After 25 years, the family of a missing fisherman is still haunted by his loss

Chuck Bowie is 86. He lives alone except for a diabetic cat named Zoomie who requires two insulin shots a day. His house sits deep in the woods on the Eastern Shore of Maryland along a road lined with towering pines that is so narrow, two cars can barely pass each other. He and his wife, Ruthe, moved here 25 years ago to be closer to their granddaughter.

Ruthe passed in 2014, but it is not her absence that fills the silence between the ticks of the clock that hangs above the rocker. It is not the weight of her loss that presses down on the plaid pillows.

On the wall below the stairs hangs a small, square picture, an old snapshot of a little boy standing on a dock, fishing rod in hand. Chuck looks at it for a moment, then waves his arm in a follow-me gesture. Tall and smiling, with scrubbed pinkish skin and silver hair parted neatly to the side, he ambles to the kitchen.

A row of cabinets runs the length of the room, with two short ones creating an open space above the sink. Chuck flips a switch, and under-cabinet lights illuminate the backsplash, revealing a mural that re-creates the photo of the boy, with the child standing in the space below the short cabinets, his jaw set, his eyes focused on the yellow-green water. The image captures so much that could not be known at the time. The dyslexia that would lead the boy to prefer things that he could do over those that he could study, the single-mindedness, the dedication, the near total alignment of a being and its purpose.

It is not quite dusk, and in the soft light the image almost glows. “We had a local artist re-create it from the photo,” Chuck says. “We thought it would be a good way to remember Christopher.”

Twenty-five years after Christopher Bowie first held that fishing pole and stood on that dock, his passion for the sea swallowed him whole. And 25 years after his loss, Chris’ friends and family, including the dad he left behind and the daughter he never met, are still trying to break free.

“The way it happened was shocking,” says his sister, Robyn, “but the reason it has had such an impact is because of who he was. When people say, ‘Life can change in a heartbeat,’ I always think, You have no f---in’ clue.”

This snapshot of 4-year-old Chris Bowie is re-created in a mural painted in his parents’ home. 

This snapshot of 4-year-old Chris Bowie is re-created in a mural painted in his parents’ home. 

Chuck Bowie pulls out a slip of paper. “My cheat sheet,” he says. The page includes reminders of his favorite Chris stories, the ones he has told again and again through the years. They start with the trip to Emerald Isle, North Carolina, when Robyn was 12, middle brother Randy was 8, and Chris was 4. The Bowies rented a house for a week that backed up to a canal. The house had a small dock.

Before the trip, Chris had received a gift from his cousin: a push-button rod and reel. That was all it took. “Chris stood on that dock the whole week,” Chuck says. “Wouldn’t come in. His mother had to bring his lunch out there. I think those were the only bites he got.”

When the Bowies returned home to Woodbine, a rural community in western Maryland, Chris announced that he would become a fisherman. Chuck, who’d spent most of his career in pharmaceutical sales, and Ruthe, a homemaker and state-certified master gardener, explained — repeatedly — that catching fish was a hobby, not a job.

Chris would have none of it. Every subsequent vacation included some element of fishing, and on weekends and summer days, Chris and a friend would hike to the ponds on the farms near his home. By age 6, Chris began pushing Chuck to take him on Chesapeake Bay party boats. Soon that wasn’t enough.

Chris argued that the Bowies should buy a boat of their own. Chuck mostly laughed off the pleas, but one day while the two were chopping wood, heat and exhaustion got the better of him. “Damn it boy!” he snapped. “If you earn half the money, I’ll supply the other half.” Chuck figured that would be the end of that.

It was a Saturday. On Monday morning, Chris began calling local farmers. By the end of the day, he had three jobs cleaning barns and stacking hay. Allergies and asthma made the work so miserable that he had to wear a mask, but he never missed a day. “He wouldn’t spend a penny,” Chuck says. “One day we went to the fair, and I could see him looking at the rides. I said, ‘Do you wanna go?’ and he said, ‘Are you paying?’ ”

Instead, Chris handed over $1,200 at the end of the summer, and Chuck had no choice: He bought a 16-foot Cobia. The Bowies upgraded twice during the following three years, ending up with a 28-footer, but even that couldn’t contain Chris’ ambition.

At 17, Chris persuaded his parents to let him spend the summer with a relative in Ocean City, Maryland, where he went to the docks daily, scrubbing boats and cleaning fish to get on or near the charter boats that filled the marinas. Before long, a few captains offered him a chance to ride along as an extra hand.

