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Shipwreck: Robinson Crusoe and Me

Posted: 06/18/10 04:53 PM ET

I'm a reader, and perhaps because I don't have the constitution to become a serious drinker, I reach for a book when I am lost at sea.

"Nothing can describe the confusion of thought which I felt when I sunk into the water; for tho I swam very well, yet I could not deliver myself from the waves so as to draw breath, till that wave . . . left me upon the land almost dry, but half-dead with the water I took in."

--Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

Shipwreck as in the death of a father who meant to come home but "dropped dead" --as his girlfriend said on the telephone from a rented apartment in Paris.

My father's family is from Fall River, a mill town in Southeastern Massachusetts that I mythologized in my novel, Leaving Rock Harbor, and he took us back every summer to the coastline he knew. He taught me to sail, and no matter where he was between divorces, jobs and New York apartments, he always had a boat. In the Seventies he owned a small sloop with his childhood friend, Jack. The boat was named "The Tontine", an old English word for a bet in the form of a legal agreement. The bet was that whoever died first, the other one would get the boat. Jack won the bet, but by then the "Tontine" had been up on blocks for a decade in the front yard of my old friend Peter Derbyshire. I used to think it was sentimental of Peter not to sell her, but now, in the wake of shipwreck, I find myself thinking of what my father always told me when I was learning to sail: even if the boat capsizes, hold onto the hull and never leave the boat.

Cuttyhunk is a half-day's sail from the harbor where we moored the Tontine. Those were the summers of Watergate and Vietnam: Dad, Jack, my older sister and me, sometimes with Peter or one of the boy cousins, would set off on a two-week cruise to Martha's Vineyard, Block Island and the archipelago called the Elizabeth Islands that were privately owned and deserted by all but the gulls and a few goats: Nashawena, Quick's Hole, and Penikese Island that used to be a leper colony and had a graveyard for the lepers that you could see from the water. Cuttyhunk was always the first port out and the last port back. "Let's go to Cutty for lunch," Dad and Jack would say, as if they were not steering their own twenty-six-foot, fiberglass boat but suggesting the idea to the captain of a liner in a film from the forties. "The Thin Man," without the apartment, the dog or the girl.

Cuttyhunk had a tall windmill in those days that we used as a marker on the horizon when we were sailing toward it. I don't think there was a restaurant in the small harbor town, so lunch must have been on board (we ate tuna fish and Ritz crackers. Jack had a Manhattan on the rocks). The island was first settled by the Wampanoag tribe, who helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter in Plymouth, and in return was forced off their land during the King Philip's War, in 1676, when twelve Indian villages were wiped out and one out of every sixteen men of military age was killed. The Pilgrims didn't seem to want the 550-acre island that the remaining members of the tribe escaped to off the southern coast of Cape Cod. In the eighteenth century, freed slaves found their way to Cuttyhunk and intermarried with the Wampanaug. It was an island of fishing, farming and whaling.

I was ten the summer we nearly ran aground off Cuttyhunk; young enough to imagine myself more as Jim Hawkins than Chrissy Hynde. Fog can come on quickly off Cape Cod and this was before GPS. When there is no visibility you steer by compass, but the boat can be pulled off course by changing currents, and fog transforms the quality of sound, the bell of a mid-channel marker can sound far away when it is just off the bow. I was sitting on the roof of the small cabin, trying to see the buoy that marked the entrance to Cuttyhunk Harbor, when I saw whitecaps all around us. The sound of waves breaking out in the middle of Buzzard's Bay. There are two reefs between Cuttyhunk and the coast: "Sow and Pigs" and "Hen and Chickens." Jack put the twenty-five-horse outboard hard into reverse and my father and I each held a boathook, straining to see the rocks below the breakers. It was the first time the Tontine felt small to me. The cockpit with the teacups rattling around, the cabin with our packs of cards, books, crackers and peanut butter, could all be swept clean so quickly.

Their deaths were still unimaginable to me.

I couldn't get over how fast the fog came in and the reef came up.

If I could speak to my father I would tell him to come home now. The land of the dead is no place for him. Unlike so many of the parents my father always came home. He mythologized his childhood of fallen gentry in a broken mill town. He transformed himself with smarts, humor, an alchemical charm and that fast way of talking with almost no Massachusetts accent at all. Now he needs to come back to New York, to his girlfriend, to my sisters, and most of all to me.

Crusoe was rescued by pirates at the end of the book.

There is, in the end, a return, even if it is delivered by "pyrates." How long it takes to return depends upon the castaway.

I will go below and sing him back from ash and bone. I will not make the mistake of looking back.