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At the End of the World: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Thursday, July 9, 2020 06:25 EDT



October 13

    When we got hit by a storm on October 11, about nine hundred miles south of the Ivory Coast, somebody must not have secured the pilot house’s aft deck door. I suppose that “somebody” could have been me, but remembering routines (or anything else) isn’t usually one of my problems. On the other hand, after a month at sea on the same boat, the stuff you do lots of times every day begins to blur together.

    None of this would even be worth mentioning if, toward the end of the storm, we hadn’t been hit by a following gust that whipped through and around the pilot house and scooped out a bunch of papers. We lost some charts, but fortunately, we have backups of all the working maps. But we have no way to replace the last twenty-seven days of my — well, our — journal.

    Not that it was riveting reading or anything. But it’s kind of like having a hole gouged out of our story. I mean we still have the log book, although not everybody keeps the records of our course and speed as carefully as they might. And now that I’ve written that where everyone else can see it, I will stop grumbling about it. Well, I’ll try to stop grumbling about it.

    Besides, it’s my fault for not making myself an even bigger pain in the ass by insisting that we never leave the journal topside. Meaning that losing it is on me as much or more than it is on anyone else. So it’s up to me to make good on that loss as best I can.

    Here’s what I remember of the last five weeks:

    Only two days out from South Georgia Island, our radio went dead, and none of us knew why. Captain was the expert and all he showed us was how to operate it. Hell, he barely had enough time to make us semi-competent sailors. So I took a dive into the user’s manual. I didn’t get very far.

    Unfortunately, that was farther than anyone else got. As a result, our daily coded contact with Willow and Johnnie — timed and date-patterned squelch-breaks that we used to tell each other that we were okay — ended almost as soon as it began.

    A difficult discussion followed: do we go back and see if we can repair the radio from spares at Husvik? Giselle wanted to tack back to South Georgia. Rod was unable to make up his mind. And so, for once, was Chloe. Whereas hers had always been the most ruthlessly practical voice, I think that after fighting the pirates at Husvik she had turned some kind of psychological corner. It’s as though she had adopted us — all of us — as surrogates for the family she’d never really had. And let me tell you, as I’ve learned many times since, Chloe doesn’t do anything half-assed. If she says she’s all in, she means she’s ALL in. And this choice damn near tore her apart. The practical side of her sided with me: we’d have to fight our way back against both wind and current and that meant more time before we reached our first destination — St. Helena — to replenish our slim supplies of food. Besides, the odds were poor that we’d find any spare parts for the radio at Husvik. Assuming we could figure out which ones we needed to fix it. 

    On the other hand, Chloe nodded every time Jeeza (Chloe’s new, improved name for Giselle) insisted that we at least let Willow and Johnnie know that we hadn’t gone off the air because we’d died at sea. Jeeza got wet-eyed every time she reminded us that the two of them were all alone at the far end of the world. They needed to know that we were still out there, too. Which I sympathized with and felt like a bastard arguing against.

    But in the end, it was Silent Steve who smacked the ass of the elephant in the room. “We can’t take the chance,” he said, not looking up from where he was sitting cross-legged on the crew deck that night. “They’ve been all over Husvik now. Including the radiohouse. And we don’t know how contagious the virus is or how long it stays that way. So we couldn’t even help them look for parts to fix the radio. All we could do is holler at them from the middle of the inlet, then turn around and sail back out. With less food and even less time to find more.” He looked at Jeeza. “I’m sorry.” He rose and went to the head.

    No one said anything after that. No one had to. He was right.  The risks just didn’t justify whatever good we might do by letting them know we were still alive. One by one, everyone left our new crew commons: the Captain’s cluttered stateroom. We could have uncleaned it up, but it had already become a shrine. Leaving it as he’d had it made it a little bit like having the Captain there, listening in on our discussions.

    It was lonely without him. And to be dead honest, it was terrifying. Don’t get me wrong; he’d trained us well. But damn it, four months and one whole world ago, our biggest worry had been meeting our new roommates at the freshman dorms we never got to. 



    So we didn’t go to back Husvik and spent two weeks feeling pretty lousy about it. That was also when we steered away from the uppermost margins of the Antarctic circumpolar current (the same one that helped push us from Tierra del Fuego to South Georgia) and nosed northward into the Benguela current. We paralleled the western coast of southern Africa for ten days, then sheared off, heading northwest for St. Helena.

