Some things are automatic. Like man overboard drill.
One moment I had been leaning against the backstay of my yawl Wahini in mid-Atlantic, watching through binoculars as a cruise ship glided by in the night, brightly lighted, automatic-piloted, and oblivious of my presence. The next moment I froze in that first moment of strong perception that accompanies an adrenaline rush.
Someone was falling from the cruise ship’s deck, twisting and struggling all the way to the water.
The ship plowed on. I locked my eyes on the spot where she had struck the water, and marked her position as the stars reappeared behind the fast moving cruise ship. Under Orion, just to the right of Sirius.
I examined the afterimage in my mind. A young woman had been pressed against the rail, a woman with long black hair in a silky sheathe gown. There had been two others, two men, and they had been struggling with her.
She had not fallen; she had been thrown overboard!
I spun the wheel, lined up the masts on Sirius, and trimmed the sheets. My speed was about five and a half knots. The cruise ship had passed less than half a mile away. I would cross the ship’s wake in about four minutes.
No time at all for me, but an eternity for the girl in the water.
Unless she had seen the Wahini from the rail – unlikely in the darkness – she would think that she was alone in mid-ocean. The cruise ship had not even slowed down. Terror might have frozen her. She might already be drifting hopelessly down through the water.
When my watch said four minutes had passed, I still hadn’t seen her. I put the wheel hard over and brought the Wahini into the wind, sheeted the mizzen hard amidships, released the topping lift on the main, and rushed forward to drop the jib into untidy pile on the foredeck. Then I went up the mizzen mast, gripping the mast hoops with bare fingers and toes.
The cruise ship was halfway to the horizon by now, with no sign of turning back. I scanned the water, first close in, then further out.
I bellowed into the night, but there was no response. I squeezed my eyes shut, and fired the Very pistol I had brought from the cockpit. The flare spiraled upward and burst into a ball of ruddy light. I scanned the ocean again and saw a frantic splashing down to leeward.
I went down the mast hoops at top speed. The dingy was inaccessible, lashed down amidship for the long passage. If I swam to her, the Wahini would drift away downwind and we would both drown.
I raised the jib. Wahini moved with ponderous dignity through the water toward where splashes had been. I scanned the water, but the flare had died out and I could see nothing. more tomorrow