In the spring of 1982, I captained a commercial fishing vessel, a 31’9” BHM, the “Sea Wolf”, rigged for the long line fishing of Grouper and Tile fish off of the coast of South Carolina. Typically, when I left the dock for a week of fishing, the boat carried 4200 pounds of ice, 200 gallons of fuel, 100 gallons of non-potable fresh water for showers, a few groceries, and one deckhand. On this trip we were fishing for grouper in 450 to 750 feet of water about 70 miles from Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.
I remember on that particular evening after dark, the ocean was glass calm. Fishing had been great, so we finished a sixteen hour day getting all of the grouper cleaned and the gear stowed. Inshore of us about twenty miles was a place where all of the smaller commercial boats anchored for the night because of the relative safety of many anchor lights shining, and the fact that our anchor lines could reach the bottom in 120 feet of water, so I headed in to take advantage of a rare good nights sleep.
In the anchorage there were six boats, all of the captains were friends of mine. The radios chattered over the day’s catch, tomorrow’s plans, etc. The next morning at sunup we headed the Sea Wolf back offshore while everyone else headed in. The weather forecast was for a fifteen to twenty knot nor’ westerly wind and seas from five to eight feet high, off shore. In two hours I had the gear in the water, and had hauled back the first set. Out of twelve hooks on the bottom in 600 feet of water, I had ten grouper in the sixty to eighty pound range. My deckhand, who was making his first trip, noticed that the ocean was a little rougher than what I had told him to look for so he called my attention to it.
“Nothing to worry about,” I replied, “if there were any weather problems those fellows inshore of us would have called me by now.” I took a brief look around at the ocean and noticed that the sea was streaked from the wind, a sure sign that it was sustaining over twenty knots.
The grouper were biting so good that I really did not care what the ocean was doing, and the BHM was one of the most stable boats of its class in the water. We hauled back several more sets, when I noticed that the antenna was bowed over the mast at almost a ninety-degree angle. I listened for the weather forecast on the NOAA weather channel, still fifteen to twenty out of the northwest.
The ocean was up over twelve feet and was starting to get a little difficult to work when the radio crackled weakly, “Sea Wolf, Sea Wolf, this is the Playmate, over.”
I went in the cabin to answer the radio and talk to my friend Randy on the swordfish long-liner, a 44-foot boat, the “Playmate”. Randy had been out for about two weeks and was heading home.
I got a little concerned over his next words, “What are you doing out there? The forecast is for seventy knot winds and thirty foot seas!” He had gotten his information from a non-government forecast, and was heading in. Needless to say, we started for home. The problem was, when I turned toward Murrells Inlet seventy miles away; the wind was shrieking at over seventy miles an hour right into our faces. My only thought at that point was to try to get further inshore where there would be a slim chance that someone would find the boat.
For the next twenty hours we worked to keep the Sea Wolf headed in the general direction of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, and on top of the water. Several times we were completely buried by twenty-foot plus waves and once, as we crested the top of the largest wave that I’ve experienced, we found a seventy-foot shrimp boat directly below us, hidden in the trough of the monster wave. I can still see the fright on those men’s faces as we slid down under the stern of their boat and up the next wave. That boat sunk the same evening, but the men were rescued!
I’ve often thought of that extremely long and frightening day. Had my friend, Randy, not heard me by chance on the radio, and told me of the impending storm that had been mis-forecast; I probably would not have made it home. Not one of my “friends” from the inshore anchorage, that had faced the brunt of the wind at least an hour before me, had even tried to call a warning to me!
I’ve had several people ask if I survived that storm. Well, sometimes I wonder, but yes, we made it back to the dock at the Exxon Marina on the Sampit River in Georgetown, South Carolina at about three AM in the morning. The Coast Guard even boarded us and searched the boat for drugs during the fifteen mile run into Winyah Bay, as was the practice for any boat coming in after sundown in those days.
A good man, the late Bill Collins, owned the Sea Wolf. If he had any shortcomings it would have been his thriftiness. I made several trips on the boat without life jackets because Bill was too tight to buy them. We weren’t allowed to spend any money except what the boat earned as its share of the trip. He said that not being able to leave the boat would give me more incentive to get it back home. What a sense of humor!
I found out that a tour boat named the “Miss Tiffany”, which had been sunk in Murrells Inlet for about a year, had quite a few life jackets on board. A true native of the area, Captain Leo Gardner, owned the Miss Tiffany. Leo agreed after much persuasion on my part to trade me several of the life jackets for a couple of big groupers. The hitch was that I would have to wade into the slimy wreck at low tide and pull them out!
I took Captain Leo two forty-pound fish after my next trip, and retrieved six slimy, U.S. Coast Guard approved, kapok filled, adult life jackets for the Sea Wolf. Well, after a little cleanup and some time in the sun, they started to smell less like dead fish, so I had the mate stow them away. My deckhand and I wore these life jackets during the twenty plus hours in the storm.
After the storm, when we finally made it back to port, the Sea Wolf was in shambles. I had a broken side trawler window, broken antenna, 500 gallons of water in the fore peak with all of our gear flooded, fish slime, and a pile of broken, tangled tackle all over the aft deck. We spent the next day cleaning the old girl up. I was scrubbing the cabin when I accidentally knocked one of the life jackets that had been hung out to dry, over the side of the boat. My helper and I watched in horror and disbelief as it sunk out of sight in the brown, brackish, tidal water of the Sampit River. We had counted on those great looking life jackets for our salvation when the worst of the seas pounded the boat almost out from under us! Well, it made for some good story telling at the time, but looking back on it from up here, I realize how foolish I was to put my trust in something that I had not tried.
Well, I certainly learned a lesson that I have used many times over the years, both in my dealings here on earth and in my spiritual walk.
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