Caught by A Monster Outgoing Tide

(Published in Small Craft Advisor Magazine)

My friend Jana and I decided to take the little blue skiff out — we’d row across the harbor to the tiny crescent-shaped beach right under the old Tiffany mansion, and have a lazy picnic.

two girls in a row boat

It was a hot, lazy day….

But we never got there.

We were bored. It was a hot July noon on Long Island’s north shore. The sun felt like it was drilling down through our skulls, right into our brains.

We grabbed our floppy hats, packed the boat up and took off from the main dock, telling Ralph, who was in charge that day, that we’d be back mid-afternoon some time.

The tide was at its peak. It would be high for a bit more time, and then the water would start slowly moving out of the long harbor into Long Island Sound.

There wasn’t a shred of wind. The surface of the water was glassy, a huge mirror reflecting each movement of the oars.

I took the first turn rowing. It became mesmerizing, the rhythm of dip, pull, raise the oar, turn it 90 degrees, lean forward, turn it again, dip, pull, raise the oar, turn –

By the time we got all the way out to the furthest edge of the moorings where the fleet of bigger boats were kept, we were too hot to go any further. We hadn’t anticipated how much energy it took to row so far.

We were surprised! When we sailed our boats through the fleet on our way to a race, it seemed like getting out to the harbor from the docks was a snap! But rowing? We were shocked at the difference.

For an adult, it really wasn’t all that far, but we were only 14 — it felt to us like we’d rowed halfway around the world.

We decided we were far enough away from adult prying eyes, we might just as well enjoy our picnic right there.

So Jana secured the painter* to an unoccupied buoy at the farthest outer edge of the moorings.

We arranged our life jackets on the floorboards to make comfy pillows to sit on, and sat back against the plank seats as we dived into our basket of sandwiches, cookies and drinks.

Soon, feeling drowsy and lazy, we leaned back, faces raised to the sky, cloud chasing, giggling and telling stupid jokes, talking about our friends, listening to my little turquoise transistor radio.

The boat rocked gently with our movements. We splashed water on ourselves. The air was steamy, but if we were still enough it was bearable.

After a while, we turned off the radio — just being there seemed so special, like being in pure heaven. We almost felt like we should whisper.

High tide lasts for a little bit and then starts going out again.

Depending on the position of earth and moon, the tide can be gentle and slow, or powerfully, unbelievably, fast. This particular tide was a monster, silently, rapidly creeping below us, trying to suck everything not tied down out to the harbor entrance.

When we’d left the dock, the tide was full high.

When the tide was at its highest, it paused, shifted, and started building up its muscles to leave the harbor. As it did so, our skiff swung around on the mooring, its rear end pointing out to sea now.

Somehow the painter got loose, came undone, and fell sloppily into the water at the bow.

We never noticed. We were groggy from eating and dozing, eyes closed, not paying attention to the world outside our little boat.

The tide moved fast. Our boat was caught right in the middle of the flow. It was so smooth we didn’t know we were being abducted by the water.

By the time we opened our sleepy eyes and saw what was happening, we had drifted far past the outer racing buoys, and almost half way out of the harbor.

Under her summer tan, Jana turned the whitest I’d ever seen. Her eyes bugged out, she started to panic, flailing her arms around, standing up, jerking, rocking the boat hard.

“What are we gonna do!” she shrilled, tears flying. “Our moms will kill us! We’re too far away!”

I watched as from afar as she got all riled up. I’m not sure why I didn’t, too. Instead, I felt a sense of calm come over me. I figured heck, we can just row back in — no problem!

I grabbed her arm, held her, pulled her back down.

“Stop it — that’s not helping! Wipe your eyes — get your life jacket on, and let’s just squeeze together on the middle seat and row back in.”

She took a breath, sighed, crowed a wobbly, “OK.”

We each take an oar. Place them carefully in the oar locks. Push them out far enough to catch water. Start to row. Get co-ordinated, both oars in the water, pulling at the same time . . .

We start enjoying our adventure. Thinking it’s fun, at first, pretending as if we’re in one of those long, skinny sculls they row with those enormous long oars in college competitions.

We shout out the pulls, and put our backs into each one.

Hah! (pull) Hah! (pull) . . . .

We got back into our previous rhythm — dip, pull, raise the oar, turn it 90 degrees, lean back, turn it again, dip, pull, raise the oar, turn –

I don’t know how long we rowed, but all too soon, we were worn out. Panting, dripping sweat, our pulls becoming weaker and weaker. Rowing against the tide is hard work.

We stopped to take a look at our location in relation to the shoreline where we’d started.

We’d gotten exactly nowhere.

Now we were scared to death. This was serious business. We were way out in the middle of the harbor, getting farther and farther away from the docks. Failing in our attempt to row against the tide … it’s hot … it’s getting towards evening….

