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Operation Yellow Submarine: A Lake Powell Horror Story With a Happy Ending

By Melinda Rhodes
June 22, 2023

The warm, clear water of Lake Powell has beckoned millions of outdoor enthusiasts since the reservoir was created in 1964. On most days, this aquatic scribble in Utah’s Outback Region is the para-para-paradise you dream of. You can paddle into stunning red-rock canyons, dive off a cliff into the water or work on your tan from the deck of a houseboat. 

As rising temperatures and a weather pattern described by experts as a mega-drought caused Lake Powell’s water level to recede over the course of several years, however, a handful of sunken boats became visible in areas that were once covered by more than 100 feet of water. In February 2022, Lake Powell was at its lowest ever. 

Seeing the remnants from decades-old disasters is a reminder of how quickly a lovely afternoon on the lake can turn into a nightmare, whether from a mechanical problem or an unexpected shift in the weather. Yes, nature is fragile. It is important to tread lightly and stay in designated areas when recreating. But Mother Nature is the fiercest, most fabulous female on the planet (sorry, Beyoncé). She’s stronger than humans or their machines. 

Challenge Accepted

Paul Cox has spent a lot of time boating on Lake Powell, as well as rescuing off-roaders who’ve driven on the “dry” lake bed and gotten stuck. So when he saw the May 2022 photo on social media of a yellow speedboat that emerged from its watery resting place after nearly 30 years, he immediately thought it looked like an interesting job for himself, as well as YouTube viewers. 

Operation Yellow Submarine, the Beatles-centric name the job would later be given for a series on Fab Rats’ YouTube channel, was a different type of off-road recovery than Paul was used to. The challenge of getting to the boat, combined with his desire to clean up the popular outdoor recreation spot, was motivating. 

He had no idea at that time how the story would unfold over the next few months. Nor did he know what emotions would surface along with the boat for the Georgia family it belonged to. 

(Horse)power Couple 

Fab Rats is an automotive fabrication and off-road wrecking company based out of southern Utah. Paul, the owner, started tinkering on mini bikes and go-karts as a kid. His attention shifted to larger vehicles as he got older. Making “junk” run again is where his true passion lies. Fab Rats builds off-road rigs, hot rods and other customized rides.

Paul and his wife of 20 years, Michelle, started a YouTube channel for Fab Rats in March 2020. Though they’ve since hired more people, Michelle initially acted as the videographer, editor and director. “She told me everything I was doing wrong,” Paul joked during an interview with 

Without missing a beat, Michelle laughingly replied, “Someone had to!” (Add her to the list of fierce, fabulous females.)

At first glance, you’d never know that YouTubers with more than half a million subscribers lived in the Cox family home, or that a bustling business was run out of the large garage in back.Throughout the course of the interview, however, people from all over the country kept dropping by. They were driving out of their way to see the shop in rural Utah where all the automotive magic happens. 

The couple also talked about international fans who stopped at the Fab Rats booth during the Off-Road Wrecker Games in March 2023. It quickly became clear how much they are adored and admired.

Timing Is Everything

Just because the lake bed is exposed, doesn’t necessarily mean anyone can drive up to a sunken boat to retrieve it. Though the surface is crusted over, the bed underneath is often still saturated. The thick mud acts like quicksand to an ill-placed hiking boot or tire tread.

“Dry lake beds are sketchy,” Paul said. 

Hunter Cox (no relation), a Fab Rats employee and fan fave, accompanied Paul on the initial recon for Operation Yellow Submarine. They waited for the right conditions and drove to Lake Powell to find the speedboat.

The pair “did some wheelin’ in the Toyota.” Sections of the road were washed out, with significant drop-offs. The departure angle of his truck getting down some of the obstacles would be enough to make many people turn around. Or soil their pants. Or both. 

For Paul, it was just another day on the job. He’d been in the area before, rescuing a Jeep that drove too close to the water and became buried. He knew how dangerous parts of the drive could be during and after rainstorms. He was prepared with everything he needed to assess the conditions and formulate an exit plan.

Well, almost everything. When the pair got to the boat, Cox measured off the length using his stride instead of his tape measure. 

“Usually I pack a tape measure with me everywhere,” Paul said. “For some reason, that day I didn’t have one … I just stepped it off ‘cause we needed a trailer long enough that the back of the boat wouldn’t drag. We knew all the washes were really deep and we wanted the trailer to drag through the washes, not the boat.”

Since the recovery in September 2022, Lake Powell’s water level has risen — and continues to do so — because of heavy runoff from a series of late winter storms that left the Rocky Mountains with deep snowpack. Boat ramps previously closed to large vessels are operational again

“Where we recovered the boat from is currently underwater,” Paul said. “We hit the perfect window.”

The Story Unfolds 

The Cox worked with the local sheriff’s office to find the boat's owners, Brian and Bobby Ogan. It was a fairly simple task since they had the Arizona boat registration sticker from 1993 and an old medical card they found on the boat. 

The owners had also seen the social media post that initially piqued Paul’s interest and contacted a salvage company in Utah to retrieve the boat. It was not financially feasible for them to hire that company, however. Paul and Michelle obtained the owners’ permission and filed the paperwork necessary to remove the sunken boat from Lake Powell. They did not charge the owners for the retrieval. 

