Mayday (from the French m’aider, “help me”) is a literal far cry from the festive and buoyant shout outs of a May Day celebration, especially when repeated thrice. “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! is a dire call for help, the verbal equivalent of the Morse Code SOS.
The book, Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!, which I caught Ron reading recently, is Charles Coleman’s true account of his improbable survival in a remote reach of the Pacific Ocean. The experienced blue-water mariner set out on a solo sailing adventure from Pago Pago to Honolulu aboard the Haleakala, a 56-foot catamaran he had built as a seaworthy home. Stocked with at least twice the supplies for the month-long trip, and equipped with hundreds of charts and redundant safety gear, Coleman found himself floating amid sharks without even a life raft.
I happened upon this book when a colleague cleared out his office and left an autographed copy in a “free reads” collection. Like a stray cat, it followed me home. This story was so compelling that I read it in one sitting just to find out what happened. Then I read it again to absorb the impact. I harrowingly envision Coleman’s wife Ellie pleading with the Coast Guard to persevere when the initial search reported no survivors.
Although I’ve never been lost at sea, it reminded me of a couple of my own rescue stories. When I was about 10, my sister Eileen and I got caught in an undertow at Fairfield Beach. “Look,” we giggled to each other. Standing in waist-high water, we found it hilarious that although our feet were anchored in the sand, successive waves sucked us deeper and deeper into Long Island Sound. It was funny until we were literally in over our heads. We tried to swim to shore but couldn’t go anywhere. Eileen panicked—as she was wont to do. So did our mother, who watched in horror as her children drifted out to sea. The folks we were staying with dispatched a rowboat to fetch us, but the Coast Guard got there first. They tossed us a lifeline and tugged us to shore.
Then there was the rescue at Sleeping Giant State Park 20 years later. A trek in the woods with my friend Judi devolved into a six-hour ordeal. Experienced hikers, we planned to walk in for an hour then out on the legendary Blue Trail before meeting my boyfriend for dinner. As the sun descended behind the giant’s chin, heavy fall foliage hid the trail markers. We wandered for hours on rocky outcroppings searching for blue blazes. At one point, Judi attempted to bolster our sagging spirits by quipping, “If I had to be lost with anyone, I’m glad it’s you.” “Shut up,” I responded. I didn’t want to be lost, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be in charge. Instead, I took a deep breath and hollered for help. It was my own version of Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! In the days before digital communications, we took turns shouting into the unknown until darkness set in and our matches ran out. Our SOS distress calls were finally answered—by a Rottweiler. Max’s persistent barks were warmer than the meager fire we built. After an hour or so, his owner finally heard our side of the call-and-response. His call to the Hamden Fire and Rescue Team jibed with my boyfriend’s missing-person report. Max was like Ellie begging the rescuers to continue.
There were other adventures—climbing steep ascents and hugging the rock face of Chittenden Mountain above the tree line of Arapahoe Mountain, or traversing the abysses of Rollins Pass in the Colorado Rockies—that did not qualify as rescues. But as a result of them, I could relate to his one-word reaction to being plucked from the sea: Joy.
Coleman’s book is dedicated to Sadie, a calico cat, his sailing companion. When Ron read Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!, he wondered what happened to her. So did I. Coleman says upfront that you need to read the book to find out. Trying to explain it in a few words would do her injustice.