A good deed repaid during a harrowing offshore trip

Gary Mirando holds a mahi-mahi he caught during an offshore fishing trip that turned harrowing. — File photo by Dave Kadison

For Dave Kadison and Gary Mirando of Vineyard Haven, a pleasant day fishing well south of Martha’s Vineyard for tuna and mahi-mahi turned into a frightening overnight return trip home, at the end of a Good Samaritan’s tow rope amid crackling lightning bolts and heaving seas.

Cape-based charter captain and Massachusetts state trooper Terry Nugent drafted a gripping email account of the trip he titled, “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Dead in the water

Early Friday, Dave and Gary headed south aboard Poco Loco, Dave’s 32-foot Mirage powerboat with a pilothouse and powered by a Volvo diesel outdrive. Their course was approximately 95 miles through the shipping lanes to an area known as Veatch Canyon. It was Gary’s first offshore trip with Dave.

The men caught tuna and mahi-mahi. It was a great day of fishing. About 3 pm they headed back to the Vineyard. With about 60 miles between the boat and the Vineyard the transmission failed. They were dead in the water.

Dave called Sea Tow, a membership marine assistance service. The Sea Tow captain said the boat was beyond their range but that they would notify the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard called Dave on his satellite phone to say they would assist if he were in imminent danger. The Coast Guard asked if there was anyone at sea nearby who might assist.

Coincidently, charter captain Terry Nugent, aboard Riptide with two friends, was fishing in the same area.

Game plan change

In his email account, Captain Nugent said, “The game plan for the trip was to daytrip to Veatch Canyon for a shot at yellowfin, mahi and maybe a marlin… All the safety gear was checked and re-checked like always, we never thought we would be needing it. We splashed the boat at 3 am in Falmouth, and in no time we were zipping along headed south.”

They enjoyed a good day with plenty of action. Then, about 6 pm, “I pointed the big Contender north, and we were headed home at a nice smooth 40 mph,” he wrote. “The idea of a cold drink and a nice long nap was running through my mind as I crossed into the shipping lanes about 70 miles from Wasque Point when the VHF crackled on 16.”

Coast Guard calls even in an emergency are made in a distinct style and cadence: “PAN, PAN. Hello all stations, this is US Coast Guard South East New England —Break —The Coast Guard has received a call of a vessel disabled in the shipping lanes approximately 70 miles southeast of Martha’s Vineyard. Any vessels in the area that are able to assist please contact United States Coast Guard South East New England.”

Captain Nugent heard the Coast Guard hail Poco Loco and ask for their condition. He immediately recognized the name.

Captain Nugent continued, “I chimed in and Dave responded with a mix of anxiety and relief in his voice. Dave gave me his numbers, and he was about eight miles northwest of me. I advised the Coast Guard I was 10 minutes out from Poco Loco, and I told my crew, it’s gonna be a long night.

Dave, an avid fisherman and swimming pool finisher, had good reason to be anxious. He was in the middle of the inbound shipping lanes. Earlier, he had watched on his radar as a large freighter 12 miles out followed a course straight for him. Frantic efforts to reach the ship’s crew finally paid off, and the freighter changed course.

Terry arrived quickly in his 33-footer, powered by twin 275-horsepower Mercury engines. The men conferred on the best route home and then rigged a towline from Dave’s anchor rope.

Sea Tow planned to take over the tow when the boats reached Tom’s Shoal off East Beach. The Coast Guard arranged to call and check their situation every hour.

The men had used Dave’s satellite phone to relay messages to all their wives. Everybody’s fine, we are just going to be a little late, was the message Dave said he relayed.

The seas were following and the wind was light from the southwest at 5 to10 knots. It appeared it would be an easy trip. About three hours into the tow, the towing bridle snapped from the heaving of a larger than usual wave. The Coast Guard was advised, the vessels reconnected, and the men continued. The Coast Guard modified the communication schedule to every 30 minutes.

Prepare for worst

At 11:30 pm, the radio crackled with a Coast Guard broadcast: “PAN, PAN hello all stations. The Coast Guard has received a call from the National Weather Service that a strong line of severe thunderstorms is located between Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island moving southeast at 35 knots. Strong rain, hail, and severe lightning are being accompanied by winds in excess of 35 knots. Break.”

“Then they hailed us,” Captain Nugent wrote. “This is not going to be good, I thought. They advised that the storms were headed right at us, and we should be prepared for the worst.

“They advised us to secure all hatches to avoid possible flooding from the torrential rains and to put on life vests. They went down a checklist of safety gear on both boats: rafts, flares, Gumby suits, etc. They put us on a 15-minute communication schedule.

