[From the archives]
Ship’s Log, September 6, 2003
Splendid day. Started out at high tide (around 4 P.M.) after bailing half a foot of water (and one dead fish) out of the boat. I had a vague plan to go around Broad Channel counterclockwise. Pete suggested an alternative route: up through the Wildlife Refuge and back via the airport channel. Angela, his wife, was in New England. An old friend of Pete’s named Brian had turned up at the marina, and before I left, Pete said that Brian wanted to take him and Angela out to dinner to celebrate their birthdays, which were within a day of each other, and he (Pete) was entitled to a substitute, so if I got back in time . . . It was a kind of round-about invitation to dinner. When I finally figured out what he was saying, I didn’t have the heart to tell Pete that I had already made dinner plans. I had accepted an invitation for seven o’clock from friends of a friend. The friend himself couldn’t make it, but I was stuck.
(I was struggling with whether or not I was part of a couple. I had met this friend—I’ll call him Dick—on the beach in late July, after an e-mail correspondence begun during the World Series the fall before. I’d taken him out in the boat, we’d gone to the Wharf together, he’d treated me to dinner at Popeye’s. We’d gone out in a big sailboat with a friend of his in Long Island Sound. We’d had bad sex, we’d had good sex. Our sex life was about three days old. When the invitation came from Michelle, his friend and my neighbor in Rockaway, I didn’t consult with him before accepting, because I wanted to be independent. I WAS independent, and though being with Pete and Angela had made me long to be part of a couple, I couldn’t assume that I was; I was afraid to. I didn’t know if Dick felt we were a couple. Anyway, I saw no reason not to accept the invitation, but I didn’t want to go if Dick wasn’t going. Michelle was HIS friend. As it turned out, he was busy that night with something he didn’t elaborate on, and he was trying to get Michelle to switch the day and time.)
I chose Pete’s course. They were dredging the Cow Path, a channel navigable only at high tide—and frankly not visible to me, on the chart or in the water, at high tide or low—so this was not the time to discover the Cow Path. A plume of dark clammy sand rose from the dredging equipment in the marshes. I went west, past the Wharf, to the buoys marking the channel at Ruffle Bar—Pumpkin Patch Channel. Watching the other boats, I found my way into Shad Creek, where I saw the backs of the houses on stilts that are visible from a car on Cross Bay Boulevard in Broad Channel. There was a tiny yacht club, some huge houses, lots of American flags, boats moored and docked.
I tried to find my way into the Wildlife Refuge by the route Pete had shown me on the chart (I’d learned not to call it a map), but all I could see was reeds, so I went back out to the channel and headed north, toward the skyline and the North Channel Bridge, to circle around by JFK. I was still alongside the Wildlife Refuge when the motor died. I got it started again, but it quit on me again after about three minutes or three hundred yards. I checked the gas line, checked the connections, made sure the throttle was at Start and the gear was in neutral. I got it started again, but it kept choking. I tried to sweet talk the engine, stroking it. By now I was under the North Channel Bridge, in water that was very shallow, according to the chart. I was very far from home and I was cutting corners. (This was the first sign of panic. I’d always been careful to stay in deep water even at high tide, but now, instead of observing the buoys, the channels—the lane markers of the sea—I was just heading straight for my objective. Not a good idea. If I were in a car, I'd be going offroad, cutting through fields.) I called Pete on my cell phone, which I had bought for precisely this purpose, but I didn’t have his cell-phone number, so I knew that my little SOS was sounding in the bungalow at the marina with no one there to hear it. Even when Pete came in from the boatyard, it was unlikely he would listen to his messages.
The motor conked out again under the bridge. I was drifting, between efforts to start the engine, and three guys who had been out fishing tried to help. They had a gaff hook and one of them came aboard. He got the engine started and said that maybe I had flooded it; it was idling O.K. They had just come from my home marina and didn’t much like the idea of towing me all the way back over there. Pete had often stated that beginners make the mistake, when something goes wrong, of thinking they have to get the boat home, which is not the most important thing and which is how motors get ruined. I could have asked to be towed to Howard Beach, on this side of the bay, but all my instincts were for going home.
My fishermen friends advised me to go full throttle across the bay. One of them gave me his cell-phone number and said that if I didn’t call he was going to assume I was safe and forget about me. Need I mention that three men on their way home from a day of fishing on Jamaica Bay were three sheets to the wind?
I managed two or three more spurts across the bay. Each time the motor died, I tried sweet-talking it, stroking it, crooning instead of cursing. It felt hot, feverish. At one point, I was so involved with the engine and ever so slightly panicked that I let go of the buoys: I lost track of them, like losing the count in a piece of music—it’s hard to find your way back in. I had been bobbing among some buoys that I knew marked the channel wide of the airport, but I couldn’t see the next buoy to line myself up with, and when I got the engine started again I headed directly for the smokestack on the peninsula. Basically, I set a course directly for home, with no regard for any obstacles in my way. When the motor died yet again, and I tried to restart it, I noticed it was smoking.
