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Sunday Journal: A blue sky day turns dark during Hurricane Gustavo

"Stay on the boat!"

My voice is swallowed by the wind as my 10-year-old son, Satchel, cannonballs into the water. We're anchored off the coast of Homosassa, four families in two small crafts.

My husband, a diligent fan of NOAA, listened to the radio that September afternoon in 2008 to reports of Hurricane Gustav, spinning 500 miles west of Citrus County as it charged toward its eventual landfall in Louisiana. There were warnings about intermittent storms, but the skies from our seawall were clear and blue, and the sun gleamed off the calm water. We hated missing the last weekend of scalloping season. So, relying on our experience beating storms back to the dock, we decided to give it a go.

Before jumping from our friends' boat, deaf to my curt admonishment, I'd watched my son swim effortlessly the 30 feet from our boat to their anchored point. He's an acceptable swimmer, but breezes are giving way to gusts and growing currents.

Susie looks at me from the other boat. Maybe she's read my mind.

"Satchel," she shouts. "Come on and climb back up."

But he's missed his chance. My heart pounds as my 68-pound son drifts away from her, paddling with all he's got.

I shout to my husband, but he's focused on directing two swimmers back onto our boat.

"Grant," I yell again. My husband turns. I point toward Satchel's blond head bobbing on top of the rising water, now 20 feet west of the other boat. "He can't make it back," I shout.

During the commotion we missed the growing black curtain of clouds drawing closed over us. Dark water now laps at our boat.

Susie yells to her husband, Tom, and I see him dive in, swimming to reach Satchel, who's becoming harder to spot among the growing waves.

As the swimmers from our boat climb aboard, someone hoists the anchor and Grant starts the motor. I look to him for consolation. "Don't look at me!" he yells, his voice tense. "Keep your eye on them!"

We all watch as Tom grabs Satchel, floating perhaps 40 feet past the other boat. I'm aching to jump in and swim to them as the wind blows fierce, unabating and cold. But I don't. It wouldn't help.

The squall cuts to the north, making its way toward us. We reach the two of them, and Grant idles our boat while someone throws out a rope. Tom grabs for it, but the line sinks in the swells. He and Satchel continue to drift farther away. Grant repositions the boat. The rope is thrown again but misses. Again we try, and again the rope sinks. The waves continue to build, and I watch Tom struggle, holding on to Satchel as he works to keep himself above the rising crests. His fatigue gives way to fear.

Rain patters in big drops on the deck, on the water, on Satchel's frightened face. Grant decides to swing the boat around behind them. I watch my son watching us, not understanding why his father appears to retreat.

The squall comes full force, and Satchel and Tom now bob toward us. In moments, Satchel is pulled onto the boat by his skinny arms. I wrap him in a towel and bury my face in his salty hair. It won't be until bedtime that I come to grips with what almost happened.

Tom moves alongside the boat and fumbles up the ladder. Towering whitecaps attempt to wash him away, but many hands reach for him and pull him on deck.

We head back to Susie and her sister, alone with three kids. Our boat chugs through waves breaking over the railing and raindrops falling like needles, toward the dark shape shrouded in the deluge. We come up to it and the sides slam together, again and again. My heart races as Tom stands on the edge and leaps. He slips; his back hits the console.

"He's hurt," I yell, but Grant pulls away.

"The boats will smash against each other," he answers. "We'll check on him when this thing blows over."

And it does, but not before terrifying us with waves that threaten to fill the bow and winds that beat against us and drive us to the flooded floor, clinging to kids and seats as the boat is tossed, unsecured, in the sea.

The ride back is quiet. The kids have stopped crying. The winds are nothing more than wisps. Tom's back is bleeding and will need to be tended to, but the clouds move on and the sun comes out, brilliant over the calming water.

More than two years later, we remain remorseful about the risk we took. At times we wake at night with "what ifs." But more than that, we are humbled by that day, humbled by our lack of control. It's a hard lesson learned.

Derry Smith, who lives in St. Petersburg, enjoys reading and writing, which she shares on her blog,

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Sunday Journal: A blue sky day turns dark during Hurricane Gustavo 03/05/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 5:09pm]
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