“No, I will not leave you or abandon you as orphans in the storm.”
– John 14:18
The volatile, unforgiving sea continued to unleash its anger, even after the storm abated. Though the swells seemed smaller, six, maybe five feet now, the sailboat continued to pitch and roll with the waves. White caps swirled across the surface of the churning blue-gray ocean, and the wind sent strong bursts of misty saltwater through the air that pelted the crippled boat.
Jack gripped the wheel tighter and struggled to keep his balance as the boat dipped and rolled with another wave. Water sprayed into his face and salt stung his eyes, adding to the misery of being cold and wet…and lost.
A simple excursion really, just a two-day trip, was all this was supposed to be. Get Kate and the kids on board, slip out of Galveston, and sail down to Mustang Island and spend Thanksgiving on the beach. A perfect holiday experience to make up for all the lost time of not being around.
All the arrangements had been made in advance: working extra hard for a month just to leave early on Wednesday, hiring that guy at the dock to outfit the new boat, reading up on navigation, and getting reservations at that hotel on the beach Kate loved so much. What could go wrong?
Not checking weather reports for starters. That’d been a huge mistake. Evidently, Mother Nature didn’t approve of this cruise. The partly cloudy skies that had greeted them in Galveston had only worsened as they left port. A few hours later, a fading sunset gave way to menacing black clouds and a howling rain. The storm hit soon after, whipping and rocking the boat like a piñata, and terrifying the kids. Even Kate was pretty shaken. Jack, too, when he’d discovered the storm had blown them miles off course, but he’d put on a confident façade, just like in the boardroom when a deal was going south.
Only this time, the stakes were much higher.
“Any better?” Kate stood in the opening of the cabin, bracing herself in the doorway, her eyebrows arched.
Jack gave a quick smile. “She’s not pitching as bad anymore. The sea seems to be calming down a little.”
The boat rocked to one side causing Kate to struggle to stay upright. She grimaced as her shoulder landed against the doorway with a hard thud, but still managed to keep her feet. When the boat settled, she leveled an icy gaze at the man behind the wheel.
Great. Just one more thing I’ve been wrong about. “Sorry.” Jack chewed his lip for a moment. “It really isn’t as bad as earlier.”
Kate didn’t respond. She poked her head up out of the doorway and surveyed their surroundings. The salty breeze whipped long strands of brown hair across her face.
“How are Molly and Reagan?”
Kate brushed back her hair with her hand and continued her scan of the sea. “Any idea where we are?”
Jack’s eyes drifted away from his wife. “No.” With no land in sight, there was no telling
where they were.
“I’ve been keeping us on a West, Northwesterly heading. I figure at some point we’re bound to hit the coast again.”
“How long will that take?”
Jack shrugged. “Depends on how far the storm blew us off course.” Truth be told there had never been a plotted course. Just sail within sight of the coast. That was all. Really, how hard could it be to put land on the starboard side…and keep it there? That had been the plan all along. No need for charting, GPS, or navigating by the constellations. Just steer the boat down the coast until the bright lights of Corpus Christi appeared.
But all that changed when the storm hit and blew them God knows how many miles further out to sea. He’d spent the entire night at the wheel, trying to maintain a reasonable proximity to the coast while Kate and the kids hunkered down in their bunks. Not a single light or any sign of the coast had been seen in more than twelve hours.
The wind and waves had been too much in the end, tossing and battering the forty-foot fiberglass sailboat and ripping part of the sail in two. The damage was probably preventable – to anyone who knew anything about sailboats. Though the ripped sail continued to flap and billow in the wind like a frayed flag, the small diesel engine would serve as their main source of propulsion.
“The kids want off the boat, Jack. They’ve had enough. They’re scared.”
The comments jolted him back to the conversation. “I know.” His voice dropped an octave, assuming a confident tone. “We’ll hit land soon.”
The boat pitched and rolled with another wave. Jack grunted and tried to turn the wheel to keep the boat on its current heading. The rotation of the wheel well seemed stiff, and the steering was slow to respond.
