It was on that bright spring day in 1995, amid the querulous wind which blew from the Northwest, that I felt, as a soldier must, as he awaits orders to climb from the relative safety of a fox hole and cross a sea of shrapnel, and brave a hail of bullets. Unlike the soldier, I didn’t wear leather boots to march into my battle; I wore neoprene. I didn’t carry a rifle but a paddle. And the protection that a helmet would afford was replaced by a tangerine-colored life vest. The battlefield was not on some bloodied distant shore but on the shore of a tiny Maine island separated from the safety of the mainland by two miles of angry sea.
The whistle hanging from my vest, clanked against the red hull of my kayak, before the wind violently swung it around my neck, like a noose, as I dragged the red plastic kayak into water. With trembling fingers and racing heart, I secured the vest around the waist of my black Farmer John’s wet suit, and tucked the whistle away. I was swimming in a panic that was like a horrific sea monster trying to claw its way to the surface. I tried to steady my breath remembering to count slowly to 10. My mother taught me this trick to control my youthful quick temper, now it served to moderate my fear. I stood ankle deep in the sea, moments from paddling into the froth and fury, focusing my stare down at my grey neoprene booties. My mind counting, deep breath after deep breath, pushing back the panic that was trying to surface.
I reached ten, exhaled that last breath, and climbed into the kayak, secured the spray skirt around the combing and mechanically, as I done it a thousand times before, pushed off into the sheltered cove alongside Jeff. Like an anchor, my fear was left on the sand and was now replaced by resolve.
Our paddles drove into the water propelling us beyond the shelter of the cove and from the lee of Ragged Island. Like a curtain rising on an epic tale, we looked out over an unforgiving boiling sea. My eyes focused on the immediate swells pummeling me, not the miles of open water between us and the mainland. I needed all my strength and training to make headway against the wind that wanted to carry me to France, and the swells that wanted to sink me to the bottom. I flipped. I righted myself with an Eskimo roll. Another wave crashed on my stern and I flipped again. I hung, inverted, and in a moment, that seemed to last forever, I considered my options.
Our day started in the quiet waters of Harpswell Sound in Maine’s picturesque Midcoast region. The early morning sky was a canvas of deep blue clarity punctuated by random brush strokes of billowy white clouds and high-altitude jet trails. Some lovers on the shore may have mused of promises and future, but I noticed little more than how chilly it was in the shade of the sun. To the west the Harpswell Peninsula, to the east of Orr and Bailey islands. These land masses, like fingers, clutched the 15 of us in our multi-color kayaks as if we were butterflies in a child’s tentative gentle grasp. The morning’s paddle was carefree; the seas were calm. We were kayak instructors who came together for comradery and training.
By mid-morning we passed underneath the Cribstone bridge, a lattice work of granite slabs crisscrossed together and held together by their own weight against the pounding of winter’s nor-easters and summer’s distracted drivers. We passed under the bridge, the cool dampness was like a grave and seaweed clung futilely to the granite awaiting the next high tide. On our way to Ragged Island, we paddled to a shoal that in tandem with the tide produced a tumultuous curl. In an attempt to ride the waves, Freddie and Jeff paddled to the edge of the conflict. But the waves were too unpredictable and rocks were sometimes exposed. So, we made way to Ragged Island for lunch and to discuss navigation.
Ragged Island is a 76-acre rocky island that wears a crown of sparsely populated dwarfed spruce. It is elongated, shaped like a paramecium, with its length pointing out to sea. Bailey Island is the closest island, about two miles away, and the Small Point peninsula more than 4 miles to the east. We took advantage, of one of Ragged’s few forgiving features, a protective cove, and two by two, paddled through the narrow passage to a small beach.
After lunch, our discussion turned towards navigation. Jeff, Freddie, and Kathy were our most skilled and experienced kayakers. With charts in hand and a wealth of experience, they were happy to relay to us some nuances of navigation. Before we set out for the return paddle, Jeff asked us what we may have noticed about the weather. It was obvious to me, the wind had shifted and increased, blowing much colder air from the Northwest.
