When quartermaster Tom Hamblin awakened Melinda with an intercom call just after three in the morning, she pulled on her Coast Guard sweatshirt and went straight to the pilothouse.
“What have you got?”
The interior of the Tuckernuck was full of shadows and the dim glow of red night-lights, except for the fluorescent lamp over the chart table.
“I overheard some radio chatter from the Rescue Coordination Center in Boston, Captain. One of our Pelican helicopters is missing.”
Melinda felt the emotion rising in her chest. When she sucked in a deep breath to hold her feelings down, it pinched her heart. But she held fast.
“No distress call?”
“No. The last thing Boston heard, they were getting ready to hoist a sick crewman off a Taiwanese long-liner. That was almost an hour ago.”
“Did you copy a last known position?”
He swept his hand towards the outer margin of the chart and stopped at a spot on the edge of the Continental Shelf, where the shallow water of George’s Bank dropped off into the abyss of the deep sea.
“Corsair Canyon. Too far offshore for us, but I thought you’d want to know, since your husband …”
“How are the wind and seas out there?”
“The automated weather buoy is reporting ten-foot swells.”
“Right.” Melinda bit her lower lip in a moment of hesitation. She stepped out of the pilothouse and looked around at the calm water of the boat basin and into the sky, which was being swept by fast moving clouds. When she leaned back into the pilothouse, her mind was made up.
“Go ahead and wake up the crew, Tom. We’re getting underway.”
Quartermaster Tom Hamblin dove into the passageway leading below decks and began turning on lights and rousting the crew. A few moments later, Ensign Nichols and Senior Chief Johansen joined her at the chart table.
“That’s way outside of our patrol area,” the ensign dutifully observed.
“Our patrol area boundaries are just lines on a chart, XO.”
“They can’t send us way out there,” Dag Johansen complained. “That’s nuts!”
“Boston hasn’t given us orders to go.” Melinda said. “My decision.”
Johansen gave her a sideways look and asked, “Is Kyle on that helicopter?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Does it matter, Senior Chief?”
“Nope.” Johansen turned and dove down the passageway into the boat, saying, “You’ll have engines in five minutes, Captain.”
A few minutes later, Ensign Nichols took the helm and backed the Tuckernuck away from the pier. They idled out of the boat basin and past the little lighthouse on Race Point and came up to half speed between the jetties. Then Melinda pushed the throttles down all the way, and they rocketed into the night with spray flying off the bow and the diesels thundering.
“We should slow down, Captain,” Ensign Nichols suggested as they rounded Point Rip.
“Hold your speed, XO.”
The seas grew larger as they approached the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean until the Tuckernuck was vaulting over gray rollers in Great Round Shoals Channel. With each airborne leap, the boat’s contents went weightless, and then slammed down when the hull landed into succeeding waves with explosions of spray. The cups and plates in the galley, the tools in the engine room, and the crew’s personal items in their lockers all rattled and shook, each adding their distinctive sound to the cacophony.
“Captain, we’ve got to slow down,” Nichols said, holding onto the console and the helm to keep from falling down. The lights of Nantucket were disappearing in the shifting mountains of waves surrounding the Tuckernuck.
The ocean ahead was a black abyss.
“There’s no point in going if we don’t get there in time to help,” Melinda told her second-in-command.
“Captain, the air station has launched another helicopter to rescue any survivors. And there is a C-130 aircraft circling overhead by now. They don’t need us out there.”
“I’m aware of that, XO. Helicopters and airplanes get the glory and the headlines, but somebody always has to get down and dirty between the waves with a boat to finish the job. That’s us.”
“Captain,” Nichols pleaded, “we can’t go on like this. The boat won’t take it!”
“Stand down, XO,” Melinda calmly said. “Quartermaster Hamblin, take the helm.”
“Aye aye,” the quartermaster said, taking the helm from Ensign Nichols, who stood aside and held onto the chart table to keep from being knocked off his feet by a steep train of waves. By then the Tuckernuck’s bow was knifing into fully developed ocean swells, throwing huge plumes of dark-green water aside.
“Captain, I have to formally object to this course of action. We should slow down and return to our patrol area immediately.”
“That’s fine, Ensign Nichols. Since you’re no help here, please remain in your stateroom until I have a chance to address the matter.”
When Nichols went below, Melinda and the quartermaster were left alone in the wheelhouse.
“So,” Tom Hamblin gave her a wry smile as a big wave tossed the boat and they both hung on. “How do you like command at sea, so far?”
Excerpted from the novel ROYALS ALL THE WAY!