Investigators say the charter captain was attempting to ride over the backside of a wave into Jupiter Inlet
Florida boating investigators have concluded that "careless" vessel operation was the main cause of a fatal accident last fall in Jupiter Inlet.
Thomas Henry, 59, suffered head and neck injuries that led to his drowning Sept. 3 when he fell from the flybridge of Waterdog, his 48-foot 1986 Garlington, according to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report. Henry and his first mate were returning from a morning fishing trip in the Atlantic with five clients when his boat broached in 6- to 8-foot breaking waves.
"Mr. Henry operated the vessel in a careless manner by attempting to drive over the backside of the wave as he approached the inlet," commission investigator Jon Garzaniti writes in the 73-page report. "This resulted in the vessel capsizing, ejecting him into the water." He was not wearing a life jacket.
The accident occurred 350 yards east and 100 yards south of the inlet, the report states. Freelance photographer Stuart Browning captured the accident in a dramatic sequence of photos that are included in the report.
The photos show the boat coming down the back of a breaking wave and broaching as it descends into the trough. The bow plunged into the water, and the cockpit flooded as it rolled on its port side. As the boat began to right to starboard, Henry was thrown from the flybridge. His head and upper body apparently struck the port gunwale before he fell into the water.
With no one at the helm, the Garlington began to travel north, parallel to the surf, then made a 360-degree turn and headed back out. First mate Tim Sperling, 55, who was in the cockpit and was knocked down as the boat broached, got back on his feet, checked on the passengers in the cabin and climbed the ladder to the flybridge, where he took the helm.
"He definitely did a great job of getting control of the vessel and preventing the situation from being worse than it could have been if it continued unpiloted," Garzaniti says. The boat could have run into the jetty, which is accessible to the public, or crashed onto the shore, he says.
All five clients - Jeremy Smith, 38; his wife, Diane, 40; their sons Jacob, 5, and Ethan, 8; and Diane Smith's 73-year-old mother, Dorthy Maughon - were seated in the saloon. All are from Carrollton, Texas, and were on vacation. When the boat broached, Diane Smith and her sons flew across the cabin from the starboard bench seat to the port side, where Jeremy Smith and Maughon were seated.
"My grandsons were scared to death," Maughon says. "The oldest kept saying, 'We're going to die. We're going to die.' The little one, he was too scared to say anything. [My daughter] had a death grip on him. I kept hoping we weren't going to fly out of the cabin because the door broke and was swinging open. It was quite an experience."
A laptop flew across the saloon and hit Maughon in the head, but she says she required no medical attention. No one else suffered injuries, the report states.
A number of other charter captains kept their boats at the docks that morning because of the weather, including Jason Cardinale. "I just didn't want to take a chance," Cardinale says. "Some boats went out that day. We didn't."
The commission's report makes no reference to Henry's decision to go out. "Obviously, the seas did play a factor in the accident," Garzaniti says. "But there's nothing to say he could not have gone out. That was a personal choice on his part."
Speed was not cited as a contributor, either. The report says the boat, powered by twin 540-hp diesels, was traveling at 10 to 20 mph.
Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue lifeguards witnessed the accident from their beach post, 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 facedown in the water, Leo says. He wasn't 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.
Henry was a popular captain with more than two decades of experience. "He was very meticulous and was always paying attention to what was going on," Sperling told The Palm Beach Post. "Things happen so fast on the water; a moment of carelessness might be one second."
Efforts by Soundings to interview Sperling were unsuccessful.
There was talk among charter captains on Internet forums that Henry may have been forced off course to avoid a PWC rider. However, Garzaniti dismisses this, saying first mate Sperling during two interviews made no mention of a PWC playing a role.
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.
"It's sad he's gone," says Cardinale, who runs Samana Expert Fishing Charters and keeps his two boats at the marina that Henry used. "Boating is dangerous. Even a professional can get hurt, whether it's in the inlet or offshore."
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.