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Authors: Paul Garrison

Buried At Sea

BOOK: Buried At Sea
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NOTHING JIM SAW, nothing around him was familiar. Not the moving gray back of the sea, not the shifting sky, not the ropes that were called lines nor the lines named sheets nor the pulleys dubbed blocks. The navigation instruments were magic, the machine that made fresh drinking water a mystery.

He had not seen another vessel in two weeks.

On the chart that Shannon had found on the Internet when they decided he should take this crazy job, shipping lanes crisscrossed the North and South Atlantic like highways. But the ocean itself was empty as space and almost as barren. The only sign of civilization was the occasional silent glow of a satellite moving through the stars. The only living creatures were flying fish thumping into the hull and a barrel-thick shark that sometimes swam in their shadow. His only companion: his employer, Will Spark. It had to be the strangest gig ever. Personal trainer for a rich old guy on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. This evening Jim was leading a spinning class, pedaling sprints and hill climbs beneath a heavy, cloud-jumbled sky.

"Big hill. Increase resistance. On a scale of ten, call it a seven, and . . . up to second position."

Will, who was some kind of venture capitalist, had squeezed a pair of Schwinn Spinner Elites into his luxurious fifty-footer so they could work out just like they did back home in the health club, with Supertramp blasting and heart rates nudging threshold. All by themselves, closing in on the equator, somewhere between Africa and Brazil.

"Pick it up, Will!"

Jim jumped off while the pedals were still turning, a trick he'd done a million times ashore. The boat surprised him with a sudden tilt and a sharp pitch. Catapulted toward the water, he saved himself by grabbing the lifelines that fenced the deck. Then he slogged across the cockpit—it really was a pit, two big steps lower than the decks—to adjust Will's bike.

He loosened the resistance knob, which squeezed the flywheel to simulate a hill climb, and beat the tempo with his running shoe—boom, boom, boom, boom—until Will pedaled faster. "Good. Hold that count. If you can't maintain the RPMs, reduce your resistance."

He made his way back to his own bike, toweled his face, drank water. Will had even wired his headset receiver to the boat's loud-hailer, so that Jim's amplified order, "If you'

re thirsty, drink. If you're not thirsty, drink," echoed against the hard, smooth hollows that the trade wind forged in the sails.

"Resistance on a scale of one to ten, fairly heavy .. . seven . . . seven and a half—and up to third."

Will Spark rose from the saddle and extended his hands over the handlebars to third position. He was dripping; his white hair was pasted to his scalp and matted to his chest; perspiration soaked his faded Yale running shorts. The humid heat was like a steam room when the trade wind slowed at sunset. You could break a sweat just cranking one of the winches that controlled the sails. Will was sucking air through his mouth, and it suddenly struck Jim that he was utterly dependent on Will Spark to sail the boat to land. What if Will had a heart attack?

The personal trainer's nightmare: You let an aggressive type A geezer push too deep into oxygen debt and suddenly you're cracking ribs with your best CPR and praying the ambulance comes ahead of the negligence lawyers. That was on land. What would happen out here if the trainer was a novice sailor in nautical culture shock and the old guy fell over dead?

Jim knew a little about how to steer the boat, next to nothing about the sails, even less about navigation. Most of the time he had been too seasick to take note of his surroundings, much less learn the mechanics of this strange new world.

"Back it off, spin 'em out."

Both men drank from their water bottles.

"How you doing, Will?"

"Better than you, sonny."

There was truth in that. Jim had been so seasick it had been two weeks before he could properly hydrate, much less stomach his regular protein drinks or the fruits, which had gone moldy in the tropical heat as Will had warned they would. His legs still felt as if some gigantic seagoing vampire bat had drained his veins. Hard as he pedaled, the highest his heart-rate monitor would read was 175. Sicker longer, Will had bitched, than anyone he had ever seen. "I've had better company sailing with houseplants." "Seated climb. Call it an easy six." The boat topped a big wave just as Jim stood tall on the pedals. Glimpsing the suddenly longer view to the horizon, Jim was astonished to see a dark smudge that looked sharper than a cloud, smaller than a rain squall. A ship? Another vessel crawling into the uncertain space between the lead-gray sky and the sea's bare surface?

