Red Sky at Morning

… continued from Reef Passage

Gentlemen never sail to weather, or so went an old saying, its origins lost to Anna now, but women never fear to do so, she added to it. At best, she was able to keep the wind just forward of the beam, but no better, and even so she could determine from the inertial compass that they made considerable leeway. Without the compass, however, there would have been no means by which to tell just how much their craft slipped sideways for every kilometer gained forward.

A sleek racing machine the converted life raft was not.

Yet it was functional, and reasonably comfortable. The leeward outrigger kept the modified vessel mostly upright, a more efficiently hydrodynamic angle for a raft hull never intended to sail on its side, yet nevertheless the windward pontoon was usually lifted out of the water. The sail bellied out a bit too much for upwind beating, was nearly impossible to keep flat, yet its upright angle caught plenty of breeze and drove the ungainly craft faster than Anna had expected.

The compass told her they were making a steady ten to twelve kilometers per hour to the south-southeast. Six knots; not bad for a backwoods engineered inflatable raft. The leeway was a bit more than Anna had hoped for, but it would have to do. She whiled away the hours at the helm thinking about the polars of her improvised boat, the performance characteristics determining optimum wind angles for efficient velocity, but without precision instruments and more data it was nothing but an exercise in distraction. Nevertheless, over time she developed a feel for how the boat performed and made her best guess at the right course to steer. Too tight on the wind, and the more direct course was more than offset by the reduction in speed. Fall off too much, and although they moved faster through the water, they traveled in too much the wrong direction. It was all about velocity made good toward their destination.

Without the compass it would truly be a guessing game.

Laxmi and Anna took turns on the tiller, and soon enough Laxmi too gained a knack for finding the optimal apparent wind angle to maintain the best boat speed. While one drove, the other crawled under the parachute tarp and slept, or prepared meals, or did their best to repair areas where chafing lines wore at the raft’s hypalon rubber hull.

On the second day, weary after a night of four hours on, four hours off and not truly sleeping, Anna did her best to rig a self-steering mechanism. She tied a line around the end of the boom and ran it through a carabiner hooked into a handhold on the windward pontoon, then from there to the tiller, where she adjusted the set with a clove hitch knot, able to be loosened under load. Then she used thin prusik ropes from the climbing gear, the stretchiest lines she had, and tied those from a leeward pontoon handhold back to the tiller to provide tension. It was far from perfect, and the boat wandered a little on her course, but in this manner, whenever the wind gusted stronger, the pressure on the sail would pull the tiller to windward, thus steering the boat to leeward and counteracting the natural tendency in gusts to round up windward. When the gusts died down, the leeward tensioner pulled the tiller back. After some adjustments to the prusik lines used for tension, Anna declared the setup satisfactory, and thereafter she and Laxmi were free to spend their watches tending to other tasks instead of being chained to the tiller.

After the third day, Anna no longer had trouble sleeping when off watch. No sooner did Laxmi take over the helm and she crawled below and lay down than she was out, and four hours later she awoke to the soft beeping of the alarm on her handheld tablet.

Routine ruled their days. The island peak was no longer behind them when they greeted the second dawn. Endless turquoise horizon encircled them, only the ever-present thin vertical gleam of the ring station and the constant trade wind to provide any hint that one direction was not the same as another. Each morning they looked out to clear skies, and each afternoon clouds moved in from the east. The clouds emptied their contents in a brief downpour, usually accompanied by an equally brief gusty squall of wind, and twenty minutes later the rain stopped, the skies cleared, and the wind settled back into its familiar northeast to southwest flow. Laxmi and Anna quickly learned to anticipate the squalls, loosening the mainsheet to slack the sail just before they arrived, and soon they became of no concern. Laxmi in particular appreciated the squalls, taking the opportunity to bathe herself clean and fill their drinking water at the same time.

Until the seventh dawn.

Anna awoke to the familiar beeping of her handheld unit’s alarm, yawned, stretched, then inadvertently rolled with a yelp across the raft’s floor to the leeward side. She peered out from under the tarp to see Laxmi’s hand white-knuckled on the tiller, the horizon beyond her tilted to more than the raft’s usual five-degree angle of heel. Anna scrambled to the high side and poked her head out to look around.

The sun had not yet risen, though it could not be far off. Heralding its arrival, eastward cloud banks in their serried rows gleamed, touched with fire on their undersides, darkly towering above. Burnt umber wisps obscured the line between sea and sky.

Closer to hand, twice the usual number of whitecaps foamed across wavetops toward the raft, reflecting the sky’s dark orange hue. The triangular sail beat a furious rhythm, flapping madly in the quickening breeze, though Laxmi had already loosened the sheet to take some pressure off the canvas. Anna turned back to Laxmi, who gripped the tiller even more tightly.

“When did this start?”

“No more than ten minutes ago. Anna, I’m not sure what to do.”

Anna looked to the eastern horizon once more. Red sky at morning. This was nothing. They could handle this. Without turning back, she spoke.

“We reef.”

“We… what?”

