Good Day and thank you for stopping by once again to read another instalment of The Crossing. Things are really hotting up now as the storm begins to take hold... enjoy!
The crew of Ellentari were victims of the continuous vile weather. The sea and wind threw everything at them with a fierceness that they had never before experienced. This and the personal deep depression within the yacht’s cabin made living aboard almost unbearable. Connie refused to speak to Richard and spent most of the time lying down on the saloon settee feeling sorry for herself. She had overcome her seasickness, but steadfastly refused to assist Richard with anything to do with the boat. It was almost as if she had abandoned him as well as the yacht’s well-being. Toby made small attempts to keep the peace and offered his own limited help, which Richard gratefully accepted. He had managed to make a hot drink and a simple meal with his one good arm and was feeling less useless than before. He made small jokes about the cutting edge of his culinary skills and even managed to entice a small smile from Richard.
The yacht continued gallantly on her way toward the west, the deep-blue sea sluicing along her cabin topsides. She was a game little boat and despite the terrible conditions, was taking the battering better than most yachts would. In this Richard was right. Her hull design and build was extremely good. Despite this, the constant high winds in the rigging and relentless violent waves thrown against the hull would eventually take their toll.
The porthole above the chart table had now begun to weep seawater. Where the flailing spinnaker pole had smashed against the deck, it had caught the porthole frame and buckled the metal surround causing the Perspex to crack under the torsion. The crew noticed the broken window and stuck gaffer tape over the, as yet, minute crack. The tape proved useless and spare clothes were stuffed around to mop up the wet. The water dripped, and then became a trickle down the bulkhead, running behind the bank of the control panel which housed the navigational instruments, lights, bilge pumps and radios. The steady ingress of water caused the lights to flicker on the panel and there was a sudden silence from the main bilge pump. The second pump continued to work throwing the sea back from whence it came, but Richard knew that this pump was not as powerful as the other and it wouldn’t be long before it either shorted or burnt out. Sod’s Law of the Sea, he thought. The pumps were a continuous drain on the twenty-four-volt system and the batteries needed recharging. He didn’t need to go out on deck yet again, receiving yet another dousing in order to start the engine, all he had to do was run the generator for power.
He pressed the pre-warm button. It came on with the familiar red glow. He pressed start. There was nothing, not even a slight cough. The seawater had flooded into the control switch and shorted out the power supply. To fix the generator he would have to remove the companionway steps to get into the small space behind. The steps were large and heavy, they could be secured safely but it was a difficult task on your own in a violent seaway. There was no other choice; he would have to use the main engine.
Once again, he dragged on his damp salt-laden jacket and safety harness. Feeling thoroughly annoyed and dejected he staggered up the steps, holding tightly onto the heaving grab holds. The key was in the ignition but he had a premonition before he turned it. He couldn’t believe it. It was a fine time to become a clairvoyant. Of course nothing happened. He tried again. In rage and despair he hit the wheel binnacle and yelled to the elements in frustration. Why this now? He’d done everything right. He’d spent hours servicing the engine so that it ran smoothly and sweetly. The weather at this time of year should be good and benign for a perfect Atlantic crossing. Was World Climate Change affecting the hurricane season, allowing a late storm to hurtle across their path? He’d so wanted Connie to enjoy this voyage. He knew she hated rough weather, but he’d taken every precaution to protect her. It was so bloody unfair. No wonder she hated him at the moment. He had to get something right. True, help was on its way – 200 miles or so to the west – but they had to still be afloat when it finally did arrive.
Wearily, he clambered down from the cockpit ignoring the questioning, anxious face of Toby below. Connie remained lying on her side facing the settee cushions. He opened the engine room door and surveyed the wet scene within. Water sloshed around the compartment, the problem obvious. Water had been sucked into the air intakes and flooded the engine. Normally it would be a fairly simple but grubby job in calm conditions, but not now; there would be no chance of getting it dried out while the storm continued.
‘Ah Richard, I – think the radar’s packed up.’
Toby was moodily staring at a blank screen. Richard groaned in despair.
‘That’s all we need. I can’t get either the genny or the engine to start either.’
Without power, both men knew that soon the instruments, GPS, lights, radio and the remaining electric bilge pump would shut down. The bilge pump was vital to them. There was no way that Richard could manually pump out the seawater they had taken on board for very long. His strength would eventually give up. He knew Toby was useless and Connie little better.
Feeling bitterly disappointed and full of anger Richard had to make a quick decision. There was nothing for it now. The weather showed no sign of easing for the next few hours at least. The situation was becoming more desperate with each minute. They would all have to abandon the yacht and go aboard the ship when it arrived. Earlier, Richard had briefly thought of possibly offloading Connie and Toby and sailing on alone to Antigua. Connie could fly out and re-join him later. To go solo now with everything failing and him feeling exhausted would be suicidal.
