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(STBSS) The Long Swim

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posted on Jul, 11 2005 @ 11:46 AM
The Long Swim

This is a true story. the names have been changed to protect the foolish.

It was the perfect early summer morning. Just a few little puffy clouds floated on the barest of breezes that promised a warm, relatively calm day. Perfect to go paddy-hopping for yellowtail in my skiff, I thought. The Channel out past the entrance to the harbor looked inviting, ready to offer up fish. The town was still waking up on July 12, 1995, as I walked down Front Street toward the pier, looking out to sea. People were starting to mill about, locals out for coffee and the paper, tourists looking for breakfast and beach space. There was only one little problem with my plan to go fishing that morning. I had told Max I would come over and hang roof gutters around the eaves of a house he was working on up on Whittley St. I needed the money, and the work wasn’t too difficult, other than being way up on a ladder, which wasn’t my favorite thing to do. What I really wanted to do was jump in my skiff and cruise out looking for kelp paddies holding big ‘tails. I had just about convinced myself I could go out fishing for a couple hours and be back only a little late for work when my friend Don walked up and said “What are you looking at?” “I’m looking at the water.” I said, “I want to go hopping for yellows.” He said, “Well what are we waiting for? I’ll go get my gear! See you back here in 15 minutes.” And the deal was sealed.

As I went back to my place to grab my rods and tackle, I thought about calling Max to let him know I’d be late. I decided to just show up after I got back from fishing. After all, it wasn’t like a real job where he was my boss or anything, I was doing it for a little extra money, that’s all. I had left (been wrongfully term’d, if you ask me) my job three weeks ago and had taken on DJ duties at the local nightclub for income. I had postponed (maybe cancelled) my wedding the previous month and was working through some issues with my fiancee, who lived on the Mainland. A nice little fishing trip in my skiff was just what the doctor ordered for me, I thought. It would be nice to just get out on the water and relax. Besides, speaking of water, there was a bunch of it in the bilge of my skiff, thanks to the Harbor Department hosing down the pier for 4th of July, and my skiff getting pushed back under the pier by all the yacht pimp’s tenders crowding the dock. It made the boat sluggish and unbalanced, and I needed to run it out through the drain in the stern.

Before I knew it, I was back at the dock, getting the boat ready and my tackle stowed. Don showed up a few minutes later. I had the motor running, and told him to untie the line and come aboard. I put her in reverse and we slid off the dock, shifted into forward and put the tiller hard to port, straightened her out, and off we went. We putted out of the harbor, then I opened up the throttle and headed north out into the Channel. The boat was slow coming up to speed, but once on a plane ran nicely. I told Don what the deal was with the water in the bilge, and he said, “No problem. I’ll just pull the stern plug and we’ll drain it as we run out a couple miles and get started looking for paddies. We just need to remember to put the plug back in when we stop to fish, or we’ll take on water and sink!” he laughed. I idled the motor and he leaned out over the stern of the skiff to pull the plug from the bilge drain. Once that was done, I brought the motor back up to speed, and we continued on our way. After running for a half hour or forty minutes or so, we stopped to check our progress draining the bilge. We were out a couple miles from the Island now, and we wanted to start looking seriously for fish. For some reason, no water at all had drained out. “There must be something blocking the drain”, I said. “Don’t worry about it now”, said Don, “let’s start fishing”. “We just need to watch out if the water shifts all at once”, I said, “It could make the boat heel sharply”. “Ok, Mom”, he laughed, “I’ll be careful”. I laughed, too, but it wasn’t funny.

We put the lines out with artificial lures on and made a big, sweeping turn to the east, running out another mile or so as we looked for the current line running down the Channel from the west end of the Island, and Long Point. Kelp paddies and other flotsam and debris would be swept along in a swath that straddled the current. Yellowtail and other pelagic fish feed on the smaller bait fish that use the kelp and flotsam for shelter from open water, in turn feeding on the plankton and small sea creatures that inhabit the kelp. Kelp paddies on the ocean are like oases on the desert, drawing in life from the surrounding area. Deeper down in the water beneath, bigger stuff, like billfish and sharks wait for larger schools of mackerel and sardines to happen past and bring them up to feed. The cycle of life continues in the ocean as it has for millennia, only momentarily disturbed as we splash by in our quest for a fish dinner. We’re also after the thrill that comes with participation in the great cycle of the sea, the rush of the hookup, the excitement of the battle, the thrill of landing a nice one.