Kate’s eyes narrowed, her mouth fell open. “What’s wrong?”
Jack tested the steering. “The wheel…it’s getting harder to turn.”
Kate blinked. A look of confusion plastered across her face. “What does that mean?”
“It means…” Jack massaged his forehead. God, this can’t be happening. “It means we’re leaking hydraulic fluid. At some point, we won’t be able to steer the boat, and we’ll be at the mercy of the waves. I can keep us on our current heading toward land, but once the hydraulics go out, if a wave pushes us off course, I won’t be able to correct it.”
Kate closed her eyes and shook her head.
“The good news is the water is starting to get calmer. It’s not nearly as rough as it was an hour ago.” Bravado and confidence always rallied the troops in the office, but it didn’t seem to have quite that affect here.
Kate opened her eyes. “We have to call for help.”
Great. First time at sea, the boat breaks down and gets lost. Kate made no attempt to hide her displeasure with him, but that was nothing new. Just add it to the growing list of her Jack-related frustrations and disappointments.
The kids were a different matter. What would they think? After recent years of missing birthday parties and dance recitals, an opportunity presented itself to fix everything, to become their daddy again. Molly and Reagan loved boats; they loved the water, the beach. They’d been so excited about the trip when he’d surprised them with the news.
But, now? He’d failed them. Again.
“Jack snap out of it.” Kate barked. She exited the cabin doorway and stood across from him, leaning on the backseat of the lounge area in front of the cockpit. “We have to call for help.” Her staccato voice punched the air with every syllable.
“Where’s the radio?”
“There’s one right here.” He motioned his head toward the console to his right.
“Good. I’ll tell the girls help is on the way.” Kate stood but stopped in her tracks, scanning the ocean in several directions. “Is it getting hazy?” She squinted. “I can’t make out the horizon.”
Jack reached down and grabbed the mic from its holster next to the VHF radio. “Fog.” He dialed the radio frequency to Channel 16. As if this couldn’t get any worse. “A fog bank is moving in.”
Kate deflated. “They might not be able to see us. How will they find us?”
“I’ll give them our longitude and latitude. They’ll know where to look.”
His wife muttered something and turned to leave.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Easy Street requesting assistance, over.” Jack had no idea if those were the correct words to use in a distress call, but they sounded right. Besides, if help was needed, assistance wouldn’t depend on exact phrasing, would it?
But, coordinates might be nice. Longitude and latitude meant nothing, but he’d seen enough television to know they were important at sea. Their position was supposed to be displayed on the radio’s LED screen. Jack scanned the radio. Great. Lots of numbers, but which ones were their position coordinates? And once identified, which was latitude and which was longitude? Didn’t they have decimals in them, too?
Only two sets of numbers seemed to indicate coordinates. The only problem was if they were wrong, the search parties would head off in the wrong direction and would never find them. Then again, if the numbers were correct but never given, help would never come.
Jack ran his hand across the stubble on his chin. The risk was worth it. “This is Easy Street. My position is 24.41314, 96.097412.” Jack repeated the call for help as Kate disappeared into the cabin, but the only reply was static. Maybe someone heard them, and they just couldn’t respond. Regardless, he’d keep trying until somebody answered.
“Jack!” Kate’s scream echoed from within the boat and pierced the salty air. “Jack!”
That couldn’t be good. Jack stumbled forward to the cabin and slid down the steps inside. Kate stood just a few feet in front of him, all color drained from her face, her eyes wide with shock.
“What? What’s the matter?”
Kate’s hand trembled and slowly pointed toward the floor. “Look.”
Jack’s eyes followed downward, and he took in a sharp breath. A thin pool of cold water sloshed across the bottom of the boat. “Tell me you spilled something.”
Kate shook her head as her lips quivered.
His eyes darted around, looking for the source of the leak. Even if he found it, what could he do to fix it?
Reagan’s head appeared from the forward bunk. “Mommy, what’s wrong?”
“Reagan, get back in there with your sister!”
She didn’t acknowledge Jack’s command, but continued to look at Kate. “Mommy?”
