Two novice boaters get stranded on the river late in the day.
|Lost on the River
Let’s say my ex-husband’s name was Raphael. Chances are you don’t know him, but he hates for me to talk about him. It’s been years since the divorce, and we get along okay these days at a distance. Still I don’t want to embarrass him. He’s so sensitive. That’s not one of his faults. but we don’t have time to get into those.
One beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon in the late summer, Raphael and I took our boat down to the river for an outing. We hooked up our powerful, but old, car to the trailer, checked the lights, made sure the life preservers were working, and then worked on the accessories. You know, things like life-preservers, a flashlight, cigarette lighter, an extra pack of cigarettes, flares, a cooler of beer on ice and a soda or two for me, sunglasses, mosquito repellant, and a maybe a small snack. I don’t remember a snack, though usually I packed some crackers or a boiled egg for him. Now that I think about it, I probably didn’t pack a snack. Should have. Should have carried a cell phone and jackets. Or at least a beach towel, or blanket. Hind sight, remember?
It was going to be just a short ride down the Rappahannock. We managed to transport the boat okay and got it into the water with no problem. I probably parked the car and trailer, while he manned the boat at the dock. I got on and away we went.
It was glorious. The sun, the glistening water, the scene on the banks. In no time, we were in another county. The time flew by as we got wind-burned. Using the sun as a clock, since neither of us had a watch, he turned the boat around and headed back. Suddenly the motor stopped. We had plenty of gas. We had motor problems. After a few attempts to restart, he waited to avoid flooding. It started and we went a short distance before stopping again. We both were beginning to feel despair, but controlled our panic.
We sat on the boat, soaking in nature patiently, then retried the motor. It seemed like it quit whenever it got warm. We figured we’d be out all night at this rate.
Thank goodness he wasn’t drunk. He at least had enough sense to be afraid of getting a ticket on the water. We had only passed one boat going in the opposite direction about an hour earlier. We sat and prayed that either the motor would work, or someone would come along. Neither of us knew how many miles we had gone from our starting point.
Finally, a couple did come going in our direction. The law requires that anyone on the water help any fellow boater in distress. There are serious penalties for ignoring a boater in trouble. The guy was in his thirties and trying to show his date a pleasant time. The men tried to get it started to no avail. The other lady didn’t know any more about boats than I did. In fact, I can barely describe their boat to you now. It wasn’t like ours. It was almost flat and more open. There was a single seat up front, probably for fishing when the boat was idle.
Finally, they tied our boat behind theirs with a rope and towed us behind at a moderate speed. Then what could get worse? The strangers ran out of gas. He said he probably had just enough to get back to dock, but the extra weight of a bigger boat used it all. Raphael gave them his gas can, but both agreed we still had a long way to go, and this wasn’t going to make it.
The decision was made that Raphael would stay in his boat, I would get on the boat with the strangers—I have completely forgotten their names. We would go back to the dock, I would get the gas can filled, the stranger would fill his boat, and we’d come back for Raphael, to tug in the boat.
The sun was going down as I maneuvered from one boat to another. None of us had watches. I sat in that forward seat alone, no jacket, exposed to the elements in the early evening, and thought I would freeze to death in the wind. Before it turned dark, the boat ran out of gas again. I thought, “Here I am with people I don’t know, stuck on the river, and it’s getting dark, and my husband is even further down river on a boat by himself.” Inwardly, I was panicking.
The guy tried to be gallant; he rowed with something or other, but it was too much for that size boat with three people. Finally, whatever he was using struck bottom. He decided to get on bank and walk for help. At least the two women would be together and dry. He went over the side. He sank into mud up to his knees. There would be no swimming in that muck. There were trees overhanging the edge.
He kept calling back to us with his progress, finally making it to the bank and crawling up. It seemed like forever, but we knew it would be a while. In total darkness now, we sat and waited. This struggle to get home had already taken hours.
Finally, we saw flashlights coming. The boat owner carried his gas can back and filled the motor. The man on shore—I couldn’t really see him, except for the glow of the flashlight—called out to make sure we were okay and wouldn’t need medical help. He waited to make sure the motor started. We called out our thanks and headed for the dock. About half an hour later, he quickly docked his boat, while she grabbed a jacked and sat in his truck, and I sat in my car to warm up.
I was safely back; so were they. But Raphael and my boat were not.
They told me that I should go with them. They didn’t want me to wait there alone in the dark. I accepted, although that was probably a safe place. Police patrol there frequently. On the way out, he explained that when he went on land, it was the country club property. He didn’t know that at first. He just knocked on the door of a residence. The man who helped us came to the door, and was probably appalled at his muddy appearance. “Do you know where you are?”
