Story by Nate Schweber
Growing up piloting boats across the teal waters of his native South Florida, Capt. Chris Wittman has seen waterspouts by the dozens. But nothing prepared him for one particular encounter with a waterspout—a dangerous, rotating, tornado-esque funnel of wind and water—back in May 2014.
Wittman, 40, who serves on the board of directors for Captains for Clean Water, had just dropped off two clients after a day of tarpon fishing. That’s when he noticed a curtain of dark clouds over Pine Island Sound, east of Fort Meyers, on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
With the ramp for his nearly 18-foot-long, spear-shaped, Hell’s Bay skiff 10 miles beyond the clouds, he weighed the options. If he tried to flank the storm, it would mean driving about 30 extra miles. Or he could stab through it, as he had done countless times. He decided to do the latter. “I was heading south; the squall was moving north,” Wittman said. “So basically I had to go through it to get back.”
In a roar of wind and the rat-a-tat of rain pelting down, a great power twisted him completely counterclockwise and threw the boat back in the direction from which it had come.
When he pierced a wall of rain on the storm’s leading edge, the atmosphere went haywire. The wind surged from 15 knots to near 90 knots. A dark gray clamped down so tightly he could barely see the tip of his skiff. And he said the waves churned “like a washing machine.”
What he couldn’t see was a waterspout inside the squall. Rain began pelting him sideways, drops shooting parallel to the water. “It physically hurt to get hit,” he said. “And the waves were literally sucking upward.”
He fought to keep his boat pointed straight, to keep cutting through the waves, but a force lifted the bow. That’s when he realized he was riding in a waterspout.
Instinctually, he hugged the steering wheel to keep from going overboard. And he ducked his head under the console to protect himself from flying debris. He tried to throttle forward, but the waterspout pulled his skiff up to a 45-degree angle, so he eased off.
In a roar of wind and the rat-a-tat of rain pelting down, a great power twisted him completely counterclockwise and threw the boat back in the direction from which it had come. Fortunately it was all over in about 30 seconds. Quickly the rain stopped, the waves calmed and the dark clouds vanished to reveal a tropical sky.
Wittman took stock. He was unhurt, but the skiff was flooded. He quickly gunned the engine and spun the boat in counterclockwise circles to slough water off the top. He used a bilge pump to swamp out the interior.
Then he checked his location. At the moment he’d reached the storm he’d been about a half-mile past a strand of electrical lines. Now he was back at the lines. This told him how far the waterspout had hurled him in such a short time. “I was in awe of the power of it,” he said.
Before being hit by the spout, he had passed a 30-foot cabin cruiser carrying two elderly couples. He searched them out and made sure they were safe. Naturally, they were in shock and had radioed distress calls until the waterspout had ripped the hard cover off their vessel, the antenna going for a ride with it. Wittman stayed with the damaged cruiser until it was clear that a towboat was coming to the rescue.
At the Punta Rassa boat ramp, in an old bait station, he found men with their ears glued to a radio. They had listened to the cruiser’s distress calls. They told Wittman that two waterspouts had just whirled through Pine Island Sound. Wittman told them he’d been hit by a third.
The lesson Wittman took from the experience is the importance of staying calm and “not letting yourself get overwhelmed or panicked in a situation.”
He added that he would apply his hard-won waterspout wisdom to the newest craft he is learning to pilot: planes.
“Hopefully I’ll never take an airplane through one,” he said.
For more info on Captains for Clean Water, which is focused on saving the Everglades, visit captainsforcleanwater.org.