Footprints In The Sea – Chapters 9 & 10
By Frances Penwiddy
Copyright © Frances Penwiddy 2015
Footprints in the sea is a work of fiction and any similarity to persons living or dead is coincidental.
This novel is not considered suitable material for minors and is rated X.
I suggest you read Footprints In The Sea in chapter order so if you haven’t read Chapters 1 and 2, please do so.
An Act of heroism and Aurora arrives.
By midday, Wanderer was ready, the Anchor was firmly fixed to the reef and the winch had been connected to a chain which was wrapped around a sturdy piece of rock. I waited sitting on the gunwales of the lifeboat whilst Will made a last check and we were ready. What little current there was, was just beginning to flow towards the gap in the reef as the tide began its ebb, “Stay well clear of my air bubbles on the surface, Will, in case I have to surface in a hurry, I don’t want to have my hair cut by the lifeboat’s prop. If I surface with my arm held up and I wave it from side to side, get to me as fast as you can, that’s the signal that I am in trouble.”
“Why don’t you delay the dive for an hour and give me a bit of instruction and I’ll come down with you?”
I shook my head, “Thanks for the offer but the amount I could teach you in an hour would make you more of a liability than a help. Just becoming competent with the basics takes at least twelve hours of training and as long practising.” I tested the demand valve, gave him a thumbs up and put the valve in my mouth, took a deep breath and back flopped into the sea. Found which way was up and surfaced, cleared my face mask, gave Will another thumbs up and dived. I went down about two metres and swan towards the bow and the hole where she had struck the reef.
Visibility was the best I had ever experienced, at least thirty metres and as I swam along the hull of the Wanderer I could make out the sea bottom which was a mixture of what looked like volcanic lava with small areas of coral reef interspersed by sandy sections, this was marvellous diving territory but for now I had other matters to attend to. As I approached the bow I estimated that the ship was sitting on a rocky ledge from just before where the bulkhead between numbers three and four holds was located. It was high tide and the hole into the hold was entirely under water and there was no sign of escaping air, so we had a tight seal there, Will’s welding was up to par. I swam back a little way and then venting more air from the jacket I did my second most hated diving manoeuvre and that was to swim under the hull of a large ship but light and visibility as I said earlier were excellent and I didn’t suffer my usual claustrophobia.
Almost immediately I spotted some deep scratches on the hull and when I turned to look at the reef to see if Wanderer had hit something on her port side I spotted a bulge in the crater wall and I swam over for a closer look. This too showed evidence of a collision and there were marks that had to have come from our ship, they matched the black paint on the lower part of the hull. It looked as if we had nudged this bulge on the way in and Wanderer had been pushed slightly, just hard enough for her to have hit a jagged section of reef on the starboard side and been holed. If nothing else it demonstrated just how hard and sharp these under water sections of volcanic rock could be when not weathered by rain and wind. I returned to the starboard side and went a little deeper and found the spot where Wanderer had struck the reef the second time, there was a protrusion, quite a large one and roughly triangular in shape and the end had clearly been shattered when the ship had been holed. I swam off a distance and looked back; Wanderer, when she was pulled off the ledge, should miss this section but if the wind or ebbing tide did push her over again she would nudge it at the top and provided we eased her off very slowly there was nothing there to puncture the hull so she should be okay. I turned and swam down to the stern to carry out my number one most hated task, to inspect the propellers of a ship of any size regardless of whether the engines were running or not.
There was no damage there so I finned a little way and surfaced a couple of metres off the lifeboat’s beam. Will was standing in the stern staring across to the stern of Pacific Wanderer where the last of my bubbles were surfacing. “I’m here,” I called and he spun round, “I was beginning to wonder if you were caught up in the props.”
“I’m playing hide and seek and teasing you. Do you want to jot down what I’ve found so far?” He came over to me and took a note book out and wrote as I told him the details and when he finished he nodded, “That’s okay, if we are unlucky, I will have time to get her round and go for the beach.”
“We’ll have to close the bulkheads to be sure because once she’s off the ledge, there’s a drop off down to about twelve metres and then it drops steeply to about thirty metres so if we don’t get her onto the beach, she’ll sink out of sight and we’ll ruin all the high fashion dresses amongst the cargo I discovered yesterday.”
He grinned, “We can’t have that can we. Have you finished now, I get nervous when you disappear down there?”
