Survival Bag in the Boat?

Survival Bag in the Boat?
Search and Rescue helicopter at work. A friend of mine running the CG in Port O’Connor said, “From a helicopter, looking for a guy swimming in the water is like trying to spot a floating coconut.” Make is easier to be rescued, by carrying lights, flares, or by building a fire on shore.

Fishing and boating has been characterized as a string of misadventures, broken up by occasional good trips. That doesnt apply to most guides, who stay in a regular groove on the water, and know the area quite well. Theyre paid to keep misadventures to a minimum.

Most of the public fishes the weekends, and sometimes months go by while the boat sits idle. We may forget about certain sandbars or hazards, or force a trip when the weather forecast is sketchy. During winter, the little things can become life threatening. There are fewer passing boats to render assistance, and the threat of hypothermia is only a few feet away. Its best to prepare.

We were reminded of this in November, when I ran over a crab trap, wrapped it three times around the propeller, and tight. The engine revved down and stopped; we were stuck. This wasn't a dreaded, abandoned, ghost trap coated with oysters... no, Id hit a working trap in broad daylight with a buoy attached. While cruising along, studying the shoreline to port for an opening into the marsh, heading east into a rising sun. Thump! I clambered out into chilly, thigh-deep water and went to work with trusty Rapala fish pliers. Hmmm. Last time this happened was about 18 years ago near POC, while running at night.

There was a problem. My pliers have long tines but dull cutters, after nipping too many wire leaders. Snip. It was slow going. It could have been worse, but we were in fine weather and calm water. But I had to jam those pliers way into the torn chicken wire, dodging angry crabs, to make perhaps 40 cuts. The pliers were too dull to cut through double-twisted wire. Josh offered his newer pliers, but he'd dunked them a month earlier while wading, and they were too stiff to use. Mine were oiled, but getting dull. Snip. My prop had missed the thicker rebar on the lower side of the trap. Finally the mutilated trap unwrapped, and we were free. On we sped to the honeyhole.

Which later left me thinking, what if wed been unable to remove the trap? It was a Monday, and we didn't see another boat, save for a crabber on the horizon, the owner no doubt wondering why one of his traps looked like a hand grenade had gone off inside it. But there wed been, far from any marina, sketchy cell phone service, the motor paralyzed. Were we prepared to spend the night? No way. Neither of us smoke, so we had no matches. It wasn't quite winter, so Id left the survival bag at home. We had nothing but lunch. There was a patch of high ground a mile back in the marsh we could have poled to, but otherwise nothing but marsh grass, wet mud and wild hogs for at least eight miles. It might not have been too bad for us, but Josh is 75 years old with bad knees.

Since then, colder weather has arrived, so Ive dug out the survival bag neglected during warmer days; its time to repack. I started carrying the darn thing after January 1991, when there were fatalities in Matagorda Bay off Port O'Connor, a big jonboat with four people from San Saba. Hypothermia and exposure got all but one of them... they said the survivor swam and then crawled back into marsh grass all night. We heard other grim tales as well, anglers or duck hunters caught in cold fronts, trying to return from the Army Hole, who tried and failed to beat their way back in a north wind. I figured if they'd just stayed on shore, wrapped up in a tarp, rustled up a hot meal over a fire, they'd have survived. Heck, there are sturdy buildings on the island. But things can go downhill quickly in stormy weather.

So, 22 years ago I put together that little survival bag with my favorite soups, a tarp and matches. I figured a marooned boat on a shoreline could provide enough gasoline for any fire, regardless of wet driftwood. Squeeze the gas bulb, and you could fill a coffee can. It worked many times with our Johnson's fuel hose during adventurous high school years, anyway.

The bag went unused. Then, one morning in 1994, it was called into service. The variables of when and why a survival bag will be needed are impossible to predict, but heres how it went down: We were heading east into a rising sun, in Power Lake off San Antonio Bay, far from our ramp at Port OConnor, when thump! At just-planing speed we hit a hidden sandbar with a very heavy, shallow-running boat. We walked around in chest waders, dug and pushed with bare hands. Nada. You know what they say: When the going gets tough, the tough go fishing. That's what we did, waiting for the tide to rise. Except it didn't rise, not one inch. Three of us moved the boat about two feet, by sunset, digging and pushing when we didn't fish. Sunset came and went, so I pulled out the survival bag. It was a calm and warm night, in early January. We built a fire on the shoreline 50 yards away, the kindling and driftwood was dry enough. Wolfed down several cans of soup and beans. The Austin CEO with us, a college buddy, was mighty glad to wrap hands around his third of a can of pinto beans...

