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Waterspout flips 32-foot catamaran

The cat was slammed deck-down into the water, and the skipper spent 15 hours on the overturned hull

The cat was slammed deck-down into the water, and the skipper spent 15 hours on the overturned hull

Scott Watts knew he might be in trouble when he saw the white wall of water. A tornado had just skipped off land into the Atlantic off Jacksonville Beach, Fla., and it was churning toward him.

“I had only a couple of minutes to react,” says Watts, 43, who was delivering a friend’s 32-foot sailing catamaran April 9 from upriver of Jacksonville to St. Augustine, Fla. Anticipating some big gusts, he eased the traveler and main sheet. Then the unthinkable happened.

The twisting tower of water “lifted the boat up 20 to 25 feet in the air, and it started rotating,” Watts says. The waterspout flipped the Gemini and slammed it deck-down into the water. Watts was thrown from the aft end of the cockpit into the cabin.

“I had to swim out,” he says.

As he struggled out from under the boat, his leg became tangled in loose radar arch cables. He ripped most of the tip off one finger and gashed his thumb trying to free himself. After surfacing, he climbed onto the underside of the deck between the hulls.

He was wearing just a T-shirt, shorts and boat shoes. It was 5:30 p.m., and a front was moving through, bringing cold rain and wind. The Gemini had capsized four miles southeast of the St. Johns River, 2-1/2 miles off the beach, but it might as well have been 50 miles. Watts says he knew if he was going to spend the night out there, he would have to keep warm.

“It was all about fighting off hypothermia until somebody found me,” he says. It also was about staying with the boat. That night he would look longingly to shore and see traffic lights changing and the flashing neon signs of the beach bars. He was tempted to try and swim to shore or take the kayak he had lashed to the back of the boat.

But he resisted the urge. “Stay with your boat,” Watts had always told his sailing students. He decided to follow his own advice.

He dived back under the boat and into the cabin to find a life jacket and warm clothes. He searched for the PFDs he knew the owner had stowed somewhere on the boat but couldn’t find them. He tried to find his own life jacket, which he had left on the chart table. It had flares, a flashlight and a strobe hanging on it. He couldn’t find that or the hand-held VHF that also had been on the table. All he could grab in the few minutes he had to swim through the cabin on one breath of air were a foul-weather jacket and a 4-foot-long foam seat cushion.

Back on the overturned boat, he wrapped his torso in the foam cushion and zipped the jacket on around it. Then he flipped up the hood and drew the strings tight around his head, and slipped the T-shirt over the jacket.

Watts was ready to hunker down and wait for rescue. He thought the storm would send a lot of anglers scurrying back to port, but only one came his way — just 50 yards distant. The helmsman was bucking head winds and seas and driving rain. Watts is sure he never saw the cat. That night two freighters passed within a stone’s throw of him. Watts at first was hopeful someone would spot him on radar, but no one did, which scared him because then he thought the ship might run him down.

Cold rain and hail pelted him. Lightning struck on the water around him. Winds that night shifted from onshore to offshore, kicking up 3- to 5-foot seas. Waves knocked him off the overturned hull eight times. Each time he crawled back on and tried to dig his fingers into the space between the retractable centerboards and the side of the keel box to hold on. His hands became numb, and he shivered uncontrollably.

The catamaran’s mast was dragging on the bottom, the boat drifting in a mile-diameter circle. The tide wasn’t carrying him out to sea, nor was it taking him ashore, as Watts had hoped.

In Charleston, S.C., where Watts has been working as shipwright on the tall ship Spirit of South Carolina, his wife, Karen, was worried. He had left a float plan: He would be sailing close to shore — no farther out than 15 miles — and he would be into St. Augustine by 8 p.m., no later than 10 p.m. He had told her if he hadn’t called by midnight, something was awry.

Karen Watts called the Coast Guard shortly after midnight. The agency sent a helicopter out before dawn — Watts heard it — and a C-130. The 87-foot cutter Kingfisher based out of Mayport, Fla., set out about dawn to search between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. On its first pass south just 10 minutes out of Mayport, the Kingfisher crew spotted Watts.

“He was sitting on one of the hulls, and as soon as he saw us he stood up and started waving his arms at us,” says Lt. j.g. Matthew Baker, Kingfisher’s commanding officer.

Kingfisher’s small-boat crew took him aboard. “The amazing thing about this story is that he was in the water for 15 hours,” says Baker. “When we picked him up, he still was in excellent condition, all things considered.” The water was 68 degrees. Watts’ body temperature had dropped 2 degrees, but he was alert and moving about.

“This is always a rewarding job,” says Baker. “But it’s extra special when we can get someone back to their family like this.”

Watts, whose home is in St. Augustine, was taking the boat from 60 miles up the St. Johns River to St. Augustine for repairs and delivery to Annapolis, Md., for sale. The capsized Gemini eventually broke its mast and grounded upside-down on the beach with most of its cabin torn off. Flipped right-side up and dragged off the beach, the water-logged boat eventually sank in breakers in 25 feet of water while under tow.

Watts sums up the passage gone awry: “It was a long, cold night.”