July 26, 2010
Merwin: A Compelling Tale of Bluewater Fishing
By John Merwin
An old friend sent me an e-mail the other day that’s one of the most compelling bluewater fishing tales I’ve heard in a long time. Capt. Terry Nugent (pictured below) runs his Riptide Charters business out of Bourne, Massachusetts, at the western end of Cape Cod. He’s often casting to surface-crashing schools of bluefin tuna or else chasing giant stripers, but sometimes heads well offshore in his Contender 33T in search of still-larger game. Last week, he got more of an adventure than he’d bargained for. It’s a long story, but well worth it. Here’s what happened, in his words....
“The game plan for the trip was to day trip to Veatch canyon for a shot at yellowfin, mahi and maybe a marlin. My crew was GW and Sageflyguy. We geared up for the 80 degree forecast and 2-3' seas. All the safety gear was checked and re-checked like always, we never thought we would be needing it. We splashed the boat at 0300 in Falmouth and in no time we were zipping along headed south.
“We made great time and 30 minutes ahead of schedule we were going lines in at the tip of Veatch. The troll bite was a bit slow for us. One of our buddy boats had the hot hand and was hammering YFT just a few miles from us. We aimed their way and soon we got our first knockdowns. It was a slow pick for the morning bite for most of the boats, although our buddy boat was hooking up everything under the sun including marlin and wahoo.
“The mid day lull came and went and we looked forward to the evening bite. Another canyon buddy of ours, Ohana, had struggled all day so when we started getting bit in the evening we called them in. Ohana arrived and soon they got a BIG bite and were in a hour plus tussle with a monster bigeye. We worked around then and grabbed some more YFT and had several white marlin terrorize our spread without finding a hook.
“At 0600 it was time to pull the pin and head for home. We had a some nice YFT up to 65# in the box and a few gaffer mahi. Not a banner day but a solid pick under ideal conditions. I pointed the big Contender North and we were headed home at a nice smooth 40 mph. The idea of a cold drink and a nice long nap was running through my mind as I crossed into the shipping lanes about 70 miles from Wasque Point when the VHF crackled on 16, "PAN PAN, Hello all stations, this is US Coast Guard South East New England BREAK"......"The Coast Guard has received a call of a vessel disabled in the shipping lanes approximately 70 miles SE of Martha's Vineyard, any vessels in the area that are able to assist, please contact USCG SENE" Then they hailed "POCO LOCO, POCO LOCO this is USCG what is your condition OVER?"
“POCO LOCO, that's a guy I know from fishing, I've bumped into him a dozen times over the years in various places. The owner Dave is a nice guy and his boat is the same size as mine. I'm gonna be able to help him out. I chimed in and Dave responded with a mix of anxiety and relief in his voice. Dave gave me his numbers and he was about 8 miles northwest of me. I advised the Coast Guard I was 10 minutes out from Poco Loco and I told my crew it's gonna be a long night. In no time I slid up to Poco Loco and we discussed the game plan. The closest place we could get them to safety was going to be towards Edgartown. Nantucket was a bit closer but we would have to run all the way around the island to get to the harbor so from where we were it was a wash. Since Dave's from MV and we were going to Falmouth we ruled out ACK as an option.
“Dave had plenty of heavy anchor rode that we used to make a bridle to clear my Verado's and we set up a slip rig so the tow line would move freely and keep even pressure on the boats. In about 15 minutes we were all set and under way headed for MV. Seatow was to meet us at East Beach near Tom's Shoal. The Coast Guard was advised and they put us on a 1 hour Comm. schedule. Every hour on the hour they would call and check our situation.
“The tow was slow and steady, the big Verado's were churning along as an easy 1800 rpm using no fuel to speak of so running low on gas was not going to be an issue . The seas were following and the wind was light from the SW at 5-10 kts. This is gonna be EASY...... “About 3 hours into the tow SNAP! The bridle broke from the heaving of a larger wave. I advised the CG we would be stopped to repair the tow. We got things fixed up and were back underway. The CG modified the Comm. schedule to every 30 minutes.
“About 2330 the Coast Guard called out over the VHF.........."PAN PAN HELLO ALL STATIONS,,,,,THE CG HAS RECIVED A CALL FROM THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE THAT A STRONG LINE OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS IS LOCATED BETWEEN MV AND BLOCK ISLAND MOVING SE @ 35 KNOTS. STRONG RAIN, HAIL, AND SEVERE LIGHTNING ARE BEING ACCOMPANIED BY WINDS IN EXCESS OF 35 KNOTS. BREAK!!!!!" Then they hailed us......This is NOT going to be good I thought. They advised that the storms were headed right at us and we should be prepared for the worst.
“They advised us to secure all hatches, to avoid possible flooding from the torrential rains and to put on life vests, They went down a checklist of safety gear on both boats, rafts, flares, Gumby suits, etc, etc. They put us on a 15 minute Comm. schedule. The next 30 minutes was calm but tense. We knew what was coming. I kicked the radar way out and then after a short time I saw the lead edge of the storm. It was heading right at us and it was BIG! I advised the crew and we all got ready for what was coming.
