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San Diego, California
WEST OF ENCITAS on the Pacific coast, the graceful motor yacht Nepenthe swung at anchor, the grandest craft in a flotilla that seemed to include every sailboat and powerboat in San Diego. With her fluid drawn-out lines, the spearlike sprit jutting from the thrusting clipper bow, and her flaring transom, the two-hundred-foot-long Nepenthe looked as if she were made of fine white china floating on a Delft sea. Her paint glistened with a mirror finish, and her brightwork sparkled under the California sun. Flags and pennants snapped and fluttered from stem to stern. Bobbing balloons occasionally broke loose to soar into the cloudless sky.
In the yacht’s spacious British Empire–style salon a string quartet played a Vivaldi piece for the eclectic gathering of black-clad Hollywood types, corpulent politicians, and sleek TV anchors who milled around a thick-legged mahogany table devouring pâté, beluga caviar, and shrimp with the gusto of famine victims.
Outside, crowding the sun-drenched decks, children sat in wheelchairs or leaned on crutches, munching hot dogs and burgers and enjoying the fresh sea air. Hovering over them like a mother hen was a lovely woman in her fifties. Gloria Ekhart’s generous mouth and cornflower-blue eyes were familiar to millions who had seen her movies and watched her popular sitcom on TV. Every fan knew about Ekhart’s daughter Elsie, the pretty, freckle-faced young girl who scooted around the deck in a wheelchair. Ekhart had given up acting at the peak of her career to devote her fortune and time to helping children like her own. The influential and well-heeled guests chugging down Dom Perignon in the salon would be asked later to open their checkbooks for the Ekhart Foundation.
Ekhart had a flair for promotion, which was why she leased the Nepenthe for her party. In 1930, when the vessel slid off the ways at the G. L. Watson boatyard in Glasgow, she was among the most graceful motor yachts ever to sail the seas. The yacht’s first owner, an English earl, lost her in an all-night poker game to a Hollywood mogul with a penchant for cards, marathon parties, and underage starlets. She went through a succession of equally indifferent owners, winding up in a failed attempt as a fishing boat. Smelling of dead fish and bait, the rotting yacht languished in the back corner of a boatyard. She was rescued by a Silicon Valley magnate who tried to recoup the millions he spent restoring the vessel by leasing her out for events such as the Ekhart fund-raiser.
A man wearing a blue blazer with an official race badge pinned to the breast pocket had been peering through binoculars at the flat green expanse of the Pacific. He rubbed his eyes and squinted into the lenses again. In the distance thin white plumes were etched against the blue sky where it met the water. He lowered the binoculars, raised an aerosol canister with a plastic trumpet attached, and pressed the button three times.
Hawnk . . . hawnk . . . hawnk.
The klaxon’s blaring squawk echoed across the water like the mating call of a monster gander. The flotilla took up the signal. A cacophony of bells, whistles, and horns filled the air and drowned out the cry of hungry gulls. Hundreds of spectators excitedly reached for their binoculars and cameras. Boats heeled dangerously as passengers shifted to one side. On the Nepenthe the guests wolfed down their food and poured from the salon sipping from glasses of bubbly. They shaded their eyes and looked off in the distance, where the feathery plumes were thickening into bantam rooster tails. Carried on the breeze was a sound like an angry swarm of bees.
In a circling helicopter a thousand feet above the Nepenthe, a sturdy Italian photographer named Carlo Pozzi tapped the pilot’s shoulder and pointed to the northwest. The water was marked by parallel white streaks advancing as if plowed by a huge, invisible harrow. Pozzi checked his safety harness, stepped out onto a runner with one foot, and hefted a fifty-pound television camera onto his shoulder. Leaning with a practiced stance into the wind that buffeted his body, he brought the extraordinary power of his lens to bear on the advancing lines. He swept the camera from left to right, giving viewers around the world an overview of the dozen race boats cutting furrows in the sea. Then he zoomed in on a pair of boats leading the pack by a quarter of a mile.
