What are you afraid of? Have you ever had an experience that made you feel like this was the end of life as you know it? That there was no way out?
Ten years ago, I believed I was going to die when my husband and I took a trip to Greece. We traveled there by plane and had a sailboat awaiting our arrival for a ten-day rental, exploring the lower Ionian Sea. Although it was just my husband and myself on the 29-foot sailboat, we traversed the ocean and island hopped with five other sailboats, most of them manned by couples like us, either from Western Europe, Canada, or the United States. Each morning before heading out to sea, all five couples met with the lead boat captain and crew to go over maps, charts, and equipment. A daily sail between islands could take anywhere from two to seven hours.
Did I mention that I am not a sailor? My husband is the experienced salty dog, and although I understand wind direction, how to read gauges, and how to maneuver sails to a degree, I am not a true sailor by any stretch of the imagination. I am the girl who doesn’t get sea sick, banished to the world below-deck for sandwich making, water bottle runs, or jacket retrieval. I am the girl who loves sitting in the boat on a dock at sunset, drinking Cabernet while listening to old-school jazz.
One particular day during our trip to Greece, we met with our sailing cohorts after breakfast. It was a sunny day, and a perfect Grecian breeze was blowing. After checking off the list of to-dos before we set sail, the lead boat headed away from the docks, each of us following behind like little ducklings. The next island was nearly an entire day’s sail away. At the other end, we would be free to roam around the tiny port town, sampling food and enjoying local entertainment.
The day started out uneventful. Around noon, the wind picked up, making my husband happy. We listened on the radio for any weather changes. There were none. A few times we heard from our lead boat as they checked in with each of us. Jay, my husband, manned the wheel, and I did what he asked, either bringing in or letting out the sails, gathering things from below, or hanging out by his side, awaiting the next order.
Side note: As my captain, oh captain says, “What happens on the boat stays on the boat.” In other words, any expletives spoken and orders barked with abandon at the first mate (in this case, moi) are to be listened to, obeyed, and immediately discarded.
Around 2, the wind got stronger, and the waves grew. Our boat was tossed a bit. I would often ask my husband, “Are we okay?” Each time, he’d smile and respond with a simple, “We are fine.” His calmness during any sailing excursion is always passed along to me, which makes me a more focused first mate.
At around 3, the four-foot waves which had been rolling gracefully into the shallow troughs between, started coming faster, growing higher, and crashing more violently.
“Are we okay?”
“We are fine.”
Soon, the mini troughs were deep and angry. The nose of our boat rose up one wave, and fell hard into the dip on the other side. The waves were now between five and six feet high. I was ordered to grab the radio. Nothing new in the way of weather. Calm, the report kept saying. We saw no other boats. Sailing in a “flotilla” is a relative term. One boat hardly ever gets close to another, as some sailors like being closer to land, and others farther out at sea. We were alone.
The sea grew angrier.
My husband remained calm. I did not. Inside, I started wondering what the f*** I was doing, standing here on the deck of this boat, not even a novice when it came to sailing. Barely a weekend sailor.
Then something happened. A large black mass of clouds came up from behind. I stared at it in disbelief.
“Jay!” I shouted, pointing. My husband took a glance, then ordered, “Pull in the sails!” He started barking orders, and I did everything he asked because doing nothing could mean death, and there was no way I was going to die without trying to evade it. Better to keep moving instead of having time to think about the “what ifs.” After the sails were furled and tied, he told me to go downstairs and grab our storm gear. Soon, we were dressed like a pair of Gordon fishermen, in rain jackets and hats. The rain came down in wide stripes. We could barely see one another.
“Are we okay?” I shouted.
This time he answered, “I don’t know.”
He ordered me to tie off the Bimini (a collapsible open-front canvas top to keep the captain from frying in the sun), but I could not do it. The boat was rocking forward and back like a giant rocking horse. I would have toppled overboard.
Overboard. There’s a word you don’t want to think about while at sea. It occurred to me in that moment that if my husband went over, he would drown. And then, shortly after, I would drown.
I could do nothing but stand by my husband’s side as the wind exploded. Poseidon was pissed about something and was taking it out on Jay and me.
For forty minutes I hid my tears as we sailed through the squall. Awful scenes played through my head of crashing into the rocks along the shore, our body parts spread out for the seagulls. I thought of my sisters, crying at my funeral, no body to bury, just some pieces of a torn yellow jacket. My husband’s daughter came to me, and I cried harder. What if he drowned, and I survived? How would I tell her that her father had been an amazing captain, he had only died because his first mate was incompetent?
Forty minutes feels like hours when the rain blocks your view of the land only a few miles away and the wind tosses your boat around like a beach ball. Forty minutes feels like eternity when you truly believe you are going to die.
Then, just as quickly as the squall slammed into us, it leaped away, disappearing into the western sky like it had been playing a practical joke, taking the gray stripes of rain with it. The sun was fierce. The sky was blue.
“Look!” I pointed to the island on our right. We could see it now, clearly, the rocks we thought were miles away but in reality were only a half mile. One half mile from crashing the sailboat and our bones to smithereens.
I heard an engine. Another sailboat, with its pristine sails neatly furled, moved past. The couple on board, clad in expensive sailing shirts and pants, stared as they went by, eyebrows raised as if to say, “What the hell happened to you?” But they said nothing, only continued forward, leaving us to wobble in their wake.
“We lost our Bimini,” my husband said.
“Yeah,” I said, crying openly now, this time with relief that the Bimini was all that had been lost in the squall.
We didn’t say much more until we arrived at the island dock. Our lead boat crew had never seen the squall. Nor had most of the boats. But we had proof: Some of the sailboat’s cleats had been pried loose, and the Bimini was torn to shreds. One other couple had weathered the same storm as well and in response planned to fly home first thing in the morning. We decided to stay. What were the odds we’d hit another squall in the Ionian Sea? Plus, there was ouzo in abundance, and we were dying to take a cab ride to the top of the mountain where the view of the sea was supposed to be breathtaking. A view from faraway for the next two days sounded perfect.
Even as I write this story I can feel my blood pressure rise, my heart rate increase. I can see the rocks, feel the rain, hear the wind. I can remember what it felt like to be there. To be on that boat during a squall, feeling helpless, terrified, tiny.
As a writer, I can use (and have used) that story to help me write scenes of angst, of fear, of feeling out of control. I close my eyes and taste the thick salt on my lips and feel the sting of the storm pelting my body. I picture the rocks, the troughs, the look of my husband’s steady and determined face. But most importantly, I remember what it felt like to believe, if only for a fleeting second, that I was going to die.
To this day, I have never been that afraid or felt that abandoned.
How about you? Have you ever had a moment (or moments) of fear? Anger? Futility? If so, would you be willing you tap into this part of yourself when writing?
Perhaps you already have…