Too Far from Shore

An off-the-grid family at sea clashes with Mother Nature. Can the family survive both the storm and what comes after?

Ship in rough waters

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Hurricane Jerry was only a category 1 storm, but it had the element of surprise. Late in the season, it defied all the forecast models and was nothing at first, just a drippy squeak of a storm gathering over the Yucatán peninsula. Last we’d heard over the radio, it was headed for the Louisiana coast, and since we were about 200 nautical miles from Corpus Christi, we’d assumed we were in the clear. Later we found out they’d only called a hurricane warning eight hours before it made landfall at Galveston, and three people died. Witnesses recounted that it was as if vats of water were free-falling from the sky, but otherwise, not much damage was done. Being at sea, though, leaves few options for shelter.

Like an angry washerwoman, the winds snapped the sails, and the sky muddied when the clouds drooped into the horizon, but the first real sign that something was wrong was the restive sound of helicopters evacuating workers from the oil rigs. The sun that had just begun to set now disappeared into the darkness, so we switched on the catamaran’s lights, and once we’d squeezed into our wetsuits and strapped on our lifejackets, my father started up the engine while I doused the sails. We didn’t have time to get to land and didn’t want to be close enough to get slammed into it, so we steered into the waves, which had developed that deep, lazy, inauspicious roll. At each trough, we seemed to be heading straight down to hell before a jerking leapfrog at the crests.

If we could make it in time, a dormant oil rig would be our haven.

I sat up at the bow, feeling the spray in my eyes and mouth, watching the white lines in the waves, veins in blue skin. But Dad called me back to the cockpit when we started taking on water. Our approach was downwind, and even with our lights on, the lifeless rig was hard to make out through the rain and thrashing waves. “We’re coming in too fast,” Dad yelled from the helm, so Mom threw anchor, all of us hoping the line was long enough to reach the bottom.

As she held tight to one of the shroud wires, Mom yelled at me to hunker down in the cabin. I couldn’t hear her but understood the insistent movement of her mouth.

As if to obey, I ducked into the galley but then headed past the clattering dishes in the sink, climbed over the table, and pushed one of the dash windows into the pounding water and wind. Feet first, I scrunched my body through and slid down onto the deck. There was no way I was going to wait passively in the unknown, not fighting for my own survival, but a sudden dip of the boat knocked me onto the trampoline net. Water seethed through the vinyl mesh, stinging my eyes and slapping my skin even through the wetsuit. Like a squirrel clinging to a low-hanging branch, I grasped at the netting, too scared to shiver, but as soon as I got a firm grip, a wave tossed me into the air, and I was up there long enough to imagine the options for my landing: hard on the deck or else dashed into the churning waters and left behind. Instead, I split the difference, and through the lifejacket, felt a jab to my guts as the gunwale broke my fall. My breath was gone, and with it any hope of making it off this boat, this floating home where my anarchist parents were raising me because they knew no other way to live with themselves. This gridless place where they believed they were protecting me so I could grow up and keep the fight going. Their oh-so-noble fight.

The dire thought of missing out on land-living came with the return of my breath, so I clambered onto a pontoon, then the deck, the ground beneath my feet roiling. My whole front ached, but now my main fear was that Mom or Dad had seen me. Blocking the rain with my elbow, I could barely make them out at the stern, gesticulating wide-mouthed, as if over-dramatizing a lover’s quarrel for a silent film. Crouched like a hunted animal, I didn’t know where to go. Even the lights from the ship had now been swallowed up by the darkness, but when I looked down, the white of the floor beneath me was inexplicably bright. Slipping toward the trampoline, I felt for the mast, and when I reached it, wrapped both arms around, blinking the eternal water from my eyes and thinking nothing could tear me away.

