The Life Preserver

By David Armstrong

John leaped from the pier to the deck of the cabin cruiser, eager to embark on his day at sea. He grinned as he scanned the eastern horizon barely pink with the first rays of sunlight.

“Welcome aboard!” The captain offered a casual salute. His white uniform contrasted sharply with his deeply tanned, weathered features—the perfect image of a seafaring captain. “Are you ready to catch a big one?”

“Aye-aye, captain.” John glanced around the deck. “When will the other fishermen arrive?”

The captain gave John a one-eyed squint. “You’re it, lad. No other customers today. We’ll shove off directly.”

The captain loosed the lines and gunned the motor to inch the boat away from the dock. John slouched on a padded bench at the stern and turned his face to the sky. The craft rocked gently as the captain eased her out of the harbor.

The roar of the motor increased when they cleared the lighthouse. The boat picked up speed. John let the wind blow through his hair. A relaxing day of fishing was just what he needed.

An hour out, the engine went silent. The swells lapped against the side of the boat. The fresh salt air filled John’s lungs.

The captain left the cabin and crossed the deck. “The radio reports a storm is brewing. If you want to get your line wet, this is as good a spot as any. We may have to cut the day short.”

John’s heart sank, but he shook off the disappointment. A half a day’s fishing was better than none. He watched the captain break out the long, deep-water rod, run the line from the reel through the eyes, and tie on the lure and the sinkers. John took the pole in his hands, reared back, and cast the filament far out into the water. He set the pole on the stand and returned to the comfortable bench. He riveted his eyes to the tip of the rod, watching for the telltale jerk of a bite on the distant hook to interrupt the undulating bend of the pole.

John’s eyes grew heavy. It wasn’t long before he fell asleep.

The bench tossed John to the deck. He tried to stand, but the decked rolled violently beneath his feet. The stiff wind tore at his hair. Spray wetted his face. Black clouds boiled overhead.

The captain burst through the door of the little cabin. “John, reel in the line and stow the rig. We’re getting out of here.”

John scrambled to his feet, staggered to the stern gunwale, and grabbed the pole. Bracing himself against the rail, he turned the handle on the reel as fast as he could.

The engine roared to life just as the deck pitch upward. John’s feet slipped on the wet planks. He dove head-first into the roiling water. Stunned by the shock, he couldn’t discern up or down. He thrashed frantically about until at last his face broke the surface.

He gulped in air before a wave crashed over his head and pushed him under again.

He kicked hard with his waterlogged shoes to force his head above the water. Wiping the water from his eyes, he could see only gray swells ahead and behind him. Where’s the boat? Does the captain even know I’ve fallen fallen over board? Is this where my life ends?

Something hard bumped the back of John’s head. He twisted around. A white ring about a yard wide bobbed on the surface. He threw his arms around it, trying to haul himself onto the donut-shaped life preserver. He succeeded only in pushing it under water. By grasping the ropes around the outside edge and hugging it to his chest, he could at least keep his head above the churning, frothy water.

He rose on the next swell and spied the stern of the boat, small and distant. A figure in a white shirt waved an arm above his head. The man cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hold on! I can’t pull you in. I have to steer the boat into the swells so she doesn’t capsize. Just don’t let go!”

The captain disappeared inside the tiny cabin. The life preserver tried to jerk itself from John’s hands as the boat picked up speed. The ring bounced hard, smashing against John’s chin. He nearly bit his tongue off. Spray stung his eyes, and brackish water sloshed into his nose and mouth when he tried to take a breath.

He choked and sputtered. Panic seized him when he swallowed water instead of air. His arms began to quiver as he clutched the buoy to his chest. His fingers ached. The taut rope pinched them against the side of the life preserver, lessening the chance of accidentally letting go, but also cutting off the blood supply to his fingertips.

He tried kicking with his feet to reduce his drag and take some stress off his arms. It helped, but he couldn’t keep it up for long.

How long is this going to last? How far are we from the harbor? Can I possibly hold on the whole way? Will the captain find a drowned carcass floating behind his boat?

As the minutes dragged on, John noticed a rhythm to his agony. When the boat climbed an oncoming swell, the tension on the line would lessen. This moment of reprieve gave him time to adjust his grip and take pressure off his screaming shoulders. But then as the boat disappeared behind the rolling swell, the line would jerk him forward again. He learned to take advantage of the brief release and anticipate the renewed pull.

He thought of trying to pull himself hand over hand up the line until perhaps he could reach the boat. As the boat climbed a swell and the line slackened, he released the ring with one hand to grasp the wet rope in front of him. The line was barely in his hand when the boat disappeared over the horizon and the rope snapped taut again, wrenching itself free from his grasp. He caught the ring with his free hand just as it pulled itself free from his left. He held his tenuous grasp with one hand for an eternity until the next swell reduced the tension and he could catch the ring again with both hands. He had no hope of clambering up the line. He simply had to hold on, as the captain said.

Interminable minutes passed as John trolled behind the boat, battered and slashed by every wave, tossed and bounced, pummeled and thrashed, choked and weary. He never got any closer to the boat, and he never saw the captain on the deck. His strength ebbed until only the rope pinching his cramped fingers against the sides of the ring kept his limp body from floating away.

When he was sure he couldn’t swallow one more mouthful of seawater, and his eyes burned, and his arms grew numb, and his neck muscles could no longer keep his face out of the water, the howl of the wind began to diminish in his ears. On top of everything, I’m going deaf. Then the intensity of the black sky above lightened. And I’m going blind.

He strained his failing eyes to get one more look at the stern of the little boat so far away. It rose on a swell, but when the swell passed, the boat did not disappear. The top of the cabin was still visible. Another wave lifted the bow. The boat slid over easily and bobbed on the other side.

He wasn’t going deaf. The gale had slackened. And he wasn’t going blind. A shaft of sunlight pierced a break in the clouds.

And then he saw the captain in his white shirt and cap standing at the stern of the boat. He held the nearly invisible line in his hands, and he reached hand over hand, pulling John toward the boat.

Hope surged in John’s chest. New strength animated his legs, and he kicked. The boat grew larger. The captain’s face strained with determination and effort. John wanted to help the captain, but his legs gave out again. His body hung like an anchor seeking the bottom of the sea. Only his clawlike fingers frozen around the ropes of the life preserver connected him to the captain and the boat, but they were enough.

The captain heaved, and John sluiced through the choppy water. Each pull of the man-in-white’s arms drew John a foot closer to rescue.

The white ring touched the back of the boat. John looked up. The captain’s right hand extended toward him. The fingers and palm were bloody. With his final effort, John pried his right hand from the buoy and swung his arm upward. The captain caught it and then wrapped his left hand around John’s wrist. With a yell and a groan, the captain heaved on John’s arm and lifted him until John caught the rail with his left hand. One more giant tug, and John’s waist rounded the rail, and he toppled headlong onto the deck.

John sucked in the sweet air. His body trembled with exhaustion and with chill from the breeze. The captain bent over at the waist, his bloody hands on his knees, as he drew in great gulps of breath.

“Thank you,” John croaked.

The captain gasped for air. “Heck of a ride, lad. Ya did good.”

John rolled onto his stomach and disgorged a gallon of water. “You saved my life.”

A smile spread across the captain’s sweaty, weathered face and replied, “I’ve never lost a crewmate yet who knew how to hold on.”

Photo by Mathias Reding on

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