We paddled out from Ragged with the intent of circling the island for our return. Before we cleared the protection of the leeward side of Ragged, one kayaker went over, and was quickly rescued using a tee rescue. When we cleared the headland of Ragged, we were immediately assailed by stronger winds, far stronger than had been forecast. Jeff quickly recognized the severity of the condition and his message traveled through our pod, each voice delivering the message to another. Return to the leeward side of Ragged. But that Northwest wind was pushing us away from Ragged at a dizzying speed. We had broken into two pods. There were 6 in my pod and we were closest to Ragged, a couple hundred yards away. We paddled for what seemed like half an hour, making slow progress towards the island. I scarcely looked over my shoulder at the other pod as I fought against the breakers and wind.
I heard Freddie’s voice shouting above the wind, “Hold your position!” I glanced quickly over my shoulder, and saw him paddling towards me. Then I went back to bracing my kayak against the wind and waves as they buffeted my hull. I was determined not to go over. The beach was close now, only 50 yards away. I use the term beach lightly. This wasn’t the protective cove we had left. That cove was a ¼ mile further away and would have exposed us to the stronger winds once we paddled around the tip of the island.
Freddie reached me, he shouted over the wind, “I’m going to help you reach the beach.”
I thought whatever happened to women and children first. I’m a strong paddler, although inexperienced in these conditions and the kind of breakers that were roaring into the beach. But I did feel that I could stay upright while the others were brought to safety.
He shouted his explanation as we paddled towards the surf zone, “I’ll help you in and then you’ll be able to help the others.”
This made sense to me. I wasn’t afraid, I knew I would reach shore. Although, I wasn’t certain I’d reach safety without being bashed against the rocks. The beach was strewn with gray bowling ball sized granite rocks, tossed by the sea as in the game marbles. There was little visible sand. I looked behind and saw a monstrous wave surging towards us; I shouted to Freddie.
Freddie yelled, “Back paddle!” My paddled plowed the waves, hit or miss, as they crested at irregular intervals, in an attempt to pick up speed and angle my kayak directly at the on-coming, 10-foot-tall wave. It would certainly have capsized me. As this wave crashed over my hull my speed and the paddle in the surf braced me against its force and gave me stability. Kayaks are more stable when underway. It is always best to paddle into an approaching wave, and that’s what we did, albeit backwards. Once over the crest, we both dug in and sprinted to the shore. As my kayak rocketed onto the beach, I pulled my spray skirt off because I knew I’d be breached by the next breaker. I didn’t get out fast enough, the next wave caught my kayak and me, filling it with water and knocking me down. Freddie and I labored getting out of our boats.
Freddie said, “I need your kayak. It’s more stable.” I helped him as he headed back out through the surf.
From my vantage and the safety of the shore, I could observe his skills and they were considerable. He easily rode the waves and braced against their irregularities in hurried but planned way of a bee in search of nectar. He reached my group that had clustered outside the surf zone. One by one, the paddlers came to shore, three women and three men. Each had an experience they might never forget. The kayakers, without exception, rode towering waves onto the beach. Each maintained their composure as they rocketed towards the beach where I grabbed them, men and women alike, by their life vests and hauled them out of their kayak in an undignified way. It was impossible to maintain my footing, the racing kayaks and formidable waves would knock me about against the rocks like a pinball against the bumpers. Somehow, all five people and their kayaks made it to the shore with nothing worse than a sprain.
Freddie, however, didn’t come back. Instead, I watched him paddle in the direction of the next pod further away, where he apparently directed them to take the longer paddle against the wind rather than the challenging roller coaster ride into the rock-strewn cove we had used. Slowly, they made headway around the lee of the land, and one by one disappeared around the tip, like drops of water slowly dripping from a faucet. The six of us hurried to the sheltered cove we first visited. We watched them plow the waves, many taller than a car; we hurried across the barren rocks of the islands tip and were encouraged to see the relative calm of the cove in the wind’s lee.
