CHAPTER FIVE - "Mayday, Mayday, this is the Stolen Gun!"
“So, Mr. Putcamp,” Deputy stone-face said in that slow, polite twang that you hear only in prisons south of the border. “You will tell us about the mayday incident, no?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “What would you like to know?”
“This is where you endangered the life of Miss… Marley…”
“I endangered her life?” I said. “No, wait – you’ve got this a little backward, see, I, well, it went like this.”
We were crossing Albemarle Sound – you know where that is, right? It separates the Outer Banks from the mainland in northern North Carolina. Anyway, the sound was ripping with whitecaps that day, and well, we probably shouldn’t have been out there, but we were and we weren’t turning back.
I was at the wheel, and Marley stood beside me. Now, it’s not easy, riding in high seas like that, and I had to tell her not to lock her knees, that she should just flex her legs and let the boat do the bouncing – kind of like riding a horse, or sometimes like a bucking bronco. She caught on pretty quickly.
Then, I had a brilliant idea. She had wanted to learn to drive a boat, and she even drove in the Alligator River for a while. She did pretty well, and I figured it was time for her to graduate to a higher class, you know?
“Take the wheel,” I shouted over the engine and the waves. “Here you go!” I let go of the wheel briefly as she balked.
“Are you crazy?” she shouted back to me.
“C’mon,” I said, “you can do it!” I drove a little more, giving her a taunting look until she got up the courage. It didn’t take long for her to step over and take the wheel, but she immediately pulled way back on the throttle so we were moving only, maybe, 10 knots, just barely rolling up and down the waves.
“All right, girl,” I shouted, "give it some more gas, and we’ll take these seas!” She sped up just a little more, but man, she looked terrified and was wrestling with the steering wheel.
“I’m not as strong as you!” she said.
“You’re strong enough,” I told her. Now, this girl is small, but she is strong. You can’t see it on those bones, but she’s got it, I tell you. More so up here, I guess. She’s got the inner strength that many men don’t have. But she was really nervous and just wouldn’t speed up.
“C’mon, buddy” I said, “it’s time to wear your big-sailor panties!” That’s when she floored it.
Now, you just can’t go too fast in seas like that, and, seriously, I thought we were going to die, but she plowed right into those waves.
“Okay, slow down!” I said. “About 18 knots.” She eased up on the throttle and pretty soon we were going at a safe speed. Scared the heck out of me, I’ll tell you, and she drove for a while, with this big grin on her face. But I don’t think that’s the mess you were referring to, was it? No, that happened a bit later.
I took the wheel again as the waves were getting worse – it’s my boat, okay? So we pounded through the sound another few miles. She had the binoculars up and was trying her best to look for markers, buoys and whatever to keep us on course. That’s pretty hard to do when you’re bouncing off three-foot waves, but she was pretty good at that, I’ll tell you. Better than me, sometimes. At one point, though, she’s looking straight over our port side, I mean, she should be looking forward, right? But she’s really distracted, and this was not a good time to be distracted.
“What’s over there?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure.” We kept going until all of a sudden she let out a shriek.
“Stop the boat!” she said.
“I can’t stop the boat,” I told her. “We’ll drown in these waves.”
“Well, slow down, I need to look.” So I eased up on the throttle and steered straight into the waves. I had no idea what this girl was looking at, and I didn’t care – I was just trying to keep the waves on the outside of the boat. “Mark,” she said, pointing over our port stern “go over there.” Well, we can’t just go wherever we want out here. It can be real shallow in places - even in the middle of the sound - and it’s best to ride into the waves or you'll run the risk of getting swamped. But there’s something about this girl, you know? As much as I wanted to keep on our heading and get the heck off the sound, I turned that boat around.
We now had following seas, and I had to keep up some speed just to keep the waves off our transom. We’d ride to the top of a wave, and then come down the other side, like some crazy sleigh ride where you get soaking wet. We came down too fast on one wave and our bow went right under the water. The entire bow was submerged for a second, and the sheet of water came right up our windshield and a lot of it came over and into the boat. It was crazy and I don’t know why I kept at it. Something about her – I knew she was onto something.
Marley had one hand on the windshield brace and the other holding the binoculars up. She was real quiet.
