God Bless Baymen
When my cousin Lew calls, I am holding my friend’s three-month-old daughter. Lew is on TSIU, a fifty-eight foot steel crabber, in Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, near the Native American Village of Angoon, where he is King Crabbing a world and a half away from the Brooklyn apartment where I hand back my friend’s crying infant and move around in search of clearer reception. Although we are breaking up, I gather he is asking me to be his daughter’s godmother. His family is returning to Eastern Long Island this summer, where both Lew and I were born and raised, to have his two children baptized at Saint Isidore’s Church in Riverhead. Before I can respond, I lose him.
This is not the first time I almost lost him. Over twenty years ago, Lew and his friend Ronnie Jacobs almost drowned where the mouth of the Peconic River kisses Flanders Bay. Ronnie bought a 14-ft aluminum skiff he was excited to get into the water. The late November outing was spontaneous; they could have walked to the duck blind, located around Iron Point, that afternoon, but instead boarded the boat with their hunting gear to test out the twenty horse power outboard. Conditions were optimal for hunting; low overcast gray skies, with the threat of snow and winds from an impending storm, would keep the local mallards and Black ducks searching for a place to roost for the night, hopefully in their decoy setup.
Iron Point had shielded them from the advancing Nor’east winds until they reached the outmost tip jutting out into the Peconic Bay. Sudden increased wind and choppy sea forced them to circle back. As Ronnie navigated the turn in the vulnerable trough, a large breaker slammed over the side, flipping the skiff, the hunters, and their gear into the algid bay. Neither were wearing life preservers; their boots and cotton jackets became sponges, immediately shed. At first, they didn’t think much of the situation, the bay was their childhood playground that they navigated across more gracefully than most kids maneuver across monkey bars. They tried to flip the boat back over and bail water out, but their efforts proved pointless; the waves were too capacious.
Still, not worried, they continued strategizing, ignoring their intractable shivering and numbing
extremities. Ronnie climbed back into the boat and tried to restart the outboard. They scanned their surroundings, taking in desolation, darkness, raw air into their lungs. Each minute was excruciating. Impatient, Lew looked toward shore, only about a hundred yards away; he, like all of the kids in our family, swam before walking. He knew leaving the boat broke a cardinal rule, but the shore was right in front of them, and he easily convinced Ronnie he could swim since they were both disoriented. He pushed off the boat, lunging forward into the water like an anchor, then struggled against his own muscles that became more of an adversary than the waves. Exhausted, he turned around and saw he had not swam far. He felt his own body pulling him under, he yelled for help turning around from skiff to shore, from shore to skiff. Ronnie swam out to get him; together they fought their way back to the boat, their floating oasis.
Leaning on the boat, which had once again flipped over, to rest on; they caught their breath. The wind worked against the tide, so the boat remained stagnant. They knew the situation was perilous, but maintained a strange calmness. No one was around and they had been in the cold water for about an hour. The light was nearly gone. “Lewie, I don’t think we are going to make it,” Ronnie confessed matter-of-factly. Delirious, they thought about hanging onto the boat and kicking their way toward shore. They clumsily pushed and pulled the boat, not even sure of their purpose, crawling up on the boat to rest like turtles on a log. Around this time, Lew remembers saying, “I’ll see you on the other side.”
From the shore, John “Eel” Carson, who was rabbit hunting, noticed something out of place in the water. At first he mistook them as swans or possibly a windsurfer, but then remembered seeing decoys. He ran back to where the decoys were and they were gone. Realizing the spots could be duck hunters, he felt compelled to check. John ran about a mile through marsh, no easy feat, to Bob Bourguignon’s house on Flanders Road. Bob is a Baymen and the boyfriend of my childhood best friend’s mother, the local artist Mary Van Deusen. The two men ran to Bob’s boat, launched into the bay, and traveled out. Nearing, they discovered Ronnie unconscious lying on the boat and my cousin going under, his hands grasping onto the edge of the boat. The men pulled them into Bob’s Boat. However, neither boy remembers the latter part of hanging onto the boat or the rescue.