Hunter at Sea|
The Tarheel Writer
"Certainty of Truth"
Back to Chapter One
On to Chapter Three
Jevic's Story Page
Rated PG 13+
Proudly presented by The Tarheel Writer - On the Web since 24 February 2003. Celebrating 20 Years on the Internet!
Tarheel Home Page
The stars shone brightand Hunter once again put Polaris over his right shoulder as he powered the sailboat to the west and hopefully, the coast of Florida. The dishes from his meal lay quietly in the galley sink. The body of Captain Turner, now cold and stiff, lay on the floor of the aft cabin. Hunter knew he would have to find land soon or he would be forced to dump the captain's body overboard. He shuddered at the thought.
Hunter grabbed a flashlight and opened the port lazarette. The yellow beam of light cut through the darkness and illuminated the fuel gauge. The needle hovered around the half mark.
"Wow," he whistled to himself. "We've used more fuel than I thought. Well, I've used more fuel than I thought." He snapped the flashlight off and closed the lazarette. It took a few minutes for his eyes to regain their night vision, but when they did, Hunter didn't like what he saw. A line of clouds was gradually moving from the west, slowly and surely obscuring the stars. By his best estimation, he had less than a half hour before Polaris would be hidden and navigation would no longer be possible. Checking his watch, Hunter knew that being underway for a mere six hours would hardly make up for the action of the wind and current during the day. Reluctantly, he shut down the diesel engine and sat back in the cockpit. His rudimentary knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean told him the prevailing currents worked clockwise, going up the coast of the United States. That simple knowledge told Hunter he was probably being pushed north. If he were close enough to shore, the Gulf Stream would push him even faster, even as much as a hundred miles a day. If he were further out to sea, the current would have less of an effect and he would mostly be at the mercy of the prevailing winds.
Hunter pushed a cushion behind his back while watching the approaching clouds, and contemplated his situation. The biggest Achilles' Heel in all this was not knowing where he was. The "Rum Runner" could easily be a couple hundred miles out to sea. If that were the case, it would take thirty hours to get back to shore at a cruising speed of six knots. Even wide open at eight knots, it would still take twenty-five hours. Hunter doubted there was enough fuel for a run that long. He could try, but exhausting his fuel supply meant no way to charge the batteries and that meant no more refrigerator and no more cooking. That was a chance he simply could not take. So he resigned himself to let the "Rum Runner" drift with the current and hope a rescue plane would spot him.
As dawn broke over the Atlantic, Hunter's growling stomach demanded attention. He went below and started fixing a sandwich. This sleeping all day and steering all night schedule was going to have to change.
* * * * *
Max Westphal had been flying search and rescue missions for the Coast Guard for the better part of three decades. The Coast Guard was his life. He'd joined right out of high school and never looked back. Through the years of his service, he'd pulled countless people from certain death. Jumping headlong into boiling seas to save people he had never met, gave him a much needed sense of meaning. Max lived each and every day as if lives depended on him. In actuality, they did.
Max had sat in the station's command center and watched the radar replay of the storm from the night before. It had been vicious, causing a string of tornados as it raced across the sunshine state before heading out to sea. Years of experience told him that any small craft in that storm's path didn't stand much of a chance. Now the search was on for a needle in a haystack.
"I've got a sun reflection at ten o'clock," called out his co-pilot. Captain Max Westphal banked the HH-60J Jayhawk Helicopter to the right and dropped altitude to a hundred feet. Skimming the surface of the ocean, they raced toward his co-pilot's sighting.
"Nothing but a damned ol' bottle," the co-pilot said as he lowered his binoculars. "I guess the glass was just reflectin' the sun." Max nodded and turned the helicopter back toward base. Their fuel was beginning to run low and their search was coming to a close for the day. They'd pushed the limits of the search area, but Max knew the sailboat could be virtually anywhere, even at the bottom of the Atlantic. He knew chances for survival in the open water dwindled with every passing hour. If the sailboat had foundered, then finding someone in the water would be almost impossible. That was a fate he'd wish on no one.
Max knew Captain Turner and knew him to be an exceptional skipper, but he also knew the captain was getting on in years and probably wasn't as sharp as he used to be. The old salt's first mate, Hunter Ward, well, that boy knew what he was doing around a sailboat. The kid had been sailing as long as Max had known him. Maybe the combined experience would keep them both alive. Or maybe the compliancy of a skipper that had seen too many miles under the keel and the boldness that came with teenage years would combine to leave them both for dead. Either scenario could spell disaster or survival. Despite the outcome, it was up to him to pluck them from the water and bring them to safety. All he had to do was find them first. It was with a heavy heart that he returned to base with nothing to report. Max dreaded the welcoming committee.
