Hijacking Terror from the Deep

By Tom Neale, 8/5/2010


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It isn’t everyday that you see an anchored boat powerfully speeding upstream against the current. And this was a strong current. So I did a double take as I was pulling away from the fuel dock at a marina and saw a 16 foot old wooden row boat coming through the bridge, heading up stream, being towed at the end of its anchor line. It looked like that anchor was doing a pretty good job driving because the boat passed through directly in the middle of the draw span. Oh, and just to make things clear, the anchor line wasn’t in another boat or in any other situation that might explain what was going on. It was down in the water apparently attached to its anchor on the bottom.

Only one guy was in the skiff, and he wasn’t having a good day. As a matter of fact, he was acting like he was completely terrified. He’d run to the bow, start to pull on the line, and suddenly fall back over the thwart, disappearing below the gunn’le. Then you’d see his head slowly reappear, then his shoulders, as he’d struggle to a standing or sitting position, and begin creeping toward the bow again, where the scene would replay time after time. And the boat continued on, heading out the channel and toward the open waters of the bay.

I have to admit my curiosity was up, but still I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to get too close. I mean, this guys eyes were about as big around as a dinner plate. And his actions made no sense of all unless you attributed them to sheer panic. He wasn’t hollering for help, but I got the impression that hadn’t crossed his mind yet—like maybe he was more interested in survival than help. But curiosity got the better of me and I slowly headed out toward the moving boat, carefully sidling up to his starboard quarter.

“You OK buddy?” I hollered as he once again stumbled backward over a seat, splashing his butt in to the bilge. He sat up again and hollered,

“Stay away. Stay back. Don’t get close. It’s dangerous. You’ll get hurt. Get away.” Obediently, I fell back astern of the fleeing boat.

Well, that was pretty unambiguous, I had to admit. And I was glad to see someone, even in the midst of what must have been a worst-in-a-lifetime trauma who cared a little about me. It reminded me of the time I came upon an old rotting power cruiser that was dead in the water, full of women in high heel shoes and tight dresses and men in work clothes and boots. They were all on the bow waving frantically. When I got close they started yelling, “The boat’s going to blow up any minute. Take us off. Take us off.” I did, of course, but I really wasn’t too happy about pulling my boat up to this rotten wreck that was going to “blow up any minute.” I sort of wished these yachting dudes and dudesses would kick off their high heels and boots and jump in and swim over to me, but no such thing. When I got them aboard they told me that an alarm noise had gone off and when they finally found where it came from, they realized it was on a bilge fume alarm and the light said something like “explosive conditions.” I told them it was probably just registering the methane gas created by the rotting bilge timbers, but they weren’t about to get back aboard and I had to hang around ordering women to take off their high heels or sit their butts down until the Coast Guard came and took over. So I was appreciative of this fellow and decided I’d try to find out more. After all, he certainly looked like he could use some help. Boats don’t drag anchor against the current unless maybe there’s a lot of wind. And it was flat calm.

Stringray's Sting
So I moved up again, closer this time, and yelled, “what’s going on? Do you need some help?”

“There’s nothing anybody can do. He’s going to hurt somebody. I can’t get him off the anchor. You can’t either. There’s nothing anybody can do.”

Still totally puzzled, I hollered, “Have you called for help?” “I can’t call the Coast Guard or my wife because I dropped my cell phone overboard when I first saw it.”

“What is it? What’s happening?”

“It’s a huge ray. He’s got my anchor and he’s pulling me out to sea. Every time I try to pull him in to try to get him to let loose my anchor he tries to get me with the spear on his tail when I get him near the top. It’s a long tail. It’ll get you too if you don’t stay away. It’s HUGE.” He almost sobbed.

“Where’d you start out?”

“Up there on the other side of the bridge. I was anchored. Just fishing. And all of a sudden the boat started moving. It took me to the bridge, it took me through the bridge, and now it’s taking me out to sea. It’s probably got friends out there.”

Tom’s Tips About a Terror in Shallow Water

1. Some rays will hide, covered by sand, in shallow water. If you’re wading, even in clear water, you may not see it. If you step on it or otherwise upset it the ray may get you with his tail. This happened to Captain John Smith as he was wading in the Chesapeake Bay. The pain was so severe he thought he was going to die and had his men dig his grave. He survived.

Click Here for More Tips

I watched in amazement as he tried to pull in the anchor again. Just as he’d said, when the ray got close to the surface I could see that it was huge and its tail was very very long. It lashed out with that barbed weapon and it struck the side of the skiff hard enough to put a dent in the wood. I could see where it had done this a few times before. The hapless fisherman once again fell back in panic as the boat continued on against the tide.

“Hey buddy,” I yelled as his terrified head cleared the gunn’le once more. He looked in my direction, his mouth moving but no words coming out.

“You got a knife?” I yelled.

He sat very still. For a long moment. Then he stood up and reached into his pocket and pulled out an old folding Buck knife. He got down on his knees, crept forward, and cut the anchor line. The boat lost way and bobbed innocently in the current.

“You OK to row home?” I asked. This was obviously a purely rhetorical question. By the time the words left my mouth he was too far away to hear them. All I could see was his stern as the boat sped back to the bridge, the fisherman leaning to the oars like he was fleeing the fury of Hell. The fury of Hell was probably down at the bottom, having had enough fun for the day, heading on to better things.


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