November 20th, 2016:

MEDITERRANEAN MOONLIGHT MADNESS – PART 2

A Mediterranean boat trip takes guts and imagination, especially on a winter night in a makeshift boat never tested before: just ask Art Arrowsmith and Eric Norby, who tried this escapade in the 1950s. These students of Wheelus Air Force Base High School in Tripoli, Libya, were determined to complete their proposed 15-mile boating adventure from Wheelus to Georgimpopoli—despite the cold February night, the howling wind and icy water, their lack of experience, and Eric’s very limited swimming skills.

A Libyan Dhow would have been a reasonable choice.

A Libyan Dhow would have been a reasonable choice.

This photo above depicts some fellow Wheelus High students on a Libyan Dhow at a beach party I gave about 1957.
Nevertheless, Art and Eric had managed to push their makeshift catamaran, crafted partially from an F-86 airplane fuel tank by Air Force airmen, into the ocean. They were headed toward a reef and then planned to sail west. Here’s the rest of the story in Art’s words:

As we approached the reef we came out of the shelter provided by the cove we were in. The wind increased, screaming in our ears and whipping up the crashing white water. Stinging foam sprayed our faces, burning our eyes. Crosscurrents caused by the swirling waters hurled from the breakers as they crashed over the reef and made it nearly impossible to steer. The closer we got to the reef, the higher the waves grew. Soon they were high enough to breach the gunwale of the boat. We were desperate to keep the craft pointed into the frothing waves, which worked for a few minutes with both of us paddling, but when we began taking on water, with no bailing tools, our fate was sealed. We had to turn back.

As the bow of the boat turned away from the breakers and we became broadside to their foaming fury, icy water streamed into the boat, rapidly filling it. We had barely completed our turn and headed to the beach, 70 yards away, when the boat sank. Eric clung to one of the 50 gallon barrels. As soon as the boat sank, my dad’s flight jacket filled with very cold water. My arms moved like I was swimming in a vat of syrup as I treaded water and worked on taking off my jacket.

I shouted over the wind to Eric that I would come to get him and felt confident that I could get us back to the beach. Over the years my dad had insisted all the children in our family take swimming lessons at the YMCA or at the base pool. Life-saving lessons were always a part of these courses. My real concern, however, was whether I had the stamina to rescue us both. Fortunately, I was very familiar with the cove we were in, and was able to estimate the depth of the water. I yelled at Eric to hold his breath and dog paddle, which he knew how to do, while I tried to touch the bottom. My plan was to drop feet first to the sandy bottom and push off in the direction of the beach, snagging Eric as I went. I trusted the moon would give enough light under water for me to see his form above me. Meanwhile, he would be dog paddling. And it worked!

It was past midnight when the shivering teens snuck into Art’s house. Luckily for the adventurers, Art’s mother had a good sense of humor when she discovered what they’d done the next morning. She was grateful the boys were safe, and Art’s father, who was on a trip at the time, never asked what had happened to his flight jacket. Art concluded that he and Eric had learned some serious lessons about the fragility of life, the weight of responsibility and the strength of teamwork.

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