‘Right you two. We’d better get our stuff together. We’re definitely going to have to abandon ship now. So, I think, grab your essentials and put them with the passports and credit cards already in the emergency grab bag. Put your lifejackets and harnesses back on and we’d better keep a good lookout for the ship. I’ll activate the EPIRB and its radio position will alert the UK coastguard who will relay our current position to the rescue ship. They shouldn’t miss us then.’
Both Connie and Toby looked at each other in relief. Now they were in the clear over prematurely calling for help. Better still they were getting out of this hellhole. Soon the nightmare would be all over. They smiled and each thought about the coming ship. Toby dreamed of a hot meal of bacon and eggs and a stiff drink or two. Connie dreamed of a hot shower, sitting comfortably on a loo without being thrown off and a deep, long sleep in a soft bed. Richard was more prosaic; he knew that their ordeal wasn’t over yet.
They had to somehow get onto the approaching ship.
Connie went aft to fix a support for Toby’s arm. ‘You need more strapping on that arm,’ she said more like her old self. ‘Then you’ll be able to manage a bit better.’
Toby and Richard were left together in the saloon.
Toby looked rueful as he muttered, ‘I’m sorry about all this.’
Richard frowned at him as he continued.
‘I know how you feel about her. The yacht I mean, Ellentari.’
Richard was momentarily confused before he caustically replied. ‘It’s only a boat. If human lives are at risk then that must be the first priority.’
He was trying not to think about the past few days. How everything had suddenly changed. Their dream crossing turned into this mayhem. The weather, their relationships, the uncertainty of it all was gradually wearing him down. His whole world was caving in. He had to be strong for them all.
The yacht was threshing around, skewing her way down, up, down and through the waves. Simple things like gathering their few possessions for the grab bag were difficult. Richard made Toby sit in the cockpit behind the spray hood keeping a lookout for any other boats. He eventually persuaded Connie that she too would be better off up in the fresh air, ready to get off when help arrived. Together, safely clipped on, they huddled under the spray hood, flinching whenever a particularly large wave crashed into the cockpit glass surround, and cascaded down onto them. The seas were still mountainous and the wind howled all around. Spume flew off the wave crests like treacherous frothy lace. Toby was astounded at the ferocity of it all and could only stare in horror. Being cocooned down below for the past few days he was unprepared for the sight that met his eyes. The enormity of what Richard had had to put up with finally got through to him. He cast his eyes all around him. What monstrous seas!
Suddenly, he noticed a loom on the darkening horizon. He rubbed his tired red-rimmed eyes excitedly, a pain throbbing behind his temple. It was! A ship!
‘Richard! Richard it’s here. The ship, I can see it on the starboard bow.’
He bellowed down to Richard below, straining to overcome the racket that sounded all around him. Together, he and Connie watched the ship as she battled head on to the oncoming waves.
Richard seemed to fly up the companionway steps. He opened the cockpit locker and pulled out a red plastic container. Inside was a collection of their boat safety flares. He needed to alert the captain of their position; they didn’t want to be run down by their would-be saviours. He took out a flare; a distress red-rocket and fired it into the wind.
The ship hove to their side, thereby given some protection to the comparative tiny yacht. The ship’s bulk created a slick of calmer water in which Ellentari lay, and yet, her mast was still rising and falling with each successive wave that passed beneath her. The water surged and crashed as it sucked against her side. In the dim late afternoon light they could just make out the scramble rescue-net that the ship’s crew had thrown over the side. Somehow, that had to be overcome and scaled. Richard knew he would manage it; Connie too was capable so long as she kept her head and didn’t look down. But, the injured arm would seriously impede Toby.
Then, there was the problem of the yacht. It wasn’t enough to simply abandon her. Left as she was, she would be a hazard to other shipping and could cause serious problems. Richard had to make the heart-breaking decision to scuttle her. She would slowly fill with seawater and sink forever beneath the cold, deep water of the Atlantic. His heart felt heavy and full of regret; despite everything she had been a good yacht and only an accident with a loose spinnaker pole had caused her electrical problems. Something briefly nagged at the back of his mind. A story his father had told him about his own exploits during the war. He himself had had to scuttle a boat. Richard shook away the thoughts; he didn’t have time to think about that now.
It was agreed with plenty of sign language and bellowing down from the ship’s captain that Toby would ascend first, aided by Connie. They had thrown down an additional line that Toby knotted into a bowline and tucked under his armpits. He could then half climb and be half-pulled up the scramble rescue net. Richard was to remain behind to knock out the seacocks to fully flood the boat. When this was accomplished this he would then take the grab bag on his back and climb to safety. Assured that the others understood everything, he went below to pick up his hammer.
