There was a great “thumph!,” then Dashiell found himself lying on something cold.
He looked around, then realized he was splayed on the smooth floor of the cabin. Had the storm tossed him out of his bunk bed?
He picked himself off the floor and gingerly stepped around his sleeping parents, then slipped out onto the balcony, clutching his flannel pajamas around his neck.
Dashiell expected to see great waves and splashing surf, but the sea was glassy and still now. A fog clung to the ship, a thick fog that made it hard to see, like he sometimes experienced at home, in the Pacific Northwest, when making the long car journey to school on cold fall mornings. Dashiell could only just make out the faint line of the horizon, and what looked like a mountain far in the distance.
It was just approaching dawn on the MS Friendship, a ferry ship making its way north, way north, all the way up to the Arctic Circle; to the North Pole.
The Friendship had once been a simple working ship, you see, with cabins meant for crew members. Not a large, fancy ocean-going cruise liner, not a pleasure liner, but a ferry with a job to do. It had a deck for cars and trucks (in fact this ship could fit 35 cars! He knew, since he had counted the spaces, and watched as the ship’s crewmen squeezed each car into place). This was a ship that cruised up and down the rocky coast, stopping in each tiny fishing village, quaint seafronts dotted with old wooden buildings painted like popsicles: lime, cherry, orange. A ship whose main job it was to bring supplies to the shops: milk, bananas, wool for sweaters, toy cars for children. The ferry brought people too, to see their Grandmas, or to do their shopping, or to chat with each other in the tea shop, with its steamed up windows, and hissing kettles.
But this was in the olden days, the adults said — when the roads were not smooth and fast, and ages before the Internet, and Amazon, and free shipping. The world had changed; this ship had changed too, so it now it took tourists to places that, for them, were exotically remote northern lands, full of moose and elk, emerald forested fjords with eagles stopping to perch right in front of you, and if they were lucky, a Northern Lights sighting, which is a show the night sky put on, but only when you are very close to the North Pole, like fireworks but without the noise, in streaks of green and pink.
To Dashiell, aged 6, and his parents, there was however much pleasure to be had on this magical not-just-for-working ship. The boat had been outfitted with a heated pool, a Finnish sauna, a library with a rock-faced fireplace (and many picture books to read), 2 fine restaurants, a gift shop and a cafe that served very hot drinking chocolate, presented with a swirl of whipped cream in the shape of a heart.
The old wooden decks of this hardworking ship were made for a child like him to run on, long, straight and gleaming. Dashiell looked forward each morning to his high-speed circumnavigation of the ship, taking care to stay out of the way of other passengers. Lap after lap, clockwise and then again counterclockwise, counting the seconds in his head, and then writing his best times in his Best Evers Log. This was how he’d spent the past 3 mornings aboard the Friendship until the crew had gated them off yesterday, in preparation for a squall.
And the storm it had indeed arrived yesterday evening, its force perhaps not quite fully anticipated by the intrepid and experienced crew of the Friendship. The wind hollered across the decks with a shrill voice, rattling the flags on the flagpoles, all the battlements clanged and wailed and the cupboards slammed. The ship, designed mostly for protected coastal waters which tend to be calm, began to dance awkwardly in the waves, with what seemed like rather long moments of being tossed up in the air before coming back down again. Unfortunately, this occurred just as many passengers were starting their soup course in the dining room, and several of them could be seen blotting up patches of cream of broccoli on previously-white dress shirts.
Dashiell enjoyed this immensely. He whooped and giggled as water in the crystal goblets sloshed over their glimmering brims, dampening tablecloths. Plates collided and shattered, waiters ran to fetch dust pans, and the dining room string quartet struggled to keep their sheet music upright. The lantern-like lights at each table swung back and forth, back and forth, their crystal housings knocking against metal frames, casting ghostly shadows. The adults were all holding their hands over their champagne flutes and bracing themselves. What a funny sight it was! Dashiell assumed the surfing position, rolled back and forth on his ankles, and called out “Suuuuurrrrrf’s uppppp, woooo-hooo!”
But now, looking out over the balcony’s brass railing, the storm seemed to have not happened at all. Had he dreamt it? The water below was dark and still, like a chalkboard; Dashiell could see his blond curls reflected on its face. The ship moved glacially, as if it was a blind person, feeling its way to its next destination through the fog. Dashiell looked to the front of the ship, toward the bow (that’s what the front of a sailing vessel is called), and thought it odd that the ship had only 1 headlight, not 2 like an automobile did. This headlight was acting kind of strange–it was blinking on and off and looked kind of pale yellow, not bright white. Maybe it was starting to wear out, as sometimes his own lights at home did when their bulbs were beginning to wear out, tired from the long, dark Northern winter.
He needed to get a closer look at that headlight, and he needed to be properly dressed to investigate.
Quickly, and using the stealth skills he had practiced at a wilderness camp, he slipped back into the cabin and changed into his Mariner uniform: navy blue pea coat, a navy and white wool knitted neck scarf, and a wool fisherman’s cap, embroidered with a large white anchor on the front. Finally, he donned his waterproof gloves (navy blue with white anchors). He patted his pocket to check: yes, it was still there. He pulled out his new spyglass.
The spyglass had been a present from the Captain of the ship. The Captain said this very spyglass had been his when he was a boy, and, seeing as it was much too small for him now, would Dashiell like to have it? Indeed he would very much like to have it! Although its brass finish had been worn away in spots, the Captain had shown him that it had a powerful lens, that would allow him to see great distances, but, he warned, if this important tool sat unused for a long time, it would no longer work. Good thing Dashiell had a practical use for it already!
Back on the balcony, he got in a lookout position, stepping up onto the railings and leaning out just enough so that he could get a good look at that faulty headlight. He extended the tube of the spyglass to its longest position and put one large blue eye to the eyepiece.
With the aid of the powerful magnifying telescope, he could now easily make out the bow of the ship, between patches of fog. It didn’t have any white pale yellow lights like what he had seen a moment ago, just tiny red lights–and they weren’t blinking.
He focussed out beyond the ship, out into the open water, and searched for the blinking light again. It seemed to be gone, and the fog kept blocking his view. He looked some more, first right, then left, then waited. He steadied his scope by leaning against the wall of the balcony.
And then, there it was! A glimmering pale gold light, some distance away, shining on and off, then nothing, then on and off again.
It was not a headlight–it was…could it really be?–
A distress signal!
He watched again and saw a pattern: blink, blink, blink, then, nothing for some seconds. Blink, blink, blink, nothing. 3 signals!
Dashiell had learned about the Mariner’s Code at camp, and so he knew beyond any doubt that he was witnessing a call for help.
He focussed his spyglass away from the light and tried to make out the area around it. A patch of fog cleared briefly and allowed him a quick glimpse of a small sailing ship, battered and damaged, with one sail intact, and, what was this? The face of a boy?
Dashiell knew there was only one thing to do.
He quickly closed the balcony door and, again taking care to not wake his parents (as it was not yet six am, and that was the rule after all), crept past them, and let himself out of the cabin, using his woolen hat to ease the heavy metal door, which closed in utter silence.