EDITOR'S NOTE: This was written by Madison's Don Drane, who hopes others learn from his mistakes.
I had carefully followed the instruction book for breaking in the new 15-horsepower Yamaha: One full hour at half-throttle or less.
I put in at the Twin Harbor landing, two miles from where I live, and took a long, slow, meandering route back to the south toward the yacht club and Breakers Condominiums, winding around through the harbor where all the big-boat slips are, no particular course in mind, just following the motor’s break-in instructions, piddling along.
Finally the one-hour mark was reached and I throttled up a bit. It was a chilly day, mid-October, 50-degree air temp, 45-degree water, foot-high waves. I had the reservoir to myself, it seemed, today being a work day for most folks.
Newfound retirement was good, not a care in the world or a cloud in the sky. This would be a good day.
I was anxious to throttle up a bit to see how fast a light, 14-foot john boat runs with only one passenger and no cargo: easily 30 to 35 mph. The boat, with my life jacket safely on the floor between my feet, sliced through the waves with no effort, the bow slapping down hard after each wave.
This brand-new motor would be perfect for yo-yoing for catfish in the Mississippi River oxbow — Lake Washington — where my son and I love to hang out. I was anxious to pull catfish and bream aboard, but that would be another day.
Although the motor was new, the boat was over 20 years old. I’d spent weeks sanding and repainting it, installing lights where none had been before, brand-new seats, drink holders and a depth finder so we could know how low to hang yo-yos and jug hooks. Our depth finder had always been the skinny end of a cane pole; now we were in high cotton with a real sho’ nuff depth finder.
It was not at all unusual for the plug to leak in this boat. I figured I had installed it tight enough for this break-in run. But, noticing that the plug was leaking a bit, I switched hands on the tiller handle and fiddled with the plug, loosening it and then pushing it in tighter, determined to correct the slow leak, not really worrying that the boat was taking on just a bit of water — not enough to really matter. I’d done this a hundred times.
I had not bothered to slow the boat down, being the usual masterful captain of the small rig, able to drive with either hand — or neither at all, on occasion — knowing this boat like the back of my hand. I had the plug in as tight as it would go, and was looking backward across the top of the motor toward Fannin Landing on the Rankin County side of the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
I glanced up to see a nice, uniform wake. The purr of the brand-new motor melted into the sunshine behind me with the crisp wind against my neck.
Suddenly, I glanced back toward the bow and realized I was in a tight turn. After changing hands, I had pulled my right hand inward, pulling the tiller handle tight against my belly, causing the boat to take a tight left turn. I pushed quickly against the motor handle to correct the boat’s path, and was immediately airborne.
My life jacket was still on the floor, the kill switch lanyard was dangling from the new motor and the throttle maintained its 3/4-open position.
My first and only thought at that moment was, “Well, I can climb back in the boat as soon as I hit the water.”
There’s no sound quite like the bubbling, gurgling, lonely, almost-silent noise of water ripping past your ears when you go underwater fast and hard, upside down, head first. Cold, alone, frightened, unsure, but still convinced I would be OK as soon as I managed to climb back aboard.
My nose now out of the water, waves lapping over my head, I realized climbing back into the boat was impossible. The boat was not there. I remembered something I’d always heard about an unmanned, runaway boat. It circles. I’d never seen it happen, but had heard that tale many times.
And suddenly, here it came. I heard the sound of the motor first, and then the sound of the boat slapping the water. Then I saw it. Coming right at me. Seemed like it was going 100 mph. No weight other than the motor. Loud. Headed right at me.
Waves lapping over my head, trying hard to tread water and figure out what to do. All I could think of was trying to go down, get under it somehow. But how do you manage to go deep in water when you’re treading it? I had nothing to push against to go down, didn’t have time to flip over and swim down — that would expose my feet to the prop.
Here it came. All I could do was raise both arms and try to protect my head.
It got me. But I knew I was still alive. I knew now it would come back and run over me again if I didn’t swim, and fast. But, which direction? I had no clue which way to swim. All I could do was swim, and fast, hard, quick.
I didn’t realize my left arm had been sliced up, or that my left eye and forehead and right wrist were gushing blood.
I could still hear the motor, and suddenly it was getting louder and louder and I knew what that meant. This time it would hit me from behind if I didn’t swim faster. I realized later I was actually swimming parallel to the shore, a quarter of a mile out, but slowly escaping the circular path of the boat.
