A Coast Guard Auxiliary skipper had a feeling that someone needed help.
- Posted on Jun 14, 2012
It was Sunday evening. The sun was setting on a choppy, cool day on Florida’s Indian River. I’d skippered a Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel for eight years.
My crew and I were civilian volunteers, but the US Coast Guard relied on us to keep the folks who were fishing or sailing these waters safe. Patrolling this river never felt like work to me.
Besides being outside on the water, I liked knowing I was watching out for anyone who might need help. So far I’d rescued a dozen or so people in trouble. My mother might have said I acted as a kind of guardian angel.
When I was growing up in Alsace, France, she hung two pictures of angels above my bed to watch out for me. I wasn’t so sure I believed in real angels anymore, but I believed in the power of my boat, the Alsace II, and her crew to save lives.
Nobody needs saving today, though, I thought looking out at the wide open river. Today my first mate and I had hardly seen one boat since our shift began at 8:30 that morning.
Now the wind was really starting to kick up. The weather could turn quickly in the evenings in Florida. I’d been out on far rougher seas, but still I looked forward to getting someplace warm and dry.
“How about we head home for a hot cup of coffee, Skipper?” my first mate asked.
“I’ve been daydreaming about it for the last twenty minutes,” I admitted. “Let’s scan the river one more time before we call it a day.”
We each took a position on deck, looking up and down the river. Not a soul in sight. No reason to stay out. But just as I was about to turn the boat around, I got an uneasy feeling. A feeling as if I was leaving my work unfinished.
It seemed ridiculous to ask my first mate to stay out on the water just because his skipper had suddenly gotten “a feeling.” Our shift was over. I wanted to go in as much as he did. Besides, we’d checked the whole area. If someone needed help, surely we would have seen them.
There was that section south of the bridge. Hardly anyone travels down there, I told myself. But it was the only place we hadn’t checked.
“Coast Guard’s on the radio,” my first mate said. “They want to know if we’re heading in.”
“Not yet,” I said. “I want to check south of the bridge first.” He looked a little disappointed. I couldn’t blame him. And I couldn’t explain the crazy feeling that wouldn’t let me go.
We headed south. The wind ruffled my clothes and chilled my skin. The water had gone from choppy to downright angry.
“Keep your eyes peeled,” I instructed my first mate as we approached the bridge.
Nothing. By the time we went under the bridge, I was starting to feel silly, and a little guilty for keeping my first mate out so long. We came out the other side. What was that? I squinted to see a small boat with two people in it.
We got closer. I could tell that the passengers were elderly. They had fishing poles in the boat. They must have gone out before the weather turned nasty. The woman rowed against the waves and wind, and losing the battle.
Her husband tinkered with the motor, which obviously would not start. Water sloshed inside the boat. A shiver went through me. The boat was in danger of sinking.
We pulled up alongside them. I could see the terror in both their faces. “Hello!” I called out. “We’re here to help.”
“Thank God you came,” the woman said. “I prayed as hard as I could, asking God to send us an angel. We would have drowned for sure.”
The Alsace II towed them back to shore. The whole trip home both skipper and first mate were unusually quiet. Maybe I did still believe in angels.
Angels that wouldn’t let me go home one Sunday evening until my job was done. A job that required all hands on deck: angels included.
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