Stupid, Adrift, and Thanking God for a Coleman Cooler

Note: This is an updated version from the original, which I wrote and was first published online on a different website in July of 2012.   –Dave Mull

They say confession is good for the soul, but bad for the reputation, but I’m going to tell you about the blunders that led to yours truly hanging on to a cooler in waves of many different sizes, about five miles from shore out on Lake Michigan, July 3, 2012. I was in the water about 3 1/2 hours, while my boat mates stayed in the drink up to an hour longer.

But let me interject a quick (sarcastic) boat review: I loved my first trip in the 18-foot Lake Assault center console on a Tuesday, out of South Haven, Michigan. The boat seemed built like a tank, with aluminum diamond plate decking and floors, with lots of convenient storage. Pushed by a super-quiet Honda 90-hp outboard, the boat trolled in three-footers really well. Overall, it was great—until it took a few waves over the transom and capsized, sending me, my buddy Matt Serbenski, his 10-year-old son Jack and Matt’s cousin John Bruner (who had turned 50 the day before) into the lake some five miles from shore, largely without life jackets, without time to advise anyone over the hand-held radio of our predicament. Then its bow pointed to the sky and it sank out of sight.

End of boat review. I don’t think I’ll ever buy one.

So, the boat swamped, and Matt, with a boat cushion, and young Jack, the only angler wearing a life jacket, clung to each other and headed for the distant shoreline. John drifted one direction holding an inflatable PFD; I drifted another direction hanging onto a cooler. Soon I was as alone and feeling more helpless than I can remember, with waves seemingly ever building and pushing me north, more parallel to the beach than toward it. Although I kicked in moderately sustained spurts for the shore, I never seemed to make headway.

No one died, and other than early signs of hypothermia for Jack, a severely bruised ankle for Cousin John, and a sunburned face for me, we got out of the ordeal a lot better off than we might have. A lot better.

Here’s what happened:

My buddy Matt, his cousin John and son Jack and I towed the boat about 30 miles from its storage barn in Paw Paw, Mich. to South Haven. We caravanned with our mutual friend and Matt’s business partner Al Malsch, who took his 17-foot Sea Nymph with his grandson Tyler and his fishing buddy Travis. It was one of those moderately uncomfortable days to fish; not really bad wind and waves, but lumpy, occasional 3-footers. Not the kind of waves you’d ever expect could sink a boat.

After launching at around 5:30 and trolling for about four hours, we had three decent king salmon in the built-in fish box. At about 10:15, we were starting to discuss heading in to the ramp—the weather wasn’t getting any calmer and we heard one peal of thunder. The waves seemed to build, then subside, then build again. John was on his first trip, and got slightly seasick.

As we were calling it a day, we thought we had another fish on a copper line out on a planer board, but it turned out to a tangle with the other copper line on that side of the boat. This mess proceeded to tangle with a wire Dipsy, and then both downriggers. It was a superb mess, maybe the worst tangle I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen some loo-loos.

If only I’d have listened to Matt, who suggested I just hand-over-hand the massive wad of copper in and worry about untangling it back at the shop. But no, I was sure just one more snip of the braided superline backing and the tangle would be solved. And as I worked on it at the starboard side of the transom, the copper, apparently stuck in the port downrigger, got too close to the propeller on the outboard.

Instantly, a lot of copper was wrapped in the prop. Matt ordered John to kill the engine and trim it up. Didn’t actually look too bad, as far as the copper situation, neatly spooled in front of the stainless steel blades. If it had been just the copper, I’m thinking we might’ve been able to fire it up, put it in gear, let it fall to pieces and head in. But remember, we also had a good amount of 7-strand stainless-steel wire somewhere in the fray. That stuff is definitely not good for lower units. So Matt and I started to try and pull the copper off the propeller.

The day this all happened, I weighed 244 pounds. I don’t know what Matt weighed, but he used to play defensive lineman for a Division I university school and is a big guy, who at the time was well over 300 pounds. With both of us at the back of the boat and John (who shares some of Matt’s big-guy genes and is no lightweight himself) at the helm, we had a lot of weight at the transom as Matt and I worked on the outboard.

