“Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” — Jack London
"… a tension-filled tale of Ella, a savvy sailor who risks crewing on a drug run to fund her dream. Set in the islands of the Caribbean and South Florida, it’s a high-stakes adventure of crime, love and deception that puts her moral code to the test against a cast of dangerous characters."
– Nina Schuyler, author, The Translator, The Painting
THE MEASURE OF ELLA
The worst kind of trouble, Ella Morgan thought, is the kind you didn’t see coming. On a moonless night in the Straits of Florida due west of the Great Bahama Bank, she smelled rain in the freshening wind. She couldn’t see a squall line, but stars to the west had begun to disappear, darkening the night and deepening her unease. When lightning branched across the sky, illuminating a tower of boiling clouds, it confirmed her sense that the night could get ugly.
The wind built and the waves began to crest, their tops streaming away in veins. The straining canvas lifted Grace’s ninety-eight tons of wood and iron in a slow, heavy rise, and the hundred-foot pilot schooner plowed through the mounting seas like a great whale. Her sails hardened and her rigging groaned under the strain. Breakers slammed broad on her port bow, spewing plumes of spray across her deck.
Braced against the forward mast, Ella crouched and counted the seconds between each strike and the rumble of thunder that followed, trying to gauge the velocity and direction of the squall. Another flash, this one closer, brought her to her feet. She looked back. In the dim light thrown from the cabin, she made out the lone shape of the captain at the helm. She darted aft, moving in rhythm with the rise and fall of the boat, dodging sheets of stinging spray that whipped across the deck. Down below, the contents of the ship shifted and something crashed.
Ella ducked her head into the companionway. “Need help, Carlos?” she shouted to the first mate.
“I’ve got it — wine broke lose.”
“No, our cheap stuff.”
She pulled her watch cap further down. “Looks like this squall’s got some teeth,” she yelled to the captain.
Captain Rich Wells pressed into the wheel with one hand gripping a spoke and the other shoved deep into his pocket. “Carlos,” he called out, squatting to see into the cabin, “what’s the radar show?”
“It’s moving easterly.”
Rich turned back to Ella. “Take the helm. Keep her heading at a hundred-twenty-two degrees — as best you can.”
Ella grabbed the wheel, shifting from leeward to windward and back again, trying to catch sight of the storm in the flashes of lightning. “Think it’ll pass in front of us?”
“Possibly.” Rich tugged the bill of his cap around back. “Kill the cabin lights, Carlos. I want to see what the lightning can show us.”
The lights blinked out, plunging them into darkness. Phosphorescent flashes of breaking crests tumbled out of the black toward the boat. Lightning struck again, and Ella looked high off the water to see the ragged peaks of the squall line.
Carlos stuck his head out of the companionway, gripping the hatch rails to keep his balance. “It’s building in the northeast — moving east near the six-mile mark.”
“Looks closer than six miles,” said Ella.
“It’s coming right at us!” Rich shouted over the wind that now began to howl through the rigging. “Carlos, wake up Davis, we’re shortening sail. God damn, we’re in for a fight.” He rubbed his hands together, smiling. “Make ready to reef the main!”
“Davis is up,” said Carlos. “You want Jake too?”
“No.” Rich ducked a sheet of spray. “Ella, flip on the spreader lights.” Rich turned back to Carlos. “Alright, get the kid on deck. Just keep him out of the way. His father wanted him toughened up; this should do the trick.”
Ella flipped on the lights just as Davis was coming up the companionway, zipping his foul weather jacket, heavy with sleep. His raven curls, caught by the wind, beat about a craggy face made handsome by dark eyes that flickered with a touch of wild. He threw Ella a smile.
“Welcome to the party,” hollered Ella.
“You want me to take the helm?” Davis motioned to the wheel.
“No way!” Ella shouted through the wind. “Let you have all the fun?”
Over the year they’d been together, Ella’s admiration for Davis had grown, and she’d opened her heart to him, a man unlike most, who lived life by the fistful. He was twenty years older than she was, an ex-Guardsman, ex-Merchant Marine and gale-tested captain with years of experience on the water delivering boats; a man who had crafted his life in the way that suited him, she thought, a trait she had respected in her father.
