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  • May 26
    The familiar aspect of the anchorage in front of Little Gott Island had a gap that morning, like a grin with a missing tooth. Empty ragged waves whipped by the westerly wind filled the space where our boat should have been. Our 22’ boat (dubbedChecker for its role as taxicab) with her practically new outboard motor raised, her mooring ball presumably bobbing along beside her like a pup on a leash, had at some time during the previous night stepped out, skipped town, taken a powder.
    Frantically, my son, Phil, and I scoured the island shores for signs of wreckage and scanned the bay through binoculars, kicking ourselves with each step – Did we tie up wrong the night before? When was the last time we inspected the mooring? It was early spring, the first time the mooring had been used that year, why hadn’t we hauled back against it when we came? Why this, why not that, got us nowhere - the bottom line possibilities were few: either she had fetched up on the rocks somewhere out of sight and was being pummeled by the heavy seas, or she stove up on the way through the rocks in our bay and was sitting on the bottom attracting lobsters, or, best option, she was bobbing along off-shore pushed out to sea by the west wind and ebbing tide, free at last, next stop Europe.
    Phil radioed the Coast Guard.
    Sorry for your loss, Captain, - the title made Phil sit up a little straighter – There was no one on board, correct? the captain said yes. The most we can do is to issue a lookout order; the Coast Guard isn’t in the business of chasing missing real estate. If another vessel reported seeing our Checker they would be in touch.
    While the captain was on the radio I did the can-you-hear-me-now dance until I picked up a cell signal and called the Bass Harbor Boat House three miles away on the Mount Desert. Maybe Mike knew someone who could scout for Checker. Mike Wagner kept my motor in tip-top shape and just this winter had replaced the boat’s spaghetti of jerry-rigged wiring and repaired the hull dings acquired over many years of rugged use. If this was to be her last journey, our girl was at least looking good. I couldn’t help thinking of my mother’s admonition to always wear clean underwear just in case.
    Our first stroke of luck: Bobby Lee was at the Boat House chatting with Mike when I called. Bobby offered to run out in his lobster boat, the Justin and Colby, and have a look. One day the previous summer, I had tagged along with Bobby as he hauled his traps. On that day he had experienced his lifetime record catch, so maybe Bobby looked on me as a lucky stone or, more likely, he just loved an adventure. Whatever his motivation I was relieved to accept his neighborly offer. This early in the season the boat business was sluggish, so Mike and his helper, James, went along for the ride. It was quite a ride.
    Howling wind lifted great waves and tore them apart. Bobby and crew beat twelve miles into the maelstrom. Even at idle speed they plunged deep enough to take green water up to the bollards. Mile after stomach wrenching mile they searched, peering through spray. Given the height of the waves and the low profile of the missing boat Bobby’s radar was useless. Finally, five miles past the Duck Islands, they gave in and turned for shore, Bobby chagrined, Mike and James just a little green.
    Back in the harbor everyone told Bobby he had gone on a fool’s errand: no way that boat made it through the ledges. Probl’y nine tenths sunk, bobbing nose up somewhere out by The Rock.
    It took most of that day for Phil and me to rise above self-recrimination. We resigned ourselves to the near certainty that Checker was history and began to consider a different future. We accepted that even though the boat had an almost BRAND NEW MOTOR, it was just chattel. No one had been hurt. We began to search for a bright side. We considered the merits of getting a smaller boat: less expensive to buy, operate and maintain. We arranged for transportation off island the next day as we had to get back to our mainland lives.

    May 27
    The next morning we rowed our meager gear across to Great Gott where Jamie Lewis would ferry us to the mainland. There weren’t many people in residence that early in the season, but the news of Checker’s disappearance had spread. Everyone had his own story to tell of boats that had sprung loose and been rescued at the last from certain destruction by vigilant seamen. Their encouraging words salved some of the sting of embarrassment Phil and I suffered. When a local gardener handed us a few stalks of sympathy rhubarb from his garden we laughed and lightened up.
    Back home I notified the insurance company of our loss-in-progress, arranged for a rental boat and for the replacement of our mooring, alerted everyone who depended on the boat to make other arrangements and, psychically, consigned Checker to the deep.