The speeding craft skimmed the wave tops, their forty-foot hulls planing with elevated bows as if trying to escape the restraints of gravity. The lead boat was painted a bold firehouse red. Trailing by less than a hundred yards, the second boat sparkled like a gold nugget. The boats were more like star fighters than craft designed for travel over water. Their flat decks connected two knife-edged catamaran hulls called sponsons and aerodynamic wings over the engine compartments. Twin F-16–type canopies were set side-by-side two-thirds of the way back from the sharp-pointed double prows.
Squeezed into the red boat’s right-hand canopy, his sun-bronzed face fixed in a mask of determination, Kurt Austin braced himself as the eight-ton craft slammed against the concrete-hard water again and again. Unlike a land vehicle, the boat had no shock absorbers to cushion the jarring impact. Each jolt traveled through the one-piece Kevlar and carbon composite hull up through Austin’s legs and rattled his teeth. Despite his broad shoulders, his muscular biceps, and the five-point harness system that strapped his two-hundred-pound frame in place, he felt like a basketball being dribbled down the court by Michael Jordan. Every ounce of strength in his muscular six-foot-one body was needed to keep a steady hand on the trim tabs and the throttle levers and a firm left foot on the engine pedal controlling the pressure in the mighty twin turbos that sent the boat thundering over the water.
José “Joe” Zavala sat hunched over the steering wheel in the left canopy. His gloved hands tightly gripped the small black wheel that seemed inadequate for the task of keeping the boat pointed in the right direction. He felt as if he were aiming rather than steering the boat. His mouth was set in a grim line. The large dark brown eyes had lost their usual soulful look as they strained intently through the tinted Plexiglas visor to read the sea conditions for changes in wind or wave height. The up-and-down movement of the bow compounded the difficulty. Where Austin gauged the boat’s behavior, quite literally, by the seat of his pants, Zavala felt the waves and troughs through his steering wheel.
Austin barked into the intercom mike that connected the canopies. “What’s our speed?”
Zavala glanced at the digital speed gauge. “One twenty-two.” His eyes went to the GPS position and compass. “Right on course.”
Austin checked his watch and looked down at the chart fastened to his right thigh. The one-hundred-sixty-mile race began in San Diego, made two sharp turns around Santa Catalina Island, and came back to the starting point, giving thousands of spectators along the beaches a view of the dramatic finish. The final turn should be coming up any minute. He squinted through the spray-splashed canopy and saw a vertical line off to the right, then another. Sailboat masts! The spectator fleet flanked a wide swath of open water. Once past the spectators, the racers would pick up the Coast Guard cutter near the turn buoy and head into the last lap. He snapped a quick glance over his right shoulder and caught the reflection of the sun off gold.
“Kicking it up to one-thirty,” Austin said.
The hard shocks coming through the steering wheel indicated that the wave height was growing. Zavala had observed white flecks in the water and a distinct marbling to the seas that told him the wind was up.
“Don’t know if we should,” Zavala yelled over the shriek of the engines. “Picking up a slight chop. Where’s Ali Baba?”
“Practically in our back pocket!”
“He’s crazy if he makes his play now. He should just lie back and let us take the lumps like he’s been doing, then go for the home stretch. Sea and wind are too unpredictable.”
“Ali doesn’t like to lose.”
Zavala grunted. “Okay. Take it to one twenty-five. Maybe he’ll back off.”
Austin pushed down with his fingertips on the throttles and felt a surge of speed and power.
A moment later Zavala reported: “Doing one twenty-seven. Seems okay.”
The gold boat fell back, then speeded up to keep pace. Austin could read the black lettering on the side: Flying Carpet. The boat’s driver was hidden behind the tinted glass, but Austin knew the bearded young Omar Sharif look-alike would be grinning from ear to ear. The son of a Dubai hotel magnate, Ali Bin Said was one of the toughest competitors in one of the world’s most competitive and dangerous sports, Class 1 offshore powerboat racing.
