What Went Wrong
Dockwalk magazine's regular column, What Went Wrong by Kelly Sanford, highlights a different marine accident each month, focusing on the lessons learned. We've received feedback that some readers would like to comment on it. So we're republishing it in the forum so you can have your say.
The December 2010 column recounts a story of a captain who was fatally injured when his vessel broached in violent surf and two other captains share their near-misses.
In early September 2010, Capt. Tom Henry, an experienced 61-year-old sportfishing captain, was fatally injured when his 51-foot sportfish broached in violent surf on the approach to the Jupiter Inlet in Florida. A notoriously difficult passage in poor conditions, the veteran captain was making his approach when a quartering wave picked up the stern and knocked the vessel on its side. Upon impact, the captain was thrown from the vessel, striking both the gunwale and lower deck before landing in the water. The entire chain of events was captured by a photographer.
“I’ve seen [the Jupiter Inlet] pictures,” says USCG Spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt Moorlag. “We would say not to come in with significant breaking surf from the stern, but I know it can be difficult to avoid sometimes, even with plenty of diligence and preparation.”
“I saw those photos and immediately thought about the time the exact same thing – minus anyone being killed – happened to me,” says Capt. E. “I was coming across from The Bahamas and I knew conditions were crappy coming through Whale Pass. I even discussed it with my crew. I told them it would be rough. I said we could wait for better weather or we could buckle up the boat and go for it. We were all ready to get home and I’d been through that pass enough times before that we went. It was a combination of bad luck and a bad choice. I thought I’d timed the set, but we were part way through the pass when a random breaking wave came at us, quartering the stern. It just picked us up and knocked us on our side. Furniture went flying, dishes were broken, even large equipment in the engine room shifted. Fortunately, there was no major damage or injuries, but it was a day that changed me as a captain.”
The images of the Jupiter Inlet event also brought back memories for another captain, who asked we not use his name, but suggested calling him Capt. Wiz, “Because I damn near wet my pants that day. I remember it well – one of my first harrowing experiences as a captain.” Another member of Capt. Wiz’s crew at the time explains, “Bad weather had been chasing us for days. We had put off the trip from Cancun to Puerto Aventuras as long as we could. But the owners were arriving, so we did what we had to do – we hunkered down and went. We had been in six- to ten-foot seas for the whole trip down so the swells coming into PA just didn’t look that bad.”
Capt. Wiz continues, “With the three- to four-foot swells coming in that narrow channel, you had to come in at a decent enough speed so as not to get turned sideways. A combination of throttles, steering and speed all had to work in tandem, or at least that’s what I thought. The problem was that not only was the channel narrow, but it also doglegged to the right immediately upon entering so you couldn’t come in too fast. I approached at a speed that I thought was fast enough and would get us in without any problems. Such was not the case. “We made it about halfway in and I thought we were doing pretty well. Then all of a sudden, a wave picked up the stern, slid the boat sideways and sent it careening towards the jetty. I remember hollering [to the crew] ‘HOLD ON!’ By then we must have been less than ten feet from the rocks. Adrenalin, reflex, sheer luck, whatever you want to call it, I spun the wheel, slammed the port engine in reverse and the starboard in forward. Fortunately, that was just enough to slow our forward motion and slightly swing the bow around. I could not have missed that jetty by more than just a few inches. I continued to swing the boat back to the center of the channel. Just as the next swell started to pick up my stern again, I gunned the engines forward. That turn in the channel came at us extremely quickly. Another round of wild steering and engine throttling ensued along with the help of a pitiful little bow thruster. Somehow, we made the turn and glided into that peaceful little marina like nothing had happened. It was at this time that I looked up to see all the locals running out onto the jetty to see the ‘big, pretty white boat’ get dashed on the rocks. I was not sorry to disappoint them – especially with the owner waiting for us at the dock.
“The whole escapade could not have taken more than ten seconds and created a number of early gray hairs. It seemed like forever, though. Thankfully, we did not have a delay in our throttles and transmissions like some boats do otherwise those locals would have had the show they wanted.”
A potential knockdown situation is not a boat maneuvering skill with which many pleasure vessel captains have practice – and it’s something they typically have the luxury and good sense to avoid. It’s the kind of situation a captain encounters once and a moment of bad judgment is quickly replaced by a newfound respect for a breaking sea.
This is a link to the original article posted in the Seen and Heard forum on Dockwalk.com where you can view three of the photos: http://www.dockwalk.com/Essentials/DockTalk.aspx?g=posts&t=34172
We somewhat agree with the anonymous poster above and did not include the photos of the captain falling off of the vessel out of respect for the deceased and his family.