“Not quite, I’m going down to about ten metres and swimming over to the reef behind us to make sure there’s nothing that we’re likely to hit when we go astern. Just keep your eyes on my bubbles if you can’t see me…” Will’s walkie-talkie started buzzing. “That’s not you playing tricks is it?” he asked as he unhooked it from his belt.
“I haven’t got mine with me, it’s not water-proof.”
He turned up the volume and sat on the gunwale so that I could hear, “Pan-Pan-Pan, this is US Airforce AWAC Papa-Alpha, Two, for Pacific Wanderer, over.”
“Papa, Alpha, Two, go ahead.”
“We tried your ship but received no response so though we’d give this a go, how’s our signal?”
“Loud and clear, where are you?”
“Five hundred feet, five miles out to the east, we can see your superstructure.”
“We’re astern of the ship in a lifeboat checking for underwater obstructions before pulling her off the reef, over.”
“Is Charlie with you?”
“Roger, in the water doing the scuba bit and listening to you at the moment.”
“Charlie, if you can hear me, we understand you are short of milk?”
I laughed and shouted, “Word gets around, no ice cream either.”
“We are overflying your lagoon to have a quick look and then returning to drop supplies. We’ll drop a watertight floating container by parachute and aim for the centre of the lagoon, is that okay.”
“You’re angels, we’ll collect it in the lifeboat, thanks very much, you’ve made my day.”
“You’re welcome ma-am, Papa Alpha Two out.”
As the radio went dead there was a roar and the AWAC complete with mushroom hat flew over us, continued for two miles or so and turned to begin its parachute run and as it crossed the far side of the reef an object fell from it and a parachute blossomed to float down and land in the centre of the lagoon, I waved from the water and Will bent to start the lifeboat’s engine.
“I’ll do the survey whilst you collect it, Will,” and I dived before he had a chance to say anything, the radio operator on the AWAC had called me ma-am, had they been using their equipment to have a close-up look at the ship and seen me wearing a skirt?
Back we went to work and by six in the evening we had Pacific Wanderer safely anchored fore and aft and we had supplemented the anchors with three hawsers from the winches all moored to convenient rocky outcrops and a coconut palm. We had intended to moor her close to the river where the deep water was but that would leave us exposed to the storm which was travelling on schedule and we had already noticed an increase in the wave height and wind speed. Aurora had radioed to check on us and they now expected to arrive at one am and would commence a slow search southwards weather permitting. Will had gone off in the lifeboat with four storm lanterns to fix to either side of the reef and take a bearing from the centre of the gap to the mast on Wanderer so that should Aurora need to come into the lagoon she could enter without hitting the reef and use us if need be to tie up to. The only problems remaining were the list on the ship. The bows were beached and had scored a trench as she drove into the sand and even with clear water under her hull for three quarters of her length the list was noticeably worse but we would adapt now that I had discovered the secret of cooking with gimbals fitted to the range. The other problem was the contents of the container the AWAC had dropped. For the most part, one end had contained what was obviously pre-packed dried and tinned emergency rations, blankets and things like that but there was three packets of sanitary towels included and these were in the front section where the perishable and fresh food, including my milk and ice cream had been packed. I managed to hide them under some cartons of dehydrated food before Will saw them. The Americans had obviously concluded a woman was on board and if Will had seen the towels and connected that with the radio operator’s ma-am when he signed off it would be embarrassing. I know he knows about me but I was worried about how he would react if anybody else put two and two together and peg me as a transsexual. They had the passenger list and I was listed as Charles not Charlotte and that would need some explaining and if I was asked for my passport or any other proof of identity, I was in trouble.
I shrugged it off as a problem to deal with as and when it would be required and went into the galley to take a look at the large casserole that was in the oven and then went back to the radio room to start on the sat-nav. As soon as I had the outer covers off I spotted the fault in the satellite link. A wire had broken loose from a transformer and was resting against its connecting point but it was the insulation that was touching, not bare wire that’s why there was no power. I rummaged around and found the soldering iron and fixed it inside ten minutes and crossed my fingers on one hand and switched on with the other and waited for it to sort itself out and bingo, it started to display the ship’s position exactly as Mariner Five had given it bar one second of longitude but we had moved a little when we re-anchored. I leaned over and turned on the radio room computer and almost immediately, the internet light started flashing, the machine was handshaking and then the Internet availability showed positive. I picked up my walkie-talkie, “Will, we have the sat-nav up and working and it checks out with our position given by the New Zealand Maritime aircraft and we have Internet access.”
