The night was as dark as a tomb and I was wet and cold. I felt lucky to be alive and I couldn’t believe my good fortune in finding a tattered blanket in this rusted ship’s hold. I pulled it higher over my shoulders and dozed.
We shouldn’t have tried to fish today. The weather forecast called for building winds, but we thought we could get out for a few hours to catch some of the big stripers that always migrate into the Chesapeake Bay in late October. The blow arrived soon after we launched from the Hoopersville ramp. By the time we rounded the Hoopers Island Straits at Nancy’s Point, we were well into the teeth of a full northwestern gale. We decided to call it off, but just as my friend Phil turned his center console back east, a rogue wave hit us broadside. The boat rolled hard and I went overboard.
I wasn’t too concerned at first. The water was almost 60 degrees and warmer than the cool fall air. I waited for my fishing buddies to turn back to get me. As the boat pulled away, I realized that they didn’t notice I was missing. They were used to me huddling up in the back corner during a heavy chop, and they were all looking forward. When they finally turned around and started circling, they were well north of me. I could barely see the boat now as it disappeared in the building waves.
The outgoing tide was much stronger than usual, as it was pushed along by the north wind. I was at least five miles from shore. My rain suit has built in flotation, so I wasn’t worried about drowning, but I wondered how long I could last before hypothermia set in. I figured I had at least four hours. That might be long enough if I angled southeast toward the islands of the Tangier, but it would be dark soon and I didn’t like the chances of anyone finding me before sunset. I started off with a steady backstroke.
After two hours in the water, I was getting tired. I’m a strong swimmer but the current was swift and I could feel the cool water sapping the heat from my aching limbs. I rested and let the tide carry me south. It was getting dark now. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see land anywhere above the waves. I closed my eyes and kept paddling.
As the last of the light faded, I remembered that there would be no moon tonight. I listened in vain for boat motors or helicopters but all I could hear was the sound of the howling wind. I’d been in the water for at least four hours and was losing hope. My energy was gone. My arms felt like lead weights that I could no longer lift above the waves. I closed my eyes and floated.
That’s when I heard it, the faint sound of a baby’s cry. “Land!” I thought, or maybe a passing boat or ship. I shouted but there was no answer. Rallying a little, I turned around and looked over my shoulder. I couldn’t see anything in the dark, but I could hear the sound of waves slapping against something big. There was the crying again, louder this time. Even if it was only a trick of the wind, just the sound itself gave me newfound energy to swim toward it.
Bam! My head slammed against a solid iron surface. I reached up and felt jagged steel. “The Target Ship,” I yelled out loud. Every fisherman in the Chesapeake knows The Target Ship. The bullet-riddled, ghostly superstructure of the USAS American Mariner sits in twenty-feet of water roughly halfway between Point Look Out and Smith Island. The ship was scuttled by demolition charges in October 1966. With gaping, jagged holes at the waterline, she appears to be anchored in place in the middle of the Bay. Up until the mid 1970s, the navy used her for target practice, strafing her with so much machine gun fire and guided rockets that her hull looks like Swiss cheese.
My mind cleared and I knew I had to find a handhold. I grabbed for anything I could as I was swept along the rusty hull by the strong tide. The metal cut into my hands and steel splinters pierced my fingers as I desperately grabbed for anything I could hold. This was my last chance. My hand finally came to rest against a jagged, but more solid piece of steel. I held on and rolled to my left into a cavernous hole in the side of the ship.
Even though I was out of the wind and current, I was still in the water. I’ve heard the ship contains unexploded ordnance, but that was the least of my worries. For now, at least, I was alive. Finding new strength, I climbed upward through the dark and rusty ship’s skeleton, eventually rolling onto a solid flat area about twenty feet above the water. This must have been the crew quarters because I could feel iron bunks on the walls covered with rotting wood. I stripped off my waterlogged rain suit and rolled onto the bunk closest to me. Even though I was out of the elements, I wondered how long I could survive in the cold and dark.
That’s when I found the blanket. I don’t know why or how it was there, but it felt strangely warm, much warmer than the cold steel of the ship. “It’s all in my head,” I thought, marveling at my good fortune. I tried to pull it toward me, but it was wrapped up in what felt like a bundle of dry sticks. Maybe it had once been part of an osprey’s nest. I kicked the sticks over to the side and wrapped the blanket tightly around my shoulders.
I kept nodding off, my head growing ever heavier as I tried to stay upright. I didn’t want to go to sleep because I feared I wouldn’t wake up. My only hope was to make it until the sun came up.
That’s when I heard it again, the crying baby. This time the sound was much closer. My mind was foggy and I wondered if I was dreaming, remembering my three sons when they were small. As I nodded in and out of my hypothermia-induced slumber, the crying would start up, get louder, and then fade into a whimper. At times, I could just barely hear another voice, the echoes of a woman singing. Was it real, or just imagined?
The part of my mind that could think rationally dismissed it as hypnogogic hallucinations. I work with patients who have sleep disorders and know something about the illusions of an impaired mind. I tried to convince myself it was just the wind sweeping through the decaying old ship. And so it went: the baby cried, the voice sang, I held tightly to the unnaturally warm blanket, and fought sleep.
I lost track of time, but it must have been hours when the voices faded into another sound. I jolted upright. There was no mistaking the rapid whup-whup-whup of an H-65 Coast Guard helicopter. It was still pitch black, but through the riddled steel, I could see a spotlight sweeping the dark water. I grabbed my raincoat with its light reflective tape and stumbled over to one of the wider gashes in the ships hull. I waved the jacket frantically outside, watching the light sweep around, suddenly blinding me. They spotted me! I scrambled back down to the lower level as they dropped a rescue swimmer into the water. I was saved.
The sun was rising as I sat onboard the security boat sent from Solomon’s Island to pick me up. I was warm and dry now, in the heated cabin and answering questions about my ordeal to the Coast Guard lieutenant. As we headed back toward the Western Shore, I noticed there was a lot more boat traffic in the area surrounding the Target Ship. I saw two men climb in the ship wearing black jackets with the word “Coroner” stitched on the back.
“Did you think I was that far gone?” I jokingly asked the lieutenant.
“They didn’t come for you,” he solemnly replied. “After they got you out of the ship, one of the rescue team members noticed something else in the crew quarters above where you were found. In a bunk near an old blanket, they found the bones of an 18-month old child.
“It solved a mystery we’ve been working on for five years to the day. A young mother, distraught over the drowning of her waterman husband, set off from Smith Island in a small rowboat with her baby. Her body washed up days later, but the baby was never seen again.”
“By the way, he added.” Do you know how lucky you are to have survived the night in those conditions? How did you ever find that ship in the darkness?”
I just shook my head from side to side and didn’t answer. I stared out the boat’s window and watched the Target Ship get smaller in the distance.
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