It’s spring and boaters are taking to the waterways of North Carolina to break the monotony of the winter doldrums. Even though the numbers of the boaters seem to be declining due to the price of fuel and the general decline of the economy, there is still a need to be aware of boating safety.
The U.S Coast Guard and its Auxiliary are on the water and at the launching sites asking small boaters to check their safety gear. Our own North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Game Wardens are patrolling and writing tickets to boaters who violate the state laws and regulations while afloat.
This sounds like standard operating procedure for the small boaters but how often do you see the various enforcement agencies checking on the larger fishing boats that specialize on wandering around in the offshore waters?
In the past 20 years we boaters have seen the small boaters who stay on the somewhat calmer waters of our lakes, rivers and sounds start to wear their life jackets (personal flotation devices, PFDs) as a standard part of being on the water. It took years of the USCG and local enforcement agencies stressing water safety to the small boaters and advising all boaters to wear their PFDs and still only a few boaters wore the PFDs as standard operating procedure. It wasn’t until some strenuous work by the well-well known Ray Scott of the Bass Angler Sportsman Society and Forrest Woods of Ranger Boats started requiring all boaters taking part in their tournaments to wear their PFDs at all times while their boats were under way that these small boaters began to accept the idea of using of PFDs.
Thanks to these earlier efforts, small boaters began to adapt the concept of wearing the PFDs even when they were not in a contest. Fashionable, well-designed and effective PFDs became the “IN” things to be wearing for bass anglers as well as other small boaters.
How many of the boaters who go on the water in the larger boats such as the offshore fishing boats do you see wearing their PFDs as they’re under way? I’d venture to say that darned few wear the PFDs as they troll for big game fish unless they are expecting to sink or are having rough weather. As one of the boaters on a 60-foot offshore boat recently told me, “I’d be laughed out of the yacht club if I boarded my boat actually wearing a life jacket.”
When I recently boarded a 45 foot-long offshore fishing boat to enjoy a day’s fishing for tuna and marlin off the coast of the Bahamas it didn’t enter my mind about wearing a life jacket. As we boarded the boat the captain carefully reviewed the boat’s safety rules and pointed out a locker filled with the standard, tried and proven, orange life jackets. The weather was good and it looked like a good day afloat was in store for us.
Unfortunately the fish were not cooperating in these waters off the coast of the Abacoes as we trolled six lines rigged for tuna or marlin. We were experiencing moderate waves but not uncomfortable at all as we loafed along at about 7-knots.
I was comfortably seated on a large, heavy icebox just outside the confines of the boat’s cabin with my back toward the starboard side of the boat. There was no need to hold onto anything because I was securely seated and not moving around.
I say, “Securely seated” because all that changed in the blink of an eye when a “rogue wave” came onto the boat from the portside. The boat abruptly went up on its port side and sharply down on the starboard side. The icebox I was seated on tilted backward and, from my seated position, I did a perfect back flip over the side of the boat and into water that the captain later described as being 7,000 feet deep (as in the Tongue Of The Ocean).
My first thoughts after I hit the water was to keep clear of the boat’s propeller when the boat went past me but, apparently, my classic back flip had propelled me well off to the side of the boat and clear of the underside where to rudder and prop were located. My next thought was that I had six, 50 pound-test fishing lines with big hooks attached on the aft end approaching me as the boat continued on its way. I felt one of the fishing lines on my shoulder and grabbed it hoping to ward off the lure that was on the other end.
Meanwhile, back on the boat the “Man Overboard Drill” was underway as three anglers frantically reeled in the lures and the captain worked feverishly to get the boat stopped and backing-down to retrieve its overboard passenger.
One of the fishermen aboard the boat grabbed the rod that was attached to the line I was holding onto and started to reel it in when he suddenly realized that a “fish” was attached to the line. “There’s a fish on this one!” he yelled up at the captain who immediately thought that the “fish” might get the line tangled on the overboard man and yelled back at the angler to “cut the line, cut the line.”
I was yelling back at them that “it isn’t a fish on the line, it’s me.” The heavy line could easily have helped to pull me back toward the boat, which was now stopped about 150 yards downwind of me.
When the line was finally cut this left me fishing with a 50 pound-test hand line that I was holding in my hand in some very deep water that held God knows what kind of deep-sea creatures. It was quickly decided to let go of the line and wait for the boat to back up to me.
Since the water in these semi-tropical waters is typically warm I wasn’t at all uncomfortable as I simply floated on my back and waited for the boat to come back. I’d lost my prescription sunglasses to the deep but spotted my favorite Maui hat floating a few yards away and swam over to get it as I waited.
Luckily the boat had a swim platform so this was a great aid in helping me to get back on board the boat. Every angler on the boat grabbed some piece of my clothing or flesh and heaved me aboard. As I slid back onto the deck my reply was; “That was quite a refreshing experience.”
In retrospect it was a bit unusual that not one person onboard the boat had thought to throw me one of the many orange life jackets stowed easily accessible only a few feet away. Frankly I didn’t think of that either because I knew that as long as I wasn’t cold, injured, panicked or tired I could hold out for a long time just floating out there in the deep blue Atlantic Ocean.
It never really crossed my mind to think about why I didn’t wear my PFD that day. It would be a rare boater who’s aboard a large offshore boat who wears a PFD the entire time while aboard a bigger boat. They might if the weather was really rough or the boat was in immediate danger but all the time? That’s practically unheard of. Would I have been better off to have been wearing a PFD? You bet I would have been better off.
Under similar circumstances for similar offshore fishing trips in the future, would I wear a PFD? Probably not, even though virtually every public safety organization like the U.S. Coast Guard recommends it.
I’d guess that I’m just hard-headed and resent having any government agency telling me what to do all the time even though they think that it’s for our betterment. I deeply feel that we currently have too many rules and regulations governing our everyday lives. That’s why I’ve left a request that, when I die, I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered onto the Pamlico River near Indian island. If ashes have minds, they’d be quite comfortable there.