I have no idea why, probably because it’s summer, but the boat mishap I was involved in years ago suddenly came to mind. It may have been triggered by a recent boat accident on the Hudson River near the Tappan Zee Bridge which runs from Rockland County to Westchester County, about thirty miles north of New York City.
Apparently a motor boat smashed into a barge by the bridge, injuring four and throwing two others out into the murky water. One of the bodies was found shortly after the accident, the woman who was set to be married in two weeks. The other missing person, the guy who was supposed to serve as the best man, was discovered a couple days later.
It’s not that I’m special, but my sister, whose a year younger than me, and myself were familiar with water and swimming from an early age. I don’t think it was until I was in my early twenties and out in the working world in Manhattan when I began to encounter many adults who didn’t know how to swim, which surprised me at first, but then not so much when I thought of the different experiences and opportunities afforded others. I was even going out with a nurse when I was twenty-five and she was twenty-three and it never occurred to me that she didn’t know how to swim until I invited her up to the lake in Ontario where my family went in the summer and she wondered why anyone would go to such a place.
My sister and I were in the water at the lake in Ontario morning and afternoon, except when it rained, from pre-school age. We also were both water skiing by the age of seven, and I remember many an afternoon with my father, wearing a white captain’s hat, driving the 16-foot boat with a 45 hp Evinrude motor all about the lake, taking countless guests for a turn. He was in his glory, looping about, spinning to the right, then the left, and his favorite, starting out in a large circle and continuing in ever smaller circles so the skier was challenged by ever increasing choppy waves from the wake behind the boat.
The first two weeks in August there were a number of summer friends between the ages of fifteen and seventeen whom my sister and I looked forward to seeing every summer. Jim and JoAnn from outside of Pittsburg, and Tom, a tall guy from Detroit, and Frank, who was from Toronto and had flaming red hair and lived for hockey. That was the core of our group, and we didn’t do anything special, just hung out with each other, and laughed a lot, no drinking or drugs, or anything like that; that was to come later for some of us.
JoAnn was the first girl I ever liked, the first I ever thought of as a potential girlfriend, though the most we ever did was hold hands. I remember standing at the top of the hill by the school I went to in New Jersey and staring down at the suburban city, which was a microcosm of New York City, and imagining having JoAnn by my side and showing her where I lived and what it was like, and in essence, in an adolescent way, sharing what was my life.
The summer I was fifteen, JoAnn came up to the lodge with her best friend Joan, so that added another person to our group, and also came between and interfered with my case of “puppy love” because JoAnn was not as available as the year before.
I’m trying to line up the cast of characters who ended up in the boat that night so many years ago, We were all guests at the lodge, but we were also close with a number of kids who worked there, mostly waitresses, and one in particular, whom we really didn’t want anything to do with, a nineteen-year-old girl named Sharon who latched on to us, mostly because I think she had a crush on Jim. We were free from Sharon during the day, when we were water skiing and such, but at night, she always seemed to find us, and everyone was too polite to say “Get lost,” which was how we all felt. Sharon looked like the quintessential housewife from the fifties, dark hair, with thick glasses highlighting, or concealing, depending on perspective, a nondescript face, and one whom I could easily picture in a commercial on a black and white box television raving about a special dish washer.
We were all together one night, including Doug, a twenty-one-year-old guy who was the head maintenance person at the lodge, when someone suggested we go to Port Stanton for hamburgers. Port Stanton was a twenty minute ride along a dusty road winding through the trees but cutting across the lake in my father’s boat, we could get there in less than ten minutes. Port Stanton was an appropriate name, less than thirty people lived there year round, of which almost all were members of the Stanton family, and there was a large, wide, concrete dock running out into the lake by Martin’s general store which was a government dock where cabin cruisers could stop for the night. A recent addition to Martin’s store at the time was a small snack bar that extended off the back like a garage on a home, and you could get hamburgers and milkshakes and fries until it closed at ten.
