Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Old Barista and The Sea

Alexandra and Daniela no worse for wear.

When we die, we die alone.

The notion of dying is a lonely thought. Sure, different cultures and religions believe in afterlife or reincarnation or simple obliteration, but we really don't know. We can believe, but we'll never know for sure until that moment eventually arrives for us all.

I never thought too much about it, but I imagine death being a lonely place, and as Duncan and I floated off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, swallowed up by a squall, trying to tread water in two foot chop with zero visibility and completely fatigued, I felt very lonely indeed. Scared, lonely and not quite ready to die.

Just a few moments before things had been going swimmingly. We were in the warm waters of the Gulf diving for bay scallops. The sun was out, the water felt cool and we were amongst friends. The ride out to the coast that morning had been through a storm front but we were assured that it has passed. Our skiff was loaded with snacks, snorkel gear and even in the face of questionable fishing, we were hopeful for a large bounty of scallops for that nights' larder. How many ways could one prepare and consume scallops? We were intending to find out.

I found diving for scallops to be about as frustrating as spear fishing for octupus off the coast of O'ahu. You can swim and swim and swim without seeing anything, until someone shows you what to look for then, suddenly, they're everywhere! Once Anthony had pointed out what I should be looking for, I started seeing them hidden amongst the sea grass. These weren't the large sea scallops most people think about, these were smaller scallops that produced muscle meat the size of your thumb.

Bay scallops are tasty, but not as sweet as their larger cousins. Regardless of the size, they were plentiful and the five of us were grabbing as much as we could. In a matter of minutes, my hands were full and I realized that I really needed my mesh bag that I had left back on the boat. No problem, it's only about twenty yards away.

That morning we had set out from Gainesville down to the Steinhatchee River where we rented a skiff to take us out to sea. As Anthony cleared the Steinhatchee channel and started to open her up, the girls were still sitting on the bow as the boat started to skip across the swells. Along for the adventure were Alexandra and Daniela, baristas at Anthony's Volta Coffee and Tea, and their friend Duncan who's manager at the local bike shop.

I have always been a sailor, but this year it seems I've been doing a lot of power boating. And while I very much enjoy the thrill of heeling the boat over until the rail starts to tuck into the water, there's something alluring about throttling forward in a power boat at high speed, seemingly daring the sea to break your hull as you crash from swell to swell.

Eager to collect as many scallops as humanly possible (or permissible by law), I started paddling towards our boat. Twenty yards, and a couple more scallops, and I expected to be near the boat. As I looked up from the water, the boat was still twenty yards away. Crickey, what's up with that? Oh well, keep paddling. After another twenty yards or so, I looked up again to find the boat the same distance away. WTF?

After a couple more twenty yard distances with no achievement, I started to get really irritated. Was the boat pinwheeling on the anchor and I'm just chasing after it in circles? Maybe. I decided to paddle faster and harder.

Admittedly, I'm no svelte man, so it's probably ill-advised to be paddling as hard and as fast as I was, but the boat wasn't getting any closer. Now, I've lived in Hawaii and spent numerous times there snorkeling around the islands. I'm no novice, but I would never say that I'm experienced either.

The harder I paddled, the harder I started to breathe. Not only was I breathing harder but also faster. So fast that I started to think that I might start hyperventilating and maybe I should slow down. It was about this time that it started to rain. Nothing to worry about, just a light drizzle. Maybe if I was dry and on shore, I would run for cover but I'm in the water - I can't get any wetter. But I was starting to feel a little tired.

Off to my right, I spotted Daniela swimming for the boat. She was passing me as it started to rain harder. She looked a little worried but since she was swimming better than me, I didn't bother to bother her. She'll make it back to the boat, I thought.

It was right about then that fatigue really started to lay into me. Had the waters been calm, I would have just rested and floated there but the squall was now a dark wall on our near horizon and the light swells turned into two foot chop, washing overhead as I was trying to get my bearings.

By this point, I had stopped pursuing the boat and was trying to tread water in position to calm down and regain my strength. The boat was rapidly floating away from me and visibility started to worsen as the squall set in over us. Crap.

I had been unsuccessful in slowing down my breathing and started forcing myself to take large, deep breaths in an effort to calm and control myself. I was getting worried. Screw that, I knew I was/could be on the verge of panic. I tried to keep my eyes on our rapidly disappearing boat.

Many thoughts race through your mind at times like this. Mine came at me in a blur. The thought of drowning/dying. The knowledge the I would make it: guaranteed. The deeper knowledge that knew that that was all bravado. Maybe I should never have gone on this trip. I hate deep water swimming. It all came at a rush and as the rain and fog started to obscure my vision, and the chop kept pounding over my head, I knew that I was in deep trouble.

