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A Close Call


...Seeing myself in uniform again brought back such memories; some bad, but most good.  On the negative side, I remembered the long deployments away from home and family and the combat; but on the positive, the difference our presence made and the many lives I had a part in rescuing.   I remember the sombre times of searching for survivors, the humorous times of the many now socially unacceptable sailor hazing rituals, and everything in between.

Oddly however, the one memory that seems to have commandeered my mind lately is one that as a life-long sailor I ought to be ashamed to share.  But since many faithful readers have asked for more personal stories, I am going to throw my dignity to the wind and accommodate them with the following offering.
Sitting with my fishing partner in our 14 foot fishing boat off the island of Oahu, bobbing around like a cork in the choppy sea, I questioned only for the briefest of moments whether we had made the right decision to launch that day.  Small craft warnings had been posted, but we were used to braving the strong trade winds that picked-up late each morning in the islands and gale force winds were not much worse.  Anyway, what did that matter…the fish were waiting for us.
We had reached our favorite fishing area, just west of the Papa Hotel buoy outside of Pearl Harbor and cut the engine so we could drift fish over the reef some 80 feet below us.  When the heavy 12 to 15 foot surf would draw us in toward the shallower reef, we would fire up the engine and pound our way through the swells back to the fishing grounds in deeper water.  This happened about every 20 minutes or so.
We were aware of the warnings for that day, but we were both active duty Navy, real men of the sea.  Warnings applied to weekend sailors and pleasure boaters, not to seasoned salts like us; we could handle anything.  And then a freak wave broke over the transom, filling the boat with a foot of water that made our battery smoke.  
Since we were nearing the end of the 20 minute cycle and it was time to fire the engine up again, we decided not to try bailing the water out.  Instead, we decided to take the boat to full speed, unplug the transom stop and let the water run out through the transom.  So, I turned the ignition key to start the boat…nothing.  I tried again…nothing. 
My shipmate and I stared wide-eyed at each other.  Ken (my partner) said “Quit fooling around Gary.  Start the boat.”  With my words almost overlapping his, I responded “I am, I mean I tried, I mean, oh no Ken, oh no!”
The deafening, thunderous roar of the breakers a couple of hundred feet away suddenly took on a very menacing presence.  While Ken jumped into the driver’s seat and tried his hand at starting the engine, I dragged out our life preservers and handed his to him. 
We had no time to fiddle with the engine.  We were being sucked into the break zone of the giant swells passing under the boat.  I quickly tossed out the anchor and secured the line to a cleat.  Ken finished donning his life jacket. 
The anchor grabbed hold of the coral below almost immediately, but I knew it would not hold long.  The line would rub quickly against the razor sharp coral and separate.  To delay that from happening, I quickly rigged a sea anchor (a bucket tied to a line) to slow our advance toward the surf and it seemed to help, but almost as quickly as I got it in the water, the anchor rope gave way and we were moving again.  We were really in trouble.
There was no panic, but we were short on options.  As we pulled out the very inadequate oars that we kept onboard, we quickly selected the place in the surf where we thought we would have the best chance of making it through and we began paddling with fervour.  The waves seemed to grow much larger as we neared the break point of the waves and the thunder of the waves was simply overwhelming and intimidating.  I used to surf in this area, but when it is stormy, as it was this day, the surf breaks much further out from the beach, so I was not sure if the area we selected was the best place for us to try to make it ashore.
Thoughts of the nine foot tiger shark I had caught months before just a few hundred yards from where we were, quickly vanished as a low hanging squall started dumping torrential rain on us.  For just a moment, with the thunder above and the crashing surf ahead, I forgot that I was a sailor, that I was a man; and I wished for a “do over” on the posted small craft warnings, but it was not to be.
Suddenly, from somewhere beneath the now half fresh-half salt water inside the boat, the battery sparked.  I looked at Ken.  Ken looked at me.  We scrambled for the ignition.  I got there first and turned the key.  “Rrruummppphhhh”, the engine started.  It sounded like it was drowning, but it started!  It started!  And the boat was moving. 
I said earlier that I was going to lose all dignity.  I haven’t yet.  It has only been a partial “digniotomy”.  The story is not yet over.  There is more.
You would think that this experience would have immediately made wiser sailors out of the two of us.  Ah, but if it had, the title of this story would then be inappropriate.  Unfortunately, it is quite appropriate; for instead of putting our tails between our legs and heading for port, our combined wisdom decided that the engine was now working and the fish were still biting, so why not give it another try?  And so we did.  We headed back out to our favorite reef, through ever-increasing swells, torrential rains, and bruised egos.
We indeed earned the title “Two Dumb Sailors”.  To our credit however, we did keep the engine running while we fished so we were sure to have power if we needed it.  But we only managed a few more passes over the reef before common sense finally found a way to our psyche.  Since those early days in our careers we have both become much better and much wiser sailors, but we can never erase that undignified episode in our past.
By Gary Kurz

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