1. Out of the river …
THE SS WEBWEAVER was sailing slowly down the southern reaches of the mighty Mississippi River. It was a warm and peaceful morning, and Captain Ahab, Shasta and Bob the otter were not in any sort of hurry to get anywhere at all.
Ahab perched on the steering wheel, calmly watching the waters of the wide and beautiful river. Soon he would be sailing the Webweaver into the Gulf of Mexico, and then onwards to Veracruz. Shasta wanted to go to Veracruz to buy some fresh supplies: ice cream, prunes and spaghetti, which she planned to mix together to make her famous Shasta’s Squelch-O-Rama pudding.
Below deck, she was busy in the galley, getting her basins and pots ready for the cooking that was to come. She was excited about making this Squelch-O-Rama pudding again—it was one that neither Bob nor Ahab had yet tasted. She was sure they’d have something to say about it when they had. It was, after all, a remarkable pudding.
Above, Bob was taking it easy. He had done all of his odd jobs for the day, and now he was lying on the deck, listening to a song through his headphones. He jiggled his lower paws happily in time to the song. It was called ‘Honey from Havana’ and it was being sung by his favourite group, The Mellow Mommas. Bob loved The Mellow Mommas; he had all of their songs in his portable music player, and he listened to them whenever he got the chance. The Mellow Mommas always sang loudly and boomingly, and it was the perfect sort of music for an otter like Bob to relax to.
Captain Ahab was thinking: I wonder what wonderful stories we’ll find to publish in Countdown, when we get to Veracruz? He blinked his five eyes happily as the Webweaver floated gently along.
Then he saw something that made those five eyes open wide in alarm!
Ahead, another boat was steaming quickly towards the Webweaver. Ahab grabbed his telescope and spied the name on the boat’s bow. ‘The Jaunty Junie’. Ah-ha, thought Ahab. I thought I recognised that vessel. But why is she steaming at us so quickly? Why the awful haste?
Something was not right …
2. A worrying wailing
Bob, hearing the loud, sloshing waves from the approach of The Jaunty Junie, sprang to his paws and pulled off his headphones. 'Oooh!' he exclaimed, seeing the boat coming fast at them. He called up to Ahab, 'That boat be lookin’ like it’s in a hurry, Capt’n!'
'Aye, Second Mate Bob,' boomed Ahab. 'And it’s a boat I know. Matter of fact, I can see the skipper through my spyglass. There he is—Captain Henry, a fine old tarantula if ever there was one.'
'Does he always sail so fast?'
'No. He’s usually a very slow sailor. Something’s put the wind up his mainsail!'
Just then Shasta emerged from below. 'Oh dear,' she crowed, clacking her long beak worriedly. 'I was looking out the porthole and I saw that boat lunging towards us. Whatever’s going on?'
'Let’s find out,' said Ahab. 'Ahoy there!' he bellowed at The Jaunty Junie. 'What’s the rush, Captain Henry?'
Captain Henry saw Ahab in the wheelhouse. He slowed The Jaunty Junie, until she came up alongside. 'Ahoy, Ahab!' he greeted his old friend in a shaky voice. 'We have to get away, that’s why the rush!'
Ahab scuttled out of the wheelhouse and down the stairs. He sprang up onto the deck ledge and addressed his fellow spider-Captain. 'Away? Away from what?'
'From the Gulf of Mexico,' answered Henry, all of his eyes full of fear.
'What be there in the Gulf that has you so terrified?' asked Ahab.
Captain Henry leaned out of his wheelhouse and looked back towards the south. 'Sirens,' he replied gravely. 'At Sigsbee Deep!'
'Sirens?' repeated Ahab, frowning.
'Aye, you heard me. Sirens!'
Bob scratched his head. 'Sirens?' he said, wonderingly.
'Sirens,' murmured Shasta, aghast.
'I can’t hear any sirens,' said Bob. 'Usually, sirens are loud and near-deafening. Our Webweaver’s siren always lets all other vessels know to get out of the way when—'
'Not ship’s sirens,' Henry cut in. 'Sirens of the seas!'
Bob looked confused.
Shasta took him gently aside and said, 'In ancient Greek stories, the Sirens were women who appeared on the seas and oceans, and sang such beautiful songs that sailors who heard them became hypnotised. The Sirens kept singing to the mesmerised sailors, causing them to sail their boats onto the rocks, or into colossal whirlpools, and be destroyed. Many sailors drowned because of the wicked, haunting Sirens …'
'Ooh,' oohed Bob. 'That not be sounding like my idea of fun, no siree!'
Ahab said to Henry, 'Are you sure you heard Sirens?'
'Certainly I’m sure!' he replied. 'Not only heard them, but saw them as well! My sailors were ready to jump ship, so I had to tie up all the crew below. Luckily I’m a fast spinner and I had them trussed in extra-strong webs quicker than a spiderblink.'
'Hmmm,' muttered Ahab.
Henry powered up his engines again.
'If I were you, Ahab,' he shouted above the noise, 'I’d avoid the Gulf of Mexico—especially Sigsbee Deep—at all costs! Goodbye!'
And, with a mighty surge, Captain Henry thrust The Jaunty Junie onwards, as far from that place as he could take her.
'Oooh,' said Bob, in a small voice.
Shasta asked, 'So what will you do, Captain Ahab?'
Ahab scanned the waters ahead. Waves were rolling towards the Webweaver, coming from the centre of the Gulf—large, curling waves with thick, frothy white crests of spumage. 'We have to get to Veracruz,' he said. 'I am determined we anchor there. And that means we have to go right through Sigsbee Deep, the deepest, most treacherous waters in the Gulf …'
'Wh-wh-where the Sirens be?' stammered Bob, his fur standing on end.
'Where the Sirens be,' nodded Ahab, gritting his fangs defiantly.
Horrors! What fate awaits the Webweaver at Sigsbee Deep?