Swept Out to Sea

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 down the dried fruit and nuts 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 were pushed farther and farther out into the Gulf of Mexico.

I looked over at the 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 the sea was going to kill me.

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 steadied 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 as though they were bleeding inside against the bone and my hands were numb, but I knew that after my rest, I'd be ready to paddle again.

I grimaced at the thought of repeating that perilous cycle. 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 take 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 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 forests and rivers and bays referred to as the backcountry, where the freshwater Glades run into the sea. The islands, which actually number in the hundreds, generally are 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 from Everglades City. 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 everyone 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. E.J. Watson, the subject of Matthiessen's novel, was gunned down in 1910 in broad daylight by a vigilante group of town leaders who suspected Watson had killed 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 in the area has some pirate tale attached to it, usually involving extreme violence and a buried corpse. Outlaws are still to be found. At one time in the 1980s, half 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, frozen in a thicket 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 an anhinga at the top of a rotting cypress, stretching its crooked wings to dry, dark feathers draping down like Dracula's cape. And I think of the huge manatees that could flip over your canoe 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 the fishing, which informs you that, no, you aren't fortunate at all.

But if you believe I go on these trips solely because of the natural beauty, I have some land there to sell you, too. I like all those things, of course, 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 tollbooths. Computers and calls and cars. Give me another letter of the alphabet and I'll name three more aspects of civilization I occasionally need to leave behind.

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. Immediately we 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 to the islands, we quickly lost our bearings. 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 somehow we rigged our tent 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 on 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 sleeping crookedly in the canoe, a freezing, endlessly miserable experience. The mosquitoes screeched in my ears and I shivered violently in the dark with my rear dipped in cold water. Finally the first warming light came and we made our way back to civilization. That was our first mean lesson in tides. The backcountry and islands are in a 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 per 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.

On that maiden voyage, 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 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 subsequently had several good trips on Florida rivers, but they were largely unchallenging and far too languid. 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 carrying a tide chart. After a successful overnighter to Picnic Key, we decided we'd do a five-day trip, and set off in March 1997. It went wonderfully well despite the mosquitoes and the difficulty of Gulf paddling. We made a rule on that trip: Never use the small outboard motor we brought along except for pleasure. We stuck to it, and the journey was challenging but not life-threatening. Never did it feel 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 were swept out to sea by a rip tide. Days later their bodies were found floating. I also remember a story about four guys from Canada who went diving west of the Ten Thousand Islands; 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 Gulf drownings.

There were numerous rescue sagas as well, 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, but I also thought the people involved 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 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 rather wet at times. On the day we embarked, a small-craft advisory was in effect for the Gulf: choppy seas. But we wouldn't be out there in earnest for another three days, so we figured the weather might change. Besides, we were thirsty for challenge and adventure.

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 fifteen-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 we remembered as a beautiful teal was dark brown and gray, and more dangerous than we'd ever seen it. Brittany looked back at me with alarm after a couple of four-foot waves crashed into us in rapid succession, tossing us up and down and splashing a distressing amount of water into the canoe. I had to use the folded waterproof map as a bailer. To avoid capsizing, we paddled into the waves diagonally, and we zigzagged. It was a startling end to the day.

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. In some cases paddling against the tide in the Gulf is similar to paddling upriver: When you aren't paddling, you make no progress, and in stronger tides, you actually go backward.

On this trip I misjudged the tide and the wind. Pavilion was northwest but the tide and the whipping wind were working in tandem to push us southwest into the Gulf. What we didn't know was that a cold front had moved in, bringing squalls and increasing the winds to 25 knots with higher gusts (the wind out there usually is 20 knots at its worst). Bernie Esposito, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, says the front also "joined forces" with Katrina, exacerbating 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 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. Water was getting in the boat, and every time I stopped paddling to bail, the bow of the canoe would be pushed by winds and water toward the Gulf expanse.

At the stern of the canoe, I had the job of steering, which meant I was paddling madly just to regain our course. It was only a five-mile journey, but we had to fight for every foot. Brittany and I put on a full head of steam, feeding off each other's strength, and worked like a machine to reach Pavilion. The first thing I did there was cut a two-liter bottle in half to make a more efficient bailer.  

Night began to fall as we explored the island, so I gathered 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 twinkled and fell and shone brightly and shot across the sky.

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

We decided to set out for our next stop, Rabbit Key, with the incoming tide in hopes that we wouldn't be pushed out to sea like we were the day before. Rabbit was almost due north of us, a five-mile paddle parallel to the coast. An outgoing tide would push us backward and deeper into the Gulf -- a terrible combination. Low tide was scheduled for 6:47 a.m. Too early. High tide would come just after noon. I woke about 8:00 but Brittany, usually the early riser, was still sleeping. I tried to wake her but she wasn't ready to get up. I waited anxiously, thinking that every minute was crucial.

