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.

I drank cool water from a clear plastic bottle and tried to get down some trail mix. It was probably 2:30 in the afternoon and I hadn't had anything to eat all day, so I should have been hungry. But it's amazing how the stomach takes to itself at the worst times. It's not a team player, the stomach. I forced the dried fruit and nuts down anyway, knowing I'd need it for strength to paddle and for sustenance if the canoe sank under the waves, which kept getting higher as we got pushed further and further out into the Gulf of Mexico.

I looked over at the now distant islands. Just 30 minutes earlier, we'd been so close to Rabbit Key's white beach that I could see individual birds in its trees. Now it was fading from sight and impossible to reach.

The Gulf was often choppy and the winds were often strong, but not like this. Until now I'd never thought that the sea was going to kill me.

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
Mark Lang
Taking it easy on the Lopez River after making camp on the first day
Bob Norman
Taking it easy on the Lopez River after making camp on the first day
Heading out to Pavilion Key (visible in the distance) on day three
Bob Norman
Heading out to Pavilion Key (visible in the distance) on day three
Mark Lang
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)

The only sounds for a few minutes were my gasps at the size of the waves and an occasional dry heave up front. My wife, Brittany, was seasick, and she wasn't going to get any better until we made land. Her stomach was in complete revolt. She couldn't paddle anymore. Still, I felt lucky to be with her. Being with Brittany seemed to steady me somehow, and helped me stay calm.

Thoughts of our four-year-old son did the opposite. If we didn't make it, then I'd failed him. It was just too sad to think about, our boy being told that he wouldn't be seeing us anymore. But I knew there were plenty of relatives to take care of him and love him as their own. And… and I had to stop thinking like this. We are still in the canoe, I thought. We have plenty of rations, I told myself. My shoulder muscles ached like they were bleeding inside against the bone and my hands were still numb, but I knew that after my rest, I'd be ready to paddle again.

I grimaced at the thought of starting that perilous cycle again. Paddling the canoe into the waves, causing seawater to crash in the boat, forcing me to bail it out, which then gave the tide and harsh wind, both steadfastly against us, time to destroy whatever scant progress we'd made. I'd just have to try to keep us from drifting too far out into still larger waves, and then, at nightfall, when the tide changed and we hoped the wind would weaken, I'd try a run at the coast, using the glow of civilization on the eastern horizon as a beacon.

We have a chance, I thought, rescue or not. But we'd need some luck on what, to that point, had been the unluckiest day of our lives.


It was our fourth straight day in the Ten Thousand Islands area at the southwest edge of Everglades National Park. The islands lie scattered just outside a maze of inland mangrove forest and rivers and bays referred to as the "backcountry," where the freshwater Glades run into the sea. The green islands, which actually number in the hundreds, are generally found south of Marco Island and north of Cape Sable and consist mostly of mangrove trees tangled on sand and oyster deposits.

Tourists usually hire a guide equipped with a motorboat or take the park tour. A smaller number -- we fall into this category -- prefer canoeing from one marked campsite to another. Until roughly 50 years ago, the place was never considered a tourist destination. Full of mosquitoes, heat, and muck, it was regarded as uninhabitable by just about everybody but Native Americans and pirates until the late 1800s. And even then it was crawling with outlaws.

"Folks will tell you different today, but back then there wasn't too many in our section that wasn't kind of unpopular someplace else. With all of Florida to choose from, who else would come to these overflowed rain-rotted islands with not enough high ground to build a outhouse, and so many skeeters plaguing you in the bad summers you thought you'd took a wrong turn to Hell," Peter Matthiessen writes in Killing Mister Watson.

Murderous myth abounds there. E.J. Watson, the subject of Matthiessen's book, was gunned down in 1910 in broad daylight by a vigilante group of town leaders who suspected Watson had murdered workers at his farm. A game warden named Guy Bradley was shot dead by a plume hunter five years before that. And nearly every habitable island has some pirate tale attached to it, usually involving extreme violence and a buried corpse. Outlaws are still out there. At one time in the 1980s, half of the population of Everglades City, including the mayor, was in jail for ferrying marijuana.

How can one resist a mysterious place like that? But that's not why I go. When I think of the Ten Thousand Islands and the backcountry, I don't think of Watson, I think of the birds. A snow-white egret, standing four feet tall, perched frozen like a statue in a thick tangle of mangroves before suddenly taking off in swooping flight. Or a great blue heron on the shoreline, with a wisp of feather shooting off the back of his neck, as if he'd styled it that way. Or waking up at first light to see a huge anhinga at the top of a rotting cypress, stretching its crooked wings to dry in the sun, with dark feathers draping down like Dracula's cape. And I think of the huge manatees that could flip your canoe over in an instant but wouldn't in a million years. And dolphins, which might swim alongside your canoe and make you feel for just a moment like the most fortunate person in the world. And finally the fishing, which informs you that, no, you aren't fortunate at all.

