An arctic tern stood on one stumpy orange leg on the bowsprit. Above him, hundreds of terns swirled and dived. Raphael could hear the chirping and clicking. Some had small silvery fish or yellow crabs in their blood-orange beaks. Others swooped, the top of their head covered with a highway robber’s black mask, stabbing at another’s meal.
The tern on the bow occasionally opened his beak and released a cheeky chirp.
Raphael shook himself. He turned his head to look toward the stern. Isaac stood slouching over the wheel, reading a book in his left hand. Vashti lay on the starboard side deck, she slept. He couldn’t see the others but assumed them alive.
“You lost too buddy?” he asked the bird.
“Just like you, we can’t find our way,” the bird replied.
Raphael thought how strange it was that it felt normal that the bird would answer in Isaac’s voice.
“Where are you going?”
“Up north,” the tern said. “We’re going to where the sun never sets. We lost our bearings about a day ago. We saw a large patch of seaweed and decided to stop and feed for a while.”
“I can point you to the north when the sun goes down” Raphael offered.
“No, we’re good. The stars will guide us. It’s the daylight hours we struggle with.
“Is your name Isaac?”, Raphael asked.
“My name is Timothy, but you can call me whatever you wish.”
“May I ask, why do you have just one leg?”
“Yes, just one.”
“That’s tough, huh.”
“Not really. Us terns, we have a saying …”
“You have sayings?” Raphael interrupted.
“Why not? Anyway, we have a saying: A tern can do without anything we have two of except a wing.”
Raphael sat with that. “Make sense.”
He felt the boat rise, unexpectedly. He jerked forward, reaching up for something to hold onto. There was nothing there.
In Raphael’s mind, the first humans weren’t so much a migratory species like the tern, rather they were wanderers. And when they had trampled all of the planet’s dirt, they stepped onto boats.
A few days before the terns appeared, Paralos and her crew had already traveled six hundred miles and left little evidence they passed over anything. No footprints or tools for archeologists to find; no fragments of civilization pressed into clay.
For three nights and days and most of a fourth day, her bow gashed the water. And behind her, it healed.
Among the five onboard, the sameness was taking its toll. The swagger, and idle chatter, ended about 200 miles back.
Neville had been at the wheel since two that afternoon. He was ready to be relieved.
Shortly before five, Raphael brought up two cans of beer, one for Nils, who would be the new helmsman and himself, and a three-fingered shot of rum in a stainless-steel coffee mug for Neville.
At five, they rotated.
Neville shuffled to the port side of the cockpit and unclipped his tether from the binnacle. He kept hold of the wheel while Nils shuffled around on the other side.
“Bearing 82 true,” Neville said. “Wind mostly on our port quarter, from the northwest. Fifteen to 20, I guess. A few puffs maybe a tick or two higher.”
Neville took the mug as he released the wheel to Nils who reached over the wheel and clipped his tether onto the binnacle.
“Got it,” Nils said, grabbing the helm.
Neville polished off his rum in one swig. He wiped his lips with the back of his free hand and released the wheel.
“Wind may be shifting more to the north,” Neville continued, talking to Raphael, who had taken Nils’ place sitting in the cockpit.
“We’re still trimmed for a broad reach but we’ve been getting it a little more on the beam in the last hour. Still, the helm is pretty neutral. The wind may be coming up. Wise to throw in a reef if it keeps up. Maybe drop the main instead.”
Neville had sailed the Atlantic in this direction five times, twice in the other direction. Sleep was important and he insisted that Raphael establish a strict watch schedule from the moment they shoved off.
It also gently reminded Nils and Raphael that he knew what needed doing. But right now Neville needed to sleep, despite the early hour.
Raphael, the skipper and boat owner, thought the rigid schedule a little excessive but no one else had sailed the Atlantic even once. And so he deferred. There was no sense dismissing what Neville wanted since the rest of the crew looked up to him, even if they didn’t particularly like him.
Neville nodded to Raphael and then disappeared through the companionway and down into the boat. He would be back in the cockpit in nine hours, at two in the morning, for his next shift.
In three hours, Nils would join Neville below, Raphael would take the helm, and the next person in line, Isaac, would come up from below and take the second seat. In six, Raphael would rest below, Isaac would take the helm and Vashti would take the second seat. In nine hours, she would take the helm and Neville would be back in the cockpit.
These amounted to six-hour shifts, but in fair weather, the person in the cockpit, but not at the wheel, could rest. Only the helmsman had to be on task all the time.
Raphael crossed his left leg over his right knee as he settled on the starboard side of the cockpit, the low side. Behind him, the sea rushed past the hull, He leaned back and reached for one of the woven stainless steel shrouds that held up the mizzen mast. He craned to look up to the top of the sail. With this wind, the leeward shrouds were not under load and should have a wee bit of slack.
