Confessions of a Drunken Coastie, Part 4
Editor’s Note: From 1988 until 1991, Crash Barry served as a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard a 210-foot-long ship that patrolled from the Gulf of Maine to the Caribbean. This is the fourth in his series of true stories about fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees.
“I’m gonna fly!” D-Man declared, crouching, arms by his side, waiting to jump at the perfect moment — just before the Coast Guard Cutter Tumultuous started her descent down the side of a 20-foot swell. It was just after lunch and we were 50 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras, approaching the patch of ocean where the southerly Labrador Current crashes into the Gulf Stream. “Geronimo!” he yelled, leaping vertically as the ship plunged into the trough.
Staples and I craned our necks to watch him. He was airborne, but he wasn’t flying. More like levitating above the forecastle, like getting a really good bounce on a trampoline. D-Man hovered for several moments before landing with a thud as the ship pitched upward, already climbing the next wave in the endless series of gray-green rolling mountains of sea.
“Wow!” D-Man yelped. “That was friggin’ awesome!”
“My turn. So ya’all watch and learn,” Staples said. “If bow jumping was a sport, I’d be a freakin’ pro.” He took a couple steps to a clear spot on the centerline, just forward of the big gun mount and aft of all the ground tackle. He paused, awaiting that perfect moment, then jumped. Up, up, up he rose. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty feet above the ship. In mid-air, with his arms akimbo, his knees slightly bent and a huge smile on his face, he almost looked like a ballet dancer. He even came down gracefully, with barely a sound as his boots hit the deck.
“Yahoo!” he hollered. “That was friggin-fan-tastic!” He pointed at me. “OK, you’re up …”
The ship’s loudspeaker interrupted him. “SEAMAN STAPLES, SEAMAN DAVIS AND SEAMAN APPRENTICE BARRY, REPORT TO THE FIRST LIEUTENANT’S STATEROOM. ON THE DOUBLE,” the 1MC squawked. “STAPLES, DAVIS AND BARRY, FIRST LIEUTENANT’S STATEROOM.”
The three of us instinctively looked up at the bridge wing and caught a glimpse of the ship’s new captain stepping back into the pilothouse.
“Friggin’ bullshit!” Staples said, 15 minutes later, when the boss was done yelling at us. “God-dang Skipper has been aboard less than three weeks and already he’s screwing everything up. First, he bans us from drinkin’ in the Coast Guard parking lot. And now no bow jumping.” He shook his head. “It’s downright un-American!”
“Truth is, bow jumping never hurt anyone.” D-Man frowned. “Hell, every time we board a boat, I’m wearing a nine mil or carrying the M-16. Fighting the Drug War is dangerous! Bow jumping isn’t.”
“Too bad for this boot camper,” Staples said, punching my right bicep. “Gets chewed out by the First Louie and he ain’t never even bow jumped. Not once. Now it’s illegal and the poor fella ain’t gonna never have the chance to fly. Tough luck, son.”
That evening, as we cruised by Hatteras, the breeze picked up, turning the swells into chop. My helmsman watch ended at midnight, so after a quick smoke on the fantail, I headed for the bow. The moon was hidden by a cloudy sky. I figured I’d be able to jump without being seen, especially since the Skipper had hit the rack an hour earlier.
The Tumultuous pitched and yawed as I made my way forward, forcing me to grab rails and stanchions to reach the ladder to the forecastle. When I arrived on the bow, the ship was climbing a wave, jutting up at a sharp angle. The sea seemed angrier than it had been earlier. I wondered if that would make for a better jump.
On the crest of the next wave, when the deck dropped and disappeared below, I leaped into the sky. Gravity was no longer the law. Soaring into the mist, I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed, but I knew I was flying.
Suddenly, the Tumultuous rose from the dark sea, surprising me. I’d forgotten about coming down. The other fellas made it look easy. I crash-landed more than 20 feet to starboard from where I’d taken off because I’d been leaning, trying to fly ahead. My chest slammed into the gunwale, knocking the wind out of me and sending me tumbling backward onto the deck.
As the ship pitched and rolled beneath me, I gasped for air, desperate to breathe. I felt nauseous, but not because of the waves. The jump had brought me very close to death. Another foot or two and I would’ve been overboard. A body plummeting into the mid-Atlantic, followed by an unheard splash. Even if I avoided being butchered by the ship’s huge propellers, the roar of the Tumultuous’ diesel would’ve drowned my screams, leaving me bobbing in her wake, alone, watching her stern light disappear into the night, fated to be eaten by sharks.