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How a fisherman's own boat rescued him from drowning

BY Derek Burnett

15th Dec 2022 Life

How a fisherman's own boat rescued him from drowning

A ghost boat, a floating pair of boots and a rogue fish may have conjoined to save a fishermen's life when he fell overboard into the sea

So far, the fishing had been a bust, but it was still a great day to be out on the water. Calm seas, clear skies, just a hint of a breeze. It was 11:30am on July 5, 2021, nearly 65 kilometres off the coast of North Carolina.

Fifty-year-old Andrew Sherman, an investment advisor from Roanoke, Virginia, and his 21-year-old son Jack, a student at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, were avid fishermen who knew these waters well.

Normally they would have expected to see other fishermen, but today theirs was the only boat in the area.

Until now.

A ghost boat approaches

Two men stand on pier by sea with giant fish catchFather and son fishermen duo Andrew and Jack Sherman noticed an unmanned boat while out fishing

Standing in his drifting six-metre open-hulled Sea Hunt boat, Andrew had just finished reeling in his line when he spotted a vessel approaching from the east.

The cabin boat—steeply angled prow, enclosed cabin, and open deck in the rear—was headed directly toward them, and didn’t change course as it got closer. Common etiquette held that you didn’t come within 50 metres of another boat unless invited.

That’s weird, Andrew thought. He couldn’t see anybody behind the wheel in the pilothouse, but that kind of boat often had another steering station in the stern. Maybe somebody was back there.

"A horrifying new thought took shape: the captain had gone below deck and suffered a heart attack"

“There’s some yahoo driving his boat straight at us, if you can believe it,” Andrew said to Jack as he jumped behind the wheel. He started the motor and pulled forward.

As the interloper passed within ten metres of their stern, Andrew turned to shout at the captain. To his amazement, no one stood at the rear steering station.

Four fishing lines out, music blaring—and not a soul in sight. The Shermans stared incredulously. “It’s a ghost boat!” they said, almost in unison.

Andrew manoeuvred their craft alongside the mystery boat. “Hey! Hey!” the Shermans screamed. No one replied.

A horrifying new thought took shape: the captain had gone below deck and suffered a heart attack.

Man overboard

The boat’s owner was Sascha Scheller, a 44-year-old construction contractor from New Hanover County, North Carolina. He’d started fishing that morning nearer to land but, like the Shermans, hadn’t had much luck.

He’d heard radio chatter about a school of mahi about 60 kilometres from shore in Nashville Tanker, an area named after a submerged wreck. He motored out, placed five fishing rods in holders at various places on his boat, and let out baited lines, his boat puttering slowly through the water.

About five kilometres southeast of Nashville Tanker, nature called. Scheller leaned over the low gunwale on the starboard side to relieve himself. Zipping up, he turned toward the helm—and then, somehow, slipped and lost his balance.

Just like that, he was in the water. He had nothing on but a pair of shorts and ankle-height rubber boots. No lifejacket.

Scheller reached out as the boat glided past, but there was nothing to grasp on its smooth hull. Next he made a wild grab for the swim ladder at the stern—after decades of manual labour, his grip was so powerful that family and friends called him “Gorilla Hands”—but it slipped between his fingers.

In dumbstruck horror, he watched as his boat left him treading water nearly 65 kilometres from land.

Swim to survive

Fisherman holds up giant fishFisherman Sascha Scheller was a confident seaman—until he fell into the ocean and was left behind by his boat

Scheller had spent his life fishing, swimming, lifeguarding—he’d even served in the Coast Guard. He knew panic would only make things worse, but he couldn’t help himself.

For several long minutes, he was lost in anger and despair. How could I have been so stupid? he thought. I’m a dead man.

Images of his children, ages 12 and 14, flashed through his mind. How are they going to make it without me?

Then Scheller spotted a motorised catamaran about 300 metres away, with a figure seated in the rear. Scheller flailed his arms and screamed until he was hoarse.

Before he could catch their attention, the figure hauled up the anchor and motored away.

Scheller cursed himself for not wearing his lifejacket, which had an emergency whistle, a strobe light, and a beacon. But his anger quickly faded, replaced by resolve.

He was hard-headed and stubbornly independent, traits nurtured by his father, who had migrated to the United States from Germany with $800 to his name and had clawed his way up.

“Do it yourself,” his father had always told him. “You can figure it out.”

So Scheller got to work. He pulled his phone from his shorts pocket, but this far from land it was useless. He threw it into the sea to lighten his load. Next, he kicked off his boots so he could swim more freely.

He estimated that it was almost noon. Boats would be clustered around Nashville Tanker, about five kilometres to the northwest; by mid-afternoon they would head for home port.

That gave Scheller maybe three hours. He started breast-stroking, slow and easy to conserve energy.

Hunting for clues

As Andrew eased his craft alongside the ghost boat, Jack prepared to step onto it. Looking on as the boats lurched atop the water, Jack had to suppress an awful thought: If I fall between them, with the engines running, that will be … not good.

He leapt awkwardly and landed on all fours on the deck of the mystery boat. Getting to his feet, he stepped into the pilothouse and threw the engine into neutral as Andrew tied the two boats together.

Next Jack ventured below deck. No dead body in the cabin, but there was a wallet with the ID of a man named Sascha Scheller—and a lifejacket.

Man overboard with no lifejacket? Uh-oh.

While Jack reeled in the fishing lines Andrew boarded the vessel and called the Coast Guard.

"Man overboard with no lifejacket? Uh-oh"

“Can you see his GPS?” the dispatcher asked.