The choice to avoid our cove was good, provided they’d have the strength to paddle the extra distance against the wind and waves. Their progress was incredibly slow. Kathy, is one of the state’s top paddlers and instructors, and in the state of Maine, filled with rugged outdoors people, that is no small distinction. She was forced to use her towline to help another. I could sense her straining against the wind and surf. Her bow crashed through each successive wave, battering her and the exhausted paddler she towed. The others in the pod stuck together, because in the sea, there is safety in numbers, and sticking together is the most valuable lesson I learned that day. As I watched their slow progress, I heard that three of our group of 15 were unaccounted for. I hadn’t been keeping track. Jeff and Kathy finally reached shore. I informed them of the three kayakers.
We hurried to the high point of the island, and from the vantage of the grassy bluff, I scanned the distant waves for the contrasting color of their vests and kayaks. If you ever plan to buy a sea kayak, don’t buy a kayak that is dark blue or green. If you want to be seen opt for yellow, red, or orange. At irregular intervals, through the cresting waves, I thought I caught glimpses of my red kayak. It was Freddie, he had joined the other two. They had already been pushed a mile from the tip of Ragged Island.
I scarcely considered why Freddie was with the other two? Had the three of them lost their strength or their will to paddle? I ran up to Jeff and said, “We’ve got to do something.” We agreed they needed help. We used our flares and fired three into the air, hoping that the only boat, a distant sailboat or someone from shore, would see our signal. The boat sailed on, no doubt her crew was engaged in their own battle. So, the flares sputtered and died, unseen in the sea.
I spoke to Jeff, “I’m strong but I don’t know about my skills. We can try to make the mainland and get help.” I knew Jeff’s skills were incredible I had watched him surf white water rips and watched him maneuver his kayak leaning to enhance his maneuver to a degree that I only hoped to one day mimic. I had the strength and he had the skill. With Freddie one of the missing, and Kathy exhausted from towing someone, Jeff and I seemed like the best choices.
It was agreed; I hurried from one kayak to another, gathering equipment. I kept focused on collecting my items: a spray skirt, pump, paddle, tow rope. But I couldn’t focus my fear away. I didn’t want to go back into that sea! But the three others didn’t want to be there either. As Jeff and I set out, my fear was forced to take a back seat to my resolve, and the concentration necessary to brace against the unpredictable waves. One of these sudden waves flipped me. I rolled back upright. I surfaced and braced immediately against the next wave but was overcome by that one too, and barely had the time to gulp a partial lungful of air. I hung momentarily, upside down like the sea’s version of a bat from a cave’s ceiling, and I realized it was impossible. I knew the conditions were beyond my ability. I was thankful to do a wet exit so near shore. I was thankful until I realized how rocky the shore was that I was being pushed towards. I saw Kathy and others running across the cliff above me, trying to make their way down. Jeff was unable to reach me. I slid on top of the swamped kayak, as an amusement park’s seal might slide onto a pool’s deck. I noticed a small cleft in the sheer cliff wall. I kicked and paddled with my arms, and thankfully made it to that cleft. Kathy was there first. Her words of encouragement sang out over the thunderous crash of the breakers. One crashed through the narrow passage and lifted me. I grabbed the kayak and hung on tightly as it was thrown first into the rocks. It absorbed the brunt of impact. I wasn’t even winded. The water receded, Kathy grabbed the kayak’s bow and I lifted the stern. I was out of the water in a heartbeat and before the next wave.
I was relieved to be safe, to have the words of comfort from my friends and a warm silver space blanket that worked remarkably well. Ragged Island boasts only one structure. It was the former cottage of the notable Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She wrote so poignantly of the beauty of Maine’s coast, but that beauty was lost to me as were my friends who still battled an unforgiving sea. Flares exhausted, fear and frustration the motivation, we broke into that cottage and found a large mirror for signaling, and kerosene to help light the three signal fires, and tin foil to fashion more pseudo mirrors.
