“I thought you said you loved me!” my spirited fiancée, Kit, sputtered as she emerged from another dunking under the roiling surface of the Chesapeake Bay. I was frantically trying to catch the attention of anyone on an anchored coal ship looming in the distance. We were linked arm-in-arm in a yellow life jacket that was the only item besides our bathing suits that remained after a tornado-like blast suddenly dumped us into the turbulent seas. Our 16-foot Hobie catamaran had disappeared into the enveloping darkness like an exploding champagne cork. Each time I reached up to wave for help, the movement caused Kit to submerge temporarily.
“Do you have to do that?” she questioned when I began to raise my arm again. “I think you’re trying to drown me.”
I chuckled at her sprightly sense of humor, despite our desperate situation and limited my next effort. Through the thick gloom we had spotted the hazy outline of a ship half a mile or so away. I waved harder, dunking Kit again, and suddenly saw movement on the bridge of the huge vessel that waited in anchorage to proceed to Norfolk for a load of coal. “They see us!” I shouted, watching small figures scrambling on the main deck to lower a ladder on the port side. “Start swimming that way!”
“Last time I’ll let you sweet talk me into an afternoon sail,” she quipped as we angled toward our hope of salvation.
With rescue now more promising, I mentally reviewed how we’d gotten into our predicament. It was a warm July afternoon with moderate winds blowing when we pushed my boat into the surf midway between the BayBridge Tunnel and the Lesner Bridge. Wind gusts filled the jib and mainsail, and we briskly headed northeast. Weather reports mentioned possible storms around Richmond, but nothing unusual for Hampton Roads.
My small red and white Igloo cooler, filled with refreshments, was lashed with bungee cords around the mast as we tacked toward Cape Henry. By the time we passed Fort Story, the winds had picked up, and so had the clouds. The fog horn sounding at the Fort was a surprise. I pointed to the sky. “Clouding up. Looks like the weather’s turning on us. Maybe we should head back.”
“But it’s so glorious,” Kit said with characteristic exuberance. “The wind’s blowing so well we’re just floating like a cloud. Can’t we keep going?”
We did for a short distance but, with the wind steadily increasing, and the sky darkening, I abruptly reversed direction. “I’d like us to stick around awhile,” I said. “It’s getting bad. You’re too important to lose at sea.”
I estimated that the winds had increased to about forty knots as we raced back across the Lynnhaven Inlet channel. In the distance we saw dark clouds rushing down the Bay in our direction. I debated turning to shore at that point, but in a monumental misjudgment of reality, said “If it holds for another ten minutes, I think we can make it to our beach.”
“You’re the captain,” Kit said with loyal acceptance, tightly grasping the straps of the bouncing trampoline.
“We’re almost there,” I yelled a few minutes later, preparing to turn south. We were about three miles offshore, swiftly approaching the stern of a coal ship anchored slightly east of the BayBridge Tunnel when I shifted the boom to head in. I can still remember seeing the cluster of people on the fantail of an old red freighter waving down at us as we clung to our flimsy boat with its billowing white and black sails.
Shortly after turning, a sudden calmness occurred, and the sky momentarily brightened, followed almost instantly by a thunderous roar and total darkness. Lightening flashed angrily, and rain beat down. “Don’t touch the mast!” I shouted, working frantically to lower the sails. The mainsail was half way down when a microburst of energy shredded the Dacron into confetti.
“That’s it?” I began to hope when a second of silence ensued before a gigantic wind toppled our boat and pitched us into the cold water.
“Hang onto the boat,” we yelled at each other, grabbing the floating lines of the capsized catamaran. “There’s a life cushion under the trampoline,” I said, grasping its corroded straps which immediately crumbled in my hand while the cushion flew away.
“Do you always show your dates this much fun?” Kit said as we treaded water and linked our arms through the one floatation jacket we shared.
“You’re a special date,” I began to say when another powerful gust roared up, prying our grips from the boat, which cartwheeled over towering waves like a runaway kite. Lightening flashes provided a final glimpse of the red and white cooler vanishing into increasing gloom. Heavy rain continued to pelt down while we bobbed like corks against walls of green-black seawater.
“It seems to be letting up,” Kit said a few minutes later, as the rain lessened and the wave action decreased. “So what do we do now? Call a cab?”
Her indefatigable sense of humor buoyed our spirits as much as the life vest and we discussed our situation. “What are you thinking?” she asked.
“We could try swimming to shore, except I don’t know what direction it is. Maybe the Coast Guard is looking for us. Those people on that freighter could have notified them. Then again, the ship showed a Liberian registry on the stern. They might not speak English.”
We kept treading water. “I’m getting cold,” Kit said. “Kiss me.”
“Keep treading,” I said, complying with the invitation. “Helps the circulation. What are you thinking?”