    After making that turn, the winds were brisk but changeable, so we spent an extra day or two tacking to hold course. Thank god GPS is still working, because with all that back and forth, there were about a dozen times I wasn’t entirely sure if we were on the right heading. Twice we weren’t. Not huge errors, but this is the South Atlantic. No landmarks because, well, no land. If your numbers aren’t “spot on” (as the Captain put it), then you are shit out of luck.

    But GPS gave us those one- or two-degree corrections when we needed them and thirty-one days after leaving South Georgia, we saw a rocky hump profiled low on the horizon, the setting sun dropping behind it. So we all celebrated a bit, then a bit more, and for the first time in weeks, I was able to relax and get a good night’s sleep.

    But as we made our final approach the next day, we found ourselves facing new uncertainties, because we knew damn little about St. Helena.

    For instance, it was entirely possible that whatever was left of its small population might be staggering around like extras from a zombie flick. If that was the case, what would we do? Kill them all? Yeah, we had brought most of the guns and ammo, but would that be enough? And would anything useful be left, or would the early survivors have gone through all the supplies before finally turning and tearing each other to pieces? As we sailed for that looming sea-surrounded mesa, we couldn’t ignore the possibility that, after coming all this way, St. Helena might be not only our first, but our last, port of call.

    But soon after we swung around the northeast shoulder of the island, we saw white-hulled boats out in the water. They were spread in a thin fan around the small bay that fronted the port capitol of Jamestown. Several were under sail. Four miles further out, a big ship was riding at anchor. A quick look through binoculars showed it to be the Royal Mail Ship that cycled between the island and Cape Town.

    But before we got within two miles of the port, two of the sailboats heeled over and started waving us off. So we stopped near what our map told us was Sugar Loaf Point and started with the signal flags.

    I don’t think I’ve ever been as grateful for my memory as I was when I saw their first flag: catty-corner yellow and black squares. That was Lima. Meaning: stop immediately. Pretty much the greeting you’d expect in a world blanketed by a plague.

    I told Jeeza to come around slowly and angle away from the coast as I rummaged for a half-blue, half-red flag: Echo, or “altering course to starboard.” I held it aloft, followed it with another that was half a vertical yellow bar, half a vertical blue bar: Kilo, or “I wish to communicate.”

    Don’t know what they were expecting, but it sure wasn’t that.  They reset their yards, slowing their approach. But no flags.

    “What are they doing?” I shouted at Steve, who was up near the bow with a pair of binoculars.

    “Talking with each other.”

    “Anything else?”

    “Just talking. A lot.”

    Made sense. From the look of it, they might never have had any visitors at all.  So while they figured how to respond to our request, I flipped through the rest of the flags in the box and had the nagging sensation that the Captain was right behind me, his lips seamed by the grimace he called a smile. (And when the hell did I start capitalizing “Captain” like that?)

    He had known I wasn’t into learning the flags and spent only one morning going over them. But he drilled me on each flag several times, enough to fix it forever in my head, whether I liked it or not. And now that skill was saving my ass. So I guess his ghost had reason to gloat.

    Eventually, the folks on one of the boats started responding, but it was semaphore this time. And that took a lot longer. After about fifteen minutes and about twice as many mistakes, I got the basic message across: we’d never been exposed to the virus, we’d been at sea for four weeks, and we meant to trade and sail on. Another minute or two and then more semaphore from them: we were to backtrack to St. Helena’s east coast and head to a small ramp of rock sticking out of the water just off its southernmost point: George Island. They’d meet us ashore. “At distance,” they added.

    We turned around and headed back south. It was a short coastal sail, about eight nautical miles. But having become accustomed to being on the open water, we weren’t eager to get too close to the brown and tan cliffs of St. Helena. But the depth charts and sonar reassured us that, as with most sea mounts, this one fell away into the depths really quickly.

    Navigating near the rendezvous point was a different story. There was no telling where submerged crags were waiting to rip out the bottom of Voyager. So we decided to stand off, reef sails, and use our trawling motor to push over to George Island.

    I had to stop after I wrote the words “George Island.” Otherwise, I might have laughed and awakened Chloe. Everything about that little scrap of rock was a joke. Beside the Brits’ apparent reflex to work the word “George” into most of their islands’ names, it hardly deserved the label “island.” It was just a bigger-than-average rock-spur shaped like a launch ramp, barely two hundred yards long and seventy wide. Except for birds, there was nothing living on it. Probably because it was damn hard to get a boat close enough to land safely. One moment you were in a rising swell and had a full fathom of water under you; the next, you were bottoming out only a hand’s width from submerged volcanic teeth.

