Salvage excerpt

Thursday, April 22

Phillip Scarnum grinned into the cold sea breeze as he steered the schooner out of the shelter of Mahone Bay and into the swells and spray of the open ocean.
The green wooden hull of Cerebus bounded through the white-capped waves. Scarnum was at the wheel, in a thick sweater, an old pea jacket and wool watchman’s cap, feeling the salt spray for the first time that spring, steering the boat he’d worked on all winter through the surging ocean, watching the clouds scudding over the sea and the distant rocky green shore.

The sails were taut as drum skins on the port side in the stiff southwest wind, and the ropes creaked as they worked against the varnished booms. Sheets of spray splashed up on the deck, beading nicely on the wood he had spent so much time sanding and varnishing.

Scarnum scowled with pleasure at each gust, his bright blue eyes full of light, and every now and then took a drink of tea and black rum from his Thermos and smoked a cigarette.

It come on to blow in the early evening, as he steered the boat toward the spray-plumed rocks of the Sambro Ledges. He ought to have shortened sail, but he held off and let the overpowered boat struggle in the hard wind, thrashing through the waves, sending sheets of freezing spray up into the air.

He lit a smoke when he passed the first buoys that marked the passage through the ledges, hunching down into his jacket to keep his lighter out of the wind. With his face buried in his chest, he didn’t see the angry wind line on the grey water ahead of him, so he didn’t steer the schooner upwind, as he ought to have done.

The gale-force gust caught Cerebus in its teeth and made to knock her down, tearing at the sails and rigging with terrible force, pushing the boat over farther than it ought to have gone, so that the port rail went under the water.

Scarnum jerked his head up, clenched his teeth, and grimaced as the wind tore the jib near in two.

He cursed — “son of a whore!” — spat out his smoke and scampered forward, his rubber boots slipping on the lurching sea-slick wooden deck as he made his way to the bow of the schooner, where the ripped sail flapped hard on its wire stay.
He shinnied out the bowsprit, over the ocean, both legs and one arm wrapped around the varnished wooden pole, and tried to grab hold of the twisting sail with his free hand, the hard cold wind in his face.

At the moment he caught hold of the flapping sail, he felt a sickening lurch, and looked down just as the bow plunged forward into the trough of a rogue wave.
He was suddenly underwater, terrified and shocked out of his wits, breathless, and in the cold, terrible grip of the sea.

He was not strong enough to hold onto the pole. The sudden force of the water wrenched his hands free, and sucked him down and back. It would have pulled him free of the schooner, but for a heavy chain that ran from the bowsprit back to the hull.

As he was pulled into the water, Scarnum’s right leg jammed, and when the bow sprang free, his thigh was wedged painfully between the chain and the hull. He surfaced upside down, hanging by his leg as the schooner sailed on. He spat a mouthful of brine, gasped with horror at the cold, and clutched desperately at the chain. He managed to wrap his arms in a death grip around the bowsprit and to wrestle himself upright.

He held on to the oak pole with all his strength, with his eyes closed, gasping for breath, shivering like a bastard, terribly cold, coughing water and breathing deeply.

When he finally opened his eyes, and started to wriggle backwards off the bowsprit, he spied the lobster boat off Sandy Cove.

It was a rectangle of white off the port bow, tiny in the distance, a speck in the jumble of green sea and white spray and grey rocks, and he only saw it for a second, since the swells were a good eight feet high and the bow of the schooner was lurching up and down, but he had spent years on the water, staring at shoreline in the distance, and he knew immediately that it was a boat, and that it was fetched up on the Sambro Ledges.

The ledges are killers, a series of kelp-covered slate outcroppings rising from the sea floor just off Chebucto Head, the last point of land before Halifax Harbour. A narrow channel runs between the rocks, and it is safe enough, with red and green buoys marking the way, but it is not a place where a sailor can afford to make mistakes, since the waves rolling in off the wide Atlantic Ocean get taller and rougher in the shallow channel, smashing on the rocks with all the power in the world.

By the time Scarnum got back to the wheel, Cerebus had left the channel and was heading for the rocks, so he had to stand, shivering, to wrestle the schooner back on course. When he was bound for the safety of the channel again, he went below, quickly changed into dry clothes and came back to the wheel, where he finally drank his mug of tea, lit a fresh cigarette, and steered the boat through the ledges.
The wind had veered east, and the big rolling swells he’d been surfing all day in a southwest breeze were jumbled with nasty, urgent little waves blowing east from the harbour, so the sea was confused and angry, and the schooner, which had been bounding through the waves all day, struggled through the ugly slop without a jib to power her.

