Issue: Online Reading Room


by Chuck Royster

When I sit back and reflect on the most enjoyable times in my life, I inevitably end up thinking about the adventures, friendships and outright demonstrations of caring and love that I have experienced as a weekend waterman on the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.

From the very beginning, I have always noticed that when you are near, around and about the water, people behave very differently. They wave at you when they pass you on the water, they speak to you when you pass them on the dock, and moreover, they are even willing to pitch in and help you when you have a problem. Conversely, if you were walking in downtown D.C. on Connecticut Avenue at lunch time, not a soul would look your way.

This taught me that people who work, play or live around the water tend to care for others that do the same. Here is an example of that caring.

At 27, I had been boating for only a couple of years; just a "waterbaby." I was new to the sport and fascinated with "go fast" boating. For me, and a collection of other young Potomac river rats, speed was the thing! Charts, course plotting, obstructions and a plan? Who needs a plan? Going fast was the primary requirement for the purchase of my second boat, a 20-foot, Wellcraft cuddy cabin with a 300-hp small-block Chevy pushing a MerCruiser Bravo II with a stainless steel prop. My fellow river rats nicknamed it "Blue Boat" as it had a blue hull with white decking and for a time, it was the fastest small boat on the upper Potomac. With it, I bounded up and down the river in gleeful (and somewhat irresponsible) exuberance. In other words, that thing would fly.

Unfortunately, by the time that I realized that I had more horsepower than brains I was in serious, life threatening trouble. After getting started much too late on a Friday weekend trip south to Hoffmaster's in Occoquan, Va., with a girlfriend, I found myself barreling up the narrow channel on Occoquan Bay towards the entrance to the Occoquan River. With the wind increasing  and the waves running high, I missed the red "4" buoy marking at the entrance to the Belmont Bay. I found myself in three feet of water, too close to the northeastern shore, and out of the channel. I slowed down (to about ten knots) to grope along and find the buoy. When I found it, I was approaching it from the wrong side, and almost upon it. The next thing I heard was a loud "BANG!"

The engine began screaming at its max rpm and the boat came to a dead stop in the middle of Occoquan Bay. I was perched up on something below the waterline in 6- to 8-feet of water, about 500 yards from the shoreline. I immediately tore through the boat, removing all of the cushions and raising the deck and engine hatches to check the hull for cracks and/or leaks. Fortunately there were none.

We couldn't walk to shore, and my friend couldn't swim, so I couldn't leave her on the boat and swim to get help. The water was too rough anyway, and I would have probably drowned. I called the Coast Guard on the VHF and fired off a flare, but to no avail. The night sky was upon us, and the waves and wind kept rising, the boat would repeatedly rise up and slam back down on whatever had impaled it.

The outdrive was shot and all the gearing was gone, so the boat wouldn't move. I was close to a state of panic because I knew that if the winds kept rising, I would soon have a boat with a hole in it, and soon after that I would have no boat at all. I was in deep Kimchi.

But the god (or goddess, maybe?) of young, stupid and extremely inexperienced boaters was with me. Out of the night came the sound of a fast moving powerboat. I will never forget the sight of the beautiful red-and-white, twin-engine Wellcraft Nova coming across Occoquan Bay. In it was a big, heavy-set blond guy, dressed like he was ready to party. Braving the wind, the whitecaps and the huge waves, he slowed down and eased over towards me until he got within shouting distance.

"What the hell are you doing over there, buddy?" he asked.

"I missed the buoy and hit something under the boat, I can't move!" I yelled.

"Don't you know about the bridge?" he yelled back.

"What bridge? I don't see a bridge. Where is it?"

"Naw! I'm talking about the old bridge. It's gone now. You're sitting on top of the caisson of the old railroad bridge that used to cross over between the two points. Don't you read your charts?" 

"I saw something on the chart, but I didn't think it was a bridge, especially this close to the buoy!" I yelled.

"Well, I can't leave you here. You'll never make it. Can you take a line?"

"Yes, I sure can! And, Thanks!" I yelled.

He tossed me a heavy line. I made a stern towing bridle by attaching the two ends of another line to the towing tie down hooks on the stern of my boat. I then used a bowline knot to attach his line to the bridle while he tied the other end to one of the tow hooks on the stern of his boat. As my boat was pushed up on the caisson all the way to the outdrive, he had to "walk" my boat off by first moving to one side of the caisson, powering up, and then after moving to the other side of the caisson, repeating the process. It took him almost an hour to work the boat off of the caisson. Finally she broke free, but on my own power, I was going nowhere. After rechecking the hull (at his suggestion, I might add) we reconfigured the line into a towing bridle on the bow. He then took his time and slowly towed me up the Occoquan River to Prince William Marina. It was now near midnight and almost everything was closed.

My savior, who told me his name was Bill, helped me tie up the boat. He explained that when the contractor removed the old bridge, they left the bridge caissons sitting in the bottom of the river unmarked, and that many a new boater unfamiliar with the Occoquan estuary had made the same mistake. He also gave me a stern lecture about reading and paying attention to my charts before taking any sort of voyage on the river. He then gave us a ride in his boat to Hoffmaster's, where he docked his boat. When we got to Hoffmaster's the music was booming and the party was going on strong.

"Damn!" he said. "They're still rollin'! Here, take these." He tossed me a set of keys.

"Look in the parking lot and you will see a red Cadillac convertible with a white top. Take your girlfriend home and bring it back in the morning. Put the keys under the floor mat and lock it up. I've got another set on the boat. I'm going to party!"

With that, Bill disappeared inside Hoffmaster's.

Bill (he never told me his last name), without knowing who I was, or even my last name, missed his date, missed his party, put his life and his boat in danger as he struggled in the dark against the wind, whitecaps and four-foot waves to save the lives of both myself and my date. He towed us to a marina, loaned me his brand new Cadillac, and trusted me to take care of it and bring it back the next day, and, to this day, I have no idea who he was, or is. I can only hope that he has been blessed with a long and happy life, and that he gets the opportunity to read this story and become aware of the thanks, appreciation and high esteem that I have held him in for the 30 years or so that have passed since he saved my bacon that dark, stormy night. God Bless You, Bill.