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23 Jul

Journals of a Sea Tow Captain….The Call That Changed Me Forever

He had just had dinner on his own. His wife and daughter had taken off to make the 2-hour trip to Myrtle Beach. They had tickets to the “River Dance” performance, an event that he was glad to miss since he was on call with Sea Tow Wrightsville Beach that night. It was a chilly February night, and just before sunset, the local Sea Tow owner called and dispatched him on a call. Getting a call on a Sunday night in February, especially just before dark was kind of rare, but he was up for it, or at least he thought he was. The boater in need gave the details of the situation, and the Sea Tow captain felt himself starting to sweat and get a lump in his throat getting bigger. The stranded boat was a 24′ Mako and it had run out of gas offshore. They were nearly 20 miles out with 2 people onboard. Now to most Sea Tow captains, a call like this would have created little concern, but for a 45-year-old rookie like him, this created a lot of concern. He contacted his boss on the telephone, and in a calm voice filled with confidence his boss, Captain Chris Willis, assured him that everything would be OK. Feeling that the boss may have a screw loose, he still agreed to head out on the call.

Grabbing his float coat and ditch bag, he headed to the marina to the 24′ yellow Sea Hawk Sea Tow boat that was fully rigged and fueled. He jumped onboard, secured his gear, turned on both VHF radios and the radio direction finder. He also turned on what was then a new navigation tool called a GPS. Fully set up with the capability of an arrow that pointed in the direction he needed to head toward his target, he punched in the position of the boat. After checking the navigation lights, fuel level, and working status of the VHF radios, he threw off the lines, eased out of the marina, and headed to Masonboro inlet transiting the inlet as darkness fell.

Once out in the ocean and having established his heading to the disabled boat, he radioed his boss for an update. This is when he was told that Chris (the boss) would be out of communication for a while because he and his wife were heading out the door to the “River Dance” performance in Myrtle Beach. At first, he was mad and then he realized that he had far rather be heading offshore on a winter night by himself in the dark than in Myrtle Beach dozing off as a crowd of Irish kids dance a jig in a crowded auditorium. Everything was looking up until he saw it. It was less than 2 miles ahead and scary as hell!

One minute it was pitch black ahead of him and the next minute the ocean lit up dead ahead with helicopters landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. After a few very short minutes the lights went off and the ocean went black again. His first instinct was to let the carrier know who he was, what his intentions were, and the direction he was heading in. “As if they didn’t know…..duh!” Since they never acknowledged his radio calls, he thought the smart thing to do would be to swing far around the carrier giving them plenty of room. He fully understood that he and the Sea Tow boat weren’t much of a threat to a United States aircraft carrier loaded with armed hellos on a dark winter night.

A few miles later he picked up the flashing spotlights of the 24′ Mako dead ahead. Easing up beside them, he handed over a couple of gas cans that should contain enough fuel to get them back to Wrightsville Beach safely. He instructed the Mako crew to stay close in the event either boat had engine trouble going in. He wanted to especially be close to them going in the inlet since he knew their fuel would be getting low about that time. They agreed. An agreement that would soon be broken.

As both boats made their way back home, the seas started to get higher and higher. The other boat kept increasing the distance between them and the Sea Tow boat. After several attempts, The Sea Tow captain was unable to get them to answer the radio, but he could still see their stern light in the distance. He continued to call them with no response.

As he approached the red sea buoy, he could still see their stern light and followed it while continuing to call the Mako and its crew on the VHF radio with no response. A rookie move that nearly became a bad mistake. As he continued to follow the Mako, he glanced to the right and didn’t see either the red or green buoys. A sickening feeling suddenly hit his stomach. He had followed the Mako on the wrong side of the jetties and headed straight towards Masonboro Island!

The next thing he saw was the big eyes of the Mako’s passengers standing on Masonboro Island trying to push the Mako through the breakers and back into deeper water. By this time, the Sea Tow boat was in the foam from the breakers, far too close to the beach to help the guys on the Mako at that moment. The Sea Tow captain threw his boat in reverse and moved into deeper water, where he turned around and headed out to the tip of the jetty, then soon saw the Mako coming toward his location near the inlet entrance. He again called the Mako crew on the VHF and insisted they follow him in the dark inlet. This time they agreed!

About halfway through the inlet, the VHF sounded. It was the owner of the Mako informing the Sea Tow captain that he was in trouble. No surprise! After an aircraft carrier disappearing in the night, a return home with rough seas, and a customer completely missing the inlet in the middle of the night, nothing was surprising. As it turns out, the Mako had run out of fuel again. Again, no surprise since its captain had raced in which burned the fuel more quickly than expected.

The Sea Tow captain hooked up the Mako behind the Sea Tow boat and pulled the short distance to their marina where he eased them into their slip. They were Sea Tow members, so the trip was at no charge. They then left the marina with smiles on both their faces and the Sea Tow captain returned to the Sea Tow base with a smile on my face as well.

That was his last day of being a Sea Tow rookie. From that day forward the captain had far more confidence thanks to the events of that night. The confidence the Sea Tow Wrightsville Beach owner had in him also played an important role in his future with Sea Tow and life itself. That night was just one of many to come. It was just one story among thousands of a life as a Sea Tow captain.

I’ve told this story many times to friends, family, and others. On occasion, I’ve been asked how much truth there is to this story and how did I learn about it. The fact is, I was there that night. I was, in fact the Sea Tow captain in the story. A story among many others!








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