So, here’s the first mistake: we did not have a sea anchor aboard to deploy off a forward cleat to allow the boat to ride up and over the waves, bow first. But in retrospect, I bet that even had there been one on board we wouldn’t have deployed it. We just did not feel like we were in hazardous waves. But we were out there, no power, transom getting smacked. Little tops of waves splish-splashed over the cut out transom onto the deck—the boat didn’t have a splash well either.

Still, nothing to get really concerned about, right?

This I can still picture clearly: Matt and I are both at the rear and John is sitting in the helm seat, when we take a moderate amount of water over the back. John turns on the bilge pump and I lean over the side to see it spurting water. We take another wave, and I suggest John move to the front to reduce the amount of weight at the transom. He does, and now it’s just Matt and myself back there trying to reach the copper to pull it off the propeller.

Matt took off his shirt because he didn’t want to get it wet. And we then took a pretty good wave over the back. I moved forward. Another wave. I suggested to Matt he might want to move forward. Then another wave swooshes into the cockpit. Matt turns around and sees water rolling around the whole boat, almost up to the level of the front platform, tackleboxes and other items scudding around in the water. Several things happened in quick succession.

The boat is definitely foundering now, and I reached into my bag and grabbed my Onyx inflatable life jacket. I don’t even have time to think about inflating it, let alone putting it on. The boat starts to tip big-time to starboard and Matt jump-falls out of the rear of the boat. John picks up 10-year-old Jack and tosses him clear. I do my best to launch myself to starboard, hoping the boat won’t be on top of me, holding the PFD, still uninflated.

Suddenly we’re all in the water and the boat has turtled.

We all got clear of it and thought we’d all be fine; we can just cling to the boat and await a rescue. Both young Jack and I climb up on the hull. I’m straddling the keel, fingers stuck into the holes that I guess drain the livewell near the front of the boat, and sense the rear portion of the boat behind me is sinking. I feel some of the tangled lines around my right ankle—wire and copper—and make it my first priority to get my foot free, which I do. (I shudder to think that I could have been pulled down with the sinking boat.) Matt has a seat-cushion-style flotation device. He’s yelling to see if Jack is all right, and he is. By now, only the front four feet of the boat sticks out of the water, nose pointed at the sky. As it starts slipping downward, John sees the Coleman cooler we had stocked with drinks pinned against the water’s surface, stuck between the water and the triangular bow deck of the last part of the boat sticking out of the water. He debates briefly about not pulling it out, since it seems to be the only thing keeping the boat from completely sinking. But the boat is continuing to drop below the surface, so he pulls it out. Seconds later, the boat slips down and is gone.

That decision to pull that cooler free might well have saved a life.

By now I’ve found the pull-tab and the cord to inflate the Onyx. I jerk and it works. I’m not wearing it, but it’s easy to hang on to. We’re all kind of stunned, just looking around. Matt grabs a yellow dry bag that’s afloat. I see the yellow, waterproof hard-side case I’d gotten at a long-ago Evinrude press event. I’d used it to hold a half-ass ditch kit, kept on my old Starcraft that had recently found a new owner. I’d included the Humminbird handheld marine radio we had been using that morning to talk to Al, and I know the radio isn’t back inside. I try to remember if that radio was supposed to float (it wasn’t, but it is submersible) and don’t see it anywhere in the waves—it’s really not easy to see anything floating around us at water level. The radio had been on the ledge near the horizontal rod racks and I only had enough time to think of and grab my PFD. The radio is with the boat and all of Matt’s fishing gear on the bottom, 89 feet below us.

Then I recall that I had a packet of four flares in that yellow Evinrude case, too.

So I swim over to the little hard-side camera case just as we realize there’s a nice-sized boat, maybe a 28-footer, an express open, trolling close to the same depth as we were. Its course is away from us, and it’s maybe 300 yards away. We scream. We wave as best we can. It keeps trolling away. So I open the case and pull out the zippered mesh bag of flares, noting they expired in 2010, two years ago. Four are inside and I fumble with the zipper, get the pack open and pull one out.

And I realize that I have no idea of how it’s supposed to work.