“Over there,” she said, pointing a few degrees over our starboard bow. “Here.” She gave me the binoculars and grabbed the wheel with one hand. I raised the binoculars to my eyes and after at least a crazy minute of scanning the horizon while bouncing and rolling all over the place, I saw what she had seen, and it was pretty clear; a low-lying boat with no one in it.
“Here,” I said, giving her the binoculars. “Get us over there.” I took the wheel and pushed on the throttle. The other boat was about a mile away and drifting. An unmanned boat this far out can only mean one thing, that someone is in big trouble. I turned on our VHF radio to channel 16 and turned the volume up to the max, but couldn’t hear any distress or rescue traffic over the sounds of our engine and the waves. I could barely see the boat, but Marley could through the binoculars and pretty soon, I saw it too.
We were looking at a deadrise, a boat more common to the Chesapeake Bay area, but used down here some. They’re usually homemade, beautiful boats made for working, with a long, low aft section that will hold dozens of traps, and a small cabin way forward. We had no idea if someone was in the boat, but from the way it was drifting in the waves, we knew something was wrong. When we got close enough to be sure we had an abandoned boat, I grabbed the VHF mic and put out the call.
“Coast Guard, Coast Guard, this is the vessel Stolen Gun. Pan Pan,” I said as we circled the boat. “Pan Pan,” I repeated the urgency call signaling the jeopardy of a ship, but not a life. “We are in sight of an abandoned boat in Albermarle Sound.” I couldn’t hear a response, but then it was hard to hear anything at that point. The deadrise was half-filled with water, and traps were spilling over the side.
“Our coordinates are North three, six, zero, six, two, zero, seven, West seven, five, nine, four, eight, seven, five,” I said. "Pan Pan. Our vessel is intact, but we see an apparent man-overboard situation.” I was watching the boat, trying to get close without slamming into it, and Marley was looking everywhere else. I heard something over the VHF.
“Vessel Stolen Gun, this is Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City. What is your condition?”
“Coast guard, we are next to an abandoned vessel, looks like a 35-foot deadrise,” I replied. “We are two persons on a 21-foot power boat. We are safe. Did you get our coordinates?”
“Ten-four,” I heard over the waves. “We are sending an aircraft your way.” It didn’t surprise me that they would react this quickly in the air, as I was speaking with the largest Coast Guard base in the U.S. and they certainly had someone up there already, but who knows how far away help was? That was when this whole story changed.
Marley gave me another one of those handgrips on the shoulder and “Mark…” and I looked her way.
“I think I see something,” she said, still looking through the binoculars. “Yes, over there!” I turned our boat right into the waves and pushed the throttle. If she was seeing what I was thinking… Yes she was, and then I saw him, in a bright red jacket, barely lifting his arms at us. I took one hand off the wheel to grab the microphone.
“Coast Guard, Coast Guard, we have found a survivor about 200 yards from his vessel,” I said. "We are approaching him.” I didn’t wait for a response, steering for the red jacket as it disappeared beneath the waves and appeared briefly every few seconds. “He may need transport.”
We came up on the man and shouted to him, but he didn’t respond.
“Take the wheel,” I shouted as we pulled alongside him. Marley grabbed the wheel and I reached way over the side and grabbed his jacket. “Put it in neutral!” I shouted, wondering if anyone could hear me. I dragged him back to the stern and saw the prop dead in the water - yes, Marley heard me. I put the swim ladder down with one hand and dragged the man over toward it.
“Can you hear me?” I shouted at him without much response. There was no way I could pull this guy into the boat, and things were getting pretty hairy. Waves were rocking our boat something fierce, and without the propeller in gear giving us some control, we could be overwhelmed by the right wave at the wrong time. “You’ve got to help me,” I shouted at him. “Can you climb in?” This was not encouraging, as he barely mumbled back at me. I reached over him and grabbed his belt, about to give him the biggest wedgie of his life.
