Teamwork triumphs over trouble
Preparation met opportunity last week off Cape San Blas, when a team of first responders plucked a group of longline grouper fishermen off a boat sinking in rough waters on Christmas Eve morning.
No trips to hospitals were needed for the captain and four crew members of the Miss Adley, following the rescue Thursday morning, Dec. 24 by members of South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department’s water safety and rescue team of first responders.
Monte Lucas, who heads up the team, said the call came in from Gulf County dispatch sometime after 7 a.m. (the Facebook post lists 7:42 a.m. as when the call came in) that a disabled fishing boat was stranded about a-mile-and-one-half off of the Stump Hole, near the elbow of Cape San Blas, and taking on water with five people aboard.
Lucas said the team quickly deployed personnel and watercraft to a launch site at the Stump Hole Beach. The beach people set up a site on shore where any of the rescued could be taken, and the water people prepared to venture out in a pair of Yamaha jet ski type watercraft to find them.
The problem was it was not clear where precisely they were.
“You couldn’t see them with binoculars,” said Lucas.
He said he talked it over with Chief Vince Bishop and with four- to -six-foot breaking waves, it was not at all certain the team would venture out in choppy seas in jet skis.
But then they saw a flash in the darkened sky.
“Somehow their emergency raft deployed and it sets out flares,” said Lucas. “We probably weren’t going to go out, when it was really small on the horizon. But it gave us a direction to shoot for.”
As it turned out, as soon as the raft deployed, it had ripped completely off the aluminum frame harness that was bolted to the roof of the boat.
“It had ripped the rigging right off the deck, as well as the 100 feet of nylon line tied to the rigging, including the screws that were in it,” Lucas said.
“As soon as it launched, they didn’t have access to it,” he said. “Then they were really in trouble.”
The team sent out its watercraft in the breaking waves and they made their way out to the boat, where the waves were 10-foot rollers.
“The engine was running but they had completely lost control of their rudder,” said Lucas. “After communicating with the captain and crew, the decision was made to bring the boat closer to shore so if the engine died, it would be easier to make a rescue.”
What had happened to the boat, loaded down with a ton-and-a-half of grouper after a weeklong fishing trip and hoping to get back to Panama City before the storm hit, is that when it hit a shoal and ran aground, the collision had ripped a hole in the bottom of the hull, where the rudder was shoved inside.
“The boat was winding in 180-degree arcs, they had a hell of a time trying to steer it,” Lucas said. “The captain did a great job keep controlling of it. It was about halfway under water when we got there, only sticking out of the water three feet.”
It didn’t take long, as they moved towards shore, for the engine to completely die. “The boat was still taking on water and the pumps then were unable to keep up,” Lucas said.
By clinging to rescue sleds pulled by the jet skis, the five men were taken to shore. “We normally take one,” Lucas said. “We were still a half mile out on that point. We didn’t know how quickly the boat was going to sink.”
A couple of the fishermen slipped off the side where they were half hanging on to. “We had to climb back up (on the jet ski) from the side,” he said. “That’s difficult in 10-foot rolling waves.”
Capt. Jerry Key and the four other crewmen were taken to the extraction point on the beach, where they were checked out by first responders, by Val Homan and her volunteer crew for hypothermia and other potential medical issues, and then moved them to a waiting Gulf County ambulance at Cape Palms Park for further review.
“Everybody came through OK.” Lucas said. “They had been out a week, trying to get in before the stormfront hit.”
In addition to Lucas, Bishop, and Homan, those who took part in the rescue operation were Mike Giere, Rob Bianchari, John and Dawn Lounsberry, George Visiglio, Vickie Unseld and a young deputy from the sheriff’s office, who was on hand throughout.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sent a boat, which had to come around from Indian Pass, and the Coast Guard sent a rescue ship from Panama City, and a helicopter from Clearwater, but all arrived moments after the rescue had been effected.
“Had things gone wrong and we ended up being sucked out, they would have been key,” said Lucas. “That’s the nice part of all this teamwork.”
A front loader had to come back after Christmas and right the boat, and float it away on tubing, to be towed back to Panama City, and repaired in dry dock.
The raft eventually washed up behind the home of Clinton Worthy.
This mishap for the Miss Adley follows an August 2019 incident about 14 nautical miles off Saint Andrews Pass, when the boat began to taking on water. On the day there were 15 to 20 knot winds out of the southwest, lighter than was the case last week, with five to seven-foot seas, occasionally eight or nine feet, choppy, with heavy rain and thunderstorms.
“After a long night battling adverse conditions, several obstacles, two boat crews and a helicopter crew, the fishing vessel Miss Adley was dewatered and all five of her crew were brought in to Panama City safely,” read the 2019 report.
The boat is owned by Greg Abrams, owner of Greg Abrams Seafood Inc., in Panama City.
As much pride as there is in ensuring a happy ending, there is nearly as much in the way that it was done, the teamwork aspect that prepared the rescuers.
“We trained about six or seven times between spring and summer,” said Lucas. “We worked very well and we knew what was expected of us. This was a total team effort- and exactly what we practiced for over the summer.”
The department reserved a tankful of thanks for those who have enabled the purchase of equipment that proved essential in the rescue.
“A big thank you also goes out to anyone reading this who has donated to South Gulf Fire and Rescue anytime in the past, because every piece of equipment used in the rescue today was bought with your donations, so you too, were a huge part of this successful rescue,” reads the unit’s Facebook page.