Lost at sea … on a Sunfish

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OK, you’re off Cape Cod, in your mid-40s, way out in the Atlantic, circa 1989, clinging to a little 13-foot, 9-inch “recreational, personal” Sunfish sailing vessel. Sleeps none — just a dugout “sitting spot” beneath the sail. You’ve lost sight of land. You’re exhausted from recovering control when the mast would swing, knocking you into the ocean. But that wind would be welcome now, as your single sail is flapping, and you are stranded at sea! Thank God (you haven’t spoken to him in years) the sail is attached by rope.

You’ve lost your “provisions,” beautiful ribbed yellow shell pullover and suntan lotion (;-o). The wind is nil, eerie now — ominous for this moment. Overcast, gray skies have replaced the blue … and the sun has disappeared. So, you wondered when you recovered from your last dunking, which way is home?

Fast-forward 30 years, 2019, you’re vacationing at your stepdaughter’s home in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, looking out toward Falmouth, from the Inkwell (beach where Black folks tend to gather) — and considering all you would have missed had the Coast Guard not sounded their “Missing” alert that fateful day. And contemplating the Lie that nearly cost you your life back then.

We were down from Boston, visiting a college friend in Falmouth, when she and my then wife decided to sunbathe on a beach a few miles east of Falmouth Harbor. I’ve always been adventurous, so I said, “No thanks,” but asked if I could use her son’s “little sailboat” out back to “tool on down” and join them. Then came “the Lie.”
She said, “Oh, do you know how to sail?” Thinking quickly, I said, “Oh yeah, I used to sail those things when I was in high school.” (That, you see, was before I met my wife — who still gave me that little cocked-head, doubtful look that said, “Never heard that before.” (My lie would have been true had I said I had seen those things.)

Having lettered in six different sports in high school, two in college, survived three near-death instances, and taken a shot at stock-car racing in my early years, I truly felt I could quickly learn and survive pretty much anything back then. In fact, it honestly never crossed my mind that there could be any danger in doing something so simple as cruising along the ocean shore a few miles to meet them at the beach, then back to base — just gave me something to do for the afternoon.

They left around 10:30 am, I found rope and pads to secure the Sunfish atop our Volvo wagon, pulled up to the harbor launch area, unloaded it, unfurled the sail, and proceeded to push off. Fortunately, looking back, there was a young man and two female companions sitting under a shoreside tree, observing as I bumped into the dock, aaand a few boats — unable to get my vessel outward bound. He asked, “What are you doing?’ To which I explained, “Just going down that beach [pointing] down there to meet my wife.” 

They continued watching, and I continued floundering — hard to get a little sailboat moving when there’s not much wind to get you started … and it’s blowing in different directions. So, after a while, he asked, “Where’s your life vest?” Bemused, I said, “I’m from Michigan and grew up swimming in fresh water, where I didn’t float well, but I find it very easy to stay afloat in salt water — it’s amazing how much different it is!”

 

Even now, I can see his face. He was jaw-dropped astounded, said, “No, no, no — we can’t let you do that,” looking back and forth at the girls … who had both covered their mouths. (That should have told me many things … but didn’t.) They said, “Wait here, we’ll go get you a vest.” I protested, “But I’m not sure when I’ll be back, how will I return it to you?” They got a piece of paper, wrote down their address (only a few blocks away), and placed it under my windshield wiper — before he ran off to get the vest. 

Bemused, I thanked them profusely for their, I thought, misplaced concern, and they pushed me off … their anxiety (or, maybe, laughter) rising as I learned to tack en route to the harbor opening. (I had heard and probably read about it — sounded so simple.) Amazingly, I surprised the girls maybe two hours later, triumphantly waving as I glided up to their beach.

Chatted for a while, downed a sandwich and drink, and set sail for the return trip.

Now, if you don’t sail, but want to, pay close attention from this point on!

The girls saw nothing of me when they returned from the beach … then, hours later they began to worry, then grew frantic as the sun set … with no sign of me! They scurried down to the harbor, asked all around, then called the Coast Guard from the dock. Meantime, I had encountered what I was later told was a “common phenomenon” in that harbor — often at dusk, the winds die down, so it may have been easy to sail back into port in some parts of the day … but near impossible when the winds die down around dusk — leaving your sails flapping along with your spirits; you are, essentially, stranded!

Out in the ocean, struggling to move my boat, I flipped it a few more times, began waving my arms and signaling other vessels (which seemed to ignore me), and periodically just lay out on my side, head in my hand, exhausted. This went on for hours, and I drifted out so far, I guess, that I didn’t even see other boats, not even cabin cruisers. I was alone! But, amazingly (maybe stupidly), I never got scared! Naively, I concluded that, if I couldn’t go toward Falmouth (in my mind), I would just have to wait until I drifted out to THE ISLANDS (Nantucket and/or Martha’s Vineyard [where we vacationed each summer]!).

My only worry, as I recall, was that some Island folks had told me to keep my feet up from the water because bluefish are like large piranha — they bite. That having been considered, I was waiting for darkness … when I would see the island lights (didn’t matter which one) and just sail in, then call back to say “I’m OK!”

Gentlemen, listen to your wives. They operate on a different level. While lost in the Atlantic, I was actually thinking about Hemingway, “Old Man and the Sea” — what an adventure! 

Well, here’s the rest of the story. I’m lying on my little sailboat, content with my “plan,” when a large, ritzy cabin cruiser glides in behind me (didn’t hear a thing) and says, “Hey, are you Buzz Luttrell?” I had recently been fairly well-known as the host of WBZ-TV’s popular TV show “People Are Talking,” but I responded, “Yeah, how did you know?” He laughed and shouted, “Hell, half the Coast Guard is looking for you!” Then he tethered my Sunfish to his yacht, pulled me onboard, handed me a beer, and radioed the Coast Guard to say, “We got him.” Other large boaters chimed in, saying, “We saw him, but he seemed to be comfortable lying on his boat, just sunning!” 

Fact is, I got frustrated waving and shouting at big vessels, and just gave up — embracing the (foolish) notion that I would simply cruise in to “the Islands,” see the lights in the darkness, and all would be just fine. My rescuer laughed when I told him that, and said, “Given these currents, you would have seen England, before any glimpse of New England!” 

Didn’t get his name, but if he or anyone who knows him remembers this “incident,” I would love to say thanks and share a drink after all these years!


Walter G. (“Buzz”) Luttrell is the former host of WBZ’s “People Are Talking,” and a frequent visitor to Martha’s Vineyard.

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