A sportfishing yacht running Alabama’s PerdidoPass at night missed the channel and went up on the east jetty rocks, ruining what was to have been a weekend of fishing in the OrangeBeach (Ala.) Billfish Classic.
James Cooper, captain of Tarbaby, a 61-foot Weaver, was charged with boating under the influence in connection with the Aug. 2 accident, says Alabama Marine Police Sgt. Jody Kelley. He says the pass is difficult to negotiate at night under even the best of circumstances.
“That’s the second or third boat that has hit those rocks,” Kelley says. “And we had a boat go up on the other [west] jetty just this weekend.”
Kelley says the $2.5 million yacht left Panama City, Fla., for the tournament about 6:30 that evening. Instead of coming in through the mouth of the inlet, the skipper mistook 1,000 feet of what appeared to be open water between the landward end of the jetty and shore (Florida Point) for the pass’ entrance, says Kelley. In fact, that open water is a weir, a submerged wall of steel-reinforced concrete and rocks that lets sand pass over it into a collection basin inside the pass.
“He was thinking he was coming into the pass,” Kelley says, but instead he hit the submerged wall and ran up over the top of it. “He took out the port engine, ripped out the transmission and tore a 24-inch hole in the bottom,” Kelley says. The sergeant says the skipper tried to head out the mouth of the pass with his starboard engine, but the boat sank in about five minutes in 8 feet of water.
Kelley, who responded to the 9:45 p.m. collision, took Cooper and his deck hand off Tarbaby. Sea Tow raised the boat the next day, he says.
“[Cooper] said he’d come in this pass hundreds of times,” Kelley says.
It was unclear whether Tarbaby was on autopilot or had just come off autopilot, but Kelley says skippers often make the mistake of punching the coordinates for PerdidoPass into their chartplotter when they ought to punch in the coordinates for the sea buoy well off PerdidoPass. That marks the start of the entrance channel. Otherwise, he says, it’s easy to become disoriented at night approaching the pass.
“Coming from the east [at night], you do have kind of a dilemma if you’re not sure where you’re at,” he says. “You pick up the markers inside the pass and they look like they may be that buoy.” Background lights from condominiums and other structures add to the confusion.
Kelley says mariners also need to be aware of shoaling in the channel. “It’s pretty much changing constantly,” he says.
But, he says, the best way to safely run the pass and avoid going up on the rocks is to go to the sea buoy and navigate down the channel by line of sight. There are plenty of markers to guide the mariner, he adds.