The rain pelted down as if fired from a rifle, each drop lashing Andrew’s coat with more force than he thought possible. It seemed to him that the watery missiles would bore their way through the deck at any moment, bringing the small craft’s plight from bad to hopeless instantly. Somehow though, the deck, the mast and the rudder had remained equal to the battering they had sustained.
Andrew was new to life on the sea and he looked for a hope he lacked to be revealed on the faces of his two companions. George, a 67 year-old man with deeply creased skin from decades of exposure to the glint of sun and whip of wind off of the sea, was struggling mightily while holding the till against the slam of the waves. David meanwhile was busy lashing the boom in-place to stop its hazardous back and forth across the deck. His middle-aged face was flecked with the large drops of rain, slicking back his black-gray hair as he gritted his teeth against the exertion. Neither man seemed quite as concerned as Andrew felt, however the urgency of their actions belied an underpinning of disquiet as wave after wave threatened to simultaneously turn the sailboat toward the rocks of the island ahead or swamp it under a deluge of frigid black water.
For a moment Andrew’s mind flashed ironically back to their situation only an hour before when he had been able to walk effortlessly over a barely-pitching deck, carrying out the instructions of his two more-experienced comrades with calm nonchalance. The day had seemed perfect for sailing and he had rejoiced at the happy rays of sun shining through cotton-white streaks of stratocumulus. He basked not only in the warmth of the life-giving sun, but also in the cool spray that splashed up from the bow, hanging in mid-air and sparkling with a hundred colors in the afternoon sun. He had wondered at that time why George had spent so much of the day meticulously studying the northern horizon. Andrew got the impression that there was something written on the skies in that direction which had some sort of significance to the older man, but to his lubberly eyes it was indecipherable. If Andrew had had a moment of contemplation and pause from his duties, he would have ventured to break the silence of their trip to ask what was so important, but there were always preparations to be made – always tasks to be done. At one point however, he had heard David ask George, “Do you see anything?” A slight shake of the head was all that George provided in answer and the exchange had ended with George turning back to his compass to check their heading.
It was only a few minutes later, as the eastern sky slowly began turning from light to dark blue in the rapid onset of night, that it happened. On one of George’s frequent examinations of the northern line of waves against sky, Andrew looked up to see the old man’s eyes suddenly widen in recognition; immediately George began turning the wheel of the small ship toward the island lying placidly against the darkening sky on their starboard bow. Even Andrew knew that they had intended to steer past this island to continue on their journey, so he looked with interest at George as David sprung out of the cabin below.
“Why’d you change course, George?” David asked.
“There’s a storm coming,” George responded. He then casually pointed to the spot on the northern horizon which had caught his interest. David looked interestedly where he indicated. Andrew could make nothing out of the row of low waves across the horizon except a small sliver of purple beginning to attach itself to the outlines of the line of clouds gathering many miles away.
“We need to head to the south of the island, drop anchor and ride it out,” was all George murmured to David; never mentioning what the signs in the sky and waves were – as if the message was, or at least should be, evident.
David nodded silently in agreement then sprang back downstairs into the cabin and, by the banging and clinking which echoed up to Andrew’s ear, he surmised that David had begun battening down all of the loose items.
Andrew’s concern must have been etched all over his face because George finally looked at him and reassuringly said, “Don’t worry yourself, lad. The storm still won’t be here for another two hours … plenty of time to shelter.”
But George had been wrong. As if Poseidon himself had taken special interest in the storm, the waves had begun rising only five minutes later, crashing over the bow and rail. Indeed, they seemed possessed for violence as they crashed from head on, before regrouping and quartering over, lifting the small craft’s stern and then rotating it. It had only done this a few times before the rain began; growing from a small trickle of sparse drops into the murderous bullets that bombarded their small craft ruthlessly.
Andrew, shaken back to the present by the cold rain blown into his face by the gusts of some northern titan’s breath, worked feverishly at the small pump, bailing water out from below deck. His hair lashed and stung his eyes and his breath came in gasps as he worked the handle of the pump up and down. Can we make it to the leeward side of the island? His frightened mind seemed to only whisper the question – as if he himself was not ready to acknowledge the looming specter of death present in the clouds and waves surrounding him.
Though he spent a good deal of his time shifting his weight in order to stay on the violently pitching deck, his body settled into a rhythm with the pump and Andrew became more aware of the actions of his fellows. David had finally wrestled the boom into place and lashed it down. He then turned and ran aft, across the pitching deck, to help George at the till. Together they held the rudder in place as the swirl of wind and waves threatened constantly to push them further from relative safety. The rudder began creaking from the strain as they forced a line thirty degrees offset from the prevailing waves. The small emergency engine – used only when wind power was unavailable – struggled mightily against its task, and to Andrew’s eyes made no progress in its hopeless push toward the relative calm of the island’s lee.
