It had always been our dream to live on the water and, when we first saw that 40 foot Owens, we knew that we had found our new summer home. She was magnificent with her teak floors and finely polished helm beneath the white canopy. Below deck, a spacious galley accommodated two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and it even had a rotisserie oven.
The day my husband and I moved aboard, our hectic lives found an immediate reprieve and our stress was gone. Life at the marina was relaxed and easy. Watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee from the bow and the sunset with a glass of wine was such a superb experience each day, then to be rocked to sleep with a gentle current. On the weekends, the long, wooden dock was ornamented with people grilling the fish they had caught that day before playing music and games with a few drinks in the evening. Everyone was always at ease and willing to help out another.
It was Labor Day in 1995, the end of summer, and we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. The sun joyfully accented a cloudless sky, and my father had just come to town for a short visit. We headed out, through the channel and across the Chesapeake Bay to a restaurant for a nice dinner and, after watching the majestic sunset over the glassy waters, we began our 30 minute trek back to the marina. The bay was serene and quiet, with only two other boats in sight as we picked up our pace in the water while a flash of lightning lit up the distance. No storms had been forecast so we continued on without a second thought until it became more frequent and coupled with claps of thunder. Halfway to our destination, we decided to continue on to the marina rather than turn back toward the restaurant, but the storm descended on us quicker than we could have ever anticipated with strong wind gusts kicking up the waves and tossing around our boat.
“Let’s get our life jackets on,” my husband urged. “It’s getting pretty rough out here. For the ten minutes that followed, the boat was tossed violently around in the bay’s vicious waves while my husband struggled to maintain our course. Suddenly, we felt the boat hit something in the water. “We’re in forty feet of water,” he said. “What could we have possibly hit?”
We watched in horror as the bow began to lower. My husband grabbed the radio.
“Mayday, mayday, we’re going down,” I heard him say and my I lost my breath as he began to give our coordinates until the radio died. I was stunned and panicked. We were surrounded only by the silent night as I stood at the stern with my father, praying for God to, somehow, save us. My husband’s experience in the Navy had left him level-headed and calm, tying together 3 bumpers from the boat and latching glow sticks to our life jackets. “We’re going to stay on the boat for as long as we can and then swim to shore,” he instructed.
The bow sank and the galley quickly filled with water as we prepared for the worst. When all that was left above water was the stern, I leaped outward, into the bay, the water so foreign to me but warm. I hadn’t given notice that I was jumping and no one had given me the nod to do it, but something in me had suddenly given me the courage to clutch those bumpers and jump. My father and husband followed and we swam away from the boat as quickly as we could, turning to watch it fall into the depths and leaving us to fend for ourselves. The storm’s raging waves tossed us around like ragdolls and forced saltwater down our throats while the trio of bumpers held us together. The feeling of things touching against my legs set my imagination into overdrive as I thought of sharks, jellyfish and whatever else might be swimming around us. Still, my fear was overcome by my will to survive. My husband kept assuring us that the waves were carrying us toward land, and I wondered how he was able to maintain such a calm manner but I was thankful. My father, a Vietnam veteran, was also amazingly calm and it helped me tremendously in the fierce wind, rain and lightning from the squall. Nearly two hours later, a long, rock jetty shooting out from a concrete wall came into view.
“The waves are going to push us into the rocks, which are razor sharp and will cut us up, so when we get close, lift your legs up as high as you can and let the waves carry us over them. We’ll swim back to the jetty,” my husband said. As tempted as I was to reach dry land, I did what he suggested and the waves carried us over the jetty. My father chose otherwise and suffered several deep cuts from the barnacles, but he was out of the water, at least.
It took my husband and I another half hour, swimming against the waves, to reach the jetty and, when we finally did, we were ecstatically exhausted. In our bare feet, we made our way across the large rocks to the concrete walls of what we recognized as the Norfolk Bridge-Tunnel. The cars that drove so far above us would never have thought to look down and see us waving our glow sticks for their attention, especially in the ongoing storm but, fortunately, protruding from the wall were robust, steel pipes that allowed us to scale our way to the top, where we climbed over a rail.
Two stunned security guards appeared, asking where we had come from and, when we told them, they informed us that a sailboat had sank just before us, in almost the same spot. Its tall mast is what we must have hit in the water that night. We were blessed to make it in because the people from that boat never did.
At the hospital, my father got stitched up and a friend at the marina lent us their boat to stay on for the night. We found out that several of them from the marina had heard our mayday call and started out to find us, even in the storm and, the following day, on the dock were blankets, clothes and other necessities donated from so many of our neighbors at Little Creek Marina. Those people were our angels that day and we were so thankful.
The Coast Guard was never able to locate us since our radio had died in the middle of our mayday call but God carried us through. Our dream only lasted that summer and, ironically enough, the name of the boat was Summer Dream.