MAYDAY MAYDAY

 Here’s a short story I recently wrote.

“MAYDAY, MAYDAY.  We need to talk.” My husband said while frantically switching radio frequencies between Miami Departure and Miami Center, trying to reach anyone as our altitude decreased. I was concentrating on flying the airplane, but at 1200 feet we would impact the water within minutes.  We lost our engine at 4500 feet and after setting the best glide speed at 75 knots I tried to restart the engine.  I checked the magnetos, fuel selector, and fuel pump.  Nothing but eerie silence filled the air. “Fly the airplane, you can do it” I said faintly to myself.  Talking to air traffic control was my least concern but a very real one for my husband, Luke.  He was solely concentrating on how we were going to be rescued, while I was focused on surviving the crash into the Atlantic Ocean. I frantically reviewed everything on my checklist again and prepared for the ditch.

My husband made one last feeble attempt to reach Miami, “MAYDAY, MAYDAY.  This is 8547 Whiskey going down fifteen miles northwest of Bimini.  MAYDAY.” Luke released control of the radio.  He reached for a life vest and placed it around my neck and then secured one around his own. “I love you baby,” he said with sincerity.

“Me too.”

My mantra was “just pretend like your landing on a runway,” over and over I tried to convince myself—as Luke was counting down our altitude. “Fifty feet to go.  Hold on.”

I stalled the airplane just a few feet above the water for a hard but upright landing.  I already had the door unlatched so I immediately released my seatbelt then swung the door open.  I glanced over at Luke who was right behind me with our red life raft in his right hand.  My leap into the ocean was filled with relief that we landed safely.

I pulled the cord on my life jacket and started kicking my legs as we bobbed around in the vast Gulf Stream struggling to release the life raft. It was caught in the door. As we worked to get the raft untangled I noticed blood streaming from a gash at my husband’s temple.  Not wanting to alarm him, I stayed silent. Not only could his injury be more serious than it looked, it could also attract sharks.  In the Gulf Stream there are several types of sharks including the deadly Oceanic White Tip Shark.   Thoughts of the wreck of the Indianapolis crossed my mind, one of the most gruesome shark encounters mankind has witnessed.

Luke freed the raft from the wreckage as I watched him. “How are we doing on getting the raft opened?” I asked with a slightly shaky voice.  “Do you need help?” Luke was still struggling with the raft as his blood dripped into the water.  “Honey, what can I do?”

He grunted.  “I got it. But, I think…I think it might have a tear in it.”  The raft slowly unraveled.  The sides expanded as the middle sank.

I looked over at our Cessna and saw only the tip of the tail above water.  “There goes the plane,” I mumbled. The ocean’s expanse seemed more vast and looking over my husband’s shoulder so did the fin I saw coming towards us.

“Sweets jump into the raft, NOW!”  He hesitated afraid to lose the buoyancy of the raft.  “Honey a shark is heading towards us.  Now please.”  I jumped onto the side of the raft and Luke dove onto the other side.  Our bodies were out of the water but we didn’t know if the raft was going to hold us. 

A ten foot shark slowly circled the raft. “That’s a White Tip,” Luke said with conviction as he moved closer to the inside of our inflatable boat.  Our raft resembled a donut. The sides were completely inflated with a big hole in the center.  Blood from my husband’s head continuously dripped into the Gulf Stream.

“Sweets.  Why don’t you lie on your back and let your head rest.”  I said, hoping that his blood would coagulate.  “You’re bleeding a little.”

“A White Tip is about to bump us and you want me to lay down.”

I shimmied out of my shirt and gave it to him.  “At least put this over your head,” I said as I leaned over and handed him my shirt.  He balanced himself with his legs and one arm while tying the cloth around his head.

I looked at the donut hole and noticed only an inch or so of water covered the bottom of the raft.  “So should I lean inward if we get bumped?” I asked as I tilted into the raft.

“HOLD ON,” he shouted.  I hugged the boat like an infant being taken from its mother.  My body completely enveloped the rounded edge of the raft.  The bump felt like a strong push, not enough to dislodge me into the water.  My husband apparently did the same.  I relaxed my grip, and for the first time since the accident smiled at Luke.

He grinned back.  “Why are you smiling?” 

“Because we are still both on the raft; we are still alive—and I think we are going to live through this.”  He looked around for the shark’s fin.  I wondered, “Do you think ATC heard our Mayday?”

His grasp on the boat relaxed a bit as he took turns looking at me and the ocean.  “It’s possible that they heard us and we didn’t hear them.  Hell anything’s possible right now.  We filed a flight plan and notified customs.  They should know we are missing by now or at least in the next few hours.”  I noticed his face turn grim again.  “The shark is back.”

“Did he bring friends,” I said trying to make light of our situation.  “The hole in the bottom of the boat is not that big, should we try and sit inside?” I inquired.

His eyes followed the fin in the distance.  He quickly glanced at the center of the boat then back into the water. “It’s too risky.  Oceanic White Tip’s are known for attacking from the bottom and it could easily bite through the thin rubber layer.”  He glimpsed at the donut hole again then at me.  “And our weight could increase the water flow.”  His eyes darted around looking for the shark as I noticed his grip on the raft tighten.  The concern in his eyes made me tense and copy him. 

