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THE MAYDAY CALL BROKE THROUGH SOME FISHERMEN'S chatter on channel sixteen. Brushing stray hairs back toward my ponytail, I quieted my breathing and listened. I always left the tug's wheelhouse VHF radio turned up extra loud so that I wouldn't have to feel guilty about missing any calls. Let's face it, towing and salvage is a tough business, and if any calls for tows came in, I needed to get on the horn and make the deal before the competition.
I was down in the head compartment, wedged in alongside the Royal Flusher whose display model had operated so beautifully at the boat show, but once installed, it plugged up regularly every time I allowed someone else to use the head. B.J. was supposed to have been here this morning to fix the damn thing, and instead I found myself scrunched up in the tiny compartment, trying to make sense of an exploded diagram of a toilet.
The radio finally squawked again. "Mayday, mayday, this is the Top Ten."
I dropped a washer under the shower grate and banged my head on the porcelain bowl. The Top Ten. Neal's boat. And it had been a woman's voice.
I straightened out my legs and tried to extricate myself from the pretzel-like position required to get at the bolts on the base of the Flusher. Please let him be all right, I thought. He should be the one making that radio call; the fact that he wasn't was causing the hairs on my arms to lift in spite of the Florida heat. Where was he? Yet, in the midst of my worry, I couldn't help but wonder who the woman was. Neal didn't actually own the Top Ten; she was a ninety-two-foot private motor yacht, and Neal Garrett, all five feet eleven inches of sunny, brown-skinned, blue-eyed smiles,was her hired skipper and my former lover.
I backed out of the head and made it up to the wheelhouse in three long strides. Coast Guard Station Fort Lauderdale was already on the air trying to get the woman to state the vessel's position. Several times their transmission got stepped on by local traffic, and she became more hysterical by the minute. You weren't supposed to call mayday unless someone's life was in danger. The question was, did she know that? I didn't recognize her voice, but I had heard in the Downtowner that Neal had teamed up with some young girl he met there in the bar. Where was Neal?
I wiped my hands on my cutoff jeans and kicked the toolbox closed with the toe of my deck shoe. I wanted to break in on her transmission with the Coasties to ask about Neal, but, of course, that would be against regulations. The Coast Guard radio operators could be so exasperating sometimes. It seemed like they had to know everybody's mother's maiden name before they could determine the nature of an emergency.
"How many persons are on board?"
"Nobody," she said, "at least not now. I don't know what to do. Please, we're getting closer."
He finally asked her what was wrong. The boat was drifting, she said, toward some tall white buildings. Then she broke off, and he couldn't get her to respond.
Now, that's a big help, I thought as I clicked on the VHF radio direction finder, turned up the radio, and slipped out of the wheelhouse. From her description, she could be anywhere along the hundred miles of tall white buildings from Palm Beach to Coconut Grove.
I jumped the gap from the gunwale of my tug to the seawall and then trotted across the lawn to my little cottage to lock up. I looked around for B.J., usually both my mechanic and the best deckhand I knew. The storm shutters were all closed on the big house, where he had been working in the library the day before. I trotted around the side of the house.
I had met B.J. when I used to work as a lifeguard down on Lauderdale beach. A big Samoan, he often surfed after work with a couple of the other lifeguards. When they introduced us one afternoon, he was one of the few people who had recognized something in my name.
"Hey . . . Seychelle," he said. "Isn't that the name for some islands?"
When I explained my dad had named all us kids after islands, he wanted to know if I had a sister named Pago Pago.
I walked out to the gate, but his truck wasn't in the drive. Taking a megayacht like the Top Ten under tow would certainly not be easy as a one-man job, but I didn't have time to chase around anymore.
Locking the door to my cottage, I whistled for Abaco, my black Lab. She crawled out from under her bougainvillea bush at the side of the cottage and jumped through the gate in the bulwarks.
The noise of Gorda's Caterpillar diesel grumbling to life rolled across the river like nearby thunder. I threw the dock lines onto the grass just beyond the seawall and adjusted the throttle to achieve maximum speed with the least amount of wake. I noted in the log that we were under way at 9:18 a.m., Thursday, March 18. Abaco took up her position at the bow, ears blowing back, tongue lolling out of the corner of her mouth.
I hoped Neal had surfaced from wherever he was and the emergency was over, but until I heard otherwise, I'd keep the steam on. The Top Ten, at ninety-two feet, was a custom Broward yacht, replacement value somewhere near five million. In today's market, unfortunately, her new owner would be lucky to get two to three for her. But if she were in danger of going on the beach, the salvage claim could be in numbers I hadn't seen in a long time.
I had not heard any radio transmissions since I cast off and got under way, but I knew very well that even at nine in the morning, Perry Greene had been sitting in Flossie's Bar and Grill with his handheld VHF on the bar next to his can of Bud. Just as I was pushing the speed limit down the New River, Perry was headed down the Dania Cutoff Canal in Little Bitt, his twenty-eight-foot towboat.
