The 14 Foot Artificial Reef

Summer, 1997

I cast a dubious eye on the waves slowing spilling over the sides of our john boat. The john boat in question – a 14 foot, flat-bottom aluminum skiff, was meant to hold two average-sized people in calm, protected water. On this outing there were three of us, two of us unfortunately a wee bit larger than average, in the unprotected waters of Galveston Bay.

I’d gone in on the purchase of this boat with my fishing buddy, who we’ll call Bill. We’d taken the boat and its aged outboard motor — a 1950’s era 9.5 horsepower model — out a couple of times before. We hadn’t caught much in the way of fish, but had managed to avoid major injury, which gave us the overconfidence to invite another one of our friends along for this trip. This soon-to-be-former friend, who we’ll call Mike, sat on the metal bench between us. We stuck him with the duty of distributing shrimp from our live bait bucket for the day as we’d conveniently tied it off next to him.

Trips like this involved an inordinate amount of attention to the weather forecast. Saltwater fishing in this overfished bay was challenging enough without rain. Rain drove the fish out of the bay. It also filled up an aluminum boat with only a gallon milk jug as a bilge in a hurry. Lightning, which generally came as a package with the rain, was down-right terrifying for those sitting in a metal boat that unfortunately doubled as the highest point in a general area.

We’d left Houston at 4:15 a.m. to make sure we were in the water for what we hoped would be the early-morning bite. It was therefore still dark when we backed our mighty craft into the water. We had no navigation lights so technically (legally) we were required to sit tied-off to a piling by the ramp until first light. We used that time to revisit the last round of weather updates that we’d heard on the drive out. It wasn’t a particularly promising forecast for the afternoon, but the morning was supposed to be safe.

The first rays of light soon reached us and we were treated to a view of a significant, low-hanging cloud bank. With the hubris of youth, and a desire to avoid going home empty-handed and stuck with honey-do lists from our respective brides, we agreed to stick fairly close to the boat ramp just in case the rain descended. As I slowly brought the engine up to full, 9.5 horsepower mode, I saw that the waters between us and the bridge we’d just crossed to get here were a little choppy, but manageable.

We motored across the dark water and wrestled with our respective gear as we prepared to fish around one of the massive pilings of the bridge. Mike worked with us back in Houston but was in the IT department and gave off a nervous, indoorsy vibe. Bill and I got to show off a little of our fishing prowess in terms of knots and more tackle than we’d use in three lifetimes. With Mike’s reluctant help doling out bait, we spent an hour or so tossing live shrimp under popping corks around the pilings. We did manage to bring aboard a couple of trout. We also watched the light succumb to darkness as clouds closed in and the question of rain went from if to how much.

After another huddle our triumvirate concluded that lighting wasn’t likely (well… we hadn’t seen any yet) and we could always tie the boat off under the massive bridge to avoid the rain. The plan seemed solid. Ish.

The rain came about five minutes later and exposed a major fault in our plan — rain often came in at a significant angle and didn’t particularly care about a bridge positioned above. Tied off to a piece of debris stuck on a piling, we took in about two inches of water in the first few minutes of the downpour. The rain also brought its other friend, wind, and our boat strained against the rope we’d slung along the debris. We then began taking in water over the gunwales.

I squinted and peered through the rain at the cloud bank above us and saw no end in sight. Bill did the same from his spot at the bow, then caught my eye and shook his head. Mike was, at this point, remarkably calm. I didn’t want to break that spell, so I kept it cool.

“Hey Bill. Can you take off your popper and drop a weight to the bottom? I wanna see how many feet of water we’re in here.”

Bill nodded and took his filet knife out of his tackle box to cut his line above his popping cork in favor of a fat, 2 ounce weight (yes, in shallow water fishing circles this is a big weight). He dropped the weight over the rocking gunwale and let out line. As the weight descended, Mike turned and gave me a look that could optimistically be described as dubious. I smiled back with no intention of satisfying his curiosity.

Bill’s line suddenly began to whirl off his reel. He reeled once to engage the brake on his reel, and we watched as the end of his rod is pulled towards the water.

