The Nitro Z8 boat I used for the tournament was graciously supplied by Schnelker Marine out of New Haven, IN. My motor needed a complete overhaul. It was serviced by Mike's Dockside Service out of Marblehead, OH. Amazingly, in less than a week, it was ready to go. While traveling back west to get home I was blessed with this view. Another coincidence?
By: Andrew D. Buss
November 10, 2015
Moments happen, and I had a moment. It was one that creates disparate perspectives on life such as being a husband, father, teacher, and competitive angler. Derivative from my arrogance, that latter role brought on a juncture normally portrayed in movies.
Understand the Achilles’ heel for mariners is weather, and mariners of all levels hear stories that begin with, “It came up so quickly, we couldn’t do anything about it.” Prior to September 19, 2015, I felt this was nothing more than an excuse; a statement by someone who either ignored the facts or took an irresponsible risk with their life. It is hard being objective with these stories, because a distinct advantage of being on the water is having the ability to see the weather miles away so you can anticipate. Regrettably, my arrogance got the best of me.
That morning Josh Stalcup and I launched my 20-foot bass boat on Lake Erie from Sandusky, Ohio in preparation for the BASS Northern Open. Strong winds were forecast, but the bulk was not expected until the afternoon. The plan was to head 20 miles north into Canada and head back when those winds increased. With a good deal of experience on the Great Lakes and having safely navigated through large waves before without incident, we had zero concerns. We ran to Pelee Island, an inhabited island over 7 miles long and 3 miles wide, to scout the famous smallmouths that roam the area.
Josh and I were victorious in an Angler's Choice tournament on Lake Tippecanoe in 2013, but it is safe to say the day of September 19, 2015, brought us closer than any successful fishing trip.
On the trek to Pelee, the lake had a pattern of waves between two and three feet tall coming out of the west. Quite easily we drove through the wide troughs that existed between the waves. It took 45 minutes to reach the east side where there was protection from the wind. After two hours of fishing with minimal success, we ran northeast of the island to a shoal with a helicopter landing pad positioned on it known as the Helipad.
While traveling the five miles there, I took note and studied a rain cloud moving our direction from the west. For the record, I have seen storm clouds before - I know storm clouds. My take on clouds is not on a novice level; I consider myself rather skilled, but on this day my read was amateurish. That cloud was packing a great deal more than just rain.
The Helipad is located several miles east of the island, so it had no protection from the wind, and just minutes after arriving, the rain cloud hit us like a hurricane. Quite literally, the winds and rain were so violent it was difficult to stand. Despite the
vertical rain pelting us, I was too proud and determined to quit. I defiantly stayed and worked my drop shot rig hoping for a smallmouth to bite; however, in a span of 12 minutes the waves that were three foot tall upon our arrival had turned into eight foot monsters. Even I had to admit it was time to make a run to the protected side of Pelee before things got out of hand; unfortunately, that was nearly five miles away.
I have navigated eight foot waves before, but these waves were different from any I had ever seen. The “dishwasher effect” is a term I had heard but never experienced until that day. What that meant was waves were coming from both left and right and cresting, making it nearly impossible to navigate. We even saw waves colliding with each other. There was no riding through the troughs either, for the way to the island was directly into them. As the boat rose over an eight foot wave, it would also drop eight feet into the trough creating a thunderous slap, jostling us like rag dolls and heaving dozens of gallons of water over the bow into the boat. Just as I would regain my senses from one wave, another would be nearly on top of us from the opposite direction, leaving just seconds before the next. Through each wave we would move forward only a few feet, and with nearly five miles to go, there was no way the bilge pump could keep up.
The noise level was deafening. Combine the sound of pelting rain with the waves cresting and wind howling, it was impossible to communicate with Josh, just two feet away, without yelling.
