From the time I turned eight, my family spent every spring and summer weekend aboard the boat. At first, it was the tired old thirty-two-foot Frisky, which was anchored a hundred yards off the beach where Commodore Park is now just west of the Ballard Locks. I still remember the family slipping and sliding down a steep, muddy embankment loaded with provisions for a weekend cruise. We took turns rowing out to the boat in the little eight-foot skiff that served as a dinghy. My father was fresh out of the Army in 1946 and had enough money to buy this well-used vessel, but he couldn’t yet afford the moorage. The Frisky was slow, powered by a crotchety Chrysler gasoline engine that sometimes belched fire and occasionally reeked of gasoline fumes. Dad smoked cigars and was paranoid that the Frisky would explode, catch fire and kill us all. He often said that the next Frisky would be diesel powered. I didn’t worry about stuff like that. All I cared about was if the dinghy was lashed to the roof so I could use it when we got to our destination.
One of the scariest moments of my young life occurred in Mutiny Bay on Whidby Island when I was ten. Dad put a little money together and purchased a small three horsepower Evinrude outboard for the boat. Late one afternoon, he sent me off to catch some fish for dinner. I took the skiff and headed up to the point where the Mutiny Bay’s boat boy told me the fish were hitting. He was right. I was on a big school of silver salmon moving slowly north. Within two hours, I had three fifteen-pound fish in the boat. I didn’t have any ice, and it would be a while before I returned to the Frisky, so I ran a line through their gills, wrapped the other end onto a cleat and tossed them overboard and let them flop against the skiff in the fifty-degree water as I continued to fish. They would keep just fine until I got back to the boat. Before I knew it, the sun dropped below the horizon. When I realized I was alone, in the dark and at least three miles from the Frisky; I got scared, pulled in my line, turned the boat around and headed back towards the Mutiny Bay.
The Evinrude was pushing me along at about three knots and kicking up a fluorescent trail of exhaust bubbles as it stirred up the microorganism in the water. It was eerie and added another level of stress to my growing fear that something bad was going to happen. I could make out the lights of Mutiny Bay when I was about halfway back to the safety of the Frisky, and I started to relax, another half-hour and I would be safe aboard. What could possibly go wrong? There was plenty of fuel, the sea was dead calm, and there was no wind.
At first, I heard a low splashing sound, but couldn’t see anything in my forward and side field of vision. There was a loud noise like somebody was clapping, and it was coming from the stern. I spun around and saw a ten-foot ring of fluorescent bubbles dissipating twenty yards behind me, then another ring and another and whatever it was seemed to be following me. I instantly knew I was in trouble. At first, I couldn’t make out what it was, but it was apparently larger than my skiff, and I was terrified. I thought, What is it? Does it want to eat me? I’m only ten and not much of a meal. How can I defend myself? I grabbed one of the oars and prepared to do battle. Now there were two of them, one coming up on the port side and the other on my starboard. As they closed in, I got a good look at the big one. It was a huge manta or stingray with at least a fifteen-foot wingspan. I had never actually seen one before, but knew what it was and how powerful it was. I wasn’t going down without a fight. As I uttered a quick prayer, I felt an adrenaline rush and a trickle of pee running down my leg. Suddenly the two rays leaped out of the water simultaneously and splashed back down into a sea of fluorescent bubbles, within a foot of the boat. I thought, The bastards want to size me up before they swallow me. They dove deep, came up again a few feet off the bow, slapped the water, and as abruptly as they appeared, they were gone.