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'They're not going to find me in time'

A TowBoatU.S. operator goes from rescuer to the object of a search when his boat capsizes

It had been more than three hours since the sea 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.

Norm Manley spent more than three hours in the water, drifting out of St. Augustine Inlet and into the ocean before he was rescued.

"I was really getting hammered by the waves, and I was taking on a lot of sea water," says the 60-year-old towboat operator for the TowBoatU.S. franchise in St. Augustine. "I started violently vomiting. I really never gave up hope, but I had pretty much made my peace that I was going to run out of time." Manley spent three-and-a-half hours battling 8-foot seas and hypothermia before he was rescued in dramatic fashion.

He 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 planned to only 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 against waiting 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.

"I don't know what happened. ... A rolling wave or something came underneath me, and before I knew it the boat just went over on the port side," says Manley, a towboat operator for three years. "I had no warning. I hit the water, and my life vest inflated automatically. The [VHF] radio was right there, and as it was going down with the boat, I grabbed the mic and yelled mayday."

But the microphone was ripped from his hand as the boat sank. The call for help was never heard. It was up to the sailors aboard the grounded boat to alert the Coast Guard and local search-and-rescue operations.

And they did, according to Coast Guard Cmdr. Patrick Schreiber, chief of response for Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville. "They said the towboat all of a sudden wasn't there," Schreiber says. "They could see the tow line but no towboat or operator. They disappeared into the darkness."

Indeed, at 6 a.m., it was still dark. The sailors used a spotlight to try to locate the skipper, to no avail. "The boat sank," says Manley. "I kicked away from it because we have a lot of lines and ropes on the boat, and I was afraid I was going to get tangled up in them. So I kicked away, and the boat was completely gone. I just started drifting out of the inlet."

Worsening conditions

Manley told himself to stay calm. The water temperature was 67 degrees, and he hoped he could swim to a navigational buoy as he drifted out to sea. "The current was so strong," he says. "I took a few strokes as I drifted by one, but I couldn't even get close to it. So I tried to save my energy and didn't try to swim ... against the current. As I was drifting out, I could see a couple spotlights from the sailboat. I figured the sailboat saw me, so they'll call mayday right away."

Rescuers from St. Johns County Fire and Rescue and the county sheriff's office were on the scene at about 6:30 a.m., but conditions had worsened. Seas had built to 6 to 8 feet, with 15- to 20-knot winds.

"The surf was real heavy," says Jeremy Robshaw, the rescue swimmer aboard Fire and Rescue's 18-foot RIB. "It definitely made it difficult to conduct the search and see someone in the water. We didn't know whether he was wearing a life vest. So we were working with limited information. Plus, we didn't know exactly where he went into the water."

Robshaw was part of a six-person team of rescuers from St. Johns County Fire and Rescue. In addition to the RIB, two personal watercraft and a 12-foot Arancia 3.8 inflatable rescue boat were scouring the area. A rescue swimmer was aboard each of the three vessels. A sheriff's office boat and helicopter, a Coast Guard helicopter and a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat were also part of the search effort.

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, 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."

He knew because he started shivering and shaking uncontrollably - and getting sick.

"I vomited so many times in the course of a couple hours," says Manley, a retired perfusionist - a health professional who operates the heart-lung machine during cardiac surgeries.

He saw flashing lights back inside the inlet and also saw a helicopter. A few sportfishing boats steamed by him. "They never saw me," he says. "I was hoping they didn't run me over."

Manley thought of his wife, Peggy, as the current swept him farther offshore.

"Part of my anguish was knowing what my family was going through because my wife knew I was going out in the dark to do this evaluation, and I figured somebody would notify her at some point," says Manley, who has two grown sons. "I was feeling so bad for her."

Manley drifted a mile east out of the inlet and into the ocean. From there, he drifted a mile south. He was now roughly a mile off Anastasia Island. His mental faculties began to fail. "I started getting disoriented ... having trouble focusing on which way land was," he says.

Towboat resurfaces

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, Robshaw says. The helicopter pilot notified on-the-water searchers that he had spotted the boat.

Tommy Orr and Jessica Earl were headed toward the Wellcraft on a Honda PWC when they saw Manley. "He was about 100 yards from [the submerged towboat]," Earl says. "We pulled up, and he was able to talk to us. He didn't recall much about what happened."

Earl helped Manley climb onto a rescue sled attached at water level to the PWC's stern. Orr headed straight for the beach, where medical personnel awaited.

Manley saw the helicopter first - and then the PWC. "I thought it was a mirage," he says. "I remember [Earl] came up beside me and said, 'Hi!' - real cheery. And I thought, Am I dreaming or did somebody really find me? 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."

Manley's body temperature was 85 degrees when he arrived at the hospital. "They said I only had about 30 minutes left," he says.

The rescue exemplified teamwork among several agencies, Schreiber says. "This was a successful rescue because of the partnerships we have with the local agencies," he says. "This isn't the first time they've helped us. I can't say enough about the partnership."

St. Johns County Fire and Rescue's 18-foot RIB stayed with the sailboat until a towboat arrived from Jacksonville.

After popping up just long enough for rescuers to spot it - and then find Manley - the 1986 Wellcraft walk-around disappeared again. The boat had been refit about a month before the accident, TowBoatU.S. franchise owner Capt. Scott Stebleton says.

"It was a hell of a boat," he says. "It breaks my heart that I can't get the hull back. It had all-new towing lights, wiring, new bilge pumps, new batteries, new lower unit."

Stebleton supports Manley's decision to begin towing the sailboat before a second towboat arrived. "He's a hell of a boat captain," Stebleton says. "I never questioned anything he did."

Manley says he will continue to operate a towing vessel for TowBoatU.S., but not out of St. Augustine Inlet. "I'm going to become more of a fair-weather captain," he says. Manley will take calls out of Palm Coast, which has no ocean inlet.

"I was doing this part time," he says. "It's not that I had to do it for the money. It was more for the enjoyment of being on the water."

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.