Be a luxury cruise ship, please. With an air-conditioned health club, Cybex machines, and hot showers. And while we're dreaming, make it headed for a port where a guy can catch a flight home. Except even if he could somehow magically beam aboard; he had signed on for the entire voyage with Will. And to Jim Leighton—who owned little but his skills, a pleasant manner, ripped abs, and his good name—a deal was a deal. He probably should alert Will. The old man was kind of obsessed on the subject of ships. One night last week Jim

thought he'd spotted a light. Will, catnapping in his hammock, had issued his usual strict orders to wake him if he saw anything; but in the seconds that took, the light had vanished. He said that Jim had probably seen a star sinking in the west. Still, he had stayed up in the cockpit for the rest of Jim's watch, sweeping the dark with his binoculars. But this ship, if it was a ship, looked faraway. And they were only twenty minutes into the class. Unlike most of Jim's private clients, Will was more interested in keeping fit than paying for a friend to talk at; he wanted to be pushed. The ship, if it was a ship, could wait.

Probably a cloud, maybe a rain squall.

Will was starting to tire. Jim saw him cheating on the resistance, pretending to crank the knob tighter than he did.

"Listen to your body, Will." Jim's voice boomed off the sails again. "And if you can, add a little more resistance. Just a little."

He dealt with his own struggle by concentrating on form, pedaling a smooth circle, knees in, shoulders back, head down, chest out, feet and shoulders relaxed. His body was a mess. With weeks to go before he could get off in Rio de Janeiro, and his stomach still protesting every time a shift in the wind changed the nature of the boat's ceaseless motion, Jim was asking himself, What in hell am I doing here?

He had hoped this voyage would be like a big-adventure bachelor party. But sailing across the ocean—instead of the usual stripper, cigars, and home to your honey—had imploded into "go away and experience the world" when Shannon turned him down point-blank. So he was stuck out here searching his soul to be sure he really wanted to marry Shannon—which he thought he had made clear by proposing to the woman, for Christ's sake.

Will glanced over and saw that Jim was struggling on the

bike. Gasping, he teased, "You can take the mall rat out of the suburb, but you can't take the suburb out of the mall rat." The old man was forever on Jim's case for having been

raised in the suburbs—like he'd had a choice—because Jim

had made the mistake of asking where, among all the ingeniously stowed gear and machinery that made the sailboat self-sufficient, the dishwasher was hidden.

"Hands to second, and up! Accelerate a few pedal strokes if you can." Standing, pedaling as if he were running in place, Jim searched the checkered horizon. There was a mini washing machine, big enough for shorts and shirts, which was all they wore in the heat; but the dishwasher request had branded him the personal representative of every suburban cliché Will knew, from antiseptic homogeneity to bland conformity to mindless consumerism. No TV reception, either. Will had laughed. No Gap. No Mc-Donald's. No pizza. No surfing the Web.

They did have e-mail, but it was a slow joke. You could send high-priced flashmails by satellite phone, provided the boat wasn't rolling too hard to lock the signal. Or you could transmit half a page in two minutes for free, if atmospheric conditions suited the batterystraining, temperamental single-sideband (SSB) radio.

"What's up?" called Will when he saw Jim craning his neck.

"I thought I saw a ship."

"Where?"

WILL SPARK YANKED up on his resistance knob to stop the flywheel, jumped off the Schwinn, and snatched his binoculars from their rack beside the helm. "Where?" Jim pointed. Will focused expertly. "Turn that damned music off." In the sudden quiet the hull's bow wave sounded loud.

Will watched for a full minute, a muscle rippling beneath his weather-beaten cheek. Daylight was failing and Jim was no longer sure he had seen anything.

"Sons of bitches," Will muttered softly.

"What's wrong?"

"Take the helm! Head into the wind."

"Why?"

"Do it!"