“Reef. Shorten sail. I’ll do it, but I need you to steer straight into the wind when I tell you to.” Anna slipped under the tarp, then climbed back out with a length of rope. Line, she reminded herself. It was rope for climbing, but line for sailing.


“It’s ok, we got this.”

“Anna, what if it’s another hurricane, like before?”

“We don’t have to worry about that.”

“How can you tell?”

“I can’t. But if it’s another storm like that, there won’t be anything we can do about it anyway. So, we’ll focus on what we can do something about.”

She crawled forward over the tarp toward the mast. The boat heaved across the top of a wave, and Anna’s stomach lurched as it slid down into the following trough. The wind was definitely building in strength, and quickly. The halyard, shrouds, and stay keened and moaned, an off-key chorus of zephyr-plucked strings. The next rolling wave caught the windward outrigger, lifted it, and pushed the small craft over to a steeper angle. Topping out on the wave, a stronger gust slammed the sail, lifting the inflatable raft entirely out of the water, so that they sailed on just a single outrigger to leeward. The heel angle increased sharply and Anna lost her grip, slipped across the slick, wet tarp, and over the raft’s pontoon.

This is it. We’re capsizing. Forgive me, Laxmi, for bringing you out here.

Laxmi screamed, then her scream was cut off by rushing water filling Anna’s ears. Something slammed into her hard, and she was pretty sure her bruised rib was now more than just bruised. Then she realized it had to be the outrigger, and she grabbed on with all the strength she could muster. I’m going to drown like this, but I’m not letting go.

The dark water roared, blinding her, deafening her, suffocating her, and threatening at any moment to tear her free. Sharp pain shot through her core, such that Anna wanted to scream, but she kept her mouth tightly shut. She may even have blacked out for a moment, she wasn’t sure, but when she came to she still held on to the outrigger. Her lungs screamed for air, and she knew this was it, she was just moments from drowning.

Her head broke free of the water, though it rushed past with more force than before. Anna drew a gasping breath and pulled herself higher onto the outrigger. The boat rolled back to almost level and surfed down the face of a following wave. Above her head the boom swung wide, tattered remnants of sailcloth streaming uselessly forward. Before her, the gaff hung from the masthead, broken free from its forward tie to the boom, and crashed repeatedly against the mast and forestay. The starboard shroud was missing, doubtless ripped away by the wild boom and gaff. At any moment, the mast would go too, Anna was certain.

She hauled herself further from the water, twisting around to look aft, and screamed when her ribcage reminded her of her injuries. Still, she had to look. She had to know. With dark foreboding, she twisted further until she could see the helm.

Until she could see the tiller, with no one beside it.


Laxmi lifted her head above the tarp’s level, her hand still gripping the tiller, and looked aft. Anna’s heart skipped a beat, and relief flooded through her. Laxmi turned to look forward, tears streaming down her face. Her eyes locked onto Anna, and though Anna could not hear her over the wind, she could read her own name on Laxmi’s lips.

Laxmi lashed the tiller in place, using what remained of Anna’s self-steering lines, and moved over to the side of the raft, closer to Anna. Anna crawled her way along the aft spar from the outrigger to the raft, grimacing and crying out as pain tore through her side. The rushing water threatened to tear her loose, but Anna kept her body wrapped around the spar until she had a firm grip of the raft’s outer handholds. Laxmi reached out and grasped her, heaved while Anna pushed off the spar, and with a wrenching cry Anna was over the pontoon and inside the boat.


“I’m ok. I mean, no, I’m not, I’m hurt, I’ve… I’ve broken a rib for sure, but… I’m ok.”

“What do we do? We’ve lost the sail, we… Anna, I was so frightened, I thought you were gone.”

Anna waited for her breathing to ease, each one a sharp knife in her side.

“We… wait it out. We keep steering downwind. We know… the storms here, they come on fast, and… they die away fast too. Help me, back to the tiller. We mustn’t get… broadside to the wind.”

Laxmi shook her head, pushed Anna back down when she tried to rise, and took hold of the tiller herself.

True to the weather patterns they were starting to learn, the squall did not last long. Though fierce, it blew itself out within an hour, and by midmorning the clouds moved away to the west. To the east, and overhead, the turquoise sky returned, along with the familiar northeasterly tradewind.

Not that it helped much. The tattered remains of the sail flapped ineffectively, and the raft continued downwind.

“We’re going to have to jury rig the tarp as a sail,” Anna said.

“I don’t think we need to bother.”

“No? And why’s that?”

Laxmi pointed to the northeast horizon. Anna heaved herself up to look.

At first, she saw only the hazy line between sea and sky, and the last rolling waves left over from the squall. Then one of those waves rolled under the boat and lifted them, and she saw what Laxmi pointed to. Low and small on the horizon, a tiny shape darker than the sky beyond. A tiny triangular shape, moving toward them.

A sail.

… continued with First Contact

header image credit: under CC0 Public Domain

© Matt Fraser and, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matt Fraser and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One thought on “Red Sky at Morning

  1. Pingback: Red Sky at Morning (WIP) – Matt Fraser

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