By Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joseph Nelson, Alabama National GuardMay 24, 2016
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (May 24, 2016) - I have owned at least six boats since I was 15. None of these were big boats, mind you; just 19 feet or less. Being that I'm very safety conscious, I've taken my share of boating courses and always carry more than the minimum requirement of protective gear whenever I go out on the water. I also always leave a float plan. It's nothing fancy - just a piece of notebook paper with the names of my passengers, where I intend to launch, where I am going, the type of vessel and my expected time of return. I have two VHF radios, one of which is a backup, and added an extra bilge pump on my boat as an additional safety precaution. I also have extra life preservers on board at all times. Unfortunately, as I learned firsthand, not all boat owners are as serious about safety.
As I said before, none of my boats have been very big. So when my buddy, Paul, invited me for a day of deep-sea fishing on his friend's big boat, I jumped at the opportunity. Paul's friend, David, is somewhat of a local legend on the Gulf Coast fishing circuit. He routinely wins fishing tournaments, and often gets his picture in the paper for his angling prowess.
We met at David's house before daylight on a Saturday morning and piled into his truck towing a 26-foot Sea Pro. She was a beauty -- long and sleek with a T-top, 40-gallon live well and 250-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor. We launched at Dauphin Island and headed out into the Gulf of Mexico before dawn. The water was a little rough, but the V hull on the Sea Pro cut through the 3-foot waves fairly easily, so the ride wasn't too bad.
By noon, we had our limit of snapper, as well as a few of grouper and amberjack. It was at our last stop at one of David's "honey holes" that things went south. We were preparing to head to another spot when Paul noticed his feet getting wet. We looked toward the rear of the boat and saw standing water. I opened the bilge hatch and it was full of water. David turned on the bilge pump, but the water did not get any lower. He decided to try to get the boat up on plane and drain the water through the drain holes in the back, but she would barely move. There was so much water in the boat that the Yamaha could barely push her, and the bow went almost straight into the air.
I started bailing the water with a bucket but made no headway. Where was this water coming from? I looked down into the bilge hatch and what I saw amazed me. A 1-inch PVC fitting had snapped off and water was gushing in through the broken pipe. I tried to stick my thumb in the hole and received a mild shock. The batteries were underwater, in the hold, and were actually shocking me whenever I stuck my hand into the water.
Things were getting pretty hairy, and Paul asked David where he kept the life jackets. When Paul pulled them from under the console, there were only two children's life jackets and one throwable flotation device. Not good! We saw an oil rig about a mile away, and slowly headed toward it. Meanwhile, David radioed his brother, Brian, who was fishing a couple of miles away, and told him about our predicament.
As Brian headed our way, I thought for sure we were going into the water. Finally, David took the handle from a bait net, wrapped a rag around it and crammed it into the broken PVC pipe. It seemed to hold, and between the bilge pump and our continuous bailing, we got enough water out of the boat for the motor to be able to get us up on plane. We continued to the oil rig, and circled it until Brian arrived. He escorted us back to the dock, and we all made it home safely that day.
One of the things that surprised me the most about that day was the fact David did not have enough life jackets on board for all of us. Also, he had re-plumbed his live well the night before and didn't get a chance to wet check his work before we went out the next morning. Additionally, David was not in the habit of leaving a float plan with anyone and did not leave one that day.
How could this guy, who had been fishing and boating in the Gulf of Mexico all his life, be so careless when it came to safety? How had his carelessness not resulted in disaster before our trip? Maybe he had some close calls in the past and I just hadn't heard about them. I'm not saying I'll never fish with David again, but I definitely will be more involved in the trip planning.
Some lessons that I learned that day include:
1. A bigger boat is not always a better boat.
2. Always ask the captain about the location of personal flotation devices, fire extinguishers, radio communication and anything else you can think of before the boat leaves the dock.
3. Always leave a float plan with someone. It doesn't have to be anything elaborate; but someone needs to know where you're going, who is going with you, what your capabilities are and what time you plan to return.
As for me, I'm content to captain my own little skiff. And, as always, I will do it with an overabundance of respect for the elements and carry the proper boating safety gear so I'm never in danger of going down with the ship.
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In an effort to reduce loss of life, injuries and property damage on America's waterways, the U.S. Coast Guard offers a wealth of boating safety information of its website at http://www.uscgboating.org.