Major Tom and the Lucky Lady

I was balancing a cup of tea in one hand, while hanging on to the side of the companionway hatch with the other. I climbed into the cockpit sideways, compensating for the roll of the boat. I was only four days out of port and still getting used to the syncopated back and forth as Lucky Lady took the waves abeam.

I got myself safely to my seat by the helm and took a sip of tea. I sighed, hooked my tether to the harness I always wore above decks, and leaned back over the rail. The sky was clear and full of stars in that complete way that only happens on a moonless night hundreds of miles from shore. I hadn’t seen another vessel in days and that was just fine. Nothing to run into, nothing to worry about. Just me, my boat, the big blue below and the big black above.

I did a 360° scan of the horizon, just in case, and seeing nothing, set the timer for twenty minutes. I lay down on the soft cockpit cushions and closed my eyes. I had a rig that would steer the boat to the wind for me, and I knew that nothing should be able to make it from beyond the horizon to my position in less than twenty minutes. Even so, I had the radar set to sound an alarm if anything showed up within ten miles. I dropped off to sleep in the rocking of the waves.

The timer went off, and I drowsily opened my eyes. I sat up, and looked around. Still nothing. I smiled to myself and took a sip of tea, still warm in its thermal cup. I checked the instruments — with twelve knots of wind on the beam, we were rocketing along at six knots; pretty good for my heavy old thirty-four footer. I leaned back out to look at the stars again, and squinted. I’m no celestial nav expert, but I’ve spent enough time looking up to notice when there’s something new. Occasionally, I’ll notice a new satellite or something up there. But I’d never seen anything new that was this bright before. Or moving so fast.

#

The radar told me that the thing landed about eight miles away, and I thought I could even hear the splash. I certainly saw the flash of light falling from the sky into the sea. Was it a meteorite? I guess that must happen sometimes, and the odds were that at least some of those times someone would be out and about and be able to see it. Still, I didn’t think there were any meteor showers predicted for this area, and I hadn’t seen any other shooting stars all night. And it really didn’t look like any meteor I’d ever seen before. I was sure I’d seen lights on the thing.

You don’t keep much of a tight schedule travelling on a sailboat, so a detour wasn’t going to hurt me any. I disconnected the self steering, and swung the wheel to starboard. I eased the sheets, and soon was surfing the little waves bearing straight toward the radar target that still glowed bright green on my screen.

An hour and half later the predawn light was starting to peek up over the horizon and I was close enough to see the debris. There were a couple of still-blinking white lights among the wreckage, and I thought I could see a glint of metal in the early morning light. I got out my binoculars, and braced myself to try and get a clear view of it while Lucky Lady pitched and rolled beneath me. It was hard to get a good view, but I thought I could make out some kind of yellow lettering on the largest piece floating on the waves. I put the binocs down, and paid close attention to my course. I didn’t want to drive right through the stuff, but I wanted to be able to get close enough to see it better.

I tried to steer myself slightly upwind of the debris, and when I was already too close for comfort, I threw the wheel hard over to port. I hauled on the mainsheet, then cranked in the jib. As the main came around, the Lady bobbed up like a cork and slowed. I tied off the wheel once I was sure we were well hove to and then clipped my leash to the jacklines running fore and aft on the topsides. The sun was rising in earnest now, and I could see the debris pretty clearly, floating about a football field away downwind.

There were three or four distinct parts floating on the surface, and I suspected a fair amount of the thing had sunk already. I could read some of the lettering on the largest piece now: MA R M. This was no meteor.

#

There was no way for me to get closer to the wreckage — you can’t just drop anchor in the middle of the sea, and with no other crew to tend to the Lady I wasn’t about to deploy my boat and row over there. But I couldn’t just leave it, either. I shouted, “Ahoy! Is anyone there?” about a hundred times, and blew my foghorn until it ran out of compressed air. There was no answer, and I can’t say I was surprised. The crash had been spectacular and the wreckage was pretty bad.

I was sitting in the cockpit, watching the sun come up and trying to figure out what to do, when a flash caught my eye. I picked up the binocs and scanned the wreckage again. There it was — a small ball bobbing up to the surface. I guess it had been trapped under the rest of the debris, because I hadn’t seen it before. I would have noticed, since it was clear and had a man in it.

