It was very quiet on board the Friendship since most passengers were likely still sleeping, or at the least still recovering privately from the previous night’s weather. Dashiell saw no one as he made his way quickly down the narrow carpeted corridor, away from his family’s cabin, toward the cafe. He knew this ship quite well now–he knew where all the stairways led and how to get from the library to the sauna, and where to find the pucks for shuffleboard, and if by chance he did forget a detail, he could easily consult the large framed map of the ship that stood in the lobby on an old wooden easel. He liked studying this colorful map, with its gleeful green “You are here” indicator–as if he’d forgotten he was standing in the lobby! Still, he liked having the information at hand, perfectly compact and summarized. Looking at it made what seemed previously unknowable knowable, and this allowed Dashiell to glimpse, for a moment, what it might be like to be an adult, or 9, or even 10 years old.
Now Dashiell had taken a tour of the ship’s bridge on the first day of their voyage. The bridge is where the ship’s officers navigate and sail the ship; it’s at the very front tip of the boat and it has great big pane windows, so the helmsman can see where to steer the ship, and there are large tables with maps strewn about them, and compasses, and blinking screens showing the positions of other ships and big rocks and other things you’d want to steer clear of.
Dashiell thought he might head there, to the bridge, since he imagined there would be an officer working there, who he could speak to about the distress signal. He was nearly at the bridge when a sign on a closed door to his right caught his eye.
Surely the Captain was the perfect person to help!
Without a second thought, he pummeled on the door, as loud as he could, and called out, “Captain, come quickly!”
The door opened in a flash, and there was the Captain, somewhat undressed, positioning smudged eyeglasses in front of sleepy eyes.
“Down here,” called Dashiell, who was quite tall for his age, but still, the Captain hadn’t seen him. The Captain looked at him and gasped in surprise.
“Young Dashiell, what’s happened?” the Captain asked, in his thick Norwegian accent.
“There’s a boy, on a ship! I saw him in the fog, from my cabin. He sent me a distress signal!”
The Captain quickly donned his shirt and pulled on his pants, at the same time he tried to get a look out the window behind him.
“It’s not on your side, sir, but the port side.”
(You see, the Captain’s quarters are always on the starboard side of the ship–that’s the right side when you’re facing the front of the ship. The port side is the left side).
The Captain hurried out of his cabin and in a few steps they were on the Bridge. The Captain held up binoculars to his face, looking port side. Dashiell stood on a chair next to him, and the officer on duty, alarmed to see the Captain on the bridge, came hurrying over.
“Where?” I can’t see anything through that fog. Officer, have you seen a distress signal, port side this morning?”
“No sir, indeed not.”
“There!” cried out Dashiell, pointing in the middle distance, a very faint golden flash, barely visible.
“My God, he’s right,” cried the Captain, tossing down his binoculars. “Call all hands on deck, anchor the ship, and lower a Zodiac immediately!”
“Yes sir, Captain, sir,” called the officer. Within seconds, a cadre of officers seemed to appear out of nowhere, and then there was a loud motorized noise as the Zodiac was lowered from a mechanical pulley from an upper deck, alongside the boat. This fast, powerful and lightweight boat was stocked with life vests and basic medical supplies, and drinking water. The moment it met the deck the Captain jumped in. Dashiell was on his heels and started hiking his leg over the side of the boat to come aboard. The Captain called out over the sound of the motor, “No, you can’t go out there! What would your parents say? Stay here with my 1st mate.”
“But sir!” shouted Dashiell over the noise, “I have to go with you. I can help! I’ve been to Mariner’s Camp, and I’ve got the proper clothes on. Plus, I graduated swim lessons as Top Dolphin!”
The Captain took a long look at Dashiell, and he remembered his own life at that age, when he went out on ships every day, often alone, to catch fish to bring back to his mother.
“Oh, alright very well then, but you must tell your parents you insisted. And promise to not get wet, or God help me, fall in! Hurry now.”
Dashiell vaulted his second leg over the side and was aboard just as the winch started to lower them rapidly toward the water. He quickly secured the life vest the Captain handed to him, pulling the straps tight around his skinny frame.
“Hold on!” called out the Captain, as the winch was released and the boat dropped the last few inches into the water with a thud, spraying a fine mist of icy water onto Dashiell’s cheeks. The Captain started the engine and they quickly made their way to the front of the Friendship, which had lowered its anchor and was now parked in place.
