Storms on the St. Lawrence can be beautiful to behold . . . and they also can be life-threatening.
For years, our family spent summers on Pine Island, near Clayton. The island is eight acres, featuring a large classic French Normandy-style house set atop the high point of the land, well above the water. The house commands a full and unimpeded 360-degree view. To the immediate west there is a tiny island, always uninhabited, just a few yards away from the main island.
Life on Pine Island was happy, relaxed, and almost always uneventful. One notable exception was the early, sunny, Sunday morning when strangers suddenly showed up at our door, asking if we could give them some sugar for their coffee. It turns out that they had made their camp down below and out of sight on the island’s shoreline, apparently either unaware of or unconcerned about the fact that it was private property! The only words to describe this attitude adequately are “clueless chutzpah”!
But even after all this time, one night still stands out in distinct, permanent memory.
It was a night when a classic summer storm was in full force. The sky was black, the furious wind was whipping up endless and ever-larger rolling whitecaps, and heavy splashes of rain obscured vision beyond a few yards. It was not a night to be outside, and certainly not out on the River, unless a real emergency demanded it.
The hour was getting late, and our family was already beginning to retire for the night. With the wind howling and the rain beating incessantly on the roof and windows, warm beds beckoned.
But suddenly, amid the din, a faint but unmistakable cry of “help!” cut through the storm’s fury. To the extent that it could be made out, the voice was ragged, urgent, bordering on desperate. Someone, somewhere out there in the pitch darkness, and the wind, and rain, was in dire straits. But it was impossible to know where the cry was coming from. It came again, and then a third time.
River Rats know when you hear “help!” from out on the water, you respond. Even in the best of weather, a life can depend on finding that person as fast as possible. Minutes matter, no matter what the circumstances may be.
Our father did just that. He jumped up and ran immediately for the front door, not even slowing to grab a jacket as he sprinted out of the house into the dark maelstrom and headlong down towards the boathouse well below. The path was rocky and uneven in daylight; on a pitch-black night, with wind blasting and rain slicking the way, it was truly treacherous.
But he reached the boathouse, swiftly untied and jumped into our 1929 26’ Chris-Craft Triple Cockpit speedboat, and fired up its powerful Chrysler Marine engine. Reversing fast out of shelter and protection, and into the teeth of the gale, his vision was nearly blinded by the torrents of rain cascading down from the heavens. Whitecaps rocked the boat relentlessly as he pushed into the night, straining to listen for the weak voice once more.
And miraculously, he heard it. It was coming from upwind, from the west. But where? There was no light. His only navigation came from keeping the now fully lit house high atop the hill on his right as he powered the Chris-Craft ahead, searching. Raised on the River every summer since her early childhood, our mother knew that without that sole source of illumination to help guide him, he would be alone in the dark and at extreme risk of either wandering too far away or hitting the shoreline. He knew that if he lost his bearings, someone out there in extreme distress might very well lose their life.
At that critical moment, once more the voice called out “help!” from the darkness, this time even more weakly than before. But somehow it sounded closer, despite the storm’s fury and the thunderous exhaust of the engine. Trying to shield his eyes from the gusting rain, he squinted over the windshield, straining to catch an elusive glimpse into the blackened and drenched world around him, searching for something, anything, that might lead him to a rescue.
Suddenly, when the torrent of rain slowed for a few seconds, a dim flash of white briefly caught his eye in the dark distance ahead. He simultaneously slowed the speedboat and steered towards the source, which was to his right. But it was a very dangerous move—out there, somewhere close ahead but still invisible to him, lay the rocky shoreline. Too fast, and he could hit it before he could stop. Too slow, and the voice might be silenced for good.
There it was! For an instant a streak of lightning suddenly revealed the white hull of a boat a short distance ahead and away to the right. It was tilted well over and onto its side, obviously out of commission.
He slowed even more, cautiously approaching the wreck. As he neared the stricken craft, the outline of the small island just adjacent to Pine began to appear through the rain. The boat had crashed directly onto the rocks there. Now the danger took on a whole new dimension; how close could he come without hitting bottom himself? And if there was still a survivor or more, where were they?
He edged the Chris-Craft closer, steering warily but so that he might be able to get a better view of the severely damaged boat. And then he saw an arm rising up.
The man was in the water up to his shoulders, clinging perilously to the boat’s side. “Are you alone?”, our father called out. “Is there anyone else with you?”
The man nodded ‘no’.
“I can’t come any closer,” our father yelled back. “You need to come to me if you can.” The man was silent and remained hanging onto the wreck.
“You’ve got to let go and get over here. I’ll bring you aboard.”
After a moment more, the man suddenly released his grip and splashed awkwardly towards the Chris-Craft in a clumsy, disjointed attempt at swimming as waves rolled over him. Our father quickly took the speedboat out of gear and lunged for the stern of the boat, scrambling over the engine hatch to reach the stern cockpit where the man was now urgently scrabbling for a handhold on the slickly-varnished freeboard.
Leaning over the side, struggling desperately to keep his balance and not fall overboard as the boat was rocked by the whitecaps, our father reached down and grabbed the man’s arms. He was deadweight though, clearly unable to help himself. After several futile, tiring tries, our father finally gave one last heave and just barely managed to haul the man over the gunwale and into the boat.
He was hopelessly drunk. And totally oblivious to the extreme danger in which he had put himself—and his rescuer.
But a life on the River had still been saved.
By Tom Robbins with Illustrations by Sarah Coate
A third-generation summer resident of the Thousand Islands, Tom Robbin's career has taken him from the White House to Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and now Silicon Valley. His lifelong love of the St. Lawrence parallels his personal and professional interests in film production, photography, and writing. See Tom's TI Life articles here.
Sarah Coate is a lifelong River Rat; she attended the Rhode Island School of Design and owns a marketing company for TV commercial production companies. Sarah is also Tom's big sister! (Lucky guy, eh!)
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