Deep blue waves launched our sailboat higher as the storm darkened the skies in the southeast. My brother David and I woke this morning to heavy seas and high winds. We’d never seen so much lightning in our lives. We checked the radar and saw the hurricane had shifted overnight, looking for warmer water. With the storm headed right at us, we turned further west to go around the outside. The Caribbean was no longer a safe option, so we hoped for Bermuda or the outlying islands. All morning we struggled against the wind and waves, and our progress was slow. David and I felt good about our chances as Bermuda was only a 100 miles away. By midmorning the water roiled dark blue as waves capped in white rose and fell higher and higher.
“Look!” cried David. He pointed to the sky as another flock of birds flew away from the storm.
“If we could only be so lucky,” I said. “Is everything tied down?”
“As much as can be,” he said.
“Close the cabin, it’ll be raining soon.”
“You think we can outrun this all the way to Bermuda?” asked David.
“I’m going to try,”
By noon we had both vomited our breakfast and watched it wash away from the waves crashing across the deck. Several radar checks showed we were still on the outer edge of the storm and losing our lead. The waves were bigger and further apart, so we steered into them, hoping we’d see land by nightfall. Things were looking good until the afternoon. Wind kept whipping into our faces, making it hard to see. Holding on was second nature to breathing, but after hours of sailing, exhaustion took its toll. I sent David down below to get some rest, and I’d hold the wheel for a few more hours than we could trade. Darkness in a hurricane at night is different. The waves and the sky looked alike and telling one from another was near impossible without lightning. Near 5 o’clock I saw an object silhouetted by clouds highlighted by the storm.
I knew I felt tired, but something about this seemed bad. I kept on course keeping watch, but it disappeared from sight. Almost a half hour later it showed up again, and I wondered if we’d come across land, but a bright flash of lightning outlined the hull of another sailboat. I steered clear of it and hoped the captain of that boat saw us and he’d do the same. I thumped my hand on the deck to wake David. He came on deck and we traded posts for a while. I told him of the other boat and I went below.
Thump, Thump, Thump “Charlie!” cried David. “Charlie, get up here we have a problem.”
Grabbing my raincoat, I climbed back on deck.
“I think I see it again.” He yelled. “The boat is on the port side and getting closer. I’ve lost it in the waves again.” The compass showed we were still on course, and I made a correction to go further west.
“Do you think the captain of that boat has seen us?” I asked.
“I don’t think it has a captain,” he shouted. We looked at each other knowingly.
“You think it’s drifting on its own?” I said. A thunderous boom from above drowned out his voice, but I heard enough.
Waves are one thing, but a ghost ship riding on the ocean, in the middle of a storm, could spell disaster. David suggested turning on the engine and trying to hold position, then turn away when we saw it again.
“It won’t start!” I shouted.
“What?” he yelled
I had to shout into his ear. “The engine won’t start!” He gestured he would go below and find out what’s wrong. I stood as high as my feet would allow and looked frantically for the other boat as he disappeared down below. Despite the storm, I could hear my heartbeat as the adrenaline coursed through my body. “Where are you?” I said, “Just let me see you one more time.” As I struggled to see through the stormy night. Not knowing, not seeing, only praying, I saw the ship ahead of us. A burst of lightning and the ghost ship appeared on the crest of a wave. The engine hadn’t started yet, but I saw it and we were inline with each other. I pounded on the deck for David to hurry. I shouted I could see the boat. It disappeared below a wave and saw it rise again as we sunk into the next trough. By the next wave I could tell we were gaining on it and I pounded harder and harder on the deck. “David, hurry!” I shouted. I knew he was doing his best, but we were in danger.
Calling him over the storm felt like spitting in the wind. It drowned out my words, and he didn’t hear me. I pounded harder and harder until David poked his head up and saw what I’d been yelling about. Off the starboard side now, the derelict boat was floating and rising among the waves beside us. The sight sent shivers down our spines. In a flash of lightning what I’d feared most was happening; it was coming right at us. I cried out to David as we held on for impact. The crash never came as a rogue wave-cut between us and tossed it off its collision course.
I held on the wheel and crawled forward to David, “You’ve got to start that engine!”
