A Seaplane Rendezvous: “You Can’t Get There From Here”

Bret GilliamI was on assignment nearly two decades ago when scheduling screw-ups got me into the airport late for a trip on Peter Hughes’ liveaboard SEA DANCER, I discovered that I had literally “missed the boat”. Stranded in Miami with dive model Mary Riley and a load of camera equipment and dive gear, I called my editor to see what could be worked out.

“Yeah, we can get you to Provo on tomorrow’s plane but the SEA DANCER sailed today and will be down in West Caicos by the time you get in. And there’s no airport, no roads and no scheduled boat service. We’ll make some calls and get back to you.” I hung up with that inspiring promise.

Just trying to find a hotel room within a 50-mile radius of Miami in the aftermath of the 1992 hurricane was enough challenge. Watching a blistering cold front whip up white caps in the hotel pool forced us to take shelter in front of Spectra-vision to ponder how many times you can watch Home Alone or 3-D Prison Girls in Bondage. (Answer: twice if you have popcorn, three times if you have the IQ of a weight belt.) The mood was sour. We were out of quarters for the Vibra-Bed and tonight’s feature was Wayne’s World. Help!

SeaplaneThen the phone rang. It was David at the magazine office sounding like the squadron commander from an old Gregory Peck war movie. “We found this guy down in Provo and he’s got a vintage seaplane sitting there looking for charter business. The weather’s a little stiff but he thinks he just might be able take off from the airport and then land in the ocean next to the ship. Want to give it a shot?”

Words like “vintage” and speculative phrases including “he thinks” are not major confidence builders, but Mary was making pleading faces at me as Dana Carvey suppressed a mutant teenager from hurling in his car. We had to get out. “OK skipper, we’re going in. This may be my last transmission. Set it up, Dave.”

Next morning we stood huddled in the Quonset hut that passed for a terminal in Provo International Airport (and Blender Drink Emporium). The rain was blowing sideways at about 40 knots and our transportation advance man had corralled us into a corner. He assured me, “It’s not as bad as it looks. I mean it’s only water, and hell… it’s a seaplane anyway.” Words to live by. I know I was inspired.

We slogged through water that reached halfway up our calves and climbed aboard. The Grumman Goose could seat about 20 passengers. Mary noted the conspicuous absence of any other adventurers on this flight. “You mean we’re the only ones?” she asked with a noticeable quiver.

“Don’t be silly,” our pilot replied, “the guy carrying your bags is coming.”

I felt better already.

“Sit anywhere,” the pilot waved expansively. And we were off in a roar of 50-year old reciprocating engine technology. All we needed were scarves and Snoopy caps. “It’ll be a short flight…no matter what”.

This guy kills me. He’ll probably be the next Burger King spokesman.

After missing the goats at the end of the runway, we banked out over Provo and turned down towards West Caicos. Fifteen minutes later we could see the SEA DANCER bobbing in the swells at anchor just off the iron shore island. It looked like all diving had been suspended since the deck was lined with camera-wielding disaster aficionados eagerly awaiting our arrival… or crash.

“It may be a little rough going in,” our intrepid pilot shouted. Didn’t John Wayne say that in Flying Leathernecks as the flak came up over the target? Suddenly Wayne’s World was looking pretty good.

Six-foot swells screamed up at us as the plane cut power and we swooped down at SEA DANCER roughly approximating the glide path of a brick dropped from a tall building.

“Don’t worry,” I comforted Mary, “All our stuff floats if we survive the impact.” I could tell from the gentle way her nails cut through my shoulder blades drawing blood that she regarded this as more than a job. It was an adventure.

To say we landed abruptly is perhaps not completely accurate. I think we submerged. Water covered the plane and most of it came in to visit me where I was examining my face print in the bulkhead.

Mary gave me a look like the German submarine engineer trapped on the bottom in Das Boot. “Ve have to get ze water OUT!”

But then the hatch opened. We were made fast to the stern of SEA DANCER and Capt. Roger Edwards sent the inflatable boat for us. A group of divers from the mid-west thronged about us as we climbed aboard. “That looked like one hell of a rough landing,” one of our shipmates offered. “How was it?”

I looked at Mary and shrugged, “Piece of cake.”

Note: Emboldened by its inaugural flight to rendezvous with the liveaboard, the owners decided that this was pretty good business. However, on its very next flight the seaplane hit the swells too hard, broke up and sank within minutes. Pilot and passengers escaped unharmed… except for some dampened dignity.

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6 thoughts on “A Seaplane Rendezvous: “You Can’t Get There From Here””

  1. those polyurethane inflatable boats are very sturdy and some are kevlar lined too but they are expensive ,;`

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  2. last time we had a flash flood on our area and inflatable boats always come in handy _

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  3. The Mallard once dipped a wing-float before the main hull coming into Walkers Cay and the effect on the passengers was similar to being inside a blender for ten seconds. Not funny at all. Many concussions and broken limbs.

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  4. That reminded me also of the Mallard connection from Ft. Lauderdale to Walker’s. I want to think that it was a 16 or so passenger ride. The Goose is a bit larger so it probably has more seating. Anyway, those things sure do a big water spray coming in. A fun trip although we didn’t have the adventure bonus of a 40 kt. wind.

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  5. Did you know that the Twin Otters of Maldives Air Taxis are flown back to Calgary each year for a service. That’s some haul. I would think they’d need another service by the time they got back to the Indian Ocean.

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  6. Not trying to top your story Bret but it sounds like that little Grumman Mallard they used to connect Fort Lauderdale with Walkers Cay.
    A conversation I well remember:
    “You’re going to be delayed departing from the island because the plane has crashed.”
    “Are they going to get another one?”

    Or the time I chartered a flight from Seaplane Services in Opa Locka to join my family for Christmas in Antigua after working on a film in LA. The Vietnam vet pilot said it was the most dangerous flying he’d ever done!

    Volcanic ash? These young people don’t know they’re born!

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