Freeways to Flip-Flops: Our Year of Gutsy Living
“Duke, we can’t take the boat out. It’s too dangerous,” I said, my entire body quivering with fear. I tugged on the lines, squatting and leaning back, fighting the undertow so intent on snatching our boat from the dock. My wrists throbbed, and the skin on my palms felt raw. The lines slipped from my clenched fists and, sensing my loosening grip, Duke shouted, “Hang on, Sonia, just two more lines to go.”
This was torture, and, in case I hadn’t suffered enough, a massive black cloud smeared the entire sky and catapulted bullet-sized rain pellets onto my bare back. This was the first storm since we’d uprooted our family to live on an island in Belize, Central America. I punched my way through the wind, skidded along the slippery planks of our wooden pier and made it back to our house. Although only mid-afternoon, it felt dark and eerie, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the safety of my three boys.
Why the hell did we leave Orange County, California, and move to this godforsaken island where our lives were now at risk? Did I really think this was going to save my family?
I had to get hold of Josh’s school and let Jasmine, the secretary, know we were trapped by the storm. I wanted her to grab Josh before he scurried out of class to David’s pier, where we normally docked our boat. I was freaking out at the thought of not being able to pick up our youngest son, age ten, after only a few days at the expatriate school in San Pedro. What if some Creole drug dealer found Josh lost in San Pedro and kidnapped him? What if he locked him up in one of those shacks bordering the mangrove swamps next to the lagoon?
I knew I shouldn’t let my imagination run wild, but I couldn’t help it. Our boat was
the only way my husband, Duke, and I could get to town. All I could do now was pray that the storm wouldn’t turn into a hurricane.
Once inside and protected from the painful rain, I dried myself off and hurled Duke a towel from the stack we kept by the front door. “Look what the rain did,” I said, poking at one of many welts on my forearm.
I dashed to the phone across the living room and dialed the school. I heard one ring, then nothing. I pushed the button several times, pressed it firmly against my ear, even whacked it against the counter, but it was dead.
“Try the cell phone,” Duke said. “It should be in my nightstand.”
I hadn’t used my cell phone since we left California, two months ago, and prayed it still worked. There was no reception in the house, so I covered my head with a towel and slid along the planks to the end of our dock.
This time Jasmine answered. “We’re stuck in the storm,” I said, out of breath. “I’m worried about Josh getting home.”
“Don’t worry,” Jasmine said in her melodic Belizean voice. I almost expected her to say, “Be happy.” Belizeans have a way of remaining calm. Island time had not infiltrated my cells yet, and I found it more natural to be myself: an anxiety-ridden mom from Orange County, California. Embarrassed that Jasmine might think I sounded overly panicky, I told her we’d try again when the rain stopped.
“Call me back later,” Jasmine said. “I’ll be here till four.”
By 3:35 p.m., the dark blanket had blown away, and Duke suggested we give it a shot. Barefoot, we slipped down the soggy, exterior staircase flanking our beach house, grasping the railing for support.
In the distance, I could hear the roar of the local Island Ferry’s 250 horsepower double engines fighting their way through choppy water and scattered debris as the ferry approached our dock. Our older sons, Steve, sixteen, and Alec, fourteen, were positioning themselves on the bow, ready to jump off.
“Are you guys nuts?” Steve said, when he saw his dad and me untying the lines on our brand new boat. Steve and Alec had taken the Island Ferry home once before, but not Josh. I watched the Island Ferry’s experienced captain, Roberto, struggle as he jerked the throttle into reverse, trying to maneuver his way out of our narrow channel before the waves slammed his expensive boat into our dock. Now Duke and I were attempting to drive our 95 horsepower lanchon, the Island Hopper, to San Pedro–with no other boats on the water that day except for the Island Ferry. Surely we weren’t so stupid we thought our boating skills comparable to Roberto’s?
“Roberto almost hit the reef,” Alec said, his pencil-thin body fighting the wind as he skidded on the wooden dock, heading for the safety of our house.
“You sure it’s safe?” I asked Duke.
“Hurry! Jump in,” Duke shouted, as the undertow suctioned our boat away from the dock.
Debris kept piling up on the beach, and I tried to ignore the ten-foot tree trunk floating a few feet from the bow. We had to get Josh home.
Duke turned the engine on. A massive dose of adrenaline flooded my veins as we rode the sea like a roller coaster toward the reef, salt spray splashing our faces. Our boat crashed through oncoming waves and, a few feet after Duke turned south toward town, I heard two horrific noises. The first sounded like a machine grinding rocks. Next came a clamor like a loud train screeching to a halt. Our engine quit; then a creepy silence followed, despite the howling winds and thunderous waves. “What the hell’s that?” I yelled, clinging to the boat’s vinyl seat with a white-knuckled grip.
“The engine’s slipping because of cavitation,” Duke said, staying calm.
“What does that mean?”
“Air’s getting in, and the blade’s losing its bite.”
“We head home before we lose power.”
