Capt. Fred Davis

As I traveled for a planned fishing trip for a little relaxation, I witnessed and became involved in three major boating accidents. The final accident cost a boater his life.

The first accident occurred on the highway. A boat came off its trailer and landed on a car. The incident resulted in major injuries to the occupants of the car, a total loss of the car and considerable damage to the boat. The accident could have been avoided had the boat been properly secured to the trailer.

The second accident was a boat that exploded while fueling, throwing one person into the water and burning the vessel to the waterline. This accident also could have been avoided if the operator had cleared the bilge by running his blower. It was very fortunate no one was seriously injured in this incident.

After watching the marina's yard crews pull the burned hull out of the water, my friend Jim and I rented a small boat and got underway for our long delayed fishing trip. Being witness to two stressful events, we were ready to relax and reel in a few fish.

The weather was perfect, bright sun, dead calm water. "This is great," I said to Jim as we ventured out on the open water. The sun steadily warmed the morning air. By the time our little motor got us to the fishing reef, jackets were tucked away and shirtsleeves rolled up. While Jim anchored, I baited up. As soon as the anchor dug in, the first fish was on its way up to the boat.
It was surprising fishing was so good on such a calm, beautiful day. Our reels cranked repeatedly. We brought in fish, put bait on, then right back down for more. Fish were hitting so fast, one pole each kept us as busy as we wished to be. In just a couple hours, our buckets were full.

We had been so wrapped up in our fishing fun; we failed to notice the dark clouds rapidly forming from the southwest. A breeze began to blow and the sky looked like a storm was approaching. I told Jim we should head in.

I knew it would take awhile to get to shore with the small motor on our 16-foot boat. Although no bad weather had been forecast, it appeared evident the weatherman had been fooled once again.
This trip was the first time Jim and I had fished together. He had told me a few stories about past fishing trips and tales of his time served in the Navy. I was comfortable that he had adequate knowledge of boating.

The anchor had taken a deep bite and it took a little extra work and time to retrieve it. The wind was picking up fast so as soon as the anchor was aboard, we got underway.

As winds continued to increase and the sky turned dark blue, almost black, I began to feel very apprehensive. I put my life jacket on and tossed one to Jim. He was reluctant to put it on and fasten it. By the time I convinced him to do so, the storm hit.

In a matter of minutes, the wind was roaring and rain fell so hard it felt like ice picks stabbing us. Waves were splashing over the bow of the little boat and I was having great difficulty controlling it. As water started to fill the boat, I told Jim to try bailing with the bait bucket.

My earlier concern turned to fear as I glanced at Jim's face and realized he was experiencing panic. He had a death grip on the sides of the boat and was screaming for help.

Darkness and the heavy rainfall had reduced visibility to zero. Just then, a huge wave overtook the entire boat, filling it with water and drowning out the engine.

As we pitched helplessly in the turbulence, I was concerned we might capsize. Fortunately, the boat had level floatation, so I let it fill. This action set the boat level in the water and it rode the waves, bobbing up and down.

Jim, totally panic stricken, kept yelling for help. I knew with the wind howling and zero visibility, help was not likely to arrive. Our situation became critical when Jim began thrashing around in the small boat. I was concerned he would fall overboard. I pushed him down to the boat bottom to protect him and lower the center of gravity.

The storm passed as quickly as it had arrived but our problems were not over. I was not sure where we were as we bobbed parallel to the shore, about a mile out. We saw a cruiser approaching and while I bailed the boat, Jim, still visibly shaken, continued to yell for help.

As the cruiser got closer, a strong wind came up again. By the time the vessel reached us, waves were five to six foot and building. A passenger aboard the cruiser threw us a line. Jim grabbed it and pulled our little boat right up to the stern of the cruiser, scratching and gouging its varnished finish. He then dropped the line in the water, desperate to get aboard the larger craft.

The loose line caught on the boat's rudder and had to be cut, setting me adrift once again. After the line was cleared, I was helped aboard and our small boat was taken in tow.

The captain of the cruiser took us to his dock, which was five miles from where we had set out from that morning. Once safely on shore, we located a phone and called the marina we had rented the boat from. They said they would send a pick up and trailer to get us.

As we traveled back to the marina, we saw evidence of a tornado that had hit along the shoreline. It had tipped over mobile homes, torn up trees and pulled the roofs and windows from many buildings. The man from the marina asked if we had seen people in the water during our ordeal. We told him no.

Several emergency vehicles were parked in the area when we arrived at the marina. We learned that friends we had met at the doughnut shop that morning had not been as lucky as we. The older man in the group had drowned and his son was still missing. Their boat had no floatation. It had capsized and sunk just a few yards offshore. The son was later located, dazed and suffering the effects of hypothermia.

My fishing trip, planned for great relaxation, provided little enjoyment considering the day’s events, but it was certainly a day I will always remember. I learned some lessons the hard way and have a few more safety tips to pass on to others.

1. Always take your own lifejacket with you when going on the water. Some rental boat facilities only supply a life cushion, which may not be adequate.

2. Never take another persons experience on the water for granted.

3. If you rent a boat, make sure it has level floatation. It may cost a little more, but if you have to depend on that feature to save your life, you will be glad you spent the extra dollars.

4. Always keep a close eye on the sky when out on the water. If a quick change occurs, it may mean a storm is approaching. Even with a favorable forecast, storms can form and go undetected before they strike.

5. When caught in a storm, keep low in the boat and do not panic.

It has been said; tornadoes seldom occur on the water... just isolated water spouts develop. The story told above belies that statement.


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