Andrew found a built-in display just above the helm. The unit had tracked Scheller’s course all morning. Along the way, he had marked waypoints to indicate promising fishing spots. Andrew read off the GPS coordinates so the Coast Guard could trace Scheller’s movements.

After the dispatcher signed off, father and son exchanged glances. It seemed like they should do something. Andrew radioed the Coast Guard again. “We’re going to go look for him,” he said.

With two boats, the Shermans could cover a larger search area.

“We know that he fell off sometime after putting down his last waypoint, and then the boat went about half a mile before making a hard left turn,” Andrew said to his son.

Jack would trace ever-larger circles from the last waypoint with the Shermans’ vessel, while Andrew would take Scheller’s boat and start looking in the area of the left turn.

Just keep swimming

Painting of man swimming in choppy seaAll Sascha Scheller could do was keep swimming for his life

After an hour in the water, Scheller realized he probably wasn’t going to get to the boats at Nashville Tanker before they headed to shore.

Normally he would call his wife, Erika, at 4:30 after returning to land. When she didn’t hear from him, she would probably phone the Coast Guard around 6pm.

How many hours after that would it take the Coast Guard to begin their search? Scheller might be treading water all night.

He knew from experience that boats make more noise underwater. Every few minutes, he stopped swimming and submerged his head.

At one point he heard, then saw, two boats in fairly quick succession, but they were too far away to swim to, and no amount of screaming could get the attention of anyone on board.

Still, he refused to despair or panic. For one thing, he felt fine physically. His father’s voice kept playing in his head: “If you tell yourself you can do something, you can make it happen.” He would keep swimming toward Nashville Tanker. He had to.

Floating booty

When Jack reached Scheller’s final waypoint, he fell into a circular search pattern. Suddenly, he spotted something in the water. It was a boot! He fished it out, and, moments later, he found another one.

Meanwhile, Andrew zigzagged across the curving line the ghost boat’s GPS had indicated. He couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that they were going to find a dead body, not a live swimmer.

Then his son’s voice crackled over the radio. “Coast Guard Station Wilmington,” Jack said. “I just found a pair of Xtratuf fishing boots, men’s size 12.” He gave the coordinates.

Andrew continued his search for a few minutes, then something clicked in his mind. If I fell overboard, I’d kick off my boots to swim, he thought. We are looking for a swimmer, not a body.

Lost and found

For the hundredth time, Scheller paused and lowered his head into the water to listen. He could distinctly hear the hum of a boat. He popped his head up but saw nothing. Then he looked behind him. A vessel was speeding his way.

“Hey! Hey!” he screamed, slamming his hands into the water to make the biggest splashes possible. The boat slowed and turned directly toward him.

Scheller realised in disbelief that his own boat had come to rescue him.

Andrew eased Scheller’s boat closer and rushed to the swim platform at the rear of the vessel.

“You have no idea how happy I am to see you,” Andrew said to the deeply tanned, athletic man treading water off the stern. With his long hair and beard, Sascha Scheller looked like he belonged to the elements.

"Scheller realised in disbelief that his own boat had come to rescue him"

“I’m happy to see you, too,” Scheller gasped, reaching for the boat. As he stopped kicking, his legs began to cramp. Andrew reached down and hauled Scheller up onto the boat. He’d been in the water for about four hours.

Scheller lay still for several minutes waiting for the pain to ease. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.” When he finally sat up, Andrew offered him a Gatorade—from Scheller’s own supply.

Jack pulled his father’s boat back alongside Scheller’s, and the Shermans radioed the Coast Guard to call off the search.

Other than the cramping, Scheller insisted he was fine. But hours later, after he’d returned to shore, trailered his boat, and begun hauling it home, the full weight of his ordeal hit him. Sitting at a traffic light, he broke down and sobbed.

He simply couldn’t wait to see his wife and kids.

Luck of the sea

The chances of Scheller’s craft making a direct course for the miniscule swatch of ocean taken up by the Shermans’ boat are vanishingly small. Had the ghost boat passed 50 metres on either side, the Shermans wouldn’t have noticed that it was unmanned.

How could it have happened? We will never know. But all three men favour a theory—one that elevates this rescue story to a true fish tale.

Having safely reached home and tearfully reunited with his family, Scheller went to tidy up his boat. That’s when he noticed that one of his five fishing rods was missing. Yet there were only four on the boat when the Shermans found it.

As the trio thought about the boat’s route, as mapped by the GPS, a theory took hold. 

After Scheller had fallen overboard, his boat had proceeded in a straight line, nowhere near the Shermans’ vessel. Suddenly it had made a hard left turn, and then straightened up again. Why? What could explain both the missing rod and the unmanned boat’s odd trajectory?

All three are convinced that after Scheller fell into the sea, a sizeable mahi or mackerel had grabbed the hook of one of the five rods and, with nobody to reel it in, kept swimming.

Once the line ran out to its full length, the fish dragged the boat off course—hence the sharp turn. Eventually the rod popped out of its holder, and the pulling stopped. The boat, moving in a straight line once again, was now perfectly lined up with the Shermans’ vessel.

Whatever the explanation, Scheller’s boat found exactly the right people. Other boaters surely heard the Coast Guard’s alert, but only the Shermans joined the search. “The Shermans stayed out there,” Scheller says, choking up.

The three men have become friends, catching up when they can and even going fishing together. Scheller is eternally grateful to the Shermans for letting him see his family again. “I was able to because of their actions,” he says.

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