An Angelic Fisherman Saved His Life Twice

Two chance encounters, years apart, with a friendly shrimper steered him away from danger.

Posted in , Apr 27, 2021

An illustration of Rafe the Shrimper; Illustration by Marco Ventura

Delivering boats is a regular job of mine as a professional yacht captain. I bring them from Florida and the Caribbean, up the Eastern Seaboard to New England in the spring. Come fall, the process is reversed.

The boat I was taking to St. Thomas that day was an old wooden sailing yacht. It was supposed to be a straightforward job: Sail the boat from Newport, Rhode Island, to the U.S. Virgin Islands. I would follow the coast, then jump off from Ft. Lauderdale or Miami for the offshore run to St. Thomas. That was the plan, but I hadn’t made it that far down the Florida coast when the engine started acting up. I wasn’t going to take any chances with it. I steered into an inlet of the St. John’s River near Jacksonville, Florida. There was a creek not far away. It would take me into a cove where I could drop anchor and check things out.

I was already behind schedule. One problem or another had delayed my departure until late in the season, which meant I could expect stormy weather on the offshore route. All the more reason to take any engine problems seriously.

The only other vessel anchored in the cove was a decrepit-looking shrimp trawler. Its white-bearded skipper was puttering on deck. I was about to drop the hook when he waved me down. “Hey, Stu,” he hollered. “Don’t bother to anchor. You can raft alongside me.”

He knows my name? I thought. I looked more closely at him and his boat. Something struck me as familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I took the skipper up on his offer, though. It’s easier to tie up to another boat than anchor.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked, handing me a cup of tea as I stepped aboard. “I’m Rafe. We met in Beaufort.”

“Rafe, of course!” I looked over the complex of lines between his outriggers and trawl gear. “I rerigged your boat!” Five years earlier, Rafe had been anchored off Beaufort, North Carolina, where I waited out a stretch of bad weather. I’d tied up alongside him there too, and wound up giving him a hand rerigging his trawler. By the time we got the job done I’d missed my fair-weather window. “Cost me a few days before I could get out to sea again,” I said with a laugh.

“Yup,” Rafe said. “But that’s why you missed that hurricane coming up the coast. It wasn’t your time to go.”

“Hurricane?” I said, barely recalling the details. “Oh, yeah, the storm was predicted to veer off to sea. Instead it went up the coast. Strangest thing. I might have sailed right into it if I hadn’t gotten delayed.”

Rafe winked at me. “Like I said, it wasn’t your time to go.”

I had to admit, that was one lucky encounter. I got to work on my engine, shaking my head. It didn’t take me long to get her running smoothly again. With a couple hours of daylight left, I got ready to go.

“Leaving now?” Rafe asked. “By the time you get out of the inlet, it’ll be dark and you’ll be in for a rough first night at sea. Why don’t you hang out, have dinner with me, get a good night’s rest and leave in the morning?” A tempting idea, but I was already behind schedule.

“I hauled up some lobster with my last trawl,” Rafe said cheerfully. “Lobster and pasta with a white wine sauce—your favorite. Are you sure you won’t stay?”

I laughed. “How would you know my favorite dish?”

“You mentioned it last time.”

Five years ago? I thought. This guy has some memory. “You talked me into it,” I said.

The meal was just as good as Rafe had promised. I didn’t regret my decision the next morning, but now I had to get going. “Hope to meet again sometime,” I called to Rafe as I motored out of the cove.

“We definitely will,” he called back.

Now I really have to make time, I thought, planning out my schedule. A couple miles from the anchorage there was a drawbridge I needed to clear to get into the river. After the bridge I’d have a 20-minute run to the inlet, then I’d be out to sea and on my way to St. Thomas. But when I was about a mile from the bridge, it closed. “Sorry, Cap,” the bridge tender radioed as I approached. “We’re undergoing repairs. Might be an hour before I can give you a lift.”

Another delay, I sighed. But what could I do? I moved a couple hundred yards from the bridge, put the bow into the current and waited. An hour later, the bridge still hadn’t opened. Just as I picked up the radio to get an update, a red light on my engine panel lit up. The light was connected to one of the three automatic bilge pumps that kept the boat from flooding. The red light was a warning: The boat was being flooded. What the…?

Two more lights glowed red. All three bilge pumps were going full bore. But why? I ran below and found the cabin floorboards floating. I had no idea where the water was coming from, and at this rate, it wouldn’t be long before we sank. There was a marina across the cove from where I’d anchored with Rafe. I reached for the radio again, this time to call the marina for help.

“We hear you, Captain,” came the reply. “Bring her right into the slipway. We’ll be waiting for you.” I hit full throttle and headed for the marina.

A half hour later, the boat was hanging in the dry-dock slings, water pouring out of the pump outlets—and from a three-inch hole in the bottom of the hull. A bronze thru-hull fitting had disintegrated and broken off. That’s what had caused the flooding.

The yard boss shook his head. “You’re one lucky sailor, Captain. I’m surprised you were able to make it this far without sinking.”

“I’m luckier than you think,” I said, nodding in the direction where I’d met Rafe the night before. “I was going to head out last night but decided to have dinner with the shrimper anchored across the way. If this would’ve happened offshore, in those seas, I would’ve been done for.”

He glanced over. “No shrimpers there now.”

Rafe’s trawler was gone. “He must’ve caught the next bridge opening.”

“No way, Captain,” he said. “We just got a call from the bridge tender. They’re waiting on parts and will be closed for a few more hours. Until then, nobody is getting in or out of this creek—unless he left before you did.”

“He was still anchored when I cast off today,” I said. “I guess he went up the creek.”

“Only a canoe can get up the creek past this marina,” the yard boss said. “We’re at the end of the channel. When did you say you saw this shrimper?”

“Last night,” I said. “His name’s Rafe. I’d met him once before…”

Rafe promised we’d meet again sometime. If not on the deep blue sea, perhaps when I got to that sailor’s paradise in the sky.

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