(Now, this chapter is REALLY technical in places, unless you are a sailor. But it is also dead exciting, so try and stick with it if you get a bit lost. I skipped over the jargonny bits, and it was still good.)
Absalom Rowbottom rounded the outer mark skilfully close to the buoy and Centaur hardened up onto the wind. The gale seemed to blow even harder and screamed through the rigging. Centaur heeled further with a loud, long creak, foaming sea rushing past the gun’als and the le’ward shrouds swaying slackly. With each pounding into the short, steep seas of a wind over tide the hull shuddered along its entire length.
Potkin stood awkwardly on the tilting deck with a huge grin on his face and water streaming along his whiskers to fly as arcing droplets off the ends. With a loud crack the mighty leeboard took the weight of the surging vessel, the churning sky seemed to be joining in the race. And then there was a groan, and a bit of a twang.
Watched from the deck the topmast began to bend into an alarming S-shape.
“Drop the tops’l!” shouted the skipper, “Or we’ll lose the mast.”
Rick cast off the topsail halyard, which writhed through the air as it came free. The sail dropped a couple of feet and jammed.
“Bother!” shouted the skipper in an anxious tone pitched considerably higher than his norm. He threw his top hat on the deck and jumped on it.
“Someone has to go aloft, or all is lost.”
Rick looked up. The mate looked up. The crew looked up at the flapping sail their eyes wide and staring, their faces pale. No one moved.
Was it the spectral voice of his pirate ancestor whispering in his ear? Somehow Potkin knew what had to be done and that it had to be done quickly. Leaping for the mast he dug his claws into the pine and began to scramble upwards. He gripped tightly and hugged close to the luff of the main sail for protection as the spray-laden wind plucked his fur out into stiff, saline saturated spikes. He eased his way cautiously around the iron crosstrees and scampered up the topmast using the topsail hoops as a ladder. Reaching the masthead he paused for just a moment and then flung himself out towards the headstick. There was a brief aerial plummet before he crashed into the spar and clung onto the head of the sail with every tooth, claw and sinew he possessed. The spar jerked, shuddered and the jammed rope came free. The tops’l came rattling down the mast with Potkin still firmly attached and came to rest in the crosstrees, the tangle of rope canvas and cat in a flapping bunch of buggers still high above the deck. Once everything stopped crashing about him Potkin was hanging, shivering and caked in sail dressing, that noxious concoction, beloved of East Coast sailors, of fish oil, red ochre and secret, less savoury ingredients. At least he was now waterproof. Throughout this heroic adventure Rick had been climbing the ratlines towards him. On reaching the crosstrees he lifted Potkin across his shoulders and brought him carefully down to safety.
(Now I know that many of you are, at this stage, totally bemused, so here goes with a bit of nautical explanation:
The headstick is a bit of wood [spar] tied along the top, or head of the topsail. The halyard is a rope passing through a pulley at the top of the mast and tied to the headstick to pull the sail up [haul yard… see?]. The luff [front] of the topsail is tied to hoops that go round the topmast and allow it to slide up and down. Easy, isn’t it? Oh, and my Dad swears that ‘bunch of buggers’ is a legitimate technical term.)
Potkin had acted too quickly to be scared, but once he was safely back on deck he began to quiver with fear and excitement. The crew stood round him and cheered whilst the skipper turned his battered topper gloomily in his weathered hands. With danger passed however, the race was far from done.
Soon everyone was back at his post. Sailors showed Potkin the tasks that they were carrying out and explained why and gave him little jobs to do. He was too small to wind leeboard winches, but felt he was really getting the hang of this tailing business.