Excerpt from the prologue
What happened next, I could have escaped. There are choices. I didn’t have to read Bill Bailey’s paper. I could have canceled that first and second meeting in town. But this is all hindsight. I had the SeaBee in forty-five minutes’ worth of open water, and behind her the east was cleared and only here and there a glob of cloud cooled its heels. To the west the sky was a rolling boil, and when I reached the middle of the bay I knew why. I just wondered when the wind was gonna shift.
There are some captains who see bad weather coming and head straight for the docks. Sometimes it is an excuse to go in, and sometimes it is wisdom standing on thirty years of dealing with the weather and the water. But if a man wanted to gamble on his boat and on a black sky, then he had to come up with the one constant in the whole equation, and that was unpredictability. Because the sky could blow up black and stiff, then shrink down to a flat wave, or the storm could miss the part of the bay the fleet was in and hit another bay and sink a boat or two.
Then other times a storm was innocent enough. It would blow and rain and maybe throw a hatch cover over or pitch an icebox into the water. Then I either tied up to a gas well or I got into a wide-open area of the bay, put over the net, shut the door, then drank coffee and drug until the storm was over.
Today I wasn’t sure, so I pulled the throttle to shut her down and I walked out on the back deck and watched the west rise up in front of me. I couldn’t smell the wind shift, so I still had time to put over the net and drag through the storm. Securing my non-escape, I walked into the cabin and gave the SeaBee a little throttle and put the bow into the wind. Then I slipped a rope to hold the wheel and I walked back to the stern and threw the net over. The sack and chaffing gear slipped past my boots and over the stern and I watched it feed out, and when a bit of webbing twisted I put my boot on it and slowed it down.
A rush of water roared through the net like a thousand wildly rustling leaves, and pulled it tight. Then the net yanked on the shrimp doors and stopped. The lazy line floated on the outside of the net from sack to shrimp door. A pile of tickler chain bolted at both ends to the two separate shrimp doors lay in a clump on the back deck, and I kicked it over with my boot.
I glanced across the bay, and a black skyline rose like bad dough on a dough board. It climbed high and black and stiff so that the white sand cliffs off the game refuge punched out stark and white. The full end of the bay was spilt ink, and I knew this storm wasn’t going to miss. I smelt it coming—green and brand-new—and I knew the wind shift wasn’t far behind. I went back to the cabin, flipped off the rope, and shoved the throttle. The shrimp doors lifted off the back deck and came up three or four feet and stopped. They were suspended by two thin, baby-finger-wide cables, and hardly swayed as the SeaBee ran across the water. Later, after the wind picked up, it would be different and could, in an equal-opportunity heartbeat, deal out a hip-crunching blow or toss a shrimper into the bay as lightly as ash flicked from a cigarette. A five-hundred-pound sledgehammer couldn’t do more damage.
I gave the SeaBee more throttle and the doors cleared the deck, and then, after I tied the wheel off, I walked to the winch outside the cabin door and slowly turned the handle. The doors slipped in one smooth rush into the water and vanished, while the cables peeled out from the metal drum and through a block hanging from the rigging, then vanished into the water with the doors.
When the double twine on the cable that marked the length showed, I turned the handle back and walked to the deck and grabbed a twenty-pound metal hook tied by a short rope onto the SeaBee’s ironworks and put it in the middle of the deck. Then I walked back to the cabin and slowed the SeaBee into a dead still. What I did next was the only time I ever ran on the SeaBee and was the only time I really needed a deckhand and was the closet I ever came to a fatal accident: I shifted the SeaBee into reverse and ran out of the cabin and grabbed the cable that was slowly winding back onto the deck and put the hook around the cable, then I ran back to the cabin and shoved the gear from reverse to forward and hit the throttle almost at the same time. Then I stood with my back to the wheel and looked out the cabin door as the cable straightened out, considerably lower on the deck with the hook around it, and slowly began to widen as the shrimp doors caught the rush of water and spread the net. I stayed at the wheel, watching the net spread and making sure it stayed out of the boat’s wheel wash, then I put the SeaBee into a slow turn.
