1956. Three French Canadians and two cats sail on a raft from Canada, across the Atlantic, reaching Falmouth, Cornwall 88 days later.
Back in Canada, a little girl dreams of following them. With her cat.
It’s not so much that Charlotte wanted to run away from home. She simply wanted to do what the men on the radio had done. It would be an adventure, a great adventure.
Charlotte lived with her parents on a dairy farm in rural Nova Scotia, overlooking the ocean. Their white bungalow sat on the edge of a gentle slope that was covered in long grasses which swept, vast and green, down to the sand dunes and, ultimately the sea.
At seven, Charlotte was a girl who enjoyed her own company, especially during summer vacation. She had no siblings and her parents, who had been somewhat old already when they had had Charlotte, busied themselves with the farm work, rarely interacting with Charlotte during the day. It was not that they neglected her, for in fact, they were a close family and often sat around the fire together in the evenings. No, it was more that they were each introverted and lost in their own thoughts as they worked out in the fresh sea air during the day.
Charlotte liked the solitude and could often be found roaming the fields of long grasses on her own, playing games of her own creation, talking to herself, imagining worlds into existence.
She would wander across the dunes as well, and out onto the beach. Having grown up by the sea, she understood the tides and knew when it was safe to troll the sands looking for treasure, and when it was time to go back up to higher ground.
When she heard the story of the men, and cats, crossing the ocean on their raft, she began to collect driftwood and pile it up on the dunes, out of the reach of the waves.
At first, she had thought she would simply build a raft like they had done, and play at sailing it across the undulating sand. She couldn’t really say when this had turned into the idea of heading out on a real adventure herself.
Perhaps it began with the decision to test out the raft on the water.
About a week and a half after she had initially heard the men’s story on the family’s radio in the sitting room, she had managed to gather the nine driftwood poles necessary for the voyage. It had taken some searching to find nine good, strong poles, close enough to the same length to be of use.
Charlotte found some strong rope in her father’s shed and brought it down to her building site, dragging it a across the dunes behind her, delighting in the snaking pattern it left in its wake. When she had the poles lashed together, she stood back and admired her work.
Then, she gingerly stepped aboard.
For half an hour or so, Charlotte played on her raft, imagining it floated across the dunes, holding her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun, looking into the distance for the imaginary land she hoped to reach.
But this game lost its attraction quickly as Charlotte kept glancing thoughtfully at the real waves. Wouldn’t it be fun, she wondered to herself, wouldn’t it be fun to see if the raft could actually float?
And so, Charlotte dragged and pushed her raft down to the water’s edge.
Amazingly, it did float!
She had to make some adjustments to the ropes in several places to stop the outer log from floating away, but, she concluded decidedly, this was a seaworthy vessel.
Now, the raft which had made the journey to Falmouth was more complicated than nine logs lashed together. In fact, it had sails, a small cabin and a primitive rudder. But Charlotte was unsure exactly how to construct these superfluous additions and dispensed with them completely.
It was not exactly at this moment that she decided to embark on the high seas, but by the following morning, the decision had been made.
The day broke sunny and clear and hot. Perfect for beginning such an adventure. The sea seemed to be calling to her.
Charlotte awoke early and prepared a large picnic in the kitchen before her parents got up. She had it all packed and sitting outside, hidden on the far side of the shed, before they made their way down the hall to make coffee. She had also included a paddle, a bed roll, and her fishing rod to catch food once she had finished the picnic rations – this she had remembered to bring as the men had said on the radio that they resorted to fishing once their food ran out. Of course, the men used spears but Charlotte was sure a regular rod would do.
She brought some tins of cat food, too, for she would be bringing Pickles, her small orange tabby, along for company.
She watched her parents as they started for the barns following the morning family breakfast ritual, then she quickly penned a note to them. The note read as follows:
Dear Mummy and Daddy,
I have gone on an adventure. I shall be gone for a few months. I am paddling across the high seas. Perhaps you shall hear about me on the radio when I get there!
Once her parents were out of sight, Charlotte headed in the opposite direction and, tempting Pickles with a piece of bacon purloined from the breakfast table, gathered her provisions from the side of the shed.
First, she set the raft afloat, and then she stacked her things in the centre, to maintain the balance. Getting Pickles aboard proved a bit more difficult.
Finally, however, she managed to get everything in order, climbed aboard and set off.
It didn’t take long for Charlotte’s little arms to tire of paddling. But, with the lovely weather and all the time in the world, she didn’t worry too much about taking frequent rests.
Throughout that first day, she floated, paddled, talked to Pickles and sang some songs. It had not quite dawned on her that at this speed, it would take much longer than 88 days to cross the ocean.
The only difficulty she had encountered so far was the realization that she was going to run out of water before she reached the other side. But, she thought, she could hold the canteen open when it rained and the rainwater would fill it up again.
It was as she was considering this plan that her second mistake dawned on her. Rain. She had thought how lovely it would be to sleep under the stars, but she had not accounted for the wetness of rainstorms.
Stubbornly, she continued on, deciding that she would face these problems as they occurred.
The sun continued its brilliant arc across the clear blue sky and eventually began to set. Charlotte was far enough out into the water now that she could see the magnificence of a sunset on open water. The deep orange glow set the sea on fire in a quiet brilliance, touching the tops of the rolling waves with sparkling lava.
“Oh, how beautiful,” murmured Charlotte, hugging Pickles to her.
One by one, the stars began to come out and Charlotte, tired after her long day, carefully unrolled her bedroll, climbed in, and motioned for Pickles to join her.
It wasn’t long before she was fast asleep.
Some time not long after she fell asleep, the wind picked up and the waves began to swell. Clouds crept across the stars and snuffed out the light of the moon.
Charlotte slept on, but back in her little bungalow overlooking the sea, her parents paced nervously, trying to explain the situation convincingly to the local authorities. They knew their daughter had gone out to sea. They showed the police and the man from the local search and rescue station the letter Charlotte had left behind and told them about her interest in the story on the radio. They wanted a boat sent out to find their daughter.
The gruff men did not, however, believe them at first. After all, what little seven-year-old girl would really build a raft and disappear out onto the Atlantic? Perhaps in her imagination, but not, they were sure, in reality.
As the wind picked up, Charlotte’s parents became more and more desperate. They realized it cost money to send out a boat to find someone in the water, but they were sure she was out there.
Through some stroke of luck, or divine intervention, the search and rescue mariner finally agreed to take out a lifeboat and have a look. They all agreed that Charlotte couldn’t have gone too far.
Indeed, it didn’t take long to find her. As the first drops of rain began to fall, a bright light fell across Charlotte’s raft. The light penetrated the deep, inky darkness of night, reaching through her dreams to call her back to the waking world. Surprised, she sat up quickly, rubbing her eyes and wondering why she was wet.
The large swells made it difficult for the lifeboat to manoeuvre alongside the little raft but, as Charlotte began to shake her head and clear her thoughts, she was able to take directions. She used her paddle to turn the raft around and then reached it out to the man in the boat, who passed her a rope.
When the two vessels were parallel and bumping up against each other, Charlotte handed over an unhappy, bristling Pickles, followed by their provisions. When everything had been transferred to the lifeboat, Charlotte clambered aboard herself.
As the motor roared to life and they headed back towards land, Charlotte watched her beautiful raft disappear, swallowed unceremoniously by the darkness of the night and the storm.