I was standing on a 12-foot-high observation platform with my Labrador retriever, Monty, overlooking 20,000 prime acres of tidal marsh on the lower Delaware River in New Jersey. It was mid-July and the mosquitoes and greenhead flies were not too bad. I thought I might be the only human to stand quietly and enjoy this tranquil scene in the otherwise bustling season of summertime traffic at the Jersey shore.
My serenity suddenly disappeared when I heard a voice call out behind the 10-foot-high marsh grass, “Can someone please help me?” At first I thought it was my imagination, but the repeated calls for help moved me to follow the voice to a wide tidal creek that ran through the marsh.
A man was standing in a 17-foot aluminum outboard boat totally covered with mud and stranded on a vast mud flat a good distance from the boat ramp where he had launched his boat when there was five feet of water on the high tide.
As I walked down the ramp he kept asking for help and I could not help noticing he was frightened and covered with a layer of good old black Delaware Bay mud almost to his neck.
It was more than obvious that he had misjudged the tide and had been caught by the low tide when he returned to the ramp. He was frantic in his calls for help and said he had tried to climb out of the boat, intending to drag it over the mud flat. This was almost a fatal error, as there was no bottom to the mud, and he sank quickly to his armpits.
Fortunately, he was able to grab the small gunwale on the boat and laboriously climb back into the boat. He realized that if he had missed grabbing the boat he would have sunk further into the mud and drowned when covered with the incoming rising tide.
He repeatedly asked me to help him, and I kept wondering what I could possibly do. It was over 10 miles to the mainland where I might find a fire company or first aid station to assist him. I was pretty much at a loss as to how I myself might help this poor soul.
Nevertheless, I rummaged through a box in the back of my 4-wheel-drive station wagon where I carry tools, extra clothes, and accumulated junk. There I found a spool of several hundred yards of tarred commercial fishing line, which I had used to make decoy lines last fall. Then I found three boat fenders.
I backed my car down the ramp and asked him how much anchor line he had on the boat. He said at least 500 feet, and I suggested that I might be able to tie my decoy line onto Monty’s collar and throw a dummy to him in the boat. Monty would swim after the dummy and pull the decoy line out to the crabber, who could then tie his anchor line to the decoy line and I would pull it back to the ramp.
The first question was whether I could throw the dummy that far and accurately enough for him to catch it. Then, would Monty take the decoy line to the boat, and finally, would my car be able to pull the heavy boat loaded with several bushel baskets of blue crabs he had caught to earn his living?
I coiled the fishing line on the ground so it would flow easily when I threw the dummy to the boat. I tied the end to Monty’s collar, sat him down and threw the dummy. I did manage to get it to the crabber, and I gave Monty a loud, “Back!” He made one of his flying leaps off the boat-launching ramp and almost disappeared into the mud.
For a second I thought I might need to wade in and pull him out, but he came up swimming and went right to the boat and delivered the line to the man’s hand, then returned carrying the dummy and looking like a big bundle of black mud.
I watched carefully as the man tied his heavy bow anchor line to the smaller decoy line. He then waved that all was ready, and I began to retrieve the decoy line.
When the anchor line reached my hand, I tied the line to my car’s trailer hitch and drove the car away slowly, dragging the man and boat to the ramp where we could easily winch-load it on his trailer. Needless to say, Delaware Bay’s mud was in and on everything and Monty and I could not travel in the car all muddied up.
After loading the boat on the trailer we found a small sandy beach nearby with clean ocean water and the crabber and I both took a clothes-on bath and emerged about half clean. Monty’s sleek Labrador coat cleaned up much better than our clothes did.
The crabber offered us a bushel of crabs, which I declined, as we had crabs in our refrigerator at home. As we said good-bye he came to my car’s window and said, “You know, you really saved my life, and I can’t thank you enough.”
I said, “You would have done the same for me,” but I was thinking that it was really Monty who deserved the credit–he was the one who took the lifeline.