Editor's Note: The story continues from Al Bruce’s unpublished novel about rugged life on the North Atlantic. The story began on a chilly Feb. 16, 2015, five miles offshore the Cape Fear River, North Carolina and 2,739 miles southwest from where Capt. Bruce was killed Nov. 9, 1854.
Capt. James Bruce's great-great-great-great-great 65-year-old grandson James Scott too slowly falls into the cockpit after a 15-minute struggle as his body temperature plummets and the sloop continues outward bound, dragging the lone sailor through cold wind and ocean spray.
Capt. Scott sprawled over the slippery stern, tipped forward and slid head first into the cockpit. He landed face down, shaking, left hand and arm twisted under his body as darts of cold rain stung the back of his head and neck. For more than a few seconds, he wondered if age, rather than the cold water, had been a catalyst for missing the line or the difficulty of his struggle to climb into the sloop. Am I way over my head? he wondered again. Somewhere deeper in his mind Scott realized the silly question had a disappointing and unambiguous answer.
Hands and feet felt nothing. Not deck, not cold, not heavy drops from the squall, not the sprain in his wrist. Scott quickly discovered, despite his shivering and the pitching sloop, why he had been thrown overboard, why the sailboat continued east before squally wind.
He had knotted the line controlling the mainsail too tight around a cleat and the huge mainsail had captured every breath of air on a windy afternoon. Not a gasp could spill from sails to keep the sailboat upright. A blustery forty-eight-knot gust had slapped the Nutcracker too many degrees to leeward, throwing the standing skipper and the sandwich he was munching into the water. Sunova, you are dumb, he thought. Untie that knot. Quickly, his mind volunteered.
The slick tilted cockpit slowed Scott’s crawl to the cleat; the drum-tight mainsail remained locked before the wind. Spotted glasses were almost opaque; examining the tangle became a challenge. Stiff fingers tried to tease the snarl apart while cold wind and rain drove into the back of Scott’s bald head from over the stern. Skipper and knot struggled as Scott’s body temperature dropped; he shook uncontrollably.
Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire“ nudged into his mind but the tragic ending was quickly erased. He also suddenly understood why hope lay at the bottom of Pandora’s box.
Scott squinted to see and unknot the slippery mass of nylon as the steady hum of wind through rigging never varied half a note; waves splashed along the hull and splattered onto the drenched sailor.
Scott spent more than half a minute of unsuccessful shivering and digging at the knot with unfeeling water-wrinkled fingers. He reached for the snarl with his teeth; the salty taste gagged him. He spit salt water every few seconds; after more than sixty seconds of biting and tugging, the knot unraveled. His cold fingers teased the clumped apart; the line unwrapped, freeing the big cloud of Dacron.
The mainsail instantly lost its tight curl, flapped, and then collapsed in the offshore wind. The Morgan sailboat halted her headway. The sudden stop tumbled the skipper forward onto the cockpit floor. Scott was unable to control his fingers; he squeegeed his eye glasses with cold wrists. The terrible wind diminished and rain turned to drizzle as he lay on the cockpit floor, tiller swinging over his legs while the squall shifted seaward over the leeward rail and then away, outward bound.
Scott’s fight to live had just begun. His body temperature kept falling as wind hummed through rigging. The cabin will protect me from wind, Scott hoped, teeth chattering, body quaking with cold, understanding he was in a fight that he had to win with only a limited time for victory. His crawl six feet forward on the bobbing cockpit deck to the companionway ended when Scott slipped and fell like a dropped marionette three feet into the cabin, landing on his shoulder. He lay on the floor shaking.
Opaque rain extended dimpled waters to the northeast as the storm wandered away from sight; Scott pulled himself up and cut his hand on a rough hinge.