Several of us took turns signaling SOS, three dots, three dashes, three dots...repeatedly. I was angry at myself for not being skilled enough to make the paddle, but happy to hold that mirror, even against the wind, to be doing something even if that something might prove futile. The mirror continually fought against me, as a kite wants to fly away in the wind. My ears rung from the wind’s roar and the trees bent against its ferocity. It was late afternoon when the ferry ship, the Prince of Fundy, returning from Yarmouth Nova Scotia, sailed by, near the horizon. It carried passengers back to Portland after a day of gambling and entertainment. I tried angling the mirror to reach her and signaled her for a short while, but doubted that anyone saw over the flashing lights and buzzers of the slot machines. After she passed, I pointed the mirror to the shore again, 5 minutes in one spot. Then I angled the mirror further along the shoreline to a slightly different spot, hoping that someone would notice the SOS pattern. As the sun sank, the signal fires would be our friends last chance for help. I noticed a vessel churning in the seas from the tip of Bailey Island. In a minute, I knew it was making way towards us. I shouted to a friend manning a signal fire. He pointed to another boat much closer.
Relief, the boats would have a radio, the Coast Guard would be notified, we’d accomplished what we had to, but now it was 7:30. In the past 6 hours, our friends had drifted out of sight. At dusk, each of us jumped from the shore onto the smaller boat, to be ferried out to the larger fishing vessel for our trip back to the dock at Bailey’s Island. I sat on the rail of this boat. My legs reached out to shore, in an attempt to keep the boat’s prop from the rocks. A sudden jarring and I fell into waist deep water, inches from the spinning blades. Someone’s strong arms hauled me back onto the rail. I barely took a glance backwards to thank the someone who likely saved me. But I didn’t see anyone close enough and no one’s eyes caught mine. So, I repositioned myself on the stern’s rail, more securely now, kept the prop from the rocks as the remaining people jumped the gap to the stern of the boat. When we reached the dock on Bailey Island, a rescue worker asked if I was a victim.
Am I a victim, I thought to myself? I’m not a rescuer. “Yes?”, I said. She brought me to the shelter of a fish processing building. It was the first time since noon I’d been out of the wind. My ears were ringing, like after a rock concert. Around us were so many good-willed people: volunteers, rescue workers, and the police, each of whom helped us to feel safe. The heroes were the members of the Coast Guard who left Portland and coordinated the search with area fishing vessels. Each person risked their own boat and life to help find the strangers, who were our friends.
I later learned that to survive their ordeal, our friends had lashed their 3 kayaks together by using carabiniers and paddles tied through the deck lines. This “rafting” technique makes one solitary tipsy kayak 3 times wider and significantly more stable. Then they took a breakdown paddle and separated it. The two outside people paddled towards shore, trying to minimize their drift. When the sun set, they felt they were destined to spend the night out on the Atlantic. Two were in dry suits and one in a wet suit. They shared their provisions, which included energy bars, water, and one aluminum space blanket. This offered some shelter from the ferocious wind, but not from its incessant wail.
In the darkness, search vessels pounded through the turbulent sea. One of these vessels, piloted by a local fisherman joined the search but steered his own course, and whether by luck or divinity, he searched the right part of the sea. At 10 o’clock, more than 17 miles from Ragged, 6 1/2 miles from the mainland, the boat’s searchlight hit a reflective surface in the midst of the dark turmoil. For my friends, this meant that their dark and noisy world was illuminated, and that the light pointed their way to safety.
On Orr’s island, we all gathered and waited. My thoughts were filled with fear. But no one spoke the worst. Instead, the talk was of nervous banter of nothing that mattered. At 10:20, the phone rang. We heard the news that they were found and well. I felt the tears moisten my cheeks, and this group of new friends hugged, and sighed a collective breath of relief. Shortly after 1 A.M., our cold and tired companions joined us.
The next morning’s sunrise had a clarity and brilliance I’d never noticed before. My thoughts ranged from the friendship forged that day to the selfless acts of courage. From diminutive Mary whose stature belayed her profound courage as she lashed her kayak to a fellow paddler’s. He had become frozen with fear. She was unable to coach him and incapable of paddling for the two of them. Yet she stayed, offering stability and comfort, even at her own peril. To Freddie who stood safely with me, for a few brief breaths, on Ragged’s rock-strewn beach. He courageously chose to battle his way back into the surf, and to eventually raft up with Mary and add to their stability. And the courage of the unnamed dedicated and caring souls who worked the sea, from the fisherman who jeopardized his boat to collect us from the island, to the Coast Guard who searched, and to their families who must often wait and wonder alone at home.