The waters were calm as the sun rose on the tiny coastal town of Chincoteague Island, Virginia. The locals pronounced the island’s name “shink-ah-teeg” and could always identify a tourists by the way they struggled with the name.
This was a beautiful early June day for the four friends who had just navigated their boat from Curtis Merritt Harbor, the largest of the few public boat ramps located on the small Eastern Shore island. Their grand plan was to have a relaxing day of fishing and then head to shore and enjoy some drinks at Chatties Lounge, a popular local watering hole, before heading back to the rental house for a good night’s sleep before heading out on the water again in the morning.
The four friends had a hard time arranging get-togethers these days because they each had jobs and lived in various parts of the country. But, after much scheduling and rescheduling, they all managed to get time off on the same dates and get back together after a two-year break. The longtime friends had no idea when they would see each other again, so they vowed that this extended weekend would be their best one yet.
Richard Drewer guided the 2001, thirty-foot, Grady-White Marlin slowly through the waters of the Chincoteague Channel and gradually inched the throttle up as the boat approached the inlet flowing into the open sea. When he reached the ocean side of the inlet, he pushed the throttle forward to full power and headed east.
After cruising for about an hour, the boat arrived at Blackfish Banks, an artificial reef 5.8 nautical miles southeast of Assateague Beach. The reef had been established in phases as part of “Operation Reef-Ex ’98” when forty armored personnel carriers and tanks from the Army National Guard were sunk and scattered in the area sixty to seventy feet below the surface. A second phase in 2003 added fifty New York City MTA “Redbird” subway cars to the site, and even more subway cars were added in June and December of 2008.
The reef was always a good spot to catch structure-oriented fish such as sea bass but was also usually good for flounder and trout and, if they were lucky, they could reel in an amberjack, jack crevalle, or possibly a shark or two that might be cruising the area.
Richard pulled back the throttle control of the twin Yamaha V250 horsepower outboard engines and slowed the boat as it approached a large yellow buoy with “8A” in bold letters on the top. He kidded that this must be the place as he pointed towards the words “Blackfish Banks Artificial Reef” that were printed in large black letters on it.
“Hey Traise,” Richard yelled, “head up to the bow and get ready to drop the anchor.”
Traise Robbins stared at him with a who me? look. “What the hell do I know about dropping an anchor?”
Richard stared back at him feigning disgust. “Really? Didn’t you work at Capt. Bob’s Marina one summer when we were in school? Get your ass up on the bow, pick up the anchor if it’s not too heavy for you, and drop it overboard when I say so. And for God’s sake, stay clear of the chain or Katie will be spending all that life insurance money on things that you wouldn’t buy for her.”
The two were life-long friends that grew up together on Chincoteague Island. After high school, Richard enlisted in the Coast Guard, and Traise went on to college at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Since graduating with a Bachelor in Media Arts and Design, he had ascended the corporate ladder and was now a department supervisor at an up-and-coming media company in northern Virginia. Always in touch with one another, the two men were more like brothers than friends even now in their mid-thirties. Each was the other’s best man in their weddings, and, although they didn’t see each other that much anymore, when they did get together, it was as if nothing had changed. Traise looked at the other two men on the boat. “Knew I should have ordered those t-shirts,” he joked as he headed to the bow.
“What t-shirts?” asked Richard.
“The ones that say, ‘Our Captain is a Dick!’” Traise shot back.
“Better a dick than a ginger,” Richard responded, referring to his buddy’s red, curly hair.
Johnny Gendo chuckled at the constant ripping between Richard and Traise. “Guess it’s beer from now on,” he said to no one in particular as he took the last sip of his caramel café latte and placed the cup in the plastic bag that was brought with them for trash. “Need anything Sam?” Johnny asked.
Sam Willow looked up from leaning over the side of the boat where he had been for the last thirty minutes and uttered, “A new stomach and some pavement would be nice.”
This was Sam’s first experience on the water, not counting the log ride at Busch Gardens, and he wasn’t dealing with it very well so far.
“You’ll never see me anywhere closer to the water than my bathtub from now on,” Johnny snickered at his friend as he unlatched the lid of the large blue cooler, dug in through the ice, and pulled out a Guinness Stout. “Guess next time you’ll think twice before drinking half a bottle of Tequila the night before going out on a boat.”
Sam pulled his head up and looked at Johnny with half-open eyes, let out a faint “Ugh,” and resumed his position.
The three men were college friends, with Johnny and Traise being roommates the entire four years of college in both the dorm as well as the townhouse they rented during their junior and senior year. When they first met, Traise wasn’t so sure about his new roomie, with his long hair, nerdy computer talk and all, but they quickly became best friends. After college, Johnny had always seemed to get bit by the love bug and never hesitated to pick up and move to wherever the new love of his life resided. The last episode ended with him moving to, and still living in, Spokane, Washington. Although that relationship didn’t last, he was quite content with his new location. The last time he had seen the other three was when he flew in for Traise’s wedding two years ago. As usual, things just picked up right where they left off.
