by Scott Thompson
This text is also available as a free podcast here.
Introduction by Peter Maguire
Although I have strong memories of some of the waves I have ridden during my fifty plus years of surfing, my most powerful memories are of the lives that I have saved from certain death in the ocean. Three rescues stand out above all the others. The first was a naked French Canadian who got his trunks ripped off and sucked almost a mile out to sea at Cape Hatteras during Hurricane Bonnie in 1998. Then there was the military guy who got in way over his head at a remote, unguarded North Shore reef in 2004. The most haunting, however, was a small child who got pulled off a sandbar by a wave at Cape Hatteras, then went under, and never came up. The only reason the little boy lived was because I paddled to where I thought the rip would take him, spotted his tiny body going out to sea under water, fished him out, jumpstarted him on my longboard, and returned him to his bewildered parents.
None of these saves compare to my friend Scott Thompson’s recent rescue of himself in the Santa Barbara Channel—a lesser man would have perished. Scott is a sea urchin diver by trade, but first and foremost, he is a waterman and I believe that this is the reason he is alive. As I wrote in my recent profile of Navy Seal Ivan Trent, Strength and Honor: “Today, the expression “waterman” has been reduced to a marketing cliché used to sell stand-up paddle boards and other detritus of the so-called “surfing lifestyle.” There was a time when the word carried great weight, designating the maritime equivalent of a black belt in a great martial art. It was not enough simply to surf. A waterman had to have mastered all the aquatic arts: he was a skilled diver, canoe surfer, oarsman, meteorologist, sailor, ocean swimmer, body surfer, lifesaver, fisherman, and board/boatbuilder who could ride any size surf on any craft put underneath him.” Watermen like Scott are not motivated by glory, fame, or money. If a fish needs catching, they catch it. If a wave needs riding, they ride it. And if a life needs saving, they save it, because that is what watermen do.
By Scott Thompson
It wasn’t a work trip. Usually when I go out to the Channel Islands it’s to dive for sea urchin. This time it was to go surfing. Miss Grace, my 22’ Anderson boat, and those islands are not just my office. They’re my sanctuary. There was a nice, west swell running so I looked at the weather. It looked good and I decided to go catch some waves. I called my wife and asked her if she’d mind if I went out to surf and camp on the boat for a night. She said, “Sure, do what you gotta do.” I went down to Channel Islands Harbor, put Miss Grace in the water, fueled up, and headed towards Chinese Harbor on Santa Cruz Island at around 3:30 p.m. I was not sure what I was going to do. It would depend on the waves.
I was putting along and the conditions were nice until I got out of the lee of Point Conception. Before you reach the front side of Santa Cruz, you hit the windy gap. Even on a nice day, there can be a crappy current and a lot of breeze there. It was nothing dramatic and I headed into it. The boat was starting to pound a little more, then a little more. Next, water was splashing up on the windows, and the pounding kept getting worse. I got frustrated and was like, Can’t a guy catch a break? This sucks! If it was a work day, I would have just pounded right through it, but this was not a work trip.
Finally, I was like, This is lame, and decided to turn around and head home. About halfway back, between the oil platform Gina and oil platform Gail, I throttled back and called a friend. After he offered to meet me at the harbor and help me with my boat, I hung up, and decided to take a piss before I throttled back up.
I was taught by the best urchin divers in the business about safety, but for whatever reason, I was careless, and did not take the boat out of gear. The conditions weren’t that bad, it was just the evening slop and the wind was picking up. I went to the starboard side and was just standing there doing my business next to my davit [small crane like device]. Since I left the helm, the boat had taken a bit of a starboard turn and I was starting to get in the trough of a swell. I don’t know if it was a residual wake from a boat or a bigger wind wave, but a big wave slapped the side of the boat. It started rocking and rolling and when it rolled, I stepped onto some weights or my urchin rake, and I lost my balance.
