The Tale of a Father, a Son and a Shipwreck
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The who brave the rough water of the open seas and the shipwrecks that sometimes drown them have been the stuff of legends for centuries. From traditional sea shanties to "Moby Dick" and the book "A Perfect Storm," tales of harrowing waves and hardy sailors have been told and retold. Well, commentator Heather King would like to add one more story.
Back in New England, my brother Gordie's been a commercial fisherman for over 20 years. He developed his passion for boats as a kid out fishing and pulling lobster traps with my father. But it wasn't just seafaring skills Gordie inherited from our late father. It was the character of a man who'd raised eight kids on a bricklayer's salary, who never forgot to say thank you, who instinctively put the other person first.
When Gordie finally got his own boat, nobody understood the poetry and privilege of it better than my Yankee father. For years, whenever the crew of the Sea Witch came in from a run, my father would be waiting at the dock to welcome them.
Around midnight several weeks ago, Gordie called me to tell me an incredible story. He'd been fishing that night off the coast of Maine when the Sea Witch had been hit by a 20-foot rogue wave of such tremendous force that it had blown out a wheelhouse window, ripped a three-inch gap in the overhead of the superstructure and wiped out most of the electronics. With the winds blowing at 40 to 50 knots, Gordie had hustled the crew into their survival suits, miraculously managed to get one of the radios working and, for the first time in his career, put out a mayday.
When the Coast Guard chopper arrived, it couldn't put a basket down to deck because the seas and winds were too bad. So 75 miles out on a pitch-black roiling sea, my little brother had stayed behind as one by one the other three crew members jumped into the water. The first guy hadn't been able to make his way to the chopper and, after 20 hair-raising minutes, had been taken in by a nearby Good Samaritan boat. The second guy had been in the water another 20 minutes, the third 15 before reaching the chopper and getting hauled a hundred feet up on a quarter-inch steel cable. Only then, had Gordie taken one last, long look around the wheelhouse of his beloved boat and jumped in the water himself.
`The others went first?' I asked. `Well, yeah, that's just the rule of the sea,' he replied. `As the captain, I'm the last to leave the ship.'
It raised the hairs on the back of my neck just thinking about it, but all his talk was about how courageous everyone else had been. `You want to talk about brave,' he said, `those Coast Guard guys put their lives on the line for us.'
`What about the boat?' I asked. `Oh, man,' he replied. `The boat's gone. It'll be a miracle if she hasn't sunk by now.'
`Geez, GO(ph),' I said thinking of his wife and two kids. `It's your whole livelihood.'
`Yeah,' he said, `but no boat is worth risking the lives of your men over.'
There's something about the rules of the sea that stirs the human heart, perhaps because they require a kind of nerve and, for a captain who lives up to his calling, a kind of love that makes even those of us on shore feel a little safer. Out at sea, the waves were still roiling but my brother had gained his place alongside the mythological heroes of millennia of shipwreck stories. Daddy would have been proud, I told him that night, but what I really meant was everybody is.
SIEGEL: Heather King lives in Los Angeles. She's the author of "Parched: A Memoir."
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