Two friends go out for a day of fishing together
| "Goddammit! What a nightmare!" Sherry knew the storm of bullshit that she had just guaranteed herself, and they hadn't even left the dock yet.
"What happened, hon?" Drew asked.
"My goddamn phone fell out of my goddamn pocket when I was getting on the boat!" Her profanity might suggest that Sherry wasn't thrilled about this trip; but in fact, it had been her idea. She hadn't been deep sea fishing in years, and Drew had recently bought the boat, a 25-foot dual console with an old 2-stroke engine. Drew had been putting oil in the reserve when he heard Sherry.
"Ah, really? Shit, I'm sorry." Drew thought a minute. "We can dive in and get it."
"What's the point? It will never dry out and work right. The saltwater's got it now. Let me just take a deep breath then we'll push off. I've been looking forward to this all week. I don't want to ruin it because of my clumsiness." Sherry duly took a deep breath and made a decision to have a good time, no matter what. She was proud of herself for calming down; she was putting into practice all that she had learned in recovery. She must remember that acceptance is the key to serenity. She checked the time on her waterproof watch with a face light, a purchase she had made especially for today. It was 10:07 a.m. She would give herself ten minutes to regroup. She sat in the bow near the cleat, breathed deeply, and closed her eyes.
The dual console boat had a long alley that ran the length of the boat between the consoles to the back, or stern. In the stern, Drew used the time to ready the boat. He and Sherry had been friends over decade, so he knew to let her alone and let her calm herself. Besides, Drew knew his way around boats and Sherry didn't. If she tried to help now, she'd only get in his way. Drew checked that the anchor and running lights worked. He checked that lures, hooks, extra line, pliers, and the rest of the tackle were on board. He checked the oil. Finally, he looked in the coolers to make sure that they had enough water and snacks for the day. It was late May, and the Florida summer sun is unforgiving. Most important to him, he verified that his three beers were on board.
After a bit, Drew asked, "Ready, hon?"
"Do me a favor, will you?
"Remind me to buy oil when we get back today. I just finished putting the last gallon in the reserve."
"Do me another favor, will you?"
Sherry smiled. "Of course."
"Untie the bow." Sherry untwisted the rope from the cleat and threw it back to the dock. They pushed away from the dock at 10:23 a.m. by her watch. They headed to 'the hump,' located twenty-five miles southeast of Marathon, Florida, to fish for blackfin tuna. The sea was smooth but the current was strong. They could feel it fighting against the boat and attempting to push them off course. Though they were headed southeast, the current was pushing them due east. The sky was bright and clear, and Sherry hoped that the sunlight would penetrate deeply into the water. She loved the light blues and greens of the Florida Keys as they melded into the much richer, more mysterious blue of the deeper ocean. The ride to the hump takes about an hour, so she had time to relax and fully recover from the phone incident. She spotted the prominent blue sail of a Portuguese-Man-of-War in the water. She wondered what it must be like to be free on the ocean and to land wherever the winds and current take you. She lit a cigarette, thinking about her freedom from drugs and alcohol. Smoking was her last bad habit, and she wanted to give it up soon.
"Hey, pass me one of those," Drew says.
"What, a cig? Why? You quit after your heart attack."
"Sometimes I like them when I'm on the water. You're on my boat. Just pass it over," Drew teased.
Sherry gave him one but didn't feel good about it. She and Drew had known each other since before she had gotten sober and before he had gotten sick. They had met at a local dive bar called the Brass House. The Brass House was one of only two bars in town where locals drank. It was within two months of Sherry's move to Marathon that she met Drew. She was dating some low-life, who knew some low-life, who was friends with Drew. Drew and Sherry shared a similar sarcastic sense of humor, so they had naturally gravitated toward one another. After his heart attack, Drew had gotten 'sober' out of necessity and stopped hanging out at the bar; and although, he hadn't been happy about it, he had not any trouble giving up the drinking and drugs. Still, he cheated every now and then on fine fishing days. He had grown weaker after his heart attack, and he'd recently been told that he was in the early stages of heart failure. Drew acquired a fatalistic attitude and bought the boat because retirement was going to be a short period in his life.
"Sherry, come back here," Drew said, motioning her towards the captain's chair. "We are going to start trolling and I need you to steer." Drew slowed the boat to trolling speed. "Keep the compass pointed toward 120 on the compass. The current will want to pull you, so you might have to make adjustments." Drew rigged the tackle and his lure and began fishing. He popped open a beer and sighed contentedly. In his book, this was living.
