Dad StoryIt was early spring and I was in middle school. Dad was taking the boat out at dry dock for the season. That meant he got the engines ready, painted the bottom of the boat and got it back in the water. The ride back to our marina from dry dock was about two hours down the NJ coast to Atlantic City. It was a beautiful day and dad let us take the day off from school. Kimmi and I were anxious to get a jumpstart on our tans and we were happy to lay on the back deck soaking up all the sunshine we could. Mom was sitting on the deck chair reading. It was an extraordinarily beautiful Spring day and we were out enjoying every minute of it, at least for a while.
Daddy was very safety oriented. On our boat we always had more than enough lifejackets and we were all trained to know where they were. There were fire extinguishers in each compartment and we all knew how to use them. He took every Coast Guard class that was offered. Dad said you had to respect the boat and respect the sea.
I guess weather forecasts were not as good as they are these days. He had gotten a weather report before we left dock but things changed a lot while we were at sea that day.
We were only about a half hour from AC. The clouds seem to come suddenly out of nowhere. It started to rain and we ducked into the cabin. The rain came so quickly and so hard we were all taken by surprise . The wind kicked up and the lighting flashed around us. Out on the water, the boat is the highest thing around, so lighting is to be feared. It got so dark, so quickly that it looked like the middle of the night. The waves were getting bigger. Within minutes the waves were so big you couldn’t see the sky anymore. They were just walls of water all around us and we were deep in the valley between them. Dad said later the weather reports said they were 18 foot seas. That meant each wave was 18 foot high and we were only in a 32 foot boat lost between the waves.
The waves were pouring over the bow of the boat. Daddy was struggling to keep the boat pointed in the right direction. “In the right direction” meant keeping the bow pointed directly into the walls of water. If a wave caught us sideways, we would capsize. Dad yelled for us to come out of the cabin. He said if the boat capsized, we would be trapped inside. He told us to get our life jackets on and sit on the deck and hold onto each other. Everything that was not attached to the boat was flying back and forth across the deck. He told us to stay put. No one was to try to walk. The rolling deck or a wave could sweep us overboard.
Nobody asked any questions, we just did what we were told. We got our life jackets on and sat on the deck. It was so dark, I don’t know how dad saw anything. The rain was pouring down, it was like being under a waterfall. There was no visibility at all. I saw dad reach down and flip on the bilge pumps. They were old-fashioned pumps. In those days and you had to hold your finger on the switch to keep it on. Dad was using one hand to keep the bilge pumps going and with the other hand, he was struggling with all his might to steer the boat. Things went on like that for what seemed like forever. My sister and I quietly cried. Dad was completely focused on keeping the boat in the right direction. I couldn’t see anything. Not the sky, not the top of the waves and not certainly not the bow of the boat. Dad was navigating by instinct , fighting the wheel and trying to keep the pumps running.
He told us later he could feel the boat taking on water. There was just too much water coming over the bow and onto the deck for the pumps to handle. The boat was becoming more more sluggish and it was getting harder and harder to keep it pointed in the right direction. He yelled to us ..If the boat capsized, we should let go of each other and just try and swim to shore. He told us he thought Brigantine beach was off to the starboard. He fought on and on. He groaned and was sweating trying to fight with that storm.
Then he reached down and put on his own life jacket. We knew everything had changed. Mom begged him to call the Coast Guard. But Daddy said they couldn’t get to us in this storm. We were on our own.
Another -5 minutes went by. Dad turned to us and said ..listen to me very carefully. We could barely hear his voice above the storm but we listened the best we could. He said I’m going to give this a few more minutes. She’s taken on too much water. She may go down. Before that happens , I’m going to try and run the boat up on the beach. I don’t think we’re that far from the beach in Brigantine. He said Ill turn to the starboard and open her up, I’ll make a run for the beach. I’m going to try to run her right onto the beach. When the boat hits the the sand it’s going to break apart. I want everyone to separate and make their way to land on their own. Don’t look back. Just save yourself.
We had all been holding hands but now we were squeezing each other. How could we ever get through this? How could we not try and save each other?
Dad said I’m going to give it just a little more time. I think I can buy us just a little more time. He fought with that steering wheel for all our lives. The veins on his neck were standing out and his hand was white on the wheel. He said kept saying .. I’m giving her five more minutes. We couldn’t tell how long five minutes was and I don’t think Daddycould either. He was just trying to buy us some time before he took such a drastic action. Dad waited. We waited. The ocean raged.
Suddenly the rain stopped, just as quickly as it had started. The waves settled down like someone flipped off a switch and the sun came out. It was over. The wind and the sea became silent. No one spoke. We just held hands on that deck and watched Daddy. He was still fighting to keep the pumps running and limped the boat back in to the marina.
When we pulled in , people at the marina were all amazed. How could we have survived the storm like that? When we got the boat tied up, Dad went forward to look for damage. He saw that the windows on the front cabin were cracked from the weight of the waves that poured over the bow. He got the bilges empty and finally went into the cabin and sat down. He reached into the boat’s small liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Irish whiskey. He poured himself a healthy glass.
After that day, Daddy just saw the whole thing as just another really good story.
But we knew it was much more than that. Daddy saved our lives that day.