The Flagship Niagara Diaries Part 9: Man Overboard!

I watch the skyscrapers fade into the grey morning mist as we put Toronto to our stern and head out toward the Welland Canal and the dreaded seven-lock string of horrors that I don’t even want to think about. With the upcoming hard day’s work, the port in Cleveland seems so far away.

The sails of our fellow tall ships fly up around us like clouds in a gathering storm, the canvas thick and bulbous with the strong winds. We brace the yards to port and sail for hours, conquering the Welland in much the same brutal, sweaty way that we did on our first pass through. Back in our home waters, it doesn’t take more than a few hours for Cleveland to come into sight in the familiar grey haze of still-far-off city.

I breathe a small sigh of relief when I catch sight of the city. We’re almost there. A shower. Rest. Food. 

I just rock backward into a pinrail to recline when I see Billy zoom by with a serious whoosh, chattering speedily with the captain via his beloved walkie-talkie. He clambers up to the bridge deck and has a few quick words with the captain face-to-face before I see the mass of crewmembers around him begin to disperse.

Something’s wrong.

I start to make a move toward him when a crewmember, the older man whom I always identify with his baseball cap, heads toward the prow (and toward me), stopping me.

“Lookout.”

It’s terse, but it’s a command, so I climb up the coil of ropes and take my place on lookout over the prow. Taking a few moments to scan the waters for any danger and finding none, I look back toward the crew and listen.

“Since last night….”

“Pretty young….”

“It might not get cold enough at night….”

I freeze. We’re looking for a person.

Or a body.

I whip my eyes back to the water, scanning deeper and more carefully than I’ve ever bored my eyes into anything in my life. Almost instantly I recognize that danger — the deep blue water in this early morning hue make every trough in the waves look…dark. Like someone’s back if they were wearing a water-soaked shirt.

I’m letting the situation get to me, I reason. Relax. Look hard. Focus.

As I stand up on watch, slowly but surely the important information is relayed to me. Local 14 year old boy. Search-and-rescue attempt underway. Last seen the previous night.

Slowly, a deep, greyish feeling fizzles around in my stomach and settles into an uncomfortable stone. This is a big deal.

Someone’s life might depend on how well I do my job.

I run through the MoB (Man Overboard) procedures I’ve been taught in drills, since MoB does not just apply to someone who has fallen from the ship. Okay. When I see him, I shout “Man overboard!” two times. Or is it three? Err…but I point with my whole hand and arm outstretched, not just my finger. Don’t look down to see if people heard me. Keep my eye on him and my hand pointed. Throw the flotation ring. No, DON’T throw it. Someone else has that job on the WQSB [Watch, Quarter, and Station Bill]. Don’t take your eyes off him. 

Find him, and keep him.

I now have a much firmer respect for firefighters, police, soldiers, and all human beings who are in any way placed in any type of authority that even remotely resembles being in charge of someone’s life or well-being. My mind rolls like the choppy waves, flicking from one thought to the next in impatient leaps.

Why am I on lookout? Why is this MY responsibility? Why can’t I just be one of the people hauling lines? Then if we don’t find him alive, I can say that I did my best to steer the ship as fast as it would go. But if we don’t…it’s my fault.

Thankfully, my intense searching is quickly interrupted by another older gentleman who’s come to replace me. He crawls up onto the coil in my stead, his face drawn tight into an almost agonized frown.

It seems like this is harder for him that it was for me.

I join in the masses hauling lines and making them secure to speed the ship as we practically clubhaul back the way we came to look for the boy. Amid the sweaty, terrifying work, I finally yank the truth out of some of my fellows — the man on watch is a formerly active-duty Navy veteran.

His job was to look for dead bodies.

My heart sinks; how cruel, yet how necessary that he’s standing up there. Can we ask him, after all the death he’s seen, to look for the body of a young, innocent boy? Can we ask him not to, and have his experience wasted and in so doing risk the boy’s life further?

I don’t like this.

The hours tick by as we sweep the bay, and it feels like I’ve got an angry pack of dogs in my stomach, all trying to eat each other. Maybe it’s been long enough that he’s been found.

Or maybe he’s already dead.

Maybe we’ll never find him.

Or maybe someone already has and hasn’t told us yet.

Or maybe he’s not even in the water any more.

Maybe he’s okay and just got out of the water and went somewhere but hasn’t been found yet.

I loop a rope around its pin, a little outside of myself amid my thoughts, when the whole crew freezes and looks back at Billy, who’s standing on the bridge deck stark still and clutching his walkie-talkie in a white-knuckled grip.

I see him sigh and stare straight into the captain’s eyes for a few moments before he turns to us.

“They found him.”

I shiver. Dead?

“He’s okay.”

*****

Quotes from this day’s ship log:

“We did double back away from Cleveland for a while to help in a search-and-rescue attempt for a 14 year old boy in the water overnight. When we finally arrived in Cleveland, we were greeted by a barrage of cannon fire.”

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