Boy Overboard: A Bitterly Cold and Transformative Late Fall Day on Long Island Sound.
by Owen James Burke
Art by Gianfranco Colangelo.
The water felt coarse against my adolescent face–more like I’d fallen through a glass window than the surface of the sea. It was mid-November on Long Island Sound. The air was probably 50 degrees, the water 45.
“Owen go swimming…I go swimming!” my toddler brother reveled, exclaiming to no one in particular.
The young author imparts his sage 10-year-old wisdom upon his younger brother earlier that summer. The little tyke in the lifejacket is a small boat captain himself now. Photo courtesy: Owen James Burke.
We had been anchored on the edge of the harbor fishing for fluke, or summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus) from our old Cat Boat, named “Cat Nap” for the small doses of sleep my father managed to steal while raising Cain and Abel.
Art: Pearson Scott Foresman Archives/Wikimedia.
Catching fluke usually requires that one drift rather than anchor in order to cover more ground, but my father often saw my fishing as an opportunity for these cat naps. We were hooked in the mud so he could rest when I took my near-fateful step. Dad’s a light sleeper, generally, so I was sure the sound of a large splash would have broken the relative silence enough to rouse him from his dreams. Not so.
I was walking alongside the slick, varnished port side rail to re-bait my hooks after yet another sea robin (aka gurnard, a delicious, spiny bottom-dweller treated by most U.S. fishermen as a trash fish, but a delicacy elsewhere) had left me fishing on credit when something, or someone—I like to think my devious younger brother—drew my attention from my feet. Before I knew it I was underwater.
It was all my brain could do to locate the surface and convince my extremities to work and keep me afloat. This was, by far, the coldest water of my life. My violent, desperate flailing transitioned into spastic constrictions as the blood in my arms and legs crept in toward my core, rendering the very instruments I needed to get back aboard useless.
I gasped to call to my father, but all I could voice was an unintelligible “Duh-ah-” before my throat would cut out and my lungs would beg for another spoonful sized breath of air.
My brother continued to babble at me, probably taking my slip for a stunt to get a rise out of him, as is an older sibling’s duty.
Photo courtesy: Owen James Burke.
I was about 10 or 11 years old, with just barely enough sense when warm and dry, but I couldn’t gain control of my fingertips, let alone my mind. Part of my recollection is of rapid, unchained thoughts. Another part of me recalls a most crippling sensation of bitter, unimaginable cold that would leave me fleeing for the tropics the rest of my life.
My brother, unconcerned, continued on playing with an action figure, looking over the side and smiling every once in a while as he remembered I was still in the water. From his perspective, nothing was wrong or out of place, aside from the fact that I was still wearing my clothes. He’d seen me jump off that boat a hundred times, what was one more?
Mere moments into my quandary–I can’t rightly say how long, but no more than several seconds–I felt my bones chilling right to the marrow. It was a dull ache, almost akin to a swelling bruise. Welcome relief came as I began to experience the familiar feeling of being pumped full of novocaine during one of my many trips to the dentist in my younger years, but this time the feeling (or lack thereof) was not confined to my visage but all over, head to toe. I’d gone from being consumed by the stinging pin-and-needle-like pain often associated with cold water on bare flesh to being utterly numb.
In retrospect, I’d have laughed at the absurdity of the situation, but my mind was beginning to slow and my attention became entirely consumed by the thought of how I might climb back up by a swim step on the rudder. And even if I could get my foot onto the step, there was no grip left in my dying fingers, and there was no way I was going to pull myself up over the transom.
My younger self didn’t register that I was in any danger; the primitive impulse to find warmth was all that occupied my mind. Life didn’t flash before my eyes in the sense that it has during more recent mishaps, and I don’t know whether it was the cold impeding my consciousness, or that I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate my own mortality.
I’m not sure exactly what the duration of my ice bath was, but my dad ultimately sprung up into the cockpit like a jack in a box to find my brother laughing his guts out at me. Swiftly, he reached over the rail and grabbed my forearms.
The pain of being pulled by my arms, matched with the cold, was almost unbearable. A second later, I landed in the cockpit. The struggle to satiate my lungs was no less straining. Dad sat me upright on the bench and dug his way through the cabin looking for something dry—if I or my brother came home any worse for wear, he would have had my mother to answer to.
There was nothing but a set of his oversized foul weather gear.
Cold, wet and wearing a shade of blue I haven’t quite found myself in since, I sat in the cockpit, shivering on the hardwood bench.
He looked calm, but I had the presence of mind to know that he was anything but.
As I was stripped down naked, my brother stood beside me, gassed. Watching a real-life cartoon unfold right before his very eyes, and loving every minute of it. Nothing, in his world, could have been more comical. He was still having the time of his life, reenacting the event in proper two-year-old fashion with his action figure and sound effects. I remember wanting to wring his neck while some part of me appreciated the gratitude of his cackle.
After coming to terms with the fact that he had nothing but thin, tattered, salt- and mold- caked rubber with which to cover and revive me, my father weighed the anchor and raised the main. A following breeze on the stern quarter filled the gaff-rigged sail and as we began to coast toward the mooring I might have felt a chill from the brisk air seeping through my father’s shabby rain gear and onto my bare goose-bumped flesh beneath, but by this time my chill seemed to be coming from within.
