This is the second of a series of postings which will feature extracts from my book For Those In Peril On The Sea that will be available from Pictish Beast Publications in the UK from the 3rd of January 2013. You can find the first posting (the prologue) by clicking here. It’s a tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world where the land is no longer safe, leaving the few remaining people struggling to survive at sea. If you like what you read here, you can find out more about it by clicking here. If you wish to read this extract offline, you can download a PDF version of it from here.
I huddled in the night, trying to keep myself out of the wind and the rain. We’d been outside for six hours, searching desperately for a sign of life in the darkness, looking for the signal that would tell us everything was alright, that we’d soon be safe.
‘There. At one o’clock.’ Bill pointed ahead of us, ‘Did you see it?’
It was another five minutes before any of us saw it again. A flash of light in the blackness, glimpsed only once but definitely there. The rain eased slightly and we were able to see it each time it blinked on and off. That was the signal we’d been seeking. In good weather, it would’ve been visible from more than twenty miles away, but with all the rain we could’ve been as close as five miles when we first saw it.
‘We’ll head towards it, but we don’t know what might be out there, so keep your eyes peeled.’ Bill’s tone was authoritative. ‘We’ve got this far, so let’s not screw it up now.’
Bill always seemed to know what to do, and this was probably the only thing that had got us here in one piece. Even then it had been a close call; too close for my liking.
‘What’s that?’ CJ was pointing over the bow, ‘Directly ahead. Something’s out there, something moved.’
CJ was always seeing things that weren’t really there, but tonight I’d give her the benefit of the doubt. I stared into the darkness, straining my eyes, looking for anything that might indicate danger. Suddenly, there was an explosion of air just a few feet away. I jumped, as did Jon. CJ let out a startled yelp. Jon snorted derisively and clicked on the hand-held spotlight before playing it across the sea. A massive creature had broken the surface just off our right-hand bow. Jon swept the light along the animal’s body. As it lay on the surface, floating in the water like the trunk of a gigantic tree, its single blowhole opened again and another powerful breath shot into the night, water droplets glistening in the spotlight’s beam.
‘It’s okay,’ Jon called back to Bill. ‘It’s a sperm whale, just a baby. I think it’s checking us out.’
I calmed myself and continued to search for the pale line on the horizon that would be waves breaking against the low finger of rock that stretched into the ocean somewhere ahead of us. This was home to the Hole-in-the-Wall lighthouse, named after the arch cut through the peninsula by the ever-pounding waves. Having made it all the way from South Africa on our way to Miami, the southern tip of Great Abaco, marked by the lighthouse, was our first sight of land since passing Saint Helena almost five weeks before. Given the weather, we wouldn’t see the breakers until they were only a mile or so away, which would be too close for comfort.
‘We should heave to and wait for daylight.’ I turned to find that Bill, as usual, was one step ahead of me. He was already adjusting the sails and changing the course, bringing us to a halt even in the heavy seas.
I considered the others one by one, the people I had spent the last seven weeks with, six of them at sea with no one else for company. I couldn’t wait to get to Miami where I could step off the boat and never see any of them again. That wasn’t quite true. I’d probably keep in touch with Bill, but I doubted I’d ever hear from Jon again, and probably not from CJ either. We were just too different, in age, in outlook, in everything.
I’d been sailing around the world for the past three years having set out shortly after I’d left the only real job I’d ever had, working as a teaching assistant at a university. I’d never intended to go into teaching. It was only meant to be a temporary job over one winter, to help pay off some bills. I’d gone into archaeology thinking it would be all about exploring ancient ruins and Indiana Jones-style adventures. The first few weeks as an undergraduate dispelled that illusion but, unlike a number of my classmates, I had liked it enough to carry on.
My first dig was a Celtic hill fort in southern Ireland. It didn’t pay but it’d been fascinating, and enough to convince me that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. By the time I completed my Ph.D., I was getting sick of the sparse living conditions and the low or, more often than not, no pay. Digs were also seasonal, especially back home in Scotland, and after September, the few meagre jobs that were available dried up until the following spring. Three years after that, I was worse than broke. Up to my eyeballs in debt, I took the teaching job purely for the money, but I quickly got used to having a regular income and the temporary job stretched into eight years of drudgery.
While the students were a pain, the faculty members were worse. Every staff meeting seemed to consist of little more than an exhibition of one-upmanship, cutting put-downs and quibbles over who deserved the office with the most windows. Before I knew it, I was thirty-six and stuck in a job I hated. I hadn’t done any fieldwork in years, and the closest I ever came to any real archaeology was piecing together shards of pottery for a man who openly despised me, in a tiny office with no windows. I worked long hours for little thanks, and the pay, although good at first, hadn’t kept pace with inflation, while the cost of everything else had rocketed, and I was back to being broke most of the time.
