Heading down the Intracoastal Waterway, we were passing through one of our favorite Southern states. Beautiful forest, marsh, winding creeks and rivers blended together in a smorgasbord of passages. Occasionally a bridge crossed the channel, vehicular traffic zooming in a mad rush to get from one side to the other. Many of the bridges opened only at certain times, and in our boat, we had to time our approach carefully. A car can easily stop, unbothered by current and wind. Not so with a boat.
We proceeded slowly to arrive at the bridge at just the right time. We knew the current would be pushing us, and the channel was too narrow to do much maneuvering, especially with the wind. Moving along, we passed a quiet village. Beach houses were scattered along the shore, and long, spindly piers reached out to the deep water at the channel. Local folks fished from the floats at the end of those piers, as well as in skiffs. All was well on the ICW. Until we heard the roar.
Behind us, a tuna tower raced across the marsh. Since tuna towers generally don’t float on their own, we figured there was a large sportfish attached underneath. We expected to see it as it rounded the bend and emerged from behind the marsh grass. That happened sooner than we thought.
The sportfish careened around the bend and threw a sheet of spray onto the bank as it slid toward the mud. Its shallow keel and stubby rudders caught the water, and the thrust of its mighty engines rushed it toward us. We were a displacement-hull motorsailer, slow in the best of times compared to a sportfish. We also have a rounded bottom. Unless the wind is up and the sails are drawing — they weren’t — we don’t do well with huge wakes crashing on the beam.
The sportfish roared past, rolling us from beam to beam and creating havoc in our home below deck. The wake also demolished several of the floats attached to the spindly docks.
Beyond the docks, a family was quietly fishing in a skiff anchored just off the low-tide mud bank. There were probably three generations in that little boat, enjoying the warm day and pulling in fish. The sportfish didn’t slow in the slightest as it passed them. The first tsunami threw the skiff ashore onto the sloping, muddy bank. The next wave swamped the boat, leaving the people soaking wet, spitting out muddy water and watching their bucket of fish float away.
As we staggered by, still rolling, we saw them helplessly shaking fists at the receding stern of the sportfish, yelling into the wind as they tried to wade through the muck to higher ground. That receding stern displayed a home port from a state far to the north. I won’t name that state here, as I’m sure there are good people who live there.
We continued down the ICW, repairing the wreck below and still hoping to arrive at the bridge on time. As always, we had our two VHF radios on — one tuned to the bridge channel, which was 13. Listening helps us learn of any problems there may be at the bridge, and, soon enough, we heard a lot of ruckus on 13. After a few minutes of yelling and cursing, a voice came through more clearly.
“Hilda, Hilda, this is Oscar. I want you to hold that bridge ’til I get there.”
Before I go any further, let me assure you that since this is what we call a “true story,” I’ve taken the liberty of changing all the names and a few details. No point in causing any angst, all these years later.
Hilda came back with a smile in her voice. “Why, Oscar, how’s it going today? What do you want me to hold this bridge for? You know I’m supposed to open it on the hour.”
“You need to hold that bridge ’cause there’s gonna be a big sportfish wanting to get through!” Oscar yelled. “He just came by the village, and me and my wife and momma and the kids was all out fishing in the skiff, and his wake swamped the skiff, threw us into the mud and nearly drowned us all. And the fish got away, too.”
After a pause, Hilda replied, “Why, Oscar, that’s terrible, but I still don’t see why you want me to hold this opening.”
“I want you to hold that bridge ’cause I’m in Junior’s pickup truck with his little VHF radio, and I’m heading down the road to your bridge, and when I get there I’m gonna teach that sportfish driver some manners he’ll never forget. And oh, yeah, you’ll know the boat because it has that northern state of XYZ on the stern — and Hilda, it’s big.”
“Oh, well it might be I could just delay it a little bit,” Hilda said. “Matter of fact, that sportfish is waiting at my fenders now, backing and filling like he thinks he’s a mad bull in a rodeo.”
We were trapped. We couldn’t turn around in the narrow channel, and we were heading for the trouble at the bridge. As we approached, we slowed as much as we could, trying to stay well behind the bucking bronco sportfish.
And then the day brightened. Oscar came back to Hilda on 13 and said, “I ’preciate your help, but you can go ahead and open ’er up if you want.”
“What changed your mind?”
“I stopped to get gas and found out that the people driving that boat weren’t the type of people I thought they were. The boat’s owners stopped at the marina up the way, and they had business back up North, so they hired my cousin Ralph and his son to drive the boat on down the coast, and I don’t really want to do what I had in mind to do to them. So I’m just going home and dry off.”
“OK, good, I’m kinda glad to hear that,” Hilda said, somewhat relieved. “I’ll open ’er up so Ralph and that sailboat that’s way behind him can get through.”
She did, and Ralph gunned it — hard. The stern dug down in the shallow water, throwing an even bigger wake than before as he cleared the fenders. Just on the other side of those fenders was another family in another small boat. And Ralph did the same thing to them, except worse.
Hilda got on 13 and said to the sportfish, “I don’t care who you are. You shouldn’t come through this bridge like that, and just look what you did to those poor people in that skiff.”
“Hell, Hilda,” Ralph replied, now far down the creek. “That wasn’t me what done that. That was that sailboat back there.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue.