Peter Shelton

Good Grief, Part 2: Mayday

Posted in Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on June 27, 2011

We were still a good ways offshore, maybe half a mile – it’s hard to gauge from 50 years in the future – but drifting closer all the time.

The Good Grief’s diesel engine wasn’t working right. Dad would get it started, but it would sputter and lose power, then stop again. He thought it might be water in the fuel. How it got there, he didn’t know. What mattered was that he couldn’t solve the problem, and the big rollercoaster swells were driving us inexorably shoreward. After a while I could hear the breakers on the rocks.

Dad got on the radio and called the Coast Guard. They had a cutter docked in Newport Harbor, very near the Good Grief’s mooring off Balboa Island. I used to see that tall, white, metal-hulled ship every time we went down to our boat. It had a kind of impeccable, martial goodness about it, like America itself when one was 13 years old and just beyond the Eisenhower administration.

Dad was always impeccable himself on the radio. He knew the lingo, how to repeat our call letters at the beginning of each transmission, how to end each one with “Over.” He was super calm. It was one of the things that made him a good city manager, made him a respected young naval officer in the war.

The Coast Guard radioman asked repeatedly if we were in “imminent danger.” Dad had to say, honestly, no. We weren’t in imminent danger. There was still time. Though how much was very hard to judge. And it would no doubt take the cutter considerable time in the heavy seas to reach us; we were at least five or six miles downcoast from the harbor mouth. But no, Dad said into the microphone, not immediate danger.

It was a linguistic trap, a calm-demeanor trap. The Guard radioman, leery of deploying if he didn’t need to, said they would stand by and await further word from us.

Dad was tortured in a way I’d never seen before, and can’t recall having seen since. He’d built his career, his life, on being accountable, on doing whatever it was he said he would do. Steering the ship, whatever ship it was – family, government, union negotiations, transportation committees – sagely and safely into port. And here he was on his own boat, with his eldest son, and his son’s friend, helpless at sea. It was an unaccountable failure. Through no fault of his own, but still, a kind of shame.

Dad ordered me forward to lower the anchor. Tie it off first, but let out as much as you can, he said, in hopes that as we drifted closer, we might snag something on the bottom and hold outside the breakers. I lowered the anchor and the 50 feet of heavy chain and probably 100 feet of inch-and-a-quarter nylon line. Nothing. I would have felt something, like a fish on a lure, if there had been any contact. We were still too deep.

Of course, if we did drift in to where the Grief was about the run aground, we could abandon ship and swim – as big as the surf was, we were good swimmers – to some safe landing. Nobody talked about it, but I was sure we could do that.

Nobody talked much at all. Dad continued, like an alchemist, to try to start the engine. I thought about the Sea Watch, an innovative, very fast, lifeguard rescue boat that had been launched a few years earlier on my dad’s watch. It was built at the same boatyard where we had done the conversion on the Mister Robert’s. It was painted sunflower yellow and shared something of the silhouette of John F. Kennedy’s PT boat. Dad was very close to his lifeguards when he was city manager of Newport Beach. And they loved him back.

Dad took me with him on an early Sea Watch shakedown. I don’t remember now if he spirited me out of school, or if it was summer. It was very early in the morning, and I felt a tremendous, grown-up pride. The lifeguard skipper took us out the jetties and accelerated over a glassy swell toward the Newport pier. The twin engines thrummed under our feet. I had to lean forward into the wind. It was impossible, but the skipper said we were doing 40 knots.

The Sea Watch, fast as she was, would not be the boat to come out and save the Good Grief.

The other thing I might have been thinking about as I watched cars glide by on Pacific Coast Highway and the surf explode quite clearly now against the rocks, was the time the Coast Guard brought in three drowned men. I was there when they took them off the cutter and laid them out on the neighboring dock. They were the first dead people I had seen. Their small powerboat had capsized and sunk. They all had life jackets on, but they had put them on wrong so that their heads were thrust forward. They’d been in the water a long time. They’d drowned, the newspaper would say, charitably, before the sharks started nibbling on them.

I don’t know if I was thinking about this that afternoon on the Good Grief. Probably not. I was watching my dad, agonized and embarrassed. He didn’t swear. He never swore, though surely he knew of Mark Twain’s admonition that swearing “provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

He picked up the radio again, and this time he used the word “Mayday.”

To be continued . . .

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