“Weird. It’s almost like there’s a fish on there,” Bill muttered as he struggles to reel in the line. When the weight popped out of the water shortly thereafter he caught it and examined it. He shrugged and threw it back in to repeat the process. Within two seconds the line again began to peel off. Bill reeled it in again and Mike decided to, pardon the expression, wade in.

“I think there’s a pretty strong current down there. We’re in the middle of all of these huge pilings and this bridge is over the pass that separates the island from the mainland. There’s a lot of fast-moving  water running through here.”

I almost replied that the current we’d seen taking our popping corks had been going the opposite direction, but realized that this was the top layer of water being propelled by the wind, not the stronger current below. How many feet of water were we in? I had no idea. I also declared — internally — that there was way we were getting in to this water. Regardless of the depth the current would drown us. There was also the lingering memory of the many bull sharks roamed the area. I said nothing to Mike or Bill about any of this and pushed the shame, the sharks and the doubts back down where they belonged.

“I think you’re right.”

Bill nodded in agreement as he cut the weight off his line. “We need to get to shallow water.”

We each perused the far side of the bridge, which connected the island to the mainland, as well as the near side, which was clogged with parts of trees and other debris. I ruled out the far side as it would involve going across the even faster water moving across the deepest part of the channel, which was now rife with waves. The near side didn’t look very promising either as whatever debris we saw sticking up was likely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Without discussing it, we each ruled out these options and sat quietly contemplating all of the many bad choices we’d made in our respective lives.

The water within the boat continued to rise, and I was forced to use my plastic milk jug with the top cut-off to begin the bailing process. As I tossed small amounts of water back over the side a loud, tearing sound followed by a series of equally loud rumbles stopped me in my tracks. Houston, we have lightning.

“We’ve gotta get the hell out of here!”

I agreed with Bill, but we still very much lacked consensus as to our best move. I looked again at the debris-filled near side and contemplated an attempt at beaching the boat regardless of the risk but then realized that we’d have to then walk through a vast expanse of marsh to get back to the safety of the marina. None of us were wearing wading boots or gear. A attempted march through a swamp where we’d likely sink to our chests with no protection and lightning overhead didn’t sound much better than a gentle drowning.

Another bout of thunder, this time closer, inspired Bill to point emphatically at the marina.

“How? We’re taking on so much water that we’ll sink if we try to drive back.”

Bill waived his hand dismissively. “We can’t just sit here.”

I agreed, but I didn’t like the odds.

Mike then shifted to straddle the bench so that he could see either of us, but turned to me. “We can dump the water as we go if you take out the drain plug.”

I thought about this for a second. We’re in an overloaded, largely flooded, metal boat under-powered by 40+ year old outboard. The only thing keeping us from the bottom, or at least the current below, was the fact that we still technically had a boat that floated.

“What do you mean take out the drain plug? We’d sink in 10 seconds!”

Mike shook his head. “Not if the boat’s at plane.”

“Really?” I distinctly remember Mike telling us all that he’d never owned a boat and had only gone fishing a couple of times before in his entire life. What were they teaching these people in the IT Department?

“Yes. If you get it to plane for a minute or so we can get rid of all of this water.”

I looked to Bill, who’s had the same, limited amount of boating experience as me. He shrugged, which was helpful.

“We get rid of the water by pulling the drain plug?”

“Yes, dammit!”

His conviction is convincing, but I struggled to think of the last time that this boat had been at plane — meaning it’s achieved a speed such that it rides atop the water versus in it — in the entire time we’d owned it. This boat had a lot going for it in terms of the fact that you couldn’t stain carpet that didn’t exist or foul-up electronics that had never been installed, but speed wasn’t part of the package.

Mike noticed my angst and then lost of lot of his prior bravado. “You’re sure you can get this up to plane?”

I smiled a belief I didn’t have as I had no other option. “Sure. Because if we pull the plug and we’re not at plane…”

“The water just comes in and we sink.”

“Great. Got it.” I nodded to Bill and asked him to untie us from the debris. As he pulls us closer to untie the knot I continued to bail out the boat as quickly as I could with no noticeable impact.

