Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Bull River Disaster--Averted!

 The two adult men and their tween-aged sons had enjoyed a fine day of fishing in the ocean waters near Wassaw Island. As the bite was good and the boys were having fun, they had waited until the sun was low on the horizon before beginning their return trip. Their path home would take them into the Wilmington River channel at the Red 2W buoy, across the throat of Wassaw Sound, and then up the Bull River towards home. As they turned up the Bull and left the south end of Little Tybee in their wake, the sky lost its light. 

The captain wasn't concerned about this as he had navigated this river many times in both daylight and darkness. He had his GPS chart-plotter display dimmed to preserve his night-vision and he peered ahead in the darkness with extra vigilance looking for hazards. The boys were sitting in the bow seats facing backward, both engrossed in their smartphones, while his best friend set about cleaning and organizing the boat in preparation for arrival at the dock. 

Running at twenty-five knots as they rounded a bend in the river, and with the lights of the Bull River Condominium tower visible in the distance, they struck an invisible three-thousand-five hundred-pound partially-submerged section of concrete dock. Running in dark-night conditions, the captain never saw it coming.

The boat hull was thrown up and sideways and the motor was ripped free. The boys in the bow grabbed hold of the chrome rails as the boat jumped, rolled, and capsized, trapping them underwater. They were so startled and unprepared for this that they both panicked and yelled out, and then ingested river water. In this case, the life preservers they were wearing didn't help. Their bodies would be found trapped beneath the inverted hull.

The father organizing the stern area was thrown clear of the vessel as it flipped, and his type-5 inflatable vest saved his life. Even though he was startled and disoriented, the water sensor on the vest triggered the gas cylinder and inflated it immediately upon submersion. His vest lifted him to the surface and turned him face up. He would live to tell the story.

His best friend, who had been at the helm and didn't own an inflatable, had decided against wearing a life preserver. He didn't perceive a risk and didn't consider that darkness changed things. He too was thrown clear and had the air punched from his lungs during the ejection. Under water and disoriented, he inhaled water, drowned, and sank slowly to the bottom. 

During the investigation, it was determined that the partially-submerged and derelict dock section was a portion of a recently-demolished commercial dock facility that had somehow gotten loose from its lines and traveled on the tide down the Savannah River. This unseen or unreported hazard to navigation made its way into Elba Island Cut, and then down Saint Augustine Creek and into the Bull River. The odds of this happening were incredibly small, and yet happen it did. The result was tragic.

Editor's note. This tragedy never happened, and yet it could have easily occurred during one of the last few evenings. All the needed components and conditions for this tragedy were present. The only thing that prevented you from seeing this in the news were the moral, ethical, and humanly-decent efforts of Mr. Thomas McCarthy and his team at the Savannah Boathouse Marina. 

As a 30-year helicopter pilot, medevac-industry safety advocate, and student of crashes; I know that accidents occur as a result of a "chain of events." While no one factor pre-determines the outcome, when linked together the accident chain leads to disaster and all too often--death. The secret to accident prevention is to recognize when an accident chain is forming and remove one of the links. This is what removing a link to an accident chain looks like.

Imagine hitting this in the river in the dark at speed...
Thanks to the Savannah Boathouse crew for 
removing this hazard to navigation, and perhaps saving lives.

Amazingly, this is not the first time that Savannah Boathouse Marina staff have discovered a partially-submerged dangerous object drifting into their dock area (the first time it was a large rectangle of submerged dock decking) and rather than simply pushing it clear and letting the outgoing tide take it away to be someone else's problem, the dock crew secured it and alerted Tom, a marina owner who repeatedly does the right thing. 

This hazard - discovered and removed last summer - was not of  the Savannah Boathouse's making.
But they removed if from the river, cut it up with chainsaws, and disposed of it responsibly. You should know about this and, if you traverse our rivers, you should be grateful for what these folks do.

I am proud to be his friend.

Tom McCarthy's actions are an example of what a good man does when faced with a difficult situation. No one will pay for the time and labor and expense to haul such debris out of the water. It's not his debris. He didn't create the problem. He could easily make the problem go away. But he doesn't do this. He anticipates the worst that could happen and takes the steps to prevent it.You should know this and you should be grateful that such a man and such a business exist in our community. 

An ethical person is concerned with more than immediate profit. Decisions matter, and we all make the world we live in through those decisions. The next time you cross Tommy's path, please let him know that we ALL appreciate his doing the right thing, so that you never have to read this story in the paper.


Dealing with this hazard took the entire marina team more than an hour. It and its twin are positioned safely out of the water, and will still have to be disposed of. Guess who is going to pay for that disposal? With much gratitude to Tom and his family, and the crew at 
Savannah Boathouse Marina. 

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