Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Mikey’s adventure at sea, a true tale at St. Croix in the "Open Water":

My sister Julie and I took some kayaks out. We were both pretty good at kayaking back when we were preteens at sleepaway camp. But this was the ocean, not a stagnant lake in upstate NY, and we’re not kids anymore.

Even though we had to fight the current and the wind, we managed to row out to the tiny island just off the coast – I’d guess about a half mile out. We lounged on the beach of this little rock: “Cast Away” -- I was Tom Hanks; she was Wilson the Volleyball.

It was when we headed back that the trouble began. We had the elements on our side, but when I heard Julie calling out to me, I saw that she had tipped over. She wasn’t alarmed, but she was having trouble getting back in the kayak. Kept flipping it right-side up, jumping on top, and whoops -- it topsided again.

I started rowing over to try and help, but then the boat got out of her reach. The current took it away faster than she could swim to it. “I’ll get it,” I said. “Just rest and float there, I’ll bring the boat back to you.”

So I chased after this thing, grabbed a hold of its side strap, which made for awkward paddle strokes, especially against the current. I began struggling to row back.

“Are there sharks out here?” Julie said, swimming to meet me halfway.

“No, of course not.” Jeez, there very well may be, I thought. But I don’t want anyone to even think about it. Julie versus Jaws. Shit.

I brought her back the boat, and she was still having trouble climbing in. So I jumped out of my kayak and helped steady hers until she could at least balance on top of it – getting into a seated position was another story.

Then we realize -- her oar is missing. The rental guy had tied it to the boat, but it still must have gotten loose... and was long gone. Okay, it’s just an oar. No problem. I tethered the front of her kayak to the back of mine, and I’d row us both back in.

Now I was trying to get into my kayak, which I realized wasn’t easy when the boat was parallel to the waves, and the water had gotten choppier. I could see what Julie was going through – once you’re on top of the kayak, any tiny shift in weight and you’re getting dunked again. This was getting damn frustrating. Julie was laying in her kayak, holding my oar – holding on for dear life, or we were gonna be swimming back in – and I had my underwater camera tied around my ankle, thinking, yep, this happens every time I try to be Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The camera is gonna come loose and once again, I’ll lose all my sea-life photos...

I told myself: Don’t worry about that, Mike, let’s just try again -- jump up, grab on, steady, steady... SPLASH! Motherfucker!!

All right, stay calm. Breathe. Find your zen, uh, shakra kaballah... mantra? Quan boogie? Whatever. Keep your eye on the tiger.

Then it started raining. Perfect. What’s next? Julie and I looked at each other and started to laugh.

That gave me the strength; I managed to get properly seated in the kayak. Julie handed me the oar, and I started rowing. We had drifted down-current, so once again I was fighting the tide to get back. But I was a Tiki warrior, pumping that paddle like a propeller.

We emerged out of the rain cloud and my shoulders were on fire. Wasn’t sure if it was a sunburn or the serious upper body workout. But we pressed on. Julie’s kayak kept bumping into mine, which was fine -- getting rear-ended told me the boats were still connected. Between grunts I’d shout out. “You still there?” And yeah, she hadn’t capsized again. Good.

I considered docking down the beach, away from where we had launched, then we’d just arrange to carry the boats back. But as I continued I became determined to complete my mission. No short-cuts. All I had to do was fight this last bit of current, get around the jetty that led into the marina. I thought back to that first month of college, when I joined the crew team (before I got tired of commuting up to the Harlem River every morning), the coxswain yelling, “Stroke! Stroke!”

Hey, remember that old Billy Squire song? Whatever happened to him? Dammit, Mike, concentrate!

When we pulled into the marina, I had a strong sense of accomplishment. Julie felt nauseous. She leaned over to maybe puke... and fell overboard again. And then she was too tired to climb back on. But we were practically there, so she just swam along the kayaks as I rowed us back in.

The boat rental guy felt bad he hadn’t tied the oar on securely. But it was no big deal. We made it back; that was all that was important.

Honestly, I’m glad it all happened. When I was out there at sea, it was all about survival. For the first time on the vacation, I wasn’t stuck in my head, my stupid brain never shutting up, even when I tried to numb it with alcohol. Even when we were adrift in that rain, I was relishing the challenge. Would I rather be fighting the Caribbean Ocean waves, or fighting traffic on the L.A. freeways?


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