Ahead of us, silhouetted against the rising sun, was the first land we’d seen in almost two months. It was little more than an isolated rock rising above the ocean, but it was land nonetheless. More importantly, it was the first landmark we’d seen since the night we’d lost the GPS satellites, and with them, our ability to know exactly where we were. We’d all taken our turn trying to use the sextant and make the required calculations, but while Rob was the best at it the resulting positions were still too erratic for us to have any idea of where we really were. This meant that since the satellites went down, we’d been navigating by dead-reckoning and little else. Rob had told us to try to steer due east at all times, meaning that, based on our last accurate position, we should reach land somewhere around northern France. Yet, the ocean currents we were sailing with were strong, and they’d been pushing our catamaran northwards with every passing mile. How far off course they’d pushed us, we didn’t know, and this meant the land we’d now spotted could be anywhere between Cornwall and the Faroe Islands.
‘Hey, CJ, is that a lighthouse?’ Jeff was shielding his eyes from the early morning sun and squinting towards the horizon.
I screwed up my eyes, trying to get a better look at the island, and the object that I could just make out perched on its summit. ‘I think it is.’
Jimmy picked up the binoculars and started to raise them up to get a closer look when Mike batted his arms down.
‘What d’you do that for?’ Jimmy sounded hurt. Mike rarely treated him as roughly as that.
‘Jimmy, you’d be looking straight at the sunrise.’ Mike sounded exasperated. ‘You’d burn your eyes out.’
‘Oh,’ Jimmy replied sheepishly, ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’ Then, after a brief pause, ‘Thanks.’
Mike ruffled his younger brother’s hair. ‘Not to worry, that’s what I’m here for.’
I watched the scene play out in front of me: it seemed so normal, and yet the world we now found ourselves in was anything but. At nineteen, I was only a few years older than Mike, but while Mike played the role of older brother, more often than not, as the only woman on board, I ended up playing the role of mother to all three boys. I didn’t mind it most of the time, but every now and then, it would cause friction between us, and I sometimes wished that Rob, as the only other adult on board, would act more like a parent and not just as the captain of our little crew.
Rob and I had been sailing across the Atlantic when everything changed, and when we had finally reached the other side, we’d found the world we’d known before was gone, all because of a disease. It sounded so unlikely, but this was no normal disease. Humans had lived alongside the rabies virus for as long as they’d been on the planet: an uneasy truce meaning that while the disease killed people, it did so slowly and they rarely passed it onto others before they died. Then someone decided that humans should strike back. They created a vaccine in an attempt to wipe out the virus, but that wasn’t what had happened. Instead, the vaccine caused it to mutate. Suddenly, it became more virulent, but less deadly. People were now overwhelmed in hours or minutes, rather than weeks or months, and it no longer killed them; it just took over their brains, turning them into violent killing machines that attacked anyone close to them, thus passing on the disease. Spurred on by its increased contagion, the mutated strain of rabies spread like wild fire, bringing down country after country, taking over the land mile by mile, until all that was left of humanity were a few scattered groups, clinging on in remote outposts, where they could somehow avoid the disease, and the infected it created.
There had been four of us on the boat originally: Bill, Rob, Jon and me. Bill had been our captain and Rob his second-in-command, while Jon, just a few years older than me, came next in the onboard pecking order, and I, as youngest and least experienced, came last. I was born Camilla Jamieson, but everyone’s called me CJ since before I can remember. Everyone, except my mother when I was in trouble and Jon, who, when we’d first met, insisted on calling me ‘Cammie’, just because he knew how much it annoyed me. Rob and I were both British, while Jon and Bill were American, and together, the four of us had made up a barely functional crew. At least, that was how it was in the beginning. Then we’d discovered that in our absence, the world had changed beyond all recognition, and we’d realised we’d need to learn to work together if we were to have any hope of surviving.
Our numbers grew to six when we rescued Mike and his younger brother, Jimmy, just off the coast of what was left of Miami. By then, they’d survived a week on their own, and I doubted they’d have been able to keep going much longer if we hadn’t found them when we did. We dropped to five when we lost Bill, but then we’d found the Hope Town community, nestled in a sheltered anchorage in the northern Bahamas. Jeff came on board after his family were killed, making us six again. Then we lost Jon and were back down to five. I still thought about Jon a lot, cried over his loss and why it had happened. I hadn’t known him long, and at first, I’d despised him, but as the situation had worsened, he stopped acting like a spoiled brat and started acting like the grown man he was. That was the Jon I’d fallen in love with, and that was the Jon I’d lost. I wasn’t alone in having lost someone: everyone who’d survived as long as we had had lost people they loved, but knowing this didn’t make my pain any less.
