Capsized in Chesapeake Bay

Mj 618_348_escaping the storm
Illustration by Kevin Davis

We were about three miles from shore when I first noticed lightning. It was near dark, and we were out fishing for croaker in my father’s 16-foot Carolina ski boat near Sharkfin Shoal Light, an abandoned lighthouse in the middle of Tangier Sound in the Chesapeake Bay. The storm was south of us and looked to be moving from west to east, so we kept fishing. My father, sister, three-year-old nephew, nine-year-old niece, and I were celebrating my dad’s 70th birthday. The kids were sitting in the bow, having fun with the salt water splashing on them. Big waves usually arrive before a storm. Well, suddenly a couple large waves washed over us – the storm was actually heading our way. It was crazy fast. The tide was against the wind, causing the waves to stick close together and stand tall. The first wave filled the stern with water. The boat squatted in the sea. My dad pulled the outboard’s throttle and tried to push us out of it while I began bucketing water. Then the second wave hit. The stern filled and sank, and the whole boat flipped over from starboard to port. Luckily, everyone rolled free of the boat. The bow trapped air and stayed afloat, while the rest of the boat dangled in the water at a 45-degree angle. It was all done within 20 seconds. Then the rain and lightning hit.

We were stuck in the nastiest spot in the Chesapeake Bay. My father and I have worked there our whole lives as commercial fishermen and know the tides and currents are dangerous, because they run every which way – the bay is more complicated than being out in the ocean. In that sound, you’ve got three or four major rivers dumping into the inlet. The resulting tides kill people every year. It’s no joke.

We were all hanging on to the partially submerged boat. The kids were crying and freaking out. Waves beat us against the boat. Lightning struck the water around us. My sister and the kids had put on life jackets. I ducked underneath the capsized boat and grabbed a couple from the compartment in the bow for me and my father. We were trying to keep the kids calm. My sister, Dad, and I were like, “It’s all right; it won’t be long.” The radio and cellphone were down in the water, although we couldn’t get cell reception out there anyway. Protocol is for everyone to stick with the boat. Get your jackets on and stay put. But we were out there on a weekday at dusk, when there’s very little traffic. Only fuel barges, and they ain’t going to see you – they’ll run over you. We saw a couple and put the nine-year-old on top of the overturned boat. She waved, but they never saw us.

After an hour, the sun was setting. It was near dark, and I realized no one was coming. The three-year-old began shivering and had goose bumps all over him. My sister tried to hold him out of the water, but every third wave hit him. He kept saying, “I’m cold, I’m cold.” I don’t know if he would have made it through the night. And Dad isn’t in the best of health. I looked to the east and saw houses in the far distance. We’d already decided it was too far to swim, but I asked my sister if she wanted me to go. She said, “No, but yeah.” Wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and a cheap life vest, I decided to swim the three miles of black water to shore. I paced myself, alternating between a backstroke and a sidestroke. I sometimes stopped and hung on to football-size crab buoys to rest. I had trouble breathing among the waves. About every fourth stroke, I hit a jellyfish. They wrap around you like a big slimy noodle. Their nettles light up and burn the shit out of you. You just try to get them off as easy as possible because you don’t want to rub the venom in too bad. Worst thing you can do is stop and scratch the sting. I got stung from my cheeks to my big toe. But just knowing my family was back there kept me going.

There were also comb jellies, floating invertebrates that glow a bluish turquoise green when they’re disturbed. Bioluminescence lit me up like a Christmas tree the whole time. That was spooky. I felt like a big lure. I thought about sharks for a couple minutes, but there aren’t many out there.

After two hours, I looked back and saw one of those tugboats pushing a barge. It was very close to where I’d left my family. Those barges give off so much light that they can’t see anything. My biggest fear was that my family was going to get run over. I was scared to death, but all I could do was keep swimming. I was running on adrenaline.

I could see land the entire time. I watched people go to bed, watched them turn their lights out. I knew exactly where I was. The tides were strong. First I was sucked south, and then I was sucked north. I was racing against the tide. If I didn’t make the northern edge of the Deal Island Peninsula, the tide would have sucked me farther north into the bay. Just when I got to the point where I thought, “Man, I’m not going to make it,” I let my body relax and my foot hit the sand. I had just caught the tip of the upper mainland before being sent farther out into the bay. I cried. I still had to go about the length of two football fields along the sandbar to shore, but I didn’t have to fight the tide anymore. I was like, “I’ve got this now.”

When I reached the beach, I was so tired, I couldn’t even walk. I crawled along the granite rocks and got cut up pretty good. After a while, I got my legs back. I went to a house decorated with Christmas lights and yelled, “Come to the door!” Two ladies came out. One said it was 1:10. I was like, “Oh, my God!” They called the Coast Guard and the fire department, who alerted the sheriff – and then gave me a sweatshirt and towel.

The sheriff and I went out in a boat to where I’d left my family. They were gone. A Coast Guard helicopter arrived and spotlighted them six miles north from where I’d left them. An hour and a half after I hit shore, the Mt. Vernon volunteer fire department boat picked up my family and transferred them to a Department of Natural Resources boat, where I was reunited with them. They were tired and cold but in good health. Nobody went to the hospital. What I felt when we were back together is unexplainable. Don’t get no better.

The amusing part is that my three-year-old nephew can’t wait to go back out to fish in the bay. But we’re not going anywhere in that boat again. Unless it’s bass fishing in a pond.

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