Around 4 p.m., we spotted the flag on some lobster pots — nothing more than a chunk of Styrofoam, a pole, and a weight tied to a
string of traps sitting on the bottom of the ocean. But it was a place to
tie up and wait, hoping for rescue. It took all we had to reach them,
but with a final thrust of energy, we both made it. We took the belts
off our pants and wrapped them around the pole to secure ourselves.
At 5: 30 p.m., the day was nearing its end. The ocean was flat and
the wind had died down. Then we saw it, a Coast Guard helicopter
on the horizon. It was moving back and forth in a search pattern
that, we hoped against hope, would eventually cross our position.
The helicopter was about a quarter-mile away when it turned away
from us, gained altitude and speed, and headed back toward land.
We both began yelling and waving our arms. It was useless. We were
left to cope with the fact that we were going to be spending the night
in the water.
I couldn’t help thinking of all our shark-fishing trips and how well
we always seemed to do at the end of the day. Sharks are night feeders. Joe and I watched the sun sinking and felt the air rapidly cooling.
We both knew the Coast Guard had given up the search for the day.
We had to look for some strength to make it through the night.
At about 8: 30 p.m., darkness completely set in, and Joe and I
started telling each other our life stories to keep our minds from
obsessing about sharks. Every now and then, I’d bump Joe’s leg by
accident, or he’d bump mine. We were so jumpy, that such little
bumps would cause immediate panic. “Is that you?” one of us would
blurt. Or, “No, no, no, that was me, sorry.” Occasionally, we saw
lights from passing ships, much too far away for us to swim to them.
Finally, I found it hard to talk, except to ask Joe what time it was, and
every time he told me, I was disappointed.
I’m a religious man. I could accept that the Lord was going to let
me die, but I was very upset that I’d never see my wife and kids again.
“Joe,” I asked, “would you mind if I pray?” He laughed. “Man, I’ve
been praying all day!”
I’d just turned to Joe again to ask the time, when the water around
us started boiling with motion. We heard a large blast of air and spray
a few yards away from us. It all happened so fast, we barely had time
to panic, but relief spread over us as we realized it was a whale sur-
facing right beside us! The excitement roused us from our increasing
despondence, and got us talking again.
FLOAT PLANS AND DITCH KITS
TO REDUCE THE ODDS of having your own horrible night, a fishing trip well out of sight of land needs to be treated very differently from an outing in a sheltered body of
water or within a few miles of the coast. The boat must be
offshore-capable and properly equipped, and the captain should
file a float plan.
“The first lesson I took from this experience,” author David
Jones said, “was to pay more attention to the design of an off-
shore boat.” BoatU.S. has found that 30 percent of boats that
sink underway are overwhelmed by waves coming over the gun-
wales, particularly the transom. “One reason our boat sank so
fast was the height of the transom,” Jones said. “The wave that
came aboard lowered the waterline and made it almost a cer-
tainty that another wave would come aboard. There was no way
to bail quickly enough to prevent its being swamped. I’ll never
again go offshore on a boat with a low transom.”
The equipment list should include more than just safety gear.
The boat should be equipped with a high-capacity bilge pump
and a high-bilge-water alarm. In addition, the following:
■ Enough life jackets for everyone aboard (legally required),
ideally on everyone aboard, but otherwise within easy
reach from the cockpit
■ A DSC-equipped VHF radio connected to the GPS, and a
handheld, waterproof VHF
■ A GPS-equipped EPIRB (if you don’t want to buy one
for one trip, rent one from the BoatU.S. Foundation
for Boating Safety and Clean Water, www.BoatUS.com/
■ Signaling devices including portable air horns and (legally
■ For larger boats, an inflatable life raft
■ A grab bag or ditch kit (see the “buddy bag” below) to
take with you if you have to abandon ship
ANOTHER THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN,” David Jones aid, “is go offshore without someone knowing where I’m going and what time I’ll be back. It’s not enough to hand
someone a float plan; I take a few minutes to go over the details,
including where we’re going and what courses we’ll be follow-
ing. I never deviate from that plan. Filing a float plan doesn’t
take long and could be crucial to the success of any search-and-
If you’re going on a friend’s boat, where you have no con-
trol over the condition of the boat and equipment, a small
“buddy bag” could save your life in the event of an emergency.
Whenever Lenny Rudow, BoatU.S. Magazine’s electronics editor,
gets on a friend’s boat for a trip into open waters, he always
brings along his own “buddy bag,” a scaled-down, waterproof
ditch-bag full of safety gear and foam padding (so it floats).
Here’s what’s inside:
■ Handheld VHF
■ Portable emergency distress beacon (PLB or Personal
■ Spare AA batteries
■ Extra inflatable PFD
■ Two flares
■ First-aid kit
■ Sealed bottle of water
Carrying all of this for a day on the water may seem overkill,
but you’ll be grateful to have every bit of it if your day ever
turns into a horrible night. — BETH A. LEONARD
BoatU.S. Magazine | 61