“Get your foot on something,” I shouted. “Can you…” that’s when his body rose. He had apparently found the ladder with a foot, and it was timed just right that he gave a little push up just as the boat fell down off a wave and I pulled hard enough for him to come over the transom and fall onto the deck. I began to roll him over onto his back when I looked up to see Marley putting the motor in gear and laying on the throttle. I barely knew this girl, but I remember thinking at that moment, amid all the confusion and over all that noise, that if a man's life had to be in anyone’s hands, he could do well in hers.
The man was breathing, but was not very responsive, so I didn’t panic until he spoke.
“Matthew,” he said. “Where’s Matthew?”
“Sir,” I said, inches from his face. “Was there anyone on the boat with you?”
“Matthew,” he said. “My nephew. Oh no…” I got up off my knees. Marley was steering us back to the foundering boat, and I told her to turn around as I grabbed the VHS microphone.
“Mayday, Mayday,” I said. “This is the vessel Stolen Gun and we are searching for a man overboard. We have one victim on board and we are looking for a second. Mayday, Mayday, all vessels in Albermarle Sound, we are searching for a man overboard.”
“Take the wheel!” Marley shouted, and I did as she fell to her knees and tended to our passenger. I steered over to where we had found him, figuring his nephew would drift in the same currents. I scanned everywhere around us as Marley bent over the red jacket. I slowed the engine so I could hear the radio.
“Stolen Gun, this is the U.S. Coast Guard. What’s your status?” And I have to tell you, I can’t believe how calm this guy was! I mean, it was like he was ordering lunch or something. I’m panicking up to my ears and he’s just like; “how’s your day?” So anyway, I explain everything to him, and I guess there is a helicopter a few minutes away, but that’s all they have because everyone else is out training or rescuing someone else – I don’t know. All I know is we were looking for a teenage boy.
“What was he wearing?” I shouted to Marley. “Ask him what his nephew was wearing!” He told her the boy had on a yellow jacket and blue cap. Why the heck he thought we should know about a cap. I mean, that… anyway, I scanned the waves for something yellow and told the coast guard the same.
“Stolen Gun,” said the Coast Guardsman. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” I said, looking toward Virginia Beach where I saw a small dot in the sky. “Is that your helicopter I see north of me?”
“Correct,” he said. “But he can’t stay long – not enough fuel.”
“Can they take this survivor on board?” I asked.
“Is he seriously injured?” I turned to Marley and asked for the man’s condition. She said that he was breathing all right.
“Negative, Coast Guard,” I said. “He appears to be conscious, but is unresponsive.
“We’re going to have the helicopter search for the boy then,” the guardsman said. “for a few minutes, anyway. Can you take the man to shore?”
“Yes,” I said. “Where?”
“Stand by.” I had no idea what I was doing. You would think I would search in some kind of grid pattern, but things were so crazy that I just kind of went in circles near the boat, crashing head-on into a few waves, then taking some broadside, then rolling with them and again and again, as the helicopter got closer and my optimism for the boy’s survival got dimmer. Marley went into the cabin and came out with an armful of blankets, and bundled our guest in them.
I must have lost sight of the sky, focusing so hard on finding a yellow jacket in the water, because all of a sudden I heard the thing right over our heads. I moved my head out from under the Bimini top and saw, a few hundred feet above us, the biggest helicopter I have ever seen a few hundred feet above me. Man, that thing was huge, and loud!
It flew right over and past us for maybe a mile, turned around and came back, only a few hundred feet to the side, and it did that about a dozen times, searching in a grid pattern as I rode in circles. Marley was standing now, looking for the boy and checking on the man every few minutes.
“Stolen Gun, can you hear me?” I took the microphone to respond.
“I hear you,” I said.
“Can you take the survivor to Point Harbor?” the guardsman said. “It’s due east of you.”
“Sure,” I said. “I mean... Roger” I had no idea where Point Harbor was, but I set a bearing of 90 degrees and gave it some gas.
“Our helicopter is going to have to return to base to refuel,” the guardsman said. “It will take about 30 minutes. We have two boats heading toward you; one is about 15 minutes away.”
“Okay,” I said. “Would you like me to stay here and keep looking for the boy?”
“Negative. Head for Point Harbor, but take it slow and keep an eye out. You’re still in our search area for another half-mile.” I varied our course a little, heading east in a short zig-zag, with Marley looking over port with the binoculars and me on the starboard watch.
