Without water and with no means to propel the liferaft he knew he was going to die.
It hadn’t been much of a ship. A converted fishing trawler carrying used oil-refinery spares from Colombia to Curacao. That wasn’t the only cargo; the more valuable cargo was going to the USA via a complex route of which this was just the first leg. Neither cargo was going to reach its destination. The refinery owner in Curacao would probably be less concerned than the desperate consumers on the streets of Miami who would have to pay a few dollars more for their oblivion, supply-and-demand being what it was.
The steel hull where it supported the propeller shaft had long ago lost its structural integrity to rust and finally disintegrated in the early hours of the morning. The sea flooded through the breach and the ship was doomed. Both crewmen had been below in their bunks at the time, the Captain alone on the bridge. The crew’s accommodation was submerged before the men knew what was happening. The Captain had stepped over the rail as the ship sank beneath him. Despite years of neglect, the liferaft automatically released itself from its mountings and inflated. Where once there had been a ship and a crew there remained only a rubber liferaft and the Captain.
He wasn’t a religious man but when he heard a voice calling and peered out of the canopy he was nearly converted. Gazing down at him with an expression of concern was a man with long hair and a beard. As his mind cleared and his salt-crusted eyes gained focus the Captain realised his raft was lying alongside a sail boat and the bearded man was offering a hand to help him climb the boarding ladder.
“My name is Nathan Jones and this vessel is Adriana,” the man said, “welcome aboard.”
The Captain, rehydrated and fed, was sufficiently recovered to chat with his saviour that evening. Michael Smith was his name but everyone called him Captain and he’d be obliged if Nathan did the same, he said. Over a glass of rum, Nathan explained how he’d come from San Diego and it was to San Diego that he was returning after three years cruising the Caribbean alone on his forty-foot ketch.
“Don’t you miss your family, being away so long?” said the Captain.
“I have no family. There’s just me now. My wife and son were killed five years ago. It’s why I took off, really. Perhaps I was hoping I might be lost along the way but I’ve come to terms with it all now and I’m going back to San Diego to try to start my life again. But what about you? How did you come to be hereabouts, you’re American aren’t you?”
“Yes, from Houston originally. Ten years ago, I took off on my sail boat seeking adventure on the high seas. Long story short, after a couple of misadventures I ended up selling my sail boat and acquiring an old trawler. I based myself in Colombia, hauling crap from one end of the Caribbean Sea to the other, scraping a living. She was all I owned, shit-bucket that she was.”
“Well, at least you were spared. You can replace a boat, you can’t replace people.”
“Damn right. I’ll always owe you for saving my skin, Nathan.”
“Look, do you want me to head into Colombia, we’d be at Cartagena in two or three days? No problem for me, there’s no fixed date for my Panama Canal transit.”
“Hell, no. Nothing for me now in Colombia. I’ll go with you to Panama and check in with the US embassy – I lost all my money and documents in the sinking. Besides, you really don’t want to be too close to the Colombian coast. Nice sailboat like this would be just what the drug guys are looking for.”
“Well, OK then, Captain, Panama it is.”
The Captain was a competent sailor and an engaging companion – the first to be expected, the latter a pleasant surprise for Nathan. During the day, as Adriana made steady progress towards Panama the two men talked about nautical matters and navigation. Each evening they would chat about other things. The Captain realised Nathan was relishing this unexpected opportunity to voice his feelings, rediscover the art of conversation; he showed no hesitation in sharing his personal affairs. This pleased the Captain.
“You know, after the accident I couldn’t bear to live in our house so I sold up and bought a condo in San Diego. I’ve never lived in it – just stuck the best of the furniture in it and locked the door” said Nathan.
“Didn’t you want to rent it out or, maybe, allow a friend to use it?”
“No. I guess I didn’t want any reason to return. I put my affairs in order. Everything I am is in a plastic pouch in the chart table – passport, boat papers, deeds, bank account details, the lot.”
The Captain nodded his understanding and Nathan continued.
“As for friends, well, we lived in a suburb way north of the city, and they were her friends, never really mine. After the funeral, I hardly saw anyone for months and that’s when I decided to set off on my boat.”
“And now you’re going back. A fresh start, a new life.”
“Damn right” said Nathan, “and I’m looking forward to it.”
Two days later Adriana made landfall.
At last it was his turn at the counter in the Immigration Office in the Port of Colon, Panama, and he addressed the immigration official behind the glass partition:
“My name is Nathan Jones of the sailing vessel Adriana bound for San Diego, here is my passport. I have no crew, I’m single-handed” said the Captain.