I said to myself, Whoa! Here I go into the drink! I saw the rope of my davit and tried to grab it to catch myself. I remember seeing it. It was right there, but I missed it and hit the water. As soon as I hit the water I was so pissed! When I went to try to pull myself back aboard, Miss Grace wasn’t there. She was chugging towards the harbor because I hadn’t taken it out of gear. That’s when I realized, Hey Dude, you’re in trouble. My first reaction was, I’m gonna catch my boat! So, I just started swimming after it as hard as I could, but after about a minute I saw that it was just getting further and further away and I had the sinking realization that I wasn’t going to catch it.
Now, I stopped and was like, Don’t wear yourself out, Scott, you’re not going to catch your boat. Once I realized the gravity of the situation, panic set in. I was probably 7 or 8 miles from shore and in a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. I was treading water and all I was thinking was, Great! I’m gonna die! I looked up at the sky and was so pissed off at myself. I screamed, “Fuck! This is how it is going to end? Really? This is it?” I don’t know if it was instinct kicking in, or my training from my days in the fire service, but I went into survival mode and started talking to myself: “Rule number 1! Don’t panic!” I got my thoughts together and next said to myself, “Save your energy!” I laid on my back, floated, relaxed a little, and thought about my options. I looked around, got my bearings, and considered trying to swim to the beach, but it was too far and I probably wouldn’t make it. Next, I did a 360 to see if there were any boats around, but there wasn’t a vessel in sight.
I looked over and saw what I assumed was Platform Gina, but turned out to be Platform Gail, and thought, That’s going to be one hell of a swim, but I have two choices: swim there or give up and die. Now, my surfer, diver, waterman instinct kicked in. I looked to see where the current was going because you can’t swim against the current. I gotta go whatever way the current is going and plot my course from there.
I don’t know if it was dumb luck, or divine intervention, but whatever you want to call it, the current was headed toward the platform. I started swimming the crawl, but that lasted 2 or 3 minutes before I realized that I was going to wear myself out. Next, I started swimming the breast stroke and it felt a lot better, because I was not expending so much energy.
The first thing I was thinking was, I can’t die, I’ve got my children, my wife, my friends, my family. You’ve got to live! How disappointed and upset are they going to be if I don’t make it! These waves of emotion kept sweeping over me. I had to think positively! Every time a negative thought, like, I don’t know if I can make it, came into my mind, I talked to myself in the third person, “Scott! You can do this! You are strong! You gotta do this for yourself and your family! You’re going to make it!”
I just kept thinking of Dr. Paul Hornyak, this long distance ocean swimmer I follow on Facebook who has done all these gnarly swims—he swam from Anacapa to Channel Islands Harbor and across Lake Tahoe. His saying is, “Just keep swimming.” This and the chorus to the Grateful Dead Song, “Row Jimmy” became my mantras. There were times when I’d look at the oil platform and it just looked like it wasn’t getting any closer. Every time I asked myself, Am I going to make it? Another voice would say, Scott, you’ve got this! Just keep swimming! That was interspersed with random flashes of my family and friends.
At one point I started to think about my boat, What am I going to do if my boat is destroyed? That’s my livelihood! Then I would just laugh at myself because I had much bigger problems. That went on for what seemed like eons, especially after the sun went down, and it got dark. I had no idea what time it was. All I could see were the lights on the platform. I felt like I was a boat trying to steer the course and knew that I would get there eventually. I was getting closer and even though that was a real spirit lifter, I was still having negative thoughts. Above all, I was feeling very lonely and isolated.
All of a sudden, I heard a big splash right next to me. I hadn’t thought about the many Great White sharks that live in this area up to now. When I heard that splash, my heart jumped out of my chest, and I was like, Fuck! A shark! Just then, a little seal popped its head out of the water right next to me, and looked at me like, Dude! What are you doing out here? I had never been so overwhelmed with joy to see another living creature in my life! I was like, Oh my God! There is something out here with me that is alive. I always tell my son, who is starting to work as my dive tender, when he asks about seals, “They’re real playful, like little dogs.” I’ve been under water, had a seal mess with my urchin bag, hugged him, and given him a little noogie on the head.
