In Florida, Gonzalez and Henry were due to meet in the chandlery again. Gonzalez, with much on his mind and clutching the Coast Guard report on Ares, reached the chandlery’s back door, finding it unlocked.
Gonzalez walked in and after a nod of greeting, Henry said, “Hi Mike. A few new developments. I did some checking into Bridget’s brother. He’s a silent partner in quite a few things. A very silent partner; no one will admit to even meeting him. I did a bit of digging, trying to get a name, and he’s listed as Jonathon Winchester. The thing is, Bridget’s maiden name was O’Hara, and school and birth records seem to indicate that Bridget was an only child. Yet, this Winchester guy is apparently active when it comes to financial transactions, and has been for more than twenty years. He does not, however, seem to do anything else.”
“Interesting. Sounds like a front… that’d fit, if Bridget is running drugs and has a lot of money to hide. And, if he’s a front for cash investments, maybe we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg; I know that there are few if any official records in most private investment deals, and the people receiving the money aren’t usually inclined to check the ID of the one investing it. What about tax records? A Social Security Number?” Gonzalez asked.
Henry shook his head. “Nothing so far, and nobody is eager to talk about him. We’ve always known that Bridget is rich, but from the look of this, I’d say she’s a lot richer than we thought. I’m also looking into the ownership of that property where the boat is kept; it’s convoluted. It’ll take a while to unravel, because I got as far as a part owner in New Jersey and ran into a blank wall; a corporate shell.”
Gonzalez frowned and began pacing. “I was hoping you could pull something like you did on Joel and get some info, but I guess it won’t be anywhere near that easy. I’ll see what I can get going through the State Attorney for a forensic accountant. Speaking of Joel, you can go ahead and meet with him; it looks like he’s in the clear as far as being a willing accomplice. I just got word from Australia; Joel has had the yacht club address in Carnarvon since just after Trevor arrived, but George was still looking for where Trevor was.”
“That’s good news. However, we still have to assume that whatever he learns might reach Bridget’s ears. Is that the Ares file?” Henry asked.
Gonzales handed the manila folder to Henry. “It’s a copy of everything in the file, but as you can see, there isn’t much. They focused on the facts, which are few; Ares completed a charter a few days before, then was seen sailing from Nassau. Later that day, the brief distress call was heard, then nothing. They tried hailing her, and coordinated with the Bahamian authorities to launch a search at daybreak at the reported location, twenty miles northeast of Bimini. The weather was good, but nothing was found. They expanded the search a bit, thinking that the position might have been accidentally misstated and the transmission itself had been far too brief to triangulate. The air search turned up nothing, and it was a puzzler for the Coast Guard, because a boat of that type doesn’t sink unless it’s pretty much shattered. One theory was that Ares was hit by a big ship; that position is right on the edge of a major shipping lane. That would have shattered her, possibly enough to sink, and the mayday was weak enough that it might have come from a handheld radio.”
Henry scratched at his chin before replying, “Whatever happened must have happened damn fast, and been devastating. They didn’t find anything at all, not that I know of.”
Gonzalez nodded and sighed. “According to the report, they gave up on the search after a few days and pretty much closed the file, because she went down in foreign waters, sort of. The reported coordinates are about eleven miles east of Great Isaac Cay – basically a rock with a lighthouse on it – which is north northeast of Bimini. In 1993, the Bahamas extended their territorial limits from three nautical miles to twelve, and authorized but did not fully define territorial sea baselines within the archipelago, which would have, and eventually did, make the area entirely territorial waters, but in 1997 it was a gray area. Ares’ call of ‘twenty miles’ could have been standard miles, but was most likely nautical miles, which would have put her twelve miles or so east of that cay. The long and the short of it is there was jurisdictional confusion. That applies to the murder investigation as well; if the killing occurred in international waters, Federal law applies, because Ares was a U.S. flagged vessel. If she was in Bahamian waters, their law applies, though some Federal ones might as well. Even that gets confusing, because many Federal laws that might pertain in foreign territory do so mostly to U.S. citizens, which Rachel wasn’t, though she did have legal residency, which further clouds the issue. If the crime of planting a bomb or other sabotage was done in Florida, Florida law applies for that, as does Federal law,” Gonzalez said.
Henry flipped through the few pages, finding no surprises. “I’ll give this to Joel. When is a good time for you?”
