I’ve been putting off writing about this for long enough now, and probably only because it feels like I’m already thinking about it all the time. But in bits and pieces. I’ll be in a room with other people, having a conversation and suddenly I’ll find that I’m not in that room anymore, but I can still hear the voices of my friends talking. They’ve continued the conversation, but I’m floating anyway to somewhere else entirely. I’ll be back in that water, floating, swimming, yelling for help. Watching car after car drive by without seeing us. Or I’ll be getting ready for bed, or listening to music, or trying to read a book. And again, my mind isn’t mine anymore.
We flew into Oregon the day before Christmas Eve, spent a few hours in Portland before heading to Tillamook, where my Grandma lives and where we were to spend Christmas. We’ve been doing this every other year since I can remember. My boyfriend Andrew came with us this year, and I was so excited to share all of our Tillamook traditions with him, including cheese samples at the Tillamook Cheese Factory and catching crab in Netarts Bay. The weather was supposed to be better on Christmas Day, but we didn’t think we would be able to rent a boat that day, so we decided to go crabbing on Christmas Eve. It was a little rainy and cold, but not bad. We were all wearing multiple layers of clothing – I myself had a long sleeve shirt, a sweater, a jacket and a bright yellow rain jacket on – along with yoga pants, rain pants, gloves and rubber boots. With so many layers on, I didn’t even think twice about trying to add a lifevest. Besides, we have been crabbing for as long as I can remember without incident.
This was Andrew’s first time crabbing and our one millionth, and we were all having a pretty decent time. We were doing our final pull of the day with plans to head in, when one of our crab pots was “sanded in”. I guess this happens somewhat regularly – or it can happen – when the tide is coming in so fast that sand gets in the trap and weighs it down. I don’t ever remember this happening to us before, but I guess it’s not that uncommon. My Dad and brother tried to pull it out for at least ten minutes, but we were getting close to the time we needed to be back at the boat landing and we still had more pots to pull. Being short of time, my Dad decided to try tying the rope from the crab pot to one of the cleats on the boat to drag it out. In hindsight, none of us would do this again. But in the moment, it seemed like a viable option. He tied the rope, started the engine and the boat immediately started rocking. I grabbed the side of the boat, said “I don’t like this, I don’t like this”, looked over my shoulder and saw the back of the boat dip into the water, but popped back up. Two seconds later I was grabbing for the boat again and it wasn’t there. We were all in the water.
I swear, nothing has ever happened so fast in my life. One second we were in the boat and I was clinging to the boat, the next second it was just gone. I was in complete and utter shock. I don’t remember much, except panicking. I was yelling/crying “Ahhhhhhhh! Ahhhhhhhh! Oh my god!!!! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!” over and over again for probably at least 15 seconds before my Dad yelled “Grab a life vest!” and I looked to see a seat cushion floating right in front of me. Andrew and I had been sitting next to each other on the boat, so he was the closest to me and he swam over with his seat cushion and grabbed my arm.
It’s hard to write accurately about what happened, because I was having so many thoughts. For a split second when the boat went under, I thought it was going to pop back up like it does in movies and we were all going to try to climb back in somehow. Then you think, okay someone will see us and come get us, until you remember that you were the only boat on the bay that day and there is no one around for miles. Then you think, okay I guess we are swimming to shore and you try to swim towards shore and don’t move at all.
On top of all of this, the panic and the racing thoughts and the absolute incredulity of it all, the water is petty damn cold. I think it was probably only minutes until were all separated. The tide was running in and we were all caught in the current. In the moment, this seemed horrible because shore was probably only 150 yards away (it really didn’t look that far) but to get there in meant swimming against the current. Andrew and I had been trying to hold on to each other, but we couldn’t swim like that, so we had to let go. We also eventually kicked off our rubber boots – which had filled with water and made it impossible to swim. We both had seat cushions, so we put them under our chests like kickboards and used our legs to kick/swim. My brother Isaac managed to get the closest to the shore, although at this point the current was taking us into the heart of the bay. Now the closest shoreline was about a mile away. Frustrated by not being able to swim more, Isaac decided to start yelling for help. Honestly, we were so far out and there was NOBODY around, I hadn’t even thought to yell for help. But he did. He yelled “Help! Help! My boat sunk! We need help!” Over and over and over again for what seemed like forever. Andrew and I were still pretty close together – maybe 50 yards apart. I could see and hear Isaac, and I could see and talk to Andrew, but I couldn’t see my Dad anymore. I knew he had been alert and okay when we first hit the water and that he had grabbed a life vest, but we got separated pretty quickly after that. Every so often I would turn around and look for him and I could see him in the distance, but he was too far away to yell to. I tried, but I didn’t get any response. I have a friend who knows someone who lost her father in a boating accident I kept thinking about that. I told myself to keep swimming, that this wasn’t going to be how my Dad died. Every time that thought popped into my head I would push it away, but I was terrified.
After about 30 minutes, we are now in the middle of the bay. Probably at least a half mile away from shore. Cars are driving by and we stop swimming to wave our arms over our heads and yell.
They don’t see us and keep driving. Over and over and over again, no one sees us, no one stops.
The water is freezing, the clock keeps ticking and now we’ve been in the water without anyone seeing us for almost 45 minutes, and I don’t know where my Dad is.
