In the mid-seventies my Dad bought a new boat. It was a big upgrade for us. We went from a single engine squatty wooden 28 ft Broadwater to a sleek hulled fiberglass Jersey 31 with two big engines. It was a huge step up. He bought it in North East, MD and all we had to do was move it to Atlantic City. No problem, right?
Boating was very different in those days. Marine weather reports had to be tuned in on special radios. No radar. No Loran. No GPS. No Cell phones. We had maps, a compass, a marine two-way radio, landmarks and the endless unpredictable Atlantic Ocean.
And then there are inlets. An inlet is where an inland bay meets the ocean. The water is ALWAYS turbulent. The mixing of the two bodies of water churn the currents into twisting and sometimes violent waves. Rock jetties stick out into the inlets like sharp stone claws, just waiting to grab up the boat the dares to get too close. Most boaters try to blast their way through their inlet. Open up those engines, Full power! Hold on! But you have to know were the jetties are. Know how to avoid getting caught in the wake of the 50 footer ahead of you. Try to maintain your course while the water pulls you in one direction and then another. I hated the inlet.
Dad asked his trusted friend Bobby Williams to be his mate on this adventure. It was a beautiful day so they let Uncle Bobby’s son Joe and I skip school and come along. We knew it would be a long day at sea. Mom had dropped us off in Maryland with coolers full of sandwiches, soda and beer. Then she made the long drive to Atlantic City where she would eventually pick us up. Everything was planned out.
Once we got underway, Uncle Bobby navigated and Daddy drove. The boat was much faster than they had even hoped. She cut through the water and the twin engines roared with power. We were flying! It was great. Joe and I stayed below on deck and the grownups were up on the flying bridge. They would yell down for food or the next map and Joe and I would run it up to them. Hours went by with the wind in our hair and the ocean spray on our faces. It was a beautiful thing.
Then we heard a strange noise. It came from the engine compartment. A loud squeal, then one engine fell silent. Daddy immediately cut the remaining engine down to a meandering slow speed and Uncle Bobby took the helm. Daddy flew down the ladder and pulled up the hatch leading to the engines. The boat immediately started rolling in the rhythm of the waves. Daddy was getting thrown around down there with the engines. The engines were red hot from their workout and Dad was struggeling not to fall onto one as he pressed his back against the hull and crawled forward. Within minutes he was climbing up out of the bilge. We blew a belt! And I don’t have a shitting spare!
Daddy was a smart and careful boater. He knew what to keep on board and spare belts were definitely one of them. Even in a bad sea Daddy could change an engine belt. He could do what needed to be done. But there was no spare belt today. Dad and Uncle Bobby got serious. They would have to limp in on one engine. But what about their speed? This changed everything. The boat handled differently with just a starboard engine. Our speed would be cut in half or possible more. It was late afternoon and the sea was getting sloppy.
The grownups were getting serious. Joe and I knew something was wrong. We stayed quiet and brought them whatever they needed. Daddy wanted more maps and the binoculars. He had me get an update on the weather going into the evening. Things were changing. Two-four foot seas, maybe more. Possible fog. Shit.
We puttered along the coast. Daddy stayed closer to the shore than before. He was watching for something he recognized. But nothing looked right. It started to get dark and the fog started to roll in. Dad had us ring the bell in one minute intervals. If there was anther boat out there, maybe they could hear us. But fog muffles sound. The ocean was eerily quiet. Just the engine and the ocean. Uncle Bobby made his way onto the bow with a flashlight. He methodically waved it back and forth. He listened. He strained his eyes. He was on alert for the beach, for a jetty, for another boat? Anything that could make our situation worse.
Dad focused the binoculars on what he could see of the coast. He knew the coastline of Atlantic City like the back of his hand. Lighthouse. Resorts Hotel. Steel Pier. But it didn’t seem right. Even in this faster boat there was no way we could be that far north. Joe and I sat silently on the big heavy fighting chairs on the deck. The boat was rolling so hard, the full ice chest and us in our chairs were flying from one side of the boat to the other.There was nothing for us to do but hold on. We both knew the rules. Never go below deck in bad seas. If the boat should capsize, we would be trapped in the cabin. We held on and looked into each others eyes, too afraid to say a word. When i was thrown out of my chair Joe sprung up and grabbed me. He firmly got me back in the chair and made his way back to his own. It seemed to go on forever.
Meanwhile , Mom was having a meltdown. We should have been in hours ago. She knew the weather had turned. She drove to the Marine Police Station at the other side of the marina. She told them what was going on. I heard the radio go off in the cabin. s Choice, Ladies’s Choice… this is the Atlantic City Marine Police…Come back..
I yelled to Daddy that the Marie Police were calling us on the radio. Daddy rushed down that ladder and the boat lurched. For a minute I thought he was going overboard. My heart just dropped. But he held on and in an instant he was on that radio. The Atlantic City Coast Guard were on the radio now too. Daddy put all his pride away. He told them we were off the coast but he didn’t know where. The fog was making it even worse. His best calculations put us at Ocean City inlet, but he wasn’t sure.
The Coast Guard tried to make out our location by what Dad could see on the coast. But it wasn’t much. They didn’t know where we were either. They couldn’t even send out Coast Guard boat because where would they search? We might be Ocean City, NJ or we could be further south. Without an approximation of our speed, we could be anywhere.
Mom could hear all this over the radio. The Marine Police had brought her in and sat her down in their radio station. Dad’s voice came across the radio. His voice had changed. He reported we were running low on fuel. Mom leaned in to the radio and cried.
Finally Dad and the Coast Guard decided he was either off Ocean City or Atlantic City. Daddy was concerned. He didn’t know Ocean City inlet but he did know it was not an easy one. And it was now very dark. There was no way to tell the difference from the black rocks of a jetty and the black water surrounding us. Not until you were so close that it would be too late. The Coast Guard alerted a team in Atlantic City. They told us we had no choice. Come in. Daddy grabbed the ladder and started to climb. He looked back at Joe and I. He said just one word. Lifejackets.
One engine. Foggy darkness. Waves throwing the boat endlessly side to side. Daddy pointed the bow at the coast and opened up the engine. Uncle Bobby and Dad searched the skyline. Was that an inlet ahead? Just a dark area on the coast? Find the inlet. Find the channel through it. Maintain control of this off kilter boat. Do it fast. Pray.
Joe and I tried to get our chairs near each other. We held on to the boat and to each other. Time seemed to stand still.
Then we heard them. Daddy and Uncle Bobby were…laughing. And I think maybe crying? It’s AC! Jesus Christ, it’s AC!!! Uncle Bobby radioed the Coast Gard. We were coming in.
Mommy met us at he slip. She hugged Daddy and pounded on his back. Don’t you ever do that to me again! You almost killed me with worry. Daddy was smiling from ear to ear. You enjoyed it, didn’t you! You Son-of -a bitch!! You’re going to kill me someday!
Daddy and Uncle Bobby just kept smiling.