By Capt. Fred Davis

One afternoon while wintering in the Florida Keys, I set out on a fishing trip with my wife Pat. We had been working hard on editing my columns and agreed a fishing trip was just what we both needed. We were unaware we would encounter not one, but two boating mishaps in the next hour.

We loaded up poles, bait and soft drinks then ventured out to seek the elusive Mangrove Snappers. It was only a short distance to the usually productive fishing spot in a nearby mangrove pass. We got set up and were soon throwing our lines in. A neighbor from our community was anchored nearby. He agreed the snappers were not biting well but it was a beautiful day to be on the water and we were content to relax with only an occasional nibble.

Our peace was disturbed when a small, high powered vessel, traveling at a fast rate of speed came to an abrupt halt abreast of where we were anchored. Two young men, assuming their prop was fouled tilted the motor and one of them went over the side to inspect and remove what could have been weeds or fish line. When they were both aboard again, they restarted their engine and oblivious to vessels anchored nearby, raced at full throttle out of the channel.

It was only a few minutes later we heard a SOS signal being sounded on a horn. We pulled anchor and got underway to see if we could help. As we entered the open water of the Sound, we saw the two young men we had encountered earlier waving their arms and blowing their boats horn. When we pulled alongside, the operator told us they had run out of gas and needed a tow, hopefully to Miami. We offered to tow them to the nearest fuel dock a short distance away after explaining Miami was fifty miles north. We tied a bridle, with a tow line attached and secured it to the disabled craft.

As we motored along slowly with our tow, a desperate sounding MayDay call came across the VHF radio. I responded and forwarded the call to the nearby Coast Guard station. They answered and requested to know the nature of distress. The vessel operator said he had six people on board and had run aground. He was fearful his vessel would sink.

The captain told the Coast Guard with help from his passengers, he had managed to push his boat off the coral rock into deeper water. After he did, the bilge quickly filled with water and the bilge pumps were not keeping up with the intake. He explained his engines were still running but he expected the batteries would soon be submerged and the pumps would quit altogether.

The Coast Guard told the frantic captain they had dispatched a vessel to their location but it would be over 40 minutes before its arrival. A towing and salvage company located nearby overheard the radio transmissions. They contacted the sinking vessel saying they could assist and be on scene in about 20 minutes.

The captain of the disabled boat obviously beginning to panic stated he thought he would sink before help could arrive. The salvage operator, a very knowledgeable seaman, inquired what size and type his vessel was and where the water was coming in. The frightened captain told him it was a 30 foot, twin engine inboard. He said it had slammed hard onto the reef and water was coming in just aft of amidships in the engine compartment.

I was familiar with the salvage company and its owner so I radioed a suggestion that the skipper check the area where the engine shafts pass through the hull. A short time later, the captain of the sinking boat reported a shaft had pulled through the hull and the water was entering there. The captain was advised to grab a rag, shirt or anything handy and stuff it into the shaft log. This action immediately reduced the water intake but not before the engines had quit.

The boat was adrift, headed back towards the reef it had grounded upon. The bilge pumps were still operating however because the water had not covered the batteries. With the intake stopped, the water in the bilge was going down. The captain of the salvage boat assured the distressed vessels captain he would be at his location shortly to assist him to the nearest lift out.

After dropping off the vessel I had been towing, we decided our fishing trip was over so we headed for the dock. After securing our boat and cleaning our fishing gear, we were curious about the condition of the grounded vessel so we drove to the marina I knew it would be taken to.

The salvage vessel was just arriving with the cruiser safely in tow as we pulled into the marina. A reef patrol officer, who also had responded to the scene of the grounding, was waiting at the lift out to inspect the damage. As the hull of the boat came out of the water, I noted both propellers and shafts were badly damaged. The starboard shaft was pulled out of the drive coupling and through the log, evidence of the cause of the water intake.
Had it not been for the quick radio response and advice given, the vessel surely would have sunk. The family aboard expressed gratitude for the speedy assistance, realizing they could have lost not only their boat but perhaps their lives.

Although both cases in the above story ended without harm to the passengers, each could have resulted in boating fatality statistics. The small, over-powered craft, with very little freeboard, could have floundered all night and sunk if waters had become rough. This incident could easily have been avoided by checking the fuel supply before heading out on the water.

The case of the cruiser aground, in much greater jeopardy, points out the necessity for boater education and the need to keep your wits during boating emergencies. Too often people acquire boats of varying sizes and have no knowledge about how to operate them. After getting a boat, you need to examine it thoroughly with the dealer if new or the prior owner. You need to consider what possible hazardous situations you may encounter and what action you will take to diminish the risk to your vessel and its passengers.

When grounded, inboard boats will often pull a shaft or snap a rudder post resulting in a continuous inflow of water. More inboards are sunk due to these conditions then from hull punctures. A boat owner should consider all the emergencies he might come upon and prepare to deal with them in case help is not immediately at hand.

A skipper, knowledgeable of his vessel (unlike the captains in my story) will know what to look for and be prepared to take temporary steps to protect his passengers and craft until help arrives.

Sadly, people venture out on the water with no understanding of the hazards that await them. Most return without incident, some have harrowing experiences and a certain number each year never return.

Knowledge, common sense and the ability to keep your wits are major tools for safety afloat.


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