Waves pounded on the sides of the boat like relentless punches, throwing the large craft off course. My uncle regained his footing on the drenched deck and forcefully guided the boat through the tormented sea. His black hair whipped around his face and his lips were set in a hard, thin line. All around me crates of life vests slid around the ship. I sidestepped one and lost my footing, tripping over the box. Above, lightning arched across the gray, stormy sky. I scrambled to my feet and glanced around, my senses alert. I spotted my cousin Trent twenty yards away. I ran up and helped him pull a long rope, trying to steady the sails from losing control in the wind. It was like playing tug-of-war with the Empire State Building. I firmly planted my feet on the deck and pulled with all of my strength. No use. Without my uncle it was hopeless. We both let go, defeated. I studied my cousin’s face among the blinding mist. He looked worse than me, almost. His entire body was flushed from strain and his eyes told me that he was on the verge of fainting.
Just then, the boat lurched and dipped, threatening to turn over. A mountainous wave swelled next to the ship and crested, higher than the deck. It was one of those moments where everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The tension of foresight tightened my chest as the wave stumbled, losing its balance and crashing down onto the deck. I was flung, powerless, from my cousin, tumbling through the churning wave. I fought to gain control, but my minimal strength was nothing compared to the smashing force of the water. When the wave receded, I found myself lying face down near my uncle, who was clinging to the wheel.
“Go!” he shouted through the howling wind.
“Wha-?” I started to say, but then I saw what my uncle meant. Trent was clinging to the back of the mermaid statue protruding from the front of the ship out over the water. It didn’t look like he was going to be able to hold on much longer. I raced to the prow, slipping more than once. With no energy left, I hoisted myself up onto the mermaid and, promising myself I wouldn’t look down, crawled slowly towards my cousin. He was straddling the statue, his arms wrapped around her neck. I prayed I’d reach him in time; the wooden ship had become so slippery it was a wonder he was still with us. I moved slowly out over the water. I couldn’t help looking down, despite my promise. Fear gripped me in a choke hold. My stomach seemed to be trying to throw itself up, stuffing itself in my throat. I couldn’t do it.
Then, a second tidal wave hit the craft. The ship bobbed threateningly and I lost my grip, slipping off the statue. I closed my eyes, and I couldn’t breathe. Instinctively, I swung my arm backward for support and managed to grab the ship. Digging my fingers in the wet wood, I used the siding of the boat to support myself while I swung my free foot over the railing of the boat. When I was safely on deck, my next thought was about Trent. There was no way he could have made it. I stared into the crashing sea and knew what I had to do. I rushed over to the emergency life craft and struggled inside. Then I took a life vest and secured it on my shoulders and took out my pocketknife. Furiously, I worked on the ropes suspending the small craft until finally they snapped and sent me plummeting down into the violent waters of the sea.
I spotted Trent a few yards away in his neon-yellow shirt. I paddled furiously with paddles from the lifeboat, but the waves, which now seemed to have tripled in size, consistently sent me spinning off course. Blinded by fatigue, I gave one final push before I reached him, gliding next to him among the choppy waters. I extended one hand out to pull him toward the lifeboat, but I realized I had no strength left. I barely had enough to breathe. No, I told myself, neither one of us is going to die. My fingers felt the fabric of his shirt. Come on, come on, come on…
* * *
The next thing I knew, I was lying in the bottom of the lifeboat, Trent next to me. I immediately bolted upright, but a sharp pain in my head made me stumble backward for support. I looked around. Everything was blurry but coming back into focus. The storm seemed to have subsided, but I had completely lost my bearings. All around me was open sea. There was no sign of my uncle’s ship anywhere. Strike that. There was no sign of life anywhere save the unconscious form of my cousin lying unceremoniously in the bottom of the lifeboat with me. The lifeboat was a tiny, sleek design painted white. It had a small, weak motor in the back and a small tin box with first-aid equipment.
I turned back to Trent. He was starting to come to, shaking his head slowly. His eyelids fluttered open and he too was greeted by a splitting headache.
“Ahh, ow!” he said.
“Trent,” I breathed, relieved to see him awake.
“Calm down,” I said gently. “We’re OK.”
“Is Uncle Frank…?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know where we are or he is. I was out cold too for a while.”
“We’re lost, aren’t we?”
