Custom of the sea by James A. Ford

Synopsis: Sea voyages are always incredible and insightful; now discover their horror.

About the Author: James A. Ford is a writer in Ottawa, Canada, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is generally not suited for very much but once in a while he does pen an interesting tale.

In this oceanic voyage, friends devour their bonds of friendship and humanity.

* * * * * * * * * *

Custom of the sea
by James A. Ford

“I never took any food!” Phelps pleaded. His thin frame shook as he spoke, crouched in the corner of the bow of the life boat.

“Well who else?” Larkin asked. His large, still powerful frame standing feet splayed in the center of the boat, “The bar wrappers are right there beside you. A smoking gun – as they say.”

Phelps glanced at the empty wrappers. He just couldn’t remember.

Larkin spoke again, “Last night there were six bars left Phelps, now there are only three.”

The men stared at Phelps as if they’d caught him raping their wives. He had pilfered half of their meagre supplies to satisfy his own gut. Those three bars would have kept them alive for three more days – one bar per day divided equally between them. Three days rations gone.

The accused man cowered in the farthest corner of the bow squinting at the angry faces surrounding him. He knew it was over for him. These men, whom he had once laughed and drank with now radiated menacing intent.

Phelps couldn’t remember if he had eaten the power bars. For the last two days he had drifted in and out of consciousness. He wanted more then anything to believe he wasn’t capable of an act that had surely doomed them all. Then an idea came to him.

“If I did steal,” he sputtered, “I wouldn’t be that stupid,” pointing with his chin to the empty wrappers floating in the little eddies of water at the bottom of the hull.

“Maybe we woke up before you thought to chuck them overboard.” A heavy set bald man said, from the stern of the little vessel: Johnson. He had spoken little since their capsizing, but he stared at Phelps now with a cold fury in his eyes, the edges of his mouth twitching.

“I want to get out of this, back to my life,” Johnson said, moving forward. “I want to see my wife again, you Fucker!”

There was a sudden movement and Johnson’s powerful frame shot forward and lashed out at Phelps, swinging the heavy metal hand pump used for bailing. It hit Phelps squarely on the forehead with a flat, sickening crunch. He immediately slumped forward onto his face in the bottom of the boat.

The little boat rocked back and forth but Phelps didn’t move. The pool of water sloshing around the men’s feet started to turn pinkish red mixing with the blood that now squirted from Phelps’ mangled head. The three men stared down at Johnson’s handiwork.

With realization, the fury in Johnson’s eyes slowly faded, until he collapsed on the bottom of the wet hull. The two other men, Larkin and Crawford continued to watch Phelps’ body half expecting him to spring back to life. Neither moved or spoke.

Crawford reached out a thin hand and felt for a pulse at Phelps’ wrist.

“I think… I think he’s dead.” He said, looking up at Larkin.


The gentle rocking motion of the water was a lulling song. It sucked the energy and will from the men in the life boat. The slap of the waves against the hull acted as a metronome, keeping rough time with the ragged breathing of the sleeping men. The bedraggled and pitiful castaways lay motionless around the periphery of their little floating saviour, grabbing what rest they could. The killing of Phelps yesterday had made the men even more tired and despondent.

They had drifted for six days.

Their rented yacht Fallone had sunk in twenty minutes.

Forcing the four businessmen aboard to grab what supplies they could and jump into the small wooden life boat. They had watched as the Fallone had dipped gently beneath the surface, it had melted into the sea. Its bright white hull and sail still visible as it gradually sunk deeper into the vast depths of the mid Atlantic.

Their sailing trip had not proceeded as planned.

The men knew each other from their business dealings; if not actual friends they had been on friendly terms and drinking buddies for several years. Once the suggestion of a yachting trip was made – no one was sure by who – each man suddenly professed a long term desire to sail.

Though none had more then cursory sailing experience, their huge egos and past business successes lulled them into the belief that they could handle anything, and most certainly a sailing trip to Sable Island from Halifax. It wasn’t that far, they’d make it in a few days.

That was one week ago.

They had sorely overestimated their abilities.

They never made Sable Island, nor did they know that they had missed it by some twenty miles and had sailed on towards Bermuda. The Fallone had sunk three hundred miles south of Sable and they had drifted since then in the small life boat. The gulf stream had pulled them one hundred miles north east and if they had three months to spare they might drift all the way to Europe.

None of the men knew why the Fallone had sunk. Each assumed it was some negligence on their parts. It would have come as a shock to the others that one of their number was not as upset as they, regarding their present predicament. All the men were certain of one thing: their situation was dire.

