"Mayday, Mayday." The stranger who had set out so confidently, gripped the handset of the VHF radio in one hand while he struggled to hold the Bayliner steady into the waves with the other. The bow of the boat was lifted by one of the mountainous breakers, and he laid on the power, the engine revving to climb the steep wall of water. The rain was slashing against the glass, and the blackness was so complete it was like trying to see through a blindfold. The wind was howling down over the tops of the waves, and the waves themselves, rolling on without end, were like the heavy crash of thunder. He found that his imagination hadn't come close to preparing him for the sensation of plunging through a storm at sea. The sheer raging power of the elements was so fierce he found it hard to believe they were merely indifferent. The wind and water had a viciousness that seemed personal.
He had tuned the radio to channel 16, and he spoke again into the handset, "Mayday, Mayday. This is the Black Rose, requesting assistance from any possible source. Mayday. Mayday."
And then, miraculously, he heard a voice respond.
"This is the U.S. Coast Guard. What is your exact position and the nature of your distress? Over."
His fist loosened and he almost dropped the radio. He took a better grip, and keyed the handset to talk. "I am taking on water, and with both bilge pumps running, I'm still losing ground. My location is approximately thirty miles north of Sitka, about five miles offshore. That is not an exact position."
That was another unforeseen difficulty. He hadn't done much sailing on his own, and what he'd thought was a navigation system had turned out to be a depth radar, or "fishfinder." He was approximating the distance by calculating the speed and the time, but that didn't take into account the current.
"How many people on board, and do you have survival suits or a life raft? Over."
"One person. I'm alone. I have a survival suit, and…" he glanced over his shoulder to double check if there was an inflatable raft, and as people are apt to do, turned the wheel just slightly as he turned his head. When the next wave hit, the water caught the bow of the boat and tossed it sideways. The revving motor only made it worse, and suddenly the boat was broadside to the wave. He lost his grip on the wheel and went tumbling to the other side of the cabin, smashing into the ceiling as the wave rocked the Bayliner, nearly rolling it, but the boat bobbed up through the water, and the man was dumped on the floor of the cabin.
It was with a sense of relief that he picked himself up and reached again for the wheeluntil he realized that he had kept his grip on the handset of the radio, the severed cord now dangling uselessly.
As the duty crew hurried down the path to the locker room to change into their aircrew dry coveralls, or ADCs, Ellie dropped back behind the others. Then she called to Teddy. She had to call twice before he stopped and waited for her, shifting from one foot to the other impatiently.
When she caught up with him, she draped an arm around his shoulder, as much to slow him down as to give her an excuse to talk quietly in his ear.
"I want you to do me a favor. I want you to use that silver tongue of yours tonight for a good cause."
"You've finally realized that I'm the man for you," he said, snaking his arm around her waist. "I knew you were saving the best for last."
With her free hand, she peeled his arm away. "Not quite, Romeo. On the flight out I want you to chat up Mikey there."
"Sorry, he's not my type."
"I want you to distract him, dummy. Like, you know when the doctor gives you a shot?"
"I hate shots."
"Right, so the doctor starts asking you about what you did last night, or where you took your last vacation, to get your mind off the fact he's about to stick a huge needle in your arm."
"Or the fact that for the first time you're about to leap into the ocean to save some stranger in the middle of a bitch of a storm," Teddy added.
"I knew you were smarter than you look."
"Yes, ma'am. I can do that," he agreed. "But where did this soft side come from? What happened to the hardass I know and love? You sweet on this kid or something? Does he bring out the maternal side you've been repressing?"
"Shut up," she said, a little too sharply. She knew Teddy was just kidding, but she found it hard to take, even from him. Either she was accused of being a "hardass" or she was teased for acting "maternal" she was always either too much like a man, or too much of a woman.
"It's just that it's a tough night for his first time," she explained more mildly. "I thought he might need some help."
"Are we talking about the same kid? The one with the big mouth? The way he talks, he could rescue a whole cruise liner."
"Sure, he talks a big game," Ellie said. "But that's what makes me nervous."
"I don't want my pilot nervous. Don't you worry. I'll keep him entertained with the stories of your discarded boyfriends."
"You try that, and you'll be joining him in the water."
"Don't mean to hurry you," Dave called from the doorway of the hangar. "Anytime you're ready."
Ellie and Teddy both quickened their pace.
When they were finished changing into their ADCs, they hurried over to the operations center where they were briefed on the mission. The briefings at Air Station Sitka were often long, compared to other postings. At air stations in the Lower Fortyeight all the crew needed was a rundown on the nature of the distress, the coordinates, and whether or not the victim was in the water. At Sitka, since they were responsible for missions over land as well as emergencies over water, the flying was often more complicated. Combine the mountainous terrain with a hundredfoot ceiling and bad icing conditionsa familiar scenario in the area, especially in winterand they would have to circumnavigate, sometimes doubling the mileage. The ops center was where they would plan the route.
