The Winch Handle

Whitsunday Sailing 2015. Penelope Walker

It all started with the winch handle. It didn’t matter that the deck was wet and canted over, or that Shirley had been on watch for hours in the freezing cold while he, George, was warm and snug below getting some shut eye. He appeared in the companionway hatch, just his head and torso visible as he surveyed the overcast sky, cloud formations surging and swelling, beer froth along the rim of the horizon.

‘We need to change out the headsail, there’s weather setting in.’

He swung up through the hatch.

‘Put her head to wind and make sure you lash the wheel in place properly this time.’ Not waiting for a reply, he clambered out of the cockpit, making his way slowly forward, matching his steps to the heave of the boat.

If I just threw the helm to port now, the boom would take him over the side. Shirley turned her head away and smiled with the sea, keeping the wheel steady. George stopped briefly at the mast to release the foresail hoist. The sail slithered noisily down the stay, flailing and lashing out. George tackled it, pummeling it to the deck. Shirley eased the wheel over. The motion at once became sickening as the yacht turned head on into the swell, boom slapping, rigging clanking, yawing wildly with no forward movement to stabilise her. Shirley worked the sheets mechanically, hauling in until the boom could barely move. The rigging shrieked, protesting against restraint. Using the mainsail sheet Shirley began to lash the wheel in place.

‘For God’s sake, get up here!’ The words scattered like shrapnel on the wind, but Shirley had heard them often enough to recognize the shape of his mouth when he hollered them.

She fought her way forward against the bucking vessel. It’s like she’s trying to throw us off, sick of our bitterness and tension. Level with the mast she stopped and waited, holding tightly onto the railing running along the side of the cabin roof. Up on the bow, George was busy clipping the storm sail onto the forestay. He swapped the hoist to the top, crammed the other into a sail bag tied to the bow rail and looked back towards Shirley.

‘Pull it up then!’

Shirley threw her full weight against the sheet. The sodden rope fought back, slipping through her ungloved hands, tearing at the frozen flesh.

‘For God’s sake woman, put it round the bloody winch.’

Feet sliding on the slick deck, Shirley grasped the rope and tried again. Finally she got it wound three times round the winch on the side of the mast, but still it resisted. George’s face was red when he arrived at her side.

‘Pass me the winch handle and then get out of the bloody way.’

Shirley gripped the slick black rubber handle and pulled the winch from the plastic pocket. The steel shaft swung violently up toward her face, the toothed fitting at the end catching her on the cheekbone. She let go. She watched as the handle fell away from her in slow motion, saw her own hands reach for it, miss, reach again, grasp at empty air. Heard the thud as it glanced off the life raft and careened over the side like an escapee from Bedlam. Shirley laughed, it wasn’t funny, the back of her hand was covered in bright blood from the cut on her cheek, but the idea that the boat wanted shot of the pair of them had taken hold.

‘It’s nothing to laugh about!’ George raged over her. He raised his hand. Shirley flinched and stepped back.

‘Go and get the other one from the cockpit.’

Shirley turned away from him and moved back along the length of the boat, her shredded palms smarting in the salt sting off sea-slicked deck rails. Inside the cockpit there was at least a little shelter from the howling wind but the pitching was as bad as ever. She slumped down onto the bench and buried her swollen hands in her armpits. Out across the hard grey swell, she gazed toward an invisible coastline, cloaked in smoky cloud quilts.

A love of sailing had been what brought them together. She remembered George that first summer, standing there in the clubhouse having won all the races. A rank outsider that nobody knew who had swanned in and cleaned up not just the trophy table but the commodore’s daughter as well. He asked her to crew for him and she felt special, heart flipping over when he looked at her with those dancing green eyes. She believed he had earned his cockiness back then.  By the time she realised, they were married and it was too late. She had never really managed to stand up to him, he always got his way. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at the blood on her face, thinking back. There was that one time.

A late winter afternoon, the dirty brown of the Severn estuary sluggish, ridged like tire tracks in dirty snow.

