The Case That Changed My Thinking

A heartbreaking event on a river in Virginia taught this rescue swimmer a life-changing lesson
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No one could figure out what happened. He was just going fishing. It was a beautiful winter day, and he knew all the good spots. He had plenty of gas, his boat was in good shape, and he had VHF radios, a life jacket and an EPIRB. Being a retired U.S. Navy boatswain’s mate, he knew the water and all about boats. He had even won safety awards.

I knew what went wrong even before we started our U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and flew up the James River in Virginia to look for him.

There he was, face down and dead in the freezing water. A pocket of air in his coat was the only thing keeping his shoulders and part of his head on the surface. It had been less than 24 hours since he’d left the docks at Hog
Island. Now, his body was almost 2 miles from his capsized boat. You see, one of the first things you lose in freezing water is your ability to hold on.

Though some blamed a squall and a stuck anchor, that wasn’t what went wrong. It really was just this simple: The retired Navy boatswain’s mate, fisherman and father died because he forgot where he was going.

He thought he was going fishing. But fishing is a “what,” not a “where.” He failed to make the distinction between what he was doing and where he was doing it. It was January on the James River. He must have forgotten that, because he took his children with him. Somewhere down there in the freezing cold river, just as dead, were his 8- and 12-year-old sons. And though I didn’t see it happen, I knew in my heart that they were the last things he let go of in his life.

Before that case, I thought what we did as Coast Guard rescue swimmers was to save people from the tragedies that befell them at sea. But as I searched out the
window for those children’s bodies—through tears I didn’t expect—I realized that what we did for a living, most of the time, was to try and save people from themselves. That case changed me more than any other and convinced me that the last great gains to be made in maritime safety involved the way people thought about boating. The realization that prevention saves more lives than response is what made me change professions from rescuer to writer and teacher. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but all I want to do with this column is change the way you think, or at least get you to challenge what you think.

That’s the reason I filmed an online course for Boaters University (boatersuniversity.com) called “Safety & Rescue at Sea.” It digs deep into planning, practice and gear. I did my best to pass on everything I know about how to come home safe. I want to make sure you don’t forget where you are going, so you’ll always be ready and able to make it back home.

We didn’t find the kids on that search, though we kept looking until we ran low on fuel and had to head back to base. We were the last to look before the search was called off. The place is still there, and I’m going to keep doing my best to change the way boaters think about it, and about all the places where they’re out on boats. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.