The breeze had freshened slightly from the southeast by now, quartering into the current and raising small whitecaps as wind and water clash at the surface. Little bits of spray were starting to come over the starboard rail as the bow of the boat began to bounce on the chop. Don had been steering the little fourteen foot converted runabout I call my skiff, standing in the stern holding the tiller extension that doubles with a twist as the throttle control on my twenty-five horse outboard motor, while I had been in the front of the cockpit by the covered bow, scanning the surface of the water for signs of activity below. “Hey, you want to steer for awhile?” asks Don. “Why not?”, I say, and take over the tiller. I am much bigger than Don, and switching places with him causes the bow of the skiff to rise slightly as my greater weight moves to the stern.

We continue on for a few more minutes, scanning the surface of the water on both sides and ahead of us for kelp patties. The drone of the outboard and the slap of the water against the hull are mesmerizing. The beauty of the day, with the sun dappling the wind creased surface of the water as we cruise along, is poetic. My reverie ends as a small cross swell, possibly a wake from another boat long out of sight, comes unnoticed under the starboard bow, raising it just enough to cause a sudden shift in the bilge water still trapped beneath the deck of my skiff. The boat heels sharply, the starboard bow rising at an impossible angle. I’m immediately thrown against the port rail at the rear of the cockpit, my legs striking the gunwale just above my knees and sending my over the side into the water head first. For a terrifying moment, I envision the propeller chopping me up as my skiff goes past, then I complete an underwater somersault and surface spluttering and coughing, thinking how Don is going to laugh when he comes around to pick me up. Then I look more to my right, and Don is there in the water next to me, and my skiff is continuing on to the east without us, still moving along at a good six knots or so. We had pulled in the lures earlier wanting to concentrate on scouting, and there is nothing to grab at but water.

Complete panic overwhelms me, and I start thrashing and kicking, churning the water to foam as I say “Oh God, oh no, oh God, oh no!” over and over again. Don’s eyes widen, and he moves away from me a bit, afraid I’ll pull him under in my panic. One clear thought enters my mind: Calm down right now or you will drown right here. I force myself to stop thrashing and catch my breath. I look over at Don, and he says, “Looks like were going for a swim.” I say, “I’m sorry I got you into this, man.” “Don’t worry about it, dude, we’ll just swim for shore, and hope somebody rescues us before we get there.” He says. I look over to the south toward the Island, and guess it is more than three miles, maybe as many as five miles, away. It is hard to tell from my vantage point. We are now east of town, and there is no way that we can swim to shore before the current sweeps us past the East End and out into the endless expanse of the Pacific. I cast a wistful glance at the stern of my skiff, now several hundred yards away and still heading east without us. Don sees me looking and says, “Forget about your skiff, it’s gone.” I know there is no way to catch up with it, and a cold feeling of hopelessness settles into my soul. “We are dead,” I think to myself. We are well to the east of the cross-channel passenger boat and helicopter routes, and besides, who’s going to see two little specks bobbing on the water? I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt, a big floppy straw hat and sunglasses, and my sandals. To Don, who is similarly attired, I say, “ok, let’s head for shore.” I know in my heart we will never make it.

