TITLE: Hell on High Water
WORD COUNT: 9291
SUMMARY: She's been planning this for years, talking about it for even longer. Sailing 630 nautical miles in one of the world's toughest ocean races. But what price will she pay to chase a dream?
My utmost respect to the families of the six sailors who lost their lives in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. In fictionalising these events, I have taken a few liberties with some details. I do not mean to trivialise the tragedy of the true events in doing so.
0543 - December 26.
Bella Swan doesn't want to be awake. Her alarm isn't set to start its shrill squawking for another hour and fifteen minutes …. and it's not likely she's going to have the opportunity to regain those precious moments of rest any time soon.
She closes her eyes, but sleep simply laughs at her. Not happening, it says. With a groan, she runs a hand across the soft, white hotel sheets, not caring if her protest wakes the man sleeping beside her. If she can't sleep, he might as well suffer, too.
He doesn't stir. His sun-bleached hair flutters with the artificial breeze created by the air-conditioner overhead, but otherwise, he is still.
Bella rolls her tired eyes. She should know better. The guy can sleep through thunderstorms, alarm clocks, even the garbage collection on a Tuesday morning. It's a trait she envies him, but can't afford herself.
Rubbing the grainy residue of the previous night from the corners of her eyes, Bella stares at the ceiling, trying to convince herself to let him sleep. It would be a dick move to wake him … but she's going to miss him like crazy over the next week. And that makes her decision easy.
She wriggles closer, pressing her chest to his warm, smooth skin back. Her lips by his ear, she trails her callused hands down his arm. "Edward."
He mutters something incoherent, but still doesn't move.
At that, he lifts his head from the pillow, turning to glare at her from under sleep-swollen lids. "It's too early."
She nods, her lip between her teeth. "Couldn't sleep."
He sighs, rolling onto his back, and lifts his arm. Bella curls against his side, breathing in the slightly sour smell of sweat and sex and last night's beer that clings to his skin.
He doesn't ask if she's nervous, and for that, she's grateful.
Of-fucking-course she's nervous. It would be the height of arrogance if she weren't.
Edward smoothes her tangled hair as she tries to find that place of focus she needs. She's not there yet.
As though he knows, and maybe he can feel the tension humming through her, he pulls her closer, pressing a kiss to her temple. His fingers trail across her back, then pause on her hip as he ponders how to approach this.
What the hell, he figures. If she says no, she says no.
He rolls her onto her back, his hands moving lower, slower, his touch no longer gentle and teasing. Bella can feel his intent, and she welcomes it, parting her legs as her eyes fall closed.
His touch anchors her, even as it sets her adrift in sensation.
She's panting, flushed pink and damp with sweat when he pulls away. She protests as he climbs off the bed, the evidence of his own unfulfillment clear. "But you…"
He winks, jerking his head towards the bathroom. "Come on, then."
0730 - December 26.
Charlie Swan is trying to hide a yawn behind his scarred hands when Edward and Bella step out of the hotel's elevator.
Bella greets her father with an elbow to the ribs. "Up too late, old man?"
He rolls his eyes and turns to the man he expects to call 'son' in the not-so-distant future. "Morning. You two have a good time?"
"Yeah. I needed a few days away," Bella says. "Even if 'away' is just up the road." The three nights she and Edward have spent at the Shangri-La were just what she needed to catch her breath and refocus.
Edward nods, catching Charlie's eye. His smile is bright against his tanned skin as he throws his arm across Bella's shoulders. There's a new easiness between the two men, an understanding born recently over several schooners of Endeavour Pale Ale, one question, and the sparkly ring Edward's still got tucked away in his camera bag. If Bella has noticed the affection that has seeped into their camaraderie, she's yet to comment.
Both men look to Bella.
She hesitates. Is she?
She's been planning this for years, talking about it for even longer. She was eleven when she announced to her parents that one day, she would sail the Sydney to Hobart. Single-handed. Renée Swan laughed, told her not to be ridiculous, and turned her attention back to working on her tan. Charlie, on the other hand, sat his daughter down beside him, passed her the tiller, pointed towards Lion Island and told her to keep their course true.
That week he bought her as many of Lin and Larry Pardey's books as he could find. "Learn how to survive at sea," he said, "before you think about racing."
Bella takes a deep breath. The filtered air in the hotel lobby reminds her of where she wants to be. "Yeah," she says. "I'm ready."
Climbing into Charlie's Landcruiser, Edward in the back seat, Bella in the front, the two men ready themselves for the relentless jabbering Bella subjects them to on the morning before big regattas.
It never begins.
Charlie catches Edward's eye—a look of worry passes between them.
"North-easterlies," Charlie says, because someone has to say something. "As soon as you're out of the Heads, you'll be able to set your kite and run straight down for a good twelve-or-so hours."
Edward leans forward, his eyes on Bella as he speaks to Charlie. "And in Bass Strait?"
Charlie shrugs. "It'll be messy, but she's got it."
Edward nods. Crossing Bass Strait is treacherous; it's the reason sailors have nicknamed the race "Hell on High Water." The sudden change in the ocean depth in the strait makes the seas wild and unpredictable. It makes him uneasy, a reluctant and inexperienced sailor himself, but the one thing he doesn't doubt is Bella's competence.
0930 December 26.
At the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the day has unfurled bright and blue. Pennants and flags flutter in the early morning breeze and seabirds soar in lazy circles overhead. Television crews are clustered here and there, microphones and cameras pointed in the faces of sailors and their families. Beyond them, Sydney Harbour is already awash with the wake of a small flotilla of craft carrying sightseers to the best vantage points.
