That Sinking Feeling, Again
That Sinking Feeling, Again – Richard Londeree
As I sit here writing this, it has been seven days since I had a near death experience farming our aquaculture site in The Florida Keys. It was last Thursday, November 12, 1998, 7:30 am in the morning, the day before Friday the thirteenth, that my vessel sank just inside the reef about five miles from land!
The story begins the day before, Wednesday the 11th at 3 am when my alarm clock went off awaking me from deep sleep, and preparation for the 6-hour drive to the Keys. I had my boat already hooked up to the truck in the driveway, with all my tropical fish collecting nets and containers, my diving gear, breakdown tools, spare tires, water in a cooler, fishing rods, and a whole truck full of necessary items needed for a week’s trip to the Keys.
Turning on the coffee pot, brushing the teeth, and a quick shower, Susie, my Labrador retriever, and I were ready for the long haul down to the rock mine in the everglades to collect some seed rock to place on our aquaculture lease in the Keys.
At the last moment my girlfriend decided not to make this trip a good thing as her job had her tied up for the week, so it was Susie and I on the road at 3:30 am, heading south on interstate 75 toward the rock mine. Coffee thermos in hand, with Jimmy Buffet in the CD player we made about 75 miles per hour and good time down to Bonita Springs, where I always stop at the Waffle House for an early morning breakfast, to get the strength to pick up 2500 pounds of seed rock.
After breakfast and on the road again it is just 25 miles to Naples where US Highway 41 intersects I-75 and begins its long trail across the Florida Everglades. I always like this part of the trip as it is though the unspoiled everglades, where animal and bird life abound, and it is just getting light, providing a beautiful sunrise to the east in front of me, the birds starting to fly, the alligators coming out to capture some sun to heat their cold-blooded bodies. Out of coffee by now and fully pumped up to gather the rock, it is just 80 miles across the glades and on to the rock mine.
Arriving at the mine I get the truck, trailer and boat weighed on the scale before roaming around the 1000-acre site, picking the most beautiful seed rock available in the world. Sometimes there is abundant rock to pick from, sometimes it takes all day to collect the load. This was a good day as I had the load in about four hours, beautiful rock, some as small as my hand some weighing 100-200 pounds, for those large aquariums. Driving across the scale again I see I have just over 2500 pounds on the new boat.
Exiting the mine, it is now a two-hour drive down to Plantation Key where I stay with my friends Clark and Linda Lou Jones. Getting through Homestead and Florida City, you encounter “The Stretch” a 20-mile two lane highway leading into the Keys. The first Key is Key Largo and as I cross the Jewfish Creek drawbridge, you are officially in The Fabulous Florida Keys!
Rounding the last corner before Key Largo I notice the trees and signs are blown down and destroyed, as Tropical storm Mitch had just come a visit the week before. The damage was amazing, homes blown apart, many giant trees down, debris everywhere, many sunk boats in the canals. This was alot of damage compared to Hurricane Georges that brushed the Keys a few weeks before, but did little damage on land, but destroyed the reef with his 100 MPH sustained winds for 12 hours.
Driving along in disbelief I wondered what was left of our aquaculture site, just behind Crocker Reef. It’s only another 20 miles on down to Tavernier and Plantation Key, my destination. It is now early afternoon, and the plan was to get there early enough to be able to launch the boat, get out to our site, deploy the rock, make a dive to arrange it and do some offshore fishing for dinner. Unfortunately, the wind was gusting 15-20 knots, and seas were 6-8 feet making it impossible to get out as it was too rough.
I launched the boat, brought it down the canal and tied up behind Clark’s house. I noticed the boat was sitting rather low in the water with the load of rock on. This was the first trip for this boat to the Keys as my last vessel had split her hull on a similar trip and was unusable. I had used this boat, a T-Craft two days before in Tampa taking a load of rock out to our aquaculture site off Tampa, where we have 4 million pounds of live rock under production since 1993. She had performed well getting right up on top and running well with a load of rock on.
The next morning, I was up with Clark, a ballyhoo fisherman, at 5 am, a little coffee and he was off to his boat and me to mine. The weather was a little better, they were calling for 4–6-foot waves inside the reef where our site is. So out the canal, through Florida Bay, down Tavernier Creek where it is about 4.5 miles to the site. The ride was OK until I got to the last marker, the headpin to Tavernier Creek. The seas were quite rough, but I was able to keep her at speed, crashing through the waves, heading out.