Will was running forward to the mast, where he began yanking ropes from the rat's nest of halyards. "Into the wind," he yelled again, and Jim climbed down into the cockpit and took the big wooden steering wheel in an unfamiliar grip. Turning it automatically overrode the auto-helm. The boat heeled sharply and he would have fallen if he wasn't hanging on to the wheel.

"Other way!" yelled Will.

"Sorry." Jim turned the other way. Both sails, flapping wildly, swung in over the boat, the stiff fabric thundering as the wind streamed past. Will released a couple of ropes and down they came, burying the decks like snow crashing off a roof. The mainsail covered the cabin in heaps of cloth. The big sail in front, the genoa jib, spilled over the lifelines and fell into the sea.

"What's going on?" Ordinarily, Will moved about the boat with an easy deliberation, furling sails as precisely as a sky diver packing parachutes.

Will ran back to the cockpit, skidding on the slippery Dacron. "Get up to the bow," he yelled, then shouldered Jim away from the wheel and pushed him toward the foredeck. " Pull that sail out of the water! No, wait! The bikes are made of steel; we have to get the bikes below."

The spinners each weighed ninety pounds with their massive flywheels and solid steel frames. Will had winched them up from the cabin with a halyard. He released the jam cleats he had rigged to the car tracks and together they muscled them into the cockpit. " Lay them flat. Okay, get forward and pull that sail out of the water." The diesel start alarm shrilled, and seconds later, as Jim was struggling forward on the suddenly rolling and pitching boat, the auxiliary engine rumbled to life.

"Dammit!" Will came running forward again, as frightened and bewildered as a lost dog in traffic. "If that sail falls in the prop we're dead." He leaned over the lifelines to help Jim pull the dripping sail onto the deck. "Okay, we're outta here:'

"What is going on'?"

"Grab some sail ties, secure it to the spinnaker pole:" He pointed at the big aluminum spar cradled on the foredeck and ran back to the cockpit, where he put the engine in gear and accelerated. The propeller shoved the boat reluctantly into a clumsy, wallowing turn until at last her bow pointed into the wind and the smudge on the horizon fell directly astern.

Mystified, Jim found the sail ties and wrapped the loose sail to the spinnaker pole. Then he returned to the cockpit

and demanded, for the fourth time, what was going on. Will engaged the auto-helm and turned around and scanned the sea behind with his binoculars.

"You got good eyes, kid. I wouldn't have seen 'em in time."

"Who?"

Will's jaw tightened. "Son of a bitch, they're coming after us." He looked around frantically. His gaze locked on the heart-rate monitor strapped to Jim's wrist.

"Where'd you get that?"

"It's my heart monitor. Like you should wear?'

"That's not your regular one."

"My clients gave it to me."

"Gave? What do you mean, 'gave'?"

"A bon voyage gift." It was a top-of-the-line Polar Accurex, three hundred bucks with all the bells and whistles. "Which client?"

"They got together and gave it to me."

"Which ones?"

"None you knew. From my new job at the Westport Club. After you left. Will, what's going on?"

Will had worked out regularly for months in Jim's spinning classes at the health club, then suddenly disappeared. A year later, out of the blue, came the telephone call from the Caribbean island of Barbados. Will had tracked Jim down at his new job to offer him a six-week stint as his personal trainer and novice deckhand on a sail to Rio de Janeiro. Two hundred bucks a day for the experience of a lifetime: bed—a tilting bunk with a lee cloth to keep him from falling out when the boat rolled the other way; board—all the food he could keep down; and airfare—outta here when the experience of a lifetime was finally over.

"Let me see it."

Jim unstrapped the wristwatch receiver and passed it to Will. Will inspected it closely, shook it, held it to the sky. "And the sensor."

Jim unbuckled the chest strap that pressed the electrode to his chest. Will snatched it from his hand and examined it as he had the receiver. He shot another anxious glance behind the boat. Then he plunged down the companionway steps into the cabin. Jim peered down through the hatch and saw Will hunched over the navigation table. He wrote something in the log. Then he jumped up and turned into the galley, which was opposite the nav station, opened one of the big freezers, leaned in, and came out with his hands full.

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