Excerpt from The Shipwreck Secret by Vanessa Lind (copyright 2023)
Clatsop Sands, 1888
In the gale, the Iona pitches and rolls. Pablo braces against the cool metal walls of the chain locker.
“Ave María, llena eres de gracia,” he recites, repeating the Hail Mary. Earlier in the voyage, he would have only mouthed the words, not wanting to give up his hiding place. Now that’s the least of his worries. Besides, no one can hear him over the sea’s roar.
A rogue wave strikes hard on the ship’s beam. The Iona shudders, sending shock waves through Pablo’s legs and arms. “Dio te salve,” he chants in the bravest voice he can muster. The Lord saves thee. He prays this is true. Prays that if her foolish son dies in this storm, his mother back in Manzanillo will never know it.
Beneath the chain locker, he hears the sound of shifting sands, as if he’s trapped in a giant hourglass. In Manzanillo, the sand was taken on as ballast. Now its shifting only adds to the ship’s unsteadiness. The Iona heels to port, thrusting Pablo against the locker’s iron wall. The vessel shudders, her deck nearly perpendicular to the waves. Water sloshes past the windlass, drenching Pablo with its frigid spray. The deck levels, but the schooner still leans precariously.
“All hands below!” The second mate yells the command, straining to be heard above the crashing of the wind and the waves.
Pablo clasps his knees to his chest. The crew must be heading below to shovel sand, an attempt to steady the boat. He could help. For a boy of fourteen, he’s wiry and strong. In this storm, maybe no one will care that he’s stowed away on their ship. He can scarcely believe they haven’t spotted him yet, sneaking out between watches to scavenge for food. But there’s one man he mistrusts more than the rest, one Pablo suspects would hurl him over the rails and into the sea without a moment’s hesitation. So he stays put.
Minutes pass. Maybe hours. Waves pound the deck, drenching him again and again. His abuela used to tell of a hurricane that hit their village when she was a girl. The winds must have been like this, Pablo thinks. He should have known trouble was coming. Last night, the seas were so calm, it was eerie calm. He should have jumped ship then, taken his chances in the water.
Back in Manzanillo, his plan made sense. Hop a schooner bound for San Francisco. Try to find his uncle there. Start over, maybe earn enough wages to send money home to his mama and his abuela. How proud they’d be of him then.
When the Iona docked at Manzanillo, he knew she was the one, the ship that would make his dreams come true. Three tall masts and painted all white, the Iona was the most gallant schooner he’d ever laid eyes on.
Slipping aboard the night before she sailed, he’d discovered elegance beyond any he could have imagined. Polished mahogany rails, brass fixtures that gleamed in the lamplight, the captain’s quarters furnished with plush chairs and a wall of books.
All illusion, he knows now. Once they’d taken to the sea, he overheard the murmuring among the crew. The Iona was cursed. When they docked in San Francisco, the chief steward stumbled from the dock and drowned. Rattled, the captain ordered the ship back to sea, and Pablo missed his chance to get off.
From there, it only got worse. The lovely senora dying in the captain’s arms. The helmsman steering them off course, swearing he’d seen Miss Emma’s ghost. The captain’s shrouded body followed his mistress into the sea.
And now this storm. At sunset last night, the sailors spoke of crossing the bar today. Hanging about the shipyard at home, Pablo learned a good deal of English, but he doesn’t know what they mean by the bar. Still, peering out from the chain locker, he could read the worry in their eyes.
Morning brought a breeze that freshened into a gale. By afternoon, the winds were howling, pounding the schooner with waves larger than any Pablo has ever seen. And now, despite the frantic shoveling of the ballast, the ship is still hove to.
The crew scrambles up from the hold. “Top the mast!” The first mate screams the command. From his hiding place, Pablo watches in terror as two men climb the rigging, clinging fast to the ropes. Somehow, they manage to saw away the top of the main mast. With a resounding thud, it crashes down, splintering the deck below.
Pablo crosses himself. Dio mio. He sees clearly the gaping hole the fallen mast has made on the leeward side. Sea water rushes in. The sailors shout back and forth. Three of them make a tarp of the topsail, fastening it as best they can over the hole. Another races about, clearing tangled lines and wreckage are pulling the ship even farther leeward.
Despite all this effort, the Iona is foundering, at the mercy of the wind and waves. The crew climbs the rigging, all but one of them, Pablo sees when he counts them. They perch like birds, awaiting their fate.
In the darkness, Pablo climbs from the chain locker. He crouches into the wind, staying low to the deck, willing himself not to slip off. He slides one foot, then the other, toward a tangle of ropes. A shape forms ahead of him, too small by far to be a man, too large to be a rat.
Pablo drops to all fours. “Queenie,” he beckons.
The little white dog scampers toward him. He clutches her tight to his chest, then lunges into the darkness. The ship’s timbers groan and crack. It won’t be long now.
from The Shipwreck Secret: A Gilded Age Mystery