Rivalry put aside when duty calls

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A towboat captain who came to the aid of a severely injured competitor is awarded for his actions

A towboat captain who came to the aid of a severely injured competitor is awarded for his actions

Capt. Mike Stewart wasn’t in his office more than five minutes after returning from a routine towing job one afternoon last spring when a frantic distress call came in over the VHF. A Sea Tow captain had been seriously injured while attempting to tow a capsized 22-foot powerboat about a mile east of Florida’s Haulover Inlet. Stewart, who owns Action Marine Towing/TowBoatU.S. North Miami, knew he had to help.

“It doesn’t matter that we’re competitors,” says Stewart, who is 52. “I didn’t hesitate, because it’s terrible when anyone gets hurt and needs help.”

Stewart boarded his 24-foot towboat and ran north up the coast at wide open throttle. When he arrived at Haulover Inlet he found the injured captain, Juan Fernandez, aboard his 33-foot Sea Tow inflatable and bleeding from a severe gash in his forehead sustained when the tow hook (a stainless steel snap clip attached to one end of the towline) apparently opened and whipped back in his face. Stewart managed to subdue Fernandez while a BayHarborIslands (Fla.) marine police officer, who also was on scene, transported them to shore.

In recognition of his actions, the American Boat and Yacht Council Foundation honored Stewart with its Bunzl Boating Safety Award during a ceremony at the Miami International Boat Show in February. “Capt. Stewart was chosen as one of this year’s recipients because he went above and beyond his normal duties to assist in saving the life of a fellow boater, potentially at his own peril,” ABYC president Skip Burden says in an interview with Soundings. (The Foundation also gave a Bunzl Boating Safety Award to Maryland teenager Joe Morris, who rescued a fellow sailor during a regatta off New Jersey.)

Stewart says he is honored to have been recognized by the ABYC. “I just hope someone would do the same for me,” he says.

Stewart says Fernandez was acting erratically when he arrived on the scene. “I yelled at him. I said, ‘You’re hurt really bad. Get into the police boat. You need help,’ ” recalls Stewart, who has been in the towing/salvage business for two decades. “He just screamed and screamed.”

Stewart tied his 24-footer to the port side of the Sea Tow boat and climbed aboard. He grabbed Fernandez from behind and leaned backward so that they fell into the police boat. “I pinned him down and applied pressure to his forehead with a towel,” Stewart says. “The officer drove us back to the [Haulover Marina] fuel docks.”

Paramedics met the police boat at the dock, and Fernandez was airlifted to an area hospital for treatment. TowBoatU.S. North Miami crews, aboard two 27-foot towboats, refloated the capsized powerboat and towed it, Stewart’s boat and the Sea Tow vessel to Haulover Marina. Fernandez lost his right eye in the accident, and it was unclear whether he would return to this line of work.