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Daniel Barnekow


A Harrowing Tale of the Sea

Being a true account of the late events


I.      A Sleepover, and a Rechristening

Call me Mr. Dan.

Some days ago—never mind how long precisely—I invited our six-year-old friend, Connor, to spend the night with us, here, in Wells Branch. Connor, my wife, Cynthia, and I made pizza for dinner, played trains and Legos, fought the bedtime battle, and, in all, had a fine evening.

Nothing portended the events of the morrow.

That day dawned cold and clear. Connor awoke early.

“It’s morning!” he yelled, his beaming face about three feet away from my sleeping one.

“Let’s run the boat, Mr. Dan!” he yelled, his beaming face about one foot away from my startled one.

“The boat” is a toy boat that had fascinated Connor since he first saw it. The 50-year-old plastic cutter has beautiful lines and a brawny electric motor (powered by two D batteries). Tiny figurines man her decks: a crew and good captain well seasoned. Her gun rotates and elevates. Although she is free running (not radio controlled), she has the quality irresistible to any right-thinking boy who views a toy boat: it really goes in the water.

The Kikanic in dry dock. This good ship and true was a bone to be chewed. Banana for scale.

“Let’s say it’s the Kikanic!” Connor had demanded the night before, rechristening the vessel after the only ship he knew, sort of, by name.

Old sailors know it’s bad luck to rename a ship. But I had never heard of any harm befalling the original Kikanic, and so I agreed.


II. In Which the Boat is Launched

After coffee (for Cindy and me) and Corn Pops (for Connor), we set off overland for “the ocean,” as Connor called what the locals know as Mills Pond. Connor had the honor of carrying the ill-starred vessel. I carried the traditional tool of seafarers everywhere: Scotch tape, to hold the boat motor’s aging switch in the “on” position.

We arrived safely, the Kikanic intact, clean and bright in the morning sun. The launch point was Port Meditation Garden. As we gazed across the water, we noted how calm its surface was. Such calmness seemed preternatural, to me, and I felt a sense of foreboding. Still, there was no discernible reason to delay the departure, and I shared my feeling with no one.

We reviewed the standard procedure for launch, perfected over thousands of years by seafaring cultures: turn the motor on, tape the switch down, put the boat in the water, and watch it go. Connor, although eager for the launch, elected, at the last moment, to use two pieces of tape, instead of one. Later, after the events of the day, we would wonder at his decision.

Connor and Mr. Dan. Connor can be seen affixing two pieces of tape to the motor switch. His decision to do so would determine the fate of the ship.

Success! The Kikanic was up to speed in a moment, cutting a fine wake through the smooth water. A slight starboard rudder setting headed her to the south, in arcing trips, and returned her safely to the muddy shore, to be relaunched, over and over. Several safe runs gave us wet shoes from the shoreline retrieval but confidence for each next trip.

The moment of launch from Port Meditation Garden. Note the tree limbs dipping into the water in the background. They would loom large in the ship’s future.

III. A Turn to Port, and Danger

“Make it go to the middle!” Connor insisted for the next run. I adjusted the rudder to the center, aiming for a straight run across the sea to a far port. However, soon after launch, the Kikanic turned, ever so slightly, to port. She steamed north.

But why? The mystery of the left turn has puzzled historians for minutes.

Did I, eager to comply with Connor’s wishes, act in haste, and set the rudder wrong, much as the captain of the Titanic felt pressured to make good time?

Was there a sudden shift in the wind?

Or did the boat, as some have suggested in hushed tones, encounter Millsie, the legendary monster of Mills Pond, causing a panicked captain to make an emergency change in course? Lacking radio communication with Kikanic, there was no way to know.

Whatever the reason, the boat continued to curve left. She cut a graceful long, shallow turn, creating a beautiful wake. Previous runs had headed right, to the muddy but safe coastline south of Port Meditation Garden. Now, Kikanic headed to the north—and into harm’s way.

For here the branches from trees overhung the water, dipping claw-like limbs just onto and below its surface. Woe unto the unwary navigator whom they caught. Yet, before our eyes, the Kikanic headed straight for them! From shore, we watched in hopeless horror. Odysseus faced Charybdis and Scylla. The intrepid little men of the Kikanic faced the wild, unfettered growth of the Trees for Trails campaign.

