"It happened so fast. As soon as I let go of the motor handle and began taking water over the gunnels, I knew I was getting wet," said Ted Kuhn. "I also knew I had to remain calm if I was going to get out of this situation."
By Chris Jennings
Fog, a light drizzle, and warmer than normal temperatures in December right after a cold front – duck hunting couldn't have been a better way for Ted Kuhn, Zionsville, Ind., resident to spend his day off. Ducks were holding tight along the Wabash River and Kuhn had remembered seeing several feeding along the mouth of a creek just north of Terre Haute, Ind. A morning filled with feather-laced optimism terrifyingly changed to a survival situation, one that Kuhn and others have learned from.
By 10:30 a.m., Kuhn realized the corn-fed mallard drakes he was hoping would pour into the creek mouth were going to be a no-show. He picked up his decoys, situated them in his 13.5-foot layout boat, threw on his life-jacket and began motoring slowly up river toward the Michael H. Kearns public access site in Tecumseh, Ind.
"I was familiar with the area just from hunting it several times this season with no problems," said Kuhn, a Lt. Col. and an F-16 pilot with the 181st Fighter Wing, Indiana Air National Guard. "I loaded the decoys in the front to counter balance the weight of myself and the motor, and the decoys had shifted to one side. This was causing the boat to lean a little."
As he reached out to adjust the decoy bags which were causing the slight list, his hand let off the motor handle. The boat slowed in the current with the subtle change in direction and then turned. The layout boat's low sides began taking in water and the Wabash's currents were no match for Kuhn's feeble efforts to regain its balance. The way the boat was taking in water, the entire boat acted like a rudder and it went down fast.
"As soon as I saw the water pouring over the gunnels, I tried to move to the other side to balance it out, but immediately I knew I was getting wet," he explained. "Less than ten seconds from the time I released my grip on the motor, the back of the boat went down and had flipped over. It was almost standing on end and I was clutching to the front tip of the boat."
Kuhn, who has over 20 years experience flying fighter jets in the military, has been through rigorous training, especially survival training in water. As a U.S. Marine Corps F-18 pilot, Kuhn had been sent through water training such as "Helo-dunker." During this exercise, a pilot is strapped into a helicopter, turned upside down and dunked under water. While Kuhn will admit luck played a major role in his survival, it was the initial instincts that had been driven into him from years of survival training that kept him alive.
"I just remembered to not panic," he explained. "I knew the dangers of hypothermia and knew that it can come quicker than you think. I also knew that I had floatation, needed to stay calm and had a little time to think about the situation and come up with a plan."
Clinging to the bottom of his layout boat and a bag of decoys in 40 degree water, Kuhn said he felt like he could possibly swim to shore if he could kick out of his waders, which were beginning to fill. Trying to push against the current with his makeshift floatation, he quickly realized that was not going to work.
Kuhn then heard a voice from shore yelling to him that a call had been made and help was on the way. The back roads along the Wabash River in Tecumseh, Ind., see very little traffic and local resident, Steve Day happened to be driving down the road and witnessed Kuhn's boat flip. After spending over 40 minutes in the Wabash River, local volunteer fire fighters, Terre Haute Water Rescue, and Indiana Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officers had Kuhn and his boat out of the water. The rescuers were able to salvage most of Kuhn's gear, including his shotgun which was stowed in a floating gun case.
"I didn't think I was hypothermic, but once I got into the ambulance I began to shiver and I knew I was in bad shape," he said. "Also, people don't realize how hard it is to get out of the water wearing water-filled waders. I couldn't get into the rescue boat and had to be pulled in. I should have had a wader belt on."
Although he has hunted all his life, Kuhn now has a greater respect for the dangers associated with being a waterfowl hunter. He admits he now has a minor phobia when it comes to hunting large rivers such as the Wabash River, but knows that the fear is what will keep his attention focused on details and keep him safe.
"I can only hope other waterfowl hunters can learn from my experience and it will keep them out of being in that situation," Kuhn said. "Don't panic and have a plan. Just having a plan will help you stay calm and remember that once you're loaded down with hunting gear, the normal floatation devices might not be enough to keep you up. Have something else in the boat with you."
He plans on hunting the Wabash River once again next season, and will more than likely hunt the same waters where he nearly died. With a combination of passionate waterfowl hunter and confident fighter pilot, Kuhn added.
"It was a heck of a way to convince my wife I needed a bigger boat."