Swept Out to Sea

The waves, winds, and tides conspired to send the canoe miles into the Gulf of Mexico. A writer deals with his own mortality during a life-and-death struggle.

From Pavilion's shore, we could see Rabbit Key in the distance, a fuzzy little dark green apparition in the Gulf distance. It's always like that when you start and when you get there, you turn around and the place you came from is a fuzzy little dark green apparition in the distance.

At the beginning of these Gulf sojourns, you really wonder why the hell you're out there. Why put yourself through such hell on vacation? Because it feels that much better when you get there. There's a feeling of accomplishment and a good hard feeling in your arms and upper body when you're finished. And there's the thrill of the unknown. Brittany said at Pavilion that one of the reasons we like this must be that it "reduces the cushion between life and death."

The paddling went surprisingly well at first. The seas were a little rough but not high enough to get into the boat. After about 45 minutes, we had to get out when the canoe came up to a craggy oyster bar. A sandbar stretched far toward the coast, and I could see huge stately white birds sitting on it. I tried to get a better look through the binoculars. I thought they might be white pelicans, a rarity that is only seen in the winter months. Normally we would have paddled over and taken a closer look. Not today. We walked the canoe over the oyster bed, got back in, and continued.

Captain Mitch (left) and Kelly after the rescue in the crabbing vessel, Aftershock (top)
Bob Norman
Captain Mitch (left) and Kelly after the rescue in the crabbing vessel, Aftershock (top)

As we went the dark seas, which seemed murkier and cloudier than usual, kept rising, and the going got more difficult, but the reassuring white sand of Rabbit Key was in sight. The shifting wind kept blowing us off course, and it was more of the same: grueling left-side paddling to keep us from going out in the Gulf. A little more than an hour into the trip, Brittany stopped paddling and started arranging something at the front of the boat. Then she convulsed and threw up the pretzels and tomato juice she'd had for breakfast. I felt a little something inside me give. My first fear was a chain-reaction barf. It happens. But luckily I've never been seasick. "You feel better?" I asked hopefully. She said no, and she was telling the truth: She'd be throwing up and dry-heaving for the rest of the trip. But Brittany was wonderfully game: She'd summon enough strength to get her paddle in the water but was too sick to be effective.

I started to feel like a machine again, paddling hard and steady, digging the oar over and over into rough water and pushing us forward. But as we went, conditions seemed to be getting steadily worse. The tide clearly changed, heading out. Water started filling up the bottom of the boat, getting into our packs. I stopped to bail, and then I had to right the canoe back to course and get a whole new head of steam going. And then it seemed like we weren't getting anywhere. But when I looked back, Pavilion was hazy and far away. Ahead, keys that had been in the distance were now in focus. I made out a bird on Rabbit Key. It was tortuously slow, but we were making it.

After more than two hours of paddling and bailing, I started to feel gutted and my shoulder felt like it had been injected with poison. The beach was still a good 20 minutes away and my damn hands had gone numb from the continuous pressure on the paddle. The bow of the boat crashed into some large waves, submerging it for a moment. I bailed the water out with my two-liter bottle and struggled back on course. Brittany, who was dizzy, puking, and in a cold sweat, pleaded, "Get out the motor." We'd never relied on the motor before. The rule was it was only for pleasure or extreme emergencies. I said, "No way, we can make it."

But as I approached three hours of paddling and we were still 20 minutes away, I made the heretical decision that still haunts me. We'd paddled long enough. We were close enough. We deserved this, rules be damned. I felt the marine battery under my seat and pulled it out. Then I picked up the little trolling motor and started clasping it to the side of the boat. As I fooled with it, we were being pushed out to sea at an alarming rate. Brittany said the distance seemed to double in a minute. It occurred to us both that if the motor didn't work, we were doomed. I knew the old battery wasn't very strong. But I still thought it would work. It had to work now.

It didn't work.

The motor had little or no power against the forces pushing against us. When I tried to get it to move the canoe forward, it wouldn't go anywhere. When I switched to backward, it just jerked us around like some bad carnival ride. We were now facing out to sea, and I couldn't get it to turn the boat around. Then the waves -- now a good three feet high -- started crashing buckets of water into the canoe. Brittany later told me the water was cold, but I didn't feel it. Everything had changed. The wind and water were getting still stronger and meaner while we were getting weaker and sicker. The water pouring in elicited little panicky screams from me as I bailed like a madman.

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