Our fishing trip has been planned for weeks and started off without a hitch. There were five of us, all seasoned fishermen and good buddies, heading out to fish for tuna in the canyons off the coast of New Jersey. It was the first canyon trip for this particular boat, a 32-foot Scorpion powered by 100-horse twin outboards. The boat — an offshore racer geared up for big-game fishing — belonged to my friend George. It was the fastest boat I’d ever been on. On a normal canyon trip out of Ocean City, New Jersey, there’s an average running time of about three-and-a-half hours to the fishing grounds, which are located about 60 miles out. With George’s boat, we could be at the canyons in about an hour-and-a-half, adding four more hours of fishing time to our trip. It was still dark when we got underway at 5:30 a.m. The forecast called for offshore winds in the morning, tapering off with the seas dropping to less than two feet during the day. It would be calm for the first 15 to 20 miles of the trip, then we’d hit rough seas once we got offshore, which would flatten out as the day progressed.
The Situation Hits The Fan
By 7:15 a.m., the seas hadn’t flattened out at all, and progress was slow. Standing at the center console, George and I discussed turning back, but agreed to give it a little longer. At the speed we were going, it really wasn’t that bad. As I started to head for my seat, I saw a large wave at the bow of the boat, and turned to keep my face from being sprayed with seawater. There was a slow jolt and a lifting sensation, followed by the force of rushing water that took my legs out from under me. The water was a shock, but the silence of the motors as I struggled to my feet was an even bigger one.
Everyone was stunned and tried to adjust to the situation. Tom stood next to me trying to start the engines. I tried bailing water with a five-gallon bucket, and thought I was doing well, until the next wave came over the transom, knocking me down. It was hopeless. Tom was already issuing a mayday, and I yelled our position to him with my eyes glued to the instruments. Water rushed in, and I felt my feet leave the deck as the boat started to sink from under us. Tom dropped the mike and headed for the bow where George, Art, and Joe were already ripping cushions off and throwing anything that would float into the water to create a debris slick. I couldn’t believe it. The boat was sinking! As we strapped on life jackets, George yelled, “Did we get the mayday out? Did the Coast Guard receive it?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I yelled back. “I think I heard a response.”
“Who’s got the time?” Art called.
“Seven-thirty,” Joe answered. “Time to get out of the boat!” And he literally slipped into the water. The boat was sinking, stern first. Five minutes after the first wave hit, it had disappeared.
“Please, Let Us Get Rescued Soon”
We floated for three hours amid the debris from the boat, including 100 pounds of butterfish from the deck fish box. No one mentioned sharks, but all I had to do was look down at my feet, watching the sun’s rays disappear into the blue darkness of the ocean, and panic crept in. At 10:15 a.m., we suddenly spotted our first sign of hope, a Coast Guard helicopter on the horizon. We loaded the flare gun and waited for the right moment to shoot it off. We fired the first flare then started yelling and waving our arms as the helicopter flew so close we could see the identification numbers on its side. With a dull “pop,” we sent our second flare screaming up over our heads. After about 30 seconds, we all started yelling, “Shoot another flare! Hurry, they missed it!” Within seconds, the third and last flare popped off. The helicopter just continued past us. Our spirits were low, but at least we knew they were looking for us.
We decided to start swimming back, hoping a sportfishing boat would spot us, but after swimming for two hours, we realized we were getting separated. Several times, we stopped and waited for the waves to lift us up to locate each other. At some point, we all pulled together to make sure everyone was OK. Joe, who was the oldest, was losing his color. “I’m sorry, guys, I can’t make it,” he said, finally. “Go on without me, and just send help back for me.” I could see that even if we stopped and rested awhile, he probably wouldn’t be able to regain his strength enough to keep up with us. I decided to stay back with Joe.
Can Things Get Any Worse?
About 1 p.m., just as the others were about to swim on, the Coast Guard helicopter returned. We could barely see it on the horizon, but it lifted our spirits immensely. Joe and I swam slowly, and the others were soon out of sight. By 2 p.m., the seas had flattened out a little. It was hard to believe we’d been in the water so long. My constant prayer was, “Please, no sharks.”
Around 4 p.m., we spotted the flag on some lobster pots — nothing more than a chunk of Styrofoam, a pole, and a weight tied to a string of traps sitting on the bottom of the ocean. But it was a place to tie up and wait, hoping for rescue. It took all we had to reach them, but with a final thrust of energy, we both made it. We took the belts off our pants and wrapped them around the pole to secure ourselves. It helped.
