Stormstruck Excerpt

A voice cackled through a long tube that jutted down into the captain’s quarters and Frederick leapt to his feet. He put his ear to the tube, his eyes growing wide. “They’ve spotted a boat, port side.” Michael, Jolene and Em followed him onto the deck, grasping the steel railing and holding on for their lives. The blizzard raged around them, stealing their words and reducing all communication to hand gestures and signals. Michael pointed into the water where the ominous hull of a freighter wallowed upside down. A man’s head bobbed to the surface, then another beside him. Pulling a life preserver from its hook, Frederick tossed it to the man. Beside him, a sailor tore another from the wall and hurled it into the sea. Jolene watched the men grab for them. It would be impossible to attempt a rescue in these seas. She watched a life preserver rise and fall at the mercy of the waves, and shouted to the men. The wind silenced the words on her lips. A hand broke free of the surface then sank. It did not reappear. The life preserver was swept away.

Frederick gestured at them to return to the cabin, but as they tried to turn back, a wave hit the pilothouse, knocking out two windows and smashing the wooden door. The boat heeled sharply, threatening to tip. Jolene screamed and they grabbed for the railing. She saw the wheelsman skid across the pilothouse. He pulled himself to his feet and grabbed the wheel. The boat lurched into another trough, the storm knocking Jolene to her knees. She felt Frederick’s strong arm around her and rose as the boat recovered. With slow, measured steps, the three of them and Frederick managed to return to the captain’s quarters.

“I’m going up to the pilothouse,” said Frederick after they had struggled to close the door against the violence of the storm. “You stay here and listen at the speaking tube. Do what the captain says, understand?” For a moment, he reminded Jolene of Grandpa. He pried the door open and ventured out into the elements. Jolene wondered if she would ever see him again.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Em’s eyes were blank.

Michael said nothing. Jolene made no response. The same thought had occurred to both of them.

Suddenly the boat surged forward. Jolene pressed her face against the ice-covered windows. Michael came to stand beside her. “I’m betting the Regina was lost with all hands,” he said solemnly.

Jolene buried her face in his shoulder. Tears welled up in her eyes and her body trembled. They couldn’t die like this. They weren’t even supposed to be here. A voice hollered down the listening tube and Michael bounded towards it. “Anchor,” he repeated. “They’re anchoring the ship.”

“Really?” asked Em. “Maybe we’re close to shore.” Jolene felt hope nudge her despair. She heard the muffled banging of machinery and Frederick burst through the door.

“We’re taking on water,” he told them. “The captain’s going to anchor and save the power to run the pumps.” He stroked his beard as if he couldn’t believe what was happening. “Let’s hope we’re in close enough for the anchor to hit bottom.” He raised his eyes towards the heavens and waited. Jolene felt the boat continue to heel. Then suddenly it steadied. Frederick did not move. “Hold,” he breathed. “Hold.” The Regina held. Frederick exhaled. “Now it’s up to the pumps.” He disappeared into the wind and weather.

Jolene, Michael and Em clung to the little hope Frederick had given them. If the pumps could keep the boat from flooding, they could ride out the storm safely anchored in water deep enough to keep them from being run aground on the rocks. Together they waited, time weighing heavily on their hearts. The listening tube rumbled again and Jolene pressed her ear to it. The captain’s words stopped her heart momentarily.

“What is it?” asked Michael.

In a daze, Jolene stepped away from the tube. “An order to abandon ship,” she stated finally. The three of them stared at each other. The air in the suite grew thick with fear. Em whimpered and Michael trembled. Jolene reached beneath her dress collar and pulled the hood of her drysuit over her head, instructing Michael and Em to do the same.

“Let’s go!” Frederick, his hair plastered against his head and his eyes crazed, was standing at the door. “We’ve lost power.” With no further explanation, he handed them each a life jacket, which they pulled on and tied with nervous fingers. Frederick herded them onto the icy deck towards a lifeboat suspended over the side of the Regina. A sailor steadied the lifeboat and Michael climbed over the icy railing, followed by Em and Jolene. Frederick pressed a heavy coil of rope into Jolene’s hands. “Lash yourselves to the boat,” he thundered in her ear.

Jolene wound the rope around her waist, securing it with a bowline before passing it to Em and motioning for her to do the same. Em managed to do so as Jolene tried to tie the rope to the boat. The lifeboat lurched then plummeted as Frederick manned the pulleys. Jolene gripped its edges as Em handed Michael the remaining rope coil. If they could just wrap it around themselves and secure the ends. The boat dropped. Terror seized Jolene. Out of the darkness, a wave smashed the lifeboat into the steel hull of the Regina. Jolene heard the wood crack, felt the lifeboat teeter, then tip as the wave surged back from the boat. The freezing waters of Lake Huron engulfed them.