Gary Hurley

Tidelines – June 8, 2017

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In my role as Tournament Director of this past weekend’s 5th annual Ocean Isle Inshore Challenge, I had tried to plan and prepare for every detail and challenge that may arise over the tournament weekend, especially since we were going into the event with an almost brand new staff.

I thought everyone was coached and ready on Friday for the normal flow of about 50+ teams entering our event, but in none of our meetings or email threads had we discussed what to do with a boat exploding at the Ocean Isle Fishing Center fuel dock just after the official start of Registration.

Michael Smith took the Junior Angler title in the Ocean Isle Inshore Challenge with this 4.49 lb. flounder caught behind Sunset Beach on a live mud minnow. He was fishing with Dell Williamson and his dad, Simon Smith.

The explosion, which made all of the local news channels that night, happened at around 4:00 pm about 25 yards away from our Registration tent. I don’t know firsthand what kind of shock waves a mortar shell gives off, but I imagine it to be like the concussion that went through us all in the instant that a spark from a battery met with gas and gas fumes in the bilge of a boat after the owner errantly gassed up at the OIFC fuel docks.

I say “errantly” because the man had mistakenly pumped 28 gallons of gas into a rod holder (not the gas tank), and all of that fuel ended up in the bilge. Then the problem was exacerbated when the bilge pump automatically kicked on, beginning to pump the 28 gallons of gas into the canal.

The boat owner, to stop the gas from being pumped into the canal, tried disconnecting battery cables to shut off the automatic bilge, but during his efforts to disconnect there was a spark and then the fire/explosion.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the boat owner’s decisions that led up to the accident, and I find myself being way more sympathetic than critical. While most of us find it hard to understand how you’d mistake a rod holder for a fuel tank, the two questions that came up the most when I told the story were (1) was he drunk? and (2) was he an idiot?

There was no talk of alcohol or drinking in any of the conversations following the event, and there were many conversations, so I don’t think the rod holder mistake can be conveniently explained away by alcohol. As for mental competency, I think the rod holder mix-up is a mistake than anyone could make. Think about all of the potential variables that could have affected anyone’s decision process: tired, in the sun all day, ready to go home, close proximity of rod holder to gas tank, perhaps distracted by a swimsuit, etc. Granted none are good reasons, but how many of our own mistakes always have a “good” reason.

And I’m not positive that I wouldn’t have tried disconnecting the battery.

If my automatic bilge kicked on and began to pump 28 gallons of gas into the canal, I would have been horrified to think that I would be the cause of such an environmentally-unfriendly act. I could see myself acting impulsively, looking for a quick fix to the problem. I could also see normal thought processes being further disrupted due to the embarrassment of having people witnessing my mistake of gas flowing into the canal.

Travis Overman, of Bazen Custom Rods, with the third place red drum in the OIIC. The fish weighed in at 6.47 lbs.

Sure, I could go the way of Monday-morning quarterback and say that there’s no chance I would have made two near-fatal mistakes, but to me that seems too easy of an out.

And as I write this Tidelines column, I’m realizing that I’m still not quite sure what would have been the correct actions for the boat owner to take once the gas was in the bilge and being pumped into the canal. We all know now that he should have just let the gas pump out, but knowing now is different from knowing then.

The very next day the burned carcass of the boat was gone, and we weighed in 22 red drum and 35 flounder and gave away over $9000 in prize money. The dock edge where the boat had been tied showed some burn damage, but the fuel pumps had passed USCG inspection and were already back to pumping fuel.

The explosion was mentioned Saturday afternoon here and there, but mostly we talked of fishing, particularly the good morning bite. Everyone was in a good mood, happy to be spending the day doing something they love.

I have no heavy life lesson or moral to end my article with, but I recognize that three men were hospitalized and I need an appropriate ending. I guess I keep going back to what Billy, our new salesman, said to the boat owner who asked him how bad his burns were while we waited for emergency personnel to arrive, the ones that would eventually decide to airlift him to a burn center because of the severity of his burns, especially on the face and arms.

“At least you’re alive, man,” Billy told him, looking at a confused man with most of his hair burnt off, a big blister where a face should be.