It was as remote a location as I’d ever expected for my first assignment. Stuart, the surveyor who accompanied me, ferried us from the floatplane terminal in an aluminum skiff, which we beached on a graveled spit. We then made our way on foot along the rugged shore to where another boat was perched, high and dry on the rocks above the tide line. It had once been a classic Norwegian motor schooner. The storm had tossed it there as easily as a child discards a toy after losing interest in it.
Miraculously, the captain survived, but his boat was a total loss. He was seated on a rock close to the wreckage, his head in his hands. As we approached, we could easily see where the boat’s hull had been breached. Some of the planking had ripped out entirely, and much of what remained was splintered and frayed where the rocks had scraped along her side. Her frames were visible through the gap, like the ribs of a giant decaying fish.
“Hello, BJ. This here is Nick Anderson.”
“ ‘Lo Stu. ‘lo, uh, what’s your name again?”
“Hi, I’m Nick Anderson. From your insurance company.”
“Okay.” He squinted up at me from his seat. His eyes looked a little glazed over. It had been a while since either he or his clothes had bathed with soap. I sat down beside him and pulled out my clipboard. The Coast Guard report said the captain was drunk.
“So, Captain Lemon, can you tell me what happened?”
He didn’t look at me, but fixed his gaze out over the water at a point somewhere just short of the horizon.
“Bananas,” he said.
I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. “Say again?”
“Bananas. The engineer brought bananas.”
“Engineer?” Bemused, I looked at Stu, who shook his head and beckoned me to the boat. “Can we go take a look on board, BJ?”
We climbed aboard over the bulwarks where they rested on the rocks and hoisted
ourselves into the cabin. Stu picked a level spot, pulled out a pipe, added some tobacco from his pouch and lit it. As we talked, the smoke rose like incense, covering the stench of spoiled food and diesel.
“Maybe I can fill in some details for you, Nick. I’ve known BJ Lemon a long time, and his life hasn’t been so easy. He’s like a lot of sailors, you know, real superstitious. There’s this tradition that goes way back. Sailors used to tack stuff to the mast, a coin or something that represented whatever god or saint they particularly respected. They’d salute the mast before coming on board, to invoke their god’s protection. Go check out the base of the main mast.”
I climbed over the debris to reach it. Sure enough there was a label tacked to it. “Sutter Home Vineyards,” I read.
Stu laughed, “Well, BJ’s got another superstition: bananas on a boat invite bad luck. Must’ve had a bad cruise and decided to blame it on the bananas. He always travels with an engineer, which is good sense ‘cause he knows from nothin’ about engines. This last one, Ralph, jumped ship at Tuuvik. He despised BJ. They’d argued constantly, even about the bananas.”
“It wasn’t bananas that caused this wreck,” I said. “Seems it was fermented grapes, if you catch my drift.”
“Well, maybe. BJ likes his wine. He told me he would’ve been fine through this storm, ‘cept his engine just quit on him. Let’s have a look see.”
We found the engine compartment, quite spacious for a sailboat. It was also filthy. Ralph had slept there; the space around his bunk was littered with junk. Some of the offending bananas still hung from a hook.
Stu looked over the engine, peering into one orifice in particular. “Get me some needle nose pliers,” he ordered.
I handed him a pair. “This is the air intake,” he explained as he inserted the pliers into the opening. “Normally, there’s a filter on it, but not always. With a diesel engine, no air means no go.” With that, he slowly withdrew the pliers.
“Well look what got sucked in,” Stu grinned. Clamped in the jaws of the pliers were the sticky brown remains of a banana peel.
Before returning to the skiff, I gave Captain Lemon the peel. Then I took the cross from my neck and gave that to him as well.
“Tack that to the mast of your next boat,” I said.
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