Pensacola Sea Stories - Decisions

A Story of Pensacola's Maritime History

The following is a story written in 1998 by James H. Chadwick. James works for Brown Marine Service, Inc. and writes stories and poetry in his spare time.


by James H. Chadwick

In the wheel house, Captain Lovice Davis fought to keep his tug-boat up-right, but it wasn't easy, heavy seas spread out in front of an approaching storm. The boat was some thirty miles off shore in the Gulf of Mexico, when suddenly the boat took a wild slide to the port side, dipping under a huge wave, water washed over the deck and then like some wateryroller-coaster, the boat was upright, the bow sticking up in the air, as if pointing toward Heaven. Captain Davis must have thought that was where his boat was headed because he silently uttered a prayer, but it was a short one, because he had to keep all his attention on maintaining control of his wildly spinning craft.

Over the shrill whistle of the wind, and the moaning sound from the boat's engines, Captain Davis heard that message all sailors fear: "Man overboard" Those words sent chills through the skipper, colder than a November Nor'Easter. The wave that had washed over the deck had taken a hostage when it retreated, one of the boat's crewmen. Now the Captain was faced with a dilema; He could stay and search for the missing man, with chances of finding him about the same as winning the lottery, or he could seek safe harbor, save his boat and the remainder of the crew - a decision no mortal should ever have to make.

This couldn't have happened at a more unfriendly time, it being around midnight. Visibility was limited and control of the boat was being shared with Mama Nature. A man's strength should never be measured by his stature alone, nor a boat from stem to stern. Both man and boats should be measured instead by their inner strength, something that when called on in stressful circumstances, can be delivered. Captain Davis was praying for that inner strength.

Dark thoughts filled the skipper's mind, Even if the missing man had surviveded being washed off the boat and didn't drown, there was the posibility he could have been ripped to shreds by the powerful propeller or he could have struck his head against the side of the boat rendering him unconscious, there was always the threat of sharks or as cold as the water was, the man could fall victim to hypotermia.

The Captain had to exorcise those dark demons from his thoughts in order to rationalize any rescue effort. The main factor in his decision to stay and search for the missing man despite almost impossible odds was the knowledge that if fie did leave and no rescue effort had been made, "whatt-if" would plauge him the rest of his life - "What if I had stayed just one minute longer?" He had to make at least some try at rescuing his crewman because if he didn't, there would be two casualties this night, the crewman and the Captain's conscience.

The weather was growing worse, the boat was bouncing around like a cork on the water, "Keep a sharp look-out" he yelled at the men on either side of the boat even while he studied his instruments for a true bearing toward shore.

The boat's powerful searchlight was sweeping back and forth over the water. Even if someone were splashing around out there, it would be difficult to see them because there were "white-caps' all over the surface. The Gulf of Mexico looked like the inside of some huge washing machine, set on wash cycle. The radio inches above the Captain's head crackled a warning from the Coast Guard, "All vessels in the immediate waters in the Gulf of Mexico, should seek safe harbor."

The warning was repeated several times, followed by an up-date on the storm. "It's gaining on'us!" whispered the Captain to himself, he radioed the location of his boat and a description of the missing crewman. "More a procedure than any real hope of rescue," thought the skipper. The Coast Guard passed on the message to all marine interests with a repeated warning to seek safe harbor.

Captain Davis was heart-sick as he spun the boat's wheel around, slowly, the bow of the craft nosed in the direction of home port. He was about to shout to the crewmen on deck still searching to get below, out of the weather, but he was shouted-down, "THERE OVER THERE!--MAN OFF THE STARBOARD BOW!" Even with the windshield wipers working furiously, it was hard to see anything past the bow, but again, the voice, joined by a second voice, until a chorus rang out with joy, "THERE, MAN OFF THE STARBOARD BOW."

When Captain Davis had turned the boat around to go home, ironically, he turned in the missing man's direction. "That's strange," he would later muse, "If I hadn't left for home, give-up the search, we might have missed him. The good lord sure does work in mysterious ways."

The Captain couldn't risk pulling in too close to the man for fear he might hit him, but he did get close enough so the crew could throw out lines. The man caught one on the second try, and soon he was hauled back aboard. Captain Davis turned the boat's wheel over to the engineeer for a few moments and went down onto the deck to check-out the recovered man, who could only stutter. Their eyes met, the man looked straight into his Captain's face, and even though he couldn't speak verbally yet, the man's eyes spoke volumes.

"Get him below!" ordered Captain Davis, "And drag out all the blankets you can find to wrap him in. Pour some hot coffee in him --and bring me some too!" Returning to the wheel-house, the Captain notified the Coast Guard that the missing man had been found and also gave them his estamated time of arrival, requesting medical help be on hand to take the man to the hospital.

The crewman recovered enough to ride tug-boats once more. At coffee-breaks, he wouldn't tell fish stories or brag about love conquests as his shipmates did. Instead he bragged about the tug Captain who wouldn't give up. I feel Captain Davis is a role model for all good captains. He knew his and his boat's limitations, but most importantly he knew his responsibilities."


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