Ali came within a whisker of beating Austin at the Dubai Duty Free Grand Prix the year before. The loss in his own backyard before his home audience was particularly galling. Ali had beefed up the power in the Carpet’s twin Lamborghini engines. With improvements in its power plant the Red Ink squeezed out a few extra miles per hour, but Austin estimated Ali’s boat was a match for his.
At the prerace briefing Ali had jokingly accused Austin of calling in the National Underwater & Marine Agency to quell the seas in his boat’s path. As leader of the Special Assignments Team for NUMA, Austin had the resources of the huge agency at his command. But he knew better than to play King Canute. Ali had been beaten not by engine power but by the way Austin and his NUMA partner clicked together as a team.
Zavala, with his dark complexion and thick, straight black hair always combed straight back, could have passed for the maître d’ in a posh Acapulco resort hotel. The slight smile always on his lips masked a steely resolve forged in his college days as a middleweight boxer and honed by the frequent challenges of his NUMA assignments. The gregarious and soft-spoken marine engineer had thousands of hours piloting helicopters, small jets, and turbo-prop aircraft and easily switched to the cockpit of a race boat. Working with Austin as if they were parts in a precision machine, he took command of the race from the second the referee raised the green starting flag.
They were up on plane at a near-ideal angle and blasted across the start line at one hundred and thirty miles per hour. Every boat had hit the finish line with throttle straight out. Two hard-driven competitors blew out their engines on the first lap, one flipped on the first turn, probably the most dangerous part of any race, and the rest were simply outclassed by the two leaders. The Red Ink rocketed by the others as if they were stuck on fly paper. Only the Flying Carpet kept pace. During the first Catalina Island turn, Zavala had maneuvered the Red Ink around the buoy so that Ali went wide. The Flying Carpet had been playing catch-up ever since.
Now the Carpet had taken wing and was coming abreast of the Red Ink. Austin knew of Ali’s last-minute switch to a smaller propeller that would be better in rough seas. Austin wished he could trade in his large calm-water propeller. Ali had been smart to listen to his weather sense rather than the forecast.
“I’m cranking her up another notch!” Austin shouted.
“She’s at one-forty now,” Zavala yelled back. “Wind’s up. She’ll kite if we don’t slow down.”
Austin knew a high-speed turn was risky. The twin catamaran sponsons skated across the surface with practically no water resistance. The same design that allowed for high speed over the wave tops also meant wind could get under the hull, lift it in a kiting motion, or, even worse, flip it back onto its deck.
The Flying Carpet continued to gain. Austin’s fingertips played over the tops of the throttle levers. He hated to lose. His combativeness was a trait he’d inherited from his father along with the football player physique and eyes the color of coral underwater. One day it would get him killed. But not today. He eased back on the throttles. The maneuver may have saved their lives.
A white-crested four-foot rogue sea was racing in off the port bow, practically snarling as it bore down on them. Zavala saw it angling in, prayed they’d clear it, knew instantly that the timing was all wrong. The wave hooked one of the sponsons like a cat’s claw. The Red Ink was launched spinning into space. With lightning reflexes Zavala steered in the direction of the spin like a driver caught on an ice patch. The boat splashed into the water sideways, rolled so the canopies were buried, then righted after a few more yaws.
Ali slowed down, but once he saw they were all right, he gunned his engines, throwing caution to the winds. He wanted to finish as far ahead of Austin as possible. Ignoring the advice of his veteran throttle man, Hank Smith, Ali pushed his boat to the edge. The giant rooster tail arced high in the air for hundreds of feet, and the twin propellers plowed a wide and double-furrowed wake for hundreds more.
“Sorry about that,” Zavala called out. “Caught a wave.”
“Great save. Let’s go for second place.”
Austin pushed the throttles forward, and with a scream of the engines they were off in hot pursuit.
