Rescue at Sea, Part III
Continued from “Lost at Sea”
Slowly but surely, a boat emerged, crawling across the grey horizon. It had definitely turned in our direction. We were now sure they had seen the flare and were responding. Buddy and I were cautiously optimistic. We knew it was only the first step, and we immediately began discussing how we might convince them to take us under tow. If it was a “dragger” (a very large commercial boat carrying its nets on a huge wheel at the stern), they would be unable to tow us, but could perhaps radio another boat or the Coast Guard for us. If it was any other type of vessel that was better designed, we knew taking a broken down charter vessel like ours under tow in rapidly deteriorating weather was not something any captain would be eager to do. It didn’t matter how desperate our situation was: everyone must look out for themselves at sea. Though people will respond to an emergency, in the end, they carry with them the resonating reality that puts their own safety first.
As they got close, the squall was at its worst. The rain was blinding and the wind was a steady roar. Communication was going to be difficult. To our relief, the approaching boat wasn’t a dragger. It was a fifty (or so) foot steel-hulled offshore lobster boat. Its huge stabilizers, or “birds” as they call them, were swinging violently as they carefully backed down to us so we wouldn’t be crushed. “Birds” are gigantic, and very heavy steel arrow like masses that hang from outstretched metal poles (like outriggers) from either side of the boat. They are carried up above the water and protrude about twenty to fifty feet (depending on the size of the ship) off the side of the hull. When the seas kick up they can be deployed or dropped down just below the surface of the water so they “stabilize” the boat from rolling too badly from side to side. This is mostly done to aid in fishing rough water and only used while traveling if conditions are really bad. The boat, “Dorado,” was a welcome but somewhat scary sight as it got close enough to interact with.
The Dorado’s captain was a guy named Steve Viejo and he had his cousin with him that day. Steve explained that his cousin had just happened to walk into the bridge smoking and was immediately kicked out for it. Steve was furious, as no smoking was permitted on the bridge. It just so happened that the instant he opened the door, our flare shot right in front of him. He then went back inside and told Steve what he’d seen. Steve being a good captain took it seriously enough to investigate.
A small man with sunglasses, a beard and tattoos from head to toe appeared like a strange apparition on the stern deck. It was raining and blowing so hard I could barely see him, let alone hear him. He attempted to ask what the trouble was, and we proceeded to yell back and forth. Buddy explained that we were dead in the water and in need of a tow northward. He also said that his brother Chip would be along at any moment to meet us and relieve them. It was a bit deceiving but an important part of the bargaining process. There was no way they wanted any part of towing us all the way to Martha’s Vineyard. They agreed to try to raise Chip on the radio as all of our electronics were now completely dead.
Shortly, the man reappeared and said he’d had no luck with respect to contacting Chip. Buddy then began the process of convincing them to tow us north. They were actually headed back to New Bedford ahead of the “storm that was coming.” They asked what we had for them (i.e. money, etc.) and we told them we had plenty of beer. “What kind?” they asked (to my exasperation) and Buddy replied loudly “Red Stripe!” “Ahhhh, Jamaica Mon” the guy said. “Sounds good to me!” That sealed the deal. One of our clients onboard, Denis Sweet, said he’d buy him a brewery when we got home! Charles Ogletree began throwing them one Red Stripe at a time, which took awhile and was no small feat. He only missed with one that shattered against their stern amidst much laughter.
A feeling of hope spread quickly throughout the boat as Buddy and I proceeded to rig the towing line up with the proper knots. I didn’t know it at the time, but the only rope we had was what Buddy had cut from the anchor. We now had no anchor line if we needed it. That would come back to haunt us later. Buddy announced that, by his estimation, we would be home in Menemsha at approximately 3:30 AM. It was probably 7:00 PM at the time.
As we began the tow ride we were tucked in close behind them and it was actually pretty comfortable. Charles began hunting for his Crown Royal which he’d saved. He had no soda left so he mixed up what he called “The Tuna Trip:” Crown Royal and Cranapple juice in an empty Red Stripe bottle. We bailed out the last of the water from down below and Buddy nodded off in his captain’s chair behind the wheel. The others followed suit shortly after and I went out on the back deck and continued smoking and feeling restless. Everything was working out pretty well, but I couldn’t shake the strangest feeling that I would look back on this time and wish we could have held onto it. I just knew so strongly that things were going to get much worse even though there was really no reason to think it. I’ve never had that feeling before or since but it was undeniable.
Then the tow rope broke for the first time. Buddy woke up and went up on the bow. The Dorado steamed back and said we’d just won Steve fifty bucks in a bet that the rope would chafe from where they’d tied it. He took his time re-tying the line, saying he wanted to do it right this time. He didn’t want to have to stop again. “You guys are making my night interesting!” he yelled.
