It was noon by the time Isaac had laid out his explanation of their compass problems, the cockpit was cleaned up and Vashti and Nils had raised the dinghy off the foredeck and lowered it onto the glassy waters.
And it was hot. Isaac had brought up a thermometer and it read 101 degrees in the shade of the mizzen sail. Raphael decided to leave up the sail to give Neville a spot in the cockpit to lay, away from the worst of the heat. They furled the headsail.
Below was even hotter.
All had stripped to their underwear though Vashti left on her white t-shirt. She removed her bra with great flourish atop the cabin. She unhooked the clasp with one hand and pulled it through a sleeve with the other hand.
Raphael and Nils applauded and whistled. She bowed.
“How did she do that?” Isaac asked Raphael.
“I have no idea, ” he replied. “Not a bad pair either.”
“None of your business, Mr. Isaac,” Vashti said, missing most of what Raphael said. She balled up her bra before throwing it toward the two of them.
Isaac’s cheeks reddened when the undergarment landed over his left shoulders, damp with her sweat.
“OK Isaac, give Vashti her bra back. I want you to go with Nils out in the dinghy. Take the camping compass in the nav desk as well as the two GPS units.
“Take a handheld radio too so we can talk without yelling. I don’t have the energy to yell.”
Isaac rolled his eyes. This was a waste of time, he said. Raphael glared at him. Isaac nodded and went to gather everything.
Raphael started talking to Vashti, without turning to face her, and she punched him in the arm.
“Sorry, he said, shifting toward her. “I want you to feed out a line attached to the dink. We’ll pull them back in when they are done.
“There is a three- or four-hundred-foot line in the aft lazarette. I’ll help you get it out.”
Vashti lifted the bench behind the wheel, exposing scores of lines, each neatly tied up and organized but jammed in none the less.
“I am afraid to say it’s at the bottom,” Raphael said.
Vashti started passing the individual lines to Raphael who took them with his left hand and tossed them on the other side of the wheel on the cockpit floor.
She held up a line with a round knot the size of grapefruit at one end. “You make this monkey’s fist?”
“Yup,” Raphael said. “Never know when you need to throw a line in the wind.”
“Or knock someone out,” she said.
Raphael ignored the dig.
They got to the bottom but the last line was still jammed in place.
“Hold on, let’s do this together,” Raphael said. “On three.”
They both reached down and Vashti counted off. The line popped free, faster than Raphael expected, and he caught his right thumb on an edge of the lazarette. Vashti saw and they dropped the rope.
His nail hung by a flap of cuticle. The top of his thumb had split from the tip up to the edge of where his nail should have ended.
It oozed orange and red.
Forward, Isaac passed a plastic bag to Nils, who was already in the dinghy and had attached the oars.
“Go,” Raphael said. “Take the line. I will clean this up.”
Vashi started to say something but then thought better of it. She lifted the line with both arms and tossed it over her shoulder.
Raphael tore off the nail with his front teeth and spit it into the sea. He put his oozing thumb into his mouth and tasted rusty blood on his tongue.
At the other end of the cockpit, Neville lay propped in the slither of shade cast by the mizzen sail in the midday sun.
He was staring at Raphael.
“What did you do?”
“It’s nothing really. I accidentally dipped it in hot bacon fat this morning and just now caught it on the edge of the lazarette.”
He pushed his thumb into his mouth again and pulled it out, looking pink and clean.
“Look, nothing to see here.”
Neville coughed and winced. “Last time you said that to me, you lied.”
Raphael looked forward, to the right of Neville’s head. He watched Nils shove off and row away from the starboard side of the boat. Isaac sat hunched in the bow, clutching the plastic bag. Vashti fed out the line.
“What do you think about Isaac’s theory,” Neville asked.
“Well, he would say it’s more than a theory.”
“Goodness. A straight answer, please. What do you think?”
There was a laziness to Neville’s speech, the effects of the painkillers he had taken to relieve the pain in his side.
“I think it is as good as any,” Raphael said. “I don’t have any better ideas and the alternative is a nuclear war so I prefer to be optimistic.”
Nevilles’s eyes drooped.
“I think we should turn around and head home,” he said, closing his eyes.
Above Neville’s head, Raphael saw Vashti waving a two-way radio over her head. He waved her back to the cockpit. Isaac must have given it to her before they shoved off.
“Yes,” Raphael said. “Home.”
