Sand in My Shoes: Northfield authors write of their ordeal at sea

Art Higbee, left, and Dave Jones, both of Northfield, tell the story of when their sport-fishing boat sank miles out in the ocean in their book, ‘Promising Forecast: True Story of a Miracle Rescue at Sea.’ They spent almost 20 hours in the water, but were finally rescued by a passing cargo ship.

Some people try to bury their worst memories, to hide them under layers of apathy or alcohol or arrogance - or anything else that will make them go away.

But Dave Jones and Art Higbee, both of Northfield, make it a point to keep reliving one of the worst days of their lives.

That was Sept. 16, 1986, when Jones, Higbee and three fishing buddies left Ocean City before dawn to head 60 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean to hunt for big tuna. Shortly after 7:15 a.m., they were about 25 miles off the coast when their 32-foot, fishing-outfitted speedboat was swamped by a wave. Within minutes, the engines were dead, the boat was on its way down and the fishermen's day of hell was just starting.

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It was almost 2 a.m. the next day when they were finally rescued from the 68-degree water in an unbelievable bit of good fortune, as Jones and Higbee say in their memoir of that misery. The new book is called "Promising Forecast: True Story of a Miracle Rescue at Sea."

Jones is a 62-year-old carpenter who has done a lot of writing in his life, especially after he suffered a series of physical problems. Higbee, 61, is a chiropractor whose last real writing was poetry, as a student.

The two old friends - they've known each other since grade school - had each tried to tell his own survival story separately. Higbee says he sat down and wrote some of his memories not long after the rescue, but then just put his notes in a drawer and left them.

Jones was always more active with trying to capture the tale of how he and the four other men almost died, but didn't. He tried writing the story as a book more than 20 years ago, but couldn't find a publisher. He turned it into a magazine story and sold it in several places - "Big Game Fishing Journal, Offshore Boating" and similar publications, he ticks off.

Just a few months ago, he had his story published again in Boat U.S. Magazine, under the title, "One Hell of a Night at Sea."

And his writing over the years drew the attention of producers from TV's Outdoor Life Network, who turned the story into a 15-minute mini-documentary in 2004 for an OLN series, "This Happened to Me!" Jones, Higbee and their friend, Joe Walls, of Linwood, all took part in a reenactment of the accident that forced them to get back in the ocean off a sinking boat - although the wetsuits they were wearing, and the film crew's perfectly healthy boats nearby, took a lot of the real-life drama out of filming that TV drama.

Jones, a devout Christian, also has told his rescue story many times at churches, youth camps and family conferences. Not long ago, he and Higbee told it again to 35 or 40 members of search-and-rescue crews at the U.S. Coast Guard's Air Station Atlantic City in Egg Harbor Township. They had help setting up that appearance from one of Jones' neighbors, himself a Coast Guard pilot.

"He told us that with the technology they have now, we never would've spent that much time in the water," Jones says.

The fishermen managed to get a mayday call off to the Coast Guard before their boat's quick sinking - but the call was interrupted, or "stepped on," by another radio transmission. So the survivors couldn't give their full position, but they were sure the Coast Guard had heard the emergency call when they saw a helicopter out searching for them by about 10:15 a.m.

They fired the last two flares they had to try to get the crew's attention - but the survivors soon watched the helicopter turn back and head toward land. They then realized they had shot their flares up when the still-rising sun was blazing behind them, which made the flares invisible to the crew.

A sailboat was heading toward them at the same time, but it passed a mile or so away from the survivors without anyone spotting them.

All five guys had grabbed lifejackets, and at first, they gathered around a floating cooler they salvaged from the sinking boat. But later - as helicopters continued to search, just not in the right place - the five men got separated into two groups as they drifted in the strong current. Jones stayed with Walls, the oldest of the five, now 77. Higbee ended up with the other two - George Bender and Tom O'Rourke.

(The authors don't name those men in their memoir. They knew them only briefly before the accident and have had little contact with them in the quarter-century since.)

Still, both groups managed to find their ways to marker buoys for lobster traps, which stopped them from drifting and helped keep them afloat. They all hooked the belts from their pants to the buoy flags and waited for help.

And the fact the two authors were in different groups means they had different experiences - and let them each write sections of the book from their own perspectives. They identify themselves by name at the start of each piece they wrote. To them, combining on the book was the only way to tell the full story, which they self-published.

There were more near-misses by helicopter crews, including one that passed within a quarter-mile of Jones and Walls in the early evening - but then gave up and took off again. No more searchers came.

As the night got darker and their body temperatures dropped, the survivors shivered convulsively. They say they accepted the fact they were likely to die.

They saw cargo ships passing by, but miles away. Then close to 2 a.m., Higbee saw a ship coming toward his group. The guys got excited, even when the ship got so close to their lobster-pot line, it almost ran them over.

"This thing passed within 20 or 30 feet of us," Higbee says - after they swam wildly out of its way. It was so late, they couldn't see any life on board, but the three men screamed as loud as they could to get someone's attention. They finally did. The captain of the Melvin H. Baker, out on a rear deck for a cigarette, heard their shouts and ordered his ship to stop. The crew lowered a lifeboat into the water and plucked that group out.

It was a Chinese crew, but the captain spoke English - and told the survivors even if he had taken his smoke break on the other side of the ship, he never would have heard them.

But he did, and as the three men were being taken on to the Baker, Higbee swore he could hear other voices on the ocean. He got to the captain, who called the Coast Guard back.

A helicopter came, and its crew got help from Higbee, who was sure the voices were coming from the same direction as the bright moonlight on the water. He was put on the radio with the pilot and told him "to bring the chopper over the ship, turn it toward the reflection of the moon and follow it like the Yellow Brick Road," Higbee writes.

Within minutes, the helicopter spotted Jones and Walls - and touched down on the water just 20 feet away from them. The crew fished the two men out of the ocean and rushed them to Cape May Court House and a hospital. Jones' body temperature was recorded at 91 degrees.

"It's a miracle that we all survived," Walls said this week. "It's one of those things that when you think back on it, if one little thing had been different, we probably wouldn't be here."

One of the first people to tell their story was Brian Williams, now NBC's top anchorman - but then a young reporter for WCAU-TV in Philadelphia.

Walls, Jones and Higbee have all gone back on offshore fishing trips since. And they have had other bad days in their lives - including for Jones and Higbee, their sons suffering major accidents.

"Both of us almost lost our kids," says Jones, whose boy was 13 when he broke his neck diving into a swimming pool - but has since recovered well. "I can tell the boating story and not even think about it." Talking about his son, he said, "That's when I cry."

Higbee says those 18-plus hours in the water changed him forever.

"You don't forget something like this," as he puts it, 26 years after the fact. "It's like it happened yesterday."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:


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