* * * * *
Jesse Westphal watched as his father's rescue helicopter landed. He'd listened to the radio traffic and knew they didn't find anything, but he wanted to hear it from his dad. Jesse's best friend was out there somewhere, hopefully alive and okay. He couldn't help but choke back a sob as he thought back to his last words to Hunter.
"I never, ever want to talk to or see you again. Just stay away from me!" His words echoed mercilessly in his head.
The blades of the Jayhawk slowed and the crew made their way out of the helicopter. Jesse saw his father and started running toward him. The father caught his son in his arms and gave him a huge hug. They exchanged looks and Jesse knew the mission had found nothing. Max put his arm around his son and together, they walked toward the command center.
"Lieutenant Westphal reporting in," he said as he saluted the CO.
"Anything?" asked Commander Walsh.
"No sir, nothing but an empty bottle."
"An empty bottle?"
"It had to come from somewhere, don't you think?" asked Commander Walsh. Max sat down on the bench in the command center with his son at his side.
"Yes, sir. That's a possibility."
"We deal in possibilities every day, Lieutenant. That was a particularly strong storm. That boat could be a hundred miles outside our search grid. First thing tomorrow morning, we're expanding our search and we'll send out a Guardian (HU-25A Falcon Jet) and I want you aboard." Max's eyes widened at the order. Jets were rarely called into search and rescue as they were most needed to monitor potential drug boat activity. That peeked Max's curiosity.
"Sir, begging your pardon, but is there something about this mission that I don't know about?" The commander gave a big sigh and looked pointedly at the lieutenant's son. Making a quick decision, he plodded on.
"Yes, lieutenant, you're correct. As they say, there is more to the story. Captain Turner was testing a very new and very secret radar system. This radar has the potential of finding drug boats up to a seventy-five nautical mile range, even the submerged ones they're using now. The system only needed to be tested and we chose Captain Turner to do that for us."
"So, we're not only talking about finding survivors, we're talking about retrieving a super-secret radar system that could put a big dent in drug traffic?"
"I'm glad to see you've grasped the importance of finding the 'Rum Runner.'" The lieutenant nodded slowly and turned to look at the suddenly pale face of his son. He patted Jesse's leg and stood up.
"I think we should consider adding a second Guardian to this mission, sir."
"That would draw too much attention to what everyone outside this room considers a rescue mission. You are to report in the morning at 0600 hours for a pre-flight check. I expect you in the air at sunrise. The importance of keeping this quiet can not be emphasized enough," the commander said as he looked directly at Jesse.
"No problem, sir. I just wanna find Hunter. He's my best friend," Jesse said softly. The commander's stoic stance softened.
"I know you do, son. And rest assured. Your father is the best. That's why I'm entrusting the success of this mission to him. And I certainly hope to see you as a candidate in our rescue swimmer program. Your father is the finest I've ever known, Jesse. It will do you well to follow in his footsteps." Jesse nodded. While the CO's comments made his father proud, it only intimated Jesse. He knew his father's reputation was irrefutable, and that's what scared him most. Filling his father's shoes was expected and Jesse wasn't sure if he was ready to slip his feet in. At this point in his life, Jesse could think of only one thing … his best friend. What he really needed more than anything was the opportunity to talk with Hunter. They'd parted on less than amicable terms and Jesse intended to fix that. Hunter deserved more than the brash put off Jesse gave him. Hunter deserved the truth. It was a truth that Jesse was remiss to admit, but it was a truth that needed to be told. It was reluctance that held Jesse back. It was confusion. It was cowardice that kept him from admitting the truth, even to himself.
* * * * *
Aboard the slowly drifting sailboat, everything was quiet. The weather was warm, the seas calm and the winds very light. The distant roar of engines rousted Hunter. He grabbed his sandwich and headed topside only to see a cigarette boat rapidly approaching from the west. His instincts kicked in. He quickly darted below and grabbed the captain's rifle. Pirates and drug runners were common in these waters. Hunter did not intend to be a victim today. He racked the first shell of the magazine into the chamber of the powerful assault rifle. Realizing that he was literally a sitting duck, he fired the engine, shifted into forward and gunned the engine. He tightened the loops of line around the wheel lashing it in place. Hunter then took a protected position just inside the companionway and waited for the cigarette boat to come into range.
