no food, no supplies except the remains of a bottle of water. And I was chasing a girl and some sort of desperado with a gun, a criminal who had recently killed several men. And me, timid little me that never got into trouble in my life.
My mother would kill me when she found out. I felt pretty bucked up about all that, pretty proud, really, of what I was doing. Proud and scared.
I don’t want to understate the scared bit, eh?
It was noon by the time I passed the bay, twelve hours of wasted sailing behind me. Now I was heading in the right direction, I hoped. Somewhere ahead of me was Zara and Spray. And him.
The island was no more than a very large rock, fairly high and rounded. Half a kilometer long? Maybe. There were a couple of small beaches surrounded by low cliffs of a reddish sort of rock. Above that, the island rose in a grassy mound to perhaps a hundred metres in height. More or less conical, I suppose. There were a few scrubby sort of bushes here and there, but not much.
He didn’t mess around picking and choosing, just headed straight in to the first beach we saw. There was a ridge of rocks standing about four metres high on the southern side of the beach, slightly overhung. He wouldn’t let me slow down and look for rocks, just drove us straight into the sand, still sailing as though trying to get as high up the beach as he could. Spray, of course, was far too heavy for us to pull her higher once we had beached her.
It was about half tide by then, I reckon, so that she’d keep floating off as the sea rose around her. He wouldn’t let me off her, not then. He stamped around on the beach for a few minutes, thinking what to do. Then, with a sudden air of decision, he jumped back on board. ‘Take the sails off, and get the masts down,’ he ordered. I expected that.
It only took a few minutes to get the masts down, and between us we laid the mainmast amidships down the length of the boat, and covered it with the sail. She still looked very much like a boat covered with a sail, and I couldn’t see what else he could to disguise her. But he was pretty sharp, this guy, and I have to admit that he ended up doing a pretty good job of it.
As the tide rose he pushed Spray out again till she floated freely, then he dragged her over to the rock. There was almost a sheer wall of rock, and with plenty of fenders out to protect the hull, he tied her fore and aft to the cliff. Then he smashed bits of rock from the face and pulverised the rock into a gritty red paste with one of the rowlocks, which were pretty heavy and reasonably suited to the job.
When he had made enough of the paste he smeared it thickly over the sails. It took a while, but once he had finished and the paste was beginning to dry out, I had to admit that he’s done a pretty good job of it.
Then, grabbing the bucket of taylor he ordered me off the boat and onto the rocks, and we clambered across them to the beach.
He sat and watched me with the pistol in his hand as I gathered driftwood for a fire. ‘This’ll give us away,’ I thought to myself, and I made sure I gathered plenty of tar-covered bit of wood. The smoke would be seen for miles, I hoped.
But he selected only the tiniest bits of wood, and lit them in a small pit he’d dug in the sand, and they blazed brightly but with no smoke at all. I’d never seen that done, and though I was disappointed, I recognised the skill that was keeping him free from the law.
So we split the taylor and roasted them on sticks over the fire, and the fat sizzled and spluttered into the flames and the smell was fantastic, and we pulled bits of fish, the crispy, curling bits from the edges, and popped them into our mouths and it tasted brilliant.
We cooked two of the fish to keep for later, wrapped them in damp cloth to keep cool and put them in a shady part of the boat, and then thought about water. Not so easy.
There weren’t any rivers, of course, nor even any streams. But with me in front where he could keep an eye on me, we trudged around the island searching. It was hot, and we were both already thirsty. The taylor had been great, but I was far thirstier after eating than I had been before.
We searched for water in cracks above the tide-line, hoping that some would been caught in the last rain and not yet evaporated. I can’t remember when the last rain had been, but it seemed a pretty slim chance, even with all your fingers crossed.
We did find some, after an hour or so of searching, but even he couldn’t bring himself to try it: it was almost yellow, and the rocks around were covered in bird-shit, and there were all sorts of rubbish floating in it. He did poke his finger in, and then put his finger in his mouth, but the way his face screwed up in distaste showed how foul it was. ‘ Well,’ he said, ‘not salt.’
We moved on around the foot of the cliff, and found several similar pools of filthy, brackish water.
In the early afternoon, around two o’clock or thereabouts, the first plane flew over.
At the first sound of it, he dragged me down into the shadow of a huge rock, while he searched the sky anxiously for a sight of the machine. I don’t know what sort of plane it was, just one of those little ones with a single engine and a high wing over the cabin. It came up from the south, pretty high but not sort of stratospheric. It wasn’t flying straight over the island, but along a line a couple of kilometres off shore.
