Angry Seas

A few minutes ago, we were laughing and catching fish on the east shore of Pyramid Lake in Nevada.  Now things had changed.  Angry clouds were quickly obscuring our view of the sun and winds were whipping the water into a froth.  Huge dust clouds kicked up at the needles, signaling it was time to head back to the west shore.  We probably waited a little too long to leave but we figured we would be able to make it across no problem.  Things were fine until our main motor cut out halfway across the lake.  That is when things got interesting .. and not in a good way.

I have been fishing in the ocean my entire life and have seen it all.  I have been in party boats in 10 foot swells chasing tuna 80 miles out, fished the boilers at Clemente in our 18-foot whaler and bucked many nearshore swells in a 16 foot Klamath.  Heck, I have even been out 4 miles in a kayak. 

But this was different.  The swells were all mixed up and the interval was quick… very quick.  We were in a bad spot.  We scrambled on our hands and knees and could barely get the kicker dropped in due to the boat getting thrown around so bad.  It fired up but we were making minimal headway against the swirling 50 MPH headwinds.  If we lost the kicker we were screwed.  I checked my cell phone… no service.  I started running through scenarios in my head.  The water was around 46 degrees… that would give us about two hours to live if we ended up swamping the boat before hypothermia set in.

Luckily we were in a very sea-worthy boat… an 18'6" Duckworth.  Duckworths are wide and heavy and very durable in rough seas.  We needed every bit of beam as water would occasional creep over the gunnels as the boat pitched about.  Our friend running the boat did a great job keeping the bow pointed in the waves.  It was tough going as we inched across the lake.  What normally took 15 minutes took us almost ten times that!  We were all trying to put on a brave face but the tension was palpable.

We were getting closer to land and I started to relax a bit, thinking we were through the worst of it… but I was wrong.  There must have been a submerged point or something pushing up the waves because suddenly we were in the worst of it.  We had several waves crash over the bow and front window and the wind seemed to be howling with increased vigor, as if to try to fight us back from our destination.  I had said a few prayers over the previous hour but threw up some serious ones now.  I was downright scared!

We finally made it over to the other side after two hours of bucking the angriest seas I have ever been in.  When we got back to the dock we saw the all too common search and rescue vehicles and trailers.  It was an ominous sign.  It turns out that four other boats had been caught in the fast-moving storm and had made SOS calls.  Two ended up capsizing.  Luckily everyone was rescued that day.  It could have gone much, much worse.  and

We were all experienced anglers and boaters but had put ourselves in a tough spot.  I realized that it could happen to anyone.  I wrote this article so that someone might read it and it might save a life.  Here is a list of safety tips.  Please read them and remind yourself of them next time you are out at Pyramid:

1)     If you are caught in extremely rough waters, there is a decent chance that your main motor will stall.  There are a variety of reasons this can happen but you need to be prepared for this.  There is no real way to test this until it is too late!

2)     Make sure you have a solid kicker engine that is very dependable and can run even if some water mixes with your fuel.  If your main motor dies on you in very rough seas, you will need a motor that can make headway and keep your bow pointed in the right direction.

3)     If there are big winds forecasted, don’t head across the lake that day.  There are plenty of big fish on the west shore.

4)     If it is a fast-moving storm it may be safer to “ride it out” instead of trying to run across the lake through the worst of it.

5)     If you must run across the lake in rough seas and there is another boat in the same predicament… see if you can keep in communication with that other boat and stay in line of sight to help each other out if needed.

6)     Talk to someone who has been in rough seas to get an understanding of how to drive your boat.  Boat control is critical!  Practice in a safe environment when conditions allow.

7)     Once you see the wind kicking up large amounts of dust along the lakes edge you need to head back to a safe zone immediately.

8)     If waves are pushing towards the ramp you will need to be very careful taking your boat out.  Once your boat gets on your trailer waves can come over the stern in seconds and fill your boat.  Formulate a plan of action for this tough take-out scenario. 

9)     Make sure you have your life jackets accessible and you know how to use them.  Wear your life jacket any time safety dictates.

10)  Make sure you have a good VHF radio and it is working and readily available!

11)  Make sure you have a wind/drift sock and rope to throw out in rough water emergency scenario to keep bow pointed into waves.

12)  If you have your boat anchored and a storm blows through, dislodging the anchor and pushing the boat out… do not swim after your boat, (usually happens during summertime recreation).  Get in another boat to chase it down.

13)  Be aware of the drop-off ledges at Pyramid… it can go from shallow to deep very quickly.

14)  Don’t take small boats, kayaks or canoes out if possible, especially if there are winds forecasted.

15)  Experienced boaters and anglers die on the lake…. It can happen to anyone!

16)  Make sure your emergency flares, sound device and fire extinguishers are all in working order and accessible.

17)  Don’t mix alcohol with boating or swimming.

18)  Survival time is limited in cold water.

19)  Please take this stuff seriously… it could save a life!

       Mark Knoch