"The engulfing waters surrounded me,
the deep surrounded me;
wrapped around my head."
A phone call a couple of weeks ago reminded me of one of my youthful misadventures, and inspired me to write an account of it, which I posted as "King Neptune Slaps Me Upside the Head." I have been waiting to hear the rest of the story related to me in that phone call, but it has come forth only in bits and pieces. Not that I blame Steve for not spilling his guts. He’s proud of the fact that he’s learned a lot more about handling small boats since he moved to Florida from landlocked Kentucky fifteen years ago.
A couple of years ago he sailed with his father down the Pacific coast of Mexico, and periodically sent back notes detailing his adventures–encounters with pods of whales, venturing ashore at remote fishing villages, and fighting the unusually powerful storms that made sailing along the Baja coast so formidable that year.
a haughty spirit before a fall."
This summer he became part-owner of an entirely adequate 23' sloop. Steve has always been a diplomatic sort of fellow, so it was not out of character that he invited a man (let’s call him Jonah), whom he had recently laid off, for a libation, just to show that there were no hard feelings. One thing led to another, and although the hour was late, they decided to go for a sail. Somewhere beyond Hawk Channel the boat slowed up. A line from a lobster trap had wrapped around the rudder. Steve wrapped another line around his waist as a safety device, and dove into the murky water to unwrap the trap line. Just as he got the trap line off, he felt the "safety line" also slip away, and the boat shot forward. He shouted to Jonah to head the boat into the wind to stop it.
Who knows how humans will react in times of emergency? Some stay cool and act seemingly without thinking. Others freeze up like a deer in the headlights. A soldier is trained through innumerable drills to act without hesitation at a time when a quick decision can mean the difference between life and death. But the reaction of a civilian, especially one who is essentially a stranger, is completely a matter of chance. Jonah froze up, and the boat sailed off into the night.
O God, Thy sea is so great,
And my ship is so small!
It’s safe to say that there was a lot of shouting and blistering the air with curses. As the vague outline of the sails moved away in the darkness, Steve thought he could hear the words, "I don’t know how! I don’t know how!" Are we to believe there are those who lack the ingenuity to move a tiller to port or starboard, if only to see what effect it might have on the slow-moving craft? Or should we look into the darker recesses of the human heart, and see retributive justice as the father of this most grievous omission? In any event Steve now faced a dilemma. Continue to swim in the direction of the disappearing craft, thereby depleting his already waning energy, or to make for shore in the blackness of the waves?
He decided to swim for shore, and headed toward the intermittent flash of a distant beacon at Key West International Airport. What thoughts went through his head as he slowly stroked his way toward land? The occasional splash of a large fish, or a breaking wave made him even more aware of his predicament. Maybe it’s only a school of tarpon. But aren’t they often followed by hammerheads, especially at night? Somewhere during the three-hour swim, exhausted, he took off his shorts in an attempt to ease his drag through the water, and let them fall to the bottom.
At daybreak he dragged himself naked onto the sand of Smathers Beach, like the archetypal castaway of film and legend. Down the beach there was a startled swimmer, and Steve asked him for a towel, then hobbled to a seawall to rest and ponder what to do next. A passing police cruiser screeched to a halt. Someone had seen him come out of the water, and called the cops.
Steve tried to explain what had happened to the officer, but he'd have none of it. He’d seen plenty of cases like this. Too much to drink, and they end up on the beach buck naked in the morning. Fell off a boat. Sure! Indecent exposure, plain and simple. Another amusing Key West story in tomorrow’s Crime Report. He prepared to take Steve out to the jail for booking, and called into dispatch.
It's what we learn after we know it all that counts!
"Yeah, there was a report of a man overboard." In fact, the Coast Guard still had a boat and a helicopter out searching. Exactly what happened after that is unclear. There was an exchange of cell phone calls. Somehow Steve got home, and somehow he got back to the boat. Jonah was still on board. It seems after a while, he had found Steve’s cell phone on board. He called his girlfriend(!) and told her what had happened, and she had the good sense to call 911 and report the incident.
It’s been hard to get Steve to talk about it, but maybe when he sees this, he’ll volunteer to fill in the blanks! Or maybe not....