I can never be sure, but to this day I swear I heard at that moment a tiny, urgent voice cry, “Tree branches, right ahead!”

The warning proved too late! In a moment, the fears of we ashore materialized. Kikanic, her motor howling at full throttle, hit the branches straight on. She was stopped dead, ensnared, full fathom three from shore. Her mighty engine (powered by two D batteries) continued to spin the propeller, which boiled the water astern, yet she lacked the power to push through the branches.

The Kikanic, and her tiny crew, were stuck fast.

The Kikanic ensnared by the tree. This is the only known photo of the ship in her peril.

IV. All Is Lost

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?

We would all say that she would have made it to the bay if she put 15 more feet behind her.

Without radio contact, or control, Kikanic’s fate was clear: eventually her two D batteries would die, her motor would fall silent, and her futile push against the branches would stop. Powerless, she would be adrift in Mills Pond, easy prey for Millsie or southern pirates from Scofield Farms.

We exchanged sorrowful looks, frustrated by our inability to help the men of the Kikanic, so close and yet so out of reach.

Yet what must the tiny men aboard the Kikanic have felt?

There was a great deal of rage in them. Perchance they might be formulated thus: "If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men's fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble. The whole affair is absurd. . . . But, no, she cannot mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work." Afterward the tiny captain might have had an impulse to shake his fist at the clouds: "Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!"

Still, were not these but vainglorious cries? For how could they be saved? It seemed certain that the little men of the Kikanic had little help for a fate other than Davy Jones’ locker in water of nearly half a fathom deep, food for the fishes (restocked annually by the Texas Parks and Wildlife under agreement with the Wells Branch MUD Board).

Still, hope springs eternal in the human breast. There was brief talk of an air rescue. The sobering reality, though, we knew: every drone launched in Wells Branch seems to get blown away, never to be seen again.

Nature, cold to the cries of Man, kept dancing. The Earth spun and the sun rose ever higher as the chances for the tiny men aboard the Kikanic sank ever lower.

The men of the Kikanic in happier times. A crew and good captain well seasoned.

V. Hope

But then, a voice. A loud, powerful, authoritative voice. It was Connor, six-year-old-boy lungs bellowing above the sound of the wind and the waves and the howling the two-D-battery powered motor.

“Hold on! We will rescue you!”

Connor’s words galvanized us into action. Who among us has a heart that cold? We had to try something! Perhaps throwing things into the water, a kind of sacrifice to Poseidon, would create ripples that would free the Kikanic from the grips of the menacing trees. Connor scoured the ground for projectiles. Rocks were thrown, and “tree skin” (bark), and sticks. They landed close to the trapped vessel, and closer still, and she was rocked by the waves that were created. But they were no match for the powerful thrust of her motor (powered by two D batteries).

Connor and I raced home and returned with a length of rope and a pole. The pole was too short to help in any way, but the rope might do the trick.

We were running out of time.

A desperate attempt at rescue: a pole and a tangle of rope. The strain of the ordeal is clear on Connor’s face.

VI. A Lifeline, and the Power of Man

By the time I returned to the shore, a crowd had gathered. Drawn by the commotion, all offered to help. One little girl sacrificed her water bottle to serve as a weight on the end of the rope. Another neighbor sped to her house to get scissors should cutting be necessary.

A length of rope was thrown toward the Kikanic, a lifeline. The line sailed beautifully through the air, under the tree branches and landed alongside the stricken vessel. Jubilation! A moment later, the other end of the rope also flew through the air and landed in the water. In our haste, we had neglected to secure it to land.

The lifeline plan thwarted, we decided to attack the monster herself: the tree branches. Using a second line, cut by the aforesaid scissors and weighted by the aforesaid water bottle, we tossed it into the tree above Kikanic's position. The branches, as is their nature, grabbed hold of the bottle, and thus the attached line. To the monster, this must have felt like a victory—but only for a moment.

“Heave, ho! Heave, ho!” Acting as one, Connor, Cindy, myself, and the gathering neighbors pulled on the tree limbs. In a moment we saw our plan had promise. The limbs moved, and with them Kikanic! Some deft pulls, tension on the line, a release: we manipulated the tree branches, and thereby the boat! She moved, inches, and feet across the water. In a moment, she would be free!

As we pulled on the line, and increased its tension, the tree seemed to pull back. Glancing up, the tree seemed like a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to me, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.