Charlie wanders away from his daughter and her boyfriend as they leave the clubhouse after the compulsory weather briefing, greeting a few similarly grizzled men as he makes his way across the maze of marina berths.
Bella turns to Edward, her eyes wide with everything she can't quite say. He flips his sunglasses atop his head, squinting against the glare reflecting off the water. His eyes, the same colour as the harbour, find hers.
"You can do it." It's all he says, and all she needs to hear. His faith in her makes her feel strong.
He kisses her once more. "See you in Hobart."
He squeezes her hand, then turns on his heel. For a moment, she watches his worn leather deck shoes put distance between them before she begins to make her way along the marina decks, smiling and waving at the greetings tossed her way.
It's not until she's standing in front of her Compass 29 that Bella finds that place of peace. Rosalie bobs gently in her moorings: her classic lines are familiar and comforting, and the deep green stickers now affixed to her prow bring a small smile to Bella's lips.
The 54th Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.
This is happening.
With a nimbleness that comes of years of practice, Bella steps aboard and busies herself with her last minute preparations.
1000 - December 26.
Edward steps into the small aluminium runabout, his bag of camera gear bouncing against his hip, his knees buckling as he tries not to rock the boat. He nods to Jake, the young guy in charge of manoeuvring them into the best vantage points for the race start, by way of greeting. Jake points at the pile of personal flotation devices in response.
Edward picks up a lurid orange life jacket, slips it over his head and fastens it. It is familiarly uncomfortable—the chafe of the stitching under his arms, the weird feeling of his chest having expanded three sizes.
"Do I really have to wear this?" He'd complained the first time Bella had taken him aboard Rosalie. The life jacket she'd handed him looked so bulky and cumbersome … not to mention completely dorky. "I can swim."
She looked at him that way she did when she was particularly unimpressed, lips pursed and eyebrows lifted. "One, you have to do everything I say when you're on my boat," she said. "I'm the skipper. And two, being able to swim isn't going to help you much if you cop a boom to the head and get tossed overboard."
His Bella-imposed exposure to boats and yacht racing is what scored him this particular job with The Financial Review in the first place—though if he's honest, he's still a little disappointed he's not sitting in the MCG, shooting the first innings of the test match. But this should be an easy gig—take a few shots of the start line today, spend a few hours in the chopper tomorrow, then hop a flight to Hobart to await his girl's arrival.
Emmett McCarty steps into the boat behind him, his normally cheerful face lined with concern. The dinghy rocks as he fumbles for balance. He might know his camera and his craft better than Edward does, but he's clearly not at home in the watercraft.
"Nice day for it." He doesn't wait for a response. "How's it going, Cullen? Feeling nervous? Your girl out there?"
Edward skips to the last question, answering it with a grin. "Not yet, but she'll be heading out soon."
"She a contender?" McCarty asks. He tugs at the collar of his blue and white checked shirt as he takes a seat.
Edward shrugs, tossing him a life jacket. "Handicap, maybe. But I doubt she's even thinking about it."
Edward shakes his head. He can't fight his small, proud smile. Doesn't want to. "Do you know how many women have sailed the Hobart single-handed?"
"Exactly. It's not about winning for Bella. It's about achieving her goal."
1110 - December 26.
"You're quiet," Charlies says. Even with the shadow cast by the brim of his hat, Bella can see the concern in her father's eyes.
"I guess I'm just nervous." She looks away from him, over his shoulder, watching a couple with two small children waving to a yacht that's making its careful way out of the berth. Like the crew of the yacht, the family is dressed in red and white—the boys in red, the girls in white. With the two children standing in front of their parents, Bella can't help but notice how they resemble the red and white checks of the "U" flag: You are heading into danger. She shakes her head. She's never been one to believe in signs or omens, and now is no time to begin. After all, they're not exactly uncommon nautical colour choices—most of the people she's seen this morning have been dressed in some combination of red, white and blue.
Charlie doesn't look convinced. "What's your gut telling you?"
"All good. I'm just nervous." Her answer is bullshit, and they both know it.
"It's … I don't know. I can't tell. I am nervous. But …" She shakes her head again. How can she put this feeling, curling in the bottom of her stomach, into words? She's not sure she even wants to.
"The last time you were this quiet before a race, you were fourteen, and the storm was so bad three dinghies got picked up and hurled the length of a football field."
Bella's weather sense has always been a little peculiar. The harsher the conditions are going to be, the more nonsensical crap spews from her mouth. Stories she's told before, random pieces of information she's picked up, horribly inappropriate jokes. She fidgets, babbles, and generally drives everyone around her crazy.
But the days she's quiet … Well, those were the days that, as a young sailor, the races would invariably be cancelled, the conditions deemed too dangerous for the gaggle of girls and guys in their tiny boats to brave.
Bella sighs, uncoiling and recoiling a length of rope needlessly. "I'm sure it's just big match nerves, Dad. You wait, I'll be talking to myself non-stop in about three hours – you're just lucky I'm not subjecting you to it for once."
1250 - December 26.
The ten minute warning shot is fired, the puff of smoke appearing at the rifle-tip milliseconds before the sound rings across the harbour.
Bella blows out a breath and scans the water. As they discussed her tactics, she and Charlie had agreed there was no point in getting herself entangled on the starting line. There are one hundred and fifteen yachts in this year's race, and losing a few minutes at the start will cost her little. She'll more than make up for it by crossing over in clear air. And so, she holds Rosalie back, keeping out of the way of the sleek, modern Maxis as they glide this way then the other, criss-crossing the harbour, their crews of identically-clad sailors scurrying around on deck. Those multi-million dollar yachts will do the squabbling over Line Honours, and there's even been some buzz about the possibility of a new race record being set if the conditions remain favourable.
