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A Lesson in Overconfidence

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as told by Phil Phillips

Phil Phillips

Sometimes it’s the little things;
sometimes it’s the big ones.

Back in 1998, I was doing the Great Loop on my 31 Fountain, a center console, by myself. My friends all were working, or had families, or their wives told them they couldn’t go. So my choice was to go by myself or not to go, so I said screw it, I’m going. Which is fine, I like to have adventures by myself anyway.

I started in Jacksonville and made it up the east coast with no problems, ran by Nova Scotia and around its northern tip, then I headed west to the Gulf of St. Lawrence—the Gulf narrows down sharply to form the St. Lawrence River. And I stayed overnight in this remote French Canadian resort on this little island. It was a nice enough place, though I don’t know that I’ll be heading back there anytime soon.

So I stayed overnight, and in the morning I walked down to the marina and the marina manager came out and in very broken English told me I should not go out, which I found a bit perplexing—it’s really not in my nature to not go out, you know? But he was saying, don’t go, don’t go, big waves! And he explained that there were high winds, maybe 35 knots and focused, blowing down the St. Lawrence River, which is like a wind tunnel because of these high hills that line the channel. And against that is running a stiff incoming tide backed by the Labrador Current. So there was a lot of energy colliding in that river.

I’ve encountered all kinds of sea conditions in my day and I had a lot of confidence in Fountain’s hull design, so I just figured I’d go out and have at it and I’d be OK.

And boy was that a bad choice.

Outside the marina it was fine, because there was a protective cove. And I pulled out into the river going full speed and just whammo! There was a wall of water standing right up in my face. You know your mind plays tricks in retrospect, but I’d guess they were 12 to 15 feet straight up. Which isn’t huge for an ocean wave, but this was shallow water, and these things went straight up, honestly like a knife blade, it was a standing wave. My heart was in my throat, and I was thinking, Oohhh shit.


I was panicking a little, and I knew it. So I pulled back on the throttles and I tried to concentrate on the little things. I had read somewhere when you start to panic you should concentrate on small things you can control. Point the boat in the right direction, add the right amount of power to climb the wave, that kind of thing. So I did that, and I got up the wave OK, but when I got to the top of the wave it was like the boat was balanced on the head of a pin. And then I just kind of fell down the back of the wave and I thought for sure I was going to bury the bow. I had the trim tabs all the way up, but I wasn’t sure it was going to make a difference. But boy that Fountain hull design, man, it was spectacular, she just scooted right up the face of this next wall. Turning around at this point would have been a disaster, the waves were too close to turn around, I was in it now.

So I ended up plowing into the next wave and the next wave. I kept my eyes on the south shore looking for some cover, some lee, but I ended up crashing through those waves for 2½ hours, and boy I’ll tell you, I’ve done a lot of things in my life, some not so smart maybe, but this voyage, the whole time I was truly shit scared.

I couldn’t have been making more than 8 knots. I was off plane the whole way. Finally I saw this big car-carrier pull across the river in front of me, and it pulled around a corner and I figured there must be a refuge that way. So I followed it and found a marina with a giant breakwater, and I pulled into there with the greatest sense of relief I’ve ever felt in my life.

My worst fear was the boat would roll and I’d be pitched into this maelstrom with no way to even get word to a rescuer, let alone get rescued. You try not to think of worst case you know, but it’s always there.

The whole thing was caused by overconfidence and the offhand dismissal of conditions I had been warned about. I tend to be impulsive and that was probably impulsive, so I learned to be a little bit more cautious. Though I promise you no one would ever accuse me of being too cautious, even to this day. But hey, here I am. Life’s fun. Well, my life’s fun anyway. Tomorrow morning I’m shipping off by myself again in a 32-foot Intrepid from Homer, Alaska, headed to Vancouver. That’s just the way I like to do things. Go have an adventure. I’ll be 70 in September, it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Phil Phillips is 69 years old and lives in Jacksonville, Florida. He is a retired commercial developer. In his free time he goes on adventures and prepares to go on adventures. That’s really all the guy does.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.