Salty Stories: Stranded and Sidetracked

by Owen James Burke

Illustration by Andrew Bobrek

Twelve years old and I was taking my first skiff out of its dock slip and into Long Island Sound with a couple of friends I had brought along, and neither of whom, to my knowledge, had really ever been aboard any kind of boat.  We had just gotten out of school, it was late spring and we were invigorated by the chance to break from the limited mobility one is confined to when traveling only by foot or bike.  Getting out past the “no wake zone” was like trying to keep quiet in a room full of drums.  It was all I could do not to gun the throttle and buzz the crew and sailing team practices as we passed them by in the harbor channel.

We approached the mouth of the river and a breeze filled in.  It threw a small swell across the water just enough for us to test out the dory with some ‘surfing’, as we would later start to call it.

My father bought me my first skiff, it was an Amesbury Dory; a whaling skiff by classic design: a sixteen-foot flat-bottomed skiff, lapstraked along the sides with mahogany seats and oak rails.  On the transom however, was the modern adaptation of the out-rig – a twelve-year-old, twenty-five horsepower Evinrude outboard engine – the allure of it all at that age unfortunately.

“Surfing” consisted of us lining the boat up over a sandbar or reef before a set of wind-swollen waves approached – I’d rev the engine and we’d drop in, down the face.  I would draw lines out on the faces of the waves (which you really can do with the responsiveness of tiller steering), smashing lips, and pulling roundhouses while the groves in the lapstrakes worked an edge like channel fins.  Back and forth we went over different “breaks,” soaking and howling on the ride of our lives as the sky grew darker and the breeze stiffened.

Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be the weather to get us, not this day anyhow.  As the breeze stiffened so did the swells, and the “surfing” grew more aggressive.  One more over-exaggerated turn off the top of a face and the engine locks had had enough.  The Evinrude slipped off of the transom and into the drink.  No sooner than that had the engine begun to drag the battery in too.  As I grabbed the power chords between the motor and the battery, I noticed the gas tank and hose were destined to be dragged overboard as well.  Caught between the two I was starting to lose my own composure, seemingly following suit of my drowning engine, my land-loving companions motionless (I’ll maintain that they were in shock).  But just as the weight of the Evinrude brought my face to kiss the surface of the sea in horror and destitute, they took hold of my legs and shoulders (probably the scrawniest 2 friends I could have brought along) while they struggled in wrestling me back aboard, engine in hand.

However, this did not save our situation.  We were still at large on the water with no engine, water, food, and of course no oars as my father had incessantly instructed me to have.  With daylight fading and no radio, a lot of splashing, yelling, and discussion of swimming ashore ensued.  Despite the disparity, as captain of that vessel I refused to abandon ship, so there we sat.

I wondered what they were thinking.  They had probably never even pondered the possibility of such an occurrence.   We had no food, and our supply of water was diminishing along with our hope to reach land that evening.

As we scanned the horizon and the nearest visible shores in an attempt to facilitate relief, there wasn’t much in sight.  It was still early in the season, and midweek, so coastal traffic was light.  We may have seen a few barges out in the main channel, but at that distance they were further from us than shore was.

I imagined a night spent out there.  We had begun drifting behind a chain of islands, and out of view of any vessel traveling the channel, so camping was a distinct possibility.  Maybe we could work our way alongside of an island and make some sort of camp there— fish could be caught for dinner.  It wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

All of a sudden, a boat on its way ashore broke its course and I imagined it turning towards our lowly sight, with any luck.  We began to wave and splash, and sure enough aid arrived in the least likely form of all.  It was a Sea-Ray; a top-heavy Clorox bottle at sea and any true mariner’s worst nightmare.  But today it would be our savior, and at this juncture I was willing to accept that.

With the toss of a towline, we were off.  On the tow home, my comrades seemed tense and unnerved; I was eating it up, almost resenting the rescue.  I knew then that that was all I ever wanted in life, and that it was just the beginning.

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