Fresh from quick showers, Ella and Griff packed her battered tote bag with anything they could find in the kitchen for their sail to Ocracoke. Ella hastily made two pimento cheese sandwiches for lunch on Susanna, though she wondered whether she could wait that long to eat.
Stuffing another bathing suit, a change of clothes, a sundress, a sweater, toiletries, her paint set, and a fresh pair of sneakers into a bag, Ella announced she was ready.
They raced to the creek where Susanna was anchored. Without much effort, Susanna was underway, and Griff enjoyed his pimento cheese sandwich while steering for Ocracoke in the mid-day heat.
“One day, I’m going to make a bimini for this cockpit,” he said, reaching into a lazarette for a floppy hat. “If you want a hat, I have a spare straw one in here.”
Ella hastened down the companionway and returned with her own canvas hat. “Thanks, but I’ve seen your straw hat. I prefer my own,” she giggled.
“Okay, okay. So it’s a little battered,” Griff admitted. “It works well, though. Shade is a necessity on a sailboat. Susanna definitely needs some. I have a bimini frame back in Florida, but I didn’t get a chance to put it on before I came up here to help Uncle Jim.”
“Tell me about your time in Florida,” Ella said between sandwich bites. “What’s it like?”
“Hot,” Griff answered, taking a sip of water. “And humid. And lots of bugs, unless you’re at sea.”
“Sounds just like North Carolina,” Ella laughed, “at least in the summer. We do have winters, though. It can snow here, and the wind…oh, the winter winds are fierce.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Griff said, looking momentarily confused. “I mean, I’ve been around the coast up here in the winter, and that wind can really chill you to the bone.”
“When were you here?” Ella asked.
“Well,” Griff thought for a moment, “I’ve been around, sailing and stuff.”
“Yes, and other boats.”
“Tell me about Susanna. How did you come to name her that? It’s such a lovely name.”
Griff looked up at the rigging, pausing before he spoke. “Susanna was my girlfriend,” he started slowly, watching for Ella’s reaction. “I met her when I was diving with Art. Rusty and Anita and I all met at about the same time, and Anita introduced me to her roommate, Susanna. She was kind, we got along, and after awhile, we started dating. This was several years ago, Ella. I thought…I thought she was the one for me.”
Ella looked at her sneakers and decided to untie their laces. Listening intently, she couldn’t look at Griff as he spoke about Susanna this way. She felt her face grow hot, and not just from the sun’s searing rays.
“Ella?” Griff reached over and lifted Ella’s chin to face him. “I need to tell you about this. I want to tell you about her. Please hear me out.”
“I’m listening.” It was all Ella could think of to say.
“We bought this boat together—boy, was she a wreck. I was restoring the boat in the evenings after we’d been diving for treasure all day. Art, Susanna, Rusty, Anita, me, and a few others—we each had a role to play. Rusty was the electrical technician, dive master, and all-around fix-it guy. Anita and Susanna tended air lines when we were over the side, and they cooked all our meals. I was in charge of underwater deconstruction and demolition when necessary, and Art was the financier and historian. We all had a stake in the dives. We all wanted to succeed. And we all got very close living on Art’s tugboat. A little too close, you might say. We were starting to get on each other’s nerves, and I was anxious to finish the sailboat so Susanna and I could move aboard for a little privacy. One night, while I was working on this boat, a bad storm came up. Everyone else was on Art’s tugboat getting bounced around pretty hard over the dive site. Rusty was putting out an extra anchor line, and Susanna was trying to help. Well, her foot got tangled in a rope that was attached to the anchor—we called it a snub line—and she was over the side in a second before Rusty could grab her. He fought to get the anchor back up to save Susanna, but it was too late. He’s never forgiven himself for that night.”
“Did you?” Ella spoke quietly.
“Yep. It took awhile, but I finally convinced him it wasn’t his fault. He felt horrible, you know. And Anita, well, that’s about the time she started drinking. Her hair turned silver practically overnight from the stress of losing her dear friend, too. She began hitting the bottle pretty hard. She and Rusty had it rough for a time there, but I think the move to New Bern was probably a good one for them, you know?”