A distant bolt of lightning ripped open the night sky, affording her a glimpse of the storm’s magnitude, its towering thunderhead dumping a wall of water into the building seas. With anxious excitement she steadied against the gunwale and gripped the wheel like a fighter going into battle, bending her knees in rhythm with the boat as it lumbered over the swells.
“She’s sailing smartly,” Davis yelled to Rich. “Let’s wait to shorten sail.”
Rich held onto the backstay, taking the measure of the sails in the flash of lighted sky. “And risk shredding them?”
“We can sail at the storm’s edge. Still keep close to our course. We don’t need to reef.”
“Not tonight, Sinbad,” said Rich. “Ella!” he shouted, pointing into the wind. “Prepare to head her up. We’re shortening sail.”
“Roger that.” Ella smiled, her long braid buffeting against her back. She lifted her face to take a read on the wind that was kicking up the seas into four-foot whitecaps and shearing off their tops.
Rich held his eyes half-shut against the driving rain and turned to Carlos. “We’re reefing deep!” He shot a look at Davis, and then took account of his crew. “Where the hell’s the kid?”
“Here.” Jake emerged from below. Wincing at the abrupt slap of wind, he tucked his head in and put his back to it. “I was asleep. What time is it?”
“No time for comfort,” Rich shouted. “It’s going to get nasty out here, so pay attention!”
“Going to?” Jake gripped the safety of the companionway and huddled against a blast of sea spray.
Ella cringed at the sight of the well-mannered boy, tall and thin as parchment. A strong gust could blow him away. He didn’t belong here, on this stormy night sea.
“Get in position.” Rich turned to take in the kid, then reached in the locker for a tether line, clipped one end to Jake’s life vest and the other to the lifeline.
“What the hell, you’re putting me on a leash? I’ll trip over it.”
“Then watch yourself!” Rich muttered.
Carlos held a tight grip on the mast. “Do you want to leave the jib up?”
“There’s no time to hank on a storm jib. Reef the main deep, second reefing line. We’ll drop the jib,” said Rich. “It’s a squall. It’ll be over in an hour.”
Ella watched Rich and Carlos work together, admiring their competence. She had sailed with enough captains and crews whose bungling ways led to dicey consequences. They’re a good team, she thought, remembering Rich saying that Carlos had been his preferred first mate for the past five years, and Rich thought of him as a brother.
“Head up!” Rich looked back at Jake. “Kid, snap that tether onto the lifeline. You take it off one more time, I’ll throw you overboard myself.” He shot his arm up at the mainsail. “Grab hold of the sail and pull it down inside the lazy jacks. Tie off at the second reef.” Rich turned to Carlos. “Keep an eye on him.”
Davis had been right; they caught the edge of the squall line. But still, the wind was a stiff thirty knots with gusts to forty, screaming through the rigging, pounding against the sails and battering them with sheets of pelting rain. The sails snapped and strained and the great hull heeled with the driving wind hitting her on the beam.
Ella pulled the wheel hand over hand, bringing Grace’s nose into the wind. The hood of her foul weather jacket billowed and flapped against her face, blinding her. She shoved it back and held the lumbering hull pointing up into the wind, every muscle from her clenched jaw down to her white-knuckled hands straining against the force of the pounding waves.
Carlos eased the halyard and the men yanked the massive sail down to the second reefing point. The wind caught the sail, snapping the thick canvas out of their hands and sending it flailing in great billowing folds. Without a sail to steady her, Grace moaned and heaved as she mounted the waves, throwing the men off balance. They leaned into the boom, using their bodies to flatten the sail, and tied off the reefs. When the job was done they headed to the bow.
Jake stood clinging to the boom, watching the men bring down the jib.
“Jake!” Ella hollered, signaling the boy. “Come back to the cockpit.”
Heedless of wind or wave, Jake let go of the boom. Ella watched with dread as he stretched to reach the stay, then the boat took a sudden jolt and the boy tumbled off the cabin top.
In an instant, the sea opened beneath them and the ship plunged into what seemed an endless drop as Ella sensed a terrifying mass rising in the darkness.
“Incoming! Port bow!” she screamed. “Davis, grab Jake!” But her words were lost to the wind.
Illuminated by the spreader lights, the towering rogue wave reared up like a fist coiling back for a punch and smashed into the hull, a massive wall of green water exploding over the deck and crew. Ella pressed her body into the wheel, wrapping her arms around its spokes, and tried to hold their course with all her strength as seawater flooded the deck and swept over her head.