I shouted some more, and when there was no answer, I found my little bicycle pump and recharged my foghorn. A few blasts with it did the trick, and I could see movement in the bubble. I stood on the deck waving my arms, and watched as the bubble split open on a seam, and a strangely dressed man emerged into the water. His suit must have had some floatation in it, as he bobbed on the waves easily. He was probably pretty shaken up, and he didn’t seem have a lot of energy. I was sure he’d never be able to swim the distance between us.

“Stay where you are,” I yelled, hoping he understood English, and trying to make calming gestures in case he didn’t. “I’m coming over there.”

I scrambled back into the cockpit and furled the headsail. I fired up the Lady’s small diesel, while I centred the main. I motored downwind of the wreckage and headed up, the engine barely ticking over as I slowly made my way toward the man in the water. As I approached him, I turned sightly and chucked my man overboard gear at him — a buoyant horseshoe tied on to the Lady’s rail with heavy floating line. I was about to try and pantomime what to do, but he was already dogpaddling toward me. He managed to get the horseshoe around his torso, and I started reeling him in.

He got to the side of the boat, and made to try to climb up to the rail. “Don’t,” I said, as he fell back into the sea for the third time. “I can winch you up.” I had a line on a four to one pulley that I lowered down to him. He clipped it on to the ring on the horseshoe, and I hauled on the line with all my strength. I yanked the sopping, waterlogged man up, inch by inch, until his feet were level with my toerail. I manhandled him over the lifelines, and as I put some slack in the line he collapsed on deck.

“Just stay here a minute,” I said, “don’t move. I’ll be right back.”

I jumped into the cockpit, and motored a safe distance away from the wreckage. When I’d put some sea between me and the floating debris, I pulled out the foresail, and hove to again. I killed the engine when I saw that we were sitting nicely, and went back to my catch.

#

He was cold and wet and in some kind of shock. It’s always warm in the tropics, but he couldn’t have been comfortable in that soaking suit, so I got him out of it as soon as possible. He didn’t help, but he didn’t try to stop me, either, and soon he was sitting on deck, naked. He was a big guy, and I wasn’t sure if I’d have anything to fit him, but I scrambled down to my cabin and rooted around until I found a pair of old ratty pyjama pants and a sweater I didn’t even recognize.

I came up with the clothes, and saw that the man had gotten himself into the cockpit and was passed out on the cushions. I found a thin blanket to cover him, and put the clothes down by his head. I picked up his dripping silver suit, with its hoses and gauges, and saw that it had the words “MAJOR TOM” stitched over the breast with the initials “P.R.” underneath. I scanned the horizon for ships, and seeing nothing, went down below.

Someone else might not have put two and two together, but I’d been following the news before I left port. This had to be billionaire Peter Ribald and the Major Tom, his private spacecraft. According to the press, Ribald owned a bunch of companies, had made more money that he knew what to do with, and was spending it now by indulging in a dream of a lifetime. A few years back he’d bought one of the more successful private aerospace companies, and set them working on his baby — the Major Tom, the world’s first private spacecraft to be piloted by an amateur. He’d been scheduled to lift off a couple days previously, making the history books as the first private singlehanded spaceflight.

I pulled out my sat phone, and shook the dust off it. At a couple of bucks American a minute, it wasn’t really in my budget to use the thing much, but it was exactly for times like this that I had it on board. I didn’t know who to call, though, so I dialled my brother.

“Angus Mulgawwy,” his clipped voice answered.

“Hi, bro,” I said. “It’s Kate.”

“Katherine,” he said, his voice constricting. “I thought you were at sea.”

“I am,” I said, and before he could start to panic, I continued, “everything is fine.”

“You’ve never called me from the boat before,” he said, suspiciously. “What’s going on?”

I told him about the crash and the Major Tom, and gave him the GPS coordinates of the wreckage. “You’re a connected guy,” I said to my brother, who fancied himself a big shot corporate lawyer, “you ought to be able to get in touch with Ribald’s people and let them know he’s okay. They’re probably in a froth by now; it’s been awhile since they’d have lost contact.”