“I said get in there with your sister. Now!” The second rebuke did the trick and Reagan slinked away.
“We’re sinking.” Kate’s voice quivered with fright. “Oh, my God. We’re sinking. We’re…we’re…,” she stumbled around the cabin, “we’re sinking.”
Jack rushed forward, water splashing with every step, and placed his hands on Kate’s shoulders. He stooped until he was eye level with her, but she didn’t meet his gaze. “Kate? Kate?” Her eyes roamed the cabin, and she muttered, tripping over her words in an incoherent state.
Now wasn’t the time to lose it. “Kate? Listen to me.” He shook her to get her attention, but she still refused to focus. “Look at me, Kate.” He gripped her face in his hands and restrained her, forcing her to make eye contact with him. “Look at me.”
Misty, brown eyes met his. “Calm down. We’re going to be okay. I need you to put life jackets on the girls and get them topside, okay? You can’t panic in front of them, all right? Can you do that for me?”
Kate paused and then nodded.
Jack planted a quick kiss on her forehead and removed his hands from her. C’mon, Kate, keep it together. “Are you good?”
“Yes.” Kate took a deep breath and exhaled. “Where are the life jackets?”
The life jackets? He hadn’t bothered to look for them before they left Galveston, but the guy at the dock that prepped the boat had mentioned something about them. They had to be here somewhere. Jack rummaged through the cabinets while Kate talked to the girls, glancing now and then at the cold water soaking his shoes.
Dishes, towels, blankets, clothes, flashlight and first aid kit…but no life jackets. Where could they be? Jack surveyed the cabin, cabinet doors swung open and shut with the gentle rocking of the boat. There has to be other compartments in here.
He spied the cushions on the bench seat behind the table. Maybe there was additional storage space underneath them. He dashed over and lifted the cushions to find a handle on top of the wooden seat. This had to be it. He lifted the lid and let out a deep breath with the sight of the bright red life jackets. Thank God. The water was cold, but at least the jackets would give them a chance to hang on until help arrived.
He grabbed the jackets and headed toward the forward bunk but stopped when he counted the number of vests in his hands. Cold sweat broke out on his forehead and an icy ball formed in his stomach. How could there be only three? He had to have overlooked one. A frantic search of the same storage space did not reveal another jacket, nor did any other cabinet or shelf in the ship. The boat had gone to sea without enough life jackets.
“Jack,” Kate called from the forward bunk, her voice stronger and somewhat resembling its normal tone, “we’re ready.”
A lump formed in his throat. How could he tell them? He wasn’t a very good swimmer, and the last time he’d had to tread water for any length of time had been for a swim class in college almost twenty years ago, which he’d flunked. He swallowed and cleared his throat. “Yeah. Okay”
Kate and the girls emerged from the forward bunk, holding hands.
“Here.” Jack handed Kate the life jackets. “Put these on.”
Kate took them, but her eyes scanned Jack and the cabin. She’d done the math. Her head tilted to the side, forehead wrinkled with lines of concern. “Where’s yours?”
Jack met her gaze and lingered for a moment. Her brown, doe-shaped eyes stared back at him. They’d always been her cutest feature, even better than her shapely legs. It was what he’d first noticed about her all those years ago when they’d met at that small coffee shop on Hogan Lane sipping caramel vanilla lattes. Sweet, seductive, inviting – he’d gotten lost in them. Still did as a matter of fact, catching himself staring at those almond pools of soft brown from time to time.
He tried to speak, but couldn’t get any words out of his dry mouth. A faint smile creased his lips, and he shook his head.
Kate’s jaw dropped, and she placed a hand over her mouth. “Jack…”
His smile broadened. “I’ll be okay.” The words rang hollow, even for him. “Get the jackets on the girls and come up. I’m going to get back on the radio.”
He sloshed through the cold water, now almost an inch deep, and ascended the steps to the lounge area. A calmer sea prevailed, the winds more gentle and kind. Finally, a blessing. If they had to abandon ship, at least they wouldn’t have to be thrown into rough water.