    May 29
    Two days later, the Coast Guard phoned “the captain.” A Canadian fishing trawler had reported sighting an abandoned “speedboat” drifting beyond the Hague Line in Canadian water, tending vaguely toward Nova Scotia.
    Hope sparked in me for a moment, then sputtered out. A speedboat? Checker? She was neither sleek nor particularly speedy. But maybe she could seem so from the deck of a sluggish George’s Bank trawler.
    When I called, the Canadian Coast Guard was pleasant, sympathetic and steadfastly unresponsive to my entreaty that they “do something.” Perhaps if the boat drifts into traffic and becomes a hazard…
    Flailing for a way to check out the speedboat, I contacted an outfit that runs sightseeing flights. Maybe they could do a quick flyover, email me a photograph or something. “Where did you say that boat is?” I could hear the ka-ching over the phone. I waited while he located the Hague Line on a map. That boat is way out there. I waited for the fiscal shoe to drop. I’d really like to do it for you, - I heard genuine regret - but I’m not permitted to fly more than three miles over open water without special licensing and a bunch of emergency gear: life rafts, and so on. Sorry.
    Privately I was relieved. If the sighted boat turned out to be some random rum-runner’s cigarette boat I would have wasted a bunch of money. And if it actually was Checker, then what? She was still miles from nowhere and on the move. I decided ignorance was the more blissful option.
    Even the insurance company prepared for a total loss and geared up to pay off after a twelve day waiting period.
    Ten of the twelve days drift by. By now we’ve all come to grips with the loss of Checker, and I’m starting to cruise the Internet for cool used boats.

    June 11
    Then, on the eleventh day, hope leaps up like a surprise party, exciting, unsettling: the Coast Guard calls again. A purse seiner en route to the Georges Banks spots a pilotless craft. Further description leaves no doubt: miraculously, Checker is still afloat some fifty miles off shore, over Jordan Basin, now back in American waters. The coordinates of her last location are only 6 or 8 hours old.
    My protective bubble of ignorance pops. Checker lives. I can no longer simply wait for the insurance check. Even though her condition is unknown, I have to try something.
    7 pm I call my cousin, Taylor, who builds boats and runs a marina in Rockland, Maine. What should I do? Does he know any salvage guys?
    Even though his parents were transplants from Boston and Georgia, Taylor is Maine blooded through and through. He considers my story and cuts to the chase. Well, how much you think your boat’s worth?
    I tell him about the practically brand new outboard motor and the new wiring and repaired hull. He’s unimpressed.
    Sorry to be a wet fish, but no salvage operator’s going to touch this. She’s way to hell and gone out to sea, still drifting, and more weather’s coming in tomorrow. There’s not enough salvage value for them even if they could find her, which they probably couldn’t. Better off just to let her go and call it a day.
    So I call Bobby Lee.

    7:30pm No answer at Bobby’s. I call his in-laws, fill them in. Bobby’s at his Selectman’s meeting. They’ll tell him when he gets out. Roxanne says, Bobby’s been fretting about your boat since he couldn’t find it that day they went out beyond the Ducks in the bad seas. He has a big heart, Bobby has.
    8pm Bobby calls: Had a feeling she was still out there somewhere. You want me to have a look? It’s a long way out, but I’ve been farther than that shark fishing. Whatever you want to do, we’ll do it.
    For salvage the insurance company will pay only the value of the hull - in other words, not much. I told him I’d double the number if he could find her. Was that fair?
    Super dooper, he says. Will you write a good story about this? Put me down for a copy. Neither of us thinks to discuss the possibility of failure.
    When did he think he could go? Give me twenty minutes. Tonight? You’re going in the dark? Weather’s coming, he says. Better get on it.
    I call Phil to tell him Bobby Lee is on the job. Phoebe and I have to remind each other to breathe.

    8:30pm We’re on board. Got a good crew here. Juni Harper knows my boat forward and back. Mike knows yours. And James came along for the ride. Anne put up some snacks for us. Only problem is those coordinates you gave me don’t make any sense on my nav. system. I called the Coast Guard gave them my reading here. They converted my numbers into theirs and figured that put me forty miles southeast in Rockland Harbor. He chuckles. I guess I’m not. He hangs up.
    I stare into space thinking of the phrase the hurricane tracker’s use to hedge their forecasts. Bobby Lee is heading into a forty mile “cone of uncertainty.”

    9:30pm Where are you?
    Half way to Mount Desert Rock. Bobby’s voice is scratchy over the cell.
    So…you got the coordinates thing worked out with the Coast Guard.
    Sort of. Anyway we agreed the boat is over Jordan Basin, and I know where that is.
    I’ve imagined Jordan Basin as something on the order of a big bird bath, piece of cake to find a big “speedboat.” Google, I’m horrified to discover, reveals that Jordan’s Basin is a pretty big area, about 2500 square miles big. Ohmygod! My needle is floating around in a haystack that’s twice the size of Rhode Island. Well, at least Bobby has radar and “sort of” gps. And snacks.

    As the crew motors out of Bass Harbor the air is gentle, the sea-swell smooth and sensuous. The moon, south and east and just a few days past full, casts a bright gold pathway before them. Bobby says to Mike: Looks like we’ll be following the moon the whole way out. That boat will be right at the end of this tunnel.