Hope Town had been an oasis in a world fallen apart; a little piece of normality that we hoped would allow us not just to survive, but to live, despite all that had happened … only it didn’t last. The second hurricane had been unexpected and brutal, and only six of the twenty-seven boats in the community made it through intact. The storm had shown us that Hope Town wasn’t a place where we could survive forever, and it was Rob who’d come up with an alternative plan. There was a remote, uninhabited island he’d once visited, which he thought would allow us to regain a toe-hold on the land and give us a better chance of rebuilding our lives, far from the threat of the disease. The only problem was that it meant we’d have to cross the Atlantic to get to it, and the others in the community were unwilling to take the gamble of leaving Hope Town and crossing an ocean, without knowing exactly what they were heading for. After all, it seemed like the virus was everywhere, and how was anyone to know whether Rob’s remembrance of an island was any safer than where they were now?
To solve this problem, Rob had offered to sail ahead, so that he could report back on the situation using our shortwave radio. Then the others would have all the information they’d need to decide if they wanted to follow, or not. By then, Hope Town was just a reminder of what had happened to Jon, and I was more than willing to go with Rob. Jeff was keen to go with us too, for similar reasons, plus we’d become like a family by then and we didn’t want to be split up. Mike and Jimmy felt the same, so the five of us had set off, the three boys seeing it as an opportunity for adventure after having been cooped up in the anchorage in Hope Town for so long.
The first part of the voyage went like clockwork, and we’d reached the halfway mark within a couple of weeks. Then, as suddenly as if someone had flipped a switch, it all started to go wrong. First, we lost the GPS satellites, meaning we no longer knew exactly where we were. Then the storms started: one after another, they rolled over us in what seemed like an endless procession, slowing our progress to a snail’s pace, sapping our morale, and even threatening to sink us at times. With the storms, we lost the opportunity to fish for fresh food and, instead, we had to survive on the rapidly dwindling supplies we’d brought with us from Hope Town. For Mike and Jimmy, this didn’t matter too much because the seasickness that came with the storms meant they could barely keep anything down for more than a few minutes after having eaten. From then on, for the most part, they remained in their bunks or hunkered down in a corner of the cockpit, staring off into the distance, looking grey and gaunt.
The storms meant Rob and I needed all the help we could get to keep the boat moving forward, but the seasickness meant the two brothers were in no condition to help, and at thirteen, Jeff wasn’t able to take on much in the heavy weather. This left just the two of us, and I was hardly experienced enough to remain alone on deck in such strong winds. The result was that Rob had barely slept for more than a few minutes at a time for I don’t know how many days. I could tell this was wearing him down, taking a heavy toll on him both physically and mentally. Rob wasn’t a natural leader and he’d only took on the role when we’d lost Bill. While he’d grown somewhat used to being in charge on board when we were still in Hope Town, he’d always had Jack and Andrew to talk things over with and to share responsibilities. Out on the ocean crossing, we were on our own again, and I could see his old insecurities pushing their way back to the surface, especially after the radio antenna had been damaged and we’d lost contact with those who remained in Hope Town.
At first, Rob talked to me about how he was feeling and the pressure he felt he was under. He was regretting bringing the boys, and now thought he should’ve left them behind, taking others with more sailing experience instead. He worried about whether we’d be able to find our way to our destination without the help of the GPS satellites to tell us which way to go. He was concerned that the whole trip might fail; that Mingulay wouldn’t prove to be the answer to our problems that he hoped it would be … and what that might mean for those we’d left behind.
As the storms continued, day after day, week after week, I noticed Rob was starting to talk less and less, both to me and to the others, and when he did speak, it was only to bark orders. Before my eyes, he was sinking into himself, just as he had after Bill’s death, and this worried me deeply. I needed Rob to keep it together because, without him, there was little chance the rest of us would survive. Yet, I couldn’t tell him this because it would just add to the pressure he was already piling on himself, and so make the situation even worse.
Eventually, the storms eased and Rob could finally get some rest, but no sooner had he gone below than the island appeared over the horizon to our south-west. By my reckoning, it would be several hours before we got anywhere near it, and this left me torn between letting Rob catch up on some much-needed sleep and calling him out on deck so he could see that we might finally be close to reaching our destination. After a couple of minutes deliberating, I came to a decision. ‘Jeff, take the wheel. I’m going inside.’
Jeff jumped to his feet and was over at the helm in an instant, eager as always to help. His had been a sailing family and he’d grown up around boats, so despite the fact that, at thirteen, he was the youngest of the three boys, he was generally the one Rob and I turned to first when we needed an extra set of hands. Jimmy was a few months older than Jeff, but he’d never been on a yacht of any kind before we’d rescued him and his brother as they fled from the disease. At sixteen, Mike was the oldest of the three boys, and he’d been gradually building his sailing skills, soaking up everything Rob taught him, but then came the storms and the seasickness, and he’d barely been able to stand much of the time, let alone assist us with running the boat. Looking at him now, I could see he’d lost a worrying amount of weight over the past few weeks and was little more than skin and bone. I made a mental note that we’d need to do something about that as soon as we were able, but before we could, we’d need to rebuild our stores because there was little food of any kind left on board.