“Make it Monday afternoon. Oh, one other detail; I found it a little odd that Trevor, who was just a small child at the time, is the registered owner of Atlantis, right from her purchase. So, I decided to see how Ares was registered,” Gonzalez said offhandedly.
Henry’s blood turned to ice, and he struggled to avoid showing any reaction. “Anything interesting?” he asked, trying for an offhand tone, keeping his eyes on the Coast Guard file.
“There is, actually. Something you should know, if you don’t already. When Ares was purchased, she was registered to Rachel and Dirk jointly. So, I looked to see if there were any transfers, and found an interesting detail. Ocean Star Charters was created as a charter business, though there’s no record of it ever running a charter, or Rachel either, for that matter. Then, there were two documents filed on the same day; Rachel and Dirk apparently signed Ares over so that she was registered to Ocean Star Charters, and then Rachel quitclaimed Ocean Star Charters to Trevor. The thing is we have no way of proving that whoever signed the documents really was Rachel. A notary has to ask for ID, but that’s not all that hard to get around. And then Rachel dies, leaving the transfers uncontested, and Trevor is a minor, with Dirk his sole remaining parent. Looks to me like a very convenient death, for Dirk, especially if those aren’t her signatures.”
Henry’s heart raced, pounding in his chest. “So your theory is that he was trying to con his wife out of her boat and then blew it up? What about checking the documents for Rachel’s DNA, fingerprints, or a signature match?” Henry asked.
“I can probably get a maternal match via Trevor’s DNA, but he’s conveniently unavailable right now, so we haven’t tested the papers for DNA – as you know, we don’t do DNA tests without a strong reason, due to the cost. We did find one smudged print – a partial match for Rachel from her visa application, but that’s far from conclusive: even if it’s hers, it just means she handled the paper at some point, possibly before it was filled in. How about telling me what you know about this?” Gonzalez asked, watching Henry carefully.
Henry shrugged, his mind racing, still trying to act casually. “Not a lot. Something to do with using Trevor as a straw man to shift assets around in preparation for incorporating, I think, and it was probably abandoned when they decided to divorce. We didn’t get into it too deeply; it was just a paperwork snafu. I think they got as far as filing some preliminary paperwork for incorporating. If so, that should show that that’s what they were up to.”
Gonzalez studied Henry, seeing his outwardly calm demeanor, and then he noticed the faint glisten of sweat on Henry’s brow. It was hot and stuffy in the chandlery, but Gonzalez wondered if that wasn’t the only reason for Henry’s sweating. He made a mental note to himself to put in a records request for any incorporation filings by Dirk and Rachel. “Okay, I’m just trying to tie up loose ends. I’ll see you Monday for the meeting with Joel,” Gonzalez said.
“I’ll get that set up,” Henry said, standing up to go. He turned towards the back door, pausing only to raise his hand in farewell, saying cheerfully, “Have a good day, Mike.”
On his way back to his car, Henry began to fret, suspecting that he’d failed to convince Gonzalez. “Just a few more days, Mike, just give us a few more fucking days,” Henry mumbled, as he neared his car.
Aboard Kookaburra, there was tension in the air. They were five miles northwest of the mouth of the Murchison River, and the skies were black. It wasn’t merely a moonless night, but overcast, with a light drizzle blowing on the wind.
Trevor, at the portside helm, studied the electronic charts, noting that they were six months old. He knew that a great deal could change in that time, assuming they were perfectly accurate to begin with, which was never a safe assumption. “The forecast is for overcast, not bloody blowing drizzle,” Shane said, as he glared up into the dark, his shirt already getting damp from the blowing mist.
“There’s a heavy swell, a rising wind, and conditions are worsening. If we’re going in, we need to head in now, even though we’ll be about twenty minutes earlier than planned. Are you sure you want to try this in the dark?” Trevor asked.
“I’m not worried. You might want to think on this; everyone is confident that you can do it. There’s a reason for that,” Shane said, putting his arm around Trevor.
