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Monday, November 13, 2006

It Happened On A Sunday

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It was the summer of my seventeenth year and I had my whole life ahead of me. Actually I had basic training with the U.S. Army and a war ahead of me, but that’s a different story. The sky was blue, the few clouds above were white and the water in Bayou Chico was smooth as glass.

I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to go on a journey that would stay with me for the rest of my life. My family had gathered at one of the docks on the Western shore of the bayou for a day of sailing on Father’s Day. What my father didn’t know was the trip was a ruse.

The men of my family have always been drawn to water. Oceans, gulfs, rivers and even streams. It’s just in our nature. My brother and his wife had invited the rest of the family, myself and my parents, to take a sailboat out for a trial. If my father thought it was a worthy craft then my brother would buy it. The ruse was that my brother and his wife had already bought the sailboat and the entire plan was to take my father out for a day of peaceful sailing and lunch at his favorite restaurant.

There was a light breeze that morning. Not enough to be annoying but just enough to lift your hair and let you know your alive. The breeze carried the scent of salt water from the Gulf and the occasional call of seagulls as they rode in on the breeze. Every once in a while you would hear the bells ring on the Bayou Chico Drawbridge. That was another thing I didn’t know at the time. That day would be the last day I would hear the bells on the drawbridge. It was removed in 1998 and replaced by a high rise bridge over the bayou. Sometimes I think we should sacrifice convenience for charm instead of the other way around.

After a brief exploration of the sailboat, including the engine and sleeping compartments, we cast off the dock lines and pulled into the bayou under the power of the diesel engine. My brother radioed ahead to the drawbridge crew to alert them we would need the bridge raised so we could leave the bayou and enter the intercoastal waterway. As the five of us passed through the raised halves of the bridge I waved to the man running the bridge controls. At the time he was just another smiling stranger but in a matter of hours his smile would become a sign that everything was going to be ok.

As we put Bayou Chico behind us we raised the sails and shut off the engine. I remember looking over the side of the boat towards shore and studying the water of Pensacola Bay. As children we learn to draw water with a blue crayon. When we look back through our mind’s eye we always see water as blue, but that isn’t exactly true. Water can take on any number of colors depending on what time of day you view it, what the weather conditions are like and even where in the world you are when you are looking at the water. The water along the North West Florida coast is emerald green. Hence the term ‘Emerald Coast.’ It looked as if the Earth had formed one large emerald crystal and then turned it to liquid as we settled into the ship channel. It’s still magical to see it today.

I turned to see what we were leaving behind and saw the Bayfront Auditorium on the pier at the end of highway 29. It was another thing I was seeing for the last time. I made three trips back to that auditorium in my life. Once after the Gulf War a friend and I went to see a laser light show there. Once my wife, son and I went fishing there. Then after Hurricane Ivan destroyed most of the pier and the auditorium my wife, son and I went to have one final look at it before it was torn down. Looking back at it that day I could hear the wrestling commentators talking about how Bullet Bob Armstrong and Austin Idol would ‘tear down the house’ as they wrestled there when I was younger. I could see people fishing off the edge of the pier and wondered if I would ever have the opportunity to fish there with my father.

The winds carried us South towards Santa Rosa island putting Gulf Breeze on our left and the Pensacoal Naval Air Station on our right. The pier at the Naval Air Station where the aircraft carrier Lexington had sat for most of my childhood was empty. The Lexington was off being prepared for it’s final home in Texas. It was sad to see so much empty space where there had once been a towering ship . Ahead of us I could see the white sands of the beach on Santa Rosa Island. Some of the whitest beaches in the world are along the North West Florida coast line.

My father and brother were busy discussing the pros and cons of sail boats. While a power boat is a great way to get somewhere fast I think there are few man made things more majestic than sail boat moving through the water with the wind at your back. My mother and sister-in-law were busy discussing the proper way to prepare for a day of boating. My views on that are simple: Plenty of water, sunblock and snack food. With the four of them occupied with each other I was left alone with my eyes and imagination.

