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Under Way

Hard-won lessons from a ‘safety dog’

Hard-won lessons from a ‘safety dog’

teve Bright has always been a safe, careful boater, so the irony of being the one left treading water 30 miles offshore as his 31-footer motored slowly out of sight was not lost on him.

“My wife calls me ‘safety dog,’ ” says Bright, 55, a civil engineer from Wilmington, N.C. “I’m the only person I know who wears the kill-switch lanyard while I’m running.”

Bright wound up falling out of his 31-foot Contender center console and treading water for about seven hours in early August before another boat heading in from a day of fishing happened to spot him. The Coast Guard and good Samaritans had been searching for Bright for several hours, but in the end his rescue really came down to luck. One of the people on the boat that found Bright saw a large fish jump, which caught his attention. Looking in the direction of the splash, the man saw Bright’s hand sticking up out of a wave. He was that close to being missed.

Bright is a private man, who only agreed to tell his story in hopes that others can learn from it, and to thank those who searched for him. A sport angler and boater for 30 years, Bright is as thoughtful and safety-conscious as they come. What’s so sobering about this incident is the thought that if it could happen to someone like him, it could happen to any of us.

“I’ve got every piece of safety equipment in the world on my boat,” says Bright, a father of three. The safety inventory aboard his Contender includes a satellite weather receiver for real-time weather, a satellite phone, life raft, ditch bag and EPIRB. And his life jacket is equipped with a strobe and a personal EPIRB. Bright even has a printed safety checklist that he goes over before each outing.

And out of regard for safety, he’s made it a point for the last 15 years not to fish alone — not until this day, anyway. A combination of a busy work schedule and bad weather had kept him off the water for almost two months. On the day in question the weather was ideal, but his regular companions couldn’t fish with him. So he broke with his usual conventions and headed out alone for what was to have been a fairly short day. And since the seas were calm and Bright is used to fishing with others, he didn’t wear a PFD.

About 30 miles off Wrightsville Beach, N.C., Bright set the autopilot, put the lines out and began slow-trolling at about1-1/2 to 2 knots. The target was kingfish and maybe a sail or a dolphin. In pretty short order he was into a good fish. As he’d done many times before, Bright was in the process of moving one of the rods out of the way so that he could better fight the fish. He was stepping up on the live well to place the rod into a holder in the T-top when trouble struck.

“The next thing I heard was the splashing sound of me going head-first into the water,” says Bright, who is still amazed by how quickly it all happened.

Bright tried to reach the swim platform but came up about 6 inches short. He considered lunging for one of the boat’s twin 275-hp Mercury Verados but thought better of it; he didn’t want to be in the water and bleeding, too.

For most of the seven hours, his routine consisted of either floating or doing gentle back strokes; about every 15 minutes, he’d tread water and look for boats. He was wearing shorts and a watch. Bright used his watch to set survival goals for himself; he pushed himself from one hour to the next.

Bright fell off his boat around 10:15 in the morning and was found about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Around noon, a sportfishing boat spotted his empty Contender. They notified the Coast Guard and tried retracing Bright’s course by way of his GPS but didn’t find him.

Bright had spotted seven or eight boats from the water, two of which came within 100 yards of him. “But no matter what I did,” he says, “they couldn’t see me.” He also saw a Coast Guard helicopter twice and a cutter once, but never closer than about 1,000 yards and always heading away from him.

I asked Bright what kind of physical shape he’s in. “I’m an average 55-year-old who has an office job,” he says with a laugh. Before the incident, “I probably would have bet you I couldn’t tread water for seven minutes, let alone seven hours,” says Bright, who’s never cared for swimming. “But I was able to find a way to get the strength to keep my head up. I really think I had some help from above, because I was able to focus on positive thoughts and not let negative things occupy my mind.”

Bright spent three days in the hospital and several more recuperating. I spoke with him a couple of weeks after his rescue, and he said he still wasn’t feeling 100 percent.

These are the lessons Bright would like to passs on:

• When possible, don’t fish or boat alone. If you do, understand the risks and remember that there’s zero tolerance for error. At the very least, wear an inflatable life vest or belt pack.

• Trouble can strike fast on the water, so be ready.

• The odds of being spotted with just your head bobbing above the surface are not great. If you can, stay with the boat.

• Don’t get complacent. People have a tendency to think these incidents just happen to others. They can happen to anyone.

• If you do find yourself in trouble, don’t panic. Push negative thoughts out of your mind, conserve your energy and concentrate on survival.

Lastly, Bright wants to offer heart-felt thanks to the Coast Guard, the good Samaritan boaters who participated in the search, William Murdock of Fayetteville, N.C., who found him, and Capt. Bob Barrentine of Carolina Beach, N.C., who came across his boat and called the Coast Guard.