That's not the race Bella is interested in sailing. She and Rosalie aren't racing against the other boats, not even against the flotilla of smaller craft skippered by old friends of her father's or the young guys she used to beat in their Sabot-sailing days.
She's sailing the 630 nautical miles for herself alone.
1315 - December 26.
"Jake, can you get us alongside Brindabella?" Even Emmett's booming voice is barely audible over the growl of the outboard motor, the slap of water against aluminium, and the whistling breeze.
Jake nods, and Edward tightens his grip on the gunwale as the small boat accelerates, bouncing across the harbour like a rock skipping across a pond. He takes the opportunity, his vision no longer restricted to the small square of his viewfinder, to search out Rosalie. He remembers Bella intended to hang back at the start, and he finally locates her, beating upwind as she steers the Compass 29 towards the northern tip of South Head.
She looks graceful and strong, her sails crisp and full as she moves across the bay.
The runabout slows and Edward, recalled to his task, lifts his camera to focus on the larger yachts, the ones already rounding South Head and starting their voyage into open waters. These are the boats he's being paid to shoot. These are the boats the public knows, the skippers of whose names are familiar to them, the ones that will be splashed across the front pages of tomorrow morning's newspapers: Brindabella, Ragamuffin, Sayonara. Sword of Orion, the Winston Churchill.
As the fleet rounds the Heads, their colours start to emerge. Spinnakers are hoisted, splashes of red and blue and yellow blooming, sailcloth flowers opening in a strange aquatic garden. Edward braces his feet on the floor of the dinghy and entrusts Jake the task of keeping him from falling overboard as he focuses on capturing the sailors at work. The line of crew seated on the windward rail of one yacht. The intense concentration on the faces of skipper and navigator as they discuss tactics. That frantic moment as two boats converge on the same point, only to have one change tack just as collision seemed inevitable.
He smiles behind his camera, a new respect for his Bella forming somewhere under the layers of concentration he's devoting to his task. He can't wait to see her face again, see the sense of accomplishment that will colour her smile, when she steps onto Constitution Dock in about a week's time.
1600 - December 26.
The coastline is but a faint smudge of grey-green to the east now. The sky bleeds into the ocean, the whole world falling away until all that remains is Rosalie's steady surging from one wave to the next. The leading edge of her spinnaker hums and flutters in the steady twenty-five knots blowing from the north-east.
Bella checks the trim, eases the cunningham up a little, smiling when she feels the slight increase in power in the hull beneath her. She slides the rope into its cleat, holds the tiller steady with her foot as she pulls her polo shirt off. She laughs at herself, knowing that sitting here in her bikini and shorts, she could appear to be channeling one of those lame advertisements for Sperry Top Siders she's always mocked. She doesn't really care, though. Not now, not out here. Not when she's high on being at sea, with the salt-spray whipped across her skin, drying almost as quickly as it lands in the strengthening breeze and the fierce sunshine.
With nothing and no one around her, she can almost ignore the fist clenched around her stomach.
This is home, she thinks.
2000 - December 26.
Darkness unfolds, the sun slipping below the horizon without fanfare and the stars piercing through the blanket of night.
As she prepares to hand Rosalie over to her Autopilot for a few hours, Bella tries to remember the first time she spent the night at sea. The scenes she drags to the surface of her memory are murky and indistinct, a blend of the many different weekend trips her father had taken them on.
She does recall, at about four years of age, being concerned that she couldn't tell where the water ended and the sky began. "What if we sail right off the edge, Daddy?"
Her father had laughed. She remembers the sound vibrating through her as she sat on his lap. It had made her smile—more comforting than any explanation he could have offered. He'd told her then that the world was like a soccer ball. That no matter how far they went, they couldn't fall off. He told her stories about Christopher Columbus and James Cook, about voyages of discovery and new lands explored.
Stepping down into the galley, Bella smiles at the memory. She checks her alarm clock is set to wake her every twenty minutes. She'll check it another half-dozen times before she climbs into her bunk.
2307 - December 26.
Edward unlocks the front door of their apartment and steps inside, blinking in the darkness. He slides his hand across the wall until he finds the lightswitch.
Without Bella beside him, doubled over giggling or waving her hands around argumentatively or trying to stick her hands down his pants (a sure indication she's tipsy), their flat seems even more cramped and dingy than usual. Without Bella's vibrancy reflecting off her surroundings, he can't help but notice the shabbiness of the beat-up furniture in seventies' browns and oranges they acquired from his grandparents and the local op-shop. The almost-threadbare carpet is rough under his feet as he kicks off his shoes; the light from the energy-efficient bulbs is stark and unflattering on the off-white walls.
It's the price they paid for wanting—or, in Bella's case, needing—to live so close to the water. The only places they could afford in the Eastern Suburbs, even with their salaries combined, were pokey little apartments, built in the late-fifties and early-sixties. And with so much money being poured into Rosalie's upkeep, almost everything in this place is a hand-me-down, or, as Bella prefers to call it, "vintage."
With a sigh, Edward kicks the front door closed behind him and makes for the fridge. He's greeted by a couple of six packs of beer he definitely didn't buy, alongside a stack of tupperware containers he definitely didn't fill.
He reaches for his phone and shoots off a text he knows Bella won't receive before he sees her again: Thank you.
0540 - December 27.
Dawn arrives with a certain reluctance. The sun is dragged uneasily from below the eastern horizon until it explodes across the sky with a tantrum of red and gold light.
Bella zips her spray jacket closed, shivering a little as the wind yanks her hair away from her face.
