TRAPPED ON RAGGED ISLAND
May 6, 1995, was like so many other Sunday mornings along the Southern coast of Maine. It was sunny and warm, with a surprisingly gentle breeze blowing off the Atlantic. I was up early, preparing myself for the days kayaking off Orrs Island. On the drive up interstate 95, I listened to a local radio station. The forecast was for winds coming from the Northwest reaching 20 mph. That would make for challenging conditions to paddle in. That’s what the fifteen of us were there for, to train to be better kayakers under adverse conditions. The best lesson I received that day was taught by mother nature.
The morning’s paddle was carefree. There wasn’t a novice among us. We paddled out to a shoal that in tandem with the tide was producing a tumultuous curl. Freddie and Jeff paddled to the edge of the conflict and attempted to ride the waves. It just wasn’t in the cards. 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 was a short two mile paddle from Orr’s Island. Two by two we paddled through the narrow passage into the protected cove.
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 nuisances of navigation. Before we set out for the return paddle, Jeff asked us what we’d noticed about the weather. It was obvious to each of us. The wind had shifted and increased, blowing much colder air from the Northwest. Responsible boat owners, from kayakers on up, should listen closely to the forecast. These were the winds we knew we’d face. These were the winds that might cause one of us to capsize and force an in an Eskimo roll. Or in the event that someone had to swim from their kayak (a wet exit), we’d us a technique called a tee rescue. This technique allows us to get the water out of the kayak and the person back in, in the most efficient fashion. We were here to practice our skills and these were the conditions that would make practical our training.
We paddled out from Ragged with the intent of circling the island for our return. One kayaker went over, before we cleared the protection of the leeward side of Ragged, 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 quickly traveled through our pod, each voice delivering the message to another. Return to the leeward side of Ragged. 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. They were struggling against the same wind, but had much further go.
I heard Freddie’s voice rising 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 kayaking 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 from. That cove was a 1/4 mile further away and would have exposed us to the stronger winds once we paddled around the tip of the island.
Freddie reached me, “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 than 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 covered with rocks, strewn everywhere. There was little visible sand. One bowling ball sized rock, rounded by the wave action rested next to another in a mosaic of gray granite and white quartz. 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 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 it force and gave me
stability as I crashed through the wave. Kayaks are more stable when underway. It’s 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 were fortunately dealt with only two smaller waves in our sprint to the shore. As my kayak rocketed into the beach, I pulled my spray skirt off (a spray skirt keeps water out of the cockpit of the kayak). Once free from the skirt, I slipped my legs out and tried to beat the next wave. I didn’t make it, I stumbled getting out. The wave caught my kayak and me, filling it with water and knocking me down. Freddie and I labored getting our boats on land.
“I need your kayak.” Freddie said. “It’s more stable.” I helped him as he headed back out through the surf.
From my vantage and 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 the 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 would not soon forget. The kayakers, without exception, rode towering waves into the beach. Each maintained their composure as they rocketed towards the beach where I would grab them, man and woman alike, by their life vests and haul them out of their kayak in a very undignified. It was impossible to maintain my footing, the racing kayaks and formidable waves would knock me about like a pinball against one rounded rock to another. Somehow, all six people and their kayaks made it to the shore.
Freddie, however, didn’t come back to shore. Instead, he paddle out the next pod and 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 island, 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. Watching them plow the waves, many taller than a VW bug, 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, was forced to use her tow line 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 a lesson I learned. As I watched their slow progress, I learned that three of our group of 15 was 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, from the vantage of the grassy bluff, I scanned the distant waves for the contrasting color of their vests or 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 the yellow, red or orange. At irregular intervals, through the cresting waves, I caught glimpses of my red kayak. They must have been pushed a mile from the tip of Ragged Island.
Freddie was among the three missing kayakers. What was he doing? Had the three of them lost their strength to paddle? I ran up to Jeff and said, “We’ve got to do something. We all agreed we needed help. No one mentioned this oversight, but we were without two way radio, and this was before cell phones dominated our communication landscape. It was a frantic time. We shot flares, hoping that the only boat, a distant sailboat would see our signal. The boat sailed on.
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 approximate. I had the determination and he had the skill. With Freddie out with the other two 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, tow rope, etc. But I couldn’t focus my fear away. I didn’t want to go back out 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 required 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. Briefly, underwater, I released 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 some others running across the cliff above me, trying to make their way down. Jeff was unable to reach me. I climbed on top of the kayak, for warmth and to paddle as best I could, in a prone position. I noticed a small cleft in the sheer cliff wall. I kicked and paddled 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 into the rocks first. 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.
I was relieved to be safe, to have the words of comfort from my friends and a warm blanket from the only structure on the island. Ragged Island boasts only one house. It was the former cottage of the notable Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. In a strange ironic twist, we owe her thanks for the lives of our friends. The fact that she built on the island, meant that there was the means to signal the mainland. Our friends needs outweighed any repercussion of breaking into the cottage. Once inside we found a large
mirror for signaling, 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...again and again. I was angry at myself for not being skilled enough to make the paddle, but happy to hold that mirror, even against the wind that was now blowing in excess of 30 mph. The mirror was continually buffeted in my hands, and my ears rung from the roar of the wind. 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 doubt that anyone saw. I pointed the mirror to shore again, 5 minutes in one spot. Now move along the shore angling the mirror to a slightly different spot. I reminded myself to pause between each message in order to keep the SOS coherent. 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 he’d had too, but now it was 7:30. In the past 4 1/2 hours our friends had drifted out of sight. At dusk, each of us jumped from 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 his boat. My legs reached out to shore, as I tried to keep the boat from the rocks. The waves and wind had found our safe little cove, and I struggled to keep his prop from the rocks. The small boat took a beating the captain cursed as the seas drove his prop into the rocks, leaving it damaged but not broken. When we reached the dock 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 they would after a rock concert, from the unrelenting winds I’d been in since noon. Around us were so many good-willed people: volunteers, rescue workers, and police each helped us to feel safe. The hero’s were the members of the Coast Guard, who left Portland and Bath 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 carabineers 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 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’d raided what provisions and clothing were stowed onboard, including an 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 was the Margaret B. She was crewed by 4 brothers who had joined the search but plotted their own search coordinates and whether it was luck or the grace of God, they 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 Margaret B’s searchlight hit a reflective surface, in the midst of the black and churning sea. For my friends, this meant that their dark and noisy world was illuminated and 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, nothing that matter. 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 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 moved from the friendship forged that day to the selfless acts of courage. To Freddie, who had guided me to shore and then paddled back to assist the others. To the courageous and caring souls who worked the sea, from the fisherman to the Coast Guard, and to their families who must often wait and wonder at home.