Sunday, September 06, 2009

Heroic Captain of the Super Suds II

The latest National Geographic Adventure has an article that revisits a sad but heart warming case that happened over three years ago, a couple of months before this blog was started. This superbly written article by John Falk, entitled "One Rogue Wave : A Fishing Trip Goes Horribly Wrong," recaptured the great details of what had happened on that fateful fishing trip.

This Associated Press report on Friday, May 19, 2006 provides an overview:

GEORGETOWN, S.C. — The 75-year-old captain of a capsized charter boat stayed in the water with a struggling passenger for hours before suffering an apparent heart attack and disappearing underwater, authorities said.

That passenger and all five others who had been aboard the 26-foot catamaran were rescued Thursday by a Coast Guard helicopter 15 miles off the South Carolina coast, Coast Guard Capt. John Cameron said.

The search for the captain, Robert Clarke, was suspended hours later.

"We saturated the area with our search. If he was alive, we would have found him," Coast Guard Petty Officer Donnie Brzuska said Friday.

For the Coast Guard this is a routine search and rescue case. For the reporters this is the story of a heroic captain lost life to save a passenger. They are both right, but what caused the capsize of the chartered boat and what happened afterward are really the core story as told by John Falk's long article.

It was a smooth fishing trip, they were on their way returning to port. Capt. Clarkewas chating with the passenger Robinson when
. . . Robinson spotted a peculiar wave forming just off the starboard side. Because of the blue skies and small seas no one was wearing a life jacket.

“It was not a large wave. It didn’t come over the top of that boat like people think,” said Robinson, recalling the freak accident. The wave had a deep trough, so as it rolled under the starboard bow of the twin-hulled boat, the portside pontoon dug into the water. The Super Suds II tilted just enough to send the men and equipment sliding across the deck, forcing the boat perpendicular to the waterline. Another small wave then broadsided the exposed hull. In all it took no more than a few seconds for the two-ton boat to flip.

It all happened in that fateful moment and :
Of those who would survive the long nightmare to come, all remember the next moments as slowing into a surreal montage of air bubbles, eerie shafts of sunlight piercing the water, matted heads breaking the surface, and men clambering every which way onto the flat part of the overturned vessel. When all seven had finally climbed atop the boat, there was silence—no voices, no equipment humming—nothing save labored panting and the sea splashing against the upturned pontoons. They were 13 miles from shore in choppy, unseasonably cold 68-degree water. There had been no time to radio for help or trigger the emergency beacon.
Huddled together on the overturned hull, the seven men steadied themselves against the pontoons as seawater sloshed around up to their knees. Captain Clarke reassured the men that they were, despite appearances to the contrary, not in terrible danger. When he failed to dock at 6:30, Clarke explained, with no radio contact, the Marlin Quay Marina would send out a flotilla of fishing boats that would soon be tacking their way along his well-known route inbound. The Coast Guard would be searching by sea and air too. In Clarke’s estimation it might take several uncomfortable hours, but the group would be rescued soon enough.
With no landmarks in view, the men didn’t realize the wind and current were working in concert, turning the boat’s bow to the north and exposing the open-ended stern to the full force of the waves moving in from the south. Standing on the twin-hulled boat, with its silken gel-coated bottom set between three-foot-high pontoons, the men were negotiating a seesawing waterslide. After a wave hit the stern, cold seawater gushed down the 26-foot boat like a mini flash flood. Unprepared the first time, all seven men were swept into the sea and had to once again scramble back aboard. Then the unthinkable happened.
Here comes the freaque wave:
“That wave comes and it ain’t no three or four foot,” said Mike Robinson, who was standing alongside Captain Clarke at the stern. “I’m six feet tall. I’m standing up on that boat and that boat is sticking out the water a few feet, and that wave was way over my head. That wave caught me and the captain and took us what looked like five miles from the boat.”
Most of the reporting and rescue efforts basically start from this point on. Falk has nine more pages to describe the whole story. I think he must have talked to all six survivors and piece together this touching article of human survival story as part of the special issue on survival. It is really sad that Capt. Bob Clarke, the leader of the group, becomes the lone casulty. I doubt any fiction writer would write a story with this particular ending. In my mind this story has all the suspenses and expected cliffhangers, but the main character that put this fishing trip together should always survive. He is the hero and the victim -- something I don't think fiction writes will allow it to happen. But this is real life! Sad but that's what really happened. After three years we wish to extend our heartfelt sympathy to Captain Clarke and his family. May be he could now expand his heroic act now to tame the freaque waves in the ocean.

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