I scanned the Atlantic Ocean and noticed its deep violet color radiating light with the reflection of the sinking sun.  The waves were gentle and peaceful allowing me to relax my body and mind.  I closed my eyes and tried to pretend like I was on my raft in the pool when I realized I was thirsty as I tasted the salty air.  Dried salt water left a sticky residue over every inch of my body and stiffened my clothes. I suddenly craved fresh water.  A craving I realized I couldn’t satisfy.  Trying to forget about my thirst, I looked around the ocean again for any signs of the shark or life in general.  A flying fish whizzed by just feet above the water.  I smiled and my lips cracked with dryness.

I turned to my husband, “Sweets, why don’t you relax a bit and rest your head.  I don’t see the shark.”

“That concerns me even more,” he said as he repositioned my shirt on his head.  “Is my head still bleeding?” he asked.

I couldn’t tell with the dark brown color of the shirt so I suggested, “why don’t you dip it in the salt water and put it back on your head.  Salt water heals.  That’s the best thing right now along with you resting.” 

Luke rinsed the shirt in the center of the boat, wrung it out and tied it back on his head. He placed his head down facing me and sighed. “You know with the wind direction we won’t hit land, not in the Gulf Stream… not until Africa.”

I grinned.  “I’ve always wanted to revisit Africa. Did you figure out how to turn salt water into fresh water yet?” I said sarcastically.  “And I can learn to like fish.  You’re such a great fisherman; I know you can provide for us.”  He snorted.  “Seriously, rest your eyes and we’ll take turns looking for the shark.  Just lean inwards in case we get bumped.”

I continued to scan the vast ocean for any signs of life, staying alert for sharks and even for possible vessels in the distance.  I let my feet dangle but I still had a firm grip on the raft.  I tried to stay positive but thoughts of dying in the ocean crossed my mind.  Thoughts of sharks, dehydration and starvation, drowning and losing my partner forced their way in as I determinedly pushed them back out.  I’m a survivor I reminded myself.  I pictured Luke and I back home having a beer at the end of the day and concentrated on good thoughts of a long life together.

The sun was lower in the sky and I figured we had a good hour left of sunlight.  A Marlin jumped in the distance and I was awed with its beauty.  I was getting tired but I refused to close my eyes.  Luke had to rest with his injury, not me.  If only I had an energy drink, I thought. 

The quietness had developed a slight buzz in the background, an unnatural sound of a distant engine.  The sound was moving closer so I called out to my husband. “Honey, are you awake?  Luke, I hear an engine.”  He lifted his head and looked around.  I followed his gaze.

“It’s a helicopter!  I can tell by the sound.”  We both stared at the sky straining to see what was creating the noise. As the buzz became louder and I could recognize the distinct hum of the blades spinning.  A black dot on the horizon quickly came into view.  I sat upright and began waving.  Luke did the same.  “It’s a J-Hawk,” he called out with enthusiasm.  “That’s what the coast guard uses.”

“Do we have a flare?” I asked.  Already knowing the answer would be no—Luke didn’t bother to answer.  I fumbled around in the side pocket of my khaki’s for a small mirror that I usually carry on me.  I pulled it out and faced it towards the sun in hopes of creating a reflection.  Luke continued to wave his arms as I flashed the mirror. 

The crew of the J-Hawk were in sight, with one wearing a mask and snorkel.  A basket was lowered to our raft.  Luke grabbed it and lifted a VHF radio while continuing to hold on waiting for instructions.

“Captain, this is Coast Guard.  We are unable to follow normal procedure and send a man in to help you. We are watching a large White Tip circling your life raft. It’s too dangerous for our rescue swimmer to jump into the water.  I’m going to need you to follow my instructions very carefully.”

“I’m ready,” Luke shot back.

“We can only take one at a time.”  The voice said from the VHF.  “It’s best if you help the female into the basket, then we will send it back down for you.”

“Come here baby.”  Luke called out.  “Crawl along the outside of the raft.”  I inched along the border as he grabbed me and helped me into the basket. 

I sat in the basket looking down into the ocean.  The blades from the chopper were spraying my husband and the shark was aggressively closing in on him.  “Hold on baby,” I shouted.  “He might bump again.”

Within minutes I was safely in the helicopter and the basket was lowered back down to pick up Luke.  I suddenly realized I was topless as one of the men put a blanket around me.  I squeaked out a thank you and focused on Luke.  “He’s injured and might need a hospital.”  I held my breath then glanced down and saw my husband on his way up.  The shark was still circling.

I threw my arms around my husband as the Coast Guard helped him into the aircraft.  They removed my shirt from his head to look at his injuries and began first aid.  “Let’s go to Jackson Memorial,” I heard one of them say. 

“How did you find us?” Luke asked. 

“We were on a routine patrol mission looking for human traffickers and drug runners when we got a call to be aware of a small plane that went down off of Bimini.”

“So I guess they heard my Mayday,” Luke said with satisfaction.

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