Dorothy proved to be a good partner for living on Lovango Cay, a remote island where we had to rely largely
on our own efforts. She was only 5’2” but well knit and strong,
beneath a sleek exterior. She swam as effortlessly as a seal — and was
fearless in the sea. She would swim in deep water or at night when I’d be
nervous about what might be out there — call me chicken but I like to be able
to see the bottom. She took hardships in stride, from carrying water in jerry
jugs during a dry spell when we couldn’t catch enough rain, to starting a
recalcitrant 35 hp outboard with a mighty pull on the starter cord when she was
running late for school, and was even capable of taking the other end of a
heavy gas cylinder and carrying it through the surf on our beach. She
wasn’t just physically strong, she was mentally tough.
didn’t preclude femininity. Dorothy had been the only girl in a family
that had four boys and a father that doted on her. She learned early on how to
bake and sew and nurse small animals back to health. As a little girl she
became aware of the power of a tear shed from those captivating eyes. What
eyes! When she kissed me, standing on tip-toes with her face raised to meet
mine, her eyelashes would flutter uncontrollably and her hazel eyes would flare
like two warm suns.
pain stoically but would cry at coming upon the death of some small creature.
Brave and noble, she put me in mind of Portia, Brutus’ wife; and like
Cordelia, Lear’s daughter, “her voice was ever
soft and low, a good thing in woman.” She had small wrists and hands,
delicate but strong and versatile. The same hands that could clean a fish,
wield a cement shovel or pull up an anchor could soothe a feverish brow, sew a
shapely smock, cook a tasty dish, and . . . well, I better not go there.
friends Andy and Janet called her “Wonder Woman” and never did she
deserve the name more than one day in September at the height of hurricane
season when a tropical depression developed over the islands. Muggy, humid air
hung over the cay, but so far it was producing only a leaden
calm and uniformly grey skies.
followed its progress attentively, catching every radio report because our
a 28 ft wooden sloop was moored fifty yards offshore, without an engine. If the
weather did start to deteriorate we might have to move her to a safer spot —
the anchorage at Lovango was wide open to the south.
o’clock radio report placed the depression at eastern Puerto
Rico, well past us, but I had misgivings — it seemed to be
getting darker even though it was mid afternoon. The sea undulated sluggishly,
like molten metal.
a surprisingly strong gust the wind started up — a long “cat’s
paw” of ruffles raced over the still water out of the south coming right
into the arc of the bay, bisecting it evenly. As I stood there it started to
rustle the palms, then press them over. In ten minutes it was blowing twenty
knots right out of the most exposed quadrant and increasing steadily. Waves
started building up and Venceremos
started to buck at her mooring.
“Time to get out of here!” I shouted as rain
started sheeting down. Dorothy ran out of the cottage to where the dinghy was
drawn up on the shore. We launched it and started rowing out to the plunging
vessel. Dorothy shouted to 5-year-old Raffy, who was
over at Hermon and Suzy’s house, “Raffy, stay with Suzy! We’ll be back!”
an anguished scream of protest and we saw him at the porch, straining his hands
out towards us. Suzy came out in the rain to gather him up but he dashed down
the steps and came running along the rocky beach, screaming, crying,
trying to enter the water but being driven back by the
swells now crashing angrily on the shore. He looked like he’d have a
stroke if we left him.
the dinghy down, rowing, until its stern heaved up and down in the steep waves
just shy of the breakers. Hermon scooped up
Raffy and held him above the seas and waded up to his chest
through the surf and managed to get him into Dorothy’s arms. I dug the
oars in and made slow progress for the boat which now looked scary, it was
heaving so. Hermon retreated to the shore but stayed
there, looking as taut and alert as a hunting dog that has just caught a scent.
climbed aboard and tied off the dinghy, and I quickly double-reefed the main.
Our smallest jib was already hanked on. It was time
to sail but the wind was now howling around our ears. I’d never seen the
wind pick up so fast. I hauled up the mainsail and sheeted it in tight, then
raised the jib as Dorothy cast loose the mooring.
filled the jib and pressed our bow towards shore. I put the tiller hard over to
bring her head up, but not until the main caught and harnessed the wind did she
start to answer the helm. She got into her stride and headed up close to the
wind—but not close enough to make it out of the
bay. We tried to tack but a steep sided wave broke against the bow and pushed
it back. On the third try we succeeded but in the process we’d lost
whatever ground we’d gained.
I’ll never forget those minutes as we sailed up the length of the
bay, then tacked and headed back to the other end. We were
“embayed’’ — trapped within the arms of a bay
forth we sailed, too close to the beach, Hermon
keeping pace with the boat, ready to grab Raffy if
the boat should hit coral and suddenly come ashore. A couple of times we were
so close to the shore that, if we hadn’t been heeled over so much, the
bottom of our keel would have struck coral.
we clawed our way off to where with the next tack we might make it clear of the
island. We tacked again but the flailing jib sheet caught on some obstruction
and Dorothy ran forward to free it. As she ran back to the cockpit a crazy
gust, maybe fifty knots, abruptly shoved the boat over, almost onto her beam
ends and Dorothy’s footing opened up beneath her like a trap door and she
disappeared over the side. Gone! Solid green water covered deck and spilled in
at the base of the portholes– the boat seemed about to capsize—then the
gust passed, the boat righted herself, the deck lifted just above the water and
I saw a hand, one hand gripping the base of a stanchion. Simultaneously I heard
her voice shouting, at the top of her lungs but rock steady as she dragged
through the water at four knots
“Don’t stop! Don’t stop steering! Keep on
steering!” We were pointing well clear of the rocks as a
I feathered her into a lift of the wind. For a moment I was torn between saying
to hell with the boat and going to help her—-but then we would hit the shore,
the consequences of which could be disastrous for all of us. But before I could
rise I saw a second hand join the first on the stanchion, then a shapely foot
hooked another stanchion and then taking advantage of the roll of the boat she
pulled herself out of the sea, and crawled the deck to the cockpit where
five-year-old Raffy lay clinging like a limpet to the
cockpit seat in the pouring rain.
we made it, cleared the rocks off Rudy and Elsa’s point and bore off
through the Windward Passage to the north side of St. John
where we tacked in flat water against powerful gusts into Hawsksnest Bay
– which was perfectly protected in a southerly gale. Friends of ours,
Danny and Toni, lived in a house on the beach there and they welcomed us, gave
us a hot bath, fed us, then made us a hot toddy with
plenty of rum. As we went off to bed, relaxed by the drinks and our safety, I
started to quiver in my joints, uncontrollably, in each elbow, each knee, even
in my ankles. I went to bed and lay there twitching, feeling the tension
release, grateful for our escape.