It had been a pleasure-full day on the water, three hours or more swimming and meandering among batfish, a couple rays, a green sea turtle, schools of small fry, several puffer fish. A time of solitude and little sound, only the harshness of breath through snorkel. The Gulf was warm, benign, amniotic, nothing to fear. We had dawdled over lunch, even agreed to slide back into the water and make another pass for scallops. The air had been so still earlier, and the water so clear, it was as if our boat flew over glass. Later we realized that that that still air was a clue of what was to come—no sea breeze was pushing the storm away from the Gulf.
As the day progressed, we did note the bruised sky gathering itself north and inland. We assumed the weather would stay on shore, move west to east, as it so often does, and let us be.
But nearby boats began to disappear from the scallop grounds, fleeing back towards the St. Mark’s ramps. Even though several dozen pleasure craft remained, turned out they weren’t any smarter about the storm than we were. When the clouds fingered out from the coastline, we packed up the picnic, secured loose clothing and gear, and started up the boat.
The flat Gulf grew waves, deep-troughed, white-peaked. All four of us weighed in on where to go. No good option. Most boats were running for the shore, and that’s what Jeff and David believed we should do. There was no rain yet, but our diving skins were soaked with cold spray.
I watched the lightning stab the river–our path to the ramp–in unimaginably powerful strokes. Nothing in my animal body thought it was a good idea to point the boat full speed into that storm. The only times I have felt this exposed have been when I was hiking above tree line in the Beartooth Wilderness, and once, with my friend Gretchen and our very young children on the Blackwater River. Lightning scares me. I was ready to ride to Panacea, to Panama City, to Pensacola, as far as our gas tank would take us, anything to avoid the blue-black animal bolting the sky to the bay with electricity.
In the end, it was Jeff’s to decide. He was the captain of the boat and there was no time to council further. He put the nose of the boat into the wind, and ran straight into the gale. I focused my attention on the slim body of the lighthouse, not the black sky behind it, and hung on tight.
The rain hit just as we tied up the boat, bow and stern lines both, to the dock near Lighthouse Pond. We paused under some palms and oaks to regroup, then ran down the asphalt road in our flip-flops, nearly a mile, to the porch of the lighthouse. The rain torrented in horizontal blasts. We were scared and cold, and still the lightning hit all around, but our bodies knew that as land-based creatures, we might be a measure safer even on this exposed road than out on our boat on the Gulf. At the end of the road, I could make out big terns and skimmers on a sandbar, and I knew that they had no choice but to point their bills into the wind, and wait.
Jeff and I talked about it later. “I’m not saying I didn’t have a huge adrenaline rush,” said my husband. “But I didn’t think we were going to die.” “If you weren’t afraid of dying by lightning, what scared you?” I asked. “That the squall would hit us, and we’d lose visibility, not be able to see where to go,” he said. “I was kicking myself for turning off the GPS earlier.”
I reminded him about my strong desire to head out to sea, not into the teeth of the storm .”That’s what real ships want to do–that’s what an oceangoing vessel would do in a hurricane,” he laughed. “You had the instincts of an ocean-going vessel, whereas I had the instincts of a 17-foot boat.”
There’s some kind of wisdom I should garner from our most recent adventure out on the Gulf, but what I feel now is purely grateful (that we survived), and awe-filled (at the ultimate power of our planet).Share On: