“The storm front was turning the sky jet black as it approached
the island screaming in from the southwest. The accompanying
wind was not sneaking; it came racing in as a chilling blast
turning wavelets in the river to devouring four foot rollers. It was all
happening in a flash.”
Sounds like the prologue for an action packed best seller, huh ? Well, it really happened two weeks ago right here. We, along with a half dozen other charter boats, were racing through Capri Pass trying to outdistance the beast and make safe harbor.
The charter boats has unconsciously formed a line abreast that spanned the river’s breadth as they raced homeward. Everyone, obviously, recognized the potential of a storm like this. But wait – coming down the river, in the opposite direction is a deck boat with a couple of adults and a gaggle of kids, heading right into the melee.
What could these folks be thinking? Several of the charter boats were waving and shouting trying to alert them to the impending danger. They waved back. They sauntered on. Oblivious.
Hopefully, these unaware souls escaped the ravages of the storm and ended up safe and sound. But couldn’t help thinking that folks unfamiliar with tropical summer weather unconsciously put themselves in harms way by underestimating the events. They are unaware of just how quick moving, wide ranging and flat out dangerous these South Florida storms can be.
It’s easy to make an over aggressive decision in dealing with one of these storms. Maybe sharing a long remembered experience of a situation gone wrong will better illustrate the inherent dangers in these train wrecks created by Mother Nature.
The Hamilton Family had made the trip from Jacksonville to Southwest Florida for a wedding that weekend and made it a point to stay over a couple of extra days to do their favorite thing on earth – go fishin’.
It was late July and the weather was in it’s usual pattern of a constant threat of storms. And as usual, you couldn’t predict where they might be coming from. Many of them put themselves together right here sucking up the tropical moisture of the Everglades and sending it back to us with gusto. Even added a little electricity in the form of lightning to keep it exciting.
That morning the Hamiltons had scheduled a trip. It would be their final stab at trying to land their dream fish – a big cobia. We had attempted the identical quest two days back and got skunked.
Desire and anticipation ran neck and neck as the crew arrived early. There was Bill and his wife Maddy and her Aunt Sharon. All were experienced anglers and, even with some years under their belts, were still pretty spry.
Cobia are sizable offshore creatures that love to hang out on Gulf wrecks and taunt anglers with their elusive and skittish actions. So our game plan was to run out to a set of wrecks some 12 miles west of Capri Pass with loads of chum and a live well chock full of lively thread herring baits.
Weather conditions were reasonable with some wind out of the north kicking up a 2-3 foot chop. Sunrise was bright and cheery BUT there were those blackened sky clumps indicating storm clusters all around but none appeared active – at the moment.
Must mention that our craft on that day was the original “Dawn Patrol” a 1962 26’ Pacemaker Wahoo center console equipped with an inboard power plant. Nice roomy boat but because of it’s weight had trouble making over 15 knots with the pedal to the metal.
Our first drop was on a shrimp boat wreck that always held immense schools of bait. And so it was that morning. With chum in the water and baits dangling at various depths, it didn’t take long for the party to begin. Down the starboard side, not two feet under the surface cruised two big cobias – just looking us over.
For the next 45 minutes we were totally engrossed in doing anything and everything to get these crafty creatures to take a bait.
We didn’t see it coming.
Then there it was. A inky black line descending on us from the northwest. Coming right at us. OK, I thought – we can make a run back inshore. Up came the anchor and the gear stored and we swung around with the engine roaring heading east. Everyone, excluding me, was watching behind us. The black was getting closer.
And then the defining moment. The wind shifted from north to west in a millisecond and accelerated dramatically.
We couldn’t outrun the storm.!
The wind had gone from three to five knots to 30 knots in a heartbeat and the nice 2-3 foot waves had turned into 4-6 footers and were climbing. We slowed and turned the boat into the sea knowing that getting caught broadside in a trough would be fateful.
We were getting into life jackets as the blackness enveloped us with a wall of pelting rain and ascending wind that drove the sea into a froth with waves heightened to well over six feet that were lapping over a heaving bow. The dual bilge pumps kicked on.
The Hamiltons were shaken with the violence of the storm at sea but remained seemingly calm huddled together in the stern. With the boat engines running ahead, it was tricky to keep the bow dead on the heaving sea and even more difficult to see with the horizontal rain. The VHF radio was crackling with traffic and static and ready to be put to use if we were to pass the threshold of “mayday.”
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Only good thing about these horrendous storm events is that they don’t last long. But the mental aftermath for the “participants” sure does.
As the storm moved astern, we secured the engine and dropped the anchor and the four of us just sat there for a time. In our silence, we were all fast forwarding the mayhem of the past twenty minutes, finally understanding the terror this event of nature creates.
Our fishing was done for that day. But we all learned something about safety at sea in the sub tropics that would serve us well for all of our days ahead – you can run but you can’t hide !
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.