Guardian travel writing competition 2013, runner-up. “Liz Cleere’s exciting and evocative tale of freeing turtles from fishing nets in the middle of a stormy Indian Ocean”
I clung to the guard rail while I looped a rope round the broken foresail. A wave rose, then fell back before it reached me. We were adrift in an Indian Ocean the colour of dishwater. A platoon of grey clouds marched across the sky, softening us up before the storm. Just a couple more knots to secure the flapping sail and I would be safe, back in the cockpit with Jamie. Then the engine roared, and the boat drove forward into wind. The next wave crashed over me.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I shouted.
Jamie, behind the wheel, pointed at a ridge of water. “There’s a turtle in distress,” he said.
I scanned the sea’s hills and valleys, and saw a bunch of netting and floats.
“It’s nothing, just junk,” I said.
Then a flipper reached out of the water and sank back into the jetsam. I felt hollow. Land was 600 miles away, and we had been on two-hour watches for days; I didn’t want to think about distressed turtles. I shrugged.
“Well? What do you want to do about it?” I gave no encouragement, no sign that I cared.
“I won’t forgive myself if we leave without trying to help,” he said.
Jamie, my strong skipper, looked lost. Aware of obligations beyond my understanding, I softened. In the cockpit we had a quick hug; I took the wheel and Jamie unclipped the boat hook. We turned our yacht round, allowing the turtle to gently float alongside. Jamie snagged the net.
“It’s two turtles,” he said, “but I can’t hold them.”
He lunged over the side and thrust bare hands through the mesh. The nylon line which trapped and was strangling the animals, now cut into his fingers. Spidery crabs clambered everywhere, sharpening their claws in anticipation of the feast to follow. Fins circled in the shadows beneath. To have any chance of freeing the turtles, we would have to haul them on board. I tried to hook a rope through the tangle, but the clip jumped from my grip and the line swung away from the boat. Jamie stood to catch it while I held the unbreakable web with gloved hands. But he missed and the rope flew away again, out over the waves.
Cursing the fishermen for dumping their net, I tugged at the heavy load and pulled it clear of the water. Crabs crawled up my arms. Jamie, his hands now bleeding, scrambled next to me and together we heaved the whole stinking mess into the cockpit.
The first rain pellets began to pepper the deck. We worked in silence. Cutting the turtles free was quick with our sharp sailing knives. Their shells were smooth, glossy and serrated towards the back, and creamy underneath. They peered into our eyes. Afterwards we wondered what they had been thinking. As the clouds darkened, we slipped them back into the water.
Then the gale hit.