I don’t recall saying much, but rather listening to the wind howl between my ears and my cold, wet mane, trying to quell my intermittent convulsions.
We put the boat to bed, called the launch for a ride ashore and waited on deck.
My father and I just stared into each other’s eyes, both riddled with shock, but simultaneously recognizing and accepting the grave mistake I’d made. My father had a tendency to reprimand me, but today was different. He had once fallen in from his kayak, alone in the dead of winter, and he knew better than to raise his voice. How could he admonish or punish me any worse than this? He knew that I was counting my blessings.
Several months before, I had posed to my father the timeless hypothetical conundrum we all recall contemplating during childhood: “would you rather die by…” The choices in this rousing edition involved either being mauled to death by a grizzly bear, or drowning in the middle of the ocean. Gallows humor always pervaded our dinner table. He didn’t miss a beat, and answering this question with absolute sincerity for once, chose drowning.
His swift response left me in consternation. “Why?” I asked. “They say drowning–they being those who’ve ‘drowned’ but recovered or been resuscitated–is a peaceful way to go. When you finally can’t hold your breath anymore, you gasp. Your lungs fill with water and you slowly just kind of go to sleep”, I remember him explaining.
Maybe drowning was not such a horrible way to leave our earthly wares behind, I mused. It sounded soothing as far as death goes–if you have to die, that is–specially compared with a slow, gruesome dismemberment by tooth and claw.
The launch pulled alongside Cat Nap and I remember trembling, shivering up a fit while holding dad’s pants around my skinny waist on the way to the dock, trying not to blind anyone with my reflectively white rear-end–I’d experienced enough embarrassment for one day.
Thank God for the advent of the automobile. Dad cranked the heat in the Jeep on full-bore, and by the time I was walking up the steps of the back porch 15 minutes later, my condition was nothing a shower, bowl of soup, and a fire couldn’t cure.
Still, my hair was wet, and I wasn’t wearing my own clothes. My mother immediately deduced that something had gone wrong.
She was livid, but if ever her animosity toward my father was unjust, it was that evening. Falling overboard was my mistake, and I took full credit for it, or tried (either way, my father was destined to take the brunt of the responsibility). It was the first time I ever really, truly came to learn and respect the havoc-wreaking power of the sea.
I can’t help but wonder whether James Bond himself–the Roger Moore Bond, of course–could have gotten out of this one alone. In theory, it’s so elementary: there’s your hand, there’s the rail. Grab and lift as you always do (as in, when you have breached the surface of the sea with intent). In practice, it’s something to which few of us can relate, something that steals the logic from even the most able-bodied and brisk-minded seamen.
There are calculated formulas as to how fast a person will perish in certain water temperatures without proper insulation, but there’s no way to describe the shock associated with unwittingly entering this brand of cold, and trying to do that math from the other side of the rail would be a fool’s errand. Your best chance during those precious few seconds is to grab hold of something and put to use whatever zest you might have left to get back on deck before your hands and feet turn to jello.
Many people, to their good fortune, don’t ever come to experience the debilitating wrath of cold water. It’s unimaginable that even a most callous and seasoned fisherperson who spends day-in, day-out, wet and cold at sea, could perish within just seconds of falling overboard. You’d think that their brawny shoulders and overall dauntlessness would supply them with the tenacity to get back over the rail, no matter the temperature, but it’s not so. Man is no match for the merciless cold.
Recounting the event, the possibility of death did not strike me either, not until later that night when I imagined what it was like for the all cod fishermen and the whalers who’ve drowned along the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia, or the crab fishermen in the Bering Sea while I drifted off to sleep in the dry, heated confines of my bedroom. I pondered over what their last thoughts might have been.
No wonder so many seafarers throughout history never bothered to swim, I reasoned. Traditionally, in the age of sail, the concept of rescuing a man overboard at sea was dubious at best, for a sailboat cannot make a pinpoint turn the way a propeller-driven vessel can and, by the time it could complete a full circle, its crew would be facing a needle-in-a-haystack scenario. As the man overboard without rescue underway, each second spent fighting for your life, regardless of water temperature, is only a way of prolonging sheer torment, even masochistic, when death is plainly imminent.
However gloomy, I found there to be something heroic and romantic about drowning at sea, in a distinctly removed sense. Maybe it was the final pages of Jack London’s Martin Eden, which I’ve read time and again, or maybe it was the simple poetic justice of a fisherman finding his fate at sea. That night, I determined that if anything but old age should take me, the sea would be the most noble stage for my exit.
I learned quick and well then and there, once and for all, that the best resolution, above all, is to stay on board. To date, I haven’t fallen into the drink even once…at least not without gauging the water temperature first.
Unmitigated humiliation. Photo courtesy: Owen James Burke.
Some years later, I did it again. Attempting to relieve myself from the bloody deck of a fishing skiff one summer day, my feet came right out from under me and I landed head first into my own stream. Though I wasn’t in any immediate danger of hypothermia, I could have been swept out to Nantucket in the 5-knot current, but this photographer had no qualms about taking the time to pull out her camera. -OJB