The Shipwreck of San Leon
From Field & Stream, Dec. 2016–Jan. 2017
Lightning cracked the sky, washing the world white, and Raymond Jacik knew that his fishing buddy was dead. Through rain and hail, Jacik couldn’t see Michael Watkins, but the bolt had struck down right where he was stranded on a gas well, in Galveston Bay, 4 miles offshore. “Mike!” Jacik screamed. But in the winds and thundering waves, his cry was pointless.
Jacik had no time to mourn. Waves kept knocking him off the gas pipe where he stood, a few hundred yards away from Watkins. The rusted pipe gashed his bare feet, but it was the only thing keeping him out of the water. For hours, 6-foot waves slammed into him again and again, hurtling him into the booming sea. Once in the water, he’d flail wildly in the current, then fight to pull himself up again. “It felt like getting beat to death,” he recalls.
The storm, which had been raging for two hours, showed no sign of yielding. He prayed.
Monday, 8 a.m.
Jacik and Watkins didn’t check the weather before leaving the marina in San Leon, Texas. The friends fished together several times a week, and the past few days had been nothing but clear April skies and calm seas. As they motored out on Watkins’s 20-foot center console, all they could think of were redfish and flounder, sharks and specks. “We had the whole day planned,” Jacik says.
Ten minutes into the ride, Jacik, 49, and Watkins, 51, encountered 2- and 3-foot swells. “It wasn’t a big deal,” Jacik says. “Mike’s boat could handle some waves, no problem.” The men continued toward the Christmas Tree, a nickname for one of their favorite fishing spots. Four miles offshore, the Christmas Tree was a reef made from remnants of an old gas well; it rose from the bottom of the bay and resembled, in Jacik’s mind, a decorated evergreen, with its spread of rusted valves. Old oil and gas rigs litter mile-long swaths of Galveston Bay, and much of the wreckage sits just above or below the surface. “It’s a big junkyard out there,” Jacik says, “but that’s where the fish are.” They continued toward open water as waves knocked against the hull.
Monday, 8:20 a.m.
At the Christmas Tree, their problems began almost immediately. First, the outboard sputtered. Watkins dropped anchor to inspect the problem, but the anchor rope snapped. He tied off to a nearby pylon as Jacik rigged up, neither noticing the larger swells approaching. With the bow pointed into the wind and into the small oncoming waves, they didn’t see the need to be on the lookout. Next, a 3-foot swell crashed into the stern. Water rushed onto the deck, flooding the vessel. A second surge slammed into the boat. “It was instantaneous,” Jacik recalls. They had no time to pull on life jackets. No time to grab a first-aid kit, food, water, or flares. No time to think before a third wave upturned the boat, hurling the anglers into the sea.
“As fast as you could blink, we were both in the water,” Watkins says.
Jacik surfaced and called for his friend. “I can’t swim!” Watkins yelled back, struggling to stay above the water. Just then, their first bit of luck occurred: Watkins’s 52-quart Igloo cooler shot to the surface. He lunged for the ice chest, and it kept his 350-pound frame afloat.
Watkins kicked toward the Christmas Tree, and Jacik helped pull him in. There, standing on a 4x6-foot grate that surrounded the old gas well, a couple of feet above the water, the men looked out across the bay. The wind had strengthened, and now roared. Four-foot whitecaps barreled past. Miles in the distance, they could see San Leon, but it would be hours before anyone expected them home. They clung to the Christmas Tree, fearing that another rogue wave could sweep them to their deaths.
They hoped that either Jacik’s 14-year-old daughter, Mahlea, or Watkins’s wife, Sherry, would soon fear something had gone wrong and alert authorities—before the rain came.
Monday, 3 p.m.
Holding tight to the Christmas Tree, Jacik and Watkins talked of rescue, their families, and their destroyed gear, but they soon retreated into their own thoughts. They’d been friends for only a few years and didn’t know much about each other outside of fishing. Watkins had grown up in the area, whereas Jacik had lived in San Leon only four years. After his second marriage dissolved, Jacik had found himself adrift in the Midwest. The ocean had drawn him to the coast, he says, with its fishing and warm afternoons. He and Mahlea, whom he’d raised alone, had settled into a house along the bay in the sleepy fishing village. Now, as he tried to rest against the Christmas Tree, Mahlea didn’t stray from his mind. “I only thought about getting home to my kid,” he says. “I just thought about my little girl.”
Watkins, meanwhile, grappled with the loss of his boat. He knew he couldn’t afford another one. Even if they did make it back to San Leon, his life had already changed. He imagined himself forever stuck on land.
