Raphael scanned the skies to his left but nothing. He could hear Vashti scrambling around behind him. She kicked him in his left knee. He called out her name, impatiently.
“I got it. I got it,” she said. “It’s just off the starboard aft quarter.”
Raphael spun around. He found the big dipper, then the little dipper. There it was. Polaris. Twinkling but constant. Bright. And entirely in the wrong place.
They were supposed to be on an arc, following the seasonal winds, generally heading east toward Ireland and then down to Portugal. In fact, they were closer to a southwest course, heading toward Bermuda, perhaps even the Bahamas. For a moment he tried to visualize their location on a chart, based on the rotation of the high-pressure system they had been riding. Too far south, for sure, but his brain ached at the geometry.
He shunted the thought aside but then cursed himself.
He had been watching the waves for six hours and at the helm for three hours had not realized what was happening.
Raphael paused. He held his eyes shut. He pulled down his diaphragm and expanded his lungs. He held the air for a time, allowing the oxygen to soak into his flesh, and slowly, patiently released his belly and opened his eyes.
“Vashti. I don’t know what’s up but we can’t be that far off course. I am going to come up until we have that star on our beam. I need you to go forward and drop the main. We’ll reduce our sail area a bit ‘til sun up. It will make it more comfortable for everyone sleeping.”
“And when you are done, I want you to go down below and check every hand-held, your phone, anything you can find that might have a GPS. And bring me up the sat phone. And Vashti?”
He paused, and turned to look at her directly: “If we can get away with it, let’s try not to bother the others.”
Vashti zipped her jacket, tied a bandana around her ears and pulled the jacket hood over her head to keep her ears dry. She clicked her tether onto the starboard side jack line, a safety strap attached at both ends of the boat.
She stood up, keeping a bend in her knees to absorb the movement of Paralos. She moved with haste, for sure, but also deliberately; incrementally pausing with each stride, testing her footing. She glided around Isaac, onto the deck, and forward to the mainmast. As she did, Raphael steered into the wind. The waves moved up the hull until they were on the forward quarter. The sails lost their trim, their bite in the wind. Paralos slowed.
Vashti signaled she was ready. Going into the wind now meant the boat was banging into the waves. Instead of pushing the boat forward like kites, the sails were now wings, lifting Paralos forward in the same manner wings lift an airplane into the sky.
Raphael continued through the wind and then the sails were loose and the edges snapped in anger. Seaspray came over the bow at the bottom of every wave, the pellets of water stinging the side of Vashti’s face.
Raphael reached around Nills and released the mainsheet causing the sail to luff and the boom to bang. But only briefly. Vashti released the halyard and in 10 seconds it had fallen 60 feet and was stowed inside the bag around the boom. Raphael reached around the wheel again and yanked on the mainsheet, pulling the boom tight over the middle of the boat.
Within a minute, Vashti was back in the cockpit, her face, jacket, and bare legs dripping. The water stung her eyes but no matter. Inside, she was bubbling.
Stepping over Isaac, she planted herself in the well of the cockpit. Without a word, she cranked the jib-sheet winch, pulling the headsail closer to the boat. The ballooning sail calmed itself and found its ambition. Raphael reached behind Vashti and did the same for the mizzen sail. The mizzen boom moved from three feet off the starboard side to inches over his head.
The banging and snapping replaced with rushing and roaring.
He had no idea how fast they were going but he suspected close to 12 knots. The wind was now well ahead of the beam and stiff.
Almost all of the waves were now capped white, reflecting what little light the moon offered. Occasional white streaks formed on the faces of waves. Raphael had missed that too.
Neville had been right. It had come up and moved forward.
Now Inside the cabin, Vashti fumbled for light switches. One at a time, she clicked on the three red lights in the cabin. They had all been taught it helped night vision. Truth is it didn’t. And there was something ghostly and at once stark and imprecise about her gaze.
She tripped over a rolled-up sleeping bag that had fallen from somewhere.
On the navigation desk, there was a binder, more of a bible, that contained a trove of information about the boat, the crew, and various routes. She grabbed the folder and remembered to check the boat’s main GPS screen mounted at the nav desk. It only showed dashes. No numbers. She avoided contemplating the reason and went about her task.
Vashti grabbed the sat phone, a satellite messenger, and two hand-held GPS units from the nav desk and dropped them on the salon table. She reached onto a shelf for all crews’ phones, including hers. She grabbed a tablet that she knew was loaded with charts.
She counted 10 devices, all of which should be able to place them on the planet.
Vashti leaned forward into the lip of the table, her belly absorbing the boat’s movement. With the change in the trim, the boat was now heeling at 20 degrees and pounding at the bottom of each wave. She bent her knees and spread her legs.
Vashti paged through each crew member’s page. Everyone but Nils had a password listed for their phone. She had no idea what phone belonged to which person and had to enter several passwords for each phone until she narrowed it down.
Nils’ was easy. There was none.
None had a GPS fix. The GPS units. No fix. The tablet. No fix. She threw the satellite phone and the satellite messenger into her pockets, clicked off the lights and headed topside.
She was pleased with herself. She had been efficient and effective. She sat at the aft cabin door, behind which Neville slept. She was surprised he was still sleeping.
“We don’t need a woman on this trip, nevermind a handicapped woman, no matter how well she can handle the sheets,” Neville had said during a crew gathering a couple of months before they shoved off.
She had wondered at the time if he was making a veiled reference to sex but she left it unchallenged.
Raphael told Neville she was on the crew. “Full stop.” He trusted her, now and then.
Neville was awake. He woke when Raphael turned into the wind. He lay in bed, listening to Vashti’s footfalls hitting the deck. He heard the sails luffing. He heard the mainsail drop. And then order restored itself as Vashti and Raphael tightened the sails.
Why had they waited so long to drop the main? Why did we turn so abruptly? Was there an abrupt shift of the wind? It didn’t really line up but if Raphael had dozed at the wheel, he wouldn’t be the first.
He lay on his back, mostly in blackness. Then red light poked through the slats on the cabin door. Vashti was moving around. He could hear her muttering. The boat was moving nicely.
Why was she never still? He was never thrilled to have Vashti as crew. She was a decent enough sailor, he supposed, but she was young and wasn’t as strong as the others. Plus, she seemed to defer to Raphael and not him. And that annoyed him.
He looked at his watch: 0030. Ninety minutes until he returned topside. He closed his eyes.
Topside, Raphael was impatient.
“Nothing Raphael,” Vashti announced when she returned to him after 20 minutes. “The compass on the nav desk is spinning too.”
“Ok, grab the helm. You and me are going to take the rest of the night. Let everyone else sleep. I have no idea what is going on but there is little we can do for now.”
“You know Neville will be up at two,” she said.
“Maybe. Just keep that star on our beam.”
Raphael reached into a pocket on Vashti’s jacket and pulled out her cell phone. He didn’t want to deal with Neville without seeing him clearly. And he wanted time to digest. The boat wasn’t sinking. Above him, the rigging spoke in excited whispers. Paralos was happy to be sailing in this manner.
“I said the sat phone.”
“I know. It’s on the other side.”