Trouble on the water can come with no warning
August 18, 2005
Friday, I succumbed to tuna madness and took advantage of an offer to use a 23-foot Mako pushed by a 200-horsepower engine, a boat considerably faster and more seaworthy than my 18-foot Tashmoo powered by a 30-horse geriatric engine.
Janet Messineo and Dan Shea (not pictured) were inducted into the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish hall of fame at an August 10 reception at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.
My brief preparations included the purchase of a recreational tuna fishing license from the National Marine Fisheries Service on line (www.nmfspermits.com). I arrived at my destination around noon; much later than I had intended, and spotted Kib Bramhall’s boat. Kib, a well-known Island artist and legendary fisherman from West Tisbury (Hey, he’s in the hall of fame) was fishing with Ally Moore of Oak Bluffs, a not quite legendary fisherman and good friend.
I approached their boat at a respectful distance in deference to the mildly rolling seas and my lack of boat handling skills. They had hooked several tuna, Kib said.
I noted that both fishermen were wearing SOSpenders, a lightweight personal floatation device that inflates by means of a CO2 cartridge.
Throughout the next few hours despite getting close to a few breaking schools of fish I did not hook up. On Sunday I returned again accompanied by two friends.
Visibility was limited in fog and haze. Sea conditions were rougher as a result of swells generated by hurricane Irene, which was traveling out to sea in an arc far to the south.
I am a very cautious boater with a strong fear of the sea. In part, that is because I do not forget a tragic story, and I have written too many.
Despite the high seas and a forecast calling for severe thunderstorms, there were three other boats nearby all smaller in size. Three young guys were fishing in what looked to be an 18-foot aluminum boat.
My guess is that not one of the guys in that boat had any concern beyond catching a tuna. Fishermen are often single-minded that way, until the unexpected happens.
On Monday I received an e-mail from Kib alerting others and me to a posted story on www.reel-time.com, a popular saltwater fishing web site. “This is chilling,” wrote Kib in a message sent to a small community of avid fishermen.
Mark Cahill, Reel Time editor and web master, was the story’s author.
Mark began, “For probably the last decade, I have written at least two to three columns a year on boating safety in my Fishwire reports. Even with that, you truly never believe it will happen to you. Yesterday, it did.”
He and a friend, Jacob Kasper, had gone in search of bluefin tuna Sunday in his well-worn, 18-foot Wellcraft. They had been unsuccessful in the morning but after a lunch and fuel break they headed out in the afternoon, deciding to stay close to land due to the sea conditions, and they found tuna.
“We were working a pod, having moved off from another boat that was on a separate pod about a half hour before,” wrote Mark on his Internet site. “As Jacob cast to the pod, I turned around to see a wave break into the back of the boat.
The engine stalled, and immediately, I could tell the boat was going to roll. I yelled to Jacob that we were going down and he was able to open the life preserver cabinet and get one preserver out before the boat rolled over. I got off with only the floating cushion I was sitting on.”
“Five seconds. That’s it.”
“We had two VHF radios, at least six hand held flares, and a flare gun with around 12 rounds, and couldn’t get to any of them. The seas were probably 2-4 feet, visibility was around a mile and we were very low in the water. There were no other boats in sight.”
“Jacob stayed calm and immediately suggested we think about what we could salvage. After a couple of minutes, he said, ‘my cell phone is in a dry box, and it’s gotta be floating under the hull.’ He dove under and was able to grab it.”
Climbing up on the bow of the boat, which was sticking up, he called 911 and was put over to the Coast Guard in about 20 seconds. They were able to get our exact latitude and longitude from the cell phone. He put the cell back in the box and we settled back to calmly float around until help arrived.”
It was not until 47 minutes later that they were spotted by a couple in a 47-foot pleasure boat and pulled from the ocean.
“You cannot imagine just how beautiful a sight it was to see them pull up,” wrote Mark.
A short time later a Coast Guard motor lifeboat, a Coast Guard helicopter and a commercial tow service arrived on the scene.
Mark wrote that had it not been for Jacob’s cell phone in his dry box, a search might not have begun until the morning and even then, finding them would not have been easy.
