Boating sunset

National Safe Boating Week kicks off May 18, just ahead of Memorial Day weekend. Boaters are encouraged to practice safe boating, wear life jackets and always check weather forecasts for heading out for some fun in the sun.

Volatile weather has the been the norm across much of north and eastern Texas this spring. Multiple tornados, hail and nasty thunderstorms packing dangerous lightning and heavy rain have dished out quite a beating thus far, at times leaving water-logged paths of destruction in their wakes.

There also has been plenty of wind. Lots of tree-rocking wind to topple timber and churn area lakes into seas of tall rollers big enough get boaters into serious trouble if they aren't careful.

Jason Wells of Center has always had high regard for Mother Nature, particularly when it comes to wind, water and boats. That respect grew a notch or two after a chance encounter with peril that ended with the recent rescue of two fishermen at Lake Fork.

Wells and Oklahoma angler Scott Six were competing in a company bass tournament on a windy Saturday in late April. They were fishing at the lake's upper reaches and not catching much when Wells decided to make a long run to a sweet he knows about in Little Caney Creek. He had lost a big fish there earlier in the day.

Wells said it was about 1 p.m. and southwest winds were gusting upwards of 20 m.p.h. as they bucked big swells in his 21-foot Bass Cat. They had just entered the mouth of Little Caney when he spotted something bobbing in the waves about 75 yards off the boat lane.

Wells idled in for a closer look. It was a lifejacket, but nobody was wearing it.

"I thought it was sort of strange so I started looking around and saw some other debris," Wells said. "I killed my engine and picked up the lifejacket to see if there was a name or anything on it. That's when I heard what sounded like a kid screaming in the distance. It was really faint. My partner heard it, too."

Wells scanned the surrounding area as his bass boat lurched in the rough water. That's when he spotted what appeared to be a small hand and arm poking upwards from the roiling whitecaps, about 200 yards away.

The tempo shifted to emergency mode. Wells knew from experience the water around him was riddled with underwater stumps, but it didn't matter at the time.

"I didn't know if somebody was drowning out there or what," he said. "I just gassed it and put the boat on plane. I ran to them fast as I could."

Wells and Six found a man and young boy clinging to the sides of a capsized fiberglass boat. Both were wearing lifejackets and noticeably shaken.

Wells said the boat looked to be about 17-18 feet long. The nearest shore was about 300 yards away.

"I couldn't tell much about it, but that boat was way too small to be on Lake Fork that day," he said. "There were 3-4 footers out there."

Once the two fishermen were safely out of the water, Wells learned they were father and son. He also gained some insight their ordeal.

The father, who went by the name of "Woody," told Wells he had dropped an anchor off the bow to hold the boat in place so they could fish on a wind-blown point. Seconds later he realized he'd made a big mistake.

"The bow was pointed downwind when he pitched the anchor," Wells said. "He told me the anchor went under the boat, and somehow the slack of the rope got wrapped up in the engine propeller. That apparently stopped the nose of the boat from spinning around and it sucked the transom down in the waves. He told me the boat started taking on water so fast the bilge pump couldn't keep up. They got swamped."

Wells said it was unclear if the fishermen had abandoned the boat before it flipped or not. The man indicated that he had no idea what time the accident happened, or how long they had been adrift.

"They were both pretty shook up -- we all were," Wells recalled. "It's a good thing they were wearing lifejackets. That's all that saved them. In looking back I'm just glad that something told me to go back and fish that spot. It was a godsend."

Wells made a Facebook post about the incident in hopes of striking a cord with any boater or angler that reads it.

"The main lesson from this story is how important lifevests are," he wrote. "Don’t be cheap and just buy one to have in the boat. Make sure you purchase the proper size and style for you."

There is no such thing as a good time for a boating accident, but Wells' message couldn't be more fitting with National Safe Boating Week just around the corner on May 18-24.

The safe boating campaign was founded years ago by the National Safe Boating Council and its partners to promote safe boating practices on waterways all across the country. It always kicks off just ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, which typically marks the beginning of another busy boating season.

“We are excited to join forces with partners around the world to encourage everyone to wear a lifejacket when on the water and always boat responsibly, because the best boating experience is a safe boating experience,” said Peg Phillips, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council. “Wearing a life jacket is the simplest safety step a boater can take, just like a driver wears a seat belt in a vehicle."

Statistics reflect what boating safety advocates like Phillips already know. Lifejackets save lives.

About 75 percent of the 658 boating related fatalities reported by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2017 were caused by drowning. Eighty-five percent of those drowning victims were not wearing a lifejacket at the time.