The Storm

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

Haruki Murakami

One of the smaller and older Urchin boats in the Santa Barbara Harbor in the 80’s, was a charming vessel named Early Light. True to its name, the owner, Mark, was up before the crack of dawn each and every morning, making his way to the islands to feed his wife and three young children. 

Urchin diving is rigorous and dangerous work, requiring more than one person on a boat, but the only crew Mark could locate one fateful cold winters morning during a Red Flag Gale Storm Warning, was a well known heroin addict. It was better than going out all alone, so he thought.

The morning was extremely bitter and ominously miserable. Not even the larger boats attempted the journey, but the Early Light had mouths to feed. Being the Harbor Patrol Officer on duty that morning, I hailed Mark on the radio, reminding him of the weather advisory suggesting vessels avoid travel. Cheerfully he replied, saying he would see me soon, but I couldn’t shake the tight feeling in my gut as I watched his starboard lights disappear into mist in the distance.

The Channel is twenty six miles from Santa Barbara to the Islands. The deepest waters are thirteen miles out, called the shipping lanes, where all larger ships traverse. Right about the time I imagined Mark would have arrived in that trafficked area, his May Day cry came over the radio.

“May Day, May Day, May Day, this is the Early Light, 11 miles from Santa Barbara Harbor, taking on water….

I hailed him back immediately with no reply. That was the last any of us heard from the Early Light. I contacted the Coast Guard Cutter Point Judith, who also heard the May Day call. Their engines were already running and ready to leave, but shared little hope of finding a 30 foot urchin boat in the black of night in Gale Force winds with twenty six foot waves in the middle of the shipping lanes.

I monitored the radio all morning, hoping for Mark to reply to the Coast Guard calls. Nothing. If anyone could find the Early Light it would be the Point Judith, but as the sun rose hope was dwindling. Point Judith returned after searching with spotlights and bull horns all night, with no sight of Mark or his boat. They would fuel up and go back out later that day.

Two days passed with no sign of Mark or the Early Light. The Coast Guard came up to the Harbor Office to inform us they had officially called off the search. 

There is an indescribable feeling that happens inside when you receive information like that about someone you know and care for. I couldn’t accept it. Most in the Harbor who knew Mark felt the same.

Within minutes of that news, Mark’s family arrived in the Harbor Office asking for an update. All the Officers looked at each other. The Harbor Master took Mark’s wife into a private office and I was left with one of his son’s.

I looked at his darling face and noticed tremendous hope beaming from his eyes. “My daddy is alive. I can feel him.” Smiled the small child. “Please don’t let them give up on searching. I know he is alive. I promise.”

I teared up not knowing what to say, but I believed him. There is a boundless bond between a father and his child. 

The next morning we received a call from the Ranger’s office. They found Mark’s body washed up on one of the islands, ALIVE. He had been medi-jetted to the hospital and was pulling through. His family was informed and Mark came into the office a week later almost fully recovered. 

He sat down with me for about 40 minutes describing his adventure, one that I will never forget.

On that fateful morning, Mark, the skipper of the Early Light, was under water diving for urchins. Usually he would throw anchor closer to the islands before he dove, but felt it was best to get what he could closer to home and head back in.

The Early Light was in dis-repair and un-equipped to take on waves. The boat had to be in gear, moving slightly forward as not to take on water, even on a good day at sea. Apparently his crew member didn’t remember this life saving fact and had the gear in neutral. The bilge filled with water and the ship began to list and sink. He tugged at Marks diving rope to give him notice then prepared the dingy.

Mark surfaced just in time to get one May Day out before the battery went dead.  He stood on the deck as his boat went down, the dingy and his crew member no where in site.

There he was in the middle of a black frothing sea on a very dark stormy winters eve, in a dangerous patch of water to be in without a boat or lights. A few times he dodged the bow of large ships that were unable to see him waving or hear him screaming, and felt relief when the Coast Guard Cutter arrived with their spot lights blaring, lighting up the waves all around Mark’s bobbing body. They nearly blinded him a few times when their lights hit his eyes. 

Mark screamed at the top of his lungs, waved and whistled with all of his might over the storm, but the Coast Guard Crew were unable to see him or hear his cries. They came so close to him at one point, Mark was able to pound on the hull of the ship, only to watch them point the spot lights in the opposite direction and move away. 

Mark watched them search for him for about two hours before they left the scene. As the sun rose, he felt his body weakening considerably, but perked up when he saw something coming towards him in the distance. When it arrived, he discovered the dead body of his crew member. The body drifted past and once again left Mark on his own.

At some point Mark decided to swim for shore, but the current was so strong he knew he would lose all of his energy and be unable to survive, so he relaxed and allowed the current to take him whichever way it willed. Luckily, it took him towards the islands. 

Days later, about one mile from shore, Mark was delirious, but knew he had to hold on and remain conscious to make it to shore alive. That’s when he felt something hit him hard. A twenty one foot great white was circling him, deciding if he was edible. Mark surrendered and went totally limp. He was too exhausted to even be scared anymore. The shark circled him a few times, and left.

Mark washed ashore some time later, crawled a ways up the beach and collapse unconscious. A Ranger found him hours later. 

After listening with full attention, I asked Mark what kept him going; where he found his will to live?

“The thought of my wife and children. The thought of holding them again, of how much they love me and need me, of how much I love and need them. I knew I had to make it back to hold them again.”

Mark closed his slip, (lodging agreement) that morning and moved to Arizona.

No matter what the circumstances, if we love someone and know we are loved, our will is a million times stronger and our chances of succeeding or surviving are almost certain, no matter what we experience in life.

If you are ever down, think of Mark and the Early Light to find hope and courage. 

No miracle is too big.


Story Updated and Republished from 1989 Ehsida