The dawn came as with a thunder, a fitting omen for the day.
Fifteen miles northeast of Cocoa Beach, Florida, the catamaran Ares, a fifty-five foot charter boat, bobbed in the light northerly chop. The passengers didn’t mind. Not one bit. Their attention was elsewhere; on a structure just onshore to their northwest, which was a collection of pipes and gantries, topped by a lightning rod and holding a large orange tank astride two smaller white columns. At first glance, it looked like part of an oil refinery. It was, however, something far different: Launchpad 39A of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Watching through her binoculars, Captain Rachel Carlson told her passengers, “The orbiter access arm is retracting. Won’t be long now; about seven minutes.”
Rachel tuned a portable radio to NASA’s PA channel, which called out the events leading up to launch. At twenty seconds, they began calling out the countdown, and Rachel smiled as her passengers held their collective breaths. Though it had occurred over ten years before, the Challenger Disaster was still a poignant memory.
Rachel leaned against the cockpit railing, running her hands along the smooth, polished metal. The Ares was hers, paid off in full, the result of a part-time charter business she’d started more out of desperation than intent, but which had proved far more successful than she’d dared dream. For the past decade, interrupted only by some time off for the birth of her son Trevor, Rachel had owned and operated Ocean Star Charters, which now included two ships and three employees. Mostly, the charters entailed taking scuba divers out on excursions, but not always. Shuttle launches were one such exception. On her present job, Ares was carrying four passengers – two lawyers and their wives – on a private scuba charter that included a close look at a shuttle launch and then ten days on the reefs in the Bahamas. Ares, like any boat at the time, could approach from the north or south within five miles of the shuttle launch pads, making for a spectacular view. Rachel checked her LORAN navigation set; by her reckoning, she was four and a half miles from the launchpad. She’d always been one to push the limits – sometimes too far.
Ares was the first ship Rachel and her husband, Dirk, had purchased. It had been, Rachel remembered, a spur-of-the-moment decision, rash and hasty, much like their marriage itself. She’d heard about it from a neighbor; the Ares was going on the market, her owner needing a fast sale due to a divorce settlement. Rachel had approached the owner, more out of curiosity than anything, and found that, due to half the proceeds being assigned to his soon-to-be ex wife, he claimed he would be happy to see the catamaran go for far less than her book value.
The potential was obvious yet ephemeral; she and Dirk owned the chandlery – a yachting supply store – at the local marina, and they could, she thought, sell the catamaran at a tidy profit. With that idea in mind, she’d approached her husband with the idea. The chandlery was doing well, so they’d been able to expand – via a few creative claims on their application – an existing line of credit, enough to cover the purchase.
Considering themselves, by virtue of their chandlery business, to be capable of evaluating a boat, Dirk and Rachel had signed the deal after giving the Ares a cursory inspection.
Their plans soon fell apart; the Ares had engine trouble, which proved to be only the first symptom of the boat’s prolonged neglect. Dirk and Rachel put everything they had into her refit, but it would not be soon enough; they would not have sufficient funds to cover the first payment.
From that fortuitous dilemma, Rachel’s business had begun. A friend had suggested raising some money by hiring herself and the Ares out as a private charter. Rachel, who had been a sailor since she was twelve, took the Ares out with inoperative main engines, on her first charter, then two more. By the time the payment was due, she had enough to cover it, and enough for the new engines as well.
After the refit was completed, and while the Ares was for sale, Rachel continued taking two and three-day charters out. The money helped pay down the loan, and by the end of the second month Rachel was convinced that they could make the boat pay.
She’d had a long and loud fight with Dirk as a result. Dirk was vehemently against the idea, pointing out that because he could not captain the ship or even leave port on it, Rachel would have to take the charters alone. That, he felt, put her at risk from her customers. Rachel suspected that part of Dirk’s objection stemmed from his intense dislike of being on boats; he only had to pass the breakwater to become incapacitated by seasickness, on all but the absolute calmest of days.
