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 the tone of my voice, she thought I was delusional, that I didn't realize the desperation of the moment. She miserably rose and got me a drink without saying a word.

"Don't get depressed," I said to her.

"I'm sick," was her hollow reply.

I really meant don't despair. But for some reason, I didn't want to use that word.

"We're not going out that fast," I said. "Look."

She didn't look.

The waves kept getting higher. There were more gasps and dry heaves. The big waves seemed to be rising to eye level. It would be relatively calm for a minute and then a big one would roll toward us, and I would gasp and wonder if this would be the one. Then we'd go way up and then back down, and I'd feel a little relieved. Then another one would roll up. I wanted to start paddling, but that was more scary than sitting there. When we paddled against them, the waves crashed into us and tossed dangerous amounts of water into the boat. While we drifted, the canoe seemed to roll with the waves. But how long would that last? Common sense told me that the waves would keep getting bigger as we went out to sea.

It was Thursday, and the trip plan we'd filed at the ranger station had us coming in Friday evening. The search wouldn't start until Saturday morning, if we were lucky. By that time, if we were still out there alive, the canoe would surely be sunk and we'd be floating in the cold water. At that point it's hypothermia, dehydration, drowning, or shark attack. Brittany, who was morose in her sickness, had already secretly decided that she'd prefer the sharks. Anything but sharks, I thought. We didn't talk about it out loud.

It was like a Ping-Pong match between notions of death and thoughts of survival. I never felt self-pity. I never asked, "Why me?" It was more like self-loathing. I asked myself, Why did I get us into this? I felt the slow burn of guilt in my chest. My son would be crushed if we didn't make it back. And the thought of that crushed me. But I kept thinking of all the people who loved him. Life will go on without us and so will he, I kept thinking, and it was a consoling thought. But even as I focused on staying rational, the emotion surfacing was as turbulent as the water under us. I had to keep us from dying. Would the cooler float? Probably. I thought of tying a rope around it so that I could keep it close if the boat sank. In addition to our little life jackets, we had floatable seat cushions. One thing was certain: We'd stay together, and if fate had it in for us, we'd sink together. It was a strange thought, terribly appalling, yet romantic at the same time.

I was getting some rest and I started thinking about keeping us close to land for that run with the tide at night. That was my survival plan. Watching those waves, though, I just couldn't visualize us getting far before the boat started swamping from waves crashing into us. The alternative was no better. Letting us drift out to the high seas, I knew, would certainly sink us. The canoe was the key, I kept thinking. I knew we had to stay in the boat, if for only visibility to a potential rescuer. If the canoe went under, our chances of survival would plummet.

And then, as if out of nowhere, a big blue boat turned in front of us, not 50 yards away. We yelled and waved our arms and saw a man and knew he saw us. I will never in my life forget the look on Brittany's face when she turned around to me. It was as if she were wearing a thick mask of agony with incredulous elation pushing from behind it, trying to break it away. Her eyes gleamed.

"What?" I said to her, with pure relief flooding from my pores. "You didn't think we were going to die, did you?"

The big boat -- a crabbing vessel that I guessed was about 30 feet long -- sidled up to us, and I saw the crewman, a huge, dark, unshaven beast of a man, and I tried to reach the boat but couldn't. A second try worked, and the crewman pulled Brittany up and into the boat. Then I handed him the cooler, the last heavy thing, he helped me up, and we pulled the whole canoe onto the boat.

The crewman was as strong as an ox.

And then we were riding toward Everglades City with the crewman, whose name was Kelly, and the captain of the boat, Mitch.

"I looked over and I thought, 'Is that a canoe out there?'" Mitch explained. "I saw the red of it. And I knew somebody was in trouble. So we came over to see."

"We tried to sneak by you guys, but then y'all started waving at us," Kelly quipped before letting out a huge belly laugh.

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