She Tells Sea Tales: A Survivor's Story
I first read a version of this story at She Tells Sea Tales, an annual night of storytelling at the Northwest Maritime Center.
A Woman’s Story of Survival at Sea
by Bonnie Obremski
In the mid 80s, a family moved to Port Townsend,Washington. The father and mother had four sons. The eldest lived in Portland, Oregon. The younger ones were about ages nine, six and four.
The family had a sailboat. That boat had a 50-foot long fiberglass hull painted empress blue. The father had constructed the vessel in a patch of woods over the course of 12 years. The family wanted to sail it around the world.
The family stopped in Port Townsend because they needed sails. For a time, the family stayed and worked. They rented the house next to the library. About one year later, all but the eldest son cast lines from Point Hudson and the family headed south.
It was hard going. In Mexico, the family shipwrecked in a williwaw while anchored close to land. The boys surfed cushions to shore, where textbooks and toys, covered in diesel, washed up on the beach.
Adrift on Land
The boys enrolled in a fishing village school. The middle one, who I’ll call David, often escaped to sell tamales or repair outboard engines or “play house” with a local girl. The adults attempted to corral him. But, he would not be tamed.
The mother had known since David was born that he would need things she could not provide. She hired a psychologist to visit their home and evaluate him when he was a toddler. The report was inconclusive. Still, something worried her. Authority figures failed to impress David. Boundaries could not enclose him. The mother searched for a couple who could adopt him and devote their entire attention to his needs. In the end, however, she could not give up her son.
The mother found release in profanity ever since a convent ousted her as a young woman. So, she called her boy by obscene names to cope.
The family repaired their sailboat, and continued through the Panama Canal. Their voyage ended when they reached Key West. By then, David was a pre-teen who could not read. The mother sent him to a school in upstate New York where, at last, he learned.
David returned to Key West for high school. He earned his captain’s license at 16 and became a sole proprietor, chartering the family sailboat. He delved into a relationship with a girl even younger than himself. They lived on the boat and plied the seas for years.
The mother contracted cancer as David came of age. Then, David’s girlfriend nearly died when she suffered a staph infection during a mishap off the coast of Maine. His girlfriend left him after a long recovery. Cast adrift by it all, David, at age 22, applied to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. That is where we met.
I could not have a had a more opposite upbringing. I grew up in Massachusetts, in a suburb about an hour’s drive southwest of Boston, along with my twin sister. My mother managed us and our home during most of our early years and my father worked in an office. My sister and I were rule followers and straight-A students. The only real strangeness emerged as I entered my teenage years. The more freedoms my peers gained, the fewer my parents seemed to allow my sister and me. So, I focused on my martial arts training, I worked in a law firm, read classics and played guitar.
My mother recommended I attend Hampshire College. At first, I recoiled at its rural setting. No, I said, I would study filmmaking in a city. But, Hampshire, with its lack of grades and disregard for standardized test scores, seemed enthusiastic about my creativity, curiosity, sense of humor and the $40,000 a year in tuition, which my father paid.
So, I went to the center of the state known as the Happy Valley. I could not have been more ready for friends and freedom and to embark on the adventures my heart ached for my entire childhood. And yet I was so trained to be directed by authority figures.
David, at 22, was already balding and often mistaken for a professor. He even pretended he was a professor on his first day of physics class, when the other students quieted down as he entered the room. In true Hampshire style, the real professor sat down in the back to see how it would all play out as David wrote his name on the chalkboard and told everyone to open their textbooks.
David often held court at the dining hall with tales of adventure on the high seas. I never thought someone as aged and worldly as David would ever think of me in a romantic way.
I graduated early with a degree in journalism after founding a student-run outdoor-adventure travel magazine. I lost track of David. But I heard his academic career fizzled a semester or two before graduation amid disagreements with administrators and professors.
An Unexpected Visitor
I spent the next three years teaching tourists to ice climb in Alaska, living in Argentina, WWOOFing in Spain and working as a daily newspaper reporter in the Berkshire Mountains. It was in the Berkshires I grew shaky on the rails. As a writer, I’d never felt stronger. But, I would sit in the newsroom at midnight beneath a portrait of Danny Pearl, the reporter who launched his career there, before terrorists beheaded him. And I would be finished with my work but unable to go home and face my loneliness.
I began exercising constantly, eating rarely. One night, my landlord snuck into my room, pulled down my covers and touched me while I laid paralyzed with terror. I applied for other jobs, but newspapers were dying not hiring. I quit the job I had anyway. I set my sights on the West Coast, where I planned to convince my former editor from my Los Angeles Times internship to hire me. That’s when I got a call from David who happened to be in town.
I was overjoyed to see someone from the old days. That evening, I offered him the guest bedroom. That’s when I realized he felt our visit had been a romantic one. I told David it was a vulnerable time, and I did not want that. What transpired would now come with the hashtag MeToo. My martial arts training prepared me to defend myself from strangers in dark alleyways, not friends in my own home.
In the morning however, David offered me something I really wanted: The promise of adventure. He asked me to work as crew on a boat delivery from Saint Maarten to Key West. I told him I would, but truly as a friend this time. The trip was magical and a month later, David proposed and I said, “sure.” It was a strange moment where I don’t think either one of us could be certain what had just happened. But, a few weeks passed and a ring made the engagement official.
I figured marriage wasn’t about something as fleeting as love, whatever that was. It was about teaming with someone who made a good partner. David’s confidence was intoxicating and he seemed as committed to a life of adventure as I was. At that time, I had no idea what the cost of those adventures would be.
Not a liar
As the months, and then years unfolded we traveled thousands of miles, by land and by sea. But, just like that first night, I made concessions. It happened every single day. And, in the blink of an eye, I found myself in a hole I believed I could never surface from.
It started with things like name calling. He would call me Turkey Toes. I said I didn’t like that. He told me it’s OK, it’s just a fun thing. But then Turkey Toes turned to moron, turned to retard, turned to cunt. I begged him to consider calling me a bitch instead of cunt. David said he could not promise me that. He said if he called me a cunt in the future after promising he wouldn’t, that would mean his promise had been a lie. And he was not a liar. What his mother had seen in her little boy, lived in this man who knew no boundaries, nor authority other than his own. The same traits that buoyed his life of adventure, anchored him in darkness.
In the final months of my twenties, I had been with David nearly five years. We lived in Key West in an Airstream behind Schooner Wharf. His father had invested a half-million to buy and restore an 80-foot historic, wooden schooner. David led the restoration. I worked under his direction in the yard by day, and as a waitress by night. I was the managing partner of the charter business. I handled paperwork, built a website, set up a ticketing system, ordered provisions and merchandise. David told me I was the laziest person he knew. I laughed because I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. I carried on, wondering how my body could live without a soul. As he asked me to perform what he half-jokingly called my “wifely duties,” I fantasized about tumbling off a ladder in the yard just so I could tell him how much I despised him with my dying breath. But, consenting was better than facing his temper. Around that time I asked David how he felt about our lives.
He replied, “content.”
The charter business had been up and running about three months when disaster struck. Death came very close. Not by tumbling off a ladder, but by the shattering of our main mast as we approached the harbor after a daysail with a boat full of passengers. I remember the vessel shuddered as if we had run aground. But, that was probably the recoil of our spring stay as it snapped from the broken cast-iron mast collar tang. In a matter of seconds, the imbalanced strain on the wooden spar caused it to splinter into four chunks. I froze as the enormous pieces fell like a crumbling skyscraper. Wood, wire and sail covered the port after quarter of the deck. I knew in my heart underneath the wreckage lay the crushed bodies of my passengers, some of them good friends.
Then, one by one, they emerged, intact. They had all dodged death by the measure of an inch.
Days later, I flew to a Tall Ships America conference in Erie, Pennsylvania. We had signed tens of thousands of dollars worth of festival contracts with ports throughout the Great Lakes and I needed to convince them we would repair our wrecked ship in time to sail north. I walked on shaky legs, unable to eat, crying frequently, but slowly, I awakened within a community of sailors I never knew existed. David had become the single occupant in my world but then he was thousands of miles away. One night, lying in a hotel room strewn with my new girlfriends I felt a shudder and a snap inside my own body. But, instead of causing pain, it spread relief, a white light radiating from my heart to my fingertips. I knew that the stay that tethered me to my marriage, was broken.
When I got home, David burst through the door of the Airstream as I walked toward it, bounded up to me with an enormous grin and wrapped me in a hug that lifted me from the ground. We entered the motorhome, where a friend sat at the dinette. I asked for privacy. David and I sat down across from one another.
“I want a divorce,” I told him.
If I left, he said, he would be dead by morning.
But, I did leave. David lived, and rebuilt, attended the festival, and his father bought yet another schooner.
When I left David, I owned some sun-bleached clothing and a car destined for the scrapyard. I was penniless, homeless, jobless. But I was free. After living in constant fear of my partner’s rage for most of my 20s, freedom felt like every ray of sunlight, every breath of air was a gift created solely for my enjoyment.
My parents greeted me with the want ads—a circle drawn around “janitor.” A few weeks later, an administrator of an educational vessel I’d met at the Tall Ships America conference called. He recruited me for the position of shipboard director aboard a 255-foot full rigged ship for the summer. Within days, I was on the docks of Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. I had the best summer of my life.
One year and two more ships later, I knew it was time to take the next step in my journey to rebuild. Luckily, I met someone who still teaches me what love is every day, who refused to give me any advice other than to trust an instinct I had to visit my sister, who had just moved to Seattle. I went and that’s when a long, lost friend from college invited me to see her in Port Townsend, a place I had heard of, but never been.
As I wandered through town, I saw the ghosts of dreams David’s family left here long ago. My imagination pulled a six-year-old David with a full head of strawberry blonde hair into existence as I walked past the house next to the library and he ran from the porch, and down the steps. In the bay, I summoned a boat with a hull painted empress blue with white, new sails headed for the strait, and I let it carry him away. I looked up and saw a sign. “Hasse & Company Port Townsend Sails.” And so I took off my shoes. I climbed the stairs. I asked the kind woman in the office if she needed another sailmaker. And she did.
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