My tongue was feeling like a piece of old leather by then, and I was having trouble breathing because I was so dry. As the plane drew level with the island my heart gave a little double-blip and my breathing stopped altogether, but the wing suddenly dipped and the plane swerved as though the pilot had seen something unusual.
And then he turned properly, and lost a little altitude as though coming closer for a second look.
I felt his muscles stiffen. He was holding me by the upper arm, his body half over mine, pressing down into the sand and crushing my side against the rock. He had the gun in his right hand, and I could see the sinews standing out like cords. He became motionless, not even breathing.
This is it, I thought, this is the dangerous bit. He’s going to have to do something that I’m not going to like very much.
The plane came round and closed on the island, the drone of its engine rising like the roar of an advancing racing car, filling the air with noise. Or maybe that was my heart beating. The shadow of the plane seemed to hit the sand and race along the beach, but over at the northern tip of the island, not the southern end where Spray was hidden. Come on, I willed the pilot, come on, down this end.
It took only a second or two and he was past the northern tip. Turn, I willed him, turn. It was as though if I concentrated enough I could get a message directly to his brain. And the nose of the plane lifted, and the port wing dipped all the way until she was like a big cross standing on one wing as the plane did turn, turned right around, and my blood felt as though it was sizzling with excitement as the pilot brought the plane around and zoomed dead low across the beach again. But he was simply flying back along his previous course for some reason, and my heart slumped as the shadow hit the sea once more and raced away, resuming his original course.
Very slowly he relaxed. He didn’t move for maybe five minutes, though it seemed like hours, until the plane was a tiny speck in the sky to the north, and the island had returned to its silent self, the waves jumbling around the rocks and washing up the little beaches.
I felt crushed, worse than before. Oh, physically crushed too, already feeling bruised where he had been gripping my arm so tightly; but emotionally crushed. Spray's disguise had obviously worked only too well, and the chance of rescue seemed to have receded far into the background. I was on my own again.
We found water ten minutes later, seeping from a crack in the cliff and running down to be wasted in the sand. There were a few drips here and there where the rock overhung, and he put the bucket under them and waited, taking it up and drinking greedily as soon as there was a cupful in the bottom. He handed me the bucket as soon as the second cupful was ready, and we went on like that for a while, taking turns at a cupful each until we had had enough.
Then we sat in the shade of the rocks, waiting for the bucket to fill. Drip, drip, drip. It didn’t take long, and we had, after all, all the time in the world.
The coast was low on our horizon, sort of blue-black and hazy, indistinct. I could make out the movement of a fishing boat or two here and there, but the sea wasn’t exactly a hive of activity.
Way down south there was big black hull of some tanker, by the look of it, going in towards the coast. And a couple of kilometers inshore of us, a catamaran was headed north, sailing fast and probably enjoying the perfect wind and calm sea. A bit far out for such a small boat, I’d have thought…
So I sailed right past the island without ever knowing they were there. Of course, that could have happened anywhere, up a creek, behind a rock… I couldn’t actually search, just sail on and do my best, hoping against hope to catch sight of them.
I was exhausted by then, exhausted from hour after hour at the helm, having to be alert all the time, keeping the cat upright and watching for gusts that could have her over. Actually, I was pretty proud of the way I was sailing her. I’m not expert, see, and I know it. But I was sailing well, as well as anyone could, and I felt pretty good about that.
But I was so hot in the wet suit, and hungry, too, and I had nothing to eat and the water was all but gone. I was saving the last gulp for as long as I could, because after that I’d have to go in somewhere and get some rest and some food and drink myself silly. The water was hot and smelled of plastic.
I had lost hope of finding them hours before, but I couldn’t give up until I absolutely had to. I searched the horizon for any sign of a sail, but though the weather was perfect for it I saw not one. I decided then that I would carry on till sunset if I could, and then turn in and sail for the closest town, guided by the lights. I didn’t have a clue where that might be.
Starlight, too, was drawing closer. Despite the awfulness of the situation, Maryanne Dobriel found herself enjoying it. The excitement, the sun, the waves, the sails against the blue sky, the expertise of her daughter in handling the boat, even the fear of what might happen.
She had a lot to think about. The girls had chuckled about the sudden revelation of her relationship with Keith, but it wasn’t a laughing matter.