But if you believe I go on these trips just because of the natural beauty, I have some land there to sell you, too. I like all those things, sure, but I could see most of them from the deck of a tour boat. The reason I go is that it is the best place to get away from people for a while. Away from traffic and television and toilets. Computers and calls and cars. Give me another letter of the alphabet, and I'll name three more aspects of civilization to avoid.

It also gives me time alone with Brittany. When we first ventured into the Ten Thousand Islands, about five years ago, we went without map or plan. In other words we were clinically insane. We thought we'd explore in the canoe and camp on the first good island we came to. There were supposed to be 10,000 of them, after all. We immediately got trapped in the swirling currents of some bay. Being stronger swimmers than we were paddlers at the time, we had to jump into the darkish water among the dolphins, which were everywhere, and swim the canoe back to shore. After we finally got out among the islands, we quickly got lost. Everywhere we went, the mangrove islands around us looked the same. We kept thinking, "Weren't we just here?" We still hadn't found a suitable campsite when night fell, so we somehow rigged our tent up on a nameless little mangrove island. The mosquitoes were terrible, singing like Axl Rose in our ears even though we were using 100 percent DEET, an unbelievably potent chemical that mixed with our sweat and instantly numbed our lips. It dissolved the polish right off Brittany's fingernails. After fishing we went to sleep, and I dreamed of a calm rocking, rocking, rocking… and then the tent gave way and cold seawater flooded in, waking us sharply in the pitch black of the mangrove night.

After a largely blind and chaotic attempt to retrieve everything before it washed away, we wound up (not) sleeping crookedly in the canoe, a freezing, endlessly miserable night. The mosquitoes screeched in my ears and I shivered violently in the dark with my ass dipped in cold water. The worst nights of our lives never seem to end. Finally the first warming light came, and we made our way back to civilization. It was our first mean lesson in tides. The backcountry and islands are in a constant state of flux, with the moon's pull changing the landscape by the hour. On average there are two high tides and two low tides a day. At high tide the seas seem about four or five feet higher than at low. Open sea in the evening might become a mud flat by morning. Oyster beds and sandbars appear and disappear. The tide had washed in and simply flooded us out. In a few hours, our dry mangrove camp had been covered in two feet of salt water. Lots of people traveling in the area have lost canoes to the tide by failing to secure them. We kept ours but lost our campsite.

We had several good trips after that on Florida rivers, but they were largely unchallenging and far too pleasurable. So we went back to the islands and did it the right way, filing a trip plan at the ranger station, taking a waterproof map, and bringing a tide chart. After a successful overnight trip to Picnic Key, we decided we'd do a five-day trip and set off in March 1997. It went incredibly well, despite the mosquitoes and the difficulty of Gulf paddling. We made a rule on that trip: Never use the motor, except for pleasure. We stuck to it, and the journey was challenging but not life-threatening. Never did it seem even close to life-threatening.


There is, however, a lot of suffering and death in the Gulf. It's deceptive. Often it seems like a giant bathtub, harmless. But a simple mistake or a turn in the weather can be deadly. As a reporter for the Fort Myers News-Press, I covered many sad stories about the Gulf, like the two young sisters who jumped into the water off Gasparilla Island a few years ago and got swept out to sea by a rip tide. Days later, their little bodies were found floating. I also remember a story about four guys from Canada who went diving west of the Ten Thousand Islands and only one made it back after their boat sank. And I covered the funeral of two high-school boys who were killed when the shrimp boat they were in exploded. I also remember lots of routine drownings in the Gulf.

There were numerous rescue stories as well, of people drifting in frigid waters for a day or two before they were saved. Those stories were almost always splashed across the front page. I was moved by the high drama of the Gulf stories, but I also thought that the people involved, in the final analysis, were either lucky fools or dead ones.

In early 1998 we moved to Broward County, where we found far less opportunity for good canoeing than on Florida's west coast. It wasn't until last month, on November 1, that we finally set out on another long trip to the islands, not long after Hurricane Irene. Tropical Storm Katrina was blowing rainstorms through the area. Our first two days would again be largely spent in the backcountry, so we figured we'd be safe, if extremely wet at times. On the day we set out, there was a small-craft advisory in the Gulf -- choppy seas. But we wouldn't be out there in earnest for three days, so we figured it might change. We were thirsty for challenge and adventure, anyway.

On the first evening, Katrina's rain fell all night, and we got drenched while breaking camp in the morning at the Lopez River. An hour later the rain stopped, and we had a mild, sunny day for the 15-mile paddle through the backcountry. To get to Mormon Key for the second night, we had to paddle through Gulf waters, our first taste of the seas on this trip. It wasn't a pretty sight: The surf that we remembered as a beautiful teal was dark, brownish and gray, and more dangerous than we'd ever seen it. Brittany looked back at me with alarm after two four-foot waves crashed into us in rapid succession, tossing us up and down and splashing a distressing amount of seawater into the canoe. I had to use the folded waterproof map as a bailer. To avoid getting knocked over, we paddled into the waves diagonally, and we zigzagged. It was a startling end to the day, and we knew we were in for a tough three more.

