On A Kayak In The Agitated Caribbean

Face upturned, eyes squeezed closed, mouth wide to catch the beating rain. The drifting man, sunburned and weak from hunger, swallowed rainwater with thankful gasps. Clouds took on haunting shapes of people laughing at his misery. Could he go on any longer? Just slip off the kayak into the rolling waves. End it. Give up.

But he didn’t. He thought back of the visions he’d had months ago spending the winter in the balmy tropics. And now he was starving, nearly frozen from hypothermia, thoroughly weary from clinging to a twelve-foot kayak somewhere off a tropical island at the mercy of ten-foot high waves driven by capricious winds.

Ordinarily lounging aboard ship on the beautiful Caribbean sea is idyllically romantic, right? So it was for a short time in the life of Ron Hall from New York. He expected an adventure in the tropics when he agreed to crew with a buddy on a 1940’s vintage tugboat, restored to seaworthiness by a mariner intent on a life at sea.

They left from Daytona, Florida, and leisurely made their way toward the tropics. They anchored close to the northwestern end of St. Thomas in the American Virgin Islands after a series of mishaps and a hungering for familiar fast foods from a Seven Eleven. Ron, by this time, began to wonder about his commitment to serve on a restored vessel. When the captain mentioned his dream of “tugging” around the world, Ron decided the trip for him was ridiculous. He and Buddy lounged on a beach not overly concerned about the infrequent squalls that swept across them towards the Puerto Rican islands.

At the winter solstice gusting winds usually rush across the water as a shrouded Merlin steals swiftly from one assignation to the next. Ron watched the anchored tugboat settle comfortably into the rocking waves. He decided to take their kayak back to the tug and urged Buddy to join him. Buddy was not inclined to move from the tropical paradise to the smelly diesel tugboat -- so Ron gripped the paddle on the 12-foot kayak and judged the 800 yards as a measly distance across the sapphire Caribbean Sea to be a simple jaunt.

“See ya back on the tug, Buddy.” and Ron paddled into the sunset -- an admirable scene with the sun coloring cloud edges every conceivable hue of pink.

He was impatient as the jagged coral distracted his viewing of clouds in a spectacular blue sky looking for all the world like giant white popcorn exploding out of gray blobs.

Ron shifted his focus from the sky to the tugboat, paddling as he left shallow waters off the St. Thomas beach, not the least aware of a vicious Merlin at his back sweeping overland with a vengeance toward open water. When the thirty-five mile-an-hour wind hit him with accompanying rain, cold and piercing, Ron gave his paddle serious attention. Ten-foot waves carried the hard plastic kayak up and over, drenching and overwhelming him in total disregard of his physical efforts toward the anchored tugboat.

Every ounce of energy went into working the paddle. He experienced many types of boats and had kayaked on lakes and streams but never had his paddling efforts been so thwarted. Up and over the waves took him always westward, rolling and falling. His chest heaved as he clung to the paddle with straining muscles. At the top of the waves he paddled air. Inside the wave he chose to cling to the rope and the paddle washed away. Ever farther from the tug.

Ron laid flat against the plastic kayak, tense and in fear of being torn into the frantic water. For two days he was helpless, trying desperately to steer the kayak with determined shifting of his weight against the hard plastic form of the kayak. With success he slipped into the waves and was elated. With more failure than success his strength and his optimism waned. There appeared some reefs that may impede his watery journey and he was dashed upon dark cutting coral with such force the kayak and he made a complete 360 degree flip putting him on rocks and sand near midnight where he gratefully fell into a sleeping stupor where regained some strength.

Shivering beyond belief, he decided to attempt to reach the lighthouse whose beam had lit his hallucinations throughout the night. Into the water he urged with every cell in his body through the kayak to move toward the south. The wind blew harder and refused his efforts. He drifted ever westward with the high rolling waves and finally between two islands he was able to drift ashore on a sloping sandy beach within sight of large rich looking homes.

Ron pulled the kayak above the high tide level and walked along the beach in slow wobbling steps wearily searching for access to the houses. He was relieved to be on inhabited soil but his brain could not find a solution -- a way to reach those houses. His body ached from the battering of the waves. The gash on his right forearm stung like a touch from a red hot poker. His facial skin burned with intensity the likes of which he never before experienced.

But he was off the rolling sea! What could be more appealing? Now to find someone, something, get somewhere, water, eat, feel comfort somehow. He heard a motor, a car -- civilization at last. Then there were voices and people coming toward him. He had no strength to call out, no energy to greet them, but he was relieved to see people -- the first he’d seen since he bid goodbye to Buddy on the beach two days before.

Turns out his saviors were the only year-around settlers that side of the island and they walked on the beach daily at sunrise. He was transported by jeep to a hilltop house, watered, fed, bathed, clothed, soothed and returned to St. Thomas.

I stood by and saw him rescued on December 24, 1998.


Naomi Sherer

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