So chin-deep in three-foot waves, sputtering the occasional mouthful of water, I’m reading directions. By some act of God, my glasses didn’t fall off my face so I actually CAN read, and see I need to pull the plunger down, unscrew the bottom cap and yank on the chain—not simple while holding on to an inflated life jacket. With the flare inches from my face. I jerk. Nothing. I jerk again and “POP!” a smoky trail heads skyward with less impact than a cheap bottle rocket. And that’s it. No burning ball of fire. No bang. It produces a meager, smoky trail that the southwest wind disperses in seconds. The express cruiser is now really far away, headed north for Saugatuck water. I grope for another flare, but the mesh case is no longer in my hand. I put my face in the water and look down and see the square orange case sinking ever so slowly, just below my feet. I dive for it, unwilling to release the PFD. No way to reach it.

Now I hear Matt yelling at John to hang on to the cooler and see that John is having a really tough time. John, despite being an experienced scuba diver, is on the verge of panic. In the waves, he just can’t hold on to the cooler and keep his head above water. I kick over to him and suggest we trade, Onyx inflatable jacket for Coleman cooler. Except I didn’t really suggest so much as shove the PFD into his chest, whereupon he grabs it, along with the fabric of my long-sleeved fishing shirt. It seems possible that he might pull me under. I can’t explain the calm that came over me other than as being divine.

“Just the life jacket Bubba,” I say as if it’s a joke. “Let go my shirt please.”

And he does. And I grab the handles of the cooler and learn immediately why coolers aren’t U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFDs. It’s a medium-sized, blue cooler with a white top. I hold it upside down, water pressure keeping it closed tight, drinks and ice rumbling around inside. Holding the handles sucks my body underneath, legs first, leaving me face-up for waves breaking over my forehead and into my mouth and nose.

I still have the yellow hard case the flares were in, and before long I realize I can hold the cooler’s handles with my knuckles against the lid, fingers pointed outwards, stretching my arms in front. This keeps my head out of water and my legs behind me fairly well. The cooler is just the right size for this. My left hand holds the handle of the cooler and the buoyant yellow hard case, now empty. But the case floats, which makes it valuable at the moment, and I thought that since it was yellow, it might make me easier to see from other boats.

At this point—I can’t explain exactly how—we go three separate directions. One moment we’re all swimming toward shore, together, among floating debris—I notice two Church planer boards, still attached to fishing lines, floating foam-side up.

The next moment, we’re all far apart. I hear a boat behind me in deeper water and turn to see an IO model, a white and red fiberglass boat maybe 20 or 22 feet long, complete with fishing rods and downriggers. It seems like it’s less than 100 yards away, just cruising slowly—I don’t think they were fishing. I’m close enough to see two people, young men, talking to each other and for a second or two, I think they’ve heard me yelling for help—along with Matt, Jack and John who join in when they hear me yelling, although I find out later that no one else even saw that second boat—they yelled because they heard me yell. The boat doesn’t turn and continues cruising towards South Haven.

Now the cooler is obstructing my view of my former boat mates, and I hear Matt yelling for me, maybe because I started yelling “help!” when I saw the second boat.

“I’m fine!” I yell. “I’m fine!”

And that’s the last I see or hear of them in the water.

Okay, before I get into the circumspect self-analysis and explore those thoughts I had while adrift and alone, let’s review all the things we did wrong and some of the things that would have helped our situation. Let’s start with me.

1. I let foolish pride get in the way of just pulling all of Matt’s copper into the boat and ended up getting it tangled in the prop.

2. I wasn’t wearing my PFD. If I had been, it’s likely I would have looked for and grabbed the radio instead of looking for the life vest.

3. I didn’t know how to use my flares. If I did, and if I had been wearing the PFD in the water instead of hanging on to it, it would have been a lot easier to hold on to the other three flares in their pouch and shoot more off, maybe before that boat had trolled so far away. Also, I don’t know if that flare I successfully fired was a dud or if it performed correctly. My ditch bag (case) should have had flares that hadn’t expired two years earlier.

4. The boat should have had a dash-mounted marine radio along with the hand-held (which, in retrospect, probably would have been left at home with the rest of the ditch bag anyway). A dash-mount would have been easier to grab to call for help when things got bad; someone should have been wearing the handheld so we could contact the Coast Guard after the boat was gone.

5. Another essential piece of big water gear has to be a drift bag that can attach to a forward cleat to keep the boat pointed into the wind, avoiding waves washing over the transom.

