Saved by Lightning!
by Marya Washington Tyler
At forty-eight years old, I took up windsurfing. (Windsurfing is the sport where you stand on a surfboard and hold up your own sail. I like to think of it as “lake surfing.”) There are very few windsurfers in rural Wisconsin, a handful maybe where I live, and having my own sailboard was a dream come true, even if I was a rank beginner.
For safety reasons, I never went windsurfing alone, and this time my friend Brad and his buddy Jeff were along. We were taking turns, one with the sailboard, the others paddling around in their life jackets, but none of us were having much success. Real windsurfers go on windy days, but we preferred a friendly breeze, and this day the breeze was even a bit shy of friendly. We had a great time just being out in the beauty of it all, catching a bit of wind, falling in, climbing back aboard, catching a little more wind, but none of us had really gotten a good ride for any distance.
Now as the sun was lowering in the sky, I figured I’d try one last time, and I paddled out farther where the wind was brisker. There I climbed up out of the water onto the board and stood sideways, upwind from the mast. Then, one last time for the day, I pulled with all my strength to heave the sail out of the water. It was a delicate maneuver, one that had landed me in the drink many times that day, but this time I kept my balance, and cautiously reached for the boom, a pole which ran horizontally along the sail.
Got it. The breeze caught the sail just right, I straightened my arms, bent my knees, arched my back, faced the wind and all became a wonderland of sensation, waves lapping rhythmically under the bow, the wind washing over my face, a joyful feeling of ultimate freedom, relying only on the freest of energy sources - the wind. I felt totally in sync with nature, skimming the surface of the water to the musical cadence of waves I met and left, met and left behind. I felt at last like a real windsurfer and very much alive.
I was having so much fun, in fact, that it was with regret that I realized I had gone as far as I could responsibly venture from shore. Reversing direction is accomplished by walking around the bow of the board while holding the sail out of the water, and remarkably (albeit shakily) I did manage to turn the board around without falling. Now pointed toward shore, I used all the techniques I had used before, but as hard as I tried I could not get the sailboard to head back toward shore. The sailboard kept heading farther and farther from Brad and Jeff and the car, or would not go at all. I watched the shore I sought grow smaller. Repeated efforts left me frustrated and tired from the many dunkings I brought on myself. A protracted attempt to swim the board back to shore also failed, no matter what method I tried, as the fallen sail dragged heavily through the water.
A decision had to be made. I could see Brad, tiny in the distance. Did he care that I was stuck...stranded in the middle of this huge lake with no way back and dusk setting in? I was sure he had been watching, so he must undoubtedly be aware of my plight. Then I remembered my previous joy. Should I let the day be spoiled by such a minor turn of events? Not at all! The smile that before had held captive my face now returned, and I took sail again. If I couldn’t go back, I’d go forward.
There’s something so clean about riding a sailboard. Freshness and exuberance surrounded and indwelled me as the waves took up their cadence again. I sailed along at a respectable clip - my gosh, I was going fast, and the opposite shore loomed closer and closer. It was thickly wooded, but I assumed a road would travel the shore somewhere near wherever I ended up.... Wherever I ended up. It was a cool thought: To be so free to not even know your destination. I banished doubt and worry, kept my shoulders back, my arms straight, my knees bent, my buttocks tucked, my nose to the fore. It was the ride of my life; but knowing what I know now, I’m not sure that I would have kept going. I don’t know what I would have done.
The wind brought us (I was one with the sailboard by now and considered it my companion) to a gently sloping sandy shore. Relief enfolded me as I disembarked, and just as I had hoped, a dirt path led straight through the woods to a gravel road. I set to work dismantling the sail and rigging, and left it piece by piece by the side of the road where Brad would see it when he came with the car to get me. And of course he would come to get me. Why wouldn’t he? It was all working out great! There was nothing to worry about.
I barely finished setting the sailboard conspicuously by the side of the road, before the highly aggressive mosquitoes drove me back into the water. I waited there, relieved and amazed at my good fortune, enjoying the solitude contentedly for quite a while, and would have remained there waiting for hours I think. I could imagine brad and his friend heading out in the car to find me, and tried to figure which direction around the lake they would take. The lake had such a convoluted shoreline, and was so heavily wooded, it was hard to tell which way they would come. There were inlets and outlets and channels and peninsulas and impassable marshes and bridges all around it. Still, I was sure they would find me.