But, visibility had worsened. The fog bank engulfed the boat in a thick, soupy blanket, making it difficult to see anything. Both the horizon and the water’s surface were now obscured.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Easy Street requesting immediate assistance. We are taking on water. Anyone out there?” Jack listened for a response, straining to hear anything that might indicate someone was trying to answer, but the only sound emitting from the radio was white noise.
“Okay, kids, have a seat.” Kate escorted Molly and Reagan into the lounge area and guided them to the long bench seat in front of Jack. She parked herself in between the two small girls and wrapped her arms around them. Any tighter and Jack swore they wouldn’t be able to breathe.
“It’s cloudy, Mommy.” A hint of curiosity and excitement laced the four-year old’s statement.
“It’s called fog,” Reagan promptly corrected, as all older siblings are prone to do.
“Yes it is, sweetie.” Kate leaned over and kissed the top of Molly’s head. “Daddy’s calling for another ship to come help us.” She turned and looked at Jack, her face pleading for good news.
He shook his head, and Kate shut her eyes for a moment, her lips moving. Someone has to be out there listening. Someone has to hear us. Jack repeated his distress call and waited. Minutes went by. Still nothing.
In the quiet void, he couldn’t help but cast his attention on his family, as if taking one last look at them. There always seemed to be time that could be made up. Demands at the office were always heavy and exacting, but self-reassurances that missed time could always be reconciled later on made the work tolerable, even acceptable. The fool’s gold of sacrificing time, trading in family for career advancement all in the name of being able to “provide” had been just that – an illusion.
Where had it gotten him besides a higher rung on the corporate ladder? Sure, the money was great, it paid for a lot of expensive trips and nice toys, including this sailboat, but it also brought with it long hours and stress – not to mention petty jealousies of co-workers.
Except for a few hours on the weekends, he rarely saw Reagan and Molly. The morning commute to the office required leaving before they got up, and they were ready for bed by the time he got home in the evenings. Tucking them in, he’d always promised he’d find a way to make it up, to reconnect with them somehow before they slipped away for good.
The lump returned to his throat, watching the girls huddle with Kate as thick fog wisped in the background. Water pooled in his eyes at the image of them paddling for their lives in open water. If the boat did sink, Kate and the kids would have to watch him drown. A horrifying thought.
And then there was the temperature. The cold sea wasn’t frigid, this was Texas, not New England after all, but it was cold enough that they couldn’t stay in it more than a few hours before succumbing to its effects. If Kate and the kids didn’t get picked up soon, the sea would find a way to take them.
Jack blinked away the wetness in his eyes, but one look from Molly and Reagan broke him. His chin quivered, his mouth parted, and tears ran down his cheeks. My girls are going to die out here. He placed a trembling hand to his mouth to muffle his cries.
Kate looked up, her face blank and expressionless. She watched him for a moment and then settled back into the seat with the kids with an air of resignation, resting the side of her head against the top of Reagan’s.
Jack bowed his head, sniveling. Please, dear God. Please help us. Eloquence had never been an attribute in his prayer life but what other plea was there to make except for a simple cry for help? Jack reached for the mic, repeated the distress call, and waited.
He pondered the opening of the cabin. How much longer did they have? Two, three hours? It couldn’t be much more. After that?
A garbled noise interrupted the silence of the boat. Jack jerked upright and cast a quick glance at Kate, who lifted her head. He stared at the radio screen. That hadn’t been a mistake, had it? That had to have been someone answering them. He strained harder, focusing on the radio and any sound coming from it.
Seconds ticked by, Jack waiting with baited breath.
The garbled noise returned, a man’s voice distinguishable over the airwaves.
Kate bolted upright, her mouth open. “Is that…is that a boat?”
Yes! Jack grabbed the mic. “This is Easy Street, this is Easy Street! Who’s there?”
“Ahoy, Easy Street. This is the Stella Grace. We read you and are standing by to assist, over.”
Jack turned to Kate and the children. “It’s a boat! It’s a boat!”
Kate and Reagan both shed tears of relief while Molly clapped her hands. “Yay! A boat, Mommy!”