6. All three of us tough men should have been wearing PFDs, as young Jack was—maybe only because his mother insisted. I used to be in the habit of wearing an inflatable—an unfortunate habit to break. We should have known where Matt had stowed PFDs on the boat, too, and been able to at least pull them out of the compartment before the boat capsized. I take that back. We wouldn’t have had time even if we knew where they were. The boat was turtled and gone that quickly.

So, I find myself in the water, alone, clinging to the handles of a cooler, and collect my thoughts—and not all of them, especially at first, are pleasant.

“I’m 55 years old. I could have a heart attack.”

I then wonder if I might black out with the way I have to take a deep breath and hold it all the time.

“God, please don’t let Matt have a heart attack.”

I hope John is OK. He seemed a lot better with the life jacket, but he wasn’t doing well and, being from Evansville in southern Indiana, he has only been on Lake Michigan once before. I’m most worried about him.

I’ve been having weird spasms in my fingers and thumb. What if I have one and let go of the cooler? What if a handle breaks with these waves slapping the cooler?

The waves aren’t huge, but every once in awhile one comes along and smacks the cooler fairly hard, which makes me think a handle could actually break. I envision trying to climb on top of this cooler and hope it doesn’t come to that.

What if the predicted thunderstorm comes through and pummels this area with icy water or even hail? Water is warm now, but I wonder if it would get cold enough to get hypothermia. And what kind of waves would come with a thunderstorm? It’s hard enough to stay on top and breath even with this cooler. If I drop it or some wave rips it out of my hands, it’s over.

The water’s surface temp was warm—really pleasant, and I later learn it was 70 degrees, the warmest on record for early July. Say what you want about global warming, but that day I was grateful for it. Although the water was fairly warm, a couple of the press releases I’ve received over the years from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and companies that make safety gear play through my mind. I remember one with a chart that showed how long people have before hypothermia sets in when they’re immersed in varying degrees of water term. I don’t remember the specifics, but it seemed like if you fall into 38-degree water, you’ve got something like a minute. Fifty-degree water and you have half an hour. I wonder how long I’ll have. Maybe four hours? All I can do is hope my teeth don’t start chattering. (Turns out I wasn’t that far off in my guesstimates. Here’s a chart:

Well, I ultimately decide that the Good Lord is testing me. I think of something my ex-mother-in-law, a fine Christian, said about the burden that God gives us—it’s never more than we can handle. And this thought gives me some comfort.

I try kicking toward shore, but it seems like I’m going nowhere. The only time I seem to move at all is when I take a deep breath and hold it, putting my face in the water and stretching my arms forward and legs behind, as close to the surface as possible. Waves roll into the cooler, and I can feel the sensation of rushing forward. But the surges don’t take me directly towards shore, where the treeline appears dark bluish-black through the summery haze.

Bad luck for me, the wind and waves come from the south-southwest. When I peer over the cooler in the direction the waves are pushing me, I can’t see the tree line in front of me. I guess that at this angle, I’ll end up in Grand Haven or farther north, and don’t want to do the calculation of how long that will take drifting at about one mile per hour. It’s only around 11 or 11:30 in the morning by my best guess (the cuff of my long-sleeve shirt is stuck to the face of my watch and letting go of the cooler with both hands just to see what time it was not an option). The sun is still more east than west, but with my current course, I’ll be spending the night out here. I keep doing spurts of kicking, but also start dealing with cramps in my hamstrings and calves and—of all things—my toes. When I feel the spasms, I go back to cooler surfing, stretching my legs out, which changes my direction northward, up the lake, towards an unseen shore.

A couple of years ago, I read a book, Adrift, by Steven Callahan, who was sailing a small boat, solo, from Portugal to the U.S. One night he woke up when something big—he speculated a whale—hit his boat and caused it to sink. He had a tiny life raft, barely any food, a couple of water makers designed for a couple days use each and a small survival kit that included fish hooks. He survived on fish. And he was adrift for 76 days. That’s 2 1/2 months. I think of that book and 76 days adrift, no land in sight, and I feel really, really stupid out here, within sight of shore, hanging on to a Coleman cooler. So I try frog kicks, and scissor kicks like I learned as a kid in swimming lessons. I might be getting closer to shore—have to be getting closer—but there’s really no way to tell.