Maryanne wasn’t quite certain that she really did love Keith, despite her admission earlier. It’s easy to say these things when something dramatic happens, and to see Keith standing waist-deep in the creek, his pinstripes soaked, his hands held out in a plea and his face so forlorn, well, it would have been hard not to respond in the way she had.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t quite as the girls thought. There wasn’t an affair going on. There had been no sneaking off behind Keith’s wife’s back. What was her name? Catherine?
So far, she thought, the whole business had amounted to no more than a rosy dream and a tender smile or two. And maybe a few tingling, exciting exchanges through accidental brushings in the office, slowly, oh so slowly accelerating over the past two years.
Chris, on the other hand, was pleased as well as excited. Now that they were under way and on course, there was little to do except steer and occasionally trim the sail, and, as they proceeded, to take bearings and check their position. Plenty of time for thinking, and not only about what they would did if, and she recognised that it was a big ‘if’, they found Spray.
Starlight easily managed a couple of knots more than Spray, being lighter and more scientifically designed. The fact that Spray had a half-day start on them meant that they wouldn’t be able to overhaul the whaler quickly. But it gave them some sort of an advantage, and Chris meant to play all advantages to the full. They wouldn’t have to stop and rest, because they could take turns, whereas the gunman wouldn’t be able to do that.
And they had food, water, sleeping bags… all the supplies they could think of. While poor Zara and her captor appeared to have nothing except the normal emergency supplies on board. Of course, Sal hadn’t checked what the gunman had brought with him, but it seemed unlikely that it was much.
Once Starlight had passed through the islands and turned to the north, Chris settled down to a long session at the helm. The wind and sea conditions were perfect, though the forecast was for a depression to move through the area sometime the next day, and from the satellite photos she had looked at on the school Web it looked as though something dramatic in terms of weather was going to hit fairly soon. There was no sign of it so far.
Chris looked at her mother sitting in the sternsheets opposite. She was thirty nine years old. Short dark hair. Tallish, Chris thought, for her age. Nice body, though maybe her bum was spreading a bit. Not really very fit, not compared to herself and Zara, but maybe that had more to do with sitting in an office most of the time.
Played a bit of tennis now and again. Used to like dancing when she and Dad had been together. Drank a little wine now and again, and maybe a drop of whiskey a couple of times a year. Nice legs, ready smile, witty when she chose to be. Dressed well, or least always looked neat and tidy and maybe even attractive to the right bloke, though she never had the money to really splash out on clothes.
Chris wondered if she had had affairs before. She found it hard to think of her Mum in that way, loving someone other than herself and Zara, and their father, of course. Though it looked as though her dream of her parents getting back together again was, well, sort of fading a bit. What was it now, twelve years or something?
So maybe it was time for her mother to find a bit of happiness. But with old Kayo?
Chris stole a look at Sal, lying back along the thwart amidships. Long legs, long hair, long, beautiful, suntanned arms. Breasts just perfect. A lovely face hardly troubled by zits. Her friend, now, after nearly a whole season of sailing together, though perhaps they could hardly have been more different.
Chris sighed inwardly, and thought that love was certainly a troublesome meddler in people’s lives.
When the bucket had half filled, he made me carry it back to the Spray. We should have brought something else to leave under the slow drips to fill while we were away, but of course we hadn’t known we would find this supply, and it had taken two hours to get half a bucketful. Mind you, we had taken a few drinks during the tedious process.
He was guarding me carefully, keeping an eye on me the whole time. Oh, he didn’t have his pistol out the whole time, but it was never far from his hand, and with a temper as quick as his I was careful not to let him go over the top. I’ve told you before about how hard I find it to be faced with any sort of authority… I have trouble keeping my mouth shut. Chris says I was born to be hung, but she’s full of stuff like that.
Carrying half a bucket of water over any sort of rough ground is pretty difficult. Ever tried it? Two half buckets would be easier. I slopped a bit out every now and again, and he growled at me to stop buggering about. I told him it was hard, but he looked nasty and I took more care. Still, it was maybe giving me an idea or two.
If I could get him to drop his guard for a moment or two, maybe I could get do something to escape. That wouldn’t be good enough on its own, of course, because he could always sail away on Spray, and I wasn’t going to let him do that. If I was to escape, I’d have to find some way of overpowering him, and that was going to be pretty difficult, to say the least.
How many bullets did he have? I didn’t have a clue. I knew nothing at all about guns except the worst place to be is in front of them, especially when they are held in a steady, menacing hand.
This one was short and black, with a shiny ring showing at the front, the rim of the barrel. How many bullets? Well, maybe ten or twelve? I didn’t know. I tried to remember how many he had fired yesterday, but found the memory had grown hazy already. Three? Four, maybe.
