Afternoon on the Water

While many kids and adolescents boast of a daredevil recklessness and attraction to adventure, I’ve always been an extremely cautious person. In kindergarten, the thought of being late to school brought me to tears, and nightmares involving cavities led to excessive teeth-flossing. Learning to drive this past year was an excruciating process both for myself and probably my instructors, as I braked every time the speedometer read over 20. And yet, four years ago, I found myself in a sort of situation no amount of flossing or braking could save me from – the sort of situation I’d been avoiding all my life.

It was the kind of sunny day that teases you from outside the window, pleading with you to join the green grasses and golden sands beyond the familiarity of your home. An afternoon in early June, when summer is all that’s on your mind. My friend and I were spending the weekend at her grandmother’s house by the sea. Tired of soaking up sun on the beach, we decided that today we would acquaint ourselves with the water instead of simply watching it from the shoreline. Out came the inflatable boat, the wooden oars and the water bottles. While we managed to grab a couple of root beers and a ziploc bag of almonds, somewhere along the line a cell phone and pair of life vests were forgotten.

Our miniature outing started off well, as we rowed to an isolated island and enjoyed our lukewarm sodas over a view of the bay. Afterward, we continued onward, I suppose intrigued by the endless blue before us.

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A couple hours since first setting off, our arms ached and stomachs demanded something besides raw almonds. We decided to return home in order to make it back in time for dinner. A few minutes after turning around, however, ripples began shoving against our small boat as the current shifted and began to push us in the opposite course of our desired destination. Which might have been alright, had it not actually been pulling us toward open sea.

My friend’s eyes widened as she realized our predicament.

“We just have to paddle faster,” she assured me, I assume in an attempt to prevent me from losing control. A brave, but futile effort – in the literal sense. Any control the two of us once had over the boat was utterly lost as the current became stronger and winds harsher. As the sky softened and then darkened, fear loomed like the night over our shoulders. I had thrown caution to the wind without even realizing it; in that moment, it felt as though it’d been drowned in the waves, which thrashed and washed us further from home.

As we struggled against the current, our twelve-year-old arms frantic and weary against the water, we realized without even saying so that this simply wasn’t going to work.

“What if we try tying the boat to that buoy, and wait for the current to shift again?” my friend asked, tears forming in her eyes and voice high with anxiety as she pointed toward the floating device a few yards away. But alas, we were quickly swept away from the object of hope, and toward the infinite stretch of ocean.

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Our only option was to row sideways in an attempt to reach the mainland. After what felt like hours of furious paddling, we were finally within arm’s distance of a marsh which we then dragged our boat through, feet sinking deep into mud and tall grasses grazing our legs. On the other side of this morass, we glimpsed a backyard and some houses. Abandoning our boat in the reeds, we ran toward the signs of civilization, seeking help.

The neighborhood was completely empty. No dog-walkers, no bustling storefronts, no kids playing in front yards. All that could be heard was the occasional song of a bird and the crashing of the ocean beyond the marsh. Through the gravel streets we ran, ringing dozens of doorbells without result. It finally dawned on us that all the houses were most likely summer homes. Heads and spirits hanging low, we started to return to our boat to ensure it hadn’t washed away. And then – among the birdsong and pulse of the waves, we heard another sound. A screech and clang of metal resounded from a backyard bordering the marsh. Raising our heads, we saw an elderly man gripping a shovel, planting a patch of flowers. We rushed toward him and attempted to explain our situation.

“Our boat – it’s in the marsh –”

“You see, the current changed, and we got pulled off course –”

“And now we have no idea where we are or how to get back home.”

We stumbled over our words, overwrought but flooded with relief. Thankfully, the man seemed an expert at deciphering our jumbled speech and also happened to own a motorboat. In a matter of minutes he had tied up our dinghy to the back of his boat, and my friend and I climbed on board, eager to return home. The boat roared to life and began its journey toward my friend’s grandmother’s house.

That night, I drifted to sleep quickly, muscles worn and mind fatigued from the day’s unexpected adventure. There was no energy left for epiphanies or revelations. But later that week, having gained enough distance to look at that afternoon more objectively, I was able to recognize that the experience, although perhaps unpleasant in its own right did, in fact, have some lasting impact that wasn’t completely negative. Caution can only go so far. It’s impossible to be prepared for everything that comes along, and acknowledging that some matters are out of one’s control is an important sort of awareness. When it’s too late for caution, coping comes into play – a necessary and vital skill. While I may never be so close to getting lost at sea again, there will be times when it feels like I am drifting toward a metaphorical ocean without a life vest or a plan. But at least now I know that unpleasant situations cannot necessarily be avoided through caution and that it’s often in these unfortunate happenings that we find new sources of strength and resilience.

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