I started making phone calls. I called the fisherman and left a message and my vague location. By this time it was twenty to seven and I realized I wasn’t going to make my dinner date. I called my hostess, Michelle; she’d called me that afternoon to confirm, so her number was stored on the phone. “Hello, Michelle? Listen, I’m stuck out in Jamaica Bay and won’t be back in time for dinner.” “You can come late—we will wait for you.” “Oh, no, don’t do that.” Why wouldn’t she just let me cancel? “Unless you think it would be too much for you . . .” “That’s it, by the time I get home I will be . . .” I felt like a fraud. It was such an extreme excuse for getting out of a dinner date.
About Pete I realized that my only hope was to be in mid-message, sounding urgent, as he happened to be passing the phone. As I was prolonging my message—“Help! I’m out here off the airport and there’s about an hour of light left”—someone picked up the phone and said, “Mary?” “Oh Pete, thank God you’re there.” “No, it’s Pete’s friend Brian. Pete is upstairs in the shower.”
I was saved.
I explained to Pete, when he got out of the shower, that the motor was smoking, that I was alongside the airport, in the channel.
“Did you set the anchor?” (He pronounced it "ankuh.")
“No, I was trying to row.”
“Hah! I’ve seen you row. Set the anchor and relax. I’ve got to borrow a boat and we’ll come find you.”
I had in fact made a stab at rowing, but my oars had disappeared over the winter, and I was working with a pair of mismatched paddles. I wasn’t going anywhere. So I threw in the anchor. The phone rang while I was waiting. It was Dick, the man who couldn’t come to dinner, whose friends I was standing up. It sounded like he was at a party. “I’m stuck in the middle of Jamaica Bay,” I said. “Well, get out of there,” he said and hung up. No goodbye.
There was nothing to do now but enjoy the sunset. I had a camera with me (I’d taken a few shots of Shad Creek when it looked like that would be the high point of my adventure), so I used up the rest of the film on shots of airplanes taking off and the Manhattan skyline and the orange ripples on the water and the Rockaway skyline, with the trestle bridge I’d been heading for and the smokestack. When I ran out of film, I tried to write everything down. The buildings on the skyline were a deep, palpable gray. Gulls were shrieking all around me. Planes were taking off. Sunset was at 7:11. And now the moon was appearing. The water on the side of the boat away from the sun had a coat of purple over gray, all iridescent. On the side near the sun a network of gold veins formed by the wind or the current spread over the water, gold on black, weaving together into orange. Was it almost ugly?
I had only two light beers with me. I drank the last one.
Pete had given me his cell-phone number and I called him again.
“You’re not where you said you are,” he said. (No hello.) “Do you see any other boats where you are?”
“Do you see a runway?”
“Yes. It’s all pilings coming out from the airport.”
“Is it to your right or left?”
That was a hard question. Both. It was to my north, but Pete, for good reason, didn’t trust me to know the points of the compass. So he said, “Where is the moon, from where you are?”
“Southeast.” That was a trick question.
“And the control tower?”
“Now look at your chart. From where you are, is the water deep between you and the sunset?”
Between the cell phone, the chart, and the bifocals, I wasn’t sure I could manage in the waning light, but yes, the water was deep between me and the sunset. Pete needed to know, because he couldn’t risk ruining the boat he had borrowed by scraping it on the bottom.
He came out of the sunset in a flat white boat, with Brian in the bow. I was so glad to see them. I hauled up the anchor, and Pete tied the boat to a tow line. “Climb into this boat,” he said. “By the way, you need a lesson in reconnoitering.”
My job on the ride back was to make sure the little boat didn’t get caught in the wake of the tow boat and tip over. It did get caught at one point. In the marina, I climbed out, and Pete told me to row my boat into its slip while he and Brian returned the boat they’d borrowed. When they came down the dock, I was still in the same place, struggling. “What’s at the end of that line?” Pete asked, pointing behind me. “You’re snagged on something.” I drew it up: it was the anchor. It must have flipped out of the boat when it got caught in the wake.
I had told Pete about the three guys who told me to go full throttle across the bay, and he said there was a lesson in that: Don’t take advice from bozos. And another lesson: Don’t think you have to get the boat home. “And now we’re going to dinner, right?”
So we went to the Harbor Light, my second-favorite restaurant, after the Wharf, and I had Guinness and London broil. “No fish, right?” Pete said. I had told Michelle I’d call her when I got home. I didn’t mean to make anyone worry, and I did have the cell phone, but there were about four hours, from sunset to eleven, when I was incommunicado, sitting quite pleasantly, first in the boat and then in the bar with my rescuers. How was I going to account for this to Michelle and Dick? I decided simply to say that I had been kidnapped.
When I looked at the chart later, I saw that I was in a little back bay off Kennedy Airport, and if I had succeeded in going in the direction I’d been headed, I’d have gone up on a runway. A few weeks earlier, there had been a piece in the paper about some fishermen whose boat washed up on airport property, and they wandered the runways among jumbo jets before finding their way to the Port Authority Police. (That was point of the story: that in the age of the war against terrorism, the wayward fishermen at the airport had to find the police, not the other way around.) What would have happened if I hadn’t reached Pete? I probably would have tied up at the airport and sat there until the police came to arrest me.
Michelle rescheduled the dinner for the next day, and Dick went with me. We never did become a couple, though. Things started to unravel right after I referrred to him in public, twice, as my boyfriend, both times in a context of complaint. I think I knew that night that it wasn’t going to work out: him on his cell phone at a party in Manhattan, checking in; me riding at anchor in Jamaica Bay, ripe for other invitations.