Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Swimming to New York

Something seemed off about the person in the water about 1,000 feet away. It was too far out in the lake for a casual swim. Even if they were out for a swim, it was a dangerous place because it was in-line with the harbor entrance. There was no nearby kayak or windsurfing board from which the person could have fallen. 

Mostly it was the odd movements that caught my attention. Not swimming and the head wasn’t steady enough to be treading water.  

I had a complement of five guests aboard. With mainsail still up, I threw on the diesel motor and told Evan, my first mate, to prepare for a possible rescue.

I motored over to what turned out to be a young man in his mid 20s I guessed.

“Do you need help?” I called out as we got close.

I couldn’t understand exactly what he said, but his garble was answer enough. I threw him a floatation cushion and told him we would be right back. 

I ordered one of my guests to point his finger at the “man overboard” and never take his eyes off him no matter what was happening on the boat. Evan and I lowered the mainsail. I circled the boat back and pulled up to the man. He grabbed onto the side of the boat, but had no strength left to hoist himself. He was a big-framed young man. He was, as we say, “all there.” Evan and I pulled each arm until the man could flop onto the deck, then we pulled his leg up until he was lying on the boat in his swim trunks. 

We covered him in blankets. He just laid there as I started my list of questions. Was he injured? Was he with someone else that I should be looking for? Was there any condition I should know about him? Was there anyone we could call on his behalf?

Eventually, I got to the question on everybody’s mind: How did he end up, drowning, in waters of Lake Champlain?

“I was swimming to New York,” he said. “I could have made it. I’ve swum distances like that before. I’m a champion swimmer. Could have been an Olympic athlete.”

I had him drink water and encouraged him to keep talking.

His story was a rambling one. He was swimming to New York to be with a lover. He didn’t have enough money for the ferry. The lover in New York had rejected him, but he wanted to win her over again.

It’s that last comment which taints us toward him. We want to say: Accept. Move on. It’s not heroic what you’re doing; it is badgering.

I couldn’t help but feel deep empathy for him. How many times have I contemplated my own versions of swimming to New York?

By now, he had regained enough strength to sit in the cockpit.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Jonah. Like the one who got swallowed by the whale.”

“Yeah,” I laughed. “But this time, it was Lake Champlain’s sea monster Champ who would have swallowed you.”

For the first time, Jonah laughed.

“We try to get away from God, but we can’t,” he said.

“No, we can’t,” I agreed. 

In the Bible, the Torah and the Quran, Jonah tries to escape God’s call to Jonah and ends up on a ship in a storm at sea. Jonah admits to the sailors that the storm is caused by him and so he is tossed overboard, whereupon he is swallowed by a whale. A death, which becomes a rebirth after three days.

I’m not a religious man in the traditional ways, but I am one who believes that in words and metaphor are the greatest powers I know. My favorite line from the Bible is, “In the beginning was the Word.”

So, for me, Jonah’s mantra was an immediate reformulation in my mind: “We try to escape ourselves, but we can’t.”

We docked, and after the guests departed, my mate Evan and I tried to get Jonah help. We called his mother, but she refused to come. Jonah told us to call the local mental health agency, but they said that unless he was a danger to society or himself, they didn’t provide such services.

Jonah said he supposed he could return to his apartment. We called a cab for Jonah. I paid the cabbie, told Jonah to keep the fleece jacket, gave him some extra money, and bid him farewell. 

Godspeed, Jonah.

(This post is also here at the Facebook page of my sailing tours operation: Whistling Man Schooner Co.)

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