By Capt. Cefus McRae
I grew up in Scouting and earned the rank of Eagle Scout before I turned 16. Of course, the Scout motto is ‘Be Prepared’. I’ve tried to maintain that perspective throughout my life. On the water, you have to be prepared to deal with emergencies.
On the water, things can happen fast. You hit an unseen submerged object, or you get caught off-guard by a fast-moving storm. You can have engine or electrical problems that leave you stranded in shallow water on an out-going tide. I’ve had most of these things happen. Add fishing hooks and bait knives to the equation, and the odds of experiencing a situation that requires immediate attention is greatly increased. Dealing with a problem can be a whole lot easier if you are prepared, and that’s exactly what happened on a recent fishing trip to the coast.
Let me set the story. A buddy and his two young sons were fishing with me on the East Coast. It was bull redfish season. The weather forecast for the weekend wasn’t promising. My Simrad chartplotter has SiriusXM Marine Weather as an overlay on the display. They clearly showed the barrage of storm cells constantly moving in and out of the area, bringing rain showers and wind to churn up the water and make venturing offshore unsafe. An east wind and opposing tide turned the inlet into a washing machine. We decided to ditch our offshore plans and seek the relative calm of the backwaters and bay that offered some degree of protection from the stiff chop, and their dad agreed. The consensus was to fish in the rain, with a keen eye on the radar for larger storm cells.
SiriusXM Weather shows precipitation, storm cell movement, wind speed, wave height, and lightning. By the way, if you don’t have SiriusXM on board, you should. A couple of times, I would see storms on the screen 20 to 30 miles away with embedded lightning headed in our direction, and we would head for the barn. Better safe than sorry.
On day 2, I decided the weather was improving enough to fish the inlet for big sharks and bull reds. The boys caught several nice sharks, stingrays, and a variety of other fish, but no reds. After lunch, the rain diminished, but not the wind, so we moved into a shallow bay and possibly catch some trout or a smaller redfish for dinner.
Being prepared, I already had popping cork rigs tied on to the inshore rods; baited one with a live shrimp, and the other with a Project X Saucertail. On the first day, these boys proved they could cast pretty well. So one went up front with the dad, and the other came back with me to provide some distance between them, and prevent crossed lines. After a half dozen ladyfish, and a small shark, the action slowed as the tide went slack.
Eventually, the tide started moving again, and the boat began to swing on the anchor. The youngest son and I were having a grand time at the back of the boat. Dad and the older brother were equally enjoying themselves up front. Then I heard “Captain, I need some help.” I was not expecting the visual when I looked toward the bow.
Dad was on one knee, his hand grasping his neck, and blood was oozing from between his fingers. On a backcast, a 5/0 kahle hook found the center of his neck just below the jawbone; and it was driven in all the way to the bend. Fortunately, the reel was spooled with 8-pound test line, and the line snapped instead of burying the hook any further.
The first words out of my mouth were “Lay down” followed by “Can you breathe and can you talk?” Dad acknowledged that he was not in extreme pain, but was obviously concerned due to the location of the hook.
Suddenly, without warning, I’m in a situation where there are several things to consider, and it all needed to be done now. By now, the tide had turned and the current was strong. The anchor was stuck solidly on the bottom, and it would be difficult to maneuver the boat from the helm while trying to haul the anchor from the bow. Cutting the anchor line was not an option because I would have to drive right over it to get out of the creek mouth and potentially foul the props. The anchor had to come up. So, I engaged the crew. I had two little boys who were about to become men under pressure. The Honda 250’s came to life, and I eased the bow toward the anchor, allowing the boys to take up the slack in the anchor line. It was up to them to free the anchor from the bottom and haul the last few feet of line, 8 feet of heavy chain, and the heavy anchor onto the deck. Without hesitation, they jumped to the task, and working together, they got the job done. I still had a little bit of idling to do, dodging an oyster bar and maneuvering against the full force of the current to get us out of the flowing creek.
Dad was doing OK, but the situation was still tenuous. I got on VHF Channel 16 and hailed the marina. It was the closest destination where EMS could easily access. Hailing the Coast Guard or dialing 911 would only slow things down with the number of questions that have to be answered before help gets on the way. I explained my situation and the marina got EMS on the way, so I could focus on navigation, the boys, and their dad. When we arrived at the marina, EMS was pulling up. They stabilized dad, and were on their way to the hospital in mere minutes.
There’s a happy ending to the story. About an hour later I got a text. My buddy was in good shape, and he was just waiting for a tetanus shot. The hook, although deeply buried, had not pierced a neck artery. The emergency room doctor removed the hook the old-fashioned way: with a piece of string. The boys and I picked him up from the hospital, and he now has two small piercings on his neck that look exactly like he was bit by a vampire.
So, where’s the “Be Prepared” part of the story? Some of it is from training and experiences I’ve had as a captain. Every boat owner should take a first aid and CPR course. SiriusXM Marine’s satellite-based weather radar came through to help avoid the worst of a developing weather system on the way to the docks. My Simrad chartplotter displayed my exact position and water depths to avoid the oyster bar, and allowed me to take the most direct, safe course back to the marina. Because I had a VHF radio on board, everyone else with a radio heard my call for assistance, including the Coast Guard. Cell phone service can be spotty or non-existent in some of these coastal areas. In my opinion, these are all essential items for a boat, whether you’re venturing offshore, or spending the weekend on the lake.
Most memorably, I saw two boys transform to young men that day. They stepped up, got the job done, and I couldn’t have been prouder for them. Oh, and I failed to mention, they are both Scouts too. Now they truly understand the meaning of “Be Prepared”.