A few years ago I wrote a column about a local angling enthusiast, Reese Ward, who had a horrifying experience while on the way back to Charleston after fishing the Gulf Stream.
He had momentarily left his mates to go aft and answer Mother Nature’s demands. There he was, otherwise minding his own business, when an unexpected rogue wave suddenly pummeled the boat and sent Ward flying into space.
Rather than landing on deck, he sailed straight into the water and watched in disbelief as the boat motored onward and away.
He screamed at the top of his lungs, to no avail, and might as well have been in outer space. Long story short, after several hours of treading water and going through the extremes of emotion — from shock, fear, anger, determination and tearful resignation — what should finally appear on the horizon but that same vessel returning to conduct a miraculous rescue!
It was a one-in-a-million survival story, as palpably real to Ward now as it was then.
Well, here’s a story out of the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror as told by senior reporter Jason Graziadei, in which a party of five had a similarly terrifying ordeal.
It was a cold, rainy morning this past May when boat captain Jason Mleczko set out from Madaket Harbor with four passengers. Mleczko, whose father, Tom, started the family’s charter business back in the 70’s and whose sister, Allison, is a well-known Winter Olympics hockey champion, had handled conditions far worse over his 17 years of chartering.
I know Jason and his dad. They’re fine people, understand what they’re doing and run a great business. As anyone who spends time on the water knows, the ocean can turn fickle, unpredictable and dangerous in a heartbeat.
Jason would be reminded of that all too vividly when, after several hours of fishing the west side of the island between Smith Point and nearby Tuckernuck Island, three large rogue waves came out of nowhere and flipped his 23-foot Maritime boat completely over.
Mleczko and one of the men were briefly trapped under the boat, but managed to swim out and climb on top of the upside-down hull. The three others were thrown far away and had to struggle to make it back to the boat, their bodies stung by water temperatures still in the 50s.
Mleczko knew the situation was very serious. Everyone was miserably cold; cellphones were either lost or waterlogged and unusable, the marine radio was nose down in the water, and only one life jacket could be found. There was no way to cry for help.
The captain tried to reassure passengers that his father knew where they were fishing and understood that they were supposed to be back in harbor by 3 p.m., and that the cavalry would be called no later than 4 p.m.
Meanwhile, a fog bank had started to roll in, and hypothermia was becoming real concern. Recalling a survival program he had seen on TV, Jason ordered a changing rotation used by wild penguins, in which individuals are sequentially huddled for a few minutes in order to get warm.
As minutes turned to hours, intense worry and concern started evolving into desperation, if not panic. Two of the men wanted to swim for it. Mleczko knew this would be a lethal decision — possibly for everybody. There’s no way the men could have survived the 1½-mile swim, and the risk of hypothermia would have only increased for the others left behind.
Cooler heads fortunately prevailed, and the group remained intact. Meanwhile, father Tom was worried but knew in the back of his mind that Jason was a highly experienced waterman. But by 4:30 p.m, he couldn’t take it anymore, and he set out initially on a personal search, thinking that it would take too long to mobilize the Coast Guard.
At approximately the same hour, his son came to the dire (but unspoken, of course) realization that, unless they were found by sundown, he and his party’s chance of survival would be slim.
As Tom Mleczko frantically trolled the waters off Smith Point, there was a brief and miraculous lifting of the fog, just long enough for him to notice the faint outline of something in the water, his eye caught by the desperate waving of the one orange life jacket still in the castaways’ possession.
It was then that Jason finally lost it.
“There was a moment I thought he didn’t see us, and it was despair. But then he turned,” Mleczko said. “That was the first time I cried. I broke down and wept. We were going home. It was awesome.”
In hindsight, the senior Mleczko wished he had called for help earlier. It was a terrible ordeal, “... really something, as a parent and a father. It was really an emotional thing.”
Jason has since been credited with displaying calm and sensible leadership throughout the crisis. In an email he said, “I have certainly learned from my experience and am a better captain because of it. ... I’m grateful to my passengers. ... They were truly remarkable and earned their rescue with their fight for survival.”
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.