Every year we pull them out of the closet. The cardboard box is bent on the corners and a little faded now. It smells of the years of storage – a kind of rich aroma of cardboard decay. Inside the box there are a number of dividers and in each divider there is a memory. Each one is carefully wrapped and waiting for the event, an event our family looks forward to every year. We, like many families, have an ornament for every year we’ve been married. Actually ours begins with a wedding gift of a silver ornament, now tarnished a bit, with the word “JOY” in the center. After that there is one that commemorates our first Christmas together and one that commemorates the year I built our grandfather clock. There are toy soldiers for boys and a wooden train engine and a Nutcracker with a tool belt – reminding us of the year I finished our basement and Graham, our youngest son, helped me snap the blue lines on the sheetrock. In fact, each of my sons worked many hours helping with that project.
Our children all have an ornament that they hang each year remembering their first Christmas and the years of celebration together. There is a little bear that is burned around the edges reminding us of the year Ben turned on a burner on our stove, in a rented house in West Asheville, and nearly burned the house down at Christmas and just before his brother, Daniel, was born. You’ll see some “sad” ornaments on our tree, as well. A little Champion pedal car that reminds us of a son we lost before he was born and a set of glass dancer’s shoes reminding us of a daughter we lost a few years before our Caroline was born. All of these ornaments have a special place on our tree and in our hearts. They remind us of the years that have past and the stories that have shaped our lives. If you come by our house at Christmas, you may have to sit through this “presentation” – a timeline of our lives that we love to tell.
In the midst of all these memories and ornaments there is one that may seem out of place. It doesn’t seem related to Christmas – although there are some Christmas lights on the piece. If you look close in our tree you’ll find a small cat sitting on the trampoline of a Hobie Cat sailboat with the year 1994 inscribed on it. We bought two of them from Hallmark – one for our tree and one for the MacDonald’s tree in Raeford, North Carolina.
It was the summer of 1994 and we were vacationing with my family at Holden Beach. Our boys were young and we were down there with my parents. I had talked to Ken MacDonald to see if he wanted to come down one day during our week and do some ocean sailing. Ken is a tall, lanky friend of mine with thinning blonde hair (probably a little grey now) and a ready smile. We met in college at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC and we both shared a love for music, the mountains and (I would discover later) sailing. Both of us grew up sailing small boats; Ken had a Sunfish and my family had a Scorpion. Both boats are pretty easy to sail and they are a great way to learn the sport. They are sturdy little boats with simple sails and they are easy to “right” when turned over by a sharp gust of wind or a foolish boy.
“Please be careful out there”, Angie said as we put our Hobie Cat 17 back in the water, “we don’t need any Drama in Real Life stories.” (a reference to a regular Reader’s Digest section) Ken had come down that morning and we had already had some nice sailing that day. After a break for lunch we were heading back out as Angie said those fateful words. The wind had picked up in the early afternoon and the white caps were blowing off the tops of the waves as we moved the boat back out through the surf and headed out to sea. It was a perfect day for sailing – especially sailing a Hobie Cat.
Hobie Cats are small, agile catamarans, designed by Hobart Alter in the mid 1960’s. Our Hobie 17 had yellow pontoons with a multi-colored mainsail; an 8 ft. beam and a draft of only about a foot and half. With mesh-covered wings that you could sit on or lean back on, it weighed in at 340 lbs. with the mast standing at 27’7”. Designed by a surfer from California, they were fairly easy to maneuver in the ocean surf and made to “ride the waves” on the way back in with an offshore breeze. I’ve sail in several different styles of boats from the Scopion to an A40RC Archambault racing boat, owned by my friend Cal Huge of Charleston, SC – and I would have to say that our Hobie was the most fun to sail. You are almost in the water, close to the action on the trampoline between the two pontoons and there is nothing like “flying a hull”. Hull flying, for anyone unfamiliar with the concept, is defined as sailing the boat hard enough to raise the windward hull out of the water on a sustained basis.
Not long after our return to the sea, Ken and I were doing just that – flying a hull, running parallel to the shore, about 1 mile out. I will never forget the exhilaration I felt as we kicked along, cutting through the waves. I will also never forget the fear I instantly felt as I watched the lower hull “knife in” under a wave. It’s the equivalent of slamming on the brakes on one side of your car and it tends to make a Hobie do a cartwheel – yep, just like you did when you were a kid. Ken, sitting forward of me on the bench, was literally launched from his spot beside me and I saw him, in slow motion, hit the forstay (a plastic coated, stabilizing wire attached from the top of the mast down to a spot near the bow on each pontoon) and disappear into the waves. I was busy leaning out from the top of the bench about 10 feet off the water and hoping to keep the boat from turning all the way over. I next found myself in the water swimming to the back of the boat to try to get it settled back on the water. Ken came back to the surface missing his glasses and sporting a small cut on his forehead. At this point both pontoons were up in the air and the boat was sitting back on its twin rudders like a water skier waiting to be jerked from the water. This isn’t a normal position for a catamaran and it indicated that there was a fair amount of water in at least one of the hulls. This is also the last thing Angie saw through her binoculars just before the boat rolled completely over with the mast straight down and the sail now full of water instead of wind – something they call “turtling”.
