When the motor cuts out and won’t start, a hollow, jittery sensation overtakes me.
The first time I was adrift at sea, I was ten. That was eight years ago. I wasn’t scared that time until my uncle looked worried and wasn’t able to get the outboard motor restarted. Obviously, I survived because here I am, adrift again.
Billy tells me the battery is under several inches of sea water, and he can’t fix it.
I’m not in a small boat this time. It’s a 31-foot, inboard motor fishing cruiser, a 1965 model with two beds below and an enclosed helm. It isn’t ours, and we don’t have permission to use it. It belongs to Billy’s dad, a mean old cuss who loves the word no and telling teenagers how selfish and irresponsible they are. So we didn’t ask. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt us, right?
The tide’s going out, and we’re drifting toward the open sea. “Radio for help,” I say as if he didn’t think of that.
“The battery… ?” Billy gives me a look that tells me I’m a landlubber. “The radio won’t work without it. Oh, and by the way, the dinghy only holds one person.” Billy has more bad news. He bailed the water from the battery compartment, but with what little charge is left, we can’t start the motor to recharge it. The little lights around the helm won’t last, and it’ll be dark in an hour.
“I’ll go for help,” he tells me. “You’ll be safer if you stay here. I’ll try to row to shore before dark and come back with the harbor master.”
I want to go with him, but he throws the inflated dinghy overboard and jumps in after it. I stall throwing him the rope, but he’s yelling good reasons to let him go. Less than a minute later, I can’t see him between the waves. I won’t know if he drowns.
For a while, I stand on the aft deck unbelieving. I search for flares, matches, anything that will light or float, something to give me hope. There’s nothing. I make a mental note to go through a checklist before casting off again and assure myself there will be a next time.
As daylight dims, I hear music. A cruise ship is headed my way. It’s lit up like a small city, and I see people at the railing on the upper deck holding drinks, unaware I’m bobbing in the water nearby.
Screaming for help doesn’t work. The ocean absorbs my voice, and their music is loud. Maybe the captain will see an SOS.
I flash the lights but can’t remember Morse code so I flash three short times then three long ones, over and over. They’re not responding so I try the horn. It doesn’t make a sound and the helm lights go out. The last of the battery is gone, and the cruise ship passes. I can hear the laughter of the passengers. They’re having a great time, headed for land, unaware they had a chance to save me.
The wake of their ship hits, and I have to grab onto the side or be sent sprawling. When I look up, I see a huge concrete column two feet from the side of the boat. It’s a support for the highway that crosses the mouth of the harbor. The waves threaten to smash my wooden craft against it, sinking the only thing keeping me from a watery grave in the freezing Atlantic. I can’t let that happen.
Looking for something, anything, to stop the collision, I find a life hook on a seven-foot pole.
Holding it like a lance, I anchor my feet on the deck and stab the column like a knight fending off a dragon. Stupid thoughts come to mind like, if the boat sinks, will I be able to hold onto the wet, curved concrete until… until what? Morning? And then what? These thoughts fuel my body with strength. I shove the pillar with all my might, defending my ship.
Just before the last bit of daylight fades, the pole won’t reach the concrete anymore. The boat is drifting further from it, but now it’s so dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I stand there, breathless, holding my lance, a blind conqueror of a mighty beast, with no one there to congratulate me.
I recall that there are two columns supporting the freeway. But it’s pitch dark. No way to see the next one coming. I listen intently for the crunch of wood against concrete. Time passes. No sound except the slap, splash, and trickle of sloshing waves as they rock my boat. It’s hypnotizing. It makes me sleepy.
Taking a boat without asking has to be one of the dumbest reasons for dying, but if I die, I die. Death is a foreigner, an alien I don’t consider real. I don’t speak or understand its language, or adhere to its rules. My life so far has been an adventure. Only when death convinces me there’s no escape will I admit defeat.
Bolstering myself with these thoughts, I feel my way to the beds below. Beneath one of the two padded hinged panels, I find a blanket. If death comes in the middle of the night, I’ll meet it well-rested. Should a larger ship crash into my smaller vessel and smash it to smithereens, I’ll wake up and do the best I can to survive. There’s no gain in imagining the worst.
I sleep until daylight wakes me. The boat isn’t rocking. Anxious to see my fate, I rush to the deck.
A soldier is standing at the bow, one leg raised, his foot on the tackle box, a clipboard resting on his knee. I’m rescued and thrilled to see another human being.