She'd made the call just after four o'clock in the morning to reef in the mainsail as the winds strengthened. Her course has remained true overnight, and she's making good time in her southbound voyage. And yet, as the eerie morning glow tints Rosalie's sails pink, she's seized by the urge to throw the towel in, to change course and head for home.
"Get a grip, Swan," she mutters. "You're being absurd." She's been working towards this for so long, she's appalled that the thought of giving up has even crossed her mind.
The seas are heaving now, grey and dark, topped with pink foam. Each time she's surged from peak to trough, Rosalie shudders under the strain.
Her hand to her brow, Bella scans the area around her. She can see two, three, no, four, other yachts this morning, hugging the coastline a little tighter than Rosalie. Judging by their size, they're also smaller yachts, smaller crews, lagging well behind the main fleet.
As quickly as the sun made its spectacular entrance, the curtain closes on it once again. The clouds roll in quickly, heavy and black, bruising the ocean below.
"Storm coming, Harry." Bella giggles, a nervous, high-pitched sound.
0600 - December 27.
For the second day in a row, Edward is dragged from sleep far earlier than he generally prefers.
He struggles for a moment, disoriented, trapped by the sheets which are too tight across the bed without Bella having wrestled them free from their neat tucks and folds. He fumbles around on the bedside table until he finds his ringing mobile phone. His fingers tighten around it as he registers that it's Charlie calling. Has something happened? Flipping it open, he presses it to his ear.
The rattle of Charlie's deep exhale ratchets his nerves tighter.
"Mate, there's a fucking huge storm cell bearing down."
"Fucking everywhere. The whole east coast."
0715 - December 27.
Even the simplest task becomes difficult with Rosalie heeling twenty-five degrees to leeward, her decks slippery with the driving rain and the spray being hurled over her prow. The winds are stronger now, putting a sting behind the water, both salt and fresh, as it slaps Bella's cheeks.
The burn of rope against her palm is a familiar feeling. The cold-induced clumsiness and the lack of feeling in her fingers is something she's used to overcoming. And yet as Bella's hand slips off the line she's pulling and collides with a cleat, the spike of panic she feels is not.
"Fuck." Bella sucks her thumb into her mouth, the salt-tang of blood mixed with the even saltier water that's being tossed into her face with increasing ferocity.
She glances behind her, her vision obscured by the water falling from her eyebrows and the orange hood her wet-weather gear, to check the tiller is still lashed securely. Knees bent to brace her against the ocean that tosses Rosalie from wave to wave like a rubber ducky in a child's bathtub, Bella ignores the pain in her hand and resumes wrestling with the reefing lines. She drops the mainsail slowly, the muscles in her arms protesting. The sodden sailcloth curls in on itself with each pull.
The deck beneath her feet levels slightly, the yacht slowing as the sail is rendered impotent, and Bella pushes out a heavy breath of relief as she secures the ropes. She wipes her wet hair out of her face, checks the tiller once more, and clips her tether to the life line. Moving carefully to the bow, buffeted by wind and water, her progress is slow but steady.
These aren't the worst conditions you've experienced, she reminds herself. Be calm. Be cautious. You've got this.
"Storm jib." She sighs. It seems extreme, almost like admitting defeat, to pull that particular sail from the wardrobe. She glances needlessly at the telltales, fluttering red and black on the stays. Although the wind is only just pushing forty knots, her gut, and the steady stream of weather info. being relayed to her from the race officials, tells her this is going to get worse before it gets better.
"Drop sail before you have to," her father always told her. "Once you need to, it's too late."
With a shake of her head, she begins the task of raising the small sail. Muscle memory takes over, most of Bella's focus is on remaining on her feet as Rosalie is launched from the peak of a wave. The hull shudders as the yacht lands on the back of the wave, and Bella barely has time to catch her breath before the next wave rises beneath her.
0742 - December 27.
Arriving at the CYCA again eases a small amount of the tension that's coiled in Edward's gut. It's illogical, he knows, but somehow stepping into the hustle and bustle of race headquarters makes him feel like he's doing something—or that someone is, anyway.
"She called her position in at 0735." Charlie has clearly been hovering by the doors, waiting for Edward's arrival. "She's not hit the worst of the weather yet."
Yet. The word sinks into Edward's mind, ominous and heavy.
"From what I can gather," Charlie waves a hand vaguely, indicating the information he's gathered has probably come from mumbled conversations with both old seadogs and race officials, "the front half of the fleet are the worst hit. Probably have a few retiring soon by the sounds of things."
Edward nods, trying to swallow down the lump in his throat that's preventing him from speaking.
"She'll be right," Charlie says. Edward isn't sure who he's trying to convince. "She's smart."
"I know." His agreement comes out strangled.
"What time are you going up?"
"Uh," Edward pulls a hand through his hair, before looking at his watch as if it will provide the answer. "We were planning on about eleven a.m., but I guess …"
The thought has only just taken shape in his mind—I guess we'll get called up earlier if there's shit going down—when his phone vibrates against his thigh. His conversation with his boss takes place in tense half-sentences.
"Yes, I heard–"
"I know. I'm–"
"I figured as–"
He flips the device shut and shoves it back in his pocket. "Charlie, I gotta go."
Charlie nods. His eyes are blue where Bella's are brown, and yet the shape of them, and the crinkles at the corners, speak of the blood they share. "I'll let you know if I hear anything."
"Same." They both understand what Edward means … If I see anything.
The two men hug briefly, slapping each other's backs with a little less force than usual.
0922 December 27.
It seems counterintuitive, but it's survival.
Fighting her instincts to surrender to the will of the massive storm, Bella takes it head on.