Lots of different thoughts about mortality, my career and how I treat my family go through my head. I’m not really worried about dying. I just don’t think it’s my time yet, and don’t allow myself to ponder, But what if it is? I really feel like I’m in no immediate danger and figure that aside from the eventual possibility of hypothermia, I can survive out here for a long time. At one point I do hope my wife Kathy has made my life insurance payment. But I’m not in dire circumstances, like if the boat had sunk in April with 40-degree water.

I was wondering if I really enjoyed this Great Lakes trolling that much anymore. Was I even having a good time when we were catching fish? Was it fun to get up at 3:30 this morning? I think of the massive amount of tackle I’ve accumulated for big lake salmon and walleye fishing, and how piles of stuff are in the family room for me to sort.

I then think about my four lost cameras, a $275 Canon point-and-shoot and the much more expensive Nikon D-70 SLR that were both in my case along with a brand new, as-yet-unused video camera, largely waterproof and designed to compete against the Go Pro cameras. I also had a video camera that was in a supposedly watertight case. They are hopefully floating toward shore if I was on the ball and clamped the case shut after shooting some fish pictures when the boat was still floating. Maybe I’ll get them back. I hope so, since pictures of John’s first king along with some photos of Matt and Jack holding a salmon Jack caught are on the Nikon. I don’t really care about losing the main tools of my trade—they’re replaceable. But it would be nice to get them back so I could get those pictures to the guys. If the guys are Okay, I think. I’ve also lost the top to my favorite rainsuit—a Frabill—along with a packet of lures in a large zip-style plastic bag I’d put together that morning (turns out a friend of a friend of a friend found that although I never got them back).

I didn’t set out writing this tale of almost four hours in the water to be long and boring enough to take four hours to read, so let’s get on with what happened next. I continue my spurts of frustrated kicking toward the eastern shore, resting and letting unrelenting Lake Michigan push me north-northeast. I don’t have anything better to do. I keep my head out of the water and pressed against the cooler while kicking, hoping that keeping my noggin in the hot sun will delay getting chilled—I don’t worry about sunburn. Still occasionally cramping, I do my dead body float routine to stretch and work out the cramp.

And I guess I must have looked pretty dead, as Travis later told me; when he first saw me from a distance, it gave him goose flesh down both arms.

After more than three hours in the water, I look up and to my left, and I see a boat, close, and why, it looks like my good fishing buddy Al. A big wave obstructs my view, but there the boat is again, a white, 17-foot Sea Nymph with a blue stripe, and sure enough, there’s my shirtless, fireplug buddy AND HE SEES ME. He’s looking and waving and clearing lines with Travis. Later I learn that Al had told 7-year-old grandson Tyler, who normally steers, to sit down on the floor because he didn’t want the boy to see a dead body. Al is shouting into his microphone—I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I know he’s calling the Coast Guard.

He doesn’t realize it’s me until he stops the boat where I can grab its side.

“Holy crap. It’s DAVE!”

Al and Travis are obviously concerned about getting me in the boat. Hanging onto the side of their boat, I tell them that Matt’s boat sank, that Matt, Jack and John are probably still in the water. Al gets back with the Coast Guard, saying three more people are in the water. The Coast Guard says they’ll dispatch a chopper.

“It’s in neutral Dave,” he tells me as I hang on the side of the boat, one hand still holding the Coleman cooler.

Travis takes the cooler and out spills the three or four drinks and leftover ice inside—I’d been starting to wonder what was in there booming around, actually considering that a sugary Coke might be life-sustaining sustenance if the wind shifted and I got headed across the lake towards Milwaukee. I go to the transom to climb in that way, but the boat has already spun downwind so waves are slapping against it.

“Al! Get this boat pointed into the waves! I already sank one boat today!”

I don’t really remember if he did, but he and Travis, both husky guys, hauled me over the side without swamping. I convince them I’m not hurt and other than a little cold, I’m OK.

Al gives the Coast Guard his cell number and is soon talking with them again, relaying the GPS coordinates where he pulled me out. Meanwhile, a mid-size older Sea Ray is cruising by and we flag them down. I think the boat was named I Got My Weigh, and three guys and a gal are aboard. They look like they’re going perch fishing, judging from the spinning rods in a few of the boat’s rod holders. We tell them what happened and they start searching. Within a half hour (I think—actual time passage was kind of fuzzy) the Sea Ray radios the Coast Guard that that have found John and he’s aboard. This bolsters my confidence that we’re all four going to be OK since Jack had his life jacket and Matt had a seat cushion.