Trevor smiled in the darkness. “Thanks, but they might be wrong: the only experience I have is with tidal estuaries, not continental river systems. I’ve sure as hell never tried anything like this in the dark, in bad weather, in an unfamiliar area. I think I can handle the mouth okay, but it’s dangerous; there’s a heavy swell tonight, so we’ll have high surf on both sides; on the shore break and on the bar. If Kookaburra gets caught in high surf, she’ll be destroyed. Shane, I’m laying in a GPS track: if I have a panic attack, take over. Worry about the boat, not me. Unless you’re almost in, go to max power and get back to the track, reciprocal course, heading out to sea. If you’re almost in, get her to safe water and keep going as far as you can.”
Shane looked at the chart and swallowed once. “Do I have to dack you again?”
Trevor smiled, remembering his speedos being yanked to his knees by Shane, when they were entering the shallows at Rhys Lagoon. He was wearing shorts and a T at the moment, and grinned at the thought of trying to take Kookoburra in with his shorts around his ankles.
Shane saw Trevor’s smile, and answered with one of his own. “You’ll do fine, no attacks,” Shane said, trying to sound confident, while shuddering at the thought of trying to get Kookaburra out of the river mouth entrance on his own.
“I hope not. Okay, I want us both in safety harnesses when we run the entrance; she’s likely to pitch and buck. First though, let’s get ready. I’m going to furl the sails and start the engines, even though we’re well out. Uh, I just had an idea… got a hand lantern aboard? If so, we need it, plus some duct tape. I just thought of a way to make this trick a little better.”
Shane soon returned with the requested lantern and safety harness. He clicked on the lantern’s big flashlight to test it, and found that it worked.
Trevor smiled. “Not that one, the white fluorescent tube. Check that, then turn it off. We’ll be getting a little creative with the running lights; I’ll turn off the masthead lights now, then later, the stern lights as well. We’ll tape the lantern to the sloped starboard side of the salon roof, up near the roofline, about parallel with the salon’s forward windows, with the florescent tube vertical. That way it won’t spill any light on Kookaburra, and anyone looking from Kalbarri will see the green bow light and what looks like a white mast light, so we’ll look like a medium sized powerboat – wait, except we won’t. Not if they see us from head-on: we’ll be approaching Kalbarri bows-on while we pass the bar, and anyone seeing the distance between the forward running lights could tell that Kookaburra is big. Uh, we need a kludge. Let’s put her on autopilot for a few minutes and see what we can find,” Trevor said, before checking the active radar and then engaging the autopilot. Trevor smiled faintly, as an old memory returned; of his mother, teaching him how to tell port from starboard, and in his mind he heard her words from long ago: ‘Trev, when you’re at sea, you’ve left port. That’s how you remember that the portside is to the left when facing forward, and starboard is to the right.’ It was a simple mnemonic that Trevor had never forgotten.
Kookaburra’s normal nighttime running lights, dictated by maritime regulations, were a red light on the port bow and a green light on the starboard bow, both directed outwards. She also carried a white light on the aft rail of the cockpit. Near the top of her mast, when under sail, she displayed a red light above a green light. When running on engines, she displayed a white light on the masthead instead. However, Trevor had already shut down the mast lights.
They walked inside, and Trevor glanced around, scratching his head. “We need something red. Something that’s translucent, to let light through. Plastic would be good.”
Shane angled his head, thinking for a few moments, and then dashed off, heading for the galley. He returned with a can of bug spray, pulling off its red plastic cap. “Will this do?”
“Perfect!” Trevor replied, with a nod and a grin, heading for the navigation desk, where he’d seen a flashlight in the drawer. “We tape this cap over the end of the flashlight, then tape the flashlight on the starboard bowsprit, pointing to port. That’ll make Kookaburra look like a small monohull instead of a big cat, if seen from ahead.”
“I’ll go install ‘em, you get back to the helm,” Shane said, snatching up the two lights and some duct tape, then attaching his harness to a safety line before heading forward.
“Go ahead and turn ‘em on ready, it won’t be long now,” Trevor called out, while studying the navigation display and radar.
“Aye Aye, Captain Bligh,” Shane quipped, evoking a laugh from Trevor.
The north shore of the river was uninhabited and had no road access, so their primary risk of being sighted was from their starboard side as they passed the town.
Trevor clicked off the stern lights, and when Shane returned to the cockpit, Trevor grinned, “We’re now doing our best impression of a twenty-five foot fishing boat. This rain reduces visibility, so that’ll make it harder, but also help hide us. We can’t see any shore lights yet, so they can’t see ours.”