This time the flight planning was comparatively easy; it was a straight shot up the coast. However, the crew soon discovered that nothing else about it was easy. They didn't have exact coordinates, and the information was minimal. Radio contact had been broken off abruptly, but the command center at Juneau hadn't gotten any notice of EPIRBthe emergency signal that was triggered by a boat's sinking. They didn't know if they would be looking for a boat or a man in the water… or if there was even anything to find.
Twentythree minutes after the alarm sounded, Ellie eased the H60 off the tarmac. She pulled the collective up, which changed the pitch on the blades of the rotor and lifted the helo. While still on the ground, they had run through the preflight checklist, but now that she was in the air, Ellie tested the controls in a low hover. With her feet, she pressed first the left, then the right pedal, and the nose of the helo swung slightly in one direction, then the other. Then she put a feather light pressure on the cyclic, testing left, right, and forward. The helo moved left, right, then forward.
"Everything looks good," Ellie announced.
"So let's go," Dave said.
"Your wish, my command." She eased forward on the cyclic and lifted the collective, and the helo moved into the wind, the rain hammering on the windshield. In seconds they were over the water, the waves running hard toward shore.
Ellie couldn't hear Teddy or Mike over the internal communications system, and from that she knew Teddy must have switched to conference 2 on the ICS so that he and Mike could chat without disturbing Ellie and Dave as they flew. Teddy was probably talking Mike's ear off, Ellie thought. Mike wouldn't have a moment's peace to think about anything.
With that problem solved, Ellie turned her attention to flying. From the moment they lifted off, she felt like a fish thrown back into water. As she turned north and the crosswind made the helo yaw right, she adjusted with the left pedal. When she banked back into the wind, she had to ease up on the collective to lessen the pitch of the blades, but she did it automatically, almost as if she felt the stiff wind on her own arms. It was as natural to her as walking. That level of unconscious ability was called "feel," and even Dave would have admitted that Ellie had it.
At a cruising speed of 150 miles per hour, even with a headwind, it took less than twenty minutes to reach the approximate position of the boat. If they'd had a specific position, they would have instituted a Victor Sierra search, flying radials out from a specific point in a cloverleaf pattern. A VS search was designed for smaller search areas in which there was a high probability of finding the target, but since the position they had received was an approximation, they decided on a grid pattern search instead.
As they started flying the grid, Dave asked, "Everything ready back there in case we find him? You put the chem sticks on the basket so you'll be able to see it? It's black as pitch out there."
"I know it," Teddy acknowledged. "Summertime, six hours of dark out of twentyfour, and this is when we get called out."
"But we have the nightvision goggles," Mike said.
"Yes, but those only enhance ambient light," Dave explained. "If there's no light to enhance, then there's only so much they can do. There's nothing light in an Alaska night. Doesn't get much blacker than here."
"I knew that," Mike replied. He had known how the goggles worked; he had simply forgotten. Not having flown at night in Alaska, he'd had no reason to remember. "So how are we gonna find the guy?"
"He might still be with the boat," Ellie offered. "If he's not with the boat, we'll just have to hope he's got a survival suit with lots of reflective tape. Then we'll have a decent chance of spotting him. If I were floating around at sea, I'd want to be mummified in the stuff."
"Even so, we'll need some serious luck as well if we're going to find him," Teddy said.
They all quieted for a few minutes then and concentrated on the water below. They were just able to make out the whitecaps of the waves, peaking and curling before collapsing back into the sea.
"Those swells look like they're a decent size," Mike said after a while. "What would you say, thirty, forty feet?"
"About that," Teddy agreed.
As they looked down, each wave seemed to be climbing successively higher, as if rising up to claim them from where they hovered in the sky. At that second, they were all considering the possibility that Mike would have to go down into that heaving ocean. Ellie was thinking that it was a hell of a night to send down a rookie, Dave was wondering if they might lose Mike as well as the survivor, and Teddy was trying to think of something to say to distract Mike from the sight.
Mike stared out the window. Finally he sat back in his seat. "Damn," he said, "I wish one of you guys had told me to bring my surfboard."
There was a moment of surprised silence before they all laughed.
"I'm surrounded by comedians," Dave groaned.
"This is a kid after my own heart," Teddy said.
"I think he'll do just fine," Ellie added.
What they didn't know was that even as Mike joked, he was thinking to himself, "Please don't let us find him."