Jack studied the black smudge on the eastern horizon through his binoculars. All they revealed was a somewhat closer, crisper black smudge, which Jack recognized as the smoke from the funnel of a vessel burning heavy oil for fuel. Which meant a large vessel. Quite possible a warship from some third world nation. At best, he figured, it could be some ancient merchant vessel now crewed by pirates. Either way he wanted to avoid them, and unconsciously started scratching the backstay in the ancient sailor’s tradition, to call up the wind.
“Caribe!” Jack’s powerful baritone called across the water. He saw one of the crew dart into the wheelhouse, and a moment later Vasiliy walked out on deck, stretching and scratching his belly.
“Ah yes Jack, good morning!”
“Do you see that smoke to the east?” Jack asked him, pointing his outstretched arm toward the smudge, which had grown somewhat larger, perhaps nearer.
Vasily raised his hand to shade his eyes and leaned out over the rail, squinting against the bright sun. “Ah yes. I see it! Looks like… Maybe smoke from a ship, yes?”
“That’s what I take it to be. Listen, Vasiliy… Let me come aboard and see if I can’t get your engine going. I want to stay well out of sight of that ship, and I think it’s coming this way. More or less.”
“Yes, yes… We do not want to be taken, after coming so far! Come! I will find lanterns for us to see down there.”
Jack started the little diesel and steered for Caribe’s port side. Linda came on deck, and with nothing more than a knowing glance she walked forward to retrieve the fenders from their rack. She made them fast to lifeline stanchions on the starboard side, then went forward again for the mooring lines. Jack brought First Watch smoothly alongside the ship, and two Caribes caught the lines tossed up to them and made them fast. Vasiliy lowered a rope ladder down the side, and Jack climbed up to Caribe’s deck. Vasiliy grabbed Jack’s hands to help him up, then wrapped him in an almost crushing bear hug, and pounded Jack’s back after releasing him.
“Welcome! Welcome aboard my friend!” said Vasiliy in a voice that could be heard a quarter mile away. “Come, I take you down into the bowels of the ship.”
They walked aft behind the bulwark from which Jack had seen Vasiliy come and go so often, through a water tight door that opened to a little vestibule; then through an elegant varnished mahogany door with a window in the top half. On into the passageway, lined with equally beautiful cabin doors to their left, and the ship’s hull to their right. They came to a thwartships passageway and turned left, passing several more windowed mahogany doors leading to ship’s offices. Half way down this passageway, they came to a solid mahogany door that opened to another little vestibule with a water tight door on the other side.
“The engine room.” Vasiliy said as he lit an oil lantern and passed it to Jack. He lit another for himself, then pulled the lever that opened the dogs, and thus the door.
Beyond the door was pitch blackness, save for that which the shimmering flames of their oil lamps could light. The smell of diesel and bilge water enveloped them, and the sounds of water lapping on the steel hull, with the occasional creak or groan. Vasiliy stepped down the steep ladder, one hand on the rail and the lantern held waist level in the other. Jack followed, carefully negotiating the narrow steps. At the bottom of the steps they found a door to their left.
“This is engineer’s office” Vasiliy offered. Jack opened the door and peered inside, holding out his lantern to view the tiny space, not much more than a walk in closet. It was lined with book shelves full of three ring binders, and a small desk sat against the bulkhead facing aft, which had a window looking out over the engine room. An instrument panel hung on the bulkhead to the right of the window, near the door, and several red lights were lit on it. Turning toward the engine room, Jack saw a maze of pipes and cable trays, breaker panels, motor control switchboxes, and what appeared to be the ship’s generators on either side of a railed opening in the deck right amidship. Another ladder descended from the forward end of the opening, about four feet in front of him, and from the aft end a pair of large insulated pipes rose from the depths, rising upward through the overhead.
“First thing’s first.” Jack said. “We need light down here.” He walked to the port side generator’s control panel and studied it with his lantern, then walked around the generator to look at all the piping connections. Outboard of the generator, right up against the ship’s hull, he found a fuel tank. A look at the sight glass and a rap with his knuckles proved the tank to be empty. So he crossed over to the starboard generator’s fuel tank. This one showed fuel in the sight glass, about a quarter full. Jack circled the generator, ensuring all the valves supplying fuel, cooling water and such were open. Then he faced the control panel, and after a slight hesitation, he pressed the start button. A loud metallic clank was quickly followed by a slow grinding sound. Then a clack, clack, clack, increasing in frequency until the generator roared up to full speed. The engine room reverberated with the generator’s grumbling roar, which rose half again as Jack closed the main breaker. The generator groaned as it took up the load, then recovered with a deeper bellow, the turbocharger whining in it’s high pitched wail.
The fluorescent lights in the overhead flickered to life, and Jack spied several pairs of earmuffs hanging from a pipe. He grabbed two, donning one and passing the other to Vasiliy. Jack had to yell to tell Vasiliy he was going back to the engineer’s office to look for any procedure manuals he might find, that would tell him how to refill the generator day tanks, and what needed to be running in order to start the main engine. Just as he found the manual, a large, coal black man in a white ship’s uniform filled the doorway. “Hey mon!” He shouted over the din. “Ya might be wantin’ to come on deck now!”
Jack cast an urgent glance at Vasiliy, and both hurried up the ladder to the main deck. The black smudge on the horizon was now hull up; a low, gray ship of moderate size, no doubt an old frigate or corvette belonging to some third world country. The black smoke coming from her funnel plumed with increased intensity, and the white of her bow wave could be seen with the naked eye. She was nine miles distant and coming up fast, on a course intended to cut off the Caribe and her sister ship, now only a hundred yards off the starboard bow.
“De generator, ‘im let out a cloud of black smoke when you started ‘im, mon.” said the black man. “An’ den de ship dere” he said, pointing at the approaching warship, “E turn to come for us, pourin’ on de coals!”
“Shit” said Jack. “Vasiliy, we gotta kick this pig into gear.” He ran to the rail and shouted down to Willie, who was now in First Watch’s cockpit, and Linda “Cut loose and get the hell outta here! Drop the hammer and run for Saint Martin. Run ‘til you’re out of fuel. Hopefully the wind will come up before then!”
“You’re not coming back aboard?” Linda asked, with a look of horror on her face.
“There’s no time” Jack responded. “I’ve got to get this engine going if the Caribe has a prayer. I can’t abandon these guys!”
“Then I’m coming with you!”
Before the words were out of her mouth, Linda sprang up the rope ladder. Then she cast off First Watch’s mooring lines once on the ship’s deck, and ran to Jack’s side.
“I… I couldn’t stand the thought of watching you leave me” she stuttered, staring down at her feet, suddenly embarrassed by her rash behavior. Jack pulled her close to him, and softly confided that the thought had torn at his very being as well. He was glad she did what she did.
They watched for a moment as Willie throttled up the little diesel and bore away for Saint Martin, waving and shouting wishes of good luck. A twinge of pain ran through Jack’s heart as he watched his boat and his now dear friends slip away southward, and he lingered by the rail for several minutes, waving good bye.
“Maybe we should get that engine started, no?” Vasiliy interjected.
“Yeah, let’s get ‘er going” Jack replied after a moment, and they walked aft toward the door.