Chad Greasley, the vice-principal of the James Sanderson Learning Center, called for quiet. The kids were just finishing dinner in the dining hall, and it took several tries for Chad to get their attention. “Boys and girls! Ladies and Gentlemen! Attention, please!” he called through the microphone at the front of the hall. “I have some announcements. First, whether class will be held outside tomorrow, so those of you who have Meteorology, please report to the athletic field rather than to Mr. Storm’s classroom. Second, we’re offering a $25 reward for information about the name of the person who filled the history teacher’s desk with shaving cream yesterday. Please see me if you have any information. All will be completely confidential.” The students, who apparently had little interest in either of those announcements, started talking and whispering again. “And last but not least—attention, please!” Chad’s voice jumped an octave in an effort to be heard over the kids’ voices. “To celebrate the anniversary of the school, the James Sanderson Learning Center will be holding a boat race two weeks from Saturday. All students are eligible to enter. Please pick up an entry form in the main office if you are interested in participating.”
That afternoon, Daniel and his friends Laurie and Arthur huddled around the entry form that Laurie held in her hands. Laurie read aloud: “Students of each year will race against each other: 1st-year students will race against other 1st years, 2nd years will do the same, etc. Students may compete individually or in teams of no more than three. Each team will pick a name. The school will provide one rowboat to each team, but the team is free to modify the boat in any way they wish. We urge you to use your imagination and be creative! Have fun, and may the best team win!”
“What does the winner get?” asked Daniel. Laurie scanned the entry form, then read, “The winning team for each year will receive a $250 prize. In addition, each winning sailor will receive a school sweatshirt.” Laurie rolled her eyes. “Finally, if the winners are returning students, they will be given the first choice of dormitory rooms for the school year beginning in September.”
“Whoa!” said Daniel. “We could pick our dorm rooms. That would be wicked!” The dorms at the James Sanderson Learning Center covered a wide spectrum, some far nicer than others. Everyone wanted the best rooms.
“I’m in. What about you guys?” Daniel asked. Laurie and Arthur nodded eagerly.
Daniel, Laurie, and Arthur were assigned a rowboat the next day. They went down to the lake after class to look at it. Like all of the school rowboats, it was a standard-issue aluminum boat with two oars. “How can we make this tub go faster?” Daniel asked.
“I’ve been doing some research online,” said Arthur. “I have in mind something modeled after a Viking boat. They were famous for being fast sailors.” The kids hauled the rowboat out of the water, turned it over on the grass, and studied it as Arthur described the design he had in mind.
“Let’s call ourselves the Lake Ness Monsters,” said Arthur. “Good idea,” said Laurie. “Don’t you mean the Loch Ness Monsters?” asked Daniel. “Does this look like Scotland to you?” Laurie answered.
For the next two weeks, the school was in a frenzy of preparation. Because the seventh-year students weren’t coming back to school, the chance to pick a dorm room was valueless to them, and they were having fun with the race. They covered their boats in corny decorations, and rumors swirled that some of the 7th-year boys were planning to complete their pirate theme with flasks of real whiskey. In the 1st years, however, the competition went forward in earnest. Daniel and his friends had hidden their boat on the school grounds to keep their preparations secret. The three of them had been working on the boat and in the wood shop after school, staying up late at night to finish their homework.
The day of the race was perfect. The lake glistened in the sunlight, and a breeze teased the water into white-tipped peaks that chased each other across the surface. The whole school gathered at the lake shore to watch or to compete. Chad marched around with a bullhorn calling out instructions that everyone ignored. Following Chad was an ancient and painfully thin man in a wheelchair. That man was the owner and principal of the school and its ground, Mr. James Sanderson. Walking behind him was Mr. Cobbler, the creepiest teacher at the school. With his long, hunched back, crooked teeth, and yellow eyes, Mr. Cobbler gave Daniel a chill each time he saw him. Daniel had seen James Sanderson a few times before, but he was still a mysterious figure at the school. A few kids whispered, “Is that him? Is that James Sanderson?”
The 1st years raced first. Daniel, Laurie, and Arthur carried their boat onto the rough sand and pebbles at the water’s edge. They carefully lifted off the tarp covering their boat. Arthur had cleverly designed a sharp wooden prow that they had attached to the front of the boat to make it cut through the water more quickly. And they had made an extra set of oars that were fastened behind the original set to provide extra rowing power. Laurie had even made a paper mache dragon head copied from a book on Viking ships. Daniel, Arthur, and Laurie took a moment to admire their creation, then they checked out the competition.
