The sea churned with wild effect as the engine groaned to keep forward motion. The decrepit trawler was hardly a match for the open Mediterranean this time of year. A brooding sky was painted with a rainbow’s worth of black and deep blue. An abusive wet wind had been blowing in from the south for most of the afternoon. The little rusted fishing vessel had complained with every move as she played an endless game of sea-saw with the waves.
Two squinted eyes watched the horizon closely, noting every fleeting contour of the liquid landscape. The boat creaked as leathery hands pulled the wheel starboard. The man behind the helm was beyond tired, but his stone hard face betrayed no hint. Absently he chewed at the remains of a cigar that had extinguished more than and hour hence.
He had often grumbled at having to play captain and crew, wishing that his fishing empire had grown to more than one employee by now. However, at times like this, in the midst of a brutal storm, he was glad to be alone. If he went down he’d have none to blame but God. That was as much religion as he ever needed, and it had served him well.
Through the salt caked window he spotted a shift in the scene. His experienced eyes missed no nuance however small. Without a thought he spit his cigar stub to the floor, leaned hard, and pulled at the wheel. He imagined the rivets releasing as the little ship shifted in the violent wake. He felt the floor pitch with the turn. Within a second and a half the boat was climbing a mountain of water. He knew he had chosen wisely. The wave broke over the sharp nose of the boat.
“Thought you had me didn’t ya, you old cuss,” he howled. Every storm had a personality of it’s own. He often talked with them as if they were fellow passengers on a train. He was careful to never get too acquainted, considering that any one of these stormy strangers could be his murderer as easily as his friend.
As the boat crested the peak of a wave he looked out over the distance. He hoped for a reprieve soon. He had not had a chance to visit the head since the festivities had begun. Owing to his age, and the thermos of coffee he downed earlier, his bladder was protesting his marathon shift at the wheel. The boat began to arch forward, preparing for another decent. An eerie moment of relative silence accompanied each crest. It passed as quickly as it came. He tensed for impact.
Equipment on the deck clattered as the weight of the boat shifted. He leaned backward on his heels and used the steering wheel to balance his weight. He reached for the throttle and pulled at the lever. It made little difference. The nose of the vessel splashed down hard. The impact submerged the bow for a brief second and the resulting gush gave the deck a generous drink. It bobbed back above the water quickly, it’s buoyancy beating out another battle with the deep.
“That’s my girl!” the captain cried aloud. He was about to climb the next wave when he saw it. In the instant that it was visible he wasn’t entirely sure what it was. Out past the port bow there was something in the water. He strained his eyes to catch another glimpse. His survival instinct told him to ignore it. His subconscious worked on the after-image in his mind. What was that? He thought.
Trying to keep the bow to the wind he pulled the wheel slightly to the left. Keeping his eyes wide as the boat began to climb another wave. Once again he spotted the shape silhouetted against the grey sea. It was visible for only a second, but it was long enough to shatter all doubt. There was someone in the water.
For the brief moment that it was visible, he could see clearly that a body floating out past the relative safety of the deck. The image played through his mind as he tried to decide what to do. He could steer toward it, and hope for the best, but it would almost certainly capsize the boat if he showed his starboard flank to the open rage of the waves. His rational self advised caution, but he rarely listened to that part of his brain.
“Man overboard, coming about,” he called to a crew of one. He had been playing the role of Captain, now it was time play the part of deck hand. He reached for the throttle and killed the engine. The rational brain informed him that he had just pulled the lever on his own execution chair. With the boat dead in the water, he knew his time was limited.
He pulled the yellow hood of his rain jacket up and over. He limped out from the bridge compartment and onto the deck. It was difficult to keep his balance in the storm especially with his crippled leg. His foot had gotten caught in a tangled line years earlier. Due to a Italian doctor, he had been able to keep the leg, but he had never walked straight since. Although, he was reminded with every step of that near fatal mistake, he made up for the handicap with raw grit and determination.
