On Distant Shores – Episode 22

Outside the air was still and drowsy, the sky a brilliant blue. Putting his spyglass to his eye, Henry was able to see what his first mate referred to – no more than a dark smudge on the horizon, yet within hours it could be a full-blown storm right above their heads. It was impossible to predict how fast such a thing could travel.

He lowered the spyglass.

“Come downstairs to my quarters,” he said. “And bring Mr Ellison.”

Just a few minutes later, Henry stood poring over a map of the South Pacific with Mr Martin and Mr Ellison, the ship’s navigator, at his side. All three men were silent, their faces grave. Rounding Cape Horn was surely the most dangerous part of the clipper’s voyage to China, but once they’d crossed into the Pacific, storms and fierce winds known as the Roaring Forties still presented grave dangers.

“Can we outrun it, do you think, Mr Martin?” Henry asked his first mate. Since clipper ships were so fast, often keeping ahead of the storm was the wisest course of action.

The first mate lifted his gaze from the map.

“I don’t rightly know, sir. These storms can boil up something fast, and if we’re caught with our sails . . .”

Henry nodded, knowing no more needed to be said. To be caught in a tropical gale in full sail could mean devastating damage to the sails, rigging, or mast, and thus endanger the life of all the crew. He turned to the navigator.

“Mr Ellison, is there an island nearby where we could shelter?”

On the map the area of the South Pacific they were sailing through was a depressingly empty square of blue. They’d left behind the islands that hugged the south-west coast of South America, and they were still days or even weeks away from the cluster of islands that made up Indonesia.

“Not with a known harbour,” Mr Ellison said after a pause. “As you know, Captain, there is little land in this part of the ocean.”

“I do know it.” Henry gazed grimly down at the map. “Then, gentlemen, we shall have to attempt to outrun the storm. The Charlotte is one of the fastest tea clippers out of Boston. Let us put her to good use today.”

Nodding, the men returned to the deck to begin issuing orders. Henry rolled up the map and stared out the porthole at the stretch of blue sky he could see. Already the dark smudge on the horizon was widening, and the wind was picking up, ruffling the surface of the sea. The Charlotte would, Henry acknowledged, have to race for her life – and his.

Two hours later the winds were screaming down on them and waves cresting over the top deck. They had not outrun the storm, and Henry feared worse was to come. He sluiced water from his face, squinting through the wind and rain to call an order to the first mate.

His words were torn away from his throat on the wind and in frustration he drew a breath to call again, but the words never came. Something slammed into the side of his head and stars burst into his vision before he slumped to the deck, unconscious.

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.