Then I saw light. Mom, wearing a headlamp, was standing with feet spread wide on the starboard walkway, gripping our second anchor. Dad was doing his best to steer the ship toward the giant steel platform of the oil rig. We’d near it, get yanked back to sea, he’d gun the engine, we’d veer toward it again, and I wondered if we’d simply wait out the storm that way, indecisively swerving in the dark of a callous sea.

Then Mom was lifted into the air; we were tilting, the starboard pontoon upended. Before my feet could slide toward the water, I wrapped my legs around the mast too. As her side of the ship rose, Mom hunkered down, twisted her body, and hurled the anchor like a discus. I lost sight of it but heard the clang as it hooked onto one of the rig’s steel legs. All I could do was prepare for the next wave to capsize us while Mom felt the tautness of the rope, pulled the straps of her lifejacket, and jumped overboard, her thick black ponytail standing briefly tall in the air. My scream sounded like a whisper in my ears. I looked for her in the water, on the rig, all around the ship, but she was nowhere.

The thought was impossible: Losing her meant being left alone with Dad, with all his hardness and high expectations.

Unless I really could find a way off this boat.

But there she was, climbing the scaffolding like a tree frog, and I had to remind myself to hold tight to the mast as the relief coursed through me. When Mom made it up to the first deck, she better secured the anchor to a beam and hauled us in.

When I realized I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, I slid back in through the galley window and saw my father’s searching face at the door. He motioned with angry relief for me to follow. “Put this on,” he said, thrusting a headlamp in my arms and strapping the red ditch bag to his back. Its reflective tape seemed to glare at me.

After Mom helped lift us onto the platform, we released the anchor to let the boat freely knock around and, hopefully, avoid contact with the rig, the other anchor keeping it close enough by. I hoped it was lodged deeply enough to resist the heavings of the sea.

Ascending the slippery and crusted stairwell to the next platform was like being inside the skeletal remains of a giant metallic monster, somehow still breathing, all the joists and scaffolds hard and cold, wet and howling. We held tight to the handrails, slide-stepping up the grated stairs, and though I had a strong stomach, I became dizzy at the sight of the ocean tossing beneath my feet. Just before we reached the main enclosure, I looked up at the chipped yellow cranes and drilling derrick, oddly thankful for them, yet struck by their unseemliness. They were so exposed, and I imagined them self-conscious for all their tenacity. They didn’t belong here, and neither did we.

When we climbed through a small opening into the main living space of the rig, Dad pulled flashlights out of the ditch bag to add to the glow of our headlamps, and everywhere we shined our lights, we shined them on rust. Rust and spider webs. As I wondered how spiders could have made it this far out, I heard a scuttling at my feet. My headlamp caught something stealing into a corner, and I guessed I shouldn’t have been surprised to find cockroaches too. “La Cucaracha,” I said, and Mom sang the tune.

Cap told us to be quiet — but why? For whose sake?

We wandered through the narrow halls past office spaces, a kitchen, cafeteria, and control room before locating the sleeping quarters, windowless, dust-caked, and reeking of stale desertion. There we waited out the storm on wood-slatted bunks with no mattresses. The space felt safe, but my belly throbbed with the reminder that it had been smacked into the bow. I wondered if a bruise had started to form but didn’t lift my shirt to look. What if I’d broken a rib?

“Relax, Sim,” Dad said. He was lying on a bunk, bare-chested, hands behind his head. Mom was inspecting the drawers in the room, and each time she slammed one shut, I flinched.

“What about the boat?” I asked.

“What about it?” Dad said.

“What if the anchor doesn’t hold? What if it gets bashed into the rig?”

“It’ll be fine.”

“The anchor could come loose in all that wind.”

“It’s in there tight.”

“The rope could snap.”
“This is what it was made for.”

“We could be stuck here.”

“We won’t be stuck.”

But how did he know?

“Even if we are,” Mom said, “we have the ditch bag.” She murmured it as if to herself. “It’s got enough food and water for several days, and there’s the radio.”

“What if they can’t get here in time? What if they can’t find us?” And who is “they,” I wanted to ask.

