June 22, 2021
If you’ve been on the Internet in the last four years, you’ve probably seen the video. It starts with three salmon fishermen waving and shouting as a 31-foot powerboat bears down on their small skiff near the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon.
“Hey!” yells the skiff’s owner, Chris McMahon. “Hey! HEY!”
But the oncoming boat doesn’t turn or slow. It keeps coming until its bow fills the frame, and the anglers leap into frigid water just as the larger boat runs up and over their 20-foot aluminum Weldcraft.
A pair of GoPro cameras mounted on McMahon’s boat caught it all. If you freeze the video at just the right moment, you can see Bryan Maess is still aboard the skiff as the 31-foot Bayliner Trophy climbs its transom. At that instant the third angler, Roni Durham, is half in the water and half out, her feet pointed to the sky. McMahon had just entered the water, diving headfirst and staying under as long as he could to keep clear of the Bayliner’s twin propellers. It turns out he needn’t have worried—the props came clear out of the water, with one of them carving a serrated line along the Weldcraft’s aluminum gunwale.
The video clip racked up more than 7 million views online. There were news articles and lawsuits, but the story of what happened after the impact has never been told publicly—and it’s just as harrowing as the accident itself.
We’ll get to that in a minute. But first, you may be wondering how one boat can slam into another on a clear calm day. The short answer is inattention. The operator of the Bayliner, Marlin Larsen, was sitting down at the helm and may have been looking at his cell phone. He told Clatsop County deputies that he never saw McMahon and his companions in their 20-foot boat.
The sheer randomness of the accident is the best argument for the one thing he didn’t do that day—wear his life jacket.
“According to his son-in-law and grandson who were on the boat, he kept playing on his phone and apparently they told him multiple times to stay off the phone,” McMahon says. “That's what they told the sheriff’s department and Coast Guard. Larsen himself told me he had mounted some new electronics on the dash and that created a blind spot. So when he was running he just sat down and couldn't see.”
The result was the collision captured by McMahon’s GoPro cameras, and three people in the water. Only Durham was wearing a life jacket, and it failed to inflate.
“The collision happened so fast we didn't have a chance to get scared. It's like you walk out in the middle of the road with a semi truck coming and you jump out of the way,” McMahon said of the August 2017 incident. “The scary part comes when you have time to actually think about what's happening to you.”
The accident took place near Buoy 10 at the mouth of the Columbia River, an area known for shifting shoals, ferocious currents and world class salmon fishing. On that day, an outgoing tide boosted the Columbia’s already powerful current, sweeping the anglers toward a forest of old pilings. The experience was every bit as scary as being run down by a large powerboat, McMahon says, especially since he knew what was coming.
“I’ve been out there when the current was ripping so hard that those pylons, which are like telephone poles, actually sway back and forth with the current,” he says. “We were getting pulled pretty quick so I was concerned that if we got into the pylons that might be the end of us.”
The anglers struggled to stay afloat in jeans and waterlogged sweatshirts as the current pulled them toward the pilings and the ocean beyond.
Fortunately, McMahon and his friends weren’t the only boaters on the water that day, and good Samaritans quickly swung into action. First on the scene was a man with his young daughter in a small boat with a tiller-style outboard. He maneuvered the little boat expertly to collect the three anglers just before they reached the pilings, but the skiff was too small to take the trio aboard. They held onto the gunwales as the driver motored slowly to the Bayliner, which by that time had slid off the mangled remains of McMahon’s Weldcraft.
Maess and Durham went aboard the Bayliner, but McMahon wasn’t quite ready to meet the man whose inattention had nearly killed him. “Quite honestly I was in shock and I didn't know how I would react, so I asked him to take me to another boat that was hovering nearby,” he says.
Later, as the survivors spoke at the boat ramp with investigators from the Clatsop County Sheriff’s Department and U.S. Coast Guard, Larsen approached McMahon. “He came over and said ‘Hey, I'm sorry,’ and tried to introduce himself,” McMahon recalls. “I told him there may be a place and a time that I forgive you, but right now is not it and I just need some space.”
Larsen, who was 75 at the time, told deputies he couldn’t see where he was going because he was sitting down and the dash of his boat was blocking his view. He admitted he probably should have been standing, according to the sheriff’s report, which notes that he used a motorized scooter to get around. Authorities cited him with three counts each of assault and reckless endangerment, and one count of reckless operation of a vessel. He pleaded not guilty, but died of natural causes before the criminal case made it to court. Maess and McMahon later sued Larsen’s estate for civil damages.
Looking back on that day, McMahon says there’s nothing he could have done to avoid the accident. Evasive action was out of the question—he was fishing from the stern, far from his boat’s controls, and the Bayliner was on them in an instant. No one could have predicted the collision, which happened in fair weather with good visibility. The sheer randomness of the accident is the best argument for the one thing he didn’t do that day—wear his life jacket.
Before the accident, McMahon would typically only use a life jacket in rough conditions or when he was planning to do something “beyond the norm,” as he puts it. The close call at Buoy 10 changed his outlook. “I have never been on the water since without a life jacket,” he says.