In Over My Head

by Nicholas Charbonneau

“Are you sure you’ve got this?” she asked, gazing at me from under her cap.

“Yeah,” I blurted, “get in!”

She tossed her shoes in the white fiberglass cockpit, but then turned to face the oncoming wind.

“C’mon, seriously,” I commanded. “We gotta go!”

She looked back, gave me a quick reassuring smile, and climbed into the craft. Before I followed, I looked to where her eyes had focused, just off on the horizon. Dark clouds formed a line of black that seemed, upon its advance, to mercilessly devour the white mist in the distance. We could feel the wind picking up, rapidly drawing the darkness ever closer. I whispered to myself, just in case, “Lord, watch over us,” and tightened my life vest.

A captain never shies away from a challenge.

***

The day itself had started just like any other. My alarm clock had rattled out its shrill reveille while the sun rose slowly, peeking from the low trees like a thespian behind the curtain. Eventually, I too found myself dressed and ready. Looking in the mirror, I felt confident with what I saw. This sense of superiority lingered with me as I found myself at the kitchen table several minutes later, staring at my bowl of Raisin Bran. I felt completely in control as I imagined the brown flakes floating at the surface as sailors that had become separated from their vessel. I would never allow myself, the captain of the sailing team at school, to be separated from my ship, I thought. I wasn’t anything like these pitiful flaky sailors. With my spoon, I found the largest flake and abruptly dunked it beneath the surface, cutting it off from the light. Only when I thought it had had enough did I lift my spoon and permit the soggy sailor to return, soaked in every crevasse, from the milky depths.

“Nick!”

My mother startled me as she entered the kitchen in her royal red bathrobe.

I rose from my chair at the table and blurted: “Ma, I can’t stay, I gotta go!”

She kept walking, making her way to the coffee maker. “How about a ‘Good morning, Mother?’” she countered.

I paused but didn’t feel like playing. “No time, I’m going to be late.”

“Okay, okay,” she said, looking me over. “Just don’t forget your lunch.” She pointed to the kitchen counter where a brown paper bag sat, tilted to one side. On the face of the bag I could see the letters “N-i-c-k-y” in sharpie marker with a tiny heart drawn over the letter ‘i.’ At school, I usually did my best to hide this embarrassing family tradition from cafeteria-gazes. Today I quickly grabbed the paper bag, hearing it crinkle under my grip, and shoved it to the bottom of my backpack. I walked toward the door but was stopped by my mother’s voice: “Where’s my kiss?” she called.

Behind me, I could hear the coffee maker dripping steadily. I turned around. “C’mon Mom, I actually have places to be.”

She walked over. “You may be a senior now,” she said, staring directly into my eyes, “a ‘top-dog,’ but you’re still my baby boy and don’t forget that.” With this, she kissed me on the cheek. I turned and left, relieved that my teammates had not witnessed such humiliation of their captain.

The day moved quickly. It was the same old, and I was a pro at getting through the monotony. What are the components of a eukaryotic cell? Prom? Do you understand what Shakespeare is trying to say here? Did you get accepted to college? Where? It was the usual banter. By last period, however, I was growing restless. From my seat in the second floor classroom, I could see the bay.. It glowed softly. All I could think about was getting out there. The sun was high but the sky had turned slightly white with mist. Below, a fog hugged the land. It moved slowly across the soccer fields like a predator—a grey amoeba stretching its long pseudopod arm across the earth, looking for prey. I didn’t care. I would lead the sailing team out to sea, away from its grasp.

When the academic day finally came to a much-needed close, I quickly changed into my sailing gear. I was determined to be the first one at the boathouse to grab the sails, steering equipment, and ropes for my vessel. Once I had accomplished this, I stood there looking to the water. My ship sat in the distance with five others, strapped to a dock just off shore. Slowly, the other members of the sailing team assembled at the boathouse and began to mimic my actions while grabbing their gear. I felt good standing there, already prepared, not having to squirm in the tiny boathouse with all of them while fighting for the best gear. I must have looked impressive to them, wise and capable.