The wind seemed much stronger, but the weather service was reporting that it was the same as the day before. Candace Tinkler, a supervisor at 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 and we pushed off at 10:00. Way too late. We'd now be fighting the tide most of the trip. I considered staying but with the wind lashing Pavilion, it wasn't very hospitable. And I thought of the previous day's trip. We had 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 unconsciously sang the refrain from Gilligan's Island before we took off: "The Minnow would be lost ... the Minnow would be lost."

At the beginning of these voyages, it's easy to wonder why the hell you're out there. Why put yourself through such pain on vacation? My simple answer: Getting there is its own reward. It provides a satisfying sense of accomplishment and a good hard feeling in your arms and upper body. Plus there's the thrill of the unknown. While we were on Pavilion, Brittany mused that one of the reasons we like this is 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 spill into the boat. After about 45 minutes we had to get out when the canoe came upon a sandbar that stretched toward the coast. In the distance I could see large white birds sitting on it. I thought they might be white pelicans, a rarity seen here only in the winter months. Normally we would have paddled over and taken a closer look. Not today. We couldn't spare the time, so we traversed the sandbar and continued.

Although the reassuring white sand of Rabbit Key was in sight, the dark seas, which appeared murkier and cloudier than usual, kept rising. Progress became more difficult as the shifting wind tried to blow us off course and forced us to resort to more grueling left-side paddling.

A little more than an hour into the trip, Brittany paused to arrange 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 something inside me give way. 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: For the rest of the trip she would be sick. Brittany was game, though. She summoned the strength to put her paddle back in the water, but she was too weak to be effective.

To compensate I became a machine again, paddling hard and steady, digging the oar into rough water over and over, slowly pushing us forward. But conditions grew worse. The tide clearly changed, heading out. The boat began filling with water, and soaking our packs. I would stop to bail, but then struggled to put the canoe back on course and get up a new head of steam. It was as though we weren't getting anywhere. When I looked back, though, Pavilion Key had receded, a fuzzy, dark-green apparition in the distance. Ahead of us, keys that had been hazy smudges now were in focus. I even made out a bird on Rabbit Key. Our movement was tortuously slow, but we were making it.  

After more than two hours of paddling and bailing, I was nearly exhausted; my shoulder felt as though it had been injected with poison. The beach was still a good twenty minutes away, and my damn hands had gone numb from continuous pressure on the paddle. Suddenly the bow of the boat crashed into some large waves, submerging it for a moment. I stopped to bail out the water, then fought to get 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. Our rule was to reserve it for pleasure or extreme emergencies. "No way," I said. "We can make it."

But as I approached three hours of paddling and we found ourselves still twenty 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 began clasping it to the side of the boat. As I was fooling with it, we were being pushed out to sea at an alarming rate. Brittany said the distance from Rabbit Key seemed to double in a minute. It occurred to us that if the motor didn't work, we were doomed. I knew it wasn't very strong, but I thought it would work. It had to work.

It didn't work.

The motor had little or no power against the forces pushing against us. When I tried to get it to propel the canoe, we went nowhere. When I switched to reverse, it just jerked us about like some bad carnival ride. We were now pointed out to sea and I couldn't get the damn thing to turn us around. Then the waves -- a good three-feet high -- started pouring buckets of water into the canoe. Everything had changed. The wind and water were getting stronger and meaner while we were getting weaker and sicker.

The full length of the boat's starboard side went under for a moment, and seawater cascaded in. Then more terror: We were almost completely submerged, only an inch away from sinking.

"We're gonna swamp!" I yelled.

My mind raced. The weight of the motor, I thought, was tipping the canoe to starboard, directly into the oncoming waves. My hands shook with panic as I unscrewed the motor's clasps from the gunwale. Despite the nerves, or perhaps because of them, I got it off quickly and tossed it into the middle of the boat. But we were still being pushed out to sea and the waves were still walloping us and water still poured in. I grabbed the bailer and scooped, but it was useless: The water was coming in faster than I could get it out. Again the canoe threatened to submerge. "Oh, God!" I screamed. We were too heavy. I lifted the big battery and heaved it into the Gulf. That helped, but not enough, so I grabbed the motor and threw it out too. Then I snatched up our big black garbage bag, filled with nearly four days' worth of trash, and chucked it as well.

We were still one-third full of water; a single bad wave would surely sink us. The two-liter bailer, though, wasn't doing the job. In a panic 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 needle-nose pliers. Then I dunked the box in the water and began bailing like a madman. It worked five times better. For the moment we were safe from sinking.