I wanted to call out. I wanted to scream for help. I wanted someone to rescue me. This really sucks. I quickly reflected back on my life and on the times that I got away without killing myself and thought how much it would suck if I drowned here today. Alone, in the Gulf of Mexico: dead. I was on the verge.

The terror of panic started to grip me and I had to fight it back. If I gave in, I would be finished. Breathe deep. Breathe slowly. Don't think too much. Don't panic. Focus. As I fought back the urge to panic, in the back of my mind, I couldn't help thinking that this was going to be it: The End. I would die here. At sea. And be shipped home in a box. I would never get to know my niece/nephew who is scheduled to be born in December. It would just be me: the dead uncle. Killed at sea while diving for scallops.

In many ways, survival is a mental struggle. Lose the mental struggle, give in to panic and die. Not pretty. I didn't want to go out like that, but the truth is, I probably wouldn't have lasted much longer. I probably would have lost the mental struggle. I was right on the edge and about to fall off.

I'm not a very good Catholic. In fact, I'm a terrible Catholic. And I'm just a bad Christian in general. But I think I prayed a little in those moments, hoping that God would not abandon me (or perhaps bring me up for roll call). Some will think it's just coincidence, but maybe it was Divine Intervention that had Duncan swimming for the boat right past me at that moment.

He was about five yards away when he called over to me asking if I was okay.

Sadly, I'm afflicted with the male predisposition to pretend that everything is okay. That I'm a man and, therefore, in control of things. My first reaction, in spite of the fact that I was on the verge of panic and dying, was to tell him that I was okay and continue treading water in the hopes of making it. If I said that and Duncan kept going, I would drown soon after. I literally forced myself to call him over and tell him that I wasn't okay, that I was on the verge of panicking and would he stay with me while I struggled to calm down and regain my composure.

Duncan saved my life that day.

The guy stayed with me and let me hang on to him while we rode out the storm. It got worse. As the storm worsened, we lost all visibility. I lost all orientation. In the pouring rain, we were all alone. Alone at sea. As we floated there together, surrounded by nothingness, I started to think that we might die anyway. All that struggling to maintain sanity would be for nothing. We would be lost at sea and die.

Then, we saw a boat in the distance through the rain and haze. It was searching for their people. We waved. We called out. They couldn't hear us or see us and kept going, disappearing into the haze.

What could have turned out to be Blood Scallops...

As the boat disappeared, I had regained most of my composure, but knew that that could have been out last chance. We might die out here afterall. I didn't know how it would happen to us, but I decided that I would meet our demise stoic-ly. If death was going to come for us, I wasn't going to cry. I was going to try as best as I could to meet death head-on, without regret.

It was about then that Anthony had called out, responding to our calls to the boat. He had been floating and riding out the storm when he heard our calls and decided to seek us out.

One thing to know about this guy is that he's an experienced cave diver who's been in some harrowing and life-threatening events. Evidently for someone with his experience, this squall was nothing in particular. I guess when you've survived being lost at sea, in the water, for four hours, 70 miles offshore, our life-threatening storm is easy peasy.

As the storm subsided, visibility returned for us to see two boats heading towards us. Alexandra had called a nearby boat and asked someone to come aboard to pilot the boat and rescue us, and Daniela had been plucked out of the water by another boat and both boats were heading in our general location.

Something raw, something happy.

Back onboard, our crew looked a bit worse for wear. After I had seen her, Daniela lost a fin then decided to jettison her remaining fin, got caught up in the storm and lost her mask in the process before being rescued by the other crew. She looked shaken but not stirred.

Alexandra on the other hand, was completely blue. She was the lucky one who decided not to swim far from the boat and got back in before the storm hit. Three of her friends had been recently killed, the most recent due to a body boarding accident. I can't imagine her horror watching the four people she came out with slowly disappearing and being swallowed by the storm.

Armchair quarterbacking always reveals the little problems that combine into a force that threatens to kill you. Several things happened that day, but the one event that nearly did us in was the boat. Like I said above, the boat never seemed to get closer, not matter how much I swam towards it. I was wrong, the boat wasn't pinwheeling on the anchor. The anchor had pulled out of the seabed and the boat was being dragged with the current at 4 knots - meaning that no matter how fast I was swimming, I would never catch the boat. Doomed from the start.

In the end, all of us made it back alive. A bit scratched and beaten, but we lived. Sadly, our catch for the day was small. The scallops I had been holding, I jettisoned in the interest of staying alive, though as I reflect back on it now, it would have been just as easy to have given my scallops to Duncan (who was holding a mesh bag). That night, we shared a bowl of bay scallops in a light cream sauce over truffled pasta at Volta Coffee to celebrate our friendship.

A taste of glory: Bay scallops in a cream sauce on truffle pasta.