February 21, 2012

strike the mizzenmast, we've hit the sandwich isle




This story begins here, when we were kids. Left for weeks on end while our parents traveled the globe, Sean, Michelle and I used to do our own sort of travel in our bedroom: we'd slide Michelle's crib over to our bunk bed, lash them together, and pretend we were on a ship sailing around the Hawaiian Islands.


I had two things: the Fisher-Price Bowling Set (which acted as the steering controls) and an old Rand McNally map of the islands, which made me the captain. Sean worked the engine on the bottom bunk, and Michelle did whatever you did when you were three years old, mostly screaming in joy.

I was beginning to read vociferously of the world far away, mostly drawing from a National Geographic book of "Our World" that contained this picture of the lava eruptions at Kilauea:


Lava fascinated me to no end - it was so dangerous, so beautiful, and so bizarre to think the Earth just belched up the contents of its interior whenever it felt like it. I could watch lava splash and harden for hours if there was footage.

Fast forward to last year, when a travel ad for Hawaii wordlessly pictured a small boat wandering along the coast in the evening, happening upon a spout of lava pouring into the ocean, as all the people watched breathlessly. I turned to Tessa and said "I want THAT!" When my mom's birthday trip came together, Tessa, Lucy and I took a detour to the Big Island to make it happen.

Before you get on the boat, you have to look on the website and see what's up - the volcano is in a pretty low phase right now, with nothing pouring into the ocean. But the company said there was lava on the hillside and humpback whales in the ocean, so we decided to err on the side of adventure.


This has always been our mantra - all things being equal, do the more adventurous thing. It will likely still be our mantra after this experience. But we have been chastened.

The boat was a steel beast, able to seat about 22, with monster engines and a metal roof. It was the same size as one of those large tourist boats that cart passengers down the rivers of Europe. But the minute we launched into the water, we knew it would be rough. There had been weather warnings for days, and just getting past the beach coral, we experienced giant free-falls that were as stomach-churning as any roller coaster.


However, we were up for the adventure, and simply held on through the worst waves, and held tighter when the rain started. The sun was still bright, we were going with the current, and the view was unlike anything you'll ever see. It's like God had a black candle, and dripped a coastline into place.

After 45 minutes or so, we turned around, but it wasn't lost on us that we hadn't seen any volcanic activity. One miserable old lady complained that she had been "promised lava" and made a disgusting stink about it while the tour guide tried to explain that he couldn't control what the Earth was going to do on any given day.

As the sun set, we started going against the current for real. The winds started an ungodly howl, and the boat listed achingly side to side. As if on cue, someone shouted "there it is!" and sure enough, on the far hillside, a spurt of lava began making its way out of the ground.


I tried taking pictures, but only one or two came out, since the boat was now violently throwing us around our seats. Lucy began to openly wish she was back home, and we told her we agreed, and it wouldn't be long now.

But it was long. It was more than long. We hit one wave that threw all of us in the middle seats fully two feet into the air, coming back down on the metal with a horrible thud. Lucy was on my lap, which meant, basically, a sack of potatoes fell from a chandelier onto my balls.

Any guy who has really been nailed in the crotch can tell you that the first - and most pervasive - feeling is of overwhelming nausea. I kept a brave face, but Lucy was beginning a quiet little cry, and Tessa had the sense to move the three of us into the back part of the boat where things weren't so violent. It helped, but not much.

I'm not a seasick-prone person, but once you've crossed that nausea threshold (and you're on a boat that is being tossed around the Pacific), there's no going back. I grit my teeth and commenced Operation Try Not To Barf, if only to show my little girl there was nothing to be afraid of.

The weather worsened. The sky turned pitch-black, and we lost the horizon. Monster 22-foot waves would suddenly appear like ghoulish black specters in front of us, and we'd brace ourselves, encircling Lucy with our legs, as the boat heaved over in sickening freefall.

We sang songs. Then we went through all the relatives that led to Lucy, going back to the 19th century. And then we could no longer talk. It was all we could do to keep breathing, as massive wave after wave threw the boat into oblivion. Then the passengers started vomiting.

The tour guide weakly said it'd be another 15 or 20 minutes, that they were battling headwinds, but that deadline came and went. It was 30 minutes, then 45, then an hour. We could occasionally see the light of some landing dock, miles away, but it never got any closer.

Perhaps I'm just a pussy, perhaps it's luck, or perhaps there's something I'm supposed to learn. 9/11, kidney stones, unfathomable pain, constant sickness... what do you take away from it? The boat trip back was an exercise in human endurance, actual torture. More than two hours in pitch black violent seas, no life jacket, soaking wet, trying to keep our 6-year-old (and ourselves) from flying into the side of a wave, all the while forcing ourselves not to vomit, through paroxysms of unbearable nausea.