My GPS was telling me I was approaching the site, and the seas seemed to be building, but it was like many of the other 74 trips I have made developing this site. Reaching the area I surveyed the situation, deciding where I needed to place the anchor to get me directly over the site. Turning around and heading into the sea to get out front of the site, allowing enough anchor line out to be able to grab the bottom and stay in that spot, I reversed course to allow the anchor to hang, as I did, I took a 6-foot wave over the transom.
Unprepared for the intensity and weight of the water on board the boat floundered, and I took another wave over the transom. At this point I knew the boat was going down, went up to the bow to grab a life preserver for me and Susie, the boat went down like a rock. I did not have two seconds to simply bend over and grab a vest out of the gunnel, the boat just disappeared into the sea. But the bow was sticking out above the surface about two feet, and I thought to myself, all right she is going to float, and I can hang onto the bow until a boat showed up and rescued me and Susie.
Susie was swimming in the six-foot seas around and around the boat, as I had managed to grab a rope which was tied to the bow cleat, as all of a sudden my little Igloo cooler popped to the surface with some cans of water in it. I grabbed the cooler and tied the rope to it to have something to hang on too that would float. That was a mistake as I noticed the boat was going down fast I had just seconds to try to get it untied before the boat disappeared under the sea. It was just like the Titanic movie, the bow pointing up in the air, and the whooshing noise made as the air escaped from the cabin windows as she went down. I was able to loosen the knot just as she disappeared under the waves.
So here I am holding onto the bow rope, looking down to the bottom where the boat had settled upside down. Being upside down it made it impossible to dive down and get anything as there was no space between the boat and the bottom of the ocean. I hung onto the rope for about ten minutes, when I decided this was doing me no good as I was just wasting energy hanging on in the rough seas. Susie was doing OK as she is a good swimmer and was swimming around me.
There was not a boat in sight as it was a rough day, unlike the weekends when there are lots of boats out and rescue would have been easier. Plus, when it is that rough you cannot see very well as the waves are so tall. Every now and then a wave would pick me up and I could see the Marker at Davis Reef about a mile from me. Looking the other way, I could see land. I decided upon swimming for land which is about five miles from where I was. I had no fins, mask, snorkel, nothing, just shorts and a Tee shirt on. Ever tried to swim in the ocean in six-foot waves, with no equipment, not so easy.
I had one advantage though as the tide was coming in and would be high tide around 12 PM. For the first couple of hours Susie and I swam apart, as I was holding onto the cooler to stay afloat, she would swim with me. The current runs down the Keys, not toward shore, so the swim would be parallel to shore not towards it. I could hear a diesel boat in the distance pulling lobster traps, but I did not know which way he was going, or I would have grabbed a trap and hung on until he showed up to pull the trap, but I did not like the 50-50 chance of him coming my way, so I kept swimming.
After about three hours in the water Susie was becoming tired and began trying to climb up on me to stay afloat. She weighs 65 pounds and would try to put her paws around my neck and back paws around my stomach. This did not work as I could not keep her and I afloat with all her extra weight. I looped my arm through the cooler allowing her to put her two front paws on my arm that was looped through the cooler to keep her afloat. This left me with one arm to swim and two feet to kick with. Progress was slow but I was moving faster than the seaweed on the surface which gave me hope.
She soon figured out this plan and did real well hanging onto my arm, but in the process, she had scratched and opened many cuts on my back, arms, and legs. Well, I was swimming in Hawks Channel which has a reputation of having the biggest and meanest sharks in the Keys, the man-eating bull shark. I was bleeding like a stuck pig all over my body, the perfect shark bait. Plus, there were many giant stinging jellyfish floating everywhere, which I had to avoid as multiple stings can paralyze you.
After about four hours in the water, I could see I was making progress towards shore but was nearing Snake Creek which is about six miles south of Tavernier creek where I had come out from. About that time, I got hit by a big jellyfish on my left side, the pain was great, but the adrenalin was still flowing and I kind of ignored the pain. Susie was getting really bad by now, trying to put all four feet up on my arm to stay afloat. This caused the cooler to open and flood, spilling the cans of water I had. I had to push Susie off refloat the cooler and save one can of water in case the tide changed, and I was pushed offshore into the Gulf Stream. I didn’t want to die of thirst if I could survive the swim. I held one can of water in the hand I had looped through the cooler.