“There’s another thing it’ll do, something that a Yank would never think of; it’ll mean there won’t be many, or maybe any, people out on the waterfront, and probably not about town.” Shane paused for effect, and added, “A Yank would never think of that, because Australians, unlike Yanks, have the sense to come in out of the bloody rain,” Shane said, and then began to snicker.
Trevor laughed hard. “Asshole. But you’ve got a good point, and I don’t mean the one on top of your head; there won’t be many people out watching the water. We’ll get Kookaburra in,” he said, and then laughed again, feeling at ease, just as Shane had intended.
Two miles out, Trevor angled Kookaburra to the southeast, bringing her closer to the shore. He switched off the last of the cockpit lights, leaving the starboard running light, the flashlight, and the lantern as the only lights aboard still lit. He reduced the brightness of the navigation displays until he could barely read the screen, telling Shane, “We can’t look at a brightly lit display; it’ll hinder our night vision. The depth gauge readout is fine; it’s just a backlit liquid-crystal display, and I’ve dialed-down the light to minimum.” Trevor checked that they were both clipped into their safety lines, and then looked at the radar display, which was picking up shore returns. “Nothing else besides us on the water tonight, not out here anyway. Here we go.” Trevor angled more to port, bringing Kookaburra closer to the surf line.
Three hundred yards from shore, Trevor caught sight of the surf through the driving mist, a dim uneven white line to port, writhing in the darkness. Kookaburra’s side-to-side roll increased, as she took the heavy base swells on her starboard beam. The swells were growing larger and steeper as Kookaburra entered shallower water, reaching fifteen feet in height. They were no danger to her – yet – but they made for a challenging ride.
Trevor checked the depth gauge again, seeing a varying twenty to thirty feet under the hulls, and angled Kookaburra closer to the raging shore surf, coming within sixty yards before turning Kookaburra south, paralleling the beach and its roaring surfline, as Kookaburra began rolling in the heavy seas.
“I think I see the bar, about two hundred meters ahead and a little to starboard,” Shane said, while leaning out of the cockpit to starboard.
“Hell, I think I can hear it,” Trevor said, listening to a low roar, audible even over Kookaburra’s engines. Trevor peered into the darkness ahead, seeing the lines of raging surf paralleling their course. He felt Kookaburra begin to turn off course, twisting in the violent currents, and increased the throttles, bringing Kookaburra up to six knots. Trevor kept her on track, making frequent adjustments to the wheel, as Kookaburra’s roll increased, and she also began to pitch fore and aft in the chaotic waters. “This is gonna get rough, hang on tight,” Trevor said, as the depth gauge reached ten to twenty feet.
The wind, from the west at twenty knots, whipped the sea spray into the air and across Kookaburra’s path as she drew parallel to the end of the bar, further reducing visibility. Through the spray and drizzle, they could now see a glow from Kalbarri’s lights, brightening the whitewater.
The swells rolling in from the Indian Ocean hit the bar first, turning into massive breakers in the rock-strewn shallows, churning towards shore, only to have the whitewater fade away as they crossed the deeper water of the channel, and then becoming breakers again as they neared the beach. The narrow band of navigable water was barely a hundred yards wide in the main, but in places even narrower. It would have been difficult in daylight, but in the dark, compounded by blowing unforecast drizzle, it was far worse.
His shirt already soaked, Trevor shivered, though not from cold. Ahead, he’d seen a bar breaker fade out in Kookaburra’s path, before almost immediately breaking again as it neared the shore. He altered course slightly to starboard, taking Kookaburra closer to the whitewater of the bar, knowing that any breakers would push her to the left, towards the beach break and away from the bar.
The bar ran from the south point of the river mouth, north across the mouth, and then parallel to the beach north of the river, leaving just a long narrow passage, running north to south, with the north end open to the sea. It was a perilous passage, which at times of high surf became a gauntlet; boats had to pass between the parallel lines of breakers. The most dangerous section was near the northern tip of the bar, at the entrance to the passage; there, the water over the bar was deep enough that the swells didn’t lose much of their energy, and a large swell could maintain a breaker into the channel itself. Any boat caught in such a breaker could be carried into the furious shore surf, where it would be grounded, then pounded to kindling by the breaking waves of the shore surf line.
A massive breaker appeared to starboard, bearing down on Kookaburra from the bar. Shane spotted it and shouted a warning, so Trevor rammed the throttles forward to the stops, building up speed, preparing to turn into the wave to take it bows-on.
