by Brian G
An offshore fishing trip in a small boat goes bad.
A Fisherman’s Nightmare
Based on a true experience.
It was noon, the sunshine had been intense and it was pretty hot until a cool breeze arrived, bringing scattered Cumulus clouds. Pete and I were offshore, in the Gulf of Mexico, on a fishing trip in my boat. The breeze felt good and it took a while for me to realize that it might change our day, change it dramatically.
Pete and I had been friends for years, having both moved from other states to Pearland, Texas. We were both raised on farms in the mid-west and each had three youngsters, two sons and a daughter. Our families spent a lot of time together camping out. The kids enjoyed the freedom to explore while we adults played card games. We were quite a pair, Pete and me. I was the impulsive one; he was more reserved. I had to work hard to get him to take a leap of faith with me and go fishing in the Gulf.
I had purchased a boat for water skiing and fishing. It was fiberglass with a cathedral style hull that gave it the ability to slice through choppy waters, yet have good side-to-side stability. It had a sixty horsepower outboard motor and a steering console with a windshield. The console was in two parts, with the driver’s seat on the right and a passenger seat on the left. Each seat was a tandem arrangement, one facing to the rear. An opening in the console allowed access to a seating area in the bow. A canopy connected to the windshield reached rearward to cover the tandem seats. There were trays on either side to place fishing rods, plus two vertical fishing rod holders that I had installed. Pete and I had gone fishing in it many times over the last few years.
We had fished Chocolate Bay and West Galveston Bay and had reasonable luck. We had caught croaker, sand trout, gulf trout, flounder and redfish. Plus some of those fish that you hate to see on your hook. Not many of the fish we caught were worth taking a picture of. I was toying with the idea of making a trip offshore, to the nearest gas or oil well platforms. Those structures were known as a good place to catch bigger fish. I started working on Pete to consider such a trip. He wasn’t warming up to the idea very fast so I had to build a plan he might accept.
I began to outfit the boat beyond the required safety gear. It soon had a depth finder and an extra fuel tank, this one a twelve-gallon model. The boat now carried eighteen gallons of fuel. I bought an extra set of spark plugs for the engine because it had a tendency to foul plugs and die if it idled too long. We always had to take the plugs out and clean them before the engine would re-start. That is not easy to do from inside of the boat. To help avoid the plug fouling I bought a super-duper after-market ignition coil from a hot rod magazine. I made a sea anchor from an old dip net to be used in case we lost power and were set adrift. I hadn’t tested it but thought it would work in a pinch since the boat was only fifteen feet long. I purchased a fishing map of the Freeport, Texas area, showing the depths of the offshore water and the location of the nearest platforms. A compass was a necessity for navigating with the map. I bought a convenient, hand-held one like the boy scouts use.
I told Pete that we should only consider going the ten miles out to the first of the platforms, and only on a day with ideal weather. He agreed with my plan and we started watching the weather forecasts. It wasn’t long before a perfect boating weekend was forecasted. We packed food, ice chests and fishing rods on a Friday evening and left home for Freeport, Texas before daybreak on Saturday.
We arrived at Freeport as the sun was rising over the horizon; it was a beautiful day. It didn’t take long to buy bait and launch the boat. We were soon underway. I headed the boat in the direction of the first platform, using the map and compass. The water was as smooth as a farm pond. We were making about twenty knots, slicing through the water, leaving a wake and our worries behind. We passed a shrimp boat that was going so slow it like a toy. We owned the sea.
It was still early morning when we reached the first platform and tied the boat to it. We discussed how quick the trip out there had been and how great the fishing was going to be. It was really exciting and relaxing for both of us. We baited our hooks and started fishing in earnest. We had the boat’s canopy rolled up against the windshield so we could stand up if necessary to land The Big One. We felt that monster fish were waiting for dinner, and we were serving it. I imagined bringing a load of huge game fish home to the family. The kids would be hollering and the neighbors would come to see what it was all about.
We hadn’t been there long when something big hit my line. As I was reeling it in it suddenly took flight and swam under the boat. I had the drag set too high on the reel and I couldn’t hold the rod tip up. My rod hit the gunnel of the boat and broke in two. I picked my backup rod from the rod tray and began to fish again.
An hour went by and we hadn’t caught a fish worth taking home. We sat and talked for a while, our lines in the water. I checked the fuel tank to see how much we had used. We were operating out of the twelve-gallon tank at the time and had used less than two gallons. The six-gallon tank was still full. The engine was still idling. Pete turned away and began reeling in his line to see if he still had bait. I shut the engine off. Pete’s head jerked around like it was spring-loaded.
“Did that engine quit or did you shut it off?” I laughed and told him I had shut it off.
“Don’t do that again!” he said.
I restarted the engine and began a discussion about going farther to find another platform. Soon, we untied the boat and headed out. It was a bad idea, a really bad idea. We were deviating from a plan in which we had already accepted some risks and were ten miles from shore in a fifteen-foot boat.
We rode for a while but didn’t see any more platforms. We stopped. Based on the reading of our depth-finder and our offshore map we were now eighteen miles from Freeport. We decided not to go any farther and started drift fishing. Well, I called it fishing because we had a baited hook in the water. The fish were not biting. We welcomed scattered clouds and a fresh breeze when they arrived. That is, until Pete noticed the boat beginning to rock.
“Do you feel that Brian?” Pete asked, with a serious look on his face.
“Oh man! I said. Do you suppose it will get rough out here? The weather report promised calm seas. Pete, maybe we should turn back.”
“I agree,” said Pete, the fishing isn’t that good anyway.
We started for home, using the map and the compass to guide us. Early on, the boat was moving swiftly through the waves. Then the waves got taller and I had to reduce our speed because the bow was taking a beating from each wave. It was trouble getting a reading from the hand held compass. I had to stand and flex my knees to get the needle to settle. The bow of the boat began to swing from side to side as it crawled over the crest of each wave. To keep us heading in the right direction I would take my compass reading, then aim the boat toward a particular cloud. I did this every few minutes because the clouds were moving.
We had no marine radio in the boat; no means to contact anyone. It was circa 1975 and cell phone hadn’t been invented yet. When a shrimp boat passed us I began to worry whether we were making enough headway. Now we were the ones with the toy boat. We didn’t offer a distress signal by waving at the shrimper because we were still confident things would be OK. Well, sort of, and our pride would be compromised if we did. The boat hadn’t taken on any water yet. We were not desperate; we only had some doubts.
The seas got rougher. Our boat would climb a wave, then dive into the trench between waves and climb another one. We were just creeping along. At this rate I began to worry about running out of fuel. Pete and I weren’t talking much. Each of us were wearing grievous expressions and thinking about our families back home. We had convinced them that we had weighed all of the possibilities and were well prepared, everything would be fine. Now, I began to get negative thoughts, how could this be happening to us? I silently answered myself, “Because you were foolish to start such an odyssey.” How could I have asked Pete go on this adventure, and to press on when we were ten miles out?
The engine quit! Panic set in momentarily. The twelve-gallon fuel tank had emptied. Pete hooked up the six-gallon tank, primed the line, and we got started again. The atmosphere was heavy and visibility was only a couple of miles. We desperately scanned the horizon for some sign of the shoreline.
Time seemed endless as we rode this roller coaster of a sea ever so slowly toward Freeport and safety. We had about three gallons of fuel left when we spotted some structures on the shoreline. Surprisingly we made landfall only about a quarter of a mile from where we launched the boat. I patted myself on the back for navigating so well under the conditions we faced.
We were going home without any fish, but quite a story to tell. We had survived a fisherman’s nightmare.