With the adults distracted by their conversations I was free to explore the sail boat on my own. It’s not like there was a lot of places to go but I looked at everything I could. The inside of the boat was interesting but kind of warm so I didn’t stay down there long. My initial reaction to everything was to grab and pull or push it to see what happened. I only had to pull a rope leading to the main sail once to get my brother’s attention and I learned pretty quick to look with my eyes not my hands. We had turned West and were making pretty good time towards Perdido Key with the wind behind us. With Pensacola and the Naval Air station on our right and Santa Rosa Island was on our left there was more to see than you would expect.

Along the North shore there were oak trees, pine trees and little beach separated by the occasional building or view of of the Naval Air Station. It was easy to imagine the view the first Spanish explorers had when they first arrived here. Occasionally I would see light reflect off of metal in the tree line and thought I would see a Spanish explorer moving between the trees and the sun reflected from his breast plate. Common sense would kick in and tell me I was just seeing a building through the trees or the light reflecting off a car on the road behind the trees but then I would see a bush move or a sapling lean and could swear I was seeing an Indian stalking the stranger that had come to his land. To the South the sand and waves reflected the brilliance of the sun. Fort Pickens was too far South to be easily viewed from the sail boat. There were gray columns of clouds rising on the Southern horizon that looked like smoke rising from the now silent cannons of Fort Pickens.

Every now and then I would see a dolphin pop out of the water as it went about it’s daily business. I went and looked over the front of the sail boat and saw another dolphin there. It was riding just off the front of the sail boat and enjoying a push as the boat moved through the water. I would discover throughout the day that this is quite common for dolphins to do. It was beautiful.

As we came to Perdido Key we docked at the Oyster Bar restaurant. This was my father’s favorite restaurant and this was when we let him in on the ruse. He was pretty happy about it and was looking forward to a great lunch. I don’t really care for seafood so I don’t remember what I had for lunch. It was probably shrimp because that’s about the only seafood I eat. The Oyster Bar has a pretty odd dress code for it’s customers. If you drive to the restaurant you are expected to be dressed formally. Men don’t have to have ties on but everyone should look ‘proper’, as they say. If you come to the restaurant via boat though the dress code doesn’t apply. Have on clothes and shoes or sandals but no swimsuits or flip flops. A t-shirt and shorts were fine for anybody that arrived on a boat.

It was an interesting experience but the day wasn’t over yet. We still needed to get the sail boat back to Bayou Chico and I had to get back to Montgomery for an oral surgeon appointment the next day.

We were all full from lunch and the second half of our trip had just started. Sailing back to Bayou Chico was a bit of a challenge because the wind was no longer at our back. The wind had shifted and was now coming out of the South. This meant we had to zig-zag into and away from the wind to make our way back to the East.

When we were heading out in the morning there were boats everywhere I looked. People were water-skiing, snorkeling, boating to an empty stretch of beach to play football or just cruising in the bay and enjoying being out on the water. Heading back in the afternoon there weren’t as many people out boating as there had been. Either people had called it a day or there was something going on I wasn’t aware of. I also noticed the small clouds that looked like smoke from cannons earlier now looked like growing rain clouds. Rapidly growing rain clouds.

We were about two hours away from the restaurant and had just turned to the North for the last part of our trip. The rain clouds had grown into towering thunderheads that had captured out attention. We knew we needed to get into the bayou and get there quick to avoid the storm. The wind had shifted again and was coming directly out of the South as it drove the storm clouds towards us.

The wind started blowing faster and harder as we watched the rain line march across the bay from Santa Rosa Island towards us. The waves were starting to rise and the bay was getting rough as we realized the wind had become too strong to leave the sails up. The boat was rocking forwards and backwards on the water as the wind drove the first stinging drops of rain into us. It was a bit of a challenge for my brother and his wife to keep their footing on the deck as they worked to secure the sails. My brother attempted to start the engine but it wouldn’t respond. He went down to the engine hold to see if a cable had come loose or if the engine could be started manually. Everything looked secure but the engine wouldn’t start. The main front of the storm was almost upon us and I was ordered to stay below with my mother and sister-in-law because the ride was about to get rough.