It was quite the inconvenient truth. I slumped over, defeated. This was not how it was supposed to be. When Uncle Frank suggested that Trent and I come along in his authentic 1700s-design tourist ship for a spin a few miles into the sea, getting lost in the middle of the ocean with no signs of anything for miles and miles round was not part of the equation.
“We need to get back to land,” Trent said clearly.
“Yeah, maybe we can signal the coast guard or something,” I said.
“Here,” Trent said, “it’s getting darker, right?”
“Isn’t the sun supposed to set in the west?”
“Trent! You’re a genius!”
“Well, if we set sail off of the east coast…”
“We follow the setting sun to get back to land.” Ahhh. I could breathe easily again. We would make it.
We gunned up the motor in the back of the boat and we made a slow and steady pace toward the setting sun. The sunset was truly beautiful out on the ocean, but there was still a certain tension that limited conversation between Trent and me. We both knew that we wouldn’t be sure that we would come out on top of this situation until we found help. Or at least I did. I envied how quickly Trent had come up with the solution for navigation. If only I had that kind of simple attentiveness in a crisis. But emotions soon weren’t my only problem. Glancing over at Trent, I could tell that he too was resisting the urge to voice the hunger clawing at his stomach.
“Uhh. You hungry?” I asked tentatively.
“Yeah,” he said, seemingly relieved that I had brought it up first. “They didn’t happen to pack pizza and sodas in that survival kit, did they? If not, I guess I could settle for some KFC, but I don’t think they have any floating locations yet. I’ll keep my eye out.” There it was again. Attempts at humor where all I could see and feel was an empty horizon. Come to think of it, the sun had almost disappeared from the horizon and it was starting to get seriously dark.
“Not sure we could fish this time of day,” I said. It felt good to voice my concern without revealing how scared I actually was.
“No, I suppose not,” Trent said. “I guess we just hit the hay early tonight. Or soggy hay as it were.” I couldn’t help the twitch in the corner of my mouth at this crack. I always knew Trent was the kind of person who you’d want on your team in a worst-case scenario. Now I have firsthand proof to back it up.
* * *
The morning was hot. Like, I could cook… no… I could burn pancakes on my forehead kind of hot. Trent helped me set up a makeshift tent with our ponchos, but this only provided a minimal amount of protection from the heat. The fact was, we needed food and water immediately. Yesterday, the movement of the boat from the motor provided a little breeze, but we hadn’t turned the motor on for today yet to conserve as much gas as possible. Now, I wasn’t even sure I could move out of the little shade I could get to turn the motor on. Both Trent and I had splitting headaches from heat prostration and I felt like I was going to throw up if I didn’t get any food. So this is what starving means, I thought. My parents had always reprimanded me when I said the word starving because they said that I didn’t know what it really meant to starve. Now, having planned a late lunch on Uncle Frank’s boat, now, having eaten my last small meal at breakfast yesterday, it being late in the afternoon of the day after, I knew a little bit of what it means to starve. I looked around. The waves seemed to be getting larger; the sun was definitely starting to shine brighter. Trent was asleep next to me, or was he dead? Was I dead? I must be. Or I must be dying anyway. I tried to sort through all of these broken thoughts, but I couldn’t control my one strongest urge: thirst. If I was to stay alive, I needed to do something about it.
I emptied the first-aid box and filled the lid with ocean water. Looking into the grayish saltwater I knew that I would have to clean the water before I drank, but cleaning meant boiling, and boiling meant fire, and fire was dangerous to start on a small ship. But no fire meant no water, no water meant no drinking, and no drinking meant serious dehydration, which could also be dangerous. So I went with the obvious choice and started to build a fire.
I used the tin box as a tiny fire pit because I knew the tin wouldn’t burn up as easily. For kindling, I took my pocketknife and shaved off some curls of wood from the wooden oars in the lifeboat. Once I had a decent pile of shavings, I got ready to light the fire. With what, I didn’t know.
I had heard of people concentrating the sun’s heat with a magnifying glass and starting a fire so I thought I’d try it. I had plenty of heat, but the magnifying glass was a problem. I looked around for one in the pile of first-aid equipment I had piled on the deck, but nothing looked remotely like a magnifying glass. I sat back down under the shade to think. There had to be something I could use to start a fire on the boat. Then I had it.