The next summer, Chris returned and brought his best friend, Mark Wanamaker. Chris, Mark and another roommate, Scott Walker (now the co-host of the fishing television show Into the Blue), worked as mates. “We would get up at 3:30 in the morning, work all day, clean the boat, get dinner and be in bed by 8:30,” Wanamaker says. “Then we’d do the same thing the next day. Chris loved it.”

During the evening, the trio compared notes. “Scott and I in particular were working on boats that were known to catch a lot of fish,” Wanamaker says. “Chris would quiz us every night about the skills and tactics we saw. Chris had such a passion for catching fish and being on the water. I thought it was a good job, but it never meant that much to me.”

When fall came, Wanamaker made his way to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), and Chris went to Florida, where he hooked up with captains he’d met in Maryland. During the next few years, he settled into a familiar pattern: summers in Maryland, and the fall and winter working Florida, the islands, Costa Rica, Mexico and Venezuela. At 21, despite his learning difficulties, Chris earned his captain’s license, and at 24 he took command of Midnight Hour, a 53-foot Hatteras that operated out of Ocean City. When the owner wasn’t using the boat, Chris freelanced.

“He worked on the Ambush down in Costa Rica in ’91,” says Capt. Jason Parker. “That was one of the first boats to hook 1,000 billfish in a season. You can’t do that if you’re not going hard.”

The Bowies had seen Chris’ passion but never fully understood it. “He never talked about it,” Chuck says. “It was just fish, fish, fish.”

“It wasn’t competitive,” Wanamaker says of Chris’ attachment to the sport. “It was the art of it. It was setting the lines so the baits would sit just right in the wake. Rigging the baits so that they would swim right. And it was being part of it, at one with the sea and knowing how it was done.”

Paul Murray, a captain who later ran a bait-catching business with Chris in Florida, puts it another way: “Once you get the ocean in your blood, it’s hard to get it out.”

Chris Bowie was most at home on the water.

Chris Bowie was most at home on the water.

One weekend this past March, Chuck Bowie helped a friend work a fundraising booth at an exhibition. As it happened, the guy in the next booth was selling offshore trolling lures. Chuck couldn’t resist. “Does the name Chris Bowie mean anything to you?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” the man said, “I still think about him. He was the kindest person.”

“We talked for two hours,” Chuck says.

Wanamaker is perhaps more aware than anyone of the effect Chris had on people. At Glenelg High School, he and Chris played on the lacrosse team but knew each other only in passing. After his parents’ divorce, Mark had been sent to live with his father, an Army officer who was scheduled to transfer to Hawaii. Mark didn’t want to go. Chris asked his parents if Mark could live with them. At first, Chuck said no, but Chris persisted. Finally, Chuck made some inquiries. Mark lived with the Bowies for the next three and a half years. “Chris saw the good in people,” Chuck says.

Once Wanamaker moved in, the two became something like brothers, sharing everything from household chores to a bathroom. “He would crank up the radio and sing and laugh, and we would have so much fun just getting ready for school,” says Wanamaker, who now owns several car dealerships in Maryland. “He always woke up happy. Every morning was fun.”

“He loved to bust chops, but he was always the first to come back and make sure everything was OK, that he hadn’t gone too far,” says Chris’ brother, Randy, who is 60 and the chief operating officer of Screen International Security Services, a personal protection and crisis management firm in Los Angeles.

The second summer Chris spent in Ocean City, he hooked up with Joe Riley, a big man with a big personality who operated nine dry cleaners in the Annapolis area and owned a pink boat called Muff Diver. Chris worked for Riley for five years, becoming an adopted member of the family with his own keys to the house and siblinglike relationships with Riley’s two kids. “Chris may have been the cleanest-cut kid I’ve ever seen,” Riley says.

Early in Chris’ tenure, a guest asked about the flying fish surfacing around the boat. “Yeah, these are fun, but if they get a bit bigger, they can knock people overboard,” Chris said. “If that happens, you’ll have to stay inside the cabin.” The guy believed him, which Riley and Chris had a good laugh about later.

Soon after, Riley bought hard hats with FFP printed on them — Flying Fish Protection — and when the situation arose, they’d make their clients don the helmets while Joe quietly turned on the bridge-mounted video camera. The guests would later be let in on the joke, and the shots of them looking like sea-addled construction workers would make it onto a video they received to commemorate the day.

