Saturday, June 12, 2010
I feel quite wrung out this week. I followed with horror the story of Abby Sunderland, the 16-year old American sailor who attempted to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe but ran into a storm in the Indian Ocean which destroyed her mast. I sat at my computer hours past my usual bedtime, seeking news of her plight as she drifted 2,000 miles from land on any side.
It brought back memories of my family's 32 foot cabin cruiser exploding in the ocean when I was seven.
One perfect August day, we left our boat slip on Long Island, New York and headed out to sea. Our destination was Nantucket, off the Massachusetts coast. My older brother and I were sitting in the fore cockpit with our Irish Terrier, Patty, enjoying the sunshine and salt spray.
My father, who was an excellent swimmer, had taught my brother to swim, but my mother did not know how, nor did I. I owned a child-size life jacket but was not wearing it that day. It was stowed in a cupboard in the cabin, and there was no access to the cabin from our perch in the bow of the boat. To get there required inching around the catwalk holding onto a rail along the edge of the upper deck, above my reach.
The sun sparkled on the waves as we plowed through them, and soon there was no land visible in any direction. We cruised for hours until suddenly, my brother and I heard a loud explosion. Turning, we saw the cabin engulfed in flames and felt the searing heat.
My brother grabbed our dog, threw her into the ocean and jumped after her. I was afraid she would drown but didn't know what to do about it. I didn't know what to do at all, so I waited. The flames leaped higher into the blue sky. The heat was intense and the air looked wavy. It would have been beautiful if I weren't so scared.
After several minutes, my father eased his way around the catwalk holding an adult life jacket. He had been unable to get to mine because the hardware on the locked cupboard had melted. He tried to drape the adult one around me, but his hands were burned and it fell on his new Sperry Topsiders and ricocheted into the water.
"Should I jump?" I asked.
"I'm afraid you'll have to," he said. He seemed apologetic, which I noted because I had never known my father to evince any kind of remorse before.
I held his pinky for a second, then jumped into the icy water. The fire raged toward me because I had jumped off the leeward side of the bow. The orange life jacket had already disappeared, so I paddled as fast as I could to get away from the flames leaping off the boat as it burned down to the waterline. Within minutes, there was nothing left of it but smoke and the charred black wooden hull that got smaller so fast it looked as if something were eating it. The water was bitter cold and dark.
About an hour later, just before sundown, three men in an open fishing boat who had seen the flames from afar approached and found me struggling to stay afloat in the water. They held out a long pole with a hook on the end for me to grab, pulled me into their boat and wrapped me in a rough gray blanket. I was shaking violently and burst into tears.
"Why are you crying now?" one of the men chided me. "You're safe now."
I stopped crying immediately, ashamed that I had forgotten I was not allowed to cry. The fishermen took me into port, several hours away, and handed me off to a policeman on the dock. I didn’t see my family anywhere.
The next thing I remember is visiting my mother in the hospital where she was being treated for third-degree burns on both legs. She had been standing above the hatch when the engine blew up. Her legs were slathered in Vaseline and covered with white gauze bandages. My father had kept her afloat until help arrived.
She noticed that I had been washing only the part of my face I could see, leaving the back of my neck gray and grungy. She asked a nurse for a washcloth and rubbed my neck hard until it was pink and sore as the water dripped down my back.
I am older now than my father was when he died. But even from an adult’s perspective, I don’t understand why he couldn’t save me and my mother, too, instead of consigning a seven-year-old child to the deep, to literally sink or swim. I swam.
The next year, he bought another boat. It was a 34-foot ACF, one of very few pleasure boats made by the railroad car and locomotive manufacturing company, American Car and Foundry. Some of the new boat’s appeal was unquestionably its exclusivity.
My parents never mentioned the boat accident or my ordeal again, as if it never happened. I don't dwell on this memory consciously, but as I followed Abby Sunderland's story, hardly daring to breathe or even sleep, I felt like a terrified seven year old in a cold, dark ocean again. I even dreamed of drowning, and yesterday I took a book out of the library about the drowning death of Natalie Wood although I normally eschew celebrity books.
I cannot imagine taking a small child out on the ocean without a life jacket. I also cannot imagine allowing a sixteen-year old to attempt a solo sail around the world. Perhaps most bizarre of all is the fact that this same week, a rare photograph emerged from history's attic of two slave children which was probably taken by Matthew Brady, the famous 19th century photographer of President Lincoln and General Robert E. Lee. The same North Carolina attic yielded a document detailing the sale of one of the children, John, for $1,150 in 1854. Both children are ragged and barefoot, their faces hopeless as they contemplate the short, brutal lives awaiting them.
There are still many children like John and his unnamed companion in the world today. In fact, there are many more such children than those who possess 40-foot yachts to sail around the world in pursuit of a record. Rescue missions from several nations went to enormous trouble and expense and even put themselves in danger to save Abby Sunderland, and while I am glad they did, it makes me wonder why such effort is not mobilized to save other children from slavery, starvation and disease. And it makes me ashamed.