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Benchley, Peter

BOOK: Benchley, Peter

Books by Peter Benchley



All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

isbn: 0-385-04742-8

library of congress catalog card number 75-445 21

copyright [*copy] 1976 by peter benchley all rights reserved

printed in the united states of america first edition

for Teddy and Edna Tucker


It was ten o’clock in the morning when the captain noticed that the wind had begun to die.

In his cabin, leafing through a magazine brought aboard at Norfolk by one of the crew, he sensed a change in the ship’s motion, a softening of the hiss of hull moving through water, a distant slapping of luffing sails. He rolled off his bunk, stretched, and started for the door.

Mounted on the bulkhead to the left of the door was a panel of brass weather gauges. The needle on the barometer showed 29.75


of mercury. The captain tapped the glass, and the needle dropped quickly to 29.5.

On deck he walked aft, sniffing the sluggish breeze and searching the horizon. The sky was clear, but a dim yellow haze thickened the air. The captain squinted. Way in the distance, high thin strands of cirrus clouds crept across the sky.

The first mate, a young bearded Scot, stood at the helm, guiding the ship through the long swells.

He nodded casually as the captain approached.

“Trim the main?” asked the captain.

“Aye, and the mizzen. She’s slacked way off.”

“Not for long. There’s weather.”

“How big?”

“Can’t tell. Not with this damn radio silence; this war goes on much longer, we’ll forget how to use the bloody radio. But big, I’d venture. The glass is takin’ quite a plunge.”

The mate looked at his watch. “How much farther we got to go?”

“Fifty, sixty mile. That’s to the Narrows. We get there, we’ll have a look. Maybe try for Hamilton, maybe put into St. George’s.”

“Nae worry,” said the mate, smiling and patting the wheel. “She can ride “er out.”

The captain spat on the deck. “This old wreck?

Only fitting thing about her’s her name. She’s big and clumsy as the other Goliath.” He looked at the sky. “Well, at least we’re ‘cross the bloody Stream.”

By one o’clock in the afternoon, thick, gray alto-stratus clouds covered the sky. The wind had risen to thirty knots, and it whipped whitecaps across the surface of the

ocean and churned up heavy seas that broke over Goliath’s

bow, sending shudders the length of the wooden hull. There had been two short blinding rain squalls, and another black mass of clouds was moving in from the southeast.

The captain, dressed now in oilskins, stood next to the mate as he strained to steer a steady course.

The bosun’s mate, a small wiry man-shirtless and sopping wet-hurried aft and stood before the captain.

“They secure?” said the captain.

“Aye,” said the bosun’s mate. “But knowin” what they’re worth, why they packed them things in cigar boxes I’ll never know. Muckin’ about with “em is like dancin” on eggs.”

“Any breakage?”

“Ain’t seen any. They’re bagged about with sacks of flour.”

The first fat drops of rain struck the captain in the face. “Keep her on one-two-oh,” he said to the mate. “I’m gonna shorten down some more. If I’m right, this bitch ain’t begun to blow.”

Suddenly the wind shifted again, backing around to the southeast. It blew harder, howling through the rigging, driving a stinging rain.

“Gimme oh-two-oh!” the captain yelled above the shriek of the gale.

“We could lay off!” the mate called back.


bow slammed into a wave. Somewhere forward, a piece of wood snapped free and flew aft, rattling between the stays.

The captain leaned closer to the mate and shouted, “Nobody lays off Bermuda in weather like this! There are places them reefs come out twelve miles!”


struggled northeast for another hour, yawing before the following wind. With each thudding sea, the hull groaned and creaked. At three o’clock the wind let up a little, and the rain, which had been slashing almost horizontally, fell more vertically. The dead-gray sky began to brighten.

The captain changed course again, heading southeast for half an hour to try to clear the southern coast to the Narrows-the only safe channel into the shelter of the Bermuda archipelago.

“We may beat this bugger yet,” he shouted to the mate, who smiled and licked salt spray off his lips.

An hour later, the storm exploded out of the northeast.

The wind roared down on the ship, ripping the tops off the waves and creating black mountains that towered over the masts. Only two sails were still flying. The forestaysail went first, tearing off its stays and leaving shreds that whistled in the blow.

A huge wave caught the bow and flung the ship skyward. At the crest of the wave, the captain spied a lighthouse-not lighted, for the wartime black-out was in effect, but conspicuous as a thin white stripe against the blackening sky.

He turned to yell something to the mate, as the ship slid off the crest into the trough between waves. A wall of water struck, surged across the deck, and battered the captain

to his knees. He thrashed frantically, groping for a handhold. His arms found the wheelbox, and he clung to it.

Hearing a scream, he looked up. The wheel was spinning free, and as he watched, the mate was hurled into the frothy blackness. The captain lurched to his feet and grabbed the wheel.

The ship rose high on another crest, and again he saw the lighthouse. The spanker was still flying; he could make way. If he could reach the lighthouse, he could get into the safety of St.

George’s harbor.

The spanker held. Careening into the seas, the ship began to move due north. At the crest of each wave, the captain shielded his eyes against needles of rain and spray. He fixed his bow a few points to starboard of the lighthouse.

Something moved in the darkness amidships.

At first, the captain thought it was flotsam washing aft. Then he saw it was a man, the bosun’s mate, crawling toward him, moving from handhold to handhold, winch to cleat to stay, to keep from being washed overboard.

When he was a few feet from the captain, the bosun’s mate yelled. All the captain heard was the word “David’s.” He nodded and pointed ahead.

The bosun’s mate grimaced and came closer.

“That ain’t Saint David’s light!” he screamed.

“It is that!” the captain called back.

“I tell you, that ain’t Saint David’s! That’s bloody Gibb’s Hill!”