So none of that helped me. I heaved the bucket in front of me and held it in both hands, my right hand getting sore from carrying the load on one side. We were crossing the top of the beach now, approaching Spray. Dead easy to see, I thought, disguised or not. But maybe impossible to pick her out from the air or from out at sea, for all that she looked so obvious from this angle.
There were large boulders spread over the top edge of the sand, and I pretended to stumble as I stepped over one, and I fell to my knees, throwing the bucket ahead of me.
With a howl of anger he ran at me, kicking me in the small of the back and leaning forward to punch me on the shoulders and the back of my head. His face was twisted in anger and he spat and foamed as he kicked and punched me, but after the first, short look I tried to bury my face in my arms for protection from the onslaught, hearing the string of swearing in a language I hadn’t heard before. He must have kept it up for ages, and finally, with one huge kick in the back which felt as though it had broken every rib on that side, he reached forward and grabbed my arm and swung me up onto my feet, lifting me clear off the ground and hitting me backhanded full in the face, then again on the other side, tearing my head round and making my nose suddenly bleed in streams.
Disgusted, he released me and I fell to the ground in a snivelling, bleeding heap, sure that every bone in my body was broken, certain that he had half ripped my nose off.
I had expected violence, but nothing like that.
He went forward and picked the bucket up, peering into it. There must have been a little water in it, because he raised it to his mouth and drank what little there was before he threw it at me. He pointed wordlessly at Spray, and he marched me down there, and reached in and found a rope, and he tied me up with it, trussed like the night before, but with my legs still free. They he reached in again and found a scoop, one of those plastic things we use for bailing, and with that and the bucket he marched me back around to where the water was dripping.
Stumbling along with your arms tied behind your back isn’t easy, I can tell you, and with the pain of the kicks and punches still tearing through my body I was in something approaching agony, near to tears and almost despairing that I would survive with this madman.
He placed the bucket under the drips, then turned to me and threw me down on the ground. He had plenty of rope, and he tied my legs together, then forced them backwards and tied them to my hands, which were already tied behind me, and he pulled them tight until my body was bent round like a bow, and lashed the whole lot solid. He kneeled up to look at his handiwork, his eyes glittering, and after a moment he stretched his hand out and placed it deliberately on the inside of my thigh.
I was helpless. I looked him straight in the eye as defiantly as I could with blood still running from my nose and tears of pain rolling from the corners of my eyes. ‘Don’t.’ I warned him, and he stopped, his hand frozen on my upper leg. I didn’t let my eyes move from his, and he stared back with a glint of triumph. ‘I can do anything,’ his eyes said. But he turned away and stood up, his hands falling to his sides.
He looked around us, his eyes scanning the sea. The bucket would take an hour or so to fill. There was no danger from the sea. We were under a shallow overhang, so we couldn’t be spotted from the air. I could hardly move to breathe, let alone escape. He lay down on the other side of the drip, cradled his head in his hands and, within a short time, slept.
‘They can’t have just disappeared,’……….Discussion between chiefs of airforce , Navy and Police about what’s been done and why it hasn’t worked, and what they need to do about it.
Have at least one of them a woman, a woman with a male assistant (driver, aide-de-camp) or something. But she shouldn’t be cool and efficient etc.. we’ve got enough girls doing that!
I think I could tell when he slipped into deep sleep, because his breathing changed. It felt dangerous, because he was rolled over and he only had to open his eyes and he’d be looking straight at me, but I didn’t really have many options. I started trying to get free.
It had finally dawned on me that I was going to die unless I escaped or was rescued. He wasn’t going to let me go at all. He’d killed several people that we knew of, and maybe many more elsewhere. He was ruthless and strong and armed, and I didn’t have a chance. Except, just maybe, that I was small and weak and helpless.
I mean, I might be able to get him to drop his guard if he thought there was no way I could hurt him, or escape.
The first possibility was to see if I could loosen the ropes. It didn’t feel like it, but I had to try. There was one thing he hadn’t thought of, and that was that the rope had been wet when he’d tied me up, and it was hemp. Hemp ropes swell up and get shorter when they are wet, and they relax and get longer and thinner as they dry out. It was a good drying day, and though I was lying in shadow, it wouldn’t take all that long for the rope to dry. They wouldn’t stretch much, but even a little would help. I rolled slightly forward onto my face so that the ropes would be as far away from my body as possible, further out in the good, drying breeze.
