After barely swimming back to shore, the Georgia man has some crucial safety advice to share
When Chris Palomba let a friend borrow his Century 2400 Inshore for the day, he didn’t expect it to end up logging 130 miles without a skipper on board.
Palomba, 44, of Lawrenceville, Ga., and his friend of eight years Michael Bursten, 41, of Roswell, Ga., had traveled to Panama City Beach, Fla., for a weekend of cobia fishing aboard the 24-foot center console, which is powered by a 350-hp Yamaha 4-stroke and has a tower with a second helm station.
The outing was to begin around 4 p.m. April 17, but Palomba was called away at the last minute and told Bursten he could take the boat out on his own. “The guy’s been fishing for 30 years; I didn’t think there’d be a problem,” says Palomba.
But a big problem did develop — about a mile offshore. “I was in the tower and decided to leave the boat in gear so it would have a predictable roll while I climbed down,” Bursten writes in an account of the incident he drafted. He was not wearing a life jacket, and seas were reportedly 3 to 6 feet. “As I started down, a huge wave hit the boat and rolled it starboard, then jerked back so hard to port that I was tossed 5 feet clear of the boat. I hit the water with full rain gear on, as it was cold, and all I remember was a total panic setting in watching my friend’s brand-new boat sail off slowly to the southwest by itself.”
A mile offshore and with no PFD, Bursten says he felt both frightened and vulnerable. He says he initially panicked and started to hyperventilate. He took his Pelagic jacket and pants off quickly because they were filling with water and dragging him down. He says he kicked his shoes off and noticed they floated away from shore. “The rip current was pulling me out,” he writes.
Bursten says he then made a conscious choice: He wasn’t going to die out there. “I calmed myself down, flipped on my back, and swam parallel to the beach in order to beat the rip current, using my lucky green Pelagic fishing cap as a paddle.”
Throughout the hour-long swim to shore, he kept his mind on those back home. “I have a wife and a 4-year-old, and I knew I had to make it to shore,” he writes. “I just kept thinking of them the whole time.”
As Bursten struggled, the boat, which had about 30 gallons of fuel in it, slowly made its way from Panama City to Fort Morgan, Ala., where it eventually ran out of fuel and drifted ashore.
Meanwhile, Bursten remembers the swim in a “stiff wind and 3- to 4-foot seas trying their best to swallow me up.” He frequently ingested salt water when a big swell would crash over him.
“After 30 minutes or so, I was really losing steam, but had made it within 300 yards of shore when I started screaming for help,” he writes.
He worked his way to about 100 yards out, but hypothermia and, as he would later find out, kidney failure were wearing him down. He became resigned to the fact he might not make it and started to sink. “I hit bottom, and the water was chin deep,” he says. Still, he was too weak to get through the surf, which battered him and threatened to pull him back offshore.
“Three men dragged me out just as I thought I was about to die,” Bursten says.
Paramedics, who had been called by locals on the beach, got Bursten to the hospital, where he spent seven days recovering from pneumonia and renal failure, possibly a result of dehydration from saltwater intake.
“I am 41 years old and have been fishing my whole life, and boating for almost 30 years on my own. I made two huge mistakes that day that almost cost me my life, and I will never let my guard down ever again,” Bursten writes.
The first mistake, he writes, was leaving the boat in gear while climbing down from the tower. “Although it helped to keep the boat tracking down sea in a straight line, when I fell out I had no chance to get in or catch the boat, even at the slowest speed.”
Mistake two: fishing alone without wearing a PFD. “I feel so stupid for what happened to me, but feel so lucky just to be alive that I don’t care what anyone has to say,” he says. “I made it, and I am here to tell one more great fishing story.”
As for the boat, Palomba got a call from the Coast Guard at 7:30 a.m. April 19. It had been found, partially buried in the sand, at Fort Morgan. He flew to Pensacola, Fla., and then he and a friend drove to Alabama. With a lot of help, they loaded the boat onto a trailer and towed it home. The hull was intact, and the boat hadn’t been looted while it sat on the beach.
“The sandwich Mike had been eating and his drink [were] still there,” Palomba says. All of his equipment was still on the vessel, but the electronics had been damaged by salt water.
The cost of replacing the electronics and paying Sea Tow for help in retrieving the boat came to about $15,000, according to Palomba.
Still, Palomba says he is not angry with his friend over what happened, but he did urge him to share the survival story with others to show how boaters can never be too careful, even those with years of experience.
“I would still trust him wholeheartedly with any boat I own,” says Palomba.
This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.