For my 40th birthday (which unfortunately falls smack dab between Christmas and New Year’s), my sisters (Diane, Liz, and Whitney), along with my sister-in-law (Connie), and friend (Donna) decided to surprise me, in June, with my 40th bash. They tried to keep it a big secret, but I received valuable information as to the nature of the surprise in an e-mail that was forwarded to me. So I knew we were going to Catalina.
I’ll skip over the night on the Queen Mary, the 911 call and trip in the ambulance to the emergency department the next morning (I’ll share THIS story at a later date), and the limo ride to the private dock. I’ll pick up the story there.
SOOO, I was actually surprised to learn that we would be taking a leisurely cruise over to Catalina in a private boat piloted by a friend of my sister Whitney’s. She’d had her captain’s license for decades and was very familiar with the waters between Newport and Catalina. We were instructed to be there by 3:00 or we wouldn’t be able to make it over before dark. We got there at 2:59 (after nagging doctors, nurses, and anyone who would listen to us to get us out of the hospital). And we loaded all our bags onto the spacious boat. “Bags” included too many overstuffed suitcases, and grocery bags filled with fruit, cheese, champagne, noshes, etc. Lots and lots of bags. We placed them on the bed in the bedroom suite in the prow of the boat and excitedly sat down in chairs and on benches up on deck looking forward to a wine and cheese “reception”. And we were instructed by the captain “make sure you have everything you think you’re gonna need out of those bags, cause once were out in open water, you can’t go down there again.”
Our delight was palpable as we slowly worked our way to open water. And that’s when the trouble started. Well, unless you count all the trouble we’d had up to THIS point, but again, that’s a story for a later date. The swells were a little too big for us to do much more than sit. There’d be no crystal glasses filled with bubbly until we reached our destination. But we all laughed and talked, and the captain and her co-captain passed around Nacho Cheese Doritos. This detail serves no purpose except to show you the relaxed state they were in.
And then the first light spray came over the prow. Lots of giggles, and a comment by the captain that she probably should have snapped the plastic windows and windshields on. BUT she’d wanted us to enjoy the view, as it was an unarguably lovely day. The handheld GPS device showed that we were right on track and headed straight for the island. The captain mentioned that she wished she’d “replaced the batteries because” she “wasn’t sure how old they were”. Then she reached over and tapped the onboard GPS and said “because this one’s not working at all”. And she instructed us to turn the GPS off to “save the batteries”. Are you getting an idea of where this is going?
By now the swells have grown significantly and the water is crashing into the boat with a bit of ferocity. Seeing that things were deteriorating rapidly, Liz wants to know how a mayday call is made. “I can’t pilot this boat AND make a distress call at the same time!” was the angry reply. ”And besides, the radio isn’t working either”. So we all check our cells to see if anyone has reception, “just in case”. Well, of course we don’t, we’re out in the middle of the ocean. We are starting to see that the captain is becoming increasingly nervous. I ask the “co-captain” (turns out she’s not really anything except a friend who has been on the boat a couple of times before) where the life jackets are, cause we need to put them on. The boat is breaching out of the water and slamming down and we are taking waves from the side as well. So the “co-captain” tells us they are under the bench in the back of the boat. “NO. They’re not!” said the captain sternly. “They are under the mattress of the bed.” We all quickly did the math. Life vests are under the mattress, under 1,357 pounds of girl baggage, below decks, where we aren’t allowed, and wouldn’t go ANYWAY because we’d probably be killed by head injury! Great.
So what did “she” say next? “I hope you can all swim.” I suppose this would be a good time to mention that my sister-in-law Connie was so seasick (no vomiting thank God) at this point that she would have been green had the deep gray color not been masking it. So, she wouldn’t be swimming if she got thrown in the drink. My sisters were hanging on to her so that she wouldn’t be tossed over since she couldn’t hold on.
Okay, so now I’m starting to formulate a plan to make sure that we were all going to stay alive. (Tell everyone to kick their shoes off. Tell everyone to take their jeans off and blow them up and turn them into flotation devices. Assign Whitney custody of Connie since she’s the strongest swimmer. Tell everyone to try to grab a buddy so that no one is by themselves….) Okay, NOW the captain just said “I wonder if we’re past the point of no return.” HUH???? So, to determine if we WERE in fact beyond the point of no return, we were allowed to turn on the GPS to see if we were more than 13 miles into our journey. Well, of course, because it was a handheld device, and because we were being thrown about the ocean like so much flotsam and jetsam, it couldn’t triangulate, and therefore, was completely useless. (Later Whitney tells us that, while I am formulating a SURVIVAL PLAN, she is quietly singing the theme from “Gilligan’s Island”!) By now I have found (empty, mind you) red plastic fuel containers and a length of rope, so I was feeling like just maybe we would be able to float and stay together if we should end up in the water. But then I got in trouble for having the cabinet open. I mention that the fuel containers were empty, because it was at about this time that the captain said THIS: “we’re using alot of fuel fighting these waves. I hope we don’t run out.” Why couldn’t she just keep her mouth shut??
Oh, did I mention that our friend Donna, who was up in the front with me and the “crew”, and who was just a couple of hours ago discharged from the emergency department after a cardiac emergency, let go of the railing she was clinging to just brush the salt water out of her eyes at the precise moment when we hit a wave? No, I didn’t. Well, she was literally launched into the air, and we all watched helplessly as she was vaulted backwards and was headed for a swim. Fortunately, she landed on the deck (inches from the back of the boat and the propellers) with a sickening thud and was immediately grabbed by all unused hands. By now, we are all soaked to the skin. We had temporarily lost one of the engines when it was lifted out of the water. When THAT happened, the captain said “I hope I can get it started before another wave hits us”. She did, but when the next wave hit us she said “one more of those and we’re going to capsize.” Why can’t she just keep her mouth shut???
And I realize, with just a little bit of horror, that every woman and mother in this generation of my family was on that boat. Now Liz has again joined me up in the front and we have been assigned the task of “watching for rogue waves”. Like we KNOW what rogue waves are. Of course we assumed, they were bad. And we were to watch for other ships. We thought it was to make sure we didn’t hit them. Turns out the captain wanted us to find one so that they could see if we went over or down, or whatever you call it when a ship sinks. Good thing it wasn’t whale migration season, cuz I’m pretty sure we would have hit one.
So, it’s about this time that we think we see the island on the horizon, the sea seems to have calmed somewhat, and the GPS triangulates us and we’re still seven miles out. The trip has now taken twice as long as it should have and it’s getting dark. But I’m thinking “I can swim seven miles”. Those last seven miles still took about an hour to traverse, but at least we could see land. Once we got within about 2 miles, the seas, though still fierce, were no longer frightening, and we knew we were going to have to survive, that we’d be okay. We limped into Avalon harbor. The captain asked for the “spriest” one of us to help pull the boat to the dock and tie it off. We all kind of laughed, because the “spriest” of us, was currently in a state of shock and lying on the deck. I couldn’t believe how fast Liz was up and leaping from the boat to the dock and grabbing ropes and hauling the boat in and tying things off! We unloaded that boat in about 30 seconds flat and dragged all those bags up onto the pier where we planted Connie on a bench in the sun (she was ice cold, too cold even to shiver). And we flopped down and started to nervously laugh. We’d made it.
Back – Donna, Whitney, Connie, Diane Front – Lou (me), Liz
For the trip back, we took the Catalina Express catamaran. The sea was like glass, and we could have balanced chairs on our noses the trip was so smooth. By now we were thinking “maybe it wasn’t as bad as we think it was”. But a number of the cat passengers who had been on the Express heading over to the island at the same time WE were in the middle of the perfect storm, told us how bad it was for them, too. So, we’re convinced. It was bad. But we survived.