Spring fever is starting to hit and for many of you, that probably means you're planning or beginning your spring boat preparations.
While most people think about the necessities of bottom painting, engine maintenance and readying your rods, reels and tackle for the season ahead, it can be easy to overlook your safety gear and safetly inspections. They take time. The gear can add up.
But a group of fishermen from the Galveston, Texas, area will tell you that every bit of it can be critical to saving your life: Four men are alive today in part because of safety precautions taken ahead of time by both the captain of the boat that capsized and the boat that rescued them.
By now you have likely heard about the Feb. 17 incident in the Gulf of Mexico, where Capt. Dan Green's 26-foot catamaran capsized about 100 miles southeast of Galveston when a storm blew up unexpectedly.
Capt. Mike Regan, who docks his 35-foot Sea Hunter Reelentless a few slips away from Green, said there had been a window of good weather predicted that was supposed to last for at least two days — and the first part of the trip was truly smooth sailing.
"When we got out there, it was the Pond of Mexico," he said. "Smooth as glass."
Fishermen who regularly make trips to the canyons of the Atlantic Ocean, particularly in the Northeast, know that a storm can kick up at any time. And while it happens in the Gulf as well, Regan said they usually have a warning that it's coming.
"This storm wasn't supposed to come in until Saturday," Regan said. When they returned to the dock Friday night — four men tucked into the console of his center console to warm up after being rescued, himself and four others dealing with rain and wind blowing at 20 to 30 knots that was soaking them to the skin — the forecast was still lagging behind what they had just experienced on the water.
"One of the captains who's been fishing there for years said he's never seen anything like it," said Regan, 30. "It (the radar) was so red in some of the storm cells I couldn't see some of the ships on the radar. It was as close to a perfect storm as the Gulf could throw at you."
With 6- to 8-foot waves on a following sea bashing the catamaran, Green and his crew deployed the life raft, which didn't cooperate immediately. Reports from local media in the Galveston area said the life raft didn't work at first, finally responding after about 10 minutes.
Regan, who heard Green's faint VHF mayday call and rescued the four men about an hour after the catamaran sank, said Green's overall preparedness was crucial.
"Dan did a really great job of making sure everyone was ready to ditch," Regan said later after everyone was home safe. All four men were wearing life jackets. One who'd been wearing waders had taken them off as the waves kicked up and weather got dicey — and did so just in the nick of time, as a wave tossed the man into the water less than a minute later.
In addition to the life jackets, Green had the raft. He had an EPIRB, which had notified the U.S. Coast Guard that they were in distress, and Green had additionally been in contact with family onshore via his inReach satellite messenger. Green was able to text family — who then called the Coast Guard — and the messages included his GPS location with every text. That gave the Coast Guard crucial information to keep track of the life raft.
"My satellite phone wasn't working out there," Regan said. "You had to stand there for five minutes to get a connection. In that situation you don't have five minutes."
While the Coast Guard was putting an HC-144 Ocean Sentry airplane and Cutters Dauntless and Manowar into action for the rescue (the intensity of the storm precluded using a helicopter at first), Green was alerting family onshore that they were in distress — and those family members called the Coast Guard as well.
And Green had the handheld VHF, which, though limited in range, let him call out to nearby craft for help — and that's how Regan heard the mayday call.
"The mandatory Coast Guard safety inspections we have to do proved their worth," said Regan, who fishes commercially for amberjack, wahoo and tuna in the Gulf. Green had the means to ensure he and his crew got home alive.
While those inspections are mandatory for captains who engage in any kind of commercial fishing or boating, they are sometimes overlooked by boaters who are strictly in it for recreation. There is a list of mandated safety items — enough life jackets for everyone on board; a fire extinguisher; visual distress signals for both daytime and nighttime use, and a bell or a whistle — but the list is very basic. In addition, recreational boaters are not required to go through a safety check. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offers free vessel safety checks, where they remind boaters to make sure their life jackets are easily accessible at all times and that their fire extinguisher and flares or flashlight batteries are fresh. But every boater can make safety checks part of their automatic spring prep routine.
Capt. Preston Mixon, who fishes out of Galveston and knows Regan and Green, posted the following on Facebook a few hours after the men were safely back to shore: "To all the fisherman out there: Boats sink and you will not know when.
You must think ahead. If you want a chance to live, be prepared.
My friend sank and due to his presafety requirements and a required Coast Guard commercial safety exam, he and his crew are home today.
Everyone on a boat should have handheld VHF, GPS, an EPIRB (two if possible), a life raft (make sure it's inspected) your flares and life jackets. Always remember you won't have warning and it all will be over in minutes. You will either be in a raft very scared and prepared, or floating wishing you would had been prepared."
So add a safety review to your spring boat to-do list. If you don't have an EPIRB, get one. Spend the money you'd set aside for a new rod and reel on expanding your safety gear beyond the minimum requirements.
The life you save may very well be your own.
Karen Wall Subscribe