“Great, I’ll send you an email thanking you properly when I get back. Can you see the lights on the reef from there?”
“Wait a bit, I’ll go onto the bridge wing.” When I got out there, the lights were easily seen even in the evening daylight and I could see Will heading for the ship, I waved and spoke into the walkie-talkie, “The lights are easily seen even in the daylight.”
“Good, if they are clearly visible in this light, Aurora will be able to spot them from miles away at night. What’s for dinner?”
I laughed, “I’ll send you an email with the evening’s menu.”
We allowed ourselves and hour after dinner, we’d worked hard all day and needed a rest and Will I think, was smitten by my culinary skills. I had caught a large crayfish whilst I was surveying around the stern of Pacific Wanderer after we had beached her and it surrendered, principally because it had strayed a little too far from the rocks where it would normally have been hiding. Will had even eaten seconds of salad but that was due to the spicy chilly and tomato salad dressing I had made rather than still being hungry.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
“The cargo manifest, there’s some good stuff here if we decide to build a holiday cabin.”
“You’ve changed your mind about setting up home here then it’s now a holiday cabin you’re ready to face the world?”
I put the manifest down and turned to face him, “Will, I think we have a little problem.”
“A Charlie, Charlotte problem?”
I nodded, “At midday when we were speaking to the AWAC, the radio operator when he was signing off said ‘You’re welcome ma-am.’ You didn’t notice. Later when we unpacked the food container, they had added some sanitary towels, I hid them before you saw them.”
“Wrong, I did notice what the operator said and I also noticed the sanitary towels and your attempt to hide them and they are part of the standard supplies that are pre-loaded into those containers. Not all shipwrecked people are crew, some are passengers and both include women in their numbers so something like menstruation is not unknown. As for the radio operator; Charlie, your voice pitch is tenor, the high end of tenor and I suspect that if you were to sing you could easily raise your voice to contralto. It is…” he searched for the words, “A gender ambiguous pitch, it would be difficult to positively identify a speaker with that voice as either male or female and there are a lot of men and women in that voice range.”
“Well nobody has ever mentioned it to me before.”
“Of course not, it’s not unusual and if you were dressed in a suit and tie, you would be identified as male without hesitation and equally, if you let your hair down and style it a little differently and wore a skirt and blouse, you would be identified as a woman.”
I sat back in the chair and thought about it and realised that on some occasions when speaking on the telephone to a stranger, they had referred to me as if speaking to a woman, called me Miss or Madam. “The passenger list, Will, it has me down as male.”
“Have you seen it?”
“Well no but when I booked I used my debit card and that has my full name on it, Charles Broughton.”
“You booked on-line, telephone or by a personal call?”
“Who looks at a credit card details? The booking clerk would have been looking at the payment bar to see that it cleared and possibly mistakenly identified you as female by voice and may have entered you as such on the passenger list.”
“What about when I came on board, why didn’t they challenge me then?”
“Probably didn’t even notice the discrepancy. You had the ticket, you had a boarding pass and when you showed them the passport they looked at the photo which matched the face and ticked the name on the list and that was all. You boarded in Wellington had a return and wasn’t visiting any countries that might cause them to scrutinise you as closely as they might at Heathrow or Southampton and you weren’t visiting North Africa or the Middle East. You will probably find that the passenger list says female and you will be arrested on suspicion of murdering your husband if you try to pass yourself off as male. It’s one of the hazards a woman has to face when she tries to impersonate a man.”
“Are you saying I should continue to let them think I am a woman, go on wearing women’s clothes?”
“Yes, certainly at this stage. Later when we are picked up and try to land at a port you may need to do some explaining but if you ask to see somebody from the British Consul, doctor or senior immigration officer, and I back you up that too will be sorted. It might mean surrendering your passport for a few days but nothing more.”
“But I was thinking of you and the embarrassment it would cause.”
“I realise that and I would be embarrassed but for the hold I have over you. I’m a power freak.”
“Yes, for as long as you keep giving me meals like you have, I’ll keep my trap shut but the minute you slide, I’ll blow the whistle, tell them everything and accuse you of having a Kalashnikov hidden in your stocking top.”
