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Adventures in Boating - Run Aground (written by Captain Frank Taylor)

It was the summer of 2009 and we were taking a much needed summer vacation in Destin, Florida.  If you have never been to Destin, know that it is the perfect vacation location to take your boat along.  It has a beautiful harbor lined with marinas, condominiums and restaurants and it offers very easy access to the Gulf of Mexico, the ICW and Choctawhatchee Bay.  On top of that, the coastline is made up of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. 
Destin Harbor

At the time, we had 2002 Wellcraft 2400 Martinique.  It was the perfect boat for someone like me, an avid boater with a family who loved taking his boat everywhere he could to explore whatever waterways were within a reasonable towing distance.  It was small enough to put on a trailer and tow a few hundred miles without too much trouble but big enough to offer all the amenities that a family would need for a full day, or even a night or two, on the water.  We booked a townhouse on the harbor in Destin that came with a slip right outside the back door.  I was happy. We could put the boat in the water at the beginning of the week and use it whenever we wanted throughout the week.
The Bear's Den on the Road to Destin

On the third day of our stay, we were trying to decide what to do for the day.  The kids wanted to go to the beach.  I wanted to go boating.  My wife said that she wanted to go to a beach that no one else could get to.  The problem was, it was a stormy day.   Thunderstorms had been rolling through all day long.  One minute, it would be raining and 10 minutes later, the sun would be shining again only to go back to pouring rain 20 minutes later.  We spent our time in the condo doing other things while I kept an eye on the weather.

At about 3:30 pm, I looked at the weather radar and noticed a break in the rain.  I looked at the sky and it was looking a lot better as well.  I announced to my family that it was time to go to the beach.  I knew that it was not only possible, but likely that more storms would eventually come so I would have to keep an eye on the sky.  We excitedly piled into the boat and headed down the canal to the main harbor toward the East Pass.  Once in the pass, we turned south and headed towards the gulf.  Just short of the jetty on the west side of the pass, we headed toward the shore.  It was necessary to trim the outdrive up a bit to get over a sand bar that was about 75 yards off shore but we found a great spot to anchor close to shore that had plenty of depth for the boat to sit while we went ashore. 
The East Pass in Destin Looking South Towards the Gulf of Mexico

I dropped the main anchor at the bow and to be safe, I also dropped a stern anchor.  We were approaching slack tide and I did not want the boat to do a 180 degree swing if the tide changed.  We swam about 40 yards to the shore, hopped over the jetty and walked over to the gulf side of the beach.  As expected we had the entire pristine beach to ourselves.  The water was a gorgeous emerald green as is typical for Destin and there were big white puffy clouds against a deep blue sky.  The boat was also still within easy sight.  Life was good indeed!

We spent time playing in the surf and laying on the beach and we were enjoying our time on our newly discovered ‘private beach’.  Periodically, I would glance over to where the boat was anchored to make sure everything looked good.  Each time, I would notice her resting in the same spot, tugging gently on the bow anchor line. Everything looked good. . . until . . . one time I looked over and something looked different.  I’m not sure what made me look but something did.  This time, she was still tugging on the anchor but not the bow anchor.  Things had changed and she was pulling pretty hard on the stern anchor and it was a little harder that I was comfortable with.  A quick scan of the skies above also hinted that things were different than before, and conditions were changing rapidly. 

I yelled to my family, “It’s time to go . . . NOW!” 

We ran up the beach, jumped over the jetty and ran to the water and swam out to the boat.  I got my wife and kids up the swim ladder and onto the boat.  The stern anchor was dug into the bottom in shallow water so I released the line from the cleat on the back of the boat, allowing the boat to swing around the bow anchor line, pulled up the stern anchor, made my way to the boat and tossed the anchor onto the deck.  That was when things went haywire! 

The storm hit with a wall of wind that jerked us hard against the one remaining anchor line.  My family ran into the cabin as I started the boat.  I worked my way up to the bow to attempt to pull up the anchor.  After several minutes of struggling against the wind, I realized that this was not going to work.  I am a pretty strong guy but I was no match for Mother Nature.  Trying to pull the boat through 50 to 60 mph winds was tougher that I thought.  I remember thinking that I now understood why I got such bad mileage when towing.  I shouted to my wife to come to the helm and use the boats engine to move us forward while I continued to pull on the line.  After several minutes of trying this method, the boat bucking wildly in the wind and waves, I felt a hard bump as the keel made contact with the sandy bottom. 

“Oh No!!” I thought.  “Could this really be happening?”

