ten feet of water


Pam Lazos

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Three hours later, the Sea Witch’s belly had gone from four to fifteen feet below the water line as a result of its recently acquired load while the Ryujin sat that much higher. The deck hands fastening the fendering back to her side looked to Captain Reed to be no bigger than children. The Sea Witch was off, already moving upriver, while Captain Reed paced the deck, waiting impatiently for the arrival of the river pilot who would steer the Ryujin up the Delaware to the Marcus Hook refinery. The pilot was late and lateness was something Reed could not tolerate.

“Company, sir,” the first mate called.

A small water taxi, likely bearing the river pilot, was arriving. Captain Reed didn’t think much of river pilots on the whole, thought them a lazy lot, their navigational skills gone slack from disuse as a result of gliding back and forth on the same body of water – the epitome of a big fish in a little pond – but the law said that only the river pilots could take a ship upriver. The company that serviced the Delaware was run by an old codger named Lars Andersen. He was smooth and weathered like driftwood back when Reed met him fifteen years ago and despite his prejudices, Reed had come to like the man over time.

Captain Reed ceased his pacing to watch the water taxi’s approach. It pulled up close and tight to the Ryujin and a young man of about twenty-five reached for the rope ladder hanging down her side. Reed frowned and moved in to get a closer look.


The water taxi bobbed on the water while Pilot Christian Anderson stood watching the swell of the waves, looking for an opportunity. The Ryujin rocked and jumped with the swell of the rising tide. The taxi was at optimal height and Anderson had a split second to decide: he grabbed for a middle rung of the rope ladder, Jacob’s ladder, and pulled hard. He threw one leg around the outside rope and hooked his foot inside a square. He grabbed another rung with his free hand just as the sea tossed the water taxi and the deck fell away. Anderson held on with ease, suspended along the side of the Ryujin , his strong, well-tuned muscles tensing and flexing under his own weight as he climbed the thirty-odd feet to the top. He swung over the side of the supertanker, dropping effortlessly onto the deck, and looked into the face of mocking disapproval.

“Who are you?” Captain Reed barked.

“Pilot Christian Anderson. At your service, sir.” He bowed his head slightly.

“Christian Anderson? Where’s Lars?”

“Dead,” Anderson said, watching Reed’s face. The eyes changed, but the face did not. No way of telling whether the Captain was friend or foe of his father since the man had equal amounts of both – one either loved or hated him – or whether he knew Lars even had a son. “Any other questions?” Anderson asked. Reed took a step back to better appraise Anderson.

Christian Anderson had been a pilot for about thirty-three seconds. Actually it had been three years, but only three weeks since his father died and he took over the family business. So far, he hadn’t been able to lose that sick feeling in his stomach that sometimes came with the weight of being in charge. He’d played the prodigal son for so long that he couldn’t get used to this new appellation. Still, that wasn’t information he was about to be offering up, especially not to this dickbag standing in front of him looking all smug and holier than thou. He’d had a hard enough time convincing the other half a dozen pilots his father employed that he was up to the task of running the business, and not into the ground , as he had heard them prognosticate under their collective breaths. This business would flourish in ways his father never had the foresight to allow. They’d see. They’d all see. Then he’d have something to flaunt. He gave Reed his own forthright appraisal, looking him over like a prized heifer. Reed’s icy glare forced Anderson to turn his own face away as if stung.

Anderson pulled out a small brown leather case and flashed his pilot’s badge, then shoved it back in his pocket; Reed put a hand on his arm to stop him. Anderson narrowed his eyes at the Captain, but pulled it out again, handing it to Reed for examination. Reed examined the license then the man himself before handing it back.

“He was your father then?”

Anderson searched Reed’s eyes for some glint of emotion, and finding none, figured it was simple curiosity that asked the question. Anderson nodded.

“When did he die?”

“Three weeks ago.”

Captain Reed made a small gesture, a slight nod of the head, turned on his heel and walked away. Whether it was meant as an offer of sympathy Anderson couldn’t tell. He stared after Reed in mute astonishment, his delicate, Swedish features turning momentarily to granite. And as the Captain turned the corner, Anderson decided it prudent to follow and sprinted after Reed.


Hours later, the moon rose above the horizon at what might be considered warp speed in moon terms, bulging and engorged, a result of the last rays of the sun’s refracted light. As she climbed, she lost that overstuffed pancake look, shrunk down to normal size and simply became the moon once again, that giant, floating orb of light and beauty that possessed the mystical ability to control tides and sway men’s hearts.

