Chapter 10 -- Dark Encounter
The dog whimpered, and then opened his eyes. He looked around and sniffed the air. He got to his feet and checked on the boy, sleeping. He looked at the feeble light coming down through the main hatchway, and worked his way up to the deck. One quick look, and with a Yelp, he headed back down and grabbed the boy’s hand in his teeth.
Tommy came awake with a start, his fingers hurting and wet, foul dog breath in his face.
He tugged his hand free. “What! What’s going on?”
Was the dog having another nightmare?
Jaws closed on his hand and pulled. It wasn’t enough to break the skin, but it was insistent.
And as Tommy rolled over and set his bare foot on the floor underneath, he felt a vibration that shouldn’t be there.
“Okay! I’m coming.” He stood up and the dog kept tugging. “Let me get some clothes.” The teeth clamped harder. “Okay!”
He headed for the steps and the dog released his hands and clambered up ahead of him. The vibration was stronger, and now he could hear it. His heart started pounding.
What was going on?
The cool night air hit his skin, but the sight knocked that thought out of his head.
Close on the horizon -- really close -- a light shone from up high.
It was a ship -- a big ship. It was heading straight towards him!
Tommy grabbed the wheel and slammed the throttle hard over. The Marissa lurched for a second, before jerking hard to port as the anchor line snugged tight to the cleat near the bow.
Reacting quicker than thought, he spun the wheel, trying to get the boat turned in another direction.
Not gonna make it! He dashed up to the bow, to the anchor line, but tight as it was, he couldn’t free it from the cleat.
Overhead the light blinked out. The huge hull was so close that he was in its shadow. High on its metal surface, Tommy could see the letters “CUR” -- just part of its name.
A knife! I need to cut the line! But there was no knife closer than the galley below, and he had no time for that.
Dancing across the deck back to the helm, he spun the wheel, trying to head sideways out of path of the oncoming blind mass of metal. The boat splashed awkwardly in the water. Tommy couldn’t break his eyes off the metal hull, moving just a few yards behind the stern. Am I going to clear?
Then, with a shudder, the Marissa began to back up into the wake of the ship.
“The line! It’s caught the line.” He could feel it. The anchor line was dragging under the hull.
“Hey!” he yelled. But it was lost in the rumble of the big ship’s engines. Whoever was driving hadn’t seen his boat in the dark without lights, and wouldn’t be able to hear him either.
Not until they collided and the Marissa was turned into splinters. Will they hear me then?
The anchor line turned the boat around, facing the cargo ship. He couldn’t steer it away. He threw the rudder into mid position and pushed the throttle all the way into reverse.
With a sick fascination, Tommy watched the long mast, sticking beyond the bow, get closer and closer to the oncoming metal hull. It would be the first to go.
Knowing it was useless, he slammed the little lever, the burner, hard forward. Nothing changed. Every couple of seconds, the rope under the ship would slip, and he’d back up a foot or a few inches, but the end was in sight.
Then, with a release so abrupt he fell to his knees, the Marissa came free, and began to heel over.
Tommy grabbed the wheel and steered hard to starboard, trying to get the bow downhill and the throttle forward, surfing the wake thrown off by the ship. Quickly, with the engine at maximum, he put the intruder in the distance.
The beating of his heart, and the chill on his bare skin soon demanded his attention.
“Okay. Okay. Okay.” He throttled back. The Marissa settled into a comfortable rock in the Great Lakes waves. With nervous fingers, he snapped on the navigation lights.
“I need some clothes.” With a suspicious eye on the retreating ship, he padded down to the cabin and dressed. They were a little damp, but with the jacket added, he was warm enough.
The hull shook, and he raced up to the wheel, staring wide-eyed, scanning the horizon. Nothing.
The passing ship was already dwindling into an anonymous light on the horizon. So quickly. It must have come up on him just as rapidly. Without his navigation lights, it couldn’t have seen him. He should have been watching for it.
Someone should always be on watch. If there was no one else to share the duties, then he’d have to do it all himself, until Nick called.
There was motion. He saw the dog watching.
