Mrs. UpintheValley and I went to the Channel Islands this week for hiking and sea kayaking. The landing dock at Scorpion Cove had been taken out by a winter storm, so at the end of the day we had to queue up for lifts back to the boat on Zodiac pontoon rafts with outboard motors. The wind picked up to 40mph and we huddled along the cliff face, sand stinging our faces, politely waiting our turn, clutching tickets. We went in groups of six. They issued us life jackets and we climbed into therafts and waited for a surge of water to lift us off the sand.
It was all very civilized. But as the air chilled, and the water got choppier and people began to shiver in their shorts, I began to wonder: what if it 500 people wandered out of the mountains, without tickets, demanding to be boarded? For how long would civilized norms prevail?
What if they took the rafts by force of numbers and approached the boat in a flotilla? If you’re the boat captain, do you weigh anchor and leave the island, knowing you would be abandoning ticket-holders on shore? If you let the first raft of refugees on, because there’s still a little room, how do you say no to the second, third and fifteenth rafts? If you say yes to the women, but no to the men, how do you enforce that? Are you willing to shoot someone in the head with a flare gun, to set an example? Would that deter the others? How many flares do you have in that gun, anyway?
How soon before the boat turns into this?
What do I do? Sunburned, tired, a little sea sick already from bobbing like a cork in the sea caves, am I going to resort to physical force to prize our places on a raft? Secretly, would Mrs. UpintheValley want me to? I didn’t marry a broad-shouldered man for no reason, darling. Save us! Who would I be willing to step over to grapple aboard?
When we reach the boat and find it already to listing to the side, overloaded with human cargo, are we willing to be that last pair of hands that causes it to capsize? Do we do the bravest thing and swim back to shore and try our luck on kayaks, three days of paddling back to Ventura in open water?
My armchair bravery is such that I of course would do just that. I would row Mrs. U to safety like Frederic ferrying Catherine to Switzerland in a A Farewell to Arms. It would be my finest hour.
Right up to the moment in the swirling darkness of that first night….as the refugees of the capsized boat, dog paddling in pure fear, catch sight of the kayak in the moonlight and begin to approach. Then all I have is my oar, my pocketknife and a will to live.