When we started out, I never dreamed what that night would bring. And though I must confess, it’s become a small footnote in my life, to others involved, it was a monumental, traumatic event. We started over to Port Stanton in two boats, I was driving my father’s boat and Doug was in one from the lodge with an outboard motor. There were a total of nine of us in the two boats, though I forget how we were divided up. I knew my father’s boat should have no more than five, two in the front, one being myself driving, and three in the back, or you risked overloading the boat.
The route to Port Stanton involved heading out beyond a row of weeds and off to the right around rocky point where a majestic, isolated cottage stood, and then across the mouth of what was Duck Bay, and then bearing to the left before straightening out and heading through open water toward the lights of the snack bar and the government dock. Sharon, as usual, was with us, and we were all aware since she worked at the lodge, as did Doug, that they had a midnight curfew, though since the waitresses outnumbered the guys who worked at the lodge by a ratio of about six to one, the girls were bunched in a row of cabins and under greater scrutiny from Flossie, the seventy-year-old woman in charge of the dining room, and a legend to guests for walking in front and around the lodge blowing a tin horn announcing every meal.
Once at Port Stanton, while we were sitting at the counter in the snack bar, Doug hooked up with a girl who worked at another nearby lodge and against my protest, which didn’t amount to much because I was six years younger than him, he took off with her in his boat, saying he’d be back in an hour. That wasn’t a problem, but it soon became one when the hour passed, and then turned into an hour and a half and there was still no sign of Doug. Sharon began whining it was getting late and she was worried Flossie would catch her out after curfew. The others were also getting restless and bored, and urging me to take everyone back to the lodge, that we couldn’t wait any longer, and we couldn’t wait for Doug, especially since there was no guarantee he’d return.
At around eleven-thirty I gave in, even though I knew I was overloading the boat. Counting myself, there were eight of us, but I thought we’d be okay, and we should have been, though many times things don’t work out the way one thinks they should.
I was driving slowly, didn’t dare open up to full speed, despite the complaints from others. Chugging along, we were out in the open water and across from the opening to Duck Bay when suddenly the motor sputtered and stopped. I could see the water rushing over the back of the boat and it was clear to me what was about to happen, we were going to capsize. I went over the side and told everyone else to follow my lead. No one moved. I don’t think anyone believed I was serious, but sure enough, as the water continued flowing into the boat, it eventually was pulled under by the extra weight in the stern, with the bow rising up in the air until it flipped back over, leaving the boat floating upside down.
Treading water, I immediately did a head count, yelling out everyone’s name. Jim and JoAnn, Joan, Frank, Tom, Sharon, and my sister. All answered, so we were okay for the moment. The next thing I wanted to know was how well each person could swim. Sharon blurted, “I can’t swim, but I can float,” whatever that meant. As I feared, my sister and I were the only ones who could swim with any proficiency, and not expecting so many passengers in the boat, there weren’t enough life preservers.
It was pitch dark, and we were all in the water, and the only landmark I could see were the lights on the cottage at Rocky Point, which was at least a half mile away, maybe a bit more. Of the group of us, I was younger than everyone but my sister but since I predicted the capsizing, and I had also been driving my father’s boat, I was the one who was suddenly considered the authority figure.
I didn’t had time to plan much out, so I went by instinct, based on commonsense and life saving experience from summer camp. Right away, I learned Frank and Tom and Sharon were close to useless as swimmers. Fortunately, they all had life preservers. I knew I had to leave them with the overturned boat while I swam toward Rocky Point. I told Jim to stay at the boat with the three others, so four were now accounted for. I don’t remember why, perhaps because they were scared and wanted to at least do something, but Joan and JoAnn wanted to stick together and slowly make their way toward the lights at Rocky Point, lying with their bellies across life preservers as they kicked away. I wanted my sister to also stay at the boat with the others but she was also determined to swim toward shore.
i pulled my sneakers off, took off my shirt, and was on my way, doing a crawl stroke as I made my way through the smooth surface of the water in the dark. All kinds of thoughts were rushing through my head. My concentration was on continuing forward, stroke by stroke. I knew I could make it to Rocky Point, I was confident in my swimming ability, though dire thoughts of potential tragedy slipped into my mind, which I tried to shake off as an impossibility. But it was all too true, someone could easily drown, I realized it could happen, and I knew it would be my fault for overloading the boat.
