It had been more than three hours since a wave flipped Norm Manley's towboat and tossed him into St. Augustine Inlet on Florida's northeast coast. Manley was trying to rescue a trio of sailors who had run aground, but he turned out to be the one who needed saving.
Manley, a 60-year-old towboat operator for the TowBoatU.S. franchise in St. Augustine, spent three and a half hours battling eight-foot seas and hypothermia before he was rescued in dramatic fashion. "I started violently vomiting," he says. "I really never gave up hope, but I had pretty much made my peace that I was going to run out of time."
Click play to listen as Manley recounts his harrowing ordeal.
Manley had left the dock at 5 a.m. Nov. 29 in a 24-foot Wellcraft towing boat to help the three-person crew of a 48-foot sailboat that had run aground and was anchored in the inlet. He only planned to evaluate the situation because the job might have called for two towboats.
However, Manley was forced into action when the sailboat's anchor began to drag and the boat started to drift toward a dangerous shoal. He decided not to wait for a backup boat.
"I never felt in peril," he says. "I knew if they drifted into that area they were in big-time trouble. They would be in real danger of capsizing or sinking."
But it was Manley's boat, powered by a 250-hp Yamaha 4-stroke, that capsized and sank. He says it happened about a minute after he began to pull the sailboat from the inlet's north side toward the channel.
Manley isn't sure what happened, but he thinks a rolling wave might have come underneath the boat on the port side. "I had no warning," he says.
Manley was worried about getting caught in the lines, and he kicked away from the towboat as it sank. "I just started drifting out of the inlet," he says.
The sailors aboard the grounded boat used a spotlight to try to locate the skipper, but couldn't do so. They alerted the Coast Guard and local search-and-rescue operations. Rescuers from St. Johns County Fire and Rescue and the county sheriff's office were on the scene about 6:30 a.m., but conditions had worsened. Seas had built to 6 to 8 feet with 15- to 20-knot winds.
With its 35 pounds of buoyancy, Manley's inflatable PFD was doing a good job of keeping his head above water, he says. However, he was dressed only in shorts, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt and a baseball cap, and his body temperature was dropping.
"As I think back over it a thousand times, I really went through three stages out there," says Manley, a boater for 18 years whose personal boat is a 24-foot Seaswirl Striper with a single 200-hp Yamaha 2-stroke. "The first stage was, 'OK, I have to be calm and be patient and someone will rescue me.' The second stage was, 'Oh, no, I'm out of the inlet in the seas and I know how hard it is to find someone floating in the ocean.' And the third stage was, 'I don't think I have enough time left - they're not going to find me in time.' I knew I was getting hypothermic."
The sheriff's helicopter spotted Manley's towboat first, its bow poking through the surf. It had apparently resurfaced and drifted in the same direction as Manley. The helicopter pilot notified on-the-water searchers that he had spotted the boat.
Two rescuers aboard a PWC came alongside Manley and helped him climb onto a rescue sled attached at water level to the PWC's stern.
"And I thought, Am I dreaming or did somebody really find me?" Manley says. "I just laid back and shut my eyes. I don't think I opened my eyes until I got to the emergency room. Relief was just flowing over me."
Read the full account in the March 2011 issue of Soundings.