The boys, Carter, 9, and Charlie, who’s just 5, were casting for perch, while Kristye and I put out jug lines for catfish on Oklahoma’s Broken Bow Lake. We had made the trip up from Texas for a Fourth of July getaway. We’d been fishing for maybe 30 minutes when the sky rumbled. I looked around and saw a huge thunderhead, followed by a lightning flash. It had been a scorcher of an afternoon with a few scattered clouds, and the marina parking lot was packed less than an hour earlier when we launched my 15-foot bass boat, a restored 1980 Caddo, toward a series of small islands. But with the lightning, I thought it best to get off the water.
As we motored toward the edge of the cove, the storm cloud had grown and the sky darkened. The wind picked up, but we’d had more shelter than I realized before our boat cleared the last island, where we were spit out into some of the roughest open water I’ve ever seen. The wind howled and waves slammed into the side of the boat, spilling inside. Without notice, a 7-foot swell crashed over our heads. I struggled to turn us into the oncoming wind and waves, soaked but holding on. Fortunately, we were already wearing our life vests.
Wave after wave crashed over the bow, but I didn’t even notice the water rushing past my feet because I was so focused on keeping the boat straight and running. I heard Kristye yell from the rear, where she was sitting with Charlie. I looked back to see him sitting on the floor with water up to his armpits. He didn’t seem to understand the danger, and just looked back at me expectantly. I could tell Carter was scared, but he was quiet and clung to the rail next to me.
I started to panic. It had been less than 10 minutes, but it felt like we’d been battling the waves much longer. The gas tanks were floating. The cooler had escaped over the side. The battery was under-water. That’s when the engine died.
Without the engine, we were being pushed toward a rocky bluff. If the boat had turned broadside to the waves, the next one would have capsized us. I was just about to jump in to try and pull us to shore when I heard a ski boat speeding toward us. They were able to drag our craft—the transom end completely underwater—and beach it nearby. I stayed with my boat, bailing out, while the driver of the ski boat took Kristye and the boys to the marina. As they left, Charlie was crying in Kristye’s arms, and I couldn’t help but worry that splitting up was the wrong decision. They got some bumps and bruises on the rough ride back, but we were reunited an hour later on the dock, where we all shed a few tears.
My boat’s tri-hull design was not built for those conditions, but I knew that. I would never purposely steer into waves that size. We were blindsided. Carter still doesn’t like to talk about that afternoon, and he hasn’t been on a boat since. I’m hoping that will pass. The whole thing has kept me awake a few nights. I go over the experience in my head, thinking what was at stake. It still gives me chill-bumps.
Because one cannot fault Fehler’s actions once his boat was caught in heavy water—he made sure everyone was wearing a PFD, kept the bow pointed into the waves, and navigated toward safe harbor—the only question of right and wrong here concerns the decision to cross open water. The family probably could have weathered the storm in relative safety among the islands, and Fehler’s decision to leave is one I am sure he would like to have back.
This situation reminds me of an antelope hunting trip I made with my brother on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir, where we found ourselves separated from the dock by a mile-wide channel. Like Fehler, we didn’t have a boat seaworthy enough to meet the conditions once the storm broke. Unlike him, we were able to see how far conditions had deteriorated, so the decision to shelter on a spit of land was a no-brainer. We ended up being trapped by weather there for three days.
The survival lesson here is not so much to be prepared to brave the devil water, but to be prepared to stay, which makes a safe decision much easier. Always check the weather forecast ahead of time, and carry a radio, cellphone, distress flags, and signal flares, as well as a survival bag. Do not forget extra dry clothing, and make sure the book in your dry bag is a long one.
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