Read Salvage Online

Authors: Stephen Maher

Salvage

Cover
Dedication

In loving memory of Allan Maher and Cara Stumborg

Thursday, April 22

PHILLIP SCARNUM FIRST SET
eyes on the foundering lobster boat when he steered the schooner
Cerebus
round the first buoy of the Sambro passage and looked across the roiling grey sea for the next marker.

The schooner's sails were taut as drum skins, and the lines squeaked as they yanked against the wooden blocks. Scarnum had not shortened sail when he should have, so the boat was overpowered, surging up the eight-foot swells and splashing down into the troughs, throwing water onto the deck, where it beaded on the wood that he had spent so much time sanding and varnishing that winter.

He only glimpsed it for a moment, a small rectangle of white amid the spray-plumed rocks off Cape Sambro, but it looked like there was a boat where no boat should be.

The Sambro Ledges are killers, a jumble of kelp-covered granite shoals rising from the sea floor at the western approach to Halifax Harbour. A narrow channel runs through them, with red and green buoys marking the way, but the swells from the Atlantic deeps get rougher and steeper as they roll into the reefy shallows, where rocks wait below the waves to rip the bottoms out of boats.

Scarnum pulled his old binoculars out of his peacoat and glassed the horizon off the port bow. He could only see the distant shore when the schooner briefly crested the waves, so it took some time before he could fix his eyes on the boat for a second time, again just for a moment. He could see that it was a lobster boat, and it was fetched up on the rocks between Sambro Island and Sandy Cove.

Jesus. Could be some poor soul aboard her, scared to fucking death, listening to the hull pound on the rocks.

Scarnum wasn't watching the channel, and didn't see the angry wind line on the water ahead of him, and didn't ease the mainsail, as he ought to have done. While he still held the binoculars to his eyes, a gale-force gust caught
Cerebus
in its teeth and made to knock her down, tearing at the sails and rigging with terrible force, pushing the boat over farther than it ought to have gone, so that the port rail went under the water.

Scarnum grabbed the wheel to steady himself. He hurriedly eased the lines on the sails, spilling wind, but his cold hands fumbled as he loosened the jib line, and he lost his grip, and it was suddenly gone, snapping like a whip above the foredeck.

He grimaced as the wind tore the flapping sail near in two.

He cursed — “Son of a whore!” — locked the wheel, and scampered forward, his rubber boots slipping on the lurching sea-slick wooden deck as he made his way to the bow, where the ripped sail flapped hard on its wire stay.

He shinnied out onto the bowsprit, over the open water, both legs and one arm wrapped around the varnished wooden pole, and tried to grab hold of the twisting sail with his free hand, the wind cold in his face.

When he caught hold of the flapping sail, he felt a sickening lurch and looked down just as the bow plunged forward into the trough of a rogue wave. He was suddenly in the cold, terrible grip of the sea.

He was not strong enough to hold on. The sudden force of the water wrenched his hands free and sucked him down and back. It would have pulled him free of the schooner but for the bobstay, the heavy chain that ran from the bowsprit back to the hull. As he was pulled into the water, Scarnum's right leg jammed, and when the bow sprang free, his thigh was wedged painfully between the chain and the hull. He surfaced upside down, hanging by his leg as the schooner sailed on. He spat a mouthful of brine, gasping with shock, and clutched desperately at the chain. He managed to wrap his arms around the bowsprit and wrestle himself upright.

He held on to the oak spar with all his strength, with his eyes closed, coughing water and gasping for air.

Fucking Jesus. That was close.

By the time he got back to the wheel,
Cerebus
had left the channel and was headed for the rocks. He had to stand, shivering like a bastard, to steer the schooner back on course.

When he was bound for the safety of the channel again, he went below, where he stripped, towelled off, and put on dry clothes from his sea bag. He wiped the lenses of his binoculars clean with a tea towel.

He went back to the wheel, drank a mug of tea and rum from his Thermos, lit a cigarette, and examined his phone.

It was now an inert black rectangle. He cursed and threw it into the water and turned his attention to his course.

All the way from Chester he'd been surfing big rolling swells in a fresh south breeze, but the wind had veered east, and the steady waves were now jumbled with nasty, urgent chop blowing east from the harbour. The sea was confused and angry, and the schooner, which had been bounding through the waves all day, struggled through the ugly slop without a jib to power her.

A chill haze stretched out from Cape Sambro. It was getting colder.

As he steered
Cerebus
through the passage, Scarnum looked frequently through his binoculars, watching the flat speck of white slowly take form. By the time he came abreast of the vessel, he could see it was a forty-foot fibreglass lobster boat, and it was pitched at a queer angle, its bow wedged up on the rocks, so that its stern was low in the water. The waves were smashing at it.

The lobstermen of Nova Scotia build their hulls thick since they fish in the North Atlantic in the winter, but they are not designed to rest on a reef of granite in a storm, and it seemed to Scarnum that the hull would soon breach, if it wasn't already holed.

As he passed the boat, he sounded his air horn, but there was no answer, and he could see nobody on the deck.

“Salvage,” he said to the wind, his lips tight and grey with cold.

He started to sing softly under his breath, a Newfoundland song his father used to sing when he was fishing.

I's the b'y that builds the boat,

and I's the b'y that sails her.

I's the b'y that catches the fish

and brings them home to Liza.

A few hundred yards farther up the channel, he cranked up the schooner's diesel, dropped the sails, turned the boat around, and motored back toward Sandy Cove.

When he was as close as he could get to the lobster boat without leaving the channel, a few hundred yards south, he lit a smoke, looked at his GPS, and fixed his position on his chart.

His depth sounder told him he was in 120 feet of water. The chart told him that the shore grew sharply shallower in between his position and the rock ledge off Sandy Cove, as shallow as four feet at low tide.