I was awakened from my somnolence by a violent lightning bolt, and another, frighteningly close, immediately followed by a strong wind. I headed out of the water and up toward the road where the mosquitoes were less active. Even standing there was out of the question mosquito-wise, however, so I took off walking. I hated to think what I must look like - dressed only in my swimsuit, white thighs highlighted against my bulky life jacket, aqua shoes accenting the fashion statement. I began to wonder if I should learn some kind of lesson from this - maybe I had been too presumptuous, too adventurous - maybe I shouldn’t be windsurfing at all. I guess I should stick to more traditional middle-aged pursuits. The thought depressed me.
I tried to follow the roads that hugged the shoreline as much as possible, but which shoreline to follow was sometimes a problem, and there were many dead end roads. It wasn’t easy to figure out where to go. I began to realize that Brad might have a really hard time finding me! In fact, he might not be able to find me at all!! There I was, miles from nowhere, walking along a gravel road surrounded by thick woods and mosquitoes, sopping wet, barely dressed, hoping to be found by someone who might never come. Thank God I wasn’t still sitting in the water! I figured I was probably ten miles from where we had put in, and although the lightning had ceased, it was raining, and high winds caused the trees overhead to creak and groan agonizingly.
I also figured it was time for plan 2, whatever that would be. It seemed apparent that I would have to hitchhike. There were not many cars, but every ten minutes or so one would go by, so it was worth a try. As embarrassing as it was for me to be walking there in that get-up, it was even more embarrassing for me to have to hitchhike. I stuck out my thumb. Before I realized I was on the wrong side of the road to be hitchhiking, a motorcycle came up behind me and offered me a ride. A big motorcycle, with a big guy on it, who remained bent over against the wind. As graciously as I knew how, I demurred, told him I’d changed my mind, thanks anyway, and kept walking, hoping he too would just keep going... and he did. By now the storm had intensified, the winds were gusting strong and rain was beating in torrents. I kept walking. The roads were empty. The rain turned to hail, and it was getting dark.
I figured I’d just have to walk the whole way back. The life preserver offered some warmth, and as long as I kept walking, I’d be okay. At least I was starting to get a sense of where I was, and after awhile I thought I recognized a bridge ahead, and a little longer and an old couple in an old couple-type car came across the bridge toward me, stopped and rolled down the window on my side. “Do you want a ride?” they asked. They looked about as benign as any couple you could wish for if you were in my position.
The problem was I was going in the opposite direction. “No trouble,” - they must have been married a long time because they both spoke in unison and smiled the same. And we were off, me tucked in the warmth of their velvety back seat, rain and hail churning around us on all sides, as darkness set in for good.
“How is it that you would offer me a ride,” I asked, and before they could answer, “...and just what caused you to be out on a night like this?” I was pretty sure it had something to do with angels.
“To answer your first question, we are Christians, and the Lord calls Christians to help people in need.” I had already guessed their answer to that question.
“And to answer your second question - why are we out on the road tonight? - the lightning put out the power in the restaurant where we were.”
“We had just ordered our food, and all of a sudden a big bolt of lightning lit up the sky, and then the power went out. We waited a while and it never came back on, so now we’re looking for a new place to eat.”
Wow.... There hadn’t been much lightning that evening, maybe just the few bolts that had prevented me from continuing my wait in the water. I was musing about that when I heard them say, “Yes, the Lord is always looking after His people.”
The old couple pulled in the where Brad’s car had been, beyond all my expectations, it was still there! Several hours had passed since my venture across the lake, and I wouldn’t have blamed Brad if he had just given up and gone home. He was there too! I got out and thanked the couple profusely. Brad ran up to the car. “Marya, where were you? We searched for hours. There’s no way we could find you. We called the police!”
The police? Suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore. I felt sick. The police were involved? I had given Brad so much trouble...and the old couple had to go out of their way...and now the police. I had been too irresponsible. It was time for me to give up windsurfing. Nobody should be making this much trouble for others. The police! What would I tell them?
Weakly, I responded, “You called the police?”
“Well, yes and no. We dialed their number, but while it was still ringing there was this huge crack of lightning, tremendous...and the phone went out. I took jeff home and came back here to try to figure out what to do.”
Two years later, the author is married to a fellow windsurfer. They bring a kayak with them just in case they need it to get back to shore. Marya and her husband, Kip, are headed to the Alps later this month for a two-week climbing trip.