The other teams were lining up along the shoreline. At the far end of the row was Little Boy Jeremy, the smallest 1st year anyone could remember. He was competing alone and had fashioned a triangular cloth sail for his rowboat. He looked very nervous and was wearing an orange life vest and “floaties” around his arms.
Next to Little Boy Jeremy was Daniel’s archenemy, Kyle, and his sidekicks, the Bonybrocks brothers. As usual, the Bonybrocks twins were arguing. Daniel started in surprise when he realized that, instead of racing in a rowboat, Kyle’s team was riding a large sleek, silver jet boat that was painted black, and the name “Back-Stabbers” was emblazoned on the sides of the boat in dark red. Kyle caught Daniel’s eye. Kyle looked over at Daniel’s boat and snickered, elbowing the Bonybrocks brothers to check it out. On cue, they burst out laughing and pointing at the boat. Daniel found himself wishing they had passed on the dragonhead decoration.
He felt no better after seeing the boat next to Kyle’s. The boat belonged to the Firestall brothers. One of the brothers, Tim, was younger and his brother, Larry, was a few years older. They were the richest kids in the school. Their father had been a famous businessman who, people said, amassed a fortune before he died at an early age. After he died, Mrs. Firestall, who was apparently disillusioned with her husband’s obsession with money, went to live in a yurt and studied Eastern religions with her own personal swami. She handed over control of the family fortune to her two sons, who seemed determined to spend as much of it as possible while still in boarding school. Their boat had a huge outboard motor attached to the back. The boat was painted white, and the plastic seats had been replaced with some sort of expensive-looking wood. Larry Firestall wore a captain’s hat, and Tim wore a white sailor cap.
Finally, next to Daniel and his friends, a group of girls dressed as mermaids was getting into a huge boat with a fancy mast, a nice white sail, and even a wheel for steering. Their boat, too, had an outboard motor in the back. “Hi, Daniel!” one of the girls called in a sing-song voice. Daniel blushed at the attention of Sally, one of the most beautiful girls in the school. “We’re the Water Lilies,” she said. Daniel wanted to say, “Have a nice race and see you at the finish line,” but instead, it came out as “Hina raaha bahona.” Sally and her friends gave Daniel a strange look, and he thought he heard them giggle.
“What’s with the outboard motors?” asked Laurie angrily. “Where did they get them, anyway? It doesn’t seem fair,” she fumed. Arthur looked glum but then said, “Well, think of it this way. The pressure is off. We can’t win against the motorized teams, so we might as well relax and enjoy ourselves. At least it’s a beautiful day to row across the lake.” This comment did not seem to change Laurie’s mood.
Chad marched down to the shore. “OK, 1st years,” he called through his bullhorn. Laurie rolled her eyes and muttered grumpily, “We can hear you already.” Chad continued, “Everyone take your places. Start on my whistle. The first one to reach the dock on the other side of the lake wins.”
Chad wore a whistle on a string around his neck, and he placed it in his mouth. He looked down at the row of contestants. “Everyone ready?” he asked. They nodded. Chad paused and then blew the whistle loudly.
Daniel, Arthur, and Laurie ran into the water, pushing their boat ahead of them, and then jumped inside. Little Boy Jeremy did the same, struggling right from the start to control his sail. Kyle’s team also got off to a rough start when Pete Boneybrocks gunned the engine of the jet boat. The boat shot forward, causing Kyle to lose his footing and tip over the edge of the boat. “You idiot!” Kyle yelled, standing, dripping wet, in the shallow water as Mitch Boneybrocks quickly jumped to the aid of Kyle, trying to help him back into the ship. Kyle pulled himself back onto the jet boat, refusing to look at the crowd of laughing students standing around the lake. Soon, however, Kyle and his team zipped past Little Boy Jeremy and then Daniel and his friends.
As Kyle’s team roared by, their wake tipped Little Boy Jeremy’s boat from side to side. Jeremy discovered that sailing a boat was harder than it looked. As the boat rocked, a breeze caught the sail and tipped it further over the water. Jeremy reached for the rope that controlled the sail, shifting his weight to the side of the boat. The boat suddenly flipped over, and Jeremy hit the water with a splash and a cry. Looking back, Daniel saw Jeremy’s head, the top of his orange life vest, and his floaties bobbing in the water. Then, even as his boat bobbed upside down, Jeremy began struggling to get his boat upright. “Unbelievable!” Arthur said. “He’s still trying to go for it.”
“You got to give that Jeremy credit! He’s determined,” panted Daniel as he rowed.
