This is an excerpt from memoirs about my time in the U.S. Coast Guard, most of which was spent on a small island in the middle of Puget Sound, in Washington State. A lighthouse and several dwellings and outbuildings stood on the island, housing a crew of three or four men and sometimes a couple of families. (Click here to see photos of Smith Island.)
Once, I was caught in a storm alone on Minor Island, which was actually the end of the spit of sand that formed the eastern end of Smith Island. I had run over to it in the outboard to check the fuel supply to the generator that was housed in a little concrete bunker. The generator charged the batteries for the little flashing beacon, and powered an air compressor that drove the foghorn. Minor Island was close enough to Smith Island that sometimes at low tide they were part of the same piece of land. But it was far enough that at night smaller boats would sometimes try to navigate between the islands. Since the spit was all sand, running aground there was seldom disastrous. But even sand, in a heavy sea, can cause a boat to break up from the pounding. The marine charts were clearly marked, but there are always seamen who test the margin of error. This time, there were no boats except my fourteen-foot skiff. The wind had been fresh when I set out from the boathouse, but I was moving eastward with the wind, and didn’t notice that its speed was increasing by the minute.
After I had checked the fuel level, I tested the light and foghorn. The horn did not work. The compressor cycled properly, and the gauge showed plenty of air pressure. So I stuffed some tools in my pockets and went outside to climb the steel ladder to the top of the bunker, where the horn and beacon were mounted on a small tower. The wind was so strong I had to work my way hand over hand along the pipe that supplied air to the horn until I reached the tower. Other than the tower and the pipe, there was nothing on top of the bunker, nothing to grab onto if I lost my hold. The bunker itself sat on top of a pile of rocks, the whole visible island some twenty feet across. I thought that if I were blown over the side, there would be nothing to keep me from being swept out to sea. My body, or what was left of it, would eventually be washed up on Whidby Island, five or six miles to the east.
By the time I reached the tower, I knew that there would be nothing I could do, even if I figured out what was wrong with the horn. In that wind, I could not remove it or any parts from it without them being blown away. It was a dumb thing to do, coming up here. Shielding my face from the wind as well as I could, I peered through the spray toward Smith Island. It was only a faint gray mass. I looked down at my boat, which I had pulled up onto the rocks and tied to the steel ladder. It was filling with water from the now-continuous spray, and rocking precariously in the wind. If a gust of wind should catch it right, it would be dashed to bits on the rocks. Carefully, I made my way back down the ladder, holding my body tight against the side of the bunker and making sure each handhold and foothold were secure before letting go of anything else. I sat down amid the huge rocks, and crawled between them when I could until I reached the boat. Raising myself up alongside the boat, I leaned across it and tried to pull the far side up and over me. But it was too heavy to lift. I had turned this boat over many times on the sand, when it was partly filled with water from a rain or heavy surf. But in this wind, and on these rocks, I felt completely helpless. I hoped that the weight of the water would keep the boat from being blown away. Crawling back to the bunker, I slipped inside and slammed the steel door shut.
A single bulb lighted the inside of the bunker. There were no windows, only a steel ventilator grill that whistled in the wind. I had no food or water—an incredibly stupid thing to do, I thought, come over here on a day like this, without even a thought to a possible emergency. Why don’t they stock emergency supplies here, just in case someone washed up here in a storm? A candy bar, at least! I curled up in the corner, wet and cold even in my kapok life jacket. At least they knew where I was, I thought. The man on watch would be expecting me to return, and when I didn’t they’d come looking for me. But I had the only outboard motor, so they’d have to row the big sixteen-foot boat over—when the wind died down enough. But now, nothing to do but wait.
The howling wind and crashing waves were all I could hear. It was a continuous roar, with percussion. Then I realized that the percussion was rocks pounding together. Huge boulders, piled around the bunker to keep the building itself from washing away. I could feel the floor quiver, as though the rocks were being thrown against the concrete sides of the bunker. I wondered how the outboard was doing. If the boat were being tossed around on those rocks, the fragile propeller would be destroyed in a moment. Maybe I’d better check.
