The thought of dying out here on the ocean has been lodged in my mind ever since the engine on our tiny boat suddenly lost power, and our guide, the wily Captain Ramsey, proved unable to revive it. We are adrift, unable to return the safe shore we left behind that morning. With each passing moment, I fear that my remaining time will be measured in days and minutes, rather than years.
There are about a dozen souls on Captain Ramsey’s small boat. Like everyone else, I booked a snorkel expedition with Captain Ramsey because he had the lowest prices on Caye Caulker, a laidback spec of sand off the coast of Belize.
“I don’t serve lunch, so it’s cheaper,” Captain Ramsey told me the night before departure. He spoke in a slow rolling rhythm that suited the pace of an island where the days and nights seemed to stretch out into thousands of little moments we never seem to notice in our busy lives back home.
“My boat is no frills,” he said proudly. “We have a good time, you’ll see.”
As a backpacker just out of college, I had grown accustomed to travel operators with cutthroat pricing. I was headed for graduate school and a real job, but for now, I reasoned, I was living on borrowed time. The less I spent, the longer I could put off real life. And so I paid Captain Ramsey his fee and agreed to meet him at his boat early the next morning.
“Where I can buy food to bring for tomorrow?” I asked.
“No man, don’t bring lunch. You’ll see.”
I might have spent the evening meditating on the lunch mystery, but instead I drank beers and played board games with two Canadians. One man was a carpenter, the other a plumber; they had come south to hide from winter. The Canadians joked about how the last person out of their country was responsible for turning the lights out, and they made halfhearted plans never to return. They had been on Caye Caulker “long enough to have slowed down to island speed.” When I asked if they knew of Captain Ramsey, they chuckled and ordered another round—not a comforting response to an inquiry about the skills of a nautical man.
“You’ll make it back,” the carpenter said with a knowing smile.
Now, out on the water, with the last rays of light racing to catch the horizon, I tried to take comfort in the carpenter’s words. But he was on land and most likely drinking a cold Belikin beer, idling away the hours. We were drifting in the darkness, unable to restart the engine, and without a radio, unable to call for help. How did the carpenter know I’d make it back?
“Will someone come for us soon?” a British passenger asked with an urgent tone.
Apparently, I wasn’t alone with my fears, although there was neither safety nor comfort in numbers. The worst part, however, was that Captain Ramsey didn’t seem to have a plan for rescue, nor did he display any sense of urgency at all. In fact, he seemed content to drift and wait, certain that somehow our problem would eventually intersect with a solution.
“Someone will be along,” Captain Ramsey told his nervous passengers. “You’ll see.”
Doubt infected the boat. Passengers began to wonder if anyone would notice our absence? I thought about the Canadians. Aside from my fellow passengers, they were the last people I had spoken with. Would they tell my family I loved them, or had they already forgotten the beers we shared and the stories we exchanged?
I kept quiet, reasoning that my anxious disposition and tendency toward dread would only cause the doubt to metastasize.
And so we drifted.
Occasionally, passengers would holler and wave at what they thought were boats off in the distance, but which were most likely shadows shifting in the moonlight. At other times, a few passengers would curse and chastise Captain Ramsey, usually ending their measured tirades with idle threats that he “better get us back safe.”
Often, I could hear whispers of despair.
We should’ve hired another boat.
We should’ve gone to another island.
Why hadn’t we asked about a radio?
Through it all, Captain Ramsey remained surprisingly aloof–chill, but not especially cold.
“Someone will come along,” he said. “You’ll see.”
For most of the day, we had believed in the power of Captain Ramsey’s you’ll see mantra.
In the morning, as he used his nimble boat to penetrate the thick mangroves in search of illusive manatee, Captain Ramsey repeated his promise until it came true, and there through the thick vegetation we could finally glimpse the “sea cows” our guidebooks had rated “must-see.”
In clearer waters, we swam with sharks and rays, both of which proved friendly, just as Captain Ramsey had said they would be. And as we swam among them, we felt the mighty freedom of nature, without the consequences of potential danger. Captain Ramsey’s guarantee had dispelled any apprehension we may have felt about swimming alongside animals we had, for all our lives, associated with danger.
Around mid-day, we landed on a sand bar, and another Captain Ramsey promise materialized. While we snorkeled around the reef, Captain Ramsey worked a deal to get his passengers a free lunch from a camp setup to serve luxury tours. We had trusted in our captain, and he had delivered to us, free of charge, food that should have cost more than the price of the day’s expedition.
“You see,” said Captain Ramsey as he handed out paper plates and pointed us toward tables loaded with grilled fish and corn on the cob. He grinned wide as the doubt disappeared from our eyes.
When you let go, you take a leap of faith. You cast aside the clock, the schedule, the plan, and in so doing, you free yourself. We had taken that leap with Captain Ramsey, and for a day we had reaped the rewards. But there in the darkness, that leap seemed foolish and our faith misplaced. Nobody wanted to say it, but we had put our trust in Captain Ramsey, and that mistake was beginning to look like the last one we’d ever make.
Except, we had all made another mistake. There in the darkness, we had lost sight of the island in both the literal and figurative sense. As we drifted, our thoughts turned to the mistakes of the past and the uncertain future. In our haste to return to an island where we felt like we could slow down time, we had failed to notice that our salvation was puttering out to meet us at a lazy pace.
There in the darkness we saw a boat that made Captain Ramsey’s look like a ocean liner. It was crewed by two fishermen. They weren’t a rescue party, just two guys who happened upon a boat of stranded tourists.
The fishermen chatted with Captain Ramsey about the fish and the weather, and after a few minutes, he traded them a pack of cigarettes for a small can of gasoline. A moment later, the engine was humming, and we were speeding back to that island, where we had all come to take it easy and slow down.
Caye Caulker, Belize (Spring, 2000)