Restoring the Sacred

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Closer to God in a Kayak II

The Sealift Caribbean

A Surprise for Tim

Those early days of paddling that 9-foot kayak out farther and farther in the ocean were special days. The dolphins became close friends and giant sea turtles, although most times pretty skittish, also came to accept my presence in their world. Sharks were hard to spot, because they don’t come to the surface often, but when the water is particularly clear (especially out in the deep water) they can be found.

The first really memorable thrill in my “Frenzy” was the day (in October 1992) when I paddled out to welcome (and surprise) our son, Tim, who was at the time sailing Chief Mate aboard the Sealift Caribbean, a tanker delivering jet fuel to ports on the East Coast. I had called the fuel depot where the Sealift Caribbean was to discharge jet fuel for the Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, to learn the expected arrival time at the depot. I knew the depot to be about two hours from the sea buoy, so I departed Atlantic Beach about one hour before the time I thought the ship would be at the sea buoy. As I started paddling out toward the channel, I noticed what appeared to be a tanker sitting at anchor just North of the sea buoy. As I got closer to the channel, I became convinced that the tanker sitting out there was, in fact, the Sealift Caribbean.

When I reached the channel, somewhere between the middle channel marking buoys and the sea buoy, I expected the tanker to start toward the sea buoy at any moment. I kept paddling east, and knowing that an hour must have elapsed from the time I started from the beach could not understand why the tanker remained sedentary in the water. All of a sudden, I saw out of a corner of my eye, a huge tanker approaching from the eastern horizon bearing down on me at a rather faster pace than I would have expected. That fast approaching tanker, as you might by now have guessed, was the Sealift Caribbean. I paddled my little 9-foot kayak out of the channel toward the south side as quickly as I was able, so as not to cause Tim, on every return to the St Johns River Channel, to recall an unspeakable tragedy.

I somehow got myself and the kayak situated safely on the south side of the channel just in time to see a man in a yellow slicker waving from the bridge wing of the Sealift Caribbean as it cruised past me – I knew it was Tim. I waved back with my paddle, and as soon as the tanker passed, turned back toward Atlantic Beach not without incident. I had totally underestimated the amount of wake given off by a fully loaded tanker traveling at rather slow speed when passing very close to a 9-foot kayak. Following a small pod of dolphins, I managed to negotiate the wake and turn toward home. A full account of the adventure was described by me in a piece entitled “A New old Man,” which, if I can find a copy, will be attached to this opus.

I still remember Tim’s words when I spoke with him later that day by phone. He said "Hey, Dad, I was driving the ship through the channel, with the pilot just aboard, and when I spotted a small black boat completely surrounded by dolphins, I knew it was you.” He said he pointed to the kayak and told the pilot: “That’s my Dad,” and the pilot said: “No s@#t?”

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