The breaker began to fade, so Trevor held course, yelling, “Hang on!” as the wave, now a massive steep swell with no whitewater, pitched Kookaburra into a steep list to port. The wave passed under her, her roll reversing, as Trevor fought to keep her on course.
“Another one coming,” Shane yelled, but immediately added, “I think it looks smaller than that last one.”
With Kookaburra at eleven knots, Trevor waited for the swell’s approach, and then turned Kookaburra slightly towards shore, angling on the face of the swell to pick up a couple of knots of speed. “Sorta like surfing,” he said, as Kookaburra crested the swell and then slowed back to eleven knots.
The roar of the surf on both sides increased, drowning out the roar of Kookaburra’s engines. The fury of the surf to starboard, on the bar, grew, and Trevor breathed a sigh of relief. “The bar is more of a barrier here, so less of the waves get through to our course. I think we’re past the worst of it.” Ahead, barely discernable in the distance, a flashing green light glimmered through the mist, and after a check of the chart, Trevor added, “I think that’s a channel marker on the south side of the mouth, almost there.”
Suddenly, through the mist, Trevor saw it, ahead and to port: the white of the shore breakers ended. “Almost there,” he said, and then waiting until the shore breakers’ end was past Kookaburra’s port beam before turning ninety degrees to port and heading east, into the channel, with the lights of Kalbarri to the south, off the starboard beam. As Kookaburra completed the turn, Trevor looked to his left as the beach break drew even with Kookaburras’ port beam. The ghostly white of the surf was suddenly intruded upon by an unlit red channel marker, visibly only in silhouette, indicating the northern side of the river mouth. “They sure don’t do much in the way of lit buoys here,” Trevor grumbled, glad that the main danger was past.
The swells, now from astern, vanished almost instantly as Kookaburra motored into the wide protected waters of the Murchison River. Trevor throttled back to four knots, following the channel markers east. “We’ll be coming close to the town shore soon, within easy earshot, and a small fishing boat wouldn’t have dual engines, so neither will we,” Trevor said, shutting down the port engine and adding in starboard rudder to compensate for the sudden yaw.
“We’re in safe water now. You doing okay?” Trevor asked Shane.
“I just hope we don’t have to do that again, that scared the crap out of me,” Shane admitted. After a few moments, he added, “If you can get through that without a panic attack, I don’t think anything you have to deal with at the helm will bring one on.”
“Thanks… and yeah, that was hairy. It wouldn’t have been so bad in daylight or in better weather. Okay, let’s sneak by Kalbarri. We’re about half a mile from the yacht anchorage, so the river is going to start bending to the north. We can slow down once we’re past the anchorage; it looks like that’s about the end of town,” Trevor said, looking at the lights of Kalbarri.
Trevor and Shane felt confident, thinking that no one ashore would be paying close attention. They were mistaken. Inside an SUV, parked at the parking area for Chinaman’s Point – the southern point of the river mouth – a man sat watching, waiting to catch sight of Kookaburra, which he was expecting. Every so often, he ran the windshield wipers. He glanced at his watch, and picked up his phone to make a call. “Greg, Chris here. I’m at Chinaman’s Point and conditions are bad and worsening; heavy surf, gusty winds, and a driving drizzle. Nothing has come in tonight except a fishing boat, just now, and she was pitching like crikey when she passed the bar. Based on that and the conditions, you’d better put this plan on hold until the weather clears a bit,” Constable Chris Kaminski, of the Kalbarri Police Department, told Fowler.
“Copy that. I’ll have ‘em stand by well offshore, thanks Chris,” Fowler said. He knew the mouth of the Murchison very well, and so he was well aware how quickly conditions could degrade. He hung up, and called Kookaburra’s satellite phone.
The ringing phone made Trevor and Shane jump. Shane dashed into the salon to get it, and as soon as he answered, Fowler said, “If you’re near the mouth, break off and head out to sea. I just got a call about the conditions – they aren’t viable.”
“Hang on, here’s Trevor,” Shane said, with a big grin as he handed Trevor the phone. Trevor listened as Fowler repeated his warning, and then chuckled for a moment, before replying, “Yeah, it was pretty marginal back there; we finished the run in about ten minutes ago. We’re just approaching the yacht anchorage and I’m going to follow the channel marker past it. We’re passing the town now, looks pretty quiet.”
