It was a foul West Coast day, everything subdued by the ominous, foreboding, oppressively close clouds glowering down. Desperate, we decided to escape to the bottom of a couple of nasty flagons of apple cider.
Walking to the store under leaden skies is a wet affair. Arriving there, the deluge abates; we clearly hear the bass rumble of huge surf smashing itself relentlessly on the breakwater.
Gossip instore says ‘‘the tuna fleet awaits high tide’’; due in hours enabling them to navigate the bar, come up river and unload their catch.
Trudging out to the unpretentious lighthouse on the end of a concrete block, the flagon passes back and forth in silent grimaces. Its warmth creeps from guts to tongue, we discuss the chances an acquaintance may die today. The river is on our left, ocean on the right, at the tip sits the lighthouse. Two stories tall, round, with white stucco, a red rood with a small round dome for the light sitting cherrylike on top. Halfway up is the small walkway encircling it.
We’re seated, backs against the door, watching waves roll past towards the beach. Each one is seemingly larger as the tide creeps in to assault the land, trying to resist its relentless savagery.
There’s a small crowd of loved ones gathered. Their fear is palpable, the air already heavy with worry. Knots of people gather and split as they constantly try to reassure themselves. But I see the handwringing and fearful, furtive glances as a particularly determined wave smashes itself on to the blocks in front of the lighthouse, the vibrations a deep, wordless threat.
Suddenly, a wave lurches over the foundations and splits around the lighthouse. White creamy froth joins up, inches deep across the road, sucking greedily at the living as the monster rolls up river. People look longingly one last time to sea, hoping for a glance of their vessel.
We climb drunkenly up to the walkway and watch waves reach upwards until they bash face first on to our small sanctuary until it’s an island.
The first of the tuna boats bobs on top of a wave, now again on the wave behind, lifted effortlessly twenty, thirty feet. We see it lurch forward, smoke whipped from its exhaust. It looks small on the face, carried forward over the bar and now beside us, level. The crewmen, lifejacketed, clinging on dearly but ready to leap clear. It sails past; we hear faintly his yell of triumph and join in.
Next up is a big steel vessel, riding low and heavy. It tries to catch a wave, its twin engines spewing exhaust silently. It fails to gather enough speed and it’s overtaken. The wave behind it is massive. We watch as it’s picked up, rising towards the crest, backwards. Slowly, it gathers speed back down the face, the white top chasing the stern hungrily.
The violent turmoil of the crest starts climbing on to the back of the boat; the crewman’s face a rictus of terror as he screams at the skipper. Relentlessly, water overwhelms it. Frothing sea washes around the deck, the boat starts to slew sideways, then, stern down, it begins to roll. The crewman leaps out, away from the deadly entanglements as the bow pirouettes before the red keel is exposed wrongly.
The river’s current drags it back out to sea while we stand helpless; shocked, silent witnesses.
Days later the boat is washed up, the skipper lost forever. We will never forget the sea’s demonstration of its merciless power that day.