EDITOR'S NOTE: Staff writer Ryan Arena filed this report for the St. Charles Herald-Guide.
After a weekend duck hunt that nearly ended with catastrophe in the cold waters of the Mississippi River, Matt Grabert called Saturday’s experience “the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.
“When you get thrown into the water at 4:45 in the morning, helpless in the middle of the river … it could have been a much different result,” said Grabert, of Boutte. “I could barely process it when it was happening.”
Grabert and his friend, Jake Duhe of Destrehan, were on an early-morning duck hunt in frigid temperatures Saturday, heading down the Mississippi River when their trip took an unexpected turn.
They were in Grabert’s boat in the middle of the river near Venice, and winds were much stronger than expected — and so were the river’s waves
“The weather report said there would be 20 mph winds. It ended up about 45,” Grabert said. “We didn’t realize it would be so bad until we were about a quarter of the way out there. The waves were way too rough to be in, but we couldn’t go back because we knew it would be worse.”
A wave came over the boat’s motor and it stalled, leaving the two stranded. Then, their worst fear was realized when a second large wave tipped the boat over and threw them into the ice cold water.
“It was pitch black,” Grabert said. “It was a completely helpless feeling.”
The two began swimming for shore, clinging to the floating boat for stability. Grabert said they made it about 50 yards from shore after 15 minutes in the water, but he knew time was running out.
“We were getting to the point of exhaustion,” Grabert said. “I was barely able to hold onto the boat.”
Fortunately, the capsized vessel was spotted by a passing ship, and a nearby pilot boat responded to the situation and rescued them.
Grabert said they were relieved over being rescued, but the two hunters were still freezing cold. He thanked their rescuers, who included Capt. Warren Nelson, watchman Philip Crovetto, Capt. Dana Wright and deckhand Roman Lewis.
“I’ll forever be grateful,” he said.
In addition to their rescuers, he credited their survival to wearing life jackets and having bought a boat only three weeks earlier that was built specifically to float if it capsized.
“The man who built it had that exact scenario in mind,” said Grabert, who credited Evan Schaubhut of Des Allemands. “If that boat sank, it would have been a lot harder for anyone to spot us and we wouldn’t have had it to hold on to. There may have been no way to find us and things could have ended much differently.”
An avid duck hunter, Grabert said he had crossed the river countless times without issue, although it was the first time he attempted it in his new boat.
“It wasn’t until I was cleaning the boat out (Sunday afternoon) that I really processed what had happened and the kind of danger we were in,” Grabert said. “That’s when I started to realize how fortunate and blessed we really were to get through it.”