I took a plastic baggie of Band-Aids from the pile of first-aid junk and emptied it. Then I stretched it across the mouth of the makeshift tin fire pit, securing it with medical tape. Taking the lid full of ocean water, I carefully poured a little onto the baggie, creating a small puddle suspended over the wood shavings. I had seen water used for magnifying purposes, so I was sure my plan would work. I soon found out that, regardless of it working or not, I didn’t have the patience for it. I shook Trent awake so he could keep watch while I slept. Sleep, it turned out, didn’t happen to be the right word. I was awakened not five minutes later, it seemed, by a voice yelling in my ear.
“Look! Come on! Look at this!”
I wasn’t sure whether I was more happy or annoyed, but regardless, I sprang up and scrambled out of the shade as quick as I could. Trent showed me what he was yelling about. There, amongst the curls of wood, was a small, fluttering flame.
“Come on, come on!” I coaxed it.
“We’ll need to blow on it to make it spread,” Trent said. He removed the plastic baggie, careful not to spill any water on the fire, and lowered his head to blow. Just then the wind changed directions and our little flame shivered and died out. So did all of my hope for clean water.
“It’s OK,” said Trent, “we’ll just try to…”
“No! It’s not OK!” I said, looking Trent in the eye. “Are you even thirsty?”
“Well, yeah, but…”
“But what? I’m going to die if I don’t get water! Then what!?”
“Listen,” Trent said calmly, “we are going to get water. We just need something to spread the fire quickly, like gasoline.”
“Well that’s great that we have so much of that because I was wondering what we were going to do with it all!” I said sarcastically.
“But we do have gasoline,” Trent said, “in the motor.”
I didn’t say anything. I hate being made to look like a fool, but whenever I’m around Trent that seems to be the norm.
“All we have to do is get something to suction the gas out of the valve,” Trent was continuing. I walked over to the pile of first-aid stuff and found a syringe. I tossed it over to Trent, who looked at me curiously, then settled on nodding in response. I could tell he wasn’t sure what was going on in my head, and to be honest I didn’t know very well either. I was just stressed. It’s not every day that you have to survive on your own in the middle of nowhere. It took some time to clear through my thoughts, but when Trent came back a second time with the syringe full of gasoline, I was ready to talk.
“Look. Trent. About what I said. I guess I didn’t really mean to blow up at you like that. I’m sorry.” At first he just ignored me, replacing the baggie and making a new puddle. But then he turned toward me and stared. I could see his eyes searching me again. He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then sat down.
“I think I know how you feel,” he said. I couldn’t meet his gaze, but I could feel his eyes like lasers on me. “You’re worked up,” he continued, “so you wanted to yell at somebody, and for obvious reasons I was chosen as the lucky target.” I laughed. Trent grinned. As much as I sometimes didn’t want to admit it, he was a pretty cool guy.
“Thanks for helping me out with the gasoline. It’s just that, sometimes I wish I could come up with a good idea,” I said. Trent chuckled.
“What about this little fire pit?” he asked. “That was a good idea! What about leaving Uncle Frank to come save me? That was a good idea! I won’t let you sit there and say that me being alive was the result of a bad idea!”
That’s when a new fear gripped me.
“Trent,” I said tentatively, “Do you think Uncle Frank is OK?”
Trent looked off into the distance for a while before speaking. “I think so. He knew his way around the ocean. I’m sure he came out on top.”
“I guess,” I said halfheartedly. I would have just sat there, forming my thoughts into something concrete, but just then I saw a flash of yellow coming from the tin box. Trent rushed to undo the tape and removed the plastic baggie, letting the flame sprout up to its full size. Then I grabbed the two oars and laid them across the boat so they were suspended by the walls on either side. Trent took the lid off the tin box, filled it with a fresh scoop of seawater and placed it onto the two parallel oars.
We stood staring into the water for what seemed like eternity, eagerly awaiting bubbles to appear. I was getting sweatier and thirstier by the minute and was ready to take a swig of the water whether it was clean or not. Then tiny bubbles started forming at the bottom of the tin lid. A few more minutes and they started floating to the top, bringing the water to a rolling boil. We let the water boil for a bit, then took it off. It was far too hot to drink, so we had to continue to wait. Now I was starting to go seriously out of control. My throat had thoroughly dried out, my forehead was thoroughly drenched with sweat, and a piercing headache pinched at my skull. Finally, I had had enough and shook up an instant cold compress from the first-aid kit and dropped it into the water. This would have to work. After five more minutes of sheer torture, we decided to try out our water. I took the first tentative sip and then spat it out immediately. I’m not sure if I expected the salinity of the ocean water to disappear when I boiled it, but it sure hadn’t. All that work was a waste. And now I was practically dying of thirst and of the heat. I swung back and sent the tin lid spinning off into the water. I wanted to scream, but my throat was too dry.