“Enough with the what ifs, Sim,” Dad said, his voice the snap of a tape measure.

The storm lasted another hour, during which time my father slept with the exhaustion of survival. I stayed awake in the desk chair, not yet convinced we’d survived. To pass the time, I traced with my eyes the thin lines of Dad’s tattoos, a darker shade of brown than his skin, and kept getting lost. Like an M.C. Escher painting, they fell into overlapping and sourceless letters: Ms, Vs, and Ws.

Then his eyes were open. How long had he been watching me watching him? When he yawned and turned to his side, I didn’t look away. The letters continued across his back.

Once the skies had cleared, glowing with the moon, Mom and I went down to check on the boat. I couldn’t sleep until I knew whether our home was still there, and I sensed Mom couldn’t either. We didn’t wake Dad.

There it was: bobbing in the distance, and in one piece. He’d been right.

He always was.

* * *

In the light of dawn, we assessed the damage. Despite the wetsuit, Mom had gotten pretty scraped up, and the boat sustained minor injury: some gashes along the sides and the trampoline that had caught me now torn and gaping. The purple bruise across my middle I kept to myself.

After Mom patched herself up, we could have sailed on, but we decided to camp out until our stores of dried fruits, canned vegetables, and rice ran low. We had all the fresh fish we needed. In the brightness of day, the ugliness of the rig was all the more apparent, but just beneath the water’s surface was a marine wonderland. In our scuba gear, we marveled at the rainbow coral, sponges, and algae growing along the rusty legs of the rig and inviting all kinds of life to it, darting and sparkling and diverse: lionfish, tentacled flowers, giant graceful rays, crabs with poky eyes. I wondered how long it would take for all that beauty to eat through and collapse the rig, finally.

Getting to explore the jilted city on my own, to lounge with a book or my journal on the helipad with no parents in immediate range, was a reprieve. Nearly every surface was ornamented with graffiti, and I wondered if it was from other sea-wanderers like us or the original oil workers. I couldn’t imagine it was the latter — the petroleum companies must have run a tight ship — er, rig. Then again, if you had to keep people holed up with few means of unregulated release, graffiti was probably among the most amenable. Better, after all, than insurgency.

In addition to sexist stuff and claims that various people were there or ruled, all kinds of different obscenities appeared in fascinating and inscrutable combinations: “Dr. J sucks shit!” “Go to Miss Chloe in Nawlins for the best ass-rams.” “K.D. can get you G.D. high as a M.F. kite.” “Fuck happy people,” sprayed a streaking red in one of the bathrooms, was one of my favorites. I left some of my own: my initials; “Get me out of here”; and, just to even the score, “Men suck!!!”

I didn’t know if my parents would be proud of my insubordination or concerned that my scribblings could be trackable.

We all need means of breaching the confines of the everyday, so Dad used our stopover for one of his spirit quests, his semi-facetious way of referring to a private retreat. When we were out in our usual waters, he’d paddle away on a raft or have us drop him off on an uninhabited island, always returning with an enviable, if short-lived, aura of calm, during which he seemed less focused on me and on getting things done. I mourned its inevitable fade.

This time he locked himself in the cab of an old crane, saying he’d give the Hermetic tradition a try. Always, his goal was to immerse himself in some form of absolute loneliness, achieved with a supplement of peyote or psilocybin mushrooms. “We humans need regular reminding of our smallness,” he’d say. “Or else, we’re part of the problem.” Some people, he explained, got that reminder through religion, others through art or sport, but none of those could rival the messages received by a human mind released from conscious concern.

While my father was encountering the sublime in the decommissioned crane, Mom and I went fishing from one of the rig’s platforms. We ended up catching a couple dozen flounder, one after the other, so we set to work salt-drying them on the helipad. The weather was that perfect parity of sun and breeze, somehow making me sleepy and more alert at the same time. Dad had put up sheets of old newspaper along the interior of the crane, so we couldn’t see in, but I kept catching Mom’s eyes flicking up there as we butterflied the flounder. Each time she looked away from the sharp knife and slippery fish in her hands, I grew angrier, until I couldn’t bear her distraction anymore and offered to get the salt.