The storm seethed and frothed around them for what seemed like hours to the seizing muscles in Andrew’s shoulders, back and arms. He maintained his action on the pump, but his body was almost spent. David, noticing the younger man’s exhaustion, called to him from the stern, “Andrew! Come back here and help George hold the till. I’ll take over for a spell.” A momentary shot of relief coursed through Andrew’s veins, but it quickly faded as he struggled across the wet and pitching deck. At one moment the deck seemed steady and level, but the next a wave would catch it, turning it diagonally one way as the small craft climbed a mountainous wave before crashing hard the other way as the ship plunged down into the valley on the other side. It took Andrew several minutes to cross the small deck, but he finally made it, struggled to his feet and put his shoulder against the till in the same way David had done.
The weight of the till was completely unexpected to the new mariner. It felt like each wave, instead of crashing round the rudder with the remarkable dexterity of water flowing in a stream, was a solid block of marble smashing itself against the wooden lifeline. Each pound of its mighty fist felt as if it would splinter the rudder to a thousand sharp pieces and leave the ship foundering helplessly. This new thought filled Andrew with dread. How can we possibly survive this? His mind throbbed the question over and over, in time with his rapidly beating heart. He closed his eyes against the strain, closing out – if for only a moment – the sight of the mêlée in which he was immersed. But closing his eyes was not enough to remove him from the elemental struggle. His ears began picking out the sound of more than just the straining of the rudder and till. He heard the ropes striking viciously on the gunwale, the hull slapping ferociously into each advancing wave and a metal fairlead clinking stridently – like an ill-tuned bell – against the steel-reinforced mast. He tasted the salt of sea mixed with the salt of desperate sweat from his brow. He smelled the foam and the mustiness of rain intermingled with an earthiness of flexing wooden deck.
Andrew re-opened his eyes and saw George’s face grimacing under the till and lit up chillingly in a flash of lightning. The older man’s eyes still roved warily over the waves; the judgment of decades assessing and reassessing their plight. He would suddenly stiffen his spine against the till and then in the next moment allow it to swing slightly free and turn them momentarily from weatherboard. Carved into the old man’s face were the deeper-than-age lines of concern. George obviously knew and calculated their plight, but for the equation of survival to be solved in a positive way, his actions showed that they needed a positive input.
Taking the lead of the older man, Andrew began feeling and responding to the inputs George made. He released or increased pressure on the lever in reply to that of skill and familiarity. The pitching of the deck and anger of the wind, rain and waves were momentarily lost from his senses as he concentrated as much as he was able on George’s guidance. He did it simply to dwell on something other than the fear brought on by the onslaught. But the unexpected products were courage and hope. Courage seemed to course through the tiller between them as the experience of George flowed through it to the frightened novice. Andrew savored it. After hours of fear and strain, the slightest bit of hope felt like a renewal to him. The energy of that hope felt like a jolt of electricity – as if valence electrons of some newly-encountered element were entering through the shoulder pressed in a primal way against the till and spreading a warmth of relief through his bowels, legs, feet and toes.
The relief of hope and courage was short-lived however. An already-angry sea seemed to redouble its efforts to swamp their vessel as if incensed by the impudence displayed in their will to live. The waves began towering up so high that for moments at a time the entire sky was hidden by a monstrous wave of frothy, black water. Flashes of lightning and a cacophony of thunder were the backdrop and orchestra to the drama that was their monstrous struggle. The sea roared and foamed, pitching and breaking and the sky responded with whipping winds that stung their faces and sucked strength from their tired bones.
Andrew began to feel completely hopeless … a hopelessness that seemed intensified by the jolt of courage he had cherished only moments before. Wave after wave lifted the small ship up and plunged it down. Wave after wave broke over the bow, threatening to rotate the ship against all their efforts and then break it into tinder and washboard. He expected each wave to be the last … the one dragging his helpless and exhausted body to the depths. No amount of resolute strength of man could fight the elements. No strength of man …
… and then Andrew prayed. It was only a short, silent, unrefined prayer, but a prayer just the same. Lord, save us … please! The prayer was broken off by a massive wave crashing wickedly over the ship, engulfing it for a moment in deep blue-green-black, but as it dissipated and the next wave began lifting them up, Andrew looked to his east and the smallest possible break in the clouds appeared. Morning had come. The morning star shone out with a ferocity Andrew didn’t know was possible. The light itself seemed to carve physically through the deluge, asserting itself over it, commanding it to give in. The dark and appalling waves turned to a royal blue amidst its light and the cold winds were stripped of their bite. A final wave caught the small ship and drove it forward in what could be mistaken as a purposeful fashion and Andrew’s ears caught the most wonderful words he had heard in his life: “Dave! Drop the anchor!” George bellowed the words with more strength than his weatherworn frame would attest.
Looking up, Andrew could see the peaks of the island towering over them. They shut out a large part of the northern sky and the green moss on the gray granite cliffs seemed to glow in the golden beams of the now-triumphant sun.
The bow anchor hit bottom and held fast in the rocks of their sheltering cove and George threw an anchor from the stern as well. The massive waves still battered them, but it was clear they were in the retreat. Slowly the sky gave up its barrage of rain and each of the three men took a deep breath before collapsing where they were on the deck. Exhaustion won over their bodies which had struggled so valiantly against the rancor and malice of the natural world, and they surrendered to sleep.
All that passed through Andrew’s mind as he passed into dreamless and forgetful sleep was a grateful acknowledgement of survival: We did it … we survived.