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Collision was only the start of ordeal - Soundings Online

Collision was only the start of ordeal

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Russell Bolton was sailing off St. Augustine, Fla., in the dark, when he saw the lights. In less than 30 seconds he was fighting for his life, as his Hunter 33 wedged up under the bow of an oceangoing barge.

Russell Bolton was sailing off St. Augustine, Fla., in the dark, when he saw the lights. In less than 30 seconds he was fighting for his life, as his Hunter 33 wedged up under the bow of an oceangoing barge.

Bolton, 51, of Green Cove Springs, Fla., was sailing from St. Catherines Island, Ga., to Ft. Pierce, Fla., Nov. 18 when he collided with the 115-foot barge, under tow by the Jacksonville-based tug Ybor City.

“It happened quickly,” says Bolton. “I saw something out there.”

The next minute or so remains a blur. He remembers luminescent white water churning up as the barge began to push and then ride over his sailboat. The luminescence seemed to light up the cockpit as he instinctively reached for the side of the barge — it has low sides — and clambered aboard. “I just decided where I was wasn’t safe,” he says. “I couldn’t even tell you if I had crashed into a barge or not.”

It was 5 a.m. Five hours later, crew of the 70-foot tug spotted Bolton waving from the deck of the barge. The Coast Guard says the barge — carrying a crane and other equipment — was under tow about 100 yards abaft the tug. Bolton says the barge company told him it was 500 yards. In any case, what happened next stunned him.

The tug and barge had left Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, six days earlier, and the tug crew feared Bolton might be a stowaway, says Petty Officer Donnie Brzuska, the Coast Guard spokesman. A Cuban national, perhaps; maybe even an escapee from the Guantanamo detainment camp. The Coast Guard dispatched a law enforcement team, along with a Customs and Border Patrol officer, to board the barge at sea.

“When I think about it now, that was more traumatic than the actual accident,” says Bolton.

He says the boarding team ordered him to get down on his knees and put his hands behind his back while they cuffed him. Brzuska says it was a necessary precaution.

“We had no idea why he was on the vessel, how he got on the vessel, what nationality he was,” says Brzuska. “We had to go into this like it was a virtual unknown. We had to detain him briefly.”

Brzuska says Bolton knew the registration numbers of his boat, so they could verify he owned one. They found some white paint on the part of the barge where Bolton says the vessel and sailboat collided. They determined he was — as he said — an American citizen, and there were no outstanding warrants for his arrest. “It only took a matter of minutes,” Brzuska says.

The Coast Guard took him to their base in Atlantic Beach and referred him to the Red Cross, which fed him and put him up in a hotel. Brzuska says Bolton’s rescuer-captors treated him with understanding and care once they knew his plight. Bolton, however, wasn’t as generous in his assessment of their conduct.

“I never felt like I was treated like a rescue victim,” Bolton says. “I was always treated with suspicion.”

A liveaboard, the sailor was uninjured but is now homeless and was looking for an attorney, unsure of his plans. The Coast Guard was investigating the accident.