How To Assess a Captain

Always Question the “Experts”: Ill Prepared Fishing Trip in the Bahamas Nearly Leads to Disaster.

Illustrations by Brett Affrunti

Question the “Experts”

Thinking for yourself on the water might make all the difference.

Donald was itching to get out on the water. He and a group of friends had flown down to the Bahamas to bonefish, but high winds were limiting their fishing time. Donald was from Long Island, New York and owned a boat there, using it to fish for bluefish, striped bass and the assortment of other species found in his home waters. He especially loved time on the water because of the camaraderie with friends. Those friends joked that Donald was “Mr. Safety” because he was more prepared than a SEAL Team. Donald took that as a compliment. He liked being prepared for any emergency and he always heeded the weather reports before taking his boat out.

Toward the end of his stay at the lodge, Donald and his friend Gene agreed to be guided by a local man named Kevin who operated one of the lodge’s flats fishing boats. The boat was a 15-foot Hells Bay with gunwales about a foot off the water.

Kevin motored the two anglers to a nearby spot but the water was cloudy with a light chop and the fishing was poor. Donald and Gene figured they would call it a day, understanding they had no control over the weather. Kevin, however, started talking about his favorite fishing spot, and how its sand flats were in the calmer, less exposed lee of an island and that they’d find plenty of bonefish there.

The only issue with Kevin’ special area was that it was a two-hour run to get there, which neither Donald or Gene knew at the time. But like almost all fishermen, hope springs eternal and they decided to give it a shot. Kevin knew the place like the back of his hand, and with his local knowledge, they hoped they would soon be fighting fish.

After a bumpy, uncomfortable ride to the destination, the men located schools of both bonefish and permit, and Donald managed to land a strong bonefish. Then rain began to fall, soaking the men and making visibility poor. It had already been a long day on the water, and the three men decided it was time to head for the lodge.

It was now 4 p.m., and Donald thought it would be a good idea to let his friends and the lodge manager know that they would be running a little late and would be back around 6 p.m. He made the call and then Kevin opened up the throttle and the men started the long trip back.

As the seas got a bit rougher, the nose of the boat, coming off a wave, was low enough that sea water came over the bow, flowing through the vessel and out the drain in the stern. Kevin eased back on their speed. Then the skies and seas conspired to make the return trip even more miserable; the winds increased and torrents of rain pounded the boat. That’s when the drone of the engine suddenly ceased. The vessel had run out of gas.

“Where’s the spare tank, Kevin?” Donald shouted.

“I don’t have one,” said Kevin.

“What? You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

“No, no gas.”

Donald held his temper in check. Now was not the time to argue. The boat was drifting and taking on more water.

There was no anchor on the boat but they rigged a grapple hook to an 8-foot length of polypropylene line. The men held their breath and dropped it over the bow, tied the end around a cleat, and were relieved when the vessel stopped drifting and its bow swung into the waves.

Donald and Gene looked at their phones but there was no signal. The shivering men prepared to sit tight and wait for help to come. They used the coolers as a wind break. Water continued to come in over the sides and they took turns bailing with the Tupperware container that had held their lunch.

With daylight fading they wondered how long it would be before the lodge manager realized they were overdue and a search could begin. In the distance they could see a beacon. After much deliberation, the men decided that since the wind was blowing that way their chances of rescue, and perhaps their very survival, would be better if they hauled anchor and drifted toward the land beacon.

The tactic was short-lived as the boat quickly drifted parallel to the island rather than directly toward it and they had to drop the grappling hook again. As soon as the hook bit into the ocean’s bottom, the boat swung around violently and a wave hit them broadside. Then, disaster.

Within seconds the stern was submerged. Suddenly the bow reared up and the three anglers were pitched into the sea as the vessel completely capsized.

The men instinctively swam to the boat and each one found a handhold on the overturned vessel to keep them together. Their chances of survival went from probable to possible.

All three fishermen were already in the early stages of hypothermia. The cold ocean was sapping their strength as they clung to the overturned boat in the choppy seas. They tried not to think about sharks.

In the hours that followed, adrift in the darkness of an endless ocean, Donald prayed, thought of his family and suffered from hallucinations induced by hypothermia and dehydration.

Donald also had plenty of time to consider how he got in this terrible ordeal. He knew the answer. He assumed that the local guide knew what he was doing. The guide took anglers fishing every week so it would be logical to think that the vessel would be properly equipped and the guide would monitor their fuel. Neither turned out to be the case.

Making those assumptions almost got Donald and Gene killed. In the end he, Gene and Kevin all made it out of their nightmare at sea. When Donald’s son, back at the lodge, realized his dad was overdue he started working with Donald’s brother to mount a search. They hired a private search and rescue plane to comb the waters in conjunction with a volunteer plane from the Bahamas. The men were finally located the next morning, hypothermic and in shock, but alive.

What could Donald have done differently? A short conversation with the guide before they left would have been helpful because Donald, being a boater himself, could have asked about safety equipment. He might also have taken a quick look around the boat before setting out. If he had done those two things, he would have learned there was no spare gas tank, no anchor, no working compass and no safety devices on board. He might also have realized there was no EPIRB or satellite phone that every boat the lodge worked with was supposed to have.

Knowing Donald’s adherence to safety on his own boat, he would have certainly thought to himself this guide is playing fast and loose, I’ve got to monitor his decisions. The guide may have been great at finding fish but a discussion about the boat would have alerted Donald to the fact that safety wasn’t the guide’s top priority. But in Donald’s quest to catch fish and get the most out of a well-deserved vacation, this conversation never happened.

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This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.