After the initial adrenaline rush was gone we crawled out of the water – exhausted and shaking – onto the underside of the trampoline, now facing towards the sky with 3 inches of water on it. The waves were rolling towards the shore, more than a mile away, and as we took stock of our situation we realized we were in trouble. The good news? The 3 to 4 ft. waves were pushing us back towards shore and into Lockwood Folly – the inlet between Holden Beach and Long Beach. The bad news? We weren’t moving much because our 28’ mast was dragging on the bottom keeping us almost stationary, except for the continuous rocking of the boat. Ken suggested that we dive under the boat and undo the forstays so that we could release the pressure on the mast, but, to be honest I had no interest in getting back in those dark, choppy waters and didn’t have the strength or the courage to try. (Later the Coast Guard would tell us that someone had pulled a 10ft. Tiger Shark out of those same waters the week before) We sat alternately in the water on the trampoline and on the bottom of the hulls as we waited, hoped and prayed. All of the boats that had been out on the water around us seemed to have disappeared. The one or two we did see where too far away and too busy dealing with the chop to spot our waving, standing on the bottom of our boat.
I was worried for Angie more than for us. We knew that if we had to we could leave the boat and swim to shore. Not an easy task and not something I wanted to try, but we had on life preservers and it could be done. Angie was back at the beach house with our 3 sons (12, 10 and 6) and my sister, her husband, and her children trying to decide what to do next. Worst of all she was recovering from a miscarriage the week before and I knew she was in a fragile state. Out on the bottom of the boat in the waves I prayed hard for her. I knew she would be afraid and I hoped that she would call the Coast Guard for help.
She dialed 911 and was connected to the Coast Guard. The calm voice on the other end of the phone asked her “where did you last see them, Mam?” Angie gave a description of what she had seen through her binoculars as our sail had disappeared, followed by a glimpse of the twin bows sitting high in the air, followed by nothing. The Coast Guard representative told her to “keep this phone line open” and hung up to dispatch the rescue team. Angie, quickly dialed a close friend of ours, back in Asheville, to get SOMEONE praying. When she hung up the phone it rang again and she was scolded by the Coast Guard operator for not keeping the line open.
At this point in the story things become a little unclear and another famous “family story” of ours appears. It seems that Ben, our oldest son, approached Angie while she was on the phone with the Coast Guard desperately trying to hear their instructions. He was trying to get her attention to give him the binoculars so he could watch for me out on the ocean. His story and Angie’s differ slightly here, but Ben will tell you that without saying anything to him she quietly and quickly placed her right foot in the center of his chest and kicked him neatly across the room. His brothers and cousins will confirm this story, however, she denies that it happened exactly that way. This story may have “grown some” over the years, but the word picture of this event has inspired many smiles and laughter. (At this point I should mention that my parents were on a trip to Wilmington to get the air conditioner in their car repaired and arrived back at the beach house shortly before the call came in indicating that we had been found and were safe.)
Back on the water, and 2 ½ hours after our incident, we finally waved at the Coast Guard boat which pulled up alongside our sailboat and tossed me a line. They instructed me to tie it off on the front crossbar of the boat then motioned for us to get into the water so they could pull us out and onto their boat. Then they put their boat in drive and attempted to “right” the sailboat which, of course, broke apart as they pulled. (Apparently the Coast Guard tries not to get wet, unless there is a life in danger, and then they have a swimmer for that.) The seaman then proceeded to pull the parts of my boat up onto the back of the small cutter and secure it for the ride into the inlet at Lockwood Folly. The Captain handed me a form to fill out if I wanted to file a claim against my government. I was so tired and so relieved by then that I remember just holding it my hand and not being able to read it or focus on it. As we pulled into the dock area, I will never forget the embarrassment mixed with relief and elation that I felt as I waved to all our family smiling and waiting for us. It was good to be back on dry land. It was good to put my arms around my sweet girl and hug my sons again.
We learned later that the search party looking for us had included a small plane from the Forest Service and several boats of volunteer rescue personnel in addition to two Coast Guard boats from Oak Island. We were spotted by the plane but it was called away to a forest fire just before they could dip their wings to let us know they had called us in. I remember watching them with disappointment as they turned inland. We may have seen some of the boats too, but it was just too rough out there for them, and we were too close to the water to be seen.
The Captain invited our family to Oak Island the following day for a tour of the Coast Guard facility and, like good homeschoolers, we turned the incident into a field trip to the station. We also made The Brunswick Beacon, page 8A and above the fold. The Holden Beach Police Chief, Robert Cook, was quoted as saying, “I don’t know why in the world they would put something in the water on a day like this”, but, I can assure you, Ken and I still know . . . and we’d do again.
(2014 marks the 20th year since this “incident” occurred. Our Christmas tree holds many memories like this one – stories of the good times, bad times, and sometimes the sad times. I hope you will take some time this Christmas to remember your stories and tell them again to your family.)