Monday, 7:30 p.m.
Darkness settled. Jacik asked Watkins: “Do you think your wife has called by now?”
“She’d better have called by now,” Watkins said. Then, as if to reassure himself, he repeated: “She’d better have called.”
Tuesday, 7 a.m.
“We froze our butts off all night,” Jacik says. “We didn’t sleep at all.”
The new morning’s first light granted little relief from the wind and the waves. They tried to rest by leaning against the Christmas Tree whenever surges didn’t threaten to crash into them, but they had no place to sit. Moreover, the sharp, serrated grate on which they stood cut Jacik’s bare feet, which had softened in the saltwater. “My feet were so torn up and swollen I could hardly stand it,” he says.
They saw no sign of help, and the heavy clouds of an approaching storm had congregated in the distance. “We were screwed,” Jacik says. He was certain that they had to make a move, since they couldn’t count on rescuers to recover them in the storm—assuming rescuers had even begun their search. In most cases, Jacik knew, abandoning a wreck posed more risk than it justified, but he and Watkins had to better their situation somehow. How the hell can we just stand here waiting for the storm? he thought.
A mile across the bay was a large oil platform, complete with a cabin for workers to stay in. Inside the quarters, they might find a radio or phone. “If nothing else,” Jacik says, “at least we would have shelter.” Between the platform and the Christmas Tree lay an expanse of busted pipes and pylons, and they figured they could use the cooler, which they had kept, to stay afloat as they swam from one small gas well to the next, until they reached the large platform. They knew jumping back into the water was risky, but Jacik believed that their chances of rescue were dwindling the longer they held out. The storm was coming.
They waited until the current shifted in the direction of the large platform. Watkins lingered on the edge of the grate, gripping one handle of the cooler; Jacik clutched the other. The water churned beneath them, and the empty howl of the wind through gas wells commanded Watkins’s senses. Watkins knew that if he lost his grip on the cooler, he’d have no way of keeping himself above the surface, no way to fight against the current. He’d fished Galveston Bay nearly his whole life, but never had it required so much of him.
Jacik told Watkins: “If we got to do it, we got to do it now.”
They stood on the edge of the grate. They took in a deep breath. Then they jumped.
As soon as they hit the water, Watkins, in a fit of terror, clambered back to the Christmas Tree, letting go of the cooler. “I panicked.”
The current seized Jacik as he clung to the ice chest. The tide took hold and pulled him toward open water—in the opposite direction of the platform they’d hoped to reach—and away from his friend. “I couldn’t get back to where Mike was if I wanted to,” he says. The water swept him toward another well, but he couldn’t grab it. The waves were punishing. He had no control; he held fast to the cooler. Fatigue set in, and he inhaled mouthfuls of water. “I couldn’t get no air.”
After Jacik failed to reach a second well, a sharp pain gripped his chest. “I couldn’t breathe,” he says. “My chest was killing me.” He was suffering a heart attack.
Panic consumed him. He tried to climb atop the cooler, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t slow himself, either. Thirty yards ahead was another well, but after that—only open water. His thoughts flashed to his daughter. Mahlea. He couldn’t abandon her. “It’s always been just me and her,” he says. “After everything we’d gone through together, there was no way I could die now.”
He tried to ignore the pain in his chest as he kicked toward the well, barely able to keep his head above the waves. When he came within 3 feet, he lunged for the pipe. “If I missed it,” he says, “it would have been over. I would have drowned.” His hand tightened around the rusted metal. His grip held firm. He dangled in the current. “I had to be as blue as could be. I didn’t have air for about five minutes.”
The current had carried Jacik a few hundred yards. When he looked back, he was relieved to see that his buddy was alive and had climbed back to safety on the Christmas Tree.
The gas well where Jacik now was stranded measured about a foot wide and rose 5 feet above the surface; a horizontal auxiliary pipe ran along its side, about 2 feet off the water. As Jacik climbed the well, a surge knocked the cooler out from under him, carrying it away. Now he had no lifesaver. He continued to work his way onto the pipe, but its sharp, rusted surface slashed his feet when he stood on it and cut his shoulders and arms when he tried to lean against the vertical section. Wounds covered his body, and he was bleeding badly. The pain in his chest only worsened.
Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
Back at the Christmas Tree, as the day surrendered to dusk, waves threatened to pull Watkins off the grate, so he wrapped his arms around a valve. “I had waves hitting me at chest level,” he says. “It was pure hell.” He had no idea what had happened to Jacik; he’d lost his glasses when the boat flipped and couldn’t see without them. Once they had separated, Watkins never expected to see Jacik alive again. “I thought he was gone.”
