The seas were different colours all over the world, but the deep oceans were always the same. Sonja leaned across the coaming and watched the water cream along the topsides, bubbles and froth dissipating when they reached the stern, leaving a knife-edge swirl behind. A blue so deep and crystalline, it was as if she looked into the heart of a flawless jewel.
The huff brought her gaze up, and she smiled as the small pod arrowed toward her little yacht, black and white sides giving them the distant look of miniature orca. They broke through the long, evenly spaced swell, their speed and grace taking her breath. They could outpace Gypsy in a hundred yards, but they liked company, circling back and rolling to the side to look up at her, offer their acrobatics for her applause.
Under an infinite expanse of sky, etched with streamers of thin white cirrus, the ocean glittered, a siren’s seduction just as fatal as the cold, death-bringing kisses of the myths. Sonja was warm enough, in a down-filled vest over a thin, high-necked shirt, and tucked out of the wind against the sun-warmed timber sides of the cockpit. The temperatures hadn’t been really warm since she’d laid off her southing into Drake Passage, two hundred miles ago, the wind constant and fresh, chilled from the ice sheets only seven hundred miles distant.
It blew from the west, always from the west, over thousands of miles of unimpeded ocean, rich with the tang of salt, primordial scent of life. Here, where three oceans met and mingled, forced into a narrow gap and over a shallow sea bed, the waves humped and staggered, white-tops breaking. Earlier, at noon, she’d balanced against the hatchway and steadied the sextant on the horizon, bringing the small disc of the sun down in the mirror. Her position was thirty miles south and ten miles east of the Cape.
The Hourglass dolphins leapt out of the wave peaks and dove into the troughs, never missing. They reminded her of a far-off world, a different life. She knew intimately the power and strength muscle required to perform with so little outward effort. She still sat with her toes curled under, her feet curved in an arch. Music filled her memories and her body twitched. Even here, even unable to call on that remembered perfection, her muscles tried.
The yacht slipped from its heading, pointing higher, and the sheets thrummed. Sonja unfolded herself from the protected seat, leaning on the cabin top. The dolphins had disappeared. She eased the sheets and the bow swung back to the course she’d set. After so many miles under her keel, the change in the yacht’s heading and behaviour was an alarm. The waves were shortening, the distance from peak to peak smaller, the height of the peaks growing. Turning, she shaded her eyes from the overhead glare.
Something smudged the horizon to the south-west. Should’ve known I couldn’t be one of the lucky ones. She clipped her safety line to the grab-rails that ran the cabin’s length and stepped over the coaming, one hand for the ship, the other keeping a firm grip on the rails.
Becalmed for three weeks in the Atlantic’s doldrums, then skirting an early hurricane off Bermuda, her journey might only have been readying her for this moment. This challenge.
She reached the mast and undid the jib halyard, letting the headsail fall slowly to the deck. With it down, she crabbed forward, unclipping her harness line and re-clipping it to the U-bolt next to the shrouds. A breaking spume caught by the wind sprayed her face as she gathered the flapping sail and held it down. Licking the salt from her lips, she rolled the sail from clew to tack and wrapped her arm around the forestay, bracing herself as she unclipped the hanks and unshackled the halyard.
With the sail compressed in her arms, she threw a glance over her shoulder at the horizon. No longer a smudge, the approaching front was a thickening line of black, like an army of evil heading her way. Two or three hours. Probably less since she was sailing toward it. Turning away, she shuffled down the deck on her knees, unclipping the safety line and fastening it to the rails when she passed the rigging again.
Below decks, the hiss of the water as it boiled along the hull filled the small space. Creaks and groans were the normal sounds, the occasional slap as a wave hit from a different direction. She carried the headsail to the tiny forward cabin, and dumped it on the bunk, shifting another couple of sailbags to dig out the one she wanted.
Bringing the mainsail down was harder. The self-steering couldn’t hold the boat to the wind without some propulsion. It meant she had to disconnect the vane, lash the tiller, race to the mast and drop the sail before the yacht fell off and caught the breeze from the other side.
Plenty of sea room, even if the wind backed as the storm front passed over. She pulled the sail in as close to centre as she could, spilling the wind until the boom was overhead. The bungy cords would hold the tiller in place for a few moments, without strain on the rudder. She was out of the cockpit, and beside the mast in seconds, letting the halyard fly and grabbing armfuls of crackling, snapping terylene as the big sail fell on top of her.
