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.
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