The hull and cabin top of the approaching boat had been painted to match the color of the water. The sound of the engine and the spray the boat made while hopping from wave top to wave top were the only giveaways to its location.
Hunter watched through his binoculars as blue puffs of smoke popped from the deck of the approaching boat. Milliseconds later, hot lead projectiles ripped across the top of the cabin, splintering the fiberglass. Hunter ducked quickly. This suddenly became a do or die situation and the young boy instantly realized that. He pulled the assault rifle to his shoulder and took careful aim. The first rounds from the rifle hit the approaching boat on the port bow, ripping fiberglass along the side. Hunter looked carefully and zeroed in on the two dark shapes in the approaching boat's cockpit. He took a deep breath and relaxed just before he squeezed the trigger a second time. The cigarette boat slowly turned to port in an attempt to come alongside. Hunter gritted his teeth, concentrated and fired again. The drug boat suddenly slung itself hard to starboard and headed off at a ninety degree angle. The boy aimed again and fired. The rounds hit near the stern of the boat and thick black smoke instantly appeared. Another round of shots strafed the deck of the "Rum Runner." Hunter winced as one of the shots ripped a hole in his shirt. He aimed and fired back, but the cigarette boat was quickly limping off to the west.
"You sons of bitches fucked with the wrong sailor!" Hunter shouted at the retreating boat. He fired off a few more rounds just to make his point. The crippled craft slowly disappeared over the horizon, smoke billowing from its stern. Hunter leaned the rifle against the companionway bulkhead and took a deep breath. His heart was racing and his hands were literally shaking. Despite his display of bravado, he knew that had been a close call. The young boy shut down the engine, all the while keeping an eye on the horizon. He didn't need that boat sneaking back up on him. He suddenly realized that if he had been underway, he never would have heard the approaching boat over the sound of the sailboat's diesel engine. Hunter really was lucky to have lived through that. He turned to get his sandwich and couldn't help breaking out in laughter. The sandwich had taken a direct hit and was scattered all over the cabin top.
* * * * *
Search and rescue missions worked on the grid method with all parts of the search area divided into individual grids. Search planes and ships would work each grid like a lawn mower, painstakingly covering every square mile. The fuel cost alone was shocking, but when combined with the man-hours invested, the cost of a single search was staggering.
The cost of the mission Captain Max Westphal was flying was the furthest thing from his mind. Just before leaving his house that morning, his son had looked up at him with a pleading face. He knew his son and Hunter were the best of friends and he still scratched his head over their sudden falling out. He'd tried to get Jesse to talk about it, but he had refused. All Max knew was that whatever had caused the rift must have been pretty bad. His son was loyal to a fault, especially when it came to his friends. The more Max thought about it, the more it bothered him. His wife told him it would pass and the boys would be friends again. In the mean time, he could do nothing but watch his son sulk miserably around the house, obviously missing his friend terribly.
"At least it's a clear day, huh, Capt'n?" commented co-pilot, Ted Hagan. Ted was the regular co-pilot on all missions Max flew. It didn't matter what type aircraft was flown Ted was always there. Max grinned at Ted's southern drawl. He was a good ol' boy from a farm in eastern North Carolina and the only one in the family to ever graduate from college. Perpetually the "glass half full" kind of guy, Max admired his professionalism and valued his friendship.
"Lookin' like a good day to find Jess's buddy," Ted said as he picked up the binoculars and started scanning the vast blue ocean water beneath them.
They had just completed searching grid number eight when Max spotted smoke on the horizon. He pointed it out to Ted as he keyed the radio mic.
"Jacksonville C.G.H.Q. Jacksonville C.G.H.Q. this is S.A.R. Three Six Five."
"S.A.R. Three Six Five, Jacksonville"
"We've got smoke on the horizon about fifty miles from our current position. ETA, about a minute. Will advise. Over."
"Roger, Three Six Five. Keep us informed." Max throttled up the Guardian Jet to its maximum four hundred twenty knots. His co-pilot already had his binoculars to his eyes.
"Put 'er on the deck, Capt'n. Looks like a drug boat." Max glanced at Ted, eased back on the throttle and dropped the aircraft to an altitude of five hundred feet. As they passed over, Max looked down.