For 30 minutes it was a redundant struggle: countless times we would climb up one wave, only to drop back into the trough with gallons of water spewing in. Having gone just a short distance, the inevitable was becoming apparent. With this succession of one misfortune after another, panic began to set in. The feeling was one of an approaching calamity.
By now our adrenaline was maxed, bodies drenched, and hands trembling, because the boat was nearly filled with water. In the console, water was up to the seats. The compartments in the back half of the boat, meant to be water resistant, were overflowing. Along with half of the outboard motor, the very back of the boat was partially submerged, meaning the power source for everything, four Interstate Batteries, were also under water. The weight of the water not only slowed our progress, but made it dangerously off balance. With the back end engulfed, the front would lift dangerously high as it went over a wave. One wave with its tremendous momentum at the wrong angle could flip the boat and send us overboard. And the succession of misfortune continued - the outboard motor suddenly died.
The sight of a 47' life boat and helicopter from the Coast Guard is an awe-inspiring sight, unless, they are coming for you.
This left only one option: jump on the deck and put the trolling motor up against nature’s fury. Doing so put me at greater risk of being thrown over, but there was no choice.
Two possibilities were looking imminent:
1. If we fell in the lake, drowning was a certainty. Even with life jackets, attempting to stay afloat in those waves would be in vain.
2. It was only a matter of time before a wave would tip us into the water.
The only tool keeping us from being more than a cork in the water was the trolling motor. However, losing power to this was also a concern because the aforementioned Interstate Batteries were submerged. Alas, it was time to call for help; but in a foreign country in the middle of a Great Lake, who can you call? To my astonishment, Josh answered, “Ghostbusters!”
Not the time for jokes, Josh. Not the time.
My wife got the first call. I was hopeful she could quickly research who I could call before it was too late. Unfortunately, it went to voicemail. Would 911 work here? Only one way to find out. After being transferred two times I was connected to the Canadian Coast Guard. They would be dispatching someone to get us. In a feeble effort not to sound desperate I asked, “Can you give me an ETA?”
In the background is my boat being towed by the Coast Guard. The men were as professional and efficient as advertised. Listen to the wind, and watch it on his clothes and hair.
“About 30 minutes,” was his reply.
“Take your time,” I thought, “I expect to be dead in 10.”
So there I was with the back of the boat partially submerged, outboard motor dead, partner bailing water with a miniature wastebasket, standing on the deck staring down a seven foot wave with only a trolling motor to navigate four miles back to my wife, my children, and safety. Standing erect on a boat while staring at a wave taller than you, tumbling down at you, is humbling. Not only was I facing that wave, but death was staring at me, and I knew it. Suddenly my phone rang - it was my wife, Nicki.
Death was a real possibility. I did not want to have her live through that last conversation so sappily portrayed in movies, but what choice did I have?
While maintaining balance with my left foot, my right foot directed the trolling motor pedal to navigate a seven foot wave. Simultaneously, I had my left hand holding onto the butt seat, with my right on the phone. I answered, “Hey, baby.”
Her initial inquiry, “Are you ok? What’s wrong?”
“Well, we’re in a situation here, and someone is coming for us,” I answered while my eyes narrowed and my left hand tightened its grip to the seat as the boat climbed a six foot wave. The boat smashed down into a trough. “The Coast Guard is coming for us, because our boat is sinking. The motor is dead, and I’m on the trolling motor in some rough stuff. Josh is bailing water with a wastebasket. This storm is killing us, dear!”
Her pause told me she understood the severity. “What? Where are you?”
“Around Pelee Island, but we’re over four miles from it. It’s not looking good.”
“Baby!” Her sobs were easily heard over the howling winds and crashing waves.
Her crying made me cry, “Sweetheart, I love you more than anything. Please, please squeeze Alyssa, Preston, and Jordan for me.” I lost composure for a moment, “Tell them… Tell them how much Daddy loves them. I love you all so much.”