Anderson, his hands set tightly on the joy stick, cast a glance up at the sky and relaxed his grip. To his right and behind stood Captain Reed, so close to Anderson’s shoulder that he could hear the man breathing although to Anderson it sounded more like a wheeze. The noise and Reed’s sheer proximity were unnerving.

“You know, you should have that looked at,” Anderson said.

“Pardon me?”

“Your lungs. It sounds like your breathing underwater.”

“I’d thank you to mind your own business .” Reed emphasized the word business and Anderson’s shoulders tightened. He couldn’t stop thinking about the messy state his father had left it in.

“I’m going down on deck for a few minutes. Try not to hit anything,” Reed said and left.

“Dickbag,” Anderson muttered. It was only a hundred and two-mile stretch of river from the Bay to the Marcus Hook refinery, but already Anderson knew it was going to be the longest hundred miles he’d ever traveled. And by night, no less. The thought sent a shiver up his spine.

Had he been given his way, the Ryujin would have waited until morning to depart, but the tide had reached high water mark and was on the way down and the Sea Witch had already taken off upriver. Reed had wanted the Ryujin to follow as soon behind as the Coast Guard would allow to take advantage of the extra draft room the high tide would provide. He was pissed, that bastard, that Anderson hadn’t taken off right away, but Anderson was adamant about inspecting the ship, acquainting himself with all her innermost workings. With so few solo trips under his belt and a business on the line, he couldn’t afford any screw ups. Mostly so he wouldn’t appear lackadaisical and just to shut Reed up, he agreed to leave when his inspection was complete. Unfortunately, by that time it was twilight.

Anderson came from a long line of sailors and sea captains, a nepotistic bunch of Swedes, brothers, uncles, and cousins who were all active in the business Anderson’s father had inherited from his own father. During early childhood, he spent many nights curled up in a sleeping bag at his father’s feet as his Dad piloted a ship upriver, listening to the low rumbling vibration of the boat, the last lines of his father’s bedtime story resonating in his ears. Except that those stories were much worse than the usual macabre of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. His father’s stories were of sailors lost at sea; of monsters with terrible fangs and breath like fire; of mermaids that grabbed unsuspecting sailors off their ships and bore them down to their watery graves; of the sirens, lovely creatures that lured men too near the rocks with their songs and laughed as the waves bashed their ships against them, leaving the hapless sailors to drown in the melee. The stories had delighted and enchanted him and Anderson would look up to catch a last glimpse of his father standing behind the wheel, smiling at him as his child’s eyes became heavy with sleep.

Anderson’s head bobbed, touching his chest. He opened his eyes and for an instant, he was a boy again. He came to full consciousness, shocked with the realization that he had fallen asleep at the helm. There was no telling if it had been seconds or minutes. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, then shook himself like a wet dog, dispensing the sleepiness that had settled on him like drops of water. It had been three weeks since he’d had a good night’s sleep, haunted as he was by visions of the giant of a man he’d loved so in life.

He felt a hand on his arm and turned, half-expecting to see his father. He saw Captain Reed instead. Reed said nothing, the scoundrel, just turned and stood off to the side, staring out into the blackness in front of him, his hands clasped behind his back, the picture of urbanity. Anderson cleared his throat to break the silence and cast a glance back at Reed, the asinine bastard. He saw the Captain’s face out of the corner of his eye, baleful and unwelcoming. He glanced at the radar screen. The next three channel markers were well lit.

“So how long have you been a Captain?” Anderson asked. Safe ground.

“Longer than you’ve been alive,” Reed retorted.

Anderson rolled his eyes and puckered his lips, blowing air out slow and silent. The air in the control deck felt thick and clogged in sharp contrast to the breezy conditions on the river. Anderson moved his head from side to side, stretching the muscles in his neck. As the silent minutes ticked by, his mind drifted to his father’s last months when the Alzheimer’s had him fully in its grasp. How time must have blended together for him; his stubborn refusal to retire, even in his lucid moments. Was time really not linear, as the physicists said, and even more absurd, all happening at once? That one would wreak havoc on the history books.

Reed spoke, but Anderson missed what he said so Reed cleared his throat.

“Excuse me?” Anderson said.

“I said how long? Until we drop our load. How long?”

“What, you got a date?”

Reed didn’t even crack a smile, just gave Anderson a stultifying glare.

Anderson harrumphed. “A few hours give or take. It’s slower going at night.”

“I notice you don’t use the radar much,” Reed said.

“I use it as backup.”

Reed’s eyebrows shot up in query.

Anderson gave Reed a half-smile. “I’ve been traveling this river since I was a boy. I can tell you where every rock and shoal lies.”