“You haven’t administered first aid, have you?” he non-sequitured. Always the lawyer, I guess, worried about a possible lawsuit.

I ignored the question. “You just pass on the word,” I said, “I’ll get on the HAM nets in a hour or so, and hopefully someone who’s faster than me can get Ribald into port somewhere. But someone shoreside needs to know about this, and you’re the first person I thought of, Angus.”

“Okay,” he said, sighing. “This is going to be a huge pain in my ass.” I closed my eyes, awaiting a speech I knew was coming. “It’s not easy, you know,” he began, “taking care of everything while you go off gallivanting across the world. What is it with you adventurer types, always getting yourselves in the soup and leaving us responsible people holding the bag?”

Angus was terrible for the mixed metaphors, and I tried not to laugh. This wasn’t the first time he’d expressed this opinion, and I’d stopped taking it personally a long time ago. I also knew better than to argue with him; he was a lawyer after all. Instead, I just said, “Thanks, bro. I’ll be in touch when I make landfall. It’ll probably be another few weeks.”

“Stay safe,” he mumbled, and broke the connection.

#

I went back up to the cockpit, and saw that the man was coming around. He was sitting up, and covering himself with the blanket. He looked up at me shyly, and I smiled and pointed at the clothes. I turned my back, and heard him get dressed. Before I turned around again, I heard a soft but surprisingly strong voice say, “Before I forget, thank you.”

I turned and smiled. “You’re welcome. Let’s get a nice cup of tea into you, and there’s some fish stew on the stove. Caught only yesterday.” I helped him down the companionway steps and sat him at the small salon table. I put the kettle on, and got a small bowl. I opened the lid of the pot, and the aroma of tarragon, fish and cream filled the boat.

“I don’t really…” the man mumbled a protest, as I ladled a spoonful of the chowder into the bowl.

“Anything you don’t eat can just go back in the pot,” I said, setting the bowl and a spoon in front of him, and going back to the galley to organize the tea things. I let him alone, and when I returned with mugs of tea for us both, his bowl was empty.

“So,” I said, after we’d both had sips of tea. “Peter Ribald, I presume?”

“Guilty,” he said, smiling slightly.

“I’m Kate Mulgawwy, and you’re on Lucky Lady. I guess that’s the Major Tom out there,” I waved my hand vaguely in the direction of the wreckage.

“What’s left of it,” Ribald said, looking into the dregs of the soup bowl.

“More stew?” I asked, and he nodded. I ladled out another bowlful, and one for myself. As we sat across from each other, eating, I asked, “So, what happened?”

“A problem with re-entry,” he said. “Or maybe just with the splashdown, it’s hard to say. It all happened so fast. The ocean landing was as per spec, but the craft wasn’t supposed to break apart on impact. It’s a good thing we included the inner pod, or that would have been it.”

“You must have some kind of positioning beacon, right?” I asked.

He nodded. “The ship, the pod and my suit are all wired. I don’t know if any of them are firing, though.” He looked at me through salty eyelashes. “It’s a good thing you were there. So, what happens now,” he asked. “Can you just take me into shore somewhere? Where are we, anyway?”

I gave him the general idea of our location, then said, “I’m at least four days out of the nearest port. Once I get these dishes squared away, we’ll head off toward shore. But I bet we can find someone faster to come pick you up.” I looked at my brass ship’s clock. “There’s a radio net in a bit; I’ll call in and we’ll see what we can do.”

He stayed seated at the salon table while I stowed our bowls. I told him about calling Angus, including his put upon attitude. “Some people just don’t get it,” I said.

“No,” Ribald agreed. “They don’t. But give me his address. I’ll see to it that he gets a nice thank you card,” Ribald said, smiling. When I’d cleared the galley, we both went up to the cockpit, and he watched as I turned us off the wind and eased the sails. We gybed and I pulled the sheets in a little as we headed off back the way I’d come. I engaged the self steering again, and sat down across from Ribald.

The motion of the seas was low and mild, but Ribald hadn’t had the four days — or the decade of sailing — I’d had to become accustomed to it. He looked a little shaky, but kept his eyes on the horizon. I let him be, but was watching for any signs of imminent seasickness. After about a half hour, I guessed that he was going to be fine.

