WHEN MY SON Max was very, very small—with his luminous and still disproportionately large brown eyes peering out from a fringe of dark lashes, his small round face yet unformed and dough-like—he was mesmerized by water and fire. His first words included boat and candle. By the age of four, he had developed a fierce interest in all manner of watercraft, disasters, and horrible combinations of the two—in particular, the sinking of the Titanic. This was well before the movie.
I am nearly certain that he and his sister Sophie were the youngest ever to attend our local chapter's regional meeting of the Titanic Society. Meetings convened in a dusty town hall in the rural Minnesota county where we then lived. My children sat at the edge of their metal folding chairs in rapt attention as senior citizens took turns sharing painstakingly dry accounts of wreck-related discoveries and survivor updates.
With my perhaps misguided support, my son’s fervor soon directed him to tragedies closer to home. By the time he was five or six, he could do a crackerjack imitation of Fred Wolff, narrator of our worn-out cassette tape Stories of Lake Superior Shipwrecks, Volume I. We purchased the tape during one of our many visits to the ship museum at the end of the pier in Duluth’s Canal Park, and we listened to it incessantly during our unending hours of car travel during those years of county roads and commuting.
Wolff, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, speaks with the sort of thick and nasal Minnesota accent you find only in the far north, the “range,” as we say. On many a long, sleep-deprived drive, I guzzled gas-station coffee to keep from being lulled blissfully to sleep at the wheel by the familiar drone of Wolff’s stories. Max, however, listened acutely, his body tense with anticipation of every memorized detail of each wreck: weather conditions, calls for help, survivor counts. What is it about shipwrecks that called so powerfully to this little boy? What is it about wrecks that pulls at him still, pulls at us all, in one way or another?
Max’s love for boats never diminished. In grade school, he collected small wooden sailboats and later, remote control boats that required hours of precise assembly and reassembly for what seemed like mere minutes of water time out on the pond at Powderhorn or Loring Park. Later, at the end of middle school, he built his own tiny one-man glass-bottomed boat. That one got its christening behind the bandshell at Lake Harriet, complete with a spray of sparkling grape juice to mark the occasion.
Today, at twenty years old, Max is a highly skilled sailor and owns his own small sailboat. This past fall, over a long weekend break from his service in the Conservation Corps of Minnesota, he drove from his station in Moose Lake (where the thick Minnesota accent is alive and well) to Michigan. Through online networking, he’d found the mast he needed for his boat, free for the taking if he could only pick it up. As part of the deal he got to work with this master woodworker and boat enthusiast to replace and install the mast. The two also did some rigorous sailing together on Lake Michigan. Yes, Max's passion for boats continues (and grows) unabated.
THE FIRST time I wrote about Max and shipwrecks was for a magazine piece on the sinking of the Edmond Fitzgerald. I was hammering out the story on a dark fall day in 2003. I remember how the rain and wind pelted my windows and ripped wet leaves from the trees in great batches, plastering them against the windshields of parked cars and onto the blackened city streets. Rivers of rainwater rushed down the gutters toward the sewer drains, begging to be dammed and diverted by schoolchildren like Max, decked in yellow slickers, with mothers watching anxiously from picture windows as October shuddered to an end.
The next time I tried to write about Max and shipwrecks was November 2012, right after the shocking October 29 sinking of the HMS Bounty in Hurricane Sandy, the news of which overwhelmed me and broke my heart. The HMS Bounty is one of the much-celebrated “Tall Ships” that traverse the globe, entrancing locals and tourists at various ports of call with their mystical beauty. And for a price, you can even climb aboard for a historically re-enacted tour.