Since it was only meant to be a temporary job, I hadn’t bothered to get to know anyone properly, I hadn’t put down any roots, I hadn’t started any relationships. Yet, as others had come and gone, I’d remained. My only escape was sailing. When my parents died in a car accident, I took the little money they left me and bought a thirty-five foot sail boat that had seen better days. I couldn’t afford to pay anyone else to do it for me, so I spent every scrap of spare time doing it up myself. As I did, I dreamed of cruising exotic coasts and exploring the world. When the economy went south and the university started laying people off, I took the redundancy money, cashed in my pension, sold up pretty much everything I owned and, for the first time in a long time, I followed my dreams.
In three years, I had sailed 20,000 miles, visiting archaeological sites throughout the world. I’d started in the Mediterranean then headed for the Yucatan peninsula and Central America. From there, I‘d passed through the Panama Canal to Easter Island and the archipelagos of the South Pacific before moving on to the Indian Ocean. I’d rediscovered my love for archaeology but my money was pretty much gone and I knew at some point I’d need to go home and get a proper job once more. Then my boat was damaged in rough seas while travelling around the southern tip of Africa and I had put in at Cape Town to make repairs. I’d have still been there if the delivery job hadn’t come along when it did.
When I arrived at the shed that served as an office for the boatyard, four people were already there: my three new crewmates and the yard’s owner. The first three were strangers but I’d known the last one for almost a month as my boat was in his yard. We got on well enough and since he knew I was broke, he’d offered me the job when it came up. I’d only taken it because I needed the money to make repairs, but it also delayed the inevitable return to gainful employment for a little bit longer. As I entered the office, the yard owner looked up and smiled.
‘Hi, Rob. These are the others.’ He gestured towards the three strangers. Pointing to the first one, he said, ‘This is Bill, he’ll be the one in charge.’
Bill was in his late fifties, his face tanned and weathered from a life at sea. He was well-built without being stocky and had a firm handshake. Bill had started life as a commercial fisherman in Maine. When the local fish stocks collapsed, he’d sold up and become a crewman on a charter boat in the Caribbean, leaving behind an ex-wife he’d married too young, then divorced when they’d grown up and realised they’d become very different people. Thirty years later, he was one of the most-respected charter-boat captains in the Indian Ocean, working in places as far apart as South Africa, the Seychelles, Australia and New Zealand. His services were always in demand, but he was now ready to retire and had taken the delivery job to get him to Florida. Once there, he was planning on buying a boat and heading south to reacquaint himself with the islands where he’d started his chartering career.
‘Jon will be the second mate.’
Jon sprang to his feet and grabbed my outstretched hand, greeting me with an over-familiar ‘Hey’.
If you hadn’t known it from his accent, you’d have guessed he was American just by looking at him. Jon was tall and tanned, with shoulder-length blond hair, and was dressed in that effortlessly smart-casual manner only Americans seem to be able to carry off. Jon had grown up in a wealthy family, playing around on expensive boats at his father’s yacht club, and had been expected to go into the family law business, just like his older brother and sister before him. Jon, however, had other plans, dropping out of college after two years when he’d been offered the opportunity to take part in a round-the-world yacht race, his family money allowing him to easily pay the costs that everyone else had to scrimp and save to be able to afford. While his family didn’t approve, they put up with it, figuring he’d go back to college after he got the whole sailing thing out of his system. That had been four years before I met him and Jon still showed no sign of having got anything out of his system.
‘Finally, this is Camilla.’ The owner pointed towards a young, well-dressed girl perched on the edge of a desk.
‘It’s CJ,’ she corrected him quickly.
‘Sorry. This is CJ.’ The owner scowled at her before continuing. ‘She’ll do all the galley stuff and be an extra pair of hands if you need it.’
Camilla Jamieson, or CJ as she preferred to be called, was British, blonde, pretty and posh. She was nineteen and in the middle of a gap year that was being spent having, as she put it, ‘epic adventures’. She had little real sailing experience, having finished her exams at an exclusive all-girls school in the home counties only the summer before, but she’d worked as the cook on Bill’s last charter trip just to see ‘what having a real job would be like’. Bill had grown to like her and, more importantly, her cooking skills; enough to put in a good word and get her the position of cook on the delivery job. She wouldn’t need to know much about sailing, just do whatever she was told, and try not to throw to up in the soup she was making if the seas got a bit rough.
