Charlie Corder was cleaning debris out of his backyard swimming pool after Hurricane Frances when he heard a faint cry for help.
Corder, 70, of Stuart, this year’s winner of the Bunzl Boating Safety Award, looked up and scanned his neighbors’ yards but didn’t see anything. He thought he might be hearing things until his ear again caught that cry — barely audible. This time he looked down the canal behind his house and saw a boat overturned 120 feet away behind some condominiums. Corder, a former Air Force colonel and director of marine surveying at the Chapman School of Seamanship, sprang into action, though he still wasn’t at all sure what he had heard.
“I didn’t know what it was, but I was going to try to find out,” he says.
He jumped in his car and sped up to the gate of the condominiums, told the security guard to call 911 and hustled back to the canal.
Corder was prepared to explain to rescue personnel that he’d made a mistake if he didn’t find anything but a capsized boat.
He didn’t have to worry about that very long. Approaching the 22- or 23-foot outboard-powered boat, he found a man submerged in the water to his shoulders, his head wedged between the boat’s gunnel and a wood piling. The man — he later found out — was 80 years old, his face was a deep purple and he appeared to be unconscious.
Evidently the boat had filled with water during Frances, Corder says. The victim — an unidentified condominium resident — had come down to bale the boat out. He stepped on the gunnel, the boat capsized, and the far gunnel flipped over, pinning his head against the piling.
“He was obviously unconscious,” Corder says. “There was no movement. No discernible breathing. He was purple.”
Corder jumped in the water but couldn’t move either the man or the boat, its lines having fouled and jammed the boat against the piling. “I’m in the water,” Corder says. “What can I do? I can’t budge him. I can’t budge the boat. The dock lines are taut. I can’t move them.”
He ran back to his car and grabbed a knife from his tool chest.
“God was with me,” Corder says. That’s the only way he can explain what happened next. If he cut the right line, it would release tension and he could pull the man out from between the boat and the piling. If he cut the wrong line, the tension at the piling would increase and it might break the man’s neck. He had no idea which one to cut.
“I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and cut the right one,” he says.
Meanwhile, a woman had arrived and she grabbed the man’s arm. Back in the water, Corder held him up against the piling until the rescue squad arrived to pull him out. “They were pumping on him and got him breathing again,” Corder says. Later that day he called the hospital, and he was informed the elderly gentleman was going to be OK.
The American Boat and Yacht Council Foundation gave the safety award to Corder Feb. 16 at a ceremony in Miami. He received a crystal plaque and a $500 donation made to the Chapman school.
“Did I save his life? Yes,” Corder says. “Was I heroic? No. I was at the right place at the right time. I just did what anybody else would have done … And the Lord was with me when I cut that line.”