Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fathers, Part 10

The wide, white wake of the boat is a foamy path reaching to the horizon, toward the tall buildings of Miami that have now set below the vast expanse of blue-green sea. We are cruising across Biscayne Bay under a cloudless sky. We pass the last shacks on stilts and are now surrounded by nothing but water and air.

My father examines the charts. It is a straight shot to the Florida Keys. He chooses a compass point and sets the autopilot.

It is March 1979. My son, nearly 5 years old, is playing with his Hot Wheels in the galley. Alice has taken our 9-month-old daughter, Caitlyn, to the aft stateroom for a nap. My father and I climb to the flying bridge. We converse in shouts over the noise of the rushing wind, the pounding of the hull against waves, the rumble of the exhausts. Since my mother’s death less than a year before, my father has devoted much time to the boat and the constant maintenance it requires. He has a new radar unit, which we are fiddling with as the boat steers herself south-southwest. He goes below to adjust something, and I am looking at the screen on the bridge.

It is then that I look behind us, and suddenly the wake is no longer white, but brown. In a panic, I yank back the throttles. The roar of the twin diesel engines dies; the stern lifts and we surf our own wake. I cut the engines, and all is quiet except for the ominous sound of hull sliding across sand.

Had I not noticed the brown wake we might have been fine, but in cutting the engines, I managed to place our 52-foot craft at the top of Featherbed Banks, a shallow area that becomes a sand bar at very low tide. This I learn as my father pores over the charts. “Dammit! How did I miss this!” he mutters to himself. We share the blame for our predicament.

I don a diving mask and jump into the water, surprisingly cold and not quite waist deep. In the murky dark beneath the stern, I see the propellers half-buried in the sand. We decide it is too risky to turn them. And with the tide going out, it will only get worse.

Here is the moment that has not happened before, when father and son look to each other for help, when the boy is no longer the son, and the man is no longer the father, when they are just two people, equally in trouble.

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