The vast expanse of interminable water surrounded and engulfed the survivors senses, leaving no doubt who was the master and who the slave. The sea ruled them with its iron hand – sleeping now, but capable of smashing them in its grasp whenever it so desired.

The sun, cocky and brilliant in the sky was at present more of a danger than the miles of liquid death undulating beneath them. The calm roll of the sea was almost a pleasure now compared to the burning intensity of the equatorial sun.

The men slept the restless sleep of the hungry and exhausted. The growing hours per day that they lay about comatose were the only times they were able to escape their horrid suffering.

All but one.

One man lay as still as the rest, exhausted too and starving but far from sleep – mind sharp, eyes alert and ideas filled his head.

When one of the other men stirred, mumbling delirious dream words, the man, Larkin, closed his eyes and feigned sleep. He couldn’t risk anyone suspecting, not yet at least. He thought of the little cask of warm water and the box with the food – only three power bars and a few bags of crackers. Larkin’s mouth watered, not at the thought of the frugal supply of salvaged rations, but for something else. More and more each day. The intensity of the hunger gave him great strength. But as it stood now it was two against one, and Johnson was strong – he had killed Phelps with a single blow and little thought. Larkin sneaked a glance at the curled up and sleeping Johnson – yes, he’d have to go next.

Larkin smiled when he thought of Phelps; poor bastard had been so out of it he wasn’t even sure he hadn’t eaten those bars. Larkin still had their stale chemical taste in his mouth. He’d wolfed the bars down and left the wrappers strewn on Phelps.

He shut his eyes and the dreams came almost as soon as his eyes closed, and as always he dreamt of meat. His face broke into a grimace; it was as close as he ever got to a smile.

The first time he had tasted the forbidden meat was seven years ago. During another adventure vacation in New Guinea he’d asked his guides to take him off the beaten trail on a real hike, and promised to pay triple their normal fee; they took him to visit their home village, on the remote central mountain range.

Larkin had been impressed by the authentic, almost prehistoric, native village. That evening he was invited to a celebratory meal. The food was delicious, the roast meat especially to his liking. It had tasted familiar and yet not like anything he had ever experienced before.

After the guides had revealed to him the truth, he’d surprised himself by not even feeling ill. In fact, he’d wanted more. Seconds. That very evening he’d been made an honorary village member by the tribal chief who saw in his hunger a kindred spirit. The guides told him that it was believed that the essence of the man who had served as the main course – an enemy killed that very day in a tribal skirmish – would increase the strength and longevity of all who had partaken.

Seven years ago.

“Larkin. What do we do now?”

Larkin opened his eyes with a start, he’d dozed off. Crawford was standing over him.

“What do we do now?”

“About what?” He asked, blinking hard against the bright rays of the sun.

“With Phelps. What do we do?” Larkin glanced at Phelps’ corpse.

“Eat him.” He stated, and shut his eyes again.

“Very funny,” Crawford said,” seriously, should we dump him over the side before he starts to stink, or keep him for any inquest that is ordered.”

Larkin opened his eyes again,


“When we are picked up.”

“Who says that will happen, Crawford?.”

“Well. I mean eventually… Larkin, we will be picked up eventually.”

“You don’t understand do you?”

“What Larkin? What don’t I understand?”

“All we have out here is what is in this boat,” Larkin said, and paused for effect, “hopefully, we drift to land or the shipping lanes and are spotted. But now. Right now… this moment, all we have … to survive, is what is in this boat.” As Larkin finished he noticed Johnson had opened his eyes and was listening as well.

Crawford seemed unconvinced.

“Yes, right Larkin. Sure a hundred years ago, I could understand, but not now. Not in our modern age… I mean with our technology… Surely we don’t have to… resort…”

“What technology! Crawford, we barely made it into this boat with our clothes on.” Larkin shook his head slowly for effect, “No one even knows where we are. If they did would we still be here? Wake up man. We rented the Fallone for two weeks. That means no one will look for us for at least another week….”


“But nothing. We’ll be dead in another week unless shit luck has someone stumble on us.” He looked slowly from one man to the other,” do you want to risk your life depending on luck. Either we use what is available,” he looked down at Phelps’ body, “or we die here.”

“Who will do it?” Johnson asked. Larkin looked over at him.

“I will,” he answered.


The waves slapped against the prow of the life boat. The monotonous rhythm subtle in its ambivalence toward the three men. The sea cared nothing for what it so thoroughly possessed. Content to allow the craft and the men inside to float aimlessly on the unending prison ground that was the surface of the sea.

The inside of the boat was covered in blood. It almost looked as if some child had gotten into a paint can and sloshed the viscous liquid everywhere in an effort to paint it red. Phelps was gone, his carcass tipped over the side yesterday. All that remained of him were a few cleanly chewed bones strewn about the bottom of the life boat.