On recovery day, Michelle and Hunter accompanied Paul in his truck, as did Paul’s brother, Ben. His cousin, Merlin Johnson of Merlin’s Old-School Garage, drove his iconic yellow wrecker and towed the boat trailer in. 

The plan was for Paul to tow the boat out after Merlin hoisted it onto the trailer using his wrecker. The boat seemed sturdy, but everyone had some concerns that it would snap in half when it was lifted up. 

Before they could find out for sure, the group had to shovel sediment out of the boat. As they sifted through the remnants of the fiberglass vessel — which was remarkably well preserved considering it had been underwater for nearly 30 years — they were able to piece some of the story together. 

The jet drive was still sealed, indicating that a severe weather event caused the boat to sink rather than a mechanical malfunction. It was clear the boat wasn’t tied off and didn’t just drift out during the storm. People were on the boat when things went awry. 

Baby on Board

There were moments of levity as the group made bets on what cassette was in the tape deck. Hunter, the youngest of the bunch, was lovingly ridiculed for throwing Taylor Swift’s name in the mix of metal and grunge bands that were popular in the ‘90s. Tay-Tay was just a toddler back then. Merlin had the winning guess: Van Halen. 

Though everyone kept smiling for the camera, there was a different vibe as they found a baby bottle with milk still in it, a teething ring, baby medicine and a vintage Happy Meal toy.

“What happened with this boat?” Michelle recalled wondering. “I was hoping, as a mother … that something non-traumatic had happened to them, but that wasn’t the case.”

Merlin had similar emotions from a parental perspective. He had also been on Lake Powell in some pretty bad situations and knew how quickly the weather could turn.

When Merlin lifted the boat onto the trailer, it was noted that the plug was still in the bottom of the boat. This confirmed their earlier speculations that a storm producing large waves was to blame for the accident.

Everyone involved with Operation Yellow Submarine hoped restoring and returning the boat to the owners would be a welcome surprise that would bring both closure and pleasure to the family. 

Hope Floats

The boat was transported to Lake Havasu, Arizona, where Merlin lives. “We knew if anyone could get it fixed, he would have the resources and all the people around him to make that happen,” Paul said.

The original seats were in good shape, as was the carpet. The motor was encrusted with everything you’d expect to find under 100 feet of water, but somehow the crew was able to get it running. That was another one of the challenges that drew Paul to the job in the first place. Still, they wanted the boat to be reliable so they put in a new motor. After gutting and refurbishing the boat, it was time to see if it floated.

Paul confessed, “We’d never tested the boat. Ever. Merlin backed it onto the water once and that was it. Our test drive was from where we launched the boat [on Lake Havasu], around to point to where we met [the owners].”

An Emotional Day

Though everyone involved with Operation Yellow Submarine had an idea of how the boat sank, none of them had talked to the owners about the actual events until the day they met in person at Lake Havasu.

“The story was more dramatic than we ever thought it would be,” said Michelle. She teared up as she recalled the story Brian told them. 

Brian and Bobby were attending a family reunion at Lake Powell in 1993. Their two toddlers and a niece were on the boat with them. 

“We turned the point to Wahweap and it was a monsoon right there. Just a solid wall, 40-mile-an-hour winds and 4-foot swells. I made a run for the boat launch … and the motor went dead right at the buoys outside the boat ramp. Nobody would stop and help us,” Brian said in the fourth installment of Operation Yellow Submarine, visibly choking back his tears.

“I signaled up to 10 boats and everybody just went by. Nobody would stop. The dinner cruise boat out there with all the tourists taking pictures of us in our worst moment ever,” he continued. 

The tour boat operator called the Lake Powell salvage crew, but they were unable to get there because he was already out on another call. The tour boat went down and around an island. When it circled back Brian and Bobby’s boat had floated into its path. 

Brian told them, “I’m taking on water. I got the kids. You’ve got to take them.”

But the crew member refused to take the kids.

“So I said, ‘If anybody’s gonna die that day it’s going to be me,’ and I took my life jacket off. I took all the life jackets and stacked them around [Bobby] and the kids. She was holding our youngest in her arms — he was 10 months old at the time.”

“I grabbed our youngest son and I just picked him up and I just threw him at the deckhand … so he had to catch him.”

Brian managed to get the other kids and his wife off the boat. 

“You can’t even stand up, let alone bail water at that time. I just turned around and the back end went under and the boat rolled straight up. I ran up the deck and leaped over the deck of the boat and landed on the dinner cruise boat,” Brian continued. 

As the boat went underwater, a few things floated to the surface of the lake — the engine cover, ice chest and seat cushions. Everything else got sucked up into the bow of the boat, where the items were preserved for nearly 30 years.

A Happy Ending

There’s more to responsible recreation than showing respect for the environment and protecting the landscape we love. It also encompasses the safety of those who are recreating — ourselves and others. If you see someone who might need help while boating/off-roading/hiking/biking/climbing, ask them what you can do. Mutual support is the heart of the outdoor community. 

Brian and Bobby were moved by the kindness of everyone who played a part in Operation Yellow Submarine. Though it was difficult for them to speak about their experience, they were pleased the boat had been retrieved. 

“The Yellow Submarine is, so far, one of my favorite series we’ve ever done on our YouTube channel,” Michelle said. “The story was amazing and we made some friends in the process.”

But the story isn’t quite over yet. The Cox have a road trip to Georgia planned. “You’re going to get to see us take it back and give it to [Brian and Bobby] in the end,” Paul said.