I smiled, “You’re good for my self-esteem, Will Devonshire, I promise cordon-blue at every meal and I have a beef casserole in the oven for later when it gets stormy.” I got up and started to clear the table but he stood, “Let me do that, you go down to the shop and pick a nice dress to wear when you welcome the captain of the Aurora when he comes to call.”
“Be careful what you wish for, there’s two or three in my size,” but I did as instructed.
I walked along the racks of dresses and picked a deep burgundy short sleeved dress with a pencil skirt a pair of black patent court shoes with 3 inch heels and a black patent belt and then went to lingerie and added black nylon stockings and a daring set of knickers and bra. I added a gold bracelet watch, a bangle, and gold chain necklace with a love-knot and matching earrings but those I would have to leave for another day, my ears would need piercing for that, this evening I had to make do with imitation gold clip-ons. My last job was burgundy lipstick and eye shadow and that was it. I crept up to the saloon before Will spotted me and reassured that he was busy with the washing up I went into my suite and stripped, showered and went to work.
Just after seven my telephone went, “Washing up is finished, pots and pans as well and I’ve cleaned down the cooker and work surfaces, fancy a drink?”
“I’d love one, I’ll be with you in two or three minutes.” I spritzed a touch of ‘Charlie’, grabbed my small shoulder bag and with ankles wobbling a little and knees knocking I went to the saloon.
“Small G&T,” he asked from the bar, I don’t think we can chance much more, we’ll probably be up most of the night,” He turned with the drinks in his hand and stopped and stared as I walked towards him. My ankles were okay with the heels and my knees reduced to a slight tremble, He didn’t say a word until I was three or four paces away and then he shook his head, “Blast you Charlie, I knew you’d look good if you did yourself up but you look gorgeous, really something else, I can’t believe you could ever think of yourself as a man, I certainly can’t.”
“You think it’s okay?”
“Okay? That qualifies as the understatement of the year, you look absolutely lovely,” he stepped towards me looking slowly from hair to toe, “Absolutely lovely.” He handed me my drink, “I just can’t believe it and as for the Yanks or the Aurora crew, I don’t think you need ever worry, they’ll be too busy storing away the memories of finding you on a shipwreck to ever have time to query who you are.”
“I said it earlier, Will you are terrific at boosting my self-esteem.”
“You don’t need me, go and look in a full length mirror.”
“The only one is in the shop and if I go in there again I’ll spend another few thousand.”
“There’s one in the ladies loo in here.”
“I can’t go in the ladies!”
“You’ll have to get used to it because if I see you in the gents, I’m sending for Interpol.”
I did go in and I could feel his eyes on me as I walked across the saloon. I pushed the door open and on the left next to the hand basins was a full length mirror and I stopped to look. I’m not being vain, Will was right I did look lovely and I stood for three or four minutes admiring myself and I felt good, I liked the me that was looking back at me, I only wish I had discovered Charlotte years ago or better still, Auntie Mo had said something about her suspicions, then I would have had a few years with her guiding me. I turned away and went back to the saloon, I was going to have to change at about ten, I didn’t want to wear these clothes in case we needed to move Pacific Wanderer, I would ladder my nylons and they were the real thing so like Cinderella I would have to get back into jeans and a bright yellow sou'wester and the heels would change into a pair of sea boots but I had two and a half hours in which I could be the real me.
Well almost the real me. As I walked back across the saloon Will’s eyes were following me again, it didn’t worry me, in fact I liked the effect I seemed to be having on him and when I sat down and crossed my legs and pulled the hem of my skirt down, his eyes were on my knees. I reached for my drink and broke the spell and we started chatting about what we were each to do if Pacific Wanderer did look as if she would break free, and how we were to keep watch during the night. We had laboured hard during the day, there’s an awful lot of work involved when two landsmen try to move a cargo ship which is normally crewed by about twenty experienced seamen. We were tired and tired people make mistakes and mistakes made on board an undermanned ship in a force nine gale tended to have serious consequences. We were both going to have to try and get some sleep at our posts, me in the radio room and Will on the bridge.
I looked at the watch I had stolen from the shop, it was nine forty-five, time to get ready, I frowned, I didn’t want to change but stood up with the frown still on my face. “Why the frown, we know we have to get ready for the storm?”
“I don’t want to change.”
“Well don’t, keep the dress on, it will cheer the place up a bit.”
“Will, a silk and wool dress is not best suited for manning an anchor winch on a deck awash with sea water, if it gets wet it will cling to my body and inhibit movement.”
