Lost At Sea

short stories

It was a bright morning, small white wisps of cloud breaking up the expanse of a clear blue sky.

People walking along the seafront, enjoying the end of the winter, white gulls shrieking and soaring, that salty freshness in the air.

Pete was gazing out to sea from the lounge window.

He seemed miles away.

Jan picked her moment –

“How about a trip up to Holy Island for a long weekend?  Get rid of the winter cobwebs. I´ve checked the weather forecast for you; it was good for the weekend, It couldn´t be better for a trip up the coast. If we left Thursday night we could be at anchor by early Friday morning.”

She knew the trip under sail with favorable winds and tides normally took between 8 and 10 hrs.

She looked at Pete – he didn´t ask for much did he? And she had to do something to get their marriage of 25 years back on track. The thought of just the two of them without distractions was a pleasing one – even though she knew a 10 hour trip up to the Island could turn into a slog… but they would be together.

He seemed transfixed on some faraway subject – eventually he turned, looking perplexed, shrugging his shoulders.

“Are you sure?” Came the reply, “You know it´s been a while since you’ve been out on the boat. You don´t have to do it just because of me.”

“No sweetheart, I really do fancy the trip, you can take me out for dinner when we get there.”

“Well then, that’s fine, OK by me.” He sighed, “I wonder if anybody else is thinking of going up from the Yacht club?” 

“Oh, come on Pete, let´s not involve anyone else, I thought it would be nice just to have the 2 of us – like it used to be . . . “

Alright then, as you wish. That´s fine.”  A slight frown showing.

On the Thursday of leaving, Pete and Jan were on board by 9pm. Pete took the helm and they slowly motored off their moorings, lights flickering from fishing boats tied up along the quayside, laughter and loud conversations could be heard coming from the Yacht club.

Once past the piers by about a quarter of a mile, Jan took over the helm and headed their boat up into the gentle night breeze.

Pete hauled up the sails and Jan steered onto their course.

Jan could appreciate his love of being on the boat – he told her long ago about the groan of the sheets straining on the winches, the geometry of the sails to the rigging, he was always checking those small strips on the sails called tell tales – so he could see that the sails were perfectly trimmed. 

The sun was well gone, a subdued light down below from the chart table, the gimbaled compass swinging quietly in the cockpit; its gentle red light confirming their passage. A full moon was showing, lighting up the sails in the eerie night, the boat was gently heeled over as the easterly wind gave them a comfortable ride on a silver dappled sea up the darkened shoreline, only broken with the scattered twinkling lights from the coastal farms. The bow wave of broken white water was tumbling alongside the sleek pale blue hull disappearing into the darkness. In their wake, the light of the moon illuminated the phosphorescence, glittering like diamonds being emptied into the deep dark waters below.

He had been down below and made two large mugs of hot Oxo, they sat close together for some extra warmth, inhaling the beefy flavour and keeping a watch.

“This is the way it should be,” she thought to herself.

She was feeling good about the trip, glad she had suggested it. Maybe she should do this more often, she had forgotten how romantic night sailing can be. Might even improve their sex life.

“You alright sweetheart?”  squeezing his hand.

“I’m fine, I’m fine…now get yourself below for some shut eye, I’ll catch up with some sleep when we’re at anchor”.

Jan went down below to her berth, content . . . a feeling she had almost forgotten.

She quickly drifted off to the rhythmic motion of the boat easing gently through the night sea, the smells of the boat – paraffin from the oil lamps, always a trace of diesel and the secure sounds of the sheets tensing and easing on the sails.

Jan awoke to dawn breaking, a weak watery sun slowly emerging above the horizon – chasing away the darkness of the night.

They were now entering the approach to Holy Island, a tricky entrance – lining up the leading land marks that were critical to a safe entry, but they were pleased with their progress and looking forward to having a good breakfast.

It was 8 o clock when they dropped the anchor. The ground was good and sandy, ideal for holding.

Following a very welcome breakfast Jan was in the galley washing their breakfast pots, Pete stretched out in the saloon, reading, the boat started to swing in the opposite direction.

“That’s not the tide causing us to swing”, said Pete, “Not that fast.”

Looking out on deck he could feel that the wind had changed – it was backing from East to West. This wasn´t expected. The anchorage was always safe – except when the wind came from the West – but even then, they had to be strong Westerly’s.

“Let´s give it some time and we´ll check the 12. 0 clock shipping forecast.”

By midday, the wind had increased steadily up to 30 knots. In these conditions they had no shelter. Even with a good holding ground, dragging the anchor became a real possibility.

The radio forecast was poor. The wind had backed unexpectedly and was due to increase to Gale Force 8 in the next 24 hrs. seas increasing.

“Listen, Jan, stopping is not an option; we really should leave now and head for open water. Staying here is bad news – Look, I’ll get the storm jib out and you check the tide tables. We can either get ourselves back to Blyth in one hop or put into Amble. They´ve good shelter there – as long as we can get in over that damned Sand Bar.– AND don’t forget to add the hour on your tidal calculation.” He disappeared up through the hatch.

Dressed now in full Oilskins, Jan started the engine and Pete, standing on a pitching foredeck hauled by hand the heavy 40 kg anchor and the 20 metres of chain that in normal conditions would have kept them safe.

They motored out of the sound, keeping a careful eye on the depth meter. For an instant they both felt the boat shudder – briefly, but it was a shudder.

“We must have hit something or there is less water here than we anticipated. I think we have just scuffed the bottom . . . You are steering the correct course, Jan?”

“I’m steering exactly what you told me to!”

The sea was no longer moderate, but lumpy and confused, with breaking crests spilling off the ever increasing peaks; grey masses of icy cold water.

“So much for my dinner on the Island” Jan shouted. She was careful to smile  – only to be met with the spray of a cascading wave travelling the length of the boat, as the bow, rising into the air landed flatly in the hollow of the trough – like some giant belly flop.

The wind backed even further, they now had wind against tide, making for a hard, wet sail back down to Blyth.

The hours passed slowly, the weather unabating and unforgiving, the sky overcast, grey and dismal. The sea, cold and dark, white horses running from the crests. The land about 3 miles to the west could just be made out. They were heading virtually due south.

Pete went down below to make some hot drinks. He was met with the cooker swinging wildly, cups and cutlery crashing. Berth cushions fallen to the cabin floor were sliding back and forward.

The door of the forward cabin was clashing as it swung to and fro – it hadn´t been secured…a cacophony of noise.

“We’re going to head into Amble” said Pete “I’ve had enough of this, we can get some rest and shelter there.”

“Well at least we can have a comfortable night in the Marina – and have dinner somewhere special.”

 “ Jesus, is that all you can think of, I’ve hardly had any sleep, I’m cold I’m wet, I’ve never stopped since you said “How about going up to Holy Island” And the weather forecast you gave me couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, are you sure that was our area forecast?”

“It´s not what I wanted either, you know, I was hoping that a weekend away would be good for you. I was only thinking of you.” Salt water was dripping off her hood, her eyelashes caked with salt. Smile well and truly gone.

The wind was demonic, howling and screaming through the rigging, the noise was incessant.

White broken sea water rearing up from the bows came racing down the length of the boat crashing into the cockpit.

Their small 30 ft. sloop, Antares, was sailing as best she could with a storm jib and 3 reefs in the main. Her side decks were awash as large powerful seas dwarfed them, steering to slide down the back of one wave and rise up to the crest of the next towering mass.

In the midst of a raging gale a familiar silence had settled between them . . .

They had had 5 hours of hard sailing when Coquet Island came into sight; the safety of Amble Harbour was only about a mile away from that.

As they neared land and shallower water, large rollers breaking offshore could clearly be seen, spindrift tumbling and streaking from the crests of these powerful surging waves.

Pete crawled up forward from the cockpit, clinging to the lifelines – his one focus, on getting the sails down and secured, then back to the relative safety of the cockpit to start the single cylinder diesel engine which would enable them to enter the small narrow harbour at Amble opposite the island.

Pete took over the tiller from Jan as they made their way slowly towards the Harbour entrance, both keeping a watchful eye for the Marker showing the depth of water at the entrance over the Bar.

At the same moment they looked at each other incredulously, Pete swore. They could both see the Harbour marker – which meant there was less than 2 metres on the sand bar – they drew 2 metres.

The calculations were wrong.

Going about in these conditions was a massive risk, as the chance of being knocked down was just too great. They would never survive the icy waters.

Without warning a large roller broke onto the hull, the impact throwing the boat in a sideways motion, they grabbed at the lifelines, hauling themselves upward looking down from the crest of the breaking wave.

Pete grabbed the tiller bringing the stern around to the oncoming seas, the boat reared up as the surging mass of water lifted Antares, he pulled the helm over, causing the boat to surf along the front of this breaking wave – carrying them into the harbor… and over the bar.

The yacht still surged on – but now on a decreasing swell. They were safe, now in deep water and approaching the jetty.

The relief of tension overtook both of them.

“Let’s get the lines ashore, and sort ourselves out,” said Pete – looking about the decks, the moment of madness gone.

The boat now secured, they sat safely in the cockpit – their oilskins removed and hanging up to dry – there was a break in the sky.

Jan sighed. They were safe.

Furling the sheets on deck Pete quipped – “So who lost an hour on their tide table calculations?… You could have lost my bloody boat!”

Jan let it pass. “Yes, I know I know, I should have realized something wasn´t right when we were leaving and we touched bottom. You’re right, I’m sorry.”

“Yes, alright then . . . look, I´ll see to everything down below and you go ashore and book the Quay restaurant for tonight – OK?”

Jan was relieved he wasn´t going to go on and on, they might still have a good weekend she thought, as she stepped off the boat.

She had just got ashore and was thinking of buying a nice bottle of wine when she realized, “Damn, I’ve left my purse on the boat.”

She slipped back aboard, looking down below from the main hatch, she was about to call for Pete to pass her purse up.

He was on his mobile.

Jan stood listening – Who´s he talking to? Who´s he talking to like that? Who is that?

She felt her knees weaken; a nauseous pain erupted in her stomach.

Her head started to reel.

This was why.

The walks.

The excuses.

“God – what a fool I´ve been” she thought

She was staring at him.

Pete turned his head, he saw her standing, staring, listening.

He closed his phone.

His eyes widened, he went pale, the blood drained from his face, his mouth fell open.

Jan had recovered.

Life was raging back into her body – she could feel her heart pounding.

All these years, blaming herself, blaming anything, anything but him.

“Jan, it´s not what you…”

“Shut up, you pathetic, selfish, bastard. All these years,” she said, shaking her head.

“A lost hour! A lost boat! I can promise you this Peter bloody Thomson, you’ve just lost everything!”

John Stephenson  

Join us online or in person. It's free. We meet 6.30 - 8.30 pm the second Thursday of the month at Las Camelias Hotel, Torreguadiaro, 11310 From September to June.