“Oh, thank, God.” Jack paused to collect himself. He took a deep breath and exhaled. “I read you, Stella Grace. We’re slowly taking on water, can you take us aboard?”
“Negative, Easy Street.”
“What?” Jack’s chest tightened. Breathing became labored. “Why not? You don’t understand, my wife and kids are on board. You have to take them.”
“I understand, but the water is still too choppy to try that in this fog.”
Jack gritted his teeth. Then what was the point of coming to help people on a sinking boat? “So what’s the plan?”
“You’re approximately seven miles from the coast. You can follow me into Matagorda Bay and put in at Port O’Connor.”
That didn’t make sense. “How do you know we’re only seven miles out?”
“Look off your starboard bow.”
Jack leaned to the right, craning his neck and focusing his eyes through the thick fog as much as possible. Nothing but dense, swirling grayness moved. If the Stella Grace couldn’t be seen, perhaps it could be heard? Jack strained to listen, but the only sound that greeted him was the occasional small wave slapping against the hull of his own boat.
If the other ship was heading toward them, it may not see them in time due to the heavy fog, and evasive action might be needed to avoid a collision. Jack gripped the steering wheel, ready to turn it hard over in a split second – if enough hydraulic fluid remained in the steering system.
“Jack, what’s going on? Are they coming to help us?”
Kate’s shoulders sagged. “But…”
“The guy says they can’t take us on their boat because the water is still too rough to try that in the fog.”
“Oh, God, Jack. We’ve got to get off this boat. We can’t –”
“I know, I know.” Jack held up a hand. “The guy says we’re only seven miles from the coast, and we can follow him into port.”
Kate pursed her lips and leaned back into the seat with the girls, skepticism entrenched all over her face.
“Easy Street, do you see me off your starboard bow yet?”
Jack resumed his watch for the boat. Still nothing but an impenetrable sea of grayish white. Since the fog didn’t stand still, movement within it was difficult to detect. But, the Stella Grace had to be close by. Close enough to…
Jack’s eyes squinted. A faint color, softened and blurred by the fog, at last seemed to filter through the thick soup. Pink? No…red. A red light. A red port light! Jack grabbed the mic. “I see you! I see you! Just off the starboard bow. I see your red port light.”
Kate and the girls leaned forward, trying to get a better view and see for themselves.
Molly squealed. “A red light, Mommy. Do we have to stop?”
Reagan sighed. “No. That’s just for cars.”
“Girls sit back down with Mommy. I don’t want you getting up and moving around.” They last thing he needed right now was for one of them to get excited and fall over board.
Jack traded glances with Kate and gave her a reassuring nod. “It’s going to be okay.” Her façade of doubt still remained, though the smallest trace of a smile seemed to indicate it was cracking.
“Okay, here’s the plan.” The man’s voice crackled over the radio. The faintest outline of a large sailboat could just be made out in the fog. “We’re cruising at about six knots. I’m going to stay ahead of you but remain on your starboard bow. I’ll give you course changes as needed and you follow me into Matagorda Bay, around Halfmoon Reef, and into Port O’Connor. Should take about an hour.”
“What’s the water level on board your ship? How much have you taken on?”
“Hold on.” Jack dashed forward and clambered down into the cabin. Cold sea water swirled around his ankles, soaking through his socks. He turned and ascended the steps in a hurry, but tripped at the top and crashed onto the deck of the lounge area with a loud thud. Pain shot through his left knee.
“Jack, you okay?” Kate spoke with a flat tone, the question obligatory.
He rolled over and grabbed his knee. Twisted? Sprained? Torn ligaments? Whatever he’d done, it hurt. Jack grimaced and massaged the area where the pain seemed the sharpest. If this required surgery, how much time would it take away from the office? How far behind would he fall on the Gaulway deal? A few days was all it took to become buried.
“Daddy, you okay?” Molly asked, her mouth turned down into a frown. Her soft brown eyes filled with concern. She had her mother’s eyes.
Jack ran his hand through his hair, bit his lip, and shook his head. What am I thinking? The office? Who cares about the stupid office? He gave Molly a big smile. “Yes, sweetie. Daddy’s okay.” Molly grinned in response.