“I know,” he grinned, “That was what I was hoping for.”
I chose to ignore that remark but that left me with the problem of unfastening the top of the dress. I could hardly ask Will, not after his last remark and if he caught a sight of what I was wearing under the dress it would definitely complicate matters further. I wasn’t ready for that for a lot of reasons one of which was simply not knowing what to do, I hadn’t really got the hang of making love to a woman and I certainly didn’t have a clue how to…how to…well how to do it with a man. “I’ll have to change in the cabin, my jeans are in there and then I’ll go on the radio and tell them we are on listening watch with the alarm on, won’t be long.”
“I need to check the anchors and lifeboats and I’ll join you on the bridge. Want me to unhook the zip on the dress before I go?”
That stopped me in my tracks, it was the last thing I was expecting and I was about to say no, I can manage when I felt his fingers brush the back of my neck and lost the will to refuse. Fortunately he was a perfect gentleman, he unhooked it and pulled the zip down an inch, “There you go, you should be able to reach it now but…”
“Scream if I need you,” I finished and disappeared down the passage to my cabin, shut the door and leaned against it on the verge of panic. I was falling for him, no I had fallen for him and wanted him to take the dress of me and caress me and kiss and just about everything a man would do to woman who was half dressed and within easy range of twenty or thirty beds. I was going to have to sit down and give this some hard thinking after the storm because I am pretty sure he had feelings towards me that were more than just friendship.
“Pan – Pan - Pan, this is MV Pacific Wanderer to RNZS Aurora and all stations, over.”
“Pacific Wanderer, this is Aurora, you are loud and clear.”
“Aurora, we are going to listening watch with alarm on. Are there any changes in the ETA storm?”
“Negative, Pacific Wanderer, still 0200 and our ETA search area 0100 with Maritime 5. AWAC PA 2 is searching south of your position in case boats turned about with intention of returning to you. The two Antarctic ships are still heading to you and not expected your area for fourteen hours subject to storm conditions, over.”
“Aurora, thank you, we are going to full watch at 0100, don’t be late I have beef casserole in the oven.”
“You’re a sweetheart, Charlie, have a good rest, Aurora out.”
I felt like banging my head on the radio set, even the Kiwis had me down as a woman now.
Will came in, “Everything is ready outside, any news?” he nodded at the radio.
“Nothing new about the storm, still proceeding as forecast and so are the aircraft but I’m going to my cabin and change again, the bloody Kiwi operator has just called me sweetheart, there’s no point in hiding it.”
Will grinned, “Wear a nightie, it’ll be easier than the dress. I’m going to get some sleep, I’ll call you if anybody shows up and give you a chance to change and look your best.”
“Will, get out before I start throwing things at you,” and he left chuckling. I switched to listening, turned on the alarm and went to my sleeping bag, flopped in and pulled it over my head and prayed that I didn’t wake up with a thirty six, twenty six, thirty six body, deleted that and prayed that I did.
I awoke a little before one, and still half asleep I switched the radio over to live and dragged myself onto the bridge to wake Will. When I was sure he was awake I started to go back to the radio and passed the radar screen and stopped, I thought I had seen something and waited for it to sweep the north sector and saw two blips one larger than the other, “Will, come here there’s a radar contact close to us.”
He was there in an instant and watched, then reached out and switched the set to close range and watched again bending closer to the screen. “Yes, two contacts and the smaller is about the size of a lifeboat, the larger about twice its size,” he moved the cursor to the blips as they faded and a window opened up giving the bearing and range as 020 degrees and 6.9 miles.
“Could it be a submarine?”
He shook his head, “A sub wouldn’t surface in those seas unless they really had to and if they are involved in the search, they would do better by staying submerged and using their underwater detection equipment.” He watched for a little longer and then, “Keep your eyes on them, I’m going out on the bridge wing to take a look.”
He was gone for a couple of minutes and came back soaking wet, “Can’t see a thing beyond a hundred metres past the reef and the rain is almost horizontal. The waves out there are at least four metres,” he nodded towards the radio room, “Tell them, Charlie, I think it may be two of the lifeboats.”
I didn’t wait for more but ran to the radio; “Mayday – Mayday – Mayday, this is MV Pacific Wanderer to Aurora and all stations. We have radar contacts bearing 020 degrees true, range about seven miles from our position, over.
