Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the Elite Redfish Series with one of our disabled veteran members. This particular member suffered the loss of one of a leg due to combat injuries sustained in Iraq. Watching him walk amongst the general public, you would never know that he wears a prosthetic limb. However, during our week together, I was able to see some of his limitations as he negotiated stairs and moved around the boat. The time spent together was a learning experience for both of us, but I must say that his determination and will to overcome adversity has put me in awe of his abilities. We encountered a number of issues that would ultimately cost us much more than we ever expected to spend during the trip and has also driven us to take another look at not only what tournaments we compete in, but also a much closer look at boat and individual safety. As you will see in this blog, although we both felt we were prepared for anything we might encounter, we quickly discovered life can throw you a curve ball that you may never anticipate.
In order to keep this blog to a reasonable length, I'll forego the description of failed equipment and acclimate weather that we dealt with throughout the week while pre-fishing. Instead, I will jump straight into our tournament experience. It started with the Captain's Meeting that was held by event coordinator and producer, Pat Malone. We had the privilege of honoring SGT Joe Fox from the 118th Field Artillery and his brother Thomas. As you may have seen in other blogs or posts we have made, these two young men were tragically lost during a recent boating accident in Savannah Georgia. We honor one of our fallen veterans at each tournament that we participate in by carrying their photo on our boat and providing a brief overview of not only their dedication to service, but also their impact on both their community and family. When requested, we also add a dog tag to the console of our boat in memory of each of these fallen veterans. Many of the dog tags represent a veteran that has succumbed to the impact of combat related PTSD on their lives. Prevention of veteran suicide is our primary goal as we seek to provide a recreational outlet through fishing.
On Day 1 of the tournament, we arrived early at the launch to find the outside temperature below freezing and the water temperature at 44°. Needless to say, it was cold. Winds were expected to be about 15 mph gusting to 20 from the north, so we decided to take the longer inner-coastal waterway to our fishing area approximately 60 miles away. We would still have to cross a large inshore lake to get to our destination, so we expected a bit of chop. The top speed for the tournament was limited to 60 mph for safety, with a top speed for our boat of about 52 mph. Both my fishing partner and I were dressed in cold/wet weather gear with additional layers of clothing for warmth that we could remove. He brought additional layers to add if needed. Our safety equipment consisted of coast guard approved inflatable life-vests, a pack of back-up (orange) flotation devices and a throw cushion. Also included were all other safety gear required by law.
We soon approached the inshore salt-water lake, a lake that we had not previously navigated and were unfamiliar with, except for what we learned through Google Earth. Our Garmin equipment showed the path that we needed to take and provided a list of hazards that we may encounter. As we crossed the lake at nearly 50 mph, I found it difficult to read some of the symbols on the screen due to their small size. At that point, I asked my fishing partner to assist in identifying a symbol that was determined to be an obstacle. I began to negotiate a left turn to avoid the area but found the boat to respond more quickly than anticipated due to the chop and wind. This created an abrupt jolt that caused him to lose his balance and quickly fall overboard.
Fearing the worst with the extreme cold temperatures, I pulled back on the throttle (a little too quickly), and the motor went into protective shut-down. Quickly restarting the motor, I could hear my buddy trying to force water from his lungs that he inhaled due to the involuntary reflex caused by the force of the cold water. As I maneuvered the boat to him, I could see that his life vest had not yet inflated, and he was struggling to stay afloat with his artificial leg still attached. Finally, after about 20 seconds the bright yellow bladder emerged from the vest as it inflated and provided the necessary life-saving support. For this, we were both truly thankful. Unfortunately, this led to yet another lesson as we found the layers of clothing made it difficult for him to get his breath. It became a real struggle to remove his hood and unbutton his collar to provide some relief. Once this was accomplished, we found it necessary to guide him to the back of the boat so that he could use the dive platform for re-entry.
As we got him onto the boat, my first priority was the prevention of hypothermia. Fortunately, he had brought extra shirts, so we quickly removed his wet clothing and began the process of drying him out and applying hand warmers to get his body temperature back up. By this time, I had already informed the tournament director of our situation and made the decision to head back in. However, my buddy had different plans and wanted to fish. Talk about a hardcore Ranger. This guy just doesn't quit. After about an hour of warming him up and slowly crossing the lake, we finally reached to intercoastal waterway where we would continue our journey to the area we would be fishing. As the day progressed, I could see the cold-water experience was beginning to take its toll on him. Thinking better of the situation should it ever reoccur, anyone going overboard in cold weather will result in the end of a fishing day. Life is far too valuable to add unnecessary risk of hypothermia or water induced illness.
Though we would end the day with no measurable fish, we learned a few valuable lessons that will impact our efforts going forward. Lesson one is although speed is sometimes necessary to get you to a prime location first, the boat must be suitable for the disabilities of the clients on board. The leaning post seats and lack of hand holds contributed to my passenger's total loss of balance. Although classified as a tournament boat, the manufacturer did not take into consideration the need for bucket style seats found on many tournament boats. This will be corrected in the near future, but until that time, passengers with disabilities will be required to sit in the forward or aft seats while the boat is in motion. Lesson Two - Don't purchase a PFD based on how inexpensive it is. Research the manufacturer and buyer reviews. An informed buyer can make smart decisions regarding the performance of safety equipment. Lesson Three - whenever operating in extreme cold, a cold weather flotation jacket should be worn under the life vest. This will allow the wearer to float long enough for the PFD to inflate.
I can't stress enough the importance of creating a float plan and implementing additional safety precautions designed to mitigate occurrences such as we experienced. Since tournaments are a major part of what we do, we will be looking to upgrade our current boat to accommodate our clients with the highest degree of comfort and safety. We will begin the process of obtaining manufacturer quotes and raising the funds necessary for the organization to purchase our own boat. This will allow us to not only address safety from the seats, but also will allow us to lock a wheelchair in place for disabled veterans with mobility limitations. Boat speed will continue to take a back seat to safety, but our experience has revealed the need to ensure we are operating a boat built specifically for tournaments when operating at tournament speeds. Look for more information addressing the primary differences in boats built specifically for fast competition in an upcoming blog. Until then, be safe and we will see you on the water.