“Easy Street, you there?”
Jack scrambled to his feet, wincing in pain, and limped to the radio. “Yeah, I’m here. The water is ankle deep in our cabin.’
“Can you hold out for an hour?”
“Yeah, I think we can do that.”
“Good. Just follow us home.”
The red port light on the Stella Grace’s main mast sliced forward through the fog. A deep sigh of relief escaped Jack’s lungs. The muscles in his chest and shoulders relaxed as he fixated on the one tangible sign that his call for help had been answered. Proof they weren’t alone, forgotten, or abandoned. Thank you, God.
Home. The word resonated with a different tone now. Things would change. Time to make good on all those private promises to make up for lost moments. He’d be their Daddy again, letting nothing stand between himself and his precious children. By the thinnest of margins, he’d come close to losing them on this trip thanks to his recklessness and desperation. But, no more. Never again would he place himself in this precarious position. He wouldn’t be an absent father in need of pulling stupid stunts to entertain his children. No, he’d spend time with them. Real, meaningful time.
Home would be different with Kate, too. He’d allowed her to drift from him over the past few years, their connection superficial and brittle. Again, that would change. He’d carve out special time for just the two of them, reconnect over caramel vanilla lattes, and start praying with her again at night. Home would be like it once was, before he’d lost focus and lost his way.
Jack reached for the mic. “Stella Grace, come in.” Though a shadowy image of the rescue ship remained within eyesight, nothing indicated any movement on its deck.
“I read you, Easy Street.”
“Hey, I never caught your name. I just want to know who to thank.”
“No thanks necessary, but the name is Patrick.”
Jack nodded and smiled. At last, a name to go with the voice. “Thanks, Patrick. I owe you one.”
The minutes wore by and stretched toward an hour as Jack followed the Stella Grace past the barrier islands, into the large, fog-shrouded Matagorda Bay, and around Halfmoon Reef. Jack glanced at his watch. Almost noon, yet the thick gray mass obliterated all traces of the sun. Odd to have fog last this long into daylight hours.
Kate and the kids stirred and fidgeted. “How much longer, Jack?”
“We should be coming into Port O’Connor soon. Almost there.” He flashed a confident smile and winked at the girls. They had to reach port soon. The water in the cabin had to be close to knee deep by now. Even a casual glance at the boat’s waterline indicated she was riding much lower than normal.
Patrick’s voice crackled over the radio. “Port O’Connor dead ahead. Cut your speed and put in at the first open space you find at the dock.”
Jack scanned ahead. A faint outline of a large wooden dock with a few boats moored to it loomed ahead. “I see it. Thanks, Patrick. When we get ashore, I’m buying you a drink my friend.”
“Sorry. Port O’Connor isn’t my final destination.”
Jack turned and spied the Stella Grace widening the distance between the two vessels, the red port light growing dim in the swirling mist. “What? You mean you’re going back out there?”
No response came back. “Stella Grace. Stella Grace. Come in.” Nothing but white noise answered. The last traces of the Stella Grace’s outline disappeared, and her red port light faded from view soon after. Why would anyone go back out to sea in this fog?
“Daddy, I see boats!” Molly pointed forward, Kate struggling to keep her restrained.
Jack slid the mic into its holster and guided the boat toward the first empty slip that appeared. A few other sailboats, with chipped paint and worn sail, filled some of the slips at the dock, but the number of boats in port seemed few.
The boat labored to answer the helm, and Jack struggled to turn the wheel. The hydraulics were nearly shot, but at least with so few ships here there was plenty of open space for error.
Jack managed to steer the boat into a slip and cut the engine, letting the momentum carry the vessel up against the old, faded tires dangling from the edges of the slip. The boat bumped up against them with a soft thud, and Jack scrambled onto the dock to tie the ship. A dull pain radiated from his left knee.
He grabbed the aft mooring line and pulled the boat toward him. With enough slack he tied the rope to the rusted metal fastener.