Before long, eight or so other civilian boats are in the search, having heard our plight on the radio. The Coast Guard shows up in one of their twin-outboard, orange RIBs with blue flashing lights, talks to us briefly and then throws out a life ring with a flashing light and starts a grid search. I think about 15 minutes later, the orange chopper shows up, and within just a few more minutes, we see it start to hover, about two miles closer to shore, and note that the RIB is on plane, blasting toward the helicopter.

“They have to have found them,” I say, hoping Matt and Jack are together and all right.

About five minutes later, the Coast Guard comes on the radio to advise that all four of the persons in the water have been recovered and are in good shape. Al and Travis whoop and high five as I start to break down crying in relief—tears out of nowhere—as Al bear-hugs me.

It turns out Matt is fine, but Jack, kind of a skinny kid, had actually shown the first signs of hypothermia—blue lips and shivers. The two had made really good progress towards shore, probably covering about three miles, with two miles left to go. I’m not sure how this happened or if Matt might just have not looked at his depth finder right before we sank, but he thought the boat sank in 89 feet of water, while Al found me in 110 feet of water. Makes me wonder if some odd current had me heading more out to the center of the lake.

Al points his boat towards South Haven and I ask how many fish they got. “Around 10,” he says.

Knowing Al loves to fill the fish-box—and probably the only reason he was still out trolling was because he hadn’t gotten a three-person limit of 15 fish yet—I joke: “Well, why we going in? With my license aboard we can get 10 more.”

And I am thankful I am that Al is pitbull-tenacious about getting a limit of salmon every time out.

Finally we’re heading up the Black River at South Haven. We make a brief stop at the pavilion in port where EMTs are waiting with a red truck flashing red lights. I just tell them I’m fine and don’t need medical treatment, as does John.

Matt, John, Al and I have a tearful reunion back at the launch ramp. Hugs all around. Matt had thought John and I were goners for sure after we got separated.

The four of us drive back together in Matt’s truck, discussing some of the things that happened. Jack is resilient and more worried about what will happen when his mother finds out than anything else. Matt tells us something Jack said after they had been in the water for a couple of hours.

“He says, ‘I sure wish we wouldn’t have lost those fish.’”

It makes us all laugh. So assessing what we lost, it all seems insignificant to what we didn’t lose. Thank God, truly, that we all came out of that OK, hopefully wiser and smart enough to be more prepared for that kind of thing happening in the future.

Not that any boat we’re on will ever capsize and sink, of course.


Author’s note: It took a good month before I worked up enough courage to go back out on Lake Michigan. It was for a story about a auto-pilot device for a small outboard, and the trip was out of a Wisconsin port. In the five years since, I think about the incident whenever I get on a boat and head out into water where I can’t see land on the horizon. 

I’m much more into kayak fishing now, although I still enjoy going trolling on big water with friends and occasionally taking my 17-foot MirroCraft out after salmon or walleyes. I’m back in the habit of wearing my own inflatable life jacket any time I’m on the water. Occasionally someone who doesn’t know me well sees me don it and asks with a little sarcasm, “What, you think my boat is going to sink?”

To which I reply with a slightly drawn out, “M-a-a-a-y-y-be.”

By the way, modern inflatables and even the standard foam jackets made for paddle sports are now so comfortable a person can forget they’re wearing one. I have more than one time worn my inflatable PFD home after fishing—one time I was waiting in line with a cold soft drink at a gas station when I noticed a couple people looking at me a little curiously. I also have an inflatable PFD that looks like a small fanny pack and I wear that around my waist instead of the regular inflatable vest. I also wear a whistle around my neck. When I take my own 17-footer on big water, I have a drift sock already out and attached to a front cleat, and now have a floating, hand-held radio I wear on my belt. My ditch bag includes flares I know how to use and a smoke signal flare. Also in the ditch bag is an inflatable, orange-colored “pole” that John Bruner sent me. Scuba divers take one of these  along to help their mothership boat find them; inflate it, clip it to your life vest and it sticks bout five feet in the air. Great Lakes anglers, trained to spot net posts ought to see it from afar…

…and I sincerely hope that I never ever have to use any of those items.