The Nightmare That Never Happened

It is said that the two happiest days of a boat owner’s life are the day they buy it and the day they sell it. Okay, hahaha and all that. But what about all the other days in between? They’re filled with the highs and lows of boat ownership. The joys and frustrations. The panic that can accompany the hemorrhaging of cash for slip rentals and maintenance. (B.O.A.T. also known as Bring Out Another Thousand and a hole in the water through which you pour all your money.) The list goes on. 

These expressions are both funny and true. I can personally attest to all of them and more. 

I must admit though, that the honeymoon period following the purchase of our 1948 LaBruzzi & Son twenty-six foot cabin cruiser, lasted deliciously longer than it should have. Dominic and his son, Lawrence made these old-school Italian designed “double-ender” (bow and stern are both “pointed” – not a flat transom in the rear) fishing boats in Oakland, California. It was built so that a single person could operate the boat while also fishing. 

LaBruzzi and Sons.

The company made numerous fishing boats until the war broke out in 1941. They suspended operations until after the war and when they resumed, they made a handful of pleasure craft, swapping the bow shaped transom with a straight one. With a couple of partners, I was able to purchase one. I loved this old vessel no end. We named her “Big Medicine.”

Big Medicine at the dock.

Big Medicine provided our family with numerous opportunities to picnic, take day outings in which we could explore the Delta…a little fishing here, a little swimming there, chronicles of sun-splashed days of leisure. The omnipresent Mt. Diablo in the frames of many photos.

Such benign and sublime experiences can turn on a dime, however.

Our daughter was about six years old and wanted to invite a couple of her friends from school for a day of frolicking on the river. Arrangements were made with the girls’ (they were sisters one year apart) parents and I drove the three of them from San Francisco to Holland Riverside Marina in Brentwood where we moored our boat. We anchored out in one of the channels and settled into our afternoon.

Fun and food and an hour of giggling ensued before it was time for one last set of “jumping off the bow of the boat” with life jackets, the currents pulling them along the hull towards the swim deck in the back and pulling them aboard as they drifted towards me.

When it was my daughter’s turn to jump in, she jumped out further than the rest. As a result, she drifted past my outstretched arms. My moment of hellish anguish had then just begun. It only got worse.

I instinctively dove into the water (no life jacket) after telling the other two girls to “STAY PUT!” and began to swim with the current to catch up to my daughter who was now 20 feet behind Big Medicine and steadily moving away from me. My idea of course was to catch up to her, turn around and swim back to the boat, towing my child. 

Folly. Stupid. Futile. And now, anguish. I quickly realized I wasn’t going to be able to catch up to my daughter who was now in the middle of the channel and in danger of getting hit by another boat as she was so small in the water. 

Right or wrong, I decided to reverse my direction…swim back to the boat, get on board and motor back to retrieve my receding daughter. So I did. I turned and started swimming. I am not an experienced swimmer and found myself effectively treading water in the strong current. I simply could not close the gap between myself and the anchored boat.

My kid continued to drift down river away from me. Away from being plucked safely from the murky and brackish waters.

Thoughts: Life flashing. What would I tell my wife if our daughter drowned? What would I say to the parents of the two siblings, a family I hardly knew?

Struggling and exhausted, swimming with all my might and yet not gaining on my anchored boat, I yelled and spluttered instructions to the two young girls who were on the aft deck of Big Medicine watching this saga unfold: 

“Girls! I need you to pull up the anchor.”

They stared blankly at me.

“Girls! GIRLS!!” I screamed and spluttered, “I need you to go to the front of the boat and pull up the rope. GO! NOW!!”

And they did. Against all odds and probability, they were able to pull up the anchor line. Current pushing against the bow of the boat, the anchor embedded in the mud on the river bottom. They did it. 

How? It’s a miracle.

But they did. 

I watched as the lettering Big Medicine slowly grew as the boat began to drift back towards me…still struggling to remain in place, swimming against the current…my little girl almost disappeared in the tule reeds now many yards behind us.

Was this really happening?

I was now able to grab the swim board and swing a leg up onto it (I had no ladder descending into the water on the boat at that time) and struggled to pull the rest of my body up out of the water onto the platform. I was exhausted and crying. The sisters began to cry.

I turned to yell to my kid who was a speck in the distance.

“We’re coming for you!! Stay there…we’ll BE RIGHT THERE!!”

On shaking legs, I ran to the bow and frantically began to pull up the rest of the anchor line. Drifting back with the current, pulling the line, the anchor came up and eventually the ten feet or so of chain with thick clumps of seaweed attached, slowing the process. Eventually, the line, chain and anchor were aboard. I raced back to the controls, fired up the engine and spun the helm 180 degrees, the boat turning agonizingly, slowly into the direction I last saw my kid.

Gunning the throttle, we hightailed it towards the tule-lined island. And, because it wasn’t her time to go, there she was, pushed into the tule reeds, crying and frantic. 

I made promises to God at that moment.

Once aboard, blanketed and comforted, I managed to calm all three girls down enough to get ourselves back to the marina. When we finally arrived back in the City, by now after dark (this was all pre cell phones), I dropped the siblings off with a brief explanation of our drama on the water. I could only muster: “Your daughters were complete heroines” and duck out of their home before too many questions could be asked.

Arriving at our home later, however, was another story. I told my wife what happened and the resulting stare would foster a guilt that I would pack around for many, many years. It was easier to bury the event and not even think about sharing it with anyone over the following decades. 

So I buried it. I didn’t go into therapy, nor did I sell the boat. I apologized, but that felt hollow and insufficient. 

It happened. The day had a happy ending. A nightmare was mercifully avoided.

Today my kid is in her late 30s.

I should ask her if she remembers it…

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