A chill haze stretched out from the point of land at Chebucto Head, and the light turned grey and the air got colder. Scarnum lifted his binoculars and panned over the chaotic sea, seeking the boat among the vast white plumes of spray.
As he grew closer, he came to see that there surely was a boat where no boat should be, fetched up on the rocks between Sambro Island and Sandy Cove.

As Scarnum steered Cerebus through the passage, he looked frequently through his binoculars, watching the flat speck of white slowly take form. By the time he came abreast of the vessel, he could see it was a forty-foot fibreglass lobster boat, and it was pitched at a queer angle, its bow wedged up on the rocks, so that its stern was low in the water. The waves were smashing up over the deck, sending sheets of spray into the wind.

The lobstermen of Nova Scotia build their hulls thick, to withstand the worst battering that fierce winter gales can dish out, but they are not designed to rest on a reef of Halifax slate in a storm, and it seemed to Scarnum that the hull would soon breach, if it wasn’t already holed.

As he passed the boat, he sounded his air horn, but there was no answer, and he could see nobody on the deck. “Salvage,” he said to the wind, his lips tight and grey with cold.

He started to sing softly under his breath, a Newfoundland song his father used to sing when he was fishing.

I’s the b’y that builds the boat
And I’s the b’y that sails her,
I’s the b’y that catches the fish
And brings them home to Liza.

A few hundred yards farther up the channel, he cranked up the schooner’s diesel, dropped the sails, turned the boat around, and motored back toward Sandy Cove.
When he was as close as he could get to the lobster boat without leaving the channel, a few hundred yards south, he lit a smoke, looked at his GPS, and fixed his position on his chart.

His depth sounder told him he was in 120 feet of water. The chart told him that the shore grew sharply shallower in between his position and the rock ledge off Sandy Cove, as shallow in places as four feet at low tide.

Cerebus’s shapely wooden keel stretched down six feet below the surface. It was a Tancook Schooner built in the 1950s, a sleek masterpiece of pine and oak, and Scarnum had spent the better part of the winter replacing her half-rotten planks, patiently steaming and bending and nailing pine boards into place, learning lessons of patience and cunning from the long-dead men who had built her, and he would be damned if he would touch bottom.

If he did, he would have to tell Doctor Greely, the Halifax dentist who owned her, that he had holed Cerebus on the Sambro Ledges on a routine delivery run, and everyone who knew him would soon know he’d hit a reef that every sailor in the province knew to avoid. People would assume he’d been drunk, and that wouldn’t do much for the career of a man who made most of his money doing sailboat delivery runs.

On the other hand, a new lobster boat costs something like $200,000, and the salvage fee would be a good chunk of money. Scarnum looked at the darkening sky, the churning water around him, and over at the lobster boat. If he sat too long, his prize might sink and he’d get nothing.

When he finished his smoke he turned the schooner toward the shore.

***

He eased the throttle and steered her in, glancing constantly at the depth sounder, the boat on the rocks, and back over his shoulder into the chaotic sea and the south wind.

After fifty yards, the number on the depth sounder started getting smaller, as he reached the beginning of the undersea ledge. The swells, which farther out were gentle and rolling even if they were eight feet high, got more forceful as the water got shallower, and the wind blew more spray off the top of them. The waves slapped against the stern of the schooner and spray blew up in the cockpit.

The depth sounder’s numbers changed as the swell lifted and lowered the boat: 40, 34, 38, 32.

When the depth sounder read twelve feet on the top of the swells, and eight at the bottom — as close to bottom as Scarnum wanted to get — Cerebus was still about one hundred feet from the lobster boat.

“Son of a whore,” he said, and he goosed the diesel and spun the wheel, bringing the bow into the chop. He powered offshore another 20 feet, set the engine to idle and ran up to the bow and dropped to his knees over the anchor winch. He opened it up and yanked on the chain as it spun off the spool, measuring it between his outstretched arms — six feet from fingertip to fingertip — so he would know how much line he was dropping. When he’d played out sixty feet of rope, he wrapped it around the cleat on the bow and moved back to the cockpit.

He sang to himself as he waited for the anchor to catch.

I’s the b’y that builds the boat
And I’s the b’y that sails her.