“OK, I got it, I got it!” He yelled as I struggled to my knees, and crawled back to the wheel. A moment later the engine started, and I could put the gear in reverse. As the engine came to life, the boat pulled back in time to miss a full broadside. The ghost ship still clipped our bow and pulpit. Neither of us got hurt, but we trailed this boat up and down the trough. I began pulling the rudder to Port into the next wave. I wanted to throw the boat in full throttle forward when we had enough space to turn. David opened the hatch and tried to climb out when the wave I was attacking knocked him off balance and he fell back into the cabin. I reached out for him but couldn’t take my hand off the wheel. A wave hit the deck and over the hatch and into the hold, flooding the engine room. Again, our boat was as dead as the ghost ship.
David climbed to the opening, and we looked at each other as sickness overcame us. Again we were floundering in the storm at the mercy of the other boat. The ghost ship wasn’t far off, and we were ultimately going to hit it if we didn’t get the engine started again. David closed the hatch and ran down below. He must have been standing in knee-deep in the water, trying to start the pumps to drain out of the engine room. I knew he would help pump manually, but it would take time to get the water low enough to start the engine again. He must have prayed as hard as I did not to hit the empty boat threatening to destroy us. I saw the ship getting closer, so I pounded rapidly on the deck and screamed for him to get out so he didn’t get caught inside if we collided. Dave had to know the other boat was coming in, and we were about to slam into each other. I don’t know how he did it, but he kept pumping and pumping, and the engine started from the ignition down below.
On deck, I pulled hard on the wheel to direct us away from the other ship. I fought with tears in my eyes, grunting, and screamed at the waves. We’d finally made it clear. I watched a wave come between us as the ghost ship crest over another. David left the engine running and returned topside, closing the hatch this time.
He crawled on his hands and knees to me and shouted. “We’ve got to find a better way to get away from that boat! I’m going to put up the jib and see if you can steer us out of here!” I didn’t argue and waited for David to make his way forward. The ghost ship slid behind us, and now it followed us like a NASCAR race. I saw the forward jib rise slowly as David pumped the gear as fast as he could. The boat moved, so I pushed the throttle forward. Turning the rudder to starboard, I looked back to see I’d steered away from the other boat. I didn’t care if I’d turned us a complete 90 degrees, as long as we headed in a direction far away from that dead ship.
I hardly remember what happened next. It all happened so fast, I still can’t make sense of it. The jib was open and helped pull us away. I turned into the oncoming waves to cut away from the old wreck. Even with the extra speed, it just wasn’t enough. We came around just as a wave, bigger than all the rest, hit us and we rolled over. Without explanation, we continued to roll and surfaced upright again. The main mast broke, and it ripped everything off deck and tossed into the water. It was all so fast I barely moved from my position. I fell flat on my back in the wheel well with one hand twisted in the wheel itself. Scrambling to my feet and called out to David, but he didn’t answer. I looked all over the deck, and along the side of the boat. All along I yelled and yelled his name. I checked the cabin in case the roll had knocked me out, and he’d found his way below. He wasn’t there either. I crawled all over the deck looking for him, calling over and over for him to answer me.
As the wind and waves whipped around the boat, I couldn’t see him anywhere. Climbing forward, I looked around in the water. Hand over hand I crawled over every inch of railing looking for him floating nearby. I nearly fell in myself. Crawling back into the stern next to the wheel, I shut off the engine. I just sat there and cried. David was gone, and I was all alone.
“David, are you still out there?” I asked as I cried. “DAVID!” “DAVID!” again, and again I called him. All I heard in return were whispers of thunder as the storm carried my brother away. Finally, I shouted, “I LOVE YOU!” I fell to my knees and cried. “I love you, David, and I’ll tell mom and dad what happened.”
The storm spit me out somewhere in the mid-atlantic. As the morning sun rose higher and higher, I stood on the cabin roof looking for David. I tried to maintain hope his body would show up, but the effort became exhausting after several hours scanning the horizon. What was I going to say to everyone? How would I tell them what happened? Sliding on my butt to the edge of the cabin roof, I slipped off and went below. I slept fitfully as exhaustion overtook me. I woke often and looked out the window, hoping to see David clinging to a piece of wood, calling for help. It was maddening; I felt like I’d lost him repeatedly as I realized he wasn’t there.
The batteries were dead, and unfortunately, everything was electric. The radio wouldn’t work, so I had no way to call for a mayday. Sitting on a bench in the cabin, I watched the contents of the cabinets floating on the floor, swaying with the rocking of the boat. My body was both hot and cold. The boat pulled to the port from the weight of the mast and rigging dangling in the water. I didn’t know how I was going to keep going. Frankly, I didn’t care. Daytime passed into night as I sat there lost and alone. I finally lumbered to the front of the berth and climbed into bed.
