It’s Something All Anglers Hope Will Never Happen

OCEAN CITY – Roughly 500 sleek sport fishing boats will compete in next week’s 33rd White Marlin Open and most will successfully head out to the canyons off the coast of the resort and return safely, but there is always the possibility of misfortune for some of the vessels participating.

In each of the last two years, a fishing boat participating in the tournament has gone down, thankfully without tragic consequences. Last year, the “Dream Catcher,” out of Cape May, N.J., struck something in the water around 30 miles offshore which poked a 12-inch by 18-inch hole in her hull. The vessel started taking on water and slowly started to sink before other boats fishing in the tournament arrived on the scene and safely removed the boat’s seven occupants.

Two years ago, a 28-foot center console private vessel fishing in the tournament ran through the back of a large swell and the bow dug in, quickly filling the vessel with water. The boat “pitch-poled,” or rolled over, leaving its occupants in the water for nearly an hour without life preservers or any floatation devices until a passing vessel heading in from a day of fishing spotted the overturned boat and its chilly occupants and plucked them safely out of the water.

All of which is not to suggest the tournament is not safe. Conversely, of all the boats and all the fishing trips over the 33 years of the tournament, incidents such as the two mentioned are few and far between. With two sinkings in the last two years, it remains to be seen if the trend will continue next week.

It stands to reason the potential for disaster goes up as the number of vessels fishing the tournament goes up. With almost 500 boats competing and each fishing three of the five allowable days, that’s roughly 1,500 fishing trips or 1,500 chances for something bad to happen.

Of course, the vessels competing in the tournament are top of the line boats equipped with every conceivable safety device, and the captains and mates are highly skilled with tons of experience in all conditions for the most part, but sometimes plain bad luck, an act of God or some outside influence, such as something unseen floating in the water, can lead to the demise of even the most seasoned boat with a veteran crew.

The latter is what reportedly brought down the “Dream Catcher” last year. Like the rest of the boats fishing the tournament, the 60-foot Paul Mann custom sport fishing left the marina in the predawn hours on Wednesday of Marlin Week and headed out through the Inlet under the cover of darkness. The boats are not allowed to pass the sea buoy until 5 a.m. and most boats time their departures to coincide with the time limit.

Not long after the “Dream Catcher” passed the sea buoy, it reportedly struck something in the water punching a hole in its hull. The vessel began taking on water and the crew launched signal flares and got a distress call out on the radio. The “Dream Catcher” continued to plod toward port at around 10 knots, but the bow was steadily sinking as the situation became more desperate.

Two boats participating in the tournament, the “Sea Toy” and the “Fighting Lady,” arrived on the scene and safely removed the crew of the “Dream Catcher” in a daring and dangerous rescue that included backing up to the sinking vessel transom to transom. The last of the crew was taken off the boat by about 6:15 a.m., just before a Coast Guard 47-foot rescue boat from Station Ocean City arrived.

While the crew was safely removed from the vessel before it eventually sank and nobody ended up in the water, the crew aboard the 28-foot center console fishing boat that sank during the tournament two years ago was not as lucky. In that incident, the vessel attempted to plow through the back of a large swell and the bow did not clear right away, quickly filling the vessel with water.

Brian Roberts of Ocean Pines was on the boat that day and remembers the vivid details as if it was yesterday. He said this week there was nothing unusual about the day on the ocean except for how it ended.

“We were coming back from the Washington Canyon about 40 miles out,” he said. “One of the last things I remembered was that we were talking about where we were going to go for dinner.”

Roberts said the seas were building all afternoon, but the veteran captain and crew were not overly concerned. However, the vessel plowed into the back of a swell and the bow did not roll over it like it would normally do. Instead, the bow stuck into the back of the wave.

“It was like hitting a wall,” said Roberts. “Some of the guys were thrown out of the boat immediately, but I was thrown against the gunwale and stayed inside the boat as I came back to my senses. I saw my father and the captain jumping off the boat and I knew I was in big trouble.”

Roberts said the boat quickly filled with water and the engines killed. It soon rolled to starboard before turning over completely, trapping Roberts underneath.

“The boat rolled on top of me, but I was able to push myself off and out from under it,” he said. “The next thing I knew, we were just bobbing the water without any life preservers. I remember thinking this is going to be a long night.”

The boat was equipped with all of the requisite safety equipment including a life boat, life preservers, an EPIRB device and flares, but the problem was the crew floating in the water could not safely get to any of it. With the vessel floating hull up and slowly going down, Roberts said it wouldn’t have been safe to dive under it again and attempt to get the safety equipment. There was also a concern about getting trapped under the boat as it sank or getting sucked under when it went down.

“That was one of the best lessons learned,” he said. “We had everything we needed – the life raft, the EPIRB, flares – but they weren’t in the right place. The life raft was stored under the center console and there was no way to get under the boat and get it out.”

Roberts, an accountant and loan officer with National City Mortgage, said the captain and crew were now treading water about 40 miles offshore as their boat slowly sank and they realized it could be a long time before they were rescued. It was about an hour before the rest of the fleet fishing in the tournament would come through the area and there was no guarantee anybody would see them when they did come through.

“We could hear the diesel engines roaring by off in the distance, but nobody saw us for the longest time,” he said. “About 45 minutes had passed and we were just treading water with nothing to hold on to. I had confidence in myself, but I was really worried about my father. Most of the other guys in the water were at least in their 50s.”

Roberts said about an hour into the ordeal, a vessel about a mile and a half away saw the sinking boat and its crew in the water and turned in their direction.

“That was the greatest feeling in the world,” he said. “I knew I was still doing okay, but I had the sense time was running out for some of the guys. One of the guys broke his ribs in the collision with the wave and I think he was in trouble.”

The Good Samaritan came up to the scene and safely pulled the five chilly and tired crewmembers onto the vessel to safety. The Coast Guard was called and responded to the scene, but in steadily building seas, attempting a transfer at sea from the private boat to the Coast Guard boat would have been dangerous.

Instead, the private boat took the five crewmembers into Sunset Marina where they were transported to Atlantic General Hospital. One of the crewmembers was partially in shock and another had a large laceration. Roberts said the experience was an eye opener to say the least.

“I honestly believed we could have been out there for 24 hours,” he said. “The crazy thing about it is you learn a lot about yourself in a situation like that.”

The experience did not dissuade Roberts from enjoying the ocean and fishing. He was back in the White Marlin Open last year, fishing on the “Voom” and he will be back on the same boat when the tournament gets underway next week.

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