The Bounty herself was a 180-foot, three-mast ship built for the 1962 Marlon Brando movie Mutiny on the Bounty. But her contemporary claim to fame comes from her appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean. My family saw her up close one year—I think it was about 2004—when our weekend stay at Mackinac Island coincided serendipitously with the Tall Ships tour. Max was twelve that summer. Jon and I walked in the early morning haze from our lodge at the far tip of the island with our kids—five of them were with us on that trip, all but Jon’s oldest daughter, Britta—to the bustling downtown landing. I remember how Max, especially, watched in awe as the fleet emerged majestically on the blinding waters of the horizon and made its way slowly toward the island. We learned—from the suntanned, muscular twenty-somethings who stood on the docks taking tickets, and who swarmed about on the ships’ decks, climbing nimbly up and down the masts—that young people could apply to crew the Tall Ships. The Bounty, in particular, perhaps due to its relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard, recruited paid deckhands for service year round. From that moment on, I started dreaming about Max sailing on the Tall Ship Bounty. In the blurry junctures between memory and imagination, I want to believe that perhaps he somehow did. But no, I know that did not happen. I only dreamed and then feared it so.
The HMS Bounty sank off the coast of North Carolina on October 29 2012, in the enormous oceans and violent winds of Hurricane Sandy. Max was not on it. He was in Northern Minnesota, clearing and cutting and painting and repairing. I tried to write about the Bounty’s sinking right after Sandy battered her down, because that is what I do when I am overwhelmed and heartbroken: I write. But in this instance, I lost my voice. I couldn’t describe this tragedy and its strange and ethereal connection to my family. It eluded my understanding. Maybe I can write about it now, but it’s still difficult to elucidate. Words cannot quite contain the mysterious sadness in my heart.
ON MONDAY MORNING, October 29, I awoke to an email from my husband, Jon. The subject line was “Bounty,” and at first glance, maybe because I was still partly asleep, or maybe because I was reading it on my phone, I assumed it pertained to the spirited conversation we’d had with Max the day before. Max had been home for the weekend, and because it was the end of October, and his term in the Conservation Corps was coming to a close in early December, we were talking about his next steps. He wasn’t planning to re-enroll in school until almost a year later, in September 2013, so he’d have several months with which to get off the beaten path if he wished.
I had seen on the Bounty’s Facebook page—I’d been following it avidly for the past year—that the ship was recruiting deckhands for the 2013 season. The journey would include a trip up the East Coast and a tour of the Great Lakes, concluding at Lake Superior in July. Just in time for Max to settle into September classes! It seemed custom made for Max’s circumstances. And he had, after all, vaguely considered the Bounty a year earlier, when he’d applied for the Conservation Corps. At that time, November 2011, Max was just deciding to take time away from his college coursework at the University, and I was scouring for interesting opportunities for his “gap year.”
This, I do. I worry. I meddle. I encourage. I facilitate. I advise. I roll up my sleeves and get in there. I obsess and I perseverate. When my children were young, I did not helicopter (I’m pretty sure, I really didn’t). But now that they are young adults, I am, I admit, however reluctantly, making it up with gusto. For better or worse, I get random rewards for this behavior: the awesome internship my daughter scored with a big-name website in New York, or even Max’s fulfilling stint in the Corps, or my youngest daughter’s happy immersion in the world of high school debate. All of these began with a seed I planted, along with a bit of nagging. In spite of these triumphs, I am also keenly familiar with the downsides of this behavior. And yet … I often cannot help myself.
I NESTLED MYSELF into the armchair while Max sat on the red sofa, leaning forward to read the posting and view the sea-sprayed Bounty photos on the screen of my laptop. He was reacting more warmly than I’d expected. “The timing is pretty awesome,” he said. “And to end up on Lake Superior would be cool.” Our family has special ties to Lake Superior, and after a Conservation Corps term living just forty minutes from the North Shore and working mostly on the trails and parks that surround it, Max’s love of Lake Superior had deepened all the more.
As we went on talking, Max’s brown eyes softened into that faraway place we all go to when we’re imagining what was once or what could be. A very good sign, I thought.
“You should do it, Max,” my husband chimed in, sensing the bit of momentum. “You won’t get these kinds of chances too often in life. You have to go for it.”