Sometime later I woke and sat on the deck in a dark, heavy fog. Listening to the water lap against the boat. In the darkness, I thought I’d heard a ship’s bell. Ding… Ding… soft water splashed, it was quiet, then again, Ding… Ding… Nothing was in sight as I looked around. Could there be another boat in the fog? Were they signaling their presence, so we didn’t collide? I started pounding on my boat and calling out, making noise. I pounded the deck harder and harder as I shouted with a dry mouth.
“Hello! Hello! I’m here! Hello!” A dim shape emerged through the fog. It was a boat. Then I realized it was the ghost ship from the storm. As the current drew us closer and closer, a man stood on the deck next to the wheel with one hand, ringing the bell and his other, holding a light with a dim yellow glow. Ding… Ding… Ding… Ding… came the sound, Ding… Ding... “Hello! Can you hear me!” I shouted. The man just stood there facing the front, ringing the bell, not hearing or seeing me. As the boat came closer and closer, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was David.
“David! David! Hello! Brother, I’m so glad to see you!” I shouted as he just stood there at the helm ringing the bell. “David!” I cried. “Over here!” Slowly David left his place and stood on the starboard side amid-ship. Looking towards me but not seeing me. It’s like he looked right through me. David’s eyes were gaunt, his skin was pale, and his lips were blue. I called louder and louder with tears streaming down his cheeks. “DAVID! DAVID! I’m so sorry! I love you! David! Please don’t go! Please don’t leave me. I’m so scared.”
I woke up lying on the bed crying. It was only a dream. David was somewhere on the other side of life looking for me like I was looking for him. I cried into my pillow! If the dream taught me anything, it gave me hope I could keep him alive in my heart. It became my goal to make it home and tell my family what had happened, and give them peace.
From then on, I talked to David as if he were there with me. “Alright, brother lets get home.”
I cleaned up the cabin and ate a cold meal of franks and beans. Stepping into the engine room, I started pumping out the water. Progress was slow, but in a few hours half the engine was visible. It was then I realized the water stopped going down. I couldn’t believe it, I was sinking. Stuff I hadn’t picked up still lay all over the floor between the engine room and the forward hull. As I tripped on everything, trying to go forward, I bruised my knees and stubbed my toes. Pulling up the bed and peering into the hull, I saw it. Not the worst thing I’d seen, but I was still sinking. A crack just along the waterline and water flowed freely into the boat. I pulled every pillow, bed cushion, and blanket I could find and stuffed it inside. It would not hold forever, but maybe it would slow it down. I pumped most of the water out of the engine room and dried out the filters. I just needed enough power to get to land. On deck I began cutting away the rigging, pulling me to the port side. Line after line slipped into the water. I cut the last line and watched it fall away.
A hand, I saw a hand reaching up underwater as the rigging fell away. David, it had to be David. My heart broke again. All this time it had caught him under the boat and I didn’t know. There was nothing I could do. The sail and rigging were pulling him to the bottom of the ocean. I thought I’d already experienced the worst day of my life when I’d lost my brother. Now, I didn’t know what to think. I watched until all traces of him and the rigging disappeared. I cried and cried.
I had to get back home. Checking all the maps, checking my compass, I found little else to tell me where the storm spit me out. Turning east should lead me back to the mainland. Turning the ship, I used half my gas to head home. I didn’t want to use it all at once, so I drifted for a few days. I tied off the wheel to help me keep my bearing. Two days turned into 4 and then a week went by without a speck of land in sight. Finally, on the 8th day I saw land. The prowl of my boat dipped lower in the water. Water was coming in despite my pumping nearly every day. I removed all the wet stuffing from the hull and squeezed it out as best I could and let them dry in the sun, but the land I saw in the distance was so close I could smell it. I knew there were 14 miles to the horizon, when you’re on the water. Once the stuffing was dry, I’d start the boat and try to make my way there before evening.
Just a mile short of land, and shortly after dark, I ran out of gas. The extra water weight dragged me down. The current pulled me closer and closer, but still I’d never make it. I saw lights but had no way to call for help. With a half mile left, I jumped into the water and swam inland.
I made it.