© Copyright 2001 by Rin Steketee
Photo by Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash
The afternoon sun glowed
brilliant in the clear blue sky. Its reflection danced across the surface
of the water, appearing like
diamonds on display in the jewelers showcase. The silence was broken only by the monotonous thumping of the bow of the launch against the surface of the water as we sped across the bay heading for the West Sayville boat docks.
I sat clutching my cup of warm coffee wondering how it could have happened. What went wrong? I began to recall the chain of events that began earlier.
It had been ten days since Ted and I had caught any fish and time was running out. It was September and the weather was growing worse by the day. The storm had kept all the fishing trawlers in port. It had been a poor season for us. Not only was the weather against us, but we were plagued with problems all season long. If it wasn't engine failure, it was torn nets or broken winch motors. Nothing seemed to go right. Soon it would be hurricane season and fishing in the north Atlantic would be sparse and extremely risky. We decided to talk to the owner of the" Molly B" and tell him we could not make it out to sea in this bad weather. It was impossible to cross the sand bar that separated the Atlantic Ocean from Great South Bay in such terrible weather. We would tell him that we were giving up. We would try again in the spring.
Casey was one of those old time seamen who could not let the sea beat him. He reminded me of Edward G. Robinson playing the roll of Captain Wolf Larson in the movie "Sea Wolf". It would have been easier dealing with Wolf Larson. He said he would not let us give up. He was going out with us in the morning and show us how to cross the bar.
It was a cold, damp morning, thick with fog and blacker than a sailor's morning cup of coffee. The dock lights were barely visible through the mist. An occasional flicker of light appeared on the water as it rose and fell. The waves violently drove the Molly B, repeatedly, up against the dock. The weather had gotten worse.
I tried the engine. It sputtered several times and then finally caught. I turned on the bilge pumps and as the engine warmed up, a ghostly figure appeared through the fog. As he stepped on board the trawler, Casey muttered something about the weather and made a gesture toward the sea. Ted loosened the lines and pushed the boat away from the dock. I moved the throttle forward and the boat glided out into the channel. We moved slowly out past the quay wall and then out into the bay.
Over an hour passed. Hardly a word was spoken. We drove forward against the rough sea. The fog was dissipating and in the distance the sky began to lighten. As we continued on, a large, ominous black cloud loomed up ahead of us, and the sky turned crimson. I couldn't help thinking of the old seaman's rhyme. "RED SKIES IN THE MORNING . . .SAILORS TAKE WARNING!"
Up ahead, we could see a flashing glow moving across the horizon from the Fire Island lighthouse. The swells had grown larger, perhaps eight to ten feet, causing us to loose sight of the lighthouse as the trawler dipped down between the swells. The heavy seas kept pushing us back as we came closer to the sand bar. I moved the throttle forward and the Molly B lurched ahead toward the inlet. Each time, as we approached the bar, the water rushing over it disappeared, and I had to back off and turn away. I turned toward Casey. He must have read my mind. He came toward me, slowly moving his head from side to side, indicating that he would not give up. He moved me aside, took the wheel and shoved the throttle in all the way. We raced ahead toward the sand bar. The water flooded in over the bar and it appeared that it would enough to float us out into the open sea. Suddenly the water beneath the trawler disappeared. In an instant, the Molly B was slammed down to the bottom.
All at once I found myself alone in the middle of the ocean. Water was all around me. I did not know which way was up. I began flailing my arms and quickly popped to the surface. Debris was everywhere. The Molly B had been reduced to splinters. As I treaded water, I looked around but could not see Ted or Casey. I spied a large piece of the bow of the trawler and swam toward it. With difficulty, I crawled up on top. I was exhausted. It took all the strength I had just to hold on. I clung there for hours afraid to move. There was still no sign of the other two men. I wondered if anyone knew what had happened. How could they?
Like a miracle the storm subsided and soon the sky turned blue. The sun was high in the sky and I reckoned that it must have been about noon. I wondered how much longer I could hold on. It was then that I heard the faint sound of the Coast Guard motor launch approaching. A few minutes later (it seemed like hours) three Coast Guardsmen were lifting me into the launch.
I was taken to the Fire Island Coast Guard Station where I learned that the bodies of the other two men were found earlier in the day. That is why they were out looking for survivors. I was told that Casey's neck had been broken on impact and that he probably died instantly. They said that Ted had drowned. It was hard to believe. Ted was an excellent swimmer. I recalled, once he dived down beneath the boat to remove some line that had gotten tangled in the propeller. He stayed under the water so long, we all thought he had drowned. We dove into the water to save him, and just then he popped up grinning, holding the rope up high like a trophy. When they found Ted's body, at first, they thought he was wearing black rubber gloves, but then discovered that both of his wrists were broken. That explained why he had drowned. He could not swim with two broken arms.
I changed into some borrowed dry clothes and recounted the horrible story to the authorities. Then it was time to board the Coast Guard launch and head for home. The thump, thump, thump sound of the bow of the launch slapping at the water continued and as the launch neared the West Sayville dock, I looked off to the west. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was now low on the horizon. The autumn sky, just above the horizon, had a scarlet glow. I could not help recalling once again the old seaman's refrain . . ." RED SKIES AT NIGHT . . . . .SAILOR'S DELIGHT!"
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