She Jumped Like a Rabbit and Throwed Me Over: Rex O'Neal of Ocracoke

Excerpt of oral history recording, reprinted from Tradewinds Magazine, 2016, B. Garrity-Blake

I built myself a boat, a 16 foot skiff that was nice and narrow, flat bottom that wouldn’t draw much water at all. She’d scat like a cat!  She’d go 40 mile an hour.  Every time it got slick Ronnie O’Neal and I went flounder gigging. Ronnie had the Miss Kathleen. We’d go at night and just dip a light over. We’d stand on the bow of the boat and just pole. We’d see the flounders laying on the bottom and just gig ‘em and swish ‘em in the boat. 

Especially in the fall of the year they start schooling up and dropping out of the inlet. So Ronnie, me and others would partner up and go together in our separate boats. We’d wake up 2 o’clock in the morning because that’s when the water turned clear with the tide running out. 

We would always go off Portsmouth Island - those various shoals that we jumped – Shell Castle, Casey Island. We’d been floundering four or five nights in a row because it was one of those October spells when it gets ca’m, slick ca’m for days.  This was the third night, the first two nights we gigged 1,100 pounds apiece each. But that night we gigged a few, 150, 200 pound. It was just starting to breeze up.  

I said, “I’ve had enough. I’m done for the night.” They said, “We’ll be behind you a half hour, we’re just poling down to the edge of this shoal.” 

I started heading on back, sat right down on my thwart which is the seat of the boat, skipping along about 30 mile an hour.  I come across Blair’s Channel and saw something. It was a crab pot buoy. It had been sanded up. My motor hit it, and was going wide open, WAWAWAWAWA!  The motor was cavitating in the air - the whole motor was tilted up.  The throttle wouldn’t slow it down.  It sheared the cable.

I walked back there with a flashlight, and the weight of my body shifted to the back of the boat causing that motor to flop back down into the water. And when she flopped down she jumped like a rabbit and throwed me right over the stern of the boat. This was 1:30 in the morning, the tide was screaming out the inlet, and I went over. But I held that flashlight just as tight. 

When I popped back up, I saw that boat coming right at me. She was still revved wide open, 35, 40 miles an hour – she was turning a hard right. She was making tight little circles, whooong! See her coming – I dive. Had my boots and oilskins on, they were heavy, and I was swallowing water. Every time I popped back up here it came, whooong! Whoong! Whoong! Had to keep timing her, dodging that boat and prop, all the time  trying to kick my boots off. 

It was pitch dark that night, too. But I held onto that flashlight. Finally got my boots kicked off. I took on so much water from dodging the boat. Finally the 360 degree circle that the boat was making drifted – I swam away from the circle the best I could. This was ten, fifteen minutes in the water at least, and we were both drifting out the inlet at the same time. 

I swallowed so much water by then I was getting weak. But I was trying to get my ducks back in a row, figuring out, now what, big boy? I was right in the middle of nowhere, Blair’s channel, 20 feet deep, sucking out the inlet fast. I set there, I reckon I was in the water 25, 30 minutes before, finally I heard another boat coming. 

The first boat came up, and then I heard another one.  I said, “Man, I hope it comes by here!”  I figured it was Ronnie or Jimmy.  So I took that flashlight and I started shaking and flashing the light.  

They come up and see that boat running in a circle. Then Jimmy and Larry saw me in the water flashing that flashlight. I was getting to the point, I was about to go down. They come up, got a hold of me, and heaved me aboard.  They were so scared, they were shaking. I didn’t have time to be scared!  Then Ronnie came right behind them. I got in that boat with Ronnie because his boat was fast like mine.  My boat was still going around like a wild thing, 35 miles an hour. 

We took the rope from Ronnie’s anchor and got in front of her. We tried to lasso around the wheel so it would wrap around and cut her off. Well it caught the rope but never wrapped around the wheel. So we ended up having to lay there until about 4:30, quarter to five before she ever run out of gas!  In all honesty that flashlight saved my life that night. Without it, Ronnie and them would have never seen me. So that was one of my nine lives – I’m down to about one or two left!