“The next 30 minutes was calm but tense. We knew what was coming. I kicked the radar way out and then after a short time I saw the leading edge of the storm. It was heading right at us, and it was big. I advised the crew, and we all got ready for what was coming.

“Thirty minutes later the storm hit. The winds instantly went to 35 knots and the seas jumped to four to five feet making the already difficult tow infinitely harder. The rain came down like I’ve never seen before. My scuppers could barely keep up with the water flowing down the deck of the Riptide.

“We all huddled under the T-top for some level of shelter from the storm. The crew of Poco Loco was dry in the pilot house, but the unnatural motion of the tow, the heavy seas and the confined space of the pilot house gave them issues of their own.

“We pitched and heaved in the growing seas, and I tried to work the throttles as gently as I could to keep the strain even, as the boats tossed and turned independently of each other. In the big following seas Poco Loco would slide down a wave face and then heel over hard left or right when it got into the next wave.

“There was not enough keel to keep it straight under tow. Even my boat, which tracks like it’s on rails, would heel over with the added strain of the tow. When they went in different directions, snap! Right in the middle of the storm we break the towline!

“With near zero visibility we tried to maneuver back to the Poco Loco. They hauled in the line to keep it out of our props, which would have been a nightmare. Dave made a great toss with the line and G.W. [a crewmember] managed to catch the towline in the near zero visibility and stinging rain. We got the boat back in tow and advised the Coast Guard we were back under way. They put us on a ten-minute communication schedule.”

Bad to worse

“That’s when things went from bad to worse. Lightning! Big, bright and really, really close. We had all the riggers and rods down with nothing up but the VHF antenna so we could talk to the Coast Guard. The lightning had been in the distance, but that part of the storm was on us now, and the lightning was everywhere.

“As the lightning bolts hit closer and closer to us, I had to make a tough call. Antenna up for communications or down to avoid a lightning strike. I made the call to drop the antenna. Suddenly a few hundred yards away a blinding flash and an instant crack! The lightning hit the water only a few hundred feet away from us.

“I like to think that I’m calm and cool under pressure, but when a zillion watts of electricity hits that close and you’re hanging onto a metal steering wheel, even the coolest hands get nervous.

“You just can’t hide from lightning in the open ocean. Normally I can outrun storms or run hard to avoid or dodge them. But not tonight, not this time. The only way to run was to cut Poco Loco loose and set them adrift alone in the storm, and that wasn’t happening. All we could do was pray that the gods had bad aim tonight.”

Too close

On board the Poco Loco, Dave and Gary had broken out their red neoprene survival suits. They thought about putting them on but the suits were damp and moldy from storage. Instead, they stood on top of the suits hoping the insulation would shield them in the event of a strike.

“Absolutely, I was scared,” Dave said. “We had one bolt that was right on top of us. It exploded like a flashbulb over our heads. It just made you shudder. Gary said, ‘that was too close.'”

He knew that with only a T-top for protection, Terry was getting the worst of the storm.

“I kept telling him over the radio,” Dave said, “you can cut us loose. Don’t endanger your crew because of me. I can put out my sea anchor and wait for somebody else, and I have no problem with that.”

Captain Nugent would not hear of the possibility. “I’m getting you in, I’m on a mission,” he told Dave over the radio through the storm.

The lightning quickly moved into the distance with the fast moving storm. The seas settled.

“Finally after three broken lines and nine hours of towing, we made it to Muskeget Channel,” Captain Nugent wrote. “Dave called over the radio to give me the first good news of the night. Slack tide. We made it through the normally nasty piece of water without issue. The thought of the tow breaking and Poco Loco going aground on Wasque was one I had for the entire trip.”

Poco Loco anchored up. Later that day, Sea Tow provided a tow back to Oak Bluffs.

Pay back

Captain Nugent said that during the 10-hour ordeal, he had a lot of time to think. “I thought about the times I’ve been towed in from various places over the years. One time in particular came to mind. About 10 years ago, I was fishing in my bay boat off of Newport Rhode Island. The motor blew, and we were stranded 20 miles from the Westport River where we had launched.

“A guy in a big green custom center console came along and offered to help. I didn’t know the guy, but he towed us for over two hours all the way back to the ramp at Westport. When we got to the ramp I told the guy I didn’t have much money on me, but I would send him whatever he wanted to cover the tow when I got home.

“The guy smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Maybe someday I’ll be in a jam, and you can tow me home.’ I told him I would if I ever got the chance. As the big green custom center console turned and headed out of the Westport River, I looked at the transom and said to myself, ‘What a cool name for a boat, Poco Loco.”