Instantly, that seal became my best buddy. He was like my dog. “Come here, little buddy!” I said. He’d bob up and down looking at me, then disappear under water, pop back up, and look at me. I just kept talking to him, “Hey, Dude! What are you doing here? I fell off my boat and gotta swim to that oil platform and it really sucks! What do you think, Pal?” That really helped me because it took my mind off my situation because I was starting to get tired and it gave me something else to focus on.
Twice, when I stopped swimming and started to tread water to get my bearings, the seal went under water, and bumped me with his nose in the back of my legs and butt. It was like he was telling me, Hey, Dude! Get your ass in gear and get going! I was starting to run out of things to say to him, so I sang him Grateful Dead songs and told him the same corny dad jokes that I tell my kids. Then he went under, disappeared, and was gone. I got a little bummed, but could see that I was getting closer to the oil platform.
I was probably four hours into this ordeal by now and although I kept saying to myself, Just keep swimming! I was getting tired and it was pitch black. There was no moon that night. As I slowed my pace and took a rest on my back, a flock of 40 or 50 seagulls came out of nowhere, and started hovering over me. One came so close that I could have grabbed him. They’re all looking at me and I’m like, “Hey guys, I’m not bait!” Now exhaustion was really setting in and there was no telling myself, You’re not tired! No, I’m fuckin tired!
Out of the corner of my eye, I start to see light. I’m kinda tripping and think, This is it! This is the light I’ve heard about from people who survive near death experiences. God is coming to take me! I’m not religious at all, in fact I’ve had disdain for organized religion for much of my life. Now I was like, Thompson! It’s time to get right with God, Dude! So, I looked up to the sky and said, “God! I’m sorry for all the shitty things I’ve done in my life. I’ve tried my best to be a good person and hope that you can forgive me. At least take care of my family!” I was ready to give up. The light kept getting brighter and brighter, and I thought that I was done.
I was staring at the sky, crying and talking to God, and then all of a sudden, I heard the “Rum, rum, rum” of a diesel engine and wondered What the hell is that? I snapped out of my trance, started treading water, and saw that I was like 500 feet from the oil platform. I was like, Oh my God! I did it! It’s the light from the platform! I got another shot of adrenaline, got on my belly, and swam as hard as I could. When I got to the closest pylon, I could see that it was covered with giant mussels and barnacles. Even though the ocean was really surging up, I grabbed onto it. The water was going up and down a few feet with every surge. I was clinging to this thing like a limpet, getting the crap beaten out of me, sliding up and down and getting shredded by the mussels.
I looked all around for the fucking ladder that I had been dreaming of for the last five hours. Again, here come the negative thoughts, Oh great! I finally made it to this thing and there is no way to get on it! I started screaming at the top of my lungs, “HELP! HELP! ANYBODY HERE?” Between the sound of the generators and the waves, it was too loud for anyone to hear. Suddenly, there was a big surge and when the sea level dropped, I looked at the pylon across from me and saw a ladder that led to a metal grate platform and then a set of stairs. Although I was only 40 or 50 feet away from it, I was so beat and exhausted, I was wondering if I could even make it. The water was all sloshing around and there was a crazy current. I’m like, Oh man! Can I even make it to that thing? What if I miss it? I gotta try! I gotta try!
The ladder was only fifty feet away, but it seemed like ten miles away! Then, and I don’t know if I’ll ever wrap my mind around this, a big surge came. When I felt the water on my back, I knew it was going right towards the ladder. It was now or never! I pushed off the pylon and a mussel cut the shit out of my foot, but I didn’t even feel it! It was just effortless. I don’t know if it was divine intervention, or dumb luck, but it felt like the hand of God picked me up and placed me on that ladder.