Soon we were back underway. Everyone was fast asleep again. After awhile, I noticed we were only making three or four knots. The seas were building fast. We were still over thirty miles south of Noman’s Island when the rope broke again, on our end this time. Buddy retied it and we continued on saying nothing. I bummed a cigarette off of Denis and when they all fell asleep again I went back to the stern. As I lit it, the wind hit me like a wall. The gust nearly blew me off my feet. I had been hearing vague pieces of radio transmissions from the Dorado to the Coast Guard, but had just considered it proper protocol on their part, nothing to be really concerned about. We had no access to weather alerts, so I had no idea what they were forecasting. But Steve Viejo did and it wasn’t good. The nightmare was about to begin, and I knew it. I sat with that thought until I finished my smoke and then went in to wake Buddy up to tell him we were going to have a problem.
“Holy shit! Where did this wind come from?” he asked. I just shook my head. We agreed that the rope was going to break again soon, and he said he was not looking forward to climbing up on the bow again. I said we’d be very lucky if the Dorado would even resume the tow. Minutes later with a huge pop, the rope was gone again. I watched the Dorado ahead of us just sit there and idle, and I knew they were on the radio to the Coast Guard telling them they were giving up the tow. I couldn’t blame them. It was just too rough. But when they steamed back down on us with all of their deck lights on the water, I was horrified. We had been riding so close that it was fairly smooth in their wake. It was so dark I hadn’t been able to gauge the seas. But now confronted it was absolutely stunning. The conditions weren’t just bad, they were horrific. I wished so badly that they would turn the deck lights off so the others wouldn’t see, but it was too late as they awoke, terrified at the horror of the seas.
Steve got upwind of us and shouted at the top of his lungs that he couldn’t tow us anymore. He was suddenly very angry and I was taken aback. He kept screaming, “Look at what you’ve gotten me into. Look at this shit!” Now he felt his life was in serious jeopardy and that we were to blame! I felt horrible, for him, his cousin, but mostly for our friends who were aboard. He steamed off and Buddy flipped out. But we both knew he’d come back. When he did, he seemed to have regrouped and he said he’d told the Coast Guard they needed to come get us and that he’d “stand by” until they got there. It was a courageous and kind move on his part. He said, “We can go down together if that’s the way it’s going to be.”
I then set about reassuring everyone on board that things were going to be fine. The Coast Guard was on its way, and we needed to go over some important things. First, I went down below to get life vests and anything else I could find for them. I think there were only five, so I passed them out and helped everyone get them on. Next I found every “luma light” I could. these are strobes you pin to your vests so you’re more visible to planes or choppers. We were going to be very hard to spot in the water if that’s where we ended up, I knew that. I was seriously alarmed at the amount of water that was in the cabin I was gathering stuff from. I would deal with that shortly. After everyone had vests, luma lights, smoke flairs, and whistles attached to their vests and they were properly donned, I told them we had to start bailing fast. At least one plank in the bow had come loose and more were close to letting go. We were taking on water steadily, not so quickly that we would sink imminently, but fast enough so that we needed to keep on top of it. They were all terrific. They made the best of it and did what needed to be done to buy us as much time as possible. I didn’t know how long it would be. I seriously didn’t know if the Coast Guard would even get to us. It was almost 9:00 PM and very dark. Would they want to wait till morning? Would they just decide the conditions were too bad, as they often did? They weren’t supposed to endanger themselves to try to come save us, and with those seas, who could blame them?
As the Dorado cleared away from us to the north, we finally turned “side to” in what was now towering whitewater. We had no rope left to attach to our anchor as we’d used it up under tow. So there was no way to keep the boat headed into the sea, which is what you want. It’s what boats are designed for. Sometimes it’s best being able to put the seas on your stern and take what’s called the “following sea.” Worst, and absolutely lethal, is taking the waves “side to.” It’s something you avoid at all costs. This gives you the highest chance of capsizing. After evaluating it honestly, I decided it was just a matter of time, simple. We were going to be knocked down. It was just a matter of time.
As a result, I tried to walk everyone through what would happen when we flipped over. Buddy and I would have sawed the outriggers off if we could have, but we couldn’t. We didn’t have the tools. I didn’t want anyone to get “caught in the rigging” and drown. It happens all the time. So I made everyone imagine the deck layout as if we were upside down and encouraged them to mentally walk through what that would be like. I reminded them of the fighting chair and to use it as a bearing to get clear of the boat from the stern, their best way out. Buddy and I gave our pocket knives to whoever wanted them. “Cut yourself free if you need to,” I said. But above all I made it very clear that even if the boat was overturned, they should stay with it. Most people are found with the boat even if it is barely afloat. The chances of Coast Guard rescue go up exponentially because of your greater visibility if you’re still with the boat, no matter what shape it’s in. All we could do now was sit and wait, hoping desperately they wouldn’t take too long to find us. We were simply at their mercy and that of the monstrous sea.
…To be continued!
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