It was the work of minutes to gather and tuck the folds along the boom, the yacht rolling violently across the swell, the boom sweeping her from one gunwale to the other, her arms holding sail and spar in a death grip, fingers struggling against the wet and the chill wind to fasten each toggle and keep the sail bound. Once it was secured, she staggered back to the cockpit, flexing her fingers to keep them warm. The trysail was tiny. The smallest sail she had on board. It made up for its pocket handkerchief size in weight. Every seam was reinforced, triple-layered, heavily stitched. The head, tack and clew were timber board and the sail had its own sheets, thick braid that ran from clew to blocks on the stern.
With one arm curled around the mast, Sonja opened the sailbag and jammed a foot on it, drawing the head out and shackling the halyard. Feeding the hanks into the slide took more dexterity, and she swivelled around to the boom, embracing it and ducking under the shelter of the tied-down main to slip each hank into place, force the sail up, and take in the slack of the halyard with her teeth and free foot.
It was, she considered as another broaching wave slammed against the side, losing its topmost third over herself and the cabin, a good thing she’d spent a lot of time practising doing this very thing while becalmed. Not that it had been anywhere near as odious a job in that situation.
The bag beneath her heel flapped furiously, struggling to get free. The last hank shoved in, and the tack downhaul tied off, she reached down and bundled the obnoxious bag into a tight ball, stuffing it into the front of her vest as she shuffled fast back to the cockpit. Wrapping the tail end twice around the winch and hauled it tight, she gave the sail a nod of approval when the creases along the leech disappeared.
The wind gusted, catching the small sail and driving the boat forward. Sonja snatched at the sheets before they whipped themselves overboard, letting the rope play. It wasn’t unlike holding a big fish on a light line. The thought shot through her head as she inched carefully to the aft blocks and slid the sheet through, running the tail end back to the cockpit winch. The second sheet was more obstreperous, burning across her palm a couple of times before it consented to being winched in and cleated off.
The black edge was closer, churning the seas before it into angry whitebeards that roared and hissed under Gypsy, lifting her and tossing her onto her side before they seethed away, racing to the other side of the world.
Clinging onto the tiller, her body swaying and bracing automatically, she smiled as she recognised the sensations. Perhaps this was why she loved this life so much, the sea a dance partner who held her and moved her with the same sort of unthinking strength as her flesh-and-blood partners once had? Perhaps one day it would pull her from her little boat and dance with her directly.
She shunted the idea aside, bringing her focus back to the approaching storm. For the moment, she could keep moving. It would be the work of seconds to heave to and lash the tiller in place if the storm became too much for the small boat. A glance over her shoulder showed the low, blurred outline of land to the north. She didn’t want to get any closer to that ill-fated headland. Tucked into the bookshelf above the navigation table, the small handheld GPS unit was tracking the nearest satellite. She didn’t care for it much, and had constantly checked its accuracy. Now, it would save her worry if she couldn’t get a sight.
The outriders hit without warning, a wall of wind, of foam torn from the breaking waves and Gypsy knocked flat, throwing Sonja across the cockpit into the coaming and winch on the opposite side, her breath whipped from her with the impact and the arctic clutch of the howling gale. The thirty-foot cutter righted herself, her keel pulling her upright against the force of the wind and the shortening waves slapped against her sides, dowsing the deck with frigid water. On the companionway bulkhead, the wind gauge needle was flat to the right, unable to report the speed. A second later, it flicked back to zero and Sonja didn’t need to look up to deduce the rotator had broken off.
The boat shuddered again, sea and storm wrestling for control. She crawled to the tiller and freed the ropes, pulling it hard toward herself as the wind caught the storm jib and flattened it. With the jib backed and the trysail filling, the boat stabilised, bow pointed close to the direction of the storm, sailing a little forward, a little sideways, but not much in either direction. Holding the free line with her teeth, Sonja threw a couple of half-hitches around the tiller to one side, then drew in the rope to the other and tied it off. She lifted her hand and wiped at the trickle of moisture on her forehead. Her palm was red when she lowered it, and she stared at it until the meaning became clear. Feeling gingerly along her hairline, she found the long, shallow cut as her fingertips dripped salt against it.
There was nothing else she could do outside. She couldn’t hear her own thoughts over the high-pitched shrieking of the wind and the discordance it made in the rigging and against the sails. She ducked beneath the low overhang sheltering the hatchway, and slipped below, setting the hatch doors into place. If the storm did manage to roll or pitch pole the yacht, those doors might stop the sea from filling the cabin.