“Mayday – Mayday – Mayday, this is HMNZS Aurora to all stations, cease transmission, I say again, cease transmission I am dealing with a Mayday, reference Pacific Wanderer. Pacific Wanderer please confirm more than one contact, over.”
“Affirmative Aurora, two contacts, one larger than the other, we suspect they may be two of the lifeboats, over.
“Pacific Wanderer, Only two, is there a chance that the larger may be two or three boats in close proximity?”
“Aurora, wait one. Will,” I yelled, “They want to know if the larger could be more than one lifeboat.”
There was a short pause and then he called back, “Probably. Tell them the distance between the contacts is one hundred meters. I’m on close range radar and the large blip may be two boats tied together and they are drifting with the wind and look as if they are not under-way. Direction of drift is north by north - north east and the range is widening very slowly.”
Mayday – Mayday – Mayday, Pacific Wanderer for Aurora, over.”
“Pacific Wanderer go ahead, over.”
“Aurora, we believe we have two lifeboats tied together and a third one a hundred meters from them, there is no sign of the fourth boat. They do not appear to be under power and are drifting slowly away on 020 bearing, over.”
“Roger, Pacific Wanderer, are you able to eyeball them?”
“Negative, Aurora, we have tried but visibility is less than five hundred metres and raining hard, wave height is estimated at greater than four meters, over.”
“Pacific Wanderer, can you try to contact them with VHF, over?”
“Aurora, wait listening am switching frequencies, out.”
“I retuned the set to the VHF emergency frequency channel 16, “Mayday – Mayday – Mayday, this is MV Pacific Wanderer to the radar bearings at 020, range seven miles from my position, thought to be our lifeboats, do you copy, over?” I listened heard nothing and tried twice more with no response and called, “Will did you hear that on your Walkie-Talkie.”
“Nothing, Charlie, I’m still on the frequency we have been using earlier, try that.”
I did but still had no luck and called again to Will, “Can you get your waterproofs on and try from the bridge wing, I can’t leave this radio?”
“Already wearing them, give me a minute.” I could hear him faintly and after three tries he came back and shook his head, “Nothing, they are either damaged or not switched on.”
I turned back to my radio, “Aurora, this is Pacific Wanderer, no response on VHF 16 or our own walkie-talkie frequency, I repeat, no response to VHF transmissions, over.”
“Roger that, Pacific Wanderer, wait whilst we confer, over.”
“Mayday - Mayday – Mayday, this is USAF AWAC Papa Alpha Two to Aurora, copy Pacific Wanderer. We can monitor the VHF transmissions from Pacific Wanderer and confirm no response to any signals. We have the radar contacts and correct the range as 6.78 miles, bearing as given, over.”
“Aurora, acknowledged, over.”
“Pacific Wanderer, acknowledged, over.”
“Papa Alpha Two for Pacific Wanderer, the wind speed at sea level is five oh miles, gusting to six oh, we will attempt to descend to five hundred feet, overfly and drop a flare, we daren’t go lower this bird gets wobbly at those wind speeds, over.”
I sucked in my breath at the understatement, with the huge mushroom stuck on top, flying the AWAC at five hundred feet through a gale left no margin for error. “Papa Alpha, can’t we wait for Aurora?”
“Charlie, you’re worried about us, we’re touched. We’ll be okay, done it before and Aurora is close to three hours away, those boats could be swamped by then.”
I turned to shout for Will but he was right behind me, “We could try in one of our lifeboats, Will.”
“I can try, you stay here by the radio.”
“Sod-off, we both go, there isn’t much you can do in those seas on your own.” I turned back to the set before he could argue, “Papa Alpha Two, copy Aurora. We are going to try and reach them with one of our lifeboats, over.”
“Charlie, you stay on that ship, you’ll never make it with that wind speed and sea height, Aurora over.”
“Seconds to that, Charlie, we don’t want any more casualties, you stay where you are, Papa Alpha Two over,”
“Aurora and Papa Alpha Two, we are switching this set to emergency beacon and will turn on the distress signal in the lifeboat. We are going now unless one of you volunteers to write to the families of the people on those boats and explain why, when help was available, we failed to respond. Our next contact will be through our walkie-talkie frequency, out.” I paused for a second and heard them both speak at once and pressed the emergency beacon button and ran. Will thrust my sou’wester and boots into my arms without a word of protest and we flew downstairs to the landing steps and jumped on board the lifeboat and whilst Will got her untied and started the engine, I scrambled into my sea clothes and went to the bow and found the emergency beacon equipment and switched it on. “I thought you were going to argue with me,” I said as we cleared the Wanderer’s stern.