“Thanks for waking me up. We’d have been swimming now if I hadn’t taken action.”
“But you can go back to sleep. I’ll stay up and watch.” He crawled under the bench.
That’s a smart dog. He seems to understand whatever I tell him.
“Then, I might as well talk out loud. I’m going down below for about three minutes, then I’ll be back up.”
He needed a flashlight, and a pair of binoculars.
The cabin was dark, but he decided to leave it that way. He needed his night vision. There was enough glow from the inside GPS and the radio to make out where everything was. He found the cold round grip of the flashlight and used it with the red beam to locate the binoculars.
The gap in the wall where the radar was supposed to be installed gave him a twinge. How much easier it’d be if he could see distance and direction of the other ships from inside the comfort of the cabin!
Oh, well. Not this trip.
First, he had to check for any damage. He didn’t think there had been any contact, but it’d been pretty rough, and he might have missed something.
Under the white beam of the light, the mast looked untouched. It still rested in the cradle, and it was not rigged for any substantial impact. If there’d been any touch, the long elliptical aluminum beam would have jumped out of its holder.
It was strange to see the mast lying flat like that. He was used to seeing it reaching for the sky -- holding firm against the sheets in the wind. Nick must not have been done with his modifications, or he’d have raised the mast.
I’d do it himself if I could. But it wasn’t anything he could do alone, not on a boat this size. It’d take a shipyard crane, at least. And even on their 22-footer, he’d never rigged it completely himself. There were a number of guy lines to hold it in place, stays fore and aft, shrouds to the sides. It wasn’t something for an amateur to try. But surely, there were specs and instructions somewhere down in the library.
Nick had installed radio controls both at the navigation station down below and at the wheel. Tommy turned it to channel 13, where it should have been before. If he’d been on top of things, and on a proper watch, he could have yelled at the big ship on 13 and told them they were bearing down on him.
Now, he’d just monitor, listening for chatter from other ships.
Tommy carefully walked the whole deck, checking for anything that could have shaken loose. He kept one hand on the mast the whole time. There was no jake line to hook onto, and if he fell overboard -- well, it would be a cold dark swim.
Too late, he freed the anchor line and winched it in. There was about half of it left, ending in a torn and unraveled mess. That was a chore for daylight -- check and lash up the line. They had no spare anchor. Nick would have to buy a new one.
The cleat appeared solid. He had expected it to have come loose, after all the beating it had taken. Something else to look at more closely in the daytime.
From the bow, he looked back, and saw the dog’s eyes watching from the safety of the cockpit area. Smart dog. With his claws, this part of the deck would be unstable footing for him.
Tommy ducked under the mast and continued his inspection. The Marissa appeared to have come through the ordeal unscathed. No credit to me.
He hopped down beside the dog. “Everything’s okay. Get some sleep.”
It’d be great if he could trust the dog to stand watch, but he could just be imagining that he was following his words.
He checked his position on the GPS. They’d drifted a little, but with no anchor, there was no help for it. It was probably not a good idea to burn fuel trying to stay in one place.
Stretching out on the bench, while dog slept below him, he watched the stars.
A loud burst of static from the radio startled him awake. He jumped up, and blinked aside the sleep from his eyes.
It was still dark, and there were no lights other than the red and green from the bow and the white stern light.
I fell asleep. That’s not good. He checked his watch. Nearly two hours. Anything could have happened in that time.
But he’d been pushing it. He was running short of sleep. Could he last out the night? And then, he’d still have to pay attention during daylight.
Catnaps. That’s the only way.
He went below and rummaged through the galley until he found the little cooking timer. It had a dial. He twisted it, set it to fifteen minutes, then stretched out on the bench under the stars. He left it ticking on his chest and closed his eyes.
He leaned up and looked around. No lights. Good. He set the dial for another fifteen minutes and closed his eyes again.
For most of the night, he kept it up.
Tick, tick, tick. Ding!
Eyes opened. He sat up, and half-awake, he scanned the horizon, reset the timer and was asleep again in seconds...as the breeze and currents pushed the unresisting Marissa hour by hour.