I don't know how long has passed, I've been fighting the urge to look at my watch. Who knows how long we'll be here? Three friends sit or lean inside our hull all looking as dejected as I feel . Ben Bones is trying his best to fall asleep, to succumb to the cold temptation of hypothermia. At least I can fix my mind onto him, ask him questions every few minutes. We can all help him, as well as ourselves. Little jobs like these will help to pass the time.
Whilst I had remained outside with Sacha and Slava previously; Ben Wookey, Luke and Pete got Ben Bones out of the water and wrapped up in any spare cloth, sleeping bag and layer they could find. They had rigged up the bunk to hang from the floor, so that Ben could lie on its underside (now the topside) and to be out of the water. An idea that was used by Tony Bullimore when he had spent five days in a capsized yacht deep into the Southern Ocean. He had been telling us of this story on my previous sail on 'Spirit' a year before.
I had warned skipper Ben that I would be asking him questions every few minutes or so. If he didn't have an answer for me then I'd have a slap just for him.
'Ben, when's your birthday?' No answer.
'Ben, where's your home port? No answer.
'Ben, what's your fiancee's name?' No answer.
So with childish annoyance I begin... 'Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben...'
'Fuck off! I'm tired!'
That's all I need, an answer, a confirmation that he's still here, yet in a bad way. 'I'm tired'! As if then I'd leave him to kip. Such a lack of reason from a distressingly rational man. We have to keep him awake. The last thing we need in here is a corpse. Especially not his. I could not bare to lose Ben for he's been a rock to me on land and at sea. I have learned from him, confided in him and grown to love this being. The most useful man to have with me, right now, is falling asleep.
More time passes, we've all been trapped inside our own heads for a little too long. Ben Wookey is biting at his finger nails and staring at the floor boards that we have placed over the companionway to minimise the effects of the pressure change and of the water being forced through. I'm sitting next to him, his feet holding one board down and mine the other. He had delegated this task to me and I was happy to oblige my lovely and alive friend! Pete has since moved from standing by that taunting, upside down toilet to be with Ben Bones and to keep a closer eye on him.
What do they put in this diesel and battery acid that is so itchy?! The rips in my survival suit have grown. Still, at least I have one. Ben Bones had been so busy finding his crew, getting to life-rafts, setting off EPIRBS and making the best of a bad situation that he had no survival suit. I'd watched that float away earlier asking myself who it was. It was Ben drifting away, although we didn't know it just then. I feel huge pangs of guilt and shame. I should have gotten me and Sacha into the suits whilst we were in the hull, as I should have activated our EPIRB. All I could think to do however was turn off the bloody gas!
He's shivering so much now. I don't know how long he has. What will I tell his fiancee if the worst was to happen? I don't have to think about such things just yet, not whilst we are all still breathing. Not whilst I'm not even sure I'll be alive to explain anything.
Luke decides to raid the poor excuse of a life-raft. Genius. The swell has been steadily picking up since we took to cover. We need to make a lanyard for luke to venture out onto the net. One that would be clipped to his survival suit, be long enough to reach the ten or so feet to the life-raft and for someone in the hull to keep a hold of. Alas we have no rope long or thick enough for the job. Pete was more than happy to sacrifice his rook sack. With his knife he takes off the straps and cuts the bag into strips. Strips that we could hitch together to be long enough and strong enough to suit the job. Another inspired idea from Pete that now allowed us to maintain an external watch. To look for ships, to breathe real air, gaze upon the now cloudy sky and to be alone.
Luke heads out lashed to me with his new lifeline. I'm a big believer that any one trusting their lives to the mercy of a knot should tie their own. This way the person tying the knot knows that it is done to a standard that will save their life should it be required. If I want him to come back in or communicate I would tug sharply twice on the line. The same applied at his end. It was hard to hear over the noise in the boat and from the beating our ears were taking from this constant changing in pressure.
Luke finds a bag attached to the raft. Every life raft has one, full of goodies for the worst case scenarios.
Through the hatch I collect a large rubber bag. Right then, Flares!
'Smoke flare, nope. Smoke, smoke, rocket!'
Each of the flares is wrapped in a watertight bubble wrap, I hand all of them to Ben to place them higher up and out of the water.
The bag passed through to me was still attached to the raft by means of a length of webbing. Long enough to get through the gap but just short to place any higher out of the water. I would have cut it but my knife I had left by the wheel at the end of my watch in case of emergencies.
Always, always, always carry a knife with you at sea. Never leave it anywhere but tethered to you or within reach of you. Keep it sharp too.
I hadn't told anyone else why I was going through the bag sitting down, Luke though eventually cut it from outside. Not before Pete's protests at having flares kept in the cabin.
Another blunder waiting to happen. And why wouldn't it? We're capsized 170 miles away from land, we've no radio, no life-raft. Why shouldn't the flares just go off!? The icing on the shitcake we've been eating for the last few hours.
I believe that this is where our democracy began, if anyone had a point to make, a suggestion or a grievance, we all listened. We said our pieces and calmly worked our way towards the best conclusion. Though upon recollection I don't recall any acrimonious bickering of any kind throughout the entire ordeal.
Agreed then! The flares stay. To be kept dry and to hand.
What else is in the bag? Survival food, God I hope we're not here for that long. I tried that stuff in training. It's awful! A solid grey mix of chemicals designed only to keep the body ticking over.
Ah, One wrap around survival bag for hypothermia sufferers.
'Give this to Ben.'
I really should have elaborated on what 'this' was. The item was passed to Ben, and he held on to it with all of his heart. He thought I'd given him a flare to hold, something to do to keep his brain active. This would have been a great idea. The whole time we were in our situation he didn't let go of the unopened survival blanket. The whole time we were there I thought he was in it.
Two tugs on the life line. I need to talk to Luke to ask what he's been trying to tell us above the din of confused water. With these sharp pulls I retrieve half of the rook sack lifeline inboard. The knot has slipped and there's no Luke where I was expecting one. I feel around on the netting outside , find the other half and re-tie it before Luke notices that it had ever parted.
Luke has said there's a ship nearby. His hand comes through the hatch, in it I place a rocket flare.
WHOOOSH! The flare rises, and with it our spirits. We can't see it as the only 'window' is the hatch at sea level. But what a noise!
One thing not often considered when firing a flare is the end of the flare that's not the rocket. The equal, opposite reaction to this ingenious pyrotechnic is smoke. A shit-load of acrid smoke, now finding its way through a small hatch and filling up the cabin. The smell is not too dissimilar from a firework. November 5th will never be the same again for me.
Roughly three minutes have passed so it's time for another flare. The first flare is to attract attention, the second third fourth and so on for confirmation. If you leave it much longer than three minutes then anyone that may have glimpsed the first unidentified flash may have lost interest.
Through the hatch I pass a second flare, only 2 more rocket flares left after this one so let's make it count. The ship close by is moving slowly and erratically, as if it's looking for something. Looking for us? This may well soon be over!
Luke pushes the pin to launch the flare.
'How was that one?' I ask.
Our hearts sink.
'It didn't work.'
The boat disappears into the black horizon. We'll save our flare for the next one that passes. So what now?
'Ben, what day is it?'