A while back a friend asked me what my scariest sailing story was. Now I have capsized, been dismasted, experienced offshore spinnaker knockdowns, near sinkings and any number of scary sailing events, but by far the time I was most scared was on a power boat.
Many years ago, a well-known local celebrity had a Fourth of July party for his employees and their families, about 100 people in all. He planned to rent one of the big “party barges” from a local resort. All the big boats had already been reserved, so he got two of the smaller boats, each holding about 50 passengers complete with bartender, caterer, and DJ.
Each boat had three captains working four-hour shifts. I had the second shift on one of the boats and by the time I arrived at 1 p.m., they had been partying all morning and were pretty well oiled. The boats were moored beside each other at the dock and the DJ on each one was trying to blast the other one out of existence. When we finally convinced them to go out on the lake, everyone found that all their friends were on the other boat, or their camera/purse/medication/etc. was on the other boat. We pulled into an island and a bunch of people switched boats while a few went exploring. Meanwhile, the DJs continued their deafening racket.
Eventually, we got back out on the lake and were cruising along with me behind the other boat when I spotted two cantaloupe-sized heads bobbing around in the water ahead of us. Evidently, they had decided to swim between the boats. (“Hold my beer and watch this!”)
Neither had a life jacket and both were in trouble. I stopped the boat close enough to get a line and a life jacket on each of them but then we had the problem of getting them on board.
Keep in mind that we were in the middle of the lake in 125 feet of water with two- to three-foot waves coming from power boat wakes in every direction.
The boat had a ladder, but it was only meant to extend down to the beach when passengers wanted to go ashore on an island, so it didn’t go all the way into the water. We tried pulling one up with the line, but he screamed “Stop, stop, you’re hurting me, you’re hurting me.”
Now I’m a pretty big guy but these two were over 250 pounds each, mostly fat, and covered with suntan oil! I finally got three other guys my size and with two of us holding onto each arm, we got one of them up onto the bottom rung of the ladder in a sitting position, got him turned around and finally up onto the deck. We repeated the process with the other one and without a word of thanks, they headed for the bar.
During a situation like this, the adrenaline is flowing, and you just remain calm and do whatever has to be done to solve the problem. It was only later on that I realized how close those two guys had come to being just another statistic. One of the happiest moments of my career was when the boat was safely tied up at the dock and I turned it over to the next captain thus ending my responsibility.
Several years later that same celebrity had his employee party at one of the many state parks around the lake. The way I heard it, he had rented a number of personal watercraft for the day. One of them was towing a pair of young children on an inner tube when another one of them tried to cut in between the tow boat and the inner tube. It killed one of the kids and seriously injured the other. Every Fourth of July I think of this tragedy and am extra vigilant when out on the water.