A fist of wind struck the raft, lifting an edge. Neil rolled to the high side, and the raft fell back. A glow of light flashed over the sea. A rumble of thunder followed from far away. The storm was turning.
Near dawn, the clouds opened for a minute. He saw cold stars. A light flashed far in, then was gone. Point Montara? A car on the coast road? He was drifting fast, up and into the shipping lanes. His best chance was a ship. If the clouds and rain lifted from the sea, it was a good chance. A ship bound in or out of the Golden Gate would spot him, and he would be saved. With light he'd have a chance. He hung on, bracing himself against the flotation chamber, waiting for dawn. Counting time with each rising sea, each hang and twist, each sideways fall. His mind drifted too. Back to a safer sea of remembrance.
The beach came again. The same beach in the northwest end of Half Moon Bay below Pillar Point where his father and mother's dream was murdered by the storm. He was on the beach three years later. He was older, stronger.
A fishing boat was in trouble: the Norland,
Ott Bergstrom's boat. It had been driven into the surf line by another fierce southeaster attacking the bay through its exposed southern entrance. After three days, the storm had blown itself out. The sun was shining. The Norland
lay grounded midway through the surf. Waves erupted with explosions of white over the stricken vessel. A crowd of people watched from the beach, Neil and his mother among them. Three men could be seen working in brief bursts of activity on the Norland
's sloping deck. With each blow of white water they ducked behind the tilted cabin, seeking shelter. His father was one of the men. Ott Bergstrom and Cort Heinkel were the other figures clinging to the lee side of the cabin.
His father had been fishing crab with Ott and Cort on the Norland.
The crab season had been good. As the weeks went by, the Norland
had unloaded crate after crate of the crabs. But things had gone bad.
For three nights and days, his father, Ott, and Cort had fought to keep the boat off the beach, out in the raging bay. Now they had lost.
They had been at sea pulling crab pots when the southeaster struck. There was no time to attempt a run for the city and the protection of San Francisco Bay. The breaking bar outside the Golden Gate would have rolled them under. Somehow, they made it back in to Half Moon Bay, maneuvering through the outer reefs, white with monstrous combers. But there was no way off the boat--the seas were cresting and breaking all along the fish dock.
His father, Ott, and Cort made fast to the Norland
's mooring amidst hills of water pushed by wind. They dumped their crab crates overboard and ran their engine ahead to lessen drag on the mooring. Their skiff, tied to the Norland
's stern, quickly sank. The men cut it loose to prevent it from fouling the boat's propeller. It lay on the beach, crushed by the surf.
Each night, Neil went with his mother to the raging beach. They parked facing the sea with other cars containing wives and children of fishermen. Henry Cabral on the Evon
and Carmelo Denari on the Cefula
were out on the bay. Each had a deckhand, a young boy hired from town. All were stranded like his father. Through the dark, rainy night, the women on the beach kept the motors in the cars running. They left their headlights on. Neil caught glimpses of the white hulls rising and falling between waves out on the bay. He was old enough to know that the lights were on for another reason: They helped the imprisoned men on the bay judge their position in relation to the beach. The closer the boats dragged mooring toward the watching eyes of the headlights, the closer they came to disaster in the raging line of surf.
By the second night, the women stood shifts in one car at a time. Neil stayed with them, perched on the edge of the front seat, peering out the windshield.
He saw faint mast lights swinging wildly, appearing and disappearing in rain and mountainous seas. He imagined the men on the boats between black mountains of water, trapped in the tiny prisons of the boats' cabins.
Inside the warm car, the women were cheerful. He thought they didn't understand. It was like a party, not a vigilant watch for tragedy. He remembered the limp doll on the beach. His father and the other fishermen could be spit up like broken toys.
Henry Cabral's wife, Annie, a woman whose round face always seemed to be smiling, sat in the back seat with Bernice Bergstrom, a large lady with a pointed nose and red cheeks. They wore kerchiefs and shared a steaming thermos bottle of coffee laced with bourbon. Neil sat in front between his mother and Bethel, Cort Heinkel's wife. Bethel was tall and thin, with dark eyes and long hair that spilled out from beneath the kerchief tied tight to her head. She spoke differently than his mother or the other women, like a cowboy's girlfriend in the movies. At home, his grandmother called Bethel "bar trash," but he wasn't sure what she meant.
The women joked about the men. They did not seem scared. They talked about movies, the Hit Parade,
other women in Half Moon Bay. While they gossiped, his father could be drowned. To escape their laughter, Neil leaned closer to the windshield, closer to the slap of the wipers.
After a while, Bethel's fingers pinched him on the cheek.
"Hey, little sailor, Daddy's okay. They're doing fine out there. Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub, sweetheart."
He turned and glared with anger. This was not a party. He was scared to say it. Bethel read the anger in his face.
