Buddy Fuentes was a Baton Rouge police officer for more than 30 years, but he never saw anything quite like the accident he witnessed on Lake Mechant late last month.
Fuentes, 71, of Head of Island, was fishing with his wife Judy on April 19 when they decided to stop at a flock of birds around 6:30 that Wednesday morning.
“I don’t like to fish birds, and I did it again that day,” Fuentes said. “We were headed across the lake and a friend had told us to go down to Goose Bay, so that’s where we were headed.
“But I saw the birds, so I said, ‘Let’s stop and throw at these for a few minutes and see what happens.’”
As they worked through some undersized trout and a few gafftops over a 20-minute span, Judy eventually noticed two boats approaching in the distance.
“She said, ‘Uh oh, here come some boats that are going to fish on top of us.’ I said, ‘That’s OK, they can come not catch fish with us,’” Fuentes said. “We just laughed about it.”
But what happened next — on a crystal clear morning without a hint of fog in the middle of the wide-open lake — was definitely no laughing matter.
As the first boat throttled down about 50 yards from Fuentes, the boat behind it inexplicably smashed into the driver’s side of that vessel and went airborne over its hull.
“I saw the first boat slow down and his bow came up. He shut down probably 150 feet from me. And this other boat was coming and all of a sudden he made a turn to the left and bam - I know my chin had to hit my chest,” Fuentes said. “I could actually see the prop in the air spinning.
“I’m a retired policeman, and I’ve seen a lot. But believe me, I’ve never seen anything like that. It was like something out of the movies.”
The second boat, which was being driven by a grandfather accompanied by his 14- and 9-year old granddaughters, cleared the first boat — but both girls were ejected.
Fuentes immediately headed over to the accident scene, while his wife contacted authorities.
“My wife was very calm. She picked up the phone and called 911 and asked for people to bring first aid, she asked for Wildlife and Fisheries, the sheriff’s office and the Coast Guard. I don’t think she missed a thing — then she gave them the GPS coordinates.”
The two men in the first boat — who Fuentes found out later were actually coming to gather water samples over nearby oyster reefs — rescued the 9-year-old girl. Fuentes motored over in his 22-foot Blue Wave and plucked her 14-year-old sister from the water.
Thankfully the girls were wearing life jackets, and although they each suffered scrapes and bruises, both appeared fine.
“My wife asked the little girl when she finally got calmed down — what were y’all doing in the boat before y’all hit? And she said, ‘Nothing, we were just talking to Pawpaw, and Pawpaw was talking to us.’
“‘We saw the boat right before he hit it, and we screamed.’”
The two men in the first boat also were cut, but didn’t appear to suffer life-threatening injuries, Fuentes said. The grandfather cut his left cheek, and both his left arm and left leg were bleeding, he said.
“When he jumped, he was doing a good 40 or 45 mph it looked like to me, and he just kept going,” Fuentes said. “The grandfather was thrown in the back of the boat, and he didn’t have on a kill switch. He got up and went to the steering wheel and the throttle and shut her down, then turned around and came back.
“Normally if you let go of the steering wheel the boat makes a hard right turn. If that would have happened, it would have been a catastrophe because the boat would have gone in circles and nobody could have got there to help them.”
An oyster boat with a heavy-duty first aid kit came to assist, and Fuentes said authorities arrived at the scene about 40 minutes later.
Seeing the aftermath firsthand impacted both he and his wife, and he said it’s changed his behavior out on the water.
His message to other boaters this summer is that accidents happen fast — when you least expect them. So take all necessary steps to keep you and your passengers safe.
“I was the world’s worst about not wearing a kill switch — but I wear it all day now. When you see something like that and realize the tragedy that could have happened, you have to have it,” Fuentes said. “And life jackets are a must. Everybody knows that, but once you see something like this it puts it in perspective. Without a life jacket on, no telling what would have happened to those babies.”
Fuentes also beefed up his onboard first aid kit, and plans on another addition to make him even more aware of his surroundings on the water.
“I am buying a rear view mirror for my boat. The guy in the state boat never saw them,” he said. “If he had a rear view mirror he may or may not have seen them. But without it there was no chance of seeing them.
“For the price of a mirror, it’s cheap insurance.”
Fuentes hopes sharing this story will make everyone just a little safer on the water as summer boating season cranks up. But that morning after the accident, he said he and his wife decided to call it a day.
“We turned around and came back to the camp, packed up everything and we went home,” Fuentes said. “It was enough for us.”