Sea story

Author's note: this story is a sequel to Boomercat's 'All fall down/Heading home', which in turn are sequels to the tv series ep 'Terror in New York City'. This means that as well as acknowledging Granada as the current copyright holders and thanking Gerry Anderson and his team for creating them, I must once again thank Boomercat for letting me follow on from her excellent ideas. Thanks too to Purupuss for her proofreading skills.

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Gordon walked along the shore, his hands stuffed in his pockets and his head bent against the rain. So far this week seemed to be working out on par with everything else that had been happening recently. He was starting to wonder what he had done to annoy the Fates so much.

Things had come to a head a week ago, when he had stormed out of Thunderbird 2's hangar. He had gone down to the beach and was venting his anger by throwing pebbles into the water.

"What are you trying to do, stun a passing whale?'

Alan's voice from behind made him jump. He turned as his younger brother approached, and gave a wan smile. "Sorry, Al, I just had to get out of there. If Virgil had told me once more that I was doing those bolts up too tight, I would have taken the torque wrench and wrapped it round his neck!"

Alan nodded. "Yeah, I suppose if there's one thing worse than a back seat driver, it's a back seat mechanic. But it must be so frustrating for Virgil. Dad won't let him do any of the maintenance until he's fully recovered, and you know how protective he is of his Thunderbird." Alan looked closely at his brother. "There's something else bugging you, isn't there? You've been on edge ever since you got back from New York. What's wrong, Gordy?"

Gordon sat down heavily on a rock. "Nothing." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Everything."

"Right, I'm glad we've cleared that up"

Gordon picked up a handful of pebbles and let them trickle through his fingers as he talked. "It's just that nothing seems to be going right lately. I rescue Ned and Joe from under the Empire State building, and all I get is a chewing out from Scott, and then from Dad, when they see the bruises I got. But I had to go out and clear those air vents. Joe wouldn't have made it if I hadn't got him back to the hospital when I did. Then on my trip home I see those oarfish, and Dad won't let me report it." He looked up at Alan, his eyes alight. "You should have seen them, Al, they were so beautiful I wanted to share them with the world."

"I know, I saw the film you took. But you can understand that Dad feels it would be too high a risk to our security. The list of subs that can reach that depth must be pretty short, and International Rescue is probably on it."

"Yeah, I suppose." Gordon turned to face his brother. "You know, Alan, sometimes I wonder why we bother with this rescue business at all."

"What!" exclaimed Alan, "whatever makes you say that?"

"I'm starting to wonder if people appreciate what we do, what risks we take. Look at Virgil – he could have been killed by that trigger-happy captain on the Sentinel. It was all I could do when I was on board to stop myself punching the guy on the nose. I had been so scared when Virgil was coming in to land that day, scared that he wouldn't make it, scared that we wouldn't be able to put the fire out, scared of what we'd find when we got into the cockpit."

Alan reached out and put a hand on his brother's arm. "He did make it, Gordy. We were there to save him, and now he's up in the hangar driving you nuts. Look, Brains reckons he'll be fit enough to return to duty by the end of the week. Why don't you have a word with Dad about taking a few days away from the island? Go see some of your old WASP pals?"

Jeff had been only too pleased to grant Gordon's request for some leave. He still felt guilty over the sea serpent episode, and wanted to do something to make it up to his son.

After several phone calls, Gordon had arranged to meet up with Malcolm Watts, a former colleague from England who had settled in Liverpool after leaving WASP. Malcolm had suggested that they hire a yacht from the marina at Liverpool and spend a week travelling up the English coast and across to Ireland. He had told Gordon that the Irish Sea could be an interesting challenge, and some of the coastal scenery was beautiful. He had also suggested a friend of his, Bill Yates, who would like to come as a third member of the crew.

So two days ago Gordon had flown to Liverpool where they picked up the boat.

The first day out had been fun, with some fine weather. The three of them were getting on well and Gordon was just beginning to feel the knot of tension inside him start to unwind. Then this morning, Bill had awoken in the early hours with abdominal pains. Both Malcolm and Gordon had some basic medical training and suspected their crewmate might have appendicitis. They decided to head for the nearest town, a small place on the English coast called Lytham. By the time they neared land, Bill was in so much pain that they had radioed ahead and had an ambulance waiting for them when they docked. Malcolm had gone in the ambulance with his friend, promising to call Gordon as soon as there was any news.

Gordon had spent some time straightening things up on board after his friends' hasty departure. However he had reached the stage where he felt he would scream if he stayed cooped up on the ship any longer so decided to go for a walk.

The young man trudged along the seafront, reflecting bitterly that changing locations did not seem to have changed his luck. The sky was grey and leaden, with rain descending in a fine drizzle which matched his mood. There was not much to the town – the sea front seemed to be lined with shops, small hotels and bars, no, he corrected himself, pubs.

He had walked about a mile when a sudden flash and a bang behind him made him whip round. Explosion? Fireworks? A vapour trial in the sky over the sea front seemed to indicate that some sort of rocket had been fired.

"That's the maroon going off. The lifeboat's been called out. If you come up here, you'll be able to see them." Gordon turned to see a man standing on the ridge of sand dunes that now separated him from the shore. He climbed to the top and turned, wincing as the wind threw a blast of fine droplets in his face, causing water to trickle down inside his jacket.

The stranger laughed at his expression. "Ah, lad, you need to get yourself a set of these," he said, patting his voluminous greatcoat. "Oilskins. Best thing ever invented for the weather round here. Far better than any modern material. We always say we get a wetter kind of rain coming in off the Irish Sea than you do anywhere else in the world."