When I reached it, I grabbed onto one of the rungs, and it took everything that I had to climb up it. Once I reached that platform, I flopped down on it like a seal and just laid down on my back. I was finally on the platform! Now, the exhaustion, the cold, and the shock—everything just set in all at once. I felt like I got hit by a bus. I started thinking, Is anyone even here? So, I start to climb the stairs thinking that there’s got to be a phone or radio somewhere. It takes everything I’ve got to climb up the stairs and I have to climb them on my hands and knees, one step at a time.
I got to a gangway, walked down it holding onto the handrail and saw a big panel with these buttons and switches. Then I noticed a big red button and thought, Whoa! That’s the ‘Oh Shit!’ button. If I push that thing, somebody is going to come out. I was tempted for a second, but thought to myself, Thompson! You’re already in a big bowl of shit! Don’t make it any worse. There’s got to be a phone, radio, or human around here somewhere. Keep searching! So, I kept walking until I saw this big glass window and a room with a light on inside it. When I looked in the window, I saw a guy sitting behind a computer. I stumbled up to the glass and started banging on it. The guy at the computer jumped out of his chair, opened the door, and said, “Who are you? What’s going on?” I was having a hard time talking, but managed to say, “I fell off my boat! I’m hypothermic, and need to warm up!”
Then another guy came, they called a medic, and took me to this locker area. There was a shower, they put me in it, and turned on the warm water. I sat under it and as I began to thaw out, I asked if I could have a coffee. A few minutes later, a guy came back with a white paper cup full of black coffee. It had probably been sitting in the pot for hours and was the gnarliest, most disgusting, burnt, truck-stop coffee you’ve ever seen in your life. I think, for the rest of my life, it will be the best cup of coffee that I ever drink. I just sat under the hot water and thought to myself, Thank God I’m alive.
Eventually, the medic said, “Okay, let’s get you dried off and warmed up.” When I got out of the shower and he handed me a towel, I kind of locked up and was like, “No way, Dude!” I got back in the shower and turned on the water again. Then he made me dry off, helped me take off my wet clothes, and gave me this jumpsuit and sandals to wear. They wrapped me in towels and when the medic took my vitals, my internal body temperature after a shower and a coffee was 96 degrees. Who knows how cold I was before the shower? They let me use the phone to call my wife. When I told her that I was fine and now I was going to try to find my boat, she said, “Typical! You’re more worried about your boat than your life.”
They got the Coast Guard on the radio and they started asking about my boat. I’m a member of TowBoatU.S., so they put me in touch with Paul Amaral, the main guy in Ventura. I told him that the last time I saw Miss Grace, “she was headed towards the channel. She could be on the beach, she could have hit the Hueneme break wall, or could be in Malibu for all I know.” Suddenly, I remember that I had recently installed a boat management system on Miss Grace and said, “Paul, I have VMS!” [Vessel Monitoring System is a satellite surveillance system used to monitor the location and movement of commercial fishing vessels.] “Scott!,” he replied, “We’re going to find your boat! You don’t worry about a thing!” A few minutes later, he called back and said, “We found your boat, it’s on the front side of Anacapa at Frenchie’s Cove. Don’t worry about a thing! We’re going to get it off the beach, I talked to your wife, and she authorized everything.”
When the Coast Guard boat arrived, I got on board. Although I had warmed up, I was still in shock, and told them, “I’m good, I ain’t going to the hospital.” All I could think about was how much all of this was going to cost me and if my insurance was going to cover it. I asked one of the Coast Guardsmen if they could call my wife and ask her to come and pick me up. They called her, but she got really mad and told them, “I’m not picking him up. Tell him he can walk home if he doesn’t get in that damn ambulance!”