    The two boats from Jamestown arrived half an hour after Rod, Jeeza, and I climbed out of Voyager’s dinghy. And because they knew right where to approach and how to time the risers, they got ashore in less than two minutes. But the moment we started approaching, they made shooing gestures and used a megaphone to get us to stop. Unfortunately, we’d lost our megaphone back when we were making the southern passage, so “communicating” on George Island meant shouting through cupped hands until we got hoarse.

    At first, the Saints — that’s what the locals call themselves — didn’t believe that we had no desire to stay on St. Helena or that we had completely avoided contact with the virus. They kept returning to questions about where we’d been since the plague hit, and where we’d just come from, and how long it been since we left there. In their place, I’m not sure I’d have done any different. Eventually, though, they accepted that we really didn’t want to live on St. Helena, but, instead, meant to sail all the way to the Caribbean.

    So, why had we come to St. Helena? And we repeated, “to trade.” I wanted to add “like we told you earlier.” But I didn’t. We needed supplies a lot more than I needed to get in my weekly ration of snark.

    That sent them into another long confab, which ended with them apologizing for taking so long (so veddy, veddy English). Not counting the Royal Mail ship, we were the first boat to reach them. Which isn’t particularly surprising. Saint Helena is only useful as a waypoint across the emptiness of the South Atlantic. They had decided to turn away all refugees but had never considered traders.

    Which actually sped things up. Since they didn’t have any scripted bargaining strategy, they just asked, “What do you have, and what do you want?”

    Now it was our turn to realize how little we’d prepared for this. No matter how fair your trading partner is, you never let them know that you need something in order to survive. Because no matter how ethical they are, you just told them how to squeeze you dry. So we replied that we wanted to pick up some additional food. We didn’t let on how desperate we were for it, particularly carbohydrates and anything green.



    Carbs had been a problem from day one, even though we left South Georgia with more than our fair share. Willow was confident that if she and Johnnie didn’t get infected, the food the Captain had seen on the pirates’ trawler — mostly dry and canned goods from King Edward Point — would last a long time. Willow even had a solid plan for getting to those supplies in a few weeks: douse the compartments with water and wait for it to freeze. That would entomb anything harboring the virus in ice that could then be broken up and tossed overboard. It was a typical Willow plan: practical, smart, elegant. But even with those supplies, and her having identified the edible seaweeds on South Georgia, getting the right foods (and enough of them) was still gonna be dicey. At best. 

    We were in pretty much the same situation. We’d rationed our carbs but, after more than a month at sea, had already gone through ninety percent of them. Vitamins weren’t as big a worry; we had enough tablets to hold us through to the new year.

    But humans need nutrients and minerals that you don’t find in over-the-counter supplements. Which is why, if we had lost only the carbs from our diet, we might have been okay. Yeah, we’d have found out what full-blown ketosis is like (I’d never heard of it until Willow explained it), but we could’ve managed that. What we couldn’t manage was a diet that was just protein and fat. That kind of malnutrition would prove fatal. Most likely because of being woozy and making stupid sailing mistakes long before our bodies physically shut-down.

    The Saints were even more unwilling than we were to admit what they needed most. But one old guy finally got impatient, grabbed their megaphone, and howled: “Prophylactics!”

    He shouted it three times. And then, maybe because we didn’t reply right away, he made it even more clear:


    Rod was the first to snicker. “So I guess asking us for rubbers was . . . was really hard.”

    I managed not to roll my eyes.

    Jeeza giggled, added, “Yeah, they sure were . . . beating around the bush.”

    Rod chortled.

    And then — yeah, I’ll admit it — so did I.

    Look: you had to be there. First, imagine five teenagers alone in the post-apocalyptic world and punch-drunk with early-stage ketosis. Now add a bunch of veddy proper Englishfolk called “Saints” who start bellowing through a bullhorn that their most desperate need is a crate of Trojans.

    Right out of Monty Python.

    But once we shook off the brief reversion to really bad tween-aged sex jokes (wait: is there any other kind?), the locals’ need for condoms actually started to make sense. It was all about surviving their own greatest danger: a baby boom and major population spike.