• • •
High above the race course the Italian TV cameraman had spotted the dramatic reversal of the lead boats. The chopper swooped out in a wide circle and came back over the flotilla to hover at midchannel. Pozzi wanted a wide shot of the lone boat speeding past the spectators to the turn buoy for the final approach to San Diego. The cameraman glanced at the sea below to get his bearings and saw wavelets outlining a large, shiny, grayish object mounding at the surface. A trick of the light. No, there was definitely something there. He caught the attention of the pilot and pointed straight down.
“What the hell is that?” the pilot said.
Pozzi aimed the camera at the object and zoomed in with the touch of a button.
“It’s a balena,” he said as the object came into focus.
“For God’s sake, speak English.”
“How you say? A whale.”
“Oh, yeah,” the pilot replied. “You see them migrating. Don’t worry, he’ll dive when he hears the boats.”
“No,” Carlo said with a shake of his head. “I think he’s dead. He’s not moving.”
The pilot put the chopper at a slight angle for a better view. “Hell, you’re right. There’s another one. I’m counting three—no, four. Damn! They’re popping up all over the place.”
He switched to the hailing channel. “Come in, San Diego Coast Guard. This is the TV helicopter over the race course. Emergency!”
A voice crackled over the radio. “Coast Guard station at Cabrillo Point. Go ahead.”
“I’m seeing whales in the race course.”
“Yeah, maybe a dozen. I think they’re dead.”
“Roger,” the radio man said. “We’ll alert the cutter on scene to check them out.”
“Too late,” the pilot said. “You’ve got to stop the race.”
A tense silence followed. Then: “Roger. We’ll try.”
A moment later in response to a call from the station, the Coast Guard cutter moved from its post at the turn buoy. Orange signal flares blossomed against the blue sky.
Ali saw neither the flares nor the bloated gray carcass floating in his path until it was too late. He yanked the wheel, missed the obstruction by inches, dodged another body, but could not avoid a third. He veered off, yelling at Hank to cut power. Smith’s fingers flew to the throttle, and the planing hull settled down. The Carpet was still going fifty miles an hour when it hit the carcass. With an explosion of foul air, the body popped like a huge blubbery balloon. The boat careened off on one sponson, flipped, somersaulted, and miraculously landed right-side up again.
Ali and the throttle man were saved from fractured skulls by their helmets. Working through a black haze, Ali reached for the wheel and tried to turn, but there was no response from the rudder. He called out to the throttle man. Hank was slumped over the throttles.
On the Nepenthe the captain had left the bridge and was down on the deck talking to Gloria Ekhart when the actress leaned over the rail and pointed. “Excuse me, Captain. What’s that gold boat doing?”
The Flying Carpet was wallowing like a punch-drunk boxer trying to find a neutral corner. Then the twin bows came around, and the boat straightened out, gained speed, and assumed a trajectory aimed at the yacht’s midships. The captain waited for the boat to veer off. It kept coming. Alarmed, he calmly excused himself, stepped aside, and whipped a walkie-talkie from his belt. His mental computer was calculating how long it would take the gold boat to hit them.
“This is the captain,” he barked into the hand radio. “Get this ship under way!”
“Now, sir? During the race?”
“Are you deaf? Weigh anchor and move this ship out. Now.”
“Move? Where, sir?”
They had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting under way in time, and his helmsman wanted to play twenty questions.
“Forward,” he shouted, close to panic. “Just move it!”
Even as he barked the order the captain knew it was too late. The race boat had already cut the distance in half. He started to herd children to the other side of the yacht. Maybe a few lives would be saved, although he doubted it. The wooden hull would shatter into splinters, fuel would be spilled in a fiery conflagration, and the yacht would go to the bottom within minutes. As the captain grabbed onto a wheelchair with a little girl in it and pushed her across the deck, he yelled at others to do the same. Too frozen by fear to react, Ekhart saw the gold torpedo speeding toward them and instinctively did the only thing she could. She put her arm protectively around her daughter’s thin shoulders and held her tight.