Inside, the din was reduced, the movement of the boat violent but predictable. Sonja stopped by the navigation table and checked the GPS. The reading was still very close to the last one and she breathed a sigh of relief. She made her way forward to the small head and found a plaster for her forehead. Awareness of aches and pains returned as she examined the wound, and when she’d cleaned away the blood and applied the bandaid, she pulled down her shirt, looking at the red abrasion on her shoulder and the already-blooming colours over her right breast and ribs. Grabbing the painkillers, she palmed two and returned the bottle to the cupboard.
In the galley, she was careful to jam herself in between the sink, stove and tiny counter. She pumped a glassful of water and washed down the tablets. Releasing the gimbaled stove to swing freely, she wondered if she should have something to eat, then decided against it. She could rest now, eat when she needed to check the position again.
Through the small portholes, the world had gone from sunshine to gloomy gray and was now almost as black as night. The wire rigging and taut ropes were wailing, the water under the hull rushing from bow to stern, a muted rumbling. Sonja pulled the canvas lee cloths out from under the mattress and hooked them to the beams under the deck. Her clothing was sticking to her, hampering her movement. She stripped quickly, grateful the pills were dulling the pain. Tossing her clothes into a bucket and leaving it in the head, she rubbed herself briskly with a dry towel and pulled on clean clothes. She would be soaked as soon as she went outside to check the conditions, but for the moment she was dry and she could sleep dry. Climbing into the leeward bunk, she lay down with a sigh and closed her eyes.
She woke two hours later, her chest tight with dread, pulse thumping uncomfortably against the base of her throat. There was nothing she could pinpoint in the deafening darkness to have created such a feeling but it didn’t matter. She couldn’t move, every sense straining to identify the danger.
The low noise, like a distant freight train, didn’t register for long moments. When its meaning struck, she barely had time to brace herself before the boat was lifted and thrown to the side, the smash of topsides against solid waves explosive and terrifying. Port side became ceiling, then starboard side, and Sonja’s face slapped into the lee cloth, blood gushing from her nose, the hull shivering and a succession of thunderous cracks and snaps shaking her in the bunk, as if a giant had plucked Gypsy from the sea and given her a good rattle.
The keel’s weight righted the yacht, and without the mast and sails, she bobbed like a toy on the waves, little to impede or challenge the screaming wind. Sonja spat out a mouthful of blood and crawled from the bunk, catching herself on the bulkhead as her feet slid out from under her, the cabin floor awash.
She scrambled through the ankle-deep water and forced her way to the bow. In the forward cabin, the iron-grey daylight alternated with a stream of seawater pouring through the broken skylight and into the yacht. The dinghy had gone as well, she noted dully. Grabbing the empty bag of the trysail, she twisted around to get her tool kit from the locker under the bunk, then climbed up through the now empty square hole in the cabin roof.
The wind took her breath instantly, and she cursed her unthinking reaction, swivelling to put her back to the gale. Should’ve taken the time to get into her oilskin. Should’ve taken the time to put her harness on. She clung with frozen fingers to the skylight’s coaming as the little yacht rolled drunkenly between crests and the tops of the huge wave swept over the bow, into her, and past, leaving her soaked and rigid with chill. She’d had to dance through pain many times. She drew on that will power now, forcing her awareness of injury, far to the side, focusing on what had to be done right now.
Her hands didn’t want to hold the hammer and she forced herself to breath evenly, to restrain and bury the frustration that threatened to break free. It took several tries to nail the bag down over the skylight, to even hit the nail heads without mashing her numb fingers against the cabin roof. Shivers passed through her like earth tremors, shaking her violently enough to present a real danger of sliding her from the deck and into the hungry, waiting ocean.
The bolt cutters, like the swager, were too big for her. The tools were designed for men, for a man’s strength and a man’s reach. Usually, she would brace one arm against the deck and close the other arm with her body weight. That was out of the question in these conditions. Instead, she let loose her fear and anger, screaming like a harpy into the storm as the cutters sheared through the stainless steel rigging to free the boat from the weight and pull of the broken mast.
When it drifted off, the stormsail and trysail billowing in the waves, she sent a prayer of thanks to whatever power might be looking down on her. The boom remained, lashed now to the side deck. On the opposite side deck, the spinnaker pole would make a suitable spar for jury-rigging something to get her north, to Puntas Arenas where she could make repairs.
Inching on her bottom along the deck, both hands tight on the grab-rails and every solid fixture, Sonja worked her way back to the cockpit. At the stern, the windvane of the self-steering equipment and the lee cloths around the pushpit railing had been smashed and rent, bending the stainless rails. The cockpit cushions were all gone, but the companionway hatches were intact, and the combing and winches were there, the tail ends of the cut sheets hanging like rat’s tails.
