Excerpt from Riding the Reef. The following is from a letter written by Bert Voortmeyer to Eleanor Maker, 24 February 1936, Wake Island.
We’ve had several days of bad weather but today was exceedingly tough – waves breaking high over the unloading barge. Last night, the terrific pounding of the surf smashed the unloading barge against the small pier we constructed and tore it to pieces. It took almost all day to repair the damage. Meanwhile, the barge, fully loaded, lay at anchor, about 200 yards offshore.
The day was clear and hot, but the huge swells – the aftermath of a storm – came sweeping inshore – twenty feet high.
All morning, while waiting to unload the barge, we swam and did some fishing in the crystal clear waters, until two sharks made us a visit. We caught one and chased the other away. All this time, I was laughing and getting a real healthy kick out of life.
About three in the afternoon, they called us in. We went, contacted the unloading barge and started to unload, while the barge heaves and tosses about.
All unloading must be done by hand. It’s a dangerous business, but a lot of fun. One crate went into the drink. I went after it, into the broiling surf and dragged it ashore. Was told ‘nice work.’
Ten minutes later, the left line securing the barge parted after a terrific surge. We were all holding on, but when we saw the line snap, I jumped on the unloading barge to try and secure her again, when the next surge threw me between the two plunging barges. All I could see as I hit the water was those two barges coming together – tons. If I was caught between them I would be crushed – like a piece of cheese.
Ellie, I admit I was plenty scared, but as I hit the water, I dove straight for the bottom, praying. The fellows said my feet just cleared as the barges struck.
I arched up. All I could see was the two black hulls above me, and the rays of sunlight on either side, penetrating deep into the water. When I hit the surface, the undertow caught me and I started seaward, but managed to grab the end of the barge. The fellows helped me aboard and all started talking.
But McKenzie – the big shot – grabbed me and walked me down the beach, telling me what a lousy guy I was. He told me plenty – telling me to stop acting like a damn kid and grow up. Told me to quit jumping around and to try and stay in one place for one minute.
Honey, that man made me feel so low. I know I could very easily have crawled into one of those little conch shells lying on the beach. It’s all over now, but I feel so awfully lost and alone now. I have no excuses to make. I realize that I am damn lucky to be alive now.