The Jaws of Gravestone Rock
• 3 June 1939 •
off greybeard island
Hard a’lee, me boys!” shouted Nick McIver over the wind, “or be smashed to smithereens in the jaws of Gravestone Rock!”
The dog Jip barked his loud agreement.
Nick, at the helm of his small sloop, Stormy Petrel, that afternoon, was almost at the end of his .rst day-long voyage around Greybeard Island. He was hard on the wind, making a good seven knots as he tacked homeward. Just now, he was approaching the treacherous reefs that guarded the entrance to Lighthouse Harbor. Jip, on the bow, was howling into the strong headwind, enjoying the pounding sprays of seawater every bit as much as his skipper.
But now Nick was watching the western sky and the rapidly rising seas uneasily. Maybe he should have nipped inside the huge Gravestone Rock, in the lee of this wind. Probably should have known better than to sail the long way home in weather like this. Should have done this, should have done that, he silently cursed himself. He did know better, in fact.
But he and Jip had been having such a splendid time, bounding through the waves, he’d simply ignored the storm warnings. A little cold spot in the pit of his stomach was growing. He hated that cold feeling. He’d not even spoken its name.
But it was fear.
The glorious empty bowl of blue that had been the morning sky now featured stacks of boiling cumulus clouds, all gone to darkening greys and blacks. Billowing towers of purple clouds loomed on the western horizon, swiftly turning the colors of an ugly bruise. In the last hour, clouds of spume came scudding across his bow and through the rigging of Stormy Petrel. Above the howl of the elements was the high keening whistle of wind in the sloop’s rigging. Salt spray stung Nick’s eyes. But he could still see the sky overhead, boiling and black.
Nick leaned hard into the Petrel ’s tiller, putting the weight of his lean body against it, .ghting to keep his bow to windward of Gravestone Rock. He had both hands on the tiller, and they’d gone clammy and cold. Looking up in awe at the giant rock now looming before him, he wiped .rst one hand, then the other, on his soaking trousers. The Gravestone. A terrible thought shuddered unpleasantly through Nick’s mind. Would that famous stone tower today mark still another watery grave? His own, and his beloved Jip’s? He cursed himself for his stupidity and leaned into his tiller with all his might. Hopeless. The bow refused to answer the helm, to come up into the wind.
However could he keep his small sloop to the safe, windward side of the massive stone looming ever larger before him? And to the leeward side lay the Seven Devils. On a calm day, Nick might pick his way through these treacherous
reefs. But now, in a blow, they were deadly.
He was fresh out of options.
“And you call yourself a sailor, Nick McIver!” he cried aloud. But not even his dog heard his bitter cry of frustration above the roar of wind and water. He should have known better. There was a terrible price to pay for carelessness at sea. Especially when you were anywhere near the Gravestone.
It was a towering monument of glistening black granite that now rose before him. Thrusting from the sea like some angry tombstone, it had claimed the lives of skippers and sailors a good deal saltier than Nick and Jip. As Nick had known from earliest childhood, countless ships and men had gone to the bottom courtesy of the Gravestone Rock. Or the seven deadly spines of rock spreading like tentacles in all directions from its base. The Seven Devils, the reefs were called, and not for nothing either. Here was as .endish a bit of coastline as ever there was.
This perilous coast had .nally led to the building of Nick’s home. Even now, the great Greybeard Light sent yellow stabs streaking overhead through the darkening sky. This .ashing tower atop the cliffs off his port bow held special meaning for Nick McIver. It was both a warning to stay away and a summons to come home.
For Nick lived atop that lighthouse, he was a lighthouse keeper’s son. And now it looked as if the famous rock below it might claim the boy, if the boy didn’t think of something, and quickly. if the gravestone doesn’t get you, the seven devils will! read the legend carved into the mantel at the Greybeard Inn. And the long-dead British tar who had carved it there knew well whereof he spoke. At that moment, Nick wished he himself had carved those ancient words of warning into the pitching deck he now stood upon.