“No bloody point in arguing with a woman when she’s made up her mind.”
I grinned and said, “Dead right,” and started sorting out my diving equipment.
He steered for the gap in the reef giving me a funny look, “Why are you sorting out your diving gear?”
I looked down and concentrated on checking the breathing apparatus and answered in a soft voice, “In case we should be sunk, I can tow you back to the island.”
“You can do what!”
“Tow you back whilst you concentrate on keeping your head up, the fins will give me more power.”
“Charlie, I’m warning you, if I see you getting ready to jump overboard, I’m going to tie you down to a bloody seat.”
I put the demand valves down and looked up, “It’s partly the truth, Will, if we capsize in these seas your life-jacket will keep you afloat but you won’t be able to swim far. I can grab you and if need be, not worry about keeping my head up and breath off the bottle and concentrate on finning us back.”
“And what’s the part of the truth you’re not telling me?”
I didn’t have a chance to answer, we had just passed through the gap when a huge wave caught us, lifted the boat and pushed us back into the lagoon and Will had to fight the tiller as he brought the head round and went out of the gap at an angle with the throttle wide open. This time we climbed the waves and cleared the reef and Will then had to concentrate on bringing the head round to steer on the 020 degrees course so I moved back to the bow whilst I had the chance, arranged my fins, mask and air bottle where I could get to them easily and unclipped my walkie-talkie after struggling to find it under the sou'wester. Mayday – Mayday - Mayday, Pacific Wanderer for Papa Alpha Two, over.”
“Charlie, you crazy pair of…”
“Papa Alpha, don’t be rude. How me?”
“Loud and clear and we have your beacon. Change your heading to 355 degrees magnetic, the wind and current are pushing you of course, over.”
I yelled the new bearing to Will and acknowledged to the AWAC and added, “We are flat out Papa Alpha, can you estimate our speed over the ground and time to nearest lifeboat, over.”
“It would be easier to estimate your ETA to Davy Jones, wait one…..Charlie at the current speed and heading you should meet the boats in 28 minutes, over.”
“Thank you, am going to kit up so will be on listening watch for a few minutes, over.”
“Kit up? Kit up for what, what kit? Over”
“Wet suit, over.”
“Wet suit, Charlie don’t even think of diving off that boat, it’s insane, over.”
“I’m not thinking of going overboard, it’s better than a sou'wester, it’s raining hard down here, over.”
“Will, are you listening to this?”
“Roger, Papa Alpha.”
“Stop that crazy woman from going over the side, over.”
“Negative, she’s at the other end of the boat and I daren’t leave the helm or we’ll broach, over.”
“Then turn the boat round and get back into the lagoon.”
“I can’t, I can’t even see it now and we’d run a risk of hitting the reef and even if we did get into the lagoon, she’d sulk for weeks.”
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this. Will, the wind speeds are gusting to near sixty five and the wave heights are at least six metres, she can’t survive in that, and the water is going to be dammed cold, that’s the Antarctic current down there.”
“Roger, Papa Alpha, I’ll do what I can to stop her, out.”
I blew Will a kiss and turned my back to him and stripped and was hit by a wave coming over the bow and screeched, they weren’t exaggerating, the water was icy. I struggled into my swim costume and wet suit as fast as I could before I got soaked again and once I had the leggings, vest and bootees on it wasn’t so bad. I stood up and pulled the jacket and hood on and climbed onto the bow decking and gripped the mast with both hands and all I could see was a wall of water in front of me and then the sky as Will touched the tiller and the lifeboat began to climb. He shouted and I just heard him above the noise of the wind and turned, “Safety line,” he yelled and stooped to reach under a seat and pull up a line and clip it around his waist. I climbed down from the locker and followed his example and once it was on I found I was connected to the life boat by a three metre line. I walked down to the stern as far as the safety line allowed and shouted, “Do you want something to eat from the emergency rations?”
“Charlie, under the side seats are a series of those safety lines, unclip yours and clip on to one near you and come down here.” I did as he told me but instead of dropping the line I was wearing I unclipped both ends of the new one and fixed it to me and then joined it to my original line from the boat so now I had enough to move up and down the boat as necessary.
