Raphael jumped down into the dinghy and helped Nils stand. Nils’ limp arm hung over Raphael’s shoulder. Vashti reached for Nils’ free hand.
“Raffi,” Isaac said. “I think we have a bigger problem. We should discuss.”
“Isaac, your timing really sucks. Let’s just get Nils on the boat. I promise, as soon as we get him settled in the cockpit, you will have all the time you need.
“I promise, I am not blowing you off. I will not make that mistake again, OK?
“Go on below and grab the medical kit. Bring up the big tube of antiseptic ointment too.”
Isaac turned toward the cockpit and headed off to do as Raphael had asked.
“Bring drinking water up too,” he yelled.
Nils could not step onto one of the dinghy bladders, never mind onto Paralos’ deck.
“Vashti, this isn’t working,” Raphael said.
“Nils, we’re going to fold your body over the side and then roll up your legs. Vashti, are you ready?”
Slowly, they worked Nils’ body onto the boat. Vashti pulled while Raphael pushed from below. Nils leaned forward and the two worked his shoulders onto the deck, then his belly, then his backside and finally his thighs.
Nils rolled the rest of the way, over and onto his back, and pulled his feet onto the deck.
“Thanks for that,” Nils said. “I am sorry, I was so lightheaded. It is so hot.”
Before stepping up and onto the boat, Raphael filled the bucket with seawater and dumped it on Nil’s head. A few seaweed blades hung over his nose.
“Oh wow, thanks,” he said, even as the salt stung the back of his neck.
Raphael filled the bucket again and handed it to Vashti. She threw it on Nil’s belly.
“That was for you,” Raphael told her.
Vashti, wide-eyed, touched a hearing aid.
“It’s OK, Isaac told me,” Nils said.
Raphael shrugged and handed her another bucket of water. She avoided getting her ears wet and poured it down her back.
Raphael drenched himself and climbed aboard. Vashti tied off the dinghy and the two of them helped Nils aft. Isaac was already in the cockpit.
Isaac had laid a towel on the cockpit bench across from Neville, who was now chasing his narcotics with beers. He followed the movement around him by flopping his head from side-to-side. Raphael dumped a bucket full of salt water on Neville’s head. Isaac took the bucket and followed suit for himself.
It was mid-afternoon and sargassum was gathering around the hull. There was not one cloud in any direction.
Nils lay on his belly. The skin on his back, from his waistline to the rolls of his shoulder, was pocked with blisters and lined with delicate flaps of skin, one cell thick.
Raphael took Neville’s beer and gave Nils two pills. Nils swallowed them dry, passing on the beer and water.
“Vashti, Isaac, we need to rig some shade here. Both of you look pretty red too. There is a canvas tarp in the sail locker. Someone go grab it.”
Isaac stepped forward and into the salon. He checked the temperature below: 120 degrees. Every step through the boat, all the way forward to the sail locker, left an oval puddle.
Vashti filled a bucket with fresh water from the washdown hose, usually tucked away in the corner of the cockpit, and mixed in antiseptic soap from the medical kit.
“Wait, wait,” Neville slurred. “Give him five minutes. Let the oxy catch up.”
Vashti took a washcloth, dunked it in the soapy bucket, wrung it out, and prepared to lay it on Nils’ back.
“Wait Vashti,” Raphael said, being sure that she saw him speak. “Wait ‘til he is a bit stoned before you start.”
She dropped the washcloth in the bucket.
Neville wobbled his head and scrunched his face. “Seeeee,” he said.
Raphael looked down at Neville, emasculated and immovable. He opened the oxy bottle. Neville had taken at least six of the 30 pills. They had 30 more below, but that was it.
“Her hearing aids aren’t working,” he said. “She didn’t hear you.”
Neville seemed to understand but his eyes were drooping as he drifted away.
Moments later, Isaac returned with the canvas tarp.
Isaac handed it to Vashti and then dropped the last sail. Together the three of them unfolded the tarp over the boom. In the middle, there was a small ring. Raphael attached the mizzen sail halyard to it and they tied off the four corners to the rails at the edges of the deck, as far apart as possible. Raphael pulled on the halyard until the canvas went taut, creating a peaked tent above their heads that shaded the entire cockpit.
“Nils you ready for Vashti to clean your back?” he said.
Nils showed a thumbs up.
He was no baby, even as the washcloth lifted off sections of skin.
“Jesus,” Vashti said. Nils said nothing.
It took her 20 minutes to clean him and another 20 to lay down the antiseptic ointment.
The combination of the drugs, the ointment, and shade relieved Nils sufficiently to joke about his fair Norwegian skin.
Raphael looked around. Just a little more time in the sun and all of them would be suffering like Nils.
The cockpit looked like carnage. The strongest backs on the crew were down and they were at least five days from home, assuming good wind. More likely they were a week to nine days out. Still, that was better than continuing, which could take two weeks or more.
Neville would be fine, eventually. A few broken ribs are painful but they would heal; Nils’ sores, however, could, easily get infected. And they didn’t have much to treat him with.
“Isaac, bring up more beer, a six-pack from the icebox. After that, it’s your turn.”
“Nils,” Raphael said. “Here take these antibiotics too.”
He swallowed those dry too.
The sun was getting lower in the sky and it peaked under the edge of their tent. Vashti hung a few towels over the lifelines for shade.
“OK, Isaac, I expect you can explain all this too, right?”
Isaac handed out the beers. Raphael held the icy can to his forehead before prying it open.
The coolness rolled down his throat and lingered in his stomach. It bathed his insides and, for a moment, his body was cool.
“I think so,” Isaac said.
Isaac, being Isaac, took his time explaining, even with the heat. No one had the energy to interrupt anyway and he spoke for 45 minutes.
“It all made sense to me when we couldn’t use the radios and I saw Nils’ back.”
Essentially, Isaac said, while the poles are switching, the earth’s magnetic field would disappear. It would reemerge when the magnetic poles re-established themselves.
In the meantime, however, the radiation from the sun would not be deflected away from the earth’s surface.
“That means the whole planet is cooking,” he said. “I can’t imagine how hot it is on land right now.
“The atmosphere just isn’t much of a defense against this. And beyond that, and this is a bit of a guess, but part of what is bombarding us right now is some form of ionizing radiation, particles really, that would interfere with anything that sends or receives a signal.”
“Like, GPS receivers, or sat phones,” Neville said.
“And my ears,” Vashti said.
Nils turned his head toward Isaac. “Maybe that explains the solar panels too?
“Sort of. That’s probably because so much UV is hitting them. And, yes, what Raphael said, and Vashti’s ears and the radios too.”
They digested Isaac’s assessment in silence. Raphael crushed his empty beer can with one hand and tossed it under the tent and into the seaweed around the boat. He cracked another.
“We really should stay out of the sun as much as possible and wear more than just our underwear,” Isaac said. “We should be covered up.”
Raphael reached across the cockpit and pinched Isaac’s cheek.
“Don’t do that,” Isaac said, wiping the smear from Raphael’s oozing thumb off his cheek with the back of a hand. “I am not a child.”
“It’s good you’re here Isaac.” Raphael said. “As soon as we get some wind, we’re heading home.”
There was no argument.
“For now though. Let’s rest.”