Baby Overboard: It Was Bound to Happen

People used to say to me: “Aren’t you afraid they’ll fall overboard? Don’t you keep them attached?” referring to our two small boys.

Before it happened, yes, I was afraid. I would think about “what if.” What if it were to happen? What if we were at sea? Yes, the thought scared me. But kids also get hit by cars, simply running out into the street in front of their homes. So I couldn't worry about "what if." Then it did happen, but when it did I had no time to be afraid. I had to react—fast.

Brendan was only 18 months old. It was early in the morning and we were just getting up. We were in Brazil, and as usual, we were at anchor. It was rare that we were actually tied up to a dock. Our budget didn’t permit it and for the most part, we sought out more picturesque, peaceful anchorages. Besides, with two small children, we could be noisy sometimes, so it was best not to annoy the neighbors, and keep our distance. At any rate, Brendan crawled out of his bunk, wearing his “bunny suit”—the full baby pajamas with the incorporated feet, since it was still rather cool at night. As I stood near the galley sink preparing the coffee, Brendan ramped right up the ladder to the exterior cockpit. I kept an eye on him since he wasn’t too stable on his feet yet, only having begun to walk a few months earlier, and besides, he WAS outside on the deck.

For safety purposes the whole deck was fully “netted in,” meaning we had a full net on both sides of the boat, from the front to back (bow to stern), so it would catch objects, or a child, should something or someone slip between the lines. Since we were at anchor, we had placed an ice chest on the deck next to the net, to render the interior a little more spacious for our in-harbor living. Then literally before my eyes, I watched Brendan scramble up on top of the ice chest and in two seconds flat with a big splash, he was over and in the water. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen! I couldn't believe I watched him. What was he thinking?! It happened too fast for me to even stop him from climbing atop the ice chest. No time to think—just react. I dropped everything and dove in after him.

Like people always say in catastrophic, panic situations, it seems like the minutes are long when actually it takes only seconds for the action to transpire. I scrambled up the ladder into the cockpit and jumped over the side. The water was a green, glassy calm, and I just remembered him being there, in his navy blue and red bunny suit. I couldn't say if he was floating or splashing about. In a split-second splash he was in the crook of my arm, and I tried to hold him up as high as possible while swimming around to the other side of the boat where we had a ladder we climbed up when coming back from land in the dinghy. It was all kind of a blur, and he really didn't have much time to drink much water. It seemed like the initial shock wore off rather quickly and that I felt we had been initiated; it was done, over with, relief. It was bound to happen and it finally did.

This Time With Gusto!

It was indeed memorable since it was the first time, but as it turns out, it wasn't to be the last. The second time it happened was much more horrendous, and I still get shivers today thinking about it.

Brendan was around 2 years old by the time we reached Cayenne, French Guiana, sometime in August or September 1984. French Guiana neighbors Brazil, and is a French "department," similar to Hawaii—part of France but not on the mainland. Through the "cruising grapevine" it was known that Cayenne was a good place to stop awhile and find some work, earn some quick cash, and head on to the next port at will. Since French Guiana is governed by French law, we had a legal right to work there, Michel being a French citizen and I having the equivalent of a French "green card" or residency and work visa valid for France.

Although our financial reserves weren't depleted yet, we figured it would be a good time to stop and work for a bit, taking advantage of this French enclave along the way. The next opportunity to work wouldn't be until we arrived in the States, and we had no idea yet when that would be. This money would always be an extra welcomed cushion. We both found jobs quite easily. Michel, an architect, found a job within just a few hours with a local firm, and thanks to my fluent bilingual capabilities, I found some work with an American shrimp company, whose main office was based in Tampa, Florida.

The anchorage itself was quite unique and quite an image: numerous "yachties" or "cruisers," mostly French families with small children, all living aboard various sized and shaped boats that made up a colorful flotilla. Each boat reflected the personalities and individual lifestyles of the inhabitants. It was picturesque in its own peculiar way. There was no marina, just a protected anchorage at the mouth of the muddy Cayenne River. A nearby fishermen's wharf near the heart of town served as a landing and tie-up dock for all the cruiser's dinghies when they went ashore to work or buy groceries. Since the Cayenne River was actually part of the Amazon River basin, the water was not inviting—a deep, opaque muddy brown. It was a gateway to the jungle that lay just across on the other shore. Not far down the river there were caiman, a South American version of an alligator.

The families went about their lives in this anchorage: out in the dinghy around 8:00 a.m. to work, daily trips to the open air produce market, ferrying kids to the local school, or doing morning school lessons on board through correspondence courses. Most boats were usually swathed in laundry drying in the breeze. Most everyone was quite social, and the evening happy hour and potluck meals were much the norm.

The 8:00 a.m. hour was indeed quite the morning rush hour as at least one person from each boat would rev up the dinghy outboard and head for the wharf, on their way to work or school. We became a part of this routine, as Michel would go to the architecture office, taking Sean with him and accompanying him to school. I took Brendan with me to the shrimp company offices, where I would leave him for the day in the care of a local woman who lived in the nearby company employee village compound.

This particular morning Brendan and I left for the shore with a friend in her dinghy. Converging at the dock with a half dozen others bound for work and school, she cut the outboard as we came alongside the dock and prepared to tie-up. As we came alongside, the dock was actually above me at about eye level since it was low tide. I picked Brendan up, raising him above my shoulders to set him on the floating dock. The water was the color of deep milk chocolate, and the current was running strong. I couldn't actually see the boards on the dock since the platform was just above my eye level, so as I set Brendan down, feet first, I had no idea that I set him directly above a hole, just his size. He slid right on through down into the opaque muck, and was gone. He completely disappeared from sight and I was absolutely panicked, petrified. I tried to scream, cry for help but nothing would come out of my mouth. I remember my heart racing and turning my head in every direction looking for him—any part of him, any sign of him, anywhere! I couldn't jump in because I didn't see where he was. I frantically reached and splashed about in the water from the dinghy, trying to catch him.

It was a scene of panic for everyone around because there were quite a few of us coming to the dock and everyone saw it happen. My friend who brought us ashore, and who was very pregnant, instinctively jumped in after Brendan, but she couldn't find him. Again, it seemed like agonizing minutes, and it definitely was longer than the previous incident, but suddenly Brendan's arm popped up out of the water and someone grabbed it, and he was out. He was quite shaken, white with shock, and had drunk quite a bit of water. It took us a while to calm down, get our wits about us, and get Brendan cleaned up. The two of us did go on to work that day, as usual. Since he was only 2 years old, I don't think he remembers it as vividly as I do, or probably not at all, but subconsciously he may not want to. It is a haunting memory for me, and still hard for me to put down on paper now, all these years later.

Today Brendan has quite a daring and active outdoor lifestyle. I can't help but think in his subconscious, maybe he began to believe he was meant to overcome his near-death experiences.