by Just Jae
Dani experiences a prank that isn't a prank.
This is ridiculous, thought Dani as she stood at the bow of the captain's motorized whaleboat. The young sailor had heard of the pranks pulled on the newest crew members. It was one of many "sea stories" she'd heard since entering boot camp more than a year ago.
Encumbered with the gear she "needed" to hook a "mail buoy"--a gaffing hook and a large harness attached to a length of mooring line--she was ready to take part in the captain's deception. Dani knew about some of the hazing that happened to the newest members of the ship's complement and used the knowledge to avoid most extraneous and sometimes risky pranks. She had no way of avoiding this prank when the skipper himself entered the fray.
On the other hand, she'd heard about the activities when a ship crossed the equator. The rituals almost always included a crawl through the bilge. Dani would rather remain a Pollywog if that were the case, a fact she concealed from even her closest friends. After all, didn't every sailor want their Shellback certificate and the bragging rights that went along with it? Uh, no.
Captain Lee stood at the rail, watching as the Boatswain's Mate lowered the skiff into the ocean. Dani felt small and insignificant as she looked out at the dull blue of the sea reflecting the cloud cover, then back up at the hill rising from the water. Waves lifted the boat to the crest, then plummeted the craft into a trough. Even though Dani wasn't prone to seasickness, her stomach protested every time the wave-coaster.
Cutting across the waves, Dani tried to anticipate the next dip. The Bo'sun delayed just long enough to make sure the girl turned a new shade of green.
"Really, Boats?" she asked her friend. "Should I lose my lunch now, or let you have a little more fun?"
"Killjoy," Tammy answered with a mischievous grin as she checked her compass and the satellite navigation system on the skiff. "Believe it or not, there really is something out here you need to hook, so stand by, landlubber!" She cranked on the throttle, and the boat bounced from wave to wave.
Indeed, about a nautical mile from the ship, they found a small object floating along the surface. Tammy replaced the mooring line with a more manageable line and secured it first to Dani's harness, then to a mooring hook inside the boat.
"Okay, here's what you do," said Boats. "You have to trust me, so ..." she trailed off.
Dani looked at her a moment, then gave a sharp nod.
"The boat is going to move around, so I have to keep it steady and make sure you don't fall overboard, got it."
"Yeah, that would be nice."
"You need to balance on the seat there," Tammy pointed to a small platform near the prow. "We need to coordinate our movements, so when I get within gaff range, you need to lean out and try to hook the buoy. Got it?"
"Lean out when you get close, hook the buoy. Got it."
"Don't try to lift it into the boat yourself, just get it close."
"Aye, aye, Boats," replied Dani with a mock salute.
Taking her place on the edge of the gunwale, she tested the security and tension of the rope. Nodding to her pilot, she braced herself for what was to come.
Dani spotted a dolphin nose something in their direction as she looked out at the water. Leaning over the gunwale, she stretched as far as she could, the hemp rope, and her friend, groaning at the effort. The animal lifted itself out of the water, chittering the entire time. The old television show, Flipper, flashed through her mind, and she almost laughed. Remembering the task at hand, she tried to hook the object one more time. And failed.
"Three feet," she yelled back to the Boatswain's Mate.
The engine revved, and the boat inched closer. Dani hung over the side, making herself as long as her five feet seven inches allowed, mindful of the surface under her boots. The dolphin nosed the object the last few inches. Dani grinned.
"Thank you, beautiful," she said, looking into its eyes as she pulled the buoy to the boat.
The dolphin chittered as it lifted out of the water, dancing backward on its tail before executing a perfect pirouette as it dove into the ocean.
An hour later, Tammy and Dani attached the lifting hooks and climbed the rope ladder to the main deck. Boats had removed the classified contents and tossed the buoy back into the water. Dani had tucked the folder beneath all the layers.
When they reached the relative stability of the deck, Tammy handed the packet to the skipper when the attention was focused on Dani and the "prank." The young sailor was savvy enough to play along.
"So," said Capt. Lee, with a wink, "we finally got you! And here you thought you'd get through your first voyage without having to catch a 'mail buoy.'" The captain leaned in close, "debrief, my office, one hour."
"Aye, sir," she replied, stripping off the harness and life jacket. For the first time this voyage, she felt unencumbered. With the prospect of more attempts to send her hunting a bucket of steam, or a handful of relative bearings behind her, Dani felt like a true Sailor.