Terror at the Tower

At 6am Chad was joined on his boat, The Odyssey, at Holden Beach, NC, by a friend from the archery world, Josh Davis, and his wife, Amber. Josh brought with him years of experience as a former commercial captain and as an avid fisherman, and my husband was over the moon excited to have that kind of knowledge and passion for fishing onboard. They set out on a 50-60 mile, 2.5 hour voyage to Frying Pan Tower in 2 ft seas and overcast skies, by all means favorable conditions. Frying Pan Tower is an out of commission lighthouse that divers and fisherman flock to, as it is a proverbial honey hole for big fish species. After fishing that spot for a time, they made way to an artificial reef (AR400), also called the Greg Mickey wreck, named after a much-loved North Carolina diver who lost his life in that area.

Chad has been freediving most of his adult life and in the past couple years he became scuba certified. Yesterday, he opted to strap on scuba gear to spend time on the bottom spearfishing before heading back inshore. Part of that laundry list of gear was a BC (buoyancy compensator), which is the vest you see scuba divers wearing that has the tank strapped to the back. The vest serves, as its namesake suggests, as an inflatable/deflatable air bladder that helps divers control their buoyancy during descent and at the surface. All that gear weighs roughly 65lbs, so you can see why you’d want a little help from the BC to assist in flotation on the surface and keep you from sinking like a stone to the bottom. Now, he knew he only had about half a tank of air, so he told Josh and Amber that he’d be down for around 20 minutes or so, which is what he did. He dove, following the anchor line to the wreck below and when he was done, he circled the wreck for the line, but it wasn’t there. When he resurfaced, the boat was gone, his BC wasn’t working properly, seas were up, and a storm was pummeling the surface of the ocean.

What Chad didn’t know is that while he was 65 feet below surface, a nearby storm widened, waves grew, conditions rapidly turned and the boat began to drag the anchor across the ocean floor. When you have no nearby structures for reference, it’s very easy to be dragged off your anchor spot without noticing until you reference your onboard electronics. Waves started crashing over the deck. The wind at dive time was 3 knots, ten minutes later it was 30 knots, the boat turned sidelong into the waves and the anchor line. Josh made the right decision to bring the anchor up knowing all of this could be a game over situation very quickly. But…the anchor would not come up, so emergency decision number two was to cut the anchor line and so he did. Now, The Odyssey was adrift in rain, wind, high seas, low visibility and with a man below. Josh and Amber frantically passed over the dive site repeatedly looking for Chad. I cannot imagine the panic and fear Josh and Amber experienced during the eternity of searching for Chad in those conditions.

But then, what of Chad? He came to the surface with a BC that was no longer working properly, so he was carrying an extra 65 lbs of dead weight and no boat in sight. Nearest land was over 30 miles away and not remotely visible, but he could barely make out the Frying Pan Tower. So he swam. And swam. He swam for at least an hour and a half, against the current, in the curious company of a bull shark, with lightning crashing around as he tried to make his way to a metal structure in the open ocean. For most of that time he could hardly discern whether or not he was getting any closer to the tower. Pause. Can you imagine any of what was going on in his mind? Can you imagine swimming against the waves with the equivalent of a child on your back for more than even a few minutes? In a storm? I think it was at about this time in his story that I walked out of the restaurant to my car and cried. My body was numb and burning up at the same time. Prayer was called for.

But there’s more to the story. Because he made it to the Tower. There was a ladder on the structure, but how to get to it in 4′ seas after an exhausting swim of your life? He made the decision to drop his fins and that was a big moment because that rendered him almost immobile in the water. There’d be no more swimming after that. He strapped his BC, tank, and spear gun to the ladder and gave the heave ho to mount the first step of an 80′ climb to the top where he was met with an overhead hatch that, thank God, was unlocked. Again, met with dark and now a locked door, he found a key in the knob and made his way in. He was able to find a radio, locate batteries and tune into channel 16 and make the call.

Chad: “United States Coast Guard, North Carolina sector, come in.”

Response: “This is the United States Coast Guard, over”

Chad: “This is Chad Harrelson of the Fishing vessel Odyssey. I lost contact with my boat while diving near The Frying Pan Tower. I have reached The Tower and I am seeking assistance”.

Josh Davis: “Chad! We hear you! I’m looking for you, I’m on my way!”

Coast Guard: “Please advise us of your situation once you are back onboard.”

Chad: (Seeing his boat emerge through the storm) “I’ll be on the boat in 20 minutes. Over and out.”

Are you guys still with me? Because in that restaurant, me and three of our kids were shocked still into place, never taking our eyes off Chad’s face. Our eleven year old said, “Wow, that was all happening while we were playing games in an arcade.” We laughed nervously. He wasn’t wrong. We were entertaining ourselves in Myrtle Beach, passing time while waiting for Chad to return, with what we expected to be a great catch and great stories.

He descended the ladder, disconnected his gear and let it sink to the bottom of the ocean. He made one more swim back to his boat to what I can only imagine were two of the most shocked and relieved people on the Atlantic Ocean. Chad learned that he was separated from them for more than two hours. Of course, Josh had radioed the Coast Guard long before their reunion. They asked for the name and number of nearest kin. In this case, thankfully, he did not have my cell number. And let me explain a few things.

First, I am afraid of the water and have been since my earliest memories. But I also do not like to succumb to fear and have worked to overcome this particular one by taking swimming lessons, becoming open water lifeguard certified, and have allowed my husband to patiently guide me in freediving spearfishing experiences. I love spearfishing. Time stands still when in pursuit of prey and fears fade. But while onboard a boat, I get motion sick. No prescription, gadget or force of will prevents it. And the same was true the day before when we were only five miles offshore with the family. Once we reached our fishing spot, I laid down in the boat and waited as hours passed until we were back inshore. I made the decision that I could not go on the much anticipated trip the following morning with Chad, the kids and our friends. Just think for a moment if the kids and I had been on the boat during this debacle. God is merciful and motion sickness was a saving grace for me and the children that day. Josh did pass on to the Coast Guard the name and number of a friend who could reach me, but I was never notified. Again, I consider this a blessing.

So many what ifs. So many potential scenarios. So many alternative outcomes. It hurts the brain and heart to consider them all. Many lessons learned. But Chad did come home this time, and I thank God for that. The same God who made this man very different from other men. I can’t help but think He made Chad for something great that has yet to be realized, aside from his uncanny ability to save his own neck. I guess we will all just have to stay tuned to find out what that purpose is.

We will get another chance for another adventure together.


Christine is a professional competitive archer, mother of five, and wife to Chad Harrelson, a computer engineer by trade, spearo by passion and life enthusiast.