“So, it’s just you out here?” he asked, eventually.

“This time,” I said. “Sometimes I’ve got crew, a friend or two along for the ride. But usually it’s just me and the Lady and the ocean.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” he asked.

I laughed. “Coming from the man who fell from space, that’s a bit rich,” I said and he smiled. “Sure, a big crew makes some things easier, but you can’t beat the freedom of being solo. And I’m not entirely alone.”

Ribald looked around the small boat, and raised an eyebrow. I smiled. “I’m alone onboard,” I clarified, “but I couldn’t do it by myself. Angus takes care of a lot for me, even if he does seem to begrudge every second. And there are other sailors I talk to on the radio and in port — we help each other a lot out here. I’ve never felt lonely or stranded. Besides, it’s actually a lot safer out here than people think it is. The danger come from ships and shore; out in the open it’s usually safe as houses.” I took a sip of tea. “What about you?” I asked. “Space? That’s about as alone as you can get, isn’t it?”

He sighed. “All the media ever wants to talk about is the first solo spaceflight by an amateur,” he said. “As if there’s only me and Major Tom,” Ribald said. “But flying is the extent of the solo part of the endeavour. I have a huge team behind me, not just building the craft, but navigation and ground control, too. And there’s plenty of potential for the project down the road. I might be the first, but I surely won’t be the last solo space flyer, not by a long shot.” He sipped his tea. “Being the money man behind the project has its advantages, though.”

“You get to be the name in the history books,” I said. He smiled and nodded. “Still,” I continued, “the first singlehanded private spaceflight has to be some kind of adrenaline rush.”

He smiled. “It’s exciting for sure, but I don’t know about a rush. Take off is a thrill and the crash was certainly a heart thumper, but once you’re up there, it’s something else, you know?” I nodded. “People picture a rocket and all they think of is the speed,” he continued. “That’s not the important part for me. I’ve never gone skydiving or bungee jumping or any of that stuff. I don’t see the appeal. But being in space is different.” He sipped from his cup, and gingerly moved closer to the rail to look out at the sky. A thin sliver of moon was already rising in the blue sky. “I know it sounds stupid, but they call to me. The stars.”

“It doesn’t sound stupid,” I said. We were both silent for awhile. “The sea is different, too,” I said.

He looked at me and smiled. We sat together looking at the horizon, the slight whoosh of the waves under Lucky Lady’s keel the only sound until the ship’s clock chimed the hour.

#

“This is Andy on the sailing vessel Star Dancer, Delta Echo Bravo eight three six niner, for the Westbound Net. Calling any emergency, priority or medical traffic, come now.”

This wasn’t exactly emergency or medical traffic, but I’d decided it qualified as priority, so I keyed my mike.

“Sailing vessel Lucky Lady, Charlie Foxtrot Golf seven three six nine, how copy?”

“I have you five by five, Lucky Lady. Come again.”

I slowly and clearly explained the situation with the wreck of the Major Tom and gave our position and course to the guy running net control. His name was Andy Winer, and while I’d never met him, we’d spoken on the radio countless numbers of times. He was an ex-navy seaman and still had a lot of buddies in the service. Better yet, he’d swallowed the anchor years ago and lived aboard his old ketch in the relative civilization of La Paz. These days he volunteered to relay weather and other info to those of us at sea without ready access to email and a phone.

By the time the regular roll call was over, Andy told me that a nearby US Navy boat was en route to intercept us. He guessed their ETA would be about twelve hours.

“I’m sorry to be taking you so far off course,” Ribald said, now more comfortable in the cockpit.

“No problem,” I answered. “So it adds a day to the trip, big deal. It’s not really about getting there for me anyway, you know?” He nodded. “Besides, when am I ever going to get the chance to hang out with a real life spaceman again?”

He laughed. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “I feel like a bit of a dilettante, crashing like that on my first solo run.”

“Everybody crashes sometimes,” I said, tidying the lines in the cockpit. I sat on the port side, and scanned the horizon. Still nothing to see for miles.

“You ever been in a shipwreck?” he asked.