“You can’t have just come in; there’s a police officer watching for you from… near the south point. I spoke to him just seconds ago.”
Trevor chuckled again. “We wanted to come in as sneaky as possible and the poor visibility gave us some ideas. He probably thinks he saw a powerboat, if he saw anything at all.”
“A fishing boat,” Fowler said, and then thought for a few moments before adding, “I get it, you rejiggered the running lights somehow. Very clever.”
“We’re on one engine right now, so we sound like a smaller boat, too.”
“Good job. Well, you’re past the bad stuff now. Once you pass the yacht anchorage, you’re past the town, so you’ve done it,” Fowler said.
Trevor swallowed once. “I don’t think so. I’m more worried about what’s ahead than what we just came through. If the chart is right, we lose the channel markers after the first bend ahead. I’ve been watching the depth gauge: lots of variances in depth, even in the channel here, which is an indicator of plenty of drifting sand. There isn’t going to be any moonlight; it’ll be blocked by the clouds. I’ve never sailed in a real river before; the Indian River back home is more like a very long lagoon. I’m thinking of laying up just past the last channel marker and waiting for dawn.”
“Don’t, you’re fine. You’re dealing with sand and mud, not rocks, so just keep your speed at three or four knots and it won’t matter if you hit a sandbar. You’re on a rising tide, so if full reverse didn’t get you off, waiting a while and trying it again will. I’ve been up there a ton of times; you can just make guesses where the channel is and feel your way forward by stopping if you ground. As a rule, the current is faster in the channel, so you can feel it that way too. The tide is rising and that part of the river is tidal, so you’ll have the current going upstream. At least try to get out of line-of-sight of any town lights before you wait for dawn, then get as far upstream as you can.”
Trevor looked ahead, into the blackness. “Have you ever tried this at night?” he asked.
Fowler hesitated. “I haven’t myself, no, but I know it’s been done. I think one way is to zigzag in the channel, using the depth sounders to find the deepest spots, to give an idea of where the main channel lies. That should be plenty deep enough; as high tide approaches, you’ll have about an extra meter of depth, and you don’t draw all that much more than that.”
Trevor was very familiar with the zigzag method; he’d had to use that many times in the Indian River back in Florida, a tidal lagoon that has turbid waters and often-shifting channels and sandbars. However, it was far from foolproof, so he asked, “What about snags and rocks; if I hit a sunken log or a rock, I can do damage, even at three knots,” Trevor asked.
“You most likely wouldn’t hole the hull at very low speed, so no worries. Just do the best you can and I hope to have some good news for you within a few days,” Fowler said, in a reassuring tone.
“I’ll try,” Trevor said, staring ahead.
As soon as the call was over, Shelly Fowler arched an eyebrow at her husband. “Greg, I notice you didn’t tell him that nobody has tried that at night who doesn’t know the Murchison like the back of their hand? He’s never been there, and that makes a huge difference.”
Fowler nodded. “I know. We’re expecting some minor damage to Kookaburra, but we want her out of sight. We’ll also be taking the guys off her for a while; they just don’t know it yet. We can’t take any chances; we think the threat is to Atlantis, but it might be what we thought Kline was at first: a killer, after Trevor.”
“You be bloody careful out there tonight,” Shelly said, giving Fowler a hug. He was taking the late stakeout shift at Ned’s yard that night, and had been just about to leave when the call had come in.
On his way to the stakeout, Fowler remembered to call Constable Kaminski, in Kalbarri, to let him know that the boat he’d been watching for had made it in.
Shane stood at the starboard helm, looking to his right, at the lights of Kalbarri. A few big, black shapes occluded some of the lights, and Shane said softly, “Those must be boats at the anchorage. We’re just about past.”
Trevor eyed the red channel buoys, barely visible in the blackness. “We have a marked channel for a little ways further, then we’re running blind. The chart does cover the river, but it warns of shifting shoals, sandbars, and mud flats. It’ll give us an idea of where the channel is, but that’s all. I was counting on moonlight, but we won’t have any. I can zigzag to use the depth finder to find the main channel, but we’re still going to run aground, probably. The channel looks to be a hell of a lot narrower than the river in places; a hundred feet wide for the channel, snaking around in a nine-hundred foot wide river. If I could use floodlights, I could probably see the water surface ahead well enough to see how it’s moving, but I can’t, we’re too close to Kalbarri,” Trevor said, reducing the throttle on the single running engine, which cut their forward speed through the water to two knots, though the two knot inbound current gave them a speed-over-ground of four knots.