As I approached the glass door of the cabin, I noticed my reflection and saw that Mike wasn’t the only one who’d lost weight. I’d never been particularly fat, but now my cheeks looked sunken and hollow. Some of the girls I’d gone to school with, back before everything changed, would’ve given anything to be this thin and would’ve said I looked amazing, but to me, after all that had happened, I just looked tired and ill. I took a step closer and examined my reflection in more detail. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d looked at myself so closely, and was shocked by the face that stared back. Before all this, I’d been the type of person who’d always had perfect hair and make-up, and a tan to die for. Now, my hair hung dull and lifeless, caked in salt and tied back in a functional ponytail to keep it out of the way. My face was weather-beaten and my skin was flaking away on my cheeks and nose. For the first time, I noticed wrinkles around the corners of my tired-looking eyes and dark bags beneath them, while my lips were blistered and peeling. It was mid-way between my nineteenth and twentieth birthdays, but I looked so much older and more haggard. I shrugged to myself: there was nothing I could do about it and given all the other problems we now faced, my appearance barely registered as something to worry about. Maybe if Jon had still been here, I’d have cared more, but with him gone, there seemed little point.
I slid the door open and stepped inside, seeing Rob curled up on one of the seats, using his waterproof jacket as a makeshift blanket. I left him sleeping for the time being and walked as quietly as possible across to the chart table, to see if I could work out the name of the island we were now approaching, and therefore, where we were. We had a chart laid out on which we’d marked any positions we’d calculated using the sextant, but rather than forming a neat line indicating our route, they were scattered all across the ocean, some of them hundreds of miles apart, even though they were meant to mark positions on successive days. I looked at the one I’d calculated the day before, and tried to work out which island was closest, but the map was not detailed enough, showing as it did, the whole of the North Atlantic.
‘What’re you doing in here? Who’s looking after the boat? What’s happened?’ I turned to see Rob struggling to his feet. I wasn’t the only one who was looking worse for wear. Rob had the same dark bags under his eyes that I did, and both his hair and beard were unkempt and uncared for. There were flecks of grey in them which I was sure hadn’t been there before and, like me, he was starting to resemble someone much older than his actual age of forty.
I did my best to calm him down. ‘Don’t worry. Nothing’s happened. Jeff’s got the wheel and it’s calm enough now for him to be able to handle it.’
Rob yawned and stretched. ‘So how come you’re in here?’ He was clearly on edge, fretting about what might be going on outside. He’d been like this for weeks and I was worried that if the pressure he was putting on himself didn’t let up soon, it might send him over the edge.
I felt my lips crack as I tried to give him a reassuring smile. ‘I was just coming to wake you, actually.’
Rob frowned. ‘So something has happened?’
I shook my head. ‘No. It’s just that there’s an island out there. I think we might’ve made it.’
‘An island?’ Rob turned, weaving his head back and forth as he tried to see it out of the windows at the front of the cabin. ‘What island?’
‘I was just trying to work that out. It’s got a lighthouse …’ I ran my eyes over the chart, trying to see if there were any lighthouses marked on it, but there were none.
Rob scooped up his jacket. ‘What does it look like?’
The question confused me. ‘The island?’
‘No,’ Rob moved towards the cabin door, ‘the lighthouse.’
I replayed the image of the tall, narrow building in my mind. ‘Like the one in Hope Town, but all white.’
Rob nodded. ‘That sounds promising!’
Before I could ask why, Rob had pulled on his raincoat and stepped out into the cockpit. I took one last look at the chart, then followed after him. Outside, Rob was already on the foredeck, binoculars raised, taking care not to look too close to the rising sun as he stared at the slowly approaching island. I went forward and stood beside him. He must have felt my presence because he lowered the binoculars and smiled for the first time in weeks. ‘I think it’s Flannan … or North Rona. Either way, it’s Scotland somewhere.’
I scrunched up my eyes, trying to get a better look at the distant island, but it didn’t work. ‘How can you tell?’
He held the binoculars out to me. ‘Because of the shape of the lighthouse and how it’s built.’
I took the binoculars and examined the tower, but I couldn’t see anything distinctive. ‘It doesn’t look that much different from the ones in the Bahamas.’
Rob grinned. ‘Exactly! It means they’re British. The lighthouses in the Bahamas were designed by the same people who built the ones in Britain: they all have the same basic layout. And if they’re British, then there are really only two that are this far out.’ He took the binoculars back and lifted them again, this time scanning the horizon to the left and right of the island. ‘I can’t see any other islands, so I’m guessing it’s North Rona. Even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter, it still means we’ve made it.’ He turned and strode back towards the cockpit, calling back to me as he did. ‘Come on. Let’s see if we can find something we can have as a celebration.’
I watched him walk away, noticing a spring in his step that I hadn’t seen in a very long time. I smiled to myself, knowing that with Rob’s spirits back up, we were in a much better position than we had been when he was weighed down by the responsibilities of leadership.
Part one of this free preview can be found here, while part three will be posted tomorrow (25th October 2015). If you wish to download a PDF of all three parts to this free preview, you can download it from here.
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