“The storm front was turning the sky jet black as it zeroed in on the island screaming in from the northwest. There was no stealth by the accompanying gale force winds, they came crashing in as a cold blast turning wavelets into devouring four-foot rollers; and it all went down in a flash.”
Sounds like the prologue for an action-packed best seller, but this is a chilling recount of a long to be remembered charter trip that draws attention to the danger evident in the summer storm season on the Paradise Coast.
Bottom line, it’s not much of a fishing adventure but it recounts the inherent danger in putting yourself in the path of nature’s wrath.
So, we’ll start our experience from the beginning. The Kincaid Family had made the trip from their home in Jacksonville to Southwest Florida to participate in a family wedding. They were three senior adults; there was Bill and his wife Maddy and her Aunt Sharon. These were seniors that kept the “bods” in condition with lots of physical exercise.
Their chatter in the boat as we assembled that morning made it obvious that they, too, were smitten by the fishing genie. Much of the chatter as we transgressed the Marco River that late morning was about exploiting the waters from Amelia Island north to the Jacksonville Pass back home.
This was their first fishing adventure here on the Paradise Coast and their combined focus was totally directed to landing a cobia; that elusive predator, also known as a ling, that are passionately sought by anglers throughout Florida and have a reputation as great table fare.; that feature only to be outdone by the tenacity of their fight.
Important as we get into this trip’s particulars, the boat that day was the original “Dawn Patrol,” then named “Wahoo.” It was a 1962 Pacemaker 26’ inboard center console equipped with marginal power. Nice roomy heavy boat that because of design, equipped power and weight had trouble making speed even with the pedal to the metal.
Also, in those days the world was rudimentary in the sophistication of navigational equipment. Our primary source of offshore navigation was still the WWII Loran System. You coordinated navigation to your location by entering two factors (latitude and longitude) and then followed your loran receivers as they led you to your navigational spot. There was no GPS for weather forecasting nor bottom scanning for fishing information.
Was early afternoon as we arrived at our target site which was a sunken shrimp boat that had graced Davy Jones Locker some years earlier and was now a notorious holding spot for cobia.
For the next 45 minutes we were all totally engrossed trying to entrap one of these of elusive monsters of the deep. The Kincaids were giving it their total effort but the sheer size and strength was overwhelming them. We got close with a gaff in the water several times just to have the cobia writhe and dislodge the hook. But they were hooting and hollering and having an adventure in failure; if that is possible.
We hadn’t paid any attention to anything else but those cobia for almost an hour.
Then Aunt Sharon sounded the “alarm” with a “Oh, My Lord!” shriek.
And there it was. An inky black line, leading a distinctive increase in wind velocity heading our way carrying now distinctive muted rolls of thunder.
There was an immediate abandonment of fishing as rods were stored and the anchor weighed quickly. OK, I thought, at first not knowing the speed of approach we could make a run for home. We fired up the engine and pointed easterly as the wind picked up turning that two-foot chop into the beginnings of a frothy mess.
We were still giving it all we had and hoping by some chance the mess would dissipate. It didn’t. In fact, the wind switched vigorously 180 degrees and now we trying to run right into building seas and wind and rain.
Decision: We couldn’t outrun this storm line, so we had to go to a heightened safety condition without panicking the Kincaids.
That factor became the greatest challenge. Even with personal Navy experience in handling storm conditions in Landing Craft, this was a heart stopper and there was no chance to display any concern to my passengers. It was me for them against the perils of the sea.
We slowed as we broke out and donned all four lifejackets and seated the passengers mid-ship in the stern, as we dropped the anchor with maximum scope. In that position we were riding directly into the 4-5’ waves and taking some water that was being handled by the two bilge pumps. We kept the engine running and ready if we were to shift position also. The radio was ready to transmit if the situation worsened.
We made a couple radio VHF radio calls to the marina “not bad here now it’s moving fast” and to one other charter boat close by that had taken the same anchoring action “think we’ll be OK.”
That news relieved the Kincaids’ heightened anxiety. Aunt Sharon even put her rosary down.
Fortunately, the storm did quickly move away. Only good thing about these sudden storms is that they don’t last long. But the mental anguish aftermath for those involved sure doesn’t.
As the storm slid off to the west and the sun peeked back out. We peeled off jackets, secured the engine and all just sat there quietly sipping an offered soft drink. Don’t think any of us will ever totally forget the terror that nature had created for us.
Our fishing for the day was obviously finished as we headed home. They were complementary as to how we handled the “moment” … I returned the admiration as to their calm demeanor and attention to instructions as we sailed through the event.
We all learned a bit more about safety at sea and how quick it transpires here in the sub tropics.
And to all who ply the waters it’s a reminder to watch the weather remembering “You just can’t outrun them.”
Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.