For a long moment, she was underwater and terror shot through her like a bullet. Were they going down? All she could feel was a tangle of ropes sweeping past. She fought her instinct to let go of the wheel, free herself from the boat and struggle to surface for air. If she did, she’d be swept away. Panic overtook her, driven by the involuntary urge to breathe. Choking on the saltwater, she lost her grip and was swept aft with the current until her body hit hard against the backstay and she grabbed on. After what seemed an eternity, the ship threw off the sea and shuddered to the surface, and Ella gulped the precious air. Then the spreader lights flickered for a moment and went out. She could hear Rich calling out for the crew to sound off, Carlos’s reply and then Davis’s.
“Ella!” Rich called out, racing back toward the cockpit. “Ella!”
She fought her way back to the wheel and sputtered, “Here! I’m here.”
She swept the strands of wet hair from her eyes. “Pretty wild.” Her shoulders shook uncontrollably. “I’m good.” The wind pressed her wet clothes to her frame, making her look as small as a drenched cat.
Rich stood for a moment holding onto the shroud, looking at her. “Hang in there. One of us will relieve you when all’s secured.” Rich hollered over the wind. “Besides, it’s the safest spot on deck.”
“Not so sure about that.” Ella stood. “Where’s Jake?”
“Jake?” Rich spun around. “Jake. Jake!”
She grabbed the high-powered searchlight from the cockpit and thrust it at Rich.
“Carlos, Davis, where’s Jake?” Rich made his way forward across the heaving deck, shining the light along the rail, looking for Jake’s safety tether.
“Starboard,” yelled Carlos.
“Was he tethered?” Rich ran the light along the topsides.
“He’s here!” Rich found the boy hanging over the side. “Jake, hold fast, we’ll get you.” Grace dropped into a trough and a wave plowed the boy under.
“Ella,” Davis called out. “Man overboard. Tethered. Leeward side.”
“Holy hell,” Ella screamed. “Carlos, we’re doing a short tack. Now!”
Carlos ran to the cockpit and manned the winches.
“He’s underwater,” Davis hollered.
“Oh god.” Ella screamed, “Tacking!” She brought the bow through the wind, lifting the leeward side out of the water and Jake along with it. Carlos worked at a racer’s speed pulling in the sheets.
“Is he conscious?” Ella asked.
“Not sure.” Rich shone the light onto the boy, and then his tether: it was tangled among the lines and had somehow wrapped around a stanchion. “How in the hell?”
“Get me up!” Jake cried, gasping as he came up for air and banged hard against the rolling hull. “Stop it!” His hands, fiercely gripping the tether, were visible with every break in the waves, and then he was lost again — underwater.
“Hang on, Jake. We’ll get you,” Rich screamed. “Ella, once we grab him, heave-to.”
“She knows.” Davis grabbed hold of the lifeline and swung his legs over the side. “We’ve practiced this.”
“Davis, hold the light.”
Rich lay flat against the rail, hooking his foot on a stanchion and stretching for the boy. “We’ve got you.” He grabbed Jake’s life vest, but the tether was taut and tangled and he couldn’t pull the boy up.
And then the storm let loose a downpour. Rain rattled on the deck so hard that it sounded like hail and the rigging banged against the mast, adding to the cacophony of the hardening wind and sea.
“Rich!” Jake cried, catching his breath. “Get me up!”
“Shit!” Rich grimaced at the pelting rain. “Can’t get him in.”
Davis tore at the wet lines, trying to free them from the tangled mess, but the tether was still caught up around the stanchion. “Easiest to unclip him and pull him in.”
“You’re right,” said Rich. “It’s getting hung up somewhere. I can’t see.”
“Jake!” Davis leaned over the rail and shouted to the boy. “We need you to unclip the tether so we can pull you in.”
“No way! I can’t.”
“We’ll have hold of you,” Rich shouted. “Fastest way to get onboard.”
“No!” Jake shot a look over his shoulder into the black void of night.
“Christ,” muttered Rich. “We’ll have to cut the tether.”
Rich turned to the helm. Ella had somewhat stabilized the boat by heaving to and tying off the wheel while Carlos trimmed the sails to balance the ride.
“Carlos!” Rich signaled him over.
