What happens when three canyon fishermen watch their boat slowly sink out from under them? These guys save the tuna, of course!
Illustration: Jeff Moores
We were three tuna-crazed seasoned fishermen from South Philly, headed for the Wilmington Canyon, out of Cape May, New Jersey. The boat, a 30-foot center-console called Impulse, cleared the inlet an hour past daylight, with Greg, Kenny, and myself aboard. A storm had just passed, and we anticipated a hot bite; the tuna bite is best right after a storm. Our T-shirts’ logos read, “Fuel, Bait, & Desire” and we were brimming with the latter.
The ride out was fantastic. We surfed the whole way in a following sea, launching the boat off about three separate waves — the kind when you say, OOOOH MY, that hurt, then put your kidneys back in place. Two hours later, the skies cleared, and the sun shined on us and right through the cobalt blue water. Water so clear you could see a silver chunk of butterfish sink to 60 feet. We rigged up and started chucking and then … bam! Fish on, times three! A triple header! All you could hear were Penn reel drags screaming, and a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ from these elated cowboys, riding 45- to 75-pound yellowfin tuna.
These tuna were so aggressive that when we’d throw a handful of chunks in the water, they’d swim by so fast it looked like lightning around the boat. The intensity didn’t waver all day, despite a decent-sized shark fin in the distance. The bilge pumps were spewing out red tuna blood. “Good for the slick!” I said. By four in the afternoon we were burnt out. I filmed a few final video moments of what felt like our most glorious day ever. Then it happened, a surreal moment of disbelief. I stepped down into the cuddy cabin into knee-deep water.
My first reaction was to get the motors running. One motor started, the other was dead. I checked the battery compartment. Water was three inches from the top of the batteries, so we immediately radioed a mayday, hoping to raise the only other boat fishing near us all day. Having no luck on the radio, I tried switching the good battery to the other motor while it was running, which turned out to be a shocking experience. As the boat rocked from side to side, it sloshed saltwater over my hands and battery terminals, and gave me a painful jolt. We continued calling mayday. Finally, a cargo ship answered, and we immediately gave him our GPS position. “I’m too far away to make it to you in time,” he said, so he called the Cape May Coast Guard instead. “A chopper is on its way,” came the feedback. “ETA 45 minutes.”
I told Gregg and Kenny the good news. But the bad news was we didn’t have 45 minutes to stay afloat. The most we had was half an hour, which meant we’d soon be in the 81-degree, crystal-clear water with all that tuna, blood, chum, bait, and our shark-fin buddy for at least 15 minutes.
By then we were bundled into life jackets, as the waves came over the transom. Greg and Kenny started bailing while I continued to work the radio. It looked bleak. The sun was going down. But then, a stroke of luck — a response on the radio! “This is vessel Lady Louise,” came the music to our ears. “Where are you?” I started giving our GPS numbers, just as the radio went dead. We’d no way of knowing if he had our position.
Ten minutes went by. We noticed a white dot on the horizon. “That’s him!” I yelled, and we started shooting flares. The white dot turned out to be a 48-foot Ocean sporty — Lady Louise, captained by Bill Post. He backed up stern-to-bow, we handed over the equipment and rods, then Greg and Kenny jumped off the boat. I hesitated, still in disbelief that MY boat was going to sink. As I walked past the bulging tuna locker, I started throwing the tuna onto Lady Louise. After about the eighth tuna and third bull dolphin, Post yelled, “Get the %#*& off that boat!” I jumped off my boat for the last time.
Five minutes later Impulse upended and slowly faded from sight, 1,800 feet down to the bottom of the ocean. All that remained were floating cushions, spare gas cans, and debris. As I videotaped the sinking of my boat, I panned the camera on my friends, still in life jackets, the fear of God in their faces. Fifteen minutes later the Coast Guard was flying overhead, hovering over Lady Louise. After assuring them we were safe, we gave them a message for our families, and they flew off.
Post said he had come out to fish an overnighter and would be happy to take us back to Cape May the next morning. “Till then, my boat is yours. Help yourself to whatever you need.” He had his identical-twin sons aboard — they were Calvin Klein models (honestly!) — and two friends. All of them had their throw-up patches on, and were hurling over the sides. Then there were the three of us from the doomed Impulse, who were like zombies from our ordeal. Finally, I couldn’t take anymore thinking about what went wrong. I rustled up the guys and said, “Hey, let’s start fishing.” We repositioned the rods, and it was game on. We all wound up catching more fish, and at daybreak headed for the barn.
As we pulled into South Jersey Marina in Cape May, a crowd of people watched us unload the catch. Our families showed up with blankets and hot chocolate. In surprise, they told us the Coast Guard had said we’d be getting dropped off by a container ship, and here we were walking off a million-dollar sport fisher with a load of fish.
I admit now, and am not ashamed to say, I shouldn’t have been offshore without an EPIRB, life raft, a high-water alarm, an extra handheld VHF radio, and maybe even a sat phone. I should have been more aware of what was going on with my boat’s systems and not pushed it so hard. I have so many regrets, and learned my lessons the hard way. Every time I show the video of Impulse sinking beneath the waves to fellow boaters, I get the same reaction. Everyone gets quiet and goes, “Wow.” They all leave with a new perspective on boating. Most of them are like I was — a competent fisherman, maybe, but not as competent a boater as I should have been. I was lucky.