It feels like lunacy, resolutely pointing Rosalie into the depths of the weather raging around her, but all she has to cling to right now are the lessons learned by men and women who have survived before her. She gathers her courage from where it's scattered across Rosalie's slippery decks, and grips the tiller.
Six metres, maybe seven. The swell bearing down upon her is bigger than anything she's seen before.
She breathes deep as the yacht scales the face of the wave, lifted high on a mountain of angry grey ocean. The wave sneers, curling its lip and baring its white, foamy teeth as it starts to break. Bella holds her breath as it crashes down over Rosalie's prow, the sheer weight of it pushing her nose down, down, down. The hull creaks and groans under the pressure and all Bella can do is wait … until her stomach drops as she freefalls off the back of the wave.
She survives one more.
And already the next one is building.
1005 December 27.
The combined noises of the propeller and the storm raging around them makes it almost impossible to be heard in the chopper, even over the headset Edward was handed when he climbed into his seat. It's a relief, being excused from making small talk, from having to be polite while his nerves feel like a rope frayed to the last cord. All it will take is the slightest amount of friction for him to lose it—to fall completely into the abyss of panic he's been toeing since he awoke this morning.
He tries to switch off his brain as he focuses the lens of his camera on the wounded yacht below them. It's hard. Almost impossible. Edward is not some photojournalist hardened by exposure to war and conflict, jaded by capturing the suffering of the oppressed and malnourished in the world's poorest countries. He's a sports photographer. His usual fare is rugby league games and tennis matches. The occasional gymnastics competition, a whole lot of swim meets.
He lifts his camera, trying to swallow down the acid burn in the back of his throat. He snaps a few more shots of the scene unfolding below him, doubting any photograph could ever capture the sheer ferocity of the elements.
As if to prove it to himself, he flicks a dial, looking at the pictures he's already taken with a shake of his head. Yes. They are woefully inadequate. It's impossible to capture the scale of the waves heaving below, the violence of the wind. They are too big to be contained in a single image.
Below the hovering chopper, a boat lies on her side, lame, exposed, and vulnerable. Edward remembers being impressed by the sheer size of the sleek yacht as she glided along the sparkling bay yesterday afternoon … But now, she looks like a child's toy, a balsawood model, tossed around on the green-grey sea like she weighs nothing. Her mast is splintered, the remaining metre or so of it is tangled in the stays, a toothpick discarded by the storm that swallowed the rest.
Half a dozen men cling to the inflatable orange liferaft by her side, waiting desperately for one of the naval vessels that have been mobilised to reach them and pull them from the boiling seas.
A tap on his shoulder draws his attention back to the inside of the chopper. Emmett is shouting, but Edward can barely hear him. Instead, he looks in the direction the other man is pointing.
Habit has his lens pointed at the other helicopter now hovering nearby. His finger moves rapidly over the shutter release as he watches, through the viewfinder, the harness being lowered from the chopper.
One by one, six sailors are winched to safety, their bodies limp with exhaustion as they are carried into the skies. Edward continues to shoot as they are each wrapped in the silver foil thermal blankets by the paramedic. Heads in their hands, they huddle together, their gazes trained below.
Sinking slowly at first, and then dragged down with one final pull, the once proud yacht succumbs to her watery grave.
It's only then, once the other helicopter begins to speed away towards land that Edward realises his hands are shaking. The last half-dozen shots he took are probably worthless, the images blurred with the adrenaline spiking through him. He looks across the ocean, uselessly, knowing he won't see anything.
Where is Bella?
1200 December 27.
Make the call, Bella tells herself.
You have to.
The conflicting thoughts have swirled up a storm of emotion inside Bella, almost as potent as the meteorological one that rages around her.
Yet another wall of grey-bruised ocean rises in front of her, towering ten, maybe twelve metres tall. She wonders how many more she can take. How long has she been battling against the undefeatable, riding out the unconquerable by the skin of her teeth, only to do it again and again?
She's exhausted. It's only a matter of time before her concentration slips, before a wave catches her at the wrong angle, before the sound of wood splitting or metal screeching heralds her destruction.
You were ready to call it quits earlier, she reminds herself. Perversely, the stronger the storm has grown, the more inevitable failure seems, the harder Bella has fought to convince herself that she can see this through to the end.
You've come this far, that stubborn part of her brain says. You can finish this. How long have you spent dreaming of this?
Logic answers, You can try again next year. Or the one after.
What if you don't get another chance?
Then so be it.
But think of everything you've given up to get to this point, her bravado responds. Think of everything your dad has given up. Everything Edward has given up, so you could afford to do this. To be here, right now.
And what use, whispers a much quieter voice, will that sacrifice have been, if you don't make it home to them?
1207 - December 2007.
The rain pelts down on him, sweetening the smell of the ocean and mingling with the scent of diesel and wet bitumen in the carpark.
The helicopter pilot had dumped Edward and McCarty when he headed back for refueling, not long after they captured the first rescue. Even the media choppers are being commandeered for the rescue mission, hovering like homing beacons over the lifeboats and stricken yachts as they await the approach of naval vessels or other aircraft.
Unconcerned that his shirt is soaked through, Edward takes his time walking back into the CYCA. His nerves are rattled, and the feeling of impotence gripping him makes it hard to breathe.
The scenes of destruction he's just seen, the ease at which a fifty or sixty foot yacht was tossed around by the winds and consumed by the ocean … He's had a new, and not entirely wanted, understanding of ocean racing thrust upon him.
She's out there alone.
How is it that he'd never thought of this before? That he'd never understood the magnitude of what Bella was attempting? He knew she was brave … and competent … But now, staring reality in the face, he's suddenly weak-kneed at the thought of Bella riding out that storm on her own.