I couldn’t have known this at the time, but he took off his yellow rain jacket because he felt like it was slowing him down. So now when I scan the horizon for him, I can’t even see that little dot of yellow that he was. I am in an absolute panic at this point.
I don’t even remember feeling cold, just tired and scared. The shore seemed so far away, nobody knew where we were, I had no way of knowing if my Dad was okay. My thoughts were so jumbled. My mind was racing with “Please God, oh my God, Please God send someone to find us” to “I can’t believe this is happening” to “This isn’t how my Dad dies, this isn’t how anyone dies” and then circled back around to praying again.
It all still seemed so surreal.
I could still hear Isaac shouting for help in the distance, but he was further and further away from me. Andrew and I were still swimming and the shore was getting closer but I was SO TIRED. Eventually, I had this moment where I knew I was going to be okay. I felt okay, I didn’t feel too cold, and I knew that I was going to hit that shore eventually. I just didn’t know if my Dad was okay, or if he would be. I mean, even if I made it to shore, how long would it be before I could climb out on all of those rocks, and run to find help? What if, by the time I got to anyone, it was too late? I don’t know the specifics about hyperthermia except that it can KILL YOU if you are in cold water for too long. I didn’t know how long is too long, just that we had already been in the water for what felt like forever (but was really 45 minutes). Around this time, Isaac starts yelling at me and tells me “They are sending help! Help is coming!”
I would find out later that a man was walking his dog and heard Isaac yelling. He didn’t have a cell phone, so he ran back to where has was staying and called 9-1-1. Isaac just saw him running with his dog and wasn’t even sure he had heard him, until the man returned and yelled to Isaac and told him help was on the way.
After what felt like a really long time, we finally did hear sirens. An ambulance pulled up on front of me, still probably 20 yards away from shore. Cars were stopping now and pulling over.
I was actually the first one to make it to shore, where someone was waiting to help me up onto the rocks.
They had been asking me all kinds of questions – how many of us there were, how old my Dad was, if he had any medical conditions, my age, etc etc. As they asked me all of these things, I was standing outside of the ambulance and was told to strip down. I had to remove all of my sopping wet clothes in the middle of the street and they wrapped me in blankets and towels. I was sitting and crying in the ambulance when Isaac joined me, also stripped down and covered in blankets. I could see Andrew walking up the road – he had hit shore about 20 years up from me. The three of us were all in the same ambulance, trying to get warm and answering questions. The EMT also told us, “We had your Dad and he’s okay, but he is a little colder than the rest of you, so we are going to take him to the hospital.” I still hadn’t seen him at this point, as he was picked up by a rescue boat and taken to a separate ambulance. Isaac, Andrew and I were feeling okay, despite being cold, so we signed releases to skip the hospital visit. We were able to find the car keys in my Dad’s jean pocket and drove back to my Grandma’s house. All of us were naked, just wrapped in blankets and towels.
When we got back to my Grandma’s no one was there. My mom had left a note that she was going into town to the grocery store. We called her from Andrew’s cell phone (mine had been with me in the boat and wasn’t working) and she answered the phone, “Hi! How was crabbing?” I asked where she was, told her what happened, and that we were all okay, but that they took Dad to the hospital. She said she would go to the hospital and we all took showers to get warm and put on clothes.
My mom made it to the hospital before we did, and when we got there she just started sobbing and hugging us. I was crying too. It was just an overwhelming feeling – the experience of what we had just survived, and knowing that we were all there and safe. We got to see my Dad, for the first time since the boat sunk. He was covered in blankets and warming equipment, but he was alert and coherent and OKAY. It was such an unbelievable relief.
We would find out later that the man walking his dog who heard Isaac yelling was Jim Lyons, a guest at Netarts RV park (retired EMT). He ran for help and called 9-1-1, and he and the Manager of the RV Park, Ron Tonski (retired Fire Fighter) put their boats in the bay to come get us. They actually beat the Fire Department Rescue team.
The manager’s wife and their grandson were watching from the road and kept an eye on all four of us, and were actually on the phone with Coast Guard who were standing by and ready to send a helicopter if needed. They stayed on the line until they knew that all four of us were out of the water and safe.
This was the scariest and most surreal experience of my life. We all spent the next few days that we had together talking about the accident- a debriefing-of-sorts - and hearing each other’s perspectives. While I was absolutely in a blind panic about my Dad and if he was okay, my Dad said he could see all of us and hear us, and he felt pretty okay the whole time. He thought if he just kept moving a little bit, he would be okay. Isaac told us that by the time the boat pulled him out, he was having trouble moving his arms and his legs because he was so cold. Andrew said he just remembers the look on my face when the boat first sunk, and how scared I looked. He was mostly worried about me, since I was at risk of hyperventilating when we first hit the water.
The whole thing was so surreal, that now I feel like “Did that really happen?” It almost feels like it was just a dream (or a nightmare) or something I saw in a movie.
I am so thankful that angels were passing out life vests and making sure the current was running towards land and not out to sea. I’m thankful that God sent a storm a few days before, causing a lot of freshwater runoff into the bay, which raised the water temperatures from the normal 45 degrees to almost 55 degrees. I’m so thankful nobody hit their head or hyperventilated or got tangled in the rope that took the boat down.
A handful of the people I love the most in this world were in that boat with me and I couldn’t have walked away without a single one of them. I’m just so thankful and relieved that I didn’t have to.