PGA Tour pro Vaughn Taylor was fishing for striped bass like he always did, but things went horribly wrong.
With National Safe Boating Week starting Sunday and running through May 24 — Florida led the nation in boating fatalities in 2017 with 66, three more than Texas — now is the perfect time to share his little-known story.
Taylor, 43, grew up in Augusta, Georgia, and still lives there on the Savannah River with his wife and two children. He has won three times on the PGA Tour, his last victory coming at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 2016, and he was a member of the United States Ryder Cup team in 2006.
When he’s not playing golf, you can usually find Taylor in his bay boat or bass boat fishing for stripers on a seven-mile stretch of the river that is more like a lake, with dams at both ends. “I’ve kind of got them trapped,” he said with a laugh in early March during the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens.
The fishing was exceptionally good in August of 2015, with Taylor catching a striper on almost every cast. Without warning, his great day almost turned tragic.
“I was right up at the dam, I was really close, and the water was pumping really, really hard that day,” he said, adding that the water was being released to generate enough hydroelectric power to meet the air conditioning demand for the region. “It was a hot summer afternoon, so when the weather’s extreme, it runs hard. But when it’s running hard, fishing’s good sometimes.”
Taylor was fishing by himself in his 19-foot aluminum bass boat. He had secured the vessel to a barrier rope that keeps boaters from venturing into the powerful current below the dam, which is similar to the barriers that keep South Florida boaters away from canal spillways when water is being pumped.
“Kind of how it works is we hook up a front rope and a back rope on the right side of the boat to the barrier,” said Taylor, who had caught a Savannah River-record 56-pound, 2-ounce striper doing that a few years earlier.
“I probably caught five or six in a row, it was all going great, and then I sat down to re-tie my lure and I heard this ‘pop’ and I looked up and my front rope had just snapped. Just seconds go by and the boat swings to my left and the back right is still tied and water started breaching the boat before I could even do anything.”
As the back of the boat filled with water, Taylor, who was not wearing a life jacket, jumped into the river. A big eddy spun him around a couple of times and when he looked up, he saw the bow of his boat in the air above him.
“The boat was going down but it was still tied up. It was kind of a weird scenario,” he said. “The bow was really high up, and I was trying to reach up and was actually going to pull myself back in. I had this brief image of like, ‘I’m going to jump back in the boat and unhook it and just go home.’ I quickly found out that wasn’t going to happen.”
After a couple of attempts, Taylor let go of the bow and began floating downriver. He had a long way to get to the nearest shoreline, so he decided to go back and hang on to the barrier rope and wait for someone to rescue him. As he tried to swim against the current, he realized that plan wasn’t going to work.
“Once I decided that wasn’t an option, I just started floating downstream again and I heard a voice and I looked up and I see some guy standing on the rocks and he’s yelling, ‘Go the other way!’ It was actually a park ranger,” Taylor said.
“I just wasn’t thinking clearly. Things were just happening so fast. I kind of was just drifting downstream trying to figure out where to go, what to do. I started thinking about my family and I was thinking about death: Am I going to drown? What’s going to happen here?
“And then I thought about my son [Locklyn, his first child, who was 1 at the time] and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m getting out of here. I’m getting to land. I don’t care how it happens, I’m getting there.’ And so I turned around and looked back and I see some of the stuff from my boat is floating. I had one of those soft tackle bags and I saw it floating towards me and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I can maybe grab onto this and use it as a flotation device.’ So I swam to it, grabbed it, tried to suspend myself on it to see if it would hold me up and it did.”
The bag allowed Taylor to get to the shore, where the ranger was waiting to help him. Someone suggested that Taylor call his wife, Leot, to let her know he was OK in case she had heard about the incident. But when he called, Taylor said he was unable to talk.
“I didn’t expect that,” he said. “It really hit me how serious it actually could have been. It was scary.
“Looking back on it, I made a lot of mistakes that day. The rope [tied to the bow] was old and mildewed, the current was too strong, I was by myself, I didn’t have a life jacket on, I was in a boat that sits low to the water. All those things didn’t help my cause. I learned a lot of valuable lessons that day.”