After putting my wife through that ordeal, she still brought our children to the weigh-in. Nothing could make me happier as I flat-out enjoy showing them off. On stage I embarrassed her by pointing out my "smoking hot wife," to the audience. Who could disagree?
“Baby!” She sounded desperate, “We love you! Come home to us!”
“Sweetheart!” a complete breakdown of emotion took my breath away for a moment, “I’m sorry, but I have to go. I will see you soon.” That was the end of our conversation.
It is true what they say: in moments like these you think about who is most important to you. Selfishness left me. I had no concern for myself, or even Josh, rather, it was all about my family; specifically, how my children and wife would live without me, how unfair it would be for them. Instead of additional phone calls, I called to God for help. I called out to my deceased and greatest fishing partner, Dad.
Perhaps ironically, or divinely, from that point forward our horrid luck ceased. The three Interstate Batteries never failed. While navigating through precarious waves, the water we took on was dramatically reduced as the trolling motor maneuvered more gently, and between Josh bailing and the bilge pump working, we made gradual progress. We inched towards Pelee Island, but the rain stopped, the waves steadily reduced in size from monsters to three and four feet tall, and proper balance of the boat was being restored with less water in it. We were not tossed into the lake.
Nearly 90 minutes after my initial conversation with the Coast Guard, and just 100 yards off the coast of Pelee in calm water, they arrived with a 47 foot lifeboat and helicopter for reassurance. We had nowhere to go, no way of getting home, but we were alive, and we were going to live. They towed us to Scudder Marina on Pelee Island and obtained permission for us from Customs to stay the night in their country.
Perhaps the most overlooked vantage point was through Josh's eyes. He endured the entire boat ride from the passenger seat. If our ordeal was not frightening enough, his day one partner from the Open Tournament was with professional angler, Jamey Caldwell, who took him to the exact same Helipad we were at. Before either one of them could take a cast, a wave threw Caldwell overboard!
After gathering our bearings we found a bed & breakfast and solitary bar where we ate, reflected, and met phenomenal people who gave us ice cream cones, bought us drinks, and offered the keys to their vehicles to “explore the island” since “we were already there.” I quipped, “If you would have seen me navigate my own boat a few hours ago, there would be no way you would offer me the keys to your car!” Apparently being towed in by the Coast Guard made us minor celebrities and the talk of the island. Strangers came up and bluntly asked, “Are you the Coast Guard people?” Our story was told many times.
When the evening was coming to a close and the emotions were settling, I stepped outside the bar to admire an epic sunset (pictured top). With the wind and view in my face I wondered about coincidences. That afternoon death looked certain, that was until I pleaded my case before a Higher Court. From that point forward everything was spared and provided. Coincidence? Was this a sign to quit pursuing my dream of becoming a professional angler - to just be content with my current job as a teacher, or just a coincidence? For some reason God spared me. My children were going to play with me again. My wife was not made a widow, and my students would see me Monday morning. Coincidence? I don’t think so either.
Without any answers I simply thanked God for keeping Josh and I alive, for my family, and even the anger and punches sure to come from those who love me. I thanked Him for reminding me how important they are. I am done taking them for granted.
“It came up so quickly, we couldn’t do anything about it.” These words have a fresh connotation to me. It is a metaphor that resonates. Life’s perspectives can change that quickly too, and I’m here to tell you, it can happen just like that.
(Author’s Note: God continued to provide. A few days later I was back fishing around Pelee Island in the aforementioned event. Schnelker Marine out of New Haven, Indiana provided the boat. If my nerve was not tested enough, early on day one I witnessed a boat sink on the island’s shore. Out of 150 professional anglers I finished 35th to claim a substantial prize.)
After a night on Pelee Island, Captain Pete Scheid of Captain Hook Fishing Charters and Lodging came out and towed us back (seen above) to the United States. He had us at his mercy, yet he charged us nearly $1,000 less for the tow than a commercial tow company. He is the lead charter captain for both walleye and smallmouth bass for the Sandusky, Ohio area.