Perry Greene wore greasy T-shirts and ripped blue jeans that showed off the fact that he never wore underwear. He had an IQ about as high as the winter temperature after a cold front, and he'd beaten me out of too many jobs lately. The Little Bitt was always piled high with slimy lines, old hemp fenders, and various broken engine parts, but Perry knew how to get the most out of an engine, and she was fast. I tapped the throttle forward a notch. Marine salvage was a no-cure, no-pay business; whoever got there first would get the job. No way Perry was going to beat me out of this one.
Coast Guard Station Lauderdale came back on the air and began calling the Top Ten. For the longest time the girl's voice didn't answer their call. Then her voice broke in sounding weak, but the transmission was so clear, I would have thought she was within a few hundred yards of me.
"Oh, God, help me . . . please . . ."
Then nothing. The transmission ended and the radio remained silent for several long seconds. When the Coast Guardsman's voice came back on, calling the name of the boat in his monotone, I jumped, but her voice never came back on the air. I wished I could just climb into my fifteen-foot Whaler and fly on out there to see what was going on. While Gorda had plenty of raw power in her diesel, she would never get up and plane over the waves like a dinghy. But then again, I wouldn't be able to do much good in the Whaler if that ninety-two-footer was in the surf line.
The run down the river had never taken quite as long as it did that morning. At best, with the current with me, my dock was a good twenty minutes from the harbor entrance, but because I was fighting the incoming tide, the harbor markers seemed to crawl past even more slowly. Early as it was, the river stink was already overpowering the smell of the newly cut grass and flowering trees of the multimillion-dollar homes on either side of us. It hadn't always been that way along Fort Lauderdale's New River-the smell, I mean. Even I could remember when kids caught tarpon off the Davie Bridge, and the crabs the locals pulled up in their traps didn't have a deadly dose of mercury in them. But nowadays, between the agriculture runoff and the hundreds of live-aboard yachts dumping all their sewage overboard, there were days, quiet mornings like this one, when the river was a real bacteria bath.
Finally, I turned south at the mouth of the New River and headed for the entrance to Port Everglades. For a Monday, there was a fair amount of traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway, and I got a break at the Seventeenth Street Bridge. Though Gorda could get through without a bridge opening, the traffic jostling for position often forced me to slow way down. This morning I joined the line of sailboats and sportfishermen and steamed straight on through without touching the throttle.
When I'd almost cleared the last inner harbor beacon and was ready to turn out the cut, I looked to seaward and saw, three-quarters of a mile offshore, a gigantic, gray, V-shaped ship lined up on the channel markers, a tiny pilot boat bobbing next to it like a remora attached to a shark.
"Goddamn!" I cut back the throttle and started to make a wide turn back into the ship turning basin. No way did I want to share the channel with an aircraft carrier. Two big harbor tugs churned past me, headed out to the ship.
Gorda slowly lost way and began to drift toward the south side of the harbor entrance. I checked down the Intracoastal toward the Dania Cutoff Canal, and sure enough, there was Perry Greene's blond hair flying around his head, just visible over the windscreen of Little Bitt. His boat was throwing up a three-foot wake, and as I saw it, I had a choice: pray for the harbor police to stop him for speeding in a manatee zone, or try to beat him out the cut.
"Come on, baby!" I pushed the throttle forward all the way to the stops. I couldn't remember ever running Gorda flat out at max RPM. I turned her around and lined up, midchannel, head on and closing with the carrier. As Gorda picked up speed, her stern started to squat in the water, and the wake we were throwing up made Perry's look like bathtub play. The fishermen on the rock jetties grabbed for their bait coolers and scrambled for higher ground.
"Securité, securité," the radio crackled, "this is Port Everglades Harbor Pilot. All traffic please clear Port Everglades entrance channel, this is Port Everglades Harbor Pilot, clear." The pilot's voice on the radio sounded convincing, but I could barely hear him over Gorda's screaming engine. And if the growing vision out my windshield didn't stop me, nothing would.
It just didn't look like it could stay upright. The damn thing looked like a skyscraper, and it narrowed down to this knifelike bow that dwarfed the harbor tugs I knew to be more than twice Gorda's size. Fortunately, the massive ship was moving at no more than two or three knots. I'd read somewhere just how many miles out those babies had to start slowing before they could come to a complete stop. They'd probably throttled down somewhere off Bimini.
I glanced at the oil pressure and temperature gauges; the engine seemed to be handling it.
"Securité, securité, attention all vessels . . ." I tuned the radio out and tried my best to ignore the five-story-high, thousand-man floating city that was bearing down on me.
Water color. I concentrated on the color of the water and the size of the wind chop as I cleared the towering condos at Point of Americas and edged over as close as I dared to the north side of the channel. The end of the breakwater came into view surrounded by pale yellow-green water. Shallow, sand bottom. Six feet of water was what Gorda needed: aquamarine. While there was plenty of depth in the channel, on either side the bottom shallowed up quickly. We were hitting the wind chop now, and waves were exploding into rainbow-tinted mist off Gorda's bow. Abaco deserted the bow and stationed herself in a corner of the wheelhouse, watching me with big black doubting eyes.
Copyright© 2002 by Christine Kling