Toby and Connie positioned themselves on the lee side waiting for a comparative lull in the yawing of the yacht. They were poised ready to leap across the yawning black space to the ship and her scramble net. The ship’s crew hung over the side above them, silently, anxiously watching. The yacht thrashed up and down, dangerously close to the steel hull of the ship. Closer, closer Connie thought; Toby leapt across the dark space and there was a howl of pain as he crashed against the hull. Steadfastly, he managed to crawl a little way up the net aided by the safety rope, until he was clinging above the height of the hull of the yacht and avoiding being crushed as they smacked back together. He clung there panting and whimpering, sea-spray blinding his eyes. He remembered Connie back on Ellentari and half-turned, yelling at her to jump as the hulls began to drift apart. She hesitated only for a moment then, survival being uppermost in her mind, she closed her eyes and jumped. There was a small thump and a terrified scream passed her lips as Connie joined him clamped to the net, just a little below him.
‘Good girl! Now climb, climb as quickly as you can.’
He gasped, and began pulling himself up by his one good arm. He slipped on the wet rope as his feet missed their foothold and he fell away from the ship. Only the restraining rope prevented him from slipping back down into the waters below. As he crashed back to the hull he shrieked with the sharp pain that streaked through him. He had to somehow block it out, in order to survive. Taking a deep breath and with renewed energy, the adrenalin surged within him as he climber higher.
Connie struggled below, but slowly and steadily she made headway up the net. Toby couldn’t believe it when he was grabbed by eager outstretched hands and unceremoniously dragged over the ship’s side to the safety of her deck. He lay there sobbing in relief, pain and exhaustion. He was safe. He’d made it.
Connie was making better progress now. She was concentrating on finding her footholds in the deepening fading light and was more than halfway up the ship’s side. She clenched her teeth and pulled herself another step upwards. She could do this.
The ship lurched and rolled. A sudden monster wave rose up between the yacht and ship and engulfed her. She screamed in sheer terror and panic, saltwater flooding her nose and mouth, choking her. Her cry was torn away on the wind.
Finishing his grisly task below, Richard scrambled as fast as he could up out of the now fast-filling yacht’s saloon. Once on deck, he saw with horror that the gap between the yacht and ship had widened. They had been parted by the monstrous wave and now the gap was eight feet or more. Ellentari went down and then rose up, the net seeming out of arms reach. He had to reach it. Once more the yacht ploughed down in a trough and Richard waited, legs braced and stooped, tightly hanging onto the coach roof. The yacht rose and he could just see the lowest rung of the scramble net…
The merchant ship spent several hours criss-crossing the ocean in a tight figure of eight pattern searching for Connie. Back and forth they searched the spume laden, frothy seas. After the ships medico had re-strapped his arm, Toby had gone up to the ship’s bridge. With his nose pressed against the rain-streaked glass he had looked out at the wave lashed deck and the sea beyond. Once Richard had regained conscious, he had refused any further medical aid for his cuts, and had stood alone against the ship’s rail hoping, just hoping for what he knew to be a miraculous chance that they might find her. After many hours under the now dark skies the captain told Richard that the search was futile. She was lost; drowned in the treacherous deep, blue-black ocean.
Richard felt numb. All the trusted clear channel markers of his life had been rearranged into chaos. He was in the dark on automatic pilot, floundering aimlessly in all directions and in constant danger of running hard aground on the rocks. He desperately needed someone he could talk to. He couldn’t talk to Toby. He felt that he had betrayed his trust. He thought with regret of his father, now recently dead. He’d lived a part of his life in the Royal Navy and he lost many friends at sea during the war. He would understand Richard’s loss and his abject misery at not feeling in control. It’s too late Dad. It’s too late to talk to you and I was too late to save her.
The ship docked in Southampton and the coroner came aboard to take witness statements. A still stunned Richard gave his account through bloodless lips, and afterwards sat silently watching the rain drizzle down the salt-encrusted windows of the wheelhouse. He’d been careless. Accidents happen, but to lose your wife was simply irresponsible beyond belief. The whole tragedy was compounded by his firm belief that she was leaving him for Toby. He’d overheard what Toby had said on that fateful day. ‘I promise I won’t let you down.’
Well, her husband had and nothing was going to change that. He was a complete and utter failure both in his marriage and in maintaining the safety of both of his crew.
One injured and one drowned.
The press were soon hounding him, once he was released from the ship and made his way through the docks. They were waiting vulture-like behind a thin veneer of solicitude.
‘Just a few words please, Mr Barker. What was it really like, on your yacht during the storm? What do you feel now? Could you have avoided the accident? What about Mr Ellis? How did he injure himself? Did you not take enough precautions? What about the relationship now between you and Mr Ellis? Does he blame you?’
And on and on it went with their scarcely-veiled accusations and insults. He had never before felt so utterly wretched, dejected and alone. His whole world had suddenly changed and collapsed around him. He had been catapulted from a life of comparative ease and uncomplicatedness to this. He’d had a happy relationship with his pretty, self-contained wife, a very successful business and a beautiful yacht in which to pursue his dreams. With one cataclysmic heave all had come tumbling down; crashing around his ears and fallen broken, torn and in complete devastation.