He, however, is not happy to see me. “Where did you come from?” he demands, glancing around. He’s around my age, but he’s nervous, prepared to take on the enemy, with his rifle slung over his shoulder.
“From below,” I say and indicate with my hand where below is. My illusion that he’s here to protect and save me evaporates.
“I searched below,” he says.
I shrug. “I don’t know what to say.” I look past the dock at random buildings beneath sprawling leafy tree limbs then back to him. I’ve never seen this place before.
His face reveals he’s playing back his recent actions, wondering how he failed to see me during his earlier search. Maybe he thought I was a pile of blankets. I am quite small.
“I have to report this,” he says lowering his clipboard. “Anyone else with you?”
I shake my head. “No. I was adrift. The battery’s no good.”
“I have to check.” He looks me over first. I’m wearing a thin shirt and tight shorts. No way to hide a weapon. “Don’t move from that spot,” he says like the soldier he is.
I’m next to land, and the inoperable boat is tied to the dock. Stay put? No problem.
He returns from below and stares at me with suspicion. “Why did you come to this island?”
“I didn’t. I mean, I did, but the boat must have drifted here. I was sleeping.” My hand reflexively indicates below deck again. I’m doing my best not to look threatening.
He deliberates, biting his lower lip and pulls up his clipboard but doesn’t look at it. A pen dangles from a string attached to it. “This is a mess,” he says, then unfastens his handheld radio and contacts someone.
Stepping onto the dock, he tries to talk privately, but I can tell he doesn’t want to walk too far away from me. He tells the person on the radio that he found a person on the boat, and he’s not sure what to do. The person on the other end gives him advice.
“Yes, sir,” he says then looks at me and waves me forward. “Come with me.”
He takes me to a long wooden building with a curved tin roof. Inside, cafeteria tables and folding chairs suggest a mess hall.
A sergeant sits across from me and asks me why I came to the island. How did I get here? He says the current runs in the opposite direction from where I came. I don’t have an answer. The island isn’t on a map, he says. He informs me I landed on a military base, checks my ID, asks who owns the boat.
The soldier confirms the battery on the boat is dead. It takes a while, but they finally believe me. They step away and mumble together. The sergeant returns and tells me to go with the soldier.
We’re walking back to the dock when he tells me they’ll get the boat running and take me back to the harbor where I started. That’s fantastic news. I can tell Billy the boat’s not only okay, but it’s also fixed.
As we approach the pier, we can both see the boat’s gone. The soldier turns this way and that. I’m not sure what he’s looking for. “Was your friend with you? Is he somewhere on this island?”
I’m shaking my head, feeling sorry for the guy.
He gets back on his radio, confirming none of his fellow soldiers moved the boat. After he’s done, he rips the paper from his clipboard and tears it up. Stuffing the scraps into his pocket, he says, “This has got to be the strangest day ever.”
I nod and shrug. Probably not a good idea to ask him what else happened.
He tells me someone will take me back in one of their motorboats.
Wearing a military lifejacket, I sit in the middle of the motorboat while another soldier mans the outboard motor and jumps the waves. Neither of us says anything along the way.
He drops me off, takes the lifejacket, and unceremoniously leaves me there. I have to make sure Billy survived, but no one’s in the Harbor Master’s office. The sign says, “Closed.” No sign of Billy so I call him at home.
He doesn’t want to talk on the phone, says he’ll come get me and hangs up.
When he picks me up, he’s not talking. Maybe he’s not happy I’m still alive. Climbing into his car, I blurt out, “The boat’s missing.”
“Nope,” he says and turns the key in the ignition. “It’s back in its slip. The harbor master and I spotted it and towed it back.”
Blood rushes to my face. “What about me? That was a secret military island, for chrissakes.”
“You’re an American,” he says. “I knew you’d be okay. They just guard the harbor.”
I want to knock some sense into him. “We ruined the poor guy’s daily report. Why did you steal the boat from under their noses?”
“Like you said, it’s a secret base,” he says. “The harbor master knew where to look, but he didn’t want to ask permission. Too much paperwork. They could have confiscated it.”
I think of other reasons he should care. “While you were stealing the boat back,” I tell him, “the military interrogated me as if I were a one-man invasion. And, I spent the night bobbing around in the sea with no lights.” I stare at him in disbelief.
He looks at me and huffs. “That’s nothing compared to what you still have to face.”
I swallow and look out the passenger window. I realize where he’s taking me. To his dad.