Daniel’s boat was making good progress. Laurie sat in the prow, calling, “Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” Arthur and Daniel manned the two sets of oars and pulled in unison. The boat cut through the water but was still far behind the motorboats. Daniel noticed a trickle of water coming in where the wooden prow was attached to the rowboat. It hardly made a difference, though, because the other teams were far ahead. Daniel tried to focus on rowing well and enjoying the day, but his competitive nature made it hard not to think about the fact that they were behind. He hated the dragon head.
The girls’ team ship zig-zagged across the lake in wide “S” turns. The girls smiled and waved at the spectators as they arced across the water, getting sprayed by plumes from the sides of their speeding boat. With the girls’ long hair flying behind them and the sun sparkling on the water, they were a glamorous sight. Suddenly, a strong wind began to gust across the lake, breaking the water into choppy waves. The girl who was steering, named Hanna Watson, had her long, blonde hair whipped around and covered her face in a curtain of hair. She screamed and tried to use one hand to pull her hair away from her eyes. Unable to see, she swerved toward the shore. The swift turn of the ship caused Sally and the other girl in the boat to lose their balance, falling over the edge of the boat into the cold water.
Hanna let go of the accelerator and leaned over the back of the boat to see if the girls in the water were okay. She then started spinning the wheel of the boat, attempting to turn around while trying to steer the boat closer to the other girls who were now bobbing up and down in the water. But as Hanna began to swerve around, she didn’t realize she was turning the boat too fast and too tight. Hanna started spinning the wheel too hard, causing the boat to lean heavily on one side as she began to turn. Unfortunately, this made the water around the boat become choppy, throwing the ship off balance and flipping it over right on its side, now sending Hanna falling as well into the water.
Hanna popped her head up from the water, looking very embarrassed. Sally and her fellow teammates began to rip off what was left of their mermaid costumes and swim unhappily toward shore as their boat began to fill with water and sink.
Up ahead, the Firestall brothers were in the lead. Their top-quality motor hummed smoothly with power. Larry Firestall, the older brother, handled the boat with confidence; he had experience with much larger boats than this one. Larry leaned back so that the sun shone fully on his face. “Hand me some of that sunscreen,” he said to his brother, Tim. “Yes, brother,” said Tim. He reached into his fanny pack, which was full of bursting with things his brother might need. He pulled out a packet of sunscreen wipes. “I brought the wipes because I thought it would be more convenient than the lotion. You know, in the boat?” “Whatever,” said Larry in a bored voice, “Give me one.” Tim handed a foil packet to Larry. But the packet was attached to a whole string of little packets, all of which flew out of the fanny pack, bringing the rest of the contents with them. Lip balm, a water bottle, a pocket-sized life vest, a light bulb, a mini book on boat safety, and three “Raggedy Ann” dolls flew into the boat. A handful of money flew out, too. The money began to scatter around the boat; a few bills even blew into the water. The bills floated for a moment on the surface, then turned dark and sunk into the water.
“Noooo!” cried Larry Firestall. “Nooo! You idiot!” he said, glaring for a second at his brother before scrambling after the money. Looking crestfallen, Tim also grabbed a few bills that remained in the boat. Tim reached for a bill skittering across the seat just as a puff of wind blew it overboard. Without hesitating, he jumped in after it.
Larry saw Tim’s head disappear under the water and jumped in after him. “Brother!” he yelled. As Larry’s feet pushed off the edge of the boat, tipping it on its side and then flipping over. The metal bottom of the boat bobbed gently up and down in the waves.
Larry Firestall floated in the water and wrapped his arm around his brother. Larry asked, “You okay?” Tim nodded, “Yes, brother. I got the dollar,” he said, holding up the soggy bill. “That was a bone-headed thing to do,” said Larry. “Yes, brother,” Tim answered.
By the time the Firestall’s righted their boat, the other racers were dots headed for the other side of the lake. Larry and Tim, feeling defeated, swam towards the shore, pulling the boat behind them.
Up ahead, Kyle looked around gleefully. “The Firestall brothers are down!” he called over the roar of the jet boat. He could see the opposite shore of the lake and victory was within reach. Daniel and his ridiculous Viking boat were still afloat but far behind. Kyle pumped his fist into the air, yelling, “Yes!”
The Boneybrocks brothers grinned foolishly. “We’re winning!” said Mitch Boneybrocks in his slow, twangy voice. “Yup,” said Pete Boneybrocks, whose voice sounded just like his brother’s, “We’re gonna win!”
They cruised along easily without a problem. That’s when Mitch Boneybrocks spotted a large white bird flying overhead. “Look!” he said to his brother, pointing at the bird. “That’s like them birds we have back home.”
Pete twisted around to see the bird as it flew away. “Nope, it’s not. That’s a seagull. We don’t have seagulls at home.”