Shane tapped at the navigation display. “The big island we’re heading for, Goat Island, is about three kilometers as the crow flies from the edge of Kalbarri. The river goes on both sides of the island, and the side we’re aiming for is the bigger of the two, but that might be far enough from town to use the floodlights, if the drizzle keeps up.”
“I just hope we get that far,” Trevor said, warily eyeing the depth gauge, which indicated six feet under the hulls. Trevor knew that current-driven sandbars were particularly treacherous on the downstream side; the sand could be carried by the current to the downstream edge, forming a sharp drop-off. Kookaburra’s bows could run aground while her sonar transducers for the depth gauge, mounted amidships, were still reading deep water. If that happened, he could just reverse off, but it wasn’t sand that he was most concerned about; it was hitting rocks or a sunken snag.
Trevor kept on, motoring past the final channel marker. “We’re far enough past the town that the sound of duel engines probably won’t be noticed,” he said, starting the port engine and centering the rudders, knowing that he’d soon need the maneuverability.
Trevor began to use shallow zigzags, using the depth gauge to feel for the center of the channel, but the uneven bottom and sand drifts made it as much guesswork as science.
A faint glow from the clouds made the nearby surrounding hills visible as pitch-black outlines, and an occasional faint glimmer from the mud flats on the riverbanks helped confirm the navigation display. The channel became mainly straight after a bend, trending generally north, as they closed in on Goat Island, which was nearly three-quarters of a mile long.
At the downstream point of Goat Island, the converging currents had built a long sandbar, running parallel to the river’s flow, extending downstream for just over three hundred feet. Over the sandbar, the water was less than two feet deep.
Kookaburra approached the tip of the sandbar, keeping in the channel with three feet of water under her hulls, motoring through the darkness at four knots. The first sign of the sandbar that Trevor had was a sudden lurching shudder, as the starboard bow struck. Trevor instantly cut the throttles, but Kookaburra’s momentum kept her going, slewing around twenty degrees to starboard, until the port bow hit, and her bows rode up onto the sandbar, as she came to an undignified rumbling halt.
“Fuck,” Trevor muttered.
“We’re aground,” Shane helpfully observed.
“No shit,” Trevor replied. He could see from the depth gauge that he still had three feet of water under the middle of the hulls, and knew he’d hit sand, not anything harder. The current was still upstream due to the still-rising tide, so it was from astern of Kookaburra, pushing her onto the bar. That meant there was no risk, for the moment, of drifting off. “I’m going to grab that lantern and go to the bows for a look; it’ll put out a hell of a lot less light than the floodlights would.”
Trevor freed the light from where Shane had taped it and dashed forward, clicking its spotlight on and playing it over the water ahead. What he saw made him smile; the slight roughness of the water’s surface, imparted by the wind and drizzle, made the currents easier to see. That allowed him to determine the outline of the sandbar. He then shone the light far ahead, seeing the shore of Goat Island and its low scrub.
Returning to the cockpit with the lantern off, Trevor said, “It’s just a downstream sandbar from the island. We’ll back off, then try it again about a hundred feet to port.”
“Sounds good to me, especially because I can tell Mr. Blake all about you running aground,” Shane replied, snickering.
“Mutinous crew!” Trevor shot back, laughing as he began applying reverse thrust. He gradually increased the throttles, and at half throttle, Kookaburra began to move, slewing to port as her port bow pulled free. Trevor applied full reverse to the starboard engine, pulling her off the bar and then backing downstream for a hundred feet before centering in the channel and trying again. This time, with Kookaburra further to port, they were well clear of the sandbar, and soon had Goat Island off the starboard beam.
