Capt. Sergio’s Corner By: Capt. Sergio Atanes

A September to Remember

September 10, 1987, my life changed during an ordeal I hope none of my readers go through–the sinking of my boat 35 miles offshore.

I had purchased what I though was going to be my pride and joy. A new 27-foot cuddy cabin vessel with twin 175 Evinrudes.  She was beautiful, so I named her Irene’s Dream after my wife.  It started out like any fishing trip offshore. We talked about it all week and were really itching to go. My best friend Larry Lavin, my uncle Manuel Valdes and his friend Pedro Labrador met at my home at 4:30 am. We were going after grouper as we did every weekend in those days. It was the perfect time of year to catch big grouper, within 40 miles of shore.

We launched at Nick’s Marina in Port Richey, which is the closest spot to our planned destination. From there, we ran to one of the markers to catch our live bait. We already had 10 pounds of fresh frozen Spanish sardines in our Gott 172 cooler, as a backup, just in case live bait was hard to get.  A livewell packed with bait fish, heavy with water and a cooler, equally heavy, weighed down the stern of the boat.  Under normal conditions, this would not be a problem.  However, we soon were to live in conditions far from normal.

I was turning 4200 rpm on the engines, making good headway toward our fishing spot about 35 miles offshore. There were three foot rollers with a 20-knot breeze.  Shortly, it started to rain and the wind picked up to about 30 knots, gusting to 40 knots. The seas were piling up to about eight feet.  The added stern weight of the cooler packed with ice, bait and drinks plus, the added weight of the 70-gallon live bait well had lowered the transom of the boat to about water level.

About that time, I looked aft and was horrified to see a huge wave break over the stern.  In no time, we were standing in ankle-deep water.  The splash well was working in reverse!  Instead of releasing water, it was retaining water in the stern, setting it deeper in the water.

Another wave broke over the stern.  The engines couldn’t take another submerging and quit.  Driving rain and two feet of water covering the deck was too much.  I was able to get one motor started. We needed to get on a plane and get the water out or we were going down.  I gave the only motor running full throttle–it lasted about minute and shut down. Another big wave broke over the stern and I knew this was the beginning of the end for us.

“Get out! Get out! Larry shouted.  We’re going down!”  The batteries were dead and no Mayday call had been sent.  As the boat capsized, we saw the cooler float free from the sinking boat.  The life jackets were in a duffel bag, still in the cabin of the boat.  “Larry,” I said “you’re the strongest of the group, try to swim into the cabin before the boat sinks and grab the life jackets.”  After several tries Larry managed to grab the duffel bag and within minutes, we saw the boat sink.

The only thing keeping us alive was the cooler with 10 pounds of frozen bait, a 6-pack of Coke and, thanks to Larry, life jackets.  The boat sank somewhere around 8:30 a.m. Larry looked at his watch; it was 11 p.m.  “Hey, we are losing it fast!” Larry said. It was a struggle to keep our minds clear.

At one point, I shouted, “Who kicked me, stop it!”  I was horrified to see a 4-foot-long shark.  Larry started slapping the water hard, then he struck the nose of the shark with his fist.  It swum through Pedro’s legs and disappeared.

We didn’t worry about sharks, even after all of that–we worried about our families, about our insurance and wills; how will our kids and wives do when we’re gone?  We were dying and it hurt.

About 2 a.m., a wave of jellyfish wrapped around our bodies.  I remember the pain–it felt like being stuck with thousands of needles.  Then, it didn’t matter.  The stings came and went, and came again.

4 a.m. came, and we were hungry and thirsty; we had decided we would share one can of Coke every four hours to make them last as long as possible not knowing when and if we were going to get rescued.

At dawn, Larry, the tallest, stretched and saw a ship on the horizon.  At first, he didn’t say anything, because he didn’t want us to have false hopes.  As the ship drew nearer, he told us. Larry took the yellow slicker and pushed himself on top of the cooler. Larry waved as the ship drew nearer, only to watch it come within a mile and sail on by. Larry waved harder, with tears streaking down his cheecks.  He saw a speck of a man standing on the stern of the vessel.  Did he see a slight change in course? Yes! He waved more, and we all started shouting and waving.  The ship turned and drew closer.  Larry continued to wave while we screamed, laughed, cried and pounded each other on the back.

The ship was close now, its rails lined with shouting men. Larry continued to wave, even as the Jacobs ladder dropped down the side of the boat.  Someone shouted, “We’ve got you!” We struggled up the ladder and collapsed on the deck of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration ship Oregon II.  It was about 9 a.m. Sunday morning–just about the time the Coast Guard was starting its search.

After a ship-to-shore phone call home, we were delivered to a Coast Guard vessel from Sand Key Station.   And, to the shouts of children, wives, relatives and friends, four men slowly departed down the gangplank to waiting tears, hugs, laughter and kisses of our families. The ordeal was over.  The crew of Irene’s Dream was home.