A journey into the past

January/February 2022

By David Roper

These are the first published opening pages of Dave Roper’s new book, “Odin’s Island,” inspired by a true story.

Odin’s Island – 1985

It had gotten cool, and the wind had started to increase and turn northeast, and this gave Cleo concern. She locked the wheel for a moment and leaned forward to winch in the jib a bit, glancing below decks at Sophie, who was still sitting at the navigation table, still in her shorts and bathing suit top, and still writing feverishly in her diary.

They were working their way up the coast of Maine from Massachusetts aboard Archaic, the old wooden sloop which Poppy, Cleo’s archeologist grandfather, who called her Ohkuk, had passed down to her the year before.

The wind continued to build. Cleo began to worry about Archaic, and this drove her thoughts back to her conversation with her grandfather that last day in Salem Hospital, while she held his frail but still warm hand.

He’d lifted his oxygen mask, taken a deep, raspy breath, as if to gather one last round of strength. “The boat’s yours now, so take care of her, Ohkuk; don’t push her too hard to windward in a stiff breeze,” he’d said. Then he’d paused, closing his eyes for so long that Cleo thought the worst. Then they opened, focused back on his granddaughter. “It’s kind of like life, isn’t it; to know when not to push too hard; to keep balance. Otherwise, things can go awry.”

“I’ll sail her the way you taught me, Poppy. Always.” Cleo paused, turning her head away, trying to stifle a sob. “But it won’t be the same,” she continued, patting the top of his hand.

Poppy said something Cleo couldn’t quite make out, so she leaned closer and gave him a quizzical half smile. “Did you say ‘chainplates’, Poppy?”

“They hold the mast up, dear. You know; they fasten the shrouds to the hull. They’re old, weak. Check them out, okay? And the mast. The mast is old. And those garboard planks down next to the keel, well, if they open up in a rough sea…”

“I’ll check everything out. I promise. Maybe when you get out of here, together we can…”

Poppy had interrupted, shaking his head. “No. It’s time to let go, sweet Ohkuk.’ He’d smiled, as if about to make one last joke in his life. “My chainplates are rusted out. My mast will fall down soon. And when I’m gone, well, ha!… no one will have to dig up the bones of this old archeologist, because we know his story, don’t we, Ohkuk.”

Cleo nodded. Poppy was quiet for a bit before continuing. “But it’s been a great sail. For both of us, I daresay. So, you keep Archaic going as long as you can. Keep exploring. Do it with your own young girl. Show her…”

Poppy had closed his eyes, and Cleo backed out quietly from the room. But halfway down the hospital hallway she remembered her gloves, and returned, carefully, noiselessly, opening his door and tiptoeing in. As she was backing out again, gloves in hand, he spoke, now wide eyed, startling her: “That young island boy. Remember? I saw him. And a fish. A big fish. In a dream. But the boy was now a grown man…and he was struggling…struggling to find the surface from under a big dark sea.”

* * *

And now, miles out at sea, here she was, even more worried about Archaic. Cleo locked the wheel again and leaned down the hatch. “Sophie, I’m not liking this wind shift; and it’s starting to get rough.” She gave a worried look at the darkening horizon and building seas. “I want to make a safe harbor farther east, but the wind is bucking us; we may have to fall off and head…somewhere else.” Cleo knew all too well that there was only one ‘somewhere else’ to be reached before dark, and that was an island with numerous sunken ledges guarding its tiny slit of a harbor, an island that had haunted her memory for many years.

She looked down the hatch. “Sophie, did you hear me?” Sophie didn’t look up. “Whatever, Mom,” came her only acknowledgement. Cleo zipped up her sweatshirt and shook her head. There had been so many eyerolls and ‘whatever’s’ from Sophie since, and even before, they’d left. Cleo had thought this trip would be good for her. Give her some space from whatever messiness was swirling around in that seventeen-year-old brain of hers. Maybe they could finally talk things out on the boat, she’d thought, where there were no distractions, where there could be no ‘I’m going out for a while’ from her daughter. So, before they’d left, Cleo had talked up the trip whenever she found a window when Sophie might be listening. She had told her about the island exploring she and her grandfather had done, about the challenges and rewards of finding their way in the fog, navigating by using all their senses. About whales breeching and about those seemingly smiling seals playfully romping around the old skiff while she and Poppy rowed ashore in hopes of finding clues and perhaps even discovering relics of an ancient world of those hunter-gatherers called The Red Paint People.

Was she naïve about all this, Cleo thought, naïve about believing a teenage girl of today would want to live on a boat for a month with her mother, away from all her shore life? Just because she had always been adventurous, was that any reason to make Sophie that way? Was it all so different today from when she was Sophie’s age? And that made her think of Odin, until, out of nowhere, a nasty cross sea emerged and shook Archaic, spray flying over the cockpit coaming and drenching Cleo. “That’s it,” she yelled, half to herself and half down to Sophie. “We’re falling off, going downwind; it’s only going to get worse.” And with that she turned the wheel, eased the mainsheet, set a new course in the approximate direction, locked the wheel for a moment, and slacked the jib and mainsail. Archaic and their floating world stopped bucking in the now following seas, and her hull speed increased with the wind astern. Cleo still had to navigate, though, and she had to go below decks to do it. She put some urgency in her tone: “Sophie, you need to come up on deck right now and take the wheel while I plot a new course.”

When Sophie finally did appear, wrestling with the zipper on her orange foul weather jacket, Cleo pointed at Archaic’s old binnacle. “Just steer this course; between 320 and 340 is close enough for now.” Sophie grabbed the cockpit coaming, then looked aft at the large following seas. “Mom, I’m not sure I can…”

“Just try, Sweetie; you can do it. Now get behind the wheel.”

