A Cautionary Tale
by Helena Mann-Melnitchenko
I love to walk along Chesapeake Bay and gauge its mood, placid or angry. I listen to the soothing sound of the waves and revel in the changing light on the water. Sometimes, I push off the dock in a kayak, carefully watching the sky. I respect the Bays power. Its waters can heal, but also kill. I learned that hard lesson on another bay and it has served me well.
The heat wave held New York City in its clammy embrace for weeks, but on Sheepshead Bay the wind was brisk. Whitecaps played on its navy-blue waters. The salty, briny, iodine smell seemed fresh, a welcome relief from the choking fumes of the city.
Might be a squall coming, said the man at the boat ramp, scratching his head. The heats been fierce.
My brother and I looked over the water. A few boats danced on the horizon.
No problem, Thor reassured him with all the bravado of youth. He was 24; I was 15. We wont sink it. The small boat with a 3.5 horsepower outboard motor sputtered and belched as he revved it up.
When we reached the open bay, Thor dropped anchor, put on flippers and adjusted his goggles. He waved the spear, fashioned out of a long stick and a hunting knife, and plunged into the water. Spear fishing was his latest passion.
For the rest of the morning, he brought up small fish and crabs impaled on his spear, surfacing like Neptune from the depths. I was only interested in working on my tan as the sun played hide and seek with increasingly heavy clouds.
The clouds soon darkened, blurring the line between sky and water, and the wind turned mean. The waves lapped over the sides, trying to gain purchase into our tiny boat. We noticed that no other boats bobbed on the water.
Better head back, Thor said. The guy mightve had a point.
He tried to start the motor. Wrrrrr, it protested and stalled. For the next hour, he tried to get it started. The waves rocked and rolled the boat while I frantically bailed.
The rain pelted us in horizontal sheets. No use. Too far from shore. Well have to row
our way to that island
over there, he shouted over the wind as he tried to pull up the anchor. The line snapped and we were cut loose.
Rowing furiously, we headed for the spit of sand. We were standing still, just keeping from being swept farther into the bay and then into the open ocean. Thunder crashed, and bolts of lightning lit up the black sky.
Suddenly the howling wind shifted. Row, row! Thor screamed We can reach the island.
The boat hit sand, and he pulled it up. I scrambled out while he clung to the boat. I lay face down, my mouth full of sand and bitter, salty water. Waves crashed over me. I clawed at the scrap of sand, grasping the tall stalks of grass, the bay trying to pull me back into its deadly embrace. I could no longer tell where sky, land and water began and ended.
Time froze as we fought the bay, slimy green kelp clinging to our bodies. Yet it was probably no more than 30 minutes before the storm started to lose its awesome power. We climbed a little higher on the dune and sat there drying out.
Thor regained some of his bravado, teasing me. Will the waves submerge the island?
A speck appeared in the distance and grew larger. We could make out a Coast Guard boat. We waved and shouted in the wind. It changed course and headed in our direction.
They towed us into the marina, the boat intact, our egos bruised.
I love to walk or kayak Chesapeake Bay, but I always watch the sky.