This is a story about a bad day on Gardiners Bay aboard my fishing boat.
In 1987, I bought the forty (40) foot, ten (10) ton fishing boat “Polly & Ruth” from two retired commercial fishermen who fished out of Gloucester, Massachusetts with the “Polly” for thirty-six (36) years.
I used the boat to tend my pound nets in Napeague Bay, but after emergency open heart surgery in December 1992, my bride would not let me continue trap fishing so I switched over to dragging a trawl net, primarily for fluke, working anywhere from Gardiners Bay to Fort Pond Bay in Montauk.
I have kept a daily fishing log since March 1962. The entry for Election Day, November 8th, 1994 gives the account of how I was thrown overboard about four (4) miles north of Three Mile Harbor Breakwater.
I usually tow the trawl net about one and one-half hours, and on my 2nd tow the wind came up real hard from the southwest. We call this 20/25 knot wind a “Smokin Souwester” as the bay becomes hazy because of the wave spray being airborne. With the rising tide, it became too rough to continue fishing. As I started to haul the gear back, the caterpillar engine started to slow down signifying a fuel problem. I just got the doors and net aboard when the engine quit.
I anchored up, and called another dragger fisherman – Willie Kromer – who was fishing in Cherry Harbor, about five (5) miles from my position. I gave him my Loran co-ordinates and he radioed back that he would take me in tow in about an hour.
Normally I fish alone, but this day I had aboard James D’Ambrosio from Bellows Falls, Vermont – not exactly a seafaring person.
It was too rough for me to change the stern fuel filter, as even though we were anchored up, a lot of spray was flying over the stern deck. The bow of my boat is six (6) feet high, and she was burying herself in the seas, so it was “dicey” to rig the tow rope and messenger line on the bow deck. We were anchored in a section of Gardiners Bay where with a rising tide and a “Smokin Souwester” makes for nasty tide rips – definitely no place to be broke down. I fastened the tow rope to the bow cleat, and brought all the line aft and coiled it amidships on top of my ice box.
Hanging from the cabin roof handrail are two 16’ truck tires, used for dockside fenders. To keep the tow rope clear of these tires, using light mending string, I tied the tow rope above the tires onto the mast and boom stay wires.
When Willie came alongside, I fired the messenger buoy and line across, and he quickly made it fast to his stern bitt. As he took strain, just before the tie strings parted, the “Polly” took a queer roll, and in a split second, one of the tires flipped over the tow rope. I jumped up onto the side rail to flip the tire off the tow line, as by now Willie had full strain on the rope. As I put my arm inside the tire, the hand rail on the cabin roof broke free and I became literally “the stone in a slingshot”. The tire with my arm in it went deep down in the water. It happened so fast, that James, who was about six feet away, never saw me go. All he saw was bubbles and my hat floating on the water. I was gone.
As I came back up, I was under the boat, and being I was “in the neighborhood”, I observed that the bottom was clean, but I had to swim back down to get clear of the plunging hull, than swim to the tow rope, which Willie had untied when I vanished from sight. The swimming was very arduous, because every 2nd sea pulled me underwater, and I had to swim up the front side of the third sea, then underwater again repeatedly.
I pulled myself to the bow, and with one arm gripping the rope, with the proverbial “death grip”, I tried to get my boots and oil pants off as they were bogging me down – but no such luck. I was not unlike a “bronco bull rider” with a big difference. I was holding on to the tail of the bull, as I was being thrashed around and dunked constantly. Each time the seas would wash my body up onto the bow, the water in my boots would pull me back overboard, as James couldn’t hold onto me. The swinging around and being banged into the side of the boat was wearing me down, so I told James to go aft and get the life ring. He got the ring, but gave me the whole works – ring and safety line which is coiled inside the life ring.