On the water, prepare for the unexpected
Over the course of writing for The Times I have written about fishermen who find themselves in trouble on the water. Most of the time, the stories are cautionary tales about a close call, but not always.
I try to write about trouble on the water because I think it provides an opportunity to learn something about how to avoid the mistakes that can lead to tragedy. Thinking about those stories I arrive at two consistent themes.
Most of my stories have involved experienced fishermen; and when accidents happen, they happen fast.
Sarah Mayhew holds a bluefish caught by hand. Photo by Teri Mello
There is rarely time to put on a personal floatation device or call for help. One minute everything is fine and the next minute you find yourself in the water.
A number of years ago I wrote about a young guy, an experienced fisherman heading back to Falmouth about dusk through Middle Ground. He slipped and fell out of his boat. Luckily, he was able to swim to shore.
Last August I told the story of Mark Cahill, an experienced boater and outdoor writer. He and a friend were fishing for bluefin tuna when a wave broke over the transom of his boat, stalling the engine.
They had just enough time to open the life preserver cabinet and get one preserver out before the boat rolled over. Mark told me, "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 two to four feet, visibility was around a mile and we were very low in the water. There were no other boats in sight."
Luckily, they were able to retrieve a watertight box that contained a cell phone and call for help. Although the cell phone worked, the Coast Guard recommends boaters always carry a VHF radio. A waterproof model that floats is a good idea.
As I said, when trouble happens it happens quickly and can happen to even the most experienced waterman. So a letter to the editor published in last week's Times caught my attention. The letter written by Luisann Flanders Bollin of Vineyard Haven referenced a boat sinking.
"We, the family of Robert Flanders, wish to extend our sincerest thanks to Devon Greene and Miles Whyte for their heroic efforts in saving not only Robert but his boat and gear as well," wrote Luisann.
"These two selfless young men were in Menemsha Pond at just the right time to save this patriarch of the Flanders clan. And in so doing, they gave our mom the best 65th wedding anniversary present of all time.
"Devon and Miles, you were the second boat to come across the sinking, but you were the only boat to give aid. You both are true boatmen and for that, our family will forever be grateful.
"So, Mom, my four brothers and I, as well as 16 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren thank you for saving this very special Menemsha man."
Robert Flanders is indeed unique. One month shy of 86 years of age he continues to rake quahaugs and tend his lobster pots.
He makes no excuses for what caused his 20-foot work skiff to go down in the middle of Menemsha Pond. He said it was a combination of errors that rests with him.
He had been working on his boat to try and find the source of some leaks. Everything seemed fine and two young men launched the boat for him.
"She set that day and that night without a drop of water," he said. The next morning he loaded his boat with gear and headed out on the water.
Bob had planned to spend the morning quahauging in Menemsha Pond. As he described it, the boat soon felt "logy" in the water. Knowing he had a problem he pulled the anchor and tried to make for the dock.
He said, "You know what was the trouble? The plug wasn't in."
But as the water continued to pour in, Bob's engine stopped. Then, with the boat sitting lower, water came in through the cockpit scuppers.
The boat flipped, sending his fishing gear to the bottom in 27 feet of water. Bob managed to climb up on the top of the boat where he was rescued by Myles and Devon.
Bob is certainly not the first person to have a boat go down because a plug was left out of the hull. More than one fisherman has beat a hasty retreat to a launch ramp as water rose in the hull.
I recently received an interesting newsletter from BoatU.S. titled, "Why do outboard powerboats sink?"
Some of the answers to that question are contained in the first of a four part series that looks at the causes of recreational boat sinkings published in the July issue of Seaworthy, the damage avoidance newsletter from BoatU.S. Marine Insurance.
Research into claims filed with the company, which provides marine insurance, confirmed that most boats sink while tied up at the dock, outnumbering sinking-while-underway claims four to one, according to the report. Weather in the form of heavy rain or snow accounted for most of the sinkings, and almost all the boats had "self-bailing" cockpits.
The results for sinking at the dock were: Rain/snow 47 percent; underwater fittings 20 percent; above the waterline fittings 10 percent; poor docking arrangements 9 percent; water over gunwales/ transom 9 percent; and other causes 5 percent.
The results for sinking while underway were: water over gunwales/transom 32 percent; livewell/baitwell plumbing 20 percent; drain plug 16 percent; struck a submerged object 12 percent; other 12 percent; and construction 8 percent.
Writing in the report, Seaworthy Associate Editor Chuck Fort said, "If you want to reduce the risk of your outboard powerboat sinking at the dock, the best way is to use a good-fitting boat cover that keeps out precipitation. Also ensuring that Marelon or bronze fittings are used below the waterline can reduce your risk. This is a more common problem on a used boat when a new owner may be unaware that a previous owner unwittingly installed a plastic fitting below the waterline that eventually degrades and cracks. When underway, outboard powered boat owners should be concerned about swamping from the transom. Transom wells are sometimes poorly designed and every effort should be made to prevent water, even from the boat's own wake, from entering the cockpit or bilge area."
Caught in the act
Sarah Mayhew holds a bluefish she wrestled out of the surf at Quansoo. It is not exactly like wrestling alligators in the swamps of Florida but grabbing a fish in the water without the use of a fishing rod is no easy business.
On Friday I received a description of the encounter from Shirley Mayhew of West Tisbury. She wrote, "Our daughter, Sarah, was visiting us this summer from California. About a week ago she was at Quansoo Beach with her brother and sister-in-law, Jack and Betsey Mayhew. She saw a bluefish thrashing around in the surf and went into the water after it. She caught it by the tail, and Terry Mello got a great picture of her standing on the edge of the surf holding this fish by the tail.
"Sarah is the daughter of John Mayhew, about whom you wrote when he caught the first bluefish of the 1992 season. She is also the niece of that great fisherman, Don Mohr (also of West Tisbury), so I guess fishing is in her genes, though she doesn't use a rod and reel."