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Overboard During Shark Week

As told by Dave Schunke

It’s always better to be on the boat than it is to be overboard. Especially during Shark Week.


For years my boat, Fish Circus, had been a backup camera boat for Shark Week, in Florida, the Bahamas, Rhode Island, you name it. But in 2012 we were made the lead boat for the shoot, which means the head camera guy and his crew were on Fish Circus, shooting all the scenes. There were 12 people on board the boat total, and my boat’s a 39-foot Venture center console. So she was obviously pretty heavy at that point with people and equipment—not to mention 500 pounds of bait and chum. My dry weight is 15,000 pounds, and we were about 24,000 at this point.

We were coming out of Boca Grande Pass on the west coast of Florida. We were filming the giant hammerheads that come and attack the tarpon out there, trying to figure out why these hammerheads all know to instinctively come to this particular spot at just the right time of year to get the tarpon. I’m telling you if you hooked a tarpon out there in May, look out! You got five minutes to get that fish on board or it is gone, devoured. I once caught a 150-pound tarpon that got absolutely destroyed by a 1,000-pound hammerhead out there.

So we’re running out to a wreck that’s about 65 miles offshore. And as we’re headed out it’s getting rougher and rougher and rougher. Actually our other boat, a 27-foot center console, was forced to go back in. So then we were totally alone in this rough water, I doubt there were even any other boats out there honestly. But these Shark Week shoots, people don’t understand this, they cost maybe between $60,000 to $80,000 a day. So turning around in my eyes wasn’t really an option.

We got to the 40-mile mark and the boat really started to run differently than normal. I was having problems with it, which is unusual, but I figured it was because we had 12 people on board—me, my two mates, and then a bunch of New York City and L.A. film guys—and all that gear. But the boat just felt uncharacteristically different.

I had an anchor in the bow. And it was one of those designs that sits flush against the boat. It’s watertight when it’s in place, but when it’s down, there’s a 4- by 8-inch hole in the boat. Well, guess what happened? At some point we hit three or four big waves in a row, the kind you have to slow down for, and one of them snapped the anchor right off my boat.

So now we have a hole in the boat. I had no idea though. The boat just keeps feeling heavier, but I was going really slow because of the seas, so I didn’t really notice. But then I looked down at my fuel gauge and I was getting 0.3 miles per gallon which is bad, clearly. And only at that point did I realize something was wrong. So I had my guys check the bilge. And when we opened the hatch the water actually came up and out of it. So that means my fuel filters were underwater, all my fuel lines to my engines are underwater, everything. I had a complete panic. But you can’t show that because these nine other people—besides me and my mates—don’t know what’s going on. And the last thing you want is a boat full of panicked people. So I didn’t show it. I knew what I needed to do, I’d had similar things happen, just not this bad and not this far out. So I had one of my mates check the head because that’s where my batteries are. And the water was up to the cap in there. If it had gone over and gotten to the batteries I would have gotten the life rafts out and put out a Mayday. If I had to guess, we had another ten minutes of running before we got to that point.

Then I started processing everything. We don’t want that chum in the water if we have to abandon ship. So I’m thinking, Make sure this bait stays in the boat! So we secured that. And then we got life jackets on everyone. My brother-in-law is my mate, so he got into the back hatch and starts pumping with a hand pump, and I drove the boat because remember we’re still in rough seas at this point, we take a wave the wrong way and we are in real trouble. My other mate is in the bathroom trying to get the water out of there, but that was futile so he moved to the back of the boat and started pumping in the bilge as well. Finally they got the water level low enough that they could jump in. And they looked in and realized that the bilge pumps had sucked work gloves into them. The camera guys had put their gear in the insole compartment. But when the water got in the gloves sunk down and stopped up the pumps. So that was the culprit. My mate got in there, pulled out the gloves, and the bilge pumps started working again. And we were on our way. We made it out to the wreck. And we filmed a bunch of sharks. There was a ton of them out there, man. Every species. I’m glad we didn’t end up having to get off the boat!

The big takeaway is that anytime you feel your boat change the way it’s running, you need to figure out what’s going on right away. Things can change so fast out there. You always, always, always need to be paying attention. And put a high-water alarm in your boat. A $29 part can save a half-million-dollar boat. Oh yeah, and stay the hell away from the chum!

Dave Schunke 37, from Oakland, New Jersey, is the captain of Fish Circus which has been featured on Fish Mavericks on NBC Sports.He’s kind of a big deal.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.