Gordon looked at the man standing next to him. It was hard to judge his age, as his face was so lined and weather-beaten, but he would guess the man to be close to his father's age. He had a hooked nose and craggy eyebrows, under which a piercing gaze was fixed on the activity back down the shore from where Gordon had come.

"Look," he said, "they're coming now."

As Gordon turned he could see several cars converging on a small building on the edge of the beach. There were also two more people running along the road and one man pedalling madly on a bicycle.

"They're the crew of the local lifeboat. When the maroon – that rocket – goes off, they all have to get to the boat as quick as they can."

"Do they all have other part-time jobs as well?" asked Gordon, wondering if in England being in the Coastguard was only a part-time occupation.

The older man shook his head. "This isn't a job. All these people are volunteers. One of this crew works as a mechanic in a local garage, another is a window-cleaner; the captain is the cook at the local school." He gave a small laugh. "Looks like the youngsters will be having sandwiches for lunch today."

He turned to Gordon. "I used to captain one of those boats myself, at St. Anne's, the next town along the coast. I ran the local butcher's shop – Smethick's – it's been in the family for generations. If customers ever came to the door and found I was closed, they'd know where I was. A lot of families round here have connections with the sea – husbands who are fishermen, sons in the navy, so they would all understand."

As he talked, Smethick kept his eyes fixed on the boat that was now bouncing out across the waves. "The seas round here can be treacherous. You've got the Ribble estuary a bit further south, pushing currents out into the sea, shifting sandbanks around, and a tide that comes in at breakneck speed. One of the worst lifeboat disasters of all time happened only a few miles out from here, back in 1886."

Gordon listened in fascination as the older man continued. "It was the night of 9th December. A sailing ship, the Mexico, had been pushed onto a sandbank in high seas, and had sent up distress flares. The signal was seen by the lifeboat station at Lytham, my one at St. Anne's and another one across the estuary at Southport. Each launched a boat. There were no radios or telephones in those days round here, so none of them knew the other was going, but all had seen the signal, and all knew there were people out there who needed their help."

Gordon nodded. Smethick could have no idea how much he could identify with that feeling. If someone needed your help, you had to go.

"And just think," continued the other, "this was no warm and comfy trip. These were open boats, powered by sail if they were lucky, or by oars."

Gordon tried to imagine what it must have been like to be out on a heaving sea on a cold, dark night, frantically looking for the lights of a vessel in distress. He couldn't help but contrast it with his own situation, sitting secure in Thunderbird 4, surrounded by radar, sonar, GPS, and in constant radio contact with his family. He shook his head in wonder at the courage of those men. "So what happened?" he asked.

"The boat from Lytham reached the Mexico and managed to get he crew off. The other two boats capsized. Two men made it back to shore from the Southport boat, but everyone from the St. Anne's boat was drowned. Twenty-seven men in all, lost trying to save a crew of twelve who had already been rescued."

Gordon found himself looking at the lifeboat that was now nearly on the horizon, thinking of the brave men who had been so tragically lost, and of those who were heading out at the moment to try to save more lives.

Smethick seemed to sense the change in the young man's mood. "Yes, we live by the sea, and we love it, but we know it can exact a hard price sometimes. But it became one of those occasions which brought out the best in people. The public responded with a national collection to support the widows and children left without a breadwinner." He paused, shaking his head. "Sometimes, when you do something like this as a volunteer, you feel the public don't appreciate what you do. Then an incident like this happens and you realise that people do appreciate you, but that they don't often get the chance to show it."

Just then, Gordon heard the tune of 'Yellow submarine' coming from his pocket. Fumbling with cold hands, he retrieved his cellphone, turning away from the wind so he could answer it.

"Gordon?" came Malcolm's voice. "I'm at the hospital. Bill's just come out of surgery. It was appendicitis, but we made it in time and he's going to be OK. His sister's coming up to stay with him, so once she gets here, I'll come back to the boat and we should be able to continue our trip. How does that sound?"

"That's good news, Malcolm," replied Gordon, feeling relieved. "I'm glad Bill's OK. I'll see you back at the boat later. Thanks for calling."

Gordon turned to talk to Smethick again, but the old man had gone. He looked up and down the beach, but could see no sign of him. Shrugging his shoulders, he presumed the old guy must have wandered off among the dunes to give him some privacy for his phone call.

Gordon decided to continue his walk. Smethick's words had struck a chord with him and he had a lot to think about. The rain had stopped and the sky was beginning to lighten.

After walking a little while he could see a statue on the edge of the sands. As he approached he saw it was of a man dressed in heavy waterproof clothing. He bent to read the description at the foot of the statue.

'Dedicated to Capt Jonathan Smethick and the crew of the St. Anne's lifeboat who lost their lives at sea 9th December, 1886'

Gordon looked up at the face of the statue and felt a shock of recognition. The artist had caught the likeness well. The same hooked nose, the same craggy eyebrows, the gaze fixed on the horizon.

Gordon drew himself erect and snapped off a salute. "Thank you, Captain. I won't forget what you told me."

Then with a heart lighter than it had felt for a long time, he turned and strode back along the beach.

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Author's note: Capt. Smethick is my own invention, but all the other facts given above are true.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is responsible for saving lives at sea around the British coast. The organisation receives no government funds, being funded entirely by donations from the public. I would like to dedicate this story to the RNLI crews who voluntarily give their time and effort – and sometimes their lives – to saving people who are often total strangers. These brave people are the nearest we have at the present time to International Rescue.