SOS! SOS! So, Just What Became of the Reckless?

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I was on my brother's sailboat, Aeolus, in San Francisco Bay not long ago. We left Alameda at midday under a hazy sun and powered down the estuary and then hoisted sail and aimed at Alcatraz. Suddenly, crossing a visible line (flat-slack on one side, all agitation on the other), we caught the wind roaring through "the slot" at the Golden Gate Bridge. Now Aeolus shot through sparkling air, heeled over among whitecaps, and we watched two windsurfers skimming almost at the speed of the wind itself — their sails transparent membranes: dragonflies.

I stayed for several days. At night, I slept alone aboard the boat in the marina, and woke up rocking to the first swells made by ships passing down the channel at dawn. The wind whined lightly in the rigging and the halyards slapped.

As Ratty told Mole (in "The Wind in the Willows"), there is nothing as wonderful as messing about in boats. There's something about merely being around boats — boats riding at anchor, the forest of masts at a marina gently scissoring as a wake passes through, or boats in motion, sailing or powering or drifting — that soothes the eye and mind in some sweet pre-conscious way. It's the floating, I suppose — the dreaminess, a kind of amniotic suspension.

On that afternoon sail, going nowhere special, watching the dragonfly windsurfers, we tacked toward Sausalito and blazed along on the slot wind. But in the middle of this sunny picnic of a day, the radio, which had been emitting idle sailors' chatter, stiffened us up with this:

"SOS! SOS! This is the yacht Reckless. SOS! SOS! This is the yacht Reckless." (I call the boat Reckless, but it had another name, another of those jaunty amateur sailor's adjectives.)

The voice was calm and matter-of-fact, a man's voice. He repeated the same call several times.

A woman's voice came on, responding from the Coast Guard, calm but urgent — identifying herself. Asking for details. Telling the Reckless to go to another channel. We dialed to the other channel, too.

Silence. The Coast Guard came on again and asked for more information. Silence.

We sailed on. We came about and pointed west toward Oakland.

Then the same male voice: "SOS, SOS, this is the yacht Reckless! SOS, SOS, this is the yacht Reckless!"

Still in command. But the voice more urgent. Houston, we've got a problem.

Some part of the mind was summoned to rescue, to do something. But we sailed dreamily, briskly on. And merely listened. We had no idea where Reckless might be — out in the open ocean, perhaps. On fire, maybe. Was his radio sending but not receiving? Was he sending, and then hurrying out of earshot to deal with whatever the crisis might be — bailing? Dousing flames? I took it on faith that this was not a prank, for the voice was sober and persuasive, and I imagine in any case that the consequences of abusing the distress call must be severe.

The drama vanished, simply and enigmatically. A few more calls.... and then, unbroken silence. We never learned the fate of the Reckless.

We speculated for a time — about hazards to navigation, cargo containers, for example, fallen off ships and floating just below the surface. Maybe Reckless got hulled by one of those. Medieval maps of oceans, out beyond the range of the known, were marked simply, Here Be Monsters. Contemporary maps should say, Here Be Cargo Containers.

Coming back up the estuary toward Alameda, we joined a parade of sailboats riding in on bright swollen spinnakers, the sails like the bulging throats of mating frigate birds. Now and then the wind would fluke around and a spinnaker would collapse — a ruined soufflé.

We did not try to join the gaudy parade. We started the engine and dropped the sails, and motored in just as the sun was going down beyond the Golden Gate — out beyond which there remained a question mark, a small, dark blank in our minds.