A squall had just passed David Pensky’s 55-foot Fleming motoryacht, Pursuit, as he steamed south about three miles offshore from Boca Raton, Fla. The blue sky had returned, but the sea was churned into a 5- to 7-foot chop. Standing alone at the helm, Pensky, of Annapolis, Md., was at first unsure of what he was looking at. A human arm was waving from the wave crests, about 30 yards off his port bow. Could it be a scuba diver? In seconds, he knew the answer, and suddenly he was throttling down. A routine annual transit down the coast had become a matter of life and death.
Rogers Washington, 49, of Fort Lauderdale, had taken his 22-foot Cobia offshore around daybreak that morning, Nov. 8. His friend, Robert Moore, 62, was on board. They were trolling for kingfish and red snapper, mostly, a catch they could sell at a local fish market and to friends when they returned home at the end of the day. Washington had caught three mahi-mahi, or dolphin fish, by 8 a.m. Moore was just putting his third or fourth fish in the cooler when a “freak” wave hit the boat.
“It dipped the boat to the side,” Washington says. “So I gassed the boat up,” hoping the 200-hp Johnson outboard would help the boat shake off the seawater. Then a second wave came. “To me,” Washington says, “it was like a hand. You know how the wave rolls? Grabbed the back of the boat, made the boat stand straight up in the air, bow up, and then it went straight down.”
Washington — who says he has been a “commercial fisherman” for most of his life, and has made many trips with Moore — says he dove down as the boat sank to get life preservers from a compartment. When he surfaced, a large white cooler about 4 feet long came up with him, he says.
Clinging to the lid of the cooler and holding on to the life preservers, Washington says he and Moore were not alone in the 78-degree water. A shark swam nearby. “[Moore] saw a shark, and panicked and caught a heart attack or a stroke.” Washington says he attempted to revive Moore, and held his head above water.
At about this time, a vessel Washington describes as a “50- to 65-foot Hatteras, a big charter boat,” passed within 300 feet “and waved at me and him together.” But the boat did not stop, Washington says.
“I held Mr. Moore’s face above water 35 to 40 minutes before I released him,” and began attempting to swim to shore, Washington says. About three hours later, he says, a sailboat crossed in front of him, about 200 feet away. A woman and a man, who wore no shirt, were aboard, he says. “[The man] stands up and waves at me,” but does not stop.
“Both boats waved at me. People don’t want to believe people down here are prejudiced,” says Washington, who has black and American Indian ancestors. “That’s what it was. They thought I was a Haitian refugee. If I’d been a white person or a light-tinted black man, they would have stopped. I know they would.”
Then Washington saw a third boat about a mile-and-a-half away, and he began swimming toward its track, hoping to get in front of it. “I told him: ‘Hey, I’m an American citizen.’”
David Pensky roused his friend and crewmember, Richard Holden, who had been sleeping below. They had left Stuart, Fla., at about 8 a.m. that morning. It was now 2:30 p.m.
“I said: ‘There’s a man off our port bow. Please keep an eye on him’,” recalls Pensky, who is 61. Then he called the Coast Guard, stating he was approaching the man in the water.
As Pursuit drew near to Washington, Holden and Pensky could hear him blowing on a whistle. Then Holden, standing on the swim platform, threw a line, which Washington wrapped around his wrist. Holden began pulling him toward the boat.
“He [Washington] started yelling: ‘I’m an American! I’m an American!’” Pensky recalls. When Washington reached the swim platform, he had no strength to climb aboard. The boat was rocking in the chop from the recent squall. Pensky stretched over Holden and, grabbing Washington’s trousers, hauled him into the cockpit.
“He lay face down. We shook him,” thinking he had passed out, Pensky says. “He said: ‘I have to lie here. I have no strength.’” Then Washington related the sinking of his boat. Then he told Pensky and Holden that he’d had to let his friend go, and that he thought Moore was dead.
Pensky called the Coast Guard again and informed them that there was a second, missing boater. Then he and Holden, following Coast Guard instructions, wrapped Washington in blankets and gave him water to ward off dehydration. In 10 minutes a Coast Guard helicopter was hovering above. And soon a Coast Guard vessel was beside Pursuit, ready to receive Washington.
Pensky says he did see a sailboat in the distance just after Washington was aboard Pursuit. He said he gives credence to Washington’s claim about being ignored by two boaters. “The fact that he was yelling: ‘I’m an American! I’m an American!’ made me believe something probably was up,” Pensky says.
Washington says he had known Moore for 40 years. “Every time I shut my eyes, I’m thinking about my friend,” he says. “I lost my best friend and my business in the same day,” he adds, referring to the sinking of the uninsured boat. He says he hopes someone will help him get a new boat so he can get back to fishing.
Pensky says adrenaline drove the crew of Pursuit while the rescue was under way.
“Our emotions ranged from elation at the prospect we were able to save him to very somber, realizing that there but for the grace of God go I. That these things can happen and you realize how small your boat is in the ocean.”