I kept moving, trying only to concentrate on the lights at Rocky Point. My blue jeans were slowing me down, and I considered taking them off, but even in the face of a potential catastrophe, I was still too modest to strip down to my underwear. I still had thoughts of someone drowning, but couldn’t believe it was possible, somehow thought everything would be okay, as I kept moving through the water, at a slower pace, while I tried to will my body to move faster through the water.
I had no idea of the passage of time. I could have been swimming for fifteen minutes, or an hour. Events were out of my control. All I could do was keep swimming, and eventually, I would come up to the rocks on the shore by the cabin at Rocky Point. I was soaked and my jeans were heavy, as I scrambled up to the cabin and started pounding on the door. Rap, rap, rap. No answer. I called out, “Hello.” Still, no answer. In somewhat of a panic I started down a gravel road to the next cottage, where I had better luck, and the door was opened by a surprised older couple. I blurted out what had happened, that the boat had capsized, that people needed help. The man, whose name I don’t even remember, wasted no time, throwing on a coat, and moments later, we were in his boat headed out to the scene where I hoped the others would still be with the boat. As we started out, I spotted my sister, in her underwear, coming up to the cottage at Rocky Point, so at least I knew she was okay.
As we moved out toward the middle of the lake, we heard some murmuring before us, and slowed down to see JoAnn and Joan still together across their life preservers, tired legs still kicking, almost in slow motion. We stopped and pulled them up into the boat. Joan was whimpering and JoAnn hugged me so tightly, I wasn’t sure she’d ever let me go.
Moments later, we approached the capsized boat, which was now surrounded by a number of other boats. The adrenaline shooting through my body started to subside, replaced by relief, when I knew for certain that no one had drowned.
There must have been five other boats at the scene when we arrived, including a guy in a canoe. Though cries of help could not be heard a half mile away at Rocky Point, the sound of Frank, Tom, Jim, and Sharon’s voices carried down the river across the lake on the other side due to the direction of the wind, and people had responded. In fact, boats from down the river had actually arrived before I had even finished my swim to Rocky Point.
The entire event lasted about an hour before we were all safe and back at the lodge. My parents were understanding and grateful everyone was okay. There was no anger. The possibility of tragedy negating such a reaction. The boat was towed upside down to a marina which was situated right by the mouth to the river and was ready for use a day later.
Jim and JoAnn’s parents considered me a hero, which embarrassed me, mostly because I felt responsible for the entire incident, and the experience had made me feel much more scared than heroic.
I didn’t think much about the boat accident. It was over and had a positive conclusion. As our summer group of friends moved into their later teens, one by one, they stopped coming to the lodge, most because of summer jobs. JoAnn married a star college quarterback from a school in Pennsylvania I had never heard of, but apparently the team was quite good, though it was in a small college football conference. I never knew what an influence I had been on JoAnn until I learned when she was pregnant with her first child, she wanted to give it my name if it was a boy. The quarterback husband, who knew about me, wanted no part of that and immediately rejected my name as a possibility. I didn’t care what the quarterback thought, and actually took solace in the fact that his surname was Smutney, though I hated to think of JoAnn as Mrs. Smutney, although she wasn’t for long, the marriage ending in divorce within five years.
I don’t think of JoAnn much, and almost never think of the night the boat capsized, so many other challenges and problems in my life overshadowing it over the years. I did see JoAnn one more time up at the lodge when we were in our early thirties and she credited me with saving her life that night long ago, which I thought was ridiculous and a bit melodramatic, but selective perception and experience, I guess, results in everyone coming away with different feelings and takes about any particular event.
I wondered if there was a possibility of ever getting together with JoAnn, but her mother told me JoAnn was happy, working as a dental hygienist, and living with a man who guaranteed her financial stability, was very good to her and her children, and was nothing like the hard drinking, bad tempered Smutney, wherever he was, football never being a part of his life after college. I had nothing to complain about, or regret, that night when the boat capsized. If there had been a different outcome, I’m not sure I would be writing about it, and the entire trajectory of my life would have been influenced in a much deeper and darker way.