The situation still was critical, though. Rabbit Key, which had been so close, was now well behind us, inshore. It appeared to be a mile away, though I couldn't be sure. I just knew it was a lost cause. But the first order of business was simply trying to turn the boat around and keep us from being swept farther out to sea. Brittany, jarred to life by the direness of the situation, paddled valiantly. I worked as best I could, but I was now half-gone with fatigue.  

Despite our efforts the canoe would not turn toward land. We were stunned. Still we kept trying, setting our sites on an island a couple of miles to the north. After five minutes of relentless pounding, we managed to swing the bow into position. Soon we actually got up some steam, though there was no celebrating. We knew we remained in trouble. Water continued to splash into the canoe, forcing me to bail again. And then we were hit by several large waves that spun us around like a child's toy.

We stopped paddling.

I've lost many times before, but I've never been overwhelmed by defeat as I was at that moment. It didn't even seem real. It was too awful to be true. Brittany put down her paddle. "We're not making it to land, Bob," she said.

I tried to think of something hopeful to say, but couldn't. "What should we do?" I asked.

"Just hope and pray someone rescues us."

"You mean conserve our energy for later," I corrected her.

As we drifted deeper into the Gulf of Mexico, I scanned the horizon. Not a soul anywhere. I felt a surge of desperation. "Where's the fucking Coast Guard?" I screamed. I mindlessly set about bailing the rest of the water from the boat. "Fuck a duck," I muttered angrily and helplessly with each scoop. "Fuck a duck. Fuck a duck."

And then I heard myself talking. People come unhinged in situations like this. It's easy to lose touch when your reality is so unbelievably bad you can't comprehend it. I'm not going to go down like an animal, I thought. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of my profane mantra. "Fuck a duck -- famous last words," I said to Brittany, who lay motionless in the front of the canoe, too sick and weak to respond.

I took inventory of what we had going for us: My bailing had left the canoe relatively dry, we had food and water for the time being, and as soon I'd eat and drink, I would have strength. My mouth, I realized, was bone dry. "Can you get me some water?" I asked Brittany.

From the tone of my voice, she apparently thought I was delusional, that I didn't realize the desperation of our situation. She 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 added. "Look."

She didn't look.

The waves grew bigger and bigger, the tallest of them rising nearly to eye level. For a moment the sea would be relatively calm, then a big swell would roll toward us and I would gasp and wonder if this would be the one. I wanted to start paddling, but that was more scary than simply sitting, for when we paddled against them, the waves crashed into us and dumped dangerous amounts of water into the canoe. We drifted, and the boat found its own rhythm, rolling passively with the waves. But how long would that last? Common sense told me that farther out at sea the waves would be even bigger.

It was Thursday, and the trip plan we'd filed at the ranger station had us returning Friday evening. A search wouldn't begin until Saturday morning, if we were lucky. By that time the canoe would certainly have 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 she'd prefer the sharks. Anything but sharks, I thought. We didn't talk about it.

Notions of death and thoughts of survival bounced back and forth like a Ping-Pong match. But I never felt self-pity and I never asked, "Why me?" Instead I was filled with self-loathing. I asked myself: Why did I get us into this? The slow burn of guilt smoldered in my chest. My son would be crushed if we didn't make it back, and the thought of that crushed me. The emotions welling up inside me were as dark and turbulent as the water surrounding us.

I tried to stay rational. I had to keep us from dying. Would the cooler float? Probably. I thought of tying a rope around it so I could keep it close if the boat sank. In addition to our life jackets, we had buoyant seat cushions. The canoe was the key, I kept saying to myself. I knew we had to stay in the boat, if only for visibility to a potential rescuer. If the canoe went under, our chances of survival would plummet. 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.  

It was the strangest feeling: sitting with little to do but ride the cresting waves and wrestle with the fear of death. We had nothing in the way of life-saving gear: no marine radio, no cell phone, no flares, no air horn. Nothing. As we drifted farther and farther out, the idea of being rescued seemed increasingly hopeless. And that hopelessness added to the dreamlike nature of what happened next.

I didn't even see it coming. The commercial fishing boat appeared from nowhere. Suddenly it was right in front of us. When I saw it, I thought of only one thing: life. We were going to live. Brittany turned and looked at me with an expression of profound joy mixed with suspicion. Was it true? Were we really saved?

There was no mistaking reality as the captain and his burly crewman plucked us and our canoe out of the sea and onto the boat. With nothing more than a slight pause, they continued on their way into port at Everglades City.

When we finally got on land, the crewman put the canoe in his truck and drove us to our car. As he turned to leave, he 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 could barely talk to him. I choked up when I heard his elfin voice. "Daddy! I went to the zoo today," he said. Haltingly, trying to mask the intensity of my emotions, 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."

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.

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