Riley sometimes turned the humor against Chris. “Chris wasn’t a drinker, but he would come out for a beer,” Riley says. “He was strikingly handsome, but he was petrified of women, so we would send girls over to talk and watch him run away.”

Still, Chris met Laurie Post through another captain in 1991, and the two married the next year. “She was the antithesis of what Chris was about,” Randy says, as Laurie was into fashion and pop culture. Once when Randy visited the couple, Chris came home sweaty and covered in viscera. He washed up, changed his T-shirt and announced that he was ready to go to dinner. “He truly didn’t understand why he couldn’t go to a restaurant with blood on his shorts and shoes,” Randy says. “He had a sort of innocence and purity in that way, which also gave him a real wisdom. I mean, he was four years younger than me, but I would often go to him for advice. He could cut to the heart of what was important.”

Parker remembers a time when the two were cleaning up after a long day. A kid, maybe 10, asked how to tie a certain rig. “Chris spent half an hour with the kid,” Parker says, “and if you saw him, you never would have guessed he had anything else to do.”

Chuck Bowie.

Chuck Bowie.

On June 16, 1994, the phone rang at the Bowie house. A Coast Guard officer was on the line. Chris had gone to North Carolina to work as the first mate on Trophy Box, a 54-footer participating in the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament out of Morehead City. Trophy Box had lost the tournament-winning fish at the side of the boat the previous year, and this time the crew wanted the best mate they could get. They approached Chris.

Chris’ boat was idle that week, but he hesitated. He’d never thought twice about heading offshore, but Laurie was seven months pregnant, and part of him wanted to get back to Ocean City. In the end he couldn’t resist — not the ocean, not the fish, not the paycheck.

The second day of the tournament was perfect, sunny and 80 degrees with a light breeze. By late morning, Trophy Box was 60 miles offshore and soon thereafter hooked a blue marlin, only 200 pounds but foul-hooked through the head and feisty. When the fish got close to the transom, Chris took a double wrap on the wire and steered the marlin to the port side.

The other mate, Ronnie Fields, inserted the tag and turned to grab the clippers. At that moment, the fish surged. Feeling the marlin spurt, Chris released the wrap, but something went wrong. He went over the side.

With fish and man attached, the line parted. Chris was tied to the marlin but no longer connected to the boat. Fields dove in. He spotted the marlin about 30 feet down, Chris dragging behind. Fields came up for air and dove again. The fish and Chris were gone.

The caller told the Bowies that the Coast Guard and Marines from nearby Camp Lejeune had begun search-and-rescue operations.

In Maryland, Wanamaker was on his way home from work when Chris popped into his mind. “I had a feeling as strong as any I’ve ever had that something had happened to Chris, but it was more of a happy feeling, like he was saying ‘I’m OK,’ ” Wanamaker says. When his phone rang moments later, he had a sense of what was coming. After he hung up, he turned toward the Bowie home.

Robyn was standing in the restaurant where she worked when the manager handed her the phone. As the words poured out of the receiver, her body went slack. Moments later, co-workers helped her to her feet, and one of them drove her to her parents’ house.

Randy, on vacation in Colorado, had hiked to the top of a mountain when his pager went off. It was his parents. The next day, he flew back to his home in Ohio, where he prepared for a long stay in Maryland. As he packed, he had a sense that Chris was behind him, physically standing there. “It was a very peaceful feeling,” he says.

“It was not a good scene,” Wanamaker says of life in the Bowie house.

Chuck kept more to himself. Robyn, Ruthe and Wanamaker wound up on a small couch leaning on one another. A recovering alcoholic who had been clean for eight years, Robyn fed her mother brandy to help calm her. “The hardest part of the whole first year for me was trying to stay sober,” she says. As night fell, the trio cycled through hope and despair while drifting in and out of what Wanamaker calls “the worst night of sleep in my life.”

The next day, Laurie and Parker arrived, among others. “Those first days are a blur,” Robyn says, “but I remember there were a lot of people coming and going.”

Randy was in near-constant touch with his parents and the Coast Guard. “He was the only one together enough to deal with anything,” Robyn says. Search-and-rescue operations typically last 48 hours. Randy, who had flown directly to North Carolina, requested more time, arguing that Chris was a strong swimmer, but it was the passion of his plea more than the substance that made an impression. The Coast Guard extended the search 48 hours.

The news brought more hope, but also more agony. “Missing,” Robyn spits. “I hate that word. The not knowing was horrendous. I remember sitting on the deck thinking, This can’t be real because it isn’t acceptable.”