“I don’t believe my wife knew if I was on the north or south side of the Cape, and probably wouldn’t have called the Coast Guard until this morning,” he wrote. “Jacob’s girlfriend at least knew the town we left from.”
“The float plan we filled out at the boat ramp simply said ‘offshore.’ And since we were fishing an undisclosed location, few folks here knew where we were. When they went to search for us, the search area would have been gigantic.”
Mark said that although he was embarrassed and humiliated by the incident he wanted to share his story so others might understand how quickly things can change on the water. He wrote he was lucky to be alive.
I called Mark Tuesday on his cell phone but did not reach him. It would have been interesting if someone had picked up since when I finally caught up to Mark later that day he told me the telephone was still in his sunken boat.
Mark said the seas were a little rough where they were fishing in an area two miles off Sakonnet Point roughly on the Rhode Island/Massachusetts border but certainly not as bad as they had been in earlier in the day when they tried to fish closer to Cuttyhunk. He said he was at the helm and under power when the wave broke over his stern. He suspects the transom of his old boat might have given way or they simply took the proverbial “rogue” wave since earlier waves had presented no problem.
Mark is 45 years old and has been handling boats since he was ten. He said he has written at least three columns per year on boating safety each of the past ten years and is very serious about safety.
“I just couldn’t get to what I needed,” said Mark. “If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone. Be prepared.”
Mark said those preparations should include carrying a water tight throw bag containing a waterproof VHF radio and flares that is readily accessible and not stowed in a spot where it would not float to the surface.
In a later conversation Kib, a careful boater as well, said that after reading Mark’s story he planned to purchase a dry box that floats and place a submersible handheld VHF radio in it as well as a cell phone.
“I guess the most obvious lesson is that we should be wearing our life preservers that we have spent more than a hundred bucks on,” he said.
Of course, despite Mark’s story and all the warnings there will always be people infected by tuna madness, be they bluefin, bonito or false albacore, who do not act rationally.
Kib said he was fishing about six miles off Gay Head with his son last week. Tuna were busting all around them when they saw an inflatable raft.
“So we went over to it. There is one person in it. There is a red flag floating in the water,” said Kib, sounding incredulous as he recounted what he saw.
“A school of tuna comes busting up and we look carefully and we see there is another guy in a snorkeling outfit — in the middle of the school of tuna with a spear gun! This is six miles offshore in a 14-foot inflatable boat.
“Now just tell me how **** crazy that is?” asked Kib. “And he was back the next day.”
Kim Bennett and Bradford Woodger of Chappaquiddick were so upset with some of my recent quips and comments pertaining to the Monster Shark tournament that they wrote a letter to the editor [see letters to the editor, page 18] outlining my personal faults and failings. They were kind enough to first send their letter to the Vineyard Gazette.
I figure that will increase my readership by a dozen or more when the folks at the Chevy Chase retirement home wonder what I could have possibly said to so upset Brad and Kim. And they are not even from New Jersey.
I do want to defend Greg Skomal, who they described as an arrogant “self-appointed” shark expert with no regard for sharks. That is unfair.
Greg is a Division of Marine Fisheries marine biologist respected by his peers and friends who has devoted much of his professional life to the study of sharks. He works with the organizers of the shark tournament in the same way that he works with numerous other tournaments, including the bass and bluefish derby, around the state to collect data that can be used to guide management decisions based on science and not emotion. Greg said that he is always willing to speak with people about his work but he is limited in what he can say publicly pertaining to policy issues.
Greg said he never received a call from Mr. Woodger or Ms. Bennett before they decided to attack him personally in a public forum, nor did he hear from their hero, John Grandy, Humane Society spokesperson and censorship advocate, before he authored an OpEd for the Boston Globe advocating an end to the shark tournament.
“People are entitled to their opinion,” said Greg. “In my world we deal with facts.”
I am an arrogant, self-appointed expert on most everything. Greg is not. I know that people enjoy fishing tournaments, they remain legal, and sharks do not eat tofu. I do not try to mask why I catch fish “with a palliative patch.”
When I haul a fluke or any other fish into my boat I do it because I like to catch fish. I also like to eat fish. People who do not like to fish do not have to do it.
I am not bothered by letters to the editor. If I am going to dish it out I need to be able to take it. So write away. Just keep sending them to the Gazette first.