More Than We Bargained For

A beautiful day on the Gulf

A beautiful day on the Gulf

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.

We clearly weren't paying enough attention

We clearly weren’t paying enough attention

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).

After the storm. We still had to motor back to the fort, but in a lighter mood

After the storm. We still had to motor back to the fort, but in a lighter mood

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More Than We Bargained For — 16 Comments

  1. Yup. Quite an adventure! That blue-green-black-white-streaked skyfront of unleashed earth power was awesome, not in the good way. In the scary way. Jeff did good.

  2. We watched that storm come across the bay looking out our windows at Dog Island. It was fierce. The wind blew out some of our screens and it knocked out the power for 24 hours. I can’t imagine being our in a 17 foot boat and seeing that storm head toward you. SO glad the outcome was good.

  3. I’ve been in the “same boat” a few times and I’m always surprised that I’m still surprised that it comes on so quickly. Glad you wise skipper and came through it okay.

  4. Thanks, Jim, I need to praise my skipper more, clearly! I would not have had the courage to make that call.

  5. Rosi, we were watching the weather on our cell phones, and it seemed to be going inland only…but not the case! Hope you got your power back!

  6. Remember our conversation about the ocean, Sue? Here’s one more reason to add to my list of why I often find it terrifying. Of course, lightening can strike anywhere, but the ocean environment is particularly hostile in a storm on so many levels. So, so glad you guys made it through, safe and sound. And think of the stories you’ll have to tell your grandchildren!

  7. Sue, this is such a great piece of writing. Mostly, I’m glad you’re okay, but wow. You can write poetry and tell a scary story at the same time. Remarkable. READ THIS FRIDAY!!!!

  8. Great description of yet another adventure, Sue! We were of the same mind — wanting to head to Panacea. Wonder how the story would have ended had our opinion prevailed. Who knows, but glad for our happy ending!

  9. Judye, I totally get how you feel! And yet, I know I’ll go out again and again, just be way more cautious about the storm possibilities. xo Sue

  10. Susan, I’m thankful you came through this unforeseen adventure safely. Thank you for telling us the story so well. We are but tiny specs … I don’t have a boat but I think I’d keep going out too — albeit, a bit more cautiously (& with GPS on )!

  11. I too, am afraid of lightening- respectful of its awesome power. My family was caught in a storm once- the small boat had 5 kids and 2 adults and my Captain, Dad could not see in front of him as the rain came down so hard and swift. I was uncomfortable but not concerned until I looked at his face. It was the face of a man afraid for his family. A look I had never seen before.
    We made it safely to shore- heading into the storm . A Captain of a small boat with small, valuable cargo!
    I always enjoy your posts! Keep them up!!

  12. Wow, that sky does look scary. I am happy that the outcome was good and that we are able to read your beautifully written account of this adventure. Big storms are becoming so much more frequent up here in the mountains. Of course they are nothing new for the Gulf.

  13. Sue, what a powerful & poetic piece of writing about a terrifying experience! So happy you made it to safety. I remember feeling the kind of fear you described on the Withlacoochee River in canoes with a powerful storm that seemed to spring up awfully fast. The choices were not good: stay on the river in metal canoes or get to land & wait out the storm under the cypress trees. We chose the land. Thanks for the post.