Adventure, Fiction

Safe harbour – a short story

A lighthouse stood vigil as Josie and her vessel cut through the water at the harbour entrance. A crude insignia had been painted across its whitewashed belly. ‘Nelly’s a slut.’ it read in comic book typeface, even the apostrophe was in the right place. ‘This must be a town with clever delinquents.’ She thought. The kind whose parents made certain they got to school. As if to surpass an opportunity like that would constitute sacrilege of the highest order. A pang of longing arose in her mind and she dismissed it just as quickly. Josie could barely delineate a trio of fishermen across the water from her, they were perched around a portable lamp as they framed the break wall like Cormorants; purveyors of a withering gaze as they leaned against fishing poles smoking cigarettes. Lighthouses, she thought as they passed by the edifice; envoys of civilisation bringing comfort to washed up souls after lonely months at sea. Josie was often prone to whimsy, a vestige of early sailing trips with her father. The halogen filament drew an arc across the channel as the 33.6 ft sloop came aglow under the spotlight. The yacht was a highly modified Sparkman & Stephens model S&S 34, the same design used by Jessica Watson and Jesse Martin in their global circumnavigations.

A lightning bolt had sounded the death knell for La Marlena’s maiden voyage, causing a litany of damage. The vessel’s lightning rod had bore most of the impact when the bolt had struck. But the salty-wet had caused some of the seven million volts to jump to the mast and electrocute the hull. Josie had been lucky, insulated by her booties and heavy weather smock, she had been huddled in the cabin surrounded by fibreglass and balsa wood. The noise felt like gunshots fired next to her head. An hour passed and the blood had dried in her ear; a burst left eardrum adding to the confusion. The transponder and radio were fried; the diesel engine still running with the wind vane pilot temporarily disabled. It had eventually seized after the oil lines were set loose by the impact of the waves. Even Parker was broken. Parker was the name she had given to her self-steering windvane system after the chauffeur of the pink Rolls-Royce in the Thunderbirds television series. As far as she could tell, all the practical technology and backup communications built into the craft had been rendered useless. She was on her own.

The last known point before the storm hit, she had marked it down, had been about one hundred and fifty nautical miles South-West of Kiribati. Josie reckoned the storm to have carried her due North, toward the Marshall Islands. Relying on her training, and without electronics, she had plotted a course for safe harbour, hoping to run into civilisation within the archipelago before running out of supplies. Josie had tried at length to triage the broken equipment on the journey onward to no avail. In a stroke of good fortune, she had struck land on the third day. She had stumbled upon the Micronesian archipelago of the Marshall Islands.

For a geographically trifling belt of tiny islands, the Marshalls had a blemished past. Unfortunately for the locals, the Age of Discovery with all its progress had brought with it a darker beast. Namely, colonialism and the struggle for power in the Pacific. Since a Spanish King first declared them his in 1528, the islands have played host to five major colonising powers. The Spaniards were the longest occupying Europeans, using the islands’ natural resources to feed their supply routes to the Americas before selling their claim of the archipelago to the German Empire. After losing the Spanish-American war, the Armada, or what was left of it, no longer needed supplies carried to Manila. The Japanese were next to invade, overpowering the German occupation with a small Naval force during the Great War. After the war, the Treaty of Versailles, sanctioned by the newly formed League of Nations, decreed Japan as the administrative power for the whole of Micronesia. Subsequently, Japan set about trying to assimilate the islands. Eventually, the Americans wrested control from the Japanese during a brief campaign in the Second World War. They then wreaked a great deal of havoc on the land, permanently poisoned and dislodged the inhabitants and handed back sovereignty to the Marshallese in 1979 to clean up the mess. The mess was caused by a nascent technology’s use which, a few years after testing finished in 1958, came uncomfortably close to signalling the end of mankind during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Josie wondered how the surviving cockroaches would have coped having been thrust into a brave-new-world, bereft of Pea-Beau fly spray to hinder their advance. It was odd that a violent dystopia could be juxtaposed against such a peaceful landscape. The first full-scale tests of ‘Atomic bombs’, as they only later became known, were conducted along this series of shorelines by the US military right after World War II. They began by bombing the hell out of the ocean nearby a little place called Bikini Atoll. The name Bikini was originally a markedly different, Marshallese word which was subsequently bastardised by the Germans. The Atoll, from which the two-piece swimsuit bears its namesake, apparently inspired a Madison Avenue executive. The ad-man figured that the new garment would have an explosive effect on men and thus named it accordingly. The nuclear tests left thousands of islanders in exile, many of whose descendants still cannot return due to ongoing contamination.

The original inhabitants knew the islands as jolet jen Anij, or Gifts from God. Fitting, considering the circumstances of her arrival, Josie thought. That’s what they felt like to her as she sailed up to them. The locals had used stick charts to navigate the currents and islands since the second millennia B.C. An astoundingly accurate technology developed by the Micronesians to pilot their canoes and dugout boats. She could have made use of one of these as she sailed through the Atoll. Narrowly avoiding the incessant reefs, she relied on dumb luck and the occasional yelp from Pirate to bring her vessel safely through the shallows.

