The U.S. Coast Guards sector San Juan deployed a jet and a helicopter to search for a missing mariner who fell off his boat while towing a second sailing vessel south of St. John on Tuesday afternoon, June 13.
Bill Beach, 59, a Coral Bay resident, was aboard his 53-foot Pearson sail boat Seven Sisters towing Henry Katzs 35-foot cowhorn At Last out of Coral Bay. The two were reportedly on their way to a St. Thomas boatyard, when Beach attempted to adjust some lines and fell overboard.
Able to Board Dinghy
Beach was unable to board At Last, but did manage to climb into a 10-foot dinghy that was tied to the cowhorn. Once he boarded the dinghy, however, the tow line snapped and he was set adrift in the small boat as it began taking on water in the rough seas.
Meanwhile, the unmanned Seven Sisters continued to tow At Last along the dangerously rocky south shore of Love City. Katz, 48, also a Coral Bay resident, made a distress call on VHF channel 16 to the U.S. Coast Guard shortly after 1 p.m., according to USCG spokesperson Ricardo Castrodad.
Katz reported that he was being helplessly towed by the unmanned 53-foot vessel and Beach was drifting around in the dinghy, said Castrodad. The Coast Guard launched a HU-25 Falcon Jet and a HH-65 Dolphin helicopter. Our 25-foot rescue boat stationed in St. Thomas couldnt go out because of the weather conditions, so our air assets were deployed.
Sea Tow Called in to Assist
The USCG also contacted Sea Tow, a St. Thomas-based marine salvage and rescue company, to assist in the search, Castrodad added.
The Coast Guard HU-25 Falcon Jet arrived on scene and located the sailing vessels, according to a USCG press release. Sea Tow was directed to the scene by the crew of the Falcon Jet and was able to get a person on board the Seven Sisters, taking control of the sailing vessels that were coming close to running aground.
Sea Tow had earlier made radio contact with Katz aboard At Last, but didnt find the vessel and then lost contact probably due to the inclement weather, according to Gary Lohr, Sea Tow owner.
The weather was probably the worst that Ive been out in in the two years that I have had the business, he said. We were literally in the middle of a squall. Out around the squall there were six- to eight-foot waves with 25-knot winds. But, in the middle of squall there were easily 12-foot waves and 35-knot winds.
The combination of heavy winds and heavy seas created no visibility within the squall, Lohr continued. Its possible that I passed At Last somewhere along the south shore, but I couldnt see anything.
Miraculous Rescue in Heavy Seas
A crew member aboard Sea Tow managed to jump from the 27-foot 2002 Cape Horn onto Seven Sisters which was no easy feat, according to Lohr.
Its difficult to describe the act in words, he said. Jumping from a boat that is sitting stationary is difficult enough, but jumping from a moving boat onto an unmanned vessel that is moving at seven knots and pitching around wherever it wants in seven foot seas is nothing short of miraculous.
Im just glad that it worked, Lohr continued. Someone up there was definitely looking out for us. Josh Yeager is the one who jumped from my boat to Seven Sisters he was awesome.
If Katz didnt make radio contact with the USCG, events could have easily taken a dire turn for the worse, Lohr explained.
Radio Saved Life
I told Katz that it was his radio that saved his life, said Lohr. If he didnt have that radio, that boat would have slammed into St. John. I heard him on the radio and knew which direction to go in.
We didnt have days we only had minutes to make the right decision in order to get to the boats in time, he continued. The boats were only two miles from shore heading towards land we had to act quickly.
Once aboard Seven Sisters, Yeager was able to shut off the engine and then Sea Tow towed both Seven Sisters and At Last into Benner Bay, where another difficult situation arose, Lohr said.
Just outside of Independent Boat Yard we had to get help to take control of At Last while I safely anchored Seven Sisters, he said. Eugene Smith, the owner and captain of Reel Theropy, had Gary Manning and William Bushnell on board, and they helped us in getting At Last off of my boat and into Pirates Cove.
It was a shaky situation for them, Lohr explained. I was busy taking care of the other boat, but the guys on Reel Theropy were able to get At Last to a safe spot.
While Sea Tow was bringing the sailing vessels to safety in St. Thomas, the USCG searched for Beach.
The search continued for the person on board the dinghy, Castrodad said. We located a partially submerged 10-foot white dinghy about one-half mile off the south shore of St. John.
Long Swim to Shore
The Joint Rescue sub-center received a call from Beach, who reported that he abandoned the dinghy after taking on water and was able to swim safely to shore, according to the USCGs prepared statement. Rescue aircraft located the missing dinghy partially submerged half a mile from shore, and they were able to locate Beach on shore waving his hands and giving the O.K. signal.
Beach was reportedly in the water for about three hours as he swam through six-foot seas before he finally reached shore at Lameshur Bay. Both mariners were in fine health and both sailing vessels escaped damage, but things could have been a lot worse, according to USCG officials.
This case definitely had the potential for loss of life and property, Lt. Cmdr. James Langevin, Chief, Sector San Juan Joint Rescue Sub-Center, said in the prepared statement. Fortunately, we were able to get our aircrews and Sea Tow on scene before the vessels ran aground.
They came pretty close to running aground, Castrodad agreed. Things could have been much worse if not for the great rescue effort by the Coast Guard and Sea Tow.