They raced back towards the river, still well ahead of the few barges that had not turned back in the storm or retired with broken gear. As they crossed the finish line the little brass canon was fired on the committee boat and Potkin could see Heartsease Finbow and the tortishell cat from the Rotting Hulk Tavern jumping, waving and cheering wildly on a nearby oyster smack.
By the time they got back to Maldon Hythe there was pandemonium. Ships were facing in all directions with hairy matelots heaving on shore lines, brawny seafarers fending off with long boathooks called hitchers and the less competent tasked with holding car tyre fenders between colliding hulls. Everyone was shouting and more boats were arriving every moment, at speed, throwing lines ashore or dropping anchor to swing round. The whole fleet was trying to tie up at the same time. A crowd of landsmen ashore was enjoying the spectacle.
As each vessel was secured gangplanks were thrown out and the jostling, noisy multitude of seafarers headed for the Rotting Hulk Inn. With Centaur made fast her crew also took off towards the alehouse. When Rich opened the hostelry door it was so crowded within that people fell out and the babbling cacophony hit them like a shock wave. He and Potkin pushed through to the bar. Everyone was laughing and clapping each other on the back.
After a while a bell rang out and all fell silent. The commodore of the local yacht club gave a speech and the Lord Mayor presented prizes. Centaur won a cup for the first boat home and Indomitable received one for being first across the line at the start, her skipper being far too wily to have been distracted by Absalom Rowbottom’s dirty tricks. Other boats received prizes for second and third place and everyone got a wooden shield for taking part. Then the commodore said, “And finally we have a special prize for outstanding seamanship.” He held up the award, a huge stuffed turbot in a glass case. A brass plaque read:
Awarded to POTKIN
Everyone cheered and threw their hats into the air. All of Centaur’s crew wanted to congratulate Potkin.
With the prize giving at an end the ships’ crews gathered in a back room for the match supper. There was steak and kidney pudding, jelly and party hats for all. Moses Smith toasted the skipper and Potkin. Then Absalom Rowbottom had their winner’s cup filled with an alcoholic cocktail of rum and whiskey, beer and pop, and passed it round the crew. When he got to Potkin he said:
“Well done. We were lucky you came along.”
After the meal there was dancing and music. A gnarled and ancient barge skipper, relic of the days in trade, was lofted onto the table and Heartsease Finbow sprang up beside him. They launched enthusiastically into a song about a sailor called Barnacle Bill.
“Whose that knocking at my door?” she squealed in a forced falsetto.
“It’s only me from over the sea I’m Barnacle Bill the sailor.” Everyone ranted and roared and joined in the chorus.
Late that night the crews drifted back to their ships and turned in. Rick and Potkin went to their cabin.
“Well,” said Rick, “You’re a real sailor now.”
Potkin climbed wearily into his hammock and curled up. Happily he purred himself to sleep, where he dreamed of desert islands in a turquoise sea, flying fish and albatrosses. It was the dream of a true ship’s cat.