When the training for the Marco Beach Boys began, we had the best coaches and mentors ever. Ed Shanks and Jim Martin were always watching over us. Between the two teachers, we learned almost everything anyone needs to know about living in the tropics and especially on Marco and the Ten Thousand Islands. Ed was a bomber pilot in the South Pacific. He was shot down on his eighth mission and rescued by two heroic Australian pilots in a Catalina Flying Boat. After his encounter with Japanese fighter planes, Ed continued the war with his crew and a new B-25 Bomber for another 78 missions.
Jim was a veteran of the US Coast Guard, a yacht captain for both motor yacht and sailing vessels, and he was an officer on a cruise ship before settling on Marco at the Marco Beach Hotel and becoming the first of the Marco Beach Boys.
Our episode for this week begins on a raining summer morning when we were receiving some great training from Jim that was always filled with fun, amazing information and examples of great seamanship and safety on the water.
With the summer rain pounding the gulf and the Beach Boys looking out over the water, Jim began a lesson that must be shared today.
“All right, crew,” Jim began. “Who can tell me the scariest part or the most dangerous thing about the water?
Jim’s lessons were always fun, and everyone wanted to please our mentor. Speculations and guesses came from everyone.
“The waves?” was one answer. “Really big waves!”
Jim shook his head, “No.”
“The wind?” was another answer. “The wind from a tropical storm or a hurricane?”
Again, the teacher said, “No.”
“What about storms with lightning?”
Again, Jim’s answer was, “No.”
Finally, when the junior Beach Boys’ wrong answers were exhausted, our teacher explained. “The temperature of the water is the most dangerous part. The temperature of the water determines how long you can survive when you go overboard. Not if, but when.
“Even now,” Jim gestured out to the watery horizon and the rain that was falling, “our Gulf water in summer can be 90 degrees and even that temperature can be deadly. Whenever a person goes in the water and the temperature of the water is below our normal body temperature, hyperthermia begins. Even with the Gulf at almost 90 degrees, anyone lost overboard can freeze to death. It would be difficult to survive overnight even in summer.”
This was an unforgettable and valuable lesson that surfaced several years later when we were out on a sailing charter on a late afternoon. Our catamaran was carrying three couples from Michigan and our journey was taking us well offshore to make the turn that would bring us into the Marco River and home before sunset. Wind direction determines sailing angles and when the wind is either northwesterly or southwesterly, the best sailing can often take a sailboat several miles offshore.
On this particular day, we were indeed several miles out when one of the girls onboard pointed even further offshore to where the sun was now headed toward the horizon. “Look!” she said as she pointed. “Keep watching. There’s something out there. Something below the sun.”
Everyone began to look in the general direction and then we saw it. Off in the distance, an arm rose from the surface of the water. The Gulf was white capping with the breeze, but the waves were not high enough to cover the arm that was waving.
We added motor to our sails and with the added speed, we could soon see clearer. There were now two arms waving franticly from just above the waves and when we pulled up alongside, we found a young man with a life jacket holding onto a sunken Jet Ski.
“Oh my God!” the castaway exclaimed through convulsive shivers. “Oh my God! I thought was going to die. The water is so cold.”
In no time, we had our new passenger aboard and wrapped in dry towels. After tying two towable cushions to the Jet Ski that was just under the water’s surface, we listened to the tale of scary waters.
“I started out this morning,” our new friend for life began his story. “I was cruising along the sandbars and felt something touch me. I must have hit the sand but kept on going. I thought nothing of it. When I started for home, I noticed the Jet Ski became sluggish. I was already pretty far out and then the thing started sinking and the motor died. That was about 1 o’clock this afternoon!”
All of us wearing a watch was now looking at our timepieces. It was 4:45 PM and our new friend and passenger—whose name we learned was Steve—had been neck-deep in the water for almost five hours.
The emotional roller coaster that Steve must have been riding was easy to see. He shivered for half an hour and on the cruise into the Marco River, he kept thanking us over and over again. “You guys saved my life! There’s no doubt! I was a goner.”
He kept repeating that he really believed he was going to die. Apparently, a few boats came within sight, but no one saw him waving. Almost being found, he explained, was torturous. One moment Steve was hoping for rescue and then—on more than one occasion—the boats in the distance that came in sight just cruised away without seeing the stranded victim and his watercraft.
Later, we heard the report from Sea Tow when they found the red cushions tied to Steve’s submerged Jet Ski. The watercraft had hit a sandbar and caved in the front underside allowing water to slowly fill the engine compartment.
After a couple of calls, we dropped Steve at the Snook Inn where he had friends and family waiting. He wanted to buy everyone drinks and his joy at being discovered and rescued had given him a new lease on life. His happiness was bordering on ecstatic. When we asked what the worst or the scariest part was, Steve replied, “Feeling the growing cold,” he confessed, “And feeling so helpless to do anything about it.”
On another occasion, we came upon two young ladies in a broken-down Jet Ski. Their watercraft only had engine trouble and they were safely afloat but when the girls were found, they too felt hopeless and they were only stranded for two hours.
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books. “Lost and Found” and “Surrounded by Thunder – The Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men.” Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.