To most anglers, especially coastal anglers, the Coast Guard is something like the local police. They are there to protect you, and you know that. But they are also there to enforce the law, and that can mean an occasional costly citation.
When you pass the Coast Guard on the water, you can't help but quickly run a mental checklist: Do you have the required PFDs, fire extinguishers, correct lights, etc.? You might wave, but you
really don't want to make eye contact.
Not me, not anymore. The members of the Coast Guard station at Port Aransas, Texas, are some of my new best friends. I have become one of those people I thought I would never become: I have had to radio for help, the guy in the water who had to be fished out.
I was about six miles off the Port Aransas jetties, and seas were at 3 feet, a little rough for fishing but doable. My boat is a 24-foot Grady-White with a single 225-hp outboard on a bracket.
We were trolling when my line fouled the prop and the engine immediately shut down, like it is supposed to do. I trimmed the engine up and there was no doubt about the mess I was in.
I have towing insurance and should have simply radioed the tower on my VHF, arranged for a tow back to Port Aransas, where I could have cleared the prop, and been back on my way.
I should have.
Like most men, I have a tendency to overestimate my abilities. I have gone in the water on several occasions to clear a prop. I've just never done it offshore in choppy seas with the boat bounding up and down. Still, what's a little bouncy-bouncy to an experienced swimmer and boater?
Well, it turns out, a lot.
With a prevailing 15-mph wind from the southeast, the 3-foot waves were just at the surface. Beneath them, there was a strong current running in another direction, and add to that a pretty good outgoing tide heading in yet a third direction. The water was something like your washing machine with the agitator going full blast.
I didn't understand all of that until I put on my life jacket, tied a line around my waste, lowered my swim ladder and entered the water. I made it back to the prop and tried to clear it, but I couldn't do it with just my hands. I would have to return to the boat and get some tools.
When I got to the swim ladder I stepped on the lower of the two rungs, grabbed for the hand rail and tried to pull myself up. I've done it dozens of times. But this time the rail was wet, and each time I pulled up, my hand slipped back. And as the boat rose with the waves, those waves pulled me backward. I tried and tried but could not get back aboard.
My wife was at the helm, but she has a disability that doesn't allow her to move about the boat. I could barely hear her and couldn't see her at all. She couldn't see me, either. My next mistake was that I should have accepted my fate and asked her to radio for help. I had my life jacket on and was tethered to the boat. I could just lay back and wait. But I didn't want to be one of those guys who had to rely on others. I kept trying.
Finally, I reached total exhaustion. Just hanging on to that ladder was about all I could do. My wife radioed for help.
The Coast Guard answered immediately, and two fishing boats in the area headed my way. When the first boat arrived, several of the men on board donned life jackets and came in the water to help me. They got me aboard my boat just as the Coast Guard arrived. I was past the point of being embarrassed; I was relieved, exhausted, sick of drinking salt water and very appreciative.
The guys in the good Samaritan boat were fantastic. They were fishermen, too, and when you fish offshore - anywhere, really - you know there might be a time when you'll need help. You can bet I'll never pass by anyone in need. Thanks to those guys, I have a debt I'm gladly willing to pay.
And I can't say enough about the members of the Coast Guard. Once they arrived, they stayed to the finish. They called our towing service for us, but when they found out it would take an hour for the towboat to arrive, they towed us back themselves. They were afraid I was on the verge of dehydration, and they knew I was exhausted. After nearly 45 minutes in the water I could have gone into shock. I didn't, but I could have, and they weren't going to take any chances. Back at Port Aransas, they put us in an air-conditioned room and someone stayed with us until the tow service showed up and cleared the prop.
The average age of the Coast Guard crew was maybe 20. There were several teenagers and a couple of 25-year-old graybeards. They were professional beyond description, and, more than that, they were compassionate and friendly and went way beyond what they were required to do.
These men and women are credits to their uniform. You can bet that next time I see them, I'll wave - and I'll be sure to make eye contact. They are good friends.
This story is from the July 6 edition of the Fort Worth, Texas-based Star-Telegram.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.