I live south of Houston, by the waters of Clear Lake. Not far away, across the lake and the Johnson Space Center, lies Ellington Field, where Coast Guard Search and Rescue helicopters are based. During the winter months, when fronts roll through and weather can deteriorate quickly, they fly occasional missions to assist fishermen, recreational boaters or even vessels in the Houston Ship Channel. As spring and summer approach and overconfident or inexperienced boaters take to the water, their ability to fly at a moment’s notice also serves the community well.
If you live or work around the water, it’s easy to tell when SAR operations are taking place. Normal flight paths are replaced by repetitive, precise, incremental movements designed for maximum effectiveness in finding people or watercraft. No radio broadcast or television bulletin is needed. The presence of the helicopters is enough to induce a vague sense of unease, an urge to look up, to scan the horizon, and to wonder: whose turn is it this time?
This time, it was the Cynthia Woods’ turn. I never heard the helicopters and I didn’t know for hours that a cutter had been dispatched. Nonetheless, they were searching, fueled by the hopes and prayers of an entire community. As the rest of the Regata de Amigos fleet sailed on to Veracruz, the Coast Guard found the capsized Cynthia Woods and five of her six crew members. The first hero of the story, Roger Stone, had perished inside the boat. The second hero, the Coast Guard itself, completed the task he had begun, and returned the other men to their families.
The disappearance of someone on the water holds a special kind of horror, but lakes, rivers and seas are not the only empty places in our world. Absences of every sort abound. Empty hours pile up, dreams disappear, family or friends grow cold, and the heart begins to search: for reasons, for signs of hope for survival, for an end to anxiety. As a community begins to come to terms with the loss of one of its own, I offer this: in memory of Roger Stone, and for all searchers in the world’s empty places.