He clicked his tether onto it and locked himself in.
Maybe a bit too loose, he thought, rattling the cable.
Nils checked the compass and turned incrementally off the wind. His unkempt curls flopped across his face, sticking in his beard. He jiggled his head to get his hair out of his teeth and lifted a beer to his mouth,
His eyes clicked through an unspoken checklist: The sails, the wind, the compass, the seas.
Raphael stared to the north and found his eye following an approaching wave until it lifted the boat, passed under the keel, and disappeared behind him, heading toward West Africa. He counted how long it took for the next wave to lift the boat: Seven seconds. He guessed each wave was five feet high. More than a few were capped with foam. Maybe the wind was indeed coming up.
The sun was still high in the sky but behind him, and it warmed the back of his neck. The wind at his face hinted at a chill. He zippered up.
After days of fair weather, the crew spent hours watching the waves pass through. There had not been much in the sky to see, save a few fair-weather clouds and, even out here, the hash of blooming jet engine contrails.
Clear nights were a different matter. Stars, planets, and galaxies galore. Raphael loved sailing at night. On moonless nights, no one can see but a few feet from the boat and it feels like she is a planet unto herself, in the orbit of some unseen star.
It is at its best in the hours leading up to dawn. Tonight, he would miss that. He would take the helm at eight, to be relieved at 11. He would rest until eight the following day when he would rise to make breakfast. With this rotation, the person relieved at 11 was done for the night and so responsible for the first meal of the day.
Shortly before eight, Isaac passed up three bowls of chili followed by three hazy plastic glasses of red wine. Raphael moved it all onto the floor of the cockpit and slurped down a steaming bowl so he could relieve Nils.
Nils was always sore after his shift at the wheel. He was a man of significant girth and height and spread his legs wide, which lowered his head. Holding that position was hard on his hamstrings and back.
Paralos’s mizzen boom extended nearly 10 feet from her aft mast, starting at the front of the cockpit, and off the stern. Nils was wary of that boom. His left cheek was blue after they accidentally gybed and it came across the boat earlier in the trip and popped him smartly.
It would have knocked a slighter figure overboard and Neville used that bruise as a cudgel, to remind everyone to always be tethered to the boat.
Raphael finished his chili and nodded to Nils, who unclipped and moved to the port side of the cockpit. As Nils moved forward, Raphael stepped back and grabbed the wheel: “Got it.” Nils released his hand and crumpled on the cockpit’s port side bench.
Raphael had decided two days ago that they would sail through the meals while the fair-weather held. Everyone agreed. A high-pressure system had settled off the Atlantic seaboard before they left. Two days ago, it had started slowly moving away from the United States and in doing so had kept them in these northwesterlies for over 48 hours. He had anticipated that the wind would turn to the north as the system moved east, but that hadn’t happened, yet.
Raphael would turn on his satellite phone and call his forecaster again at dawn tomorrow.
Nils ate his dinners in the cockpit and the three of them discussed the conditions. Not much had changed in three hours, The wind had not come up anymore or shifted. There was little reason for caution.
Raphael, heeding Nev’s warning, decided he and Isaac would drop the main at dusk and sail with just the mizzen sail and the jib at the front.
Nils faced the sun and closed his eyelids, which, to his eyes, glowed a burnt orange.
“I am going to sleep here until the next watch.” Not opening his eyes, he lifted feet onto the bench and lay down, out of the wind.
Raphael gazed over the sea from the helm. Clear skies to the horizon. No birds. No dolphins. No ships. The wind still blew from the northwest. All three sails taut, pulling Paralos along at nearly nine knots. He let go of the wheel. She stayed true. The compass rocked back and forth with the waves between 80 and 84 degrees.
Soon, the sun glowed red behind them.
Raphael closed his eyes too and listened. The bow growled as it plowed through the sea, The transom followed lazily, mischievously gurgling. The wind nattered around the rigging and laughed around the sails.
He opened his eyes and checked the compass.
Soon, only a hint of dusk remained.
“Let’s leave the sails as is,” he said. “Maybe later we’ll drop the main. This is perfect.”
Isaac nodded yes but was somewhere else. Nils was sleeping.
Below, Neville had skipped dinner and was snoring in the aft bunk. Vashti had finished her chili in the salon below and reached through the companionway into the cockpit for the stack of dirty plates.
Isaac balanced the bowls, spoons, and cups between his spiderly fingers and slowly moved them toward Vashti’s outstretched hands. “Got it,” she said.
The rhythm of a boat at sea, Raphael thought.
