A True Story Reminds Us That Anything Can Happen Out There
By Myles Anderberg
We first published this story years ago in PMM. It is one of my favorites. It's about the human experience, courage, reflection, and seeing one’s place in the universe.
It wasn’t about what kind of boat they were on, only that they were together, alone. Any one of us cruisers could be in the same situation. Hope you enjoy it.—BillP
Death by drowning has always seemed grisly to me. Having worked my college years as a lifeguard on Boston beaches, I'd seen, firsthand, the wide-eyed frozen mask of terror on near-victims’ faces. But I've always been a strong swimmer. Most of my adult life I swam a mile a day before breakfast and office. It was my way of keeping in shape.
Now retired and nearing 70, I could not escape the near certainty that I was about to die by drowning. It all seemed so absurd, so bizarre.
My wife, Gerri, and I had just spent the summer cruising the lower Exumas in the Bahamas, on our yacht Berceau and were relaxing for a few days at a snug anchorage in Bimini. When the weather improved, and the Gulf Stream quieted down, we intended to make the 75-mile leg to West Palm Beach, then on to our winter anchorage in Stuart, Florida. Three of our daughters and their children—our grandchildren—live in South Florida. Even now I can see their sweet faces, knowing I'd never see them again.
Anchored off the Bimini Big Game Fishing Club in North Bimini, we had swum and snorkeled everyday in the warm, crystal clear blue water. I knew that when the big estuary of North Bimini emptied on the outgoing tide, the current ran 2–4 knots, depending on lunar phase. I knew this because I swam against it alongside our boat daily. Gerri had urged me to put on swim fins because of that current. I laughed at the suggestion, as I've been a strong swimmer all my life. And now my life was about to end.
How It Happened
I was standing in the dinghy, preparing to stream it astern for the night. Gerri was washing down the foredeck before starting dinner. It seemed as nothing when she called out to me that the current had snatched the bucket and rope she was using, literally right out of her hand.
I slipped off the dinghy line and the current took me astern, but I couldn't see the white bucket in what was 12 to 15 feet of clear water. Starting the outboard, I began making S-shaped sweeps downstream of our boat, finally spotting the bucket some 300 feet from the boat, tumbling along the bottom. That swift transit should have triggered a cacophony of warning sirens in my head.
Instead, I dropped the dinghy anchor and jumped overboard. As I reached for the side of the dinghy, it shot ahead of me. I wondered how the anchor line could be pulling the dinghy forward, when it struck me that the dinghy anchor had grabbed the bottom, and I was racing downstream.
No problem, the dinghy was only 30 feet away, so I quickly fell into my faithful breaststroke rhythm and started closing the gap. But it was slow work, and it’s been 50 years since I was a 20-year-old lifeguard. With only 10 feet to go, it seemed that the gap was not closing. Switching to a crawl stroke didn’t help, and I realized I could not gain that last 10 feet.
Exhaustion and panic are dangerous, and swimming hard with no gain would quickly bring on exhaustion. So I rolled over onto my back, relaxed, and let the current take me as I regained my strength. And pondered the odds.
It was late September, off-season. There was not a single boat in the 100-slip Bimini Big Game Fishing Club. It was midweek. It was after 6 p.m. Sunset was at 7 p.m. and the sky was already darkening. Ominous clouds hovered offshore.
It was close to New Moon, so the high tide would be quite high and the low, lower. This obviously accounted for the overwhelming current. Our boat was anchored a half-mile inside the Bimini Harbor entrance, and I was fast approaching that that entrance—going the wrong way. The west side of the inlet seemed closer, so I started swimming toward it, hoping. Because just beyond that Inlet was a 4–5 knot northbound freight train called the Gulf Stream.
Also, I remembered from the charts that there was a shallow sandbar between the entrance to Bimini and open water.
All day, small fast Bahamian boats had zipped back and forth. If one came close to the inlet, maybe I could catch his attention. Or could I? These boats travel at only one speed—wide open. Maybe I'll be lucky just to escape being run over and prop-chopped. Or, considering my dwindling options, maybe a swift conclusion would be merciful.
I thought back to Berceau, and the anguish I’d created for my trusting wife. She had unquestioning faith in my seamanship, and I had failed her...it now seemed fatally so. There was no way she could, alone, raise those two anchors I had swum down and physically hooked under rocks in 15 feet of water.
The only other boat in the anchorage was buttoned up, with no one aboard.
I am sure she'd call a Mayday on Channel 16 on the VHF radio, but who would hear it? Most of the small fast local boats don’t even carry VHF radios, and I also remembered that they were usually gone by sunset. And sunset was fast approaching. Would any of the marinas in Bimini (they are only two or three) be monitoring Channel 16 after 6 p.m.? If they were still listening, would they have rescue vessels standing by? I doubted all the above.
It was darkening now and fighting despair was becoming a struggle.
It Gets Worse
Having failed to fetch the western shore of the inlet, I was now being pulled into the great turbulence of the shallow sandbar off the entrance. If I could stand and brace myself against the current, perhaps I could stay there until the tide ebbed. The charts showed water over the bar to be 1 to 5 feet at Mean Low Water. However, it was not MLW, the depth was more like 6 feet, and, as the bottom shoaled up, the water velocity doubled. I accelerated over that bar, never felt bottom, and was now in rapidly deepening water. Thousands of feet deep. And the sea was rising. And that northbound freight train was tugging.