“Keep a good hold on him, Rich,” said Davis. “I’ll lower over and wrap my legs around him. Carlos, cut the tether.”
Davis seized the lifeline with one hand and Jake’s tether with the other. Grace rode up a wave, lifting Jake free from the water, and Davis quickly lowered himself over the side, snagging the boy with his legs to keep him from being swept under.
“Got him.” Rich grabbed Jake’s life vest with one hand and a handful of jeans with the other. “Cut the line, Carlos.”
“No!” Jake screamed as Carlos severed the tether.
“We got you,” said Rich.
The three men pulled the boy under the lifelines, heaving him onboard. When he hit the deck, he scrambled to the cockpit on his hands and knees and cowered against the coaming, looking too afraid to stand up, as though the wind might blow him off deck again and into the sea, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the black night. He sat in the shelter of the cockpit trembling, clutching the cabin’s handrail.
“Jake, get below and stay there,” said Rich.
“No problem,” said Jake.
“And take off those wet clothes, or you’ll get pneumonia.” Rich watched him go down the companionway. “Hopeless,” he muttered under his breath.
“Okay, men,” Rich twisted around to smile at Ella. “Let’s get her back on course.”
Grace had sailed out of Port Everglades en route to Nassau, Bahamas, for a night crossing of the powerful Gulf Stream. Now, on the axis where the river of seawater flowed north with a steady force, the crew aboard Grace sailed along a major shipping lane where merchant ships and sailors took advantage of the prevailing winds, like migrating birds on a flyway, to all points of the Caribbean and beyond.
Ella brought up a sandwich and thermos of strong coffee and set it next to Rich at the helm. He had taken Jake’s watch. Even though the squall had passed, it had left a confused sea and the kid was permanently relieved for anything but fair weather sailing. Davis and Carlos had coiled the tangled lines and checked the boat for damages, then they too went below to rest, leaving only Ella and Rich on deck.
“Want me to take the wheel while you change into dry clothes?”
“I’ll wait,” said Rich. “I want to be sure this squall is finished with us. Can you sit for a minute?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“You kept a cool head tonight.”
“Not much choice, was there?”
“Good answer,” he said, studying her. “Look, there’s something coming up that needs a special crew. What I’m about to ask can’t go any further, not to a soul — not even Davis. Will that be a problem?”
“He doesn’t need to hear about everything I do.” Ella kept her back to the wind, hugging herself against the cold, and sat down. “Besides, lately we’re seldom in port at the same time. So, what’s up?”
“Another passage. I need a capable crew I can trust, people like you. It’d be a commitment of about a week, the pay is phenomenal, but it involves some risk.”
“What kind of risk?” Ella suspected what was coming — in this part of the world, secrecy and boats often meant drugs.
Rich looked hard at her before he spoke. “Sailing a load of weed into Florida.”
Not Rich, too, she thought, checking over her shoulder to see if they were alone.
“Premium marijuana, no cocaine.”
“That’s unexpected, I never had the slightest …” Ella sat back, realizing she sounded disapproving. She had been asked before by people she wouldn’t have trusted to organize a picnic. She remembered how upset Davis had been when she’d told him, and his warning against taking such risk: smuggling marijuana across a U.S. border was a Federal offense that carried a heavy jail sentence, even though it had been legalized in some states.
“I mean, you’re the last person I would have suspected.”
“That’s good. I just run an occasional trip to help fund my research work.”
“Your entomology studies?” It was easy to forget that Rich was a scientist; he seemed a man most suited for the sea, not bending over a microscope to study insects.
“Funding is drying up,” said Rich.
“Aren’t you worried about the risk? If you got caught, you’d be sent to prison.”
“Sure.” Rich wolfed down half of his sandwich, followed by a swig of hot coffee. “But with careful planning and known resources — it’s an acceptable risk, price of being committed to what you love. Good coffee, Ella.”
Rich stood to get a clear read on the compass, then sat back down behind the wheel. “We could use a strong woman and you’re a damn good sailor — a natural, with good judgment. A lot of people would have panicked when Jake fell overboard.”
“At least he was on a tether,” Ella said, remembering her father bragging to his shipmates that she was a natural. “Why do you want a woman onboard?”
“Deflect suspicion. Sailing into port we’ll look like a couple coming in from a day sail.”
