Dark Night

A simple boat trip can test a man’s pride and his night vision

By Clyde Edgerton

One evening a few weeks ago, I left Gibby’s Dock and Dine in Carolina Beach, just off the Intracoastal Waterway. It was 7 p.m., dark, and I was in a motorboat alone, heading 15 miles north to a friend’s dock on Wrightsville Beach. My wife and daughter had just left Gibby’s in an automobile and would be waiting for me at my destination. I was hoping to impress my wife (and myself) with how quickly I could get to Wrightsville Beach. I’d planned to leave before dark but time had slipped away.

Well, yes, we could have left the boat and come back for it the next day. But . . . come on, a little night trip up the waterway? What could be difficult about that? (Not being able to see, for one thing, Captain Ahab.)

I’d be heading north, right? With land to my right and left? And surely there’d be enough light to see ahead in the dark — not far, but far enough. It’s a straight shot. I’d simply stay in the middle of the waterway and thus avoid the crab pot buoys. The channel markers would all have red and green lights, right? It wouldn’t be that dark.

Before I know it, I’m disoriented. Yes, there are house lights off to my left, to the west along the waterway, and I’m confident that there is an eastern bank to my right — somewhere — but the rest of the world is inked over. Inked in, inked out. Then I see a green light far ahead — a channel marker. It seems extraordinarily far away. The water is less calm than I’d remembered on the trip down that afternoon in full, bright, beautiful daylight.

And coming toward me, from way far up north, is a light brighter than any train headlight I’ve ever seen. Or is it stationary? And it’s not just one bright light — it’s a cluster of lights together like a sunflower, like a white, nighttime sun. It has killed any night vision I might have. I put my hand up to block it out.

I calmly think about the worst thing that can happen.

I can die. But worse: I may have to confess stupidity.

Boat owners know about the safety cord running from near the throttle that you can clip to a belt loop so that if you fall overboard the attached cord will pull a small button off a small knob and cause the boat engine to cut off so that the boat will not run away. I’ve never hooked it up.

I hook it up.

Where the hell am I? . . . I mean, in reference to the shoreline?

I turn loose the wheel, pull out my phone, keeping a hand up to block the bright light. I touch to open the Maps app with GPS but my screen is blocked by a white box asking if I want to join any of several Wi-Fi servers. I cancel that, worried again about my night vision, then I see the waterway on the iPhone screen and a small blue dot that is my position. Aha. I look up. What? At my one o’clock position is a string of lights sitting on the water. . . is that a very long, low boat? How could that be?

It’s a boat dock! How can it be ahead and to my right on the barrier island side? The shore with houses is to my left. There are no boat docks on the back side of Masonboro Island. I turn the boat to get around this phantom dock. I’ve drifted way left it seems. How? What’s going on?

The blinding bright light is getting larger. And higher. Yep, it’s coming for me. I need to be to the right of that dock, and to the right of the blinding bright light headed my way, but how? And what about the crab pot buoys? No way I can see one of those. I should be out in the middle. I check the blue dot on my map. Confirmed. I’m too far left, or west. I change my heading significantly to the right, east.

Suddenly, I remember that the satellite choice on the GPS should show photos of the boat docks. The plain map doesn’t. Another Wi-Fi request blocks my screen. My left hand blocks the blinding bright light. I have no night vision. I grab the wheel and find the satellite map. I press it and wait. The screen slowly fills in.

Ah, there’s my little blue dot in the Intracoastal Waterway. The satellite map shows shallow and deep areas in the water. Cool. It shows boat docks. Cool. If I just had a flashlight to see ahead in the water. Is there one on the boat somewhere?

Or on the iPhone? Yes. I turn it on. Better to have an iPhone than a Swiss Army knife right now. I hold the phone high overhead to try to light the water over the bow and watch the map. My left hand is back up, blocking the bright ship headlight. I lean against the wheel to steer with my body somehow. Lo and behold about 50 feet straight ahead is a green reflecting square — a channel marker! The iPhone flashlight is not lighting the water ahead but is reflecting off a channel marker.

I see on the satellite map that I’ve drifted right — far right.

Most boats have what’s called a whisky compass, an erratic compass that floats in liquid, and is only roughly accurate, especially if there are waves. By this compass, I see that I’m heading almost north and need a 10-degree correction or so to the west.

That blinding light. It’s closer. And closer. I can see it’s a very large boat. Will it miss me? I maneuver to the right. It passes to my left. It’s gigantic. It has no thoughts of slowing down. The wake tosses me way up and way down. I’m in idle, waiting for the wake to pass. I say ugly things.

The wake recedes, and I slowly crawl north — checking satellite map, flashlight up, watching for channel markers, etc.

Nearing my destination, I realize I have no clear landmarks for my friend’s dock. My friend’s pier is one among many exactly like it. I’ve never docked there (or anywhere else) at night.

My wife and daughter are supposed to be waiting at that dock. They’ve probably been there a while. I phone them. My daughter answers. “What’s taking you so long, Daddy?”

“Oh, nothing. Just taking my time. No need to rush. Nice night. Is Mama there?”

“Sure. Here she is.”

My wife asks, “What’s taking so long, Honey?”

“Oh, nothing. Just taking my time. Nice night out here. Need to be careful, though. Would you do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Are you on the dock?”

“Yes.”

“Would you turn on your phone flashlight and wave it over your head? With the light shining out toward me?”

“Sure. Where are you?”

“I’m not altogether sure . . . would you turn on the flashlight and wave it over your head?”

“OK.”

“Oh, good,” I say. “I see you.” Then I realize she can’t hear me because her phone is over her head, going back and forth in the air.

In a few minutes, I dock safely, step off the boat, and my wife asks, “How was the trip?”

“Fine,” I say, holding onto a single sliver of pride deep in my soul. I don’t know where to start.

“Wasn’t it pretty dark out there?”

“Damn dark.”  PS

Clyde Edgerton is the author of 10 novels, a memoir and most recently, Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers. He is the Thomas S. Kenan III Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UNCW.

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