Sam was a different story. Although he met Traise and Johnny at college, nobody could quite remember when or under what circumstances. The popular theory was that he showed up one night to the wrong house for a party and, after mingling among the crowd for an hour or so, realized that he didn’t know anybody. But with half a bottle of Tequila downed, he determined it didn’t matter who these people were. They seemed nice to him, so what the hell. And with that, Sam and his always cheerful mood were in the circle and a permanent member of the “Band of Brothers.” Although a bit mellower than the early days, he was still known as the King of Tequila with his ever-growing collection of unusual Tequila bottles.
During one of his many visits to see Traise in Harrisonburg, Richard had met and immediately connected with Gendo and Sam, and all four continued to be fast friends.
When Traise got to the bow, Richard pulled back the throttle into the neutral position and, after a slow drift toward the buoy, yelled, “Okay, let her go!” Traise tossed the anchor over the front of the bow and stepped aside as the chain fed out until the anchor hit bottom at sixty feet. The boat was now in position thirty yards from the buoy, and, as long as the anchor held, they would stay in the same general position while they fished. With the anchor grabbing and the engine switched off, Richard looked at the electronic depth and fish finder and saw that the day looked promising as the readout indicated that there were quite a few fish at various depths around them.
“Let’s get some lines in the water you landlubbers!” Richard called out as he began inserting multiple fishing rods into the side-mounted holders of the boat. He then brought out the bait cooler and showed the three how to attach the strips of squid to a two-hook rig on each pole. Once all six lines were in the water and at the right depth, Richard announced, “All right boys, time to relax and see what we may get for dinner tonight.”
Even though the four were always joking with one another, when it came to the boat and being out on the water, Traise, Sam, and Johnny all knew it was Richard in charge, at least out here. He had plenty of boat experience gained during his nine years in the Coast Guard as a Boatswain Mate. Navigating the waters around the local area and even further offshore was second nature to him.
When he left the Coast Guard, Richard started his own business, traveling the states with his dog Sprig, a lovable golden lab, and “picking” vintage items from wherever he could find them and bringing them back to his small but popular store in the little coastal town of New Bern, North Carolina. After a few years to get the business firmly established, he finally earned enough to purchase the used but still in great condition fishing boat. When the details of their current trip were confirmed, he loaded the boat on the trailer and made the five-hour drive up the coast to Chincoteague to hang with the boys for the weekend. They were equals on land, but in this environment, “Captain Dick” was in charge.
“We’ll hang here for a bit and see if we get anything,” Richard said. “If not, we’ll pull up the anchor and drift a little while and see if we can get some flounder.”
Sam seemed to be doing a little better since they stopped moving. He had re-located to one of the padded seats by the stern but still wasn’t saying much as the other three grabbed beers and settled in. Richard turned on the satellite radio and tuned to the 90’s station. “Just make sure you keep an eye on those lines. If you see one being pulled down, give a shout.” And as he held up his beer, he gave his favorite captain’s order: “Otherwise, enjoy boys. Here’s a toast to us. Good to be with you again.”
As they relaxed, watched their lines, and reminisced about the good old days, there was no way they could foresee that this day would end up being the longest day of their lives.
32 miles away from the four friends in their fishing boat, the Cessna 172P began to pick up speed quickly as it rolled down the 4070-foot asphalt runway designated “14/32” at the Ocean City Municipal Airport. Although the name would indicate that the small airport was located within the geographical confines of the popular Maryland beach resort, it was actually a few miles away in Berlin, Maryland, a quaint, artsy town that had found its own identity and was recently voted by a travel magazine as one of the “coolest small towns” in the country.
When he reached optimal speed for take-off, Steve Adams gently pulled back on the control yoke of the white, two-seat, single-engine plane. The nose gently angled upward into the calm and clear sky. At five hundred feet of altitude, Steve turned the plane into a slow bank to the left while still climbing until he reached a heading of 180 degrees, which established his flight direction as due south of the airport. After ascending, he finally leveled off at four-thousand feet, powered back the engine to a speed of 120 miles per hour, and, after scouring the sky around him for any other aircraft, adjusted his harness to be a bit more comfortable.
The fifty-six-year-old had taken up flying twenty years ago as a way to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life as well as the constant stress from his job as a divorce lawyer. A year after obtaining his pilot’s license, he found the 1981 Cessna for sale at the local airport and, after a short negotiation and a test flight, he agreed to purchase the aircraft. He always despised the hassle of renting a plane. Even though owning a plane was more expensive than renting, he decided that having his own wings would give him more peace of mind regarding safety, availability, maintenance, and the craft’s overall air worthiness.
This was the first chance he had to get back in the air in a while because the last two months had been packed with almost constant negotiations between his latest client and her husband’s attorney. Usually, his cases were fairly quick and clean, but this one was anything but. Property division, life insurances, vehicles, medical and dental costs for the children, even who got the family pets were all points of contention. Lesson learned from this case? If you are married (which he was not and had no intention of being), do not have an affair and, if you do, do not be stupid enough to have text messages and pictures of your mistress on your phone. Especially if you and your wife decided long ago to share the same password on your phones because neither had anything to hide. Dumbass, Steve had thought in the presence of his client more than a few times.
