The hull of Bergren’s Ranger boat was destroyed when he hit a pipe when entering a channel near Burns Harbor. It filled with water, but didn’t sink.
Bobby Bergren is Happy to be Alive
And lucky, too.
The Munster, Ind. angler and his partner escaped serious injury in a boating accident on Lake Michigan July 10 and they want others to learn from their experience – and mistakes.
“If God wanted us to die early, we would be dead,” the 28-year old Bergren said. “For some reason, he kept us alive.”
He and 22-year-old Ian Boston, also of Munster, were bass fishing on Lake Michigan that morning. They launched in East Chicago, ran to Chicago, caught a few fish and then made the surprisingly smooth, 20-mile ride back to the ArcelorMittal shipping channel near Burns Harbor.
“I wasn’t real familiar with the area but knew there was a discharge back in there that bass will congregate around from time to time,” said Bergren. “The problem was I was thinking about catching fish and lost sight of the importance of being safe.”
As he zoomed into the mouth of the shipping channel, the bottom of his boat struck a large pipe protruding inches above water off an underwater break wall.
The heavy pipe shredded the fiberglass hull of Bergren’s 21-foot Ranger Boat on impact and ejected both men into the lake.
Both anglers were jettisoned across the front deck, over the bow and into 30 feet of water.
“It happened so fast neither of us had time to react,” said, Bergren, who was knocked temporarily unconscious when his face slammed into the console on his way out of the boat.
Fortunately for both men, the boat turned sharply away as they were tossed over the nose and neither man was struck by the propeller. The boat came to rest against channel rocks.
Bergren had the outboard “kill” switch attached to his life vest but had forgotten to attach it to the throttle connector. Otherwise, the engine would have shut off as he was thrown from the cockpit. Because he uses a foot throttle, the boat did slow to idle speed when his foot came off the gas.
Both anglers were wearing life jackets; Boston had a traditional foam-filled jacket that covers the back and chest; Bergren was wearing a harness style vest designed to inflate when submerged.
But it didn’t.
“I just bought it a few weeks ago and even had the Coast Guard inspect it before I used it,” he said. “I’ll never wear one of those inflatables again.”
Bergren regained consciousness underwater and surfaced to hear Boston, calling his name. Boston was struggling due to his badly injured legs, so Bergren, a good swimmer, helped his partner to the boat resting against the bank.
“My face was covered with blood and Boston had a bad cut on his leg,” he described. “The bone was showing; we think the prop on the electric motor cut it when he was thrown over the top of it.”
The boat already had filled with water from a gaping hole torn along the keel on the bottom. Lucky for both men, Bergren’s cell phone was locked in a dry storage compartment. He was able to call the Coast Guard for help.
The anglers waved an orange rescue flag and shot off flares to get attention of a nearby helicopter. A Coast Guard boat team picked them up within the hour and took them to the Hammond Marina where an ambulance took them to Gary Methodist hospital.
Both men were sore and banged up. Boston’s leg required five stitches; Bergren’s face was cut and swollen. They were treated for cuts and bruises and released that night.
Bergren wanted his story told with hope that Lake Michigan officials will mark the dangerous pipe with a buoy and that other anglers and boaters will learn from his experience - and mistakes.
He realizes he should have been more cautious when motoring through unfamiliar areas. Given his extensive experience of fishing Lake Michigan for smallmouth, he got complacent.
“You have to realize your life and partner’s life are in your hands,” Bergren said. “We often get anxious about catching fish and forget about safety.
Safety will be my top priority from now on.”
He also wants boaters to know that the inflatable vests don’t always work.
“Those vests might be more comfortable, but they obviously are unreliable,” he said. “I’ll not risk my life with them again.”
In addition to his boat hull being destroyed, it cost him $4,300 when a tow service took the boat from Burns Harbor to Bridgman, Mich., site of a salvage service. He also lost several thousand dollars’ worth of rods that had been secured under straps but the impact ripped them off the front deck.
Those are material things that can be replaced,” he said. “What’s important is we’re still alive.”