It’s not nice, you know, being really, really hurt on purpose by someone. Accidents are one thing; but to have someone, another supposed human being, deliberately cause you really agonizing pain, is quite another thing altogether.
Hard to believe, really.
And I can tell you, I was hurting.
It actually felt as though most of the parts of my body were on fire, and then, on top of that, that I was being stabbed with a red-hot knife. Yeah that’s about it. I never want to be hurt like that again, accident or not.
I just couldn’t go on. I felt weak about it, cursed myself for being pathetic, but I just couldn’t.
I had been sailing the Hobie nearly non-stop since late the evening before, and I was just about asleep on my feet. Well, on my bum, actually, because I’d been sitting most of the time.
I had tried standing and moving around, but I was beyond the point where I could stay awake that way.
And then I capsized.
I suppose a capsize is nothing to really get upset about. I’ve seen plenty of boats tip over in heavy winds, and sometimes in light breezes like that day. But it was the first time I’d ever been in a capsize, and it frightened the pants off me.
Mostly because the first I knew about it was when I landed in the water, everything crashing around me. I must have fallen asleep, I guess.
Unlike most boats, catamarans are most stable when they are upside down, and it can be a terrible job getting them upright. But Uncle Phil’s Hobie has this thing on the top of the mast, looks like a flying saucer, which acts like a float, so the chance of going right over are very, very slight. Maybe impossible, I don’t know.
So I’m in the water, and mercifully cool for the first time that day, incidentally, with the delicious sea-water running up my skin under the rubber of the suit.
And over my head is a capsized catamaran, lying on its side, floating on the flying saucer thing and one of her hulls, the other being nine feet up in the air.
I climbed up onto the lower hull, and tried everything to get her to flop back over. But it was impossible, partly because I was on the wrong side, and therefore adding my weight to the mast and rigging to keep her down, and partly due to the wind blowing onto the underside of the trampoline thing. Simple physics, really.
So I thought about it for a while and finally realised that the answer was to get in the water and turn her around so that the wind was pushing her upright. I did that, and it seemed to take me ages to drag her around by the mast. It’s harder than you think because you’ve got nothing to push against.
Anyway, I got her around in the end, and the water felt so nice that in a way I was hoping that I couldn’t get her upright, so that I’d have to stay in the water. The suit was so buoyant that I could have stretched out, tied myself to the cat with the end of the sheet, and gone to sleep. Except for the sharks, that is: it’s always a bit creepy, not really knowing that there isn’t a shark in the water right underneath you, jaws wide open and rushing up to grab and tear you to pieces… I shook myself and realised, at last, that I’d have to get up on the underside of the hulls and lean out before she’d tip back over.
So I did that, clambering up onto the hull, and standing on the dagger-board. That’s the sort of keel thing that normally hangs down under the boat.
I stood out a bit from the hull, letting my weight slowly drag the sail out of the water on the other side, and she started rising up slowly.
The sheets were still quite tight, so the sail was pretty much along the centre-line of the boat, and it took a while, maybe twenty second or so, for the sail to be dragged clear of the water. But once freed from that weight, over she went with a rush, dropping me back in the water. Her upper hull hit the water with a crash, sending a minor tidal wave high into the air, and all her gear rattled and clanged, and her sail whipped over and she started sailing away from me, and for a moment I was thinking ‘Oh my God…’ and wondering how I’d swim to the shore from here when it was so far away I could hardly see it.
The Hobie gathered speed quite dramatically, leaping from nothing to five or six knots in seconds. But then she started heeling again, and it was with some relief, this time, that I realise that she was going to capsize again, on the other side this time. And she did, tipping slowly and majestically and her head turning and trying to face the wind as she did so. Her masthead hit the water with a sizzle rather than a bang, and we were back where we started.
I swam after her tiredly and began again.
I realised what I had done wrong, and this time lowered the sail before getting her upright again. It should have been obvious, really, but it’s hard to work it all out at once, especially when you’re dog-tired and zonking.
So I fiddled around for a while, letting the halyard go and dragging the sail down in an untidy mess of terylene and rope, and then dragged her around so that she was facing the wind, which is what I should have done the first time, I suppose, and climbing up on the dagger board and jumping clear as she went over, and then, finally, climbing aboard. Buggered. Pardon my Spanish.
I looked around and considered the mess, and I stripped off the wet-suit and made a small tent using the end of the sail draped over the boom, and crawled inside it and went to sleep, only realising that my water bottle, nearly empty though it had been, was now gone.