At that point, I just kind of surrendered. It is what it is, and I just had to go along with the program because I was no longer in charge. The Coast Guard, the paramedics in the ambulance, the nurses, and the doctors at St. John’s were all amazing. They put an IV in my arm and I was super nauseous from all the salt water I swallowed. The doctor said, “I cannot believe what just happened to you and you are here talking to me. It is nothing short of a miracle that you are alive!” At about 6 a.m. the next morning the doctor came in and asked me how I felt. “Pretty crappy, but I think I am going to live.” “Oh, you are going to live, your tests all checked out, and I can discharge you whenever you’re ready. You’re an amazing human being!” I wasn’t feeling too amazing, but thanked him anyway.
I didn’t want to wake up my wife so he called me an Uber. When I got home I hugged the wife and kids, everyone had a good cry, then went to bed and fell into a deep sleep. After I woke up, Paul from TowBoatU.S. called. “We worked all night long, got your boat off the beach and the damage is minimal,” he said, “The out drive got sheared off, there is some fiberglass damage, but no water in the engine box. Other than that, your boat is fine. It’s floating next to my office. We’re going to pull it out of the water just to be safe. We have a trailer we’ll put it on. Do you have a slip?” I told Paul that my truck and trailer were at Channel Islands Harbor and he said, “I have your keys, If you don’t mind, I’ll just get your truck, and load it onto your trailer for you.” I was just amazed by the job Paul and the guys at TowBoatU.S. did and said, “Paul! You are the fucking man! Do whatever is easier for you!” My mom drove me down to Ventura, I got my boat, thanked Paul and his guys over and over. “We’re just glad that you are alive,” Paul said, “We’ve been up all night and are going to go home and get some rest. Tomorrow is another day.”
Once I got home, I was beating myself up: how did I get so complacent when I know better? I’m such an idiot! Finally, one of my friends said, “It was an accident! That’s why the word is in the dictionary.” It was a lesson learned. The next day, my old fire captain showed up, got out of his car with a lifejacket, and handed it to me. We both started laughing and he said, “C’mere asshole, give me a hug.”
I tell you what, I’m a believer that there is a higher power now. I don’t know what it is, but there is a power greater than me. That was shown to me and I will never doubt that for the rest of my life. After my big swim, a light just went off in my head, I realized that it’s time to start living, and tie up all the loose ends in my life. I’m kind of a computer game nerd at heart and I guess I got the high score, an extra life, and made it to the bonus round. Grace was my great-grandmother’s name, it’s my daughter’s name, and my boat’s name. I guess I named it that for a reason.
And I say row, Jimmy row
Gonna get there?
I don't know
Seems a common way to go
Get down, row, row, row
—“Row Jimmy,” Grateful Dead
There is presently a GoFundMe Campaign, “Operation Repair Scott’s Boat,” please contribute if you can: https://www.gofundme.com/f/operation-repair-scotts-boat-the-miss-grace?qid=e3a5492db2465dc9784a81e9df3b0383
I would like to thank the crew on Platform Gail for the best cup of coffee I will ever have in my life, the United States Coast Guard, and the nurses and doctors at Oxnard’s St. John’s Hospital.
I am especially grateful to captains Paul Amaral and Carson Shevitz of TowBoatU.S. Ventura and Channel Islands who went above and beyond the call of duty to successfully recover Miss Grace from Anacapa Island. Channel Watch Marine Inc., TowBoatU.S. Ventura and Channel Islands offer full towage and salvage services on the waters in and around the Santa Barbara Channel including the offshore waters of the Pacific Ocean. They are contracted to provide towing services to the members of Boat US as TowBoatU.S. Ventura and Channel Islands. Channel Watch maintains full-time watch 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and employs a professional team of United States Coast Guard licensed captains who hold specialized licensure endorsements permitting them to engage in marine commercial assistance. Channel Watch continuously monitors marine radio frequencies and stands ready, if called or upon identifying a vessel in peril, to respond to any marine emergency that might occur in its covered waters. TowBoatU.S.: https://towboatusventura.com
Row Jimmy is the second installment in Sour Milk’s series of survival stories. For the first installment, read Riding the Crazy Train.
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