Even as he steps inside, water continues to soak into his shirt, dripping from his hair and down his neck. He looks around for Charlie, desperate to hear if he's heard something, anything, from Bella.
The rain pounds its angry fists on the roof. Even in here, there's no relief from the weather, no silence.
1220 - December 27.
"I can't do this." The words are snatched from Bella's lips by the wind, tossed away into the storm.
She guides the yacht over another mountain disguised as a wave, her stomach somewhere in her throat.
The tears that start to spill from her tired eyes scorch her frozen cheeks. She wipes them away, ashamed, even here with no one to see, of the weakness and doubt that chill her insides more effectively that the seawater she's doused with over and over again.
You have to.
She shakes her head at the small voice of reason, a sob tearing its way up her throat. Her knuckles are white as she grips the tiller, steering as best she can up the face of yet another wave. "I can't." I'm so tired, she thinks.
Wood creaks and the stays shudder as the boat is lifted high and then dumped again. Bella braces her feet against the cockpit floor, trying to keep her seat. Sitting is almost as exhausting as standing, with the muscles in her legs and back working to keep her in place, and there's no relief, no time to breathe deep and gather her shaken wits along with her balance. Are they getting bigger? Bella can't be sure, her exhaustion has skewed her spatial awareness. She blinks away more tears.
Already the next wave is racing towards her, on the verge of breaking, threatening to hurl its weight across Rosalie's decks and submerge her entirely.
Just sink. Get it over with. The thought brings the burn of bile to the back of Bella's throat.
If the mast fell …
She spies the inflatable life raft in its neat package, a compulsory piece of equipment on all ocean races.
I could just …
More hot tears drip down her face. She won't—can't—abandon Rosalie to a watery grave. She hates that the thought has even crossed her mind.
"How much longer?" How many more minutes, hours … days before this storm satisfies its anger?
Her father's face flashes before her salt-stung eyes, and Bella feels six years old, wishing her daddy could get her out of this mess she's gotten herself into.
She remembers suddenly the panic she felt, the first time she capsized her Sabot. Her father was sitting a few metres away in the rubber ducky, watching her as she cried for his help. "I'm here, Bella," he'd said. "But you don't need me. You can do this. You have to."
And she did. Swimming with clumsy strokes in her life jacket, she ducked under the little boat and then climbed up onto the centreboard. She levered the hull upright again, using her bodyweight just as he'd taught her, then climbed back in and busied herself with bailing out the water with the cut-off milk bottle set aside for just that purpose.
Bella splutters as more water smacks into her face, filling her mouth with salt and blinding her for a moment. This time, she's thrown from her seat by the force of the water, and she staggers, hand clutching the tiller to keep her from slipping on the cockpit floor. She regains her balance on shaky, aching legs and sinks back down onto her backside, a weary groan dying in her throat as she watches the raging sea swell before her once more.
1235 - December 27.
A pair of bare feet, heels cracked and yellowing, nails cut short, approach the fused plastic chairs Edward and Charlie are slumped in. Side-by side, their knees occasionally knock as they wait to hear something … anything.
From somewhere above the feet, a man speaks, his voice raised in an effort to be heard over the drumming rain. "Your girl's retiring, Swan. Headed to Eden. Called it in about ten minutes ago."
The relief Edward feels is dizzying. His shoulders sag further and he's aware the water dripping down his face cannot be blamed on the weather.
Charlie slings an arm around him, his hand gripping Edward's shoulder with a pressure that's almost painful. Edward feels a flash of embarrassment, that Charlie thinks him this weak … until he feels the slight tremor in Bella's father's frame. He's taking as much comfort as he's giving, their mutual worry forcing them to lean on each other.
And she's out there alone.
He hears Charlie thank the person attached to the feet before they turn and move off on some other errand.
Charlie pulls back as Edward looks up, meets his gaze. He sees the same relief he feels in the older man's eyes, though there is concern etched in the lines of his forehead.
"Can you leave?"
Edward shrugs, wiping his forehead uselessly on the shoulder of his shirt. "You think I care if they fire me?"
Charlie nods, as though he expected nothing less. He stands, fumbling with his keys as he extracts them from his pocket. They land on the carpeted floor with a muted jangle.
"How long to Eden?"
"In this weather," Charlie says, retrieving his keys and scrubbing a hand over his face, "a bit over six hours."
1404 - December 27.
As it turns out, making the decision to retire was the easy part.
Now, exhausted from battling with both the elements and her own will, Bella is all too aware of the precariousness of her situation.
Most car accidents occur only five minutes from home, and like the tired driver who can't wait to pull their vehicle into their driveway, Bella knows her concentration isn't what it ought to be. Her eyes ache, a combination of the saltwater bucketing her for more hours than she can count, the wind needling her face, and the sheer effort of focusing on every shift in the wind, every heave and roll of her boat. Her body aches, the cold of being constantly wet and windswept having settled into her bones. Even the muscles in her jaw are sore, the chattering of her teeth is uncontrollable.
She pulls a bottle of water from her jacket pocket and drinks deeply. The water tastes almost too sweet, compared to the saltwater she'd been spitting back into the sea. She forces a muesli bar down in three swallows, conscious that she'll need to eat something more substantial soon.
She swears as the wrapper gets ripped from her hand. It disappears in a second, lost in the wind and rain that have not abated.
A few more hours, she tells herself. Never before has she longed so desperately to feel land, stable, unmoving, beneath her feet.
1500 - December 27.
The two men have barely said a word since they climbed into the 4WD and headed out of Sydney. Paul Kelly and then Silverchair—Charlie's pick, then Edward's—have filled the silence neither was willing to break.
