After ten days of non-stop sailing from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, I deserved a night of deep sleep. So why was my crew awakening me at an hour that even a bishop would find ungodly? And why was he repeating some phrase that made no sense to me? “Ling is gone…Ling is gone.”
Ling! Consciousness reclaimed me, and I remembered I had named my dinghy “Ling” in honor of a bawdy drinking song. Ling is gone? A cruising boat without a dinghy is like a soccer mom without a minivan. Sleep could wait.
Up in the cockpit we scanned the anchorage with Aventura’s spotlight, which fortunately had about enough candlepower to melt titanium. On the second sweep we spotted Ling enjoying a midnight swim about 60 yards off our port side. Our elation at finding the dinghy was subdued considerably when a school of big fish leapt from the water as though pursued by a large predator with bad intentions. At the exact same moment, we both thought, “shark.”
Terry, my excellent crewman and longtime friend, was a man of integrity. We both knew he had last tied the dinghy astern, and since it had now gone astray, he volunteered to swim for it. At the same time, I knew it was my duty as captain to recognize the fear in his eyes as he made this gallant gesture. I used the excuse of being the better swimmer to decline his offer.
I donned the heaviest, brightest orange life jacket aboard, while Terry attempted to reassure me by joking that sharks don’t like citrus. Our strategy was for him to shine the light only on the dinghy to both hide me and guide me. I would swim hard, but without excessive splashing. Otherwise, Señor Tiburon might mistake me for a giant, succulent Chernobyl-orange fish.
The swim seemed to go quickly, although fear may have warped my sense of time. When I reached the dinghy and clambered in, it was immediately obvious that returning Ling to her cleat would not be so simple. The bottom of the inflatable contained about two inches of sand beneath five inches of saltwater. Apparently Ling had been doing beachside cartwheels during her midnight jaunt. That would also explain the missing oar and the missing bailer.
I tried splashing water out of the dink with my hands, but then remembered that my raft was about the same size and color as a nice delicious sea lion, and I didn’t want to infatuate Mr. Shark. So I moved to the bow and began paddling with the one remaining oar. It was hard to decide what was more troublesome—the weight of all that water or the fact that it was sloshing around so enthusiastically. It was like sharing a waterbed with a Sumo wrestler. But the fear of drifting for days across to Puerta Vallarta inspired me sufficiently, and eventually I made it back to the mother ship.
Terry was jubilant that his mistake had not resulted in the loss of Ling or limb, and to make it up to me he offered to do the dishes for weeks. I suggested instead that he retrieve the oar from the beach in the morning.
The next day, just as he was about to set out on his mission, I handed him a $5 bill. When he asked for an explanation, I reminded him that Mexico was full of “chiclet boys” who never missed an opportunity to exercise their entrepreneurial skills.
Sure enough, he found the oar with a nine-year-old perched atop it demanding ransom. The five bucks did the trick, but just barely. As Terry put it, “The kid was a ferocious negotiator. He looked like a miniature Donald Trump on a bad hair day.”
Back at the boat, Terry tied the dinghy carefully astern, double-checked the cleat, and let out a sigh of relief. Nothing like a close call to keep you humble at sea.
Illustrations by Jan Adkins