as told by Howard Haines
Sometimes at sea you have to make hard decisions. But it’s nice to know that when you do, the U.S. Navy has your back.
This was back when I was 15. Ever since I was a little kid my family had fished and dived the Bahamas every summer, which was easy to do because we lived in Florida. That year we had rented a house in Lyford Cay near Nassau, and been there for a week. Then my stepmom and sister flew home and my dad and I got ready to go back in the boat. We were just out of sight of land off Lyford heading home when we saw something on the water. It was a guy, a Bahamian we guessed, jumping up and down on a boat—a little 25-foot, kind of junky boat. And this guy’s on the bow waving his shirt like crazy, and there were two more guys in the back of the boat doing the same.
Obviously, it looked like they were in distress, but you never know, especially back then—it was still Pirates of the Caribbean in those waters then. We normally had guns on the boat for protection, but that day for some reason we didn’t. So we were a little wary because you’re kind of naked out there when you’re unarmed. So we got about maybe 75 yards from them, and we called Bahamas Air Sea Rescue. We didn’t want to get too close because we didn’t know what we were getting into—we hadn’t even spoken to the guys on the boat yet. We were just kind of looking at them, checking them out, and they were all waving their shirts back at us like nuts, shouting.
We were worried about getting hijacked, if it was a drug boat in disguise or something, maybe they’d take our boat and kill us. There’s a million things that pop into your mind in a situation like that, other than the one important one, which is, Hey these guys might really need our help.
So we call Bahamas Air Sea Rescue, and it actually took them a while to respond to us. And we told them that there’s a boat in distress and we were standing by but leery to approach because we had no weapons. Eventually a U.S. Navy warship radioed us. I guess they’d been monitoring VHF 16. And once the warship heard us identify as an unarmed U.S.-flagged ship I guess they went into action. They identified themselves to us as being 8 miles to the south, and said basically that if anything happened they had our back. And sure enough we looked and off on the horizon there they were. That was a relief, I’ll say.
We pulled up closer to the boat and, the second we got up to it, it sank and I mean it sank like a rock. Immediately. The guys were all in a panic shouting, “Help! Help!” It was hard to understand them honestly, they were speaking so fast. But the boat went down stern first so fast that the guy on the bow was actually kind of launched off the boat into the water. And then that thing didn’t even float on the surface, it was just gone.
So now all three of the guys were in the water. And they started swimming towards our boat. And my dad’s talking to the Navy letting them know what’s happening. Two of the guys are getting to the boat just fine, but the one guy couldn’t swim. He had jeans and cowboy boots on with no shirt, if you can believe that, and that outfit wasn’t helping him float either. I realized I’d need to go in and get him. And I was a little worried about how long this thing had been floating there, because they develop mini ecosystems, you know? I’m not afraid of the water, but we were in the middle of the ocean off the Bahamas, I mean, that’s the kind of thing sharks will come in and investigate. So now I’m going in the water with these guys thrashing around and sharks in the water? That crossed my mind but it really was a non-consideration, because this guy was about to drown—he had gone underwater.
So I dove in in my board shorts and T-shirt. I’ve taken rescue swimming and survival classes and stuff, so I knew if I came from the front he might climb on top of me and drown me. So I swam in behind him and dove down and grabbed him by the neck and brought him to the surface. And he was struggling so hard. His arms and legs were going everywhere. And I started swimming back towards the swim platform, just kind of muscling him through the water. It was only about a 15-foot swim but it felt like forever. And we got back to the swim platform and laid him out and he was coughing up water all over the place. But eventually he was OK. And all I can remember is getting back on that boat and seeing how scared those guys looked in their eyes. I mean they thought that was their last day on earth for sure.
It turned out that the three guys were fishermen out of some island in the Bahamas. And they had been drifting for two days. Something happened to their engine and then their battery died and the bilge pump wasn’t working. I don’t know why they didn’t scoop out the water, but they didn’t. By the time they got on our boat with no food or water for that long they were delirious. So we gave them water and what we had to eat. And the Air Sea Recue told us to take them back to Lyford Cay. So we thanked the Navy for standing by and headed to Lyford and dropped them off. Those three guys were so thankful but also just in a total state of shock the whole way back, huddled in a corner in the back of the boat. We got to land and unloaded them and that was that. We were headed home.
But we left knowing that if it weren’t for us, those guys, or at least the one for sure, would’ve died. I had no idea a boat could sink that fast. And they had no safety equipment, no radio. You gotta have those things onboard. But I guess they were just poor fishermen and couldn’t afford that kind of stuff, so they’re just going out to sea with their fingers crossed. It’s a tough spot to be in, but people got to live.
Capt. Howard Haines, 43, lives in Ft. Lauderdale and owns Encompass Yacht Management. He likes to fish, hunt, and travel—and he can probably do more pullups than you.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.