Too bad about that incident last year in Marsh Harbor, Abacos. Gerri was returning to Berceau with groceries from the dinghy dock at Triple J Marina, when she put the 5 hp Nissan outboard into gear, without first idling the throttle. She was standing as the boat jumped forward and she fell overboard. Fortunately, the dinghy went up against the dock, and some nearby boaters came to her aid. Unfortunately, she never started that outboard engine again. Never again went in the dinghy alone.
Now the dinghy was 300 feet from her, when I last saw her. I had seen she had binoculars on me. Will I ever see Gerri again? Doesn’t seem likely. Fighting despair was now a physical, as well as mental, struggle. Because, though I'd said I wanted to die before she did, it was all hypothetical. And what was happening now was a cruelty I could never have imagined inflicting on her.
Even if she could somehow get to the dinghy, she probably wouldn’t remember how to use the choke to coax that cranky outboard into life.
Never mind. Another 20 minutes or so in these growing seas, and it will be too dark to pick out a bobbing head anyway. Bobbing to oblivion.
How could I have let this happen? How I laughed when the kids admonished me to Be Careful. I’d told them that cruising these tropical islands is what we’ve always wanted to do. And now that we’re retired and able, of course that’s what we’re going to do. But it needn’t have ended this way, so tragically.
Fatigue began to overtake me now, and cold. Hypothermia. Every passing minute, I knew, diminished my chances of survival.
Could I have closed that 10-foot gap to the dinghy? If I’d known no boats would come by, I’d probably have used my last reserve of strength trying to make those 10 feet. And perhaps failing, ending it there. But my chances then, in retrospect, seemed vastly better than they did now.
I wondered how long I could stay afloat. How would the end come? Would I just slip under without resistance and take that first lungful of sea water? Would I have any strength to resist? If so, for how long?
I again thought of my wife. We loved each other deeply, for so many years, right to the end. And this was the end. Fatigue, darkness, and the end.
A Merciful End
I remembered the many wonderful years we had shared, and the music, the happy music. Gerri sang and played piano professionally. And the children and grandchildren were all musical as well. They were all safe, at home, and I was literally adrift on an open sea, never to see them or home again. I thought of that Placido Domingo song that begins, “I have seen a summer day that slowly opens like a rose,” and concludes, “I am home, I am home.” Though wet and cold, I felt the sting of warm tears. I would never see home again. Time was running out.
Then a sound emerged out of the distance. My mind suddenly, frantically, focused on hearing that noise, any noise.
No mistaking it, it was a sound, the sound of an outboard, and not too far away. I yelled with what strength I had left, splashing the tops of the waves to make myself be seen in the growing darkness.
Abruptly than the noise turned toward me. The hull was dark, but I quickly recognized it as our dinghy, the sound of our outboard, the sight of my bedraggled beloved. She was soaking wet, wearing a life jacket with binoculars around her neck, and hair plastered across her face.
There was no greeting, no look of anxiety—she was all business.
The outboard was in neutral when I grabbed the gunwale. She had wedged herself in on the pitching dinghy but pulled off the life jacket and thrust it to me. I grunted, “No, I don't need it, just give me a minute to rest, then help me aboard.”
Between gasps, I asked, “How did you get the dinghy?”
“Well,” she shouted, “several people responded to my Mayday, and told me they would try to get help in hurry. But you were fast leaving Bimini and I just couldn’t stay by the radio waiting for something to happen. Back on deck I found you with the binoculars, and my heart sank. You were rocketing out of the inlet. So I started Berceau’s engine and threw one anchor line overboard. Then I released the windlass clutch to pay out the chain of the second anchor. About 150 feet payed out, but then it just locked up. You must have tied the end of the chain down below. I ran to the chain locker but couldn’t see anything tied, and I couldn’t cut the chain. I put the boat in reverse and gave it full throttle, trying to break the damned chain free. The boat tugged and twisted but the chain held. I’m afraid I’ve damaged the anchor roller on the bow.
“When I found you again with the binoculars, you were now outside the inlet, and I saw no boats moving anywhere. The radio was squawking, but everything seemed to be moving in slow motion…
“The dinghy was now only about 150 feet astern, since I had drifted downstream while paying out the chain. So I put on this life jacket and jumped overboard, and prayed I could reach the dinghy and hold onto it. That current was a killer. When I got to the dinghy, I hit it with something hard in my hand, and then realized I was still holding the binoculars. It was a good thing.
“I got my last fix on you about fifteen minutes ago, with these binoculars, and after that I was afraid I’d lost you in the darkness.
“But I spotted you splashing, and I’m here. Are you ready to get in?”
With her help, I fell face first into the bottom of the dinghy. Then she lost her cool. She threw herself on top of me. We hugged and cried and laughed. She put the engine in gear and headed back towards the inlet, now more than two miles away.
Shivering on the floor, I pulled the wet life jacket over my back to block the wind, and wondered if this was really happening, or was I hallucinating? Was this a dream? The pitching boat, and very real cold, convinced me this was no dream.
I can’t claim to have dodged a bullet, but a bullet had surely dodged me. And that brave, wonderful woman there, straining to see in the darkness, she made it dodge me. There was no doubt in my mind that Gerri had just saved my life. Death by drowning. Grisly.
We passed through the rage of water over the sandbar and finally got inside the inlet. The water calmed, and the wind dropped. I looked ahead and saw Berceau’s automatic anchor light in the distance.
I thought of our cozy cabin, blankets, hugs, and warmth. And the sheer joy being alive, and realizing I am home. I am home.