She opened the hatch and climbed down, depositing the tool bag onto the settee and lifting the cushions to check the batteries. They seemed dry and intact, neither having moved in the rollover. She hurried back to the cockpit and flicked the switch on the bilge pump, sighing in relief as it gave a burp and rattle then started up.
With the boat safe for the moment, the breached skylight covered, the water being pumped out, fatigue fell on her like a wall. With the fatigue came the full report of her body’s injuries — broken nose, broken fingers, bruising from head to foot, strained back, sprained ankle and deep-seated aches she couldn’t diagnose — and the emotions she’d bottled up, from helplessness to fury. In their aftermath, the only feeling left was a lightheaded hunger, prodding to be satisfied.
In the galley, the stove had slipped one gimbal and she lifted it back on, breath hissing out with the effort. The smell of kerosene was strong in the cabin, but despite the flooding, the burner lit easily and she put a saucepan on the flame, adding a can of soup and leaving it to heat.
Stripping down to her skin, she wrung out the sodden clothing, piece by piece, and hung it over the half-bulkheads to drip and dry as the pump continued sucking water and sending it back to the sea outside. The water had been evenly distributed through almost every cupboard and drawer when the boat had rolled over. The salt in the damp material of her towel took in the moisture in the air and left her skin raw and slimy. Even the driving rain outside was tainted by the salt from spindrift and the spumes of foam tossed high into the air. It would take port, with plenty of fresh water and a few sunny days to get everything back to clean and dry.
In the meantime, she pulled damp woollen trousers and a thick woollen jumper from the hanging locker opposite the head and drew them on, grateful as her body heat was first trapped in the natural fabric then reflected back.
On the stove, the soup remained perfectly level as the hull swung and gyrated beneath. It bubbled and Sonja turned off the burner. She took a spoon from the drawer and began to eat, forcing it down to begin with, almost too tired to swallow, then as her shivering lessened as the hot liquid warmed from inside out, eating with more enthusiasm. A couple of painkillers washed down with the last mouthfuls of soup would give her a few hours to complete her work on the boat then be able to rest.
She put the saucepan in the sink and crossed to the navigation table, glad to see the GPS, charts and books mostly intact and drying. Her position seemed reasonable, still well offshore. Even blown around by the howling winds, she would be pushed east, back through the Passage, and not toward the killing cliffs of Isla Hornus.
Dawn came with a clearing of skies, the wind shrieking as enthusiastically as ever, but a clear sky gale, the storm pushed to the east and north to hit the Falklands or the mainland coast of Argentina. Sonja shaded her eyes as she made out the sulky line of cloud on the eastern horizon, moving ever further away.
Under the cool, pale sunlight, the seas were magnificent; surging, rolling mountains of deepest blue glass, crowned in alabaster, towering above her. Gypsy rolled as she rode up their flanks, curtsying daintily at the top and then rolling gently the other way in sliding down to the deep valley troughs, and Sonja’s body swayed with the boat’s movements, graceful and delicate as the sleek ocean terns. The distance between the waves had spread again to hundreds of feet, and the motion was smooth and easy and regular. The forward skylight had a piece of plywood screwed down to the combing over the sailbag now, and was more weatherproof.
Looking up critically at the jury-rigged boom and spinnaker pole, she thought it would do when the winds dropped under thirty knots. The boom was standing as mast, gooseneck wedged alongside the stump of the old mast, lashed and tourniqueted into place. At the top, the mainsheet and spare halyards ran through the sleeve, a crude bridle tensioned to the deck blocks in place of forestay and backstay and shrouds. She had the small jib, ready to be hoisted. It wasn’t fast or elegant but it would push her along.
Puntas Arenas lay deep within a labyrinth of islands and coastal protrusions, as sheltered a harbour as she could wish for. The engine would do most of the work once they were out of the ocean swell. She adjusted the auto-pilot course to point a little further north. Somewhere in that direction, out of sight, the jutting head of Cape Horn lifted above the wild sea. The Horn had offered — not its worst, for that came in the winter — but a reasonable attempt on her life, a challenge to her knowledge and discipline and restraint.
She lifted her hand, ignoring the stab of pain from her shoulder and gave it a salute. For once, the beautiful depths surrounding her held no temptations, only a clear and joyous path to a new world.
Beside the boat, a curved fin broke the surface and a small, sleek body burst from the waves. Laughing, she leaned out, grinning at the dolphin’s antics.