“We’re not going to make it, boy!” shouted an anguished Nick. “I can’t keep her pointed high enough!” Indeed he could not steer, nor will, the bow of his small boat to windward of the ever larger Gravestone. For every foot of forward motion Petrel gained, she was losing two feet to side-slipping. Adrenaline poured into Nick’s veins as he realized the potential for total disaster in what he was about to do.
A whispered prayer to his long-dead hero escaped his lips.
Nelson the Strong , Nelson the Brave, Nelson the Lord of the Sea.
Nick faced a terrible decision. The most brutal maneuver any sailor could make in such a dreadful blow was a jibe. Jibing meant turning the boat away from the wind, instead of into it, so that its brutal force passed directly behind the mainsail. The huge mainsail and heavy boom would then come whipping across the cockpit with a violence that could easily rip the mast from the boat. But what choice did he have? The terrible decision was already made.
“Jibe HO!” he shouted to his shaggy crew. He pulled sharply back on his tiller instead of pushing against it. The bow swung instantly off the wind. “Mind yer heads!” Nick bellowed. The stout wooden boom and violently snapping mainsail came roaring across the small open cockpit like the furies of hell. “Down, boy!” Nick cried, and ducked under the heavy wooden boom at the last second, narrowly avoiding a blow to the head which would have sent him, unconscious, overboard. The lines, the sails, the rigging, every plank of his boat was screaming, at their breaking point. She’d been built of stout timber, but he could feel Petrel straining desperately at her seams. If a plank should spring open now, this close to a rocky lee shore, they were surely done for!
But she held. Looking aloft, he saw his mast and rigging mostly intact. By jibing the boat, he’d gained precious time to think.
Nick feverishly eyed his options, now rapidly dwindling to nil. There had to be a way out of this! Nicholas McIver was not a boy destined to die such a stupid, unseamanlike death. Not if he could help it. He had a healthy fear of dying, all right, but now, staring death square in the face, he was far more afraid of letting them all down. His mother. His father. His little sister, Katie. His best friend, Gunner.
Wasn’t that a fate even worse than death, he wondered? For a boy to slip beneath the cold waves without even the chance to prove to those he loved that he was a brave boy, a boy destined to do great things in this world? A boy who might one day be—a hero?
The already fresh wind had now built into something truly appalling. Petrel was rapidly running out of sea room. The sickly green-yellow sky cast its unhealthy glow over the frothing sea. Nick heard an ominous roar building on his port side. Just as he looked up, a wave like an onrushing locomotive crashed over the windward side of the little boat, staggering the tiny vessel, knocking her instantly and violently on her side. Nick was buried under a torrent of cold seawater. He clung desperately to the tiller to avoid being washed overboard. He was thinking only of Jip, again standing watch up on the bow. As the weight of her heavy lead keel quickly righted the boat once more, Nick, sputtering, strained forward, rubbing the stinging saltwater from his eyes. His dog was still there. Heaven only knew how the creature had managed it. In fact, Jip was barking loudly, surely in anger at the wave that had almost done them in.
“All that lead we hung off her bottom is good for something, eh, Jipper? Hang on, boy!” Nick cried. “I’ll think of something!” But what, his mind answered, whatever could he do? He knew that the next wave they took broadside would be their last. He fought the tiller, determined to get the towering waves on Petrel ’s stern. It was his only chance.
Just at that moment Petrel was lifted high above a cavernous trough by the hand of another huge wave. For a brief moment, Nick could see most of the northern tip of his island. And he knew in that instant what he had to do. There was no escaping to windward of the Gravestone Rock. Since Petrel could never make headway back into the teeth of the storm, he now had no choice. He must fall off to the leeward side of the rock, sailing a dead run before the wind, directly into the waiting jaws of the Seven Devils! Nothing else for it, he thought, more grimly determined than ever.
From the crest of the wave, Nick had seen a small .ash of white on the rocky shore dead ahead. It could only mean a sandy cove, one of many along this coast where he and Kate played on sunny days.
If he could somehow time the waves precisely, so that Petrel ’s keel might just brush the Devil’s deadly tops, he just might have a chance at beaching the boat on the sandy shore of that little cove. Yes, he just might.
