On the 17th day of our trip around the world, Conor came within inches of being swept from the deck of the GAP II into the Pacific Ocean.
I remember it vividly: The day was bright and clear as we made our way from North Seymour Island to Chinese Hat Island in the Galapagos. The captain had the boat near top speed — seven knots — as we covered the open ocean between the two islands.
The boat was headed into the wind and the prevailing current, and there was a light chop on the water. We were five hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador and five miles from the nearest point of land.
The four families aboard were on deck, enjoying the sunny day. Hanzel, our tour guide, was napping. The captain was on the bridge and the crew was below deck.
Most of the kids were sitting on the metal benches at the bow of the boat, holding on to the rails and dangling their legs over the edge.
As the boat powered through the chop, ocean spray would fly over the bow, giving the kids a light shower. With every wave the kids would squeal with delight.
Conor was sitting inside the main cabin, missing the fun. His friend Meg ran to get him. I helped position Conor on the bench and told him to hold on tight, but I’m not sure he was really listening.
Within moments I saw a large wave heading towards the boat — the biggest so far.
“Hang on,” I said to the kids. “Here comes a big one.”
The wave hit the bow with such a jarring force it sent kids flying. The metal bench was suddenly slick as ice, making it hard to hold on.
Conor was knocked flat on the bench and was perilously close to slipping through the railing into the ocean.
Chris, a twelve-year-old who was sitting next to Conor, was thrown outside the boat and was suddenly clinging to the railing, calling for help.
Dani and I dashed across the deck. I threw myself on Conor, who was lying semi-conscious on the bench after hitting his head on the metal railing.
Dani grabbed Chris, and with Cam McPherson’s help, managed to pull him back in the boat. In less than thirty seconds both kids were safe. But it felt like a lifetime.
Once things settled down and Conor was resting inside the main cabin, I went below to our room. I staggered into the bathroom and threw up.
* * * * * *
Ten years ago a friend gave our family a nickname: The Luckies. I have no idea what possessed her to label us so — but in one small circle of our friends, the name stuck.
Since that day in the Galapagos, I think about the nickname all the time. We are “The Luckies” in so many ways.
Lucky to have won the human lottery:
To have been born in a developed country, to parents who wanted something more for us. To have had the opportunity to get an education, to be rewarded for hard work. To have a comfortable home, and more than enough to eat. To have a loving family, good friends and time to spend with them.
Millions of people around the world, by the simple fate of their birth, never have that chance.
A week before we arrived back in the United States I received an email from my mother. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are,” she wrote to me, “to have such a wonderful wife and two wonderful children?”
In the note I sent back I said that yes, I did know how lucky I was, that I was thankful for my wife and children and made sure every day to tell each one that I loved them.
But, I added, my first bit of luck came in having a mother who believed in me, who pushed me, who thought that each of her children could do more, be more than our parents or grandparents.
The Luckies. May we always be.
* * * * * *
The arc of your life can turn on just a few inches.
If Conor had been sitting one foot to the right — where Chris was sitting — he would have been thrown out of the boat. I don’t know if he would have been able to hold on to the railing long enough to be pulled back in.
But here’s the thought I couldn’t shake: Conor should have been sitting one foot to the right.
When Conor joined the other kids on the bench I didn’t put him in the open seat. I moved Chris to the right — to the spot where the full force of the wave would hit just moments later — so Conor could sit next to Meg.
For nearly a year now I have played the scene over and over in my mind: What would I have done if Conor had been swept overboard? What if Dani and Cam hadn’t been able to pull Chris back in the boat?
The incident left Dani and I deeply shaken, and we had a long and serious discussion about whether we should head home after the Galapagos tour. I found myself compulsively monitoring where Caroline and Conor were. I was afraid to let them out of my sight.
The next day we made our way to Bartoleme, perhaps the most picturesque island in the Galapagos.
In the morning Hanzel led us on a hike to the summit of the island, giving us a commanding view of two golden crescent beaches and Pinnacle Rock.
After lunch he took us on an incredible snorkeling adventure. We saw thousands of fish of every size, shape and color and swam with sea lions, penguins and sharks.
There was something life-affirming about the snorkeling, for the kids and for us. As Dani and I watched Caroline and Conor chase fish around the cove, gaining confidence with every stroke, we knew the right thing to do.
We would continue with the trip.
Two days after the incident we pulled in to Sante Fe Island to swim with sea lions. As soon as we dove in the water we were surrounded by dozens of playful creatures.
The sea lions would swim directly at us only to divert at the last moment. They tugged on our flippers and blew bubbles in our masks. It was a completely joyful experience.
After snorkeling for an hour, the kids wanted to jump from the boat into the water. First they jumped from the lower level — it was no more than five or six feet.
But Hanzel encouraged them to go to the roof of the boat and jump — from a height of about twenty feet. Conor, of course, wanted to go right away. Caroline soon followed. They jumped again and again and again. With no fear.
I watched closely, as any protective father would. But I smiled in spite of myself. I had to admire my children’s spirit of adventure.
I pray they never lose it.
Caroline, Conor & Hanzel
Originally published at thewidewideworld.com on April 27, 2016.