"You're right, Ted. Looks like a drug boat, but what's up with all that smoke, engine trouble?" While Max only got a glance at the boat, Ted got to study it through binoculars.
"Nope, Capt'n. That there boat's been in a shoot out and got the short end of the stick. Looks like thar's somebody lying down on the deck. Might be wounded or even dead." Max banked hard right and brought the jet around for another pass. Ted studied the boat intently. The black smoked still billowed from the stern as the boat sliced through the waves. Despite the obvious loss of one engine, the second still propelled the boat at a pretty good clip. Suddenly, the boat slowed and stopped dead still in the water. Ted watched with morbid curiosity as the saw what he thought he was going to see.
"Gun! He's gonna shoot!" Ted warned. Max banked hard left, pulled up and slammed the throttle down. For a half second, Max thought everything was all right. Then alarms sounded and red warning indicators started flashing.
"Fuckers shot us!" exclaimed Ted. Max glanced to his rear left and saw flames coming from the engine.
"Port engine's on fire," he said calmly. Ted quickly shut the port engine down and flipped the fire extinguisher button. The flames instantly disappeared and were replaced by thick gray smoke.
"She handln' okay, Capt'n?" Ted asked as he surveyed the instruments on the right side of the cockpit.
"Yeah, but help me trim her out," Max directed as he struggled with the wheel. Ted quickly went to work making adjustments and in under a minute the Guardian Jet smoothed out.
"Yeah better call that 'n in, Capt'n." Max nodded.
"Jacksonville C.G.H.Q Jacksonville G.C.H.Q. this is S.A.R. Three Six Five. We've been engaged by a drug boat and been hit. I repeat, we've been hit. Port engine is out."
"Three Six Five, Jacksonville. Can you make it back to base?"
"Starboard engine is fine. We can make it." Max relayed the coordinates of the boat to headquarters. In a matter of minutes, at least three heavily armed Coast Guard boats were headed toward the drug boat. Since it had fired on a Coast Guard jet, the drug boat would see no mercy from the encroaching fleet.
* * * * *
Hunter sat in the cockpit and listened to the clanging of the mast against the railing. The sound had been tolerable in the calm wind, but a breeze had come up and now the "Rum Runner" was wallowing on the waves. The sound was slowly driving him crazy and spurred him into action. Working methodically, Hunter first cut the canopy loose and let it fall in the water. Next, he removed the boom and lashed it to the deck. Then he removed all the canvas and stowed it in the forward cabin. All that was left was the mast. He found some bolt cutters in toolbox and started cutting each of the metal stays holding it. Manhandling a fifty-five foot aluminum pole was more than Hunter could manage, so he cut the last stay and watched as the mast vanished beneath the blue water. He sighed and turned his face in to the wind. With all that work, he'd worked up quite a sweat. His blond hair flapped in the breeze like a canvas sail.
The light bulb went off without warning. Like any young sailor, Hunter had read the story of Robin Graham and his circumnavigation on his boat called "Dove." Robin had lost a mast, but he had stepped the boom and sailed on. Hunter's blue eyes locked on the boom. Then he glanced over to where the mast once stood. He could do this.
An hour later, dripping in sweat, Hunter stood back and admired his handiwork. The boom stood proudly on the deck. The jib had been cut down and had been fixed to the boom. The spinnaker pole served as the boom. For the first time since the storm, Hunter smiled as the breeze filling the makeshift sail and the "Rum Runner" started making headway. The improvised rig didn't allow for much maneuvering, so he was resigned to let the wind push the forty-five foot sailboat wherever it wanted to push it.
The hot noon sun shone brightly overhead. In all the excitement of the morning, Hunter had no idea which direction he was headed, but at least he was moving. After lashing the wheel, he went below for some lunch. The funny smell in the galley had him checking the trash bin. Then he checked the refrigerator. With all sources eliminated, the true source of the smell almost made the young boy throw up. He went topside as quickly as he could, gulping in great lungfuls of fresh air.
"Shit, how long has it been?" he asked himself. "Three days?" Hunter shook his head. "And today has to be the hottest day of the whole trip." His appetite evaporated when he realized that what he smelled was Captain Turner's body. He resigned himself that if he hadn't been found by sunset, he would bury the captain at sea.
The hot afternoon sun blazed down on the deck. Hunter took some deep breaths of fresh air and headed below to the front cabin. He grabbed what was left of the jib and carried it back topside. In a half hour, he had a canopy up to protect him from the sun.