The waters were calm, and they made good progress toward the vessel. As they got closer, they could see the ship was in dire need of rescuing. The 1 remaining sail sagged lifelessly, its edges torn and ragged. A mast was bent at a useless angle, a snapped twig. Worse, the boat appeared to be taking on water.
Two long and bare arms became visible, waving furiously. “Help, I’m here, help!”
Dashiell could just make out the boy’s head, a mop of ginger curls, as they lined up alongside the boat.
The Captain quickly tied a line to the boy’s boat and jumped aboard the vessel, Dashiell scrambling up behind him. As they boarded the vessel an overwhelming stink of rotting fish flesh met their nostrils, and there was no one to be seen except the boy.
But Dashiell ignored the smell, more interested in getting a closer look at the boy, who wore dirty white shirt with a sash, and a kilt, which is a traditional Scottish garment worn around the hips, made out of wool, usually in a tartan pattern (in the old days each family had their own tartan design, and that helped identify which clan, or large family, you belonged to).
The boy spoke in with a strange accent that Dashiell had never heard before.
“You’ve come aboard my vessel uninvited, although I’m grateful, but, who are you?” he said, but it the last bit sounded more like, “whouu rrr ewe?”
The Captain said, “I know you must be frightened. Don’t worry, we’re friendly. I’m the Captain of that ship there,” he pointed in the distance to the anchored Friendship. And this is Dashiell.”
The two boys stood and looked at each other for some time, drinking in each other’s exotic costumes in wonder and puzzlement.
Then Dashiell said, “I’m 6. What’s your name? And are you…are you a pirate?”
The Captain, who was looking up at the mast, cut in. “She’s not going to last much longer. Are you the only one aboard, son?” The boy nodded, as the Captain made a quick sweep of the deck, and its tiny sleeping berth below deck, which was indeed uninhabited.
“We have to go, now!” cried the Captain, putting an arm around both boys and leading them to the makeshift ladder he had hastened from the tie line. What remained of the mast began to creak closer to the deck, threatening their heads. “Off you go, into our dinghy, and be quick about it.”
The Captain helped both boys into the Zodiac, and the Captain fitted the boy with a life vest, then quickly turned to the boat’s controls, putting the engine into full throttle. Startled, the boy jumped.
“What is that beastly noise?” he said, backing away to the very edge of the Zodiac. The Captain maneuvered the boat away from the damaged vessel, calling out over the engine, “Don’t mind that engine noise now. You’ve had a shock, that’s all. Have a seat, and we’ll soon have you warm and dry, and then see about getting you home.”
Dashiell sat next to the boy, who was shivering and looking very pale. “An engine? But where’s the steam, then?” he asked. Dashiell was perplexed about this question. “I think it uses gas. It’s not like a steam train if that’s what you mean.”
“Gas? Like for lighting in a house?”
Dashiell shrugged, unsure. They sat together in companionable silence.
“I’m Fergus,” the boy said. “Fergus MacDonnell.”
“McDonald’s, hmmm, like the restaurant?” said Dashiell. Fergus only stared longingly out at the sea beyond.
It didn’t take long before the Zodiac was again alongside the Friendship. The Captain slowed the Zodiac’s engine, then turned it off. The Captain pointed out to the boy’s ship, rousing Fergus from his reverie. The three of them watched the boy’s ship start to sink lower and lower, and then, like a flower closing its petals for the coming darkness, it collapsed into itself, and was buried.
The boy ran to the side of the ship as if he might jump out and swim back to his vessel. “My ship! My Bonnie!” called out the boy. “It’s all I had left, and it’s gone. Oh…how will I ever get there now? Unless, unless…you could take me, in your ship?”
“Where are you trying to get to?” asked the Captain
“Well to Skye, of course. I didn’t have far to go, you see. There was a storm, and I got off course, and I …” his voice drifted off.
“Skye? In Scotland? Well, you’re nowhere near that, you’re in Scandinavia. How long had you been on that boat of yours?”
Fergus looked out into the ocean, calm and still, in disbelief, and shock. “She was my life, My Bonnie was, for the last 3 months, 2 weeks and 10 days…” Fergus’ voice began to fail him, and Dashiell thought he might be crying, but then Fergus’ knees went wobbly and he began to fold in two like his boat had done.
The Captain hoisted Fergus over his shoulder, and, with Dashiell in the lead, they made their way back into the warm arms of the Friendship.