    Clearly, the Saints had come through the plague by learning to subsist on what they could grow and catch and by avoiding both community meltdowns and unwanted visitors. The mail ship moored way off shore had been their only outside contact and, with just one lifeboat missing and a lot of the portholes and doors open to the wind and the rain, we could fill in its story. The virus had broken out during its cruise up from Capetown and the Saints hadn’t let anyone off. So RMS St. Helena ended her days as a permanently quarantined plague ship. Otherwise, the Saints would have stripped her.

    But the same isolation that had kept them safe also made it impossible to meet needs they couldn’t supply locally: in this case, birth control. After they hushed the old guy howling about rubbers, the other Saints explained that they would not survive a population increase until they found ways to make the arable parts of the island more productive and determined how and when to safely venture out into the world again.

    We explained that we had no solutions to those long-term issues, but that we did happen to have a lot of condoms. For which we were, once again, in the Captain’s debt. Other than guns, ammo, and food, the only thing he dragged off the pirate trawler was a small crate of condoms.

    We never learned why. Maybe it was foresight, ensuring that a bunch of scared teenagers didn’t add babies to the other challenges of their post-apocalyptic existence. Or maybe the Captain was just obeying decades of military reflex: always grab the major consumables. Food, water, booze, smokes, ammo, and rubbers. Not always in that order.

    Why did Argentine pirates have a crate full of condoms? No way to know. However, since they had chosen a profession without health benefits and where a pension would be pointless because you’d never live to collect it, I don’t think they were concerned with safe sex. My guess is that they just grabbed every box they could carry out of some farmacia, figuring that one day they’d have a use for most of it.

    It took twenty minutes to arrive at a deal with the Saints: a couple hundred condoms for about a hundred kilos of fresh produce, exchange set for the following morning.

    The next day, I almost drooled (for real) when they showed up with crates — crates — of pumpkins, bananas, yams, tomatoes, and — my personal favorites — onions and hot peppers. No garlic, but hey, at last I had a chance to make something other than bland gringo food.

    They topped us up on fresh water, too: as much as we could carry in every empty container aboard Voyager. It’s not just that it would give our condenser a break; it was the taste. You might not believe it, but something as simple as the taste of fresh water can be a huge morale boost when you’ve been living on what comes out of a purifier.

    We asked about radio parts but got nowhere with that. The few of them that had our particular model refused to trade even the smallest components. Which made sense: none of that stuff will be manufactured again in our lifetimes.

    After several hours of moving all the food and water through the choppy waters to Voyager, we waved farewell and set sail. We had more than half a day of light left and wanted to get a good start. The Saints seemed both sad and relieved when we weighed anchor and started west for Ascension Island. Where, it turns out, most of the civilian population hails from St. Helena.

    By the time that high rocky loaf of an island finally dropped below the horizon astern, our excitement over the new food and fresh water had faded. Quiet followed. Not until we were sticking our forks into our first fresh meal in weeks did we discover we’d all been reflecting on how far we’d come in the past month. For us, the new food symbolized our success as sailors and survivors, so we felt pretty pleased with ourselves. Chuffed, as the Captain would have said.

    And he would have been laughing as he said it because soon after celebrating how mature and capable we were, the ocean reminded us that we were just as small and vulnerable as ever. 

    Two days out, the wind began to rise and clouds started gathering to the southwest: right between us and St. Helena. So no going back. Two days after that, the storm hit. And toward the end of it, the wind came in and took away the complete story of our journey since leaving Willow and Johnnie at Husvik.

    Fortunately, the Captain proved right again. He had told us that major storm systems don’t often form in the South Atlantic. The region’s strong vertical wind shear pretty much tears them apart. I guess that’s what happened with this one. It slowly got worse over thirty-six hours and then just died away.

    Still, even though we didn’t lose any sails or spars, we’d never seen waves that big. But thanks to the Captain’s training, we knew when and how to put our bowsprit into those curling walls of water and ride them. Now we’re about two days out from Ascension Island, which, the Saints warned us, has been radio silent for months.

    They also warned us that Ascension is a very different kind of island. Far more barren than St. Helena, but far more trafficked, also. The Brits share (well, probably shared) a base with us there. A communications hub and tracking for space missions, according to the mostly crap references we have on board. So, it’s likely that the base will have at least some workingradios.

    Assuming that the plague didn’t drive everyone there into a frenzy of total destruction.

    I guess we’ll find out which it is soon enough.

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