She laughed. “How my hair looks. Silly girl.”
“Wonderful girl,” I said, kissing her again. “We’ll get out of this.”
“I know. I trust you.”
Privately, I had my doubts, but was inspired by her indomitable spirit that kept us going. We both prayed in our personal manner, Kit appealing in her outspoken style, “Damnit, God, I just found him. Help us out. Please.”
I suggested we shouldn’t be cursing at a time like this, then silently prayed, remembering my many blessings. I thought of the irony of having just retired from the FBI after a career of battling gangsters and spies, only to perhaps drown in my own front yard. I wondered how deep the water was. Funny what crosses the mind at such times.
We had been in the water about thirty minutes and were feeling the effects of hypothermia when the winds further diminished, the sky partially cleared and we sighted the coal ship. Summoning our remaining strength, we swam for it. As we got closer we could see the ship bore a Japanese name. Ever alert, Kit cautioned, “Don’t tell them you were with the FBI.”
The outgoing tide was increasing as we neared the massive green vessel, and we barely caught the life rings thrown to us by several diminutive sailors perched on a platform at the bottom of the ladder that extended to just above the water line. Kit’s life ring was hauled in rapidly, and she was wrapped in a blanket as soon as she was pulled from the water. The strong tide swept me past the ladder, and I wondered if I’d be last sighted passing the Cape Henry Light several miles offshore. I swam back as hard as I could, and the small-of-stature Japanese crewmen tugged mightily. Just when I feared my soggy mass might pull them into the Bay they succeeded, with my furious paddling, to swing me back to the ramp and haul me aboard.
Kit waited on the wet platform until my rescue. The smiling sailors chattered something unintelligible as we embraced.
Climbing the several-story ladder to the main deck felt like an ascension from a tomb and, as a World War II Navy veteran, I didn’t care if the grinning ship’s captain was Hirohito’s brother.
We were rejoicing in our blankets when Kit exclaimed, “What’s that?” pointing to bloody footprints crossing the white deck. The blood originated from my right heel, apparently gouged when I desperately thrust my water-softened foot against the metal ladder platform. The solicitous captain ushered us into the wardroom and summoned the ship’s doctor, the only person aboard who spoke English. Barely. The good doctor bandaged the wound and asked if we wanted something to drink – “Tea? Coffee?”
“Whiskey!” Kit yelled in her unabashed style, and we were soon sipping from cups of 12-year-old Chivas Regal. Those ship’s doctors know how to live.
Within an hour, a pilot boat picked us up and delivered us, still wrapped in our blankets, to their Lynnhaven Inlet pier. “Thought you folks were goners,” a crewman said. “The Coast Guard found a black and white catamaran turn turtled a few miles from where you said you lost it. They couldn’t find any bodies under it, and guessed you’d been washed out to sea.”
“Almost,” I said, offering a silent prayer of thanks.
The next day I received a tetanus shot and then went to Mass at the Little Creek Navy Amphibious Base Chapel where there’s a beautiful stained-glass window depicting Christ protecting a storm-threatened sailor in turbulent seas. “You are never alone,” was my prayerful reflection.
Kit and I viewed the shattered remains of my boat that had been towed to a Coast Guard dock, and borrowed a friend’s catamaran for a short “get back in the saddle” sail.
An article later appeared in The Virginian-Pilot about 1981 Hampton Roads weather, stating in part, “A strong squall line moved through July 21, sending winds howling over the area with the highest clocked at 100 knots on the Chesapeake BayBridge Tunnel.”
I surreptitiously purchased a red and white Igloo cooler and told Kit it had washed up on shore. She opened it to find a bottle of champagne that we consumed while we celebrated our good fortune and discussed our future.
We were soon married, and often recalled our unforgettable experience on Chesapeake Bay.
A sudden heart attack several years later took her wonderful spirit away. Her ashes were scattered on the Bay, close to the site where we fought the sea together – and won.
The indelible memory remains of the day we were almost lost at sea.
Author Bio: A native of Detroit, Michigan, Jim Healy spent two years in the U.S. Navy before earning a Journalism degree at Michigan State University. He subsequently served thirty-two years in the FBI, pursuing spies and gangsters from coast to coast before retiring as Special Agent in Charge of the Norfolk. Virginia, Division.
A member of the Virginia Beach Writers, he participates in various writer's workshops and is currently preparing memoirs, along with a romance-mystery novel, and a fantasy series about a fun-loving female leprechaun named Sheila.
He resides on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach.
Artist Info: "Yacht in a Storm" and other fine art pieces by Thomas Lund-Lack can be viewed and purchased online at http://www.absolutearts.com/portfolios/l/lundlack . You can reach Thomas via his website: Tom Lund-Lack's Premiere Artist Portfolio.