This past weekend, under a cloudless sky without much wind, we returned with friends up the Ipswich river. We were all slightly pink from sun, chuckling and enjoying a quiet ride in a borrowed 14’ Lund, chugging upstream toward the mooring.
Then the boat’s motor died. Might have been the battery. Or water in the gas. But the boat lost power and we started to drift casually back downstream on an outgoing tide.
It had been a relatively quiet day on the river. We’d seen some kayakers. A few jet-skis or much larger motorboats. No sailboats.
When the Lund’s engine stopped chugging, and wouldn’t even turn over, there wasn’t another boater visible on the water. We could see, distantly, a few people on the shore near the Labor in Vain bridge. A lone figure at the end of a boardwalk far off across the green spiky marsh. Egrets winging across the sky. No likely rescuers nearby.
We pulled out the oars. Tried to row. Realistically, they were too short, because they really belong to the dinghy used to shuttle back and forth from the Lund’s mooring to shore.
“Stroke, feather, stroke, feather …” chanted the most experienced seaman in our company, somewhat jokingly, in a steady rhythm. We took turns rowing, just in case one set of arms was more powerful or skilled than another.
Unfortunately, when we measured our progress against the buoys, we continued to slip downstream. Or nose in circles. Clearly we couldn’t row upriver far enough to get to the town wharf or the mooring beyond it. The oars weren’t made to move a 14’ Lund.
We weren’t in any particular danger. We were close to several shorelines, with an anchor, working forms of communication, water, life jackets, and many sources of assistance in close proximity. So at the time, we joked about our own attempts to rescue ourselves. Snapped photos for posterity.
We chuckled and told stories to each other, exaggerating all the ways our problems could be much worse. Close to the mouth of the river, headed out to sea, drifting past the last buoys. Choppy surface, bad weather looming. Hole in the hull. Sharks. Pirates. Hungry sea monsters with tentacles. Captain Nemo’s submarine smacking into us. Icebergs. Sandbars. Gilligan, Skipper and crew greeting us from the shore of a deserted island.
Of course, had we faced such conditions, unprepared, it would not have been funny. So please don’t think that I make light of life-threatening circumstances. Nor should boaters go out unprepared for emergencies. Simple problems, on the water without sufficient supplies and training, can become emergencies.
But we didn’t face such a moment … so even now … our situation was humorous. We laughed. Let off tension. Acknowledged, out loud, that we were grateful to be in the company of a calm captain at the tiller and friends who could make the best of the predicament. (It was their first tour, seeing Ipswich from the river. Memorable!)
Just about the time we considered throwing in the anchor while we made further rescue plans, another boat rounded the bend in the river. It was piloted by two optimistic fly-fishermen from New Hampshire, just launched from the public landing in Ipswich. Headed downstream to catch the last light of the day.
Instead, they caught us. We waved. Shouted across the water that our engine was dead.
They joked with us. “Whatcha gonna do about that? Nah, just kidding. Did you know if you come across someone who’s in trouble, it’s boating law that you have to assist? You can’t just leave people stranded.”
The two boaters from New Hampshire wondered if others had passed by us without stopping.
Happily, we could tell them, “No one left us stuck here. You were the first boat we saw, and you stopped.”
Then they asked if we were out of gas. Ugh. That would have been embarassing, but easily remedied.
Being New Hampshire folks, coming across four helpless “Mass-holes” (or flatlanders, as Mass. residents are un-fondly called by some more Northern-based New Englanders) floating helplessly in a boat on a holiday weekend, they didn’t have high hopes for our intelligence. Phew. We were legitimately adrift, with an almost-full tank of gas, plus spare, with an impaired engine (battery, we hope).
Assured that we weren’t too foolish, they offered to help. Actually, based on their principles and their understanding of maritime law, they would have helped us regardless of our intelligence (or lack thereof), but we seemed legit. So they were amiable and supportive.
Brief research about international and federal maritime law seems to confirm the imperative that you should assist another vessel in trouble, though you shouldn’t put your own boat or crew in danger. Often, a reasonable form of assistance is to locate the distressed vessel, contact emergency or professional help on their behalf, then stand by and monitor the situation, unless there’s imminent danger of foundering or drowning. Reasonable assistance, in a case such as ours, might have been to wait with us while we awaited a professional tow.
Better yet, they offered to tow us. Of course, we appreciated the immediate rescue.
We tossed them our line, and tied on. Once the lines were taut, clear of their propellers, we slowly returned upriver, under tow by another Lund with more motor power than us (at the time). A few boats passed us, going downriver (the same direction our rescuers wished to go). We waved. Shook our heads. Sighed. Grinning, but humbled by our dependence on others for help.
Our New Hampshire rescuers occasionally talked to us across the open water. But sound was distorted, so we all gave up, except to give directions.
Meanwhile, we considered ways to thank them. A twelve-pack of beer? Gas money? Dinner at the Choate Bridge Pub?
Making the most of their abbreviated trip, one of the fishermen cast his line into the tug of the outgoing current. His slender strand arched through the air, flashed silver in the lowering sun, then disappeared into the dark water. We watched a yellow dappled lure zip past on its lethal hook. I swear, if I’d been a fish, I’d have taken the bait.
We hoped they’d at least catch something, since we’d used up much of their remaining daylight in the slow ride back to the mooring. No such luck. As far as we know, our stranded boat was their only trophy of the day.
At least they got a good story out of it! So did we.
When we asked if they were staying in the area, so we could repay them in some way, as thanks for the rescue, they declined. “Nah, we’re going home tonight. Don’t worry, I was stuck in the middle of a lake last summer and needed help. Had to get a tow.”
The fisherman continued, “So here’s what you do, instead of thanking us? Pay it forward. When you see someone in trouble, stop and help. Okay? Just pay it forward.”
We don’t know their names. They were one of the smallest boats we saw on the river that day, besides our own. And they’d probably traveled the furthest distance just to spend time on the Ipswich River as it slowly fell into shadow.
But they were kind enough to close their cooler, pull in their line and hooks, and turn around and give us a tow home again. They rescued us while the sun sank rosily toward the horizon, turning wind turbine blades and leafed-out maple branches into silhouettes.
So on my to-do list? As an open promise? Pay it forward.
Maybe I won’t rescue someone stranded on the water. Perhaps I’ll assist someone stopped by the side of the road. Or in the checkout line of a grocery store. Where I see a need that I can address, when I see someone in distress who needs some immediate support … I’ll pay it forward.
It’s really how most of us operate, most of the time, in our best idea of the world, anyway, isn’t it?
Such gestures are not about whether the other person deserves to be rescued. We cannot know what’s in another person’s heart, or in their past, or awaiting them in the future … we cannot judge what makes someone worth saving.
We help others, because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s what makes our world a little better: one random act of kindness at a time. It’s as old as the story of the Good Samaritan. Older, really. As old as the most ancient mariner’s traditions. To come the aid of those in danger of going under.
Pay it forward.