Among the sailors was Helen. She was wearing khaki shorts, a plain, faded blue baseball cap, and a red sailing jacket zipped all the way to her chin. In one hand, she held her shoes. Only when we were out on the water would she put them on. If anyone asked about this practice, she always had the same response, “Being barefoot…it’s just… more natural that way.” She walked over to me and reached for the green canvas sail bag that I had thrown over my shoulder; it reeked of old encrusted salt.

“Sweet!” she said. “You already got the gear.”

I looked at my other team members, squeezed sardine-like into the tiny boathouse. I turned to Helen, “Yeah, you ready?” I didn’t want to waste any time; I felt I had to be first on the water.

To get to the dock, we had to be ferried on a small motorboat by our sailing coach, Mr. Lee. He was already waiting down there, hunched over, fiddling with what looked like a radio. As Helen and I walked closer to the launch, I could see Mr. Lee clearly. He had patches of white hair by his temples and didn’t look too intimidating despite his dark, sharp eyes. I liked Mr. Lee but I found his caution, no doubt a remnant of his time in the Navy, to be excessive. When I first joined the sailing team he would always bark questions. “Are you sure that’s the right knot?” “Check your ropes; are they tight?” or “Nick, why don’t you have your lifejacket zipped? Don’t you know that’s all you’ve got out there if something goes wrong?” I think he had been a commander back when he served. Now, he just seemed harmless.

“I’m not sure we should go out today,” Mr Lee said as soon as we reached the motorboat.

“Why wouldn’t we?” I asked. I looked closer at his face—surely this was a joke.

“Well, I hear there’s a storm coming, but the forecast says it should already be here by now.”

“C’mon, Mr. Lee,” I pleaded, “it’s barely misting out there.” I looked out to the water; the white mist had thickened, but not by much.

Mr. Lee looked out and hesitated. The pause lingered. “Well…I guess…We’ll just keep an eye on the horizon, then. Get in.” Helen and I jumped in the motorboat and Mr. Lee ferried us out.

Soon we’d arrived at the dock and could begin to rig our sailboat with the equipment. I grabbed the lines, pulling hardily to hoist the sail skyward. The mainsail seemed particularly difficult to raise, more so than usual. Something didn’t feel right, but I didn’t mention anything to Helen. She was distracted with the task of steadily tying off knots and pulling ropes in all directions. Overall, Helen didn’t say too much, but I didn’t mind. Even though she was less experienced than I was, she always remained focused and I felt lucky to have her as my crew. I finished raising the sails and, as I looked up, I could barely see the sun through the thick white mist. Maybe Mr. Lee had been right; should we not go out? I looked back to shore. He was busy filling the motorboat with other sailors. This is ridiculous, I thought. A captain never shies away from a challenge. Helen’s voice disrupted my resolve as she finished her rigging. “Are you sure you’ve got this?” she asked, gazing at me from under her cap. “Yeah” I blurted, “Get in.” We were ready to head out; none of the other sailors had even made it to the dock yet. They wouldn’t slow us down. She tossed her shoes in the white fiberglass cockpit but stood there, apprehensively, focusing on the dark clouds that were on the approach.

“C’mon, seriously,” I commanded, “we gotta go,”.

She looked back at me, gave me a quick reassuring smile, and climbed into the ship. We could feel the wind picking up, rapidly drawing the blackness ever closer. I whispered to myself, just in case, “Lord, watch over us,” and tightened my life vest. A true captain never shies away from a challenge, right?

