In the early morning hours of December 19, six days before Christmas, a makeshift raft washed up on the beach near my home. More specifically, the remnants of a homemade raft — large fiberglass cylinders, boards, and rope — made it to shore. My parents were walking the beach early that morning, and they saw the wreckage.
The fiberglass cylinders had the words “flotation device” printed on them. The boards had apparently been nailed across the top of the cylinders, and the whole thing was secured with rope. Given the size of the cylinders, my mom says, the raft was obviously built to carry several people.
The next day, the St. Augustine Police Department sent an email asking residents to look for, I guess, anyone resembling Tom Sawyer or Tom Hanks. Their description of the wreckage was sad: “There were a few pieces still partially lashed with a 100-yard debris trail.” The police lieutenant concluded, “. . . I can’t imagine there was anyone on the raft that safely made it to shore.”
The email didn’t give much more information. In fact, it raised more questions than it answered. One small article about the raft appeared in the local paper, and that, to me, is also sad. Surely those who built the raft and pushed away from shore left behind loved ones waiting to hear that they safely made landfall in Florida.
The police speculated that the raft hadn’t been in the water very long and had most likely floated up the Gulf Stream from the Bahamas. I wonder, though. Lashing together several “flotation devices” and trusting them to land you safely in a new life is essentially an act of desperation. It means that they were betting that the unknown was better than the unbearable. I’m not sure what’s so unbearable about Bimini. Then again, there are different definitions of desperation.
I can’t help wondering about the people who built this raft, then hopped aboard and pushed away from shore. What were they leaving behind? Where were they hoping to land?
Most likely, we’ll never know the answers. But I’ve come up with a few possibilities.
In his 2004 Skinny Dip, Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen has his protagonist, Joey Perrone, thrown over the side of a cruise ship by her cheating husband. She survives the fall and eventually washes up near Key Biscayne on a bale of marijuana. She keeps her survival a secret and spends the rest of the book haunting her husband.
Several packages of cocaine washed up on our beach a couple of months ago. The two cases are obviously not related, but I suppose there’s a possibility that the December rafters pushed off from the Bahamas with the intention of smuggling drugs into the States.
Speaking of smuggling, Huck Finn, Mark Twain’s youthful adventurer, spends a good portion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on a raft trying to help an escaped slave, Jim, reach a free state. Huck Finn says, “It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened. . . We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest” (19.5).
Perhaps these recent rafters weren’t so much desperate to leave their home as they were fallen stars who had been thrown out of their nest.
Then there’s the explanation that resonates the most with me, that the rafters survived some sort of wreckage, and they floated along on something that would hopefully hold until help arrived. Remember the movie Titanic, and how passengers and crew are depicted floating on wreckage from the ship? I don’t mean there was a literal shipwreck in December. But perhaps the people who made the raft were using the ruins of their former lives to transport them to a new one.
In a way, that’s how I arrived in St. Augustine. I was fleeing the heartbreak of a broken marriage and ruined dreams, and there were days when I didn’t know if I would survive. For a couple of years, every time I drove down here from Atlanta, I brought something — dishes, pictures, small pieces of furniture – with me in my car. Then I sold the house in Atlanta, keeping only the things that had the most meaning for me. I used my family and friends as flotation devices, found a way to lash together the remnants of my former life, and held on tight. Thankfully, I landed in a new life that makes me very happy.
In one way or another, I suppose, we all eventually wash up on some new shore. We’re all refugees in the sense that life often involves leaving something behind in search of what’s better. The difference between sinking or floating often depends upon the quality of our flotation devices. It’s about how well we build something out of our wreckage that can keep our heads above water until we land on solid ground.