Face upturned, eyes squeezed closed, mouth wide to catch the beating
rain. The drifting man, sunburned and weak from hunger, swallowed rainwater
with thankful gasps. Clouds took on haunting shapes of people laughing
at his misery. Could he go on any longer? Just slip off the kayak into
the rolling waves. End it. Give up.
But he didnt. He thought back of the visions hed had months
ago spending the winter in the balmy tropics. And now he was starving,
nearly frozen from hypothermia, thoroughly weary from clinging to a
twelve-foot kayak somewhere off a tropical island at the mercy of ten-foot
high waves driven by capricious winds.
Ordinarily lounging aboard ship on the beautiful Caribbean sea is idyllically
romantic, right? So it was for a short time in the life of Ron Hall
from New York. He expected an adventure in the tropics when he agreed
to crew with a buddy on a 1940s vintage tugboat, restored to seaworthiness
by a mariner intent on a life at sea.
They left from Daytona, Florida, and leisurely made their way toward
the tropics. They anchored close to the northwestern end of St. Thomas
in the American Virgin Islands after a series of mishaps and a hungering
for familiar fast foods from a Seven Eleven. Ron, by this time, began
to wonder about his commitment to serve on a restored vessel. When the
captain mentioned his dream of tugging around the world,
Ron decided the trip for him was ridiculous. He and Buddy lounged on
a beach not overly concerned about the infrequent squalls that swept
across them towards the Puerto Rican islands.
At the winter solstice gusting winds usually rush across the water as
a shrouded Merlin steals swiftly from one assignation to the next. Ron
watched the anchored tugboat settle comfortably into the rocking waves.
He decided to take their kayak back to the tug and urged Buddy to join
him. Buddy was not inclined to move from the tropical paradise to the
smelly diesel tugboat -- so Ron gripped the paddle on the 12-foot kayak
and judged the 800 yards as a measly distance across the sapphire Caribbean
Sea to be a simple jaunt.
See ya back on the tug, Buddy. and Ron paddled into the
sunset -- an admirable scene with the sun coloring cloud edges every
conceivable hue of pink.
He was impatient as the jagged coral distracted his viewing of clouds
in a spectacular blue sky looking for all the world like giant white
popcorn exploding out of gray blobs.
Ron shifted his focus from the sky to the tugboat, paddling as he left
shallow waters off the St. Thomas beach, not the least aware of a vicious
Merlin at his back sweeping overland with a vengeance toward open water.
When the thirty-five mile-an-hour wind hit him with accompanying rain,
cold and piercing, Ron gave his paddle serious attention. Ten-foot waves
carried the hard plastic kayak up and over, drenching and overwhelming
him in total disregard of his physical efforts toward the anchored tugboat.
Every ounce of energy went into working the paddle. He experienced many
types of boats and had kayaked on lakes and streams but never had his
paddling efforts been so thwarted. Up and over the waves took him always
westward, rolling and falling. His chest heaved as he clung to the paddle
with straining muscles. At the top of the waves he paddled air. Inside
the wave he chose to cling to the rope and the paddle washed away. Ever
farther from the tug.
Ron laid flat against the plastic kayak, tense and in fear of being
torn into the frantic water. For two days he was helpless, trying desperately
to steer the kayak with determined shifting of his weight against the
hard plastic form of the kayak. With success he slipped into the waves
and was elated. With more failure than success his strength and his
optimism waned. There appeared some reefs that may impede his watery
journey and he was dashed upon dark cutting coral with such force the
kayak and he made a complete 360 degree flip putting him on rocks and
sand near midnight where he gratefully fell into a sleeping stupor where
regained some strength.
Shivering beyond belief, he decided to attempt to reach the lighthouse
whose beam had lit his hallucinations throughout the night. Into the
water he urged with every cell in his body through the kayak to move
toward the south. The wind blew harder and refused his efforts. He drifted
ever westward with the high rolling waves and finally between two islands
he was able to drift ashore on a sloping sandy beach within sight of
large rich looking homes.
Ron pulled the kayak above the high tide level and walked along the
beach in slow wobbling steps wearily searching for access to the houses.
He was relieved to be on inhabited soil but his brain could not find
a solution -- a way to reach those houses. His body ached from the battering
of the waves. The gash on his right forearm stung like a touch from
a red hot poker. His facial skin burned with intensity the likes of
which he never before experienced.
But he was off the rolling sea! What could be more appealing? Now to
find someone, something, get somewhere, water, eat, feel comfort somehow.
He heard a motor, a car -- civilization at last. Then there were voices
and people coming toward him. He had no strength to call out, no energy
to greet them, but he was relieved to see people -- the first hed
seen since he bid goodbye to Buddy on the beach two days before.
Turns out his saviors were the only year-around settlers that side of
the island and they walked on the beach daily at sunrise. He was transported
by jeep to a hilltop house, watered, fed, bathed, clothed, soothed and
returned to St. Thomas.
I stood by and saw him rescued on December 24, 1998.