At five hours in the water in those rough seas I was becoming real tired, and would only swim for short periods, holding onto the cooler with both hands, I did not make much progress but could save energy by hanging on with both hands. At this point Susie had white foamy stuff coming out her mouth and she was making desperate noises, looking at me with big scared brown eyes. I was not coming back to shore without my dog and had to keep her afloat to save her life.
At five and one half ours in the water in a desperate situation I asked God for a boat to come by. Looking death in the face you think about a lot of things and find it easy to talk to God. It could not have been ten minutes and I heard a boat motor but could not see it as the waves were so high. From behind me on the top of a wave I saw a boat coming towards me!!
There they were my rescuers, coming towards me. Susie saw the boat and went for it, as they were approaching me. But as she neared the boat she turned as she did not recognize anyone on the boat and growled at them. They were quickly beside me, I pushed Susie up on the boat, they grabbed my cooler and I climbed up the ladder. Boy it never felt so good to be on a boat!
I had been in the water almost six hours, swam about 6 miles, was bleeding all over but was safe with my dog Susie. The guys on the boat were amazed that we had swam so far in such rough seas and survived. They had been out lobster diving, the only boat out of Snake Creek, and had caught sight of the blue cooler on their way in. They did not see us until they got real close and realized we were swimming. They said they had not seen any boats all day. We were half a mile from the headline marking the channel of Snake Creek when they picked us up. The Lord was listening, and we were saved.
They were kind enough to give us a ride back to my truck at Clarks house on Plantation Key. I hopped in the truck and went to Clark’s business, Plantation Fisheries. He had just got back to the dock with his load of fish and said he was glad I did not go out as it was so rough. I told him what had happened, he said he wondered what he was up as had come by the aquaculture site looking for me. We hopped right on his boat and went out looking for my boat. He as a big 30 Island Hopper boat, easily took the six-foot seas. I had no GPS to locate the site, as it had gone down with the boat. We looked for about an hour from atop the big tower he has on his boat but could not find my boat. I was real tired and sore and told him to forget it until the next day, when I would purchase a new GPS to find the site.
Upon return to shore, I notified the Coast Guard of the sinking and a Marine Sanctuary officer, Mr. Benny Davis called me for a report. We were to meet the next morning to fill out paperwork and look for the vessel. He showed up the next day with his boat and Clark with his, we went back out to look for the boat. We looked and looked and could not find the boat. It was only 24 hours after it sank, but we could not find it. expanding our search pattern, the Sanctuary officer called us on the radio and said, “come get her”. He had found the boat over 1/2 a mile from where I had sunk, still upside down on the bottom.
It was still located on a sand bottom which is good as they officers get real excited if you damage the reef with a sunk boat. Plus, there was no fuel spill or slick. I geared up with scuba tanks and went down to look at her. What I saw was a destroyed boat. Just one night underwater and the boat had holes in it, the motor ripped off, no windshield, no nothing. Clark threw me a rope to attach to the bow eye so he could pull it up. He tried and tried but as the boat was upside down it acted as a diving plane and would not come off the bottom. Benny threw me a rope from his vessel, I tied it to a side cleat, he pulled with his boat, and under full tilt power, rolled the boat over underwater.
Clark was then able to pull with his boat and my boat slowly came to the surface. Under full power with his boat Clark kept towing and my boat slowly got higher and higher in the water. I was on Benny’s boat, and he got me close to the boat and I jumped into her to pull the plug to allow all the water to run out and float. This process to the whole 6 miles back to shore to get the water and sand out. She floated and we pulled it back to the boat ramp and put her on the trailer.
Needless to say, I have been real sore for a week, my arms still hurt, but the cuts are healing up. The vessel is a total loss, thirty thousand dollars down the drain, Susie and I am alive, thank God. I found a new much bigger boat with a full transom the next day, purchased it, hauled it back to Tampa, got up the next morning a 3am, returned to the Keys for the destroyed boat, and hauled it home yesterday.
Anybody need a slightly used boat??