Reed made a small grunting noise that originated in the back of his throat, and strode over to the radar screen. A light blipped on and off signaling the presence of something buried well below the surface out of the path of the Ryujin . He grabbed the weems plotter, a fat ruler with wheels, placed it on a line and rolled it down making a compass angle.

Anderson laughed.

“You think using a chart is funny?”

“Just laughing at the hardware.”

Reed raised his eyebrows, scanned the desk chart and then at the blinking radar screen.       “What do you think that is?”

“Nothing to be alarmed about?”

“How do you know?”

“The GPS says we’re right where we need to be,” Anderson said. “There’s nothing at that particular juncture big enough to cause injury to his boat.”

Reed snorted. His voice was so sedate that a small shiver ran up Anderson’s spine. “When was the last time you were on this river?”

“Three weeks ago.” Three weeks ago, Anderson’s father had died suddenly while at the wheel of a ship very similar to this, leaving his son to sort through the mess.

“If you know anything about rivers,” Reed said curtly, “you’ll know the last thing they are is static. Things change. How do you know that a boulder hasn’t rolled, or wasn’t just missed in the plotting, or a school bus didn’t drive off the side of the road and is now parked in our path, waiting to tear a large, gaping hole into the hull?”

Anderson sighed. “I don’t. But regardless of that nice little speech you just gave, river bottoms don’t change all that drastically. Besides, the Army Corps is always dredging this part of the river to keep the silt down so the channel stays open.”

A wry smile formed in the corner of Reed’s mouth; he turned back to the chart. “Under the Coast Guard regs, you might be temporarily in charge of this ship, but remember this, son,” Reed said. “I’m the Captain. Before, and long after you’re gone.” Reed eyed the blinking radar screen. “What’s that?”

Andersen checked the screen and scanned the dark horizon. He saw nothing. “A small speed boat, maybe? Or a fisherman still out on the water.” Thanks to Reed, he was growing a little nervous himself. The blip on the radar screen moved erratically, not a stagnant boulder half-buried in the sea bottom, that was for Goddamn sure, but something, and admitting it to this truculent son-of-a-bitch made him queasy.

“There’s been nothing reported in the last week,” Anderson said, trying to maintain an air of calm about him. “As far as the Coast Guard and the Corps are concerned, we’ve got ten feet of water between us and the bottom of the river. We’re riding anything but light. But we’ve still got the residual benefit of the flood tide even though it’s turned.” He glanced out the window at the bank of the Delaware and gave silent thanks for the red buoys. Red right returning . As long as the buoys were on the right, they were safely in the channel. He shook his head, trying to cast off the vibes of impending doom that Reed was scattering about the cabin like wildflower seeds and stole a glance at the imperial jackass as he moved the weems plotter over the nautical charts, its wheels squeaking like baby mice.

“Man, would you knock it off? You’re creeping me out.”

Reed gasped. Anderson turned in time to see Reed lunge at him. Reed tossed Anderson aside and wrenched the joy stick from his grip, and with it, the direction of the ship, slowly altering its course by forty-five degrees. But before Anderson could react, they heard it. The sound started out low, like a hum, and grew in volume until it became identifiable. A small water craft. The speed boat raced by and they both looked out the window in time to see the stern of the motor boat disappearing from view; the laughter of its occupants left behind, floating on the breeze.

“Goddamn kids,” Reed said.

A feeling of de ja vu overtook Anderson and he entered a place where time was no longer linear. He knew more than a few seconds had passed because the sound of laughter, mingled with the small boat’s engine, had receded into silence, yet he couldn’t say how long that took or what had transpired in the interim. He regained his presence of mind and looked to the river for reorientation. The buoys were on the left!

“Jesus Christ.” By instinct Anderson grabbed the joy stick, shoving Reed aside, and cut it hard, aiming the ship back into the channel. She turned slowly on her axis, a planet caught in the gravitational pull of her own sun. She spun slowly, a giant arcing whale, then resumed her forward motion, course righted. Anderson breathed a sigh as they passed the buoys on their way back into the channel. But relief was short-lived.

It was no more than a slight jolt, what one might feel when riding on a train whose tracks needed tamping.

“What the hell was that?” Reed demanded.

Anderson looked out at the river as they were clearing the buoys, then to the radar screen. Something was blinking, and he had just run over it, or through it, depending on what the hell it was. He rubbed his eyes, but the blip was still there. The two men eyeballed each other.

Anderson cleared his throat. “Why don’t you go check the water off the stern and see if we’re dragging anything,” he said. “The moon’s almost full. Should help you to see.”

“What the hell would we be dragging?” Reed sneered, his voice rising. “You hit something.”

“You mean we don’t you.” The palms of Anderson’s hands were beginning to sweat on the wheel, but he retained his outward demeanor.