In the end, Rachel had her way. She would run the charters and Dirk would run the chandlery.
Rachel had proved herself well suited for the task. Three years later, flush with cash from her very profitable businesses, Rachel, with Dirk’s reluctant consent, had purchased Atlantis, a second catamaran identical to Ares, and hired a captain for it. Ever mindful of the legalities, especially in light of their recent troubles, she and Dirk had taken title to Atlantis in the name of their son, Trevor.
Each boat’s roomy salon and galley, plus four passenger cabins, provided comfortable accommodations at the rate of a thousand dollars a day. It was easy money and Rachel knew she’d need it....
The voice on the radio mentioning a very different Atlantis ended Rachel’s reminisces, as the shuttle countdown reached the single digits and Rachel saw her passengers tense. The announcer’s voice echoed from the speakers on Ares, “Eight... seven... We have main engine start....” and a cloud of white roiled out as the shuttle’s three main engines surged to life. The exhaust clouds raced out, partially obscuring the view, as the countdown on the radio continued: “Three... two... one... zero... SRB ignition and we have liftoff, liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis. Atlantis has cleared the tower...”
Rachel watched the shuttle climbing out, arcing into the sky on twin columns of fire, and twenty seconds later, she heard her passengers gasp as the sound arrived; a great roaring crackle that she could feel as well as hear, like hammer blows in the air, a freight train roaring through her. ‘God’s own static, as if the sky is being torn apart,’ Rachel thought, lost in the wonder of the moment. She’d seen many launches but never tired of the spectacle, the pure thrill of it.
Rachel held the Ares on station, gradually swinging the bow around to starboard, keeping it pointed in the general direction of the ascending shuttle. Several of the passengers gasped as the shuttle’s exhaust plume dimmed, and then, trailing fiery plumes, the two solid rocket boosters peeled away. Within seconds, all that could be seen were three rapidly receding dots of blue light: Atlantis’s main engines.
Piloting Ares further to starboard, Rachel swung the catamaran gently around to a heading of southeast.
As the shuttle faded from sight, Rachel hauled up the mainsail and began trimming the Ares for her hundred-and-fifty mile overnight voyage to the reefs and cays of Grand Bahama Bank, where they would spend four days.
As Rachel finished trimming the boat and balancing the sails, she took one last, lingering glance back at the receding shoreline, remembering her young son saying goodbye to her that morning, and asking her to bring him home a seashell for his birthday. Rachel wiped away a tear that had come unbidden to her eye and went forward to check on her guests.
After the charter, Ares dropped the guests off at Nassau on schedule and Rachel filed a route plan to take her directly home. Rachel sailed from Nassau as the last rays of sunset glittered off the calm, azure seas.
Six hours later, a fragmentary radio message was heard by the Coast Guard, “... Ares, taking on water... Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, twenty miles northeast of Bimini, Sailing Yacht Ares, taking on water–” The transmission ended abruptly and all hails went unheeded.
In due course, a search was launched by air and sea. No further trace of the Ares or Rachel Carlson was found.
As time passed, the search ended and the Ares was declared lost. Dirk did his best to console his young son, who could not quite understand why he would never see his mother again.
More time passed, but to Dirk’s dismay, Trevor seemed beset by lingering grief; gone was the happy boy, replaced by one prone to dark moods and quiet brooding.
Nearly another year and a half passed, and Rachel was officially declared dead: lost at sea. Two weeks later, in an effort to bring his son’s grieving to an end, Dirk arranged for a memorial service for his Rachel.
On that December day, Trevor, now ten years old with tears streaming from his eyes and with his father by his side, watched as the empty oaken casket was lowered into the waiting ground. It was an attempt at closure.
It was not nearly enough.
Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions.
Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice.
Thanks also to Talonrider and MikeL for beta reading.
A big Thank You to RedA for Beta reading and advice, and to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice.