Beached!

ST SIMONS ISLAND, GEORGIA: Sometimes I don’t even have to go looking for a column. If I’m lucky, one falls right into my lap.

Such was the case when the ever-changing ocean tides swept an alligator onto the stretch of beach where I was taking a late afternoon stroll. Apparently, this is not all that unusual on an island covered in large part by brackish marshes. The gators get disoriented and end up in the wrong body of water. This fellow wasn’t big—only about four feet long—and he never actually crawled out onto the sand. He just treaded water in the shallow surf while onlookers gathered to gawk.

After doing some gawking myself, I wandered home and was relaxing in the porch swing when an unusual-looking boat stopped right in front of my rental cottage. It was about forty feet long and more barge than boat. A tall metal post with lots of chains and pulleys and wenches took up most of the stern.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Could that be the wildlife rescue crew?”

I grabbed my trusty binoculars to get a better look. But I’m not good with binoculars. Maybe because I wear monovision contact lenses, designed to let me see distances out my left eye and read with my right. Or maybe because I can’t figure out whether to twist both the little focus knobs on the binocs at the same time or do them individually. At any rate, I wasn’t able to make out exactly what the guys on the boat were doing, but I could read 912-270-DOCK painted on its side. After a while, I became convinced that it had nothing to do with relocating a wayward alligator.

Darkness fell but the boat remained, emitting a loud, constant and monotonous drone. Which, as it turned out, went on all night long. When I awoke the next morning, the boat was still there.

Onlookers—some of them the same folks who had swarmed the alligator—gathered to take pictures and ask questions. I eavesdropped long enough to learn that the vessel was a dock-building boat and to hear a heavyset, profusely sweating man who seemed to be in charge say, “We just got stranded.” But another guy, one who was lugging several red plastic gasoline cans from a truck to the boat told, the whole story: “We ran out of gas. Then we got beached.”

A-ha. For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

There was nothing to do but fill the gas tank and wait for the tide to come in. Most of the onlookers, including me, grew bored and wandered off. But I kept an eye on the rising ocean. Official high tide was at 2:27 p.m. About noon, a cute little yellow-and-black towboat arrived. The driver hooked a long rope from his boat onto the barge’s bow.

At 1:00, the tide had risen to where waves lapped against the hull of the beached barge. With every surge that followed, hopes rose that the barge would soon float. At 1:57, exactly thirty minutes before high tide, it finally did. The towboat driver drew the rope taut and headed out toward the channel. The barge slipped off the sand into the surf. Its motor, now supplied with plenty of gas, cranked on the second try. And off it chugged, with no spectators except me and the pelicans to celebrate.

As to what happened to the alligator, that’s anybody’s guess. Which makes me a little nervous every time I go for a swim.

(June 1, 2014)

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