The passenger list included two of my three sisters and four of my closest friends. We were returning from a trade show in New York City in 2003. It was late. We were almost home.

We had stopped at a New Hampshire rest area to change drivers and use the facilities. It was the last leg of a biannual work trip. The rest area was under construction, and except for a few lights directed at the temporary porta-potties, it was completely dark.

In the commotion created by seven very tired, very giddy women getting in and out of the van, I made the near-fatal mistake of leaving the rest area from the wrong side.

I remember an explosion of laughter about something funny someone said. I remember my name being screamed from the back of the van. I remember a horn. I remember seeing the lights of a tractor-trailer pointed directly at me.

With nowhere to turn, the driver of the tractor-trailer slowed down as well as he could while I backed our rented 15-passenger van out of danger. Luck? Timing? Call it what you need to – we drove away without a scratch.


On a summer day in 2000, my friend and I drove her boat from its mooring at Willard Beach in South Portland to the back side of Long Island in Casco Bay. Shark Cove on Long Island – or Singing Sands Beach, as some people call it – is one of the great small beaches of Maine. The water is crystal clear and just a smidge colder and deeper than it is at most Maine beaches.

Technically, it’s a private beach; getting kicked off is part of the adventure.

This was not a new voyage for us. We had made this trip in my friend’s 14-foot, 25-horsepower boat, called “Rocket,” many times. This time, however, we took my 3-year-old daughter.

Now, before you start yelling at me, we had checked and rechecked the weather. The boat was fully equipped with life jackets, and we had supplies: Snacks, check. Extra gas, check. Quart of oil, check. Sunscreen, check. Extra clothes, check. Pacifiers, check. We were three girls on a three-hour cruise on a gorgeous day in Maine.

The trip to Long Island was perfect. We anchored as far away from the private part of the beach as we could (it’s not as much fun to get kicked off with a child in tow). Then we set up camp for the afternoon. Around 1:30, it started to sprinkle. Taking no chances, we packed our beach gear and headed home.

Somewhere in the triangle of Long Island, Great Diamond and Peaks, the sky collapsed. I mean, it went black. Vertical bolts of lightning appeared out of nowhere. The rain was blinding. All around us, big sailboats dropped their sails. Our only choice was to keep moving directly into the waves and try to make it to the nearest shore.

My 3-year-old began to sing, “Wain, wain, go away.”

I learned later that we had been caught in a microburst, defined as “a violent short-lived localized downdraft that creates extreme wind shears at low altitudes and is usually associated with thunderstorms.”

By 2:30, it was over.

We made it to the tip-end of Great Diamond without capsizing. My daughter and I boarded the fire boat back to Portland. The fireman gave her a stuffed Smurf. My brave friend waited out the rain with two fishermen who were caught in the same storm. They escorted each other home.

“It comes down to the size of the boat, and the size of the waves,” a friend said when I told him the story.

As a result of these two near misses – there are more – I am a nightmare passenger. If there is a cloud in the sky, I’m like a bird dog on point. I’ve done plenty of my own behavioral therapy and it has helped.

I try not to bark orders at drivers in bad weather, or, conversely, I try not to curl up in a ball in the back seat of a car. I say yes to all boating expeditions, trusting that the captain does not want to be out in bad weather.

I drive in the rain and snow. Just very slowly.

When I say “be safe” to a friend or a loved one, what I mean is, “Return home, please.”

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]