We start swimming slowly, to conserve energy, toward the Island. We are now heading at right-angles to the current and opposing wind, and the chop keeps splashing in my face, mouth, and nose, choking me. Don isn’t faring much better. I look down, and all I can see are shafts of sunlight disappearing into the gray-blue depths. This is Mako shark territory, and I hope my frantic splashing hasn’t attracted any unwanted attention. I push those thoughts out of my mind and take another longing look for my skiff. For some reason it is broadside now, still over a half-mile away. A couple minutes later I look again, and now it is bow on! “My skiff is coming back!” I shout, then gargle seawater. Don gives me a pained look and says, “No it’s not, it’s starting to circle, that’s all.” I think it over for a second, weighing the odds. Then I look at Don and say, “Well, if it’s going to circle, then I’m going after it.” He replies, “You’ll never make it.” I say, “I think I have a better chance of getting back in my skiff than I do of swimming to the Island before we get swept past the East End. I don’t want us to split up, will you follow me?” Don thinks it over for a second, and says, “I’ll take a line in between your skiff and the Island.” This makes no sense to me at all, but I tell him I will find him if I get back in my skiff, and I set off down swell after it.

The going is immediately much easier, as I am now traveling with the current. I settle into an easy breast stroke and blot everything else out of my mind. I’m thankful that I kept my hat and glasses on because they help insulate me from the bright sun and sparkling water around me. It is hard to stop thinking about sharks, especially Makos, and the thought of them lurking beneath me never quite leaves my mind. I’m also thankful that I am a strong swimmer. I pray to God, dedicating my life to him if he will save me from this latest mess I’ve gotten myself into. I’ve been in life threatening situations before, but never anything quite like this. I can see my skiff circling out ahead of me, slowly coming closer, and I concentrate all my attention on getting back in it. The circle its making is about a quarter-mile in diameter, and every time it heads away from me, I pray that it will come around again. This seems to go on forever, but it’s really only about forty-five minutes or so, long enough to be swimming alone in six hundred feet of water that is only sixty-four degrees at the surface.

Finally, I look up and realize that the skiff is not making a true circle, but more of a spiral, heading slightly to the southeast each time it comes around. I am now off to the north of the circle, and I change course to the south to intersect it. Again, I am moving cross swell, and the chop is splashing in my face, choking me when I’m not careful to turn my head to the side for a breath. I’m starting to tire, as well, after nearly an hour in the water. I’m not giving up now, though, not with my skiff nearly within my grasp. I summon more energy from somewhere and work to get myself into the path of the skiff as it comes around clockwise to the east and heads my way. I swim into its path just as it passes me and grab frantically for the rail, catching the stern on the port side as it goes by. I realize I’m too far back as my legs start to come around and head for the prop.

So I let go, one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. I pray that I haven’t changed the course of the skiff as I tread water, waiting for it to come around again. It seems to take forever again, but it’s only a couple of minutes this time as I work to position myself directly in front of the oncoming skiff. At the last moment, I move to the right and lunge up over the port rail, clamping my left arm down on the gunwale as hard as I can as I try to pull myself in. I’m dragged down the rail toward the stern anyway as the momentum of the water pulling at my lower body overcomes the strength in my arm trying to hold on. I’m heading for the same predicament I found myself in the first time around as I run out of rail toward the stern and my feet come around, heading for the prop. In desperation, I reach for the tiller extension, hard over to port, with my right hand. I hesitate for just an instant, knowing that if I turn it the wrong way, I’m mincemeat. I manage to turn it the right way somehow, and the skiff idles. With the drag relieved from my lower body, I focus all my remaining energy on getting over the rail and into the cockpit. I squirm and flop and cuss and pull, and finally make it. For a moment I am in complete disbelief that I am back in my boat, then I bolt to my feet and shout “Don! Don!” Again I am in complete disbelief as he answers, and I spot him less then fifty yards off the stern. I slowly run the boat over to him and apologize for not being able to help him in the skiff, as I am now starting to shake uncontrollably. I idle the motor and put it in neutral, and he struggles up and in, nearly as exhausted as me. We hug briefly, then look at each other and laugh with the joy of being alive. I sit on the deck near the bow and ask him to take us back in. “I’m not moving until we get back to the dock.” I say. Again we laugh, incredulous at what we’ve just been through. It is truly a beautiful day, a fact we now fully appreciate. I never did make it in to work.


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