Tuesday, 9:30 p.m.
A few hundred yards away, Jacik knew rescuers were on the job. Since the afternoon, he’d seen helicopters flickering across the bay. “The choppers kept turning to the right or the left before they got to us,” Jacik says. “It was heartbreaking.” Now, in the dark, helicopter spotlights swung over Galveston Bay, coming within less than a mile of the fishermen. The cadence of the wind and the crashing waves drowned out all sound, and farther out toward the Gulf, lightning bolts splintered the sky. “I was just waiting for the storm to come and take me off the pipe,” Jacik says. As the clouds approached and the temperature dropped, he couldn’t stop shivering. He covered his head with his shirt and tried to breathe warmth onto his chest. But he only shook harder and harder.
Wednesday, 3 a.m.
Jacik’s prayer was answered. “I said, ‘Please, God, don’t let it rain.’” Mercifully, the weather offered a reprieve. “Everything stopped,” he says.
Then all hell broke loose.
Hail and rain engulfed the bay. “It felt like I was getting sandblasted,” he says. A piece of rope hung from the top of the gas well, and Jacik tied it around his wrist. As wave after wave tore him off the pipe, the rope prevented the current from dragging him away. He would cling to the pipe and pull himself up again, only to endure another barrage. Through it all, he tried not to dwell on the worst. “I only thought about how was I going to get home.”
Then the bolt of lightning cracked the sky, striking right near the Christmas Tree. “I was sure that Mike was dead,” Jacik says. “I thought it had just totally zapped him.”
Wednesday, 3:30 a.m.
The bolt came within yards of Watkins. Somehow, though, it didn’t kill him, and left him relatively unscathed. “I couldn’t hear for a couple hours after that,” he says.
Wednesday, 10:30 a.m.
Jacik didn’t know how he had endured the storm, but he did. Once the conditions cleared, he was relieved to see Watkins at the Christmas Tree. But Jacik was hypothermic, and his chest radiated pain. He knew he couldn’t last another day and doubted whether Watkins could either. He thought of his daughter and what would happen to her if he didn’t survive. He refused to let go of the pipe.
Minutes later, he heard an engine flutter overhead. A Coast Guard helicopter was making a pass of Galveston Bay. “I was waving like crazy,” Jacik says. But then the chopper diverted its course and turned back to shore, leaving the gas wells behind. “I just put my head down. It was a bad, bad feeling.”
A moment later, though, the helicopter curved back and flew straight toward Watkins, still clinging to the Christmas Tree. The helicopter hovered overhead, and Watkins looked up at its swirling blades and waved and waved. The helicopter flew toward Jacik, then eased back over Watkins. A rescue swimmer was lowered into the sea. Watkins was overwhelmed with relief. “That helicopter was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen,” he says.
After the crew lifted Watkins out of the water, the rescue swimmer met Jacik at the other gas well. He had no energy left. He shivered violently and throbbed in agony. But now he was saved. “They said that they had 26 minutes left before they were calling off the search,” Jacik says. “Nobody thought we could have survived that storm.”
The unlikeliness of their rescue didn’t sink in until he was with the crew and saw how amazed they were that he and Watkins had survived. “That’s when I got choked up,” Jacik says.
But, even then, his thoughts didn’t wander from his daughter. “I couldn’t wait to hold Mahlea. I would have held on to that pipe with my last ounce of energy.”
The fishermen were flown to area hospitals and treated for dehydration, hypothermia, exhaustion, and minor cuts and bruises. Doctors confirmed that Jacik had suffered a heart attack.
Jacik couldn’t see Mahlea until the following day. “She played it tough,” he says. “But when we finally got home, and we were finally alone, just me and her, she didn’t stop talking for an hour. Then she just passed out. All the worrying had just exhausted her.”
Jacik and Watkins have lost touch. In the months following the wreck, Watkins and his wife left San Leon to live closer to family in Freeport, Texas, a move inspired by the incident. He has not fished since.
Jacik still lives in San Leon and fishes as much as ever. He has settled back into life’s normal rhythms, but the experience still weighs on him. “Even now, I have a hard time sleeping,” he says. He dreams of waves. He climbs onto the pipe. He falls into the water. He can’t breathe. Then he’ll jolt awake to find himself in his living room, with Mahlea somewhere in the house, and then, after a moment, he’ll collect himself and sink back into sleep, letting himself slip under.