“And you still named the boat after Susanna.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“I did. That was a few years ago, Ella. And yes, I still think about her from time to time, but less and less every year. And even less now that you’re in my life.” Griff reached out to pat her hand.
Ella smiled kindly. She knew that feeling. After dating Jarrett for two years, she still thought about him, too. Perhaps not in the same way Griff thought about Susanna, but still, a past relationship was a relationship, regardless of the outcome.
“You’re not upset, are you, Ella?”
“No, Griff,” Ella spoke after a few seconds. “I appreciate your honesty. I’m sorry for your loss, Griff; really, I am. I understand you’ve had a life before meeting me. It’ll be fun to learn about every part of it, too.” She smiled at the thought of spending enough time with him to get to know every nook and cranny of his life.
“Well, it is bittersweet, to be sure,” Griff said as he adjusted the sails. “If Susanna were alive, I wouldn’t have met you, though. And we all heal with time. Susanna would have wanted it that way.” He relaxed in the cockpit, satisfied with the filling sails and taunt lines. “Now that I shared with you, it’s your turn. Tell me about your boyfriend. I’m sure you’ve had one. Nobody as beautiful as you would go unnoticed for long, even in Lukens.”
Ella blushed. “There’s not really much to tell. My friend…the one who left Lukens about the time you and I met…that was Jarrett. We grew up together, and in our gang, it seemed natural for couples to form. Jarrett and I saw each other for about two years. I was thinking we wanted the same thing, but turns out I was wrong…about that, about him, you know, about a lot of things.” Ella offered Griff the pie.
“No thanks. I think I’d like to save that for tonight. Tell you what—if you’ll steer, I’ll get the line set out. We’ll see if we can catch us some dinner while we’re sailing.”
“Well, it’s more like trolling. See the rod holder on the stern?” Griff reached into the lazarette and pulled out a homemade fishing pole. He screwed several pieces together, threaded fishing line through small metal eyes. Next, he attached a lure and hook plus two weighted sinkers. “This fits in there nicely.” He reached over the aft rail and secured the rod into the holder, locking it in place. “I built this set up myself, and it works like a charm. For sailing like this, I use a smaller hook and lure. When I go off-shore, I use a much bigger hook. You should see what I’m able to catch!”
“Maybe one day, I will.”
Griff looked back at her and smiled. “That would mean you’d have to leave Lukens.”
“Seems like the thing to do, you know?” Ella smiled at him earnestly.
“Well, Oriental’s not that far away. And neither is Ocracoke. We’ll be there by sundown if this wind holds.” Griff took the helm while Ella covered her legs with a towel. She was already feeling the sun from her time in the cove with Jessica that morning.
* * *
By the time they reached the channel, which would take them directly into Ocracoke’s Silver Lake harbor, Griff had caught two nicely sized striped bass. He cleaned them and presented Ella with nice fillets. Then he washed off the mounted cutting board he referred to as his cleaning station with a bucket of water pulled up from the side of the boat as Ella watched channel markers go by. “From whence it came, so it returns,” he spoke softly. Replacing the bucket on the stern railing post, he caught Ella’s questioning look.
“Old habit,” he told her. “The sea gives me so much enjoyment and sustenance. In return, I try to be respectful and throw overboard only what comes from the water. It’s sort of like an offering for another day of smooth sailing, like we’ve had today. Once we get the hook down, I’ll get the grill out and we’ll have supper. I for one am ready for food!”
“You’ll have to show me how to start the stove in the galley so I can get the corn on the heat. What kind of fuel does it use?”
“Alcohol. It’s a little tricky at first, but you’ll get the hang of it once you know exactly how much fuel to put in the pan. By the end of the meal, you’ll be an old hand on how everything aboard Susanna works.”
Ella looked around doubtfully. “The sails I can understand. I even understand the outboard on the dinghy. But what I don’t understand is how you could possibly keep all your stuff on a boat and feel, you know, at home.”
