Just two hours before some of the the Cal 25 Nationals fleet would sail through the same spot on the way back to Bayview Yacht Club from Port Huron, MI, our own Mr. Clean was on hand to witness a horrific accident in the St. Clair River. While a picture may say a thousand words, this was a truly bizarre one, and we go to Clean for more on yet another big summer boating accident. The lesson to sailors? Never stop scanning your horizon for the marine environment’s real killers: Go-fasts with drunken idiots behind the wheel.
In a lifetime on the water, I’ve never seen anything quite so nasty happen, and I just happened to have a front row seat. Remember when that moron in the speedboat on the Lake of the Ozarks caught a wake at speed and nearly flipped, beating the hell out of the occupants?
We had a similar situation here last night but with much worse consequences, when a 25 or 30 foot Baja cigarette-style boat, running at least 50 mph, decided to go through the wake of a big Bayliner cabin cruiser without throttling back, and at a terrible angle. I happened to be less than 200 feet from it all; having slowed down for the Bayliner’s wake, I saw the speedboat approaching at mach 2 and decided to watch the action, actually saying to myself, out loud, “This is gonna be good.”
The Baja caught the first wave and got heeled to the left in the air, then caught the second at a worse angle, which launched it back in the air, now with 20 or more degrees of heel to the right. By this time, even if the driver were still hanging on to the wheel, he was just along for the ride. The Baja hit the third wave at a terrible angle – the boat was bow-up and heeled hard to the right when it hit – and it literally launched itself completely clear of the water by 4-6 feet – aimed directly at the Bayliner’s flying bridge. The heel on the Baja had rounded the boat up on the final wave, turning it to the left instead of straight through as intended by the driver. The Baja didn’t so much hit the Bayliner (and the six people on the bridge) as landed on top of it, then continued over it, and landed in the river. The entire upper deck of the Bayliner was torn off its supports, and barely remained connected to the main deck by a few hoses and wires.
After calling 911, I moved. The Baja was between the cruiser and me, so I snapped a pic of the culprits to make sure no one made a run for it. They were pretty shaken up, and responded that ‘everyone’s fine’ when asked. I gunned it over to the stricken vessel, and they were shouting that there was someone in the water. As I searched downriver and mentally tried to figure out how much water had moved in the 5 minutes since impact, (there is 2-3 knots of current in the river at this point), I kept yelling for every boat I saw to join in the search. Shortly thereafter, with more than a dozen boats now on scene helping out (but still no official help) a woman’s body was pulled out by a pontoon boat, and 20 minutes of CPR didn’t help her.
As the body was pulled from the water, I noticed the Baja drifting downriver, nearly out of sight. As I headed back to them, a crowd hollered at me on shore, and I ran over to a house to pick up the local Fire Chief, who I dropped off on the Bayliner to help with the rescue. As I handed him off, I saw the second body in what used to be the cockpit of the boat – a man in his 50s – also unresponsive after a few minutes of CPR. A third casualty – a woman in her 60s – looked to be going into shock, or cardiac arrest, or both.
I hung around for long enough to see the freighter traffic start to idle through the channel again, as it just didn’t seem right to buzz over to the lake and go fishing after the carnage I’d just witnessed. After giving my number and info to the Marine Police and USCG as a witness, I overheard the Sheriff who had the Baja’s driver in custody talking to the neighboring police boat. “You take the statements from the passengers; I’m taking this one in.” I couldn’t hear the next question from the deputy, but the Sheriff’s response made that clear. “Yep, he’s been drinking.”
It’s unlikely that a sober Baja driver would have done any better in that situation, but that’s not the issue. A sober person – at least one with an IQ over 50 – would never have taken that wake at that speed. Once again, the equation holds: Horsepower + (Alcohol OR Youth) + Inexperience = Death.
Title comes from one of the 80’s best cult films, also about a river, death, and stupid people.