“Okay, okay. But don’t read my diary when you’re down there…”

“God, Sophie, that’s the last thing on my mind right now! We need to try to make the island entrance and get in before dark so we can see our way past the ledges; there’s ledges with breaking seas everywhere at the entrance. So just steer the course, okay?”

“Okay, you said that Mom.”

“Sophie, just steer the course! This is serious!”

Sophie started to sob. “Mom, I want to go back. Home. Why did you bring me out here?”

“Okay, look. Please, just steer and when we get in, we’ll discuss it when we’re safely anchored in the harbor.”

“What harbor? What island? I don’t see anything anywhere.”

“You can’t see it yet, it’s about nine or ten miles ahead.”

And with that Cleo headed down the cabin steps to lay the exact course. Archaic’s rolling had rearranged much of the contents of the cabin, and Cleo dumped random things into the deep galley sink as she passed: a bunch of bananas, an orange, a water bottle, a bag of cookies. She tossed Sophie’s diary onto the starboard bunk, slid in behind the varnished mahogany navigation desk, lifted the cover, pulled out and unfolded the chart they’d been using, grabbed the parallel rules and divider tools, and began to plot the new course. It would not be perfect, as she didn’t know her exact current location to plot from, and the now heavy rolling motion of Archaic caused by the building seas and Sophie’s erratic steering made it hard to hold the plotting tools in place. Still, after triple checking her figures, she headed up on deck, and took the wheel from Sophie.

“Good job. It’s 330 and about nine miles away,” she said, wiping some spray from the compass glass. She glanced at Sophie; the color had gone from her face; her blond hair was matted to her forehead, and she was shivering. “Sophie, sweetie, just look at the horizon; don’t go back into the cabin; you’ll get seasick down there. We’ll be in before you know it. Hey, let’s see who can be the first to spot the island. It won’t be long. We must be doing six, maybe seven knots.”

Sophie sat silently in the cockpit, staring forward, a frozen look on her face, her knuckles white as she gripped the salt-stained cockpit coaming each time Archaic slid down the larger seas.

Cleo was a good sailor. A damn good sailor. She had learned from a master; and she knew what her grandfather Poppy would have said: most ship disasters happen because of land, not the deep blue sea; the land is your enemy in a storm or in darkness or when you’re uncertain of your location; it’s hard to do, but your best recourse then is to head straight out to sea and wait it out; wait for the winds to subside; wait for daylight; wait until through some means you can truly identify your location–then go back to the land. Deep down Cleo knew that’s what she should do now. But it’s hard to adhere to practical advice when your mind can’t stop thinking of a quiet harbor, a warm dry cabin, or, in this case, a teenager already on the edge for other reasons. No, she was going to try to make it in, and because of this she would have to take one more trip below to review the entrance directions on the old cruising guide on the shelf by the navigation desk. At that point Sophie would have to take the wheel again. There was no choice. In the meantime, Cleo continued to steer, trying to maintain a steady course down the rolling seas, while looking ahead in search of the island. After about an hour, Sophie gamely took the wheel and Cleo headed below.

The old, mildewed cruising guide still held her grandfather’s notes, written in his precise, clean penmanship underneath the printed entry instructions the guide provided, which read:

Lying just under the slate gray surface of the sea, as if poised for attack, large undersea ledges guard the small harbor entrance to what appears to be an unremarkable island, a two-mile long sliver of land that seems suspended in time, its marshes, moors, and bayberry-crowded trails traversed only by the wind. Even with a keen eye, the ledges are barely perceptible from seaward; often the tired mind and eye of the ship’s lookout isn’t sure they are there until it’s too late…

Underneath, Poppy had written:

Now, isn’t that the truth! Entered in thick fog 8/06/67, at 1900 hours. Set and strictly followed course in from the sea buoy off the entrance; current must have grabbed us, sliding Archaic to the SW, setting us onto one of the outside ledges. Thought we would lose her, but a lobster boy appeared out of the fog and towed us off. Note: we found, upon leaving days later that in clear weather it’s not so bad; just stay away in fog or darkness.

Cleo shook her head. Some ‘lobster boy’! But this was no time for reflection, and she continued to read the detailed entry instructions in the cruising guide, which jogged her memory from so many years before. Poppy’s notes in the guide gave her optimism; going in with no fog and even in what would be dwindling daylight should still be fine, she thought.

“Mom, I think I see it. I think I see it,” came Sophie’s excited shout.

“I’ll be right up.”

Cleo tripled checked the course on the chart, laid from the sea buoy off the entrance into the harbor, then she headed on deck to relieve Sophie at the wheel.

“Mom, it was right there,” Sophie said, pointing, “but now it’s gone.” Cleo looked ahead but all she saw was a flash of lightning shooting through an angry black cloud on the horizon to the southwest.

“Afternoon thunderstorm,” Cleo mouthed. “Shit.” The last thing they needed was to be assaulted by a squall near those ledges, especially with all this sail up. And if she reduced sail now, they wouldn’t have the boat speed to make it in before dark.

She turned to Sophie, who was now leaning forward over the cabin trunk, anxiously scanning the horizon for the island. “Sophie, I think we should head east, out to sea, reduce sail, and ride it out until morning. It’s just too…”

“Noooo,” Sophie screamed. “You said! You said we were going in. I’m sick. I’m shivering. I can’t stay up here in the cockpit all night. I’ll be even sicker in the cabin. Why did you take me out here at all? Why did you do this to me?”

Dave’s upcoming novel, “Odin’s Island,” is scheduled for publication next year. Points East is proud to publish this first chapter in advance. Dave is the author of the three-time bestseller “Watching for Mermaids,” as well as the sequel “Beyond Mermaids,” and the novel “Rounding the Bend.” All are available through amazon.com or at roperbooks.com