Bill proved himself to be as good a captain as his reputation suggested. He knew his stuff, knew how to get us to work together and do what needed to be done. Jon got on my nerves. He always thought he knew best and was insufferably pompous on the few occasions he was actually right. How Bill was so patient with him, I didn’t know, but I think it helped that Jon looked up to him, almost idolised him. Bill had lived the life Jon wanted so much, and Jon hung on his every word. With me it was different; to Jon I was just some middle-aged guy who could do nothing to help him get where he wanted to go. While Bill offered him the opportunity to learn his chosen trade, he resented the fact that, as first mate, I ranked above him in the on-board pecking order. Maybe it was his youthful enthusiasm, or the way he thought he had the answer to everything, or how he thought he could solve all the world’s problems if only people would listen to him, but something about Jon just rubbed me up the wrong way. I’d probably been just the same when I was his age but now, almost a decade and a half later, I was more jaded, more world-weary, and more realistic about how much one person could actually do to change the world for the better.
CJ was okay, and the meals she created were amongst the best I’d ever had while at sea, but she had a tendency towards the melodramatic, and she was oversensitive to criticism when she got something wrong. She got offended on the few occasions we didn’t like her cooking and frequently accused us of taking her for granted, which both Jon and I almost certainly did most of the time.
After six weeks of being cooped up on a forty-four by twenty-foot piece of fibreglass and plastic, I longed to reach Miami, to get away from the others, to get back to the solitude of my own boat. There was nothing like the feeling of being alone at sea and only so long I could spend on a small boat with people I didn’t really get on with without wanting to kill them, pitch them over the side or, at the very least, never set eyes on them again.
When he was bored, Jon’s favourite sport was needling CJ, calling her ‘Cammy’ just to annoy her as he’d seen how much she’d hated it the first time he’d done it. He’d make fun of the fact she was a rich girl who was only there to play at being poor but, given his own background, he didn’t appear to notice the irony. At one point, I blew my top and pointed this out in no uncertain terms. While I’d apologised the next day, a certain frostiness remained.
At least there was more room than on most boats with a crew of four. The catamaran was designed to sleep eight, ten at a push, meaning we each had cabin to ourselves, somewhere to hole up and hide when being around each other got too much. I think this was the only thing that kept me from throttling Jon, particularly since we’d run into a storm and lost all of our electronics. Without them, not only was it much more difficult to sail, since we had no auto-helm, no radar and no GPS receiver to tell us where we were, but we also had no satellite television or radios, and so no contact with the outside world. If we had, it would have at least given us something new to talk about rather than having the same conversations, hearing the same stories and having the same arguments over and over again.
The storm had been unexpected and intense: a white squall, a wall of rain, spray and 100-mile-an-hour winds that sprang out of nowhere. The vicious winds tore at the sails and waves crashed over us. The cockpit filled in seconds, and would have carried Bill and CJ over the side if it weren’t for their safety harnesses. The storm hit so suddenly we’d had no time to close the hatches and water poured into the cabin from all directions. Once inside, it rained down into the hulls, filling the bilges and the engine compartments, shorting out the electrical system and, with it, the electric bilge pumps. With all the water on board, we lost much of our buoyancy and sank so low that we were almost beneath the waves.
Just as it seemed the boat would flounder and we would all drown, Bill found a course where the waves no longer swept over us quite so frequently. He ordered CJ below to close the hatches and set me and Jon to work on the manual bilge pumps. Soon we were riding high enough again that the immediate danger of being swamped had passed and we could concentrate on fighting the storm. After two hours, it finally blew itself out, leaving us battered and bruised.
As calm descended once more, we inspected the damage. The rigging was loose and most of the sails were split. Both engines had been drenched and neither would start. The batteries had been submerged long enough to have lost their charge, and without the engines we had no way to recharge them. The electrical system had had such a dousing that none of our electronic equipment would work again until it had been given a thorough drying out; something we couldn’t do while rolling around in the middle of the ocean. In my cabin in the left-hand hull, I found all my clothes were soaked. Neither my little FM radio nor my mobile phone had survived their unexpected immersion, and the pages of all my books were pasted together.
We were cut off from the outside world and all we could do was limp onwards. Bill tightened up the rigging and sewed the damaged sails back together. He brought out his ancient sextant so he could work out where we were and in what direction we needed to be heading. After a few days, we had most of the basics sorted … but only the basics. We still had no engines, no electrical system and no electronic equipment. Bill aimed us for Hole-in-the-Wall as it was the first land we’d encounter on our direct route to Miami and, despite the battering the catamaran had received, we still needed to complete the delivery. At the lighthouse, we could make contact with the keepers and get a message passed to the boat’s owners to let them know what had happened.
The preview of Chapter two can be found here.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.