Each time Duke pushed the throttle forward, the horrific screeching resumed. Without power, the Island Hopper flitted around like an indecisive hummingbird, and the sharp coral reef sucked us in. That’s when I realized we might capsize. Salty waves stung my eyes as they slopped over the gunnels, slowly flooding the bottom. I closed my eyes to relieve the burn and there, right in front of me, in fresh ink, I saw the headlines of tomorrow’s San Pedro Sun: “Inexperienced boaters Duke and Sonia Marsh perish on reef. The Island Hopper capsized while trying to reach San Pedro, where their youngest son attends the Island Academy.” I was more afraid of abandoning Josh than I was of us capsizing.
A scraping sound right underneath me forced me to open my eyes. The bottom of our boat grated against the coral heads, and each wave wedged us more firmly into the sharp reef.
Duke placed his hand on the throttle and cranked it all the way forward, ignoring the sound of our engine grinding itself to shreds. He couldn’t afford to lose a second by lifting the propeller to fix the problem at sea. But during those few seconds of power, Duke brought us close enough to our shallow channel to grab the long wooden pole we kept on board to propel our boat toward our dock.
My knees wobbled as I jumped onto the bow and started waving my arms like a windmill for Steve and Alec to see. I knew they would be watching from the large patio glass doors, which opened to a magnificent view of the normally peaceful Caribbean Sea. Both of them ran outside to help. Alec and I barely held onto the line as Duke attempted to turn the boat so the bow faced the incoming waves. Meanwhile, Steve jumped into the sea to push the boat around.
“Look at the propeller,” Steve shouted. “You’ve got a fishing net caught in it.”
Steve took his pocketknife and starting cutting the wire. For a split second, I couldn’t believe this was the same Steve who’d caused me so much grief and angst in Orange County.
As soon as I’d fastened the lines onto the cleats, I ran back for the cell phone and called Jasmine just in time. “We’re stuck,” I said. “Can you drop Josh off at the Island Ferry dock?”
“I’ll take him in my golf cart,” she said. “No worries.”
After hanging up, I realized Josh didn’t know the name of our boat dock. Instead of addresses, houses on the islands had names like Villa del Sol or Casa Tortuga, and boat captains knew all of them. I would have to call the ferry office. Figuring it would take Jasmine fifteen minutes to drive Josh to the Island Ferry boat dock, however, I waited what seemed an interminable time before making that call.
“Can you see a small boy waiting for the ferry?” I asked the Belizean woman who replied.
“I don’t see no small boy,” she said.
“Please check. His name is Josh.”
“Hold on Ma’am.” I sat, dangling my feet off the edge of our pier.
“No Ma’am. No small boy here.”
Racing back to tell Duke, I flew up the staircase. “Jasmine must have missed him. You know how he rushes out of the classroom as soon as the bell rings.”
“He’s probably waiting for us at David’s dock,” Duke said. Scary visions of Josh searching for our boat were heightened by my own childhood experience. I found myself reliving the fearsome episode when my baby sitter abandoned me to run off with a guy and left me roaming the streets of Paris alone. I was only four.
Sandy, our Realtor, was the only other mother I knew who had a kid at Josh’s school. Duke thumbed through the phone book – no thicker than a Reader’s Digest — for her number.
“Sandy, you’ve got to find Josh,” I pleaded.
My heart thumped so loudly, I figured she could probably hear it.
“Call me back in ten minutes,” she said. “I’ll look for him.”
At nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds, I called her back.
“Josh hasn’t left school yet,” she said. “Jasmine’s taking him right now. He’ll be home in twenty minutes.”
For thirty minutes, all I could see were white caps pounding the reef; there wasn’t a single boat in sight.
“Oh, my God, perhaps the Island Ferry couldn’t leave,” I shrieked. Duke and Alec ran out to our dock with towels over their heads. I scanned the horizon from our upstairs patio and felt relieved when a speck in the distance seemed to be heading toward our house. This had to be the Island Ferry.
Turn now, come on, turn. The boat went straight past our dock.
“Bloody hell! Josh wasn’t on the boat,” I screamed. With cell phone clutched and ready, I dialed the Island Ferry and recognized the same Belizean woman’s voice.
“Sorry Ma’am. No small boy on the boat.”
“You have to page Roberto. I see the boat. It stopped at Sundiver dock.”
“I can’t,” she replied, sounding fed up with my calls.
“Please,” I begged.
Finally, I heard her page Roberto and understood enough Spanish to figure out that Roberto dropped Josh off at Sundiver, the dock just north of ours. Apparently, our channel was too shallow and dangerous.
I ran along the beach toward Sundiver resort, barefoot. Scrunched up seaweed, empty plastic bottles, syringes and other debris now covered the entire path. Scared that I would step on broken glass, I stopped.
A small figure emerged in the distance, carrying a dark blue backpack. As he got closer, Josh’s unmistakable, freckled smile calmed me down.
“Mom, that boat ride was awesome,” he beamed. “Are you crying?”
Sonia Marsh © 2012