During the pre-dawn hours in early November of last year, four duck hunters boarded a 21-foot duck boat and headed into Lake Erie. It promised to be a perfect day for ducks, but Mother Nature was about to unleash a life threatening surprise, leaving the men staring into the water at the wreckage of their boat.
It began when Nate Whiteman, Director of Recruitment and Special Events, met Ken Kudela, Director of the Ohio Administrative District Council of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC), at a USA Sportsmen’s dinner. Upon discovering their common passion for waterfowl hunting, they began planning a duck hunt.
About six months later, Nate and his friend Ben Collado joined Ken and his buddy Steve Shively, Executive Vice President Field Representative for BAC Local 46, near Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, to hunt diver ducks.
Steve (the boat owner) and Ken knew the area well, but Nate and Ben were unaware of Sandusky Bay’s reputation for quickly turning dangerous. As they started out, Steve warned the group they would get wet, but none of them foresaw the chaos ahead.
Just short of their destination, the waves became severe. As Steve struggled to keep the front of the boat angled into the waves, they were hit by a really strong wave. Steve turned the boat to compensate, which turned the boat parallel to a second big, oncoming wave. Nate’s side of the boat went up with the wave, while the opposite side tipped into the water.
Miraculously, the boat leveled out, but all the water it took on caused the engine quit. Ken yelled to Steve to turn on the bilge, but without power, that proved impossible. With waves pummeling the boat, the back end—weighted by the 90-horse power motor—began filling up quickly, while the front end spun, and the boat headed toward a rocky break wall.
“All of a sudden, we start hitting the break wall, and I’m sitting closest to the rocks,” recalled Nate. “From my experience, I knew that you usually get two good waves and then a moment’s rest. So I thought ‘okay, it just hit twice, so it should be calm for a second.’ In that moment, I jumped onto the rocks.”
Turning around, Nate looked down at the three men still in the boat as it continued to hit the break wall and fill with water. Nate reached for Ben, but a wave pulled him from his grasp and sent Ben flying from the front of the boat to the back. All three men were soaked in the freezing water. It was still dark, but Nate could make out the waves as they came toward the boat. Seeing another break, he grabbed Ben’s hand and pulled him onto the rocks.
Ben immediately called 911, while Ken and Steve remained in the boat trying to salvage whatever they could. Ken threw Nate a rope and handed him a couple guns before struggling out of the boat and onto the nearest rock, where he lay exhausted. Around the boat, it looked like a bomb full of decoys had exploded. They were spread across the water and flying up against the break wall.
Steve, the last to leave the boat, was completely drained. As he attempted to climb to the rocks, the waves began crashing again. Ken, who was lying on the rocks next to the boat, managed to pull Steve from the boat and straight on top of him. At first, Nate thought Ken had been washed under but then realized he was under Steve, who didn’t have the strength to move.
Pulling on his life jacket and shouting encouragement, Nate got Steve to a higher rock, and soon, they were all out of danger. The water rescue division of the Sandusky fire department arrived from the backside of the break wall, picked the men up and took them to the ambulance waiting on shore.
“They made us go to the ambulance to make sure nobody was in shock or anything, but we were OK,” Nate said.
The men actually joked about their adventure gone awry and spent their time in the ambulance trying to figure out how they could hunt the next day. Ben began singing Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, an apropos song that warns of the tumultuous nature of the Great Lakes and what Lightfoot calls the “Gales of November.”
What these fortunate hunters learned and all hunters should remember is that Mother Nature can be a cruel and exacting teacher, and as the old Boy Scout Slogan says, “Be prepared.”
Sidebar: On Armistice Day 1940, a blizzard descended upon the upper Midwest and caught hundreds of duck hunters unprepared. Estimates vary, but most accounts of the time put the death toll from drowning and/or exposure on that ill-fated day at 50 plus hunters… the worst in duck hunting history.