I wrote this short story while in St. Thomas and I had incorporated it into an early version of Passage. In an edit cycle, I cut it from the fabric of the memoir. I’m posting it here to stand on its own. I think it has the legs for it.
A Boat On A Reef
The phone rings at 4:30 a.m., loud in the kitchen. Annette, my wife, wakes first as is usual for many women who’ve raised children and who remain on permanent vigil long after the children have grown up and moved out of the house. I roll over, watching her carefully as she picks up the receiver. Is this a catastrophe? A death calling? Children in trouble? A prank call? I’m watching and waiting as she listens to the first few words from the caller, holding my breath until I hear the tone of her response.
“Nancy?” Annette asks.
I exhale. It is our neighbor up the hill from us. It may be serious or terminal, but, to be honest, it is already magnitudes better than the teleplay I had begun writing in my head.
“You’re kidding? His boat? Sinking? How? Where is it?”
Next, a pause as Nancy answers some of these questions. Then Nettie hangs up and comes back to bed.
“What the hell’s going on?” I ask, delicate as is my nature in the early morning.
“She’s gonna call back. Bob called through on his cell.”
“What the hell?”
“She said Bob called and said he thinks he’s run his boat up on rocks near the lagoon.”
“Thinks he has?”
“She didn’t believe him either. She’ll call us back.”
By the time she called back, everything had become real. Real panic in Nancy’s voice now. Real danger for Bob’s life. Real catastrophe coming into focus in the early light of a Caribbean morning at the rocky entrance to the Mangrove Lagoon on St. Thomas.
We jumped into clothes and sandals, picked up Nancy and destroyed the suspension of our wimpy Jeep, banging down the rocky, gutted incline we call a road from our house to the ramshackle building we call a Yacht Club where two other friends met us, and where we all dinghyed out to Nancy’s twenty foot motor boat and slapped our way through unusually choppy seas until the mangroves came into view; and then, as if materializing from a dream, the remarkable sight of a large sail boat became three-dimensional in the yellowing sun, lying on her side, exposing her red-grey belly like an elephant seal ready to suckle her pup, the spars of her mast beneath the water line, the awkward and private underwater apparatus of her keel, propeller, and rudder embarrassingly exposed in the moist, glistening air.
This was real heartbreak in front of us. This boat, Spree, was Bob’s whole world. He had sailed her down from Lake Michigan, yes, Lake Michigan, through the Erie Canal and the St. Lawrence Seaway, out into the cold Atlantic and down the Eastern Seaboard, all the way to St. Thomas over 25 years ago. A journey that spanned two years of rip-roaring stories with tales of ocean storms, rummy bars, and sandy-toed girls with beautiful breasts. In St. Thomas, Bob was known as ‘Captain Bob’ where he ran day-charters on Spree for tourists and seasoned sailors alike who wanted to experience the real Caribbean from someone who knew every reef, sandbar, and party barge from Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands to Trinidad a thousand miles south. In fact, when Nettie and I bought our boat, the very first boat we’d ever owned, we asked Bob to help us sail her to St. Thomas from the Nanny Cay sales dock on Tortola in the British Virgins Islands.
And now, as we circled slowly outside the waves that crashed onto and over Spree, cascading down her decks into her hold, pouring through the collected years of what was now the detritus of his life on board, I kept repeating in my mind again the opening line of Madman Across the Water about being able to see very well a boat on a reef. Yes, I clearly saw my friend’s boat stuck on a reef, and its back was badly broken.
How could this have happened to him, to him of all people?
It was too rough to bring Nancy’s boat alongside Spree, not that we could have hoped in any way to drag the solid wooden boat, a 42’ Newporter, weighing easily 10 or 15 tons, off the reef. In fact, the best we could hope for was to get Bob and his dog off the boat along with as much personal stuff as possible before the alarmingly swelling surf tore it apart.
We had towed a dinghy behind Nancy’s boat and it occurred to me (luck on my part, not expertise) that we might be able to get around behind the reef on the land side of the boat by motoring the dinghy through the narrow channels of the mangroves and into the lagoon that was in fact formed by the reef.
“It’s worth a shot, man, let’s try it,” said Gordon, a captain himself and one of Bob’s friends who’d met us at the Yacht Club.
We were nearly swamped by a short, choppy wave that seemed to be waiting for us as we jumped into the dinghy and tried to get the engine going. I started bailing like a crazy man, Gordon managed to get the engine started, and we headed for the closest channel that snaked into the maze of channels that formed the mangrove swamps.
It took us nearly half an hour to wend our way and then backtrack through dead-end passages, fetid pools of garbage, alarmed turtles, and hidden rocks, but we finally pulled into the shallow lagoon that lapped up to the land side of the reef.
From this angle, looking out to sea, the decks of Spree facing us, tilted like a funhouse floor with salt-spray blowing over the pitched rail onto the reef at our feet, the situation seemed bleak, indeed. And Bob was nowhere in sight. His dog, Shanty, was frantically walking back and forth on the reef, barking at the boat, but unwilling to swim back to her master now that she had somehow reached solid ground.
We call out to him. No answer. We call him on his cell phone. No answer. Finally, there is no choice but to wade across the lagoon, climb delicately over the reef and swim the hundred yards to the boat, being careful to keep within the relatively calm boundary of a ravine of water protected from the frenzy of the pounding waves by the sacrifice of Spree’s splintered, and further splintering, hull.