A cast of Chris’ friends in Florida gathered every night at Paul Murray’s house, not because they thought they would hear positive news, but more to reminisce, tell stories, share laughs and be near others who understood what it meant to spend one’s life on a boat chasing large fish. In Morehead City, the tournament, usually a boisterous week concluding with a string of celebrations, came to a somber close.

On Saturday morning, the Coast Guard called off the search. “When that call came, it was like hearing the news all over again,” Parker says.

Ruthe remained in denial. Separately, Randy and Robyn urged her to accept reality, but she disappeared. When she returned, her focus switched to planning two memorials — or celebrations of life, as she insisted on calling them. “She told me that while she was praying she heard Christopher’s voice,” Robyn says. “Not in her head but speaking out loud, and he told her everything would be OK.”

Robyn also had a visitation. She’s 5-foot-1, and Chris, in that little brother way, used to pat her on the head. “It drove me crazy, which only made him do it more,” she says. On the first night, she felt someone’s hand touch her head. “I knew it was him,” she says.

Randy had a more concrete encounter. He had to retrieve Chris’ truck. “That was hard,” he says. “It smelled like him. All his stuff was in there, his CDs, his watch, a half-drunk Gatorade. It was so clear he intended to be back.” Randy stewed in that presence for the entire 10-hour drive back to Maryland. When he made it home, his parents couldn’t bear to see the vehicle, so he parked it in a neighbor’s driveway.

During the next few weeks, another quirk arose inside the Bowie house: In Chris’ old bedroom, where racks of rods hung from the ceiling and pictures of fish and boats covered the walls, the door would not stay closed. “It was the weirdest thing,” Chuck says. “You’d close it, and check that it was closed. Then you’d walk past a few hours later, and it was open.”

Chris (kneeling, left) was well known and loved in the fishing community. 

Chris (kneeling, left) was well known and loved in the fishing community. 

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Woodbine holds about 200 people, and the Bowies had an inkling before the first celebration of life that the space would not accommodate all the attendees. A family friend set up speakers on the lawn out front, and when the day came, the church filled and a crowd of at least 1,000 stood on the grass in the June heat to listen. A dozen or more people had driven from Florida, even more from the Carolinas, and others had flown in from as far away as the Bahamas and Mexico. “One of the biggest things to come out of all this was to see how many people knew him and wanted to be part of his memorial,” Wanamaker says.

The next week, the second service took place, in Ocean City, where even more people came to pay their respects. The fishing community started a fund to support Laurie and provide for her unborn child. Events were held in Ocean City and Morehead City, and the trust stretched into seven digits. “It was amazing to be part of what happened down there,” Robyn says. “That spoke to the kind of person he was, that he was that loved and respected. To see the huge impact that he made, it made me very proud to have him as my brother.”

“If the Lord had come to Chris and said, ‘I’m taking you tomorrow. How do you want to go?’ he would have said, ‘On a fighting deck, with a marlin on the line.’ I take some peace in that,” Randy says. “But one of the most frustrating things was that we did not have true closure. There was no body.”

Chris haunted the dreams of those closest to him. For weeks, Parker would have visions that a commercial vessel had picked up Chris. Robyn had dreams in which her brother would return, laughing and saying, “Why are you upset?”

“I’d wake up so mad at him, then realize it wasn’t real,” she says. Laurie told Robyn that she, too, had vivid dreams of Chris in which he was laughing.

The tragedy marked a dividing point in the Bowies’ lives: preaccident and post-accident. “Our whole family changed,” Robyn says.

“It was clear very early on that my parents would deal with it differently,” Randy says. “My mom embraced the church and said very little. My dad would think a lot about the mechanics of what happened to Christopher when the marlin sounded. He would talk to anyone for hours.”

“I think for a while Chuck was mad at God,” Wanamaker says.

Randy stayed in Maryland for weeks and looked after his parents. “I took care of my family. That was how I coped,” he says.

“I feel like those first three or four months after, we were together a lot, almost every weekend,” Wanamaker says. “It felt better to be together.”

One of their excursions included a trip to Morehead City, where the family motored out to the area where Chris was lost. They said a few prayers. They threw flowers in the water. As the boat started for home, they stood at the transom watching the blooms drift apart. Suddenly, where the flowers floated, a dolphin rose out of the water and leapt into the air.

