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‘Angel’ puts angler back on the water

Story of Rogers Washington losing his friend and his boat inspired a Soundings reader to act

Story of Rogers Washington losing his friend and his boat inspired a Soundings reader to act

Nov. 8 was a tragic day in the life of Rogers Washington. His boat sank three miles off Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and his best friend died in his arms as the two commercial fishermen tried to stay afloat.

A powerboat and later a sailboat passed close enough for their occupants to wave at the 49-year-old Washington, but neither stopped. His grief turned to anger. Only after he had been in the water more than six hours did two strangers aboard a motoryacht see him and haul him aboard. These two, he said later, were “angels.”

But Washington, who is black, hasn’t been able to get his mind off the boaters who had ignored his calls for help. He’s convinced they did so in the mistaken belief he was a Haitian refugee.

Bitterly, he points out that he lost not only his friend but his source of income — his uninsured boat — and he told Soundings he hoped someone would help him get back on the water.

James O. Thomas, a Soundings subscriber, became that someone. On April 14, Thomas gave Washington his 31-year-old, 25-foot Winner inboard sportfishing boat, complete with trailer and V-8 engine.

“He’s an angel, man,” says an appreciative Washington. “This man is an angel. [He] and his wife, very nice people.”

Thomas, 68, a retired systems designer and manager from Snellville, Ga., knows about hard luck. He was forced to quit work five years ago after he was unable to overcome surgery for a ruptured appendix. He had found the Winner three years ago in Pennsylvania and planned to trailer it to the Intracoastal Waterway for winter trips to Florida. He hadn’t had time to remove the old registration stickers before he suffered a heart attack.

“That kind of takes the energy out of you for a while,” Thomas says. “Last April, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. Later in the year, my thyroid was enlarged and pushing against my throat. One thing after another.”

The Winner remained on its trailer in a marina, but Thomas saw no future for him and the boat. “I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to get it going,” he says. “I’m getting too old and don’t have the energy I had.”

Then in the February issue of Soundings, Thomas read about Rogers Washington. “I’d pretty much made up my mind to donate [the boat] anyway. I says, Here’s a guy, he’s lucky to be alive, and he lost his best friend and his business in the same day.” The boat wouldn’t have provided much of a tax deduction if he gave it to charity, Thomas says, and Washington “just struck me as a guy who could use it and might appreciate getting it.”

On that fateful November day, Washington and Robert Moore, 62, had set out at daybreak on Washington’s 22-foot Cobia to catch kingfish and red snapper to sell to a neighborhood market and to friends in Fort Lauderdale. They had landed three mahi-mahi and Moore was putting the last one in a cooler when, he says, a wave smashed into the boat. He says a second wave came over the transom, the bow rose, the stern sank, and both men were in the water.

Washington says he dove down as the Cobia sank to get life jackets from a compartment. When he surfaced, a large white cooler about 4 feet long came up with him, he says. He and Moore clung to the large cooler lid and to the PFDs, but Washington says after a shark swam nearby, Moore became agitated and suffered a heart attack or stroke. Washington says he tried to revive Moore and held his head above water for 35 to 40 minutes before releasing him and attempting to swim to shore.

At 2:30 p.m. Annapolis, Md., resident David Pensky, 61, was piloting his 55-foot Fleming motoryacht south in a chop about three miles off Boca Raton, Fla. As he was lifted to the tops of the 7-foot waves, he saw Washington waving his arms and heard him calling out: “I’m an American!”

Pensky called the Coast Guard to say he was approaching a man in the water. Richard Holden, Pensky’s friend and crewmember, stood on the swim platform and threw a line, which Washington wrapped around his wrist. Once on board, Washington told his rescuers that his boat had sank, that he’d had to let go of Moore, and that he thought his friend was dead.

Pensky called the Coast Guard again and informed them of the missing boater. In 10 minutes a Coast Guard helicopter was hovering above. And soon a Coast Guard vessel was beside the motoryacht, ready to receive Washington.

Throughout his adult life, Thomas has had boats that he has used on inland waters, like Lake Lanier in Georgia. Having read about Washington, Thomas talked with him by phone and offered his Winner. They finally met in April when Washington, his son, Wayne Jones, and his brother, Perrone Jones, arrived in Snellville with a truck to haul the boat to Florida. “They are good people,” Thomas says of Washington and his relatives. “Rogers has offered to take me fishing, and I may take him up on that offer.”

Since getting the boat, however, Washington has had to deal with a bureaucracy that didn’t want to register it because the bill of sale stated he paid nothing for it. And in early August, when he finally got out to fish, the engine quit, and he had to be towed ashore. He says he is looking for someone to work on the boat so he can get back to sea.

Still, Thomas and Washington remain impressed with one another. Reflecting, Thomas says of his largesse: “God, every now and then you need a little luck. If I can make at least one guy happy in my life, I may have served a purpose.”