A very close call

May 2021

By Dave Paling

Growing up in a coastal town, I was exposed early to boats and experiences on the ocean. I grew to love time spent on the water thanks to my father, a navy veteran whose DNA drove him to pursue fishing whenever free time allowed. A school principal, he escaped the stresses of this profession by heading to the sea – regardless of the season. We cast for bass and blues, bottom-fished for fluke and flounder, tended a couple of lobster traps in the Cape Cod Canal and chased blue crabs with nets. And there were shellfishing expeditions: clams, quahogs, oysters and bay scallops.

Dave and his daughter, Carly, aboard All In, a 16’ Carolina Skiff that several years ago went rogue. Photo courtesy Dave Paling

Our household was driven by tides and weather patterns rather than the trappings of normal life. Dad owned a succession of used powerboats. When he was not on the water working from one he was home working on one. His offspring at his command, we were led to understand how to keep a boat functional and ready. On the water he insisted we acquire basic safety knowledge. He watched over us and strove to impart the seafaring knowledge he’d amassed over a lifetime.

When Dad passed away, this knowledge was his legacy. And it’s reflected in the way we’ve raised our three kids. Our family has done some fishing and shellfishing, and we’ve had our own fling with boat ownership. On the water with them I’ll overhear “Grandpa would have liked to be here with us,” or “I bet he’s happy to see us now.” The steadfast connection between our generations has formed via the sea.

With decades gone by, several years ago I suddenly found myself presiding over an oyster farm in Wareham, Mass. This was an aquaculture enterprise on 6.8 acres. In our inaugural year we purchased some 200,000 fingernail-sized oysters from a hatchery and placed them inside floating bags to grow them to 3” saleable lengths. It was a physical and labor-intense operation.

The farm represented a retirement job for me after finishing a career in education.

My commute to work was a boat ride, and my office the great outdoors. On easy days the job was gratifying and fun. On hard days I concluded the work was better suited to a younger crowd.

One spring day my wife and my daughter Carly and I were working the farm out of All In, our 16’ Carolina Skiff. It was cold outside, but we were layered up and the intensity of the labor kept us warm. We were spent after five hours of refloating submerged oysters, so we loaded the boat for the return trip. Oysters require good water flow to breathe and eat. Ours were so clogged with biofoul that we had to take them home for power-washing.

The water dripping from the bags sloshed around the bottom of the boat, leaving behind a slippery film. I needed to drain the boat. When we got 200 yards from shore, Dad’s lessons came to bear. I called to my crew seated behind me. “Are your waders off?” Waders and deep water are a deadly combination.

There were nods and Sue gave me a thumb’s-up.

I let go of the wheel for a moment, pulled the plug, got back into position and let her rip. The water was gone in seconds.

I twisted backwards, holding the steering wheel with one hand and the plug with the other. I tried several times to jab the plug into the hole but the ride was rough. This was when I made my ill-fated decision: I knelt and let go of the wheel. The propeller on our 60-hp Yamaha, spinning madly in one direction, caused the boat to turn so abruptly that it threw me off the stern, topsy-turvy, into the channel. I was underwater, disoriented and alarmed.

I jammed the boat plug that was somehow still in my hand into my pocket, righted myself, and pulled the necessary strokes to break the surface. I spotted the boat some 50 yards away. Then I saw Sue go airborne. The boat spun in violent circles. Carly was on her back, hanging over one side. Then she was flung clear. We were all out of the All In – one man overboard, and two women – in a frigid and dangerous situation. We called out to one another and waved, each of us relieved to see each other.

“Get to the boat!” I yelled. The boat was moving slowly at this point, and following a meandering course away from us. Despite its slow speed, we soon realized that catching All In was not going to happen.

“Get to shore!” I yelled. I was a confused captain without a ship. We methodically breaststroked toward land and 10 minutes later were huddled in waist-deep water. Carly had managed her swim with one arm, intent on keeping her cell phone high and dry.

Cripes. We could have been run over by our own boat. We could have been knocked unconscious. Hypothermia could have set in. It was a miracle that we were unscathed.

The All In had zigzagged offshore during our adrenalized swim. When we were able to stand, the second miraculous moment of the day occurred. The boat turned gently toward us and, in a precise line, came back so close that Carly was able to hoist herself aboard. Then I did the same. Lastly, Sue got aboard. She vaguely recalled reaching for the throttle before she’d been ejected. All In’s recovery was likely thanks to her.

Dripping wet, we headed for the marina. This is when the third miracle of the day took place. Without its plug, and traveling at such a low speed, the boat was still taking on water. I reached into my pocket and – I’ll be damned – there it was, right where I’d shoved it.

This all took place before the harbormaster and fire department rescue vessels showed up. Someone had witnessed high spray from a boat “doing donuts,” clearly in distress, and called it in. We were escorted back by the environmental police and screened by multiple authorities. The boat passed safety inspection. We were registered, sober, and respectful. In the end, besides losing my favorite sweatshirt, all I lost was my dignity.

Later the three of us reflected on the incident. How was it possible that none of us received even a scratch when the potential here was fatal? How did the boat return with such precision? And how did the drain plug stay in my pocket?

“It must have been Grandpa,” Carly offered. “He’s still here helping us. There’s just no other way to explain it.”

Carly may have been on to something.

This was, after all, Dad’s domain.

David Paling is a freelance writer. His nonfiction has appeared in more than 100 regional and national publications including “On The Water,” “Runner’s World,” “Boston,” “Yankee,” and “South Coast Almanac.” The use of kill switches on outboards, with a lanyard attached to the driver, is now mandated.