I then stopped to pull the rip cord and the engine thankfully started (this had been taken as a given in our plan but had not always been the case).  I handed the milk jug to Mike. “Do the best you can.”

I revved the engine a bit to make sure it was fully in the game and nodded to Bill, who took the last loop of rope off of the debris and sat back down.

Feeling the need to add a little fun back into the equation I yelled out, “What’s the expression that leads to the highest annual number of emergency room visits?”

“Watch this!” shouted Bill.

I threw the lever into forward and cranked the handle for maximum hamster power. Mike continued bailing, the rain and thunder kept coming. The wind was now coming from the south, pushing the waves directly against us as we tried to get back to the marina. After a few more pointless minutes in this direction we’ve taken on more water than we’ve bailed and built no speed whatsoever. We were, however, making progress on the unexpected creation of an 14 foot artificial reef.

I then had the one semi-lucid idea I’d had all day and announced to all, “Hold on, I’m going to turn and see if get we get to plane if we’re going the same direction as the waves.” Perhaps the added impetus from the driving wind and the waves would be enough to get the old girl to plane. Perhaps.

I began to turn us about, carefully picking the exact time to turn without getting side-swiped by a wave while mindful of the following sea which could quickly pour over the transom. Were it not for all prior evidence to the contrary it actually seemed like I knew what I was doing.

Bill cried out, “You want to go away from the marina and back to the bridge? No!”

Mike quickly came to my defense. “He’s right. That’s the only way we’ll ever get going fast enough.”

“The wrong way?”

“We can get the boat to plane, dump the water, and then keep our speed as we cut back across the waves.”

Bill was unconvinced but I’d already completed the turn and we’re now steaming along trying to pick up speed. Mike resumed bailing and slowly, as the bridge drew near, the engine began to pick up the pace.

I kept one eye on Mike and another on our wake. After another 10 seconds of bailing we’re out on top and Mike screamed, “Now!”

I decided not to think about it any further as I reached down to remove the drain plug set at the bottom of the transom directly behind me.

There was so much water in the boat that it was initially hard to tell if we were adding or subtracting. A bit further along it was apparent that the water was indeed leaving. I nodded to Mike and Bill, and then started looking hard at the bridge pilings coming up quickly.

I grimaced as I thought of the debris likely reaching out for us beneath the waves. It appeared that we’d be completely bailed out by the time we made it to the other side of the bridge and, as a large amount of luck would have it, that’s what happened. I pushed the drain plug back in and relished in the sound of the humming engine, which almost drowned out the next bout of thunder. I will spare you the shrieks and accusations I absorbed when I had to then turn and head back through the next set of pilings at full speed into the coming waves to start us back towards the marina. Bill’s butt left contact with the boat with each wave, but the pace of his beating slowed somewhat once I was back across the bridge and able to tack the boat across the waves vs. directly into them (not for the faint of heart in a flat bottom boat).

We’d been gone for about two hours but it seemed like a lot longer as we arrived back at the boat dock — our boat now once again full of water from the waves and the rain. Thankfully there was no line at the ramp as everyone with any sense had already changed their mind about boating and stood watching us under the shelter of the marina’s porch. It would have all ended fairly uneventfully had Bill not seized the moment by reaching down to grab his dirty filet knife and extend it forward in a triumphant display for our audience.

Unfortunately for Bill, he added the extra panache of gripping what he thought was the sheath of the knife as he brandished it. He had, in fact, already removed the sheath when he cut his line earlier and his victory pose turned into a sheet of blood pouring down his arm. Bill had managed to cut himself to the bone across the width of his palm with his rusty filet knife.

The next few minutes were spent trying to get Bill, and the boat, out of the water. Bill ended up spending the bulk of the evening at the hospital whilst they reattached this and stitched that in combination with a series of shots intended to curb whatever he’d introduced into his system via the dirty knife. When I got home I was delighted to find that the remaining rains we’d experienced on the drive back had washed the blood out of the boat for me. I hadn’t wanted to perform that cleansing at my house for fear I’d never be allowed out again.

For his part, and to his credit, Mike never went boating with us again.