The logo painted on the back of Herm Elenbaas’ drift boat says: “Fear no rock,” a reference to the durability of the boat’s fiberglass construction. But after a mishap on the Bighorn River on Sunday, Elenbaas might want to think about painting over the phrase.
It was a beautiful, sunny day when Elenbaas, 59, launched his Big Sky Drifter boat at Bighorn fishing access site in south-central Montana. The plan was to take his friends, Jim and Ruth Houseman, from Byron Center, Mich., on a pleasure cruise. They would float downstream to Mallard’s Landing, fishing along the way.
“It’s my favorite part of the river,” said Elenbaas, owner of Billings’ KURL radio station. “I’ve done it many times.”
The day was made even more pleasant because there were so few other boats on the water. Usually, he noted, you could walk across the river from boat to boat. But not on Sunday; it was as if they had the river all to themselves.
Unfortunately, the fishing wasn’t that good until they stopped at a hole just past the St. Xavier bridge, dropping anchor so they could fish the spot more effectively. The river was flowing at about 2,100 cubic feet per second, a little higher than normal.
Drift boats are rigged so that the oarsman can drop an anchor off the back of the boat by pushing on a foot release through which the anchor rope is fed. Once the anchor hits bottom, the release grabs the rope holding the boat in the current.
“I was sitting in the back and we were all right until the anchor slipped and we were in faster current,” said Jim, 64.
Elenbaas didn’t like where the boat had moved, so he attempted to lift anchor.
“When Herm pulled on the anchor rope, we got water over the back,” Jim said. “Once she got one gulp, she took on water fast. It was just like the Titanic.”
When the anchor slipped, it apparently became lodged under a rock or log. So when Elenbaas attempted to pull up the anchor, instead of the anchor rising up out of the river, the back of the boat went down into the river.
“Everything happened so quickly, it was quite surprising,” said Ruth, 60.
Elenbaas had his back to the back of the boat, so he could only hear the water rushing in as he pulled on the anchor rope. The end of the rope has a knot in it so the rope doesn’t feed all of the way out, so he couldn’t just release the rope. He didn’t have a knife handy to cut the rope, either. Even if he did have a knife, he questioned whether he could have cut the rope fast enough.
“So bam! we’re in the water,” Elenbaas said. “That was a wake-up call, the cold water.
The water is so cold because it drains off the bottom of Bighorn Reservoir through Yellowtail Dam to feed the river. The shock of sinking into the cold water took their breath away.
“And it’s really a very vicious current, and deep,” Ellenbaas said. “I’m 6-foot-7 and it was over my head.”
Ruth said she never thought to grab a life jacket on the floor next to her. (State law requires life jackets for each person in a boat, but they need not be worn by those 12 years old and older.) Instead, she clutched the plastic bag that held her cellphone and camera.
“We watched the stuff pop up out of the boat and float down the river,” Jim said. “If the water would have been warmer, I would have swam after it.”
Instead, it was every person for him- or herself as they struggled to swim to shore.
“At the time, I think I was thinking the worst,” Ruth said.
Luckily, some landowners across the river saw the boat sink. Tyler Bush paddled his canoe over and retrieved the doused boaters. For two hours the boat porpoised under water, straining against the current as the crew puzzled about how to retrieve the sunken boat. Then along came a jet boat piloted by Joe Caton, whose son, Brad Caton, was able to cut the anchor rope and tow the craft to a gravel bar where Elenbaas and Jim could bail it out – a 25-minute chore.
With the aid of a donated oar to replace a lost one, they finished out the float, although Ruth chose to stay ashore.
“People went above and beyond, they were fantastic,” Elenbaas said.
From now on, he plans to carry a knife with him while floating to avoid a similar sinking.
“You get this small sense of security in those boats,” Elenbaas said, something he will no longer trust.
“I think my heart rate is still accelerated a day later.”
After a long pause of consideration, Ruth said she would go boating with Elenbaas again.
“You learn from the first mistakes,” she said.
Jim had a more comical view of the incident.
“I think Herm better stay in broadcasting and not think about tour guiding,” he said.