Living Life through Adventure by Brad Modesitt
Looking up through the fog we see that planes are still landing at Fort Lauderdale International airport. It’s a good thing, as conditions on the sea have been deteriorating. Thunderheads shoot 35,000 feet towards the sky building an impressive wall. Soon they will darken to almost black. We are sailing aboard a 41’ catamaran, Rivers2Seas, so that I can get more experience before taking my family on an extended cruise. Winds have been building all day and are steady at 40 knots. A couple gusts have reached 50 knots. I’m getting the experience I wanted and an incredible dose of adrenaline. A plane about to land suddenly does a corkscrew back into the sky, screaming away from the thunderheads. Hmmmm. The fog thickens until we can only see a few hundred feet. Small hail comes with it, winds are howling, sea spray and rain pelt our faces. Tarn starts screaming, “This is living!” Tarn, who is normally a quiet guy, is ecstatic, glowing and just plain happy.
“Nothing else matters in times like these. We are living in the moment, reacting, thinking, doing,” he says. Our reactions then focus on an oceangoing tanker coming through the fog 300 feet away. It’s not really welcome and we can barely see it. I know he can’t see us. Moments later, as the tanker passes us on starboard, the skies clear, the winds calm down to 20 knots and the sun welcomes us into the protected harbor walls. I’m giddy as my first large storm squall has ended successfully.
Pulling out my phone to post an update to my wife, I see an “Abby update” email. These are the updates my dad has been giving about my mom and her battle with lung cancer. After a nine-month battle, it’s not going well. She has taken another turn for the worse and has only a couple weeks to live. Talk about an adrenaline dump. From living on the edge, to witnessing death first hand. Tears flow unhindered. Am I happy to be alive? – you bet. Am I sad about my mother? - more than anything. How could life be so dramatic? But, I suppose that’s what life is – dramatic. It just happens to be compressed right now. Life and Death are intertwined for all of us. We can’t have one without the other.
Back home in Colorado, I spend as much time as possible with my mother. A Costa Rican friend has taught me to “always talk happy.” I try to give my mother all the positive news I can. Inside, all I can think of are unhappy thoughts. How can I continue without my mother to talk to? She is the glue of our small family. We are all wildly different individuals and my mom has always been our common thread. Even though she survived ten months after her diagnosis, she never said goodbye to me. It must have been too painful for her. I couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to my kids. With her gone, what will happen? Will my father still talk to me? My brother or sister? Will we come together or drift apart? I’m not sure.
My mother passes away while our small family holds her hands and cries. In her last hours, I tell her of the full moon setting over the foothills as the sun rises in the East turning the foothills a brilliant purple that very morning. She had found incredible peace; I’m not there. I knew it was coming, but her death is like a thunderbolt shooting through my soul. The pain of watching her die in pain, coupled with her loss to me is immense.
This is the third time I have witnessed death first hand. All three scar my soul, haunting my mind. The first was in India when a mob outside my taxi bricked a man to death twenty feet away. Watching the man crumple to the ground with a pool of blood flowing into the street is etched into my mind. It taught me how inhumane humans can be. The second was on a rafting trip that I was leading when a young man fell out into an easy hole and never breathed again. While taking turns doing CPR, I screamed to him that his wife and two-year-old daughter loved him. It taught me how fragile life is and his family showed how compassionate humans can be. My mothers’ last breaths had my brother, sister, dad and myself holding her hands telling her she was loved. My medical background describes the last breaths as agonal breathing. They are right. Agonal for them and me. Her death taught me another lesson in love. All three bring incredible pain to my whole being. Death may be part of life, but it is difficult to witness.
There is nothing else I can do here.
My best friend, Bryce, joins me on Rivers2Seas soon afterward for some more sailing experience and to just feel alive again. His dad died several years ago of colon cancer and understands my pain. Sometimes life is crap and unfair. One thing death does for me is to reinvigorate my desire to live life fully.
We join two other friends as we plan to sail across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. I have done much
longer passages, but never as captain and never on my own boat. It’s different when you are the one who is ultimately responsible for your crew. We prepare the boat, provision and check weather forecasts. The boat is in good shape, we have good food aboard, plenty of beer and the weather looks between good and iffy. Perfect. I’m here to learn and experience tough conditions, not easy ones. We cast our dock lines at midnight.
Motoring through the intercoastal waterway to the harbor entrance we need to thread two drawbridges. It was relatively easy during the day, but at night it is simply scary. Leaving the harbor behind we set course for West Point, Bahamas. Soon afterward, a giant storm shooting lightning from cloud to cloud forces us to change direction to the south and around the dazzling light show. A constant orange glow radiates for hours as the storm rages on. Then, a small brilliantly white light rises above the clouds. Hours away from land, there are no lights to dilute the skies brilliance. It’s a super thin crescent moon that looks like an angel rising to heaven. I can only think of my mom as we watch the amazing show. I’m not religious at all, but I am deeply spiritual. Nature has immeasurable beauty.
We make the crossing just before dusk, anchor outside the harbor and open some well deserved beers. We made it! After checking in with immigration, we sail to Mangrove Cay, an itty bitty island on the northern edge of the Bahamas chain. Drinking bottles of wine with a neighbor for the night who happens to be an retired nuclear submarine commander, we enjoy the cruising life.
I’m awoken at 4am with the news that our dinghy is gone. A ten-cent pin has worked itself out and sent the boat free. The wind is blowing from the South and nothing in the way of the dinghy until she hits the Gulf Stream, which will send it up to New York. I figure out the most plausible area in w
hich it could be – 150 square miles of open ocean. Talk about a needle in a haystack. But, this needle costs $10,000. I pick a heading following the wind and hope. For hours we search the choppy waters for a tiny grey speck. A dolphin swims up and stares at us oddly. “Where’s the dinghy?” we yell. She heads to the left twice and is acting differently than any dolphin I’ve seen. With nothing to lose, I steer a little to the left. Half and hour later we see a white boat on the horizon. It takes another half hour to get there with prayers and hopes soaring. It is! 7.7 miles from Mangrove Cay we find it. I feel like I just won $10,000 at the card tables. I’m not a gambler, so I’d rather not have the chance to win like this again.
We sail on to Double Breasted Cay. And as the name implies, it’s a great place to hang out awhile and play. The water is as brilliantly green as you can imagine with glowing white beaches. Anchoring for the night, we pack raft around some islands, snorkel, play cards late into the night and enjoy the cruising life. Sadly, the next morning it’s time to head home.
Our next squall is another dramatic one. A water spout (tornado on the water) is two miles off our stern and coming towards us. Luckily, it dissipates a minute later. Lighting directly above forces us into the hulls where we hope to be safe. Sticking a metal pole 62 feet into the sky makes me feel anything but safe. I’m scared. The lightning flashes and thunders simultaneously for 15 minutes, then is gone. We wind our way south to Bimini and then have a great fast sail back to Fort Lauderdale setting my personal best speed of 13.7 knots.
I wanted more experience and the only way to do that is to push my limits. I wanted to feel alive again. – Mission Accomplished.