After hobbling into position near the edge of the deck he scanned the water for the body as he white knuckled the railing with his right hand. His left instinctively unlatched the orange life preserver strapped there. He let the cord fall to the deck as he continued to scan the water.
“There you are,” he whispered. About thirty meters out was the floater. He steadied himself as another wave broke over the starboard railing. He lost his footing in the slippery wash, but his grip was still firm. Once he righted his balance he prepared to throw the preserver. However, the image of the floating man stopped him. He stared for another long moment.
This isn’t going to work, he thought. The body wasn’t fighting the waves. In fact, it was just that, a body. The person, a man by the look of it, was already drowned. Even if he threw the preserver, it would require the rescued to hold on. That was a tall order for someone who was already dead. He considered the idea that he had doomed his boat and himself to rescue a dead body.
With practiced hands, he replaced and strapped the life preserver back to the railing as another wave splashed over the bow. A curse escaped his lips as another giant liquid fist hit him hard and knocked him off balance. He grasped at the rigging in order to regain his footing. The weaker of his two legs screamed at him, with blasts of pain radiating up his spine. A sharp breath, a string of profanity, and a moment’s pause allowed him time to decide what to do.
Before the rational part of his brain had time to realize what was going on, his hands were already in motion. They untethering the towing boom and drew back the pulley assembly for the trawling net on the long side. Once the winch drum was engaged, he let the boom fly. The loosened fishing net dragged across the deck and then splashed down into the violent water beyond.
“I can’t save ya,” he shouted as his hands worked. “but I hope you don’t mind if I add you to my haul.” As soon as the net hit the water he choked back on the winch line and locked the boom. It was sloppy, but he had to get the engine running again or the boat would be under. Once more a crushing wave blasted against the side. This time he was ready. He hunkered down long enough to let the wash pass.
He lurched forward with his best imitation of agility, but it was clumsy at best. His limp had noticeably worsened. He hoped he had not done more damage to his already handicapped appendage.
Once he was back at the wheel, he shoved the throttle with violent resolve. The engine roared like a bear awoken too soon. He could feel the deck rumbling with the mechanical command. He felt the sluggish response immediately. He was dragging a net only on one side in the middle of a storm. It occurred to him for the third time that this was probably going to be the day he died.
He fought the wheel as the vessel leaned into the oncoming wave. He had briefly lost sight of the body, but he aimed his bow in the direction of the last sighting. A less experienced sea hand wouldn’t be able pull it off, but he was no novice. A wave peak crashed down and revealed the floating body now only fifteen meters off the port bow. Lighting split the clouds above and burned a snap shot into his eyes. He blinked the image away as thunder shook the glass in front of him. He pulled at the wheel again, aiming his net for the floating cadaver.
“This will make for a good story,” he said to himself. “If I live.” He laughed like a madman as the engine begged loudly for mercy. He pushed harder at the wheel. The body passed by the bow and went out of sight. “Got ya!” he shouted.
This time he left the engine at full, and tied the wheel. Rushing back to the deck, he flipped the switch on the winch drum and unlocked the boom arm. He was breaking all the rules today, but he hoped the boom would hold. As it swung around, he stepped over to the railing to see his catch. There was a dark mass tangled in the nets. He cheered with ironic delight as the boom swung toward the nose. When it was back at full forward he latched it in place and flipped off the winch.
Within seconds he was back at the wheel. He didn’t have time to untangle the floating man from his nets, but he watched the body buffeted by the storm through the window. He had caught some strange things in that trawl over his thirty year career, but this was his first dead body. He righted his coarse to take the next wave, quite proud of his haul. He hadn’t saved a life exactly, but he had acted bravely. What’s more, he had lived, at least for the time being.
“Crew, I’m proud of your work out there today. This calls for a celebration,” he said to himself. “Don’t mind if I do, Captain.” he responded again to himself. Still gripping the wheel with one hand like he was riding an unbroken bronco, he unzipped and reached into his rain jacket. Careful not to get it wet, he bit the tip from a fresh cigar. He spit, and then placed it between his lips.
“All in a day’s work.”