“I’ll get the bow line.” An old crusty fellow, well advanced in years, bellowed from the foot of the slip. He retrieved the bow line with a long wooden pole and tied it to the slip, securing the boat in place.
“Thanks,” Jack called out to him. “All right girls, c’mon. Let’s go.”
Kate guided the girls up to Jack, who helped them step onto the worn, wooden planks of the dock. “Stay right here, don’t move until I get your mother.” He held out his hand to Kate, who took it and stepped onto the dock. She raced over to the girls and scooped them under her arms.
“Are you Easy Street?” the old mariner asked, extending his hand.
Jack limped forward. “Yes.” The man’s hand was calloused and rough. This guy was no stranger to the sea. He wore rubber boots, a thick wool turtleneck sweater, and a seaman’s cap sat atop thick locks of white hair. He looked straight out of Moby Dick. The only things missing were a peg leg and a harpoon.
“Thought so. I heard the distress call, but the coordinates you gave were incorrect. Coast Guard scrambled a helicopter to look for you anyway, but the fog and the wrong bearings were going to make it impossible to find you.”
Nuts. Another thing I got wrong. Thank God the Stella Grace had been close by. If not for that good fortune, they would’ve died at sea for sure. “I’m Jack. Jack Ross. This is my wife, Kate, and my girls Reagan and Molly.”
“The name’s Lon Donahy, Dockmaster for the old docks.” He tipped his cap. “Hey, let’s get y’all inside so you can dry out and get warm.”
“Are you Santa?” Molly asked staring wide-eyed at the man’s white beard.
A deep laugh bellowed across the docks from the old man. He bent over and placed his hands on his knees. “No, lass, I’m not Santa. But I reckon I might as well be with what y’all have been through.” He straightened himself with a grunt. “C’mon, let’s get you out of this weather.”
They turned and followed the mariner up the slip and proceeded along the old wooden dock, past several sailboats whose better days had long since passed.
“Mr. Donahy, no offense, but this place looks like a ghost town. I thought Port O’Connor had a much livelier marina.”
The old man sighed. “Well, this dock is the original one, been here about a hundred years. Back in the 80s, the town built a large marina two miles down to meet the demands of all the new rich condo owners moving into the area who said this dock wasn’t good enough.”
He slowed his walk and looked out over the sparse sailing fleet. “We old-timers still prefer the old dock. Lots of history here. Besides, it’s closer to the Bay entrance.”
Sentimental chap. “Yeah, I noticed it didn’t take long to get here once the Stella Grace steered us clear of Halfmoon Reef.”
The mariner stopped in his tracks and stood still like a statue.
“Mr. Donahy, are you okay?”
Without turning around, the old man asked, “What ship did you say?” His voice low and quiet.
“The Stella Grace. She answered our distress call and guided us through the fog to Port O’Connor.”
The old man shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He took off his cap and ran his hand through his thick white hair.
Jack shot a nervous glance at Kate. “Mr. Donahy, is something wrong?”
“Well, I don’t rightly know how to tell you this.” He turned around, staring at his feet. He scratched the back of his head, and his eyes lifted to meet Jack. “You’re wrong about the name of the boat that helped you.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed, brow furrowed. He shook his head. “No…I’m quite certain it was the Stella Grace, a big sailboat. Guy by the name of Patrick was its captain. We were in constant communication for an hour. I’m positive of the name.”
The old man’s eyes drifted for a moment, his mouth hung open.
Something’s not right. Jack took a cautious step forward. “Mr. Donahy?”
The mariner blinked and cleared his throat. “You said Stella Grace, right? Skipper’s name was Patrick?” His tone wasn’t questioning, nor did it invite a response.
“Son, the Stella Grace sank sixty years ago. She crashed into the rocks at Halfmoon Reef in thick fog. All aboard were lost. Patrick McClernand, his wife Charlotte, and their two little girls … Stella and Grace.”
The metallic clang of a bell from a distant buoy echoed across the water. Jack turned and stared out into the fog-shrouded bay, looking for any sign of the miraculous ship that had rescued them.
And saw nothing.