Larkin felt strong. His being energized by his ability to feed openly on his favorite food. He had hid his hunger for so long, sometimes years at a time. The craving though, was always there, it never left him, it waxed and waned sometimes almost non-existent other times crippling. It lurking behind his eyes and rested uneasy just under his skin. Like a reformed alcoholic who broke out in a sweat every time he walked past a bar, and sometimes was compelled to go in for just one shot.

Larkin’s will was strong, but not invulnerable.

He found that he went out of his way to place himself in situations where his deviant hunger might find a chance to feed. Like the Fallone for instance. As soon as the yacht went down he knew he had secretly hoped for it all along. Larkin wanted to exercise the custom of the sea.

After discovering his lust for consuming human flesh, Larkin had read everything he could lay his hands on about the subject. He’d quickly found that many accounts existed of cannibalism due to necessity on the high seas. The necessity being to prevent starvation after abandoning a sinking ship. It was called the custom of the sea.


Phelps’ meat only lasted two days. Then the three men were hungry again; Larkin many times more then the others.

The next morning Johnson awoke with Larkin and Crawford standing over him. After a moment Larkin spoke in a hard but calm voice.

“Johnson, if we don’t do something we will all die soon.”

“Do what…” Johnson asked rubbing his dry crusty eyes.

“I’m sorry Johnson but it is the custom of the sea.”

“No! No, you can’t mean that.” Johnson said.

“One must be sacrificed to save the others.”

“No. I won’t be a party to this. I won’t draw any lots!”

“Well. Funny you should say that, we don’t want to draw lots either.”

“Then what?”

“Crawford and I discussed it while you slept and…”

“And what?”

“We thought you should go next.”


Larkin just nodded yes.

“You are serious?”

“Deadly. You see normally we would draw lots but you are a murderer…”

“That was an accident… I… didn’t mean to hit Phelps that hard.”

Larkin looked at Crawford. Crawford nodded his assent.

“There’s that… and … well we just don’t like you.”

Johnson started to move farther away from the two men.

“Don’t make this any more difficult Johnson.” Larkin said, he motioned to Crawford for help and the two men moved down the boat toward Johnson’s cringing figure.


“Well Larkin, just you and me now. How long should the … provisions last us?” Crawford asked.

Larkin raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders slightly,

“I would think no more then 36 hours. Last time, I found the meat would turn pretty quick after that.”

Crawford nodded automatically and then thought about the statement.

“What do you mean – last time? You mean Phelps? We threw him over the side less then a day after he died?”


“Well what are you talking about then?”

“I wasn’t talking about Phelps.”

“You mean… you… you’ve done this before.”

Larkin smiled at him before he answered, “Yes,” he said nodding his head, “indeed I have. Not on the sea though. This is a new experience.”


“Crawford, I must admit I was not that sad when the Fallone sunk.”


“I have what most might consider strange appetites.” Larkin grinned, “and exercising them out here is pretty much accepted. I might as well die happy. Don’t you think.” Crawford was staring at him and slowly shaking his head. Larkin continued, “Doesn’t matter, if I am finally picked up there will be no one but me to tell the tale.” Crawford, still dumbfounded just stared without seeing and Larkin was on him and easily pushed the knife into his throat. Crawford’s eyes sprang open wide. A gout of blood shot out following the removal of the weapon. With each beat of his heart Crawford watched smaller spurts of blood issue from his wound. Then his eyes dimmed and his body no longer registered the pain. Crawford’s last sight was rapidly dimming image of Larkin’s calm smile.


The grim faces of the men in the yacht were etched with concern and curiosity. They took the man’s hands and pulled him from the life raft that had been his home for two weeks.

Larkin looked up into those faces, each in turn and smiled as best he could. Now that he stood on deck he noticed the men were watching him intently, he believed he must look pretty bad. That was not true – from the men’s point of view Larkin looked pretty good for having just being hauled out of a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic. He appeared, to them, remarkably well fed.

Larkin tried to discern each man’s character from his face. The boat itself was roughly the same size as the Fallone had been, it would be easy to sink.

Larkin shook hands all around. His mouth started watering. He swallowed hard.

“Thank you. Thank you so much, for saving me. My name is Larkin, I’m the only survivor of the yacht Fallone.” The men nodded but said nothing.

“You have no idea what I have been through,” Larkin added, and smiled his smile. The men on the yacht watched him as he was led below by their cook. They smiled at each other knowingly, and each man swallowed hard as their mouth’s started watering.

**** THE END ****

Copyright James A. Ford 2012

Image Courtesy: Top 10 cases of human cannibalism

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