“It’s Gibb’s Hill! Look dead ahead!”

The captain peered into the darkness. Beyond the bow, not fifty yards away, he saw what the bosun’s mate was pointing at: a jagged line of surf, marking the reef. Confused, blinded by rain, the captain had let his ship be blown twelve miles off course to the southwest.

He spun the wheel hard to port, and the ship began to bear off the wind. For a moment, the captain thought he had cleared the reef. And then he felt the first sickening crunch of timber cracking on coral. The ship jolted to a stop, then jerked forward. It stopped again, and again moved forward. The bow rose, then seemed suddenly to drop away. The deckhouse amidships heaved up; the stern rolled off to port. The captain stumbled, reached for the wheel, and missed. His arm slipped through the spinning spokes, his wrist jammed against the wheelbox. For a second, his elbow fought the wheel. Then the elbow broke, the arm was cast free, and the captain was pitched into the sea.

By morning, the storm had passed.

A British naval officer was walking his dog on the beach below the high cliffs from which the Orange Grove Club overlooked the ocean. Always after a storm the beach was littered with debris, but this morning’s accumulation was extraordinary. The dog sniffed curiously at pieces of wreck. It started to lift a leg on a piece of wood, then scented something unusual. The dog whined and grew excited, darting forward and back. It stopped at a large hatch cover and dug at the sand beneath it. The navy man followed the dog and, to humor it, lifted the hatch cover.

Underneath, half buried in the sand, was a man, clad only in torn remnants of a pair of shorts.

Water ran from his mouth, and from his ears when his head rolled to the side. The navy man bent down and touched him, and the man emitted a rasping, gurgling sound. Fie moaned, and his eyelids fluttered. The man’s name was Adam Coffin.


In sea water more than a few feet deep, blood is green. Water filters the light from above, seeming to consume the colors of the spectrum shade by shade. Red is the first to succumb, to disappear.

Green lasts longer. But then, below ioo feet, green, too, fades away, leaving blue. In the twilight depths-180, 200 feet, and

beyond-blood looks black.

David Sanders sat on the sandy bottom and watched green fluid ooze from the back of a wounded fish. It was a big porgy, with long fanglike teeth; it was at least two feet long, and mottled blue and gray. A crescent of flesh had been gouged from its back-by another fish, perhaps-and blood pulsed from the wound in stringy billows that quickly dissipated in the water. The fish swam erratically, apparently confused by pain or by the scent of its own blood.

Sanders pushed off the bottom and swam toward the porgy, expecting it to retreat. But the fish continued to dart back and forth.

He swam to within three feet of the struggling fish; when the fish did not retreat, Sanders decided to try to catch it. With his bare hand, he grabbed for it, just forward of the tail.

His touch triggered panic in the fish. It began to thrash in a flurry of convulsive writhing. Sanders held on.

The fish was a shuddering gray blur. Sanders closed his eyes and tightened his grip. And then suddenly he felt a stab of pain. Shocked, he opened his eyes and tried to release his grip, but now the fish had him: its front teeth sank into the palm of Sanders’ hand.

He yelled into his face mask and yanked his hand downward. The teeth came free, and the fish darted away. Green fluid billowed from two blue puncture marks in his palm.

He looked up, fighting the urge to shoot for the surface. On the surface, twenty-five or thirty feet away, the Boston Whaler bobbed at anchor. He took a deep breath, cursing himself.

Trying to remain calm, he thought: Don’t panic; don’t rush for the surface; don’t hold your breath; let it out nice and easy. He kicked upward, trailing blood, forcing himself to rise no faster than the bubbles vented from his air tank.

Gail Sanders, sitting in the Whaler, heard her husband before she saw him: his bubbles popped and burbled on the surface. When his head broke water, she grabbed the neck of his scuba tank and, after he had unfastened the belt and one shoulder strap, hauled the tank aboard the boat. “See anything?”

she asked.

Sanders pushed his face mask up onto his forehead.

“Nothing. Sand and coral. There’s no wreck down there.” He was holding the Whaler with his right hand, and Gail saw blood trickling down the gunwale.

“What happened?”

Sanders was embarrassed, and he said, “It’s nothing.” Kicking with his flippers, he heaved himself into the boat and looked toward shore, two or three hundred yards away. Atop the cliff beyond the beach, the pastel orange buildings of the Orange Grove Club shone brightly in the afternoon sun. He raised his arm and pointed straight ahead, then aimed with the other arm at a lighthouse in the distance. “The lifeguard said ten o’clock, right? Put the club at twelve o’clock and Gibb’s Hill light at ten o’clock, and we should be right on top of it.”

“Maybe it’s gone. After all, thirty years underwater …”

“Yeah, but he was pretty positive you can still see the keelson and some of her frames.”

Gail hesitated, then said, “The bell captain did say we could hire a guide.”

“The hell with that. I can find it if it’s here.”

“But …” Gail gestured at Sanders’ bleeding hand. “It might be smarter to have a guide.”

“I don’t need a guide,” Sanders said, ignoring the ges-ii

ture. “Water’s water. As long as you don’t panic, you’re all right.”

Gail looked off the stern. Forty yards away, a line of breakers indicated another reef.

Behind that reef was another, and behind that one, still another.

“If a ship was going to go on the rocks, wouldn’t it hit the first rocks it came to and sink right there?”

“Maybe not. If there was a hell of a wind behind it, it could be driven over one or two reefs, bounce from one to another.”

“So it could be on any of those reefs.”

“It could. But the lifeguard said it was behind the first line. Maybe we’re not far enough behind it.” Sanders uncleated the anchor line and let the boat drift backward toward the second line of reef. When the boat was within ten yards of it, he secured the line again and adjusted the straps on his scuba harness.

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