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Prologue: Rising Tide



“In the trough of the wave, the adventurer tells his story; his words give a permanence to the illuminating moments of action he has lived.”
—Paul Zweig, The Adventurer: The Fate of Adventure in the Western World

At first it didn’t seem strange to the captain that a kayaker, alone in the rebounding swells off Cranberry Head, was waving at his lobster boat. Experienced paddlers along these shores knew to alert larger vessels if they didn’t want to be swamped or run down by a distracted fisherman. And a kayaker would have to be plenty experienced—either that or a damned fool—to be paddling solo on an afternoon as squally as this one.

A southwest wind had steepened the seas, and the captain had pulled the last of his traps a few hours early so that his crew could get home before it worsened. He steered close to shore where he knew an eddy of ebb water would run for an hour or two against the incoming tide. He didn’t beat the storm, though. A squall line had darkened the hills and blotted out the sky, while spume sheered off the tops of two-meter-high waves. Crackling with electricity, the storm had spit cold rain across his boat’s deck. And then it had blown out to sea.

As the captain closed on the kayaker, he could tell, even through the rain-smeared windshield of the wheelhouse, that something wasn’t right—the sideward angle at which the man tilted, the urgency of his gestures. And then he saw it. The kayaker’s other hand was gripping the red life jacket of a second person, a hunched shape that was half-submerged in the tumult of the waves.

It suddenly made sense. The strange gray projection he had seen bob past the boat a few minutes ago, like the fluke of a whale or mysterious flotsam pulled by the legendary tides of the Bay of Fundy—that must have been the second man’s kayak. At the time, the captain had assumed it was another floating log. He had considered snagging the stump with a gaff and flagging it with orange tape as a warning to other boats. But the heaving seas had made the maneuver too chancy, even for a fifty-ton vessel like his own, so he kept the boat on course for safe harbor.

Now the captain understood that the danger implied by that murky shape had already struck. An hour or two before, he had heard chatter on the VHF radio about some sort of race on the bay. These two paddlers must have been part of that competition. He wondered how long the capsized kayaker had been immersed in the cold Atlantic waters. The two men had drifted to fewer than thirty meters from the shoreline. Along this stretch of Fundy coast, the land rose abruptly in a toothy battlement of broken rock, twenty meters high in spots. In an emergency, the exposed foreshore offered no crescent of sand or level turf on which an unlucky mariner could beach a foundering boat. You either made it around Cranberry Head to Chance Harbour or you sank. If the waves and wind and tidal current drew the kayakers any closer to the jagged fringe, the adjacent waters would prove too shallow and the waves, which ricocheted erratically off the cliffs, too powerful for the captain to risk a rescue. His crew would be left to watch helplessly as the thrust of the surf crushed the two frightened men against the rocks.

The captain swung the boat sidelong to the paddlers, both in their early twenties, to shelter them from the wind-blown waves. His first mate tossed a rope. The captain could tell this effort wouldn’t work. The young man still in the kayak would have to release his companion to snag the rescue rope. It was clear he wouldn’t risk losing his friend to the pounding waves, not even for a moment. Instead, the first mate grabbed a three-meter gaff pole used to haul buoys, hooked one of the cords that ran along the kayak’s plastic hull, and dragged it to the stern of the lobster boat.

“We’re going to grab your buddy,” the captain shouted, “but don’t let go ’til we tell you to!”

The crew stood shoulder to shoulder. “Wait for the swell,” the captain told them. The undulating bay lifted and dropped the fishing boat and the smaller kayak, and the men timed their actions with the next crescendo. When the boats grew level, they grabbed the soaking limbs of the loose kayaker and heaved him onto the deck. He wore only a thin cycling T-shirt and shorts under his life vest, and his skin had gone bone-china white. His eyes stared at the gray sky, but he didn’t speak, didn’t even twitch.

The lobster crew steadied their boots on the pitching deck and waited for the right moment to reach for the remaining kayaker. Again, they grabbed fistfuls of life jacket and hauled the other boy over the boat’s tailgate. He flopped onto the deck and rubbed sea spray from his eyes. His skin was darker toned and he wasn’t wearing much more than his friend. A light polyester jacket and bike gloves were all the extra insulation he had on. The captain turned back to the wheelhouse.

“We can’t leave the kayak!” the still-conscious paddler insisted.

“Don’t worry about it,” said the captain. “Someone will pick it up.”

“No, no!” The young man’s voice was low, and he struggled to pass words through the chatter of his teeth. Convulsions washed over his body. “It’s not mine.”

They didn’t have time to argue, so the captain hooked the kayak with the gaff and dragged it aboard, too. His first mate had carried the unconscious kayaker under the awning behind the wheelhouse and wrapped him with rain jackets and life vests, anything dry he could pull from the boat’s utility closet. The first mate then bear-hugged the rescued lad and tried to share body heat.

“Is he okay?” the friend asked. “I was just talking to him.”

The boat was maybe a kilometer or two from the breakwater of Chance Harbour, the closest safe berth. Back at the wheel, the captain tried to raise help on his VHF radio, but the bluffs of Cranberry Head blocked the line-of-sight signal, and the operator at Fundy Traffic in Saint John couldn’t make out his pleas. He flicked on his cell phone and speed-dialed his home number. His wife picked up on the second ring.

“Debbie,” he told her, “get an ambulance down to Chance Harbour now!”

And then he dropped the throttle and aimed for the wharf.

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