It was a nice night for camping. We slept under the stars, the little tarp pulled over the three of us. Not much of a dinner; we lacked hot sauce and that soup was mighty bland. We had no Advil for headaches or sore muscles, after pushing the boat. And we could have used a pint of something, to while away the evening or allow sleep in moderate mosquitoes.

Then it was 3 a.m. and I looked around. One of the guys was actually walking the boat into deeper water; the tide had risen four inches during our 17-hour visit. We were far from the Gulfs blessed tides. With a full moon, we were soon blasting north up Espiritu Santo Bay. There was no need for a light, and we easily dodged the crab traps. Back in POC we hit the racks at 4 a.m. and lay comatose until noon. Where we found the neighborhood smothered in thick, warm fog. We celebrated our escape from the marsh with double guacamole jalapeno cheeseburgers from Hell at Josies. When the fog lifted we gave it another go, this time closer to POC. Except the CEO skipped town, drove back to Austin... he'd had enough fun. Soon we were anchored at Grassy Island, set out 40 decoys. But within a half hour, an ominous black donut of a norther roared in from the northwest. Decoys swung around in unison, began to bob and dance, we were suddenly on a downwind shoreline. We scrambled to bag them up, and were soon scooting back into town as a cold rain fell. It left us wondering... what if wed still been stuck back in Power Lake, food supply now gone, no shelter except for that little tarp. Not a life-threatening situation, but not as much fun as it sounds, either. And it could always be much worse, if another of those killer freezes hits the coast. If memory serves, there were perhaps a dozen fatalities along the entire Gulf Coast when the 1983 cold front hit, mostly stranded duck hunters who didn't make it.

At any rate, theres no way to predict the weird combinations of weather, tides and events that can sink or strand boaters. In winter its best to carry that zipper bag filled with necessities, and dont risk swamping the boat in some storm-lashed bay where swimming and hypothermia means death is close at hand. If you cant cross the bay in safety, (usually by taking an alternate route), you can always camp until tomorrow. If a bay shack or houseboat is available and life is threatened, I wouldnt hesitate to jimmy a door or pop a window on the downwind side. I would imagine that very scenario has presented itself a few times, to the guys who fish isolated Baffin Bay, where a north wind offers cruel head-on seas back to Flour Bluff and shelter. Todays boats are safer and far bigger, but can still become stranded. And cell phone coverage isnt a given; even in Port OConnor, I still have to stand in the middle of the street when using a Sprint phone. Even if your phone works, how many people will jump in their boat on a bad night, run through miles of hazardous, shallow water, especially at low tide, maybe in fog, just to tow you home?

Survival Gear

Easier than spending the night is fixing the problem, and a small tool bag on the boat can make a difference. A wrench to change the prop, tin snips to get medieval on the next crab trap wrap-up, a small hammer, spark plug wrench, flathead and Phillips screwdrivers, back-up needle-nose pliers, and so on. Well-oiled and wrapped in a rag, then plastic. Distress flares and a loud whistle (for heavy fog or night rescues), both required by the Coast Guard, are nice additions. Shannon Tompkins says he would add a Gerber multi-tool, insect dope, fresh water, fuel filters and spark plugs. No use swimming with a tool bag, however.

If your boat will carry a milk crate, bucket or both, these are handy during an impromptu campout. You can sit on them, carry items ashore, or haul kindling for the fire. They would also save squatting or sitting glumly on wet ground all night like a Karankawa. As for lighting a fire, large kitchen matches are far better at lighting gasoline on wet wood. You can stand upwind and pitch matches, without getting too close. Once a hearty blaze drives back the night, you can move in closer with the seats, wrap in the tarp and get busy with dinner. If you've run out of flares and a boat or helicopter passes by, you could even light a quick signal fire with gasoline. Its hard to ignore a fireball, rising up from a shoreline.

You want a waterproof light that will illuminate navigation day markers from several hundred yards away. Not some pitiful thing from The X-files. Since we've returned to port many times after darkness fell, a good light has saved us from many groundings and crab trappings. A sturdy dive light with four D batteries served very well during our hardest years of running the bays. Of course a Q-beam can be seen miles away, but you'll need a serious battery hook-up. You cant swim far with a 12-volt battery.