Achieving sobriety (or a semblance of it) was much more difficult for Sherry than it was for Drew. She had lost most of her friends by the time she went to rehab. Drew always believed she was a good person who could sober up eventually, so he had continued their friendship. When she finally did sober up, Drew was thrilled for her. Sober Sherry was a lot better than Sloppy Sherry. Although she had been sober for five years, she hadn't made many decisions about her lifeÂ - other than not using drugs. She had a job working in a dentist's office as a receptionist. It paid the bills and gave her something respectable to do, but it did not bring her any happiness; and she was restless most of the time. She knew that she would have commit to doing something larger with her life. These thoughts and the current occupied her as they trolled, and the time passed quickly. She had forgotten entirely about her phone. Within an hour, Drew had a fish on the line. After a substantial fight, Drew got the fish in the boat. He then bled it and put it in the cooler.
"That was fun!" Drew's face was pink with excitement. "Hand me a beer. I'm going to relax in the bow for a bit. Do you mind continuing to troll while I enjoy my beer? Go ahead and do a 180 degree turn, and we'll pass by that nice patch of seaweed again. The tuna like it under there."
"No problem." Sherry enjoyed piloting the boat.
"Keep us headed northwest. When I take over so you can fish, we'll make a few circles and then head towards home."
Drew moved toward the bow, took a seat by the cleat, and popped his beer open. He had had only a few sips when suddenly the engine began to sputter and smoke. Drew jumped from the bow where he had been sitting and screamed, "Cut the engine! Cut the engine!" In the captain's chair, Sherry could feel her heart thudding in her chest as she grabbed for the boat key. She found it and switched the engine off.
"Dammit! Seaweed in the intake valve!"
Sherry had a quiet conversation with her higher power as Drew lifted the engine from the water to clear the valve. Cautiously, she asked, "How bad is it?"
"I can't tell yet. I have to pull it all out and then we'll try to start her up again. I hope she's not burnt out and that I put enough oil in her earlier. I don't think I realized what was happening until it was too late. Goddammit! It's going to cost a helluva lot to get a tow home from way out here."
Sherry began to pray silently again. Drew's face had turned a peculiar shade of red. The wind had picked up. Drew sat down and turned the key. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing. The engine was toast.
"Ah, hell." He paused a minute. "I know it probably won't, but let me see if my cell works out here," he said standing and reaching in his pocket. "Maybe I can call my poker buddy..." He looked down and then launched a barrage of swear words. Punching the steering wheel, Drew swore, "Dammit! What the hell else-- " Drew half-stood and lurched forward toward her. It wasn't until he fell to his knees holding his left arm that she realized what was happening. Drew was on his knees gripping his left arm, but his left hand was pointing at the console.
"The radio!" Sherry finally understood, just in time for Drew to lose consciousness and fall down in the bottom of the bow of the boat.
"Drew!" Sherry made a clumsy attempt at trying to ease his way to the floor of the boat. She reached down to check his pulse. She couldn't tell. The boat was moving too much to get a read on his vitals. The engine was still up and it was causing the boat to be off balance, but she didn't take time to adjust it. She had to get Drew help. She grabbed the microphone off the side holster of the radio, pressed the button and began yelling, "Mayday! Mayday! Somebody help! Somebody help us! My friend has had a heart attack and our engine is dead. You have to help us. Somebody help us!" Panic was rising in her.
"Roger. This is the United States Coast Guard off Key West. We hear you. We understand that you are having a medical emergency. Can we confirm that you are not taking on water?"
It took Sherry a moment to respond. Although the radio came in a little fuzzy, the sound of another voice caused palpable relief to flood through her tense muscles.
"No, we are not taking on water."
"Ok, ma'am, can you give us your position?"
Breathe. Think. Our position. What the fuck is our position? Fear was threatening to override her thoughts, but she fought it. She knew that Drew's life depended on her presence of mind.
"We are at the hump," she began slowly. "We were headed southeast toward the compass heading 120 degrees. But I don't know other than that. I don't really know our position."
"Ok, ma'am. That's great. You know which direction you were headed. Do you know how far off the coast you travelled?"
"No! Isn't the hump about 20 miles off the coast?"
"Yes, but we need a more exact position."
"But I don't know a more exact position!" Sherry shrieked. She gave way to panic entirely. She leaned forward and began to cry. How did she get here and why wouldn't Drew wake up? He would know how to explain their position to the Coast Guard.
"Ma'am, don't worry. We can figure this out together. Where did you leave from today?"
"But we haven't got time to 'figure it out'! Drew is dying!"
"Work with me, ma'am. Where did you leave from today?"
"The Seven Mile Marina in Marathon."
