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Skipper vanishes in a Gulf storm

Experienced professional captain is believed to have fallen overboard while alone at the wheel

Experienced professional captain is believed to have fallen overboard while alone at the wheel

A skipper went missing at the helm of a 46-foot Bertram while the yacht’s owner was below in big seas and winds on the Gulf of Mexico.

Lindsay Forde, 48, a tournament-

winning sportfishing captain from Hollywood, Fla., disappeared from the deck of the Extra Labor during the yacht’s delivery from Galveston, Texas, to Tampa, Fla., on Sept. 29. The owner, Michael Swindle, 56, of Tampa, was below — for how long, the Coast Guard wasn’t sure, but when Swindle came back up Forde was missing, said Guard spokeswoman Tasha Tully. Swindle had just bought the 1986 Bertram, but he wasn’t experienced enough to deliver it himself so he hired Forde to take it across the Gulf, she said.

Forde is thought to have gone overboard about 75 miles west of Bayport, Fla., in 6- to 8-foot seas — challenging conditions for the 46-footer, according to the Coast Guard. Tully said the weather that day had been “cruddy,” with driving rain and 27-knot winds.

A Coast Guard watchstander in St. Petersburg heard Swindle call over VHF radio, “Can anyone hear me? Mayday. Can anyone hear me?”

“I’ve got a man overboard, I believe,” Swindle told the watchstander, according to a recording of the transmission. The watchstander asked for his position, but Swindle said he didn’t know.

“I’m not sure where I’m at,” he said. “I’ve got a GPS, but I don’t really know how to use it.” Meanwhile, Swindle had taken the helm and said he was doubling back to try to find his missing captain.

“I’m trying to go back and find him, but I can’t see him anywhere,” Swindle said. “I’m looking.” He did eventually get a GPS position reading and report it to the watchstander, shortly after 6:35 p.m.

A Coast Guard helicopter found Extra Labor less than an hour later, but an exhaustive four-day air and sea search turned up no evidence of Forde. Tully said the Coast Guard cutter Hawk escorted Extra Labor — with Swindle at the helm — to safe harbor on the CrystalRiver. The combination of bad weather, big seas and the owner’s inexperience made for a long 12 hours to port. “He did have trouble,” Tully said.

Swindle told the Guard he didn’t think Forde was wearing a life jacket. The Guard recommends mariners wear their life jackets at all times under way, especially in bad weather, but “I can’t tell you the last time I saw anyone on a 46-foot sportfisherman with a life jacket on,” said Al Behrendt, a long-time friend of Forde’s and a fishing tournament organizer. He said Forde’s loss has given him pause to consider wearing a life jacket when he crosses the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas on his 1985 Hatteras, which he does often — and sometimes alone. But just as important as a life jacket is having someone else aboard who is proficient enough to run the boat and retrace its steps with the chartplotter if the skipper goes overboard, Behrendt said.

Forde was “a very good fishing captain,” according to Behrendt, and one who was well-liked by his peers. A native Floridian and professional crew on sportfishing boats for some three decades, Forde won the prestigious Bahamas Billfish Championship in 2004 on Allied Richard Bertram Marine Group’s 57-foot Bertram, Tangled in Blue, and won it again in 2006 skippering Jeffrey Miller’s 63-foot Bertram, Captain Gas.

Behrendt said Forde captained sportfishing yachts for Steve Lewis, president of Lewis Marine Supply, for many years and later Allied Bertram Marine Group. He suffered a stroke over a year ago, but Behrendt said he recovered and was given a clean bill of health to go back to work last January, when he resumed skippering Captain Gas.

“He ran that all the way up the coast to Nantucket this summer, ran it there for a month, then ran it back — with no ill effects,” Behrendt said. Captain Gas’ owner recently put the boat up for sale, so “Lindsay had been doing freelance work since then,” Behrendt said.

Capt. Forde was a fixture on the tournament circuit. “When he won the championship, he was very humble about it — not a lot of braggadocio,” Behrendt said. “He didn’t wear the championship ring. He just got satisfaction from winning. That’s one of the qualities that people really admired in him.” He said Forde went out of his way to assist other captains, lending them boat parts and a helping hand.

“If I had a whole tournament full of captains like him, I’d have a very easy job,” Behrendt said. “He was a delight to work with.”

He is survived by a brother Glenn, sister Stacie Linley, another brother Scott, also a yacht captain, and by his wife Elizabeth, who helps Behrendt run the Bahamas Billfish Tournament, and son McKenzie, who turned 4 years old Oct. 1 — two days after Forde went missing.

“Lindsay was trying to get home for his son’s birthday,” Behrendt said.