At 5:30 p.m., the day was nearing its end. The ocean was flat and the wind had died down. Then we saw it, a Coast Guard helicopter on the horizon. It was moving back and forth in a search pattern that, we hoped against hope, would eventually cross our position. The helicopter was about a quarter-mile away when it turned away from us, gained altitude and speed, and headed back toward land. We both began yelling and waving our arms. It was useless. We were left to cope with the fact that we were going to be spending the night in the water.
I couldn’t help thinking of all our shark-fishing trips and how well we always seemed to do at the end of the day. Sharks are night feeders. Joe and I watched the sun sinking and felt the air rapidly cooling. We both knew the Coast Guard had given up the search for the day. We had to look for some strength to make it through the night.
At about 8:30 p.m., darkness completely set in, and Joe and I started telling each other our life stories to keep our minds from obsessing about sharks. Every now and then, I’d bump Joe’s leg by accident, or he’d bump mine. We were so jumpy, that such little bumps would cause immediate panic. “Is that you?” one of us would blurt. Or, “No, no, no, that was me, sorry.” Occasionally, we saw lights from passing ships, much too far away for us to swim to them. Finally, I found it hard to talk, except to ask Joe what time it was, and every time he told me, I was disappointed.
I’m a religious man. I could accept that the Lord was going to let me die, but I was very upset that I’d never see my wife and kids again. “Joe,” I asked, “would you mind if I pray?” He laughed. “Man, I’ve been praying all day!”
I’d just turned to Joe again to ask the time, when the water around us started boiling with motion. We heard a large blast of air and spray a few yards away from us. It all happened so fast, we barely had time to panic, but relief spread over us as we realized it was a whale surfacing right beside us! The excitement roused us from our increasing despondence, and got us talking again.
Lights On The Water
I was kicking off another attack of uncontrollable shaking — we were getting hypothermic — when I saw something that looked a little different from the other ships that had passed us by in the night. There was a ship closing in on us. Finally it was close enough that I could see its deck lights. Then, it looked like it was getting ready to anchor! We watched for a few minutes, then talked excitedly about trying to swim for it. But then we heard a loud rumble and the ship started moving. We were so heartbroken that we didn’t even watch as it passed. I was so weak that I could feel every beat of my heart and knew it was just a matter of time before it would stop.
Joe and I turned back toward the ship as we heard what sounded like screams. The ship was about a mile-and-a-half away, but we could see it was lowering a lifeboat. Was it the other guys yelling? I couldn’t make out the words. We watched the small lifeboat come out, then turn around and head back to the ship. The fear that they didn’t hear us was all we needed to gather the strength to start screaming for help. The boat never turned back. We watched the lifeboat being pulled back up the side of the ship. Our fears turned to utter panic, and we continued screaming and yelling, coordinating our cries for help.
About half-an-hour passed. I kept my eyes on the ship and just kept repeating, “Please, please, God, let this be it.” Nothing was happening. The ship didn’t move. We took turns yelling for help. I stopped looking at the sky, because it looked like all the stars were moving. Finally, a small group of lights appeared off the stern of the ship and within seconds we were able to distinguish … the sounds of a helicopter!
We watched the helicopter hover over the ship. I had to keep my grip on reality as we watched it circle the ship, spiraling outward each time. Three searchlights made a large patch of light on the surface of the water. We waited for the circle to be large enough for us to be spotted. The noise was overwhelming by the time the lights shone on us. As the helicopter began to move in, the wind and light were blinding, and the noise of the powerful engines was like nothing I’ve ever heard.
The helicopter landed in the water about 20 feet from us. The side door was open, and the current pulled us toward the helicopter. Joe was the first to reach the door, disappearing as he was sucked inside. I touched the side of the chopper, felt two hands on my shoulders, and was pulled onto a small, flat floor in the darkness of the helicopter — out of the water after more than 18 1/2 hours.
I had no control of my body, and couldn’t move my arms and legs. I was helped from the floor to a bench where Joe was already receiving medical attention. My body temperature had dropped to 91. The Coast Guard corpsman assured us that our buddies were safe aboard the tanker Melvin H. Baker, and would be picked up after Joe and I were flown about 20 miles back to land, to a hospital, and treated for exposure. The Coast Guard contacted our families, and told them about our rescue. The ordeal was over.
D. David Jones lives in Northfield, New Jersey, with his wife and two youngest sons. He now owns a 30-foot Wellcraft Scarab Sport and a 14-foot Walloo, works as a carpenter, and is co-authoring a book with Art Higbee about the sinking experience he described in this article.
To see the Coast Guard report and search track from the rescue, as well as a newspaper clipping from the time.