When I got down to his end he looked at what I’d done, shook his head and said, “Don’t go into that sea, its ice cold.”
“I know, I was hit by a wave whilst I was changing. I asked you if you wanted to eat or drink something.”
“There are food packs under the seats, see if there are chocolate bars in there.”
There were and we had a bar each, I was starving despite having eaten a large dinner. As I finished I could hear an engine, a plane engine and then the walkie-talkie called, “Pacific Wanderer we are flying at seven hundred and be over you shortly, keep on your current heading and we will drop a red flare over the nearest target, over.”
Will answered, “Roger, Papa Alpha, how far is target?”
“One hundred metres and Aurora will be with you in two zero minutes.”
“I’ll go up to the bow and look for her,” I said and hurried away, reached the bow and climbed up and holding the mast again I waited. I saw the red flare from the AWAC pop and hover for a few seconds and then it was blown off to the north east and I turned to make sure Will had seen it but pointed anyway and he corrected the tiller. We rose on the crest of a wave and I saw nothing and waited for the moment when both boats were on crests. The next wave drew a blank and I turned back to Will and saw him lift his walkie-talkie to his ear, listen and then spoke briefly before making a correction to his course so I turned to the front again and waited and the second wave lifted us and there less than twenty meters away were the two lifeboats tied together and there was a man in the water tied to the side with a lifeline but his head wasn’t moving so he was probably dead. I turned to see if Will had seen it and he waved so I turned again but we had dropped into a valley between waves and I waited and as we rose again, the lifeboats were dead ahead and the man in the water turned his head for a moment so I dropped down and sat on the floor of the boat, pulled my fins on, unclipped the safety line and then got into my buoyancy jacket and finally struggled into my air bottle harness and weight belt, climbed on to the gunwale and shouted to Will, “The man in the water is alive I think, I’ll go to him. Put the gearbox in neutral when I hit the water and wait for me to swim clear,” and before he could argue, I back flipped and hit what felt like an iceberg it was so cold and I cursed, I’d forgotten my gloves and in seconds my face and hands felt like ice. I pulled the chin of the hood as high as I could, cleared my mask and started to swim but I was too buoyant and my fins were breaking the surface so I vented air from the buoyancy jacket, sank about a metre and a half and finned liked crazy. I wasn’t going to last long before the temperature slowed me down and the finning got my circulation going. I swam for a few minutes and surfaced, I was about three metres from the man so I put on a spurt and reached out and managed to get a hand on his shoulder but it was dragged off as I was sucked away. But for my mouthpiece I would have screamed with frustration. I sank and finned a couple of times and broke the surface but he was too far away and to my horror I saw the safety line break free from the boat. The cold was biting into me now and I began to feel very tired, almost sleepy and was tempted to turn and try to fin back to Will but I was lifted for a second and saw the man again and he was staring straight at me, his eyes confused, lost, he said something and his head fell forward. I became very angry, I wasn’t going to allow him to escape me and willed more strength into my hip and thigh muscles. I sunk a little and forced my legs to work and push me forward but I could feel them cramping and wanted to roll myself into a ball but I surfaced and in an act of desperation I thrust a frozen hand out and grabbed the loose end of the safety line and pulled us together, my shoulder muscles feeling as if they were on fire and being ripped from my body. I wrapped my arms around him spat my mouthpiece out and screamed, “Don’t you dare swim away from me again!” and managed to uncurl my fingers enough to lock them and pull us together and wrap my legs around him and crush his body against mine. “Got you, you’re safe,” I shouted and his eyes opened for a moment and he nodded and then fell unconscious.
I looked up at the boat and there was a pair of hands reaching for me, “Not me, him,” I screamed, “Get him out first,” and I tried to lift him but only succeeded in pushing myself under the water. A second pair of hands appeared and grabbed the man and pulled him up whilst the first pair gripped the safety line. I was free of him now and frozen. I reached up to the gunwale and managed to get my finger tips on it but there was no feeling and they slid back into the water. My body was numb now and I started to sink and then somebody grabbed the back of my buoyancy jacket and pulled me up and over the side of my own boat and laid me on a seat and I saw Will’s face and then everything went dark and I slipped into unconsciousness.
In chapters 11 and 12 Charlotte gains fame and begins to meet the world.
If you can’t wait to see what happens, Footprints In The Sea, Volume 1 is now on Amazon, so click on the URL in the right column of the BC Home Page.
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