When the line pulled tight, and the schooner pulled itself straight into the wind, Scarnum went below to the rope locker, put on a life jacket, and fetched a plastic bucket, a coil of light yellow nylon rope, a coil of heavy white rope, and an inflatable boat in a nylon bag.

It took him half an hour of pumping and cursing to fill the boat. When he was done, he cut two pieces from the end of the nylon rope, one short and one long. He used the short piece to tie the bucket to the inflatable. The longer piece he used to tie his life jacket to the inflatable — a lifeline in case he was washed out of the boat.

He tied one end of the yellow line to the bow of the little boat. The white rope he coiled carefully on the inflatable’s floor. He then tied the ends of both lines to a big cleat on the stern of the schooner.

He stood on the deck for a moment, thinking, then untied his lifeline, went below and lit the diesel heater in the cabin, then went back to the cockpit and retied his lifeline.

Scarnum cursed as he eased the boat over the stern of the schooner, and he cursed as he climbed down the little ladder. He cursed as he pulled the boat closer with his feet, and cursed as he sat down heavily in it, clutching an oar and the yellow nylon line in one hand.

Somehow, there was already water in the damned thing, and he could feel the seat of his pants get wet. He wedged his legs against the walls of the boat, pulled himself up to his knees and started to let out some of the yellow line tied to the stern of the schooner, letting the wind push the inflatable away from the schooner, toward the lobster boat. The boat rose and fell on the swells, jerking on the line as he let it out. The thick white line uncoiled slowly, falling into the grey sea in front of him. Spray splashed over the bow of the little boat and into his face. Scarnum grimaced, then grinned, and sang, out loud now.

I’s the b’y that builds the boat
And I’s the b’y that sails her,
I’s the b’y that catches the fish
And brings them home to Liza.

There were more verses to the song, and Scarnum knew them, but he sang only the first, over and over again.

With his left hand he played out yellow line. With his right he held the oar. He jammed the end of it into his armpit, and jammed the blade into the water and used is as a rudder, managing to steer the inflatable boat through the swells a bit to the east, so that he would reach the lobster boat. As he let out the line, he looked anxiously back and forth between the schooner and the lobster boat.

When he was six feet away from his prize, he held the line taut, and looked over his shoulder at the lobster boat. The stern was being hammered by the choppy sea. It was so low in the water that the waves were splashing up onto the deck, but it was not so low that there would be any easy way to get up on the deck to make a line fast.
Scarnum eased out more line and steered the inflatable toward the surging stern of the lobster boat, until the two boats touched. He put his hand against the smooth fibreglass hull of the lobster boat’s stern and cursed when the boats slipped apart again. He had to drop to his arse to keep from falling in the roiling, freezing water between the boats, and had to paddle frantically to get the inflatable against the lobster boat again. Again he clutched the lobster boat, this time with both hands. He could hear the hull of the lobster boat grinding against the rocks below, and for the first time he could see the name of his prize, painted on the stern just below the water’s surface: the Kelly Lynn.

With each swell, the inflatable rode higher against the stern of the Kelly Lynn, which was shifting unpredictably on its rock pivot. Scarnum grabbed the white line, pulled it over his shoulder and looked up at the stern rail of the Kelly Lynn. As the two boats rose and fell, the plastic lip at the top of the lobster boat’s stern came tantalizingly close. Scarnum had to keep his hands moving constantly to keep the boats together. It started to rain.

After a few minutes of scrabbling against the stern of the Kelly Lynn, Scarnum realized he was never going to get hold of the stern rail from his knees.
“Son of a whore,” he said, quite loudly, and rose to his feet in the little boat, jamming his boots into the space where the inflated tube met the floor. He pressed his chest and face against the stern of the Kelly Lynn and reached up toward the stern rail. The inflatable twisted and pulled at his feet. For one sickening moment, the two boats pulled apart and Scarnum thought he was going to drop into the water.

On the next swell, the inflatable rose at the same moment that the Kelly Lynn sank down. Scarnum managed to get his hands and his elbows over the rail. When the sea rose again, he grunted and launched himself off the inflatable boat and managed to get his arms entirely up over the stern rail, so that his forearms were inside the Kelly Lynn. Behind him, the inflatable drifted away. His legs were in the icy sea, which surged and splashed at him as the Kelly Lynn rose and fell. Waves smacked hard against his back.

This, Scarnum knew, was as close as he was going to get to being on the deck of the boat. There was no way he could pull himself up. Behind him, the inflatable rode the waves. The line from the boat tugged at his life jacket.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.