Now that he had a plan, the boy’s spirits soared. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was the only chance he had. If it failed, why, he—
“Shorten sail, lads!” Nick cried to his imaginary crew, clenching the damp and salty mainsheet in his teeth as he loosed the main halyard with his free hand. In a blow like this, reducing sail area by ree.ng the main wouldn’t decrease his boat speed by much, but it might just be enough to control his timing of the waves over the reefs. It was clear that Nick would need all the seamanship, and luck, he could muster to get captain and crew safely ashore.
Jip, as if recognizing the desperate seriousness of their situation, came aft to stand watch beside his master. Nick was glad of his company.
“Steady now, steady,” cried Nick, bracing his knees against the thwart seat and winding the mainsheet round his .st to secure it. The force of the wind on the shortened sail made Nick’s arm feel as if it might be pulled from its socket. “Steady as she goes, lads!” Wind and water were tossing the sloop about like a pond boat, throwing his timing off dangerously. Entering the procession of towering rollers, Nick felt his sloop surge forward. “Look alive, Jip, we’re in for a bit of a sleigh ride!” he cried. Jip growled and stood his ground.
The trick, and it was a good one, was keeping Petrel out of the sequence of huge waves rushing toward the treacherous shore. To wait until the timing was precisely right. “Right” meant that Petrel was lifted at the precise moment her keel was passing over each one of the jagged Devils. It was going to take luck all right, bags of the stuff; luck and no small measure of skill.
“Easy . . . easy ...and ...NOW!” cried Nick, heaving the tiller to starboard to swing his bow around. If there was a tinge of fear remaining in his voice you couldn’t hear it for the wind or the spray or the sheer exhilaration of the moment as he steered the little boat down the broad steep face of the wave toward the deep trough below. Petrel ’s moment of truth had .nally arrived.
“We need to come up, now, boy,” Nick said, holding on to his tiller for dear life. The Gravestone Rock loomed dangerously close to his left as Petrel plunged deeper into the trough. “We. Need. To. Come. UP!” Nick held his breath. He’d seen the ugly spine of the .rst reef from the top of his wave and knew that Petrel ’s keel could clear it if only he had timed his descent into the trough perfectly. He clenched his jaw, unaware how painfully tight it was. Jip, too, was rigid, staring at the wall of water before them, sensing the moment.
Petrel ’s bow suddenly lifted. She was rising high on the majestic swell and Nick waited for the tearing sound of her keel on the deadly jagged rock. It occurred to him in that moment that it would probably be one of the last sounds he would ever hear.
It didn’t come.
At the wave’s crest, Nick could see that he’d timed it perfectly. The waves would now lift him over the two razor-sharp reefs that remained between Petrel and the safety of the sandy cove. Jip scrambled forward once more to his station at the bow. He barked loudly in triumph, daring the forces of nature to do battle once more with the mighty Petrel and her daring crew.
“Hooray!” Nick cried in both relief and exultation. “We did it, boy, we perfectly well did it, didn’t we?”
In the deep bottle-green safety of the cove, it was simply a matter of running Petrel toward shore until her keel beached on the soft sand. That done, Nick quickly freed the main and jib halyards and all the wet canvas fell to the deck. As the boat swung round and listed to her starboard side, a happy Nick and Jip leapt over the gunwale and waded ashore. Nick made fast a line from Petrel ’s bow to a large rock on the shore. Then he and Jip ducked into the mouth of the nearest cave to escape the fury of the storm.
And they had been safe, perched on a deep ledge inside the cave, waiting for the storm to blow itself out before sailing home for supper.
This cave, it occurred to Nick as he and Jip climbed back into the boat, might make an excellent hiding place someday. Either as a place to hide from bloodthirsty pirates, or a place to secret any treasure he and his crew might .nd during their future navigations.
“All right, boy,” Nick said, hauling down on the halyard that raised his mainsail once more. “Time to .y away home!” Now that the storm had subsided, he was con.dent he could pick his way through the reefs with little trouble. After all, he knew their locations by heart.
Yes, you could always rely upon young Nicholas McIver to get his crew home safely. After all, was there a more reliable boy in all of England?
Excerpted from Nick of Time by Ted Bell.
Copyright © 2008 by Ted Bell.
Published in August 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
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