“Mark,” Marley said, turning toward me. “How much farther?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let me…” Marley raised the binoculars and looked past me.
“Hold on,” she said. “I think… yeah. Let’s head over there.” I turned the wheel to the right. The seas were a little calmer where we were, but still challenging. Marley gave me the binoculars again and held the wheel while I looked. I didn’t see much yellow, but more orange, the color of a life jacket.
“Yes, you’re right,” I said, putting the binoculars on the dashboard and opening the throttle about halfway. As we approached, Marley took the microphone.
“Coast Guard, Coast Guard,” she said. “This is the Stolen Gun. We have found the second crewman.” She dropped the microphone and went to the open deck.
“Which side?” she yelled.
“Starboard,” I said. “I think I can get him over here.” The boy had put on a type-one, off-shore life jacket, the kind that will keep an unconscious person’s head up. I pulled up alongside him and Marley reached over the gunnel and grabbed the collar of the jacket. I put the gear in neutral as she pulled hard to get the boy in the boat.
“I can’t,” she shouted. “Help!” I reached over and took hold of whatever I could and pulled, then we waited for another wave and both pulled at the same time and he came right into the boat. I put the motor in gear and took the wheel as Marley tended to the boy. Then I saw an orange-and-gray boat approaching us from behind, about a mile away. I took the microphone.
“Coast Guard,” I said. “We have both crew members and are heading toward Point Harbor. Can you give me a bearing?"
“Yes, head 83 degrees for a while. You will be met shortly by one of our patrol boats.”
“What do we do when we get to the point?” I asked.
“I have contacted Kitty Hawk EMS and they will be waiting for you at the dock. Our boat will guide you in.” I looked behind us and saw the Coast Guard boat coming onto us, red lights flashing, just plowing over the waves. I pushed the throttle down hard until we started bouncing right across the waves. Marley reached past me and took the microphone.
“Kitty Hawk EMS, are you monitoring this channel?” she said.
“Roger, we can hear you.”
“Kitty Hawk, we have two victims of a commercial watercraft incident. One is an adult male possibly in his thirties. He is conscious but unresponsive. His breathing is regular, pulse is slow but steady. His eyes are equal and reactive to light. Got that?”
“Roger.” And then Marley went on about the boy with some amazing kind of clarity, like she was a doctor or something. I mean, saying stuff I never heard of – why are pupils equal? I thought they all were? I swear, the more I knew this girl, the less I felt I knew this girl.
Anyway, the Coast Guard boat caught up to us and passed us. Man, what a machine – they told me later they have jet engines on those. Not like planes, I mean, but like on jet skis only a lot freakin’ bigger. And the boat wasn’t much larger than ours, but one of those rigid inflatables, and man, it took the waves. I’m doing all I can to stay straight and rightside-up, and they’re just steaming along, standing on the deck waving to us.
So, they passed us and led us through the channel to the point. It was crazy. I mean, I never would have gone that fast in waters that shallow, but they knew the place, and they got us there just fine. We pulled up to the dock where two ambulances were waiting, and then everything happened so fast.
Before we even hit the dock, a man and a woman jumped into our boat, and everyone pulled us right alongside the dock. I saw backboards just fly into the boat and disappear. Then straps - the boat was filled with straps and they were wrapping those guys up from head to foot. And then all of a sudden, someone counted to three and they lifted the big guy out of the boat and onto the dock, and then the same with the boy. Amazing.
And then they were gone. We stayed and filled out paperwork with the Coast Guard, and they were real nice, showing us their boat and all. But they wouldn’t let me drive it.
After everyone had left, I cornered Marley.
“Pretty impressive,” I said.
“You know what. Don’t kid me, are you a nurse or something?”
“What?” she said. “What makes you say that?”
“I saw what you did with those guys, I heard you telling the medics about them. Where’d you learn that stuff?”
“I took a class,” she said. “In high school.”
I didn't press the point. You know, sometimes – especially when the engine’s cold, like when you’re starting it in the morning – if you push that throttle down too hard, she’s just going to quit on you. Take your time, you have to ease into it slowly, or you’ll just have to start all over again. And that’s all I’m going to say about relationships.