The storm hit us with the ferocity of a kracken sent by Poseidon himself. The emerald green water had turned black while the sapphire blue skies had turned a dark gray. Looking out the port holes on the sailboat I couldn’t tell if I was looking above the water or into the water. The winds and waves were rocking the boat in every direction and it reached the point where I couldn’t tell which way the boat was moving. I could feel the violent motion but I couldn’t tell which way the motion was going. I had my first experience with claustrophobia and knew I needed to get up on the deck right then.

As I came up on the deck I made it clear I wasn’t going to stay below even though my father and brother objected. The motion of the boat was still disorienting but at least I could tell which way I was facing. Looking ahead of us I could barely see the entrance to the bayou. My brother had realized how much danger we were in and was attempting to reach the U.S. Coast Guard on the radio. When the radio operator at the Coast Guard station responded my brother gave our location and the name of the sail boat as he requested assistance. My father, brother and I all looked at each other with disbelief when the response came back, “The weather conditions are too rough to send out a ship. You are going to have to wait for the weather to calm.” We were all furious and in shock by that response. My brother requested assistance again thinking he had heard the man wrong. The response came again the same way. We were on our own in the storm on a boat we couldn’t control.

The wind began to howl and the lines on the ship began to make a shrill whistle as the wind whipped them. The water came from every direction. The rain felt like needles flying through the air. The waves threw us in every direction as they slammed into the boat and broke over it. The sky and the water began to take on the same ominous shade of dark gray as I watched the last sign of land disappear in the storm. I couldn’t tell if we were a half mile from land or more than a mile from land. What I did know is that I could no longer see it, I was on a boat that might sink and I didn’t know if I could swim that far in the storm alone not to mention having to help a family member make it.

In times of great stress or great danger the clock seems to stop and you truly live in the moment you are experiencing. Thirty minutes can seem like a day and an hour can seem like a lifetime. I had mentally prepared myself to face the challenge that might lay ahead of me and understood I may not see some of my family members again. I had given up on the notion of swimming towards land and planned to just swim in whatever direction the currents took me. I don’t remember how long the storm lasted I only remember being ready to face whatever my destiny held for me.

As I became comfortable with the motion of the boat in the storm things seemed to calm some. I looked towards my brother and saw he was experiencing the same thing. We weren’t getting comfortable, the storm was passing. The waves started getting smaller and the view to the South was becoming clearer. Within ten minutes the storm was over land and we were safe. We still didn’t have a working engine and we couldn’t enter the bayou under sail power but we were going to be ok. A fishing boat South of us radioed to us to see if we had survived the storm and still needed assistance. Within fifteen minutes they had arrived and tossed us a tow line. Thirty minutes after their arrival I had once again smiled at the bridge control operator and helped tie the boat off at the dock in Bayou Chico. We made sure to thank the fishermen for their help.

The next day I was sitting in the chair at the oral surgeon’s office and was just beginning to feel the effects of the gas when I noticed a picture of a sail boat hanging on the wall in front of me. I told the people there the story I just told you. They all thought I had a pretty active imagination that had been triggered by the gas. They couldn’t wait to tell my mother all about it after the procedure. They had the same feeling of disbelief we did the day before when she told them it was all true.

You would think that after that experience my brother and I wouldn’t go out on a boat on a holiday again. He and I actually joked about that day as we headed towards the boat ramp with a jet boat in tow one Memorial Day a few years later for an afternoon on the river. That day didn’t go well either, but I’ll save that story for another day.

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Old Comments

  • Wind blows, boat rocks, boy becomes man. Ahoy, matey- trim yer sails and cut that jib. And take that anchor up. Blow winds blow

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/13  at  09:45 PM
  • This started out a little slow for me, but once the ride got going, it was pretty good.  The transition in the narrator was excellent - I felt it but did not realize it until I read Hairy’s comment.  Good job!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  03:09 AM
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