Cerebus
's shapely wooden keel stretched down six feet below the surface. She was a Tancook Schooner built in the 1950s, a sleek masterpiece of pine and oak, and Scarnum had spent the better part of the winter replacing her half-rotten planks, patiently steaming and bending and nailing pine boards into place, learning lessons of patience and cunning from the men who built her, and he would be damned if he would touch bottom.

If he did, he would have to tell Dr. Greely, the Halifax dentist who owned her, that he had holed
Cerebus
on the Sambro Ledges on a routine delivery run, and everyone who knew him would soon know he'd hit a reef that every sailor in the province knew to avoid. People would assume he'd been drunk, and that wouldn't do much for the career of a man who made most of his money delivering sailboats.

On the other hand, a new lobster boat cost something like $200,000, and the salvage fee would be a good chunk of money. Scarnum looked at the darkening sky, the churning water around him, and over at the lobster boat.

Sit too long, fucking thing'll sink. If you're going to do it, do it.

When he finished his smoke, he turned the schooner toward the shore.

H
e eased the throttle and steered her in, glancing constantly at the depth sounder and the boat on the rocks, and back over his shoulder into the chaotic sea and the south wind.

After fifty yards, as he reached the beginning of the undersea ledge, the number on the depth sounder started getting smaller. The wind blew spray off the disorderly, rough swells, which slapped against the stern of the schooner and splashed up into the cockpit.

The depth sounder's numbers changed as the swell lifted and lowered the boat: 40, 34, 38, 32.

When the depth sounder read twelve feet on the top of the swells and eight at the bottom — as close to bottom as Scarnum wanted to get —
Cerebus
was still about one hundred feet from the lobster boat.

“Son of a whore,” he said, and he goosed the diesel and spun the wheel, bringing the bow into the chop. He powered offshore another twenty feet, set the engine to idle, and ran up to the bow and dropped to his knees over the anchor winch. He opened it up and yanked on the chain as it spun off the spool, measuring it between his outstretched arms — six feet from fingertip to fingertip — so he would know how much line he was dropping. When he'd played out sixty feet of rope, he wrapped it around the cleat on the bow and moved back to the cockpit.

He sang to himself as he waited for the anchor to catch.

I's the b'y that builds the boat,

and I's the b'y that sails her.

When the line pulled tight, and the schooner pulled itself straight into the wind, Scarnum went below to the rope locker, put on a life jacket, and fetched a plastic bucket, a coil of light, yellow nylon rope, a coil of heavy white rope, and an inflatable boat in a nylon bag.

It took him half an hour of pumping and cursing to inflate the boat. When he was done, he cut two pieces from the end of the nylon rope, one short and one long. He used the short piece to tie the bucket to the inflatable. The longer piece he used to tie his life jacket to the inflatable — a lifeline in case he was washed out of the boat.

He tied one end of the yellow line to the bow of the little boat. The white rope he coiled carefully on the inflatable's floor. He then tied the ends of both lines to a big cleat on the stern of the schooner.

He stood on the deck for a moment, thinking, then untied his lifeline, went below, and lit the diesel heater in the cabin, then went back to the cockpit and retied his lifeline.

Scarnum cursed as he eased the boat over the stern of the schooner, and he cursed as he climbed down the little ladder. He cursed as he pulled the boat closer with his feet and cursed as he sat down heavily in it, clutching an oar and the yellow nylon line in one hand.

Somehow, there was already water in the damned thing, and he could feel the seat of his pants getting wet. He wedged his legs against the walls of the boat, pulled himself up to his knees, and started to let out some of the yellow line tied to the stern of the schooner, letting the wind push the inflatable away from the schooner toward the lobster boat. The boat rose and fell on the swells, jerking on the line as he let it out. The thick white line uncoiled slowly, falling into the grey sea in front of him. Spray splashed over the bow of the little boat and into his face. Scarnum grimaced, then grinned, and sang, out loud now.

I's the b'y that builds the boat,

and I's the b'y that sails her.

I's the b'y that catches the fish

and brings them home to Liza.

There were more verses to the song, and Scarnum knew them, but he sang only the first, over and over again.

With his left hand he played out yellow line. With his right he held the oar. He jammed the end of it into his armpit and jammed the blade into the water and used is as a rudder, managing to steer the inflatable boat through the swells a bit to the east, so that he would reach the lobster boat. As he let out the line, he looked anxiously back and forth between the schooner and the lobster boat.

When he was six feet away from his prize, he held the line taut and looked over his shoulder at the lobster boat. The stern was being hammered by the choppy sea. It was so low in the water that the waves were splashing up onto the deck, but it was not so low that there would be any easy way to get up on the deck to make a line fast.

Scarnum eased out more line and steered the inflatable toward the surging stern of the lobster boat, until the two boats touched. He put his hand against the smooth fibreglass hull of the lobster boat's stern and cursed when the boats slipped apart again. He had to drop to his arse to keep from falling in the roiling, freezing water between the boats, and had to paddle frantically to get the inflatable against the lobster boat again. Again he clutched the lobster boat, this time with both hands. He could hear the hull of the lobster boat grinding against the rocks below, and for the first time he could see the name of his prize, painted on the stern just below the water's surface: the
Kelly Lynn
.

With each swell, the inflatable rode higher against the stern of the
Kelly Lynn
, which was shifting unpredictably on its rock pivot. Scarnum grabbed the white line, pulled it over his shoulder, and looked up at the stern rail of the
Kelly Lynn
. As the two boats rose and fell, the plastic lip at the top of the lobster boat's stern came tantalizingly close. Scarnum had to keep his hands moving constantly to keep the boats together. It started to rain.

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