Our folks were going to murder us for not paying attention. “How many times have we told you…”

In every boat, you’re supposed to have an airhorn, a little pressurized canister with an amplifying horn thing on it. It sounds like a lame duck multiplied by a hundred when you squeeze the handle — squawk! Squawk!

It wasn’t until my mother went down to the dock wondering where we were that anyone looked around. We were supposed to meet there at five o’clock. Where were we?

Ralph hadn’t noticed we weren’t back.

No one else had noticed, either. Two girls — who cares, right? No one had heard our airhorn’s squawks yet.

My mother calls Ralph out. His face blooming beet red with chagrin, he preps the launch. Both he and my Ma hop in, and blast away to come all the way out and drag us back. Absolutely boiling livid.

Oh my god. Did we ever get scolded.

Up, down, left and right. By my mother. And father. And Jana’s. By Ralph. By the Commodore of the club.

This was The Defining Moment, when we really got the extent to which we had blown it.

The Commodore — shiny bald, frown permanently engraved between his thick black brows, was extra string-bean tall. He wore his neat sky blue blazer over stiffly starched white shirts, khaki pants whose pressed, knife-sharp creases would slice your steak in a flash — uhhh well, let’s just say he was a bit imposing.

He never, ever, spoke to us kids. Ever. Never graced us with the slightest glance. Yet all of us knew without a doubt that he knew every last thing that went on in that club.

But now, we got to know what being shredded by his deep, stern voice was like. I hope I never have to experience again anything like the fury of his storm-grey eyes stabbing into our very souls that day.

Finally, my mother unceremoniously grabbed us by our shoulders and shoved us into her car. Drove us home. We rode in silence. Her hands shook, she was so angry. But she didn’t utter a word. I swear I saw hot steam coming out of her ears.

We were in such deep doodoo.

Our families all gathered together in the kitchen, everyone chiming in on what we did right, and what we did wrong.

I felt so ashamed. Never before had I gotten into this amount of trouble.

I’d been out on the water for years, both with and without others. I’ve been asked, you were so young! You really were trusted with taking boats out by yourself? Even with another kid?

Yes. Growing up on the eastern seacoast, it’s customary to learn to sail at a very young age. By 14, after years of practice sailing and boating with and without family or instructors, it was simply assumed you’d be OK in a boat out on the water — whether you were sailing, rowing, paddling, racing, or cruising along casually.

Jana and I had just casually thought, “oh, we’re stuck here, getting sucked out of the harbor — we’ll just honk and they’ll come get us.”

We had no conception how far we had drifted — it took us almost an hour to get towed back to the dock.

We hadn’t understood the extent of the danger — how fast the tide would shoot us on out of the harbor and into Long Island Sound, which was roiling with boat traffic — mostly bigger boats who wouldn’t even see small fry like us. Especially since we had no running lights.

We hadn’t understood how dark it would get out there, how hard it would be to find us, impossible to see in the dark. And what if we somehow capsized? We could be in the water all night, freezing our little tushes off.

My biggest mistake as skipper, since it had been my idea, was trusting Jana to tie us to the mooring without checking her knot. That knot never would have come undone if it had been me tying us up — even at only 14, I had been through class after class on tying different knots since the age of 6. I was good at it. She must have tied a granny knot or something.

To say Jana and I were (beyond) relieved to get rescued and brought home, despite the shame and embarrassment — understatement of the century.

Thank goodness we had the airhorn with us, and the life jackets — at least we didn’t get scolded for not having those! And thank goodness for Ralph and my Ma, coming to get us.

But I’ll tell ya — I will never again trust anyone tying up any boat I’m on without checking the knots myself!


* The painter: the piece of rope that goes from the bow (front) of the boat to the dock to tie things up isn’t called a rope. It’s called a painter.

“…A painter is a rope that is attached to the bow of a dinghy, or other small boat, and used for tying up or towing. Ideally, the painter should float….”
~ Wikipedia


Thanks so much for reading my story!

I hope you enjoyed reading about two clueless teenagers stuck out on the water. And — I hope that you’ll remember to tie your own knots, and check them well!


Caught by A Monster Outgoing Tide
© Angela Treat Lyon 2023

Image: Lazy Day On the River
© Angela Treat Lyon 2023


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#skiff, #glassy, #harbor, #granny knot, #outgoing tide, #rowing, #mooring
#True Story, #Boats, #High Tide, #Pay Attention, #Scared



I was on the edge of my seat reading this. Just reading about this scared the bejeebers out of me. I can’t even imagine being on the boat with the two of you. There could have been such a different ending to this story. I’m so glad you both returned home safely that night.
~ Trisha Faye, Good Vibes Club.



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