“No, I mean you. You’re the pilot of this ship and…”

“And if you hadn’t thrown us out of the channel…”

“…if I hadn’t steered us out of the channel, we would have had a head on collision with a motor boat,” Reed bellowed, spitting as he did. His face had taken on a crimson hue and his eyes were bulging giving him a toad-like appearance. “And somebody would have probably died you stupid, idiotic…”

“That boat,” Anderson said, “was playing chicken with us, and you know it. A bunch of kids out joyriding. They knew enough not to take on a thousand foot ship. Trust me. They would’ve blinked.” Anderson was sweating now from the rush of adrenaline and sheer nerves.

“Go check the stern, dammit,” he barked at Reed.

Reed hesitated momentarily before scrambling out the door giving Anderson time to collect his thoughts. He reviewed the charts and saw what he was dreading. There, just outside the channel, was the topside protrusion of a large boulder that had likely been in that exact same position since the dawn of time, the kind that originated somewhere around the core of the earth and kept twisting and rising until it reached the top with just its tip peeking out. The sneaky kind. The kind that sunk the Titanic.

A shiver of fear ran down Anderson’s spine. It’s nothing. A small jolt is all. We bounced right off her. He gripped the joy stick tightly and clenched his teeth. He knew what a “small” jolt meant to a ship of this size and the kind of damage a boulder could do to a single-hulled vessel. The Ryujin was well past her prime, and although she paid lip service to the Coast Guard regulations, her body worked and reworked a dozen times trying to keep her up to the current safety standards, she stayed afloat not because of strict compliance with the law, but because of some damn grandfather clause. It was the lawmaker’s fault. A single-hulled ship had no business carrying millions of gallons of oil, yet it was done all the time since, the ship owners said, the cost to retire her and build a new doubled-hulled ship outweighed any potential environmental damage that a spill would cause. And the law said that until 2015, ship owners could continue to sail single-hulled ships no matter how many dead fish floated to the surface covered in oil.


Captain Reed appeared half an hour later, looking flushed from exertion, but otherwise in good spirits, his normal dour countenance having momentarily shed its pinched expression. Anderson took this as a good sign.

“What d’ya find out?”

“Nothing,” Reed said. The briefest of smiles crossed his lips. “There is no damage to this ship.”

“You’re sure?” Anderson watched the man’s face carefully. After all, he didn’t know Reed from Adam, and now Reed held Anderson’s career between his two damn fingers.

Reed nodded. “Engines are all in working order, we’re not dragging anything, and we’re not leaking anything.”

“No sheen on the water? You looked?” Anderson asked. Reed nodded again. “How many times?”

“Three,” Reed replied. “Once at the beginning of my inspection and once at the end. And once in between. The oil is safely in the hold.”

Anderson nodded, uncertain. Whatever Reed may be, it was obvious he was a Captain foremost. He would not take kindly to any untoward incidents on the Ryujin while under his command although Anderson dimly suspected that Reed might be more concerned with the integrity of his ship than that of the Delaware River. Still, Reed’s environmental ethic was not Anderson’s concern right now. He sighed and looked out over the bow and beyond to the horizon hidden by night. Nothing much he could do but take the man’s word for it.

“Alright. Let’s get this baby to bed before she suffers another nightmare,” Anderson said. and bent to the task.


The full moon was all but eclipsed by the stratus clouds that stretched out, in full battle regalia, across a winter sky. An occasional break in their ranks gave the casual observer the tiniest peek at the moon’s frothy demeanor, but the blaze of light she heretofore sent streaming down river before the Stratus’s moved into the neighborhood was gone, gone, gone. Too bad, too, for the fish, birds, flora, fauna, and various species of plankton that thrived in the river because they were about to get a rude awakening. Thirty feet below sea level, a ten-inch gash ripped through the hull of the Ryujin by an errant boulder had begun to widen, resulting in the unfortunate release of the contents of the ship’s hold into the river. The seemingly small quantity of oil leaking out at any given moment would, hours later, add up to one of the worst environmental disasters ever experienced on the Delaware.

On deck, the crew, Captain and Pilot of the Ryujin were oblivious to the danger. As they headed north, the oil headed south and without the moon to light her stern-side, the crew would not see so much as a flicker of a sheen on the black night waters.

Of course, the Stratus’s did not move into town alone. They brought with them the North Wind and He, coupled with the outbound tide, pushed that pure, Arabian crude down, down, down toward the Bay, catching the whole hundred-mile stretch of that beautiful river unaware.

 to be continued.  . .

to get up to speed with what happened before start here

copyright 2012

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