“Want to fill out the application right now?” I ventured, knowing even as the words fell out of my mouth like gravel that I was pushing it too far.
“Mom!” Max said. “Not now! I’ve gotta get back up to Moose Lake. Maybe I’ll apply. I’m thinking about it. It would be cool. But not today.”
Soon he was gathering his few belongings into his weekend pack
and loading into his CRV for the two-hour drive up north. “But think about it,
Max,” I said again as I hugged him curbside.
“Yeah, Mom, I’ll think about it, I’ll think about it. I
As is Jon's family tradition, and now ours, we stood and waved as Max pulled away and rounded the corner of Clarence and Bedford, our intersection of angels and blessed towns from It’s a Wonderful Life.
That evening, as Jon and I walked our dog Louis in the orange glow of the neighborhood street lamps, I prodded Jon to stay in touch with Max about the Bounty. “Encourage him,” I said. “Paint the picture of it, how exciting it could be.” Jon said he would.
And that’s why the next morning, when I got that email with the subject line “Bounty,” I thought naturally it was about Max. Instead, the body of the message contained only a pasted news story from NBC:
Rescue under way after 17 abandon stricken HMS Bounty off N.C. coast
A helicopter rescue operation was under way Monday for 17 people who abandoned the HMS Bounty as the ship was sinking off the coast of North Carolina, the U.S. Coast Guard said. "Our helicopter has arrived on scene and the hoisting operation is underway," according to one Coast guard official. The ship issued a distress signal late Sunday after taking on water, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
Once I properly understood the surreal meaning of this message, I immediately texted Max. “The Bounty is sinking,” I said. “NO WAY!” he replied. “That’s crazy! That’s crazy sad!” Over the course of the next two days, Max, Jon, and I traded dozens of messages as we followed and reacted to the dismaying events of the Bounty’s sinking. Two lives were lost: crewmember Claudine Christian was pulled from the water unresponsive and later proclaimed dead, and Captain Robin Walbridge was lost at sea.
AFTER THAT FATEFUL email on the morning of October 29, I dwelled on the Bounty’s Facebook page for days—weeks—as the aftermath of the loss unfolded, as the frantic search for Captain Walbridge ensued. I saw Max, 150 miles away, commenting on the page’s updates even as I scoured them myself. He was expressing first his prayers, then his grief. At this, I cried.
And then Max and his crew got called by FEMA to do disaster relief work in New York. Max was stationed at a shelter in Queens, helping people who’d lost everything—which was little to begin with—in the storm. He’d send me pictures of his work in the animal room (pets get rescued, too). He'd text me accounts of things he witnessed: evacuees shooting heroin in the bathrooms, little children confused and afraid, and sometimes callous volunteers shrouded in disinterest.
THROUGH THOSE GRAY months, our thoughts continued to alight on sadness and disbelief over the loss of the Bounty. Mine still do. This is indulgent, I know. I did not have a family member on the Bounty. Even if Max had sailed the Bounty, it would have been before or after the fateful Hurricane that swallowed her whole. There are hundreds--no, thousands--of people whose grief for the loss of this glorious ship and the two crewmembers who died is real and personal. I never even set foot on the Bounty's decks—Jon and I couldn't afford the hundred and some dollars it would have cost to haul ourselves and the five kids up that tempting ramp. And yet, and yet.
There was a dream of mine in her sails, and there were memories, too, of long and winding car rides narrated by Fred Wolff and his shipwrecks, of intangible romances, filled with heroic rescues and romantic escapes. There was a storyline, a poem, a some image or reflection I had yet to recognize before it slipped finally and sorrowfully into the drink. For all these reasons and more, my heart will always break for the wreck of the Bounty.
Come explore your own writing voice on an upcoming Elephant Rock Retreat this October or November on the majestic North Shore of Lake Superior. Dive into memory and uncover your deepest truths as you explore writing, yoga, and unique artistic projects in a gorgeous retreat center perched above the wooded shoreline.