Vashti cleated off the end of the line, lay the rest on the deck, and then scooted back to the cockpit. Curls of the looped line plopped over the side and into the water as Nils rowed away.
About 50 feet from the boat, he stopped.
“Take out the compass, let’s have a look.”
Isaac had not bothered to look. This exercise was a waste of time. Nothing on the boat was causing the compass to spin or the electronics to not work. The specific reason for problems with the electronics, however, still eluded him
They looked at the compass. The needle spun.
“So you really think that the magnetic poles are switching,” Nils said, a statement rather than a question. He wiped sweat from his hands with a towel and started rowing again. “I knew the magnetic North Pole moved around, a few degrees here and there every year but I had never heard of the North and South poles switching.”
“And that light show is what convinced you? That’s pretty clever, friend.”
They continued another 50, 150, 200 feet and the compass still spun.
Nils spoke as he rowed.
“I never knew it was the earth’s magnetic field that directed solar radiation to the poles and caused the lights. Makes sense though.
“I’m still not sure why that would fuck with our electronics but I suppose there are lots of things that we don’t understand, right Isaac?”
Isaac looked at the GPS units. Still no fix.
“We should just go back,” Isaac said.
“Radio Raphael first,” Nils replied
Isaac pulled the radio from the bag and turned it on. Static screamed at him. He adjusted the squelch, without effect. He turned the volume almost all the way down but could still hear faint crackling.
Isaac pressed the button to activate the microphone and broadcast: “Raffi, Raffi. Isaac.”
No reply. Isaac checked that he was on channel 16 and keyed the radio again.
“Raffi, Raffi. Isaac.”
“I don’t think he is listening,” Nils said. “I just saw Vashti run back to the cockpit, probably with the radio.”
Isaac raised the radio above his head.
“I don’t think he’s looking either,” Nils said. “Let’s go another 100 feet.”
Nils draped a towel over his head and back and continued rowing.
“I would love to go for a swim”, he said as the line from Paralos went taut.
Nils slipped off the rowing bench and lounged sideways in the dinghy, resting his head on one of the dinghy’s bladders, draping his legs over the sides. His bare feet sloshed in the water.
“I need a break, sorry. I wish we had brought some water.”
He looked sideways, toward the northern sky. It was too bright to look south.
“You know Isaac, I can’t remember the last time I saw an airplane. Not really the plane itself but the contrails. Two days ago the sky was a checkerboard of contrails. Today there is nothing. Do you think they are having trouble navigating too? Maybe airplanes are grounded.”
Nils reached over a shoulder and scratched his back before lapping some water on his head.
“I wonder how fucked up things are at home?”
Isaac fiddled with the radio again. “I wish I could call my sister,” he said.
He saw Raphael wave the radio but it was of no use. There was too much static.
“The same thing must explain Vashti’s hearing aids … ” Isaac muttered, once again distracted from Nils’ ramblings.
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with her hearing aids?” Nils asked. “What does that have to do with planes?”
Isaac keyed the radio, annoyed.
“Isaac, what do you mean?” Nils said, splashing his crewmate with a handful of water.
Isaac looked up. Nils splashed him and himself again.
“No planes?” Isaac asked, ignoring the cool water on his face and chest.
He looked over at Nils, his chest was an angry pink.
“Let me see your back,” Isaac said.
Nils felt tightness on the surface of the skin on his back as he slouched forward.
Isaac lifted the towel.
“Oh fuck,” he said. “We have to get back now.”
He raised his two fists above his head, the signal for Vashti to start pulling them in.
Nils scratched his back again and examined his fingernails, tangled with delicate strands of his skin.
“I feel sick,” he said.
Isaac covered him with a towel and grabbed the oars. He couldn’t row properly because Nils was in the way so he faced forward. Vashti had tied the line to the front of the dinghy so when she pulled them back, the dinghy wasn’t moving through the water backwards.
Between Isaac’s clumsy strokes and Vashti’s tugs, the dinghy was back at the boat in a few minutes.
Raphael had come forward to join Vashti when he saw Isaac was rowing, facing forward.
The dinghy bounced off Paralos’ hull and Raphael reached down with his left arm and grasped Isaac’s forearm. With one motion, he pulled Isaac out of the dinghy and on the deck.
They looked down at Nils, still splayed sideways, his face dripping wet.
“I need to get out of here,” Nils said.