They stop only once, Charlie wordlessly climbing out of the driver's seat and letting Edward take his place.
Edward tries to focus on the slick black road rising up to meet him, but his mind is awash with what-ifs.
Charlie sighs and checks his watch. "Three o'clock."
Edward flicks the radio on, reluctantly, but aware that right now, it is their only way of hearing any news.
"Devastating news this afternoon," intones the newsreader, her voice devoid of the emotion she describes, "as authorities confirm that at least two sailors have drowned in the storm-ravaged Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race."
"Shit." Charlie drops his head into his hands. Edward stares at the double white lines that centre the highway.
"The almost cyclonic conditions have not eased up since they arrived on the east coast suddenly in the early hours of the morning. A number of sailors have been plucked from the sea by the Westpac helicopter, whilst others have been taken aboard naval vessels called to the area. Reports indicate that a large number of yachts are now heading to safe harbour in Eden and other ports along the New South Wales south coast."
Edward stabs the dial, silencing the too-calm voice and her dire news. The squeak of the windscreen wipers and the low hiss of the tires on the wet road fill the cab.
1749 - December 27.
Perhaps it was having been caught up in the middle of it, not allowing her mind to wander or her imagination to take flight, that leaves Bella so shocked by the sight that greets her as she and Rosalie limp into Twofold Bay Yacht Club's waters. So focused on her own survival, she had given no thought at all to the plight faced by any of the other race participants. Of course, she was aware that any sailor, any yacht was in peril in the conditions out there, but she'd not let the locus of her awareness slip beyond what she needed to do to get herself back to safe harbour.
Spread out before her, there a few dozen yachts, battered and bruised, also seeking shelter here. Broken masts, torn sails, tangles of ropes, and damaged hulls—the small fleet, so proud and crisp the previous afternoon, looks bedraggled and every bit as exhausted as Bella feels. The sailors cleaning up their decks move, not with their usual efficiency, their practiced ease, but with a weariness that Bella feels echoing in her own limbs.
The adrenaline that has fueled her for the last twelve hours has drained away, leaving her with barely enough strength to drop her fenders over the side and secure Rosalie in a berth. She steps carefully onto the marina deck, swaying with exhaustion as she loops and weaves the ropes around their cleats. She straightens up, staring at her feet.
It's still raining, she thinks, somehow surprised by that knowledge as she watches the heavy drops fall on the decking, their rippled circles spreading in the water gathered there.
The betrayal of solid ground is not unknown to the sailor who has been at sea for a length of time. After so long adjusting to the rock and sway of the boat on the sea, balance becomes a relative concept. The dock beneath Bella's feet now confuses her with its very stillness.
She lurches forward a few steps, knowing she needs to grab her gear from below Rosalie's decks, yet unable to summon the effort required to reboard her yacht and gather her things.
It's too much. Her body and mind, exhausted, free, finally to relax, give up on her.
Her legs buckle and she falls, her knees slammed against the timber. She looks at her hands, her broken nails, her skin pale against the rain-darkened wood. Get up, she thinks. Stand up. Go inside. Get out of the rain.
Strong hands and the smell of wet wool and cigarette smoke surround her, a rough but warm voice coaxing her to feet, encouraging her to take just a few more steps, luring her with the promise of something warm to drink and some dry clothes. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Bella is embarrassed by her show of weakness. And yet, she doesn't push away from the arm that wraps around her shoulders.
It feels … nice. Being taken care of when she has spent countless hours being the only person she could rely on for her safety. Turning over responsibility to another, even just for the short walk into the clubhouse, is a relief.
"Here ya go, love," the sandpaper voice says. "I'll get you a cuppa. Just take a seat here."
Bella obeys, unthinking. Her blinks are heavy, and she's almost drifted to sleep when a chipped enamel mug is placed in her hands. She wraps her fingers around the tea gratefully, feeling the heat seep through the cup and into her chilled hands. It's almost painful, but too comforting to let it go.
"Bella Swan, right? You're Charlie's girl."
She nods, trying to focus on the beard-hidden face that swims before her bleary eyes.
"Jasper Whitlock," he says. He offers her a hand, and she takes it slowly. His skin is mottled with sunspots and spidery blue veins. "You used to race Sabots with my boy, Peter."
Bella nods. She thinks the words make sense, but she's too tired to dwell on their meaning.
"Shall I give the old man a call? Let him know you're safe and dry?"
She nods, takes a small sip of tea to lubricate her throat. It's strong and sweet, exactly how she likes it. "Thank you."
1845 - December 27.
There's a small patch of clear sky disappearing over the horizon as Edward and Charlie arrive in Eden. They stumble out of the Landcruiser, fists at their eyes, yawns forcing their way up their throats.
"Charlie." Jasper grabs their attention as soon as they step inside. Edward is introduced, and he shakes the bearer of their good news's hand gratefully, though his gaze is moving, searching the faces of the weary seamen and women slumped in couches and against the walls.
"She's over there," Jasper says, his voice kind as he points towards a beat-up pool table.
The moment Edward catches sight of Bella's sun-streaked hair hanging over the arm of an ugly, floral-patterned couch he's moving, his long legs carrying him quickly over the stained carpet, its marine blue patterning marred by long-hardened wads of chewing gum. He's only vaguely aware that Charlie hasn't immediately followed him.
He finds Bella asleep, sprawled across the couch, her fingertips trailing on the floor.
She looks small, swallowed up by the woollen jumper that's more than three sizes too big, track pants with a hole in the knee, and thick socks that flop off the ends of her feet.