    They approach Mount Desert Rock, twenty miles into their journey and the last of terra firma they will see until they return with or without that boat. The tide is out and seals, on break from chasing mackerel, cluster thick as barnacles on the barren granite, grunting and squabbling. Long since, the mainland has sunk below the horizon. Apart from the occasional lumbering whale Bobby and the crew are alone in the vastness. It’s a crystal night, the first in weeks. Four men, alone under the stars, on a quest.

    11:30pm Try to call Bobby. No answer. I assume they are out of range as the more ominous explanations are unthinkable.

    12:30am Phoebe tosses in her sleep. I stare at the moon. Double check that the ringer on the bedside phone is turned to LOUD. Take a pill. Stare at the moon.

    Though they are still miles from where they think Checker was last sighted, each time the radar blips four pairs of eyes bore into the blackness in unacknowledged competition, each man keen to be the first to sight the quarry. The Justin and Colby traces a drunkard’s course as Bobby jigs and swerves to chase the faintest of phosphorescent flares on the radar screen.
    But, time after time, as soon as they are on the hunt the blip disappears. They are philosophical for the first ten or fifteen disappearing blips - Radar’s prob’ly just reading one of them big ass off shore dumpducks, Bobby says, referring to the largest of the gull species, the Great Black-backed Gull with wingspans of five feet and more. Wild gull chases grow old, however, and skepticism begins to chip away at their optimism.
    We must be nuts. Like throwing a dime out the truck window off of I-95, then fixing to go back and find it in the middle of the night.
    By the time the moon sets and the golden pathway disappears and the stars find their full brilliance, the searchers are gritty eyed, and cold – the sea temperature hasn’t cleared 50 degrees yet this spring, and this far from land there is no thermal mass to warm in the sun and temper the cold, cold sea.
    Bobby turns off the engine so they can hear the silence. Their chatter hushes to whispers, and then subsides altogether. Suddenly the silence is shattered by a throaty rush of wet wind, a giant’s sigh. The boat rocks. Jesus, the youngest crewman says, Did you feel the spray? That was a whale. Close. He wipes his face, almost reluctantly, reverently. They stare through the darkness but the sea is empty again.
    At forty-five miles out the radar blips off an object that looks to be about 12 miles distant. Instead of disappearing, the blip proves persistent, getting bigger as they approach. Finally the object itself becomes visible to four pairs of naked eyes. A trawler, I think. Maybe 60 feet. Ha. Proves my peanut radar is working anyway.
    Hyper bursts of radio chatter fill the night. Bobby pulls down the radio mic: You talking to us? Further chatter identifies the vessel as JOKAH, the purse seiner out of Rockland, Mass. that reported the Checker sighting. The Coast Guard had alerted Jokah’s captain that Bobby was on the way. Coordinates, azimuths and bearings in degrees, minutes and seconds flood the airwaves. Jesus, you’d have to have a degree to tote up those numbers. But they all get the gist of it – When last seen Checker was five or six miles thataway…maybe. Jokah would be dragging the area most of the night and would call if they spotted her again.
    Bobby points his boat “thataway” running a zigzag pattern, the green of the radar screen up a notch in their estimation, their attention to it newly riveted with possibility. The Jokah is just visible in the distance making the ocean seem, not crowded exactly, but a little smaller.
    Dark hours drone by. Mike shifts from foot to foot and dreams of sitting down. Bobby shivers: penitence for ignoring his wife Anne’s urging that he bring his snowsuit. James folds himself into the dinghy Bobby had dragged aboard “just in case” and tries to nap. In shifts they huddle next to the engine below to thaw.

    4am Still inky black out my window. I glare for a moment at the silent telephone and drift back to sleep.

    In nautical twilight, Bobby can just begin to see the line between sky and sea to the east. The stars fade as blackness blends to charcoal. The flat light of near dawn reveals only grey-scale sea swell and the unbroken arc of horizon in every direction. At their height above the water they can see only three and a half miles before the earth falls away from them. Fifty miles behind lays the granite coast of home. Straight ahead is Portugal.
    Back in Bass Harbor an offshore lobsterman shakes his head and says: It’s a fool’s errand they’re on. No proper charts, not a one of them with much deep water experience. But if I were lost at sea, I’d want Bobby Lee on my trail. That fool won’t give up.
    And he doesn’t. Every fifteen minutes Bobby scans the horizon through powerful binoculars, straining to see a break in the arc, a tiny silhouette that shouldn’t be there.

    5:10am Due east the sun breaches. Ahead a quick puff of spray like a terse smoke signal indicates the rising of a right whale, rare in the world, almost common here. A binocular scan reveals other puffs – rush hour over Jordan Basin. There are a few exclamations from the crew, but their cheer is forced. The mystique of dark night on the empty sea made anything possible, but the breaking light of day throws a pall. Apart from a few whales there is nothing out there, not a damn thing. It is cold; there is no place to sit or lie down; the men are tired, sick of snacks, ready to admit futility and go home. Even Bobby’s Job-like conviction has dimmed with the dawn. And yet he stays the course. Time like this, you just do it, he says. Come whatever. Mike shuffles his aching feet and says nothing.
    They continue to zigzag into the dawn.

