Couple living on 51-foot Formosa ketch refused Coast Guard help for fear of losing their vessel
The weather had turned worse than Jeffrey Coombs expected. Seas were running 5 to 7 feet off Hillsboro Inlet, and with small craft advisories forecasted across South Florida, he was looking forward to putting in there for the night.
But Plan A quickly segued into Plan B when he saw the inlet. Driven by a 20-knot easterly, waves were crashing into an outgoing tide and breaking in the cut. “I took one look at the inlet and knew there was no way we were going in there,” says Coombs, 55, a retired special-education teacher from Tampa, Fla.
Coombs and his wife, Theresa, sold their home after he retired, bought the cruising sailboat they always wanted — a stoutly built 51-foot Formosa ketch named Tyche (pronounced Ti-chee) — and cruised Florida for three years. They had just spent six months in Fort Pierce visiting Coombs’ dad and now were on their way to Fantasy Fest, the wild and wacky Halloween party in Key West, their jumping-off point for a long-anticipated, three-year Caribbean cruise.
Darkness was setting in Oct. 22, and the weather was getting worse, so they anchored south of the inlet 500 yards offshore. Later that night, visitors dropped in. Someone ashore — probably in a nearby condominium — had seen Tyche anchored off the inlet and wondered if the sailboat was in trouble or maybe up to no good. The caller told the Broward County sheriff’s police that the vessel wasn’t showing an anchor light, but Coombs says his anchor light was on.
The sheriff called the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard called Sea Tow, which dispatched a boat to check on the sailboat and warn its skipper that he was dangerously close to a sandy shoal that runs parallel to the beach south of Hillsboro Inlet. The Sea Tow captain, speaking over a hailer, asked the Coombs if they were OK and warned them about the shoal. “He said, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. I touched bottom a few times. Now just leave me alone,’ ” says Tim Morgan, owner of Sea Tow Fort Lauderdale.
Morgan says the Coast Guard then sent a boat out to offer assistance, but it stood by at some distance. Coombs thought it was another Sea Tow boat. He didn’t respond. He saw no need to.
“We were in great shape at that point,” Coombs says. “I’d thrown the anchor out a couple of hours before. There was good holding. We had no problems.”
If there was a potential problem, it was the length of the chain rode. Coombs had deployed 30 feet of chain attached to 100 to 200 feet of line. Ordinarily, he cruises with 300 feet of chain, but as luck would have it, earlier in the year the chain had gone to the bottom in a mix-up between him and Theresa while anchoring. He had planned to buy another length of chain when he reached the Keys.
Just after midnight, the Coombs awakened to the sound of Tyche’s hull bouncing back and forth on the bottom; the anchor line had parted. Coombs suspects it chafed through on a rock outcropping. Tyche washed in toward the beach and now was caught in a trough on the bar. “The first thing I did was get on the radio,” Coombs says.
Sea Tow’s Morgan says his watchstander heard a pan-pan from Tyche. “[Coombs] said his anchor had let go, and he was drifting into the beach,” Morgan says.
The pan-pan conveyed that the situation was urgent, but not life-threatening. Sea Tow again sent a boat out, but again Coombs declined help. A TowBoatU.S. member, he called the other tower for help.
Larry Acheson, president of TowBoatU.S. Fort Lauderdale, says he had been following the Tyche saga earlier in the night, but was in bed when his watchstander alerted him to the call for assistance. He dispatched one of his boats, jumped out of bed and, with a second captain, got another boat under way. As soon as he reached the inlet, he knew it was a no-go. His other captain, already on scene, had reported Tyche was in 3- to 4-foot breaking waves.
“I could see [Tyche’s] mast light bouncing across the shoals,” Acheson says. “Tyche draws 6-1/2 feet. There are places there where you have 3 feet of water. His bilge had to be getting pummeled.”
Coombs tried to motor out of the trough at full throttle. “But I already was trapped in there. I was bouncing back and forth from side to side,” he says.
Acheson radioed Coombs and told him there was nothing he could do for him until he hit the beach. Then he advised the Coast Guard of the situation. “I was trying to get a helicopter to pull them off the boat, but [Coombs] said, ‘We don’t want a helicopter,’ ” Acheson says. “They wouldn’t ask for [Coast Guard] help.”
“After they ran aground, we tried to help them,” confirms Coast Guard Petty Officer Nick Ameen. “They simply said they didn’t want our assistance.”
Coombs says he was not happy TowBoatU.S. had bowed out of offering any immediate assistance, but he was confident Tyche could ride in to the beach without breaching her hull. He was less certain she wouldn’t broach, but even if she broached he was sure he and Theresa could swim ashore, if necessary.
“I knew now we were going to wind up on the beach,” Coombs says. “I was very confident in the boat. We have a 2-inch-thick hull — solid fiberglass, not cored.”
Tyche bounced through the surf for 45 minutes before coming to rest on the beach. “Once she was laid on her side on the beach, she started taking a beating from the waves,” Coombs says. “That’s what hurt.”
The next morning, the beach was awash with authorities. Customs searched the boat with a drug-sniffing dog. Broward County sheriff’s deputies looked for weapons. The Coast Guard and Department of Natural Resources made sure there was no fuel spill. The Pompano Beach city attorney turned up to ensure the city wouldn’t be held liable for any damages during the salvage.
Tyche didn’t broach, and the hull never breached, but the boat suffered about $100,000 in damage. The water and fuel tanks and bulkheads had knocked loose, the rudder was damaged, and tabbing between the hull and deck joint had been jarred loose. Coombs says his insurance is paying for the repairs and salvage.
Acheson and his crew lifted Tyche out of the surf with a crane, then leap-frogged it from the beach up toward the road, first swinging the crane’s lifting arm back to lift the vessel up, then swinging the arm forward and resting Tyche gently in a hole in the sand — a distance of about 60 feet. The salvage crew then repositioned the crane and did the same thing again and again until they could lift Tyche onto a trailer near the road and truck it to Merritt Boat Works in Pompano Beach. There, they put it in the water and towed it to Harbortown Marina for repairs. Coombs expected the boat to be fixed by Christmas and ready for them to get back on track and go cruising.
Coombs says he was reluctant to accept Coast Guard help for fear they would ask him to abandon his boat. “That is my home,” he says. “Even if it weren’t my home, it’s one hell of an investment. I’m not sure my insurance company would reimburse me if I abandoned my vessel and my life wasn’t in danger. … The Coast Guard doesn’t tell you whether your life is in danger. It asks you.” Coombs kept telling them no.
The Coombses stayed two nights on the beach on Tyche for fear scavengers would strip it and, in fact, at 3 a.m. one of those mornings three young men climbed on deck. Coombs ordered them to move on. He also was worried that if he left the boat unattended — in the surf or on the beach — someone would salvage it and claim it. “That’s why I wouldn’t get off the boat,” he says.
Acheson says no one should risk life or limb for fear a lawful salvor will take away his boat. “The law says a salvor who, with your permission, saves your property is entitled to a fair reward,” he says. A judge decides what that fair reward is.
This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.