"Whoa, take it easy." She leaned closer and whispered in his ear. The smell of strong coffee, bourbon, and strange perfume came to his nose. "Psst, I'm worried too, but do you want to scare your mother to death?" Bethel pulled back and winked.
By dawn of the third day, the storm vigil was over. The men had lost. Their fuel ran out. Without an engine, the strain on the mooring was too great. First light found the Norland
aground in the surf.
But the boat still had a chance. The storm was blown out. The sky was clear, the air calm. The Norland
rested halfway through the surf line. An attempt would be made to save it before the waves battered it to pieces.
Beyond the breakers, fellow fishermen maneuvered their boats: Henry Cabral on the Evon,
Carmelo Denari on the Cefula.
Henry was attempting to float a line through the surf, attached to a cluster of crab buoys. If the men on the Norland
caught the line, they could use it to haul in a heavy hawser. The hawser, once attached to the Norland,
would help bring its bow around into the surf, keep it from being pushed farther and farther up and onto the beach. At high tide and towing in tandem, the Evon
and the Cefula
would attempt to pull the Norland
maneuvered close to the beach. Henry Cabral stood on the flying bridge. His deckhand was on the stern. They were dangerously close to the breaking crests. Henry waved, signaling his deckhand to toss the buoys. The pickup line attached to the buoys paid out from the stern into the white surf. Driven by the breaking waves, the line drifted in toward the Norland.
Suddenly, a large swell rolled in from beyond the Evon,
rising up from the bay, dark green, cresting white. People on the beach cried out. The Evon
was in danger of being thrown to the beach with the Norland.
White smoke shot from the Evon's
exhaust stack as Henry made for deeper water. The green monster of water came to the Evon,
taking her up and up, bow to the sky, threatening to throw her over onto her own deck. On the flying bridge, Henry Cabral stood like a jockey leaning forward in stirrups, while the deckhand hung on for his life in the aft stay cables, legs kicking air. The little fishing boat came to the crest, balancing like a toy, with its propeller exposed and spinning. The monster broke and fell with a roar, but the Evon
twisted sideways, falling off to seaward. The crowd on the beach cheered. Neil's mouth was without sound, for seconds later the wall of white water smothered the Norland
in an explosion of white. As the white wall passed ever smaller to the sand, somehow, the men on deck were still holding on beneath the cabin.
escape from the green wall pulled the pickup line away from the Norland.
The buoys and line drifted wide of the grounded vessel. Like people at a football game, the crowd on the beach waved and shouted for the Evon
to adjust position. Soon, however, the crowd pointed to something else in the surf. A man. A man swimming toward the crab buoys. Each advancing line of white water covered the swimmer's head, but he kept reappearing on the surface of foam, arms stroking forward. Back on the Norland,
Ott Bergstrom and Cort Heinkel were still crouched at the side of the cabin. Neil's heart raced. The head, the stroking arms in the water were his father's.
"Go get it, Ernie," a man yelled from the crowd.
His father came to the cluster of buoys, grabbed them, and held on as several waves passed over his head. He pushed the buoys under his body and began swimming back toward the Norland.
Twice, he was washed off the buoys. Twice, he remounted and swam on.
The swimmer reached the Norland.
Neil's heart swelled with pride as the crowd cheered again. Ott and Cort reached for the buoys, then pulled his father out of the sea, up and over the Norland
's gunnel, awash with white water. His father was beyond the power and force of the sea itself.
Later, the tide lowered. The Norland,
in waist-deep surf, lay on her starboard beam. A hawser stretched from her bow out through the surf to the Evon
and the Cefula
tied in tandem, idling seaward, waiting for the tug-of-war with the Norland
when the tide came in.
While his mother spoke to another woman, a man from the crowd handed Neil a bottle of whiskey. "Hey, boy, run this out to your old man and his pals," the man commanded.
He knew if he moved quickly his mother would have no chance to call him back.
Holding the bottle high over his head, he splashed into the water at a dead run. The cold made him want to turn back. But the men on the boat had seen him. They waved him on. The water came chest high. A wave splashed his face. His head ached, the salt burned his throat. He came to the side of the Norland.
His father, Ott, and Cort were laughing down at him from the crazy, sideways deck. Wet clothing clung to their bodies. Big arms reached down. Neil slipped. His head went underwater, but he held on to the bottle. The arms found him, took him, swung him up into the air, out of the sea.
"Attaboy," his father said.
The men drank from the bottle. Wet and shivering, Neil had never felt more important in his life. He had come to the edge of another world, a world where children did not go.
But satisfaction soon washed away as cold filled his body. He looked back to the beach. His mother stood apart from the other people, close to the water's edge, hands in her pockets, watching. Watching him. He knew what she was thinking. He had gone too far.
Excerpted from The Fisherman's Son by Michael Koepf. Copyright © 1998 by Michael Koepf. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.