Gordon stayed with the dinghy, stomping its small anchor into the lagoon’s silted bottom, and feeding its anchor line to me as I waded, climbed, and swam my way to the stranded boat.
I made it there, but not without a couple of good coral slices into my shin and right thigh, and not without the anchor line getting wrapped around my neck at the last moment, and damn near hanging me from Spree’s bucking gunwales as I clawed my way on board.
I want to keep this in perspective, this rescue. The boat wasn’t miles at sea, there wasn’t a raging tempest of mountainous seas and howling winds, people were not shrieking and casting themselves to certain death over the railing. There were no man-eating sharks waiting to devour all lost souls. There was none of that.
There was, however, a piercing sense of total loss as I surveyed the broken deck planks crushed by an untethered life boat that was banging itself to smithereens against the deck house wall. There was chaos in the cockpit, where the helm was spinning wildly, its airborne rudder steering senselessly with the gush of each successive wave. There was endless line and unsecured anchor chain and flapping sailcloth and broken lights and smashed instruments clanging and hissing and vying for my immediate attention.
Most distressing to witness and to interpret instantly as utter disaster was the swoosh of sea water that sloshed up from the inside of the boat’s salon, afloat with diesel oil, dog food, a tooth-brush, underwear, and well-worn maritime charts, and then to watch it all wash over the stern deck and merge once again with the sea that suddenly seemed to surround everything in the world.
And still no Bob. I called out to him. No answer. Was he dead? Had he, in fact, jumped overboard and drowned himself in disgrace or despair before we arrived?
Nancy called out to me from her boat, called out for me to assure her that Bob was all right.
“I’ll try to find him!” I yelled back, which was as non-committal as I could come up with.
I did find him, though. I did slip into the smelly, greasy water coming up from the salon in the shudder and groan of the pounding waves. I found him there, inside the dark of his sinking boat, and he wasn’t dead or underwater, though nearly so on both counts.
He sat perfectly still on the soggy salon couch, water up to his waist, his left hand bleeding nicely into the pink water that pooled at his stomach and into the folds of his tee-shirt. He held his cell phone in the other hand, which dipped haphazardly under water, submerging the phone from sight with each new pitch of the boat. His long, white-blond hair was matted into clumps across his face in the heated belly of this dying vessel. He was more like a fixture of the interior of the boat, rather than a man, like a carved bulkhead or a mizzen post. Only his eyes moved slowly in his head, yet these, too, were glazed and milky to look at, glazed with fear or shock or some sluiced combination of both.
Yes, he looked like a madman from across the water, and I almost yelled out loud:
Get a load of him, he’s so insane!
“Bob,” I said gently.
He didn’t respond.
“Bob.” Louder now, still no response.
Then, I reached out and grabbed his shoulder. He turned very slowly toward me, his eyes trying hard to focus on the face peering into his.
“Bob, it’s me, Frank. Bob, we gotta get out of here.”
I could see his lips trying to move; but if he was speaking, no sound was coming out yet.
“Bob, can you walk?”
It was a serious question since I couldn’t see his legs in the sludgy water and for all I knew they’d been severed or paralyzed by the Gods of the sea.
I tried to pull him to his feet, but he didn’t budge, and I kept slipping on the greasy sole of the boat somewhere below the waterline so that I found myself having to actually grab onto his rigid torso or I’d have surely gone under myself.
I tugged again, and then he began to speak with enough volume that I could lean in and hear his words sputtering out like a discordant memory.
“She’s lost. I lost my boat. I know she’s lost.”
“Forget it, Bob. We’re getting off. You gotta help me! You gotta stand up.”
We struggled together like mismatched ballroom dancers, nearly comical in the whirling pit of this horrible moment. Finally, I got him up and out on deck. Nancy blew her air horn in victory to see her husband standing and moving, seeming as alive as any of us in the breathing morning.
All that day and through the many days that followed, friends and family helped Captain Bob unload a lifetime of possessions and memories from his forsaken vessel. It was tragic, certainly, and physically exhausting as well, to empty the boat in rough water and tropical heat, and then, by order of the local Coastal Commission, to take a chainsaw and cut Spree into pieces and cart her off to the dump.
“Like I was hacking off my legs and arms,” he said over cranberry-vodkas months later.
Yes, all of it was brutally difficult. To his great credit, Bob pulled himself together and got the awful job done.
And we kept our questions short. What happened, Bob? How did she run aground?
“She got up in ten feet of water. I couldn’t save her from that,” he repeated often.
We looked down or looked away, and didn’t ask the obvious. What happened to fifty feet of water, then forty, then thirty, then twenty? Where did all that water go before you got her up in ten feet of terminal water?
We didn’t ask because we knew what happened. It was simple and ugly. He had failed himself. He had let fear overcome reason. Mistake overcome caution. Captain Bob had sunk his boat on a reef that any novice could have avoided. It didn’t matter the details, really, whether he’d fallen asleep, drunk too much, or even, as some suggested, had a mild stroke and gone momentarily mad. It didn’t matter.
What did matter, and what I saw on his face that day was what I have seen in my own eyes during moments of fear and uncertainty, moments reflected in a mirror when I know that the end cannot be avoided forever. That I’ve been lucky so far. That the end is out there waiting for me, waiting for all of us, just like it was waiting that day for Bob and his boat…waiting, ready to pounce.
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