JPF_9177

On July 25, 1994, 39 days after Chris was declared missing and 51 days before he was officially declared deceased, Mari Claire Bowie was born. Her name is pronounced Mary but spelled like the word maritime. “She was such a joy to everyone,” Randy says. “We rallied around her.”

She also became a tangible connection to Chris. “At the time, Mari Claire was the only grandchild, and my mother was adamant that they would be part of her life,” Robyn says. “My parents sold their house and moved to the Eastern Shore.”

Robyn says Laurie once told her that when the child was around 4, she was sitting in the bath. Laurie was in the adjoining room, folding laundry and keeping an ear tuned to her daughter when she heard the girl speaking, but not in the usual babbling way kids talk. Her speech was more stop and start, as if she was having a conversation. Laurie walked into the bathroom. “Who are you talking to?”

“I was talking to Daddy,” Mari Claire said.

“She looks like him,” Randy says. “She is kind like he was; she has his sense of humor, even down to checking back later to make sure she didn’t offend you; and she has his worldview. She’s sort of an old soul like he was.”

“She’s Chris with long hair,” Chuck says. “Sometimes she’ll say something, and you’ll say, ‘Wait, who just said that?’ ”

Mari Claire doesn’t fish, says Randy, who still manages the trust that has funded her education, but she earned a degree in animal biology, which included a four-day trip on a shark research vessel for her final thesis. Afterward, she decided she’d prefer to work with people, so she’s gone back to school for a nursing degree.

“She’s a very happy person, good-hearted,” Wanamaker says, “but I think sometimes it’s been hard for her because she didn’t know him and didn’t always understand all the conversation about him. She’s had to navigate that on her own.”

Within the fishing community, her father went almost exclusively by his last name. Read aloud, most people pronounce it as the late musician David Bowie did, but by family preference and the quirks of a Maryland accent, the Bowies call themselves boo-eee. Or buoy. Asked if he ever considered the homophonic connection between his name and the nautical term, Chuck laughs and admits that he has not.

A buoy is, of course, a stationary aid to navigation, a waypoint that allows someone to plot a course out to sea or a return trip to port. That’s also a pretty good definition of a father.

JPF_8681

Drop something in the water and there’s a splash. Then the surface calms and appears as it had before. Whatever has fallen in disappears, but it is never really gone. No matter where it ends up, it displaces some measurable volume. Ripples emanate.

Twenty-five years later, Laurie Bowie still can’t talk about her husband. She dates but has never remarried. The first time she visited the Bowies’ new house, Chuck took her for a walk in the thick woods out back, and he heard her whisper, “Chris would have loved this.” Chuck dubbed the house Chriswoods and had a logo made with that word arching over a tree. As he tells the story, Chuck wears a maroon zip-up fleece with the logo stitched on the chest.

Randy, married and with a daughter of his own, says that someday he will retire to a house on the water, where he feels a connection to his brother. “I still don’t know that I’ve fully grieved for Chris,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m sitting on a beach, and there’s a storm brewing offshore. I can see it coming, but it hasn’t yet. I can feel it though. It’s always there.”

For years after Chris’ death, Wanamaker would visit the Bowies almost every Sunday, playing golf with Chuck and staying for dinner with him and Ruthe. “Chris made a difference in who I am because of who he was,” Wanamaker says. “He’s still a part of me, and I’m grateful for those experiences. I’ve stopped trying to figure it out. I feel like he has a presence around me, and it feels good.”

Robyn, divorced, also has a daughter and continues to search for meaning. “I’m trying to live like Chris did,” she says, “willing to talk to anyone, listen to anyone, be more aware of other people, be kinder, not dismissive, not judgmental. When I find myself in that headspace, I think of what he would have said: Aren’t you wasting a lot of energy on that?”

Chris Bowie’s story has the elements of a classic tragedy: A man rises to the top levels of his world at a young age, with a loving wife and a baby on the way, when he is literally dragged down by his chosen endeavor. The qualities that led to his rise, his dedication, his work ethic, his love of the sea, also brought about his demise. There’s a whiff of destiny. The difference? The characteristics that were fatal to Chris were not flaws, which undermines the rules of the genre. There’s no catharsis. Only loss.

That absence connects a father to his son and that son to his daughter. Throughout the course of the evening, family and friends have gathered at Chuck’s house to reminisce, but as the group readies to leave, Chuck remains in his chair, staring at his shoes. “The loss is devastating,” he says, almost to himself. “It’s not normal, the suddenness of it all.” He pauses. “I will always tell the story, as long as anyone will listen.”  

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Anglers Journal magazine.

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