And so the branches played to and fro, not because they cared, but because they didn’t. So when the horrible moment came—when our manipulation of the tree branches pushed the little boat too far, too fast, and she lay on her side, and then capsized, and we saw and heard her propeller spinning crazily and pointlessly in the sun, and she filled with water, and her bow thrust upward, and her stern sunk beneath the waves— we knew the fault was not in the power Nature, but in the power of Man.

“Heave, ho! Heave, ho!” Connor anchors the rescue line. Neighbors had gathered to help. The girl on the right sacrificed her water bottle in hopes of rescuing the crew of the Kikanic.

VII. A Demand, and to Hurry

The Kikanic was not sunk. Impossibly, an inch of her bow poked out of the water, straight up toward heaven. Weirdly, the bow rotated, as if a sea god spun her from below.

“The propeller is keeping her up!” It was Connor again at his usual full volume. I, wiser in years and knowing the way of boats, knew that this could not be true.

As the adults resigned themselves to the inevitable moment the bow would slip below the waves—the sinking was obviously imminent—the six-year-old would not be dissuaded. “We need to use a real boat to rescue them!” Connor demanded.

In fact, a real boat was available. In my garage was stowed an inflatable kayak. We had to try. I called to Cindy to phone my neighbor to meet me at the garage. Connor and I headed home. “Hurry!” he yelled.

We did.

Connor issues final instructions to Mr. Dan before the real boat rescue attempt. The bow of the stricken Kikanic can be seen in the distance (circled in red). A neighbor tracked its location.

VIII. A Real Boat is Launched

It was minutes, but it felt like hours, before the boat was inflated, loaded into the back of my pickup truck, and driven down to the ocean, me at the wheel and Connor in the jump seat.

We leapt out, and Connor screamed to Cindy, far down by shore. “Is it still floating?”

I, wiser in years and knowing the way of boats, knew the answer would be “no.”

“Yes!” came Cindy’s bright reply!

For the first time since the boat overturned, I felt a real spark of hope. The kayak inverted on my shoulders, I hastened to the shore, threw it in the water, jumped in, and paddled furiously to the last known location of the struggling Kikanic.

She was nowhere to be seen. The site of the tragedy was clear: two ropes half afloat, tangled in branches, the water-bottle anchor still lodged in the tree—the ugly aftermath of a tragedy. But no Kikanic.

I glanced out to sea. Could it be? In a moment, I knew it could be nothing else. There was the bow, sticking up and spinning, yet far out toward the middle of the watery desert. How could this be? It could not have drifted so far in the time I was gone. Yet it must be true.

I paddled furiously toward the little plastic bit of bow poking out of the water. Stroke, stroke, stroke! I pulled alongside. Fearing I had not a moment to lose—and that we had already cheated fate—I reached out and grabbed the bow and pulled up before the kayak’s momentum slowed.

A torrent of water fell from the Kikanic as I held her above the water. The splashing noises it made as it hit the surface of the pond were immediately harmonized by another sound: the motor, powered by two D batteries, was still running!

It was clear now. The spinning propeller had provided the vertical thrust to keep the bow in the air. Connor had been proven right: “The propeller was keeping her up!” This also accounted for the weird spin of the bow, and the impossibly rapid drift. I removed the tape—both pieces—that was keeping the motor switch in the on position just as the water finished draining from the hull. I switched the motor off.

There was a moment of silence.

Then, a new sound. The people on shore were cheering. The loudest of all was Connor.

The moment of rescue.

IX. Ashore

I returned to shore, turned Kikanic over to loving hands, and took Connor aboard the kayak as a passenger. We headed to the scene of the disaster and gathered the ropes and water bottle. A quick paddle brought us back to Port Meditation Garden. From there, it was but a short trip home.

Connor triumphant. The ladies love a hero.

X. Epilogue, and an Observation

The drama's done.

Lunch was leftover pizza. As Connor chewed, his face beaming, he looked me in the eye.

“We had a real adventure, Mr. Dan. A real one.”

Aye, Connor. Aye.


Mills Pond is a real place. It exists within another real place, Wells Branch, Texas. All of the folks you are about to read about? Real too.

This is a true tale of one little boy—and his tiny men—against the power of Mother Nature.

T R U E  A D V E N T U R E