Capt. Bill Bunting's cardinal rule of boating safety is, "Never get into something you can't get out of." Not a bad rule to follow when you can.
Sometimes it's not easy.
The name Bunting is just about synonymous with offshore fishing at Ocean City. Of the five major head boats running out of the resort town, three are captained by Buntings -- Bill on the Angler; Orlando on the Capt. Bunting; Jack on the Miss Ocean City. Each knows the waters here after decades of fishing them.
On Thursday morning all three Buntings went out in pursuit of mackerel, which lately have been swarming up the coast toward New England. That afternoon, after a poor day's fishing, all three found themselves picking through thick fog, trying to find the inlet.
It was a harrowing adventure before it was over.
Like most advertures it started suddenly and unexpectedly. The dozen or so fishermen and women aboard The Angler had enjoyed the foggy, hour-long ride back after a hard day in a pitching sea.
No one had a notion of trouble until the captain poked his head out from the bridge and hollered below, "Everyone keep a listen for the foghorn on the jetty."
He slowed the big-V-twin diesels and washed along with the swell, which began to build as the boat neared the beach.
Rich Graham, the second mate, was in the bow peering through the soup. The visibility was no more than 60 feet.
"Captain -- there's two Surfers," he shouted.
Half the fishermen raced to the bow and caught a fleeting flimpse of two shadowy figures on boards, disappearing in the mist. "My God," said one, "we're awful close."
"Yeah," Bunting said afterward. "I got a lot closer than I wanted to. I knew we were somehwere near the inlet and I wanted to get near enough for a bearing, to see exactly where we were."
He didn't know where the surfers were but he knew they were a lot closer in than he wanted to be in a boat that draws 5 1/2 feet. He jammed the engines into reverse and poured on the juice.
In the stern the fishermen could see the big props raising a cloud of sand off the bottom. The surfers disappeared.
Bunting said he guessed at that point he must have been a mile or so south of the Ocean City inlet. He had been hoping to come in north of the jetty and pick his way down to it, but miscalculations of a couple miles are not uncommon in these conditions.
He had two problems working back north. First was a broad shoal just south of the inlet which he wanted to avoid. Second, the other two headboats and two boats he guessed were clam dredgers were poking around, looking for the inlet, too. He could see them on the radar screen and knew he had to avoid them.
As Bunting worked north he watched the other boats, particularly one zigzagging south in a pattern evidently aimed at locating the same channel marker Bunting was seeking.
Bunting guessed the other boat lacked radar, because it showed no awareness of The Angler's presence.
"When we got close enough I had to lay to," said Bunting. The move came at a bad time.
The captain eased the diesels back into neutral and had all hands in the bow listening for a boat or a horn.
What they heard, instead, was the sound of breaking seas.
Then they saw surf ahead. Instead of a rolling sea the waves were building to eight and nine feet and crashing on top of themselves.
"Surf dead ahead," voices shouted.
Before Bunting could act, The Angler was in them. She pitched furiously. He juiced the engines again and brought the bow into the breaking waves.
The first one picked up the front end of the boat and sent it crashing back into a trough. John Pinkney of Washington shouted to the men on the bow, "Grab something, fast."
The Angler held her own in the high seas and worked offshore to deeper water in a harrowing five minutes. The other boat appeared briefly, a gray vision, and was gone.
Fifteen minutes later the men on the bow heard the first mournful moans of the horn on the jetty and shouted directions to the captain.
He worked his way slowly toward the sound until someone sighted a channel marker, its outline emerging from the mist eerily only 30 feet from the boat.
Then another red channel marker came into view, and the horn's moaning grew louder. Finally it, too, appeared, again only 30 feet off the bow. Bunting swung the wheel sharply and fitted the Angler neatly across the point of the stone jetty so close you could almost touch it, then along its length into the protection of the harbor.
It had taken an hour from the time the surfers were sighted.
"Don't let anybody fool you," said Joe Rison, the first mate. "Captain did a hell of a job. It was a lot worse than most of you thought."
Which made it pretty bad.