I steered the boat in one slow, woman-rounded turn after another, one turn flowing into the next and the next and each one a little farther on down the bay. Sometimes I drug across the bay or down one side of a reef or through a twisted pass into another bay, but always the trick (and it was a trick—part skill and part just a knack for the thing) was to hold the wheel and the stern of the boat and the cable and the net in one long sustained ballet-type maneuver. So in the rain with the cabin door closed and a slicker over my head, I did that. I stayed with my back hard against the wheel to keep the boat in its turn and not undone by the wind, and watched the rain pound the door. When the storm blew over I would put over the try net, but now I didn’t.
I was fifteen minutes into the drag when I felt something had gone wrong. Did I hit something? I got out of my chair and looked out the side window. The water rushed past the bow where her nose was in the wind, so the SeaBee still moved. She just moved different.
I slung open the cabin door and looked outside. Waves were sweeping over the deck! A squall wouldn’t put the SeaBee that far into the water!
I couldn't think what was wrong, so I tied off the wheel, knowing it wouldn’t hold in the wind, and walked out into the rain to the stern of the boat. The sea was inches from the deck! Normally it was two or three feet. The SeaBee was taking on water!
The wind slapped at my face and slung my slicker almost off one arm. I turned and walked back to the engine hatch and jerked it up. Instead of seeing the diesel engine and straight to the bottom of the boat, I saw water. No plywood where I crawled around the engine, no wooden ribs. Still, it didn’t register. The SeaBee was full of water? I didn’t remember hitting anything. No jerk. No automatic pump running, constant and loud enough to signal a problem with the hull. I ran over to the side of the boat and looked for the bilge hole where the water would discharge if the water pump was working. No water. Not a trickle. There was nothing but a boat filling up with water and sinking.
I yanked harder on the hatch cover and the wind grabbed it and pitched it against the icebox. I ignored it. I ignored the cables that slipped behind the boat and the bow of the boat that drifted in the wind. The rain was hitting the deck hard and filling it to the railing, and when the SeaBee rolled into a wave the water poured over the side. I ignored that too. I looked only at the engine with the water slowly rising around it. I didn’t know how long I had. Would the engine stay running, and if so, how long before it sucked in the salt water that was filling the stern and triggered a compression shock that would bend rods and snap head bolts? But if I shut off the engine, would it start again? And with no engine, there was no way of getting the net and doors back on board and the boat to the dock, and was almost certainly guaranteeing a sinking.
I ran back to the cabin, turned the boat downwind, and set it on idle, then slid past the grinding engine and crawled into the water toward the stern of the boat. I forced myself to crouch underneath the deck, my head scraping the boards, while my hands and knees felt for the ribs in the boat. I could smell diesel fumes and the heat off the engine, and I reached with my hands, feeling underwater for the plywood. The plywood was floating a few inches from the bottom, and when I pressed it with my knees and hands, it sank. It was one thing to work on a boat on the water, but an entirely different thing to have it around your face and mouth.
I had no idea what to do besides find the leak. If I had hit a wreck and tore a hole in the hull, then nothing would keep the SeaBee from sinking. I had no idea why the bilge pump wasn’t working either, but that wasn’t a priority so I didn’t glance toward the bow and the boat battery. I just hoped it wasn’t underwater and most of the damage was toward the stern. I inched my way back, rushing water on my hands, and suddenly felt sick. Maybe I should stop and puke? No, no, keep going! So I kept crawling, moving farther to the stern, my hands groping for the rush of cool water that would tell me, finally, that this is where the hole is. This is why the SeaBee is sinking. I sat on my heels with the water around my waist, and a dead bleached crab went by, its feelers stiff from engine heat. Everything in the bilge floated. Pits of wood. An old coffee can I used to clean out the scuffords. Oil rags bobbed up and down and twisted around my arm like dead squid.
My thinking was wild. What pocket of air would I have if the SeaBee went down? Would I have none? Would the SeaBee go down fast or would she go slow? Maybe I’d twist and wrestle with the water and my black hair would turn white in the seconds before I drowned. I knew a hundred tales of near-drowned fishermen, and almost all had white hair to show for it. I felt my insides suck back from the thought.
Then a thought climbed high in my head: The stuffing box. The stuffing box. I didn’t hear the rain hitting the deck or the diesel engine pounding in my ear. There was another monkey on my head, and it clambered far worse the closer I got to the stern of the boat. But the stuffing box made no sense. Sure, a stuffing box, and the shaft that ran through it and outside of the boat, could leak water, but it didn’t suddenly pour water for no reason, especially if it had been checked the night before. Stuffing boxes don’t leak out of the blue, especially not bad enough to sink a boat. Then even if it had leaked, the automatic pump would have caught the problem.
