It was a sunny beautiful day and my parents and I took my brother Jamie’s little boys, Sterling and Ethan, over to the small bay near us where we always held our picnics.
Robin was visiting from Ketchikan and he and Jamie were out in my dad’s 13-foot Boston Whaler visiting my Aunt Marion and Uncle Rory, a few miles to the north. They were supposed to meet up with us at the picnic area.
We began to worry, though, when the wind steadily picked up and white caps formed on Union Bay. We heard the outboard laboring as it climbed the stacked swells before we saw them. My mom and I were aghast that they’d even attempt crossing the bay in that weather.
My mom snatched up the camera and put in on them, muttering, “This time I’m going to take a picture and show them what kind of lunatic weather they go around in.”
They tended to mock her concerns, but this time she’d have proof.
As the skiff took a pounding, my dad shook his head and ticked off all the things his sons had destroyed of his over the years. As he was midway down the count, as my mom held the camera to her eye with her finger poised to click a shot of the skiff as it topped a huge crest— one of the figures suddenly jumped overboard and the skiff flipped.
My mom was so horrified she flung the camera away without taking the shot. My dad said, pensively, “They’ve never done that before.”
We saw the overturned skiff rise up on a wave and to our relief we saw two heads next to it. The tide was out and our other skiff was dry so we couldn’t go to their rescue. I raced through the woods to get back to the house and the VHF marine radio and called the Coast Guard. When they didn’t answer immediately, I called Rory and Marion and recounted what had happened, concluding, “We can see Jamie and Robin in the water next to the skiff.”
As soon as I could get free of the radio I ran back over to the picnic beach and to my shock, bumped into my cousin LeAnn, who was soaking wet and shivering. “Where did you come from?” I exclaimed.
Unbeknownst to me she’d been in the skiff with my brothers. Rory and Marion knew it and were anxious when I didn’t mention seeing her. They tore up the turbulent bay in their skiff, along with their neighbor Brad Johnson in his skiff, all of them taking a vicious pounding and getting soaked in salt spray.
Here’s my brother Robin’s account: “Jamie and I were visiting Rory and Marion in the Blow Hole and LeAnn wanted to go back with us to have a barbecue at Mom and Dad’s. We ended up heading up the bay as a northwesterly picked up and the Whaler bucked into it, going slow. We were in sight of our destination when a wave came over the stern and swamped the outboard, killing it and half-filling the skiff. As Jamie reached for an oar to keep us nosed into the waves, I saw that the next wave coming up on the stern would finish sawmping us and flip us. I looked back at the other two and said, ‘I’m outa here!’ and dove overboard.”
When he surfaced, the skiff was upside down. Since we’d all grown up swimming in these waters they adapted quickly and hung on as the waves pushed them toward shore. The main danger turned out to be the thousands of rounds of ammunition Robin had in his jacket. He was dragged under and swallowed half the ocean before he could get free of the jacket.
They were fairly close to shore, with the deep surge pushing them toward the rocks, when my aunt and uncle showed up. Marion, nowhere near Robin’s six-foot-one-inch size, jerked him straight out of the water and into their skiff, shouting, “Where’s my daughter?”
By then LeAnn was already safe on the rocks, wrapped in my mom’s sweater.
The only casualties turned out to be Jamie’s guns and the ammo. Jamie managed to save Robin’s gun, and determinedly stayed in the water, holding the skiff away from the rocks to save our dad’s skiff from being shredded, until it could be safely beached and turned right side up.
Summers in Southeast Alaska produce a constant litany of boating misadventures.
• Tara Neilson grew up in a burned cannery in a remote area of Southeast Alaska. She still lives in the wilderness, in a floathouse near Meyers Chuck. She blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com and readers can reach her at email@example.com.