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Broach near ‘nasty’ inlet proves fatal

Charter captain is pitched from his sportfisherman's flybridge in breakers outside Florida's Jupiter Inlet

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A seasoned charter boat captain died late this summer after he was thrown from the flybridge of his 48-footer as it broached in the breakers outside Florida's Jupiter Inlet, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue lifeguards on Sept. 3 pulled Thomas Henry, 61, from the water about 300 yards southeast of the inlet, says Julia Leo, Ocean Rescue captain. It took the lifeguards, who were in a 15-foot Avon RIB, only eight minutes to reach Henry, who was face down in the water, Leo says. He was not breathing and had no pulse, but medics on shore were able to resuscitate him before taking him to the hospital, Leo says. Henry died three days later.

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The Palm Beach County medical examiner's autopsy and toxicology report was incomplete at press time, according to Gabriella B. Ferraro, the public information coordinator for the commission's south region.

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After a morning fishing trip with five customers aboard, Henry, a resident of Jupiter, was heading back to port, piloting his 1986 Garlington sportfisherman from the flybridge, according to the FWC accident report and eyewitnesses. As it approached Jupiter Inlet, the boat crossed a breaking wave and broached as it descended into the trough. The bow plunged into the water and the cockpit flooded as the vessel rolled on its port side, ejecting Henry from the flybridge.

"The surf was very, very rough that day," Ferraro says. "This appears to be a straightforward accident, likely due to the weather and the rough surf. I don't know if speed was a factor. It is not in our report."

Julia Leo and her husband, Pete Leo, a lieutenant with Ocean Rescue, were off duty that day, but happened to be on their 16-foot skiff just inside the inlet when the accident occurred at around 12:20 p.m. "We witnessed the boat go over," Julia Leo says. "We didn't see the captain fall off, but we saw the boat broached over to the side. We looked up in the bridge and realized no one was driving the boat."

The breakers were 6 to 8 feet and the depth can be as shallow as 8 or 9 feet, Julia Leo says.

Pete Leo says the Garlington was traveling about 18 knots. "It was scary because this boat could have run over my boat," he says. "It could have run up on the rocks. It could have run straight into the beach."

Photographer Stuart Browning took in the events through his camera lens as he stood on the beach 150 yards south of the inlet. Browning was there to photograph surfers and arrived minutes before the accident. "I thought, I can't believe a boat that size is rolling over," says Browning, of Boca Raton, Fla., who shot dozens of photos. "I thought it was going to keep rolling, but after it rolled on its port side it immediately swung back up."

In the photos, Henry appears to strike the gunwale as he falls from the flybridge to the water. "I thought, Oh no, there's something falling out of the boat, and then I realized it was a person," Browning says. "And then when he hit the gunwale, I knew he was in big trouble."

The Ocean Rescue lifeguards on the beach just south of the inlet also saw the boat broach. Two of them took an ATV to their cars and drove to Jupiter Seasport Marina, where their rescue boat awaited, says Paul Drucker, an Ocean Rescue lifeguard who remained at the station and monitored communications via VHF radio.

Another powerboat on scene located Henry, who had drifted inshore of the breakers, and led the Ocean Rescue RIB to him.

While all this was happening, the Garlington continued making way with no one at the helm. "It was a ghost boat for a complete 360-degree turn," says Pete Leo, whose boat was too small to go near the breakers, which the lifeguards refer to as the "impact zone."

"There was nobody at the helm. It was crazy," he says.

The Garlington traveled north, parallel to the surf, spun around completely, motored north again and turned back out to sea. It was at this point that the first mate, Tim Sperling, who was in the cockpit during the broach, climbed the flybridge ladder and took control of the boat as it crashed through the surf.

Before Sperling went to the bridge, he checked on the customers in the cabin. Among them were two boys, ages 4 and 8, and a 73-year-old woman, according to the FWC report.

Henry, who kept his Garlington at Jupiter Seasport Marina, was an experienced captain who had successfully navigated Jupiter Inlet "a thousand times," says fellow charter captain Jason Cardinale, who also keeps his boats - a 44-foot Duffy and a 38-foot Holland - at Seasport. Cardinale wonders whether Henry had some medical problem as he approached the inlet. "It doesn't add up, how he got caught side-to like that," says Cardinale, 40, who describes Jupiter Inlet as "short and nasty."

"It's not the mouth of the inlet that's treacherous," he says. "It's the shallow water where you get the surf," says Cardinale. "There's a big ground swell. Every year a couple of small boats get turned over."

Cardinale says he kept his boats at the dock that day because of the breakers outside the inlet. "It was one of those borderline days," he says. "Tom has a bigger, faster boat than mine."

Cardinale also spoke highly of Henry's Garlington, which is powered by twin 540-hp diesels and sleeps five. "It's a great boat," he says. "It's no surprise that it didn't sink or flip over."

Henry had been a lawyer in Maryland, but later became a charter captain and moved to Palm Beach County about 20 years ago, according to published reports.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.