Inexplicably, Hunter's thoughts turned to Jesse. Hot boiling tears came from nowhere as he remembered what he had lost. At first, it was an immediate friendship. They shared those formable years side by side, experiencing the thrills and wonders of early teenage years. The whole world seemed to be at their feet until an ugly monster started to grow in Hunter's chest. He looked at his friend with suddenly changed eyes. The camaraderie was still there, but now he looked at Jesse with adoration and with a hint of unbridled teenage lust.
Night after night, Hunter had cried himself to sleep racked with guilt over his feelings for his best friend. Despite everything he tried, nothing helped. Just seeing Jesse without a shirt was enough to stir a libido that knew no bounds. He tried everything he knew, but Hunter continued to wake up with his warm juices coating his underwear. The guilt continued to worsen.
The weekends were the worst. Jesse would spend the night. Hunter spent those weekends in purgatory. The good part being Jesse's touchy-feely personality and the bad part being stretched out in the same bed with the warm inviting body of his best friend just inches away.
The tears came unchecked as Hunter's vision blurred in the bright sun reflecting on the gently rolling waves of crystal clear water. He brought his arm up to wipe his face and was unceremoniously brought back to the present by the horrid smell of his armpit.
"God, I stink," he couldn't help but chuckle to himself. He looked up and watched as the sun slowly sank toward the horizon. The moment Hunter dreaded more than anything had arrived. There was no choice left. It had to be done.
If anything, the smell had become worse. Hunter quickly made his way around the main salon and opened every porthole. He slowly looked at the aft cabin door and a dread grew in him like he'd never known. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open and looked down on Captain Turner's sheet covered body. With his jaw set in determination, Hunter grabbed the body by the shoulders and pulled. The young boy was not prepared for the wheezing sound that came from the body and stumbled back, eyes wide with terror.
"Don't do that to me old man," he mumbled as he tried to get his heart rate under control. Getting the dead weight of a human body up the companionway was akin to dragging a couch up a set of stairs, but Hunter persevered. He dragged the body out into the cockpit and sat back, catching his breath. The lifeline that normally ran the entire perimeter of the sailboat was missing on the starboard side of the cockpit, thanks to the canopy's demise. It was there that Hunter finally got Captain Turner's body, poised for its final resting place. The young boy looked up and saw the most amazing sunset he had ever seen. He looked back down at the sheet shrouded body.
"Somehow, it's fitting that you should be buried at sea, captain. You loved and respected the sea more than anyone I've ever known. I can only hope that she welcomes you with open arms and gives you the rest you truly deserve." Hunter bowed his head and tried to keep his tears in check. "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. May God have mercy on your soul," he muttered as he rolled the captain's body over the side.
* * * * *
Jesse Westphal walked slowly down the dock. Resting peacefully in the calm waters was the sixteen foot "Pearl." He couldn't help but smile as he looked at the small sailboat. He remembered when he and Hunter had named her. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. The night before they'd watched Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." Together, they'd painted the name on the transom. Afterward, they'd donned bandanas and set sail. Anchored out that night, they grilled steaks and drank beer that Jesse had scoffed from the family refrigerator. Hunter had the idea and Jesse quickly agreed as they stripped down to nothing and skinny dipped off the aft swim platform. Afterward, they'd rinsed off with fresh water and settled down below. A Coleman lantern, turned down low, provided the only light. That was the night that two fourteen year old boys experimented. It had felt deliriously wonderful and at the same time it had felt dangerously wicked. For Jesse, it had been a onetime bonding experience. Evidently, it had meant a lot more to Hunter. Regardless, they'd both had a great time that night. It had sealed their friendship.
Jesse walked along the dock, his eyes caressing the meticulously maintained deck of "The Pearl." Hunter was thoroughly dedicated to maintaining his sailboat and Jesse was happy to help. The boy leaned down and put his hand on the railing.
"Please, dear God, bring Hunter back safe," Jesse sobbed. "Bring him back and I swear I'll tell him. I swear it! I've got to tell him that I love him too!" Jesse looked up at a most amazing sunset. He felt a calmness wash over him as he watched the golden sun sink through the clouds and disappear into the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean. "God be with you, Hunter. I miss you so much."
On to Chapter Three
Back to Chapter One
Jevic's Story Page
Suggested Reading | Suggested Viewing | Links
Send a Comment
All Site Content © 2003 - 2023 Tarheel Writer unless otherwise noted
Layout © 2003 - 2023 Tarheel Writer