At The End Of The World – Snippet 28

So we didn’t go to back Husvik and spent two weeks feeling pretty lousy about it. That was also when we steered away from the uppermost margins of the Antarctic circumpolar current (the same one that helped push us from Tierra del Fuego to South Georgia) and nosed northward into the Benguela current. We paralleled the western coast of southern Africa for ten days, then sheared off, heading northwest for St. Helena.

After making that turn, the winds were brisk but changeable, so we spent an extra day or two tacking to hold course. Thank god GPS is still working, because with all that back and forth, there were about a dozen times I wasn’t entirely sure if we were on the right heading. Twice we weren’t. Not huge errors, but this is the South Atlantic. No landmarks because, well, no land. If your numbers aren’t “spot on” (as the Captain put it), then you are shit out of luck.

But GPS gave us those one- or two-degree corrections when we needed them and thirty-one days after leaving South Georgia, we saw a rocky hump profiled low on the horizon, the setting sun dropping behind it. So we all celebrated a bit, then a bit more, and for the first time in weeks, I was able to relax and get a good night’s sleep.

But as we made our final approach the next day, we found ourselves facing new uncertainties, because we knew damn little about St. Helena.

For instance, it was entirely possible that whatever was left of its small population might be staggering around like extras from a zombie flick. If that was the case, what would we do? Kill them all? Yeah, we had brought most of the guns and ammo, but would that be enough? And would anything useful be left, or would the early survivors have gone through all the supplies before finally turning and tearing each other to pieces? As we sailed for that looming sea-surrounded mesa, we couldn’t ignore the possibility that, after coming all this way, St. Helena might be not only our first, but our last, port of call.

But soon after we swung around the northeast shoulder of the island, we saw white-hulled boats out in the water. They were spread in a thin fan around the small bay that fronted the port capitol of Jamestown. Several were under sail. Four miles further out, a big ship was riding at anchor. A quick look through binoculars showed it to be the Royal Mail Ship that cycled between the island and Cape Town.

But before we got within two miles of the port, two of the sailboats heeled over and started waving us off. So we stopped near what our map told us was Sugar Loaf Point and started with the signal flags.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as grateful for my memory as I was when I saw their first flag: catty-corner yellow and black squares. That was Lima. Meaning: stop immediately. Pretty much the greeting you’d expect in a world blanketed by a plague.

I told Jeeza to come around slowly and angle away from the coast as I rummaged for a half-blue, half-red flag: Echo, or “altering course to starboard.” I held it aloft, followed it with another that was half a vertical yellow bar, half a vertical blue bar: Kilo, or “I wish to communicate.”

Don’t know what they were expecting, but it sure wasn’t that.  They reset their yards, slowing their approach. But no flags.

“What are they doing?” I shouted at Steve, who was up near the bow with a pair of binoculars.

“Talking with each other.”

“Anything else?”

“Just talking. A lot.”

Made sense. From the look of it, they might never have had any visitors at all.  So while they figured how to respond to our request, I flipped through the rest of the flags in the box and had the nagging sensation that the Captain was right behind me, his lips seamed by the grimace he called a smile. (And when the hell did I start capitalizing “Captain” like that?)

He had known I wasn’t into learning the flags and spent only one morning going over them. But he drilled me on each flag several times, enough to fix it forever in my head, whether I liked it or not. And now that skill was saving my ass. So I guess his ghost had reason to gloat.

Eventually, the folks on one of the boats started responding, but it was semaphore this time. And that took a lot longer. After about fifteen minutes and about twice as many mistakes, I got the basic message across: we’d never been exposed to the virus, we’d been at sea for four weeks, and we meant to trade and sail on. Another minute or two and then more semaphore from them: we were to backtrack to St. Helena’s east coast and head to a small ramp of rock sticking out of the water just off its southernmost point: George Island. They’d meet us ashore. “At distance,” they added.

We turned around and headed back south. It was a short coastal sail, about eight nautical miles. But having become accustomed to being on the open water, we weren’t eager to get too close to the brown and tan cliffs of St. Helena. But the depth charts and sonar reassured us that, as with most sea mounts, this one fell away into the depths really quickly.

Navigating near the rendezvous point was a different story. There was no telling where submerged crags were waiting to rip out the bottom of Voyager. So we decided to stand off, reef sails, and use our trawling motor to push over to George Island.

I had to stop after I wrote the words “George Island.” Otherwise, I might have laughed and awakened Chloe. Everything about that little scrap of rock was a joke. Beside the Brits’ apparent reflex to work the word “George” into most of their islands’ names, it hardly deserved the label “island.” It was just a bigger-than-average rock-spur shaped like a launch ramp, barely two hundred yards long and seventy wide. Except for birds, there was nothing living on it. Probably because it was damn hard to get a boat close enough to land safely. One moment you were in a rising swell and had a full fathom of water under you; the next, you were bottoming out only a hand’s width from submerged volcanic teeth.

The two boats from Jamestown arrived half an hour after Rod, Jeeza, and I climbed out of Voyager’s dinghy. And because they knew right where to approach and how to time the risers, they got ashore in less than two minutes. But the moment we started approaching, they made shooing gestures and used a megaphone to get us to stop. Unfortunately, we’d lost our megaphone back when we were making the southern passage, so “communicating” on George Island meant shouting through cupped hands until we got hoarse.

At first, the Saints — that’s what the locals call themselves — didn’t believe that we had no desire to stay on St. Helena or that we had completely avoided contact with the virus. They kept returning to questions about where we’d been since the plague hit, and where we’d just come from, and how long it been since we left there. In their place, I’m not sure I’d have done any different. Eventually, though, they accepted that we really didn’t want to live on St. Helena, but, instead, meant to sail all the way to the Caribbean.

So, why had we come to St. Helena? And we repeated, “to trade.” I wanted to add “like we told you earlier.” But I didn’t. We needed supplies a lot more than I needed to get in my weekly ration of snark.

That sent them into another long confab, which ended with them apologizing for taking so long (so veddy, veddy English). Not counting the Royal Mail ship, we were the first boat to reach them. Which isn’t particularly surprising. Saint Helena is only useful as a waypoint across the emptiness of the South Atlantic. They had decided to turn away all refugees but had never considered traders.

Which actually sped things up. Since they didn’t have any scripted bargaining strategy, they just asked, “What do you have, and what do you want?”

Now it was our turn to realize how little we’d prepared for this. No matter how fair your trading partner is, you never let them know that you need something in order to survive. Because no matter how ethical they are, you just told them how to squeeze you dry. So we replied that we wanted to pick up some additional food. We didn’t let on how desperate we were for it, particularly carbohydrates and anything green.