With the case finally concluded (and with a very nice retainer fee paid in full), Steve decided to take advantage of the predicted calm weather on this Saturday and take a nice relaxing flight to blow off some steam. He adjusted his course slightly to the east, putting him about five miles off the coast and heading south.
He enjoyed this flight area the most of any because it gave him views of two different worlds. On one side was the ocean with its large expansion of nothingness. He may see a few fishing boats, oil tankers, or cargo ships here and there but mostly just the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. In the past, he was able to see the occasional whale surfacing and expelling water from its blowhole as it filled its lungs with air before diving back down to the ocean depths. On the other side were the remote beaches of the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. Although populated, the lower shore was one of the last undeveloped coastal areas anywhere along the Atlantic Ocean. His flight would take him along Assateague National Seashore and beyond that, Chincoteague Island, home of the famous wild ponies.
He would fly just a little bit further south before turning around and heading back home. Not a long flight, but long enough to clear his head, listen to nothing but the constant hum of the plane’s engine and take in mother nature in all her glory. Even though he had to constantly monitor his instruments and the surrounding sky, the freedom and calmness of feeling like being a bird in the sky without a worry always energized him. This would be a nice start to the weekend. Maybe he’d even get a round of golf in tomorrow.
First things first, he thought, Let’s enjoy the day and this weather. He reached up and patted the dash of the plane’s control panel. “My little plane, my little adventure. Life is good,” he said to no one as he looked out the side window.
As he and his plane cruised down the coast on what was supposed to be a leisurely, short, two-hour flight, Steve Adams had no possible clue that his destination, as well as his life, would be forever altered by forces that he could never imagine.
“Not bad haul boys,” Richard said as he looked in the catch bin located in the back of the boat. “Looks like we’ve got some Sea Bass, a couple Trout and even a couple good size Flounder. Gonna be some good eating later on! What say we pull in these lines and start heading back in?”
In concert, Traise and Johnny both stood up from their seats. “Sounds good to us,” they called out as they each grabbed a pole and began reeling in the lines.
“Maybe we should check on Sam again,” Traise said with a snicker.
Johnny laughed. “Yeah, he’s been asleep since we got here. Think he enjoyed the trip?”
Richard stepped over to the door which accessed the below deck quarters that contained a “U” shaped sleeping area as well as portable toilet and kitchenette. He leaned down and turned the handle which opened the small compartment door. “Yo Sam, still alive in there?”
Sam lifted his head and squinted as the sunlight suddenly lit up the space. “We home yet?”
“Not quite, brother,” Richard said. “Packing up now and heading back in a few minutes. Should be at the marina in about an hour or so. You gonna make it?”
Lying on his side, Sam lifted up on one elbow .“I do believe I shall survive. But if you think I’m coming out here again tomorrow, you are sadly mistaken, sir. Wake me up when I can stand on solid ground or there’s a liquor store in sight, whichever comes first.”
Richard laughed, “You got it. Before you know it, we’ll be at Chatties sampling some of Laura’s famous Orange Crushes.”
Richard closed the door and stood up with a grin on his face while shaking his head, “Sam said he’s not coming tomorrow.”
Traise and Johnny gave each other a quizzical look. “Have a hard time believing that,” Johnny said sarcastically.
“Right?” said Traise with a chuckle. “I would’ve bet money that he’d be chomping at the bit to get back out here.”
The three finished reeling in the lines and then secured the fishing gear before Richard had Traise head back to the bow to pull up the anchor. Looking up into the early afternoon sky, Richard said in his captain’s voice, “Good timing. Looks like some clouds are starting to come in. Didn’t think the weather was supposed to turn, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Then he returned to his old-buddy tone. “Plus I’ve got to wash this thing down before we go to the bar.”
After flying for just over an hour and reaching the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel located just south of Cape Charles, Virginia, Steve Adams made a slow bank to the right until he was heading north once again. The flight so far had been just what he anticipated: stress-free and relaxing. He adjusted his northbound course a bit closer to land so he could observe the multiple small seaside towns and beaches that peppered the landscape of the Eastern Shore. Unlike the high-activity area of Ocean City, the lower shore was a picture of solitude with its laid-back, not-in-a-hurry style of living. He knew that it was only a matter of time until the area succumbed to the pressures of expansion, development, and modernization. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be for a number of years, but he knew it was inevitable.
As he looked out to his left, he noticed what looked like a small weather front approaching the coast from the ocean. “That’s a bit strange,” he said to himself. “The weather reports had no mention of anything today.”
One of the most important things he always did prior to flying was to check the flight conditions because no pilot ever wanted to be caught in adverse weather. Although he had plenty of flight hours, he didn’t feel comfortable when flying in, or even near, the smallest storm. He shrugged off his concern, though, as he only had another hour or so in the air. “Probably just a small, early summer squall,” he spoke aloud into the crisp echo of the small cabin, hearing more confidence in his voice than he felt in his mind. “I can just go around or above it if needed.”