“Hey!” Trent yelled. I turned toward where he was standing by the fire. The flames had spread out of the box and onto the wooden deck. I leaned over the side of the boat and scooped some water into my hands and then dumped it over the crackling flames. The only reaction was a slight sizzling. I glanced around for something to scoop water with, but my hands were still all I found.
Scoopful after scoopful of water still didn’t do much work on the fire, and it was starting to spread all over the front half of the boat. We would have to try something else.
“Trent! Over here!” I called. I told him my plan. We took one of the ponchos from our makeshift shade and held it like a sack. We both lowered it into the sea and came up with a good five times the amount of water I could get from my hand-scoop. Carefully maneuvering the poncho, we brought it over to the fire and realized with a sickening sensation that the boat was already tilting. We splashed the fire with the water from the poncho and most of the fire died out. By the time we came back with the second poncho-full, the fire had spread up the side of the boat, making holes in it. We dumped the water, and the fire was gone for good.
Trent and I sighed at the same time because we both realized what was about to happen. The boat was beginning to sink.
“Come on!” I yelled to Trent. “Get my life jacket on!”
“OK! Get ready to use the old fire pit to bail out some water!” The whole boat was tilting forward menacingly, and, soon enough, water began to wash onto the deck. I started to scoop water out of the boat, but I soon realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere. The water was just coming in too fast.
“Trent,” I yelled, “come and help me!”
“With what?” he asked as he stumbled over to me.
“I don’t know! Just help me!” We both worked furiously, but while our strength came to an end, the water didn’t. I stood panting, water up to my knees.
“This is hopeless,” I said to Trent. He nodded.
“We’ll have to just sit at the back of the boat where the shade is.” That’s what we did. I was genuinely afraid and genuinely in pain as we watched our tiny boat fill with water. My head was splitting open, and I was soaked with sweat and dirty water. That’s when we felt the whole boat sink. The deck fell away from our feet and we were left in water, in the middle of nowhere. I struggled to stay on top of the water, but I was quickly losing strength. I floated on my back for a while, but I was becoming restless. I could never be truly comfortable floating around in the middle of the ocean without a life jacket. Trent paddled over to me.
“Do you want the life jacket for a little bit?” he asked. I nodded, and he slipped the orange vest off and handed it over to me. I buckled it across my chest and tightened the straps. Though I could float now without effort, I was still feeling uncomfortable.
“Trent,” I said, “we can’t stay this way forever, floating across the Atlantic.”
“Hey,” he said, “someone’s bound to find us sooner or later.” I sure hoped so. It was already starting to get dark, and I could see that Trent didn’t have a whole lot of strength left either.
The waiting was torture for me, and I could tell it was even worse for Trent without a life jacket. He looked at me pleadingly. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said, “I’m too tired!” He fought to keep his head above the water, but he was soon overpowered, sinking down beneath the surface.
“Trent!” I yelled, but I knew he couldn’t hear me from below the water. I dived under and felt around in the water for a piece of his shirt, but I couldn’t find one. I came up for air and saw Trent bob up to the surface, his face still submerged. Two powerful strokes brought me over to Trent, and I struggled to support his head above the water.
“Breathe, Trent! Breathe!” I murmured, crushed under his weight. I could feel some shallow breathing in his lungs, but he still wouldn’t come to. I tried smacking him repeatedly in the face, but he gave no response. By now, I wasn’t strong enough to support myself, much less Trent on top of me, but I circled my arms around his chest and kept him safely above the water.
“Help!” I cried out. I didn’t know who I was calling to, but I yelled anyway.
“Help!” I cried again. I felt tears gathering in my eyes and my vision went blurry. I couldn’t do this anymore. I released Trent and floated on my back, crying large, hot tears. That’s when I felt as if darkness was closing in on me, saw the shadow of a large ship looming over, and heard a long, low sound of a horn shake the air.
“Coast guard,” I breathed.