Dawn was greying through the lashing rain and contending ocean swells. Everywhere around me, men were shouting, women screaming and children were crying confusedly. Anna, Matthew and I huddled with our mom, who was shoving items into a plastic 5-gallon bucket.
The Baruku's engine had died just as we reached Sikaina, a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific, sporting just one island the size of two football fields. Our ship had battled the biggest storm in decades all night, sputtering over towering waves, while the desperate sailors continuously poured engine oil into it, to keep it from seizing. Perhaps it was the prayers of the saints that kept the ship going all night, but it finally quit just on the ocean side of the island.
There was panic on deck. I looked over the side and saw the reef showing bright blue through the water, just yards from our ship's vulnerable hull. One wave could cast us against the rocks and we would be thrown at the mercy of the angry ocean. With the engine ominously silent, the pump was impotent against seawater seeping into the hull. We were taking on water at a continual rate. The Baruku had one life boat, with enough room for about 9 people. There were over 50 on board, half were women and children.
I couldn't see my dad or older brother, Nathan, anywhere. I think Nathan was helping with the life boat, and Dad was trying to get information from somebody about the status of our situation. Anna, Matthew and I scrambled to the highest part of the cargo hatch, watching Mom frantically decide what to shove into the bucket.
Just then, a solitary, brave canoe appeared through the waves. Its bright orange hull almost glowed against the gloom of rain and salt spray. Somehow, it made it over the dangerous breakers on the reef, and came up alongside our ship.
"We have room for 10!" the driver called. "Load up all the children!"
Before I knew what was happening, my dad had me in his strong arms, squeezing me tight and laying a kiss on my hair. "Danica, take care of your brother and sister," mom told me, looking deep into my eyes. I looked back at her uncomprehending. Then, I was being handed over the side of the ship into the fiberglass canoe. A seed of panic stirred in my chest. Anna and Matthew were passed down next to me, and sat on either side of me. Matthew, only 4 years old, clung to my wet shirt. I waited for my mother to join us, but more and more children, then two women came into the canoe. The driver said, "That's enough!" And we were pushed away from floundering ship.
Our canoe sat low in the water. We all clung together, leaning in towards the center to ballast it. Somehow, we stayed afloat over the crashing surf that was churned up by the reef, and were soon flying through relatively calmer swells towards the island. Rain and salt spray stung my face, and my wet hair whipped my cheeks. I had my head down over Matthew, and Anna clung to my other hand. I looked up for a second, and met the kind brown eyes of one of the two women who had escaped with us. I hated her in that moment, because she wasn't my mother. She said something to me in Polynesian which I didn't understand, but I looked away.
I thought about my mom, standing at the railing of the Baruku, her anxious face pale and drawn, shining like a beacon at me as I was carried away from her and the sinking ship.