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7 men rescued from 4-man life raft

Their 51-footer sank quickly after hitting something “big and black” off Delaware

Their 51-footer sank quickly after hitting something “big and black” off Delaware

Seven Pennsylvania men, crammed into a four-person life raft, drifted off Delaware for nearly two days this fall after their 51-foot sportfishing boat collided with something “big and black” and sank.

“I’ve been boating for a lot of years, and if you told me a boat of that size would go down as fast as it did, well, I wouldn’t believe you until now,” says John A. Werler, one of the men aboard the boat when it sank Sept. 23 about 35 miles off Indian River Inlet in the Delaware Seashore State Park.

Werler and four fellow workers from a construction project in Philadelphia got together Friday, Sept. 22, for a day of tuna fishing aboard Chief, a custom-built Andy Mortenson sportfishing boat, Werler says. Chief was owned and skippered by Frank Redmiles of Philadelphia; the first mate was Francis Gessler. Werler’s co-workers included his brother Jeff Werler, Thomas Tuscano, Todd Carpenter and Ken Arters.

“We’d been trying to get a fishing trip going for a while,” says Werler, who is 43 and from Feasterville, Pa. “My brother is the one who organized it. We found out about Frank Redmiles and the Chief by word of mouth from one of the guys. It wasn’t a chartered fishing trip or anything. It was just a bunch of guys going out for a fun day of fishing.”

Chief set off from Indian River Inlet around 5 p.m. and headed some 60 miles east toward Wilmington Canyon. The men didn’t have much luck fishing that night, but they hauled in four tuna Saturday morning and then cast for mahi-mahi. “We had a pretty decent run,” Werler says. “At about 10 a.m. the wind was blowing harder, and the seas were getting rough. We knew a front was coming through and that the weather Saturday night was supposed to be bad. We decided to head back for shore.”

Werler was standing on the bridge with Redmiles and Gessler at about noon, he says, when the boat apparently hit something. “We were going about 15 knots I’d say, and suddenly we lost the starboard engine,” Werler says. “[Redmiles] pulled the throttle back and put it forward, but nothing.

“I personally didn’t feel a collision,” Werler adds. “But the other guys were below in the saloon relaxing, and they said it felt like we hit something big.”

Tuscano called up to Redmiles to tell him the engine room was flooding, Werler says. Then the high-water alarm sounded. The skipper climbed down from the flybridge to assess the situation. “[Redmiles] called up, ‘Frannie! Mayday! Mayday! We’re going down!’ ” Werler says. “I remember looking down and seeing the refrigerator floating in the galley. It all happened so fast. I was thinking, there’s no way we can really be going down. But we were.”

While the men scrambled to put on PFDs and grabbed bottles of water, Redmiles and Gessler tried pumping out the engine room, but the pumps quit when the generator failed. Gessler tried to radio several distress calls over the VHF but got no response. “He was calling the Coast Guard; he was calling anyone that could hear him,” Werler says.

Werler says he wasn’t sure whether there was an EPIRB on board Chief. The men deployed the Viking life raft, got in, and watched Chief sink within about three minutes of striking the object.

Redmiles speculated in published reports that Chief may have collided with a submarine. However, three days after the men were rescued a 34-foot, 20-ton humpback whale washed up on the beach in Wildwood Crest, N.J., and authorities and experts wondered if that’s what the boat hit.

“The whale suffered such a severe impact that its stomach and intestines were forced out of its mouth,” says Bob Schoelkopf, who performed the necropsy. Schoelkopf is the director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, N.J.

Aboard the life raft, the men had five flares (hand-held and aerial), eight 6-ounce bags of water (in addition to the water bottles they’d grabbed), seasickness pills, a raft repair kit and signal mirror. They deployed the sea anchor to slow their drift, according to Werler. “We sat with our knees to chest and chins,” he says. “We were in pain until we went numb. The confinement was unbelievable. There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion the first few hours. We were mostly thinking of our families and hoping to get back to them soon.”

The men spent the next two days weathering 10- to 12-foot seas and rain. “We’d open the hatch to get some fresh air, and all we’d see was whitecaps and huge waves,” says Werler. “The raft really took a beating. We had to shift our weight to keep from capsizing and had to support the canopy to keep it from collapsing. It wasn’t easy.”

After the men were reported overdue on Sunday, authorities launched an extensive search with a Coast Guard helicopter, C-130 airplane and the 270-foot cutter Tahoma, covering a 10,000-square-mile area east of Indian River Inlet.

From Sunday afternoon, Sept. 24, until early Monday morning the men saw a Coast Guard C-130 three times, Werler says. They shot off flares, but the crews apparently didn’t see the raft. The men were finally spotted around 9 a.m. Monday by a Coast Guard helicopter.

“I remember [Arters] heard something and perked up,” says Werler. “He looked out and called, ‘Helicopter! It’s behind us!’ As it neared we shot a flare and used the signal mirror. As it flew over we lit a hand-held flare, and we could see [the helicopter] getting closer and lower to the water. We knew they saw us. By that point we were pumped up. We were screaming and hollering.”

The helicopter crew lowered a rescue swimmer, hoisted four of the men aboard, and transported them to the Tahoma. The helicopter then refueled and returned for the other three. “Besides being a little stiff and dehydrated, we were all in pretty decent shape,” Werler says. “More than anything else we were ecstatic to have been found.”

The Tahoma took the men to Delaware Bay, where they were transferred to a 41-foot Coast Guard boat that returned them to Indian River Inlet. “The first thing I wanted to do was lay flat on the ground, then kiss and hug my wife and kids,” Werler says.

Looking back at the ordeal Werler believes the men survived, in part, because of how calmly they reacted when the boat began to sink.

“You can never be too prepared. That’s something that seems more obvious now after what we went through,” Werler says. “Also, it’s important to stay calm and get into survival mode, like we did. We’re all pretty experienced boaters, and I think that really helped.”

(Redmiles’ insurance company was investigating his claim because using Chief for charter-fishing wouldn’t have been covered under his policy, according to published reports. Redmiles insists he was not chartering and that the men paid nothing for the trip.)