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.

The whole right side of the boat went under for a moment, and seawater cascaded in like a waterfall. Then more terror: A glance confirmed that the canoe was almost completely submerged, only an inch away from going under.

"We're gonna swamp!" I yelled.

It was the motor weighing us down. My hands shook with panic as I unscrewed the motor's clasps from the side of the boat. Despite the nerves, or perhaps because of them, I got the motor off quickly and tossed it into the middle of the boat. But we were still being pushed out to sea and the waves were walloping the side of the canoe and water kept pouring in. The wind was blowing us to the northwest now. I grabbed the two-liter bailer and scooped, but it was useless: The water was coming in faster than I could get it out. Again the canoe almost became completely submerged. "Oh God!" I yelled. We were too heavy. I lifted the big battery and heaved it into the Gulf. It helped, but the water kept coming in, so I grabbed the motor and tossed it out, too. Then I snatched up our big, black garbage bag, with nearly four days' worth of trash in it, and chucked it, too.

Taking it easy on the Lopez River after making camp on the first day
Taking it easy on the Lopez River after making camp on the first day
Mark Lang

Getting rid of the extra weight helped, but the canoe was still one-third full of water, and one good wave in the wrong place would sink us. I'm sure I was in a panic, but it actually seemed to help. My mind was racing so fast that my body was trying like hell to catch up. The two-liter bailer wasn't doing the job. I scanned the contents of the boat -- cooler, tent bag, waterproof map, Dr. Pepper can, water bottle, tackle box -- and grabbed the red plastic tackle box. I frantically opened it and shook out the hooks and sinkers and a pair of needle-nose pliers. Then I dunked the box in the water and started bailing like a madman. It worked five times better than the two-liter bailer. For the moment, we were safe from sinking.

The situation was still critical. Rabbit -- which had been so close -- was now behind us, inshore. It seemed like a mile away, though I can't be sure. I just knew Rabbit was a lost cause. But the first business at hand was simply trying to turn the boat around and stop getting swept to sea. Brittany, jarred to life by the direness of the situation, paddled valiantly. I tried as best I could, but I was now half-gone with fatigue. We couldn't turn the canoe around, a fact that stunned us. We were getting beaten; we were being washed out to sea. We kept trying, setting our sites on a white key a couple miles north up the coast. Again we struggled to turn the canoe around, and after five minutes of relentless pounding, we got it turned. Then we started getting some steam going toward the island. There was no celebration. We knew we were still in trouble. The waves kept splashing water into the canoe, I had to bail again, and some big waves came and turned us back around like we were their damn toy.

We stopped paddling. I've lost many times before, but I've never been consumed with defeat like I was at that moment. It didn't even seem real -- too bad to be true. Brittany put down her paddle.

"We're not making it to land, Bob," she said.

I tried to say something hopeful, but I couldn't. "What should we do?" I asked.

"Just hope and pray someone rescues us."

"You mean conserve our energy for later," I said.

As we drifted out to sea, I looked around. Not a soul anywhere. I felt a surge of desperation. "Where's the fucking Coast Guard?" I yelled out. It didn't help. Then, with nothing else to do, I started bailing the rest of the water out of the boat.

"Fuck a duck," I muttered angrily and helplessly with every bail. "Fuck a duck. Fuck a duck."

And then I heard myself. People lose it in situations like these sometimes, I thought. It's easy to lose touch when your reality is so unbelievably bad that you can't comprehend it. I'm not going to go down like an animal. I laughed a little at the absurdity of my obscene mantra. "'Fuck a duck' -- famous last words," I said to Brittany, who lay motionless in the front of the canoe, too sick to respond.

I took inventory of what we had on our side: I'd bailed out the canoe, and it was now pretty dry. We had food and water for the time being. Soon I'd have strength. I needed to eat and drink. My mouth was bone dry. I'm not sure if it was because of the salty sea air or the fear.

I knew there was no way Brittany would be able to get anything down, and I knew it might cut seriously into our survival time.

"Can you get me some water?" I asked her.

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