When we finally got to shore, the captain, himself a shell of the man we'd seen when we came aboard, said it was the worst trip he'd ever known, and had contemplated turning around a few seconds after we started.

The other passengers, their legs like Jell-o, willed themselves down the ladder and wandered in a daze to their cars. A few of them, however, came straight up to Lucy and told her they couldn't believe how brave and wonderful she was. And that is who I need to speak to now...

Lucy, since you were born, this blog has - in its own subtle way - been for you to read when you're old enough to find it useful. A capsule of the time when your soul was taking shape. But it may also serve as a reminder of what lies inside you.

During the absolute worst part of that boat ride, as we were pitched far over and holding on for life, I could hear you humming. Humming! I don't know what song it was, and you didn't remember when I asked you, but it shows you possess an inner peace I have never had.

That experience wasn't just the worst trip you'd ever been on, IT WAS THE WORST TRIP ANYBODY ON THE BOAT HAD EVER BEEN ON. And you looked at those gargantuan waves, felt your body rise into the air with no sense of when it would end, and you simply shrugged. And hummed.

You possess that in you. I want you to know that! And that's only part of why, my little ice dancing, dog-training, soprano paleontologist, I love you so very, very much.


Posted by Ian Williams at February 21, 2012 11:50 PM
Posted by: GFWD at February 22, 2012 6:02 AM

A three hour tour . . .

Posted by: chip at February 22, 2012 6:13 AM

I have to say the pitch for your trip sounds like
"It's Gilligan's Island meets the Perfect Storm".

I'd like to say Lucy's equanimity comes from the stern religious instruction I provide her as her Godfather, but I think that might be exaggeration.

Anyway, at least you have a great story and I hope the rest of your trip is calm.

Posted by: caroline at February 22, 2012 6:19 AM

Glad you all survived! What a cool little lady Lucy is! And I have to add I laughed when you wrote 'and then the passengers starting vomiting" - only THEN?? With as stomach like mine I want to barf looking at your picture. I would have hurled within the first 5 minutes, for sure. You all have stomachs of steel as far as I am concerned!

Posted by: Alyson at February 22, 2012 6:43 AM

When we were in Maui, we went on one of those chartered snorkeling tours, and had a great time. On the way back a storm came up, and the boat rocked and pitched and dropped and we had a terrible time trying not to throw up and trying not to lose our minds. But that sounds like nothing compared to your trip!

The end part about Lucy made me cry. And since it's good for pregnant women to get out their sentimental crying when they're home alone in privacy, I appreciate the opportunity to make that happen today. Better here than on the subway.

I hope the rest of your trip is fun!

Posted by: dct at February 22, 2012 8:07 AM

sniffle, sniffle...

Posted by: Kjf at February 22, 2012 9:37 AM

Oh my. Bravo to Lucy, a superhero in the making. And there were no life vests?

Posted by: Lurker Ann at February 22, 2012 10:51 AM

Made me cry too. Lucky Lucy for being such a resilient and resourceful soul, and for having parents who have helped her bring that out.

Posted by: Cris at February 22, 2012 11:23 AM

Hooray for Lucy!

Years ago my partner and I had a similar experience on a night ferry shuttling between St. Thomas and St. Croix. I think it was less traumatic than what you described but still very upsetting. It reminds me that, much as I love the ocean, it can also be really terrifying. And frankly, I just do NOT understand these parents who, in recent years, have let their teenage children sail around the world ALONE to break world records. Just don't get that at all.

Glad you're all safely back on land!

Posted by: Bozoette Mary at February 22, 2012 3:45 PM

Oh. My. God. I am so glad you are all safe and sound! Lucy is... well, Lucy is wonderful.

Posted by: Caitlin at February 22, 2012 9:10 PM

Reading about this harrowing experience made me viscerally remember the night I sailed out of Miami on a small boat with my mom and her friends, old salts who run a sailing school. It was the first night of an offshore trip up the East Coast. The tide and the strong wind and the current were somehow all at different angles, which produced huge waves from three different directions at random. I was so seasick that even thinking about it now makes me queasy.

Nobody had time to take care of me (and what could they do?). They were busy sailing the boat. So they lashed me by my safety harness to the binnacle at exactly the right length so I could puke over the side all night. In the dark early morning hours I spent hours lying on the pitching, yawing deck, dry heaving and praying to the god I don't believe in to make it stop.

I am so sorry for your trip from hell.

Posted by: Annie at February 24, 2012 11:10 PM

Tears...and laughter, at my inimitable co-godparent.

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