Josie hadn’t listened much in class, intrinsically knowing that the sea could teach her just about everything she was interested in but she did have a fairly captivating modern history teacher and some of it had sunk in. She thought about the dichotomy of her situation. How could the home of a relatively recent geopolitical maelstrom could now be her safe harbour?

When she had departed some twenty-eight days earlier, there had been a small fanfare arranged to bid her farewell. Josie knew they would be searching for her now; she had missed the check-in point by thirty-seven hours. The thought of piloting a small craft with a broken radio across three hundred nautical miles of oceanic expanse, with nothing but the wind to carry her home did not phase her. It was what she had been trained to do. The thought of failure however, brought Josie to tears the first day of calm after the storm had passed.

A bottle of Verve Cliquot had been smashed against the bow at the launch, and Josie had sailed towards the setting sun with Pirate, the ship’s not-so-ironically-named dog at her side as the crowd sent cheers as she set sail. The memory stood in contrast as they passed the red and green channel markers, illuminated in the darkness. She looked around, exhausted. None were present to welcome her triumphant return, nothing but the transient tide with its flotsam, carried unrelenting on its back.

The waters were calm within the rocky confines of the harbour. Josie looked ashore as the illuminated stones clapped in staccato, awash with the lapping of the sailboat’s wake. The lighthouse beam raked the shoreline only to rouse a stilted approval for its visitor in the night. It was as if the shore rocks could not be roused to greet her with genuine applause. Appropriate, she thought, given her arrival was unannounced.

Pirate was a cross-bred hound to whom Josie was fervently attached. Stout and coarse-haired, the mutt had a decided lack of pedigree. This caused Josie, who prided herself on being a contrarian, to love him despite his unbecoming appearance. She got him from her neighbours who had known her father. It was his last gift to her, before he left. The neighbours, part-time dog breeders, were a reclusive couple from the Netherlands named Lindgred and Petyr, who by all appearances could sustain themselves solely on cigarettes and Diet Coke. The dog’s obscure provenance seemed to lend itself to Josie’s own feelings of disenchantment with the state of her life. The graffiti on the lighthouse suddenly caused Josie to muffle her laugh. Pirate’s mother had been called Nelly. ‘No wonder the poor mutt is growling.’ She thought.

The hybrid cloth of the jib rapped a brief report as Josie spun the helm of La Marlena to port, centering the rudder as she rounded into the wind. The noise slapped against the water as the other boats swayed at their moorings. Josie deftly released the foresall halyard and watched as the sail fell onto the deck. Her canine crewmate bounded toward the sail, he jumped atop the flapping canvas and barked twice in approval. Satisfied, she loosened the mainsheet as they beat lazily across the wind toward the other boats.

Swathes of bioluminescent plankton filled the harbour. Pirate growled at the occasional Bream that punctured the neon green surface like cannonballs fired from Conjuboy lining the rocks.  The fish were feeding on bugs at the surface; their tiny bodies contrasted by the plankton. It made them easy targets for the undersea archers as they zipped about, alert and unencumbered. The dog peered through the pulpit toward the shore, aligned with his master’s gaze. The dog’s home was at sea, he had been practically raised aboard La Marlena when Josie was preparing for her round the world voyage. She wished her dad had been there to help her prepare for it. John had always been a keen sailor. A born Kiwi before emigrating to Australia and the reason for Josie’s dual citizenship, he was raised in the Bay of Islands. John, like Josie had practically grown up on a boat as lead operator of his father’s business, a fishing charters, sole proprietorship. Josie had precious few memories of her grandfather. He had died when she was young, of alcoholism she suspected.

Pirate was equally glad to see the shore. Josie’s eyes rested momentarily on a yellow haze. A solitary street lamp refracted light beneath the fog that hugged the village. Her canine apostle stood staunch, tail wagging impatiently. La Marlena’s slackened sheet lines whipped at the breeze as they lazily tacked toward the shore. The dock was occupied with a row of painted wooden fishing dinghies on either side. There were no moorings and the jetty was too crowded to tie on. La Marlena’s anchor chain – a part aptly called ‘the bitter end’ – had come loose from its crush and the anchor had been lost overboard in the storm. Josie would have to effect a beach landing. The retractable centerboard Josie had insisted that the shipwright install – a rare feature on a yacht of this size – would need to be raised as soon as the sandbank rubbed against the draught. If she timed it wrong the keel would dig into the sand and almost certainly give way with catastrophic results. She did not wish to get this far and risk capsize in a faraway harbour. A short wade through the shallows could be made to reach the dry bank of the harbour. Then she and Pirate would be safe ashore.