I was still green, having only a month ago traded my Great Lakes home in Michigan for the salty sea air and hot sun of the Caribbean. Now, here I was, crewing with a bunch of strangers aboard Windy and everything about sailing was new to me. And I had no complaints. Sunlight glinted on the tops of deep-blue waves while flashes of silver and a flutter of wings raced by the hull, a school of flying fish joining us on our 6-hour voyage.
Then we heaved to and the captain’s voice rang out from astern, “Hop in!” It was time for a quick cool-off swim.
I stood at the bow. The beautiful Caribbean Sea called out to me, and all I had to do was jump. I took a breath and leapt.
That first splash was bliss, the sunburn on my face and shoulders cooling to the saltwater’s touch. I paused to take in the peacefulness of being underwater. Then, feeling invigorated, I swam hard for the surface.
The bridge of my nose slammed into Windy’s hull. Pain erupted from behind my eyes and deep within my skull. I was dazed, confused — How did that get there? What was I doing underwater? — but I knew I had to move, to maneuver away from the boat and to get air.
Popping up alongside the hull, I gasped for air. And I couldn’t swim, my brain wasn’t working right. I could see the boat — two other crew on the bow, endless ocean and a white, brilliant sun and blue sky, but I couldn’t process it all, I couldn’t comprehend anything. Thinking back, it was the same feeling as reading a book and then realizing I’d not paid attention to anything on the past several pages and having to go back.
The crew was laughing. I could hear them wondering where I’d gone and why I’d swam under the boat. Later, they told me I looked normal then, maybe a bit confused.
“I need help,” I managed. The boat was drifting away. I knew I had to swim, but my body didn’t respond. I was just floating, my hands and legs still. My breathing was shallow. Help me, I remember thinking, I’m gonna drown.
One of the crew, May, dove in and swam towards me, asking me questions. I couldn’t respond. She wrapped an arm around my waist and started pulling me towards Windy. I heard the boat’s engine start and it moved closer. At the boarding ladder, I somehow pulled myself aboard and then plopped down on a seat, exhausted and dazed.
It took a couple cans of very cold beer on my very swollen face and some friendly chatter to bring me back to my senses. Then we started going over what went wrong.
I didn’t know about the currents, about how the boat was still moving slowly forward while hove to. I didn’t jump far enough from the boat, and not in the right direction. I started to think “what if?” What if I had blacked out and not surfaced? What if May hadn’t seen me or jumped in on time? What if I didn’t float and just sank?
I’d heard the captain earlier go on about the dangers of the ocean. Just a few days prior, another sailor had shared words of wisdom in the context of recounting experiences aboard in life-threatening storms: “She can turn on you in just a minute, one mistake can cost you your life.” I remember wondering whether I’d ever see and experience that kind of fury, but I missed the important message: even a placid situation at sea can quickly and out of the blue become dangerous. My experience helped me to understand this truth.
I will always treat the water and the boat with respect. I will maintain an awareness. Because I know, first-hand, that the sea is just as deadly as she is magnificent.
Linnea Martinez is a recent college graduate who left her small Michigan town for a sailing adventure in the Caribbean. While on board she’s learned the basics of sailing, knots, the importance of being aware of your surroundings, and the joys of working with fiberglass. With her degree in Multimedia Journalism, Linnea hopes to continue sharing stories of the people she meets as she heads further south.