“Go slow,” she said. “It gets wet on the way down.”

Tempted toward sarcasm, I focused instead on how I could come across as good and deserving, deserving enough to leave, to leave these people who thought they could determine the course of my life just because they’d created me. “I will.”

With my every step, the oxidized stairs sang out, as if in pain, until I reached the bottom platform, where the newly patched boat was tied up. It drifted quietly on the surface of the water, and I considered for just a moment the possibility of sailing away and stranding my parents on the abandoned oil rig.

Maybe it was time.

Once in my cabin, I lay on the bed, pressing the tender bruise across my belly and listening to the soft waves slap against the hull. There, I was confronted by loneliness, as if it were a shape, a tingling presence overlaying my skin, as if it had been waiting for me. I didn’t know how or when the loneliness had gathered itself up into something so tangible. After all, aloneness was the climate of my upbringing. But it was in that moment, in the fusty air of a bobbing ship, that I recognized there was a difference between loneliness and being alone. Then I wrote a melodramatic entry in my journal expressing so much.

Maybe Cap longed for uncompromised isolation, but not me.

When I realized Mom would probably come looking for me soon, I forced myself up but felt dizzy, not enough oxygen in my head. Everything I was accustomed to had blurred. I steadied myself and then found the heaping salt bin in the galley, salt one of the few supplies we never ran low on. After scooping out a bucket’s worth, I grabbed the big blue tub we used for salting fish. I couldn’t make it up the stairs with the tub over one shoulder and the salt pail threatening to tear my other arm out, but I still tried, imbalanced, and almost toppling over the railing. If I were stronger, I lamented, I wouldn’t have to make two trips.

When I first made it to the top, I dropped the salt bucket with a clang and then peered back down through the beams and levels, unable to even see where I’d left the blue vat on the bottom platform. It felt like I could have made a bucket more of salt just by squeezing it out of my clothes. At their shrieks above, I watched the gulls flying in circles overhead, effortless on the air currents, then retraced my steps downward. When I finally arrived back where I’d begun, panting, Mom was waiting for me. “You all right, honey?” she said.

“Of course.” But I was glad to find her there.

She put her arm around my waist on the walk back to the helipad, and I tried to enjoy the closeness. Once Dad returned, her eyes would flit elsewhere.

And what if she never held me again?

Since she’d finished slicing the fish, we alternated layers of salt with fillets in the tub. The breeze up there cooled me, and I fell into the rhythm of the work, trying to hum my way through the entire Blue album and ignore Mom’s persistent glances toward the crane.

“Do you miss Dad when he’s away?”

She gave a chirp of a laugh. “Of course. What a funny question.”

I rubbed my hands to scrape off the salt, caked into a thick layer now, so it was hard to bend my fingers. “I was just wondering if it was also kind of a break.”

“A break from your father?”

“Why not?”

She laughed again, but to herself. “I always feel like I’ve forgotten something when he’s not around.”

I wasn’t sure I could believe her, though, because when she was purely focused on checking the brine or hanging the fish to dry, and not the man in the crane, there was a softness in her lips, a parting. When Dad returned to her thoughts, her lips squeezed against each other, as if keeping out bugs.

Did she worry that way about me? Would I, one day, be the cause of someone else’s worry?

I looked all around at the forever-sea.

How would I ever get the chance to know?

The storm was over. My parents and I had survived it, but it had torn between us, leaving in its wake new possibilities for me. Maybe they couldn’t live with themselves any other way. But I could.

Time to escape the invisible regime of my parents’ expectations.

Time to make my way to shore.

Too Far from Shore” is excerpted from Sarah’s novel in progress, As Though to Breathe Were Life.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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