"How long did you travel before you slowed to a troll?"
"A little longer than an hour."
"How fast were you going?"
"I don't know! Drew was captaining. I really don't have any idea."
Perhaps because he heard his name, Drew stirred. "Drew!" He could tell the Coast Guard their position! Excitedly, Sherry moved from the console toward the bow to check on Drew. A wave pitched the boat forward, and Sherry tripped on Drew's leg and went sprawling over him. As she fell, she felt something snap her in the back of the head. While trying to keep her balance, she had been gripping the radio microphone tightly in her left hand. When she walked forward and tripped, she had snapped the cord that attached it to the radio. They now had no way to communicate.
"Oh, God! Oh, God!" she screamed while lying on Drew's chest, still clutching the microphone and hopelessly holding down the button. Terror and agony etched themselves on Drew's face. He knew their position now.
"Ma'am, come back. Come back!" After another minute, "This is the United States Coast Guard off Key West to the vessel travelling near the hump that reported a medical emergency, come back, please. This is the United States Coast Guard and we are ready to assist. Come back!"
"Sherry, they'll never find us," whispered Drew. The pain in his chest was acute.
"What do you mean?"
"We were headed to hump most of the day, but we pass it about an hour ago doing trolling speed. We're halfway to Cuba by now."
The Coast Guard waited a minute and then repeated the call. She heard them do this about five times and then they sent a general distress call out several times. She had managed to extricate herself from Drew and was lying on the bow seats to keep him company. She kept checking her watch. They sent the call out at least every five minutes. That was her only hope: that someone would see them; and yet, they had not seen anyone in the last three hours.
"Drew, where are your flares? Drew, hey!" Drew had passed out again. She checked the whole boat. There weren't any. Goddamn Drew. He should have named his boat The Fuck-It.
Drew was slipping in and out of consciousness and could not really be of any help. She moved slowly toward the back to get him some water and think. She had to get them out of this. First, she lowered the boat engine. Then, she tried to start it. Same result. Nevertheless, she made up her mind to try every hour on the hour. Maybe something would shake loose. In the meantime, she wanted to try to keep Drew cool at least. Unfortunately, where he had fallen was not covered by the bimini, so she suspended a towel over the bottom of the boat between the bow seats to provide him some shade. She decided to have something to eat and drink herself. She kept her eyes peeled for other boats. Just as she was finishing her turkey wrap, she could hear the sound of a distant motor and saw a boat in the distance to her left. But it was much too far away. Although she knew that her yelling was an act of futility, that knowledge did not crush her hope; she yelled anyway.
When it got darker, she was able to turn on the lights. At 8:46, the Coast Guard distress turned from barely intelligible to complete static, and she knew that she was truly alone. During the night, Sherry spotted a few lights, but could not tell how far she was from them. At 1:07 a.m., she remembered that flashing lights at sea mean an emergency, so she began to flash the anchor lights. At 3:10 a.m., Drew died without ever regaining consciousness long enough to explain his lack of flares. She fumbled around, found her pack of cigarettes and smoked her last one.
The sun rose an hour later. The morning was pleasant. She would have enjoyed it if she weren't stranded. Sherry could see into the water just as she hoped she would be able to. She could see the moon jellies drifting with the current; the contractions of their bodies working fruitlessly to fight the ocean swell. She also saw a school of small fish, probably ballyhoo. In her search for flares, she had found oats, so she fed these to the fish for about an hour until the oats ran out. She decided to eat a late breakfast when her watch read 10:34 a.m. and opened Drew's turkey wrap, which was only barely edible. The day grew steadily warmer.
After several hours in the baking heat, it became clear that they had drifted significantly in the Gulf Stream away from the Florida Keys or any other land.. On the second night, the lights on the boat went out for good, and Sherry was left in a blanket of darkness that felt physically heavy. She also realized there was no longer any point in trying the engine. Aside from the few stars that the cloudy night sky allowed to peep through, her waterproof watch face and her lighter were her only sources of light now. At 4:20 a.m., Sherry stripped Drew of his clothes. She decided to set them on fire and use them as a signal. Maybe someone would see? On the third day, Sherry ran out of fresh water. She began to allow for the possibility that Drew might have been right. On the third night, she burned her own clothes. Finally, she drank Drew's last beer.
A toast, she thought. To the worst captain in the world, next to the guy from the Titanic. It briefly ran through Sherry's mind to try to set the boat on fire with her lighter a last desperate attempt at rescue, but she attributed that bad idea to the beer. So at 2:00 a.m., Sherry took a long, last deep breath and thought, "Goddammit. What a nightmare."