I got out of the circle and continued to swim as best I could, clothes weighing me down, shoes full of water, one eye closed, head pounding, left arm gushing blood, feet hanging toward the bottom as my arms struggled to move my weight.
The sound of the motor slowly grew more distant. I thought I was safe.
Not having a clue how badly I was injured, I swam and hollered for the better part of an hour, hoping to get somebody’s attention. But there were no boats anywhere.
I swam until I flat gave out, then backstroked to stay afloat, then tried to swim again, then backstroked again.
I was giving out. Giving out fast.
I spotted the woods to the north of the Lost Rabbit development and changed directions toward them. I thought maybe if I could get to land I could get through the woods somehow and make my way up onto the Natchez Trace and flag somebody down, but I was giving out and couldn’t keep on.
I wondered who would pick me up or if anybody would stop if they saw me crawling out of the woods.
I finally quit hollering, realizing I was totally alone. My legs quit working and I couldn’t kick. I told the Lord to go ahead and take me, and knew without a doubt that I was gone.
Parts of my life flashed through my head, and I remembered that my dad had told me over 50 years ago that it typically takes a body three days to float after drowning. I knew my family and others would be parked up on the Natchez Trace for several days and figured the Salvation Army Truck would be there handing out sandwiches while they all waited night and day for my body to surface.
I hated the thought of my family going through that.
The Ross Barnett Reservoir has some oddly configured depths. Man-made from the Pearl River years ago, it takes in old river lakes, trees, slews and sloughs, rolling land and extreme shallows. The depth can go from 25 feet to 4 feet almost instantly, and I knew I was gone. It was just a matter of how far I would move underwater before I floated up in three or four days.
Again I thought of my family and how tough that would be on them, and again I told God to just get it over with. I was exhausted.
I flat gave up and was vertical, sinking.
Suddenly, my feet hit the mushy bottom and I knew I might be able to get out. Somehow I caught my second wind and moved my arms and legs as fast and hard as I could, in a half-swimming, half-walking motion and knew I was moving, my nose finally barely above water.
I took a deep breath, half air and half water, it seemed. And I kept moving toward shore. Walking in foot-deep mush, gasping for air, wondering how many snakes were in the trees just ahead of me.
Finally reaching the bank, I still had no idea I was injured. I climbed through downed trees and felt the welcome firmness of wet sand and rocks.
Realizing where I was, I looked back out toward the middle of the Reservoir and saw my boat still circling half a mile away. Then I saw blue lights. I later learned someone had called the Reservoir Patrol to report a circling, unmanned boat.
He was just sitting out there watching the boat circling, his bright blue lights flashing, totally unaware of my whereabouts. He later told me he assumed the boater had fallen overboard and was below, maybe a heart attack.
I had on a bright-orange shirt and waved my arms and hollered until he saw me and headed in my direction. His boat was too big to get up to the bank and I was glad to trudge back through the trees and mud to get to him.
He dragged me aboard like a large, waterlogged gar. I told him I’d been thrown and the boat had run me over.
His first question was, “You got all your body parts? Usually nobody survives that with all their limbs intact. Nobody walks away from that.”
All I wanted was to get home and get warm. I was cold, soaked, in pain and disoriented.
“Can you just take me to my truck?” I asked him.
He laughed and said, “Nope, you’re going to the ambulance.”
The Madison Fire truck and an ambulance were at the landing near where I had launched that morning.
I was thrown overboard and run over at noon. Two hours later I was lying flat in the Level 1 Trauma Center at University Hospital in Jackson wondering how my wife would find out.
Stitched up, patched up and drugged up, I got back home at 10 p.m. that night just as the nightly news was covering the story of a “man overboard in the Reservoir.”
I was embarrassed when the reporter stated my name, but I was alive.
The bathroom mirror didn’t offer a pretty picture — stitches, patches, blood, gashes, bandaged arms and a dark blue left eye, way bigger than a golf ball. But alive.
I had been retired only nine months and common wisdom says I should have died that day. If not from the prop and boat, then from drowning. Not sure yet why the Lord gave me another chance.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve refused to wear a life jacket. My reasoning was always the same. I can swim fine. Life jackets are for kids and people who can’t swim. And how stupid is it to hook up a kill switch?
Now I know better.