Trevor glanced astern, where the lights of Kalbarri still cast a glow through the mist. Then he looked towards Shane in the darkness, thinking, ‘Fowler must be expecting real trouble or he’d have never ordered me up here. If I’m at risk, so is Shane, and we’re not that far from Kalbarri.’ Trevor tapped at the navigation display, and said, “We’re coming up on that embayment near the top end of the island, but I saw it, it looks like low scrub and trees, so Kookaburra’s mast is going to stick up way the hell above it. It’ll be visible over the island and riverbanks, probably even from the yacht club. How about we keep feeling our way upriver; there’s another big island a few miles ahead, Stork Island. We’ll go real slow, and if we run into a patch we can’t get through, retracing the track we’re laying down is easy. Both Mr. Blake and Officer Fowler said to go as far in as we can.”
Shane stared at the display for a few moments. “They did, and yeah, the farther we are from Kalbarri, the better, as long as we’re shielded from view from the right bank. Stork Island would do it… and like you say, we can always turn around if we can’t make it.”
Trevor turned around to look towards Kalbarri and its fading glow through the drizzle. “I think we can risk a floodlight if we need to, as long as the drizzle holds. For sure, after another half-mile or so.”
Kookaburra rumbled inland, passing Goat Island as the tide peaked. Within a couple of minutes of passing the island, Trevor noticed that the depth gauge was shallowing fast. “Two feet under the hulls,” he called out, applying reverse thrust for a moment, to bring Kookaburra to a halt.
With the tide having peaked, the current had slowed to a halt, so Kookaburra was barely moving at all. Trevor pulsed the engines individually, turning her and maneuvering her in the channel, but he couldn’t discern much of a channel. “Time for some light,” he said, weighing his options. Kookaburra, like Atlantis, had a powerful high-intensity spotlight mounted near the masthead. The light angled down at forty-five degrees, and could illuminate the water ahead of Kookaburra with half a million candlepower, the equivalent of several high-beam car headlights. However, Trevor didn’t want to turn on such a bright light, which was over sixty feet above the water. Instead, he selected one of the two bow-mounted spotlights, sending a hundred thousand candlepower – roughly equivalent to the steerable spotlight on a police cruiser – lancing through the darkness ahead.
Trevor slowly panned the beam by turning Kookaburra, studying the water ahead, looking for the current, seeking clues based on the movement of the water. “It’s damn shallow, looks like several shallow channels between lots of shoals for about a hundred yards, then it opens up.”
Trevor picked the best route, and advanced the throttles to minimum, powering Kookaburra towards the path he’d chosen at a knot and a half, much slower than a man’s walking speed. He began pulsing the engines to keep from exceeding that speed, and kept maneuvering, feeling his way forward.
A soft hissing rumble sounded, telling them that Kookaburra had brushed sand again. The depth gauge readings were erratic, indicating a very uneven riverbed, and twice Trevor had to back up and find a better route. In tense silence, broken only by the rumble of the engines, they motored forward, and soon entered deeper water close to the port bank, allowing Trevor to increase speed to three knots. Shortly thereafter, satisfied that the channel seemed constant, he flicked off the light.
The next two miles were anticlimactic: a return to zigzagging to feel the channel, and an uneventful voyage to the downstream end of Stork Island. As they approached, Trevor flicked on the spotlight, wary of any downstream sandbar, looking at the channels as they split. “We need to go into the north one, the smaller of the two.”
Trevor took it very slowly, motoring into the narrowing channel at two knots, and then reducing speed after a few hundred feet to barely a knot. The depth gauge varied between three and five feet under the hulls, but the tide was beginning to fall, so any hard grounding could last a day. Three hundred yards into the channel, it began to pinch off and shallow, so Trevor cut the engines and turned to starboard, letting Kookaburra glide to the island’s shore. She touched sand with the gentlest of bumps, and Trevor breathed a sigh of relief before saying, “We’re here. Toss the forward anchors as far forward as you can, then we’ll winch the lines taught. The tide is falling and we’ve got barely a foot under the hulls; she’ll be resting on the bottom in under an hour, then tomorrow we can do a better job of mooring her,” Trevor said, clicking off the navigation light and heading forward to help Shane. When he reached the bows, he glanced back at the blacked-out Kookaburra. “We’re supposed to have an anchor light burning any time we’re at anchor, but I don’t think there’s any danger of other boats in here at night,” he said, chuckling.
“Yeah, nobody but you would be insane enough to bring a boat up here in the dark,” Shane replied, snickering.
Dawn was just three hours away that wet Friday morning, but Kookaburra had arrived at her new hideout, and Trevor turned his attention to separating Shane from his wet clothes.