Anyone who’s fished hard at sea has been caught in bad weather. Make no mistake: Storms are fun to watch from the front porch, but when you’re convinced you’re standing over your watery grave, the wonders of nature are less than apparent.
It was an August full moon and boat traffic was ferocious. I was fishing alone. I figured there wouldn’t be a fish within 20 miles of the Lighthouse that hadn’t seen a hundred eels chasing sinkers past her nose so I decided to try my luck near Block Island—a 15-mile steam east—where I recently landed a 42-pound bass.
The sky was blue but the air had a strange cast. It was unusually hot for Montauk, pushing 90, with thunderstorms in the forecast. I love when they predict a 30 percent chance—it spooks the googans and keeps them on the docks. When I left Montauk it was flat calm. My little 18-foot skiff powered by a 115hp four-stroke was small for this stretch of water, and it doesn’t have a self-bailing system, but I’ve always felt that when it comes to catching trophy bass, who needs the extra weight?
As soon as I reached the three-mile line off Block’s southwest corner, I saw a billowing cloud with a nasty undercarriage— a textbook thunderhead. Anyone acquainted with Block Island Sound weather knows that most storms barrel through bound for the north or east. But this one appeared to be running southwest and hovering over the entrance to New Harbor. It was trailing ragged, funnel-like lines—waterspouts—and to my immediate north I saw lightning.
I started moving west, hoping to go back to Montauk, but only a mile into a 12-mile retreat what had been a clear view of the radar tower turned shadowy white. This wasn’t rain or fog. This was a windstorm. I’d seen this before.
The rip-strewn stretch separating me from safe harbor was no place to be during a windstorm—especially running straight into the wind under a moon tide. The rips would soon blow into breaking waves and those conditions had done horror for countless boats a lot more legitimate than mine. Vague concern turned to panic. My boat—essentially a drainless, 17-foot piece of plywood with a 400-pound engine clamped to one end—might sink at any second. I felt like Montauk fleet’s foremost imbecile. The only bright spot was that I was alone.
Even five miles from shore the ocean looked like high surf crashing on a beach. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was in the water. I thought briefly about calling the Coast Guard, but the wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t get to my cell phone or radio.
I had navigated rough inlets before and was pretty good at riding up waves without dropping off the back of them. But while I was reasonably confident in my boat-handling skills, there was little I could do about the amount of water sloshing around in the boat.
After battling the waves for close to an hour I was drenched and shaking. I couldn’t stop to lift the hatch to inspect the bilge pump but I could tell that something, a piece of plastic, a dead eel… must have been clogging the system. The water had reached the top of the gunnels and the skiff was so sluggish it was like laboring under a heavy anchor. Although still technically underway, I was sinking.
People had repeatedly warned me against running to Block Island in my sissified little bay boat. Yet somehow, there I was. I was scared, but fear wasn’t my primary emotion. Instead, I felt an eerie out-of-body sensation. As I wallowed down-sea in my suicide skiff, I realized that “wow-I-fucked-up” tales are for teenagers and the older you get, the less amusing they become.
I had entertained the idea of dying at sea before when I was safe at home. It seemed a dignified death. I thought of my mommy at my funeral, “He died doing what he loved best,” she’d say. “He was a sea captain from a long line of sea captains…”
But then my waterlogged brain reminded me about the actualities of people who die at sea. It’s never pretty. The outgoing tide is always so alluring— pulling us out to distant waters—but when that tide comes back in it brings the bodies back with it. They’re always bloated and puffy, the limbs twisted and the eyes plucked out by gulls. The corpses always seem to drift up on Myrtle Beach to be discovered by 75-year-olds with oversized New Balance sneakers and metal detectors.
Those images reignited my will to live. I wanted to survive. I wanted to catch a 60-pound bass.
I knew if I could reach deeper water I might be able to stop the boat long enough to bail and unclog the bilge pump. But first I needed to get off Southwest Ledge—the shoal where all hell was breaking loose.
Never had I felt so eerily alone. It was like I was on another planet and this was the alien weather. I put on a life preserver but as conditions worsened, I couldn’t let go of the helm for a second. The boat was listing so hard to port it was inches from flipping. Eventually the waves stopped breaking and I cut the engine. The highest point of the bow was three inches above water and the rest of the boat was submerged. Working as gingerly as possible, I pried the hatch open and began fishing debris from the bilge pump. It was magic to my ears when I heard it churning again.
After 10 minutes of pumping I felt the boat regain some buoyancy. The wind was still howling, but I kept working. Twenty minutes later, the boat was dry. As I rubbed some feeling back into my fingers Station Montauk hailed me on the radio. Friends had reported me missing and the Coast Guard asked whether I needed assistance. I declined. The idea of being rescued by kids was more than I could stand. Then my cell phone rang. A boat from Point Judith was headed out to get me.
Finding a small boat in a storm is like finding a needle in a haystack, but in the end we located each other. The nice kids from the Coast Guard escorted me to Old Harbor… where I promptly ran out of gas. I sputtered to the dock; they helped me tie up, then blew town. One would think I’d have been thrilled just to cheat death— and I was—but my problems were far from over. I’d left my wallet and car keys hidden back at the marina, it was just short of midnight, my cell phone was dead and I had no charger.
Now, I look creepy on my best day and as I stood there I had just come off a full moon cycle of fishing day and night. During periods like this when the fishing is crazy, I don’t change my shirt. Ever. My primary bait is eel and when the bite is on, I often use my shirt to hold the slippery eels so I can get them on the hook. Eels, if you don’t know, secrete a thick white film and this material was ground into my shirt so deeply it was hard to know where the shirt stopped and the slime began.
Smelling like a dead flounder and looking like a man who did beastly things with dead flounders, I began a long-shot quest to find a taxi. Luckily, a nearby cabbie heard of my adventures on the radio and took pity on me. He gave me a free ride to a bed and breakfast and even let me use his phone to call a friend with a credit card.
A weary, but not entirely unpleasant woman allowed me into her B&B after my friend vouched his details and soon I was taking one of the grandest showers of my life.
In the morning, staked to five gallons of gas, I headed home to Montauk. As the gentle waves lapped against the side of my trusty tub it was already becoming difficult to picture the giant squall I’d battled through the night before. Still, I knew deep in my heart that this storm had been something more.