“Pare down; that’s the key,” Griff called up from the galley where he had stored the fish fillets in the top-loading ice chest. “It’s really easy to get attached to stuff when you have it around a long time, so I only keep aboard what I feel is absolutely necessary. When I bring something new on, something old has to go off. Pretty simple, really.”
“But the treasures in your hold there are old,” Ella mused.
“What’s necessary to some is just old junk to others,” Griff explained with a smile as he climbed up the companionway steps. “Some of my finds are going back to Florida. Other pieces will go to a regional or state museum when I can find time to contact them. My biggest fear is getting tangled up in the kind of paperwork my friend Art’s had to deal with in Florida. Just can’t afford that kind of time, you know?”
Back in the cockpit, Griff fired up Susanna’s engine. “We’ll want a little extra help as we enter the harbor. It’s generally protected, but if another boat decides to come out at the same time we’re heading in, we’ll want to be able to get out of the way if we need to. Think you can handle her while I get the sails down?”
“I can handle the boat, but it’s getting dark.”
“Just keep that red light at the harbor entrance to your right and we’ll be fine,” Griff said as he moved forward to take down the sails, clearly at ease as he leapt out of the cockpit’s comfortable safety.
“Red right returning,” Ella said out loud. Then she focused on the harbor’s entrance lights in the fading sunlight, standing on her toes and bobbing back and forth to see around the growing drift of jib sailcloth Griff pulled down to the deck. Steering Susanna under power was simple, she thought to herself. Her relaxed attitude quickly faded when she saw a low pair of port and starboard lights heading directly for Susanna and at the same instant felt a whoosh of wind come across the beam, filling the still raised mainsheet. Panic overtook her.
“Griff! Up ahead. We have company!”
“You’re doing fine, Ella,” Griff called back to her. He stopped hauling down the jib and darted to the cockpit. “All we have to do is spill the wind to stop its pull. Then keep to the right of the entrance. See there? Nothing to it.”
“But it all happens so fast.”
Griff laughed. “Nothing happens fast in a sailboat, Ella. Sailing isn’t about speed. It’s all about the journey.”
Ella reflected on Jessica’s similar comments from that morning. “And we’re to enjoy the journey, right?”
“Every second,” Griff said. He stood by while the small skiff passed Susanna, but he never touched the helm. “See? There was nothing to worry about. You handled this boat perfectly.” He dropped the mainsail into a crude but effective nest of ropes laced around the bottom of the boom designed to catch the sail as it came down. Flaking the main the length of the boom, Griff next moved forward to secure the mainsail lines at the mast. “Might want to throttle back a bit. Keep the power up just enough to get us inside.” Griff stationed himself on the bow and prepared to drop the anchor. “When I drop anchor, we can cut off the engine. I’ll tell you what to do. No worries, Ella.”
Ella did as instructed, nervous to be at the helm for anchoring with Griff exposed on the bow in the increasing dark. When they had sailed before, he had always taken charge of the helm, the anchoring, and the sails. It was, she had to admit, scary but exhilarating to be in control of Susanna. Entering the salad-bowl shaped Silver Lake, Ella was astounded to see a variety of Navy vessels crowding the harbor. Perfect for darting out the narrow cut of the channel yet sturdy enough to take the swelling waves of the Atlantic beyond, small fast recon boats tugged at their dock lines on piers jutting out into the harbor from nearly every side. One-story buildings still under construction and organized in military fashion made it clear that this was indeed a naval installation—even if it wasn’t completely operational, yet.
Griff motioned with hand signals from the bow to idle the engine when Susanna was where he wanted her in the harbor. When he dropped the anchor, he sauntered back to the cockpit and gently nudged Ella out of the captain’s seat. “I’m going to put her in reverse to set the hook. Then we can shut off the engine for the evening and have supper.”
“Good timing.” Ella stretched her arms overhead, noting the darkening skies. “I’m starving. It must be close to nine o’clock already.” She looked again at the fleet around her.
