‘What? Are you afraid you’ll break a fingernail?’
Rachel glanced down at her fingertips. The last of the varnish had worn away long since; several of the nails were ripped off – the result of wrangling cold wet canvas flogging in a full gale – and the rest she had roughly trimmed with the file on her Leatherman multi-tool.
‘No problem, Skip. I’ll take the jib in for you if that’s what you want. But I thought you intended to keep cracking on?’
Skip glanced at the bar-taut mainsail, already reefed in the building gale. A lock of blonde hair whipped across her forehead and she stuffed it back into the headband. She desperately wanted to win this race with her all female crew. To prove to the naysayers that ocean yacht racing was a sport for girls. Women, she corrected herself, and then smiled as she remembered that Jessica Watson was only 16 when she had become the youngest person to circumnavigate the world unassisted.
The hardness returned to her lips as she mentally wrestled with the problem. It was risky pushing on in the teeth of a gale with nightfall approaching. The old sailing shipmasters had always reduced sail at night. She’d done it often enough herself cruising across the Atlantic. Too much could go wrong at night. A freak wave, a sudden wind-shift or even running into a rogue shipping container, and the over-powered, fragile racing yacht would go straight to the bottom.
It was a gamble, but then all life was a gamble and she heard the inner voice reminding her that ocean racing was a ruthless game, and that the other skipper’s wouldn’t slow down. Winning wasn’t everything, it was the only thing, some American sports coach had once said, and she summoned up the vision, the same one she called upon whenever the going got tough, whenever anyone said a woman couldn’t do it, whenever there was a hard decision to be made. The vision of herself hoisting the trophy over her head, surrounded by her crew, downing the champagne, not spraying it everywhere.
‘Stuff it Rach,’ she said, grinning. ‘Leave it set, let’s win this one.’
‘Look at those bruises, Rach, anyone would think you’d been several rounds with Holly Holm.’
‘You should see what I did to her,’ said Rachel, grimacing as the last stitch was pulled tight and snipped off, before painfully pulling her shirt and foul weather gear back on.
Skip threw the old dressing into a corner. The cut was deep and she had done her best with the suture kit from the medical chest. She grinned, funny how all those hours of sewing uniforms for her siblings’ action figures had finally paid off. She handed two codeine tablets to Rachel and offered her a swig from a water bottle.
It had been four days since the freak wave had pitchpoled them, south of Cape Leeuwin, snapping the mast and ripping out most of the deck fittings, including the liferaft and the EPIRB. They were lucky the boat had righted itself, and the crew had worked like Amazons to cut the wreckage away. The deck was sprung, but the bilge pump still worked and they could control the leak by taking turns at pumping. They had lashed several fenders and locker doors together and streamed them over the bow on a long rope as a sea-anchor, to keep the boat’s head to wind so that it rode the seas more easily. Now they were huddled together amidst the wreckage of the main cabin, trying to keep warm and dry, while above the storm blew itself out and pushed them deeper into the southern ocean.
Skip surveyed the cabin, a jumbled, soggy mess of clothing, provisions, books, charts and equipment that had tumbled out of the lockers as the boat rolled over, and been soaked as water burst in around the wash-boards. In addition to Rachel’s cut, she had treated sprained joints, dislocated fingers and cracked ribs. Most of the rest of her crew were huddled in their damp sleeping bags, lashed into their bunks trying to rest. One was steadily working the bilge pump, which sucked and gurgled as it ran dry.
‘There’s less water coming in now the motions eased,’ said Skip to the woman. ‘You can stop pumping for the time being. Just keep an eye on the water level and wake one of the others if you need help.’ She turned to Rachel. ‘I’m going up top, fancy a breath of fresh air?’
Rachel nodded and they waited for the boat to drop into a trough, eased open the hatch and tumbled into the cockpit, clipping their lifelines onto the safety rail. The waves were no longer the threatening southern ocean greybeards that had overwhelmed them, but the yacht still rode over the swells as if on a switchback roller-coaster. It was calm down in the troughs, but on the crests the wind still howled and the spray stung as it bit into their faces, so they sat on the cockpit floor, sheltering as best they could and huddled together for warmth. Skip burrowed into the pocket of her waterproof jacket and pulled out an energy bar. She broke it in half, handed a piece to Rachel and they chewed contentedly.
Above them the storm clouds had cleared, the Milky Way flowed brightly across the southern sky and big brilliant stars flashed in the cold clean air.
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Skip. ‘Hard to believe we were fighting for our lives not long ago, and now we’re treated to this.’
‘The Aborigines, call it the Emu,’ said Rachel, pointing. ‘If you look you can see its head and body and legs. Most people don’t know, but they named the largest stars centuries before the Persians or the Arabs did.’
‘I know I should have asked this before,’ said Skip, ‘but did you learn to sail in Australia?’
‘In Newcastle, yes,’ said Rachel. ‘At Lake Macquarie Sailing Club. They had two instructors, Jenny and Carolina, who were both terrific sailors.’
‘And they inspired you?’
‘I was hooked from the moment they got me into a Sabot. And you should have heard them talk, about sailing, boats, travel, work. They were besties.’