The sky remained clear. A thumbnail moon rose around nine-thirty. In two nights there would be no moon.
“I am going to lay down,” Isaac said. He zippered his coat to the top off his collar and pulled his hood over his head. He wasn’t wearing gloves but he shoved his hands into his sleeves.
Like Nils, he ducked out of the wind and lay down on his back, staring back in time, at the rocking dome of stars.
Raphael scanned the sea. A large ship, perhaps a tanker or container ship poked itself above the southwest horizon. He estimated it was at least 20 miles away, moving to the south. The boat’s port side navigation light winked red across the waves.
The sun, now below Paralos’ horizon but not the ship’s, silhouetted its boxy top. The rest of the hull hid under the planet’s curve and out of Raphael’s line of sight. It had to be a massive cargo ship to have that much of the boat visible, he thought.
Raphael faced forward again but as he turned he sensed something like a wiggle in the corner of his eye. It would be too much to say he saw anything. And he really didn’t feel anything. He looked down at his compass. He had allowed the boat to drift downwind, 10 degrees off course when he turned to look at the ship.
His left hand nudged the wheel to port and watched the compass settle around 82 degrees.
And then the compass needle wobbled, out of step with Paralos’ climbing and falling of the waves, and more rapidly. It appeared to be caused by something vibrating violently. But nothing was vibrating, at least nothing that would account for this.
It seemed as if the compass was sitting on top of a rough-idling engine.
To varying degrees, boats tend to imprint on sailors. When under sail, taut lines squeak and creak. The hull shudders and unused lines knock with a lazy rhythm. These are the boat’s baseline noises and after a few hours at sea are relegated to the reactive brain. But the moment something interrupts or changes those sounds, or suddenly vibrates, sailors freeze.
Raphael stared at the compass, his eyes wobbling with the needle until they ached. His stomach tightened.
And then it stopped.
Raphael corrected his course again and forced the wind from his lungs. He stared at the compass, now glowing red with a night light, and followed the gently swaying, hypnotizing needle, shaking his head to release its hold.
He lifted his eye to the port sky and could not immediately fix on the North Star. His eyes flitted around the sky, searching for the big dipper. He looked down again. Bearing still about 82, swaying between 79 and 84.
Everything on the boat was as it should be, he told himself.
The snoring in the aft cabin below the cockpit stopped. A cabin portlight unlatched and opened just below Nils head. Nev’s tired red eyes were wide open.
“What the fuck is that?” he asked, looking up at Raphael.
“I don’t know, do you hear anything below? “ Raphael replied. “Any pumps running? Any odd noises?”
“I thought it was topside.”
“We’re ok. Go back to sleep.”
Neville paused, long enough for Raphael to notice.
“What?” Raphael asked. “Go back to sleep.”
Neville slowly turned away, lowering himself back into his bunk. Raphael returned to the compass.
Ten minutes later, their bearing was swinging between 75 and 90. In fifteen minutes, 60 to 110.
Isaac rolled onto his side and tucked his sleeved hands under an ear. Nils’ chin hung down. Drool collected in the hair on the corner of his mouth and glowed red, reflecting the light from the compass.
Vashti poked her head through the companionway. “What was that? Did something happen?”
Raphael started to tell her not to worry but she had already started clambered out of the cabin and into the cockpit. “Really, what’s going on? Mind if I join you? I can’t sleep.”
There was no room for her to sit in the cockpit, with Isaac and Nils both sleeping, so she tucked herself on the bench behind the wheel, leaving just enough room for Raphael to steer.
She clicked her tether onto a shroud and reached for a pocket inside her unzippered jacket for a worn stainless steel flask.
Vashti unscrewed the cap and raised it far enough forward that Raphael could see it, a question and an offering.
“Go ahead,” Raphael said.
She gulped twice and raised it toward Raphael again. He took a swig and handed it back. Her third draw was smaller than the first two gulps and she put it away inside her jacket.
The rum relaxed his gut and dulled her jitters.
Thanks, he said.
“Oh wow dude, that’s fucked up.”
She could see the compass from her perch. The needle was spinning counterclockwise, slightly slower as they passed up the front of passing waves, slightly faster going down.
Raphael glanced left and tried to pick up the North Star. He pressed down the power button on the chart plotter and tossed a towel over the monitor so the flashing screen didn’t ruin his night vision as it powered up.
“Do me a favor, find me the north star.”
He lifted the towel. The map showed nothing but blue, no surprise given they were hundreds of miles from land. At the top right corner of the screen, in pixelated block letters, it read “NO GPS FIX.”
“So what’s up?” Vashti asked.
“No fix. Where is that bloody star?”