Ella looked away, out at the sea, feeling more disappointed in Rich than complimented by his trust. An invitation into a secret world with the lure of fast money: it was against all she had been taught by her father, who regarded people in the drug trade as criminals unwilling to perform an honest day’s work for what they wanted.
“You know I’m planning on opening a restaurant? I put a deposit on a place in the Keys.”
“I’ve heard that.”
“Captain Morgan’s Table, named for my dad. He’s the one who taught me to sail.” Ella leaned against the coaming and pulled her knees to her chest. “I’d never do a run, Rich. Curious though— how much does it pay?”
“Still being worked out, but around twenty, twenty-five thousand.”
“A pile of money for one week’s work,” said Ella.
Enough money to buy the latest kitchen appliances instead of used ones as she had planned, Ella thought — but not enough to risk going to prison. And not enough to make a mockery of the sacrifices her father had made to send her to the culinary academy.
“I’m flattered you asked, Rich, that you trust me enough. But, I have to say no.”
“I thought that would be your answer.”
Ella looked up at the night sky that was now clearing, allowing a few stars to shine through, and wondered if crewing for him would now be over.
“Will we still work together?”
“Sure, of course.”
“Good.” Ella nodded, giving Rich a smile. “I’d love for you to see my restaurant: a beautiful old Florida house shaded by a grove of pine and Jacaranda trees, right on the water.”
“Sounds nice,” Rich’s voice tapered off.
“It’s a little rundown, but the frame is solid and the wood floors are in okay shape. And the kitchen…” Ella shook her head. “My god, it’s huge, with plenty of room for commercial appliances and two walls of windows that open out. I can hardly wait to prepare my recipes in a real kitchen.”
“When does this happen?”
“It’ll take some work to bring it up to code. I’ll have to gut the dining and living room, except for the fireplace, which is made out of coral and so massive you can practically walk into it. I still can’t believe I found it. It even has a solid pier where I can dock my boat and for customers that come by water.”
“Sounds like you’re on a good course.”
“I am.” Ella straightened her back. “I know exactly what it’ll look like: old Florida intrigue, seaside dining in the romantic tropics. It’s really going to be something.”
“Big plans take a lot of money. Couldn’t use a little more?” Rich asked.
“I’ll have enough,” she said. “You remember my father passed away last year?”
“I remember. That’s why you came down here,” said Rich.
“Partly. Everything back home reminded me of him; he was all the family I had left. And partly because I’ve always wanted to live in the tropics.” Ella rubbed her arms, trying to keep warm in the pressing wind. “I have a buyer for his tugboat. I’m hoping to have a signed sale agreement waiting when I return to Lauderdale.”
“Depending on the shape it’s in, that should bring you a nice chunk of change,” said Rich.
“It’s contingent on a survey, of course, but he took good care of things. That was like him. Always on the up and up.”
“Sounds like someone I would have liked to know.”
“Yeah,” said Ella. “He would have liked you, too.”
“I think the squall’s through with us.” Rich stood up, pulling the wet sweatshirt away from his chest. “Take the wheel while I go change.”
At the helm, Ella shone a light on the sails and eased the mainsheet for a smoother ride. The boat was working too hard and everyone onboard was exhausted from the boy’s rescue, the storm, and the late hour. She watched the eastern sky brighten a little, the sun still well below the horizon.
In the morning they would reach the Berry Islands where Davis would step off Grace and pick up a yacht waiting for delivery to Venezuela. She wanted to go along, but Davis had said it was out of his hands; a crew had been assigned. Now it could be a month before she saw him again.
Rich came on deck in a hooded sweatshirt and pants, carrying a mug of coffee. “There’s a fresh pot,” he said, raising his mug to Ella.
“I’m getting some sleep.” Ella looked below and saw Davis enter her cabin. Maybe not, she thought. She wanted him tonight, even if it was only to say good-bye.
“Tell Davis we should be reaching the Berry Islands in about three hours,” said Rich.
“You need something more to eat? More coffee?”
“No, I’m good. Carlos will relieve me soon.”
Ella lowered her voice. “Please be careful.”
“Always. If you change your mind… I can’t do anything until I get back to the States.”
“Thanks. And don’t worry, I can keep a secret.”
“I know,” he smiled. “Good night, Ella.”
She patted his shoulder as she stepped past him. She walked below, unwinding her braid as she went, shaking her hair loose before opening her cabin door.