As mentioned, you cant predict the future. Some friend may talk you far back in the marsh where the big reds bite, but some Biblical three-day low tide could arrive, leaving you stranded and unwilling to abandon the boat. Perhaps in miserable weather. Or days of fog. With no cell phone coverage. Or the phone gets wet. If stuck, the least you can do is build a shelter, get a fire going, rustle up hot food, and sing around the campfire. Or not.

Just stay out of that cold water. If you get wet, get dry. If you cant get dry, get warmer, preferably wrapped in a wind-proof tarp, eating up hot calories faster than you can shiver them away.

So, Im packed for tomorrows trip. The little zipper bag holds a new 8x10 tarp, thin rope, Leatherman tool, stout soup, hot sauce, Advil, kitchen matches and lighter in Ziploc bag, waterproof flashlight, small strobe light, Irish snakebite medicine, a bag of Snickers for fast calories, plastic cups and spoons. Also a half-squeezed plastic gallon jug that can be fully inflated for extra buoyancy. You want that bag floating easy, when swimming grimly in cold waves. The jug can later be carved into a soup bowlor to carry gasoline from a stranded boat to campfire.

A Survivors Tale

Tommy Bailey lived near Fulghams in Seadrift for many years, now resides in Port O'Connor, and has been running the winter bays there for many years. Years before, he was a helicopter pilot with the Army in Vietnam. He carries a survival bag after January 1977, when his airboat sank like a stone in the middle of Espiritu Santo Bay. His story:

Four of us hunted the morning out of Fulghams (west end of Espiritu Santo Bay), returned for lunch, and went back out for an afternoon hunt in my 15-foot Panther airboat, Bailey says. I didn't know the area, back then. It was a fine day, but we didn't check the weather. There were no cell phones, and weather forecasting was different back then. We headed across the bay to Pringle Lake, but a norther hit us just past halfway across the bay, with following seas. The airboats bow dips a little, we get a little spray, which hits the carburetor, and the engine quits. Real quick, the boat turns sideways in whitecaps. Im wearing a life vest, but not the other guys. I yell grab life jackets, and two guys get them on quick, but the other guy doesn't, and then the boat rolls over. We all have chest waders on, and struggle to pull them off. The guy without a life jacket floats away with the decoy bag, while trying to get his waders off, and we don't see him again. Were drifting towards Matagorda Island, the boat is gone, were in a pretty hard norther. We kind of give up on swimming, but the waves push us along. Some of the guys are so new to this area, they think we might be carried out into the Gulf. Maybe three hours later, we make it to shore. Were real pleased to see the fourth guy, who we thought had drowned, just down the shoreline. He says he was just about done, when he felt his feet touch bottom.

We've landed just about the mid-point of Pringle Lake, and take stock. None of our three cigarette lighters work. Its sunset in January, and we don't know the area. I doubt if we could have walked to the barracks near the Army Hole, even if wed known about it. The air isn't freezing, but in the mid-40s or so. And we cant get dry. The guy without a jacket has it worse, after clinging to that decoy bag. He had no life jacket to retain body heat, and swimming wore him out.

Now the wind is blowing and were cold, the air is colder than the water was. Were wearing goose down jackets, which are useless when wet. I have on a wool shirt, which probably saves me from hypothermia. The fourth guy, hes starting to talk crazy. So we dig a hole on the back side of the sand berm that runs along the shoreline, its maybe three or four feet high, put him in the hole, and lay on top of him. Later that night, here comes this helicopter, cruising the low-tide bay shoreline with a bright spotlight. Looking for bodies, probably. We stand up, wave and yell... but were up behind the shore, wearing camo, no flashlight, no matches, no nothing. If wed had any light at all, they'd have seen us. Its a long night. Next morning a Coast Guard boat eases along the shore, spots us and picks us up. All of us are okay, after a hot cup of coffee.

Ive had five airboats since then, but I always take the shallowest route around the bay. The deepest water Ill cover is the ICW. I see these guys crossing the bay in winter, saving a few minutes, but risking their lives. Today I never run without a life jacket on. In my jacket I carry a small (seriously water-proof) Pelican case with matches, light, Leatherman, two waterproof cigarette lighters. Even flint and steel. If youre stuck out there, you have to build a fire. Our long night out there, we didn't care about food, we only wanted a fire. I also now carry a bigger waterproof kit easy to grab in emergencies, with six aluminum bags to crawl into, food, all kinds of stuff.

Most people have never been in that kind of situation, and probably don't consider what can happen out there.