After a lovely night on Mormon's beach, we headed to Pavilion Key, which is located about five miles out into the Gulf. I decided we'd go out with the tide, figuring it would help us. Paddling against the tide in the Gulf is analogous, in some cases, to paddling upriver. When you aren't paddling, you make no progress, and in stronger tides, you go backward.

On this trip, I misjudged the tide and the wind. Pavilion was northwest and the tide and the constant whipping wind were working in tandem to push us southwest, out into the Gulf at large. What we didn't know was that a cold front had moved in, increasing the winds to 25 knots with higher gusts and squalls. The wind out there is usually 20 knots at its worst. Bernie Esposito, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, says the front also "joined forces" with Katrina, adding fuel to the already dangerous conditions. The weather service was reporting seas of five to seven feet in the inner Gulf, about twice the usual height. We didn't know all this at the time, but we felt it and fought it. We constantly had to paddle on the left side to keep from being blown out to sea. It was murder on our shoulders. And again the waves, set roiling by the winds, were pretty high. I was thinking four feet at the worst, but maybe they were higher. Seawater was getting in the boat, and every time I stopped to bail out the water, the nose of the canoe would get pushed by winds and water toward the Gulf expanse.

At the stern of the canoe, I had the job of steering and had to paddle my arm off to keep getting it back on course. It was only a five-mile paddle, but we had to fight for every foot. Brittany and I both got a full head of steam, feeding off each other's strength, and we worked like a machine to get to Pavilion. The first thing I did there was cut a two-liter bottle in half to make a nice bailer.

Night began to fall as we explored the island, so I gathered up wood and we made a fire and drank some wine and watched the stars, which were bigger and brighter and more lively than we'd ever seen them. They fell and twinkled and shone bright and shot across the sky.

That night as we slept, the tent filled with a gusting wind that uprooted the stakes and nearly blew it over. To keep the tent weighted down, we slept in opposite corners.

We had decided to set out to Rabbit Key with the tide coming in, so we wouldn't have to deal with getting pushed out to sea like the day before. Rabbit was almost due north of us, a five-mile paddle parallel to the coast. An outgoing tide would push us back and out -- a terrible combination. Low tide was scheduled for 6:47 a.m. Too early. High tide would come just after noon. I woke at about 8 or 8:30 and Brittany, usually the early riser, was still sleeping. I tried to wake her, but she wasn't ready to get up. I waited with my eyes wide open, thinking that every second was crucial.

The wind seemed much stronger that day, but the weather service was reporting that it was the same as the day before. Candace Tinkler, a supervisor with Everglades National Park, received reports of seas between four and eight feet. "Almost unheard of," she said of the conditions on that day, November 4, adding that it sounded more like the Pacific coast than the Gulf.

Brittany woke at 9:30, so we set off at 10. Way too late. We'd now be fighting tide for most of the trip. I thought of staying, but Pavilion, with the whipping wind, didn't seem very hospitable. And I thought of the previous day's trip, when we'd successfully fought the wind and tide the entire time. We could do it again. I buckled down for a hard paddle, and both of us strapped on our life preservers. I absentmindedly sang the refrain from Gilligan's Island before we set out: "The Minnow would be lost… the Minnow would be lost."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Mitch was friendly but quiet, and Kelly was jovial, cynical, and witty. It turned out that they'd come out special that day to drop traps because rocky seas roust the crabs. They were out 12 miles, and they said the seas were so high out there that they started thinking their boat, the Aftershock, might swamp, too. Kelly and I talked while Mitch steered the boat and Brittany, still sick, lay facedown in the center of the boat. Several crates of 9-Lives cat food were in the back. Mere crab bait, but I thought they seemed cosmically appropriate. I told Kelly about my plan to try and stay close and make a run at nightfall. He had to stop to keep himself from laughing in my face. He didn't think we had a chance. Kelly said we weren't far from getting out into higher seas that would have sunk us quick.

"It might not have been so bad," he said. "Look at it this way: You wouldn't have had to mess with that Y2K shit."

And there was the belly laugh. Then I told him how all kinds of factors seemed to line up against us, from the late start, to the seasickness, to the motor debacle, to the outrageous seas.

"I know that feeling," Kelly said. "I get it every morning when I wake up."

Belly laugh.

When we got on land, Kelly put the canoe on the back of his truck and drove us back to our car in Chokoloskee. Before he left for home, Kelly patted my back and said, "You're the luckiest guy in the world."

One of the lucky fools.

That night, when my dad put my son on the phone, I couldn't talk to him. I got choked up with emotion when I heard his elfin voice. "Daddy! I went to the zoo today," he said. Haltingly, trying to mask my emotion, I said, "We're gonna be home tomorrow." Tears burned my eyes, and I waited until I could get out, "I love you, buddy. Bye-bye."

I didn't feel too lucky for weeks after that. The pall of defeat and the residue of trauma shadowed me. At night when I should have been sleeping, I rued the mistake I had made with the motor.

I said to Brittany, "We've got to go back to Rabbit Key." She agreed, and we're planning our return in March. The motor will be fine at the bottom of the sea.

I won't make the same mistakes. There'll be plenty of new ones.

Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address: Bob_Norman@newtimesbpb.com

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