“What’s time to a sailor?” Griff chuckled as he shut off the engine, content with the anchor’s hold. “Now, what do you say we get that supper ready?” Before Ella could answer, Griff was down the companionway steps and taking command of his galley. Hunting around for an onion, he stopped when he saw the worried look on Ella’s face. She was sitting on the top companionway step, still looking out over the cockpit coaming.
“Tell me about the ships here in the harbor with us,” she requested. “I didn’t know there was such a big military installation on Ocracoke.”
“Not many people do,” Griff replied, carefully choosing his words. “The Coasties have had a presence here since forever. The Navy is just getting a foothold, since this is a great place to launch hunts for U-boats—the subs’ torpedoes have destroyed so many American ships, many of which were bound for Europe to help allied forces. Every time a ship goes down, the men aboard do, too,” Griff explained. “The Navy needs to be here. The base isn’t promoted because it would be a prime target if the enemy ever found out, but the boats offer a level of protection that should make everyone on the coast sleep easier.” He smiled broadly at her. “I know I’ll sleep well tonight with them standing watch over Susanna. There’s not a chance any Nazi would dare come into this harbor with all these boats around. Now, if you would be so kind, there’s a pot under that seat cushion. Hop down and help me get supper on. You can be in charge of the galley while I set up the grill for fish topside. I like to do that up on the aft deck.”
Ella brightened and climbed down the companionway steps to the galley. “How are you going to fix the fish?” She found the pot and scooted by Griff as he bounded up the companionway steps to the cockpit. Using a hand pump beside the sink, she filled the pot with water and waited for Griff to answer. She could hear him rummaging around in the lazarette for the grill and charcoal.
“Once the coals are hot enough, I’ll put the onions down first, then put the fish on top of the onions with a bit of salt and pepper. The longest part will be getting the coals ready,” he called back.
Turning her attention to the stove, Ella looked doubtfully at the shallow pans under the heating elements. “I’m going to need some instruction on how to light this thing,” Ella said. “I know you said it was easy, but I’ve heard alcohol stoves can be tricky at best, and dangerous at their worst. I’d hate to blow us up all for the sake of a few pieces of corn. Maybe we could just have something else,” she teased. Ella stripped the corn husks, confident at least in her ability to do that simple task. Looking around the galley, she found a pair of long tongs for the corn and laid them on the small counter. A cast-iron skillet was at the ready for the simple Johnny cake recipe she had in mind. Measuring out the ingredients she had brought from home, Ella mixed them efficiently in a small bowl she found in the rear of a narrow cupboard. Everything she needed was here on Susanna. Well stocked. Organized. Efficient. Ella liked that.
Feeling chilled from the day’s searing sun, she gently moved forward to the vee-berth and changed into a pair of long shorts and a white blouse over her bathing suit top. She debated about adding a sweater, but decided she could wait. She stepped into the head and a second later was feeling relief from a cooling washcloth across her face. Ella heard Griff moving noisily about topside. She opened the overhead hatch. “Do you need a hand, Griff?”
He didn’t answer.
“Do you need a hand?” she repeated as she stepped up the companionway steps. The unlit grill was there on the aft deck. Griff wasn’t in sight. “Griff?” Ella launched herself into the cockpit, her eyes adjusting to the dark pierced by small glowing lights of boats around her. Racing forward to the bow, she saw no one. She did, however, hear a methodical swish of water—a rowboat was moving past Susanna’s hull swiftly, and she heard a muffled cry quickly stifled. The uttered word she heard sounded like her name. Leaning over the safety lines, Ella peered into the dark. Panic swelled in her throat.
The dink. She’d take the dinghy to the Coast Guard station, and they’d help her find Griff. Moving back to the cockpit at top speed, Ella reached for the painter’s knot. Before she could untie it, she felt a searing streak of pain on the left side of her head. Falling backward toward the cockpit floor, her last blurry vision was of a figure in a dark ribbed sweater.