By Tom Rau, Coast Guard Senior Chief (ret)
This is the third boat capsizing story I’ve written this year. The three capsizing involved 12 recreational fishermen, four of which died. The latest involved a 20-foot fishing boat with a loss of life. Now the story.
August 3, 2009, Manistee, Michigan. According to Manistee County Marine Deputy Steve Block, four fishermen departed Manistee harbor about 1 p.m. for a fishing trip on Lake Michigan. According to the captain of the 20-foot powerboat, they trolled for about two-and-half hours when the mishap occurred.
The captain, other than providing the depth of water of 120 feet at the time of the mishap, was unclear as to his position.
At the time of the mishap, they were reeling in fish on two separate polls. Several waves rolled over the stern, the bow shot skyward, the boat then rolled and capsized. Several fishermen aboard were rather large; if they were at the stern reeling in the fish, that could explain why the bow pitched upward.
None of the fishermen were wearing life jackets. As they clung to the over- turned hull, one of the fisherman drifted away. He hollered out that he could not swim. He removed his shoes and pants to keep afloat. The captain told Block that they attempted to pass him a seat cushion. The last they saw of him was his belly sticking out of the water; then he disappeared.
Block figures they capsized just south of Portage Lake, which is located seven miles north of Manistee Harbor. The captain told Block they dove under the boat, at least three times and finally located the life jackets, which were in the forward bow compartment.
After donning the life jackets, they ran several lines across the over-turned hull in order to hang on to the boat. A flare kit popped to the surface; they then fired off a flare that went undetected.
The boat continued to drift northward. At one point, they reported seeing camera flashes on shore and people walking along the beach, which Block believes was below the Arcadia Golf Club. One of the survivors told Coast Guardsman Ryan Zinky that indeed he had seen golf greens.
As they drifted northward, night fell. At about 2 a.m. one of the fisherman decided to swim to shore in the 65-degree water. After an hour or so he made landfall where he entered a vacant cottage and placed a call to 911. Manistee County Central Dispatch received the call at 3:45 a.m..
Coast Guard boats from Manistee and Frankfort responded along with Manistee sheriff’s marine patrol. “When I arrived on scene, I could see rescue responders from shore shinning their flash lights out into the lake,” said Manistee County Marine Deputy Steve Block. The rescuers on shore reported by radio they could see the over-turned boat and directed Block towards the craft. “When I first spotted them it looked as if they were on a surfboard,” Block said. Both were rescued. The over-turned boat had drifted approximately eight miles north from where it capsized.
Boat Smart Brief
Capsizing Coast Guardsman Ran Zinky told me he was out on Lake Michigan early that afternoon and estimated the wave heights between two and three feet with an occasional four-footer. At the time the boat capsized, two of the larger fishermen were reeling in fish when a series of waves rolled over the stern. The captain attempted to fire up the outboard motor and come ahead, but it failed to start. A square cut-out at the stern allowed the rapid intake of water.
Electronic Gear Cell phones, a marine radio, and GPS all were rendered useless once submerged in water. Had cell phones been sealed in water proof bags within a water proof grab-bag the fishermen could have called for help.
Life Jackets One of the larger fishermen aboard could not swim, yet failed to wear a life jacket. He died. None of the life jackets carried a whistle or night illumination devices. When near the golf course, a whistle or strobe light may well have drawn the eye or ear of those on shore, or nearby boaters. It’s unclear why they didn’t fire off another flare unless the flares drifted off or sank.
Grab Lines That the fishermen ran lines over the hull may well have saved their lives. The captain told Marine Sheriff Deputy Block that it was very difficult hanging onto the hull before they ran the lines. This allowed them to stay with the boat, which is highly recommended. That the one fisherman swam to shore was dicey and absolutely unnecessary had they carried signaling devices, including a dry cell phone—carrying these devices on one’s person can’t be stressed enough.
I discussed the case with Lieutenant Chris Yane, a pilot stationed at CG Traverse Air who was involved in the search. After listening to the details, the veteran pilot said, “It shocks him every time when he hears stories like this. Recreational boaters seem so cavalier. Some fail to realize it’s a complex and hostile environment.”
I told the lieutenant convincing recreational boaters of the dangers of the marine environment can be like convincing hormone driven teens the dangers of sex.
Boat Smart. Wear a life jacket and keep your cell phone zipped up.
Note: On August 7, 2009, a 21-foot powerboat capsized off Ludington Harbor, Lake Michigan. A husband and wife and their two sons clung to the boat in the pre-dawn darkness. A nearby boater heard their cries for help and rescued them. One of the boys was wearing a life jacket, which helped him keep his mother afloat. His life jacket did not carry signaling devices like a whistle, flares or strobe light, not even a glow stick.
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