Messing About In Boats

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Sister Bay, Door County

The line from the Piggly Wiggly stretches to the end of the parking lot. Two propane grills boast smoke into the air to be swallowed by a gray sky.

The streets are littered with leaves and broken branches, the power down all the way to Sturgeon Bay.

We join the town for burgers-for-cash and recount stories of the storm that blew in window panes and felled trees.

A cameraman shoots footage for the local news. Piggly Wiggly employees flip burgers for hours so we can eat, and a woman hands one of them a bill, saying, “You gave me too much change!”

It’s all unorthodox and unusual and all at once I am glad for humanity and grateful to be alive.

We take our burgers back to the dock, where another boater brings us thick towels to soak up the water in the cabin, or use as blankets. We can’t pass without being asked, “Were you on the boat that capsized?” and it’s amazing how quickly a story can morph.

“Nearly capsized,” I answer.

The four of us sit at a picnic table with salvaged Chex-mix and carrot sticks, and hold hands as Tony prepares to pray. That’s when it hits him and he chokes up: our phones are drying in bowls of rice and our clothes are sodden because the dryers have no power. We lost two solar panels and the dinghy. The fuel system flooded, killing the engine.

But we have four burgers and three towels, and each other’s hands. The sun emerges, coaxing a smile from me.

You’re mine, he says, not the wave’s. 

Four Hours Earlier

3:00 PM

I’ve given up the wheel because the wind resistance was making my left arm pinch. Sitting in the cockpit, facing astern, there’s a magnetic view of the creeping storm: bellies of rain bunch on the horizon–harsh, black, and defined in their intent, permeated by a blue effervescence that goads the rolling waves.

Lake Michigan looks like a disturbed vat of molten silver–the wind its stirring stick.

I can see Sister Bay a few miles ahead and for a few naive minutes, I think we can out-speed the storm. But then it starts raining, thick stinging pellets, and a gust of wind drenches my wool sweatshirt and pants.

“Here it comes!” I shout.

Tony relieves his wife at the helm just as a squalling wind hits the stern and sends us spinning. I seize the wooden edge of the cockpit, remembering not to grab the metal rail in a thunderstorm.

Suddenly Sparrow is heeling, her starboard side coming out of the water. Jordan pins me to the seat with his weight and Tony shouts, “Jule, call mayday!”

The boat broaches just as she reaches the ladder and I see her fall into the cabin. The wind whips my hair into stinging cords and I’m gripping one-handed to the boat while clinging to Jordan as he braces his foot against the opposite seat. We’re hanging perpendicular to the lake as a wall of water towers over us and the port-side rail beneath us succumbs to the waves.

Then I feel him behind me, hear his voice in my ear. I’m with you.

And I know we aren’t going to die.

Radio static.

The dinghy flips above us, bumping into the canvas awning.

Jesus!

I’m with you.

I watch as the waves gobble the solar panels.

A container of spoons dashes in the cabin. Water pours like a breached dam through the cabin windows.

The cockpit is filling with water.

I’m with you.

My cry breaches my lips this time, “Jesus, save us!”

And then the port-side rail is coming out of the water. The wind is lessening. Suddenly the waves are even.

I can hear the VHR crackling below: “U.S. Coast Guard, Sparrow come in. Over.”

I slacken my grip. Jordan takes the radio and Tony moves to the bow to drop anchor.

The dinghy has unhooked itself and bobs away, facedown. It looks pitiful, almost wounded by the ordeal, like it just wants to cut ties and find safety.

“U.S. Coast Guard, please describe your vessel. Over.”

“Thirty-two foot Union 32, cutter…”

I realize I’m shaking. Adrenaline or cold, I can’t decide. Mostly it feels like a pent-up urge to fall over and laugh.

The Coast Guard appears in its bright orange rescue vessel twenty minutes later. A Guard in a life jacket, chewing on a toothpick, hands me down from Sparrow’s starboard. Her engine killed just after she righted, but in a 27 foot depth, it was a blessed spot to drop anchor. It feels wrong to leave her alone.

I feel seasick and shell-shocked, but I don’t want to abandon her.

We discover later that the winds were at 70 knots, meaning we got caught in a micro-burst of a Class 1 hurricane. Had Sparrow’s sails been out, or the wind five knots stronger, we would have capsized.

Standing on the dock, watching the elegant point of her mast hail the coming sun, I can only think that Jesus must love rescuing me from the storm. It wouldn’t be the first time he sailed a boat and told the wind to calm down.

I think the Son of God must love sailboats.

I think I will still get one of my own.

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“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” — The Wind in the Willows
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