I stopped moving for a second, heavy into panic, and wondered how many minutes before the stern got too heavy and pulled the rest of the SeaBee down. I glanced back at the engine and saw the bright square where the hatch cover had been. The light and the rain bounce off the engine like small bugs on a window screen. This wasn’t getting me nowhere! I jerked my head around and shoved my hands wild into the water. Suddenly my fingers hit the shaft! I slid my fingers down until I felt the valves and the cool water sliding past my fingers. With my mouth near the water, I fumbled with the valves, frantic to stop the water from pushing past my fingers. Then my hands fell off and my head went down under smelly engine water, and as I jerked back and blinked water from my eyes, I stared straight into the boxed stern of the boat.
The valves were wound tight and wouldn’t budge so I reached from the shaft, keeping one hand on the leak, and moved blindly in the water, thrashing in a semicircle to locate the heavy wrench I always kept nearby to tighten the stuffing box. Twice I lunged forward, missed the plywood, and fell between the ribs of the boat. I tasted diesel in my mouth and shook my head to clear the water from my eyes. I knew if I didn’t find the wrench soon I would drown, but even as I had the thought, I didn’t believe it was possible. So I would drown, not only in panic but also in pure ignorance, probably wondering what in the hell was going on.
Then my hands hit the wrench, and as awkward as I have ever handled a five-pound wrench, I did it more. I turned the valve once, missed, dropped the wrench, turned the valve again, missed again, then finally I grabbed it firmly then slowly turned. The water stopped. I wasn’t going to drown. I sat on my heels, astonished, wide-eyed, and wet faced, not saying and doing nothing. I crawled to the engine and climbed out. I was shaking, and even though the rain hit my face hard, I didn’t raise a hand or turn my head. I just sat and stared at the rain and the SeaBee moving downwind, and the cables loose and tangled all over the deck. I didn’t know how far the boat had drifted, but the dragging net had been her best anchor.
I had to get the water out of the boat, so I went down into the bilge again and crawled toward the bow. There was less water now and the plywood was easier to see. Every sound that had been drummed out of my head at the stern of the boat now was crystal clear. I found the boat battery high and dry against the side of the boat, but the automatic pump was gone. I knew where I had left it, though—aft and upright between the ribs of the boat, so even several inches of water in the bilge would float its tiny paddle and flip on the automatic switch. It took fifteen minutes of patting the water to find the water pump. I pulled it out. The wires attaching it to the battery were gone.
Finally I found them on the far side of the boat. I crawled back to the battery and rewired the pump, and immediately the pump began to pull water and discharge it through the hose outside the boat.
I spent the rest of the evening pumping out the boat. I rewound the cables and hoisted the heavy shrimp doors, then tied them down with a rope so they wouldn’t slide off the deck every time the boat rolled in the wind. The net had junked up with a ton of century-old oyster shells and smelly black mud from the dozen dredge holes dug years ago and pocketing the bay, and probably every one my drifting net drug through.
It took two attempts to bring the net sack alongside the boat, but both failed to clear the deck and instead sent a torrent of black slimy mud and squashed hard heads across the deck. On the final attempt the boat lunged and a rope twisted, and block shivs in the rigging jerked the net sack to a sudden stop. Now a full net sack swung across the deck, slinging black mud and careening like a two-ton gorilla on a half-inch nylon rope. I loosened the rope from the cathead, but it was still stuck so I walked into the cabin and grabbed a butcher knife and stuck it between my teeth and started climbing the rigging. When the boat lunged in the wind, I held still and hard against the mast, with the knife tight between my teeth; then when it righted, I started climbing again.
Near the top of the rigging, I stopped altogether. For a moment I looked down at the gray churning water and heard the sound of my hair tearing the wind. My slicker whipped against the rigging, then out behind me, and where my shirt was loose the wind took that too. I was dazzled. I was tossed to the air, then plunged to the sea, and the whole time I was drunk on the idea that only one rusting mast pole separated me from it all. I would never be this free again. Only dying could do it next or do it better. Then seconds before I took the knife from my mouth and cut the rope, I laughed so hard I nearly dropped the knife.