I told my wife to go back in the cabin.  I walked back to the helm and shut the engine down.  I knew what was going to happen.  I have heard of this happening to other boaters but this has never happened to me!  With each impending gust of wind and wave, The Bear’s Den was pushed further and further up onto the beach.  I sat at the helm as the wind and rain thrashed my face.  Part of me felt that it was just punishment for putting us in this predicament.  I had my VHF radio on and I could hear a vessel presumably somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico issuing a Mayday call.  Shortly afterwards, a Coast Guard Helicopter flew over headed out over the gulf at high speed.  I had mixed feelings, partially concerned for the other boater and partially glad that I was not in his predicament which was clearly worse than ours. 

The storm left just as quickly as it came, the sun started to peak out between the clouds again.  We stepped off the boat onto the sand and I got my first look at what kind of situation we were really in.  The Bear’s Den was leaning to her port side, completely beached.  The outdrive was completely out of the water and only about 20 percent of the hull was actually still in contact with the water.  The kids walked up the hill a bit and started building a sand castle and I just stood there for a bit with my wife staring at the boat.  I was slightly happy that the kids still did not seem to have a care in the world even though we were in a tough situation. 

About 100 yards north of us, we noticed a pontoon boat that had also been washed ashore.  I walked toward them to see if I could offer some assistance.  With some grunting, pushing and pulling, we were able to get the small boat back into the water.  The owner offered to try and tow us back in and I graciously agreed.  We went back to our boat, tied a line from the back of the pontoon to its bow and the captain revved the small engine up to max rpm.  We began pushing and pulling but to no avail.  The pontoon’s 50 HP engine just could not do the trick even with our assistance.  I thanked them for trying and sent them on their way.

I knew what I had to do.  I went back to the helm, picked up the mic to the VHF and called out for Towboat.  After all, I thought, I didn’t get the yearly membership for nothing.  When they responded, I informed them of our predicament and our location.  There was a slight pause and the person on the other end of the radio asked me to restate our location.  I explained that we were on the beach on the west side of the east pass in Destin.  There was even a longer pause before I heard the words “how did you get in there?” 

“Well,” I said.  “We were able to get close to the shore by trimming the outdrive up to get over the sand bar.  The rest was done by Mother nature.”

Another long pause.

“Do you have insurance?”

“Now that can’t be good,” I thought.

“Yes, I have insurance.  Why do you ask?”

“Sir, we are not sure how you got over there because it is normally not possible for most boats.  If we have to come in there to get you out, it will be considered a salvage operation.”

I was stunned to hear those words.  My heart sank. 

“Did he just say the word SALVAGE?”

“No, No, No,” I thought.  “There is something wrong here.  This can’t really be happening.  Not only am I in this situation,” I thought, “but now I will have to explain to my insurance company how stupid I was.”

I really don’t know why I did this but I politely declined and informed the Towboat operator that I would consider other options.   As I hung up the phone, I asked myself, “What are you doing? You have no other options.”

By now, my wife had joined the kids in building their sand castle but I knew that it would not be long before she walked over to ask me what the plan was.  I needed to have an answer.  The sky continued to clear and boat traffic started to pick up in the harbor and in the pass again.  I wondered if any of them had noticed that there was a 24 foot cruiser up on the sand.  A few minutes passed and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pontoon boat beach itself about 70 or 80 yards off the bow.  Several people jumped off and started jogging down the beach towards us.  As they got closer, I realized that there were 6 guys and they all looked like they had just come from a body building competition.  I stepped off the boat and met them as they arrived. 

“Need some help?”  One of them asked.

I chuckled and said, “Uh, Yeah.”

“We have already pulled six boats back in the water.  We think we can get yours in too.” He replied.

I remember wondering if these guys were angels send by God.  I mean really, how often does that kind of thing really happen?  Three of us walked into the shallow water where the bow anchor was still set and grabbed the anchor line.  The others, grabbed the boat in various locations and we began to push and pull.  Slowly, the vessel began to work her way back to the water an after a few minutes, she was afloat again!  I could not believe the good fortune that we had stumbled across.  I thanked my newfound bodybuilder friends profusely and offered to buy them all lunch, or a beer or something at whatever local restaurant they wanted.  The kindly refused and said that they had more work to do.  After that, they disappeared as quickly as they had come. 

By that time, I figured we had enough adventure for the day and it was time to head back in.  The kids grumbled a bit about not finishing their sand castle but they climbed into the boat and we made our way back to our rented slip. I learned a lot that day, mainly to keep a closer eye on the weather.  Had I done that, we probably would have made it back to our slip before the storm hit.  I also learned that kindness comes in many forms.  I don’t know for sure, but I got the impression that this particular day was not the first time that this group of gentlemen had helped people who had found themselves in a difficult situation.  It seemed too familiar to them.  If someone had told me earlier that day, that I was going to find myself stuck between a rock and a hard place and I would ultimately be freed by a group barrel chested hulks on a pontoon boat, I am not sure that I would have believed them.  One thing is for sure though.  I am glad we crossed paths.

Captain Frank

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