I live in southeast Louisiana in a town approximately 12 miles from New Orleans, La. Lake Pontchatrain borders New Orleans to the north. It is a lake that is 24 miles across at its widest point. I have been boating, camping, fishing and hunting southeast Louisiana for the past 50 years.
This is a true story.
Close Call on Lake Pontchatrain – A True Story by “The Coach”
It all began on the warm, sunny Veterans Day of 2003, when my wife and I decided to go for a boat ride in my 14 foot, aluminum, V-hull, outboard.
We launched my boat from the Williams Blvd. Boat Launch, in Kenner, Louisiana into Lake Pontchatrain. We put on our life jackets, got in the boat and departed the dock. After exiting the harbor, we turned west, intending to explore the canal which divides Jefferson Parish and St. Charles Parish. My wife was seated in the bow and I was at the helm in the rear.
We both were enjoying the boat ride. The skies were clear, the day was warm and there was a gentle breeze from the north with no waves to speak of. We were traveling at approx. 15 knots heading almost due west. The only problem was my wife and I had problems talking to each other because of the ambient noise from the outboard motor and the noise of the movement of the boat going through the water.
We were approximately two (2) miles from the boat dock and roughly two (2) miles off shore. A freak wave came out of no where and hit the starboard stern of the boat. The wave launched me right out of where I was seated and into the water. It felt like someone had reached under me, lifted me up and flipped me out of the boat.
I did not even have time to say or do anything. I was seated on a seat cushion flotation device and did not even have time to grab it before being flipped out of the boat. I hit the water with such force that even with my life jacked on, I went totally underwater. When I surfaced, I looked around and observed my boat, with my wife still seated in it, traveling away from me in a straight line. I realized that she did not even know I wasn’t any longer in the boat. I also noticed that the force of me hitting the water had ripped open the Velcro pockets on my life jacket and I had lost ALL of my emergency signaling devices that I keep in them.
I did a quick assessment of my physical condition and realized I was not injured.
Here I was approximately two miles off shore in Lake Pontchatrain with nothing but a life jacket with my boat and wife speeding away from me.
The motor on the boat then turned and the boat started to go in a tight starboard circle. The boat was now approx. 500 yards away from me. I watched, as my wife looked to the stern and observed that I was no longer in the boat. To my surprise, she did not lose her composure.
The centrifugal force of the starboard turning boat was trying to throw her out of the boat because of the boat turning in a very tight circle. My wife got low to the deck and made her way to the stern. She took control of the motor, straightening out the course and slowed down the engine. She then found the engine kill switch and pushed it. The engine died immediately.
My wife then stood up and started looking for me in the water but it appeared to me, and she later confirmed it, that she could not locate where I was. I started to swim, the best I could, with a life jacket on, in her direction. As I attempted to swim to her, she spotted me. She had no prior boating experience, so she got one of the boat paddles and begin paddling the boat in my direction. After a few minutes, I had swum approx. 100 yards and could swim no more; my upper body strength had left me. She kept paddling the boat relentlessly, all of the way back to me and tossed me a seat flotation device to hold onto and a line so that I would not drift away from the boat.
I was physically exhausted from trying to swim to her with a life jacket on and could not get into the boat. Even if I could have, I probably would have swamped the boat attempting to get back in, making matters much worse.
I then advised her of the location where I kept the hand held marine radio. She retrieved it and sent a MAYDAY call to the U.S. Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard Group New Orleans answered her and she gave the Coast Guard all of the information that they requested. She was told by the Coast Guard radio operator that they were dispatching a rescue boat and it would be getting underway shortly.
Approximately five (5) minutes later, she told me that there was a boat off in the distance that appeared to be heading our way. She fired off a 12 gauge signal flare to attract their attention. Evidentially the boat observed the flare because its speed increased greatly and headed straight for us.
Shortly after, we could see that it was the Coast Guard rescue boat. Within a few minutes, the Coast Guard arrived and the crew got me out of the water. After relaxing for a several minutes to regain my strength, they assisted me back into my boat. I started the engine and headed back to the Kenner Boat Launch. The Coast Guard followed us all the way back to the launch. One of the Coast Guardsmen took the information that was needed for their report. There was also a local police officer there that also took a short report.
One of the crewmen on the Coast Guard boat told us that the Coast Guard radio operator advised them that we were some where 2 miles of the Kenner Boat Launch and that I was in the water. However, when they observed our signal flare, they were able to pin point our position and come straight to us.
This incident is documented with the U.S. Coat Guard and the Kenner Police Department.
I also failed to follow a cardinal rule of boating according to the Coast Guard. I did not leave a float plan with a trusted friend or relative.
I have since gone to the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s web site and printed out their FREE float plan form. Before going boating, I now fill one out and make sure someone I trust has it.
In hindsight, if I would not have had my life jacket on when I was thrown overboard, I would not have been able to tread water long enough for my wife to get back to me in the boat. Also, if she had panicked or not have been in the boat with me, no telling how long I might have been in the water until I was rescued, if at all.
How many times have you said to yourself that will never happen to me! It always happens to someone else! Or tell your wife, I don’t wear my life jacket because it is: too uncomfortable, too bulky, I am embarrassed too, only nerds wear life jackets. Or, I can always grab my personal floatation device in time if something happens; I have never needed it before. Even though the boating laws say you do not have to wear a personal flotation device, life jacket, wear one! It saved my life! It could save yours too!
Good heads up for us. We don’t have a motorized boat but we do canoe. Normally we navigate in “friendly” waters and stay close to shore, but like you said, one can’t always assume that what has been will always be. We wear our lifejackets which are the heavy duty kind, but have observed many boaters that just “have them near”. They think we’re old foggies, but that’s okay. Just don’t grab for mine when you go overboard!