I pushed our little vessel into the dark emerald water and jumped in. In an instant, the white sails billowed with air and the hull shot forward, catching me by surprise. On the dock, the wind hadn’t felt as aggressive, but now as we sailed out to the bay, I could feel its strengthening force whipping the white-capped sea into our faces. Tasting the salty spray on my lips, I could sense briny droplets from my forehead beginning to trickle down, stinging at my eyes. I tried to wipe them from my face. My palms had turned moist and clammy. It must be the seawater making my palms wet. It couldn’t be fear; these are experienced hands, hands of a skipper. I looked down at my rope. I couldn’t help but notice a difference in its feel— slippery and tough, unforgiving. The bright red and yellow patterned nylon rope resembled a venomous snake, threatened by my incessant pulling. I didn’t care; I pulled hard anyway, trimming in the sails, keeping them close. Working to maintain the steering, I tried to keep our speed under control, but the wind continued to propel us farther, faster. We did our best to adjust. In the front of the ship, Helen struggled to maintain the forward-most sail. When she looked back at me, her eyes revealed her uneasiness.

Without warning, the wind shifted and the sharp sails began to whip back and forth violently, as if made furious by the harassing gust. The ropes thrashed through the air, cutting the condensed mist like knives. I yelled over the wind, “Helen, make sure you pull in those ropes!” I needed both sails under my control. The cockpit of the ship was taking on the seawater that pulsed over the impacting waves. Frantically, Helen stood up and reached over the water, waving her hands out, hoping to grab one of the lines from the air. She couldn’t reach them. She leaned forward a little more, farther over the side of the ship. There! One of the ropes seemed almost to be in grasp, but then lashed about, resisting capture. Helen, just grab it already, I thought, Do it!

KACHUNK.

In an instant, the two sails bloomed open again, jolting the vessel. The ropes dropped back down, no longer dancing in the mist. Helen fell backward, splashing hard on the fiberglass bottom of the ship. I rushed forward, letting go of my tiller and rope that operate the steering.

“Helen! Helen, are you okay?”

She sat up quickly, “What the hell was that?”

I looked at her face. “The wind. It shifted!”

She was holding in her pain. Her lips were tense, narrowed. She glared at me hard from under her drenched baseball cap, and I didn’t recognize her voice when she threatened, “You got us out here, you better get us back.”

The sails were fully expanded now, once again pushing the ship rapidly through the water. I had to bring the sails in; we were going too fast. We had only been on the bay ten minutes, but the strength of the wind had already pushed us a considerable distance out to open water. I looked back toward the dock. Where was my team? Through the mist, I could see the shadows of the other boats, sitting motionless on the dock. Where was everyone? Mr. Lee must have held them back, I decided. They should be here to see their captain battle this storm, I thought, slightly disappointed. I tried to squint past the heavy mist. Were they all on shore? I couldn’t see. My mind was racing. They must know we went out! Can they see us?

Beneath the water in the cockpit, a mangled mess of vibrant ropes laid at the bottom of the ship like a swarm of snakes waiting to strike. I reached down, grabbing the one I had dropped, and pulled hard. I have to bring in the sail to slow the ship and try to turn around, I thought. I pulled even harder, my hands turning red from the stress. But the sail wouldn’t come any closer; my strength wasn’t enough to overcome the force of the wind. Why wouldn’t the sail budge? Was I losing control? The hull of the vessel began to tip dangerously to one side, almost touching the ocean’s surface. I will control this situation; I have to, for Helen’s sake, for my sake. Okay, focus. My mind continued to race. By now the dark clouds were directly above us, enveloping the tiny vessel. Alright, I can’t slow the ship but I have to turn it around. I tried to focus my thoughts. I have to steer this vessel back to the dock, back to safety. I shouted “Ready about!” to signal to Helen my decision to turn the boat around. She looked back at me and tried to speak but her response was muffled by the March wind. She could only give me a shaky thumbs up. She seemed ready, at least as ready as she could be. I yelled the second signal, “Hard alee!” and pushed the tiller to turn, fighting the tilt of the ship. I couldn’t focus on the task at hand; I was thinking about too much: Helen, the thrashing wind, the pound of the water, and my unavoidable, rising fear.

