Did someone try to wreck the campaign speech on purpose? Divine Fury. Chapter 18
January 19, 2013
ENZO LEE ARRIVED at the pier at Santa Barbara Harbor a little after 9:30 a.m. for the scheduled 10 a.m. departure, lured by the promise of hot coffee and sweet pastries as the culinary prelude to the trip. He introduced himself to Harry Blount as they waited next to the 60-foot yacht, the Neptune, that the Harper campaign had chartered for the event.
“Could be warmer, huh?” said Lee, as he zipped up the jacket he wore over a thick wool sweater.
“Look out past the break to the open water,” said Blount, waving his arm toward the sea. “What do you see?”
“Hmmm. Nothing in particular,” said Lee.
“Exactly,” said Blount. “No whitecaps. As long as I see that, I’m happy. No journalists losing their donuts over the side. We want happy media, not puking media.”
One by one, the television stations arrived. The crews gratefully accepted their cups of Starbucks coffee and hauled their camera equipment aboard.
The traditional way to unveil Andrew Harper’s environmental platform would have been to stage an event somewhere perfectly safe – say a beach in Southern California or some pasture with an oil drilling rig in the background. But Blount had convinced Harper to take a small gamble for a big payoff – a photo op almost sure to get a decent slot on the evening news.
He thought the whole scene – chartered yacht, beautiful Central California coastline and a 20-mile round trip churning through the blue Pacific – would be a fun change for the press corps which now included some regulars assigned full-time to the campaign. Plus, it would show Harper as dynamic, outdoorsy and wanting to experience nature firsthand and not from a corporate boardroom.
But the big bonus was the otters. One of Harper’s local supporters had taken his Zodiac out two hours earlier and found 20 of the cute critters rafting together in the kelp beds 10 miles north. Just a 10-second close-up of an otter floating on his back cracking mussels followed by 10 more seconds of Harper promising to keep the coastal waters safe for otterkind would do it. Blount could envision a follow-up commercial that would conclude with the tag line: “Andrew Harper: The Otter Candidate.”
The Neptune held 30 and was packed. The overflow – the dozen or so journalists who had responded late to the invitation – had rented a couple of smaller 15-foot Boston Whalers to accompany the larger vessel. They would get the trip footage and interview Harper afterward on land. Blount saw Harper working the reporters in groups of threes and fours, mainly clustered out of the wind toward the back. He was playing the genial host. Everyone was smiling. It was going great.
“So what’s next, Harry,” asked Lee, sidling up to Blount along the railing on the starboard side of the Neptune. “Got kittens and puppies in the lineup? Any other cuddly mammals?”
“So you uncovered the details of our mission, huh?” said Blount.
“Yep,” said Lee. “Was talking to one of the crew and he revealed all.”
“Well, I was actually thinking of staying with sea mammals and moving up the chain,” said Blount. “You know. Seals, porpoises, walruses. And, uh, save the whales for last…ha ha. Get it?”
“Yeah,” said Lee, suppressing a chuckle. “‘Save the whales’. Great one, Harry.”
Thirty minutes out, the captain slowed the Neptune and nosed it toward shore. The boat inched forward, nudging its way through the kelp beds. Then, 150 yards away, they saw the first otters. There were half a dozen. A couple were pounding shellfish on their chests. The others seemed to just be relaxing, floating on their backs and occasionally poking their heads up to see what was going on around them.
Within a minute, the cameras were out and focusing on the ocean. The oohs and ahhs and laughs at the playful animals were music to Blount’s ears. The Neptune came to a stop 50 yards away from the otters. Now, they could see an even larger group beyond the first ones. It was otter party time.
Harper set up at the rear of the Neptune and the cameras reluctantly turned away from the real stars to record the candidate’s remarks. As the news teams signaled they were ready, Blount and Lee stayed off along the side railing and watched.
“These sea otters out here in the water are just as important to me as a rancher in Redding or a plumber in Santa Barbara…” Harper began.
“Plus four times more likely to vote Democrat,” whispered Blount into Lee’s ear.
“…Otters are more than just cute,” continued Harper. “They’re like the proverbial canaries in the mine. They help tell us what is happening to the ocean and the coastal environment in California. They’re at the top of their food chain. So, when there is something wrong in their environment, they show it…”
“You can see it in their eyes,’” whispered Blount. “They’re thinking, ‘What the hell happened to the abalone?’”
“…So, why aren’t our friends, the otters, flourishing?” he asked. “Ten years ago, they were. Populations were growing. But not anymore. Something is wrong and our scientists haven’t figured out what it is. Are we overfishing the shellfish on the coast? Are pollutants washing out of our cities and poisoning the otters or their food supply?”
“As your governor, I promise to find out,” said Harper. “And, I’ll fix it. Like the people of California, the otters deserve an environment that is clean and healthy. Not one that is a dumping ground for Big Oil, the auto industry and other polluters…”
Just then, Lee heard yelling. It came from the captain and crew on the upstairs bridge of the Neptune. He followed their gazes and saw a big ship, some sort of freighter, bearing down on them. It was a quarter of a mile away but coming fast. As it neared, it looked huge as it towered above the Neptune.
Lee could see that the ship wasn’t going to run them over at least. But now he understood the captain’s concern. The ship was moving fast and leaving a huge wake behind it. The Neptune and the smaller boats were drifting broadside to the oncoming wave. The wake threatened to capsize the boats.
“Hold on! Everyone hold on!” he heard the captain shouting from the bridge. Then the wave was on them. The port side of the Neptune went high into the air as the wake slid under the boat. Then, as the wave passed to the other side, the Neptune rolled the opposite way with the starboard side high in the air. People were falling, having lost their grip on the railing. Cameras and other equipment slid across the decks. There were screams and shouting.
The Neptune rocked a couple more times and then stabilized quickly in the flat water behind the wake. Then, Lee heard more shouting and he saw two crew members run to the opposite side of the Neptune. One threw an orange flotation device into the water. Another had a long pole that he was pointing down into the ocean.
Blount had already moved to the other side of the Neptune when Lee joined him and saw one of the smaller boats upside down in the water. Four or five people were hanging on to the capsized boat. A couple of others were treading water next to it. Cushions and equipment bags floated in the water.
The photographers on the Neptune retrieved their cameras and started filming the scene as the crew of the Neptune began working to get those in the water onto the larger boat. Lee could guess what images would lead the story on the evening news.
Chapters of the serial are published Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
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