“Thirty minutes later the storm hit. The winds instantly went to 35kts and the seas jumped to 4-5' making the already difficult tow infinitely harder. The rain came down like I've never seen before. My scuppers could barely keep up with the water flowing down the deck of the Riptide. We all huddled under the T top for some level of shelter from the storm. The crew of Poco Loco was dry in the pilot house, but the un-natural motion of the tow, the heavy seas and the confined space of the pilot house gave them issues of their own.
“We pitch and heaved in the growing seas and I tried to work the throttles as gently as I could to keep the strain even as the boats tossed and turned independently of each other. In the big following seas Poco Loco would slide down a wave face and the heel over hard left or right when it got into the next wave. There was not enough keel to keep it straight under tow. Even my boat which tracks like its on rails would heel over with the added strain of the tow. When they went in different directions SNAP! Right in the middle of the storm we break the tow line! With near zero visibility we try to maneuver back to the Poco Loco. They hauled in the line to keep it out of our props which would have been a nightmare. Dave made a great toss with the line and GW managed to catch the tow line in the near zero visibility and stinging rain. We got the boat back in tow and advised the CG we were back under way. The put us on a 10 minute Comm. schedule.
“That's when things went from bad to worse! LIGHTING!!!! BIG BRIGHT AND REALLY REALLY CLOSE!!!! We had all the riggers and rods down with nothing up the VHF antenna so we could talk to the CG. The lightning had been in the distance, but that part of the storm was on us now and the lightning was everywhere. as the lightning bolts hit closer and closer to us I had to make a tough call. Antenna up for communications or down to avoid a lightening strike! I made the call to drop the antenna. Suddenly a few hundred yards away a blinding FLASH and an INSTANT CRACK! The lightning hit the water only a few hundred feet Away from us!!!!! I like to think that I'm calm and cool under pressure, but when a zillion watts of electricity hits that close and your handing onto a metal steering wheel even the coolest hands get nervous. You just can't hide from lightning in the open ocean. Normally I can outrun storms or run hard to avoid or dodge them. But not tonight, not this time. The only way to run was to cut Poco Loco loose and set them adrift alone in the storm and that wasn't happening. All we could do was pray that the gods had bad aim tonight. “The CG tried to HAIL us for the Comm. check. With the storm all around us and the heavy electrical show they were light and barely readable. With the antenna down I didn't think they would be able to hear us at all. In the broken chatter I heard the CG ask for my location as they had done each time before. I waited a few seconds and gave my numbers out to what I expected to be dead air. There was a pause and a crackle, then a scratchy......."Good Copy" A HUGE thank you to all the good folks at ICOM VHF and Digital Antenna, even in the worst of conditions with the antenna down my call with my position went through!
“After several waves of rain and a few more distant lightning strikes things calmed down a bit. The seas settled into a 3-4' pattern and we continued to make way for MV. Having been dressed for 80 degrees and no rain we were all soaked to the skin and in the middle of the night it was starting to get cold. I dug out spare dry gear I keep on the boat and got the guys as warm and dry as they could be. We hand another few hours to go and we might as well be as comfortable as possible.
“Finally after 3 broken lines and 9 hours of towing we made it to Muskeget Channel. Dave called over the radio to give me the first good new of the night. SLACK TIDE! We made it through the normally nasty piece of water without issue. The thought of the tow breaking and Poco Loco going aground on Wasque was one I had for the entire trip.
“After clearing the channel we got Poco Loco into the shelter near East Beach and helped them set the anchor. Seatow was going to be delayed until sunrise so they requested he anchor up to await their arrival. Then they would tow him the rest of the way to his home port of Menemsha. Once we were sure Poco Loco was anchored firmly we set out to get my cold wet crew home. The CG set up a new Comm. schedule with Poco Loco and 20 minutes later I gave the CG my last Comm. check of the night. "COASTGUARD GROUP SOUTHEAST NEW ENGLAND, THIS IS THE VESSEL RIPTIDE.......WE ARE SAFE AND SOUND IN FALMOUTH HARBOR......THANK YOU FOR YOU ASSISTANCE............"
“During the 10 hour ordeal I had allot of time to think about all the trips I've made to the edge, the what ifs, what if that were me disabled 70 miles offshore. I thought about the times I've been towed in from various places over the years. One time in particular came to mind. About 10 years ago I was fishing in my bay boat off of Newport RI. The motor blew and we were stranded 20 miles from the Westport river where we had launched. A guy in a big green custom center console came along and offered to help. I didn't know the guy but he towed us for over 2 hours all the way back to the ramp at Westport. When we got to the ramp I told the guy I didn't have much money on me, but I would send him whatever he wanted to cover the two when I got home. The guy smiled and said "Don't worry about it, maybe someday I'll be in a jam and you can tow me home" I told him I would if I ever got the chance. As the big green custom center console turned and headed out of the Westport River, I looked at the transom and said to myself "What a cool name for a boat......POCO LOCO."