‘Move it, get your fat arse over the side Goddammit! Toe out, toe out, ’ George’s spite battered at her tired body. She slipped her feet beneath the straps and slid backward over the gunnel. Cold water smacked at her legs and bottom, soaking her jeans, making the soft fabric stiff and unyielding. George was hunched down in the stern, out of the spray. Determined to win as ever, he got hotter and redder as the light dwindled and the air became hard as chainmail.

‘Can’t you move faster? Trim that blasted sail. They’re gaining on us! Anyone’d think you’d never been on a boat in you life. You’re bloody useless woman.’

As they rounded the mark closest to shore, Shirley turned her back on the invective, slipped into the crushing sea and swam ashore. Of course there had been consequences. George, without her weight in the boat, had lost the race.

There would be no swimming ashore from here.

Shirley became aware of George as he scrambled into the cockpit beside her. He grabbed her shoulder and shook it. Nose to nose, garlicky spittle flecked her cheek and froze there.

‘I told you to bring me the sodding winch, but you’re just sitting here as per usual on your sorry arse.’

Shirley dropped her shoulder and twisted from his grip.

‘Since I’m so useless George, you’d best do it yourself, I’m going below to clean myself up.’

Again, the hand came up.

‘Don’t you—’ Shirley stared him down then turned her back on him and climbed down the ladder into the cabin. The first aid kit was in the locker beneath the sink. Shirley unearthed it and poured antiseptic into a small plastic bowl, diluting it with tepid water from the kettle. She wedged her body tight into the corner between the sink and the counter, bending her knees to soften the impact of the juddering hull. Above her head George stomped and swore, clomping forward with the spare winch handle from the cockpit. She examined the split on her cheek with a small mirror, gently pressing the bruised flesh to see if the bone beneath would give. At least its not broken, best use butterfly strips, it’ll be too late to get stitches by the time we get back.  Overhead the winch protested as the storm jib was hoisted aloft. With her cheek patched, Shirley set to work on her hands. George’s head appeared in the hatchway. He bullied the sail bag through the hole and it landed with a soggy thump on the deck-boards.

‘When you’ve done pratting about down there I could use a hand.’ He disappeared again. The main sheet groaned as the strain came off it, unleashed, the wheel objects, screeching as he begins to turn it.

‘Jibe-oh,’ George roared.

The boom crashed across and the hull lurched to port. Shirley, dislodged, heard an echoing yell as she fell, the bowl of disinfectant spinning from her hands as she sprawled across the lumpy sailbag. Gagging on acid, she tried to hold the vomit down but it insinuated itself round the margins of her closed throat and scorched its way out through her nose.

He jibed in a storm. Is he trying to kill us both? She could capsize in this weather. Coughing curdled bile onto the floor she rolled herself into a sitting position, leaned back against the steps and stared up through the mouth of the hatch. The rigging was flying wild and the wheel was howling, scudding clouds smudged the sky, but George was not there. Sick-coated fingers slipped as she fumbled on the steps.

Outside the boom cavorted maniacally overhead, the sheet hanging from it convulsing. Looking about the stern Shirley saw a flash of red, Georges hat, caught on the block and tackle. He was nowhere to be seen. She edged out into the cockpit and grasped the wheel to steady herself, the wood comfortingly warm beneath her hands. Out to port between two oil-dark breakers she caught a flash of something pale, there for a moment, then gone.

Tempest driven raindrops like shards of glass pierced her skin, she squinted against the gale. There it was again, further out now, a hand, raised. The orange lifebuoy caught her eye. She let go of the wheel and reached for it but the boat rolled, pulling her back and she grabbed for the safety of the wheel once more. She tried again, clipping a safety harness from her belt to the railings, she almost made it, but again the hull bucked and she landed hard on her rump, the breath knocked out of her. Looking over the rail, she scanned the sea for a sign of George but he was gone.

Shirley turned away from the sea and clambered back inside the safety of the cockpit. She snared the demented sheets and trimmed the sails. The motion beneath her feet settled into a long slow roll as she eased the yacht back on course. She fitted the autopilot in place and patted the steering wheel affectionately.

Below again, she laid out two rolls of gauze and some plasters to secure them. The disinfectant bit.

The Winch Handle was first published in Coze Magazine 2018.

The Winch Handle by Penelope Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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