He answered, “All I know is I’ve got two women on my boat stranded on the river, and I’m out of gas. I need some help, a ride to the gas station or whatever.” Then the man’s face and attitude changed, and he gave him the gas without charge from the club’s supply.
We went to the gas station, filled his truck and his boat, and we returned to the dock. He took his boat back out with plenty of gas, while the girls sat together in my car. We were running my car to keep warm. She suggested we go back to the same station for gas and insisted on filling it up. Her boyfriend owned his own business and had given her a card on his fleet account, so the gas would come out of a business expense. I don’t know why I let her do that, maybe not much else was open that late in that part of town. Maybe it was a way of passing time.
It seemed like hours passed before he came back. Alone. My heart sank. He said he had to where he had met up with us before turning around. He couldn’t find him anywhere. Of course, there are coves along the river, and trees overhang in many places. He told me to come with them, so he could rid of the boat and make a phone call.
They drove to his house lest than fifteen minutes away. He unhitched the boat, saying he’d clean it up Monday evening. He went in and changed to mud-free clothes and shoes. I stayed in the truck. He called the game warden, and then we drove back down to the dock.
They waited half an hour with me until the game warden showed up. He got his own boat out, an extra gas can and flood lights with him. Then he took my phone number and told us all to go home. He would call me when he was near to the dock with Raphael. I gave my thanks to everyone and departed.
I went home, took a shower, then sat on the sofa with the phone and a blanket. After 3 am, I got a call. But it wasn’t good news. A woman informed me that the warden had not been able to find him anywhere in the dark. He felt it was useless and would go back when it got light.
I felt sick, but I went back to sleep on the sofa, this time knowing I could relax longer and actually sleep if I could.
About 7 am., the phone startled me out of a broken sleep. I had been awake about every 15 -30 minutes checking the clock, praying until I drifted asleep again. About 6 am, the strangers called to see if I had heard anything. I had called in about 6:30 to my work that I would at least be late, but would let them know, and called Raphael’s work, saying that he probably wouldn’t be in at all and why. I jumped up, exhausted, worried and grabbed the phone. A woman’s voice told me that Raphael was found, and that they would be back at the boat dock in about half an hour. I was already dressed, ready for an emergency, so I grabbed a coat for me, and a jacket for him, and jumped in the car, relieved to know he’d been found. The city dock was about 15 minutes away.
It was still cold when I got to the dock. I waited for almost an hour before I saw them creeping up the river. Another warden with his boat was there with me in case further aid was needed. He was the one who went out the night before. He explained he went up and down both sides of the river, but just couldn't see anything. A lot of trees overhang the water, so he suggested that Raphael had gone to sleep in the boat and drifted under a tree. He came back out in the daylight after some sleep, but the new guy on duty had beat him out on the water. We watched as the game warden pulled his boat in first. Then we put gas in our boat and Raphael coasted up to the ramp. The warden guided me with my trailer down the ramp. After one briefed the other, the stand-by warden left.
Raphael was wearing an olive park ranger jacket and seemed relieved to see me, if embarrassed to be the center of attention in this way, since fishermen and others were already coming into the park at this early hour. He was in good spirits. The warden explained to me that as it got dark and colder, Raphael had guided the boat over to the shore, which at that point opened into a cove. He was so cold that he had gotten out of the boat and treaded to the shore where he made a small fire. Apparently he built the fire after the warden had gone by, or he would have seen the smoke. He said he never saw anyone or heard any boat motors. The fire kept him warm as the sun came up. As predicted, it was easy to find him in the early light of dawn.
We exchanged banter and the warden said there was no charge for the tow, laughing, as he finished up his report. Raphael gave him back the warm jacket, and I handed him the one I had brought. We got into the car, telling each other how frightened we had been for the other. He regretted having sent me off with strangers, and worried what had become of me, since we didn’t come back. I’m not a swimmer, so he worried about me falling into the water. I worried about him drowning. He was too tired to eat. He just went straight to bed, thanking me for thinking about his job. I went ahead to work, after getting ready, which by then was almost noon.
We always took an extra can of gas after that, if not for our use, for someone else. We put the motor back in the shop, and never had any more trouble with it. We had a few more trials with it, none like that one, and used it less and less. He sold the boat and came out a little better than he paid, even with all the expenses he had incurred. I sold the LTD. I believe all the buyers were happy and thought they had a great deal. So ended our boating days.