Kneeling down beside her, Edward is loath to wake her, knowing she must be absolutely shattered. He reaches out carefully, stroking her hair, tucking a strand that has escaped her ponytail behind her ear. Her hair is damp, but soft—she's clearly showered since she arrived.
Touching her like this, though, has Edward desperate to hold her in his arms, to feel the solidity of her body, to reassure himself that she is actually here, safe and sound.
She stirs, squeezing her eyes tight.
She sits up with a gasp, her hand reaching for the arm of the couch for support. "Edward?"
"Hey." His smile is only half there, pulling up just one corner of his mouth.
He studies her, taking in the purple bruise forming on her temple. Her cheeks look sore and red; her lips are chapped.
"Your head …" That's the first thing you say to her?
Bella brings her hand to her forehead, touching the bruise with three fingertips. "I don't even know," she says. "Maybe when I was heading below deck at some point?"
Edward pulls her hand away from the ugly mark, kissing her fingers. Her hands, too, are stained in places with blue and purple.
Bella pulls her hands into her lap, sticking her thumb through a hole in the cuff of her jumper. She rubs the fleshy pad of it against the worn wool. "I'm sorry."
Edward sits down beside her with a sigh, his thigh pressing against hers. He wraps an arm around her shoulders, feels her melt against him. Something inside his chest loosens. She's okay.
"Please don't apologise."
"But you were worried. I know you were. And I'm sorry."
Edward presses a kiss to her temple, careful of the bruising there. Her hair smells strange, soaked in someone else's shampoo. "I was worried. So was Charlie. But you were chasing your dream, Bella. Never apologise for that."
She shakes her head. "No, listen. I was … proud. Too proud."
She can't see his smile, but its there in his voice. "I was proud of you, too. I am proud of you."
"But–" She pulls back, searching his eyes. They are clear and calm, the ocean on the stillest of days.
"There's no buts. You … I was in a helicopter this morning." Edward swallows, closing his eyes as if to block out the remembered images. "I watched them pull six sailors out of the sea. I watched a sixty foot yacht sink like a stone. And I was scared."
He opens them again, gazing at her. She fidgets as she sees the awe reflected there.
"I guess you don't win against weather like that. You don't conquer it," he says.
"But you survived it. And I'm so–" His voice catches in his throat. He breathes deep, lets the words tumble into the space between them. "I knew you were competent, and brave. But I never realised just how amazing you are. Even after watching you spend months, years, preparing for this … I had no clue. It wasn't until I–"
Bella cuts him off, pressing her wind-chapped lips to his. She kisses him hard, until he's breathless and dizzy. This tiny hurricane in his arms, he forgets where he is, the worry and stress of the day pouring out of him and into their kiss.
A throat clears. A small cough. A muttered curse.
Edward pulls back, his cheeks flooding with heat as he looks up at Charlie. He helps Bella to her feet, nudges her towards her father.
The Swans embrace, Charlie mumbling something Edward can't hear in Bella's ear. She nods. Her shoulders shake. Charlie holds her tighter.
"Ow!" Bella grimaces as she untangles herself from her father. "Sorry," she says. "Bit bruised and battered."
"Shit. I'm sor–"
"Don't worry," she says. "Nothing a few days rest won't fix."
"Right." Charlie pulls a hand through his hair, looks from Bella to Edward and back again. "I, uh, I booked us into the motel up the road. Too late to drive back tonight."
Bella shakes her head. "I'm not driving back."
Both men blink at her, mouths open with words that don't come.
"I need to get Rosalie back to Sydney," she says, as if this should be entirely self-evident. As if, hours after surviving one of the worst storms in maritime history, it's not at all surprising that she should be ready to head back to sea.
Charlie sighs. "Bel–"
"I'll go with you." Edward looks almost surprised as Bella does at the words that have just leapt out of his mouth. "But not in this weather. Not until the winds abate and the sun comes back."
Bella's smile is wide. "Deal."
Charlie smiles. There's pride in his gaze, directed both at his daughter and Edward. "Righto. How 'bout we go get some dinner?"
"God, yes." Bella says, her voice almost a groan. "I want Chinese food. The nasty kind. Deep-fried honey chicken. Lots of rice."
She grabs Edward's hand and the bag Harry retrieved for her earlier. They follow her father out into the fast-fading day. It's almost unbelievable to her that scarcely more than twenty-four hours has passed since the starting gun fired.
The ring box in Edward's pocket bumps against his thigh as he climbs into the backseat behind her. Another day, he thinks. A calm day. One with blue sky framing fluffy white clouds and sunlight glittering on the sea.
December 29, 1998.
Bluewater Classic Ends in Tragedy.
SYDNEY: The fifty-fourth Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race has ended in tragedy, with the lives of six sailors lost in the prestigious annual race, which, by all accounts, has lived up to its nickname, "Hell on High Water."
The storm, the worst in the race's history, produced winds upwards of 70 knots (144 kmph) and waves that reportedly reached heights of thirty metres. It blew up during the early hours of December 27, prompting the biggest non-wartime maritime rescue mission in Australian history. Thirty-five military and civilian aircraft were involved in the operation, as were twenty-seven vessels belonging to the Royal Australian Navy.
Fifty-five sailors were airlifted from the ocean as five yachts sank into the depths of the Tasman Sea. Sixty-six yachts were forced to retire from the race, limping into ports along the east coast of New South Wales.
A New South Wales coroner's inquiry has been ordered, while the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the race organiser, will also investigate the disaster. The families of many sailors are demanding to know why the CYCA did not postpone the start of the race, following reports of bad weather in Bass Strait.
Full Report, pages 5-7.
Photo Credit: Edward Cullen.