It was hard for me to make the decision to open the door. As cold and uncomfortable as I was, inside the bunker at least I felt safe. But if that prop got banged up, I’d have to row back home—against the wind and sea. I pulled the door open and squinted in the sudden light. Fortunately, the door opened on the lee side, away from the wind. I was immediately buffeted about, but I thought I could keep my footing. The boat was just off to one side, and it seemed to be all right, except for being half full of water. The motor was clear of rocks. It seemed brighter out here than before, probably because my eyes were used to the dim light inside the bunker. But when I looked up, past the boat, I could see Smith Island clearly. The sea was a mass of whitecaps over dark green water. The sky was mostly blue. The wind seemed milder.
Then the foghorn sounded, louder than the wind, and I jumped. Confused, I ran back to the bunker door. The compressor was running. What could have happened? There was an underwater cable from Smith Island, just a control line from a switch in the watch house to operate the foghorn. Maybe the line had been damaged, and it was triggering the circuit. The horn blew again, two short blasts, its identifying code. Two short, thirty seconds off, two short again. It didn’t sound like there was anything wrong with the horn itself. It’s probably been there fifty years, I thought, and never touched. Why am I here? To check the fuel tanks. The fuel tanks are okay. The radiator on the generator is full of water. There isn’t anything wrong here that I could fix. If there’s anything wrong with the control circuits, let them send a buoy tender out to fix it. All I want to do is get off of this f___in’ island.
My language, spoken aloud in the howling wind, shocked me. I seldom used words like that. But I was feeling my energy rising. The windstorm was letting up. I needed to bail out the boat and get ready to go.
I’d never been strong, this skinny Midwestern city boy. I didn’t go in for sports, and preferred building model airplanes over competing in physical activities. I’d put on some weight since joining the Coast Guard, and had learned that I could hold my own with most of the other mechanics in lifting heavy things and tightening bolts. I wasn’t afraid to exert myself.
It took many coffee-cans of water to bail out the boat. My shoulders ached from the repetitive activity, but finally I had removed enough of the water to tip the craft up on its side to dump the remainder onto the sand.
The boat was heavy, even emptied of its seawater. I dragged it across a little bit of sand near the bunker, and prepared to launch it at the lee of the island, where the waves wouldn’t throw me back onto the rocks. Then I looked up at the bunker and saw that the door was standing open. The foghorn was still operating. I went back and closed the bunker door, and stood for a few minutes, looking across the whitecaps at my home. From here Smith Island looked perfectly flat, with clumps of trees and a half-dozen buildings. I could see the entire face of the island, for it was, indeed, flat, only tilted up at the far end. Forty acres. Home. The world seemed very far away. Reality here was simpler.
Reality right now was getting back home. On my own. It never occurred to me to wait for help, as long as I had my boat. If the motor would quit, I had oars. Whatever it took.
I shoved the wooden bow into the roiling water, leaped in, and with an oar pushed quickly away from the rocks. The farther I got from the shore, the rougher the water became. I set the oars in their locks and turned the boat into the wind. Then, moving to the stern, I tilted the motor upright, opened the fuel valve, and pulled the starter rope. The boat was swinging back around, the high bow weathervaning. I used one oar to keep it into the wind, and pulled the rope again and again. Finally it caught, and almost ran. On the next pull, it roared into life. I engaged the clutch. The boat leaped off the top of a wave, and plunged its bow into the next. I wedged my feet under the thwart and hung on. The motor screamed every time its propeller lifted out of the water. I got ready for the next wave, however, and the bow knifed through the white water, throwing cold spray in my face. I grinned. We make ‘er go! I screamed, that William Bendix line from the movie The Hairy Ape fitting exactly my adrenaline-charged audacity.
I throttled back to meet the waves at a safer speed, breathed deeply, and steered the rollicking skiff out and around the little island, and headed for home, exhilarated. It took nearly an hour to make my way against wind and pounding sea, that half-mile to the beach next to the boathouse. But seldom in my twenty years had I been faced with responsibility for my own survival and, even though the actual danger was rather mild, it stimulated me. Securing the boat, I drove the old pickup truck up the road to the station, feeling powerful.
July 21, 2001