The boat whipped about with a boom. Helen ducked and I just stood there, my hand hard on the tiller, paralyzed. BANG! The sound of the boom echoed over the howling wind. It had hit me square in the chest and I plummeted over the side, feeling the chilled slap of the water against my body. The ship continued to turn but could no longer fight the force of the wind. It capsized instantly, thrusting Helen into the water some distance from me. I could only see her shadow cutting through the water.

Everything came crashing down as the mighty mast fell to the side in defeat. I was caught underneath. The mainsail draped over me, and as water rushed over the top, the increasing weight pushed me under the surface. I could hear the turbulent water, as though it were filling my ears. I frantically kicked hard in an attempt to capture what little air I could from under the sinking sail. It was no use, though. There was too much water over the massive sail. It was too heavy. I was completely submerged. Everything was silent except for the thrashing. My only hope was to swim out from under it. My hands were unsteady. I couldn’t unfasten my lifejacket. It was preventing me from swimming down, was keeping me pinned beneath.

I couldn’t avoid the truth any longer—I was terrified.

This couldn’t be it. I could hear my heart thumping rapidly. Lub, dub, lub, dub, lub, dub. Louder and louder. It became overwhelming, filling the void, assaulting my ears from within. I couldn’t stand it anymore. Lub dub. The cold water filled every crevasse. The pain through my chest. The hit. Getting numb. I needed breath. Air. Lub dub. The zipper. Get the zipper. The zipper was life. The numbness, spreading. The pain. Unzip the zipper. Now. Focus.

Lub, dub.

Lub dub.         

I broke the water’s surface gasping for air.

I felt a sturdy arm reach for me from what seemed like the black clouds above. How long had I remained floating in the choppy water? I couldn’t remember; it didn’t matter now. The arm grabbed my lapel and lifted me from the sea. I landed on the hard bottom of the motorboat and looked up at Mr. Lee. He was yelling over the storm and the wind; I could barely hear him. Looking past Mr. Lee, I spotted Helen clinging to her dripping red jacket as she sat in silence. She wouldn’t look at me; maybe because of disgust, maybe disappointment. She was still barefoot. I hadn’t even realized that she had never put her shoes on. Why hadn’t I made her put them on? Why did I not stay on the dock? The shoes were gone now, at the bottom of the bay. It was all my fault. I had insisted on going out in this hell. For what? I turned around; waves crashed from every direction over my flipped sailboat. Its white body, now defeated, protruded out of the water,.

The sharp scent of oil and gasoline choked the thick mist as the motor took us to shore. I could taste it at the back of my throat. In the distance, a large motorboat glided over the white-capped waves toward the stranded sailboat. Mr. Lee must have called in the “cavalry,” a term he regularly mentioned during practice: “Don’t be stupid out there. Otherwise, I’ll have to call in the cavalry.” I always thought he was joking when he talked about it. I didn’t actually think he would ever need to. Mr. Lee’s sharp eyes revealed no emotion. I couldn’t tell if he was angry or relieved. He was silent now. Earlier in the day, the thought of coming to shore in the motorboat would have seemed the ultimate disgrace for a sailing captain, but now I was just relieved to get to land. My team was waiting by the boathouse, and as I walked by I heard one of them whisper, “What a moron.”

I thought back to the moment of the crash as I walked away from the shore. My ordeal must have lasted just a few moments but it felt longer to me now, and remained vivid in my mind. I had become inflated with the vanity of captaincy. I had overlooked everything I knew to be right while trying to build and maintain my image as the biggest flake in the bowl. I thought being captain meant being fearless, a license to take on any challenge. In the end, I needed to become the soggy sailor under the sea’s spoon to learn: leadership doesn’t mean invincibility. Somehow, the more I thought about it, the more everything seemed to make sense. This was the only logical conclusion for someone like me.