“That’s not a seagull. It’s one of the birds with long legs. And we do so have them at home. I have seen ‘em lots of times,” said Mitch.
“You’re crazy, Mitch. That’s a seagull.”
“I know a seagull when I see one. There are no seagulls here. Seagulls live on the ocean. Does this look like the ocean to you, fool?”
“You’re the fool! Seagulls do so live on lakes.”
“Do, too!” Mitch got up from his seat in the boat and got extra close to Pete. He reached over and slapped Pete on the side of the head.
“Hey! Cut that out!” Pete cried. He reached over and shoved his brother hard. Mitch stumbled backward, causing the boat to swish slightly to the side.
Mitch walked back to Pete and grabbed him by his shirt, and started shaking him. “You dummy, no one does that to me!”
Kyle soon noticed that their fighting was shaking the boat. He turned his head and started yelling at them, “Sit down, you morons, and don’t rock the boat!”
The Boneybrocks brothers understood and sat down. But just for good measure, Mitch reached behind Pete and slapped the back of his head. Pete turned around and reached for his brother to hit him back. Kyle noticed this and, forgetting to stop the boat, turned himself around to confront them. He also took his hand off the steering wheel to point at the both of them in frustration. “Cut it out, you idiots!” he yelled. Kyle was not looking at where he was going, and the boat went over a large ripple in the water. Then all together, the three of them flew through the air with a furious whine of the boat’s motor and a great plume of spray. The boat, now without a driver, zoomed off wildly in a different direction than the one in which it was originally going, leaving Kyle and the Boneybrocks brothers bobbing in the water. The Boneybrocks brothers were still trying to slap each other’s heads while Kyle cursed a blue streak.
Daniel, Laurie, and Arthur heard the sound of Kyle and his teammates falling overboard and splashing into the water. They then saw Kyle bobbing up and down angrily in the water as a rescue boat headed toward Kyle and his team.
Laurie yelled, “Whooo, Hooo! We’re the last team afloat! Come on, guys: Stroke!” Daniel and Arthur continued to row steadily and happily toward the shore. “It’s like the tortoise and the hare!” called Laurie. “And the tortoise wins!”
As they drew closer to shore, Daniel noticed that no matter how hard they rowed, they seemed to be slowing down. Water had been leaking steadily into the bottom of the boat. He checked the place where they had attached the wooden prow to the metal boat. Water gushed in around the screws with every stroke he and Arthur took. “Look!” Daniel huffed, out of breath, nodding toward the leak. Laurie and Arthur nodded. They had seen it, too. “Hurry!” said Laurie. Daniel and Arthur pulled even harder on their oars, but the boat was getting heavier and heavier, and they moved more slowly through the water.
Within minutes, the boat was riding dangerously low in the water. “I can’t believe it!” Daniel said, “We’re sinking!”
“C’mon guys, ROW!” shouted Laurie angrily.
“What do you think we’re doing?” snapped Arthur. “Sunbathing?” Sweat stood out on his forehead. Cold water started sloshing over the side and into the boat. “Oh My God,” said Laurie in a flat and resigned voice. “We’re sinking.”
And sure enough, the silver boat gradually sunk as dark streams of water poured over the sides. Soon, Laurie, Daniel, and Arthur bobbed in the water, waiting for the rescue team to finish pulling Kyle and his team to safety. “Luckily, tortoises can swim,” remarked Arthur dryly.
Suddenly, Laurie spotted something orange moving steadily toward the shore. “Look!” she said. “What is it?” asked Daniel.
They peered across the lake and saw Little Boy Jeremy, orange life vest and all, standing proudly atop his sailboat, which was treading gracefully across the lake. “Who is that?” Arthur asked, treading water. “I think it’s Jeremy. He must have gotten his boat back up straight and got the water out of it,” said Daniel.
They watched as Little Boy Jeremy sailed closer and closer to shore. Finally, he stood next to his boat on the beach. He walked onto the dock, and, with a flourish, Chad blew his whistle and declared Jeremy the winner. The kids and grown-ups on the shoreline cheered loudly.
As the P.E. teachers helped Daniel and his team into the rescue boat, Little Boy Jeremy faced the cheering crowd and held the trophy over his head. It was nearly as big as he was. Daniel saw the Firestall and the mermaid team in the crowd, wrapped in towels. Tim Firestall was carefully drying a dollar bill on the edge of his towel.
Kyle and the Boneybrocks brothers sat, dripping wet, in the rescue boat, looking on glumly. Kyle would not so much as look at the Boneybrocks brothers. A white bird flew over the crowd. One of the Boneybrocks brothers perked up and said, “Look! It’s one of the birds like we have at home.”