‘Just like Chloe and Olivia,’ mused Skip.
‘Women you sailed with before?’
‘No, Virginia Woolf mentioned them in one of her books,’ said Skip, laughing. ‘They were friends whose conversations she enjoyed reading about.’
‘About sailing? Is that what inspired you?’
‘Virginia Woolf did inspire me, but not to sail. No, that was another book.’
The boat rode up the steep face of a swell, the crest breaking over the bow and showering the women with spray.
‘What was it?’ said Rachel, shaking her head and blinking salt water out of her eyes.
‘Swallows and Amazons, my grandmother gave me a copy when I was young. I grew up wanting to be Nancy Blackett.’ Skip grinned and shrugged her shoulders. ‘And here I am.’
‘Your name’s Nancy,’ said Rachel. ‘Were you named after her?’
‘Actually my real name’s Ruth. But that was Arthur Ransome’s joke. Nancy Blackett was called Ruth, but when she learned that pirates were ruthless, she started calling herself Nancy.’
‘Ruth-less,’ repeated Rachel, chuckling. ‘So when you took up sailing your family called you Nancy too?’
‘Something like that,’ said Skip.
There was a companionable silence while the boat rode over the crest of several more waves. In the east, the paling horizon indicated the approaching dawn.
‘So, what would Nancy Blackett do?’ said Rachel.
‘In this situation? She’d probably have us draw lots for who’d be fed to the sharks first, in order to make the rations last longer.’
‘But we’ve plenty of food and water,’ said Rachel.
“Yes, but we’ve no mast, we could go on drifting around the Southern Ocean until it all runs out.’ Skip’s mouth twisted into a grin and her eyes twinkled. ‘And then we’d have to start killing and eating each other, one by one.’
‘How would we decide who got eaten first?’ said Rachel, laughing.
‘I’m the captain, I’ll decide,’ said Skip. ‘I could make you draw lots, or just start with the weakest.’
‘Ruthless, just like Nancy Blackett.’ Rachel grinned slyly. ‘And what would Virginia Woolf do?’
Skip thought for a moment. She’d idolised Virginia Woolf when studying at university, but there was nothing she could remember from her writings that would help her now. ‘She’d have us all sit around together and engage in long periods of introspective conversation, before finally deciding to sail to a lighthouse, or South America,’ she said.
‘She did sail then?’
‘I suppose so, she did write about it, but I do know that she drowned. So I think I’d put my money on Nancy Blackett.’ Skip stretched and slapped her arms across her body, trying to ease the cold and stiffness out of her limbs. Then she reached over and punched Rachel on the shoulder. ‘Anyway, cheer up, it’ll be dawn soon, then we can have a good look at what gear we have left. Perhaps we can rig a jury mast out of some boathooks and sections of safety rail. We’ve got plenty of spare sails we can cut down. With luck we should be able to square away north, hit the bottom of Tasmania, or New Zealand, unless the Australian Navy finds us first.’
‘You haven’t told the others, then?’ said Rachel, quietly.
‘What, that I expect the Navy to find us, the EPIRB will have sent out its distress call. They only have to allow for the wind and current in order to track us.’
Rachel shook her head. ‘I’ve seen you examining the hull, Skip. It’s cracked where the stays were wrenched out. The carbon fibre’s damaged,’ she hesitated, as if afraid to voice the conclusion, ‘it could fail at any time.’
‘And the barometer’s falling again, and we don’t have a liferaft, and, and,’ said Skip, banging her fist determinedly down onto the deck. ‘But that’s no reason to give up, I’ve got some ideas how we can stop the crack spreading, and take the pressure off it. We’re not done yet, Rach.’
‘What is it Mummy?’
The girl pointed to an orange bag floating in a rock pool exposed by the falling tide.
‘It looks like a dry-bag that sailors use to keep their things dry. I used to have one when I went kayaking in Milford Sound. Why don’t you wade in and fetch it.’
‘But I’ll get my shoes and my trousers wet.’
‘That doesn’t matter, Ruthie, there’s a towel in the car and you can change when you get home.
Ruth stepped gingerly into the rock pool, splashed across to the bag and brought it back to her mother, who said, ‘You found it, you can open it.’
Ruth undid the clips and unrolled the neck. Reaching inside she pulled out a battered paperback.
‘It’s a novel,’ said her mother, ‘can you read the title?’
Ruth traced her finger across the faded letters, ‘S w a l l o w s … and … A m a z o n s.’
‘That’s right,’ said her mother, opening the cover. ‘And look, there’s an inscription.’
‘What’s an … inscription?’
‘It’s a message to the person who received the book from the one who gave it to her. It says, To Nancy, from Grandmother, with my all love, and don’t forget, pirates are ruthless.’
‘What does it mean?’
‘I don’t know, darling, but I’ll read it to you at bedtime, and perhaps we’ll find out.’
‘Why was it in the sea, in the bag?’
‘Perhaps it got washed overboard, or someone threw it into the water.’
‘Like a message in a bottle?’
‘Perhaps, and you’ve found it.’ She remembered the report of the missing yacht, glanced out at the ocean and wondered. ‘So it’s up to you now to take jolly good care of it.’