    6am Blearily, Phoebe and I sit in the living room mainlining caffeine and trying not to stare at the phone.

    In Seal Cove, Bobby’s mother-in-law, Roxanne, jumps when the ship to shore radio squawks. Her husband, Jamie, fishing with Georgie Dow out by Mount Desert Rock has tried to raise Bobby on the radio without success. Don’t worry, though. He has one of those emergency beacons on board. If there was a problem we would have heard from the Coast Guard. Roxanne pushes the transmit button. Wasn’t worried. Not much anyway. Bobby’s seaworthy.

    Bobby lays down the binoculars after a magnified 360º pan of the horizon reveals nothing but rolling sea - again. And suddenly, where there was nothing, there is a something. I’ll be damned. There’s a boat. Stifled by astonishment Bobby’s announcement sounds almost casual. He snatches up the binoculars again. I can’t believe it. It is! It’s PK’s frickin’ boat! The binoculars leap from hand to snatching hand. Each man confirms for himself that the dot three miles off is indeed the boat and not another disappearing dumpduck. In an instant Bobby’s somber vessel is transformed into a floating hoedown, dancing men high-fiving, shrieking their astonishment, dignity abandoned, cold and fatigue shucked like a shell.
    When the heady crew closes to within a mile of the boat, then and only then does it register on Bobby’s “peanut” radar. The needle in the haystack had to stick them in the foot before they found it. If not for the light of dawn they would have missed it altogether.

    7:30am Our phone rings. Phoebe shrieks – caffeine has that effect. Caller ID reveals a Maine number. Not Bobby’s, though - his ends in three nines. PK. It’s Mike! Guess where I’m calling from. Your boat! Phoebe and I both shriek.
    Over the next few hours, the phone lines hum and the story of the recovery unfolds. Checker sat high in the water before them, her white mooring ball bobbing along in front like an antsy toddler. Bobby eased alongside in the calm sea and Mike stepped aboard, switched on the battery, trimmed the motor down into running position, gave the primer bulb a couple of pumps, turned the key (which Phil and I had left in the ignition when we moored her twelve days before), and the almost brand new outboard hummed instantly into life.
    Hey, look, a canary. Jamie pointed to a still small form lying on the deck as though napping. Likely the small creature, a canary-yellow gold finch, had been blown off course by the same winds that took Checker and, exhausted, unable to fly further in search of land, had taken its final refuge aboard. The men buried the small corpse at sea, by which I mean they shrugged their tired shoulders and chucked it overboard.
    Mike and Jamie, seated at last in the swiveling captain’s chairs, pointed Checker nor’west and drove her home without incident. They didn’t get a cell signal until they were several miles beyond Mount Desert Rock, when Mike called me. We saw tons of whales, he said. From Bobby’s boat whales look big, from Checker they look BIG! The average right whale is fifty-five feet long and can weigh nearly one hundred tons. The Justin and Colby is thirty-four feet long and barely tips the scale at twelve tons. Checker is a slim twenty-two feet. She wouldn’t come up to a right whale’s knee. If, of course, whales had knees. Which they don’t. By now, I’m a little giddy.

    Mike beats Bobby back by an hour. Calls again to say she’s safely moored in the harbor where all those unbelievers can see her. Not a scratch on her. Good thing you left the scupper plugs out. Whatever water got in her drained right out.

    Bobby calls as soon as he secures his boat and rows ashore. They said it couldn’t be done, he said. But by God we did it!

    He calls a few minutes later to tell me about the path of moonlight they followed all the way to my boat.

    And a few minutes later calls again: Did I tell you about the whales! You won’t believe this. We finally saw your boat and headed towards it, right? We’re maybe a mile away - the boat was facing us bow on - when we saw the spouts of two whales one on either side of your boat. They blew - poosh, poosh - just like that with your boat right in the middle. Saw them clear as day. What do you think of that!

    My arm hairs prickle and stand up straight, a sure sign that my new-age mystery meter has engaged. What do I think of that? I wonder if the whales had been “pooshing” all night long: It’s over here! What, are you blind? When the Justin and Colby drew closer to Checker the two whales, perhaps relieved of sentry duty, submerged and disappeared.

    Every once in a rare while your planets move into perfect alignment and lady luck sidles your way with a come hither look. Again and again currents and wind steered a helpless craft away from hazard. Two trawlers happened across the wayfarer and phoned in their sightings. A sudden and temporary change of weather calmed the sea at the perfect time. And a crew of adventurers set out in darkness on a dubious quest. Though technology failed them, their dogged persistence did not. That Bobby Lee, one fisherman said, he just don’t know when to quit.
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