“No,” I said, knocking on the shiny varnished wood of the companionway hatch. “But I’ve crashed the Lady into more docks than I’d like to admit,” I said. He laughed. “I think they’re all the same,” I said. “Sailing ships, airships, spaceships. Landing is the hardest part.”

He smiled, and another hour went by.

“So,” I asked, between bites of bread, “what’s it like up there?”

Ribald swallowed his own bit of roll, and said, “It’s hard to describe without sounding dumb.”

“So, sound dumb.”

“Well,” he said. “It’s full of stars.” I laughed, and he grinned. “I know, I told you it sounds dumb, but I can’t explain how full. I mean everywhere you look there’s a blanket of them. It’s amazing.”

“So, what do you do up there?” I asked.

“This trip I went to the moon and back. It was just a practice run.”

“Just to the moon and back,” I echoed, laughing. “A nice little Sunday drive.”

“Yup,” he said. “Just like your quick three week jaunt across an ocean.”

“Fair enough,” I said, and took a bite. “You see the construction site?” I asked after I’d swallowed.

“Branson’s hotel?” he asked, and I nodded. “Sure. It’s coming along, but it’s behind schedule, big time. But that’s the way of construction anywhere. It’ll be ready in a few years, I’m sure.” He took another bite of his roll. “You got a reservation?” he asked as he chewed.

“Ha,” I laughed. “I can’t even afford the Howard Johnson’s in Crescent City. No, I’m just another curious planetlubber.”

He nodded and we finished lunch in companionable silence.

#

After a few more hours under way, Ribald was at home on the boat. It was nice to have someone else to take watch for a while, and I took the opportunity to get a decent sleep. I’d been down for several hours, when I felt a hand on my shoulder, shaking me awake.

“There’s something on the radar,” Ribald said. “About twenty miles out.”

I rolled out of my berth and clambered up to the cockpit. I squinted at the screen then looked at the time. “That’s probably your ride,” I said.

We sat quietly, watching the waves lift Lucky Lady’s stern and roll under us. “This is really very pleasant, once you get used to it,” he said, eventually. I just smiled. “You know,” he said, looking up at me, “if you ever want a trip up to the stars, just drop me a line.”

“You’re going to build another ship?” I asked.

“The project has a life of its own, now,” he said. “It’s not just about me anymore.” He leaned back over the rail, looking up at the darkening sky. “Besides,” he said, “they haven’t stopped calling to me.” He looked back at me. “Maybe I ought to give the next one a more auspicious name, though. Major Tom didn’t really have the most successful trip either.”

I laughed. “You have anything in mind?”

“I’m sure I’ll come up with something,” he said.

#

The Navy boat got within a mile of our position, and I hove to. I found an old ditty bag for Ribald’s sodden spacesuit, and gave him my card. He promised that if I could arrange a mailing address he’d send me back my clothes, and I laughed. “I don’t really need pyjamas and a too-big sweater in the South Seas,” I said.

“You won’t always be in the islands,” he said, and I nodded. “It’s just an excuse to stay in touch,” he added. The Navy had launched a boat, and the inflatable was speeding toward us, its red and green lights bright against the darkness of the sea. Ribald stuck out his hand, and I took it. We shook, then he pulled me toward him for a brief hug.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” he said, looking away.

“You don’t owe me anything,” I said. “Just don’t give up on answering that call.”

The Navy boat pulled alongside, and Ribald climbed to the rail. The Navy men helped him into the inflatable, and I passed down the bag with his suit. One of the boatsmen noticed the name on my hull, and said, “Looks like he’s the lucky one today, ma’am.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks for making the detour.”

“Glad we could help,” the Navy man said. “You the captain?” he asked, and I told him I was. “Nice work here,” he said.

Ribald looked up at me. “Don’t forget my offer,” he said. “I might need crew someday, on my next ship.”

“I won’t forget,” I said. “I owe you a stint on watch, anyway.” We shared a brief smile, then the Navy inflatable fired up its motors. “Nice to meet you, Pete,” I said, loudly, over the noise.

“Likewise, Captain Kate.”

The Navy boat turned and sped away. I watched as they reached the mothership and cargo and crew were loaded aboard. I waited until I saw them turn toward land before I spun the wheel, eased the sheets, and got back on course.

© M. Darusha Wehm