The Case That Changed Things

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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 Navy boatswain’s mate, he knew the water and all about boats. He had even won safety awards. Still, his family had no idea what went wrong. I did, however, even before we started the helicopter and flew up the James River to look for him.

I don’t remember who spotted him first, but there he was — face down and dead in the freezing water. The small pocket of air still trapped 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 left the docks at Hog Island. Now his body was under our helicopter, almost two miles from his capsized boat. You see, one of the first things you lose in freezing water is your ability to hold on.

So, again, what went wrong? Though some blamed a squall and a stuck anchor, that wasn’t it. 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. Where he went was to completely surround himself on all sides with something deadly. He forgot that. He must have, because he took his children with him. Somewhere down there in the freezing cold river, just as dead, were his eight- and twelve-year-old sons. And though I didn’t see it happen, I knew in my heart as we searched for them that they were the last things he let go of in his life.

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Before that case, I thought what we did was 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. It was that case that changed me more than any other and convinced me that the last great gains to be made in maritime safety was to change the way people thought about boating.

That was the case that made me start writing. That realization — that prevention saves more lives than response —is what made me change professions from rescuer to teacher. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but all I want to do with this blog is change the way you think, or at least get you to challenge what you think.

Now, thanks mostly to my editor here at Soundings, who pushed the idea on her bosses for months, I’m going to spend the next four days filming an online course for Boater’s University. We’re going to dig deep into planning, practice and gear and I’ll do my best to pass everything I know about how to come home safe. I’ll show you, with the help of some friends, not only how to handle at sea emergencies, but more importantly how to avoid them altogether. We are going to make sure you don’t forget where you are going and that 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 out of fuel and had to head back to base. We were the last to look before the search was called off and we knew it. When we landed, I was convinced that being safe at sea is not about the gear. It’s not about the radios, EPIRBs or life jackets. It is about remembering where you are going. I don’t know if you believe me about that or not, but I’ll never forget the case that convinced me.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you keep coming back. If you haven’t yet, subscribe to Dispatches (an electronic Soundings newsletter) to get this blog and others in your inbox every morning. I’ll keep writing and trying my best to change the way you think — at least just a little — about being safe on the water.